An Encyclopaedia of our culture

In November 1941, Frontini offered to serve as a representative of Tierra Firme in Peru and Bolivia, where he would be travelling for pleasure for a few weeks towards the end of the year. Cosfo accepted and offered him material support to extend his trip. Before he left, Cosfo reminded Frontini of Tierra Firme’s spirit and profile:

  • (...) The expectation is to have a series of books from all countries of the Americas, which, at the end of the day, will stand for a sort of encyclopaedia of our culture. In each country, we ask for a series of issues with consistent, or identical, topics, with the hope that, once they have been published, overviews can be made. For example, we request the geography of each country so that, when we have all of them, a true geography of the Americas can be created; broadly speaking, the topics are both of a general and a specific nature. As for the general topics, they include the physical and economic geography of the country, its literary history, a history of its internal relations (economic, political and cultural), a volume about the archaeology and ethnography of the country, where appropriate, as in the case of Bolivia and Peru. A volume of popular arts, and a volume about the current indigenous populations not already included in that of the ethnography could also be considered. In addition, a series of texts on historical, political and literary figures, as well as rulers and educators associated with an important period for the country could be included. These figures may belong to any time period: Pizarro, for instance, in the case of Peru. As you may already know, the maximum length of our volumes is 250 typewritten pages with a two cm line spacing. Moreover, the books must be written in plain language, with a literary style that should be as appealing as possible, without any documentary or scholarly apparatus and the author must be aware that readers may not know about the background or consequences of what he is discussing. You already know the terms of our contract, as well as the 10 to 12-month period that we have set. In addition to these general rules, I can hardly think of anything else, except, perhaps, for the method that I have used and that you saw me use in Buenos Aires: conversing in isolation with individuals of good faith and significant intellect in each country. On the one hand, we introduce the idea, and on the other, we kindly request suggestions of topics for the volumes, or, for example, the names for the volumes about individuals. The last stage is making a list of potential authors. I won’t be able to make suggestions, unfortunately, regarding the individuals that could be approached in Bolivia and Peru (...) I hope that you will undertake these efforts as enthusiastically as when you did me the favour of helping me in Buenos Aires. As you already know, more than its commercial importance, [the enterprise has] a moral one.
  • (From Cosio Villegas to Frontini, 12/11/1941 - my italics)

The trip to Bolivia and Peru ran from January 1 to March 10,1942. Frontini travelled with his son Grillo and the painter Antonio Berni, a “very close” friend, who would later continue his itinerary to Mexico. The mutual understanding between Frontini and Cosio grew. At the end of his association with the FCE, which coincides with the foundation of the Argentine branch and Arnaldo Orfila Reynal’s appointment as manager, Frontini envisaged writing a sociological text about “the American writers”. His opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the authors he met appeared in each letter. From Cuzco, on January 25, Frontini sent Cosio the first list of Bolivian authors: “I had to redo the list of the authors over ten times precisely because, in Bolivia, true writers are missing and the deceitful ones abound, as in other places”. When he received it, Cosio became aware of the danger of the arbitrary circumstances in creating a community of authors as representative of each country. On February 11, the publisher shared a critique of the American intellectual world:

I hope that you are right in all respects; and this hope is only based upon my own experience: the enormous difficulty of guiding oneself by a myriad of suggestions, opinions, backscratching, etc., and of judging how capable authors are when they are met in the flesh.

The feeling about the magnitude of the Tierra Firme project deepened with the trips. The difficulties in communication and transportation, the experience of estrangement in each nation visited, the confusion and failures experienced produced a sense of mission:

March 5. Aboard the Arica, in front of Antofagasta: I have been 5 days at sea. It turns out that the 6-day trip to Valparaiso will end up lasting 11 days. How much fun is that? Everything is calm on the boat so let us get down to work. I am feeling totally idle indeed. After two hectic months, the sea brings me into a state of “nirvana”, from which I can barely shy away. But duty calls (...) I must confess that I have found an amazing willpower and a desire to collaborate in the work planned which means a great responsibility for us. If this project of a library is not realized, I will kill myself. Or our Peruvian friends will kill me morally.

