Monday, September 19, 2005

McKay, Deirdre. Review of Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio, by Glenn Anthony May. Pacific Affairs 71.2 (Summer 1998): 282-3.


Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio. By Glenn Anthony May. Madison (Wisconsin): Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin (in cooperation with New Day Publishers). 1996. x, 200 pp. (B&W photos, maps.) US$40.00, cloth, ISBN 1-881261-182; US$19.95, paper, ISBN 1-881261-19-0.

Controversial and hard-hitting, Glenn May's text deconstructs the popular image of Philippine revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. Released to coincide with the centenary of the Philippine Revolution, the author's stated intent is not to attack Bonifacio, the man, but rather to question the manner of his memorialization in a nationalist heroic pantheon. Thus, this book is primarily an investigation of historical methodologies, historians and the social contexts of their work. Almost incidental to this investigation we lose the image of Bonifacio as an historical figure.

In May's analysis, the available documentation on Bonifacio's life is unable to support the received knowledge historians have been promulgating for decades. Much of "Bonifacio" -- the man himself popularly seen as humble proletarian worker, part-time poetic genius and ultra-patriot -- seems to embellish putative fact with fantastic detail. For instance, in the matter of his personal library, did Bonifacio, a Manila warehouse worker with limited formal education, own copies of "Lives of the American Presidents" or Hugo's "Les Miserables"? According to biographical details provided by his revolutionary contemporary, Pio Valenzuela, Bonifacio did. Yet Glen May suggests this is doubtful information, lacking corroborating evidence that Bonifacio could read English or French. Moreover, were these books available in the Philippines in 1896? And May argues that if previous historians accepted Valenzuela's stories without corroborating such details, it bodes ill for the state of historiography on Bonfacio and the Philippine Revolution in general.

May guides his reader through a historical warren of authors and sources. In search of a glimpse of the revolutionary leader that rings true, he comes up wanting. Many of the figures and events covered will be familiar only to historians and area specialists, yet the method and conclusions are of interest to a broader readership -- those interested in the construction of national(ist) heroes. May concludes that the "Andres Bonifacio" as taught in Philippine public schools relies on a rather amazing series of sources.


These sources include letters serendipitously "found in a hen's nest," dubious edited transcriptions, documents written in anachronistic language, poems of questionable authorship and contradictory interviews conducted with Bonifacio's ageing contemporaries. Such sources do not suffice to meet contemporary standards of historical veracity. Consequently, this book casts aspersions on the scholarly integrity of several prominent Philippine historians and their citational heirs, both Filipino and foreign. The book cannot, however, replace the imagined Bonifacio with historical facts.

To read this book is to lose one's sense of the hero whose name graces a street in perhaps every major Philippine town - a loss that some Filipinos understandably resist. In this, May has set himself up for attack and marginalization from portions of the academic community in the Philippines. Publication of this book resulted in an uproar in the Philippine popular press. Both May and his critics contributed lengthy articles to the "Lifestyle" section of The Philippine Daily Inquirer. On 5 May 1997, the Inquirer published: "The ugly American returns -- 'Historian' savages Bonifacio and provokes Filipino scholars." Glenn May responded on 19 and 26 May 1997: "Author says he is not questioning Bonifacio's heroism -- but historians' methodology." While it is refreshing to see academic work debated in the media, the tenor of this exchange reveals the difficult postcolonial terrain that contemporary historians working in area studies must negotiate.

Perhaps the mud-slinging would abate if the focus shifted beyond standards of historical argument toward the social work done by biographical details on heroes? May provides a few cursory suggestions as to why such works of imagination were required in the production of Philippine history. He does not explain why these images -- that Bonifacio read Hugo, for instance -- would be cherished and promulgated by certain Filipino nationalists. What social need would Valenzuela have met in inventing such details for "the record"? Anticipating his critics at the end of the book, May claims we all have a deeply felt need for heroes (pp. 165-66). Others following this American-Filipino debate may be just as bewildered that this assertion goes uninterrogated, particularly by May himself. Where, when and within whom does this putative need originate?

This book is clearly an important contribution to debate, scholarly and otherwise, on the importance of historical narratives, their heroes and the work of historians themselves within nationalist projects. It will surely provide provocative questions for decades of future research.

Deirdre McKay
University of British Columbia, Vancouver Canada