José Hernández: The Consolidation of a Genre

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The Indy’s ‘Beyond Borges’ series has so far introduced five of Argentina’s influential authors. Among them, romantic prose writers Esteban Echeverría and José Mármol, controversial essayist Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and two significant poets of the gauchesque genre, Bartolomé Hidalgo and Estanislao del Campo.

José Hernández

The sixth in the series brings us to the most celebrated poet in the gauchesque canon, and the best-known name in 19th century Argentine writing. José Hernández, the author behind Argentina’s national poem ‘Martin Fierro’, is credited with the immaculate consolidation of the gauchesque genre in a single, yet hugely impacting work.

‘Martin Fierro’

One of few gauchesque poets to have lived for any time as a gaucho, Hernández was born in 1834 and raised on a farm in the Buenos Aires province. He lived a large portion of his life in rural Argentina and fought on the federal side of several civil conflicts and border wars.

His epic poem ‘Martin Fierro’ assumes the voice of an Argentine gaucho conscripted to serve at a border fort in defense of the national frontier.

Originally written in two parts, ‘El gaucho Martin Fierro’ in 1872 and ‘La vuelta de Martin Fierro’ in 1879, the poem follows Fierro as he deserts military service and returns home to find his farm abandoned and his family gone. Together the two parts chart the downfall of an individual who grows rebellious against the laws that have not served to protect him, and descends into a life of crime and immorality.

‘Martin Fierro’ as a Product of its Time

Hernández’s poem is celebrated for having its feet firmly in social conflicts. Twenty years earlier, the Argentine provinces had joined in a confederation that Buenos Aires was not to join until 1862. The four years of provincial revolt that followed were some of Argentina’s most conflictive, and a crucial period in both the process of state formation and the destruction of the gaucho way of life.

New laws of vagrancy and conscription saw Argentina fall under a dual justice system that differentiated between urban and rural, and prioritised one above the other. The passing of a ‘Rural Code’ in 1865 further discriminated against the gaucho by imposing stringent regulations on rural life and labour.

In ‘Martin Fierro’ Hernández returned to the pro-gaucho sentiment and themes of conflict that had traditionally provided the content for populist gauchesque poetry. The poem serves as both a lament for the loss of a romanticised lifestyle, and a protest against the persecution of the gaucho at the hands of a centralised government. In this respect, Hernández revived the element of protest that had faded from gauchesque poetry soon after Bartolomé Hidalgo had given birth to it.

The appearance of ‘El gaucho Martin Fierro’ in 1872 turned the tables on then president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. In his political essay ‘Facundo’, Sarmiento had presented the gaucho as an enemy of civilisation and his barbarism as a product of his rural existence. In ‘Martin Fierro’, Hernández presents Fierro’s behaviour as responsive to the actions of a government that sought to destroy him.

Running of the horses (Photo: Felicitas Molina)

The Success and Legacy of ‘Martin Fierro’

Hernandez’s ‘Martin Fierro’ was an unprecedented and immediate success. ‘El gaucho de Martin Fierro’ had 48,000 copies in circulation throughout Argentina and Uruguay by the time that ‘La vuelta de Martin Fierro’ was published seven years later.

The poem met with similarly positive reactions from critics, who admired the work for its aesthetic merit rather than its protagonist. So convincing was Fierro’s character that many believed him to be a real person, who in spite of his immoral actions, was taken in to the hearts of the Argentine gauchos as someone who fairly depicted their circumstances and their plight.

The success of ‘Martin Fierro’ might be attributed to the fact that it appeared to many to be an example of genuine gaucho literature. Whilst critics take care to differentiate between the poetry of the gaucho and the poetry of the gauchesque, some position Hernández’s poem at the confluence of these two important literary traditions.

By brightening the eight-syllable lines of rural ballads with language, imagery and a local colour that wouldn’t normally have been found in solemn payadas, the gauchesque cultivated a popular style. But in an attempt to imitate a vocabulary and a way of speaking, it had succeeded in creating something forced and false.

Although many poets before him had made use of this same eight-syllable line, none had done so with the same level of authenticity. In the scenes of the poem where payadas are sung, Hernández writes unfalteringly within the discipline of the form. When writing about abstract themes, his language bears the closest resemblance of all the gauchesque poets to the language of a payador singer.

Some interpretations have incurred the wrath of the poem’s supporters by contesting the Argentine nature of the work – annexing it to Spanish literature, or even European. Regardless, the poem is one of few works to have shaped the course of Argentine literature so significantly, drawing inescapable comparisons with the importance of Cervante’s ‘Don Quixote’ in Spanish literature.

Its infamous protagonist has since lent his name to more plazas, avenues, pizza restaurants, literary reviews, films and television awards than the author himself.

Often imitated but never matched, Hernández is credited with the neat consolidation of Argentina’s most important literary genre in a perfect example of gauchesque writing. Whilst Argentine authors continued to experiment with gauchesque writing, some argue that the 1810-1821 wars of independence and the 1880 constitution of the Argentine state marked the opening and closure of the genre – making Hernández not only the greatest writer of the genre but also one of the last.

English language translations of ‘Martin Fierro The Gaucho’ and ‘The return of Martin Fierro’ are available for download at sparrowthorn.com

Argentine film director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, who has adapted the work of several Argentine writers including Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Arlt, directed a 1968 film titled ‘Martin Fierro’, based on Hernández’ character. The 16 parts of the full movie can be found on YouTube

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2 Responses to “José Hernández: The Consolidation of a Genre”

  1. Tom Sutherland says:

    Before my first trip to Argentina, I was told that to understand Argentina I needed to read Martin Fierro, but it means much more to have the context of this insightful summary. Well done!

  2. Maria says:

    Great summary on the background of this classic

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