- Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth: From Miguel de Unamuno to "La Joven Literatura by Leslie Harkema
"Youth" was hardly a universally celebrated concept or category of existence in the early twentieth century, nor were the young seen as innocent minds free to explore their passions and creativity. Youth were just as often dismissed as unthinking animals, bound to decisions about marriage and family life over which they had no control, or shipped off to foreign lands as cannon fodder in unwinnable wars. But a generation of scholars of cultural history have uncovered, across the past thirty or forty years, the ways in which "youth" became everything from a source of enabling power to an advertising demographic in modern marketing campaigns. Leslie Harkema's Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth extends this exploration in energizing new directions. The sign of a well-researched and exciting book is that it activates all sorts of connective circuits in the reader's mind; we see things that were always there in a new light, putting together ideas that we otherwise would not have. This book does that; we quickly see how many ideas and movements interconnect across Spanish, European, American, Latin American, and African contexts when figurations of "youth" serve as a point de repère. We find the fate of "youth," and of young people themselves, hinging on arguments that otherwise might risk seeming like abstruse discussions of poetry, symbolism, and translation.
Harkema's case is built on a genealogy in which the famous philosopher and mystic Miguel de Unamuno provides the theoretical vocabulary and impetus for a movement that follows through to Spain's generation of 1927 or la joven literatura ("the young literature"), as they proudly proclaimed themselves. Such a claim runs counter to common genealogies; Unamuno has long been understood as the old, outmoded, sometimes cantankerous critic of a new generation of hispanophone poets who achieved global success. But Harkema fleshes out her argument convincingly. She traces this genealogy [End Page 154] equally through sites like the Residencia de Estudiantes and collections of poetry by Federico García Lorca and Gerardo Diego, with consistently rewarding results. It turns out that we have been fundamentally misunderstanding young literature and youth as a concept, especially in the Spanish context, because we have been looking at the wrong sources. A recalibration and a new understanding of what "youth" itself meant in the wake of World War I is necessary to see how Unamuno become such a valuable flashpoint here.
The circuits in which this book's arguments register themselves quickly move to new contexts, both literal and conceptual. Harkema works through Spanish modernism's interest in the Bildungsroman form and shows how, among other things, youth came to be valorized as a site of potential and even wisdom in the face of institutions that were both decaying and yet refusing to adapt to the modern world. As these poets became embittered, they turned for inspiration to a figure they thought they loathed precisely because Unamuno's fate mirrored their own in so many ways. Unamuno was exiled by multiple governments for his outspoken criticisms, he was both deeply faithful and deeply dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic Church, and he was an internal outcast as much as he was a gadfly for all that called itself "new" in the arts. And this is where a counter-intuitive relationship flourished; Harkema recovers that story, and much more, with detail and verve. She is an excellent critic: she has read everything, has mastered the archives both published and unpublished, has read through every issue of fertile, but overlooked, journals that most experts know only in passing, and is a great reader of poetry – and an attuned translator to boot. This book will appeal to those who want to understand the discrete mechanics by which literary and cultural relationships encapsulated larger battles of authority and innovation in Spain and far beyond.
Department of English, University of Pittsburgh