Tribute to Professor Gordon Brotherston

  • Date

    Tue 3 Jan 23

Professor Gordon Brotherston

Professor Gordon Brotherston, the internationally recognised authority on Hispanic, Latin American and Native American literatures, has died. He worked at the University of Essex for more than 20 years and he maintained close links with the University as an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Literature, Theatre, and Film Studies. Here Professor Richard Gray pays tribute to his friend and academic colleague.

Gordon Brotherston was educated at the universities of Leeds and Cambridge. In 1965, he was invited to join the newly established Department of Literature by its founding professor, Donald Davie. Gordon continued at the University of Essex for more than two decades, taking up a professorial post at the University of Indiana in 1990 and then at Stanford University in 2004. During his time at Essex, Gordon acted as Head of Department and Dean of what was then the School of Comparative Studies. At the time of his death, Gordon still maintained close ties with Essex as an Emeritus Professor.

Gordon was a scholar of international distinction in the fields of Hispanic, Latin American and Native American literature and literary translation. His many books include Maniel Machado (1968), Latin American Poetry (1976), The Emergence of the Latin American Novel (1977), Images of the New World (1979), The Other America (1982), Voices of the First America (1986), Book of the Fourth World (1992) and Painted Books from Mexico (1995).

In 1992, Gordon organised the exhibition of Mexican Painted Books at the British Museum. In 1993, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. An intellectually generous colleague, he collaborated with many other scholars and with the American poet Ed Dorn on a number of translations and books, among them Seven Stories from Spanish America (1968, 1973) and Cesar Vallejo: Selected Poems (1976).

Gordon was a man of tireless energy, quick wit and apparently inexhaustible intellectual curiosity. He was a sheer delight as a friend and companion, thoughtful, perceptive, a lively but also thoughtful conversationalist. He was immensely generous in the time and support he was willing to give to others and someone who was able to enliven any gathering of friends, family or colleagues. It was also a measure of the man and his commitments, both intellectual and social, that he devoted so much time to the campaign for nuclear disarmament and that so much of his work reflects his interests in political activism and his desire to give a voice to those who have, for too long, been historically silenced. All his work as a teacher and scholar reflects his passionate belief in the power of the mind and the vital importance of knowledge - and his equally passionate sense that understanding is the key to change.

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I am sad to hear the news about the death of Gordon Brotherston, whom I got to know at Essex some years ago. I joined Essex (history dept) in 1973 and, since I worked on Latin America, especially Mexico, I encountered Gordon a good deal and found him to be an unusually lively, interesting and creative colleague.

I left - for the US - in 1985 and Gordon later moved to the U. of Indiana, Bloomington, where I met him a couple of times. By then he had moved away from modern Latin American literature and become immersed in Pre-Columbian themes - chiefly, the literature, philosophy and worldview of the Nahua/Mexica (also known, colloquially, as the 'Aztecs'). This was a big and bold jump - back in time and into an entirely different linguistic and ethnographic world. Very few academics would have risked change horses in such a drastic way. But it was typical, I would say, of Gordon's restlessly inquiring intellect and unorthodox, even iconoclastic, approach to academic work; and he soon established himself as a major figure in the important field of Native American studies.

We last met - perhaps eight years ago - at a British Museum event hosted on the occasion of a special exhibition devoted to the last 'Aztec' emperor, Moctezuma II, when Gordon was as intellectually lively as ever; and still displaying his characteristic mordant with.

Alan Knight, History Lecturer, Essex University, 1973-85

Emeritus Professor of the History of Latin America, St Antony's College, Oxford


Gordon was one of the greatest figures in Latin American literature criticism and a true pioneer in the field in the English-speaking world. 

I knew his edition of José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel for Cambridge University Press (1967), which is a classic of its kind, and thought of him as a contributor to an event at London’s Institute of Latin American Studies around the centenary of that essay in 2000. I was not sure he would accept, as his interests had shifted considerably from that early publication, but he promptly said he would, and I was glad that he was interested in engaging with the material afresh. His paper, which was later published in an edited volume, shows his dynamic engagement with some ideas we discussed. 

We had further exchanges after that. He contributed to an FMLS special volume in 2000 with a fascinating piece on “Indigenous Intelligence in Mesoamerica”, part of his ongoing work on the Fourth World. He also gave permission for a Spanish translation of his superb Introduction to the CUP edition for a Rodó commemorative issue in a Uruguayan cultural review; and I was delighted to be invited to speak at a 2004 colloquium in his honour at Essex University, where he had started his career and was joined by other remarkable academics, including the fellow hispanists Peter Hulme and Arthur Terry, at the newly created Department of Literature. 

I said Gordon was a true pioneer in his field, and this comes through clearly in the memoir he contributed to a special issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (LXXXIV [2007], 475-79). There he expresses his debt to the Department at Essex, which provided the interdisciplinary environment and experience (‘it had the Enlightenment as a core reference, along with concepts indispensable to the discipline as such [medium, script, text, genre, perspective, and so on]’) that equipped him to develop one of the widest-ranging and most distinguished careers as a Latin Americanist anywhere. 

Gordon’s depth and quality of work, intellectual curiosity, and generosity towards other, especially younger scholars, were outstanding. During one of our encounters, he gave me his collection of handwritten bibliographical cards he had used to prepare the CUP edition. It is now in pride of place in my Rodó materials, which will go to the University St Andrews’ Library for the use of future researchers. It was a privilege to meet him. RIP Gordon Brotherston. 

Gustavo San Román
Professor Emeritus of Spanish at the University of St Andrews