Summary of Chapter 1
The narrator, Sarmiento himself, begins with a description of the physical terrain of Argentina. It is a country that has suffered from the vast, empty expanses of desert and plains; its characteristic is immensity. Savages roam the land and traveling wagons must be wary of the hordes. Life outside towns is frightening and insecure. This has led to a “certain stoical resignation to death by violence, which is regarded as one of the inevitable probabilities of existence” (10).
There are three different sections of the country, each with its own characteristics. In the north is the forest, and in the center are the plains; their vastness is as a sea on land. Many navigable rivers are there. The people who live near these rivers are happy to have them as an impediment to the gaucho.
The rivers connect the cities, the most important being Montevideo and Buenos Ayres. The latter is the only city in contact with Europe, the only city with power and revenue, the city the provinces asked for assistance, and when receiving none, sent her Rosas. Barbarism is ever-present in Buenos Ayres now. The city favors monopoly but it is clear that the “progress of civilization must culminate in Buenos Ayres” (13).
The country was seemingly destined to become a unified republic since it did not have independent settlements like North America. Philosophers claim the mountains made strongholds for liberty and the plains for despotism. The plains give the interior an Asiatic character and the wilds of Asia come to mind. What results is brute force, the strong prevailing, and lack of justice and accountability. Those who live far from society have to struggle alone with nature.
There are two different races in the districts: the Spanish and the native. The Spanish are in the rural districts, the negro race (almost all gone but having left mulattos and zambos) mostly in cities, more progressive and civilized. The people of both races are idle, incapable of industry. The natives are dirty, ragged, and idle.
In the plains there are fourteen cities, each the capital of a province. Each province, except San Juan and Mendoza, fosters a pastoral lifestyle. Argentinian cities appear regular, civilized, and elegant. Buenos Ayres and Cordova have established subordinate towns as well. In the cities, people appear European, but outside they are “South American” in their dress and habits of life. These people are very different from each other; civilization seems contained in the cities.
Outside the cities lies the remaining population. Their lives are pastoral, reminiscent of the Asian plains. There are no nomads, though, because people remain solitary. There is indolence and barbarism, and “society has altogether disappeared” (21). It seems more like old Slavonic Sloboda or the feudal Middle Ages in its “isolated self-concentrated feudal family” (21).
It certainly does look like the lifestyle of Spartans and Romans but there is a difference: those ancient groups also used others to do their work and spent their time on other activities, but the Argentinians have no cities, municipalities, or any social development. There is no moral progress or intellectual development; the pastor and pulpit hold no charms. Religion is primitive; Christianity is corrupted.
Similarly, education is limited. When boys grow up to be men, they become indolent and independent. This is the public life of the gaucho – he is a man of brutishness, the product of the struggle with nature. This he claims as his reason for superiority; he believes himself prodigious and powerful. He looks down on the luxury-loving European and believes nothing is worse than a life of refinement. His physical powers are developed but he has no intellectual ones.
The life of the gaucho is one of barbarism and “the impossibility and uselessness of moral and intellectual education” (27).
Summary of Chapter 2
Some poetry exists in the state of things, especially between mind and matter, and civilization and barbarism. Someone like James Fennimore Cooper in North America understood this, and in Argentina the poet Echevarria did as well in his work “The Captive.” He wrote of the desert, immeasurable spaces, and wandering savages.
Certain conditions lead to peculiarities in character that are replicated in places with those same conditions. There are similarities between the pampas of Argentina, the frontiers of America, and the wilds of Asia.
When the inhabitant of Argentina looks beyond the horizon, he does not know what lies out there, except for perhaps “wilderness, danger, the savage, death!” (31). It is only natural that poetic feelings arise from this reality. Images remain “deeply engraved on the soul” (31).
When asked about lightning, gauchos rattle off myths, superstitions, and vulgar tradition. The gaucho’s poetry contrasts with the civilized work of poets of the city such as Echevarria and Dominguez.
Gaucho poetry is irregular and less formal. It has an engrained interest in music as most people play instruments. The most popular measure for songs of the day or warlike odes is the Vidalita. The guitar is the most popular instrument.
