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Claribel Alegría

Claribel Alegría's poem "Accounting" was first published in English by Curbstone Press in 1993 as part of a collection of poems in her book, Fugues. Although only twenty-six lines in length, the poem is saturated with a collection of autobiographical images as diverse as her happiness as a child, playing in puddles of water, and her grief at her mother's death. Alegría refers to the vignettes in her poem as "electrical instants." These snapshots of her life are only brief moments, but they tell the poet's own story. The title, "Accounting," can refer to the systematic presentation of the data that comprises her life. That is what accountants do. They examine financial data, list and interpret it, and balance the account. This is what Alegría has done with this poem. Her poem is an elegy that provides an accounting of her memories over a large span of years. The events and people mentioned in the poem are representative of several of the locations in which she has lived, and thus her memories become the source material for the poem. When Alegría wrote "Accounting," she had been writing poetry for sixty-two years. This poem appears in one of her latest collections of poetry, and so its publication also serves as a reflection of her creative life.

Author Biography

Claribel Alegría was born May 12, 1924 in Esteli, Nicaragua. When Alegría was nine months old, the

family fled the occupation of Nicaragua for El Salvador. Alegría grew up in Santa Ana, El Salvador, and attended a progressive school, Jose Ingenieros, which was named after the Argentinean philosopher. From the time she was nine months old until she was eighteen, Alegría and her family lived as exiles from their native Nicaragua.

When Alegría was only six years old, she began to create her own poems. Her mother carefully wrote down the poems that Alegría dictated. Then, when she was fourteen, Alegría read Rainer Maria Rilke's, Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke's letters, written in 1903, had a profound effect on Alegría's young life. In virtually every interview ever given, she has recounted how, upon reading Rilke's letters, she suddenly knew that she wanted to be a poet. By the time she was sixteen, Alegría was writing poetry with all the seriousness of an established poet, even though she was still unpublished. Finally, in 1941, when she was seventeen years old, she published her first poems in Repertorio Americano, a Central American newspaper's cultural supplement. Then, two years later, Alegría was admitted to a girls' finishing school in Hammond, Louisiana.

In 1944, Alegría moved to Washington, DC, and enrolled at Georgetown University. She found a job as a translator at the Pan-American Union, studied for her classes at night, and three afternoons a week, studied with the poet, Juan Ramon Jiménez. As part of her study, Alegría was forced to concentrate on learning formal poetic forms. She also worked on becoming a more disciplined poet. After three years of studying with Jiménez, he chose twenty-two of her poems, and they became her first published book of poetry, Ring of Silence, which was published in 1948. Also in 1948, Alegría graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and letters.

In December 1947, she had married Darwin J. Flakoll, a student at Georgetown University, who was completing a graduate degree. In time, Alegría and Flakoll had four children: Maya, Patricia, Karen, and Erik. During the next thirty years, Alegría and her family moved many times, but even through all the moves, she continued to write poems and short stories. Some of the works that she published during these years include several poetry collections, such as Vigils (1953), Aquarius (1955), and Guest of my Time (1961). Alegría also wrote novels, but even with a creative change to writing novels, Alegría never abandoned her poetry. A 1978 book of poems, I Survive, won the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1978.

Alegría was finally able to return to Nicaragua to live in 1979, when the Sandinista rebels gained power. After the move, Alegría and her husband wrote a history of the revolution titled Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution; A Political Chronicle 1855–1979 (1982). A pivotal event in Alegría's life occurred in 1980 when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in El Salvador. Alegría spoke out against this assassination and the death squads in El Salvador. As a result, she was forbidden to return to El Salvador to visit her parents. Alegría continued to write poetry and in 1993 published Fugues, from which the poem "Accounting" is taken. Her husband's death in April 1995 was depicted by Alegría in Sorrow (1999). Casting Off, a collection of poems, was published in 2003. Alegría lives in Managua, Nicaragua.

Poem Text

In the sixty-eight years
I have lived
there are a few electrical instants:
the happiness of my feet
skipping puddles     5
six hours in Macchu Pichu
the ten minutes necessary
to lose my virginity
the buzzing of the telephone
while awaiting the death of my mother     10
the hoarse voice
announcing the death
of Monsignor Romero
fifteen minutes in Delft
the first wail of my daughter     15
I don't know how many years
dreaming of my people's liberation
certain immortal deaths
the eyes of that starving child
your eyes bathing me with love     20
one forget-me-not afternoon
and in this sultry hour
the urge to mould myself
into a verse
a shout     25
a fleck of foam.

Poem Summary


Alegría's poem "Accounting" is an accounting of the important events of her life. The first few lines tell the reader that the poem's author remembers certain events in her life that she defines as "electrical instants." What follows are vignettes from the author's memory, beginning with her childhood recollections. Alegría's memories make the leap from skipping puddles to losing her virginity in only a few lines. She also recalls painful memories—the death of her mother, the assassination of Archbishop Romero, and the occupation of Nicaragua. Coupled with memories of loss are memories of love. Alegría compresses a lifetime of events into the few moments that a reader takes to study the poem. She dissolves the barrier of time and reduces her existence into twenty-six lines.

It is sometimes a mistake to assume the author and the poem's narrator are one person, but in this case, there are several clues that indicate that Alegría is offering autobiographical details from her own life in this poem. The speaker of the poem tells the reader that she is sixty-eight years old, and Alegría would have been sixty-eight when the poem was written. Because Alegría relied upon her husband, Darwin Flakoll, to translate her books from Spanish into English, the publication date would be at least a year after the poem's composition, and so the reader can assume that "Accounting" was written in 1992, although not published until 1993. There are other confirmed autobiographical details present in the poem, as well. Alegría had been prohibited from returning to El Salvador after she spoke out publicly and condemned the assassination of Archbishop Romero. She was not permitted to re-enter the country even to visit her dying mother, and thus, Alegría would have been forced to wait for news of her mother's death by telephone. Alegría was also a vocal critic of the military occupation of Nicaragua. All of these details suggest that Alegría and the poet narrator are the same person. Knowing this information makes appreciating and understanding the poem as an autobiographical accounting easier for the reader.

Lines 1–3

The opening lines of "Accounting" offer the background information needed to understand the poem. These three lines also explain the narrative that follows. Alegría tells the reader that she is sixty-eight years old. As people age, they often reminisce about the life they have led. Alegría is engaging in this process of reflection. At the same time, the title makes clear that the poem is an accounting of her life. She will chronicle her life and list "a few electrical instants." "Electrical" suggests these are moments of power, perhaps moments that shocked her. They are also moments that left a mark upon her psyche. The use of "instants" makes clear that the memories are just moments of time, vignettes of events that when recalled pass through her mind in an instant.

Lines 4–8

The first of Alegría's memories is the happiness she felt skipping through puddles. Presumably, this first memory is of her childhood, when playing in puddles after a fresh rainfall brings the sort of carefree enjoyment that the poet describes as "happiness." Alegría quickly jumps to another memory, this time a visit to the Inca ruins at Macchu Pichu in the mountains of Peru. It would be possible to consider that a childhood trip, perhaps a vacation taken with parents, created wonderful memories that are recalled many years later. However, there is no evidence that this poem's accounting is chronological. Alegría's husband was with the United States foreign service for many years and the family moved frequently, visiting many different countries. The family lived in Chile for a period of time. While there is no record that they lived in Peru, they did live in Central America, and so the visit that the author recalls might have occurred during her marriage, rather than during childhood. The ruins of Macchu Pichu are breathtaking, and regardless of whether Alegría visited as an adolescent or as an adult, the visit would have been unforgettable. Her six hours at the site indicates a day trip, though, and that she did not spend the night there. Whether taking the train and bus or walking the Inca Trail, the trip is a long one, and with transportation, a visitor has only five or six hours to actually spend at the ruins if trying to do the trip in one day. Visitors who spend the night near the site can enter at dawn and spend all day.

