The director of Instituto Cervantes London, Ignacio Peyró, interviews Richard Lauren Kagan, American historian specializing in modern history, at ABC Cultural Spanish newspaper.
Richard L. Kagan is Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University where he has been a member of the faculty since 1972. A graduate of Columbia University (BA 1965) and Cambridge University (Ph.D. 1968), he is the recipient of many awards, among them grants from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Association, the Getty Trust, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. In 1997 His Majesty Juan Carlos II honored him with the title of Comendador in the Order of Isabella the Catholic and in 2012 he was elected Corresponding Member of Spain’s Royal Academy of History for his contributions to the history of Spain.
Specializing in the history of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain and its empire, Prof. Kagan is the author and/or editor of eleven books as well as numerous articles, essays, and reviews. His recent publications include Spain in America: The Origins of Hispanism in the United States (2002); and a revised edition of Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics (2011). Forthcoming publications revolve principally around his current book, “‘The Spanish Craze:’ The ‘Discovery’ of the Art and Culture of Spain and Spanish America in the United States, ca. 1890- ca. 1930.”
-How did this book come about? Until now there has not been such a systematic and detailed study of the US romance with Spain.
The origins of the book go back to 1992, when I first began to explore changes in the different ways historians in US wrote about the history of Spain. I soon realized that, except for studies of the “black legend”, and its opposite, “the white or pink legend”, much remained to be learned. For reasons connected to my on-going interest in El Greco and the history of art collecting in the USA, this research led me initially to explore the growing interest ca. 1890 in Spanish Golden art, a “ school” (as it was then called) previously denigrated in the US. That interest unleashed the equivalent of artistic gold rush among wealthy American collectors –think Isabella Stewart Gardner, for instance, who led the way for the Havemayers., Frick, Widener, and others, Archer Milton Huntington among them, desperate to snap up choice canvases by Velazquez, Goya, Zurbaran and other artists. Works by El Greco – whose so-called ‘extravagant’ style was perceived a precursor to modern art, were particularly in demand, so much so that one critic likened it to a disease he called “ Elgrecophilitus.”
In any event, I soon discovered that there were other facets in America’s “discovery” of Spain. One, particularly important, was in architecture, which started in late 1880s with the construction of series of skyscrapers and towers modeled after Giralda –first in NY, then California, Chicago and elsewhere, including Cleveland and Kansas City— along with that of large resort hotels built in “ Spanish” style -actually a mish-blend of Mudejar and Spanish plateresque and baroque, with some Mexican elements. The town of St Augustine, Florida, fastening on to its Spanish origins, led the way, others followed suit. Almost simultaneously, in California and other parts of the South West, architects created “mission-style” buildings modeled after the region’s then crumbling Spanish 18th C missions, followed by more elaborate constructions –known as Spanish revival : a blend of Mexican colonial and Spanish baroque – which became so popular that one critic suggested Congress declare it the country’s ‘ national style.
Be that as it may, as I began writing about art collecting and Spanish architecture in the US, I realized that it was tantamount to a fashion trend, a craze —John Singer Sargent, the artist, called it a fever– that quickly spread, Covid-like, nation-wide, and which also spilled over into a fascination with Spanish-themed popular music, Spanish-style clothing – the mantilla and mantón de Manila were all the rage in the 19teens and 20s. It also popped on Hollywood’s Silver screen with a rash of Spanish themed moving pictures (Zorro, for example), and more.
In short, I was looking at something cultural historians in the US had simply overlooked or ignored, and when I asked my good friend, the art historian, Jonathan Brown, whether I should write book on the subject, he answered, tersely “go for it”. Which I did.
-From the Dutch craze to the Japanese craze, there were other «fevers» that conquered America. What was specific about the Spanish craze?
