Excerpt: The Spanish Craze

The following is an excerpt from The Spanish Craze: America’s Fascination with the Spanish World, 1779-1939 (March 2019) by Richard L. Kagan. 

The winter of 1899 was not an especially auspicious moment for any American tourist to visit Spain. Just a year earlier Americans and Spaniards had been shooting at and killing one another on Cuba’s San Juan Hill. Fortunately that war ended in a matter of months, and in December 1898 the two countries signed a peace treaty en route to restoring the diplomatic relations that had been suspended at the start of the war the previous April. In the months that followed, relations between Madrid and Washington also improved to the point where regular steamship service, via Catalonia’s Compañía Transatlántica, resumed between Barcelona, Cádiz, and New York.

Even so, resentments lingered. Spanish newspapers reporting on Central America and the ongoing insurrection against U.S. forces in the Philippines were quick to highlight “Agresión Yankee.” Similarly, Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain, published in 1899, pointedly reminded readers about the “inner core of cruelty” that all Spaniards shared.

None of this deterred America’s most prominent sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, from visiting Spain in the fall of 1899. Two years earlier, at the apogee of his career, Saint-Gaudens had embarked from New York with his family for an extended European stay. His immediate destination was Paris, where years earlier he had enrolled as a student in the famed École des Beaux-Arts. But Saint-Gaudens was especially keen on visiting Spain, a country that two of his artist friends, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, had long urged him to see. Sargent even supplied him with a detailed itinerary listing the cities and the important monuments and museums he could not afford to miss.

The trip began in November, and as Saint-Gaudens later recalled, he was “traveling fast,” although not fast enough to avoid lingering in a small mountain village in Aragon, to visit the El Escorial monastery, and to make stops at Burgos, Madrid, and Toledo before heading south to Andalucia. Once there he visited Muslim monuments in both Córdoba and Seville, and in Granada he even found the time to attend a bullfight. Most American travelers who witnessed a corrida reacted with a mixture of disgust and disdain, coupled with comments on the innate cruelty of the Spanish race. In contrast, when Saint-Gaudens reminisced about the event, he emphasized the artistry and dignity of the ritual unfolding before his eyes, together with the courage of everyone involved, including the bull.

The sculptor’s positive reaction to Spain defies easy explanation. Other tourists who had visited the country generally found something to complain about—the quality of the food, the difficulty of travel, the lack of accommodations comparable in quality to those they encountered elsewhere in Europe. But in his Reminiscences Saint-Gaudens confessed that upon entering the country he was almost immediately stricken by the mysterious ailment known as “Spanish fever,” which Sargent had previously warned him about. The malady was not to be found in any medical book, nor was it related to the killer “Spanish flu” that devastated so much of the world in the immediate aftermath of World War I. But its symptoms, among them a seemingly insatiable appetite for the art and culture of Spain, were real and occasionally morphed into hispanophilia, a related ailment, albeit one far more common in France and adding four years after his visit to Spain, freely admitted, “I have become insatiable about that fascinating land and my interest in it never flags.”

KaganSaint-Gaudens was far from the only American to be affected by this unusual ailment. As this book will explain, the Spanish fever—I will also refer to it as a craze—morphed into an epidemic in the aftermath of the war of 1898, spreading rapidly across the vast expanse of the United States and infecting taste in numerous domains, especially in art and architecture but also in music, theater, cinema, and literature, along with fashion and, to a more limited degree, food. This fascination with Spain was virtually unprecedented. With the exception of popular music, in which the guitar and Spanish rhythms had long proved influential, throughout most of the nineteenth century the influence of Spanish culture in the United States was minimal at best. Well into the Gilded Age the chief markers of American taste and refinement, as Richard Bushman and Lawrence Levine have both observed, were customarily English or French. Italian culture had a place in both music and art, and during the 1880s, thanks in large part to Wagner, a German repertoire dominated opera in New York and other cities.

Spain, by contrast, barely made a dent in America’s elite culture, and Spanish, especially when compared to French, was rarely studied, let alone taught. At work here too were long-standing prejudices that belittled the value of Spanish culture. Archer Milton Huntington, future founder of New York’s Hispanic Society of America, learned this lesson in 1891 after telling the prominent financier Morris Ketchum Jesup about his interest in Spain’s literature and art. Jesup promptly rebuked the young man for wasting his time on a “dead and gone civilization.”

Jesup’s criticism neatly summarized the attitude of most upper-crust Americans toward Spain and Spaniards alike, but change was under way. As Kristin Hoganson has observed, in the course of the Gilded Age a rapidly expanding economy, together with the growth of foreign trade, brought new interest in foreign cultures most Americans knew little about.6 This new, more cosmopolitan spirit found different outlets, among them a growing demand for books and travelogues dealing with faraway lands, the formation of reading circles and travel clubs whose members embarked on imagined journeys abroad, together with attendance at illustrated travel lectures—those offered by John Stoddard in different cities are said to have attracted a public numbering in the millions. Stoddard’s lectures did not necessarily focus solely on Spain—other topics included Germany and Russia, along with Egypt, China, and Japan—but his repertoire of talks often began with his “Travels in Sunny Spain.”

Nor was Stoddard alone. Starting in the 1880s travel writers and their publishers provided readers with a steady stream of new books and articles touting the “romance” of Spain. Part of that romance was linked to Carmen, the gypsy featured in Bizet’s famous opera, and also to La Carmencita, a Spanish flamenco dancer who, starting in 1890, delighted audiences in New York, Washington, Chicago, and other cities and whose whirls and kicks Thomas Alva Edison managed to capture in one of the first motion pictures ever filmed in the United States. Interest in Spain and its culture also derived from Chicago’s immensely popular World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which, in keeping with the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s momentous voyage, introduced millions of visitors to the historic links uniting Spain’s history with that of the United States. Meanwhile the start of pan-Americanism, a movement emphasizing hemispheric unity, fomented new interest in the history and culture of Spanish-speaking countries south of the Rio Grande, especially Mexico. The tilt toward Spain momentarily ended with the onset of the Spanish-American War but resumed shortly thereafter. Within a few years the craze for Spain and its culture was hitting its stride.

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