Generation of 1898. Precursors and the “Problem of Spain.”

The Generation of 1898. The “Problem of Spain.”
The Generation of 1898 was a group of literary intellectuals –first identified in 1913 by José Martínez Ruiz (better known as Azorín, 1873-1967)— who contributed significantly towards analysing the “Problem of Spain” (a catch phrase of the time).

There is no unanimous agreement regarding those who made up the Generation, but the following are generally considered members: essayist Azorín, novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), novelist Pío Baroja (1872-1956), poet Antonio Machado, essayist Ramiro de Maeztu (of early days before becoming a Catholic fascist, 1874-1936), novelist, poet and dramatist Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936), and dramatist Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954).

These writers were inspired by a patriotic urge to uncover the causes of Spain’s political and social malaise and suggest remedies to cure that illness.  In this, they formed part of a wider group, known as regeneracionistas (regenerationists), who sought solutions that would help their country recover those qualities that had once made it Europe’s most powerful country.

What was it that triggered this intense preoccupation with Spain? Why the year 1898? Briefly, during the 19th century, Spain suffered the indignity of losing all that remained of its transoceanic empire at a time when its European rivals, Britain and France, were expanding their overseas territories. The loss culminated in 1898 in a humiliating defeat by the fledgling USA in the Spanish-American war; it quickly became known in Spain as El Desastre (The Disaster). The defeat crystalised in dramatic fashion Spain’s political impotence, and triggered an outpouring of writings questioning and analysing the country’s malaise.

However, this was nothing new. As the most powerful nation in Europe in the 16th century, with an empire over which the sun never set, it was predictable that at some time its glory would begin to dim, which would trigger enquiries over its demise. That started as early as the first years of the 17th century. Social and economic commentators known as arbitristas drew a picture of poverty and economic disparity far removed from the illusion of imperial greatness projected by Spain’s ruling class. Awareness continued in the 18th century in the writings of an enlightened, intellectual minority. It was a period when Spain –despite its huge empire– was reduced to a junior role in Europe as Britain, France and Austria called the shots. In the 19th century, political and social convulsions only emphasised the country’s degeneration or disintegration; it could not manage its own affairs leave alone control its colonies. Internally its geographical integrity was threatened by a renewed regionalism, externally it lost all its transoceanic territories.

The buzzword for the remedy sought against degeneration was “regeneration.” Different solutions were proposed depending on the political or social stripe of those advocating changes. Suggested changes included Europeanisation (following the industrial success of Spain’s northern neighbours), renovation of the political order and elimination of corruption, agrarian reform, spiritual reawakening, a crusade against the evils of liberalism, and an overhaul of an inefficient education system.

In this post, we’ll look at the approach to the “Problem of Spain” and the solutions sought to overcome the country’s malaise from two perspectives: 1. A practical approach through the creation of an educational institute; 2. A literary approach through prose fiction. Each demonstrates that the Generation of ‘98 was following a well-trodden path and that their concerns complemented those of that Generation. A third approach –an essay– can be read in Idearium español by Angel Ganivet (1865-1898).

Institución Libre de Enseñanza. Free Institute of Learning, 1876.
One of the most innovative steps towards solving Spain’s ills was the establishment in Madrid in 1876 of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (Free Institute of Learning) by professors who had been fired from their positions at the University of Madrid in 1875. Their goal was to create a secular and liberal alternative to the rote-learning educational system controlled by the Catholic Church. By initiating this, they hoped to arm Spain with leaders able to guide the country unhindered by restrictive and prejudiced policies inherited from the past.

Initially established as a free, independent university to advance the study of modern science and philosophy and prepare an elite for the modernisation of Spain, it soon ran into difficulties and turned its attention to primary and secondary education.  

The moving spirit behind the Institución was Francisco Giner de los Ríos (1839-1915) a liberally minded teacher much influenced by his mentor, Julián Sanz del Río (1814-69), who had been educated in Germany and introduced to the works of a little-known German philosopher, Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832).

Krausismo as adopted in Spain under Giner’s guidance placed great emphasis on moral and intellectual integrity. The Institución fostered an atmosphere where questioning of the status quo was encouraged and curiosity nurtured. Children were allowed to make up their own minds without prejudice and based on rational thought and deduction. Self-reliance was fostered and pupils were urged to practice punctuality and self discipline. Religion was not avoided, but no preference was given to a particular confession.

