Lessons in Argentinian history

When Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway published “The Invention of Argentina” in 1991, little did he anticipate the impact the book would have in the world’s eighth-largest country.

“I honestly thought the book would follow the route of most academic publications,” Shumway said. “(I thought) that the print run would maybe be 1,000 copies. Seven hundred copies would be bought by American university libraries, and 300 copies might be sold to specialists.”

Today, as the 20th anniversary of the book’s Spanish-language edition is celebrated and the third edition will be published this fall, more than 50,000 copies have been sold in Argentina. “I never considered writing this book for an Argentinian audience,” said Shumway, who has been involved with foreign-language education and international studies throughout his 38-year career.

But Shumway’s outsider perspective and wide-ranging exploration of one country’s efforts to determine its nature, its destiny and its place among the nations struck a chord within Argentina. The book brings the founding fathers of the republic to life and portrays the revolution against Spain in 1810 and its immediate aftermath. Shumway’s key argument is that the basic conflict between those who sought a European future for the nation and the rough-and-ready “caudillos” explains a great deal about the state of the nation today. “I don’t tell just what is sometimes called the ‘official story,'” Shumway said. “I pay a lot of attention to populist perspectives.”

“Argentines are very interested in their own history,” Shumway said, summing up what he believes is the reason for the book’s success. “History is a very political topic. Part of the reason is that many people feel the country hasn’t met its date with destiny; it’s not become the country it could have become. One of the things they look for in history is, ‘Why?’ The word’s ‘national failure’ would be way too strong. It (Argentina) certainly isn’t a failure. They have a government; they have a legal system. But a lot of Argentinians think the country should have become Australia or Canada.”

The book is a staple among Argentinian high school and university students and popular with a general audience. In September, the University of San Pablo, Tucumán, awarded Shumway an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contributions to the study of the country’s history. The chief justice of the Argentine Supreme Court took part in a recent reading in Buenos Aires to mark the book’s 20th anniversary edition.

The New York Times Book Review has cited the work as a “notable book of the year.” It also received honorable mention for the Bryce Wood Book Award given by the Latin American Studies Association. The University of São Paulo Press published a Portuguese translation in 2009.


About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.