“The art of expression,” wrote Alfonso Reyes (RAY-yays), “did not appear to me as a rhetorical function, independent of conduct, but a means of realizing human feeling.” Thus this Mexican writer defined and justified his literary vocation, so faithfully and completely fulfilled during the fifty years of his writing that he has justly been called “the most accomplished example of the man of letters in Mexico.”
Born in Monterrey, capital of the state of Nuevo Leon, on May 17, 1889, he was the son of General Bernardo Reyes, at that time governor of the state and a prominent politician in the regime of President Porfirio Díaz. Having begun his schooling in his native city, Reyes moved later to Mexico City, where in 1913 he received the professional title of lawyer. There he became part of a generation of writers engaged in a vigorous intellectual revolution that had enormous repercussions in Mexican culture. These writers were united in a movement called El Ateneo de la Juventud (The Athenaeum of Youth). Reyes was the youngest member of this group, and he labored side by side with other writers who became primary figures in the intellectual life of modern Mexico, including José Vasconcelos, Antonio Caso, Martín Luis Guzmán, and Enrique González Martínez. The basic aims of this group were the study and understanding of Mexican culture, the assimilation of the emerging post-positivist philosophies, and the development of literary criticism, all grounded in the universal ideas and values of the Enlightenment. The coming revolution, however, produced a rift among those aims: the dream of a harmonious insertion of the Mexican culture into the universal one proved complicated. Each member of the generation pursued his own path out of the impasse.
Immersed in these intellectual currents, Reyes left for Europe in the service of Mexican diplomacy. In Madrid he collaborated with the emerging Center of Historical Studies under the direction of D. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and he was also invited to contribute to the pages of El Sol (The Sun), headed by José Ortega y Gasset. In 1939, after twenty-five years–except for a few intermissions–of diplomatic service, he returned to Mexico and pursued his literary activities with the greatest enthusiasm. Reyes used the presence in Mexico of exiled Spanish intellectuals to found El Colegio de México, which became the primary Mexican institution of higher learning. The Universities of California, Havana, and Mexico as well as Tulane, Harvard, and Princeton Universities conferred honorary degrees on him. In 1957, in recognition of his faithful and constant dedication to letters, he was named president of the Mexican Academy of Language, of which he had been a corresponding member since 1918.
Reyes’s body of work is extensive. During his more than fifty years as a writer–in 1906, at the age of seventeen, he wrote his first sonnet, “Mercenario”–his indefatigable pen produced no fewer than three hundred titles, among them poems, criticism, essays, memoirs, plays, novels, short stories, prefaces, newspaper articles, nonliterary works, and translations. A constant element of his work, as much in his prose as in his verse, is a lyricism that gives to his books a tone that is agreeable and gracious, ingenious and subtle. In his poetry are evident the influences of Luis de Góngora and Stéphane Mallarmé, combined with a personal taste for the picturesque and colloquial. In his preferred medium, the essay, he treats a great variety of subjects. His best literary criticism is to be found in the essays of La experiencia literaria, in which he pours forth his own experiences in the profession of a writer, and in “Sobre la estetica de Gongora,” with which he opens the doors to the modern study and understanding of that baroque Spanish poet. Important among his strictly literary works is Vision of Anáhuac, a poetic evocation of pre-Columbian Mexican history. Among the humanistic studies, Discurso por Virgilio (1933; address in behalf of Vergil), contains both profound classical and American flavor; among the works with fantastic and dreamlike themes is Arbol de pólvora.
With a profound understanding of the function of a writer, Reyes produced his greatest critical work, El deslinde (the boundary line). In it, he analyzes the artistic import of expression, style, aesthetic problems, semantics, philology, and the philosophy of language.
“American, European, universal”–thus Federico de Onís described Reyes. These epithets are well applied if one considers that this Mexican writer, through his native sensibility, his classic form, and the universality of his subjects, is, as the same critic avers, “the most successful example of a citizen of the international world of letters, both ancient and modern.”