Author explores America's long-standing fascination with Spanish culture and its impact on our own - Albuquerque Journal

Author explores America’s long-standing fascination with Spanish culture and its impact on our own

Richard L. Kagan

In terms of college courses, the word “survey” brings to mind a textbook blanketing related subjects under a shared theme.

Author/historian Richard L. Kagan’s book “The Spanish Craze” may be a survey, but it’s far from academic. Indeed, it’s a lively, readable, widely focused work that argues the United States has been enamored with Spain and the Spanish world off and on for 140 years.

Kagan examines that fascination through multiple cultural expressions – art, architecture, literature, history, opera and film – between 1799 and 1939.

Rather, there were years when limited American interest in Spanish culture flared.

In the early 19th century, Boston book dealer Obadiah Rich collected rare Spanish books and manuscripts. Rich passed along his Spanish cultural fever to author Washington Irving, Kagan writes. While living in Spain, Irving published a biography of Christopher Columbus, “A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada” under a pen name, and the bestseller “The Alhambra: A Series of Tales and Sketches of the Moors and Spaniards.”

In his introduction, Kagan says his work is mostly focused on understanding hispanidad (“Spanishness”) between 1890 and 1930.

In the chapter “Castles in Spain Made Real,” Santa Fe receives special mention regarding its redesigned architectural style. Starting at about 1910, “local boosters moved to rebrand their city as an old Spanish (or at least Mexican) ‘adobe city,’ partly by implementing city ordinances requiring buildings in the city center, especially those surrounding the central plaza, to be built in what was referred to as the ‘new’ but ‘old Santa Fe’ style,” the author writes.

The Palace of the Governors on the plaza was the first building remodeled, with the removal of the wooden, New England-style balustrade atop the building’s facade, he notes.

The same chapter discusses housing developer George Merrick’s 1920s plans to convert a Coral Gables, Florida, citrus grove into a ” ‘utopian garden community suburb (of Miami). … Merrick wanted Coral Gables to be ‘Spanish,’ a style he believed consistent with Florida’s colonial heritage as well as its semi-tropical climate,” Kagan observes.

Merrick partly attributed Coral Gables’ Spanish architectural design to what he had seen in Mexico and Central America. The chapter title “Castles in Spain Made Real” is borrowed from Merrick’s slogan promoting Coral Gables home sales.

The book also zeros in on Charles Lummis, a writer, editor and Los Angeles museum director who did a 180-degree flip, from negative to positive, in his attitude toward Hispanics in the Southwest. In 1892, after spending four years in New Mexico, learning Spanish and probably was influenced by stories told by rico Amado Chávez about his ancestors’ great deeds, “Lummis offered …a far more positive view of New Mexico’s and California’s Spanish past,” Kagan writes. That turnaround is in Lummis’ book “Tramp Across the Continent” and in his bestseller “The Spanish Pioneers.”

Beginning in the 1880s publishers released books and articles touting the ‘romance’ of Spain,” Kagan writes. That romantic view would be due in part to La Carmencita, a flamenco dancer who began performing in the 1890s in major U.S. cities. An early Thomas Alva Edison film also captured her performance.

Interest in romantic Spain got a boost from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which introduced visitors to the links uniting Spain’s history and the U.S.

Another major push came from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Its story centers on the passionate relationship between a Spanish gypsy cigarette factory worker and a soldier.

Kagan writes that the “elasticity of the term ‘Spaniard’ underscores yet another important facet of the Spanish craze, namely, that it was not exclusively Spanish in terms of the country of Spain. Instead, the craze in late 19th century/early 20th century, Kagan writes, mixed with, and was energized by, customs and traditions mainly of Cuba and Mexico, together with Hispanics in the American Southwest. As a result, he states, Anglos often confused Mexicans with Spaniards.

An example is the heroic character Zorro in pulp fiction and later in two popular films of the 1920s starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Zorro, the Robin Hood of Spanish California, was a pure-blooded hidalgo or nobleman, though viewed interchangeably as Mexican and Spanish, Kagan writes.

Asked in an interview on the website, why one should read “The Spanish Craze,” Kagan replied, “I believe it enriches our understanding of the composite character of American culture. It also brings attention to what Walt Whitman once terms ‘The Spanish Element in our Nationality.’ ”

Book of the week review

Richard L. Kagan’s book “The Spanish Craze”

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