Lines 7 and 8 recall the memory of the author's loss of virginity. No age is given, but the small amount of time, only ten minutes, suggests that perhaps she was young. The quick fumbling of youth might be brief, but Alegría counts it as one of the moments that left a mark upon her. It is the awakening of sexuality, and it marks the end of childhood and the transition to being an adult. Such an event is "electrical," since sexuality also brings greater responsibilities and, eventually, children who will change her life forever.

Lines 9–13

In lines 9 and 10, Alegría jumps ahead to the death of her mother. The buzzing of the telephone has special significance for Alegría, since it has been the instrument of bad news on several occasions. Because the government has forbidden her to reenter Nicaragua, the author must await the phone call that will tell her of her mother's death. She wanted to be with her mother, who had asked for her daughter, but Alegría's brothers telephoned and told her not to come since they feared she would be arrested and murdered. The telephone also brought her news of the death of Monsignor Romero. The voice is hoarse, grief-stricken at the assassination of this brave man. When Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, Alegría was in Paris, preparing to give a poetry reading at the Sorbonne. She abandoned her reading and instead spoke about the murder of the prelate. Romero had spoken out against the El Salvadorian death squads that functioned with government acquiescence. Alegría admired Romero and was distraught at his death. She lists this event immediately after the death of her mother, and like her mother's death, it is an event that marked her permanently. Romero's death was also the beginning of Alegría's protest writing, and so it is crucial in defining her as a writer. One other aspect of Archbishop Romero's death proved to be very crucial to Alegría's life. When she spoke at the Sorbonne, Alegría's tribute to the slain churchman and her condemnation of the death squads angered the El Salvadorian government. The result was a twelve-year self-imposed exile. If she returned, she would be arrested. As mentioned previously, Alegría did not even dare return for her mother's funeral in 1982.

Lines 14–17

Line 14 remains a mystery. Since Alegría has not published her memoirs, not all events in her life are known. Since she and her husband traveled extensively, they may have visited Delft, Holland, at some period. They may even have lived there briefly, but the brevity of the period mentioned indicates that it is an event in Delft, perhaps something intensely personal that warrants mention. Such a brief time, "fifteen minutes in Delft," does suggest an event important enough to be one of the "few electrical instants" in the poet's life. Of line 15, Alegría gave birth to three daughters, but it seems most likely that in this line she is reflecting on the birth of the first. She says, "my daughter," and thus signifies only one, likely the first. Readers will note the use of "my" and ponder its meaning, but mothers often feel a special connection to a daughter that is revealed in the possessive use of "my" rather than "our."

The next two lines signal an abrupt change of thought. Lines 16 and 17 capture Alegría's commitment to Nicaragua's liberation. Nicaragua was the country of her birth, and although she was only an infant when her family was forced to flee, she had always felt a deep connection to the country. Her father worked to support rebellions in their homeland, and Alegría grew up knowing that all Nicaraguans bore a special responsibility to oppose the oppression in that country. She was associated with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the guerilla movement that took control of the Nicaraguan government in 1979. After the rebels gained control, Alegría and her family were finally able to move back to Nicaragua. The move was the culmination of many years of hard work, and as she notes in line 17, "dreaming."

Lines 18–21

These four lines offer an opposition in images. Alegría wrote poetry that exposed the injustice of government, the inequities of economy, and the inequitable results of a patriarchal system that repressed one half of the population. The "immortal deaths" of line 18 are the deaths that endure forever. They are not forgotten, nor are "the eyes of that starving child." The poet cannot forget the injustice of the world. This poem lists a "few electrical instants," but it also lists the events that marked the poet and that cannot be erased. She has seen political oppression's effects on the individual, thus an oppressive state is no longer a vague entity but a child starving to death.

In contrast to starvation and death, Alegría moves now to the opposite image, that of love. After his death in 1995, Alegría wrote another book of poetry, Sorrow, a book filled with a longing for what had been lost that defies description. These poems are filled with immense pain and grief. Alegría's husband is clearly the "your" in line 20. It is his eyes that bathe her in love. Line 21 is a continuation of the previous line and the two lines should be read as one sentence: the poet remembers "your eyes bathing me with love / one forget-me-not afternoon." There were many moments of love in a marriage that lasted nearly forty-eight years, but some moments are always more intense, more memorable. Readers cannot know what "electrical instant" the poet cites, but its importance to the writer is made very clear by its inclusion in this poem.

Lines 22–26

The last four lines of the poem recall that Alegría is also the poet. This poem is the autobiographical musing of a poet, a craftsman of words. Lines 23 and 24 tell the reader of the poet's urge to make her life a poem. The reader also learns that the poet is writing in the heat of the day, in the afternoon. But we also learn more about this period of composition, since the poet refers to this time as "sultry," a romantic connotation rather than the description of oppressively hot or sweltering temperatures that the word suggests. The writing of Alegría's life is, therefore, linked to a more intimate atmosphere. It is more personal than just composing a list of events. The composition of this poem was an "urge," a force that impelled her to compress her life into these few lines, perhaps a need to escape the heat and mould herself into her poem. She used the British spelling of mold, to "mould" these events. Her use of the British spelling may reflect only that her international background centers her language. On the other hand, this spelling of mould is most often associated with death and the return to earth. Perhaps as Alegría nears seventy years of age, she also begins to reflect on death. Certainly there have been several references to death in this poem, and in this case, the poet may "mould" herself into the poem, as the dead moulder into earth. The poet becomes the poem and is thus preserved for eternity.

The final two lines continue this evolution into the void. Initially, the voice is "a shout." The poet's words can be heard clearly, but the words have been compressed into just one sound. Just as she had compressed her life, she now compresses her poem. But even that shout is transitory. Soon all that remains of the poet is "a fleck of foam," as she dissolves into nothingness. The end of the poem is cyclical. Alegría began this confessional by noting her age, and she ends it by disappearing into the void. The poem now contains her life, it reveals her story, and finally, the poet has been dissolved into the language of poetry.



Alegría's poem, "Accounting," assembles the major events in the poet's life. Because these events occur over a wide space of time, they reflect the author at different periods of her life. The young girl who skipped puddles is also the same woman who later grieved at the death of loved ones and who worked so resolutely for her country's freedom. The poet has not only grown older, she has changed from a child to a woman, from lighthearted play to social activism. In the final lines of the poem, the poet prepares for one last change—her own death. At that hour, she will not cease to be. Like many poets before her, she has seen that she will live on in her work. More than her memories are preserved; she is preserved within the poem's lines. When she moulds herself into these lines, she follows in the footsteps of poets as great as William Shakespeare, who also recognized in his Sonnet 55 ("Not marble nor the gilded monuments") that he would live forever in verse.


Alegría's poem is a testament to her ability to endure and to the power that it takes for anyone to endure tragedy. She was born into a country of conflict. As an infant, Alegría's father opposed the United States marine occupation of Nicaragua. The family was harassed and even fired upon by armed soldiers. Even though Alegría was only an infant when the family finally fled Nicaragua, she grew up understanding that she was a refugee and an exile from the country of her birth. In lines 16 and 17, the poet poignantly recalls the wait for her country's liberation to become a reality: "I don't know how many years / dreaming of my people's liberation." The use of "dreaming" signifies the depth of yearning as she endured this long wait. She waited fifty-five years.


Few people think at great depth about the elements that make up their identity. And yet, we are all the composite identity of the important events of our lives. Alegría acknowledges this fact in her poem, "Accounting." In the opening lines of the poem she reveals her age and that she will list the defining moments of her life, the "few electrical instants" that marked her. These moments that marked her forever are the moments that created the adult who emerged from that moment of happiness in which the child skipped puddles. Alegría's identity is an accumulated self-awareness that she is the result of a multifaceted life lived in many places, whether Delft or Macchu Pichu. She is the result of the events that occurred in her life, whether the birth of a child or the death of a parent. All events that occurred in Alegría's life are considered collectively and become essential components of her self-identity. Alegría's poem reveals her identity to her readers in an intensely personal manner.

