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Book Burning of 1940
by The FHL Research Team
Date: 3/2/2004

“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” (German: “"Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”)—Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821)

In 1940, a time of immense social changes in the country, intense debates were raging between warring groups of writers. On one hand, there were the traditionalists, whose use of classic themes and forms of literary works dominated the mainstreams of literature at the time. On the other hand, there were the modernists, whose use of free verse, contempt for convention, and iconoclastic advocacy of the individual sensibility as the organizing principle of art and knowledge threatened to upset the literary status quo. The modernists strongly felt that there was a need to make literature a more effective vehicle of contemporary ideas and change, and engaged traditionalists in discussions on how traditional literature no longer had a place in the modern world.

Probably the most representative act of the modernists’ view of traditional literature was demonstrated in March 2, 1940, when the modernist group Kapisanang Panitikan staged a book-burning rally in Plaza Moriones in Tondo. The group, formed in 1935 and led by avant-garde poet and critic Alejandro G. Abadilla, called themselves sakdalista at aristokrata (reformists and aristocrats) of literature. The group’s roster included then rising stars of Tagalog writing like Teodoro Agoncillo, Clodualdo del Mundo, Brigido Batungbakal, Jesus Arceo, Salvador Barros, Teo S. Buhain, Fernando Monleon, and Genoveva Edroza-Matute.

That afternoon, members of Panitikan slowly gathered in the Plaza. After a series of fiery speeches condemning the state of national literature, the group started a bonfire, and proceeded to throw in the flames works that they considered “unfit to be passed on to posterity.”

The event was featured in various newspapers the following day and, as expected, created a furor in literary circles. Julian Cruz Balmaseda, then director of the Institute of National Language and one of the authors whose books were burned, threatened to resign from his post. Lope K. Santos wrote "Ang Manununog" (The Arsonist), a poem lampooning what he considered as a childish act of the group. This was answered with a counter-poem by a member of the rebel group.

The feud between the two camps continued well into the Japanese Occupation. Many of the members of Panitikan later succumbed to conservative writing as they grew older. However, Abadilla remained steadfast in his experimentations to become the Father of Modern Tagalog Poetry and the model of a new breed of modernist writers in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, activist writers staged a second literary demonstration against "imperialist, feudal and capitalist" culture. In commemoration of the 1940 event, a rally was started in Plaza Moriones, ending with another bonfire in front of the National Library.

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