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Rehearsing American Literature in Spain

by John J. Murphy, professor of English, BYU

My three weeks in Spain in May 2001 came about because of my work on American novelist Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which appeared in a 1999 scholarly edition (University of Nebraska Press) that I contributed to as volume editor. Cather’s novel explores the early missionary activities of Spaniards in New Mexico, and a Spanish-language edition was being prepared by Manuel Broncano, director of modern languages at the Universidad de León. Broncano, who had used my historical essay and explanatory notes in his edition of La muerte Llama al arzobispo, invited me to teach a graduate seminar at his university, as well as to lecture on an American literary topic at two other universities. Kennedy Center funding enabled me to accept his invitation. The English faculty at León specifically requested that I introduce literature that contained American response to Europe and European to America as this would be of particular interest to their students and contribute to international understanding.

My arrival in León was celebrated with significant hospitality, including visits to homes, dinner invitations, and tours of the countryside. These were great fun, although I had to restrict them after a few days so I could hole up and finish work on the project I had committed myself to. León’s ancient university has a new, American-style campus outside the city walls where I taught, but I was housed in quarters for visiting scholars and graduate students in the old part of the city. This allowed me the privilege of walking alongside the tenth-century walls and through the cathedral plaza on my way to class each morning. The layers of history helped me get perspective on the newness of American culture and the literature I was helping these students discover.

Walls of the Catedral de León

I worked with nine graduate students—varyingly proficient in English. Part of the value of the course for them was being forced to ask questions and comment in English, since I have no Spanish. The American texts we read not only introduced them to cultural interaction but also to atypical aspects of literature usually characterized by New England romantics, Lost Generation modernists, and, recently, contemporary minority voices. Our texts included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, as well as Cather’s Archbishop. I also brought copies of Emily Dickinson’s poems to relieve the intensity of working on prose texts, and because Dickinson was the lecture topic I chose for my visits to the universities at Santiago de Compostela and Oviedo.

The Hawthorne text was a surprise to these students, whose exposure to Hawthorne had been limited to The Scarlet Letter and a few stories. The Marble Faun is Hawthorne’s last completed novel (1860) and his only international one, the result of his late introduction to Italy. Its main characters are two New England artists and their two European friends. Hawthorne’s characters explore the inherited sinful burden of human nature, which the American couple escape in flight back to the States and the Europeans eventually accept, if grudgingly, as essential for maturity. Through his narrator, Hawthorne betrays his own attraction and circumspection toward the Catholicism that would eventually claim his daughter Rose (Mother Mary Alphonsa Lathrop, O.S.D.).

Murphy’s nine graduate students

James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902) presents a similar combination of Americans and Europeans and is set in England and Italy. In it, a dying American heiress is exploited through her affection for a British journalist, so that her fortune might support his marriage to the British woman who hatches the exploitive scheme. The American heiress and her traveling companion mature as they slowly unravel the scheme. The journalist is reformed spiritually after the death of the heiress, and his betrothed is frustrated by the transformation of her victim into a spiritual force, a dove.

Murphy (second from right) with other American visiting professors

The students and I spent time on James’s modernism, his use of consciousness centers, and compared his impressionistic techniques to those of the American impressionist painters who were his contemporaries and, like him, preferred the European to the American scene. I included slides of works by Sargent, Hassam, Chase, and Whistler—none of whom were known to the students. This added a measure of complexity to their concept of American culture.

I also used slides of Roman sites from a nineteenth-century illustrated edition of The Marble Faun and discovered that none of these students had ever visited Rome (a few hundred miles east), although several had been to the U.S.

Murphy (second from right) with other American visiting professors

The students were surprised both by James’s spiritual interpretation of what might be viewed as American naivete and by Hawthorne’s American superiority and distaste toward a culture similar to their own. They were enthusiastic about the Cather text because it depicted, in exquisite yet simple and straightforward prose, the deserts and canyons of the American Southwest, and it did so from the consciousness of a European (a French Catholic priest). Cather used comparisons of the American landscape with not only the European landscape but to European architecture and artifacts: mesas to cathedrals, golden cliffs to the Papal Palace at Avignon, France—revealing how the unfamiliar is experienced through the familiar.

Cather’s language, like that of the Dickinson poems we studied together, proved more accessible to the students than either the somewhat-dated style of Hawthorne or the complexities of James and helped sharpen their English language skills. One of the young women, Denise Phelps, is now focusing her studies on Cather as a result of this introduction. She wrote me in December that she has just finished Cather’s My Antonia and that she likes “the way [Cather] sees and describes space, the way the stories are told gently, but feel big in scope.”


For my lectures at Santiago and Oviedo, I arranged Dickinson poems according to the stages of Christian mystical progress traced by Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle (Las Moradas). This is a legitimate approach to Dickinson, since a goodly percentage of her 1,775 poems are devotional and trace the ups and downs of her spiritual journey.

I was generously received at Santiago de Compostela by Constante Gonzalez Groba, chair of American Literature. My audience of about seventy-five students and faculty very attentively followed the Dickinson texts I distributed. After the lecture, I discussed Dickinson over lunch with some of the Santiago faculty and some faculty from other schools nearby, one of whom had published a slim volume on the poet. I gave a variation of the same lecture to a similarsized group at Oviedo, although scheduling problems made the visit a rushed one—I lectured and was chauffeured back and forth through the steep mountain roads (sixty miles each way) in about three hours!

Courtyard of Convento de la Encarnación

During the last few days of the very intensive three weeks, I managed to make my way down to Avila to visit the Teresan sites. In the courtyard of the Convento de la Encarnación that Teresa entered as a Carmelite in 1535, I saw the stages of Teresan mystical progression outlined in stone circles growing smaller as they approached a tall slim cross in the center. The walls, Murallas, of Avila merit a trip to Spain, especially if seen illuminated at night from across the river. As I watched the walls, I thought of Emily Dickinson, sometimes called the “nun of Amherst,” and her life seemed to have been lengthened.

The León faculty planned a farewell weekend at Picos de Europa for me and other American visiting professors in creative writing and business. Looking up toward these spectacular, snow-topped mountains, I was reminded of the Wasatch; however, looking down, the lush, green countryside and little Romanesque churches reminded me that I was in northern Spain, just south of the Bay of Biscay.

Picos de Europa

On my last night in León, I joined the locals who sit in the plaza to enjoy the illumination of the cathedral, which takes about thirty minutes. All ages participate, from very old ladies to skateboarders. I noticed in Spain, as I have in France and Ireland, many more multi-generational activities than I have experienced in the States. As I watched the families enjoying the light show, I was anxious to get back to my family.

I had a wonderful visit and hoped the students profited from the experience as much as I. Their questions and comments revealed that American literature had gained a complexity for them that it had not had. They realized American literature explored traditional moral questions as well as the wilderness and struggled with limitations as well as celebrated freedom. Reading Dickinson from the Teresan perspective, students recognized her as a devotional poet. Their questions and those at the lectures revealed that prior opinion (if there was one) had fabricated a poet more rebellious than dutiful, more atheistic than believing.

Catedral de León

Santiago’s English Department has submitted a proposal for me to study American literature with their graduate students. I hope this opportunity materializes. Reading American writers with Europeans expands the reach of our literature, and developing friendships with European scholars interested in our culture is extremely valuable during the present international crisis. Such would not have been possible for me without the Kennedy Center’s research support.