Pablo Neruda is one of the most studied authors in the Spanish American canon and certain long-standing theories about his poetic development predominate, which limit the scope of interpretation. My dissertation challenges one in particular: the assertion that Neruda experienced a political and poetic conversion during the Spanish Civil War. Literary critics have traditionally established his experience in Spain as a line of demarcation that separates his early works from later, supposedly Marxist-influenced writings. I challenge this interpretation by analyzing the intersection of autobiographical and political discourse in Neruda’ poetry both before and after the Spanish Civil War. Although this war was significant in Neruda’s development, it did not constitute a life-changing experience akin to Saint Augustine or Paul the Apostle, two foundational narratives that serve as models for autobiographic analysis.
Through a detailed analysis of Neruda’s early, unpublished works, I establish a model of continuous development and argue that his political orientation is rooted in notions of social justice that predate his exposure to formal Marxist thought. I support this reading by demonstrating how his family and educational environments provided an intellectual milieu propitious for the development of a social consciousness in his formative years. Furthermore, I situate Neruda’s early writings within the context of Chile’s unique political history. From a sociological perspective, I briefly track the formation of the Chilean Communist Party from the labor movements of the early twentieth century and underscore their link to the student movements in which Neruda was a central figure. In doing so, I demonstrate that his personal philosophy of social justice is consistent with a Chilean Communist Party dedicated to working within a democratic framework. My two major contentions are that 1) misconceptions about the Party’s democratic orientation made it, and Neruda’s writings within this context, fundamentally misunderstood, and 2) that Neruda’s social orientation facilitated his integration into the Party without imposing any significant change in his poetic or political vision. These democratic ideals form the underpinnings of Neruda’s political convictions and explain the continued relevance of his poetry in a more nuanced manner than traditional Marxist interpretations.
Regarding Neruda’s post-Spanish Civil War poetry, I examine his major work, Canto general. Many critics interpret it as a history of the Americas according to the principles of historical materialism. However, this analysis becomes problematic given my reinterpretation of Neruda’s ideological development. Instead, I link the themes in Canto general to his concern for social justice as formulated in his early writings. Therefore, I establish continuity between these periods in accordance with the autobiographical model of continuous development.