History and Intimacy: Reading the Lincolns’ Letters in a College Classroom Today

May 2, 2020

ALBA’s teaching resources are used in college and high-school classrooms throughout the United States. A testimonial from the University of Chicago.

How to make the Spanish Civil War relevant for young people born an ocean away and seventy years after it ended? I always think this is a challenge, but my students at the University of Chicago seem to believe otherwise. This quarter, I’m teaching “Beyond Guernica. Destruction and Conservation in the Spanish Civil War.” The class has attracted majors in literature, art history, and history, but also students from more distant disciplines such as economics, mathematics, and engineering. Some are drawn to the topic by the vague appeal of a romantic anti-fascist war, Picasso’s Guernica, or the mere fact that the university rarely offers courses with a component of Spanish art. For a handful, the class offers the opportunity for a personal inquiry into their family’s history, as many identify as descendants of Spanish exiles, often through Cuba or Mexico. Most of their families hail from the Spanish Republican side, but I also have students from families who left Spain “to escape the Communist terror” and never went back. As this is a rather new narrative of the Spanish exile to me, I am particularly interested to learn how those experiences have been construed and passed on.

Miguel Caballero

I approach the class from a cultural studies perspective, with the goal of immersing my students in the beliefs, feelings, and aspirations of the 1930s. We discuss how literature and art help build a constellation of ideas and forms, and how this constellation of ideas and forms in turn inspires particular types of literature and art. In the first class of the quarter, I introduce the students to a handful of letters written by Lincoln volunteers, which I have found to be particularly apt for submerging my students in the 1930s. In a sense these letters are time capsules, intimate texts written in exceptional moments. The volunteers write to family and friends to explain their reasons for engaging in a foreign war, allowing for the possibility that they might not understand. They are arguing that the Spanish Civil War does not actually feel foreign to them. My students reading the letters are in a similar position to the recipients, as they do not yet comprehend the reasons for the authors’ sacrificial commitment. But at the same time, they are also very close to the volunteers—they are roughly of the same age, from the same country, and share the same interest in Spain.

I start the first class with a broad, provocative question: Can you think of a political or social cause that would make you drop out of college right now, and leave the United States or your home country to go fight and risk your life in a foreign land? They look at me in awe, not sure what to reply. To be sure, this is the first class of the quarter, they don’t know each other yet, they don’t know me, I don’t know them. Maybe this question is too much. Or maybe it’s not, since the class is all about giving a glimpse into the polarization, radicality, solidarity, and commitment of the 1930s. Opening with such a personal question makes them uncomfortable—but in this case, the discomfort might be worth it.

Once they get around to replying, their answers lead into a predictable discussion about contemporary narcissism and social media activism. Some students eventually manage to verbalize vague notions of an internationalist commitment to environmentalism, feminism, or LGBT rights. Perhaps the most determined contribution came from a student who shared that she knows peers who have left their life in the United States behind to help build and protect the state of Israel.

Miguel Caballero with a fellow teacher at the Beachwood, Ohio, workshop in 2018.

It is only after this initial conversation that I distribute the letters. The authors provide a wide range of reasons to fight in Spain, from international solidarity against fascism, to opportunities to learn Spanish and achieve the noble life experiences needed to become a respected novelist. Race and ethnicity figure prominently. Among the letter writers are African Americans and Jewish Americans who point to their identities and backgrounds as crucial factors for their decision to join the war. But they also express their identification with, and loyalties to, other groups: the international working class, progressives, etc. The letters intrigue my students. They read and re-read them. For them, they breathe something familiar and yet something very foreign. Most students pick up on notions of solidarity, but others think the Lincoln volunteers have been brainwashed. These discussions carry over into the following classes.

Eventually, someone expresses discomfort at the fact that we are reading private letters. As it happens, we are in 2020, over 80 years after the end of the war—precisely at the point when (at least in Spain) copyright expires and private intellectual property enters into the public domain—as we walk the fine line between personal or family memories and collective history. At this point, I explain ALBA’s mission. We browse the website, discuss the need to understand, disseminate and commemorate the lives of the young Americans who made a sacrifice to fight fascism. Yet, there is still some distress. Some students are not sure we should be reading these texts at all. Could this be due to the way that the notions of the private and the intimate have evolved from my generation to my students’ generation? (I’m around 15 years their senior.) Or is because there is something in the letters that is still not fully history yet?

Miguel Caballero (PhD Princeton University, 2017) is Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, affiliated to Romance Languages and Literatures, and Art History. He teaches courses on world literature and Iberian studies. As a researcher, he studies the debates and practices of conservation and destruction around the Spanish Civil War.