Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Immigrant (Not Simply Spanish) Purview and Poetics of George Santayana

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Immigrant (Not Simply Spanish) Purview and Poetics of George Santayana

Article excerpt

They have all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistibly in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and a career.1

Historians of philosophy are well aware of George Santayana's Spanish origin, even if Santayana's legacy amongst literary historians has dwindled. His father Agustín was a lawyer who served in the Spanish colonial service, becoming governor of the Philippine island of Batang in 1845. When Agustín's predecessor in this post, José Borrás y Bofarull, died, he left behind a daughter. Josefina first met Agustín 'when they were the only two Europeans on [this] little island in the Philippines,'2 although she would soon leave for Manila. There she would marry the New England merchant George Sturgis, who fathered five children with Josefina before dying suddenly in 'the midst of a disastrous business venture.'3 Josefina carried through on her promise to her late husband to raise the children in Boston (three survived infancy), but she returned to Spain for holiday where she was reacquainted with Agustín. They married in 1861. Agustín moved with Josefina from Madrid to Ávila, and in 1863, their son Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana was born. Six years later, Josefina decided to go back to Massachusetts to raise the Sturgis children in Boston once more, leaving Agustín and Jorge to remain in Spain until the senior Santayana, under professional demands and a tight budget, could no longer attend to the boy's needs. At the age of eight, Jorge crossed the Atlantic, his name was Anglicised, and he became American - a series of 'accidents' that proved to be 'the necessary background of Santayana's career.'4

We have heard this story before, time and again. Many critics have needed it as premise for making claims about Santayana's work, characterising the circumstances of his Spanish inheritance with extensive nuance. His condition as a native Spaniard and his accompanying cultural allegiances have been read with consistency across his oeuvre because

his many creations, in a wide variety of genres, proved to be remarkably of a piece. Each was a different way of organizing and expressing the same philosophical vision. For him, literature and cultural criticism were philosophy pursued by other means.5

While this may be true - that his materialist scepticism pervades all of his writing - Santayana's Spanish identity is not as consistent and ubiquitous a trait throughout his work. In this essay, I intend to give more focus on the condition of Santayana's immigrant experience as a category of identity in itself, one that can detach from the umbilical tie to Spain and settle into a sovereign foundation for his ethos as a critic, philosopher, poet, and theorist. It is much more than the 'in-1 betweenness'6 that Kryzysztof Piotr Skowronski has suggested elsewhere. Wilfred McClay has deduced that like 'any immigrant, [Santayana] had a complex perspective on American society, defined by multiple frames of reference,'7 a statement that is accurate up to the point where Santayana's perspective is characterised as multiplicitous and not singular. As Bharati Mukherjee has argued,

scholars have not recognised 'literature of the immigrant experience' as distinct in its aims, scope, and linguistic dexterity from postcolonial literature, literature of globalization, or diasporic literature, and have misapplied literary theories that are relevant to literatures of colonial damage, nationbuilding, dispersal, exile, voluntary expatriation, and cultural and economic globalization but are inappropriate templates for a literature that centers on the nuanced process of rehousement after the trauma of forced or voluntary unhousement.8

Santayana's famous scepticism, his distrust, one could even say (and many have) his heresy routinely have been attributed to the cultural predilections of his Spanish character, but these dominant and consistent traits of his record of thought could be more soundly traced to the premise of his status as an American immigrant. …

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