A memorable decade: Writers before the war

30 June 2012

A book burning incident occurred sometime in the early 40s when younger writers led by Alejandro Abadilla and Teodoro Agoncillo cast into a bonfire the works of the so-called traditional and balagtasan writers. This was unfortunately reminiscent of the book burnings in the fascist world where books of Communist or Jewish writers like Thomas Mann were consigned to the flames. 

By Elmer Ordonez

The thirties may well be my favorite decade. Born at the start of the Depression, I began to be fully aware of the world around me when the family moved to a house in Paco in 1933 prior to my schooling in 1935. I remember my mother telling me in a calesa in Bustillos about the presence of “Sakdalistas” in the Sampaloc plaza. In 1936 I began to follow on radio and the Tribune the outbreak of the “guerra civil” in Spain. There were also heard marching songs of the Falangistas. At San Marcelino Church I saw young mestizos in uniform in formation and giving the fascist salute. I would read later in Renato Constantino’s histories about the parades of “Franquistas” in Manila joined in by students and faculty of elite Catholic schools. By late 30s I was primed for the outbreak of the war in Europe and local preparations for the Pacific war like the building of air raid shelters (models shown in UP Padre Faura, and the practice blackouts (mentioned in NVM Gonzalez’s The Winds of April).

Maybe: Incidentally, The Satire of Fedrico Mangahas, ed. by Ruby Kelly Mangahas and James Allen’s The Radical Left on the Eve of the War rekindled my long-standing interest about a historic decade.

Another book Komunista (Ateneo University Press, 2011) by Jim Richardson has provided more context to the period – particularly the involvement of writers and intellectuals in what was essentially a working class enterprise.

Writers who figured in the first half of the 30s were founders and early members of the UP Writers Club (1927)—Fred Mangahas, Jose Garcia Villa, Gabriel Tuason whom I have always believed tried to humor their foreign advisers with the avowed purpose of the club which is “to elevate the English language to the highest pedestal.” Shortly after, Fred Mangahas began his satirical columns in the Tribune. Salvador P. Lopez, Jose Lansang, and Arturo B. Rotor followed the steps of Mangahas and Villa in establishing themselves in the literary community. Villa left in 1929 for New Mexico to make a name as a poet in the United States but at the same time influenced Filipino writers by sending his annual “honor” and “dishonor” rolls of stories and poems to the Manila press.

In 1936 James Allen arrived in Manila he made a note about the young writers whom he found problematical. He cited one who wrote a story satirizing the intellectuals who visited Central Luzon for a solidarity meeting with the workers and peasants. Interestingly Manuel Arguilla’s “The Socialists” has always been considered part of the proletarian writing during the Commonwealth. Allen’s reading of the story may well be different. Arguilla went on to write more stories “Epilogue to Revolt” and “Caps and Lower Case” for a volume titled How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife and other stories which won the first prize (in short fiction) in the Commonwealth Literary Contest.

The “young” writers at the second half of the decade would constitute the Veronicans led by Francisco Arcellana some of whom pursued the “art for art’s sake” doctrine of Villa as against the “literature with social content” of the Philippine Writers League whose prime movers were Villa’s colleagues Mangahas, Lopez, Lansang and Rotor.

A parallel but not similar conflict was seen in the Tagalog writers community. A book burning incident occurred sometime in the early 40s when younger writers led by Alejandro Abadilla and Teodoro Agoncillo cast into a bonfire the works of the so-called traditional and balagtasan writers. This was unfortunately reminiscent of the book burnings in the fascist world where books of Communist or Jewish writers like Thomas Mann were consigned to the flames.

The debate over textual and contextual criticism, balagtasismo and modernism, formalism and historical criticism has persisted to this day in the academe. The more popular but banal issue is called “literature (art) and propaganda.”

On campus, the young writers that would have interested James Allen were Renato Constantino, Angel Baking, Sammy Rodriguez, Juan Quesada and other young intellectuals, mostly from UP, calling themselves the Phylons. Alfredo V. Lagmay and Felixberto Sta. Maria later moved on to become scholars in academe. Allen left the country in 1938 but I wonder if he had occasion to meet them, perhaps in the Ivory Tower café in Malate, run by leftist writer Ma. Gracia de Concepcion, or at the People’s Book Center in Escolta.

As a grade school student I could only feel the vibrations of intellectual ferment and social unrest (especially after reading “We and They” by Hernando Ocampo in my Grade VI class) which would only make full sense after the war—doing research on the Filipino short story in English from 1935 to 1955 and meeting the writers themselves.

A literary clash between Fred Mangahas and a Spanish- tradition bound Nick Joaquin occurred in the pages of Philippine Review (during the Japanese Occupation) with the article of Mangahas critiquing the essay of Joaquin waxing lyrical about the La Naval celebration in chilly October. Otherwise the class struggles and aesthetic concerns of the writers during the 30s were shrouded by what Jamias called “total intellectual blackout.”

eaordonez2000@yahoo.com

7 Responses to A memorable decade: Writers before the war

  1. July 13, 2012 at 2:54 pm
    restyo

    i tried summing up ordonez’s three-part reminiscences in a ‘timeline’ and noticed he didn’t mention the 70s and 80s. if you know him, consider asking him to write an entire book on the subject na rin, tutal nariyan na, naumpisahan na niya, para sa bayan at para sa mga susunod na henerasyon. salamat. oh here’s my attempt. hope mr ordonez’s won’t mind no http://restyo.blogspot.com/2012/06/timeline-philippine-literature-in.html

  2. July 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm
    restyo

    feeling ko inaccurate yung pagdivide ko sa mga dekada

  3. July 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm
    restyo

    oops sobra nang natabunan to. hope you’ll see this

    • July 13, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      resty! great, that you’ve kept track of elmer’s columns on this. yes, will forward your comments and timeline right now.

  4. July 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm
    elmer

    you have to get hold of my book The Other View (UP press) in two volumes to see that i have written on later periods, but i intend to continue with these series from the 30s to the turn of the century. thanks for reading me.

  5. July 15, 2012 at 6:47 am
    restyo

    thanks sir! may libro na pala kayo. up press stuff is quite inaccessible, but will find a way :-)

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