The Development of The Filipino Essay In English
This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama
One of the positive developments in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War is the official adoption of English as medium of instruction in the public schools. After the hostilities, Filipino and American educators got together and agreed that a common language is essential in unifying a nation divided by a plethora of dialects. Jose P. Laurel, in his classic The Glorification Of A Common Inheritance, pointed out that although a national tongue alone does not constitute racial identity, “Unity of language is unquestionably a binding force of utmost importance.”
Salvador P. Lopez, in The Future Of Filipino Literature In English, wrote: “We shall have more contact with the rest of the world. During this period we shall negotiate for trade, for security, for a neighborly living with the rest of mankind. At the same time, we shall be expressed more fully to the currents of universal culture. And as we continue to absorb the elements of this culture, we shall be better be able to contribute to the stream.”
A New Generation
Philippine essays developed side by side with Philippine journalism. The introduction of the language ushered in a new generation of English speaking readers and thus, a growing demand for materials in that language. American publications eventually gave way to Filipino-owned magazines and newspapers.
Campus organs served as the spring-boards for the growth of Philippine literature in English. It was instrumental as well in exposing the younger generations to the rudiments of the new lingo. Some of the noteworthy school publications were the Literary Apprentice and the College Folio of UP and the Quill and Argonaut of UST.
After college, the works of these students graduated to the Sunday magazines of the metro dailies and other magazines. Publishers and editors saw how literary sections generate interest and consequently increase circulation.
Prominence and Professionalism
In the same way that British and American essays matured through such magazines as Spectator and the Courant, so has Philippine essay gained prominence and professionalism in several pre-War publications. Among them are Herald Midweek, Expression, Dear Devices and Philippine Magazine, an influential monthly edited by A.V.H. Hartendorp, which featured essays, fiction and poetry of the highest order.
In 1939, the Commonwealth Literary Contests, the first state-sponsored literary award, was established. And during the Occupation, the Japanese sponsored Review and Pillars solicited censored literary works. Some writers were forced to conform to the accepted political thought and thus, freedom of expression, which is a fundamental concept of good writing, was tortured to submission.
Mastery of the Language
It was after the Liberation when Philippine literature in English in general and Philippine essay in English in particular achieved a rennaissance, showing a mastery of the language that was uncanny. In the words of Leon Ma.Guerrero, in his essay What Are Filipino Like?: “Our adaptability, or imitativeness, like our family system, is largely self protective.”
It was during this time when the Philippine American came out with some of the finest literary talents in the country. Another welcome development in it’s wake is the payment of the then staggering amount of one hundred pesos for each article. The incentive fueled the growth of professional writing. Unfortunately, the magazine folded up after a year.
The year 1951 saw the birth of the Philippine Quarterly, a government sponsored publication issued by the Philippine Information Council. It was accepted without question as the best quality magazine in the country in points of writing, editing and printing. It was circulated mostly abroad. However appropriations were stopped and it ceased publication after the sixth issue.
Poignant and Timeless
The classics have an unsurpassed lyrically melodious quality, like Godofredo Rivera’s Thanks My Lord: “And so I built myself a shed of green leaves at the edge of a brook. Days I filled my little heart with joy. Nights I filled my little heart in the gossamer of peace…Each night an augury. Each day a reality. How wonderful is life.” Convict’s Twilight by Arturo B. Rotor is a tapestry of the finest silk in the hands of a master weaver: “The forest…now assumes that calm that is more breathless and awesome than silence…One must pray here, if only to relieve the terrifying solitude, to stay the gathering darkness.” Fernando Maramag paints an unforgettable ode to Fernando Ma. Guerrero: “Poet and patriot of the first order, he has touched the life of his people.” And Jose A. Lansang’s Stirrings is both poignant and timeless: “Life is a placid lake of unsounded depths in a quiet valley…A fallen leaf…creases the smooth surface…Then it reverts back to it’s clear smoothness, to mirror again the pageantry of the clouds by dawn and the glorious stars by night.”
Pioneers of the Essay
Here’s some brief sketches of some of the pioneers of the essay: Carlos P. Romulo was a journalist, diplomat, soldier and professor. He was aide-de-camp to Gen. Douglas McArthur and was with him during the Leyte Landing. His books I Saw The Fall Of The Philippines, Mother America, My Brother Americans, I Saw The Philippines Rise were all written and published in the United States during and after the war. He was the first Asian to receive the Pulitzer Prize and also the first Asian to become Secretary-General of the U.N. General Assembly. In His Ways Are Peculiar, he tries to bridge the gap between East and West: “The white man wonders at the serene and unlined faces of the Orientals. Their look is serene because inwardly, they are at peace.”