Human Rights

Lines 12 and 13, as well as lines 17, 18, and 19 of "Accounting" reveal what a huge part of Alegría's life has been devoted to human rights issues. In a poem of 26 lines, almost one fifth of the lines that comprise the poet's life are centered on her concern for the peoples' right to exist freely, to protest injustice, to offer aid to those most in need. The description in line 11 of "the hoarse voice" that telephoned Alegría to announce the death of Archbishop Romero reveals both the anguish that the caller felt at having to make this call, and the poet's commitment to the ideals for which the archbishop worked. Alegría was in Paris when she was called. The effort to locate her at this place suggests that her work was important within the context of Archbishop Romero's human rights work. The remaining three lines in the poem, which deal with human rights issues, are equally convincing of Alegría's resolution to improve her country. She has dreamed "of my people's liberation" and is equally aware of the "immortal deaths" and the "starving child" who need an advocate. Alegría is as marked by her commitment to human rights as she is by any other event of her lifetime.

Topics For Further Study

  • Make a list of ten to twelve of your own memories. These should be the things that first come to mind when you think of your life. You might try to pick one or two items from each of the past several years. After you have a list, arrange them in some order of importance. This order does not have to be chronological, but it can be. When you have brought some sort of order to your list, rewrite it as a poem. Alegría writes her poem as a narrative lyric, but you can use a different poetic format, if you wish.
  • Research the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom Alegría mentions in her poem. Consider why she thought him such an important figure in trying to call attention to human rights violations in El Salvador.
  • Choose one poem by another Central American poet, and compare his or her work to the poetry of Alegría. What similarities do you notice? Are there differences in theme or content? You might consider using poetry by Magdalena Gomez, Sandra Maria Esteves, or Ricardo Morales.
  • Research the role of both men and women in the Nicaraguan revolution. Consider in what ways the contributions of women differed from those of men.
  • Alegría's poem is a memoir, recounting the events of her life. Most people who write memoirs do so as prose writing. Choose a memoir by any other writer and discuss the differences between prose and verse memoirs.


Memory is the foundation of Alegría's poem, "Accounting." The poem is a list of the poet's most important memories, drawn from a lifetime of memories. Each human being forms new memories almost constantly, but only certain memories are retained and recalled as significant. The reader knows that the memories recalled for this poem are important because the poet has written in line three that these are the "few electrical instants" of a lifetime of memories. Memory can be a powerful tool of growth and change, and Alegría's list of memories reveals how she has grown from child to woman, from happiness to grief, and finally, to love.


Alegría never mentions knowledge or the growth of wisdom in her poem, and yet this theme is implicit in any discussion of this poem. The poet tells readers that "In the sixty-eight years / I have lived / there are a few electrical instants" worth recalling. The poet is reflecting on a lifetime of events, places, and people. The title of the poem, "Accounting," suggests something about this process of having reached a position of wisdom in the author's life. The process of accounting is the systematic presentation and interpretation of accumulated data. For Alegría the process of amassing memories—sifting though them, choosing those of singular importance, the "electrical instants," and finally understanding their importance in her life—is similar to the work that an accountant does in assessing financial worth. Alegría is assessing her worth and defining it by key events. To finally understand the work of a lifetime, she also needed to have gained the wisdom to appreciate all that she had accomplished.


Committed Generation

La generacion comprometida, also known as the Committed Generation, was created as an attempt by the intellectual sectors of the middle and upper classes of Central America as a way to use literature to achieve social justice. Alegría's ideological approach to her poetry reflects this literary movement. "Accounting" contains references to both social justice and human rights issues.


In its origins in Greek and Latin poetry, the elegy was a meditation that might focus on death, but might equally call to mind love or almost any list of events. During the Elizabethan period, the English used the elegy as a love poem, often as a lover's complaint. During the seventeenth century, the elegy was most commonly used as a poem of mourning to honor the dead and to reflect upon a life that had ended. Since that time, the elegy has also been used as a poem to reflect on solemn events. In "Accounting," Alegría uses the elegy to reflect on her life. Just as an elegy might honor the dead, for this poem, the poet uses the format to evaluate and consider the events of her life.


Imagery refers to the described images in a poem. The relationships between images can suggest important meanings in a poem; with imagery, the poet uses language and specific words to create meaning. For instance, "skipping puddles" suggests an image of a child at play, perhaps just after a rain. The "first wail of my daughter" creates an image of birth and the joy that a new child brings. Images allow the reader to "see" the events of a poet's life, rather than just read about them.


A memoir is a form of autobiographical writing that deals with the memories of someone who has either witnessed important events or has taken part in significant events. Alegría's poem is an abbreviated form of the memoir, in the form of a poem rather than prose. However, the meaning is the same. The author is revealing her life to an audience of readers, who will use this material to learn something about the writer. In general, memoirs are told in chronological order; however, Alegría has chosen to list the important events of her life in an order than has special significance to her.

Narrative Poem

A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story. In "Accounting," the poem tells the story of Alegría's life. She offers small vignettes of her life, memories of the most "electrical" moments that shaped the adult she became. In this case, Alegría's narrative poem functions very much like an autobiography, except that the poet does not always list these events in chronological order.

Free Verse

The word "poem" is generally assigned to mean a literary composition distinguished by emotion, imagination, and meaning. But the term poem may also fit certain designated formulas, such as a sonnet or a couplet, which are defined by a specific length and or a particular rhyme scheme. A poem may also include divisions into stanzas, a sort of paragraph-like division of ideas, and may also include a specific number of stressed or unstressed syllables in each line. Alegría's poem is not divided into separate sections; instead it flows from one word and phrase into the next, without breaks for punctuation or stanza in a free verse form. Not one word is wasted in this poem. At just over 100 words, each word has to have significance as it flows to the next word. Modern poetry offers the poet a chance to experiment with style, since poetic style is no longer defined by the strict formulas of the early poets, but even the contemporary poet still strives for an impassioned response to his or her poem. Like the earliest poetry, modern poetry is still highly individualistic.

Historical Context

A Long History of Civil Conflict

Alegría's "Accounting" is the poet's reflection upon the events and people that fill a lifetime. The content of the poem reflects an indeterminate point in time and the locations are many. Because of this, one way to approach her poetry is to try and understand the place that Alegría most closely identifies as her homeland, as well as its crucial influence on her work. Nicaragua was colonized by the Spanish early in the sixteenth century, but it gained its independence from Spain in 1821, as did all of Central America. After 1855, the United States took an active part in controlling Nicaragua, with U.S. troops actively training and supervising the Nicaraguan military forces, which in turn controlled the government of Nicaragua. Alegría's father opposed this U.S. military interference and supported the rebel forces, and as a result, the family was forced to flee in 1925. The rebellions in Nicaragua did not end with the establishment of a U.S.-supported dictator, General Somoza, in 1934, but they were better suppressed under his leader-ship. After Somoza was assassinated in 1956, his sons continued as dictators, and like their father, bled the country of its wealth and resources. As the Somoza regime became wealthier, the people became poorer and more ravaged by the lack of the most basic necessities. The Samozas allocated little money to education, and since most Nicaraguan children needed to work to help support their families, few children were able to attend the few schools that were available. The government spent almost no money on basic infrastructure. Besides the malnutrition that afflicted the poor, lack of proper sanitation and limited access to health care led to many outbreaks of dysentery, which was a leading cause of death. Children also died of many of the diseases that modern medicine now prevents, such as tetanus and measles. Because of the economic oppression of the people, opposition to the Samoza regime increased.

