Spain: The Root and the Flower

John A. Crow

Read March 2005

This is a fairly interesting history of Spain by an author who has a deep love-hate relationship with the country. Crow studied in Spain, earning his PhD from Madrid in the tumultuous mid-1930s. It is clear that he has a deep affection for the country and its culture; equally, however, he is infuritated by what he sees as deep-seated national characteristics (many of these are less apparent today than they were when this edition of the book was last revised, nearly two decades ago, and anyway the stereotypes and Orientalism become wearying). As someone who was there during the civil uprisings, he brings a strong personal touch to his presentation.

This is not a not a boring recounting of people and places, and for the most part that is one of the book's strengths. Crow discusses periods of time, true, but he is more interested in cultural and intellectual development than in a detailed re-telling of facts. Despite being an academic, he is also not especially biased by some narrow and peculiar viewpoint (though he does try to give credit to the Arabic influence, clearly rebeling against some contrary strains of writing). All this makes the book both more accessible and more valuable to the general reader. It was a good book to read before visiting the country for the first time. The author is leftist but not Jacobin, so it's not surprising to detect a deep respect verging on affection for Unamuno, the noble rector of Salamanca.

That said, the book does have several flaws. For one thing, he too often engages in biography, often with less of a point than he might think, and sometimes even slips into writing a travel narrative. Second, in the same vein, the book's frequent literary interludes aren't always insightful and are often distracting. Third, the book is hopelessly repetitive (metaphors, phrases, events all appear pages apart), suggesting a rather sloppy editor. Fourth, Crow's command over literature doesn't appear to extend to art, where he frequently devolves into list-making. Finally, he devotes more space than I'd have liked to contemporary issues, which are sadly dated as the book has aged (though this can't really be held against the author—I'm sure these notes were valuable at the time).

For all my griping, the power of this book is in its deeply personal account. It makes the country come alive. The book is the summation of a long personal association through interesting times. Crow's knowledge of Spanish literature does have its joys, never greater than his excerpt from the Celestina (p. 156). I was so moved by the power of the excerpt that I had to stop reading for the night, and the prose lingers with me still.