Linda Hutcheon Remembers Mario J. Valdes

Unamuno-specialist, Ricoeur-commentator, hermeneutic theorist, literary historian: all these (and many more) were the scholarly hats Mario wore over his long and illustrious career at the U of T from 1963 onward. Others will be able to comment in more detail on the manifest academic importance of his work, but I would like to take a more personal approach, if I may.

Mario was one of the founding faculty of the Centre for Comparative Literature in the late 1960s/early 1970s.  In 1975, when I was about to graduate as the Centre’s first PhD, Mario stepped in to be my co-director to satisfy the university’s regulations for Centres, and this rescue was the beginning of a long friendship. Over the next years, as he became director of the Centre, it became internationally known as the hub of theory in Canada. Mario brought to Toronto to teach or lecture all the major theorists of the time: Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Frederic Jameson, Tzvetan Todorov, Gérard Genette, and the list could go on and on. International conferences organized by Mario morphed into books he edited, and the Centre was placed firmly on the map. I was reminded of this when the students and faculty rallied to fight the closing of the Centre not so very long ago, and many of these important theorists and critics wrote powerfully in defense and support of its important role internationally.

One day in late 1993 Mario approached me with a not-so-modest proposal: to collaborate on a mega-project to rethink literary history for the next millennium. It was a typical Mario-project: innovative, ambitious, grand in scale, comparative to its core. He proposed that we bring into being a series of multi-authored volumes of comparative literary history to be published in a book series sponsored by the International Comparative Literature Association. Each new project would take a tack on the writing of literary history that would be different from existing ones, which had typically been organized around movements, linguistically-limited geographic regions or cultural-historical periods. Our first task, he told me, would be to develop for discussion initial historical premises, methodological frames of reference, and theoretical underpinning of the larger project, as guides for the individual ones.  Among other things, this involved opening up (and opening out) the concepts of both “literary” and “history” in the light of the radical theoretical rethinking of both in recent decades, including reconceptualizing the very categories of selection and ordering used in writing literary history. We then applied to SSHRC for one of their new Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Grants, and in the end were awarded (in 1995) what was then an immense amount of research money for the Humanities: $1 million.

Then the real work could begin. Once we had fleshed out a vision of the theoretical issues involved, large teams of scholars were invited to Toronto to help develop specific projects on Latin America and Eastern and Central Europe; graduate students from U of T were hired as research assistants to scholars working from all over the world who, with the aid of the amazing research staff at Robarts Library, were able to access the documents and books needed for their chapters. And masterfully coordinating all of this, in the editorial offices, was Mario’s wife, Dr. María Elena de Valdés. It was she, with Mario, who saw (along with Djelal Kadir) to the editing and publishing of the three-volume Literary Cultures of Latin America: A Comparative History (Oxford University Press, 2004)–a comparative interdisciplinary study of the broad literary culture of an entire continent written by over a hundred scholars. As was typical of Mario, once again, he donated his share of the royalties to the Robarts Library in gratitude and recognition of the contribution of its research staff to the project. Over the next years, the four volumes of the History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe (edited by John Neubauer and others) appeared, and the mega-project, begun in 1995, finally came to an end, 15 years later.

This was not a unique kind of project for Mario, even if it was the largest. One of his earliest adventures in the 1960s, again with María Elena, involved convincing the makers of an early version of a photocopier, to allow them to take a prototype machine to Spain, during the Franco years, to copy (in secret) the letters and newspaper articles in the library of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher and writer who had died in 1936. Access to his papers was forbidden, so Mario and María Elena, with the aid of the Unamuno family, bravely smuggled material out of the library, photocopied them in their small apartment, and mailed them to Canada, under the ever-watchful eye of the fascist authorities. By the time they finished, they could donate—again to our library, the Fisher Rare Books Library this time—36 boxes of papers, all carefully indexed and inventoried by the photocopiers themselves. Though the originals NOW are in the National Archives of Spain, these documents were first made available in Canada, thanks to the work of Mario and María Elena. I can’t promise to have captured all the details correctly, but this is the story I remember being told—and at which I marveled.

(I have mentioned María Elena a number of times, and that is no accident, for she was Mario’s partner in all things, always by his side to support, encourage and assist. Along with her own scholarly work on Mexican women writers, Gabriel García Márquez, and Unamuno, she was a major player in the comparative literary history project, both organizationally and intellectually.)

Canada and the international academic community have lost, in Mario, one of its most energetic, hard-working, and committed scholars and teachers. It has been my honour to work with him—and I stress “work” because Mario always worked so very hard, and therefore we all did! Happily, his books and his students live on to testify to his lasting influence.

Linda Hutcheon, University Professor Emeritus, Centre for Comparative Literature, Department of English