Alegría actively supported the Sandinista rebels, who succeeded in overthrowing the old Somoza dictatorship and seizing control in July 1979. In response, the United States funded a counter-revolutionary group, the Contras, withheld economic aid, and imposed a trade embargo that further decimated the Nicaraguan economy. The civil wars in Nicaragua did not end until 1990. The rebellion cost was high, with at least 50,000 dead during the years of fighting. There were also more than 100,000 wounded, and as many as 40,000 children were orphaned. It is little wonder that Alegría mentions the "eyes of that starving child" in her poem.

Education and Health Care

After the Somoza period ended, the new Sandinista government set about to improve life for the citizens of Nicaragua. This is when Alegría returned to help rebuild her country. One area that received immediate attention was education. Before the Sandinista government took control, only about 22 percent of children completed the minimum six years of primary schooling. Because secondary education was private and very expensive, very few children enrolled in secondary schools. Within five years, the new government had doubled the number of students enrolled in schools. With an increased budget for education, new schools were built and new teachers added. There was even an outreach program to educate adults through informal night schools, called Popular Education Cooperatives. The number of students continuing on to university study more than tripled in this short space of time. The emphasis on university study focused more on technology, agriculture, and medicine, rather than on the humanities or art.

It is worth noting that the U.S.-supported Contra wars forced cuts in education that eliminated many of the early gains created by the Sandinista government. This was also true of health care spending, which initially created improvements for the Nicaraguan people. Under the Somoza regime, wealthy upper-class Nicaraguans had access to private physicians or could go abroad to receive their medical care. A very small number of government workers comprised the middle class and had access to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, a sort of health maintenance organization that appropriated

Compare & Contrast

  • 1990s Nicaragua: In May 1997, university students begin a more than two-month protest of the government's decision to cut university budgets by nine million dollars. While the protests are initially peaceful, they soon escalate into street wars with many injuries and arrests resulting.
    1990s United States: While in the past there have been some localized student protests on U.S. campuses, most frequently about tuition raises or cuts in student aid, few students undertake a lengthy months-long protest over budget concerns. In recent years, protests over U.S. involvement in foreign wars elicit the strongest non-economic based protests on university campuses.
  • 1990s Nicaragua: In 1998, Nicaragua has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any country in Central America. It is thought that forty to forty-five percent of all pregnancies involve girls aged fourteen to nineteen. Pregnant girls are not able to complete their education, and are thus unable to find employment to support their children. Teenage pregnancy also results in social exclusion and rejection by the girl's family.
    1990s United States: Teenage and unwed pregnancies also increase in the United States during the last two decades. Many school districts encourage pregnant teenagers to stay in school and, in many instances, offer special programs to adapt schooling needs to fit the requirements of the pregnant teenager. In addition, several local community programs work to provide health care and social services to single mothers.
  • 1990s Nicaragua: In 1997, the government of Nicaragua is accused of trying to silence opposition radio and newspaper outlets. In part, this practice results from broadcast and print accounts of the student protests, which are marked by episodes of police brutality. This effort to close down opposition media outlets fails after the public demands an investigation.
    1990s United States: While the government does not try and close down media outlets that provide criticism of the government, there is questioning of the large corporate ownership of media outlets that are thought to restrict free speech. For instance, in many cities, multiple radio stations, multiple television stations, and local newspapers are often owned by the same large corporations. The result is that diverse opinions are oftentimes not heard.
  • 1990s Nicaragua: While abortion is illegal in Nicaragua, it is actually quite common. Wealthier women have easier access to medical abortion, while poor women are at greater risk in seeking more dangerous alternatives.
    1990s United States: Abortion continues to be legal in the United States, although it continues to be a controversial topic. In addition to legal challenges, there are also a number of violent attacks on abortion clinics and doctors who perform abortions.
  • 1990s Nicaragua: The number of women who are employed outside the home in Nicaragua continues to increase since the early 1980s. In general, women work in low-wage jobs, especially in service-type employment, as domestic workers and as agricultural workers. In spite of so many women now in the work force, few men assist in the domestic chores of home, and so women continue to be responsible for maintaining the household even if they choose to also work outside the home.
    1990s United States: More women than ever hold managerial positions or serve as directors of major corporations. However, wages for women are still roughly 30 percent less than for men performing comparable jobs.

about half of the national health care budget. The remainder of the population, about 90 percent of all Nicaraguans, made due with public clinics, which were poorly funded and staffed. The Sandinista government unified the health care system, increased the budget for public health care, and improved access for the poorest members of the population. Community health care also improved and treatments for dysentery and inoculations against common childhood diseases were put in place. Unlike the improvements in education, many of the improvements in health care survived the Contra wars. Although there were some setbacks, infant mortality decreased and the population as a whole was healthier. In particular, issues relating to improving education and healthcare were priorities of the Sandinista government, which Alegría had worked so hard to support.

Critical Overview

Alegría's book of poetry, Fugues, received a generally unfavorable review by the anonymous writer at Publishers Weekly, who reviewed the book for the October 18, 1993 publication. Among this writer's criticisms was the length of many of the poems, which are described as "mere aphorisms." This reviewer also stated that the poems in this book were "[s]parse on imagery." The reviewer referred to these poems as "tidbits" that "ask little from readers, and give little back." An additional complaint focuses on the poet's use of classical figures from Greek mythology, whom according to the reviewer "seem wholly out of place in both her [Alegría's] physical and emotional landscape." The poems in Fugues were translated by the author's husband. This reviewer cites Flakoll's translation as one aspect of the book that does not work, calling the translation "littered with cliches." This review of Alegría's book ends with the admonition that readers who "open this book expecting the work of a master" will instead find a book that "reads like a naive first collection." At the end of the review, the book is given a D grade.

Alegría's publisher, Curbstone Press, also provides limited reviews of the books they publish, and while they are not an unbiased source, they do include a review of Fugues written by poet Luisa Valenzuela, who says, "Illumination is the word that comes to mind when reading these poems." Valenzuela explains that Alegría's "simple words … allow us to see the duality of life as one single luminous flow of love." While it would be easy to dismiss the reviews provided by Curbstone as just an effort to sell books, they support the general view of Alegría's poetry. The review of Fugues published by Publishers Weekly also contradicts the most common assessment of Alegría's body of work. In her essay, "The Volcano's Flower," Chilean poet Marjorie Agosín calls Alegría's poetry "clear and defined." Her poetry is "stirring" and it "moves us and liberates us, not just to feel but also to think." In a 1991 interview with Marcia Phillips McGowan, Alegría stated that her poetry was "subjective." Clearly, reviews of her poetry are also subjective, and so perhaps that accounts for the wide disparity in opinions of reviewers of her work.


Sheri E. Metzger

Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. In this essay, Metzger discusses Alegría's appropriation of the classical elegiac form to memorialize her own life.

As she approaches the period that she calls "old age," Claribel Alegría responds by composing her own elegy, "Accounting," for which she uses a traditional poetic form to reflect upon the events of her life. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Alegría described this poem as having been created as a result of a period of reflection in which she asked herself, "what have been the crucial moments in my life?" In reflecting on her life, she chose "a few electrical instants" so that she could create a poem that would, as she related to Moyers, "sum up all my life." This poem accomplishes this goal, transforming determinate elements of time—"six hours in Macchu Pichu," "the ten minutes it took / to lose my virginity," and "fifteen minutes in Delft"—into a timeless eternity. The poet ensures with this poem that the indeterminate moments of her lifetime will not be lost when she has died. "Accounting" demonstrates Alegría's ability to transform the elegiac form to not only reflect upon the life she has lived, but also to honor that life. While the traditional mourning elegy can be used to honor and defend a life, Alegría demonstrates how the elegy can be altered to proclaim the poet's own life within the lines of her poem.

