A biographical perspective presents immediate, striking differences between Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo. Mistral (whose given name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga) was born into a middle-class family in a provincial town in the Chilean Andes, 400 kilometers north of the capital city. She pushed her way out of poverty and obscurity through publishing poetry and a range of teaching materials for use in schools. Her formal education ended shortly after she turned thirteen. By age fifteen, she was working as a schoolteacher to support herself and her mother, long since abandoned by her father.
Her first publications, which date from this time, appeared in local newspapers: her baroque, melancholic prose poems, like her social commentary, show dissatisfaction with her surroundings and keen interest in art and politics abroad. While teaching at night and working by day as a school secretary, the young writer passed equivalency exams qualifying her for various full-time positions in public schools throughout provincial Chile. The poetry that brought her fame through a national competition in 1914 gave a boost to her pedagogical career, culminating in her controversial appointment to direct a prestigious girls' high school in Santiago. Shortly thereafter, Mistral's writings as a poet and her familiarity with rural education led the postrevolutionary government of Mexico to invite her to work for them in 1922-1924.
Collaborating with writers, artists, and educators in postrevolutionary Mexico awakened Gabriela Mistral's awareness of indigenous American peoples. Over the next decades, that awareness became a personal mantra that allowed her to express--amid the nomadism of her own life--emotional identification with the more threatened lands and peoples of the New World. Following her experience in Mexico, Mistral traveled in Europe and then returned to Chile, where she resigned her position in the Chilean school system in 1925. After agreeing to represent Latin America in Europe, serving on a League of Nations subcommittee (the Paris-based Institute for Intellectual Cooperation), she would return to Chile for only two other short visits before her death.
The years of expatriation, from 1925 on, are precisely the portion of Mistral's life that the letters best document. These years have received relatively little attention from scholars, even though Mistral was then publishing as many as ten newspaper essays per month. She was in these years chronicling many aspects of Latin American existence in Europe, paying particular attention to the books, people, and landscapes that might interest the growing number of women readers in Latin America, especially those who could now begin to consider such travel themselves.
The rootless, vagabond quality of Mistral's early career accelerated with her move from national to international fame. Constant changes of residence enriched the depth and diversity of Mistral's writings, but they also present editorial challenges in assigning dates to her letters (which she rarely did) or in comprehending the scope of her influence (which she habitually underestimated). Clearly, her work as a lower-ranking consul in Chile's foreign service both accommodated and incited Mistral's urge to travel. It was not the consulship, but her lecture tours and journalism that supported her and her dependents. Monetary need forced Mistral to shift from writing poetry to writing what she termed "propaganda" to supplement what she called the consulate's "semi-amusing salaries." In later life, she recognized this squandering of her talents, as she wrote to Ocampo: "I set out to write prose: two hundred articles and more. By now I'm old and, what's more, I realize that prose isn't my thing" (G.66, 29 December 1953).
One of Ocampo's great gifts to Mistral was to spur her return to poetry. Mistral acknowledges this effect from early in the relationship, in a letter written from Madrid: "You left in the house, with those who saw you, a tinge of bewitchment. Tinge and all, Victoria, it lasts. Through you, I've understood the mission of the Beatrices, and I've gone back to give prestige to the Muses, which I allowed to fall, like great Myths, years ago" (G.4, 14 March 1935).
Even as she thanked Ocampo for prompting her to resume writing poetry, Mistral (like many other Latin American writers) found herself immersed in the politically charged atmosphere of Spain prior to and during the civil war. The poetry that Mistral wrote in response to that war, plus a compilation of sixteen years of verses, formed a new volume of poetry, Tala (Felling Trees), which she presented to Ocampo for publication (G.9, 4 August 1937). Understanding that the proceeds would benefit Basque children driven from their homes and that Mistral would tour to promote the text, Ocampo agreed to print and distribute the text at her own cost. The publication of Tala by Ocampo's publishing house, SUR, the most prestigious one in Latin America at the time, brought Mistral the international recognition instrumental to her receiving the 1945 Nobel Prize.
The contradictions and peculiar silences that characterize Mistral's life and work overall are reflected in these letters. Although many who knew her have described Mistral as proud, her letters urge Ocampo to practice humility and self-abnegation. Mistral's counseling of Ocampo in her amorous relationships, as with the Argentine writer Eduardo Mallea, offers some extreme examples: "If patience is something heroic in you, on account of what it costs you, that arduous thing is owed to him; if humility--this is the great thing--humility is what's most bleedable in you, that humility with blood and weeping floods, within you, is also owed to him" (G.18, May 1938).3 Such advice favoring humility hardly corresponds to the later Mistral, whom Ocampo describes (in writing to Caillois, see appendix) as being distracted from human contact by her own heartache and despair.