Starting in the decades following America’s Civil War ( 1861-65) –the era Mark Twain called the Gilded Age–, the culture in the US became increasingly cosmopiltan, with new interest in arts and cultures of various parts of the world; an interest, of course, that paralleled the country’s emergence as economic world power. Cosmopolitanism bred ‘crazes’ of various sorts —a Dutch one, another focused on Japan, still others on Ottoman culture, and in the 1930s, Mexico. The Spanish Craze in this sense was just one of many, but in contrast to the others, which were generally quite ephemeral, it proved exceptionally-long lived, spanning the decades from the late 1880s until the start of the depression of the 1930s, save for a brief interruption in the run-up to the war of 1898. Why? One is that, as Walt Whitman, the poet, in 1883 called the “ Spanish element” in our population, the Spanish Craze could be traced to the Spain’s presence in North America, signs of which especially are apparent in Florida, Texas, California and much of the west. These signs were present in place names (states: California, Florida, Colorado, Texas), those of rivers and towns (Los Angeles, El Paso, etc), and even in many state flags —and more signs of same origin could be found in region’s vernacular architecture, starting with the missions. In other words, whoile the Dutch and Japan craze were basically imports, certain aspects of the one for Spain were autocthonous, home-grown, in ways the imports were not. In this sense, America’s discovery of Spain was, in part, a discovery of itself, and this helped to power the craze it describes.
-How was this Spanish seduction possible after centuries of indifference and a war in 98?
“ Forgive and Forget” –this idea, which appeared in the immediate aftermath of the war of 98, helps to explain it. Just as America romanticized and embraced the “ vanishing Indian” in the late 19th C, after 1898, having defeated one remaining imperial rival in the New World, Spain, was able to embrace its arts and culture as never before. The roots of this embrace can be traced back to the romanrticized portrait of “ sunny Spain” that Washington Irving in his Tales of the Alhambra did so much to create. It can also be found in the mid-19th C writings of such widely-read historians such as Prescott, who helped to create the image of Spain as a brave, energetic country who had brought civilization and religion in the guise of Christianity to the Americas, north, central, and south. Today, of course, many observers have a different, far more critical view of Imperial Spain and its presence in the Americas, but in the 19th C that vision of “sturdy Spain” a brave Spain, “seemed to anticipate what Americans thought they were doing in the ‘winning of the west’ –that is, bringing civilization to its native peoples. That idea –Spanish history as a kind precursor to the history of the US– found its way symbolically into the rotunda of the new capitol in the guise of William H Powell’s monumental painting “ Hernando de Soto and Discovery of the Mississippi”, hung there in 1846 ( and still there), part of a series of historical paintings documenting various scenes in the history of the country. The idea: that Spain’s history was part of, integral to US history ,also helps to explain the origins of what later mushroomed into the Spanish Craze.
-A curious feature of American Hispanophilia is that it was cultured –Irving, Huntington- but it was also very popular: cinema, music… And modern. And with a legacy that distinguishes it from the Spanish passions that French or British have felt: its projection in architecture. Could it be that the Americans, somehow, thought they had Spain «at home», because of the Hispanic footprint in its southern part?
Yes : high brow and low brow, the middle as well – the embrujo cut across all social classes. The wealthy bought paintings by the Spanish Old Masters –you can see them today in museums in New York, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Los Angeles and elsewhere today – and lived in mansions built in the Spanish style. As for working/ middle class, housing developers sold them the idea of living in their own “ castle in Spain”. The idea of such a castle dates back of course to the Middle Ages and French troubadours. One out side New York was called “The Shores of Seville” bungalows built in the same Spanish style and starting the 1920 Sears Rooebuck & Co even fabricated “ home kits” – that the makings of an entire house “marketed as the “Barcelona” or “ Seville,” The idea of Spanish house as a ’ castle’ blended with “oriental” luxury Irving associated with the Alhambra, producing a cocktail that was judged simple yet charming, luxurious as well. So marketed, that cocktail proved a enormous success.
What happened in architecture occurred elsewhere —hispanofilia ran along two somewhat separate tracks. Prescott, an archtypical Boston Brahmin, had a broad popularship – generations read his history of the conquest of Mexico. Irving was even more popular – his romanticized Spain cropped up in several generations of travel writers who depicted Spain as a place where Americans lived in crowded cities could find simplicity, romance, along with scenes of the picturesque in every day life. That Sunny Spain also factored in the literary success of such books as Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, the 2nd best selling book in 19th C US, which featured kindly friars and idyllic missions where natives found a refuge from nasty anglo-saxons eager to seize their lands. We now know that those missions were not nearly so idyllic as Jackson and another popular, hispanofilic writer, Charles Lummis, represented them to be, but it was that image that copped on the Silver Screen –Hollywood directors relaeased no fewr than four different versions of Romana in the early 20th C along with other movies featuringf alluring Carmen-like Spanish women and dashing “ Spanish” heros such as Zorro who protected women from various nefarious types – often depicted, sad to say, as Mexicans.
