Back to top

Early Spanish American Narrative

Early Spanish American Narrative

To give everyone interested in contemporary Spanish American fiction a broad understanding of its literary antecedents, this book offers an authoritative survey of four centuries of Spanish American narrative.

November 2004
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
247 pages | 6 x 9 |

The world discovered Latin American literature in the twentieth century, but the roots of this rich literary tradition reach back beyond Columbus's discovery of the New World. The great pre-Hispanic civilizations composed narrative accounts of the acts of gods and kings. Conquistadors and friars, as well as their Amerindian subjects, recorded the clash of cultures that followed the Spanish conquest. Three hundred years of colonization and the struggle for independence gave rise to a diverse body of literature—including the novel, which flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century.

To give everyone interested in contemporary Spanish American fiction a broad understanding of its literary antecedents, this book offers an authoritative survey of four centuries of Spanish American narrative. Naomi Lindstrom begins with Amerindian narratives and moves forward chronologically through the conquest and colonial eras, the wars for independence, and the nineteenth century. She focuses on the trends and movements that characterized the development of prose narrative in Spanish America, with incisive discussions of representative works from each era. Her inclusion of women and Amerindian authors who have been downplayed in other survey works, as well as her overview of recent critical assessments of early Spanish American narratives, makes this book especially useful for college students and professors.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction and Background
    • The Framework of This Study
    • Research into Native American Writing Systems and Narrative
    • 1. Narrative Accounts of the Encounter and Conquest
  • 2. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Literary Life in the Colonies
  • 3. The Struggle for Nationhood and the Rise of Fiction
  • 4. The Mid-Nineteenth Century: Romanticism, Realism, and Nationalism
  • 5. Late-Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Social Commentary and National Self-Reflection
  • 6. Naturalism and Modernismo
  • Conclusion: Then and Now
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Naomi Lindstrom is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also affiliated with the Program in Comparative Literature.


The main purpose of the first part of this introduction will be to delimit the coverage of the present overview of early Spanish American narrative and justify inclusions and exclusions. I will also provide a working definition of what I consider, exclusively for the specific purposes of the present book, to constitute narrative. The second part of the introduction offers a highly condensed summary of research on Amerindian writing systems and narrative in what are now the Spanish American countries.

The Framework of This Study

The time span covered here is, fundamentally, from the Spanish arrival in the Americas until 1900. While the primary works examined are from this relatively early period, the research about them that I cite is, in great part, quite recent. One motive for writing this book has been to show how early Spanish American literature has been reread and reinterpreted during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In this sense, an important secondary purpose of the volume, besides following the development of early Spanish American narrative, is to show recent and current tendencies in the criticism of this literature.

A glance at the table of contents will show that the bulk of this survey is devoted to nineteenth-century Spanish American narrative, with the period of the Spanish conquest and colonial rule relatively briefly represented. The reason is that narrative fiction as we currently recognize it did not really develop in the Spanish-speaking Americas until the nineteenth century. The delay is the result of factors, such as Spain's attempts to ban novels in its American colonies, which will be explained in the course of this study. The work generally recognized as the first Spanish American novel, El Periquillo Sarniento (The Itching Parrot) by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi of Mexico, appeared in 1816; the text that is often designated as the first Spanish American short story, "El matadero" (The slaughtering grounds), by the Argentine Esteban Echeverría, was composed in the late 1830s. The production of novels increases slowly during the first part of the nineteenth century, accelerates at mid century, and by the late nineteenth century Spanish American writers are producing unprecedented numbers of works in this genre. Short stories also appear in increasing numbers as the century moves toward its close.

In one sense, the section of this study concerned with colonial-era narrative could be seen as little more than background to the lengthier nineteenth-century portions. Yet it should be kept in mind that not only are many of the colonial texts inherently fascinating, but they have marked the imagination of the novelists and short-story writers who appear from the 1800s onward. Some acquaintance with the texts of the conquest and with colonial Spanish American literature is of great value in understanding the ways in which this literature developed in later times. For example, during the early nineteenth century, the independence movement gained enough strength that most Spanish American countries succeeded in breaking away from Spain; after the wars of independence, intellectuals, including creative writers, struggled to strengthen and define the identity of the new nations. During this period of intense literary nationalism, writers frequently revisited the events of the Spanish conquest and the period of colonization in search of national origins. Writers concerned with nation building leaned especially on images of the mighty Amerindian empires and the destruction that the conquistadors wreaked upon them. Accounts of the conquest and of early interactions between Spaniards and native peoples came into vogue.