Still more contradictory is Mistral's reputation, gained early on, as a poet of suppressed erotic longing, supposedly sublimated into love for children and the dispossessed peoples of the world. She was often referred to as "la Divina Gabriela" or "Santa Mistral," curiously akin to the cardboard mythologies surrounding Evita Perón in the 1950s. Francisco Ayala is particularly exacting in his criticism of superficial representations of Mistral as a mother figure:
Gabriela poured out the abundant tenderness of her words onto the humble heads of unfortunate Indians, helpless children, and all the dispossessed of the world. In practice, I never observed her stopping to take note of any child, except for the day when she officially learned of having obtained the Nobel Prize. That day, yes, she came to my house [in Brazil] carrying a heap of clothing directed to needy children and, as usual, she entered--not paying the slightest attention to my daughter, who was, in the end, a privileged girl--and she told me that she had made an appointment with the journalists in the bar of the Copacabana Hotel, whose terrace was visible from my balcony. She had made an appointment with them for 5:30, and a little before, she went down to wait for them. When they arrived, they found her there, surrounded by the flock of noisy, begging children, with two little urchins pulling on her skirt. On the following day, the press registered the scene, with photos and stories. (Ayala, 91)
The poet's public image aside, in private life she had a nephew who lived with her from infancy, Juan Miguel Godoy, known as "Yin Yin." More of the dark and strange circumstances leading up to his death by suicide at age seventeen emerge in these letters. At a time when world events totally preoccupied Mistral, who agonized over the prospective triumph of Fascism and, to a lesser degree, of Communism, such information is useful, given that so much about Yin Yin remains unknown. Mistral's correspondence rarely mentioned him until he became a difficult adolescent in Brazil. During his life she kept his existence something of a secret. Perhaps she found she could only love deeply what she felt was already lost. Whatever the case, Yin Yin's death precipitated an emotional and physical decline in Gabriela Mistral. Even amid that decline, replete with delirium, religious obsessions, and dementia, her letters demonstrate the same condemnation of war, dictatorship, and social injustice that likewise appeared in her poetry of these years, which includes some of her greatest work.
Still another contradiction emerges between the general perception of Mistral as sturdy and monumental, a living statue, a "caryatid in motion," and the writer's complaints of poor health. Resounding through these letters are problems with her heart, her eyes, and frequent stomach ailments from tropical travel. Most of the health problems she reports proved unrelated to the medical conditions diagnosed when she finally began receiving regular medical care, toward her life's end. The fact that she smoked quite heavily is noted only once in these letters, and nowhere else in any of her published correspondence. Despite her concerns for her heart, untreated diabetes brought her close to blindness. Wasted by illness, her mind alternating between lucidity and delusion, Mistral persisted in her rounds of writing, travel, and public appearances. Such constant activity amid a range of physical ailments rounds out the portrait of the generous yet impossibly demanding woman that emerges from these letters. Pancreatic cancer was responsible for her death in 1957, at sixty-six years of age.
Victoria Ocampo was the oldest of six girls born in the heart of Buenos Aires into a patrician family of successful businessmen and nation builders. She grew up trilingual as a consequence of her traditional home education provided by French and English governesses and lengthy stays in Europe with her family. She read voraciously in these languages, and her self-image was formed under their influence. By the time she was in her teens, however, Ocampo had already developed an aversion to the values of her social class vis-à-vis women's status, and she determined to resist its dictates. Against the expectation of a traditional marriage and children, Victoria Ocampo quickly rejected the callow husband she had married in 1912 in a misguided effort to gain freedom from parental constraints. Thereafter she had a secret love affair for many years; since no public separation from her husband was possible without wounding her family, she never married again. Eventually, this relationship ended as well, and Ocampo then had a number of other affairs, often with men much younger than herself.
In her elegant public profile, Ocampo reflected her class and era. She was strikingly beautiful well into middle age, which was noted even by her enemies, who used it to mock her. Photos of Ocampo in her twenties through her fifties show her dressed in couture clothes in the latest European fashions. A lover of avant-garde music and the arts, Ocampo chose a modernist design inspired by Le Corbusier for the first home she built for herself in 1927. The total effect of her bearing and appearance was the very opposite of Mistral's impromptu style and disregard for formal attire. As often happens with women of power, Ocampo's beauty, wealth, and cultural sophistication sparked resentment among those in Argentina who coveted her privilege while condemning the oligarchy. In fact, under the military dictatorship of Juan Domingo Perón, Ocampo was persona non grata in her own country, the complete antithesis of Evita, who dominated headlines with her defense of the descamisados.
Ocampo's preference for French in her earlier writings was consistent with her background and education, as was also the case with other literary figures of her generation, such as her close friend Ricardo Güiraldes (author of the definitive gaucho novel Don Segundo Sombra). She did not begin to use Spanish as a literary language until the 1930s, in response to both the urgings of friends such as Mistral and Waldo Frank and her own dissatisfaction with translations others did of her work.
Ocampo's preferred genre was the personal essay, or testimonio, which eventually resulted in more than ten volumes of collected writings. Unlike Mistral, poetry was not Ocampo's medium, although the first letter in this volume shares with Mistral a long and very subjective poem that was published under a pseudonym years later. Ocampo's profound poetic nature, however, is repeatedly expressed in her prose essays through a kind of "imaginative understanding" based on intuition, not intellect. In fact, Ocampo's constant concern as a writer is to find unity between the intellect and the spirit, and to bridge cultural as well as geographic divides. For this objective, the essay's malleability and its inherent resistance to boundaries of containment made it the perfect genre for her wide-reaching interests.
Ocampo's true entry into the public sphere followed in part from her work with Sur, the literary magazine she founded in 1931, and, more broadly, from the death of her parents, whose conservative sensibilities she had tried not to offend. After 1935, Ocampo became emotionally and financially independent. It was likewise at this time, in the early years of Sur's publication, that Ocampo and Mistral developed the epistolary friendship that began with brief notes in the late 1920s, before they finally met in person in December 1934. The work of founding and directing Sur, first as a magazine and later as a publishing house, provided Ocampo with a challenging arena in which to exercise her considerable linguistic, diplomatic, and aesthetic skills. Undaunted by skeptics, Ocampo seized the initiative and established correspondences with the leading writers and artists of the time, bringing them and their work into the pages of Sur. In the cases of Ernest Ansermet, Hermann Keyserling, Drieu la Rochelle, and María de Maeztu--to name just a few--she tendered invitations to Argentina and provided lodging and public venues for their lectures. Within a short time of its founding, Sur gained a reputation as the leading magazine in Latin America for writing by both American and European authors. Her goal was ambitious and remains unparalleled: at the same time as Ocampo worked to make Sur a cultural bridge between continents, it became a definitive expression of national literary culture, as John King's comprehensive study indicates.
