From the Print Journal

Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth: From Miguel de Unamuno to “La Joven Literatura” by Leslie J. Harkema

Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth: From Miguel de Unamuno to “La Joven Literatura.” Leslie J. Harkema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. Pp. xii + 292. $82.00 (cloth); $82.00 (eBook).

The figure of Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) looms large in the development of modern Spanish literature, as thoroughly demonstrated by Leslie Harkema’s Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth. By carefully tracing the literary and cultural impact of Unamuno’s writings, letters, and public lectures from the 1890s to the 1930s—four crucial decades for the development of Spain as a modern nation—Harkema presents an important and necessary critical rereading of the literary history of Spanish modernist and avant-garde movements. At the core of Harkema’s book lies a sophisticated critical examination of Unamuno’s work and influence that successfully overcomes old clichés and previously established commonplaces about the influential Basque polymath (poet, novelist, academic, politician, philologist, and philosopher, in no particular order), while at the same time newly presenting Unamuno’s philosophical and literary conceptualizations of youth in relation to a complex constellation of key networks of literary and cultural production in modern Spain.

Chapter 1, “Unamuno’s Poetics of Youth, 1895–1907” explores, from a comparative framework, the philosophical and religious foundations for Unamuno’s understanding of youth as a historical stage and individual process. As Harkema shows, youth constituted for Unamuno both a collective experience of historical time—related to the vibrancy and progressive development of a national culture as a form of Bildung—as well as a personal or vital condition, which he conceptualized as an individual spiritual dimension more specifically explored in his creative writings, including his well-known experimental fiction and his lesser-known poetry. Harkema connects the early development of Unamuno’s philosophical thinking on youth to Kantian and post-Kantian German philosophy (particularly as embodied in the work of Kant, Hegel, and Marx), and contemporary European politics related to the development of socialism. As explored by Harkema in this chapter—a must-read for scholars interested in theorizations of Iberianism during this period—Unamuno’s understanding of youth during the 1890s and early 1900s entails an idiosyncratic critique of modern nationalism, as embodied in the notions of casta and casticismo that permeated nationalist ideologies and political institutions of the Spanish state, as well as of some of the theological foundations of Spanish Catholicism. By recovering lesser-known works by Unamuno, (such as the novel Nuevo mundo, unpublished during his lifetime, as well as his early poetry, and the political essay “La ideocracia”—a philosophical critique of late-nineteenth-century ideology), Harkema considerably expands previous understandings of Unamuno’s early work, particularly regarding his influential essay En torno al casticismo (1895). A central aspect of this first chapter is Harkema’s exploration of the question of nationalism in relation to both modernism and youth, particularly as the Basque writer critically engaged the role of Castille in the making of the modern Spanish nation-state—precisely at the time in which its global empire effectively crumbled in 1898—as well as in relation to the development of modern nationalism in Catalonia, and the Basque country during this historical moment.

In chapter 2, “The Heroic Age,” Harkema traces Unamuno’s role and influence in the establishment of perhaps the most crucial academic and cultural institution developed in Spain during the second decade of the twentieth century, namely the Residencia, originally founded in Madrid in 1910. This chapter explores in detail how various contemporary theorizations of youth, among them Unamuno’s, generated an ideal of a new “heroic” age aimed at “embracing the radical potentiality of youth,” which became central to various institutional, educational, and political efforts by the group of intellectuals involved in the establishment of the Residencia de Estudiantes, as part of a wider sociopolitical attempt at the regeneration and formation of a new national spirit in Spain (93). As argued by Harkema, the institutional and ideological attempts to inspire the generation of a new youth around the institution of the Residencia, a process partly coinciding with Spain’s neutrality during World War I, was based on a masculinist mythification and idealization of youth. Related to this idealization, there was a gradual emergence of different conceptualizations of the social role of the modern artist as a young man, using Joyce’s famous modernist version, which is also invoked by Harkema as a critical referent at key points in the book. In this chapter, Harkema recuperates the work of a series of key members of the Residencia, such as its founder and director, Alberto Jiménez Fraud, and more prominently José Moreno Villa, resident tutor at the Residencia, examining how these two main figures not only engaged the work of Unamuno in the development of their vision for this educational institution, but also the work of other key thinkers of the time, such as José Ortega y Gasset, Eugeni d’Ors, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Federico de Onís, and Luis de Zulueta.

Harkema moves on to the 1920s in the second half of the book, carrying out a fascinating critical expansion of the intellectual and chronological reach of Unamuno’s work and influence in the Spanish cultural scene of this decade in chapters 3 and 4, “Un joven auténtico de 366 años” and “Hercules and Hermes.” Harkema delineates in these two chapters Unamuno’s complex relation to the work of the heterogenous group of poets generally referred to in traditional Spanish literary historiography as Generación del 27 (among them, Federico García Lorca, Gerardo Diego, Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, Ernesto Giménez Caballero, and José Bergamín) and their collective recuperation of the early modern “Golden Age” poet Luis de Góngora in 1927.

