Ricardo Palma

Ricardo Palma (1833-1919) was a Peruvian essayist and short-story writer. He composed a long series of witty and picaresque tradiciones, or historical prose tales, whose plots and incidents were for the most part derived from the rich wealth of Peruvian literature and history.

Ricardo Palma was born in Lima on Feb. 7, 1833, son of a well-to-do family. He grew up amid turbulent political events and reached adolescence as the romantic tradition in Peru was reaching its zenith. At 15 he published his first verses and became the editor of a political and satiric newssheet called El Diablo (The Devil). He was educated in a Jesuit school and went on to the University of San Carlos, where his studies were cut short by a 6-year period of voluntary service in the Peruvian navy.

During these years the young writer was composing romantic dramas (which he later repudiated) and poetry. Palma's first book of verse, Poems, appeared in 1855. In 1860 a political reversal sent Palma into exile in Chile, from where he returned to Lima, under an amnesty, in 1863. The colorful tradiciones he had published in foreign newspapers and magazines had also now appeared in Peru. His reputation was now established and his literary personality clearly defined.

A trip to Europe in 1864-1865 was marked by the publication of two new volumes of verse, Harmonies and Lyre, in Paris. Palma returned to Lima in 1865 and became involved in political affairs that engaged him in public service until 1876. Yet during this time he continued to amass an excellent personal library and compose out of the history and legend of Peru's past his charming, spicy, always sprightly tradiciones. These were collected in separate volumes during his lifetime, the first selection of his Peruvian Traditions appearing in 1872 and the next five at irregular intervals over the next decade. These collections form the nucleus of the six-volume edition of the Complete Peruvian Traditions, although from 1883 until his death Palma continued to add new sketches to the original volumes and reordered and revised the individual collections.

The War of the Pacific (1879-1883) between Chile and Peru disrupted Palma's life and resulted in the virtual destruction of his own library as well as that housed in the Peruvian National Library. After the war Palma was named director of the National Library, a post he held until his retirement in 1912. He died in Lima on Oct. 6, 1919.


Further Reading on Ricardo Palma

There is no full-length study of Palma in English. Biographical information is in Harriet de Onis's introduction to Palma's The Knights of the Cape (trans. 1945). For background on his life and work see Alfred Coester, The Literary History of Spanish America (1916; 2d ed. 1928); Arturo Torres-Rioseco, The Epic of Latin American Literature (1942); Enrique Anderson Imbert, Spanish-American Literature: A History (trans. 1963; rev. ed. 1969); and Jean Franco, An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature (1969).