Remembering Tulio Halperín-Donghi (1926-2014)

Tulio Halperín-Donghi, who held the Chair in Latin American History at Oxford in 1970-1, passed away last 14 November.  Born in Buenos Aires on 27 October 1926, he completed his doctoral degree in history at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1955 going on to become one of the most respected Argentine historians of his generation.  He lectured at the universities of Rosario, Buenos Aires and Harvard before coming to Oxford, and then moved for the rest of his academic career to the University of California at Berkeley, where he was made an Emeritus Professor in 1997.  He published extensively on the history of Argentina and Latin America, including Argentina en el callejón (Montevideo, 1964), Politics, Economics and Society in Argentina in the Revolutionary Period (Cambridge, 1975), The Contemporary History of Latin America (Duke, 1993), and Una nación para el desierto argentino (Buenos Aires, 2005).  His death, Francisco Pereguil wrote in El País, has ‘motivated in Argentina a similar consensus that the one which existed around his hero, Manuel Belgrano, to whom he devoted his last book. The Latin American Centre laments his passing and pays tribute to his memory. Below a few words from Klaus Gallo, Malcolm Deas and Alan Knight remembering him.

Klaus Gallo, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, writes: Tulio Halperín Donghi was a unique intellectual. His legacy in Argentine historiography is as powerful as that of Jorge Luis Borges in Argentine literature. Masterpieces such as Revolución y guerra (1972), Tradición política española e ideología revolucionaria de Mayo (1961), Una nación para el desierto argentino (1982) and Guerra y finanzas en los orígenes del estado argentino (1791-1850) (1982), among other outstanding publications, are all groundbreaking contributions that encompass the fields of political, social, intellectual and economic history, a fact that reveals Halperín’s versatility as a historian.

Born in 1926 in Buenos Aires, Halperín graduated in Law and History in that city’s university and continued with his postgraduate studies at the École Pratique des
Hautes Études, in Paris, where he established direct contact with Fernand Braudel and the écoles d’anales. Back in Argentina, he became a regular collaborator in publications such as Sur, the cultural supplement of La Nación, and Imago Mundi, where he met José Luis Romero and Claudio Sánchez Albornoz. It was partly due to the influence of these two historians that Halperín drove his attention towards medieval European history, an area of study to which he eventually dedicated his doctoral thesis Un conflicto nacional: moriscos y cristianos viejos en Valencia, presented in 1954.

A few years before, Halperín had already published his first significant work, a study on one of the pioneers of the so called Argentine Romantic group or Generación del 37, Esteban Echeverría, entitled El pensamiento de Echeverría (1951), putting in evidence, at this early hour, the wide range of his historical interests. This book is paradoxically one of Halperín’s least cited contributions, with a very limited circulation. During the latter part of that decade, Halperín wrote a series of articles around other referents of Argentina’s early intellectual and historiographic tradition such as Bartolomé Mitre, Vicente Fidel López, José María Ramos Mejía and Juan Alvárez.

In the first half of the 1960’s Halperín experienced the tumultuous and traumatic consequences of the post-peronist political experience in Argentina, which eventually forced him to abandon the University of Buenos Aires and leave his country in 1966, shortly after the military coup that same year. He arrived to the United States where he was professor at Harvard and, a couple of years later, also in the United Kingdom after obtaining the prestigious Chair in Latin American History at the University of Oxford. From 1971 onwards he taught at the University of California, at Berkeley. During the late sixties and early seventies, Halperín published some of his most significant books, namely Historia contemporánea de América latina; Revolución y Guerra. Formación de una elite dirigente en la Argentina criolla, which most historians regard as his most significant work, and also Historia Argentina. De la revolución de Independencia hasta la Confederación Rosista, which no doubt contributed to consolidate his stance as one of Latin America´s most prolific and influencial historians.

By the time democracy was re-established in Argentina in 1983, Halperín was already revered as a living legend in academic and intellectual circles, especially after the revitalization experienced in the sphere of historical studies, which allowed him to return more often to his country and participate actively in all sorts of academic events. In spite of his aura, those fortunate enough to approach him on such occasions –professors, students, admirers- were frequently surprised by his accessibility and humility. His influence is visible also in the academic contributions of some of his students and disciples during the last half century.

