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 throughout the Americas. This image portrayed a shared history between the United States and Spain and explained how “the culture, the language, and indeed the history of the two countries were deeply and profoundly intertwined” (p. 131). As Kagan astutely points out, it was this invented image of Spain that became connected to the pre-existing image of Sunny Spain, which ultimately created “an astral conjunction that helped foster the Spanish craze” in the United States (p. 23).
The outcomes of this conjunction emerged during the early decades of the twentieth century and serve as the main focus for the reminder of the book. Throughout these chapters, Kagan provides a thorough examination of the American impulse to collect Spanish art, which was initiated by Archer M. Huntington; the yearning to create Spanish-style architecture, which connected the leisure of Sunny Spain with the construction of both commercial and domestic buildings; as well as a chapter on the “Spanish blaze,” which encompassed a period [End Page 361] of approximately a dozen years in which Spanish music, plays, films, food, and dress were on display in urban centers throughout the United States. Like all trends, rages, or vogues most come to an end and the Spanish craze was no different. However, Kagan believes that it would be far too easy to argue that the craze concluded in 1936 with the rise of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and the onset of the Spanish Civil War. On the contrary, he advances a hypothesis that the Spanish craze fragmented throughout the 1920s and by the end of the decade had come to an end. This fragmentation led to the emergence of the Mexican craze, particularly among American art collectors, as well as a process of Spanish-style architecture becoming uniquely American, further contributing to the previously clandestine existence of Spain in the American past.
The Spanish Craze adds a much-needed piece to the creation of the American identity and exists at the forefront of the historiography that explores cultural relations between the United States and the Hispanic world. The extensively researched, eloquently written book leaves this reviewer with little opportunity to criticize the work, other than to question the necessity of including the opening chapter on the political relations between the two nations, which could have been integrated elsewhere. However, an argument can certainly be made that this chapter provides the uninformed reader with a foundational understanding of U.S.–Spanish relations during the long nineteenth century. The Spanish Craze is a fascinating, well-told story about a far too often untold aspect of the American past, which has emerged during a period of time when the existence of individuals of Hispanic origin, their culture, and the Spanish language is perhaps more influential than ever before.
GREGG FRENCH is a part-time professor at Saint Mary’s University, Dalhousie University, and Mount Saint Vincent University. French completed his PhD in 2017 and is currently working on a book project that explores how Spain influenced the creation of the American imperial identity.