The OF Blog: Borges Month: Introducción a la literatura norteamericana (1967, with Esther Zemborain)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Borges Month: Introducción a la literatura norteamericana (1967, with Esther Zemborain)

Over the course of my readings for Borges Month, I have read several times comments by Borges to the effect that he was a reader first and a writer second.  There is some truth to this.  When considering the references to other famous writers, it perhaps is best to keep in mind that Borges often is speaking as a fan first, a critic second, and a literary judge rarely, if at all.

In this 1967 collaboration with Esther Zemborain, Introducción a la literatura noreamericana, Borges discusses several of the greatest (and not so great) American writers from independence until the 1960s.  The chapters are divided into rough chronological and genre themes, with an encyclopedia-style approach toward discussing the writers.

Borges was a voracious reader and these entries reflect his enduring passion for American culture, particularly his fondness for jazz, which was a very pleasant surprise for me when I read this book.  There is little in the way of overt literary criticism occurring here, as this truly was an introduction to one nation's national literature for another nation's readership to consider and as such, Borges' entries are concise and quite clear, as seen by two entries, one for James Fenimore Cooper and the other for Langston Hughes:

Su prosa palabrera, abarrotada de vocablos de origen latino, reúne todos los defectos y ninguna de las virtudes del estilo de su época.  Hay un contraste incómodo entre la violencia de los hechos narrados y la lentitud de su pluma.  Stevenson generosamente nos dice Cooper is the wood and the wave (Cooper es la selva y la ola). (p. 22)

His verbose prose, stuffed with a vocabulary of Latin origin, unites all of the defects and none of the virtues of the style of his epoch.  There is an uncomfortable contrast between the violence of the narrative acts and the slowness of his pen.  Stevenson generously tells us that "Cooper is the wood and the wave."


Hasta ahora, la contribución de los negros americanos a la poesía ha sido menos importante que su contribución a la música. Citaremos en primer término a JAMES LANGSTON HUGHES (1902), nacido en Joplin, Missouri, que, como Sandburg, desciende literariamente de Whitman. Su obra, que usa ritmos de jazz, incluye Dear Lovely Death (Querida hermosa muerte), The Dream Keeper (El guardián de sueños), Shakespeare in Harlem, One Way Ticket (Pasaje de ida) y la autobiografía de The Big Sea (El mar grande). Sus versos son patéticos y no pocas veces sardoónicos. (p. 98)

Until now, the contribution of American blacks to poetry has been less important than their contribution to music. We will note first James Langston Hughes (1902), born in Joplin, Missouri, who, like Sandburg, is from Whitman's literary lineage. His work, which uses jazz rhythms, includes "Dear Lovely Death," "The Dream Keeper," "Shakespeare in Harlem," "One Way Ticket," and the autobiography The Big Sea. His verses are touching and not a few times sardonic.

Borges chose writers for the most part that are more traditional storytellers; there was no room in his inn for the Beat writers.  He does show an appreciation for William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, but I'm guessing that he was not yet aware of Flannery O'Connor's haunting stories.  Then again, only three out of the roughly 3-4 dozen writers he discusses were female writers, so it could also be a sign of the then-more prevalent gender bias against women.  But despite these gaps in the coverage, this slim little volume rekindled my love for authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, O. Henry, and several others.  Borges did not skimp on discussing the newer genres, such as science fiction, along with the more traditional ones.  It was, flaws and all, an excellent concise introduction to American literature, one that succeeds so well due to the writer remembering that he was a fan first and a writer second.


e learning software solutions fan said...

wow... esther zemborain is a great author... nice to hear that her works are still being appreciated today... :)

Chad Hull said...

I only had to read this post ten or so times over the past few days to put my finger on what bothered me.

"There is little in the way of overt literary criticism occurring here, as this truly was an introduction to one nation's national literature for another nation's readership to consider and as such"

I must have glossed over that passage every previous reading. I would have a hard time accepting criticism of American literature from one outside the culture. Appreciation, commentary and even criticism are all well and good, but when it comes to criticism I'd give greater credence to a contemporary voice from within the culture. After all, literature--and art in general--is not so homogeneous or universal as sports or science.

For me, once I could reconcile what this book was, '[a] concise introduction to American literature,' and more specifically what it isn't, a critical commentary of American literature, then all my issues went away.

I think I approached reading this post in bad light as the last few Borges post have been more of a critical commentary of certain writers.

Lsrry said...

Yeah, Borges isn't exactly one that is into literary theories. If anything, he's rather against them, something that I alluded to in passing when I translated a couple of weeks ago that passage about style and those who make a fetish of it in their commentaries. He can be critical and yet not critical (if that makes any sense) in these books. More like someone who appreciates good works and says so (or the opposite) and not someone who pontificates about it, since he doesn't seem to see the point in devising elaborate theories. His more holistic approach to literature I think makes these non-fictions more fun and less of a chore and I purposely don't analyze much in these posts because why do more than what the author himself set out to do?

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