Fernando Alegría, renowned poet, novelist and critic, dead at 87

Fernando Alegría, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese for more than two decades and an internationally renowned Chilean poet, novelist and literary critic, died Oct. 29 at his home in Walnut Creek. He was 87.

Alegría, the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, joined the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in 1967. A friend of Salvador Allende, political exile and mentor to hundreds of literary scholars and authors, he was a pioneer in Latin American literature studies in the United States, said Adan Griego, curator for Latin American, Mexican American and Iberian Collections at the Stanford University Libraries.

"I knew about Alegría long before I came to Stanford," Griego said. "He was important in the field at a time when literature in Spanish meant that it was literature from Spain."

Alegría was born in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 26, 1918. After studying at the University of Chile, he earned a master's degree in 1941 from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and his doctorate in 1947 from the University of California-Berkeley, where he began teaching in 1964. He married Carmen Letona Meléndez in 1943 and they raised four children in Berkeley.

Alegria wrote more than two dozen books, including novels, books of poetry, essays and literary criticism, and a history of the novel in Latin America. My Horse González (Caballo de Copas; 1957), a humorous novel about a Chilean jockey who immigrates to the United States, won Chile's Premio Atanea and Premio Municipal awards.

In Allende: A Novel, Alegría sketched the biography of his longtime friend, the former president of Chile Salvador Allende. He also wrote critical works on the influence of Thomas Mann and Walt Whitman on Latin American literature.

In 1970, Alegría became cultural attaché to the Salvador Allende government. The 1973 military coup that killed Allende also forced Alegría into political exile.

Alegría, whom Terry Karl, professor of political science, described as "a talented man of beautiful words and passionate attachment to Chile and to justice," received many awards and honors, among them the Latin American Literary Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Alegría represented the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in the United States for years, and Chile appointed him honorary consul to the United States in 1992.

Jorge Ruffinelli, professor of Spanish, recalled Alegría as a nimble orator. On one occasion when the two appeared together on a panel discussion on Latin American literature, Alegría had not prepared a text, Ruffinelli recalled. Alegría "gathered a few papers, including some pages from my just-delivered academic lecture, and went up to the podium and began to 'read.' He gestured with his hands as if he were reading from a prepared text, when in fact he was just improvising and inventing. Once he finished, he took his seat next to me and no one ever knew what happened."

Alegría retired in 1988. He donated manuscripts, correspondence, books and other materials to Stanford.

"He was a great friend to Latin America and to Latin American studies at Stanford," Karl said. "We will miss him."

He is survived by his four children, Carmen Alegría of Palo Alto, Isabel Alegría of Berkeley, Dr. Daniel Alegría of Portola Valley and Andres Alegría of Pinole; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Carmen Letona, died in 1994.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705, or the Western Institute for Social Research, 3220 Sacramento St., Berkeley, CA 94702.

Krista Zala is an intern at Stanford News Service.