José Estéban Echeverría

The Argentine author, poet, and political theorist José Estéban Echeverría (1805-1851) pioneered the romantic mood in literature in the New World and also formulated the political ideals of a secret group combating the dictatorial regime of Rosas.

José Estéban Echeverría was born on Sept. 2, 1805, in Buenos Aires. His father died shortly thereafter, and the boy was raised by his mother and several doting aunts. For reasons unexplained and apparently beyond his control, he left school to take a job as a customshouse clerk.

Out of this reflective period came a determination to seek a fuller education than Echeverría's young country could provide. In 1826 Echeverría settled in Paris and resumed his formal studies, most significantly, political science from a sociological perspective. His reading broadened to include writers cultivating a new and exciting mode: Goethe, Schiller, and especially Byron. From these readings developed a growing sense of self-identification with romantic expression and ideas.

By 1830, Echeverría was back in Buenos Aires. His early romantic poems, including "Elvira, or the Bride of the Plate" (1832), attracted little interest. His volume of verses entitled Consolations (1834) had considerable public success, owing no doubt to its dominant themes of patriotism and romantic love. In Rhymes (1837) he included a long narrative poem called The Captive Woman, in which his poetic genius is wedded to national themes. In this poem, with striking descriptions of the Pampa, the Indian tribes of the area, and the romantic adventures of two young lovers, he accomplished his aim of "Americanizing" Argentine literature.

In 1838 Echeverría was instrumental in founding the Association of May, a secret society whose goal was to return Argentina to democratic rule. Its credo, composed by Echeverría and published in 1846 under the title The Socialist Dogma, was an idealistic work of democratic propaganda. The dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas eventually obliged many of the association members, including Echeverría, to flee to Uruguay.

During the years remaining before his death in exile on Jan. 19, 1851, Echeverría wrote some relatively unsuccessful verse—"The Guitar" (1842) and its continuation "The Fallen Angel" (1846)—which dealt with the Don Juan theme. But it was a prose sketch, "The Slaughterhouse," found among his papers and published in 1871 that secured his literary reputation. This starkly realistic anecdote, which recounts the death of a young opponent of the Rosas regime at the hands of Rosas supporters employed at the Buenos Aires slaughterhouse, is one of the most powerful and memorable prose narratives ever written in Spanish America.


Further Reading on José Estéban Echeverría

There is no book-length study of Echeverría's work in English. For general background see Alfred Coester, The Literary History of Spanish America (1916); Arturo Torres-Ríoseco, The Epic of Latin American Literature (1942); Pedro Henriquez-Ureña, Literary Currents in Hispanic America (1945) and A Concise History of Latin American Culture (1947; trans. 1966); Enrique Anderson-Imbert, Spanish-American Literature: A History, vol. 1 (trans. 1963; rev. ed. 1969); and Jean Franco, An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature (1969). Consult also the Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, An Outline History of Spanish-America, edited by John Englekirk and others (1941; 3d ed. 1965).