Modern, practical teaching methods were introduced and mere memorisation rejected. These pedagogical innovations were accompanied by a modern syllabus that included “courses on art, folklore and technical subjects; pupils were encouraged to play games and take excursions into the countryside” (Carr 470). They were taught to appreciate music and the culture of common people. The Institución sought to replace the traditional teacher-oriented dominance of the classroom by establishing a more personal contact between teacher and pupils. And, truly radical for the time, girls were accepted and allowed to participate in all activities, including outdoor sports, alongside boys.

The Institución Libre de Enseñanza was like a breath of fresh air in the stultified atmosphere of education at the time, where state education was severely ill-equipped and two thirds was in the hands of religious orders. Both Azorín and Antonio Machado enjoyed the benefits of its education.

The Institute’s influence was felt in the creation of a foundation for the Study of Historical and Scientific Research in 1907 to provide scholarships for students to study abroad. More far reaching in its impact was the establishment of the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students’ Residence) in Madrid in 1910. The Residencia would remain an intellectual centre until the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), lodging such celebrities as the poet/dramatist Federico García Lorca, painter Salvador Dalí and filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and hosting numerous intellectuals invited to give lectures, e. g. composer Manuel de Falla, poets Pedro Salinas and Rafael Alberti and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. Predictably, militant Catholics and right-wing politicians viewed the Institute and the Residence and the liberal, secular values they championed with considerable alarm. Some right-wing politicians even claimed that they contributed in creating the atmosphere leading to the Civil War. Predictably, with the outbreak of the War, the Institute was closed down and its assets confiscated.

Prose Fiction.
The last quarter of the 19th century witnessed a flowering of the realistic novel which developed from the attachment of Romanticism to costumbrismo (interest in and portrayal of local, folkloric customs and manners). Among the best-known authors are Emilia Bardo Bazán (1851-1921), Leopoldo Alas (Clarín, 1852-1901) and Vicente Blasco Ibañez (1867-1928), whose finest novels describe life –without Romantic nostalgia– respectively in Galicia, Asturias and Valencia.

Nevertheless, the most outstanding novelist was Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), a prolific writer whose work portrays a vast panorama of Spanish society. Born in the Canary Islands, he moved to Madrid when 19, quickly abandoned his law studies and adapted himself to the pleasant life of the capital before settling down to become an acute observer of Spanish life and politics. He travelled widely in Spain and England and France, and was a great admirer of Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac with whom he has frequently been compared.

In 1876, the year the Institución Libre de Enseñanza was founded, Galdós published Dona Perfecta a novel of contemporary social life in rural Spain and one of the most widely read of his works. Set in the fictional town of Orbajosa, the plot centres on the conflict that arises after Pepe Rey, a young liberally-educated engineer, arrives to marry his cousin, Rosario. The marriage has been arranged by Doña Perfecta, Pepe’s aunt, a devout, wealthy and influential widow in a town dominated by narrow minded religiosity. Foremost among the religious cast is Don Inocencio, Doña Perfecta’s spiritual adviser and canon of the cathedral whose plans for his niece’s son to marry Rosario look to be foiled by Pepe Rey’s arrival. Don Inocencio’s sanctimonious and feigned inferiority vis a vis Pepe’s “modern” outlook allows him to twist Pepe’s words and negatively influence Doña Perfecta’s attitude towards her nephew. Predictably, Pepe –the outsider—soon finds himself battling the reactionary ideas of the Orbajosans. Obstacles grow to the proposed marriage prompting the frustrated Pepe to plot to elope with Rosario. However, he is tragically shot and killed, at the instance of Doña Perfecta, by one of her henchmen, and the luckless Rosario is consigned to an asylum.

Widely recognised as a thesis novel, Galdós converted the religious intolerance and narrowmindedness of the Orbajosans into a cautionary, allegorical tale of the dangers facing “modern” Spain (i. e. Pepe) in its struggle with the reactionary views of “old,” provincial Spain, Orbajosa (the etymology of which is possibly twofold: Urbs Augusta –Venerable Town—or equally appropriate Orb Ajosa – Garlic Town!).

Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd. ed. 2009.
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966.
Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000.
Perez Galdos, Benito Doña Perfecta ed. Rodolfo Cardona, New York: Dell 1965. In Spanish.
Turner, Harriet “Benito Pérez Galdós” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed, David T. Gies Cambridge 2009, pp. 392-409.