Salvador P. Lopez’s Literature And Society was the first distinctive volume of essays by a Filipino that appeared. Before it’s publication in 1940, it won in the essay division of the Commonwealth Literary Contests. His Homecoming Thoughts is in a class of it’s own: “The sharp edges of the mind are often smoothed of intolerance and unreasonable hatred by travel…suspicion yields to understanding and even fear may submit to faith.”
Camilo Osias was the first Filipino superintendent of schools. He also became a senator whose eloquence was legendary. He has written The Filipino Way Of Life which was published in the U.S. and Jose Rizal And His Life And Time which was a winning entry to the Commonwealth Literary Contests biography division. In The Filipino People And The Human Family, he not only celebrates our sterling qualities as a race, but reminds us of our roles in nation building: “With the ideal of equality there should be recognition of unity in diversity rather than unity in uniformity. In a pluralized society, the right to differ in opinions, in convictions, in theories, in practice, is indispensable.”
Pura Santillan Castrence had a column titled Woman Sense in the pre-War Manila Daily Bulletin and was the only writer to resume her column after war. Her character studies of the women in Rizal’s novels appeared in installments in Philippine Magazine in 1938. She was a university professor and division chief of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs. In Aunt Isabel, we are shown a woman “always in the background, yet always making the picture presented richer, lovelier, for her gentle presence.”
Francisco B. Icasiano was the editor of the Manila Tribune and the creator of Mang Kiko, the nipa shack philosopher through whose eyes the world was viewed with irreverent humor and homespun wisdom. In 1941 he selected 35 essays from his column and published them, with the title Horizons From My Nipa Hut. He shares his insights on people in The World In A Train: “We claim that they are the hardest to fall in love with in the normal exercise of Christian charity. Then a little child falls from a seat…and we are, despite our pretensions, affected. Why not? If even a sleeping man who does nothing touches our life!
Antonio Estrada’s daily column Along The Road appeared in the Philippine Herald before the war. His other essays were published in different magazines like Philippine Review and Dear Devices. His On Fairies And Fairy Tales is a flight to the sublime: “It send out beauty in every direction, bathing Necessity in it’s prismatic light, and softening the corners of Routine with it’s roseate glow.”
Federico Mangahas had a column titled Incidentally in the Manila Tribune. After that, he edited the National Review and the Leader On Being eventually becoming the editor of Midweek Magazine. His Ashemed Of One’s Past is actually an affirmation of life: “I do not see why to be human shall not also mean to be strong, to be sensitive, to be worthy.”
Amando Dayrit was the only columnist who appeared on the front page of a daily. His Good Morning Judge! greeted the readers of Manila Tribune everyday before the war.
The Sight of Beauty
Other pioneering giants of the essay are Vidal A. Tan (“Richer living means a life of simplicity and peace”), Vicente Hilario, Eliseo Quirino, Jose Garcia Villa (yes, the poet), Carlos Bulosan, Manuel E. Arguilla, Serafin Lanot (“All of us…have hearts that refused to be imposed upon, and cry for the sight of beauty”), Sofia Bona de Santos (If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again and all that sort of stuff”), Mariano N. Querol (“Bataan was not merely a battlefield…it was every mother’s prayer, every father’s thought”), Paz Latorena (“The quality that appeals to the human mind and enlarges it is Truth.”) Jorge Bocobo (“Unless a student develops the habit of independent and sound reasoning, his college education is a solemn sham.”), Solomon V. Arnaldo (“It is lucky for us city people that our country relatives cannot see into the subtleties of our minds.”), Lydia Arguilla (“Erasers are like people, some can’t remedy matters without messing up.”), Teodoro M. Locsin Sr.(“The true ruler, the philosopher king, must not only love wisdom, he must learn to cope with reality.”), Nick Joaquin (“The ninth chapter of the Noli must be cited as proof of Riza’ls mastery on the art of the novel.”), Alfredo Q. Gonzales (“I thought…of those who…met with well-nigh insurmountable obstacles, but, undismayed, continued their march, buried in obscurity.”), to name a few.
The First Test of Literature
In summing up, let us borrow once more the words of Lopez: “If the first test of literature is the test of continued growth and development, then it may safely be said that no literature written in any other language can pass this test successfully as English. Filipino writers in English have exhibited an enormous capacity for rapid growth and development and have produced a body of writing that is both competent and distinguished.”