Victoria Ocampo was educated at home in subjects considered suitable for the daughter of a wealthy, conservative family living in rigidly patriarchal Argentina. Though not expected to have a career, she read widely and traveled in Europe, becoming fluent in French, English, and Italian. Soon after an early, disastrous marriage, Ocampo rebelled against her circumscribed life by having a scandalous affair, leaving the church, and embarking on a life of intellectual independence.
While Argentina in the early 1900s was an inauspicious time and place for a woman to establish a writing career, she used her beauty, charm, and wealth, as well as a network of important friends, to found the literary journal Sur (South) in 1931, and, two years later, the publishing house Sur. Thereafter she was assured a place to publish her hundreds of essays. From the beginning she met opposition from the isolationist military government and the Catholic Church, each of which was at odds with her liberal, international intellectualism. In 1953 she was imprisoned for 26 days by the Peronist regime. This defining experience served as the backdrop for her "El hombre del látigo" ( 1957; "The Man with the Whip").
Ocampo used essays as a way to clarify her life and beliefs, often as a vehicle to challenge male authority and to promote the cause of women. She approached topics with a personal style, using the familiar "you" to address a reader she expected to be active, a "common reader" who read for pleasure and was part of a well-informed, intellectual elite. Her essays are characterized by enthusiasm, intensity, frequent digressions, and occasional playfulness. They are often dialectic and reflective. Graphic metaphors, sarcasm, and a slightly ironic humor mark her work. For example, she characterized commentators on Dante as "that numerous and terrible band of guards . . . [who stand] armed with aggressive erudition on the threshold of each canto, brandishing their often contradictory interpretations like pitchforks . . ." ( De Francesca a Beatrice [ 1921; From Francesca to Beatrice]).
Ocampo's ten volumes of essays, Testimonios ( 1935-77; Testimonies), cover many subjects, among them people ( Gandhi, T. E. Lawrence, Mussolini), books (by Shakespeare, Proust, Malraux), and films ( The Bicycle Thief, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath). Only a small fraction of her total output has been translated into English.
Her earliest essays ( 1920-33) challenged male authority in a variety of ways. She took on erudite male scholars in De Francesca a Beatrice. In "Babel" ( 1920), she took an iconoclastic look at the biblical story, suggesting that God had played "a dirty trick" on humankind by making possible multiple interpretations for any given word. She went on to question "equality," as "a big word, swollen with emptiness, that we toss around a lot . . ." She chided Ruskin for his condescending tone and for not allowing the reader to think for himself ( "Al margen de Ruskin" [ 1920; "A note on Ruskin"]). She took exception to Ortega y Gasset's chauvinism and his portrayal of woman as man's passive muse ( "Contestación a un epílogo de Ortega y Gasset" [ 1928; Reply to an epilogue by Ortega y Gasset]). From the beginning, Ocampo pushed hard against the limits of what a woman, at that time and place, could articulate in an essay.
Her most important essays are on women, generally and specifically, whether real or fictional, from Emily Brontë, Gabriela Mistral, and Indira Gandhi to Lady Chatterley and Ma Joad. After Ocampo met Virginia Woolf in 1934 she became politically active in the struggle for women's rights in Argentina and wrote as a declared feminist. Her essays stressed the need to improve women's education ( "La mujer, sus derechos y sus responsabilidades" [ 1936; "Woman, Her Rights and Her Responsibilities"]), she called on women to express themselves, especially in writing ( "La mujer y su expresión" [ 1936; "Woman and Her Expression"]), and she took a liberal approach to many issues, among them divorce, abortion, prostitution, and illegitimacy.
Inspired and encouraged by Woolf's books and by extensive correspondence with her, Ocampo wrote essays about Woolf from a fresh, intimate perspective ( "Virginia Woolf en mi recuerdo" [ 1941; "Virginia Woolf in My Memory"]). She also wrote interpretations of Woolf's works ( Orlando, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One's Own, A Writer's Diary), which Sur had introduced to Latin American readers in Spanish translation.
While Ocampo fervently championed women's rights, a tolerant, constructive understanding supported her feminism. She did not see men as the enemy, she regarded mothers as all-important in their work of molding their children, and she envisioned the ideal marriage as a partnership of equals based on love and mutual respect ( "Pasado y presente de la mujer" [ 1966; "Woman's Past and Present"]). But she was not blind to the problems of men or marriage, criticizing men for their love of war and their adherence to a double standard; she
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Publication information: Book title: Encyclopedia of the Essay. Contributors: Tracy Chevalier - Editor. Publisher: Fitzroy Dearborn. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1997. Page number: 611.
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