Within its international cultural orientation, Sur reflected Ocampo's intense concern for America, south and north. Although her original intent was to deal only with American issues, the magazine soon developed a broader focus reflecting the impressive editorial board drawn by Ocampo from several continents. She often said that internationalism and ecumenism were wholly compatible with being Argentine. Yet many of Ocampo's compatriots and other Latin American intellectuals denied this fact of history and criticized her as an elitist and foreignizer.
Gathering good writing was perhaps the more glamorous part of the work Ocampo did for Sur, but the magazine was a costly venture. Seeking to increase profits, she started a publishing house of the same name in 1933. The books she chose to publish were often by foreign writers (like D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, André Malraux, Virginia Woolf, or C. G. Jung) and required translation; this was a task that Ocampo took on herself or contracted with others who worked with Sur, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Eduardo Mallea, and Ricardo Baeza. These publications only heightened the criticism from her xenophobic detractors. The populist orientation of Peronism and its repudiation of the upper classes increased tensions between the Sur group and Peronist sympathizers. Ocampo denounced the regime and its tactics: her insistence on Sur's support for the democratic ideal of free speech is evident throughout these letters, as is the bureaucratic and judicial harassment that she endured in the early 1950s for her refusal to betray that ideal.
Association with Mistral was consistent with Ocampo's desire to build bridges between Europe and the Americas. The fact that Mistral took her seriously also reinforced Ocampo's sense of the fundamental worth of her own work. Mistral's lifelong devotion to biography and letters made her appreciative of Ocampo's essays and memoirs. Mistral was clearly enthusiastic in responding to the autobiographical foundation of Ocampo's work. In a letter following the publication of Ocampo's Testimonios I (1935), Mistral begged Ocampo to continue writing her memoirs:
Finish them, and don't delay very much, because a book, like an angel, passes from your hands if you don't hold on to it. And then go on from Childhood to Youth. We who never had you close by feel a furious appetite, which isn't idle curiosity, for your soul and its years, for ranches where we never lived. There's no other way to have you with us and make life without you somehow less wicked and despoiled. (G.5, 7 April 1936)
Ocampo did not seriously turn to finishing her memoirs until 1952. She was called, instead, to political struggle, such as countering the threat to women's civil rights in Argentina, a cause she championed publicly, starting in 1936 when she helped found the Argentine Women's Union. Hostility to the union's demonstrations and pamphlets was widespread, but the organizers persisted despite limited success. The political rights they had also hoped to gain for women would not come until the Perón years, and in that context, with Eva as the model woman, Ocampo withdrew her support. Mistral backed Ocampo's political efforts: she asked, for example, to be signed up as a member of the union (G.8, July/August 1937). Ocampo later said that her friend was not a feminist at the time, but Mistral sensed that her public support of the cause would be useful and thus expressed her solidarity.
Ocampo would outlive Mistral by some twenty years. In that time, she enjoyed at least a portion of the validation she had been denied as a younger woman in the world of letters. Two years before her death in 1979 she was elected to the Argentine Academy of Letters, the first woman to be accorded this honor.
Whether expressed through poetry or letters, Ocampo clearly provided Mistral with more than an avenue to publication. Mistral, whose fascination with America informed much of her writing, recognized in Ocampo from their earliest encounter the embodiment of criollo (Latin American born of European ancestors) awareness. She saw Ocampo as someone who, like herself, was drawn to the concept of America as an identity in formation. Shortly after they met, Mistral wrote her new friend an affectionate letter that established another touchstone of the correspondence, which was that Ocampo, for all her unapologetic Eurocentrism, was deeply Latin American: "It's been a tremendous surprise for me to find you so criolla," writes Mistral, "as criolla as I am, although more refined. What's more, it's been a real joy" (G.3, 9 January 1935).
By exploring American identity, both women were simultaneously constructing self-identities. And each was defining the other in terms of an American experience otherwise distant or unknown to her. Writing from wartime France in April 1939, Mistral expresses this distance in frankly racial terms:
Votoya, we almost didn't meet one another in this world. You wouldn't have lost anything by it, except for one more bite, just another, from the American corn. But you have done many good things for me: I needed to know, to know, to know, that a totally white person could be a genuine American. You can't fully understand what that means to me! (G.26, April 1939)
The idea of America, of "americanidad" or Americanness, appears in the first real letters they exchange in the 1930s. Unlike the Americanist concerns of their contemporaries in the United States, Mistral and Ocampo wrote from a self-conscious position of otherness as Latin Americans, at once affirming their hemispheric right to define Americanness on their own terms but also aware that their condition as Americans was not only different from but invisible to most writers to the north.
The search for specifically American themes that characterizes Mistral's mature (post-1930) work likewise pervades Ocampo's writings, as well as the pages of Sur. Ocampo had already expressed a concern with American identity in her early essays, which were typically inspired by personal experience and her sense of cultural exile as a woman and an Argentine. This need to articulate American identity (which critics have noted in other, male writers of their generation) appears in Ocampo's "Palabras francesas," an essay written in 1931, the same year Sur was founded:
If I hadn't been American, after all, I probably wouldn't have felt this thirst to explain, to explain us and to explain myself. In Europe when something is produced, you could say it is explained beforehand; each event gives the impression of carrying an identity tag from the time it occurs and is appropriately shelved. Here, on the other hand, each thing, each event is suspicious and suspected of being something without precedent. We have to examine it from top to bottom to try to identify it, and sometimes when we try to apply the explanations that analogous cases would receive in Europe, we find that they don't fit.
