La Navidad en las Montañas, 1870 (Christmas in the Mountains, 1961)
El Zarco: Episodios de la vida Mexicana en 1861-1863, 1901 (El Zarco, the Bandit, 1957)
Cuentos de invierno, 1880
Paisajes y leyendas, tradiciones y costumbres de México, 1884
Rimas, 1864, 1871, 1880
Teacher, politician, soldier, journalist, poet, novelist, literary inspirer of the young, and restorer of centers of learning, Ignacio Manuel Altamirano (ahl-tah-MEE-rah-noh) fills an epoch in the cultural life of Mexico. The spiritual development of Altamirano, considered Mexico’s greatest writer in his age, is an example of determination and genius. Of pure Indian blood, he was born in an obscure village in the southwest of Mexico; at the age of fourteen he still knew no Spanish. He began his studies at the Scientific and Literary Institute of Toluca, then the capital city of the state that contained his native village. In this city he learned Spanish, Latin, French, and philosophy, and he had as a teacher of literature the celebrated reformer Ignacio Ramírez, better known under his pseudonym, El Nigromante (The Necromancer).
After teaching French at a private school in Toluca, he settled in Mexico City and studied at the College of Letrán. He interrupted his studies in order to ally himself with the Revolution of Ayutla, 1853-1855, against the dictator Santa Anna. Thereafter Altamirano returned to Mexico City to complete his courses in law. Again he took up arms during the War of Reform, and in 1861, after the triumph of the liberals, he was elected to the national Congress. During the French Intervention and the Second Empire he fought in the Republican ranks along with Benito Juárez. After the fall of Maximilian he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and to letters.
Altamirano founded the weekly literary review El renacimiento (the renaissance) in 1869, in whose columns was brought about a reconciliation of Mexico’s conflicting political and literary factions: the conservative and the liberal, the neoclassic and the romantic. The pages of this publication were open to all genres and ideas. The short story, the novel, poetry, criticism, and history shook hands with one another and brought about a literary rebirth in Mexico that was to culminate in the modernism that marked the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.
The plots of Altamirano’s novels are generally straightforward and well-proportioned. The atmosphere in which they develop is intensely Mexican, completely localized within the provincial geography of the country. His characters, although moved by romantic motives, are nonetheless believable, sympathetic, and contrasted one with another. In Clemencia, set in the region of Guadalajara during the war of the French Intervention, Altamirano succeeds in creating a romantic novel of powerful native coloring. El Zarco: Episodios de la vida Mexicana en 1861-1863, completed in 1888 but published posthumously in 1901, embodies his ideal of “national literature.” Set in the state of Morelos in the same period as Clemencia, during the peak of banditry in Mexico, it uses romance for nation-building purposes: A white girl who has read too much romantic literature spurns her mestizo suitor, who then finds his happiness in love with a mestizo girl. The white girl elopes with a blue-eyed zarco (bandit), only to regret it. The future of the country, then, lies in Mexico’s indigenous values. In Christmas in the Mountains, a short novel of idyllic atmosphere, Altamirano presents a simple and pleasing account of a Christmas spent in a village in the south of Mexico during the Civil War.
Altamirano also wrote poetry; thirty-two poems written before 1867 were published in 1864, 1871, and 1880 under the title Rimas. These descriptive poems center on the rural landscapes of his childhood; their subjects and atmosphere indicate the poet’s deep preoccupation with the creation of a national literature.
In 1889 Altamirano was named consul general in Spain and later in France. During a visit to Italy he became ill and went to San Remo to recover. There he died on February 13, 1893. His ashes were carried to Mexico City and placed in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men.