Department Mourns the Passing of Emeritus Professor Luis Beltrán
With great sorrow, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese notifies our community of the death of Emeritus Professor Luis Beltrán on December 31, 2019, in Seattle. A distinguished medievalist, comparatist, novelist, and poet, Professor Beltrán taught at Indiana University for his entire career, from 1965 to 1996.
Luis Beltrán Fernández de los Ríos was born in Salamanca in 1932. After receiving degrees in both Law and Philosophy from the Universidad de Salamanca and studying at the Sorbonne and the University of St. Andrews, he came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 1960. At the University of Michigan, he obtained an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. He turned down other job offers, including one from Yale, to come to IU because of the strength of its Comparative Literature department, a rarity in those days. In our department and in Comp Lit, he rose to the rank of Professor, serving as both Director of Graduate Studies and then as Chair of Spanish and Portuguese and founding the Indiana Journal of Hispanic Literatures.
Luis’s many intellectual and literary passions led him to teach a wide variety of courses in both departments: on medieval literature, contemporary poetry (with special emphasis on García Lorca), and special topics such as epics, romance, and allegory, medieval drama (he had done a good deal of acting in Spain), and the theme of “La Vieille” (the old woman) from Menander to Rojas (his dissertation had been on the literary figure of the alcahueta or go-between).
These broad interests are reflected in Luis’s academic publications. His critical study of Juan Ruiz’s Libro de Buen Amor is titled Razones de buen amor: oposiciones y convergencias en el libro del Arcipreste de Hita (1977). This was followed by La arquitectura del humo: una reconstrucción del Romancero gitano de Federico García Lorca (1986), and then, in a return to medievalism, by a scholarly edition and study of Las cantigas de loor de Alfonso X, el Sabio: estudio y traducción (1990). When the Lilly Library obtained the magnificent facsimile edition of the Códice Rico of the Cantigas, he took his students there while he taught his special course on the work. Continuing with this project in retirement, in 1997, he published Cuarenta y Cinco Cantigas del Códice Rico de Alfonso el Sabio: Textos Pictóricos y Verbales, with an introduction, translations from the Galician, and commentary.
Unlike most academics, Luis Beltrán was also a creative writer, and he expressed this side of his multifaceted personality in three poetry collections, individual poems that appeared in a variety of journals, and a novel. The volumes of verse were Hacia la tierra (1970), Anaya mi esperanza (1973), and De volver a ella (1979). A reviewer of the first two volumes wrote of Hacia la tierra, “there is a peculiar poignancy resulting from recognizable, communicable, even widely-held feelings which are expressed with striking individuality and insight,” and noted in Anaya mi esperanza Beltrán’s “talent for the striking metaphor.” His autobiographical novel El fruto de su vientre was published in Mexico City in 1973; his colleague and friend Norbert Fuerst called it “a minor masterpiece.”
Our former colleague Cathy L. Jrade, now Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish, Emerita, at Vanderbilt University, writes: “My fondest memories of Luis Beltrán are related to his passion for poetry. We became good friends while he was working on La arquitectura del humo: Una reconstrucción del Romancero Gitano de Federico García Lorca. He would proudly read to me passages he had just finished writing, revealing, at the same time, his process for de/reconstructing the Romancero… He shared with me his belief that the understanding of poetry was complex, detailed, and nuanced. He was not totally pleased with his work until he had teased out every subtlety attached to a word or phrase… Luis worked hard, almost single-mindedly, on his research… Yet he was devoted to his graduate students and, most of all, to his kind and generous family. He was oddly modern and old-fashioned, American and Spanish. He remained a mystery and a delight.”
Luis’s impact on his best students was profound. Margo Persin, now Professor Emerita of Spanish at Rutgers University, met him as an Overseas Study student in Madrid in 1968-69 and provides an especially heartfelt tribute. She stresses that, coming from a working-class background, she had had little exposure to art or culture when she enrolled in Luis’s two-semester course on the history of Spanish poetry: “This one course opened me to a world that I could not have imagined existing, one of such incredible power and such immense, jaw dropping beauty, one that had the capacity to pull me into a realm that I can only describe as rapture. It was my absolute favorite class of that year, one for which the readings were a constant revelation and inspired me to read more and more. Every week I so looked forward with curiosity and true excitement to the unfolding of another lesson, another poem, another poet, under the direction of [Professor Beltrán’s] measured guidance. Previous to this course, I had no idea that language could communicate so magnificently. And to this day I can still remember the cadence of his voice in class.” It was Luis who persuaded her that she could go on to a Ph.D. with a specialization in poetry, leading to her acceptance into our graduate program and his eventual direction of her dissertation. “His soaring intellect, creativity, insight and knowledge served as an inspiration not only as a student both undergrad and grad, but also during my entire academic career. I truly can say that he was a prime driving force in shaping my life and introducing me to the possibility of a life of the mind.”
Another of Luis’s students, Judith Nantell (Ph.D. 1978), is now Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Arizona and still remembers him as she teaches her own poetry classes: “All of this week and the next, he will be with me because I shall be teaching two poems of Federico García Lorca to my two undergraduate classes. I cannot teach Lorca’s poetry without the shadow-presence of Luis Beltrán. I was fortunate to be a member of his graduate seminar… when he was working out his thoughts and critical analyses on Lorca’s Romancero gitano… It was in that seminar with him where I learned how to excavate the word, how to feel the presence of language, how to begin to recognize the earliest stages of the epiphanic moments that soon would coalesce in a profound experience of Lorca’s spectacular imagery. Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually Lorca’s brilliant romances became a part of me and what I would later become as a professor and literary critic of modern and contemporary Spanish poetry.”
Malcolm Compitello, also now Professor of Spanish at Arizona, first met Luis as a first-year doctoral student in 1970 and recalls, “Luis’s dynamic way of teaching was something I had never experienced before….[he] could make texts come alive in ways I had never imagined possible. These are qualities I have attempted to emulate throughout my career as a teacher-scholar.” Prof. Compitello studied in IU’s new graduate program in Madrid under Luis’s direction during the exciting transition from dictatorship to democracy, and he remembers how their classroom experiences were enhanced by trips around the Iberian Peninsula, guest lecturers, and suggestions for out-of-class experiences: “Luis’s efforts were instrumental in helping me form a vision of a country whose culture I would continue to explore for the next 45 years… For that I am forever in his debt.”
As every teacher knows, one of the most gratifying gifts of the profession is to leave a mark like this on one’s students. For some who came into Luis Beltrán’s orbit, the experience was no less than life-changing as they carry his teaching forward to future generations. We were fortunate to have Luis Beltrán with us as a scholar, teacher, mentor, and colleague. We send our deepest sympathy to his daughters Ana Beltrán and Patricia Beltrán, his sister Valentina Beltrán Fernández de los Ríos, his former wife Ann Bristow, and his three grandchildren.