Generation of 1898. What Does the Term Mean?

Generation of 1898. An Elusive Term.

The Background.
Look up  “Generation of 1898 (or ’98, or the Spanish Generación del ‘98)” and you’ll find something like: a loose term used to describe a group of intellectuals/ writers who, faced with the “problem of Spain,” set about analysing the state of crisis and loss of political prestige that their country suffered at the turn of the 20th century.

But why 1898? That was the year when Spain suffered the loss of its last transoceanic territory, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, in a war against the USA. Called simply El Desastre (The Disaster) by Spaniards, the Spanish American War was a humiliating and costly defeat. It left Spain with only Morocco as the last remnant of its once huge empire at a time when its former European rivals were consolidating their presence worldwide.

The Disaster of 1898 served, then, as a dramatic and forceful reminder of Spain’s political downfall, when pretensions of being a world power were shattered once and for all and demoralised Spaniards of all persuasions looked for causes of and solutions to the country’s painful decay.

The decay was not only on an international scale. Internally, Spain was threatened by a revival of regionalism, especially in Catalonia and Euskadi (Basque Country), while socially it was undergoing an upheaval. There was widespread political corruption with fixed elections becoming progressively more farcical; social disaffection was reflected in the growth of anarchism and the birth of a socialist political party (the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol) in Madrid in 1879 and its union affiliate, the UGT: Unión General de Trabajadores) in 1888. Worker conditions were difficult and bread riots reflected the insecurity and instability of life in both rural and urban centres. There was anticlerical sentiment especially in Andalusia and Catalonia, and attempted assassinations and bombings in Barcelona. In 1897 Prime Minister Antonio Canovas was assassinated at the Santa Agueda spa resort, near Mondragon (southeast of Bilbao), in Euskadi.

Azorín in 1928.

This, then, is the background against which members of the Generation of 1898 grew up. That seems straightforward enough, but the trouble is that there is no unanimity on the usefulness of the term “Generation of ’98” nor even on who made up its membership.

The expression was first coined by José Martínez Ruiz (1873-1967), better known by his pseudonym Azorín, in a series of articles written in 1913. He included in his list of writers of the Generación del ’98, besides himself, the novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), novelist Pío Baroja (1872-1956), essayist Ramiro de Maeztu (1874-1936, novelist, poet and dramatist Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936), dramatist Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954), and poet Ruben Darío (1867-1916).

Nevertheless, many scholars doubt or even reject the inclusion of Darío and Valle-Inclán as members of the Generation of ’98, and question the omission of the poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), one of the writers most associated with the Generation. Baroja, whom Azorín included in his list, did not agree with the term at all and denied the existence of the Generation. It is a term that still generates discussions justifying or rejecting its existence.

In many ways, the problem with terminology starts with this list. It opened up a Pandora’s box because up to this moment all those Azorín classified as belonging to the Generation of ’98 were viewed as modernistas, a term very much in vogue at the time. But here we face another conundrum. What was Modernismo?

Generation of ’98 and Modernismo.
The 1899 Diccionario de la Lengua Castellana (now Diccionario de la Lengua Española) defined Modernismo as “excessive fondness for modern things, and scorn for the old, especially in the arts and literature” (translated from Spanish). That’s a broad definition and later attempts –often contradictory— have shown how elusive the term “Modernismo” is. The same goes for the “Generation of ’98.”

Azorin’s observations were predicated on what he perceived as a widespread protest and rebellion against Spain’s decay/ malaise which was both political and artistic. He recognised the need for both a literary renaissance (renacimiento literario) and a “new Spain” (una España nueva). Inspiration for the former included going beyond national borders, for example, to French Parnassian and symbolist writers (e. g. Theophile Gautier 1811-72, and Paul Verlaine 1844-96). The “new Spain” was to be found in a love for Spain’s ancient villages and countryside, an ideal which Azorín directly associated with the Generation of ’98: La generación de 1898 ama los viejos pueblos y el paisaje: “The Generation of 1898 loves the old villages and the landscape”(Tusón-Lázaro 68).

By the time Azorín penned his list in 1913, practitioners of Modernismo had become stigmatised as degenerates and social misfits. For example, they were accused of dandyism (the excessive importance attached to appearance and fashion), one outstanding exponent being Valle-Inclán, whose long hair, bohemianism and flamboyant style regularly caused a stir.  

But visual eccentricity was not the source of Modernismo; it was a complement to an aesthetic literary expression that rejected what was perceived as the utilitarian spirit and industrialism of the Restoration. On the one hand, it took flight in a world of exotic, ornamental escapism triggering sensorial experiences inspired by French Parnassianism, and on the other it sought escape in a world of intimate symbolism, for example, of internal, dreamy melancholy or languid sadness.

