The history of Hispanism

Conversazione – the lunchtime series of research talks by faculty at York’s Glendon campus – recently offered a presentation touching on the history of Hispanism.

Professor Jerzy Kowal (left), acting chair of Glendon’s Hispanic Studies Department, provided an overview of the history of Hispanic studies in Canada in his talk on March 7. Kowal began by offering a definition of Hispanism as “the study of the language, literature, and the history of Spain by foreigners”, a term which is only recently gaining popular use, as a result of the explosion of Hispanic studies in North America. He gave a bird’s eye view of the worldwide study of Spanish language and culture, touching on France, Germany, Great Britain and the US, before turning his attention to Canada’s activities in this field.

Explaining that the University of Toronto was the first in Canada to introduce Hispanic studies in its curriculum in 1853, Kowal divided the years from that point to the present into four stages in the evolution of Hispanism. Each of these periods evolved as a result of major political events, such as the two world wars and the emergence of the baby-boomers, sometimes with interesting consequences. Kowal commented that the events of the First World War resulted in prejudice against all things German, causing a serious decline in the study of German language and German culture at Canadian universities. What German studies lost, Hispanic studies gained in numbers of courses and interested students.

Kowal leavened his talk with colourful anecdotes about the major figures of Hispanism, among them the story of James (Giaccomo) Forneri and his circuitous appointment as first Chair of Modern Languages at University College (U of T) in 1853. A native of a village near Turin in northern Italy, Forneri was a lawyer by training, had fought with Napoleon’s army in Germany, escaped banishment to Siberia, participated in a secret society fighting for liberation in Barcelona, and fled to Britain, where he became a professor of Italian. He came to Nova Scotia to continue to teach, but when that job ended, Forneri was about to leave for Australia. That was when the opportunity to build U of T’s first modern languages department was offered to him by Lord Elgin. Following this intriguing anecdote, Kowal described the contributions of other stars in the firmament of Hispanism and the future of hispanic studies in Canada.

Kowal has embarked on compiling a comprehensive history of Hispanic studies in Canada and the world, its emergence, the fields of study it includes, its achievements, challenges and its future. “The first wave of professors who established the modern curriculum [in the mid-1960s] is about to retire,” said Kowal. “As in every field, it is important to trace this trajectory, so that future generations may have a record of the past.” Kowal plans to produce a textbook that could be used in Canada, as well as in Spain and other locations around the world.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.