“First of the Cowboy Writers”—Américo Paredes
238. INCLÁN, Luis G[onzaga]. Vol. I: Astucia el gefe de los hermanos de la hoja, ó Los charros contrabanistas de la rama. Novela histórica de costumbres mexicanas, con episodios originales, escrita por Luis Inclán en vista de auténticas apuntaciones del protagonista, amenizada con sus correspondiente litografías. Tomo I. Mexico: Imprenta de Inclán, cerca de Santo Domingo Núm. 12, 1865. [1-7] 8-392 pp., 17 lithograph plates. [Bound at end, excerpt from the 1890 edition] Astucia el Jefe de los hermanos de la hoja…. Mexico: Imprenta de L. Inclán S. José el Real Núm. 16, 1890. [1-7] 8-70 pp., 1 lithograph plate. Vol. II: Astucia el gefe de los hermanos de la hoja…Tomo II. Mexico: Inprenta [sic] de Inclán, cerca de Santo Domingo Núm. 12, 1866. [1-3] 4-397  pp., 16 lithograph plates. 2 vols., 8vo (19.7 x 14.5 cm), modern slate blue smooth Mexican calf, covers with rolled silver borders, spines with raised bands stamped in silver, red calf labels, silver dentelles, blue marbled endpapers, edges sprinkled in brown. Spines slightly faded, waterstaining on signatures 14 and 15 of Vol. I, scattered light browning, 2 leaves trimmed (touching four page numbers), but generally a fine copy with exceptionally clean, bright lithographs. Small blue lithograph labels on title versos (design and initials H.M.). This popular book is difficult to find in any condition, since most copies were “read to death.” Not in Yale or the MELVYL database, but UT (Benson Collection) has a copy. OCLC designates a copy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (a mixed edition: Vol. I is the 1890 edition, and Vol. II is the first edition). LC reports a copy without much detail, but dated 1866.
First edition of the first Mexican novel “to integrate the theme of banditry throughout its narrative” (Chris Frazer, A History of Outlaws and Cultural Struggle in Mexico, 1810-1920, University of Nebraska, 2008, p. 109). Mathes, Mexico on Stone, pp. 30 & 58. Palau 118818. Porrúa V:7203. As noted above, an excerpt and plate from the 1890 edition is bound at the end of Vol. I (first 70 pages). The plate in this 1890 excerpt is a repeat of the second plate in the first edition. The 1890 edition is not in Palau, who does, however, record a 1908 Paris edition. The enduring nature of the work is demonstrated by the plethora of modern editions that continue to be published.
Inclán (1816-1875) led almost as adventurous a life as his protagonist in the present work. Intended for the priesthood from a young age, he ran away from school and spent many years working as a vaquero on a hacienda. He eventually grew tired of being employed by others and bought the property where he was born, which had been badly damaged in 1847 during one of a series of Mexican political upheavals. He then bought both a printing and lithographic establishment in Mexico City, at which he worked successfully for the rest of his life. Known primarily as a novelist, he was also a poet, dramatist, journalist, publisher of both sacred and profane works, and a non-fiction author of high repute who printed all of his own works. He is considered by some to be the best Mexican novelist of his time (see Salvador Novo’s comments in the introduction to the Porrúa scholarly edition of Astucia). See also: Eladio Cortés, Dictionary of Mexican Literature, (Greenwood Press, 1992), pp. 348-349.
Astucia features many themes that would become characteristic of U.S. cowboy novels: bravery, horsemanship, ranch life, a code of honor, gun skills, the lawman, and violence. As such, it is an important precursor to the genre. It was the first such work to capture and depict a “Code of the West” that would eventually be adopted by writers far and wide to great public acclaim. Américo Paredes comments that Inclán’s works “reveal his kinship to the writers of the western United States” (p. 55, “Luis Inclán: First of the Cowboy Writers,” American Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1960, pp. 55-70). Paredes does not suggest that American Western writers are indebted to Inclán in the same manner that the American cowboy is indebted to the Mexican vaquero, but rather that the same conditions that produced Western writing made of Inclán a veritable “cowboy” writer. He served as a forerunner of men writing in another language but sharing his methods and outlook as well as his subject matter. Inclán also published Recuerdos de Chamberín, a verse biography of his favorite horse that predated similar U.S. works on famous steeds such as Muggins. In 1860, Inclán also wrote a classic illustrated manual on the reata, the distinctive braided rawhide rope inherited by U.S. cowboys from the Mexican vaquero: Reglas con que un colegial puede colear y lazar (Rules by Which a Tenderfoot, i.e., a “Collegian,” May Tail and Rope).
This novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, the hero, Astucia (Astuteness), is the leader of a band of tobacco smugglers who, betrayed by one of their own, are wiped out in an ambush by authorities. Left for dead, Astucia miraculously recovers after three days and eventually escapes. In the second section, he becomes the dominant figure in an idealistic, closed society in an isolated valley. Eventually, however, the experiment fails and Astucia fakes his own death in order to pursue other goals.
Inclán wrote this novel against the background of the French Intervention and published it in the final months before the collapse of Maximilian’s Empire. The work even bears the invader’s copyright; apparently some of the political subtext went over the censors’ heads. The text is an important one, embodying essential Mexican characteristics that were in danger of fading away, either through assimilation or outright destruction. The work is obviously influenced by Dumas’ Three Musketeers, whose “All for one, one for all” motto Astucia’s band adopts. Nevertheless, the novel is hardly a slavish imitation of the French work and sets out in its own unique way to capture what Inclán believes to be essential characteristics of Mexican society that must be preserved and nurtured. As Juan Pablo Dabove remarks: “Astucia establishes a cluster of features that convert the charro into a mass-media icon. Rural, light skinned, mestizo, equestrian, male, insurgent, traditional, oral and artisan. He is the ultimate representation of Mexicanness” (Nightmares of the Lettered City: Banditry and Literature in Latin America, 1816-1929, University of Pittsburg Press, 2007, p. 131; Chapter 7 has a long discussion entitled “Astucia, Banditry and Insurgent Utopia,” pp. 129-145, in which the author refers to the book as “a key work in nineteenth century Mexican literature, although often for the wrong reasons”). Operating outside society yet at the same time thoroughly integrated into it, Astucia is brought down not by any fatal flaw of his own but rather by the machinations of characters who represent all that is bad and flawed in the Mexican social system. The novel contains strains of both realism and idealism, skillfully woven together in a fast-moving, thrilling tale of adventure.
The text is also a vital treasury of Mexicanisms and other native expressions in use at the time. As such, its influence has been widespread and persistent. Juan Pablo Dabove remarks: “The novel is an accomplished ethnography of rural speech, to the point of being a major source of the Mexicanisms that Joaquín García Icazbalceta records in his 1899 Diccionario de mexicanismos” (p. 131). It has proved useful in this respect for decades, with constant reprintings keeping it alive. It is apparent that Inclán himself appreciated the importance of the native linguistics employed in the novel, as he also supposedly compiled a dictionary of Mexicanisms. Unfortunately, no copy is known to exist; the manuscript of this work was probably lost in an 1884 fire at his son’s house.
The unsigned lithographs are important adjuncts to the text, serving not only to illustrate the plot but also to capture many aspects of Mexican costume, furnishings, charro equipage, and other material culture, as well as social customs of the time. The many images in these two volumes make them important examples of the work of Inclán’s lithographic press. A large number of them depict violent or otherwise disturbing scenes. Although some of the subjects are more innocuous, one cannot help but be taken aback by the amount of work devoted to rather grim subjects, such as a woman choking or a man being hung upside down in a tree.
In “The Mexican Novela de Costumbres” (Hispania, 8:5, November 1925, p. 289), Arthur H. Seymour comments on the work of Inclán and other Mexican novelists: “The Mexican novels offer us a fairly adequate mirror of the life of the people for the past one hundred years. One distinguishing characteristic of them is a fatalistic melancholy that is native to Mexican soil, and inherent in the Indian character. It is noticeable from Fernández de Lizardi to Federico Gamboa, and decidedly pronounced in the works of Inclán, Payno, Altamirano, Rabasa, and Delgado.”
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