Generation of 1898.
Some critics still prefer the all-embracing word “Modernismo,” but the term “Generation of ’98” has become so entrenched in the literary history of Spain that it cannot be disregarded. And some writers fall into both camps as their work evolved and their interests broadened, which is one reason why there is no unanimity as to who belongs to the Generation of ’98.

Perhaps if any distinction can be gleaned between Modernismo and the Generation of ’98 it is that the former leans towards an aesthetic view of the world and life while the latter tends toward the spiritual and social concerns (within an historical-political framework) of Spanish society.  However, the practice of one does not preclude practice of the other. For example, Darío –considered one of the modernista poets par excellence– wrote a series of newspaper articles about conditions in Spain which he published as a book, España contemporánea, in 1901.  On the other hand, Antonio Machado –viewed as one of the most profound observers of Spain’s malaise— could evoke the dreamy melancholy and symbolist intimacy of modernist verse. See, for example, his poem: Anoche cuando dormía/soñé … !bendita ilusion! “Last night, as I was sleeping/ I dreamt … oh blessed illusion!”

Lists continue to be made of the members of the Generation of ’98, and those writers most regularly included are those put forward by Azorín, with the general exclusion of Darío and inclusion of Antonio Machado. So, we have Azorín, Unamuno, Baroja, the early Maeztu (he later became a Catholic fascist), Benavente, Valle-Inclán, and Machado. For us, this is essentially the group that makes up the Generation of ’98.

Is there any way to come closer to a definition of the Generation of ’98 while justifying the above list? One basic definer of the members of the Generation, and perhaps the most persuasive, is that they were essentially a literary group undertaking a literary regeneration. They converted the “problem of Spain” into poetry or prose fiction or dramas in a patriotic search for their country’s soul rather than in proposing political or social solutions.

However, an important detail to remember is that being primarily men of literature, the “problem of Spain” was not the only concern of these writers. In fact, there were other more universal themes that occupied their thoughts and to which they gave greater attention and which evolved in different directions over time. For example, in general terms, Machado and Azorîn were preoccupied by time and death, Unamuno with existentialist concerns regarding religious faith and doubt, many of Baroja’s heroes were men of action or rebels without seemingly a cause, while Maeztu moved from socialism to military authoritarianism etc. In other words, the “problem of Spain” was not a major player in their literary output.

Scholars have also noted, and used it as another possible definer of the Generation, that all these writers were relatively young at the turn of the century, the oldest being Unamuno, 36 years old. They formed, then, a group of contemporary literary writers.

Another detail, also noted by scholars, is that all but one were born in the peripheral areas of Spain: Azorîn was from the province of Alicante in the south, Unamuno, Baroja and Maeztu were Basques, Valle-Inclán a Galician, and Machado was born in Seville. That leaves Jacinto Benavente, born in Madrid. The significance of this detail will become evident in a later post, when we address the role of Castile in the works of the Generation of ’98.

Finally, we should keep very much in mind that these Generation of ’98 writers were by no means the only ones concerned with the “problem of Spain.” Those outside the literary field are often referred to as regenerationists whose concerns were channelled via newspaper articles or books. A notable example is Joaquîn Costa (1844-1911), an articulate lawyer, historian and economist, who coined some of the most popular key slogans of the period: the country’s need for a cirujano de hierro (“iron surgeon”) and despensa y escuela (“food and schooling”). He also devised the catchphrase cerremos el sepulcro del Cid “let’s shut the Cid’s tomb” (alluding to Spain’s excessive attachment to the glories of its past). Another is Angel Ganivet, essayist, novelist and diplomat who committed suicide over an unhappy love affair in Riga (then part of the Russian empire, now Latvia) in 1898.

By converting the “problem of Spain” into literature, the Generation of ‘98 offered a distinctive view of Spain, in which Castile –the geographic centre of the country and therefore its heart– played a prominent role. That role provided members of the Generation with food not only for a penetrating soul-searching of their country’s political and social decay but also for a profoundly intimate journey into their own souls. This is, perhaps, their most original contribution to a study of the “problem of Spain” and an essential component of their literary legacy. The first 36 years of the 20th century –up to the Civil War— have been called the Silver Age of Spanish Literature. The Generation of 1898’s contribution was fundamental.

Brenan, Gerald The Literature of the Spanish People Cambridge 1951.
Casanova, Julián and Andrés, Carlos Gil. Twentieth-Century Spain Cambridge 2014.
Gies, David T. ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature. Cambridge 2009.
Tuson, Vicente and Lazaro, Fernando Literatura Espanola Madrid 1987.
Image of Azorin: By Pascual Marín – This image belongs to the Marín Collection and was provided to GureGipuzkoa by Hauxe Source: Kutxa Fototeka (Kutxa Photograph Library).