Ruinning parallel to all this – -a line of “ academic” or elite hispanism emerged in the 1820s in the classes of George Ticknor’ at Harvard , later in his influential History of Spanish Literature ( 1849), and the work of other hispanists — by the dawn of the 20th C Unamuno described the American school of hispanism the best there is. Integral to this more elite school – and effectively a product of it – was Huntington and his Hispanic Society of America, founded in 1904. Mention is often made of the popular success of Sorolla exhibition Huntington organized there in 1909, but essentially the HSA operated behind closed doors – a museum for “ students,” a library for scholars, a place for learned tertulias — a model followed in Madrid by Guillermo de Osma, founde of the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan.
Interestingly Huntington’s high-brow brand of Hispanism, however, had little in common wuith demand for Spanish language education that “boomed” in the early 20th C. In conjunction with growing interest in “panamericanism,” growing US economic interest in S Anmerica, and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, enrollments in Spanish languages boomed — instructors of French and Italian complained about the lack of students in their classes, so too did Huntington about interest in “ business” Spanish as opposed to the great works of the Golden Age, but the study of Spanish took root and reflected in Theodore Roosevelt in a visit to madrid in 1914 that it had the makings of a “universal language.” I never thought of TR as much of a prophet,m but in this instance the man who had fought fought Spaniards on Cuba’s San Juan hill was right.
-It seems that, in some way, the US vision of Spain is inevitably linked to what they call the «Latin» world …
For most of the 19th C/ early 20th C as well, for most Anglos and other Americans from northern Europe, the “ Spanish” signified a Spanish speaker– -whether from Iberia, Mexico or other parts of the central/ south America. “Latino,” in other words, or Hispanic. Interestingly, it was in places like New mexico where wealthy ranchers and landowners – the so called ricos – of Mexican origin began to consider themselves “ Spanish” to distinguish themselves from their landless poorer brethren, the braceros, or what anglos in the region called “greasers.” Spain, Spanishness, for these families became a mark of pride– they claimed direct descendance from the conquistadors, and laid claim to Spanish culture. Much the same happened in California — there too Lummis and others, notably the wealthy ranchers, the so called californios of Mexican heritage, seeking to recrate the “old Spanish days” in the guise of festivals, music, even architecture, played up Spain and Spanishness to the detriment of Mexico. Later critics denounced this as racist, and they were riught, but here it is important to remember that blanket terms such as ‘ latino’ as used today tends to erase the divisions that once permeated the Hispanic population in the US
-Paul Fussell affirms that the United States was made by embracing the heritage of those who came to the East Coast (the Mayflower, to understand us) and denying the Hispanic. Has that perception been changing?
For the last 20, perhaps 30 years, scholars have challenged the idea – basically it dates back to such 19th C Harvard-based historians as George Bancroft – that the US had its origins in New England. As I argue in the book, aready in the 19th C historians such as Thomas Buckingham Smiuthg took issue with Bancroft, so too did -early 20th C scholars such as Herbert Bolton and his disciplines, notably David Weber whose work on the “borderlands” – roughly much of southwest – underscored the influence of Mexican-cum-Spanish influence on that region’s economy and society. Even so, we still have much to learn about the history of what Whitman termed the “ Spanish element in our nationality” along with the varied contributions of Spain to the history of the US, even though there is an effort afoot to raise the profile of Bernardo de Galvez, who opened a second, western front v the British in the US war of Independence has yet to achieve the stature of the Marquis de Lafayette, nor do school children learn much about other Spanish contributions to the victory of the colonies in that conflict. Yet I am optimistic – the rewriting of US history is well underway. The Mayflower will not sink, but the country’s Hispanic heritage, as Whitman predicted, is coming increasingly to the fore, pushed, in part, by the on-going increase in the country’s population of Latino – or Hispanic – background.