A practical sense of beauty led José Martí to render royal attention to the literature
he wrote for children.
In Latin America, José Martí (1853-1895) was the first to raise children’s literature to a genre of rank. When in 1889 he single-handily wrote the now classic four monthly issues for the young, The Golden Age, he stood at the forefront of Spanish modernism, riding ablaze on the most audacious prose style since centuries past. His frequent contributions as a freelancer featured among the widest read newspapers in the New World.
Yet much of the assurance he gained in his writing came about while toiling with what many accused at first as a mere childish venture. After several failed attempts to garner the resources for what he deemed instead an urgent “serious and useful” matter, The Golden Age fulfilled a protracted closure in his life, though soon untoward circumstances forced him again to abandon the publication that for long had been “ripening in my soul.”
Seed cash was not the only difficulty Martí faced as he broached a grand pedagogical program with a magazine of this kind. Latin America’s dire need to conquer its “second independence,” he noted, called to rear children whose originality would usher them to live happy and fruitful lives, and not as “rhetorical citizens, or disdainful strangers” in their own land.
He was never easy to truckle on this point, less when reckoning with bluenoses who profited from their studied piety. Such was the case with the glum publisher of The Golden Age, who soon asked Martí to subdue the magazine’s positivist spirit.
Martí of course refused, and the publisher opted not to spare an extra penny of his wealth by putting the kibosh on its printing, far from realizing that no other body of work for children in Latin America has thus far met the spark and liberating flight reached by The Golden Age.
Influence of the English Language
Purists still grit their teeth when hearing about the influence of English in Martí’s writing. The admirable master of Spanish had studied English as a child in his country, Cuba, and after living in Spain, Mexico, Guatemala, and Venezuela, he labored in English daily during the last fifteen years of his life in New York City.
As he endeavored to endow The Golden Age with “deep thought,” the texts he read in English served him as a model worth emulating in Spanish. Their “clear wording,” he contended, held above all an opportune balance between judgment and imagination. Conversely, his native language sinned for its “hollowness and waffle.” It is “flabby and high-flown,” he further dared to sneer, and “when forced to think, it turns coarse and confused, or as a wineskin that leaks by the strength of its wine.” Martí derived so many neologisms from the English language that he might pass today as an early precursor of Spanglish.
Spanish’s Creative Oomph
For almost a decade, he had toiled in bringing together the rather convoluted and aphoristic constructions of his narrative without underrating the congenital aptitudes of children. How could he preserve his stretched signature sentences while keeping Spanish “pure and simple,” capable at once of the same “sense and music” he likewise pursued for older readers?
Martí was not all disheartened with Spanish. He also wrote in French, and along his familiarity with other Romance languages, had studied German, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. He discovered by comparison that Spanish enjoyed a superior flexibility for invention.
By recreating children’s singsong manners, their continuous shifting of focus and simple conjunctional bridges (“and then…, and then…, and then…”), he found that he could retain the tessellated and mercurial temperament of his voice, complete with the telling realism he shared with grownups.
Martí’s aspired to turn his little readers into exemplary embodiments of “eloquence and sincerity,” premised on the analogical relation with the laws of nature. On the closing words with which The Golden Age folded, he wrote, “one must know the forces of the world and make them work for us—turn electricity of lightning that kills into brightness of a lamp.”
He theorized that affected expression threatens the buildup toward moral sublimity. Science and hard work would guide the true poetry of our modern age. “It is beautiful to look from a rooftop and see the world live, see it born, grow, change, improve, and develop from this continuous majesty a taste for the truth, and learn how to despise the riches and arrogance with which inferior and useless people sacrifice it all.”
The industrious brio of the United States at the time, and its sway on the English language, inspired Martí, who was also quick in adapting for Latin America the forward-looking pedagogical mission, or “human gospel” of Peter Cooper, founder of the still edgy Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
At the end, the “excusable malignity” toward The Golden Age, and the rearguard publisher who, regarding it as samizdat, hatched a ruckus and touted to flump it down, did not fully halt but failed to acknowledge the majesty on which each thinking creature should flourish. “Who nurtures from young ideas,” wrote Martí on Peter Cooper’s death at 93, “will remain forever young."
[March 25, 2011]
Image: Temple Gardens by Paul Klee, 1920