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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 257-295
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Learning from the Latins:
Waldo Frank's Progressive Pan-Americanism
In Praise of the Sleeping Virgin
(Waldo Frank Visits Spain)
Waldo Frank, the American cultural critic who visited Spain in the early 1920s and immediately fell in love with the country, ends his Virgin Spain (1926) with a fictional dialogue between Cervantes and Columbus that, to today's reader, sounds uncannily prophetic and at the same time hopelessly outdated. The writer and the discoverer are standing at the Spanish Atlantic shore. Columbus, whose eyesight has weakened, asks Cervantes to look westward across the ocean and tell him what he sees. "I see America," Cervantes says. Looking again more carefully, he exclaims:
A City of White Towers! The men who live in it are little motes. Yet they uphold these Towers! And in their hand, they wield a golden weapon making them the world's master. . . . [But t]hey are not masters of themselves. They are full of chaos . . . Chaos of races, traditions, dreams. They are uneasy. They build the Towers higher. . . . They have lost sight of the True God. Yet they are full of God-hunger, of God-search. To their own works they turn—and worship God in these. 1 [End Page 257]
As it turns out, the people who inhabit these chaotic Americas are "dumb as children," although "within them, there is a world of Desire" (296-97). Like Spain in its day, they try to fight disorder and mitigate their insecurities by building cathedrals of sorts, as well as establishing Inquisitions that attempt to drive out the "infidels." Yet, as Cervantes observes, "unlike Spain, . . . they have not succeeded" in this effort. Strangely enough, the news of this failure is a source of joy for Columbus: "There is my hope! If I could go and tell them: therein is their hope! They shall not, like Spain, succeed. . . . The New World is in them, underneath the Towers. When they have learned that they can not succeed; that all the Towers and all the machines and all the gold on earth can not crush down this unborn need in them for a true New World—then it will arise" (297-98).
The meeting between Columbus and Cervantes is clearly situated in the 1920s, at the time of the book's writing. At one point, however, Cervantes' vision becomes positively prophetic. Clutching Columbus's arm, he exclaims: "Look! Can't you see? . . . No! . . . God, the Towers are falling! . . . They veer, they twist. They have sunk in the mire of men" (298). Again, the apparent disaster only feeds Columbus's optimism: "Glory to Jehovah! . . . The Seed shall rot. . . . Now shall be the birth of the World which I discovered." (298-99).
Forgetting for a moment about the fall of the Towers, Columbus lets himself be distracted by a meditation on Spain. For him, it is a perpetually giving country, one that, "creating life, has never lived." Spain is a tragic mother, but also an immaculate one: "All worlds have come in, unto her; of all worlds, she has begotten worlds. And she has lain untouched" (299-300). Then, the distracted discoverer remembers that America's White Towers have just fallen. He breaks into an exhortation that is also the justification of Frank's book:
Ready, Spain! You must stir again. You must give again. Europe has rotted at last into the Grave they called America. Your work is not quite done. You, most broken mother of all Europe, you have preserved a Seed. . . . Your spirit, Spain. They above all will need it, in the north: they whose speech is English and who have led in the building of the Towers . . . For it is written that these [End Page 258] shall also lead in the birth of the true New World . . . Let them see you, Spain; let them take from you, O mother. For their spirit is weak and childish. . . . But you, Spain, dared to be what you believed; you knew the wisdom of what small...