Review: Anja Louis and Michelle M. Sharp, eds. Multiple Modernities: Carmen de Burgos, Author and Activist. Routledge, 2017. 224 pp.
I recently finished writing a review of Anja Louis and Michelle Sharp’s new volume of essays on Carmen de Burgos (1867-1932), a Spanish (feminist) writer and activist who was born in Almería, then lived and worked in Madrid from about 1900 until her death in 1932. As one of the three authors fundamental to my dissertation — and now my book project — I have read a LOT about and by Burgos, and I’ve published three articles on her fiction (links at the end of this post). My complete and “official” review is forthcoming in Symposium, A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures. But I thought that excerpting portions of the review here with additional informal “blog-commentary” and illustrations might introduce Burgos to those unfamiliar with early 20th-century Spanish literature and feminist activity, or who are unaccustomed to (or uninterested in!) reading academic book reviews. For my Spanish-speaking readers, the below 2-minute video is a concise summary of Burgos’ life, literary production, and social or political activity.
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, Burgos’ name likely sounds familiar, as I’ve written several previous posts on her life and fiction, as well as how I’ve used her work in my teaching and scholarship — you can check them out below:
- Fashion and the Fine Arts in Carmen de Burgos’ Avant-garde Novel, La mujer fantástica
- Illustrating Spain’s Silver Age of Literature: Carmen de Burgos, Ramon, and “Bon”
- Maternity and Madrid: Gendered Spaces in La rampa (1917)
- (teaching): Exploring Female Identities in Carmen de Burgos’ “La rampa”
Moving on to my review, as the title suggests, Multiple Modernities: Carmen de Burgos, Author and Activist, focuses on the plurality of Carmen de Burgos’ personal and professional roles, as well as the modern ideas she expressed in her extensive and varied literary output and feminist advocacy. A prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, the editors of this volume describe her as “embod[ying] the tensions between tradition and modernity, depicting multiple representations of womanhood” (4). However, many of her most revolutionary and innovative texts suffered near cultural erasure due to the diligent censorship of the Franco years. The 12 essays contained within Multiple Modernities not only portray Burgos’s work as “a dynamic body adapting to the modernizing world” in which she lived, but also highlight the interdisciplinarity of her literary production through an exploration of a “variety of theoretical frames and primary texts” (12). I especially appreciated the focus on multiplicity, heterogeneity, adaptation, and ambiguity, which makes no attempt to defend Burgos’s contradictions or to pigeon-hole her as either a staunch “feminist” author or a writer of “frivolous” women’s literature. While the entire collection of essays in Multiple Modernities sets forth valuable new contributions to scholarship on Burgos, in this post I’m only going to highlight a few chapters that were of particular interest to me and my current projects.
Chapter 1: “Carmen de Burgos: Spanish Feminist, Lost and Found” by Elizabeth Starčević.
It is fitting that Starčević opens this volume, as she was the first academic to have made Burgos the topic of her doctoral dissertation in 1976, just as Spain was transitioning to democracy and Spanish women writers were beginning to receive critical attention. This essay is uniquely personal, as Starčević recalls her early years of research in 1970s Spain, where she gradually pieced together aspects of Burgos’s life from archives and personal relationships she established with Burgos’s descendants. She illustrates this by recalling how – as a young mother and doctoral student in the United States of the 1970s – she perceived many of the difficulties Burgos faced as a teacher, a writer, and a “mother confronting the demands of motherhood and livelihood” as paralleling her own, despite the decades and cultural distance between them (17). I appreciated that Starčević closed her essay emphasizing connections between the past and the present, asserting that understanding past struggles of women like Burgos allows us to “see today’s challenges as part of an ongoing process” (15).
Chapter 4: “Face to face with Carmen de Burgos: The Influence of other women writers on her career and her work,” by Ana I. Simón Alegre.
