The Spanish writer and politician Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833-1891) is best known for his novels and short stories, which depict in a lively, humorous manner the customs of the Spaniards of his region, Andalusia.
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón was born in Guadix in the province of Granada on March 10, 1833, the fourth of 10 children. He studied law and soon became involved in politics. A radical revolutionary, he led an insurrection in Granada against the clergy and army. In 1853 he went to Madrid to pursue a literary career but returned to Granada the following year. He was a member of the famous Cuerda Granadina (Granada Club), a group of dissident young artists and bohemians.
Alarcón soon returned to Madrid, where he contributed political articles to journals and became widely known as the editor of El Látigo (The Whip), an anticlerical, antidynastic newspaper. His first novel, El final de Norma (1851; The End of Norma), an extravagant, adolescent work about the love of a violinist for a singer, attests to his romantic temperament. In 1859 he served with the army in Morocco during Spain's war with the Moors; he described his experiences in Diario de un testigo en la guerra de Africa (1859-1860; Diary of a Witness of the African War).
Alarcón changed his radical political views as a result of a duel in which his life was spared. He became a conservative and a staunch defender of religion and embarked upon a political career. In 1863 he was elected a deputy to the Cortes, and after the revolution of 1868, which ended the reign of Isabella II, he was appointed minister to Sweden but renounced the post before serving. He became a member of the Council of State in 1875.
Alarcón wrote his masterpiece, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), in 1874. This novel, based on a popular ballad, presents a vivid, detailed picture of Andalusia in the days of Charles IV. The colorful setting, fast pace, and wit inspired Manuel de Falla's ballet as well as operas in French, German, and English. Another short novel, El capitán Veneno (1881; Captain Venom), and a collection of short stories, Historietas nacionales (1881; Native Stories), demonstrate considerable narrative skill. Alarcón also published three popular travel books and a volume of poems.
In 1877 Alarcón became a member of the Spanish Royal Academy. His subsequent preoccupation with morality in art, the subject of his address on admission to the academy, mars his longer novels, such as El escándalo (1875; The Scandal) and La pródiga (1881; The Prodigal). They are too moralistic and melodramatic. With the failure of La pródiga, Alarcón withdrew from public life and ceased to write fiction. In his autobiography (1884) he remarked bitterly on the adverse criticism many of his books had received. He died in Madrid on July 20, 1891, after a prolonged illness.
The definitive book on Alarcón is in Spanish, José Fernández Montesinos, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1955). Works on Spanish literature in English include James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, A New History of Spanish Literature (1898; rev. ed. 1926); Ernest Mérimée, A History of Spanish Literature (1908; rev. ed. and trans. 1930); George Tyler Northup, An Introduction to Spanish Literature (1925; 3d rev. ed. by Nicholas B. Adams., 1960); and Richard E. Chandler and Kessel Schwartz, A New History of Spanish Literature (1961).