Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

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