In "Accounting," Alegría composes a list of the crucial moments of her life. The people and places and the moments of joy and sorrow show individual moments from a lifetime of nearly seventy years. She inventories places she has visited, her love for a newborn child and for her spouse, and the deaths of those individuals whose presence in her life was critical in defining her experiences. In writing down these memories, Alegría reveals them to all her readers, even as she keeps them vibrant in her own life. The process for keeping her memories alive is the same for Alegría, regardless of the format used to reveal them. For instance, in a 1991 interview with Marcia Phillips McGowan, Alegría explained that one way she has been able to keep her family's memories alive was through the characters that she creates in her novels. She does this through telling stories and examining pictures, and then she incorporates these memories into her stories. Alegría does much the same thing in this poem. Alegría sifts through the memories of a lifetime, chooses fewer than a dozen, and then examines them, as she would a photo, studying each one as she arranges them into a montage that signifies her life. In this interview, Alegría tells McGowan that one of her "pervasive themes is nostalgia," and indeed, the title of one of the poems in Fugues, from which "Accounting" is taken, is "Nostalgia." The poet's nostalgia for the past, for the memories that she recalls in "Accounting," is an important component in defining her life. Alegría claims that it is "a great richness to recover memories" and preserve them in her writing. With "Accounting," she chooses to preserve her memories in an elegy that also honors and preserves her life for as long as her poems endure. Traditionally, an elegy can become an effective way to honor someone's life after death, but for Alegría, the elegy serves to reflect upon her life and anticipate her death.

Although Alegría is comfortable expressing her thoughts using an elegy, she makes it uniquely her own by challenging both the classical English and the Spanish elegiac traditions. In the classical elegiac tradition, the poem consists of a specific arrangement of lines that was notable for its use of the elegiac meter—an alternating hexameter and pentameter arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. Alegría dispenses with this classical form to use free verse, which is her accustomed mode of expression. She deviates from the traditional form in other ways, as well. In her essay, "Claribel Alegría and the Elegiac Tradition," Jo Anne Engelbert explores how Alegría uses the elegy in her poetry as a means to celebrate life rather than death. Engelbert begins her essay by quoting poet Pedro Salinas, who outlines some of the ways in which Central American poets use the elegiac tradition. According to Englebert, Salinas claimed that the elegy was "always, in the last analysis, a protest, a struggle against death." In fact, even if the poet appears accepting of his or her death, his or her use of poetry is designed "in order that something not perish." Thus the very use of poetry itself, counters the "serene resignation" of the elegy. This inconsistency is evident in Alegría's personal elegy. "Accounting" captures the author's ambivalence to the recognition that she will be preserved for all eternity in her poem. The resignation is present but so is the urge to fight. For example, in lines 24 and 25, she writes that she is "a shout" before she disappears in "a fleck of foam."

In her interview with Moyers, Alegría explains that while the poem "would sum up" her life, "I also wanted to cry out to everybody, a desperate cry telling them what has happened." At the same time, she wants to become "a fleck of foam," and as she tells Moyers, just "disappear and float in the air." In just these last few lines of "Accounting," Alegría exemplifies the paradox that Salinas had noted—the need to "survive that very death whose acceptance is being extolled." Alegría's poem defies the traditional elegy in other ways, as well. Engelbert explains that the Spanish elegiac tradition begins with laments, an expression of grief at the life that has ended. In contrast, Alegría's elegy begins with a celebration of her life. Since her elegy seeks to preserve the memories of her life, there is no need to lament the past. Even as she subverts the Spanish tradition, Alegría claims that she does not intentionally set out to defy or rewrite traditional genres. But she does tell McGowan that "maybe I do so unconsciously." When critics tell her that she is defying traditions, Alegría does not dissent and accepts this judgment even while she explains that "I myself am never conscious of it." Engelbert is one of the critics who has observed Alegría's efforts to challenge and transform modes of traditional poetry. Englebert claims that Alegría's "absence of verbal opulence," the brevity of language, transforms the traditional elegy. Rather than the conventional response to the bereaved, Alegría's elegy memorializes her own life as a celebration of endurance and change. The need for excess, for expressions of grandeur and superfluous accomplishments, are not necessary devices for Alegría to memorialize her life in an elegy.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Published by Curbstone Press and edited and translated by Alegría and her husband, Darwin J. Flakoll, On the Front Line: Guerilla Poems of El Salvador (1996) is an anthology of poetry written by El Salvadorian revolutionaries.
  • Sorrow (1999) is a collection of poetry that Alegría wrote after the death of her husband.
  • In Alegría's collection Casting Off (2003), many of the poems deal with death and with the poet's thoughts about approaching the end of her life.
  • The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (1995) contains the transcripts of more than 30 interviews that Bill Moyers conducted with contemporary poets. This book is a companion to Moyer's public television series The Language of Life.
  • Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution; A Political Chronicle 1855–1979 (1982) is a nonfiction account of the revolution, written by Alegría and her husband, Flakoll.
  • Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1996), edited by Stephen Tapscott, includes poetry by more than 75 Latin American poets.
  • After the Revolution: Gender and Democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala (2001), written by Ilja A. Luciak, provides data and interviews about the democratization of guerilla movements and the link to gender inequality in this region.
  • Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs: Gender Identity Politics in Nicaragua, 1979–1999 (2001), written by Lorraine Bayard de Volo, is the story of how women who did not fight in the revolution supported it through the sacrifice of their sons.

In her interview with McGowan, Alegría mentioned that she had recently completed a new collection of poetry called Fugues. She explained that the book's "main themes are love, death, and the encounter with old age." All of the themes from this book are captured in the one poem that is the subject of this study: "Accounting." In the final lines of the poem, Alegría considers the concluding event of her life—her death. She describes how she has "the urge to mould myself into a verse," and so not only will her memories be preserved—she will be preserved within the poem's own lines. In recognizing the poet's ability to memorialize a life, in this case her own, Alegría follows in a long tradition of poets who acknowledged that poetry was one way to cheat death.

William Shakespeare was one of the first poets to recognize that his own work would transcend the "gilded monuments / Of princes." In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare tells the object of the poem, the young man, that this poem shall be "The living record of your memory." Long after marble monuments have been "besmeared with sluttish time," the young man will live on, since his "praise shall find room / Even in the eyes of all posterity." Shakespeare returns to this theme in Sonnet 81, when he again tells the young man that "your memory death cannot take" because "Your monument shall be my gentle verse." As Gerald Hammond notes in his text, The Reader and Shakespeare's Young Man Sonnets, Shakespeare's poem "is a claim for the immortality of his subject." Rather than be placed in the tomb, or in "a common grave," the young man is placed within the poem, where he will be "entombèd in men's eyes." Alegría mimics this idea in her own poem when she disappears in the final line of her poem, into "a fleck of foam." Clearly Alegría is four-hundred years and far removed from Renaissance English poetry, and yet, the recognition by the poet that verse can give life to that which death has removed is a view that extends beyond time and space. Alegría might subvert classical English elegiac meter, but she still makes effective use of the traditional Shakespearean model.

There are importance distinctions between Shakespeare's recognition that poetry creates a lasting memory and Alegría's bid to compress her life into twenty-six lines of poetry. Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 and Sonnet 81 are not about the poet. There is no attempt by the poet to preserve his own life or to account for the events that have transformed or defined his life. There is no self-consciousness in these two poems, as there is in Alegría's poem. In his study of Shakespeare's sonnets, Shakespeare and English Renaissance Sonnet, author Paul Innes claims that "Sonnet 55 is the definitive enactment" of the poet's desire to "sustain for ever the truth and beauty of the friend." In contrast, Alegría makes no similar claim for her poetry. Her poem is meant to convey memories and not absolute truths. Another important difference between Alegría's poem and Shakespeare's sonnets is that the reader begins to know Alegría after reading her poem. This is not true for Shakespeare's sonnets 55 and 81, which contain no descriptions of the young man. He remains a mystery, whether one sonnet or the entire sequence is studied. While Shakespeare's sonnets claim to keep the young man's memory alive beyond the grave, as Hammond observes, the poems manage "to keep him entirely hidden" from the reader's view. The historical reality is that scholars are still uncertain who the young man was, while readers will have no difficulty in determining who Alegría was. Her life will remain in plain view for each generation of readers to understand.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on "Accounting," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Mary Potter

Potter is a university writing instructor and fiction writer living in San Francisco. In this essay, Potter shows how Alegría adds up the significant moments in her life to transform her experiences into verse through a series of poetic turns.

