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A Rare Discovery in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division

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(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist, Hispanic Division.)

Photograph shows Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, seated at a table in front of a microphone in the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory, Studio B, Washington, D.C., during the recording of his poem “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. [Washington, D.C.], [20 June 1966] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The Library of Congress’ collections are so immense that it does not matter how long you have been working here, you only come to know a very tiny fraction of what is available. I have been working at the Library for thirty years, and am still learning. Just the other day, for example, while I was in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division looking for Pablo Neruda’s famous poem about the Spanish Civil War, “España en el corazón. Himno a las glorias del pueblo en la Guerra” (1938) (Spain in My Heart), I stumbled upon the poem, “Cancionero menor para los combatientes (1936-1938)” (1938) (Minor Songbook for the Soldiers), by Emilio Prados, a prominent member of the Spanish literary movement known as the Generation of ’27. What makes these two beautiful and rare poems so special is the circumstances behind their publication.

They were both edited by Manuel Altolaguirre (1905-1959), another prominent figure of the Generation of ’27, who was just as famous as an editor, printer and publisher as he was as a poet. He was a friend of Federico García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Rafael Alberti, and other members of Generation of ‘27, but specially of Emilio Prados (1899-1962), with whom he founded the magazine “Litoral: Revista de la poesía y pensamiento” (Littoral: A Magazine of Poetry and Thought) in 1926, a publication where the key figures of this generation started publishing their works. In that same year Altolaguirre and Prados founded “Imprenta Sur,” which was responsible for publishing the works of the most important figures of the Generation of ’27. In fact, one can say that both men knew and possibly published the most important literary figures of the moment in Spain.

Emilio Prados’ famous poem about the Civil War where he vividly described the plight of the population. Like many of this vibrant, yet tragic generation, he died in exile.

In 1935, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was appointed Chilean consul in Madrid and soon his home became a regular meeting place for some of the most prominent figures of the Generation of ’27, such as Altolaguirre, Emilio Prados, Federico García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Rafael Alberti and many others. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 impacted him as much as it did the Spanish intellectuals. In fact, he said that it awoke in him a feeling of solidarity towards the suffering of the Spanish people and that the poet should not remain in his ivory tower and be indifferent to what is going on around him, but rather be engaged, as “España en el corazón” (Spain in My Heart) clearly shows.

Altolaguirre became a very close friend of Neruda and published a number of his works. Neruda said of him that he was an angel both as a poet and as a printer. In 1935, Altolaguirre asked Neruda to be the editor of his new publication, “Caballo Verde para la poesia” (Green Horse), which ceased publication a year later when General Francisco Franco rose in rebellion against the Spanish government leading to the Spanish Civil War. When the war broke out, Altolaguirre joined the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. Later he lived in exile in Cuba and in Mexico, where he died.

Like Altolaguirre and Neruda, Prados became active in his opposition to the Franco rebellion, joined a leftist aid organization and even participated in the defense of Madrid during the rebel forces offensive. Prados’ poetry reflects his preoccupation with the conditions of the civilian population. Like his friend, Altolaguirre, he joined the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals, and like many of the Generation of ’27, he died in exile in Mexico. The Library owns the Prados’ manuscripts in 11 microfilm rolls.

Although not a Spaniard, Neruda felt the same pain. Years later he said that nothing impacted his life more than the Spanish Civil War as a person and as a poet. He life was forever marked by a before and an after.

In 1938, Manuel Altolaguirre printed both of his friends’ poems at the old Benedictine abbey of Montserrat near Barcelona. The abbey was founded in the 10th century, and he had been put in charge of its printing press which dated back to 1499. During the war the press came to be known as the Imprenta Soldados de la República del Ejército del Este (Printing Services of the Soldiers of the Republic of the Eastern Army), which is what appears in both books. Despite his enthusiasm, however, Altolaguirre was faced with no small problem. There was no pulp from which to make paper. So, he enlisted the help of soldiers to work in an abandoned mill in which they mixed not only cotton and rags (provided by the local Commissariat), but also flags, soldiers’ shirts, even the enemy’s. The material was then hanged and dried. (Manuel Altolaguirre. “Epistolario, 1925-1959,” p. 429)

Altolaguirre printed 500 numbered copies of Neruda’s poem; the Library owns no. 5 and no. 55. The other surviving copies are one in Monserrat, one in the Library of Catalonia, two at the University of Barcelona, and one in a private collection in Mexico. Neruda was really proud of his poem, not only because it signaled a turning point in his life as a person and as a poet, but also because of the unique circumstances under which it had been printed. He said that “I think that few books, in the strange history of so many books, have had such a curious gestation and destiny.” And, he continued, “Years later I saw a copy of this edition in Washington, in the Library of Congress, placed in a showcase as one of the rarest books of our time.” (Pablo Neruda, “Confieso que he vivido. Memorias.” (Memoirs) p. 174) He signed both copies on March 5, 1943, during a visit to the Library of Congress, where he had been invited by Librarian and fellow poet, Archibald MacLeish, and by Francisco Aguilera, a fellow Chilean poet and Specialist in Hispanic Culture in the Hispanic Division (Mark Eisner, “Neruda: The Poet’s Calling.” Ecco. Forthcoming in 2018). See also Bill Fisher, “Pablo Neruda in the Heart of the Library of Congress.” In 1939 Altolaguirre printed another edition of Neruda’s book, but when some of Franco’s soldiers entered the area where the printing press was located, they destroyed everything, which makes the 1939 edition even rarer as only a few copies have survived. Altolaguirre printed 1500 copies of Prado’s poem, which is just as rare, as many copies were lost or destroyed.

