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  • Reforming Chile: Cultural Politics, Nationalism, and the Rise of the Middle Class
  • Elizabeth Quay Hutchison
Reforming Chile: Cultural Politics, Nationalism, and the Rise of the Middle Class. By Patrick Barr-Melej. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 288. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Patrick Barr's study of cultural politics under Chile's Parliamentary Republic makes an important contribution to the growing English-language literature on Chile in the modern period, one that highlights the participation of middle-class reformists in the construction of Chilean nationalism. Drawing on extensive research with literary, periodical, and archival sources, Barr demonstrates the diverse contributions of members of the "rising" middle-class to currents of nationalist expression through politics, education, and literary criollismo, through which Chilean reformers sought the country's future modernity in romanticized notions of Chile's rural and indigenous past. Readers will find in this work a particularly satisfying exploration of the huaso's emergence as a literary and popular representation of essential chileanidad. Such expressions of nationalist discourse reached a wide and ideologically diverse audience in the early twentieth century, successfully shoring up Chileans' sense of racial distinctiveness and providing the foundation for both popular front "Chileanization" campaigns and subsequent authoritarian projects. By connecting the shared representations underlying the political alliances of the Parliamentary Republic to the contests over revolution, reformism, and liberal authoritarianism that have dogged Chile's modern history, Barr suggests the critical role of race and class in the nationalist constructions that have infused these better-known political conflicts.

Barr's story of how middle-class "progressive nationalists" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remapped and strengthened Chile's imagined community rests on his analysis of two spheres of influence in which middle-class actors were clearly central: literary production and public education. In his opening chapters, Barr carefully reconstructs the relationship between early nationalist texts and criollista literature--as well as the political and social connections among their principle authors--in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Reformist political essayists who analyzed the indigenous origins of la raza chilena and the criollista novelists who extolled Chile's rural past together undermined oligarchic narratives of Chile's European roots. The fact that reformist cultural projects rehabilitated two historically subordinate figures in the Chilean polity--the Mapuche Indian and the huaso (cowboy)--without actually addressing the real marginality of these populations illustrates the extent to which these remained elite projects (albeit middle-class ones) in this period. Despite its self-serving nature, Barr argues, reformist discourse on la raza chilena and celebration of the huaso ultimately had a democratizing effect on Chilean political culture, since it laid the foundations [End Page 440] for more inclusive narratives of citizenship in mainstream political and cultural discourse as the century progressed.

Reforming Chile also recounts the democratizing effect of middle-class reformers in the sphere of public education, particularly in the 1920s. Here Barr's argument for the Radical Party as the vehicle for middle-class political and cultural ascension is at its strongest, since Radicals were the undisputed leaders of public education reform and curricular change in this period. In arguing that Radical administrators virtually invented a more democratic educational system by promoting mandatory enrollment and expanding the night-school system, however, Barr may give too much weight to Radical claims about their own singularity. Clearly, Radicals sought to expand State education in order to loosen the Church's control over primary education and to instill secular nationalist values, but their efforts to extend literacy and vocational training to working-class children and adults built on earlier efforts by charitable Catholic and radical working-class groups since the late nineteenth century. This weakness in Barr's analysis represents the flip side of Reforming Chile's major strength: the depth and intensity of the author's focus on reformists at times underestimates both the reformist impulse and cultural impact of this period's traditional protagonists, Catholic oligarchs, and Marxist radicals. However, Barr's skillful interweaving of the varied levels of mesocratic influence--from art to politics, education, and public ritual--produces a complex and accurate portrait of...


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