Then, here we are, obliged to close our eyes and to advance, gropingly and hazardously, toward ourselves; to try to find out to what extent the old explanations can be applied to new problems. We hesitate, stumble, deceive ourselves, tremble, but continue obstinately along. Even though, for now, the results may be mediocre, who cares? Our suffering isn't. And that's what counts. This suffering must be so strong that someday someone feels the urgency to overcome it by explaining it.
Mistral recognized Ocampo's visceral need to express the American experience as rooted in an awareness of geographic as well as linguistic circumstance. Language was one of their great dividing points, however: Ocampo's fluent French and preference for writing in that language for many years irked Mistral, who chided Ocampo for her "linguistic bigamy." Ocampo protested that Mistral was shortsighted regarding language diversity in the Americas, and that her love of French was an authentic part of her multicultural Argentine upbringing, a cultural mestizaje that many upper-class Latin Americans experienced, particularly in her generation, and for which she saw no need to apologize. Eventually they both acknowledged that many of their disagreements could be traced to the disparities in their birth and their domestic circumstances.
This sense of otherness in their own relationship is key to Mistral's recognition that her need for Ocampo exceeds Ocampo's for her; life experience caused her to align herself with the downtrodden in a way Ocampo never could. Writing from France, in April of 1939, Mistral acknowledges this:
Maybe what I miss in you is nothing but a share of common experience. The experience of poverty, of fighting, in blood and mud, with life. There's no remedy for it in this life's journey. In me there's hardness, fanaticism, ugliness, that you can't be aware of, being unaware as you are of what it's like to chew bare stones for thirty years with a woman's gums, amid a hard people. (G.26, early April 1939)
Mistral's emphasis on her have-not background as a character-shaping factor found no counterpart in Ocampo. Where Mistral saw ceaseless conflict, Ocampo believed simply that, whatever one's background, words and deeds must be in conformity for a person to merit respect.
Although Mistral clearly took liberties in harping on Ocampo, both women understood that their ability to find common ground was crucial to the larger cultural and historical importance of working on behalf of America. Permeating the letters is the drive to define American identity beyond social or national boundaries. Both women regarded this task as a civilizing mission. In an early letter to Ocampo, Mistral speaks of "the American movement," an interest shared by many writers of their generation (G.3, 9 January 1935), such as their friends Waldo Frank, in his message to the Americas in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Mexican philosopher Alfonso Reyes. Both women engaged in a lifelong correspondence with Reyes, who published several of his most Americanist essays in early issues of Sur. One might also recognize the best of José Vasconcelos, another Mexican contemporary. Earlier writers such as José Martí (Cuba) and José Enrique Rodó (Uruguay) also shaped these two women's sense of America as an ideal at once transnational, spiritual, and telluric.
Ocampo and Mistral went beyond these latter writers, however, in arguing for an "americanidad" that would surpass the limitations of national identities, usually male-defined. As they had often felt foreign when abroad and in their native lands, their notion of America stressed interrelation and international cooperation. Ocampo stressed this mission as cultural bridge building, with what could be called "culture with a C"; Mistral, on the other hand, interpreted it in literature informed by verbal and material folklore.
From the very moment of their first face-to-face meeting, at the end of 1934, their sense of sharing an American mission was crucial to their friendship. Mistral spoke of Ocampo's immense potential to lead the continent toward a superior form of "americanidad," discarding the clichéd symbols of "spurs and saddle-pads," whereas Ocampo saw that Mistral's passion for America expressed absolute disinterested love:
Gabriela had no choice. In order to love what she loved, from "the high reaches" as she would say, she had to believe in her heart. Children demand it that way, and poetry too, even the most unreligious kind. And like children as well as poetry, our America needs to be loved in the same way. And if we don't love her, her existence, just like a child's, is threatened and almost extinguished. Because the love to which I refer is disinterested love that creates what it loves and helps it to thrive.
Their letters show that they both felt a protective yet frustrating love of Latin America--an orphan child, ignored by the world at large, and in need of nurturing to realize its potential. Ocampo pointed to this protectiveness again in an essay written years later about their correspondence: ". . . what is interesting about them [GM's letters] is to see how Gabriela took everything American (that is, South) to heart and how she was opposed to any flight of capital when she thought that one person or another, for one reason or another, could enrich or serve, intellectually, this America of ours." Their experience as women undoubtedly contributed to this attitude of defensive nurturing. It may also have made them more sensitive to the vulnerable and marginalized condition of Latin America in the world context, and thus more determined to confront it repeatedly in their writings.
The Bond of Correspondence
Mistral and Ocampo inevitably found self-reflections in writing to and about each other. Mistral saw in Ocampo a world of access to books and languages that her own hardscrabble youth had denied her. Likewise, Ocampo regarded Mistral as a connection to a range of experience and identity from which her birth and education had precluded her. Without Ocampo's publication of Tala, we would not have Mistral's most definitively Americanist volume. Without Mistral's 1942 portrait of Ocampo (see appendix), we would miss the subtleties of her Europeanist proclivities. Without this correspondence, we would not know of their political, diplomatic, and cultural collaborations with one another, which touched many people in Europe and the Americas.