The colonial period lasted about three hundred years, counting from the conquests of the Aztec and Incan empires (1519-1521 and 1530s, respectively) to the last great battles of the wars of independence (1824). Needless to say, a great deal of writing occurred during such an extended period, and this overview touches upon only a highly selective sample of colonial narrative. This focus here on prose writing rules out discussion of the narrative poetry that abounded in Spanish America from the mid-1500s well into the nineteenth century. Beyond this obvious exclusion, I have made an effort to single out for consideration texts that have received significant critical attention in recent times. Since such an approach to selection could easily yield a highly canonical set of texts, it has been necessary to go beyond the most often-cited works. In particular, I have drawn attention to narratives composed by colonial subjects who are either Native American chroniclers or mestizo historians able to tell the story of the conquest and colonial rule from the perspective of the conquered peoples. While these latter texts are not yet as well known as those by historians representing the Spanish outlook, indigenous and mestizo accounts have in recent decades assumed a new importance and galvanized researchers eager to see events from an Amerindian standpoint.

Coverage is limited to narrative texts from what are today the Spanish American countries. For reasons of space, and because it involves a different language, Brazilian literature is not within the scope of this survey. Of writing from the Caribbean, only Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican literature comes in for consideration.

In composing any scholarly work that examines the evolution of literature over time, the author must decide how inclusive of coverage he or she hopes to achieve. At one extreme is the attempt to cover, or at least to name, all literary works and writers that achieved any measure of renown. At the other is the selection of only a few works in order to analyze each in almost exhaustive detail. I have sought to discuss a large enough body of works to provide an illustrative sample of the currents, countercurrents, and tensions that came into play in the development of Spanish American narrative. This choice rules out such possibilities as devoting an entire chapter to the examination of a single work. On the other hand, I have included some relatively extensive discussion of certain works. To allow space for this commentary, it has been necessary to choose only a limited set of texts for closer examination. Selectivity was especially called for in the case of the latter decades of the nineteenth century, when an abundance of novels and short stories appeared in Spanish American countries. When making choices between comprehensive coverage and reserving space for analysis of particular texts, I have leaned more toward the latter option. It is inevitable that some readers will feel disappointment that their favorite novels or short stories were not the ones chosen for a closer look. Readers should keep in mind that, if there had been an attempt to mention every worthy narrative text produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, the latter portions of this overview could have consisted almost purely of names of authors and titles of works, with associated factual information.

In selecting the limited number of texts that could receive closer examination, I made a particular effort to choose works that are currently attracting critical study, especially those that are undergoing reappraisal or rereading as critical perspectives shift. In the present era, critics have turned special attention to texts that reveal their era's concepts of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and social class. The current study follows this tendency, looking especially at aspects of narrative texts that give clues to contemporary social beliefs, whether the prevailing ones or those held by reform-minded progressives.

As is often noted, literary histories have frequently included scant coverage of women writers. I have given greater space to the consideration of female authors than has traditionally been the case. Yet, as part of the effort to avoid the "telephone book" approach to literary history, I have not tried to cram into these pages the many names of women writers who have recently been rediscovered, preferring to focus on a representative few. Another area in which the canon of Spanish American literature has expanded and diversified greatly is the writing produced by Amerindian authors and those of African ancestry and cultural heritage. Again I have discussed a limited number of outstanding examples and referred readers to works offering a more inclusive type of coverage.

The early sections of this overview examine many different types of narrative, including the narrative elements found in letters and reports from the era of the Spanish conquest and campaign of colonization. Gradually, more of the texts discussed are specifically literary in nature. After the wars of independence (1810-1824), the majority of the works considered are novels and short stories. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, one genre, that of the novel, receives greatest attention. These shifts reflect the evolution of Spanish American narrative from its nonliterary origins, through the appearance of modern prose fiction, and on to the great flourishing of the Spanish American novel in the latter part of the nineteenth century. After the Spanish American reading public developed a fascination with novels, this genre became the one in which writers of fiction were most able to make their names. Short stories continued to be composed and published, but only a relatively few writers established their reputations primarily through their work in this genre.

On the whole, this survey follows chronological order. Movements and currents come in for consideration in the order in which they developed in Spanish American writing. Individual texts, though, are not invariably discussed in strictly chronological order. The highest priority has been to comment on particular narrative texts within the discussion of the literary tendency that they best represent. Literary movements last for decades and overlap with one another to a considerable extent. For example, a romantic novel can easily be a later work than a predominantly realistic one, even though romanticism appeared in Spanish American writing earlier than realism. In this case, the late-appearing romantic novel would be characterized together with other works composed in the romantic manner rather than with works of the same date.

