December 6, 2007
“Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.”
- Jorge Luis Borges
In the struggle to build a nation politically, culturally, and ethnically, Argentina began to construct a highly respected and influential literary body. During the final decades of the 19th century a new form of literature influenced by folk culture began to permeate the highly European style which saturated the written page. At the same time, the emerging social issues related to population growth and urbanization dominated both narrative writing and the more recent genre of the essay.
During the 1870s, the literary style known as gauchoesque began to emerge in response to the question of Argentine identity. The authors who engaged this style appropriated the figure of the gaucho - mestizo rural workers of the Pampas generally seen as outlaws – as a romantic notion of the Argentine essence. At this point in time, the gauchos, who had been the victims of prejudice and persecution, were mostly an icon of the past. Nevertheless, these authors used their image as a nostalgic view of the Argentine origins.
The most notable example of this genre is most certainly José Hernández’s epic poem, Martin Fierro. Destined to become a national classic, the poem, written in two parts during the 1870s, is narrated through the voice of gaucho Martin Fierro and follows his experiences under the brutality of state repression and his subsequent rejection of civilized life. In the second part of the poem, Martin Fierro reverses his stance, returning to a modernized society and preaching the virtues of law and order. The duality of the poem’s message allowed a variety of social classes and political groups to identify with the work and to find a hero among a world that was previously cast off.
By the end of the 19th century modernism came to the country and with it a debate on who qualified as a true Argentinean writer. Urbanization and modernization led to conflicted feelings on the changes occurring in Buenos Aires ranging from awe to disgust. During the 1920s literary journals began to sprout up around the city trying to cultivate a national style. Differing opinions on the degree of localism necessary in Argentine literature produced a split amongst the decade’s intellectual class.
From the split emerged two schools: The Florida and Boedo groups. The Florida Group, named after its location in an elite neighborhood was the more aristocratic of the two. The influential literary magazines Proa and Martin Fierro (named after the poem) are associated with this group as were its contributors, among them Jorge Luis Borges, Olivero Girondo, and the artist Xul Solar. The members of the Florida Group were influenced by Spanish ultraismo and were concerned with “art for art’s sake.” For them, literature did not have to use the local language to be considered Argentine; the local spirit would emerge organically.
In contrast, the Boedo Group, named after a more common neighborhood, was made up of leftist writers. Influenced by Russian realism, its members believed that art had a social function and sought to democratize literature through the use of popular local language. Nicolas Olivari, the groups founder, would eventually cross over to the Florida Group. In fact, the two groups’ differences were not all that great. Many writers, such as Borges and Roberto Arlt, considered themselves members of both groups.
What both groups did manage to accomplish was the foundation of a literary body that has received worldwide recognition. Borges in particular would go on to create some of the best literature of the century, influencing generations of writers to come and establishing himself and Buenos Aires as cultural icons.