Fugues (1993), Claribel Alegría's collection of elegies and love poems, contains the poem "Accounting," a tally of experiences singled out as "electrical instants" in the aging poet's life. As a reviewer commented in Booklist, the collection is "lyrical" and "speaks of the solitary self and the self that is lost and found in love." Likewise, in "Accounting" the poet draws on past experiences in order to gather this self back to the present moment of composition, through which she desires to be transformed. Alegría wants to transmogrify herself "into a verse," to change her form into something surprising and perhaps strange, like a "shout" and "a fleck of foam." In this poem, Alegría uses her craft to achieve a metamorphosis. Arranging sensory images in lines that create dramatic tension, the poet's goal is a complete change in appearance and character. Sixty-eight years old at the time of the poem's writing, Alegría faces her own mortality, so by the end of the poem, she releases herself into the poet's domain—the natural world of sound and images.

Born in Nicaragua in 1924, Alegría is the leading poetic spokesperson in support of the Sandanista movement (FSLN) to restore democracy to her homeland, which fought against and overthrew the U.S.-backed Somoza regime in 1979. Because of her father's close alliance with Somoza himself, from early childhood on she was raised in exile in El Salvador. Educated in America, she met her husband in college, the journalist Darwin J. Flakoll, who also translated most of her works. For decades, they collaborated on numerous testimonies to revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. In an earlier collection of poetry, Woman of the River, Flakoll translates "Accounting" as "Summing Up." The poem's title in Spanish, "Contabilizando," means to "calculate, reckon, count up," and in these twenty-six lines the poet experiences a reckoning, adding up the "few" moments in her life that really count. While accounting is a mathematical process, logical and precise, she uses it to play against the mysterious and transformative power of the poetic process. In another poem in Fugues, "Ars Poetica," she celebrates the literary craft that draws her closer both to under-standing the transformative power of commonplace objects or experiences and to political awakening. While one plus one equals two in ordinary accounting, the minutes and memories that Alegría adds up in her poetry do not yield a predictable result. By the poem's end, her accounting comes undone.

This mysterious process is fueled by her political consciousness as much as it is by her deliberate craft. Whereas her early collections, from 1948 to 1961, were more strictly literary, at times sentimental, introspective, and lyrical, after 1965 her work changes direction toward letras de emergencia, wherein the emerging spirit of her work is an urgent response to a crisis situation. In this way, "Accounting" embodies her political conviction as it satisfies her "urge to mould" herself "into a verse."

"Accounting" is also a poetic composition, an arrangement of sounds and images into lines that create a drama. The first fifteen lines alternate between precise memories of her life and sensory details. The poem's tension increases through a pattern of turns on these moments and images firmly fixed in her memory. It may look like a simple poem of casually recollected memories, but the arrangement of its lines is intentional and intricate. First, the "electrical instants" she quantifies are "six hours in Macchu Pichu," "ten minutes necessary / to lose my virginity," "fifteen minutes in Delft," and "this sultry hour" when she is writing the poem. Interspersed amid this chronology of her life are sounds like "the buzzing of the telephone / while awaiting the death of my mother," "the hoarse voice / announcing the death [assassination] / of Monsignor Romero," and, turning away from the theme of death to birth, "the first wail of my daughter." Then, in the sixteenth line, the poem takes its most unexpected turn, unfurling into "I don't know how many years / dreaming of my people's liberation." She defies time itself by framing these years as an "electrical instant" that encapsulates the Nicaraguan struggle and in the line that follows, the oxymoronic "certain immortal deaths." She has lost track of the time she has spent yearning for her people's freedom, and during these decades, the countless lives lost. Lives that were lost fighting injustice achieve immortality, Alegría believes, as in this poem and in her memory the significance of such lives cannot be touched by time or tallied like a body count. Just as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero by a member of the Salvadoran death squads in 1980 was both another turning point for Alegría and the start of her political career, so his assassination in "Accounting" receives singular notice. After 1980, her works became mostly testimonios or testimonies of the traditionally voiceless, oppressed people, speaking out against government-sponsored terrorism in Central America and other regions.

In the first seventeen lines, the poet accounts for two "deaths" before turning to the "immortal deaths." In the next two lines, she takes another dramatic turn, moving from sound to sight, recreating "the eyes of that starving child" and "your eyes bathing me with love / one forget-me-not afternoon." She replaces the eyes of a dying child with the eyes of her lover as she once remarked that "mis poemas son poemas de amor a mis pueblos" (my poems are love poetry for my people). Death and love combined summon her back to her current "electrical instant," the present hour, when she sits yearning to change herself through verse into "the shout" and "a fleck of foam." As if she were carefully fording a stream, turning to find her next foothold stone by stone, in this poem she moves among the sounds and sights of her past to sum up her life and transform it. She is able to do this by establishing a pattern of moments alternating with sensory details, building dramatic tension, then breaking this pattern to achieve metamorphosis in the poem.

Critic Sandra Maria Boschetto-Sandoval writes in "Claribel Alegría: Overview," "As poet, essayist, journalist, novelist of fantastic fiction, and writer of testimonio, Alegría functions in a manner very similar to that of a cartographer. Tracing the heights, depths, and contours of her memory, Alegría charts the … regions of her psyche. The effect is not unlike that of a series of symmetrical mirrors, simultaneously reflecting inward and outward." She remarks further, "To situate Alegría's opus within its Latin American sociohistoric and political context is to … ground reality in a specific historic moment when subjects come to see themselves as integral parts of a collective process of intervention in history." Through poetry, poets attain immortality, and in "Accounting," Alegría reaches past the temporal limitations of her years on earth to place herself in history, among her generation of writers committed to artistic, political, and social engagement. By adding up all of the moments that have mattered, she finds that they are incalculable.

Source: Mary Potter, Critical Essay on "Accounting," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Jo Anne Engelbert

In the following essay excerpt, Engelbert examines Alegría's unique approach in her elegiac poems.

In the post-Matanza era, elegiac poetry in Central America is eloquent through stark simplicity. The great cathedral organ of Hispanic tradition is sparingly intoned or renounced in favor of an unamplified voice that is at once personal and collective. Death in the Central American isthmus is not cortés, as elegized by Manrique; Death as personified by Alegría is the implacable god Tlaloc demanding blood; his victims are the dispossessed, stripped of land, customs, dress, language, and history. The language of elegy must faithfully reflect this; a lament for the children of the Woman of the River Sumpul must of necessity be as pure as water, uncompromised by reliance on the codes of power.

It is not merely the diction of elegy which is problematized by La Matanza, but the very function and nature of this poetry. In the very midst of chaos, who can pretend to comfort, to reconcile? Who perceives an order to be restored or a power capable of restoring it? Classical resignation and spiritual quietude are often replaced in this latitude by exhortation to action. Boccanera (1981, 15) observes, "En pueblos donde la represión y Muerte son ya una costumbre de la barbarie, la poesía pasa de la elegía a la denuncia, de la clandestinidad al exilio, y nada contra la corriente para no perecer ahogada en la sangre del pueblo agredido" (In countries where repression and death have become the praxis of barbarity, poetry moves from elegy to denunciation, from clandestinity to exile, and swims against the current in order not to drown in the blood of the oppressed). In Central America, Alegría and others are creating a new elegiac tradition that does not merely denounce but which essays a new response to the human needs of the bereaved. Its elements are a rigorous sobriety of expression, identification with the oppressed, a poetic persona that is collective rather than individual, and a sensibility that reflects New World beliefs and values. A fundamental departure from received tradition is the emergence of the female elegist.