Ocampo offered the Chilean poet personal hospitality and valuable introductions to writers and diplomats in both Argentina and Europe. The loyalty that Mistral expressed to Ocampo, by taking her seriously as a writer and encouraging her to write, was a gift few others offered. Mistral additionally defended Ocampo from random charges of Fascism and Communism. By publishing in Sur, Mistral undermined the accusations of Eurocentrism and elitism directed at the magazine.
The two women's affective relationship worked on many levels. Mistral's relation with Ocampo began with infatuation and matured into affectionate respect. Ocampo would discuss her relationships with various men over the course of her life, but Mistral was nearly mute on the topic of sexual preference. For Ocampo, the friendship with Mistral was unique because, as women, they shared such a strong Americanist sentiment. That sentiment grew as they worked together, responding to and shaping the political and cultural events of the time.
This conviction, this sense of urgency becomes especially evident following the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Against the backdrop of a Europe destroyed by World War I, whose limitations were evident and whose hegemony was now vulnerable, the war in Spain signaled an ominous wider threat of totalitarianism. In their response as Latin Americans to the European upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically their rejection of factionalism and militarism at home and their work to establish havens for war refugees in the New World, both women could be described as liberal humanists, as individuals to whom spiritual energy and social justice ultimately mattered more than intellectual ability. Although they each avoided politics per se, they were both overwhelmingly political by the very act of using female voices to challenge the traditional male-centered canon of national discourse in Latin America.
Mistral's tendency to mythologize Ocampo (comparing her, for example, to Diana, Minerva, and the Corn Goddess) probably strained the friendship, once the crisis of war in Europe had passed. Hyperbole or projections of exoticism were all too familiar to Ocampo, who encountered them in her attempts to seek a closer friendship with Virginia Woolf. Although Woolf was a writer with whom Ocampo shared a common commitment to women's rights and the life of the mind, the English writer couldn't get past her own invention of Ocampo as a creature from "the land of great butterflies."
The letters show us that Mistral didn't always set her friend on a pedestal. When it came to Ocampo's affairs with European men, Mistral expressed wonder, annoyance, and mockery reinforced by a certainty that Ocampo's destiny lay in America, not in Europe. It's possible that the poet's annoyance with Ocampo's escapades had some basis in jealous projections of the sort that appear throughout Mistral's earlier poetry. Mistral's repeated assertions of how much she and Eduardo Mallea had in common can be seen in this light (see G.18, May-September 1938). Rivalry and triangulated desire, rather than consummation, ever characterized Gabriela Mistral's expression of sexual drama.
For both women, the act of letter writing evolved in the context of immersion in books and reading. Mistral's eyesight was already troubling her by middle age, so that Ocampo became the more voracious reader. Both women's insistence on sharing a passion for literature through writing letters was also an act of love. Ocampo aptly pointed this out: "To communicate in writing one with another. To care for and love one another. This is the definition that the Royal Spanish Academy gives to the word 'correspond.' And that's the double meaning the word has always had for me. To write letters is this or it's nothing." As Mistral observed in her notes to Tala, letter writing stands between prose and verse, even as it is caught up in purely temporal matters. Spontaneity is a good part of its charm, as it builds connections and compensates for years of exile:
Letters that travel far and are written every three or five years tend to set what's very temporal--the week, the year--and what's very trifling--the birthday, the new year, a change of house--to the wind. And when, moreover, a letter is written on the warm embers of poetry, with a rhythm somewhat cut short and some rhymes intruding, with both rhythm and rhyme lingering in the air, the letter turns into a playful thing, pulled here and there by the verse and the prose that dispute it.
Public and Private Personae
Even as Mistral and Ocampo shared the written word as their primary medium, they were public performers who appreciated the impact of theater and gave readings with a full sense of their status as celebrities. They also worked with the developing media of radio and film. When they wrote one another, it was with implicit understanding of how their public personae regularly exceeded the bounds of feminine decorum. Still, the two women experienced fame in distinct ways. Ocampo's stage roles and speeches were angled toward select audiences, but after their performance she was able to retreat into privacy. Mistral's educator image, on the other hand, put her in the center of open-air homages. Her status as a traveler and guest afforded scant privacy.
Ocampo seems to have dealt easily with public appearances. She enjoyed her recitation performances of "Perséphone," with a text by André Gide, composed and conducted by Igor Stravinsky in Buenos Aires, Rio, and Florence. This and other public recitations only partially satisfied a thwarted youthful desire to make a life in the theater. Ocampo followed the latest plays and films with great enthusiasm, but when it came to giving interviews, she was distrustful of reporters, who frequently cast her in the stereotypical role of a wealthy dilettante or a cultural elitist. Mistral, by contrast, knew fame from her twenties and grew increasingly ambivalent toward it. By 1938, for instance, her letters to Ocampo use a code word, "organdy," apparently to refer to the stiff, schoolteacher-organized homages to which she was endlessly subjected when she traveled in Latin America (see, for example, G.15, 18 April 1938). Further, the Chilean writer was rebuffed when she tried to move beyond the niches allotted to her as an educational missionary or icon of quasi-maternal suffering. In describing a failed attempt to give a public reading at the University of Buenos Aires, for instance, she says that professors are hostile to her as a poet, a foreigner, and a schoolteacher:
They believe, bless them, that poetry isn't culture and has nothing to do with education because . . . education--the education that they provide--thoroughly hates creativity, in any form. But we die, we poor poets, and then they get hold of us to gnaw on our bones in their literature classes, and from that gnawing they live, year in, year out, fabricating classes that let them eat. (G.16, April 1938)
It is in letters such as these, rather than in the public display of interviews or newspaper reports, that Mistral's and Ocampo's self-awareness as public figures emerges. Each used the letter as an opportunity to express confidences that celebrity otherwise denied them. Mistral is the more effusive, to be sure: she apologizes more than once for monopolizing the conversation when they've met in person, and explains that there are few people to whom she can talk as freely as she can with Ocampo.
