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Jose Esteban Echeverria

The Argentine author, poet, and political theorist (1805-1854), pioneered the romantic mood in literature in the New World and also formulated the political ideals of a secret group combating the dictatorial regime of Rosas.

Jose Esteban Echeverria was born on Sept. 2, 1805, in Bueno Aires. His father died shortly thereafter, and the boy was raised by his mother and several doting aunts. For reasons unexplained and apparently beyond his control, he left school to take a job as a customshouse clerk.

Out of this reflective period came a determination to seek a fuller education than Echeverria’s young country could provide. In 1826 Echeverria settled in Paris and resumed his formal studies, most significantly, political science from a sociological perspective. His reading broadened to include writers cultivating a new and exciting mode: Goethe, Schiller, and especially Byron. From these readings developed a growing sense of self-identification with romantic expression and ideas.

By 1830, Echeverria was back in Buenos Aires. His early romantic poems, including “Elvira, or the Bride of the Plate” (1832), attracted little interest. His volume of verses entitled Consolations (1834) had considerable public success, owing no doubt to its dominant themes of patriotism and romantic love. In Rhymes (1837) he included a long narrative poem called the Captive Woman, in which his poetic genius is wedded to national themes. In this poem, with striking descriptions of the Pampa, the Indian tribes of the area, and the romantic adventures of two young lovers, he accomplished his aim of “Americanizing” Argentine literature.

In 1838 Echeverria was instrumental in founding the Association of May, a secret society whose goal was to return Argentina to democratic rule. Its credo, composed by Echeverria and published in 1846 under the tittle The Socialist Dogma, was an idealistic work of democratic propaganda. The dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas eventually obliged many of the association members, including Echeverria, to flee to Uruguay.

During the years remaining before his death in exile on Jan. 19, 1851, Echeverria wrote some relatively unsuccessful verse –“The Guitar” (1842) and its continuation “The Fallen Angel” (1846) –which dealt with the Don Juan theme. But it was a prose sketch, “The Slaughterhouse,” found among his papers and published in 1871 that secured his literary reputation. This starky realistic anecdote, which recounts the death of a young opponent of the Rosas regime at the hands of Rosas supporters employed at the Buenos Aires slaughterhouse, is one of the most powerful and memorable prose narratives ever written in South America.