BMCR 2006.10.22

The Epic of America: An Introduction to Rafael Landívar and the Rusticatio Mexicana

, The epic of America : an introduction to Rafael Landívar and the Rusticatio Mexicana. London: Duckworth, 2006. viii, 312 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780715632819 £45.00.

The book under review here includes an edition of and extended commentary on the literary works — a Ciceronian speech, a Horatian ode, a Baroque sonnet, and a didactic epic — of Rafael Landívar (1731-93), one of the best poets from the Americas to have written in Latin. The bulk of the discussion is devoted to the Rusticatio Mexicana, the only long poem in Latin on an American theme from New Spain. An extensive introduction, which offers new insight into the poetry at the same time as it places Landívar’s work into the narrative of neo-Latin literary history, is followed by texts and translations of each poem. At first glance material like this may not seem to merit the attention it receives here. In addition to providing accessible texts and readable translations, however, Laird succeeds in showing why Landívar’s work matters, to classicists, to neo-Latinists, and to those who are interested in various theoretical concerns of today, from the way in which literature is read and interpreted to the ideological complexities of postcolonial studies.

A central part of Laird’s introduction is devoted to a description and analysis of Landívar’s poems, which are unlikely to be familiar even to a well-read neo-Latinist. First there is the Funebris declamatio, a funeral declamation devoted to Francisco José de Figueredo y Victoria, the second Archbishop of Guatemala. Contrary to what we might expect, the speech uses words and ideas from classical panegyric rather than quotations from the Bible or from church writers, which allows Landívar to complement the Spanish sermon preached at the funeral rather than simply repeat it. Landívar’s Latin ode and Castilian sonnet accompanied the Vida de la Madre de Dios y siempre Virgen María of José Ignacio Vallejo, printed in 1779 in Cesena. Again, the poems do not offer precisely what we might expect: the ode is clearly Horatian but does not follow the structure or central theme of any particular poem of Horace’s, while the sonnet echoes a well-known poem of Luis de Góngora, which is the very embodiment of Baroque excess, so that the decision to publish a Gongorine sonnet along with a Horatian ode complicates the usual view of Landívar as a pure Neoclassical author. Then, finally, there is the Rusticatio Mexicana, whose fifteen books describe the lakes, volcanoes, and wildlife of Mexico and Guatemala, as well as the work and recreation of the people of this region. The poem draws from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Homer, Hesiod, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Pliny, and Apuleius; from Renaissance humanists like Petrarch, Fracastoro, and Poliziano; and from later works like René Rapin’s Hortorum libri IV (1665) and Jacques Vanière’s Praedium rusticum (1707). The most obvious model, however, was the Georgics, from which Landívar took both formal elements (language, meter, and genre) and a typically Virgilian approach that blended minute observation of country life with broader ethical and political concerns. Again, Landívar’s poem offers unexpected surprises to the careful reader: at the beginning of Book 7, for example, we find an account of gold and silver mining that leads to a full-blown katabasis, while the account of the beavers in Book 6 in some ways invites comparison to Virgil’s bees.

Two-thirds of the volume is taken up with the texts and translations, about which something should be said here. Given the tumultuous events of Landívar’s life — the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish territory in 1767 was followed by the suppression of the order in 1773, which made his existence quite precarious at times — it is no surprise that no manuscripts of his poems survive. There are eighteenth-century editions of each work: the 1779 Cesena edition of the shorter poems mentioned above, a 1776 edition of the Funebris declamatio that appeared in Puebla de los Angeles, and two editions of the Rusticatio Mexicana that appeared during Landívar’s exile in Italy, the first in Modena in 1781, the second in Bologna in 1782. Modern editions also exist: two of the Funebris declamatio, one of the ode and sonnet, and three of the Rusticatio Mexicana. Given the absence of autograph material in which to ground an edition, Laird has opted for a sensible eclecticism. For the three shorter works, the text he presents retains the orthography from the eighteenth-century editions; since this material has not been translated into English before, Laird provides his own renderings. For the Rusticatio Mexicana a good text accompanied by a readable translation appeared a half century ago,1 and given the obscure venue of the original publication, the decision to reprint here was a wise one.