For her part, Ocampo prefers to detail literary projects and the progress of Sur. The letters also offer her a chance to document, to the limits that censorship allowed, the escalating difficulties of life under Peronism, from 1946 to 1954. During this same period, Ocampo seems to hold back personal confidences in letters to Mistral, perhaps because her letters could fall into unwanted hands or perhaps because of Mistral's own obsessions. Mistral writes long letters regularly, but she begins repeating herself after 1950, and Ocampo seems to lose patience with her.
The conditions of celebrity that both writers knew relate to Jean Franco's observations about women's emergence into public space in Hispanic culture. Writing about "self-destructing heroines" in Critical Passions, Franco points to two roles available to women in the de facto male public space of Latin America: the maternal figure, whose entry into the plaza is tied to suffering and sacrifice, and the performer/libertine, whose sexuality is a central aspect of her taking the stage. Mistral encountered that legacy in her quasi-maternal status as a public schoolteacher and in her tragic relationship with Yin Yin. Ocampo's sexual freedom, an open secret during her middle years, played into a public image that she neither explained nor acknowledged, thereby attracting more attention to her privilege and beauty.
Mistral's origins forever linked her with the rural middle class, a group associated with the impoverished countryside and with those seeking a better life by moving to the outskirts of the larger cities. In her complex racial identification as una mestiza de Vasco (a mixed blood of Basque descent), she overtly associates herself with suffering and loss, and with the descendants of those who settled Chile in the eighteenth century. It is no accident that Mistral lays fullest claim to the Basque side of her heritage during the darkest moments of the Spanish Civil War, or that her expressed allegiance to a vanishing indigenous identity grows more vehement with age, articulated in the poet's sense of being a living ghost and the last of her line. These intertwined aspects of identity and suffering may seem far from the Gabriela Mistral that liberal bureaucrats in Chile and Mexico fitted out for public consumption. Their celebrated maestra de América, the embodiment of education as a ticket to upward social mobility, was nonetheless denied access to a forum in Latin American higher education: only in the United States and Puerto Rico did she teach university-level classes.
Mistral's discomfort with the public plaza can be traced in part to gender discrimination in Latin America, but it also derives from the material conditions of her life. Unlike Ocampo, Mistral had no physical retreats, no stable residence, no trusted circle of nearby friends. Her livelihood as a consul, journalist, and lecturer guaranteed her nomadism. The sundry stationery and multiple return addresses of her letters reveal provisional and precarious dwellings: anonymous pensiones, rented apartments, borrowed houses. The 1945 Nobel Prize in literature made Mistral's life marginally more secure, but by this point she was physically and emotionally battered by ill health and the death of Yin Yin, and she continued to move.
Ocampo's celebrity, founded on her family's identification with the Argentine upper classes and her friendships with a range of world-famous intellectuals, was played out in more exclusive venues on both continents. Her financial well-being was never in question, even when Sur suffered grave losses. Except for the three-year period when the government restricted her freedom to travel abroad, Ocampo traveled almost annually to Europe and the United States, staying for extended periods. Neither the comfort of her two homes in Argentina--one in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, the other in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata--nor a coterie of loyal friends could protect Ocampo, however, when she became a target of police surveillance and harassment, and then a political prisoner for a month in 1953. Her experience in prison, in close contact with women of all walks of life, had an enormous impact on Ocampo, who thereafter was even more committed to speaking out on women's rights and social justice. Among her many friends on three continents, Ocampo's imprisonment was a cause célèbre that elicited many public protests.
When Ocampo was freed from jail but still restricted to remaining in Argentina, she gently noted the irony of Mistral's repeated criticism "that I should stay in my own country and work on its behalf. You wouldn't complain about me now. I've hardly lived outside my land these last few years" (V.16, 29 September 1953). In having chosen to make her home in Argentina, Ocampo had lived nearly all of her adult life in Latin America, whereas Mistral, the great symbol of Spanish American identity, effectively lived more than half of hers in Europe and the United States, establishing a total of at least ten consulates over the course of their correspondence. Mistral was semi-solitary in her travel, but Ocampo generally traveled with her maid, her sister Angélica, or a close friend. Mistral loved to stay up all night talking and smoking; Ocampo hated smoke and was devoted to a good night's sleep.
Ironically, given her impatience with Mistral's Indianism, in the later years of her life Ocampo discovered and proudly claimed indigenous blood in her own background. Her mother was a descendant of Domingo de Irala, a Spanish conquistador and governor of the River Plate colonies; it seems that Irala had a Guaraní Indian concubine whose children he legally recognized. In her acceptance speech to the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1977, Ocampo recognized the importance of both Gabriela Mistral and Agueda, her Guaraní ancestor, in her own life. It was highly appropriate, she said, that she pay tribute to these two women who had contributed, one by blood and the other by nurturing example, to the formation of her own identity.
Chronology, Editing, and Translating
The correspondence begins in January of 1926, with each woman expressing interest in the other through a characteristic act of courtesy. Mistral, leaving for Europe, writes to thank Ocampo for a gift of flowers that Ocampo evidently sent to Mistral's hotel in Buenos Aires. (Ocampo had probably initiated this contact at the recommendation of mutual friends in Spain.) Following nearly nine years of frustrated attempts, the two women finally met in December of 1934, at Mistral's residence in Madrid, in the company of María de Maeztu.