Some religious communities, as a symbolic gesture, renounce the luxury of instrumental music. "For orthodox Jewry the absence of musical instruments is regarded as a symbol of the absence of the departed glory of the Temple and a reminder of the tragic history of a people scattered over the four quarters of the globe" (Tobin 1961, 166). Similarly, in Alegría's poetry the absence of verbal opulence signifies somber remembrance and complete identification with the subject.

The normal recourses of poetry fail under the weight of this subject matter. Manuel Sorto writes (quoted in Guillén 1985, 131),

El sangrerío es grande
demasiado grande
para medirlo con metáforas.
Ninguna alucinación se le parece.
(The river of blood is immense
too great
to be measured in metaphors.
No hallucination can equal it.)

The inadequacy of metaphor to the expression of horror is what Neruda alludes to when he writes, "The blood of the children / flowed out into the streets / … like the blood of the children" (Forché 1985, 257). No comparison, no simile, no linguistic elaboration can equal the efficacy of the poet's naked, unmediated voice recounting concrete experience. Alegría never speaks about death in the abstract, nor does she speak about "the dead." Rather she speaks, with maternal tenderness, of "mis muertos" (my dead). In her fictional autobiography Luisa in Realityland, she recounts the childhood ritual of nightly prayers for her dead and recalls her dread of omitting the name of a single individual whose soul, on her account, might fall into limbo. As she grew older she added name after name to her rosary of souls until the list threatened to become interminable (Alegría 1987, 13). Even now, she tells us (Alegría 1981, 91), her paradise in Mallorca fills with phantoms after dark, the ghosts of all her dead.

As in the indigenous tradition alluded to above in which "death was never a line of demarcation," Alegría blurs and dissolves boundaries. Her dead mingle promiscuously with the living; they come and go at will, appear in the street, vanish in the mist. But it is in life, not in death, that she wishes to remember her host of souls. "Tu muerte me cansa," she tells her father, "Quiero olvidarla ahora / y recordar lo otro" (I am weary of your death, / I want to forget it for a while and remember all the rest) (Alegría 1981, 95). The faces she holds in memory are vibrantly alive; her father's, for example (Alegría 1981, 96):

Tu vida y no tu muerte:
tu rostro aquella tarde
cuando llegaste humeando de alegría
y alzándola en vilo
le anunciaste a mi madre
que ahora sí,
que ya es seguro,
que le salvé la pierna
a Jorge Eduardo.
(Your life and not your death:
your face that afternoon
when you came in beaming with joy,
held it up for all to admire,
and announced to my mother
that yes, finally, it was certain
that you had saved Jorge Eduardo's leg.)

There are no panegyrics in this poetry. Alegría does not speak about the dead; rather, she speaks to them with the naturalness of everyday conversation. "Remember that hot day," she asks her father, "when we stole the only watermelon / and wolfed it down, just the two of us?" (Alegría 1981, 96). She imagines her mother at the age of twelve, face flushed, braids flying, performing a stunt on her roller skates. In the timeless zone of memory she asks her (Alegría 1981, 122),

¿ Cuándo perdiste esa
¿ Cuándo te convertiste
en la muchacha cautelosa
que colgó los patines?
(When did you lose that joy?
When did you become
that cautious little girl
who put away her roller skates?)

The dead invoked by Alegría are disconcertingly active; they do not, cannot, rest. They rise and leave the cemeteries to seek justice; they mount guard, harass the living, lie in ambush, ready to accost the passerby. Gesticulating, winking, waving, they pursue the poet, desperate to tell their stories. Their rage is palpable:

nadie sabe decir
cómo murieron
sus voces perseguidas
se confunden
murieron en la cárcel
Se levantan mis muertos
tienen rabia
(no one can say
how they died.
Their persecuted voices are one voice
dying by torture in prison
My dead arise, they rage.)
(Forché 1982, 55)

They are legion; they form a solid wall that reaches from Aconcagua to Izalco. In desperation the poet struggles to hold them all, to retain them in memory lest they fall into the limbo of oblivion. But they are too many; she cannot contain them all: having described herself as a cemetery apátrida, she says that her dead "no caben," (they do not fit). Presentes (present in spirit), like the ghostly guerrilla fighters in poems by Roberto Obregón or Roberto Sosa who rise at night to fight alongside their companions, these dead in their anger "continue the struggle" (Alegría 1981, 157–58).

In her book Poetry in the Wars Edna Longley observes, "The 'I' of a lyric poem does not egocentrically claim any privilege as structuralists would have it. Strategically individualist, but truly collective, a poem suppresses self in being for and about everyone's humanity" (Longley 1987, 17). The particulars of Alegría's poetic persona—her loneliness, weariness, even the fungus between her toes—are often links to the collective subject (all of the lonely, weary, pauperized expatriates living in Madrid got fungus infections in the public baths where everyone went to "scrub off the stench exile" (Forché 1982, 28). Her poems do not so much suppress self as transform and transcend it; her progressive identification with those who have fallen in the struggle becomes more and more intense with the passage of time. In poem after poem she identifies herself with those who have suffered or died in the struggle. She submerges herself in the collective historical subject and her voice is one with the chorus, the river of voices raised in protest:

Ya no es una la voz
es un coro de voces
soy los otros
soy yo
es un río de voces
que se alza
que me habla de la cárcel
del adiós
del dolor
del hasta luego
se confunden las voces
y los rostros se apagan
quién le quitó a ese niño
su alegría?
(It is no longer a voice
it is a chorus of voices
I am the others
I am myself
it is a river of voices
that is rising
that speaks to me of prison
of goodbyes
of suffering
of so long for a while
the voices blend together
the faces dissolve
who snatched the smile
from that little boy?)
(Alegría 1981, 172)

"Sorrow," the longest and most powerful of Alegría's elegiac poems, actually takes the form of such a chorus or river of voices. Dedicated to Roque Dalton, "Sorrow" is one of the most original and profound elegies in Central American poetry. An entire poetics of solidarity could be extracted from its strategies for voicing a collective lament. The poem is an arpillera pieced of fragments, vivid scraps of personal experience commingled with verses by poets and artists who were witnesses to the common struggle.

"Voces que vienen / que van" (Voices that rise and are gone), the poem begins. We recognize them from familiar phrases—"cuando sepas que he muerto / no pronuncies mi nombre," "verde que," "puedo escribir los versos más tristes," "me moriré en París" (when you know that I have died / do not speak my name) (green, I want you green) (tonight I can write the saddest verses) (I will die in Paris) (Forché 1982, 18). Besides the fraternity of poets—Dalton, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Antonio Machado, and Hernández—others identified with the cause are invoked as well. Victor Jara appears and Violeta Parra, Che Guevara, and Sandino. Their words are stitched together in a graphic representation of solidarity, appliquéed upon the strong fabric of the poem's personal statement. The poem's eight sections are eight stations of the course of mourning. The invocation of the voices is followed by the recollection of a dusty pilgrimage to the grave of Lorca ("no te pusieron lápida / no te hiceron el honor / de arrancar los olivos / combatientes / torcidos") (They didn't give you a grave marker / they did you the honor of tearing up / the twisted, the stubborn olive trees) (Forché 1982, 24). The third section evokes the sense of loss that is the experience of exile. The expatriates floating like wraiths along the cold boulevards of Madrid recognize each other by the mark on their foreheads, the hunted look in their eyes. The next three sections recount the poet's response to the "implacable news" of the death of Roque Dalton. She passes from stunned horror to an elevated experience of identification with all those who have suffered or died for the cause: in the seventh section she projects herself through prison walls to a narrow cell and lies on a cot listening in the darkness to the screams of the tortured. We recall the ritual of her childhood litanies, now become an exercise in horror: "empiezo a contar nombres / mi rosario de nombres / pienso en el otro / el próximo / que dormirá en mi catre / y escuchará el ruido de los goznes / y cagará aquí mismo en el cano / llevando a cuestas / su cuota de terror" (I begin counting the names / my rosary of names / I think about the other / the next one who will sleep here / on my cot and listen / to the groaning hinges / and shit right here in this open pipe / hunched beneath his quota of terror). The intensity of this emotion is the poem's climax:

Desde mi soledad
alzo la voz y pregunto
y la respuesta es clara.
(from my solitude I raise my voice
I ask and the answer is clear.)

