Prof. Elizabeth Drumm Wins NEH Fellowship

With her project, the Spanish and humanities professor hopes to bring more attention to modernist author Ramón del Valle-Inclán.

By Rebecca Jacobson | March 16, 2023

If it were up to Elizabeth Drumm, John and Elizabeth Yeon Professor of Spanish and Humanities, Spanish author Ramón del Valle-Inclán would be as widely read as the likes of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Like those giants, Valle-Inclán was a modernist innovator. He published across disparate genres—plays, poetry, novels, art criticism, essays—and even created his own, the esperpento, which distorts reality to emphasize the grotesque.

But outside Spain, Valle-Inclán is little known. He died in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War began, and his work was censored under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled until 1975. 

“[Franco] really shut down a lot of the literary flow in and out of Spain,” Drumm says. “But the issue of translation is also part of it. There are anthologies of modernism [that] don’t include Spanish authors at all.”

Drumm’s efforts to make Valle-Inclán part of the conversation have gotten a notable boost: she recently received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her work on a translation of and critical introduction for La media noche: Visión estelar de un momento de guerra (Midnight: Astral Vision of a Moment of War). The text, written during World War I after Valle-Inclán’s trip to the western front on the invitation of the French government, is an attempt to express simultaneity. As Drumm notes, Einstein had just published his theory of relativity, and time was a major concern for writers of the era. 

“For example,” Drumm says, “how do you represent temporal experience in literature? Stream of consciousness would be one solution. Valle-Inclán has a different type of solution. He does it through this view, as he says, from the stars. He imagines himself above, from this astral vision, looking down at the whole front and describing what happens simultaneously over the course of one night. It’s fascinating.”

For Valle-Inclán, this perspective isn’t mere formal innovation—it’s also a reflection of his occult fascinations. Around the same time as La media noche, Valle-Inclán published La lámpara maravillosa (The Lamp of Marvels), an aesthetic treatise that Drumm describes as “a compendium of occult thought.” (Drumm is currently on sabbatical, and La lámpara maravillosa is part of a broader research project.) Tied to the theosophical movement of the time, the dense tome synthesizes traditions that include gnosticism, kabbalah, alchemy, Spanish mysticism, and the hermetic tradition. If La lámpara maravillosa is theory, Drumm says, La media noche is an attempt to put ideas into practice.

Drumm adds that a former advisee of hers, Susana Mizrahi ’15, wrote her thesis about La media noche. “Advising Susana’s thesis was instrumental in my thinking about the text and conceptualization of the translation project,” Drumm says.

Drumm’s NEH fellowship began in February and runs through July, at which point she plans to send the finished manuscript to a potential publisher. Receiving the award, she says, was “a tremendous surprise.” Competition was indeed intense: in this cycle the NEH funded only seven percent of the fellowship proposals it received. “A lot of the comments from the grant people were, ‘I’ve never heard of this person, but I certainly would like to know more,’” Drumm says. “It bodes well, hopefully, for interest in Valle-Inclán.”

Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Professors, Research