Mistral immediately assaulted Ocampo with questions: Why was she born in the least American city in Latin America? Why was she so Frenchified? Why had she ignored Mistral's friend, the middle-class Argentine writer Alfonsina Storni? Ocampo defended herself as best she could: she had not chosen the place of her birth or the European education her parents had given her, and she'd never had occasion to meet Storni.
By the time of that first meeting, Mistral and Ocampo were forty-five and forty-four years old respectively. Each had moved past a mentoring relationship with an older Spanish man who had sponsored the publication of their first books in the 1920s: Federico de Onís, on Mistral's part, and José Ortega y Gasset, on Ocampo's. As of 1934, however, Mistral and Ocampo were no longer neophyte writers. Their involvement with the world of letters was bringing them into spheres of national and international influence newly open to women: in organizations such as the PEN Club for both of them, the Argentine Women's Union for Ocampo, and a consular post in Spain, along with membership in the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation, for Mistral.
Eighty-four letters by Gabriela Mistral and thirty-six letters by Victoria Ocampo survive. There were undoubtedly more letters from Ocampo, but Mistral either did not keep them or they were lost in her many moves. Difficulty with dates and handwriting forestalled previous attempts to work on this correspondence. Only sixteen of the eighty-four Mistral manuscripts were typed (with corrections added in the poet's hand); all of the letters that Gabriela Mistral sent to Victoria Ocampo during the last six years of her life, from 1950 onward, were pencil written and, consequently, very faded. Though Mistral claimed to use pencil because it hurt her eyes less, Ocampo took Mistral's pencil habit as an indication of her disregard for posterity. Mistral rarely wrote the date in her letters, but Ocampo, for her part, scrupulously dated her letters. Thanks to Ocampo's care with preserving these materials, we can match the two sides of the surviving correspondence with a good degree of accuracy. Frequent references to current events, consultation of other published editions of correspondence, and other biographical studies have helped us further locate the letters in time, and arrange them in this text.
The condition and quality of the letters bear out the temperamental and circumstantial differences between the two women. Where Mistral's letters can easily run to thousands of words on any available stationery, Ocampo preferred brevity and personalized, engraved stationery. Ocampo wrote quite legibly in pen or with a typewriter. She probably used French to compose the earliest, now lost letters of the correspondence, as this was her custom with many friends at the time. Although her letters are less personally revealing than Mistral's, Ocampo does not hide her emotions, especially in describing friendships near and distant and in detailing the injustices that she suffered and to which she was witness. On Mistral's part, the letters written prior to the deepening of the friendship during Mistral's visit to Argentina in 1938 are carefully drafted and solicitous of Ocampo as a prospective colleague. Subsequent letters from Mistral's travels, by contrast, take the form of reports brimming with lively observations and charges to her correspondent. Finally, the letters from the end of Mistral's life iterate pleas for visits and explanations that Ocampo could not supply: with her passport withheld, her movement restricted, and her mail routinely opened, Ocampo was prevented from traveling. The certainty that her mail was intercepted further kept Ocampo from writing freely to her friend during the very years when Mistral most needed her.
The vagaries of lives lived in turbulent times brought the two writers together only six times in all. Following their first meeting in 1934, Mistral's 1938 visit to Argentina marks the second and most intense time that the two spent together. The week they shared at Ocampo's home in Mar del Plata remained deeply impressed on both women's memories. The span of Mistral's residence in Argentina (from late March through May of 1938) was impacted by events in Europe, such as the fall of the Spanish Republic and the onset of World War II, and related politically tumultuous events in Latin America. The next meeting between the two women occurred in late February of 1939, as Ocampo paid Mistral the surprise tribute of meeting her ship upon her arrival in France and traveling with her to Nice to help her establish the Chilean consulate there. The gesture showed compassion for Mistral's condition as a homeless traveler. Following Mistral's receipt of the Nobel Prize in late 1945, Ocampo and Mistral experienced a fourth fleeting but intense encounter in Washington, in 1946. There was an equally brief, apparently difficult meeting in Rome in late 1951. As Ocampo indicates in "Victoria Ocampo on Her Friendship with Gabriela Mistral," they were together one last time, when Mistral was near death in New York.
The notable silences and omissions in the correspondence are revealing in themselves. The lost letters from Ocampo prior to late 1942 can, to an extent, be imaginatively reconstructed through a close reading of Mistral's replies. In some cases, such as the long letter Mistral writes about Ocampo's floundering affair with Eduardo Mallea (G.18, May/September 1938), we can follow point by point the issues Ocampo must have enumerated in an earlier letter. A hiatus seemingly occurs in the correspondence during 1948-1950, while Mistral was living in Mexico. We know that Mistral was wont to stop and then resume correspondence without explanation in these years, as with her letters to Alfonso Reyes, interrupted between 1950 and 1953. For Ocampo, the years of their hiatus were extraordinarily busy, with multiple trips to postwar Europe and a full literary agenda for Sur at home.
Because so much of what Ocampo must have written is missing, we have elected to include, following the correspondence, a group of writings--primarily by Ocampo, but also a few by Mistral--to help round out Ocampo's voice in the relationship with Mistral and to fill in details of those years. These include portions of the Ocampo-Caillois correspondence where the subject is Mistral.
