The Librairie Hachette and the Argentine Past: Foreign Appropriation of a National Intellectual Project

In the spring of 1960, the Argentine branch of the Hachette bookstore was awarded the Carlos Casavalle Prize by the General Directorate of Culture of the Ministry of Education. Promoted among the events of the 150th anniversary of independence, the Casavalle contest sought to “exalt the product, in terms of publishing, that has best contributed in the country to the dissemination of Argentine culture”.6 The $25,000 prize recognized the valorization of national thought generated by the El Pasado Argentino series. This was a project of Gregorio Weinberg, its director, who worked at the Hachette publishing house as a literary advisor from the beginning of the 1950s. El Pasado Argentino was created in 1954 and by 1960 had launched 35 titles. The series project recreated a type of bibliographical system initiated around 1915, when the Biblioteca Argentina (Argentinian Library), conceived and directed by Ricardo Rojas, and La Cultura Argentina (The Argentinian Culture) by Jose Ingenieros, appeared. These two series were stimulated by the debates triggered by the celebrations of the centenary of Argentina’s independence and competed for the imposition of canons of national thought: essays, chronicles, and belles lettres of the consecrated (or forgotten) figures of Argentina (Sarmiento, Fragueiro, Alberdi, Mitre, Mansilla, etc.); historical studies (Busaniche, Barba, Zinny); and books by foreign travellers (Falkner, Beaumont, Parish).

The publishing house and the French authorities in Argentina appropriated this recognition as a sign of the disinterested contribution of a foreign company to the national culture: “the fact that a French house has obtained this distinction at the time when the Argentine Republic is commemorating the 150th anniversary of its independence, proves that the French identify themselves with Argentine culture and have contributed to its diffusion”.7 This press appreciation reflected the thoughts of Monsieur Palasi and the French diplomatic authorities: “It is not for vanity, although it is comforting to see that we are taken seriously here and that what a foreign house has done for the culture of the country where it exercises its activities is appreciated” (letter from M. Palasi to the Depar- tement Etranger of the Hachette headquarters, September 22, I960).8

The episode of the awarding of the Carlos Casavalle Prize represents an exceptional event that brings to the surface a system of relations, practices, and beliefs relating to the general problem that we are seeking to investigate here: international relations which, in a manifest or implicit way, are always present in the production of discourses and objects that are emblematic of the national (Thiesse 1999). Ideas about the nation impose their interpretation as self-determined, as if they were completely explained by internal factors, within the material and symbolic borders of such moral communities.

This scheme of thought is generally taken for granted by researchers, as can be seen in a relatively recent study of undeniable quality on the series that fought for the imposition of a canon of Argentine thought, the kind of referent discussed here. In Los textos de la patria (‘The Texts of the Homeland’) Fernando Degiovani (2007) presents an exhaustive study of the aforementioned series by Rojas and Ingenieros. He shows, among other factors, that these nationalist cultural projects were based on opposing views of the intellectual and ideological pillars that should support the readings of the nation. The books sought to produce identifications of the readers with the premises of the essential authors for understanding the country, its history, the genius of its exemplary men. Except for the issue of immigration as a “social problem” rejected (Rojas) or assumed (Ingenieros) by the directors of those series, the foreign is not taken into account by Degiovani when investigating the projects of the series on Argentine thought, its forms and cultural conditions of possibility. It is as if the intellectual debates that inspired the centenary celebrations and that dominated the Argentine intellectual scene throughout the 1910s (and the political contexts that surrounded that genre of writing) were enough to frame the Rojas and Ingenieros series as projects barely sustained by interests and orientations related to the national intellectual and cultural spaces.

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