Prior to the publication of this book, Landívar’s Rusticatio Mexicana at least had not disappeared into total oblivion: Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Spain’s most eminent literary critic, praised it warmly,2 and the poem is described as “a masterpiece of Spanish-American Latin poetry” by Jozef IJsewijn, whose observations indicate that he had read it carefully, in his authoritative Companion to Neo-Latin Studies.3 Landívar also gets his five pages in Tarsicio Herrera Zapién’s Historia del humanismo mexicano,4 and there have even been a couple of monographs on him.5 But the fact remains that if Landívar had been French or Italian, his work would be much better known today, even granting the fact that it was written in Latin at a time when more and more poets were writing in the vernacular. It is worth noting, for example, that although Landívar is certainly mentioned in IJsewijn’s Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, the Rusticatio Mexicana does not appear at all in the section on heroic and didactic poetry; indeed, neo-Latin literature in all of Latin America receives approximately the same amount of space as work produced in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Yet as Laird shows, this imbalance is difficult, if not impossible, to justify. Writing in Latin began in Spanish America almost immediately after the encounter, and not just by the conquerors: the first university in the Americas, the College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, was founded in 1536 to educate the indigenous elite; it predates a number of Oxford and Cambridge colleges and offered instruction in Nahuatl and Latin. Graduates were soon producing grammars, dictionaries, and sermons, along with translations of Latin works into indigenous languages. Latin poetry was being composed in Mexico in the 1500s, and by the mid-1600s Mexico was producing Latin literature of high quality by such writers as Juan de Valencia, William Lamport, and Mateo de Castroverde. The eighteenth century produced a cadre of first-rate Jesuit poets: Francisco Xavier Alegre, José Rafael Campoy, Francisco Xavier Clavigero, and Diego José Abad. Landívar, in other words, was not an isolated prodigy, but the natural product of a long tradition in neo-Latin ‘new’ world literature.

As Laird notes, much of this story remains to be told. His introduction is a good first step, which suggests in turn why all this is important. For a neo-Latinist, the issue is largely one of filling out the record: given its amount and quality, the Latin literature of Spanish America deserves to be better known that it is. For a classicist who is willing to accept at least the basic tenets of reception theory, works like the Rusticatio Mexicana deserve a reading as well, for what they can tell us about what used to be called Landívar’s sources. As Charles Martindale notes, we should be willing to admit that “numerous unexplored insights into ancient literature are locked up in imitations, translations, and so forth”; we might even go so far as to argue that “our current interpretations of ancient texts, whether or not we are aware of it, are, in complex ways, constructed by the chain of receptions through which their continued readability has been effected.”6 In other words, how Landívar read the Georgics ought at least to be of some value to me as I try to understand Virgil’s poem myself. Finally, as a work of colonial literature, the Rusticatio Mexicana inevitably injects itself into the larger issues raised by postcolonial theory. To be sure, how works like this, written in the language of the conquerors and originally accessible only to an educated elite, should be dealt with is not immediately obvious. Yet, as Laird suggests, they repay study from both a political and an aesthetic perspective. As even a cursory reading shows, the Rusticatio Mexicana champions Mexico, its people, and its culture, in opposition to European polemics against Spanish America and its indigenous inhabitants. That it does so using the language, forms, and literary traditions of the conqueror means, in effect, that Landívar has interrogated the mindset of the Spaniards from within, contributing to their literary culture in a provocative, unsettling way. As someone who lived and worked under colonialism, it would be anachronistic in the strict sense to label Landívar a postcolonialist, but his work suggests that simply dismissing neo-Latin literature in toto as the work of the colonial oppressor is reductive and overly simplistic. Laird’s contribution to this discussion alone more than justifies the labor that has gone into his book.


1. G. W. Regenos, “Rafael Landívar’s Rusticatio Mexicana [Mexican Country Scenes]. The Latin Text, with an Introduction and an English Prose Translation,” Middle American Research Institute Philological and Documentary Studies, 1.5 (1948), 155-314.

2. M. Menéndez y Pelayo, Historia de la poesía hispano-americana, ed. E. Sánchez Reyes (Santander: Aldus, S. A. de Artes Gráficas, 1958; rpt. of 1893 edn.), clxv-clxix.

3. J. IJsewijn, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, Part I: History and Diffusion of Neo-Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Leuven: Leuven University Press and Peeters Press, 1990), 300, 303; J. IJsewijn with D. Sacré, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, Part II: Literary, Linguistic, Philological, and Editorial Questions, 2nd ed. (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1998), 32, 52, 177. The quotation is from Part I, p. 300.

4. T. Herrera Zapién, Historia del humanismo mexicano (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 2000), 174-79.

5. E.g., G. Accomazzi, Pensamiento clásico landivariano (Guatemala: Universidad de San Carlos, 1961); and J. A. Peñalosa, Rafael Landívar, orador y prosista latino (Mexico City: Jus, 1985).

6. C. Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 7.