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Nineteenth-Century Spanish America, by Christopher Conway.

August 12, 2015

Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History, by Christopher Conway. Vanderbilt University Press, 2015.

4 stars

An interesting scholarly history of the continuities and changes in the culture of Spanish America in the nineteenth century.

In recent decades, many historians and other scholars have focused their research on “culture” a way to understand people’s ideas and actions in particular times and places. On one hand, they have looked at the traditional artistic and intellectual topics, but they have also expanded their scope to include diverse peoples and the practices and ideas popular in other parts of society. This approach has made it possible to explore groups of different gender, races and classes. I find such research fascinating and important, but by its very nature, nebulous and selective.

Christopher Conway’s new book is an example of this larger trend and its strengths and weaknesses. Conway teaches Spanish in the Modern Language Department of the University of Texas at Arlington. He has published widely on the various aspects of culture in Latin America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the impact of the United States on the region.

Introducing his book Conway states that he is providing an overview of culture in a wide region undergoing a century of constant change. He explains that he sees elite and popular culture as interrelated, each influencing the other. In this time and place, he sees cultures as a continuum rather than in conflict as they often defined themselves. Yet even within a transnational context, he sees continuity and common themes. Rather than arrange his book by national events, he chooses to focus on particular institutions present in all. His chapters are topical, covering cities, the print institutions and literacy, theatricality, musicality, and images. He looks at the history of music, dancing, painting, literature, bullfighting, plays, manners, and ideas. Throughout he sees change occurring, leaving nothing totally stable.

Conway has written a well-documented, scholarly book that sketches out broad patterns. It is another example of how academics are finally researching diverse people and themes that they once simply ignored. But culture is harder to pin down than battles or elections or employment statistics. Don’t expect his picture to be neat and orderly.

I recommend this book primarily to those who already have some knowledge of Latin American culture and to general readers open to a variety of engaging details.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Vanderbilt Press for sending me an electronic edition of this book.


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