Carlos Bulosan on writers after the war

By Elmer Ordonez

Retrieved from my chaotic files is a copy of Carlos Bulosan’s typewritten notes (five pages) on Filipino writers after the war. It was sent years ago by Prof. Epifanio “Sonny” San Juan (the leading authority on expatriate writer Carlos Bulosan) who had done assiduous research on the Bulosan papers at the University of Washington library.

Bulosan died of tuberculosis Seattle in September 1926. The accolades for Bulosan were marred by the comments of two Chronicle columnists who dismissed Bulosan as a plagiarist and therefore worthless as a writer. The plagiarism charge diminished somewhat Bulosan’s stature diminished somewhat and was neglected by the literary community caught up with New Criticism and the Cold War.

A group of us (Frankie Sionil Jose, Alejandrino G. Hufana, B. Burce Bunao, and myself) put out Comment to foster nationalist consciousness against what Leopoldo Yabes called conformism and the fear of ideas as a result of the McCarthyite witchhunt in the country. Prof. Dolores Stephens Feria had an article on Bulosan, her close friend in Los Angeles. Unfortunately I no longer have the 2nd issue of Comment (1957) which has Feria’s essay. In 1960 Prof. Feria, published in the Diliman Review, her collection of letters from Bulosan titled Sound of Falling Light. Thereafter Bulosan would became a literary icon during the radical 60s to the present for his progressive writings and union organizing in the West Coast.

As for the plagiarism charge, Sonny San Juan said this involved Bulosan’s story “ The End of the War” in a New Yorker issue (1944)—a case that was settled our of court. He said he compared the two texts and noted only some similarities in plot— no outright lifting of lines or passages. The critic said Shakespeare did adopt whole stories/plots from other literary works. Any graduate student in English would know the bard’s sources—like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Mirror for Magistrates, and Plutarch’s Lives.

In the 90s Prof. Edilberto Tiempo gave a lecture in UP Diliman denigrating the literary work of Bulosan by using formalist criteria– which received no small amount of disagreement from the audience.

I asked good friend Ed Tiempo afterward why he did it. With an impish grin, he replied, “because I know you guys in UP like Bulosan.” I first met him in August 1970 when both of us read papers in a conference on American literature in Srinagar, Kashmir. His paper was on New Criticism, mine was on impressionist writers James and Faulkner. I invited him to the UP Writers workshop in Cebu the following year. He said he would in turn invite me to his Silliman workshop. Martial law intervened.

Clearly leftist Bulosan was not Ed Tiempo’s cup of tea. He called Bulosan’s work a “failure of sensibility.” He also faulted Manuel Arguilla for switching point of view in his proletarian story “Caps and Lower Case” but otherwise admired “Midsummer” at the Cebu workshop—dwelling at length on the “papayas in bloom” in the idyllic story.

Bulosan’s Notes on the Foreword of Philippine Prose and Poetry, Volume Four, were written for Prof. Yabes although Bulosan wrote about the UP scholar: “Leopoldo Y.Yabes. Ilocano. He wrote several articles about me . . . Probably the best critic and historian, besides being a Marxist. He is also a linguist. Like Laya, he studied languages by himself. (Yabes) translated The Laughter of my Father into Ilocano.” Yabes and Bulosan were co-editors of the original manuscript of Philippine Short Stories (1925 -1940 that they tried to get published in the US in the late 40s. The UP Press published it in 1975, followed by two more volumes covering post-war stories.

In Bulosan’s Notes NVM Gonzalez was: “Probably one of the most versatile. Saw him in SF when he was sent to the US on a scholarship after the war.” NVM on his return in 1950 joined the English department in UP Diliman and introduced the concept of a writers workshop, with craft as its primary concern.

On the authors of the fourth volume of Philippine Prose and Poetry (PPP) published in the early 50, he said his notes were “to better understand Philippine writing today in English and my place among contemporaries . . . Contributors are all college grads except—who?” Bulosan was just a high school graduate citing Manuel A. Viray, Maximo Ramos, and Juan C. Laya as having gone to the same school as he did in Lingayen.

Bulosan recalls the 1939 visit of Fred Mangahas and Salvador P. Lopez in Los Angeles. He acknowledges his debt to Mangahas who as literary editor of the Herald Magazine gave him a page every Sunday, his poetry, stories and letters. “God, how I wrote and wrote in those days!” They met again after the war, with Fred as a Palace official; SP Lopez (“very brilliant”) as alternate (to Carlos P. Romulo) permanent delegate to the United Nations.

Of the writers who later became National Artists, he recalled Jose Garcia Villa who “never recognized my talents”; NVM Gonzalez, “probably one of the most versatile”; Carlos Quirino, “tall, suave, handsome”; Nick Joaquin, “probably the most intense writer in the islands . . . Tolstoi type.”

Bulosan met Bienvenido Santos in Washington, DC, during the war and worked in the same office. He also remembered Juan Collas, “the first to write about me in the Philippines way back in 1937 when my first group of poems appeared in Poetry, Chicago, entitled “The Unknown Quantity.”

He remembered Arturo B. Rotor (a wartime Cabinet member of Quezon) who “wrote Quezon’s autobiography” presumably The Good Fight; Stevan Javellana who had probably written the best novel (Without Seeing the Dawn) about the Philippines; and Yay Panlilio, an intrepid woman reporter who became a Marking guerrilla leader. (To be continued)