Jorge Isaacs (1837-1895) was Colombia's greatest 19th-century novelist. He also was politically active and one of Colombia's first cultural anthropologists.
Jorge Isaacs was born, probably in the city of Cali, on April 1, 1837, the son of a converted English Jew, George Henry Isaacs, and his wife, Manuela Ferrer, a lady well-connected to the elite of the provinces of northwestern Colombia. Jorge was educated in Cali and in Bogotá. Upon the outbreak of the Melo Revolt in 1854, the youthful Isaacs saw service on the Constitutionalist side, and 2 years later he married Felisa González of Cali.
His father's business failure in the late 1850s caused Jorge to seek employment in a variety of public posts and to engage in several unsuccessful business ventures of his own. Thus, he spent about a year as inspector of the Dagua Road in 1864-1865, a job which permanently damaged his health.
Isaacs wrote poetry (in the romantic genre popular at the time) from an early age and was much applauded for it by the important literary circle, the Mosaico, of Bogotá, which in 1864 brought out the first edition of his verse. Encouraged by this, Isaacs in 1867 published his novel, María, in Bogotá. The times were unsettled politically and socially, and the idyllic novel was an almost immediate success in Colombia and in much of Spanish America. Its lyrical evocation of the natural beauties of the valley of the Cauca and its plot of unrequited love combined to fulfill a real need in the Colombian reading public.
Isaacs was a man of strong passions. When, in 1868, he left the Conservative party and joined the Liberals, Isaacs threw himself wholeheartedly into the new cause. He participated actively in politics, and in the Civil War of 1876 he defended his convictions on the battlefield. So profound were his convictions that in 1880 he led a briefly successful armed revolt against the Conservative regime of Antioquia State and justified his actions in La revolución radical en Antioquia, today a bibliographic rarity.
His writings brought Isaacs almost no financial reward, and his fervent liberalism, after 1886 (with the establishment of the "Regeneration"), brought only political persecution and ostracism. His last years were spent in poverty. While his reputation justly derives from María, Jorge Isaacs should also be remembered as one of Colombia's pioneer cultural anthropologists. His study of the Indian tribes of Magdalena State (1884) is in its own way as much a classic for the student of the Indian cultures of northern Colombia as is his María for that of Colombian literature. Leaving a large family, and heavily in debt, Jorge Isaacs died in Ibagué, Tolima Department, on April 17, 1895.
Isaacs has not fared well biographically. He is discussed briefly in Arturo Torres-Rioseco, The Epic of Latin American Literature (1942).