There are a few types of occupation to describe. First, there is the Rastreador, or track-finder. Gauchos in the interior fill this role. They are “grave, circumspect” (35) and full of dignity that befits their grand possession of knowledge. They can follow any track and solve crimes if necessary. One such personage, Calibar, had been doing this for forty years and achieved great renown.
The Baqueano, or the path-finder, controls the fates of individuals and provinces. He is grave and reserved as well; he knows all the secrets of campaigns and knows the topography of the land. He announces the approach of enemies and the direction from whence they come. The most famous was General Rivera, who “knew every tree that grows anywhere in the Republic of Uruguay” (40).
The Gaucho Outlaw is a squatter and misanthrope. He knows everything about the wilderness, but has no moral compass. People dread him and the law covets him; there is an immense respect accorded him. He is rarely pursued since the horses would just be lost. His renown pervades the land. He is not a bandit or highwayman, and does not murder; instead, he steals horses.
The Cantor, or minstrel, sings about the heroes of the pampa. He records history, customs, and biography and thus does a service to the country. His abode is unfixed. Sometimes his stories of others include his own exploits. When composed in the instant, his work is irregular and clumsy, more suited to narrative rather than the expression of feeling.
There are other types of people but they are not as useful in conveying the customs of the country.
There are a couple of things to note immediately about this text after reading the first couple of chapters and before proceeding to the next. First, this is a strange hybrid work, one of history, biography, travel narrative, and fiction. Critics do not often agree on exactly what genre it belongs to. Ostensibly every figure and every fact is accurate, as Sarmiento claims, but there is most definitely embellishment and factual fungibility. Sarmiento’s goal was to expose the barbarism exemplified by Rosas by focusing on the only slightly less monstrous Facundo. He wanted to explain why his country was the way it was, why barbarism was spreading and resulting in disasters, and how civilization was under threat. The work, as Ilan Stavans writes, “was conceived as many books in one, and the end product is something of a hybrid.” Sarmiento wanted to “make history more palatable, more convincing” and knew he “needed to establish a marriage between historical information and imaginative, fabricated ingredients, between fact and fiction… impartiality, he trusted, was less important and made worse literature than partisanship.”
Second, the author is not merely a writer, but a renowned intellectual and statesman. This work is considered the beginning of Argentinian literature, and the name Sarmiento is universally known in Latin America. It is an absolutely seminal and foundational text.
In the first two chapters, Sarmiento sets out to explain the characteristics of his country and how it created a man like Facundo. He begins with large generalizations, comparing the city and countryside. The cities are places of civilization, of Spanish influence, of learning and progress. They are under threat from the barbarism of the provinces, which are desolate wastelands where the inhabitants have to fight tooth and nail against nature to survive. Sarmiento wants to convey how the natural environment shapes the character of people; these are inextricably linked. Men like Rosas and Facundo become barbarous in large part because of their savage, rough existence. They are gauchos, the most famous of the recognizable Argentinian types Sarmiento describes.
Significantly, Sarmiento never actually saw the pampas, the plains of Argentinian provinces. This is very similar to the North American author he references – James Fenimore Cooper. In her article comparing Facundo and Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s most famous character, Dorothy Sherman Vivian begins by accounting for the similarities in the authors’ Romantic inspirations and how they both “demonstrate the effects of nature on the physical habits and moral character of man.” Nature shapes their physical and moral character, and pushes them to assert their physical prowess. However, the similarities end here. Cooper “stresses the civilized aspects of his main character (clothing) while Sarmiento stresses the bestial aspects of Facundo”; nature has made these two men very differently.
Sarmiento sees nature as defeating man, not being tamed by him. He has a romantic perspective shaped by the fact that his country was not yet as far in its economic progress, while Cooper is comfortably on the other side, asserting that nature is mostly tamed by man. Sarmiento “treats nature as savage, brutal, and difficult to dominate” and believes that nature makes men like animals (in the next section Facundo will be compared to a tiger). Sarmiento is concerned that there is a loss of the “civilizing code.” Facundo is amoral, barbarous, and excessively individualistic. Natty Bumppo is also individualistic, but governed by an ethical code. Vivian concludes, “To Sarmiento, a lack of civilization and an excess of nature will lead to a loss of morality; to Cooper it is Nature that teaches and an excess of civilization that threatens.”