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Reviewed by:
  • Transatlantic Correspondence: Modernity, Epistolarity, and Literature in Spain and Spanish America by José Luis Venegas
  • Phillip H. Round

Jane Altman, Ruben Darío, Jacques Derrida, Epistolarity, Francisco Franco, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Carmen Martín Gaite, Jürgen Habermas, Hispanidad, Letter Writing, Literature, Modernity, Ricardo Piglia, Ángel Rama, Phillip H. Round, Pedro Salinas, Bernhard Siegert, Spain, Spanish America, Spanish Transition, Miguel de Unamuno, José Luis Venegas

venegas, josé luis. Transatlantic Correspondence: Modernity, Epistolarity, and Literature in Spain and Spanish America. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2014. 241 pp.

Epistolary exchange has shaped relations between Europe and the western hemisphere since the first voyage of Columbus. More than simply a pragmatic mode of communication between metropolis and periphery, however, letter writing emerged as a structuring principle of the cultural divide between old and new worlds. Yet, as José Luis Venegas skillfully shows in Transatlantic Correspondence, the disciplinary function of such interhemispheric dispatches did not cease with the Latin American revolutions of the nineteenth century that severed these imperial relationships. Rather, epistolarity (which Venegas defines rather broadly as genre, trope, “device,” and theme) continued to mediate cultural exchange in both hemispheres, from Spain’s “Generation of ’98,” to transatlantic transitions from dictatorships to democratic states during the 80s and 90s.

The historical frame Venegas has chosen, 1898–1992, effectively brackets his [End Page 334] study of transatlantic letter writing between two high-water marks of Spanish and Latin American cultural rejuvenation. In 1898, at the midpoint of Restoration Spain’s efforts to modernize the country’s infrastructure and social mores, Venegas argues, writers like Miguel de Unamuno embarked on an ambitious project to restore its cultural pride, to reconnect its “dissociated” citizens with a reimagining of its imperial past. By the 1990s, Latin America had largely eclipsed Spain as the epicenter of aesthetic modernity in the Hispanic world, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize validating his role as transatlantic cultural arbiter.

Beginning with Unamuno’s En torno al casticismo (1895), Transatlantic Correspondence adroitly interlaces theories of epistolarity and postal networks put forward by Jane Altman, Jacques Derrida, Ángel Rama, and Bernhard Siegert with careful historical reconstructions of the thinking behind Hispanic intellectuals’ choice of letters (both actual and fictional) as the most effective mode of navigating the cross-currents of modernity that often behaved like self-canceling waves of indeterminacy as they ebbed and flowed between the old world and the new. For Unamuno, letters offered fin-de-siècle Spaniards a space within which to reorient self and world during a time when their nation seemed a mere backwater in an emerging global modernity. In everyday letters, Unamuno discovered sinuous and authentic Castilian turns of phrase that matched the military muscularity of imperial Spain. In those glory days, the Spanish empire had seeded the new world with an old world language that could now be peacefully reinvigorated in a transoceanic celebration of hispanidad, whose idiom was peninsular and communications networks, epistolary.

In subsequent chapters, Venegas explores the vagaries of the epistolary mode, as both Latin American writers like Gustavo Sainz and Ricardo Piglia, and their peninsular counterparts Pedro Salinas and Carmen Martín Gaite, alternately embraced and scorned letters as a particularly fickle medium of aesthetic and cultural innovation. The epistolary mode appeared maddeningly malleable, alternately voicing counterhegemonic resistance and neoliberal uniformity. For Sainz, Venegas argues, literary depictions of epistolarity tapped into Mexico’s uneasy transition from revolutionary fervor to one-party rule. In Sainz’s Obsesivos días circulares (1969) and A la salud de la serpiente (1991), both real and fictional letters intrude into the narratives to challenge the way that the Mexican state had coopted personal expression (in the form of the postal service) and public protest (by turning the Plaza de las Tres Culturas into a killing field).

Similarly, in Spaniard Carmen Martín Gate’s El cuarto de atrás (1978), Venegas detects a fundamental shift in the protagonist’s use of correspondence before and after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. As “C.,” the novel’s main character, experiences the “transition,” her formerly resistant love letters seem increasingly impotent in a normalizing society. The more Spain experiences unity, the less [End Page...


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pp. 334-336
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