A special chronological problem is that of novels and short stories that appeared in print long after they were composed, without undergoing any revisions that would bring them up to date. The general rule here has been to discuss these works together with other similar texts composed during roughly the same period. Again the rationale has been to group together texts that illustrate the progression of a particular literary current.

In composing the final chapter, dedicated to naturalism and modernismo, it was necessary to decide whether to discuss certain writers whose careers spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The criterion used in determining whether to include a given writer was whether that individual made his or her greatest impact before or after 1900. For example, Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina, 1874-1938) emerged in the early 1900s as a master of modernista short fiction, and Enrique Larreta (Argentina, 1875-1961) wrote one of the best-known modernista novels, the 1908 La gloria de don Ramiro (The glory of Don Ramiro); the dates of their most significant works place them outside the scope of this overview. In characterizing naturalism and modernismo, I stress to readers that these movements were by no means exhausted by the end of the nineteenth century and that their features appear in many twentieth-century works.

Obviously, the cutoff date of 1900 is an arbitrary one, as indeed is any chronological demarcation. In justification of the use of the century mark to delimit coverage, it may be pointed out that many critical histories of Spanish American literature focus exclusively on the twentieth century. This survey seeks to show the processes that led to twentieth-century Spanish American narrative.

The category narrative needs to be delimited for the present study. At the risk of stating the obvious, narrative refers to texts that have a plot, that is, that relate a sequence of events. Here, only narrative texts composed in prose will come in for consideration. Narrative poetry abounded during the colonial period and continued to be published throughout the nineteenth century. These narratives in verse belong to the field of poetry and are best studied together with other poetic texts. In a few cases, a narrative poem has played such an important part in the evolution of Spanish American literature that I have mentioned it, not as a topic for analysis, but to make readers aware of its significance.

The narratives examined here all contain at least some features that allow them to be analyzed as one would a literary work. Writing, however, does not need to be predominantly literary in nature to come in for discussion here. As is well known, many nonliterary texts exhibit certain features of literature and can be productively subjected to a modified version of literary analysis. Especially in the section dealing with narrative accounts of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, many texts under discussion were not composed to be read as literature. The authors' use of rhetorical strategies is often complex enough that the resulting texts display some elements of a literary or quasi-literary nature. In addition, some of the early writers, such as Hernán Cortés, the conquistador of the Aztec empire, are presenting a highly skewed and partial version of events. In such cases, the authors' creative ingenuity in manipulating and rearranging the facts makes their work resemble that of writers of imaginative literature.

Certain texts contain sections composed in narrative format and others that present arguments in a nonnarrative form. In these cases, the narrative portion will come in for examination. An example is the "Reply to Sor Philotea" by the seventeenth-century nun, poet, playwright, and scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This much-noted document is a highly polished and rhetorically sophisticated open letter. While the segments of this lengthy and wide-ranging letter do not all address the same topic, the common thread among them is the author's spirited response to criticism of her intellectual activities. One portion is an account of her life, and it is this autobiography within the letter that is of interest for this study. Though Sor Juana's fame rests on her baroque poetry, her letter of self-defense has recently been drawing attention at an extraordinary rate, attracting scholars, creative writers, and feminists. Because of the exceptional response to this letter, it comes in for extended discussion here.

While any selection necessarily has an arbitrary element, I hope that my choice of works to discuss here will help show a chronological progression as Spanish American narrative develops and changes over time.

All the creative works cited were originally published in Spanish, but the quoted passages appear in English. In those cases where a good English translation exists, I quote from it and credit it in the endnotes. The translations that are not attributed to any translator are my own.

Research into Native American Writing Systems and Narrative

Relatively few specialists are qualified to study in any detail the narratives composed by members of the ancient Amerindian civilizations. A number of indigenous-authored narratives date from after the Spanish conquest and represent the efforts of a culture to preserve its most important information. These narratives often record the history of a given people, for example, an account of the origins of an ethnic community and the succession of its rulers. As is characteristic of pre-modern thought generally, factual material is not kept separate from myth.

