A Companion to José Enrique Rodó

Gustavo San Román is in Montevideo on research leave from the University of St Andrews to work on Uruguayan literature and culture, as he has done throughout his career. Here he discusses the reputation behind one of the greatest cultural figures of the Spanish-speaking world, José Enrique Rodó, the Shakespeare of Uruguay.

Rodó, Uruguay’s greatest writer in terms of international reputation and whose work continues to be studied in universities abroad has a paradoxical status here: most people know his name, but have not read him and instead associate him with the leafy park next to a busy fairground by one of the city’s beaches. The park was renamed after Rodó by the City Council in a heartfelt reaction to the news of his demise in Palermo, Sicily, on 1 May 1917. Officialdom has continued to commemorate him during anniversaries and last year, as per usual, saw a number of lectures and seminars about him in the country and abroad occasioned by the centenary of his death. Locally, a parliamentary commission was set up to support the celebrations and the climax was an international conference inaugurated by the president, oncologist Tabaré Vázquez. That colloquium, and a number of other events, were initiated by the Sociedad Rodoniana, a group of readers of his work who, it must be said, are mostly of mature vintage.

Having spent the best part of the last two decades researching Rodó and the two extensive archives of his papers held in the national library and the national historical museum in Montevideo, I am not here to do more research on him. I have said virtually all that I know about him in the Companion to Rodó, the first book-length study of him in English, and in an edition of his posthumous writings that was published almost simultaneously in Spanish within an established series of Uruguayan classics. But apart from the fact that his work will never be far away from my reading pile, I am here also with a mission that relates to Rodó: to do my bit to bring him back onto the school syllabus, from which he was removed sometime in the 1980s – which helps explain the age profile of the members of the Rodonian association.

I am leading a series of seminars aimed at “the Return of Rodó to the Classroom” under the aegis of the Teacher Training course run by the prestigious school Elbio Fernández. This is a most suitable venue for two reasons. Firstly, because this is the school that was founded 150 years ago next year by a group of young intellectuals concerned with the education of the young of their country, the Society of Friends of Popular Education. One of the Society’s members was the father of state primary education in Uruguay, the justifiably revered José Pedro Varela, who set out to establish schools which were, in a motto that has become legendary, “secular, free and compulsory”. His work marks the turning point in the country’s advancement from one of the most turbulent communities in the nineteenth century in Latin America to one of the most progressive and liberal nations in the world in the twentieth century.

Secondly, “el Elbio” was the school Rodó attended as a child and where he made his debut in a trade that was to continue for the rest of his life: journalism. The library in the school holds samples of the newspapers that he wrote and edited as a pupil in the 1880s, where some of his enduring preoccupations with Latin America’s progress and cultural identity and with the improving of its young minds came through loud and clear, notably in his editorials and in articles such as the one on the centenary of Simón Bolívar, which calls for the commemoration of the great man to include actions to keep his ideal of a magna patria of Latin American nations alive. I take that as a cue for me and like-minded rodonianos to follow in his footsteps. Later in life Rodó’s strong pedagogical commitment was drawn upon by the publishers of the Spanish version of the celebrated Children’s Encyclopaedia (El tesoro de la juventud), who invited him to be one of the editors of this popular work. They also asked him to support their project in the form of a piece on the importance of reading in children and on the encouragement that parents can provide to complement the work of teachers. The attached manuscript page is a sample of his contribution.

Rodó is also and crucially – as I argue in the Companion and in a recent interview with the radio programme En Perspectiva – the Shakespeare of Uruguay, as one of the great stylists and thinkers in the Spanish language. How can his contemporary fellow citizens continue to overlook his work? His ideas, furthermore, have a lot to say to all in today’s world in terms of personal growth, political consensus, a critique of populism and dogmatic thinking, and a focus on ideals rather than succumbing to a self-diminishing and ecologically-destructive materialism.

A sample manuscript page from a piece written by Rodó on the importance of childhood literacy.

This guest post is written by  Gustavo San Román, Professor of Spanish at the University of St Andrews.

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