Assigning reliable dates to these letters reveals the need to place Gabriela Mistral's poetry in sociohistorical context, and thus to move past the view that she wrote poetry in an attempt to compensate for her personal suffering. Her war-related writings indicate Mistral's deep absorption in war and politics. She brought the war home, personalizing the political, as the troubled environment of her household during World War II probably reflected the conflicts in Europe and the Americas. Mistral's identification of herself as Latin American and her disparagement of France accelerates during the war, for example. Writing to Ocampo of "rotten France" (G.34, 6 January ), she is preoccupied by the gains of Fascism in Europe and the potential for similar gains in the New World. The poet's letters from Brazil show her assaulted by ill health and with a heightened awareness of battling nations and ideologies. These factors surely impacted her household in general, and her French-speaking nephew in particular.
Scholars agree that Yin Yin's death in August 1943 presented an irreparable blow to the poet's sanity. Separating reality from fantasy in her letters becomes increasingly difficult after August 1943. As Luis Vargas Saavedra conservatively estimates, "It isn't possible to believe any affirmation of a personal sort that G.M. might give after 1950; and perhaps after 1946."36 During these same years, and especially after 1950, the Ocampo side of the correspondence became more agitated as Perón established his power in Argentina. Crosses were painted on the gate of Ocampo's house, and in mid-1953 she was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. One of Gabriela Mistral's last public acts was to issue a press statement, sent in copies to Ocampo's friends throughout Europe, Latin America, and India, calling for Ocampo's release. Mistral's identification with the working classes that constituted Perón's basis of support might have supplied the Argentine government with the necessary pretext to release Ocampo. Ocampo herself believed that it was Jawaharlal Nehru's appeal that made the difference.
Mistral's intervention on Ocampo's behalf was an important moment in a friendship that had cooled. Mistral's obsession with Yin Yin's death and ghost, and her repetitive insistence that Ocampo come to the United States, were wearing on Ocampo, who was distracted by her own problems. But for all the signs of forgetfulness and confusion in the letters that Mistral wrote from New York in the last three years of her life, there are many lucid moments as well. At these moments, the two women's common interest in Latin America and its relation to the world, plus their recalled gratitude toward one another for past generosity, drew them together.
The Mistral-Ocampo correspondence presents real challenges for translation because their very Americanness is expressed through their particularistic use of language. Ocampo aptly said that Mistral's missives were "spoken letters," that she wrote without composing, just as she spoke. Comparing Gabriela Mistral's and Virginia Woolf's use of spoken language, Ocampo could also have been defining herself:
Let's keep in mind that both women spoke in their own distinctive way, with complete spontaneity and naturalness. Being two writers and two totally different, almost opposite personalities, their command of the language enabled them to use it however they pleased. I mean to say that they used words like they used a comb. Sometimes the comb was made of bone, other times of tortoiseshell, but above all it was what it had to be: a comb.
Prior even to the act of translation for this volume was the effort of transcribing the correspondence. The procedure involved, in Mistral's case, a first stage of hand-transcribing the texts (many of them extremely faded), then, for both authors, typing and comparing them with the originals. We followed this up with research into dates, then translation into English. Although we checked one another's work, Elizabeth Horan worked primarily on the Mistral texts, and Doris Meyer dealt with the Ocampo materials.
While trying to make the writers accessible in English, we also conserved linguistic elements critical to their self-expression, including words and phrases used in a foreign language, which we have left as they were in the original letters. Some variable formats in the placement of salutations, signatures, and paragraphing have been regularized, and we have numbered each letter in sequence (i.e., G.1, G.2, etc.). The writers' underlinings and marginal comments, many of which are consistent with their spontaneous, colloquial tone, are conserved in the translated texts. (Italic type indicates underlinging; underscored italic type indicates double underlining.) We have used brackets ([/]) to indicate a range of material (most often dates and some punctuation) not explicitly detailed in the letters that we have supplied in the interest of clarity, based on internal and external evidence. Our endnotes following each section and the biographical dictionary are designed to further enhance historical and literary references.
We have divided the letters into three periods corresponding to major shifts in the friendship and in geopolitical events. During the first period, from 1926 to September of 1939, only the twenty-nine letters of Mistral to Ocampo are known to exist, although Mistral alludes to nine now missing letters from Ocampo. In these years, both she and Ocampo traveled back and forth between Latin America and Europe. The Mistral letters (written from Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Rio, Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Viña del Mar, Lima, New York, Paris, and Nice) reveal the two women's concern with the repercussions of the Spanish Civil War in the potential for Fascism to take hold in Latin America.
During the second period, from 1940 to 1952, Mistral's fourteen letters find her moving from Brazil to California and Italy after the war. In these same years, Ocampo's texts to Mistral begin (in December 1942) as she visits the United States and Europe while keeping her residence in Argentina, where militarism is on the rise and Perón seizes power. In addition to referencing events at home and in Europe, the letters show a preoccupation with the tragic suicide of Mistral's nephew. During these same years, both women become aware of the need to educate the United States, in its role as an emerging world power, about Latin America. Mistral's letters from California and Italy after receiving the Nobel Prize include prescient observations about postwar Europe. Ocampo similarly writes of deteriorating conditions at home.
The final years of their friendship are represented in the last section, 1953 to 1956, when Mistral took up residence in New York, her health in evident decline. These same years represent Ocampo's struggle with the Perón regime in Argentina and her efforts to resist with dignity and to keep Sur afloat. Their last letters testify to the Chilean poet's increasing distance from friends and, in Ocampo's case, to the relief of the post-Perón years and renewed travels abroad. Over the decades, the nature of their correspondence had changed, as their lives had, but they still shared sentiments of concern, if not frustration, over the shortcomings of their America. Against time and distance, their letters kept alive the bond that they felt as Latin American women who had persevered in their commitment to a beloved but capricious homeland.