The discussion of the narratives of native peoples leads to the topic of the writing and notational systems utilized by Amerindians, although narrative was often transmitted orally even in cultures that possessed writing. The most thoroughly researched is Maya hieroglyphic writing, which includes several hundred glyphs. Maya writing is a condensed form that, even when in widespread use, could be read only by highly trained individuals. It should be noted that the Mayas were not the only Mesoamerican people to use hieroglyphics.

The Mayas used glyphs from the third century CE through the 1600s, but not always for the same purposes. During the Mayas' classical period (fourth to ninth centuries CE), when they constructed great cities, they often carved glyphs into wood or stone. Today examples of these glyphs remain on free-standing slabs (stelae), lintels, portals, roof combs, and other surfaces of monuments. The inscriptions often contain dates. These dates allowed researchers to begin cracking the code. In the 1820s, Constantine Rafinesque deciphered the numbers. By the end of the nineteenth century, scholars had reconstructed the precise Maya calendar. After the classical period, the Mayas no longer carved glyphs in stone, but inscribed them on codices, pleated strips of fibrous material, of which only a few survived.

Some Maya scribes continued to use hieroglyphics for about two hundred years after the Spanish conquest, together with other systems. In Martin Lienhard's words, in many parts of Spanish America "autochthonous systems of notation held on for a more or less extended period of time before they fell out of use and became extinct." Indeed, Spanish missionaries and administrators at times found it expedient to master them. Lienhard cites cases in which Amerindians used their own writing systems to communicate information to the Spanish. Walter Mignolo cites the Franciscan friar Antonio de Ciudad Real reporting that while before the arrival of the Spanish glyphs were only read by Maya priests and a few nobles, after the conquest "our friars understood them, knew how to read them, and even wrote them."

Lienhard observes that native writing vanished when people no longer remembered how to vocalize the material. In his summary, "Orphans without a voice, the autochthonous writing systems (whether traditional or adapted) no longer made sense, literally. This reason, more than the repression of pre-Hispanic cultures, accounts for the gradual extinction of these traditional practices."

Many other ancient Mesoamerican cultures developed graphic writing; for example, written communication was common throughout the Aztec empire. More researchers now study these other Amerindian graphic systems, although Maya glyphs still receive the greatest attention.

There has been an evolution in researchers' approach to Amerindian writing. One major change is in the type of knowledge that students of indigenous writing systems strive to acquire. To take the example of glyphic studies, it is no longer essentially code-cracking. Researchers also seek to visualize the culture.

In earlier decades observers often thought that, of Amerindian systems, only Maya hieroglyphs, which by the 1950s had been determined to utilize some phonetic representation, constituted true writing. This view disadvantaged Amerindian systems that combined pictographic writing, pictorial illustration, and other elements. Researchers were especially reluctant to count as writing systems that were not inscribed. Now many argue that certain nongraphic practices are writing. The best example is the Andean khipu, a device for recording information via knots in a set of cords. The khipu was important in the administration of the Incan empire. Though they are most clearly recognized as a device for recording quantitative information, khipus contained historical accounts such as the dynastic chronicle of the Incan ruling family.

After the conquest, the Spanish learned to read khipus. Lienhard states that in the years following the conquest, "the traditional instrument of notation (khipu) seems to have served above all the purpose . . . of communicating with the Spanish."

In recent times, researchers have paid increased attention to the narrative capabilities of the khipu. Though surviving khipus have not been deciphered, through indirect evidence scholars have come to see them as more than mnemonic devices. For this research, see Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton (2002).

Today the concept of writing as only alphabetic and hieroglyphic systems is being criticized as Eurocentric. Mignolo argues that hesitancy to recognize other notational systems as writing arises from a concept "according to which true writing is alphabetic writing and it is indistinguishable from the book."

Lienhard reflects the broadened definition of writing: "All the known native societies developed, before Europeans burst onto the scene, some graphic or notational system that suited their concrete needs. They were not, contrary to what [El Inca] Garcilaso [de la Vega] and, more recently, [Claude] Lévi-Strauss insinuated through various anecdotes, societies 'without writing.'" Lienhard includes as writing such systems as khipus, body painting, and drum beats. However writing is defined, clearly Amerindians of what would become the Spanish New World had invented many methods of encoding information.