During the eighties and nineties, Halperín’s concern with the complexities of Argentine politics, was made visible with the publication of La larga agonía de la Argentina peronista (1994) and the re-edition of works such as Argentina. La democracia de masas (1991), a work that dated from 1972 and Argentina en el callejón (1995), originally published in 1964. This intense incursion in more contemporary themes coexisted with a series of writings on Argentine political and intellectual history, which Halperín presented as a collection of anthologies for the Biblioteca del Pensamiento Argentino, consisting of seven volumes published by Ariel. Four of these volumes were written and edited by established Argentine historians such as José Carlos Chiaramonte, Natalio Botana, Ezequiel Gallo, Beatríz Sarlo and Carlos Altamirano. The reminding three volumes were of Halperin’s authorship: the re-edited Proyecto y construcción de una Nación (1996); Vida y muerte de la República verdadera; 1910-1930 (2000); La República Imposible. 1930 - 1945. (2004)

His more recent publications reflect up to what extent he was inclined to return to the area of studies of his first publications: intellectual history in general, and more specifically the political trajectories of certain Latin American nineteenth century intellectual referents, namely Alberdi, Sarmiento, Mitre, Lastarria, Mier, Samper, Prieto and Belgrano, as can be witnessed particularly in some of his essays published in the brilliant El espejo de la historia; problemas argentinos y perspectivas hispanoamericanas (1987), more recently in Letrados y Pensadores. El perfilamiento del Intelectual hispanoamericano en el siglo XIX (2012), and in his final and probably most controversial contribution, El enigma Manuel Belgrano. Un héroe para nuestro tiempo (2014). He also wrote an autobiography entitled Son Memorias, an incisive account of his early life and first incursions in the academic world which, inevitably, left quite a few of his readers longing for a follow up rendering his most prolific years as a leading historian.

Certain patterns and trends reverberate from the wide variety and scope of Halperín´s works. As the reader penetrates an often complex, dense and at times impenetrable narrative structure, he is confronted and simultaneously illuminated by the ironies, nuances, subtleties, and wit that emerge from Halperín´s sharp and original analysis. A similar effect was evident on the occasions when Halperín lectured in courses and conferences or simply conversed with colleagues and friends in cafes and restaurants. Apart from his invaluable academic contributions, it was his style that made him truly unique, a style that enabled him to achieve what few have managed: a trademark.

Malcolm Deas writes: ‘Tulio's passage through Oxford was relatively short, but long enough for all of us who came to know him and who heard him lecture here  to have fixed in our memories his brilliance, originality and wit. He was also, behind a certain shyness and puzzlement with the native Anglo-Saxons, a keen and often amused observer of the vagaries of the University and of many of its inhabitants. On meeting him on subsequent occasions in Argentina, one would be again impressed by his limitless and undiminished curiosity and incisiveness, and be moved by his friendly enquiries about his erstwhile colleagues here, which showed we were not forgotten’.

Alan Knight writes: I was a graduate student and postdoc at Oxford during Tulio’s brief stint as Professor of the History of Latin America. In fact, the first paper I ever gave was in the LAC, c1971, with Tulio chairing, charitably. Though he (and his family) did not take to Oxford (and who can blame them, I am tempted to add?) so he moved on to UC Berkeley, where he remained thereafter. But he maintained an interest in Oxford, and recommended at least one Argentine historian, Roy Hora, to opt for Oxford, when he did his (very good) doctorate. Tulio also returned to Oxford for occasional events, maintaining an interest in our modest programme, and I encountered him at several conferences over the years: at Berkeley, Urbana-Champaign, and Tel-Aviv (when we visited Jerusalem together and Tulio, though already quite old, had no trouble with the touristic forced march we had to undergo). Though towards the end of his life he became physically very frail, his sharp intellect was never blunted: at the last LASA conference (Chicago May 2014), which he could not attend in person, they showed an interview recently filmed at Berkeley which showed him to be as lively as ever. He could also be waspishly critical (‘he did not suffer fools gladly’); but I won’t name names. His historical output was very substantial and wide-ranging. Though C19 Argentina was his chief area of expertise, about which he spoke with more authority than almost anyone, he also knew a lot about Mexico and ventured some interesting – and cogent - comparisons between the two countries. His writing (in Spanish) made few concessions to slow-witted or impatient readers; when I started teaching a Latin American survey course at Essex University in 1973 I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Tulio’s Historia Contemporánea de América Latina was the set text, which posed a formidable challenge to students, it being dense, allusive, and written in Tulio’s elaborate baroque style, whereby clauses and parentheses writhed their way through serpentine sentences. But it remains one of the best overviews of modern Latin American history which – when very ably translated and abridged by John Chasteen – also became a stand-out textbook. It is difficult to think of another historian who made such a big contribution to our knowledge of C19 (and to some extent C20) Latin America.