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  • Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History by Christopher Conway
  • Paul Niell
Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History. By Christopher Conway. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015. Pp. 281. 30 b/w illustrations. $24.95 paper. doi:10.1017/tam.2017.154

Christopher Conway's new book, a cultural history of nineteenth-century Spanish America, deftly navigates a range of salient cultural forms that he frames convincingly as operative in the development of social relations in the era. It is an instructive overview that will be of much use to a range of academic disciplines, including history, art history and visual studies, literary studies, nineteenth-century studies, ethnomusicology, and performance studies.

With the issues of class formation, historical continuities, and dynamics of cultural change firmly in mind, Conway examines the realms of city, print, theatricality, image, and musicality in five cogent chapters populated by focused subsections and supported by 30 illustrations. The book posits a division between the fine arts (literature, music, dance, painting, and theater) and popular forms of culture, including street entertainment, popular dance, and cockfighting. Conway's analysis is firmly rooted in the city, examining the promotion of urbanity in many spaces and the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism that evolved as part of the process of the formation of an elite class that sought to use its cultural and symbolic capital to buttress claims to higher social standing. Meanwhile, in the streets and common spaces, quotidian life [End Page 409] flourished among the lower social echelons. The book is written in a highly accessible style; it brings together key texts, images, and cultural forms for period research and focuses geographically on a wide domain, including such cities as Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Lima, Mexico City, Santiago, and Montevideo.

In the first chapter, on cities, the author looks at a range of subjects including the propagandistic role of monuments, the efforts by the urban elite to gain control over the city under the pretext of "hygiene" (considered as a nineteenth-century ideological construction); prostitution; elite social clubs (the self-proclaimed domain of la gente decente, or "decent people"); and café culture. Chapter 2 examines print: the secularization of reading and ideals of citizenship; costumbrista writing and novels; newspapers and journalism; literary sociability including reading clubs, tertulias, and pulperías; and the romanticization of the Argentine gaucho. Chapter 3 explores theatricality as broadly defined, including the development of political theater, social theatricality, urbanidad (refinement), and good manners (understood as a containment of the body). In addition, it considers Carnival celebrations, cabildo performances, and Day of the Kings processions in Cuba among people of African descent (these framed as a "release of the body"); elite and popular theater; and "blood sports" such as cockfighting and bullfighting.

Chapter 4 focuses on the production of images, including the role of nineteenth-century academies of the fine arts as tastemakers, and on the production of public imagery celebrating official narratives of the nation in contrast to a range of "popular arts," primarily religious in nature and exhibited in the home. Conway examines the limitations imposed by regimes of domesticity on women in the visual arts, but also presents the stories of several nineteenth-century Spanish American women who did achieve artistic recognition. The chapter also looks at the illustrations of Pancho Fierro (Peru), daguerreotypes, serialized images, memento mori, and José Guadalupe Posada's calaveras. Chapter 5 looks at musicality, considering the role of music in class formation, ideals of progress, and the delineation of civilization and barbarism. The author also examines music's role in elite sociability, through the filarmónica, the popularity of musical theater, choreography among the middle classes and country people, music in military life, and popular song.

The book closes with an afterword on change, which looks at cultural commonalities of nineteenth-century Spanish America across space and time as well as dynamic interactions between disparate cultures and cultural transformations. Conway muses on the nineteenth-century developments of mass culture that set the stage for twentieth-century departures. He also includes a thorough section of suggested reading, divided by chapter subjects, a concise set of notes, a thorough bibliography, and an index.

In spite of...


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pp. 409-411
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