Given the massive upheaval that the Spanish conquest brought to native cultures, it is not surprising that indigenous narratives composed after the takeover are largely a response to the new situation. Many native communities realized that if they did not set down in writing the information central to their cultures, it would be lost as the members of the groups most fully steeped in oral tradition and mnemonic training died out. In many instances, indigenous peoples had recourse to the Roman alphabet, by now widespread in the areas under Spanish rule, even if the material they were preserving was in a native language. In Lienhard's account:

In Mesoamerica (especially in the central meseta of Mexico and the Maya areas), the practice of rescuing the indigenous oral tradition is divided between work carried out in the sphere of colonial power and that done by the indigenous communities themselves to fulfill their own objectives: not to allow collective memory, which was now in such danger, to be lost. In the majority of "autonomous" Indian groups there existed a scribe whose job was to transcribe the memory of the community. Here, the alphabet replaces, as a handier technique for writing down continuous discourse, the complicated hieroglyphic writing of the Mayas. With its phonographic rigor, alphabetic transcription probably meant the "petrification" of the traditions that were preserved in this way.

Another reason for indigenous groups to write or paint narratives was the desire to establish what the community was entitled to. In the post-conquest era, Mesoamerican peoples used all representational systems they had at hand: pictographs, glyphs, symbols, alphabet, and illustration. Some of these accounts are petitions and claims addressed by Amerindians to Spaniards. A celebrated example is the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Tlaxcala Textile), which combines images and text. The purpose of this document is to remind Spanish authorities of the assistance that the native community of Tlaxcala provided to the conquistadors.

Indigenous historians were eager to set down in Roman alphabet—which after the conquest was plainly the writing system most likely to endure in the New World—their version of recent events. Miguel León-Portilla and Angel María Garibay increased awareness of these accounts when they published a compilation of Amerindian stories of the end of the Aztec empire. Entitled in English The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, this anthology has been a counterweight to the more widely read versions of the same events promulgated by Spaniards. By the late twentieth century, it had become common for researchers into Spanish histories of the conquest to make reference to indigenous accounts. An example is Beatriz Pastor's The Armature of Conquest: Spanish Accounts of the Discovery of America, 1492-1589 (first edition, 1983). Although, as its title indicates, the work is a study of writings by Spanish chroniclers, it compares the assertions made by Spaniards to those of indigenous witnesses to the same events.

Among post-conquest efforts to preserve in writing information essential to native communities was the setting down of the Popol Vuh or sacred book of the Quiché branch of the Maya. This important compilation includes an account of the gods' creation of human beings and other divine actions, the origin of the Quiché people and their travels, and the succession of their lordly families. The material existed in some form before the conquest. Between 1554 and 1558 representatives of the Quiché community wrote out the narratives of the Popol Vuh in Quiché Maya, using Roman alphabet. The respected Popol Vuh scholar Dennis Tedlock identifies these scribes as "members of three lordly lineages that had once ruled the Quiché kingdom: the Cauecs, the Greathouses, and the Lord Quichés."

The purpose of writing traditional narratives in alphabetic script was to preserve them for the use of Quiché-speaking Mayas, who were in danger of losing their traditions following the conquest. Over the past three centuries, the Popol Vuh has found its way to a non-Amerindian public. Tedlock explains how this crossover took place: "Between 1701 and 1703, a friar named Francisco Ximénez happened to get a look at this manuscript while he was serving as the parish priest for Chichicastenango [Guatemala]. He made the only surviving copy of the Quiché text of the Popol Vuh and added a Spanish translation." That is to say, the version written out by the Quiché scribe or scribes has been lost, and we now rely on a transcription made by a priest. Father Ximénez's version is in two columns, with his copy of the Quiché-language document on the left and his Spanish translation on the right. Tedlock speculates about what the cleric may have omitted: "The manuscript Ximénez copied . . . may have included a few illustrations and even an occasional hieroglyph, but his version contains nothing but solid columns of alphabetic prose." The manuscript was in Europe for some time but ended up in the Newberry Library in Chicago.

The existing version of the Popol Vuh does not reflect exclusively Maya sources, but controversy rages over the degree of Christian influence. Some researchers view the Popol Vuh as a cultural fusion, while others stress its Mayan character.

These observations on indigenous writing and narrative are intended to make readers aware of these research topics in the hope that they will find occasion to look into them. Nonetheless, the subject of the present overview is Spanish-language narrative, and the next chapter begins with a look at accounts of the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas and their campaign to claim the land they encountered.



Early Spanish American Narrative is based on careful scholarship, but provides an accessible introduction to the Spanish-language literature of the Americas for the general reader as well as for scholars.”
Southwest BookViews

“Lindstrom makes a compelling case for the viability of colonial and nineteenth-century narrative today.”
Raymond L. Williams, University of California, Riverside, author of The Twentieth-Century Spanish American Novel


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse