Latin American Studies Gaucho Literature
by
Ilan Stavans
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0213

Introduction

The myth and folklore of gauchos are at the core of Argentina’s national identity. This rural population—compared, misguidedly, to the American cowboy in the Southwest, the Colombian llanero, and the Mexican charro—is the subject of more than a few of the country’s foundational literary works, including Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1855), which established the rhetorical boundaries of how Argentina should see itself vis-à-vis Europe, and José Hernández’s ballad El gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and its sequel, El regreso de Martín Fierro (1879) (all cited under Authors). Gauchos were itinerant, horse-riding, mestizo cattle workers who from the late 18th century to the early 20th lived in the pampas, in the territories where Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil meet. This population developed its own customs, which included dressing in unique fashion, expounding a life of marginalization, courage, and revenge, and telling their adventures through ballads. Sarmiento and others see them as primitive, an element in need of reformation if Argentina wants to be part of the modern world. Gaucho literature is unreservedly about masculinity. Although it is at its most influential through poetry, it also manifests itself in novels, such as Eduardo Gutiérrez’s Juan Moreira (1880), Ricardo Güiraldes’ Don Segundo Sombra (1926), and Benito Lynch’s El romance del gaucho (1930). The most important gaucho authors and those whose oeuvre expounded on the genre are Hilario Ascasubi, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, Estanislao del Campo, José Hernández, Bartolomé Hidalgo, Alberto Gerchunoff, and Leopoldo Lugones. All discussion of gaucho literature is, implicitly, about identity, nativism, and authenticity. At the core of that discussion is a debate, led by Jorge Luis Borges, on the difference between what is “gaucho” and “gauchesco.” The former is the gaucho’s authentic viewpoint, as told by himself. The latter is an adulterated version delivered by a city dweller on behalf of gauchos. Given its status in the nation’s canon, the focus of this bibliography is Argentina. It also includes, albeit in smaller numbers, entries about Uruguay and Brazil. (With few exceptions, the selected sources and bibliography here belong to the gauchesca type.) It is also fundamental to note that a central issue in gaucho literature is the integration—or not—of the gauchos into the nation. Most of the gauchesca literature that is written by city authors (non-gaucho, i.e., Sarmiento, Hernández, Lugones, Borges) engaged in the national debate around modernization and how the gauchos could be perceived as obstacle to modernization as well as iconic identity for Argentina. In Facundo, this topic is prominent, especially in describing “el gaucho malo” (bad gaucho), which Sarmiento associates with caudillism and barbarism (specifically, Federal leader Juan M. de Rosas). Several decades later, in Lugones, gauchos are viewed in a positive nostalgic light, because of the massive European immigration, which the Argentine elite perceived as a threat to national identity. In other words, discussions on gauchos were always at the center of national identity even as that changed according to political debates: modernization, wars, gauchos and caudillos, gauchos and indigenous population, tradition versus immigration, etc.

Authors

This section features the work of all relevant gaucho authors, whose work is either in poetry or fiction, in authoritative editions. When English translations are available, they are listed and, depending on their importance, might take precedence. Ascasubi 1852 is a Faustian struggle that emphasizes oral discussion. Bioy Casares 1986 is a compendium of personal anecdotes about gauchos. Works by Jorge Luis Borges (Borges 1999a, Borges 1999b, Borges 2000, Borges 1950, Borges 1984, and Borges and Bioy Guerrero 1983) offer the gamut of interest on gauchos the extraordinary author of “The Aleph” manifested throughout his career. Gerchunoff 1910, published in 1920 to commemorate the first centennial of Argentina’s independence, focused on Jewish gauchos, about whom there is a long debate. Gutiérrez 1880 is a foundational novel about a gaucho outlaw. Hudson 2002, about a young Englishman who elopes with an Argentine girl, depicts gaucho life from an outsider’s point of view. Güiraldes 1926 is a classic of gaucho fiction. Hernández 1973 includes the two parts of what is unquestionably the most important epic poem on gauchos ever written. There are innumerable studies on the poem’s relevance, from its language to its political implications. Writers, musicians, dancers, painters, and other artists regularly use it as a canvas on which to explore their own creativity. C. E. Ward translated it into English as The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1967). Ilan Stavans is in the midst of another rendition, a small portion of which appears in his book On Self-Translation: Reflections on Language (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018). Lynch 1961 is a nostalgic view of gauchos. Lugones 1979 celebrates the gaucho oral tradition of the payadores. And Sarmiento 1998 is the English translation of a biography of gaucho leader Facundo Quiroga. Roberto Yahni’s scholarly edition in Spanish is among the most reliable. The popular English translation by Mary Mann includes an introduction by Stavans that places this and other works in the context of gaucho literature.

  • Ascasubi, Hilario. Santos Vega y los mellizos de la Flor. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Mito, 1852.

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    Hilario Ascasubi (b. 1807–d. 1875) was the author of a number of works on gaucho life. In 1872, he collected them in the three-volume Obras completas. Santos Vega y los mellizos de la Flor is based on the life of Santos Vega, a payador who engages in oral competitions and is in constant struggle to defeat the devil.

  • Bioy Casares, Adolfo. Memorias sobre la pampa y los gauchos. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Sur, 1986.

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    A dull series of autobiographical stories about gaucho life. For years, Adolfo Bioy Casares (b. 1914–d. 1999) was Borges’ close collaborator. They edited anthologies together, among them a two-volume one dedicated to gaucho poetry (Borges and Bioy Casares 1955, cited under Anthologies).

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Aspectos de la literatura gaucha. Montevideo, Uruguay: Número, 1950.

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    An influential series of reflections on gaucho literature that Borges reused in a number of other places, including his anthology of gaucho poetry edited in collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares (Borges and Bioy Casares 1955, cited under Anthologies).

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Evaristo Carriego. Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Dutton, 1984.

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    A biography, written early on in Borges’ career, of a lesser gaucho poet who was a friend and frequent visitor of the Borges family.

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fiction. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1999a.

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    Borges (b. 1899–d. 1986) is the most important Argentine writer of the 20th century. He delved into the theme of gaucho literature in numerous places in his oeuvre. In his fiction, important stories include “Streetcorner Man,” “Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1929–1974),” and “Gospel According to Mark.”

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Nonfiction. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. Translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger. New York and London: Viking, 1999b.

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    Borges devoted a number of his essays to gaucho literature, including essays on José Hernández’s The Gaucho Martín Fierro.

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Poems. Edited by Alexander Coleman. New York and London: Viking, 2000.

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    In his poetry, Borges again explored his obsession with gauchos as real-life characters, myths, and tenants of a distinguished literary tradition.

  • Borges, Jorge Luis, with Margarita Guerrero. El “Martín Fierro.” Buenos Aires, Argentina: Emecé, 1983.

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    An insightful exploration, in the form of a collaboration with friend Margarita Guerrero, on the place of Hernández’s The Gaucho Martin Fierro in the Argentine canon.

  • Carriego, Evaristo. Misas herejes. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Mitos, 1908.

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    Evaristo Carriego (b. 1883–d. 1912) was a minor figure connecting gaucho literature with the Modernista movement that swept Latin America between 1885 and 1915. This volume explores life in Buenos Aires’ marginal neighborhoods. Borges devoted a short biography to Carriego, whose full name was José Evaristo Carriego de la Torre.

  • Del Campo, Estanislao. Fausto: Impresiones del gaucho Anastasio del Pollo. Prologue by Marcos Mayer. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Longseller, 2008.

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    Estanislao del Campo (b. 1834–d. 1880) was an Argentine writer whose strong political views during the Rosas dictatorship sided with the Unitarians in favor of a centralized government. Fausto is about a gaucho who attends a performance of an opera based on Goethe’s Faust and becomes convinced the events are real.

  • Gerchunoff, Alberto. Los gauchos judíos. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Mitos, 1910.