A Republican soldier passing a dead horse on the Plaza de Toros, Teruel. 1938. The Battle of Teruel was one of the bloodiest of the Spanish Civil War. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
El libro, el mejor amigo del convaleciente
(The book, the best friend of the convalescent). Creator: Bardasano, José, artist. [Between 1936 and 1939] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. According to the poster, a book is the best medicine for a convalescing soldier. The government propaganda apparatus promoted education and the importance of a cultured and informed citizenry as the best guarantor of democracy.

Both poems were donated to the Library on January 24, 1940, by Rafael Sánchez Ventura (1897-1984), another prominent member of the Generation of ’27, as well as a philosopher, museologist, researcher, and diplomat. He was a prominent anarcho-communist and co-founder of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. In contrast, his brother was a member of CEDA (a Catholic-conservative party), who became mayor of Zaragoza in the 1940s. Sanchez Ventura held various positions within the Republican government and even participated in the transfer of works of art from the Prado Museum during the siege of Madrid, as a member of the National Junta for the Protection of Spanish Artistic Treasures. Federico García Lorca dedicated a poem to him, “Poemas de la soledad en Vermont” (Poems of Solitude in Vermont) and another to Altolaguirre and his wife Concha Mendez, also a poet, “Campo de Newburg” (Newburg Countryside) in his book of poetry “Poeta en Nueva York” (Poet in New York).

José Lampón Reiriz, and my father’s cousin, a soldier in Franco’s army was in the battle of Teruel. Personal collection.

Just as German troops were approaching Paris in 1940, Sánchez Ventura was able to save thousands of negatives of photographs taken by his friend Robert Capa during the Civil War, which he handed to the secretary of Juan Negrín, a former Spanish Prime Minister, in Bordeaux. They ended up later in the hands of a Mexican diplomat in France, resurfacing decades later in Mexico in 2007. Sánchez Ventura lived in Mexico for many years teaching history of art in the Colegio de México and helped in the creation of the National School of Anthropology.

And so, these two treasures from the Spanish Civil War at the Library of Congress are a fitting tribute to those who lived and died for freedom and democracy in Spain. They represent the best of the human spirit moving forward with hope in the midst of the horrors of war and destruction. The circumstances under which they were published (and saved) tell it all.

For more information on these authors and the Generation of ‘27, search the following subject headings in the LC Online Catalog:

Spanish poetry 20th century history and criticism
Spanish literature 20th century history and criticism


Comments (12)

  1. Very timely and valuable essay to help appreciate some of today’s struggle in Spain .

  2. Excellent information

  3. Thank you for this great story!

  4. So much of the Spanish Civil War is expressed through art. From paintings to poetry the first-person accounts of the events that unfolded are true historical gems.

  5. Great article. It is amazing how books, not only through their content but also through their editing and publishing history, can give us a privileged insight into historic events. The circumstances under which these books were published tell us the story of the struggles of Spanish intellectuals to keep art and literature alive in a very dark period of Spanish and European history.

  6. Precioso, detallado, bien documentado y mejor escrito. Un gran hallazgo documental. Enhorabuena por el post. Esperamos que puedas seguir ofreciéndonos estos artículos. La historiografía de la Guerra Civil Española está llena de nostalgia y de bellas historias. Muchas de ellas por descubrir. Sin duda la Library of Congress es uno de los fondos documentales más valiosos para la Historia Española. Gracias por compartir Juan Manuel

  7. This is a great story!
    The Spanish Civil War is so full of incredible episodes that combine the tragedy with the sublime. Thank you, Juan Manuel, for bringing these treasures to light.

  8. The extent of the collections at the LoC is really amazing.
    Thank you for this discovery!

  9. An interesting discovery, indeed! While politicians decide wars, it is the creative class that chronicles their affect and outcome. This article provides insight to those creatives, as well as the efforts of the LOC to maintain their importance through time and in their physical state. Will the same excitement be found by future historians when digging through reams of electronic archives? The efforts made to print the work in wartime is dramatic enough – the value of preservation is essential. Congrats on shining light on these contributors, JMP, and thanks for your ongoing work at LOC.

  10. Excellent article! That after so many years of working at the Library of Congress you just uncovered a rare work by such important poets just tells us there is still so much to learn from a war that shook the world before WW2.

  11. I think you have proved (like most historians do) that history is not simply what is given to us in a textbook. It is not one-sided, but millions of different stories that are waiting to be unearthed. And as always, the primary sources from artists, poets and other intellectuals show the soul of the people living in that time.

  12. Dr.Perez discovered one of the many hidden treasures at the Library of Congress. I am glad he is sharing his “hallazgo” with a wider public.

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