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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Jorge Isaacs (1837–1895)

IN 1890 there appeared in English dress the South-American romance entitled ‘María.’ Author and work were alike unknown, but the book attained an instant and widespread popularity. Until then the English-speaking people of the north had not heard of a story which for a quarter of a century had been a chief favorite among their Spanish-speaking neighbors at the south. Indeed, the literature of South America has until recently been neglected almost as much in Spain as in England and in the United States; and yet it is a fact that American literature was born at the south, and spoke the Spanish tongue. The first book printed in the New World was printed in Spanish, in the year 1537, antedating by more than a century the ‘Bay Psalm Book.’ More than one hundred books had been printed in Spanish before 1600, and a long line of poets extending down to the present day testifies to the vigor of the literary traditions. Thomas A. Janvier quotes an American merchant as saying that “At Bogotá the people think a great deal more of literary pursuits than of manufacturing.”

It was at Bogotá that Jorge Isaacs began his literary career. His father was an English Jew who married a woman of Spanish blood, and Isaacs was born in the town of Cali in the State of Cauca: but he was taken to Bogotá when still a lad, and it became his home for life; the Bogotanos claim him with justice as their own. There in 1864 he published his first literary venture, a volume of verses. His second work appeared three years later; this was ‘María,’ and it found its way at once into the hearts of all the Spanish-speaking people.

‘María’ is a tale of domestic life in Colombia, told with the convincing simplicity of a consummate artist. A vein of true and tender sentiment runs through the story, which lends it an idyllic charm; but it is free from the unreality and sentimentality of Chateaubriand’s ‘Atala’ and St. Pierre’s ‘Paul and Virginia,’ with which it has been compared. Those romances move in idealized realms both as to scenery and character; this portrays with absolute faithfulness the actual life of to-day in a well-to-do Colombian home. This convincing fidelity of treatment gives the work a character that is almost autobiographic. The plot is simple, and its pivot is love. The young hero loves his father’s ward María; his studies necessitate long absences from home; during one of these María dies. This is all. The story moves gently through emotional experiences, and the agony of the final separation through death is portrayed with a touch at once powerful and tender. It is in the episodes that the local color of South-American life is to be found. Prieto has called ‘María’ “a reliquary of pure sentiment,” and through the translation of Mr. Rollo Ogden it has become a part of our own literature.