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    As a young immigrant, Gerchunoff (b. 1883–d. 1950) lived in several colonias where Jews settled in the pampas. In 1910, having moved to Buenos Aires, he published a series of vignettes about his upbringing to celebrate the first centennial of Argentina’s independence. Prudencio de Pereda provided one of the two available English-language translations (The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas. Introduction by Ilan Stavans. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997). The other one is by Edna Aizenberg (see Aizenberg 2000, cited under Select Studies).

  • Güiraldes, Ricardo. Don Segundo Sombra. Buenos Aires: n.p., 1926.

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    A friend of Borges, Ricardo Güiraldes (b. 1886–d. 1927) was an influential Argentine modernist poet best known for his novel Don Segunda Sombra, which romanticizes gaucho life. It was loosely based on the life of gaucho Segundo Ramírez. Güiraldes wrote about the gaucho with the aesthetics of Modernismo at a time when the pampas were undergoing modernization, e.g., private landowners were enforcing clear limits on land properties and gradually transforming gauchos into peasants. The typical 19th-century gaucho was disappearing as such at the moment the novel was written.

  • Gutiérrez, Eduardo. Juan Moreira. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Mito, 1880.

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    Eduardo Gutiérrez (b. 1851–d. 1889) was an Argentine novelist whose canonical novel Juan Moreira, about a gaucho outlaw, became a bestseller. It was also successfully adapted to the stage.

  • Hernández, José. El gaucho Martín Fierro and El regreso de Martín Fierro. Edited by José Edmundo Clemente. Buenos Aires, Argentina: El Ateneo, 1973.

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    Unquestionably, José Hernández (b. 1834–d. 1886) is the most important gaucho author. His epic ballad The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) quickly acquired the status of the nation’s preeminent classic, along the lines of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A few years later, Hernández published the sequel El regreso de Martín Fierro (1879).

  • Hidalgo, Bartolomé. Obra completa. Edited by Olga Fernández Latour de Botas. Images selected by Carlos Dellepiane Cálcena. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Stockcero, 2007.

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    Uruguayan author Bartolomé Hidalgo (b. 1788–d. 1822) explored gaucho life in his poetry and essays. Along with Hilario Ascasubi, he belongs to the first generation of gaucho literary figures.

  • Hudson, W. H. The Purple Land. Introduction by Ilan Stavans. Illustrated by Keith Henderson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

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    Set in Uruguay and originally published in 1885, this canonical novel is about Ricardo Lamb, a 19th-century young Englishman who elopes with an Argentine girl, becomes an enemy of her father, and goes into Argentina’s interior, where, after seeking fortune, the father ultimately finds him. Recreation of gaucho life is intrinsic to Hudson’s style and plot. This edition includes an introduction that looks at Hudson’s contribution as an “outsider” in Latin American literature.

  • Lugones, Leopoldo. El payador: Antología de poesía y prosa. Edited by Guilermo Ara. Prologue by Jorge Luis Borges. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayachucho, 1979.

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    Leopoldo Lugones (b. 1874–d. 1938) was a major Argentine poet, essayist, polemicist of the Modernista movement, and an influential figure for Borges. Distilling fascist tendencies, Lugones was infatuated with gaucho life, celebrating it in various places of his oeuvre. First published in 1916, the epic poem El payador offers a portrait of an itinerant gaucho lyricist.

  • Lynch, Benito. El romance de un gaucho. Buenos Aires, Argentina: G. Kraft, 1961.

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    Originally published in 1930, this nostalgic novel by the lesser gaucho author Benito Lynch (b. 1885–d. 1951) expounds strong nationalist views.

  • Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. Introduction by Ilan Stavans. Translated by Mary Mann. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 1998.

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    Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (b. 1811–d. 1888) is Argentina’s preeminent intellectual and political figure of the 19th century. His ideas continue to exert enormous influence in the country. After a life in exile for his opposition to the Rosas dictatorship, he became the nation’s president. The book is structured as a biography of gaucho leader Facundo Quiroga. Sarmiento’s typology of gauchos in the pampas has been endlessly debated in Argentina. First published as Facundo: Civilización y barbarie (Roberto Yahni, ed. Madrid: Cátedra, 1990).

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