That feeling was consistent with the nature of the interest generated by the Peruvian authors:

The publishing house has been congratulated numerous times. The Diario de Comercio newspaper wanted to dedicate a long article to it. I stopped it right on time. This was to prevent opportunists from cutting the ground under my feet and ruining everything. I asked them not to say a word until things were ready. Naturally, the news about the purpose of the publishing house spread like wildfire, even the president heard about it. I hear that he gently offered us his collaboration -in which case it would have come in handy- a friend of mine let me know about this in a very discreet manner to cajole me into saying if I wished to see the president. I told him no because of what was done by [illegible], but I would not mind interviewing him out of courtesy. This got out of hand, and I did not insist because, actually, what do I care about these fraudulent presidents? (...) In terms of the instructions, I have had to create a type of reader with a virgin mindset, as I call it, a state of innocence. (...) This became more and more accurate and, in the end, I was already fed up with repeating the formula, even though I had introduced fifty variants.

Towards the end, Frontini suggested Cosio to contact Dr. Antenor Fernandez Soler, who had helped him prepare the Peruvian list: “He is a man of great influence and can pull strings as he wishes (...). I will ask Amanda Labarca in Santiago de Chile about the status of the Chilean plan”.

The containment of the scholarly apparatus, the achievement of a refined writing, and the search for a socially distant reading public are evidences of the consecration of the essay as the ideal genre to think about the inner problems of the American cultures. Such guidelines were imposed by the publisher and represent a clear demonstration of the power of this specialist in controlling the “game of the rules” of writing. In other words, authors did not freely choose genres and styles; rather, their creations were part of an encompassing social and cultural system in which publishing was a force of specific power. Moreover, the representations of the expected public were linked to progressive ideals which, in line with the popular education experiences of Cosio, Orfila, and many others, envisaged a reader who was not affected by academicism or the avant-garde aestheticism of the 1920s. Instructions were marked by social codes; the project rationale was political. This did not mean, however, the selection of “virgin” writers (as the readers). In each country, the most renowned figures in the academic, literary, and political domains were contacted. It was an opportunity limited to the elite. In Peru, as we have seen, the president of the Republic himself was interested in Frontini’s visit and activity. In each nation, the plan was affected by the magnetism of the dominating intellectual interests. In the more successful instances, as in the Brazilian case (see below), intellectuals with an indisputable social commitment guided the project. For the planning and production of all books, without exceptions, the intensity of the disputes between authors, mediators, and publishers was proportional to the enormous expectations that the collection aroused. Frontini was not Cosio’s only interlocutor, in the same way that Cosio was not the only agent with the power to take decisions in the FCE. Frontini’s lists underwent thorough examination by the authorities of each country, generally settled in Mexico. In April 1942, for example, the publisher received the opinion of Felipe Cossio del Pomar, drawn up under the letterhead of the University School of Fine Arts of Guanajuato. The expert expressed strong criticism of the Peruvian list, deeming it a “plan without a plan”: “I have closely read the vast program of the (I reckon) young ‘planner’ (...)”. In the annex, Del Pomar made detailed observations and objections to each author and topic on Frontini’s list.

The recognition and continental promotion of the FCE was not the natural by-product of an encounter between good authors (or texts) and publishers (or readers) that were awakening to a new type of humanism. The trip and personal connections built by the FCE’s director and “representatives” personified an advertising strategy that replaced that of companies specialized in the international distribution of publications. Only the publisher’s personalized contacts could guarantee “control” over the series. Ideas circulated with incredible effort.

Venezuelan M. Picon-Salas, Argentinean C. Sanchez Viamonte and Chilean Ricardo Donoso gathered with Mexican writers at the FCE headquarters

Figure 3.2 Venezuelan M. Picon-Salas, Argentinean C. Sanchez Viamonte and Chilean Ricardo Donoso gathered with Mexican writers at the FCE headquarters.

Source: La Gaceta del FCE (II) 19, March 2, 1956.

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