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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 William Henry Bishop (1847–1928)

By José Maria de Pereda (1833–1906)

PEREDA was born February 7th, 1834, at Polanco, a village of Northern Spain, near Santander, the capital city of the province of the same name, popularly termed also La Montaña, or the Mountain. This is the region to which he has especially devoted himself in his literary work. He is generously named by the younger men of distinguished ability, like Galdós and Valdés, as the most original of the contemporary Spanish writers of fiction, and as the most revolutionary, in the sense of having cast off the conventional influence of the romantic and classical traditions of the earlier half of the century. His influence is a distinct and valuable element in the work of the other leaders; and yet, unlike them,—owing to the local raciness, the idiomatic difficulties of his style,—he has been scarcely translated into any other of the modern languages, and into English not at all; except in some fugitive short stories, rendered for the periodical press by Mr. Rollo Ogden. Pereda is properly to be named as the pioneer and standard-bearer of the best kind of modern realism in Spain.

He is a country gentleman of good descent and liberal means, resident, at no great distance from Santander, at the village of Polanco, where his modern villa adjoins the casa solar or ancestral homestead of his family, with the arms heavily carved above the door in mediæval fashion. He has never had to know the conflict between poverty and literary aspiration, which is so common a feature in the history of writers; yet this has in no way detracted from the masculine vigor, the evidence of assiduous labor, and the notable air of conscientiousness, in his work. In appearance he is of the spare ascetic type we are accustomed to associate with the Spanish hidalgo. The distinguished French traveler and novelist, René Bazin, in an account in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a visit to him at Polanco, says: “As he drew near, one might have taken him for Cervantes himself.” Galdós spoke of him as “the most amiable, the most excellent of men.” He seems to have in a high degree the faculty of inspiring warm personal regard. This is well exemplified in two most laudatory essays on two of his books,—the one by Galdós, the other by Menéndez y Pelayo, the eminent critic. Frankly colored as these are by friendly admiration, they yet state convincingly the reasons for their opinions; and these reasons can be accurately verified by whoever will have recourse to the text.

Pereda’s literary work began in 1859 with the publication, in a local journal, of the sketches of manners and customs afterwards gathered into a volume called ‘Escenas Montañeses’ (Scenes in Montaña). A number of these are marked by the triviality of their origin; but several others, like ‘La Leva’ (The Conscription) and ‘El Fin de Una Raza’ (The Last of his Race), are esteemed equal to the best of his later work. ‘La Leva’ is a picture, both touching and humorous, of the poor fisherman Tuerto—an Adam Bede of a rougher sort—and his drunken wife. The naval conscription finally takes him out of his misery, but leaves his children to the mercies of a cold world. The second story is in a measure a continuation of the first, showing the return of Tuerto to find his children vagrants and outcasts; but it is chiefly devoted to Uncle Tremontorio, an old-school tar of a type that has now disappeared. The province of Santander is an almost equal combination of the mountains belonging to the Cantabrian chain, and the coasts of the formidable Bay of Biscay: both are affectionately referred to in the literary phraseology as Cantabria, from the old Roman name of the province. Pereda divides his interest impartially between sea and shore; between the life of the farmers in the hilly interior and that of the hardy fisherman on the coast; and notably Santander, with its tall squalid tenement houses clustering round the park, which is the capital and the center of all the enterprises of these latter. This is the domain which the author has chosen so exclusively for his own that he scarce wishes ever to make any excursion outside it, literary or personal; for he will not even live outside of it. He is hailed with especial pride by its inhabitants, as the vindicator of the Northern race of people, who had had no champion in literature from the very earliest times. The grateful inhabitants of Santander paid him the compliment of naming a fine street after one of his books, ‘Sotileza’ (Fine Spun), choosing for the purpose the site at which a principal part of the action of the book took place; and also presented him a large painting, showing a scene from the book; while Torrelavega, the small town nearest his village, presented him with a piece of plate. Though literature may not bring very large money returns in a country with comparatively so few readers as Spain, it receives many places and preferments, and graceful honors of this kind. In like manner Zorilla, the poet, was publicly crowned, with a crown made of gold from the sands of the Darro at Granada.

