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  • The Spanish Craze: America's Fascination with the Hispanic World, 1779–1939 by Richard L. Kagan
  • Iván Jaksić
Richard L. Kagan. The Spanish Craze: America's Fascination with the Hispanic World, 1779–1939. U of Nebraska P, 2019. 640 pp.

Richard Kagan has contributed a lifetime of scholarship on Spain and its cultural and institutional ties with the United States. In this impressive volume, Kagan shows that the influence of Spain on American history and culture was recognized by Walt Whitman when he authored his 1883 essay on "The Spanish Element in our Nationality." Spain had become far more than an "element" in the United States: it had become a "craze" permeating all aspects of culture, from literature and art, to architecture and life-styles. Although at times this "craze" had the characteristics of a "fever," it was not the kind that kills people. It was rather more of an urgency to explore the commonalities between Spain and the [End Page 118] United States, ultimately for the benefit of the latter. "From this perspective," Kagan states, "the Spanish craze was not so much the United States' discovery of Spain but America's discovery of itself" (132).

It was not always so. The Black Legend inherited from Great Britain influenced the new nation's negative view of Spain. Writers in the early and not so early Republic regarded Spain as the home of bigotry and despotism, a country of corrupt monarchical institutions and perennial instability. It was only in the 1820s that a new generation of scholars and writers relaxed the generally accepted dark view of Spain to include a more positive outlook on the country's history and culture. The most prominent of these was Washington Irving, who inspired and guided other Hispanists such as Henry W. Longfellow and George Ticknor. Not coincidentally, all three visited Spain and conveyed first-hand knowledge, however filtered by some deeply held religious and cultural prejudices, of a country that was far more complex than portrayed by the Black Legend. Richard Kagan covers this period thoroughly, and lays the foundations for his main focus on the period from the 1870s to the early 1930s, the time when the Spanish "craze" reached the highest level in America, only to subside like most non-lethal fevers.

Kagan concentrates on the two main views of Spain prevailing from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression, which he describes as the "sturdy" and the "sunny" strands. What they have in common is the effort to supersede the Black Legend, although they differ in many other ways. The first, or "sturdy," attempted to link the histories of Spain and the United States by eliding the most negative aspects of the Spanish past. It emphasized, for example, its "civilizing" mission to provide a broader context for the history of the United States, and especially those regions with a Spanish colonial background, such as Florida, New Mexico, and California. Writers like Joseph Scott, Thomas Buckingham Smith, and Charles F. Lummis produced histories that were designed to link their respective regions to the history of Spain. A case in point is the story of the Mallorcan-born Franciscan friar Junípero Serra, credited by his secular hagiographers with bringing Christianity (pointedly underplaying Catholicism) and civilization to California. That is how the state got its—now most contested—founding father.

The view of "sunny" Spain, most effectively promoted by Washington Irving, coincided with the Romantic era in Europe, where the native New Yorker resided in the 1810s and 1820s. He spent much of his stay in Spain writing his epoch-making biography of Christopher Columbus (1828). This was the Spain of "romance," the Spain of flamenco, the Alhambra, the land of mañana and the siesta. As Kagan notes, this is the view that empowered many American writers to avoid controversial political topics and focus instead on quaint folkloric aspects of life in the country. Never mind that some US travelers like Alexander Slidell Mackenzie or Severn Teackle Wallis questioned such a rosy picture. Not even the Spanish-American War of 1898 stood in the way of the survival, and indeed the increasing intensity, of the romantic image...


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pp. 118-121
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