This chapter focuses on the influence of women writers on Burgos’s career and work, but I found its strength to be the attention given to her earlier, lesser-known essays. These texts were carefully inserted as appendices to her translation of German neurologist Paul Julius Moebius’s controversial La inferioridad mental de la mujer [The mental inferiority of women] (1905) as a way to “deny the validity” of Moebius’s work (66). As I recently gave a presentation on these same early essays penned by Burgos at the April 2018 NeMLA conference (Pittsburgh), I was particularly interested in this chapter. For my presentation, I had focused on several essays from these appendices that dealt with the situation of women and children in Spain’s prisons. I compared Burgos — and the backlash she often endured for voicing her opinions and fighting for those with little or no power — to those individuals who today are derogatorily referred to as “SJWs, or Social Justice Warriors”. The negative “SJW” label tends to be disproportionately directed towards women and minority populations as a way of discrediting their ideas and ignoring the urgency of their concerns for human rights abuses and other social or political injustice. Key to this discrediting process are catchy epithets and visuals, specifically unflattering images used mockingly to connect (female) appearance to the purportedly unnecessary, absurd, or even “dangerous” threat to the status quo that these individuals represent and promote. In the early 1900s, Burgos was labeled “La divorciadora” for her articles advocating the legalization of divorce; “La dama roja” for her leftist inclinations; and she was caricatured in popular newspapers and revistas of the time. Today’s memes function similarly. Below are the top/most-frequent images returned from a “SJW meme” or “SJW meme template” Google search — you have probably seen most of them, and while #NotAllSJWMemes are women, a large portion do rely on unflattering portrayals of women who reject or do not conform to traditional ideals of femininity in order to mock and discredit their claims.
(I think I’ll have to write a post about that presentation in more detail now, mainly because memes are so much fun to use in blog posts!)
Chapter 11, “Bringing the escuela to the despensa: Regenerationist politics in Carmen de Burgos’s cookbooks,” by Rebecca Ingram
Chapter 12, “La perfecta casada: Carmen de Burgos’s new feminine feminist perfection,” by Michelle Sharp.
Both of these final chapters analyze different traditional “conduct manuals” that Burgos wrote early in her career. Both Ingram and Sharp place Burgos’s cookbooks and domestic manuals in their full cultural and literary context in order to disprove the common claim that Burgos merely wrote these apparently “anti-feminist” or “regressive” feminine instructional manuals merely to earn a living. On the contrary, Ingram and Sharp argue that such texts were integral to Burgos’s larger platform of seeking feminist reforms, allowing her to reinforce ideas expressed in her literary narratives while reaching a unique audience “that may not have had contact with her other [literary] texts” (197). Ingram (Ch. 11) emphasizes the educational value of Burgos’ cookbooks and how they connected private domestic practices to public-sphere culinary gastronomy and innovation, resulting in a discourse resembling later feminist efforts to re-define domestic tasks (188-90). Sharp (Ch. 12) notes that cookbook’s and manuals’ promoted change from inside the home and within the woman herself, similarly subverting the public-private dichotomy established by the ‘angel del hogar’ (203-10).
I appreciated Sharp’s and Ingram’s analyses, as they are closely related to my recent work on the representation of Fashion in Burgos’s literature. My goals are similar to Ingram’s and Sharp’s — to consider Burgos’ attention to the details of fashion as more than a mere “frivolous” female characterization devoid of artistic and literary value. In fact, the artistic appreciation of fashion in the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla was the focus of the special exhibit at the Sorolla Museum here in Madrid last month, and I wrote about that excellent temporary exhibition as well: Joaquín Sorolla and Fashion in Madrid’s Museums.
Overall, Multiple Modernities is a new essential reference for any scholar working on Carmen de Burgos, Spanish women writers, or the development of Spanish feminist thought throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries. The interdisciplinary nature of the essays ensures that the volume contributes to broader conversations on early 20th-century Peninsular literature, culture, and feminist thought.
Bender, Rebecca. “Fashion, Ekphrasis, and the Avant-garde Novel: Carmen de Burgos’ La mujer fantastica (1924).” Ciberletras, vol. 39, n.p. HTML: http://www.lehman.cuny.edu/ciberletras/v39/bender.htm
—. “Maternity Ward Horrors: Urban Motherhood in Carmen de Burgos’ La rampa (1917).” Cincianati Romance Review, vol. 6, no. 34, 2012, pp. 79-96. PDF: http://www.cromrev.com/volumes/vol34/006-vol34-bender.pdf
—. “Modernity and Madrid: The Gendered Urban Geography of Carmen de Burgos’ La rampa (1917)”. The Routledge History Handbook of Gender and the Urban Experience. Ed. Deborah Simonton. Routledge, 2017. Google Books preview of my chapter, Chapter 10.
Louis, Anja and Michelle M. Sharp, eds. Multiple Modernities: Carmen de Burgos, Author and Activist. Routledge, 2017.
Sevillano Miralles, Antonio and Anyes Segura Fernandez. Carmen de Burgos “Colombine” (Almeria, 1867-Madrid, 1932). Instituto de Estudios Almerienses. Universidad de Almeria. 2009. (Book opens as PDF here).