As shown by Harkema in chapter 3, Unamuno’s lack of active involvement in this key moment—generally considered to be the central founding event of the so-called Edad de Plata, or Silver Age, of Spanish literature—as well as his lack of interest in recovering the work of Góngora, were primarily due to his six-year exile from the Iberian Peninsula. Unamuno was expelled in 1924 to Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, by a military order issued by the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera during the reign of Alfonso XIII, when Unamuno was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salamanca, and Dean of its Facultad de Filosofía y Letras [School of Philosophy and Humanities]. He would later remain in voluntary exile in the border town of Hendaye, in the south of France, until he returned to Spain once Primo de Rivera resigned in 1930. There was thus an important political reason for Unamuno’s rejection of any active participation in the cultural circles of Spain at the time, as well as, to some degree, a renouncing of his influence in the formation of the ‘27 group, also referred to as “la joven literatura” (the young literature). Unamuno’s physical, poetic, and ideological distance from this younger group of poets is masterfully highlighted by Harkema as part of Unamuno’s wider rejection of the totalitarian politics developed by Primo de Rivera that had taken control of the Spanish state under Alfonso XIII, and which, as he warned the younger members of the 27 group, was increasingly taking hold of the social and cultural life of the Iberian nation in the mid-1920s. (This warning was echoed by other Spanish intellectuals and writers of the time, such as the avant-garde poet Ernesto López-Parra, another figure recovered by Harkema.)

At the same time, there was also an increasing ideological difference between Unamuno and his younger contemporaries in terms of the cultural origins, as well as the linguistic and literary forms of the very poetics of youth developed at this time (whether critically interpreted as modernist or avant-garde). One such difference was the great impact and influence of Latin American writers in the Spanish-language cultural field on both sides of the Atlantic—a crucial aspect clearly affecting various influential conceptualizations of modern poetics developed during this time and which clearly separated Unamuno’s own poetics of youth from the more experimental poetics of the younger group famously championed by Gerardo Diego in his essential anthology of 1932 (Poesía española. Antología 1915–1931). As Harkema argues, the 1920s see the emergence and growing influence—in the poetics of Gerardo Diego and his fellow vaguardista writers of “la joven literatura”—of a new generation of Latin American writers, including, among others, avant-garde poets of the importance of Vicente Huidobro (Chile), César Vallejo (Peru), and Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), as well as the critic Alfonso Reyes (Mexico), himself a resident of the Residencia. In contrast to this important influence of Latin American writers on the poetics of youth developed by the younger group of writers in the 1920s—as well as on an older generation of writers such as Antonio Machado and Juan Ramón Jiménez—Unamuno himself staunchly resisted the new Spanish-language poetics coming from Latin America. This aspect, partly minimized by Harkema in this chapter, is particularly evident in Unamuno’s overall rejection—at times in highly pejorative ethnocentric terms—of the New World cultural sources, increased cosmopolitanism, and innovative poetics of Spanish-American modernismo developed in the late nineteenth century by Latin American writers and intellectuals such as Ruben Darío (Nicaragua), Jose Martí (Cuba), or Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (Mexico), among others.

This growing poetic distance between Unamuno and a younger generation of writers explored by Harkema in chapter 3, eventually ends up becoming a deep ideological and political divide in the second half of the 1920s within the younger group of writers associated with “la joven literatura.” As Harkema examines in chapter 4, through a comparative reading of the work of two lesser-known figures of this period, namely Giménez Caballero and Bergamín, the idealizations of youth previously developed in the 1910s gradually give way to opposing and more radical conceptualizations of politics connected to the rise in Europe of both fascism and communism. This poetic and political divide is embodied for Harkema in the modernist literary rearticulation of the mythical figures of Hercules and Hermes, representing diverging forms of classically inspired masculine youth respectively recuperated by Giménez Caballero and Bergamín. The historical ramifications of this divide were complex and had far-reaching implications: on the one hand, Giménez Caballero—vanguardista poet and founder of the influential magazine La Gaceta Literaria—would later become a fascist intellectual and influential political figure of the Franco regime; on the other hand, Bergamín—one of Unamuno’s closest disciples in the 1920s, and editor of the literary supplement Los lunes de El Imparcial, as well as the cultural journal Cruz y Raya—would become an important antifascist activist during and after the Spanish Civil War.

Overall, Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth constitutes an extremely timely and relevant contribution to the exciting comparative expansion of the study of modernism in Spain recently developed by scholars such as Juli Highfill, Susan Larson, Nicolás Fernández-Medina, Gayle Rogers, and José Luis Venegas, among others. Based on extensive archival research and well-structured theoretical and historical frameworks, Harkema reveals the importance of the concept of youth—as an essential component of the various literary, cultural, and ideological contexts examined in the book—for current and future scholarly approaches to comparative modernisms and modernist studies. In this sense, a key aspect that could be further explored is the crucial role of women in the development of the literary, educational, and ideological rearticulation of youth as a concept in Spain during this time, particularly in relation to the Residencia de Señoritas founded in 1915 by María de Maeztu in Madrid, which included key writers, artists, and political activists of the time such as Victoria Kent, Maruja Mallo, Clara Campoamor, and Matilde Huici. This aspect constitutes a crucial area of further research which could build upon Harkema’s impressive revisionary reading of this period, especially in relation to the hegemonic masculinity that pervaded the new idealized Spanish youth envisioned by Unamuno and by the other male members of the Residencia de Estudiantes and la joven literatura, as studied by Harkema. Ultimately, Harkema’s methodological approach, critical insights on the various networks of cultural production of the period in Spain, and close attention to Unamuno’s own development and impact as a thinker prove to be remarkably successful in producing a more nuanced understanding of this complex historical period in Spanish, European, and world literatures.