- The Spanish Craze: America’s Fascination with the Hispanic World, 1779–1939 by Richard L. Kagan
The Gilded Age marked the beginning of a period of expansive industrialization in the United States. This upsurge in industrial output, which commenced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and came to an end with the start of the Great Depression, led to an increase in overseas trading and brought newly affluent Americans into contact with previously foreign cultures. The rise of cosmopolitanism in the United States sparked an insatiable American interest in unfamiliar lands, peoples, and their cultures. It also served as a prolonged period of self reflection, as these Americans sought to make sense of their own country’s national identity, as well as America’s place in a rapidly interconnecting world.
In an attempt to understand one aspect of the nation’s identity during this formative period in American history, Richard L. Kagan undertook a decade-long mission to uncover how Americans engaged with the Hispanic world, as well as how these engagements influenced the creation of modern America. The result of this undertaking is Kagan’s most recent book, The Spanish Craze: America’s Fascination with the Hispanic World, 1779–1939. Published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019, the expansive work supersedes pre-existing borderland-style, cultural approaches to U.S.–Spanish relations, which have traditionally emerged in historical studies on California, Florida, and the American Southwest. Kagan argues that although these regional approaches are valuable, they can also take away from the national impact of the so-called “Spanish fever,” which produced “a seemingly insatiable appetite for the art and culture of Spain” throughout the United States (p. 3). This “fever” affected different Americans, at different times, in different ways, and as Kagan accurately maintains, it was through these cultural transfers that a nationwide craze emerged. Contributing to the longevity of this craze was that it did not exclusively focus on Peninsular Spain but also “intermingled with, and drew energy from, the customs and traditions from various parts of the Spanish-speaking world, primarily Cuba and Mexico” (p. 18).
Although the main scope of the work focuses on the years between 1890 and 1930, Kagan appropriately allocates the first three chapters [End Page 360] of the book to exploring the political and cultural relationships that developed between both representatives and representations of the United States and Spain from the Revolutionary era to the years following the conclusion of the War of 1898. During this period, multiple images of Spain emerged in the United States and were often interlaced with one another. These positive images slowly began to challenge the pre-existing Black Legend narrative, which was the traditionally negative view that Anglo-Americans held toward Spain. As Kagan explains, the fact that these new images were “more imagined than real” mattered little to members of the American public who were more interested in experiencing a foreign culture or appropriating aspects of the Spanish past in an attempt to make sense of their own nation’s identity (p. 88).
Kagan refers to the first of these new images as “Sunny Spain.” Initiated by the semi-fictional literary works of Washington Irving and later reinforced by other writers, artists, exposition organizers, poets, and playwrights, Sunny Spain was presented to the American public as a quasi-oriental, romantically charming, picturesque space that was inhabited by castles, gypsies, and peasants, all of whom were unburdened by the modern, industrialized world. For a period of time during the nineteenth century, the image of Sunny Spain ran parallel to, and later intersected with, the second image. Kagan refers to this second image as “Sturdy Spain,” which existed as a direct challenge to the Black Legend. Created by the American historian William Hickling Prescott and strengthened by writers, event organizers, and members of the Spanish diaspora, Sturdy Spain celebrated the country’s imperial legacy and the “gifts of civilization, learning, and religion,” which Spain bestowed on its colonial subjects...