Pereda’s first novel, ‘Los Hombres de Pro’ (Respectable Folks), was completed in 1874. It describes the rise in the world of Simon Cerojo, who kept a little cross-roads grocery. It is a story of character, the elements of which might be found in almost any country. He finds that the men who “give life and character to communities in our day are not richer, wiser, of better origin, nor even much stronger in their spelling, than himself.” He is elected to the Congress, makes a foolish speech, sees his pretty daughter Julieta elope with a young adventurer of a journalist, is tricked out of the greater part of his fortune, and drops back again, disillusionized, to the lower level. The episode of the glib journalist, the humors of Don Simon’s canvas, the rude mountain hidalgo in his isolation, the dialogue of the children teasing the unpopular Julieta, are some of the more pleasing passages of a book which is everywhere graphic and entertaining. ‘Don Gonzalo Gonzalez de la Gonzalera’ (Mr. Gonzalo Gonzalez of Gonzalez-town), 1878, is a continuation of the above, in the sense that politics is a strong element of interest in both, and the abuses of popular suffrage, parliamentary misrule, and other modern social tendencies, are vividly and amusingly satirized in both. Don Gonzalo is one of those persons, returned after acquiring a small fortune in the Spanish colonies, who are called Indianos. Very little good is usually said of them. This one, besides being vulgar, is base at heart; and does much mischief. He is refused by the refined daughter of the impoverished hidalgo, whom he had aspired to marry, and is left severely alone in the vulgarly pretentious house he built to dazzle the community with. But the worst part of his deserts is meted out to him by an incorrigible shrew; for such is the wife he finally marries. Free and progressive as he is in literature, Pereda is singularly conservative, or frankly reactionary, both in his books and out of them, in all that relates to government and modern conditions. He favors the absolute form of monarchy; and he has even sat as a Carlist deputy in the Cortes. Galdós says of him in friendly mockery that he would support even the restoration of Philip II. in Spain. He recalls one of those, on our own side of the water, who should still see only the better side of slavery, and sigh over the disappearance of that genial, charming system. It is a striking contrast between practice and theory; it testifies to the literary conscience of the writer, and may fairly be considered, too, as a heightening touch to his originality, now that nearly all the world is of an opposite way of thinking.

The titles of his books at once give a clue to their vigorous and homely character. ‘De Tal Palo Tal Astilla’ (A Chip of the Old Block) belongs to 1879; ‘El Sabor de la Tierruca’ (Redolent of the Soil), 1881; ‘Pedro Sanchez,’ 1883; ‘Sotileza’ (Fine Spun), 1884; ‘La Montálvez,’ 1887; ‘La Puchera’ (The Family Board) and ‘El Buey Suelto’ (The Unruly Steer), 1888; ‘Al Primer Vuelo’ (The First Flight from the Nest), 1890; ‘Nubes de Estio’ (Summer Clouds), 1890; ‘Peñas Arriba’ (The Upper Peaks), 1894. There have also appeared three other volumes of miscellany, in the style of the ‘Scenes in Montaña’: namely, ‘Tipos y Paisajes’ (Typical Figures and Landscapes), 1870; ‘Bocetos al Temple’ (Sketches in Distemper), 1873; and ‘Esbozos y Rasgunos’ (Scrawls and Scratches), 1880.

‘Sotileza’ is particularly the idyl of the sea; ‘El Sabor de la Tierruca’ that of the rustic folk of the shore; others again, like ‘La Puchera,’ are amphibious, dealing in an almost equal measure with both. Around the central figure of the fisher-girl in the first, and the young village squire in the second, are grouped a multitude of very real and living types; and yet, owing to a certain rhythmic, poetic feeling in the treatment, there is something of the eclogue about them,—a quality that recalls Theocritus, ‘Evangeline,’ and Mistral’s ‘Mirèio.’ ‘Tal Palo Tal Astilla’ has something of the religious problem, like Galdós’s ‘Gloria,’ and is less realistic than the others. ‘El Buey Suelto’ defends the institution of marriage and the family against certain dangerous subversive tendencies. ‘Pedro Sanchez,’ again, deals with political evils, in a tone of serene melancholy, which however is pessimistic rather about institutions than human nature itself. In ‘La Montálvez,’ for once, he abandons his mountain province, and treats with his usual ability—for he touches nothing that he does not adorn—of the society at Madrid; though society not of a pleasing cast.

Pereda’s style is a treasury of forcible, idiomatic language; he is a master of dialogue, and excels in representing the racy talk of the lower orders of people. He has taken a long step towards realizing the ideal of many writers of our own day,—that of uniting the language of daily life with that of literary expression. He is genuinely humorous; and this humor, a legitimate continuation of the tradition of humor so long established in Spain, makes him everywhere entertaining, and keeps him, in spite of his idealizing proclivities, both from imposing upon us unreal Arcadias and from sinking into any hopeless depression of spirits. The last ten years of his life were saddened by the tragic death of his son and by the national disasters in Cuba and the Philippines. He died on March 2d, 1906.