The Rare Book Collection teamed with its friends at UNC’s Institute for the Study of the Americas to present a wonderful lecture last night in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Over 130 people turned out to hear Prof. Rosa Perelmuter speak about the Mexican Sister (Sor) Juana Inés de la Cruz, who became famous in Europe following the publication of her writings in Madrid at the end of the 17th century.
On display for the evening was Sor Juana’s first book in its first edition, Inundación castálida (1689), a relatively recent addition to the RBC and subject of an earlier blog post. It was purchased on the Leslie Weil Memorial Fund, and members of the Weil family, David and Emily Weil, were in attendance, making it a particularly joyous occasion.
The title-page of the book refers to Sor Juana as the Tenth Muse, an astonishing epithet for a Spanish colonial woman writer who was up until then unpublished. The concept of fama—fame, reputation, rumor, renown—and Sor Juana’s reaction to it were the principal topics of Prof. Perelmuter’s address.
The author of two books on Sor Juana, Prof. Perelmuter identified three classes of response to fama from the cloistered nun, all of them characterized by rejection. Prof. Perelmuter went on to term Sor Juana a feminist with a small “f”. Although Sor Juana believed a woman should have access to education, she did not seek to lead others in intellectual pursuits at her monastery.
Celebrated in her own lifetime and right after her death, Sor Juana fell from popularity in the 18th century. Her poetry was revived in the 20th century and is now taught as part of the Baroque literary canon at universities across the United States, including UNC-Chapel Hill. Fama, Sor Juana has, whether she wanted it or not.
The Rare Book Collection was delighted to receive a visit this spring from Professor Anthony George Lo Ré, UNC alumnus and retired faculty member of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Professor Lo Ré received his doctorate from Chapel Hill in 1965 with a thesis entitled The Novel of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1960. To complete his dissertation, he corresponded with forty novelists and collected first and significant editions of their books. In 2004, he honored the University Library by donating his collection of over one hundred Spanish Civil War novels to the RBC.
The Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) began when armed Nationalists rose up against the Popular Front, a coalition of Liberals, Socialists, and Communists that was elected to govern the Second Republic of Spain. Hitler supported the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, and the Republicans turned to the Soviet Union for aid. Foreigners sympathetic to the Republicans fought in the International Brigades, a phenomenon famously fictionalized by Ernest Hemingway in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
While many in the U.S. know Hemingway’s book, few know the dozens of Spanish-language novels that appeared during the war years. Publication also flourished a decade later, as Professor Lo Ré established in his thesis. One of the most popular of the second wave of novels was El Vengador [The Avenger] (1956), by José Luis Castillo Puche, a friend of Hemingway. Castillo Puche, according to the account he gave to Professor Lo Ré, had a complex personal history that intersected with different aspects of the conflict. He served in the Red Army, while his family was persecuted and almost exterminated; he experienced a religious crisis at the end of the war and entered a Roman Catholic seminary; and he subsequently abandoned his religious vocation to study journalism. Castillo Puche wrote El Vengador out of a need for inner peace, as he noted in his letter of July 27, 1960, which is printed in the appendix of Professor Lo Ré’s thesis. Castillo Puche’s Hicieron Partes (1958) had won Spain’s National Prize of Literature. However, the author judged El Vengador to be his novel that had had the most success—a novel about the futility and sterility of vengeance. The original edition’s existentialist cover art certainly resonates with that message.
When Professor Lo Ré acquired El Vengador over half a century ago, it was a recent publication. Today, it and the other novels he donated to RBC have the patina of the past. Thanks to Professor Lo Ré’s generosity, researchers now have the opportunity to consult these evocative volumes at Wilson and examine one of the twentieth century’s most polarizing world events through the literature it engendered.