One by one, voices call out to her in the darkness: "Soy Georgina / soy Nelson / soy Raúl" (I am Georgina / I am Nelson / I am Raúl). The chorus of voices rises, growing more and more powerful, drowning out the voice of the jailer demanding silence. She rends the veil of time that separates her from herself, from the others. Suddenly there are wine and guitars and tobacco, and sorrow has become reunion. She takes a piece of coal and scrawls on the wall, "más solos están ellos / que nosotros" (they are more alone than we are), the only consolation this elegy can offer and the only consolation that it needs.

In this fraternity of suffering, the dispossessed have their homeland in each other. Salvadoran guerrillas often repeat, "we have our mountain [i.e., our refuge] in the people." The poets of this era find their mountain, their "habitat," in the consciousness of their counterparts in solidarity, regardless of era or place of birth.

"Sorrow"'s eighth section, an epilogue, parallels traditional elegiac form by referring confidently to the persistence of the poem itself, exactly as Salinas observed ("words are spoken here, precisely, in order that something not perish: words themselves"), with the enormous difference that the poem, in this tradition, is no longer the work of a single individual; this is its precise strength:

existen los barrotes
nos rodean
también existe el catre
y sus ángulos duros
y el poema río
que nos sostiene a todos
y es tan substantivo
como el catre
el poema que todos escribimos
con lágrimas
y uñas
y carbón.
(the bars do exist
they surround us
the cot also exists
with its hard sides
the river poem
that sustains us all
and is as substantial as the cot
the poem we are all writing
with tears, with fingernails and coal.)
(Forché 1982, 43)

The poem's final words are not a pious generality but a challenge, an incitement; the function of this poetry is not to reconcile but to engage:

y surge la pregunta
el desafío
decidme en el alma quién
quién levantó los barrotes?
(and the question arises, the challenge
tell, me, in spirit, who
who, raised up this prison's bars?)
(Forché 1982, 42)

Using few of the resources of the traditional elegy, Alegría has created a poetry that approximates its weight and scope and resonance. With others of her generation, she has helped define a New World elegiac tradition, individual and collective, unmediated and profound, a poetry "for and about everyone's humanity."

Source: Jo Anne Engelbert, "Claribel Alegría and the Elegiac Tradition," in Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature, edited by Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan, Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1994, pp. 183–98.

Ana Patricia Rodríguez

In the following essay, Rodríguez discusses Alegría's career, her partnership with Darwin J. "Bud" Flakoll, and her support for her homeland.

Claribel Alegría is one of the most respected and prolific writers of Central America. Since the late 1940s she has written more than forty books across many literary genres, including novels, novellas, stories, essays, testimonios (testimonials), children's stories, and poetry. Her works have been published in more than fourteen languages throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States. With Darwin J. "Bud" Flakoll, her husband and partner in writing, Alegría has translated and edited other writers' work, produced anthologies, and cowritten novels, testimonios, and journalistic exposés. She has lectured and read widely from her work in diverse international media and academic forums, especially during the 1980s, when she was recognized unofficially as cultural ambassador of El Salvador in exile. In "The Writer's Commitment" (which first appeared in the journal Fiction International in 1984) Alegría identified herself as a profoundly "committed writer," one who envisions social change, struggles for human rights, and produces a transformational "literature of emergency." Tracing her own political and literary transformations, she explains that, early in her life, she wrote poetry without knowing "what was happening in my country—El Salvador—or my region—Central America." The Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Sandinista Revolutionary Period in Nicaragua from 1979 to 1989, the Salvadoran Civil War from 1979 to 1991, and her own personal relationship to these historical events transformed her writing. These social movements and historical moments indelibly marked both her prose and poetry.

Born in Estelí, Nicaragua, on 12 May 1924, Clara Isabel Alegría Vides was taken to live in El Salvador by her parents at the age of six months. A binational citizen and international traveler, she has claimed Nicaragua as her matria (motherland) and El Salvador as her patria (fatherland). Her father, Daniel Alegría, was a Nicaraguan citizen and medical doctor who was exiled from Nicaragua after expressing his discontent with the United States Marine occupation of Nicaragua, critiquing the Somocista repression of peasants and dissidents in his country, and voicing support for the revolutionary forces of Augusto César Sandino. Although he never returned to Nicaragua, Alegría's father remained a fervent supporter of Sandino's ideals in Central America. Upon being terrorized by the Nicaraguan National Guard, the Alegría family fled to the northwestern department of Santa Ana in El Salvador, the home of Alegría's mother, Ana María Vides. There, Alegría grew up as a member of the landed coffee oligarchy, to which her mother's family belonged.

Alegría was reared amid the privilege of her socio-economic class, although from an early age she demonstrated a sense of autonomy and free thought, electing to attend public schools rather than the private parochial schools preferred by her siblings. In a 2000 interview with Antonio Velásquez, Alegría explains that in Santa Ana she had access to good libraries, wherein she began to read at an early age. Her parents introduced her to the poetry of the Spanish Golden Age, including that of San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa, and many Latin American writers, among them Rubén Darío, Gabriela Mistral, and Rómulo Gallegos. She learned at an early age that she wanted to be a poet, thereby challenging prescribed gender roles and traditions of Salvadoran elite society.

In 1943, perhaps seeking other directions for herself and her artistic production, Alegría moved to the United States to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and letters. In 1948 Alegría published her first book of poetry, Anillo de silencio (Ring of Silence), for which the Mexican philosopher and writer José Vasconcelos wrote the prologue. In his travels through Central America, Vasconcelos met the young Clara Isabel Alegría Vides. Vasconcelos, according to sources, suggested to her the pen name of Claribel Alegría. During her residence in Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Alegría met the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, whom she called her mentor. In her interview with Velásquez, Alegría affirms that "Juan Ramón Jiménez fue, en ese sentido, muy estricto conmigo y me decía que había que tener oficio para ser poeta, para ser novelista, y yo nunca había tenido un oficio de narradora, solamente de poeta" (Juan Ramón Jiménez was, in a sense, very strict with me and he would tell me that one has to have vocation to be a poet, a novelist, and I only wanted to be a poet, not a prose writer). Despite her initiation in poetry, Alegría has been recognized both for her poetry and prose. In 1978 her book Sobrevivo (I Survive) received Cuba's Casa de las Américas prize for poetry, while her novel Cenizas de Izalco (1966; translated as Ashes of Izalco, 1989), cowritten with her husband, was the first Central American novel published by the prestigious Seix Barral of Barcelona.

While studying at George Washington University, Alegría met Flakoll, a student studying journalism and diplomacy, whom she married in 1947. Together they formed a deep partnership that lasted a lifetime of family commitments, worldwide travels, and writing projects. They lived in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, France, Spain, and Nicaragua, meeting many writers with whom they collaborated on various projects. During that period of living as expatriates, Alegría and Flakoll produced poetry anthologies, in which they compiled and translated the work of international writers. These anthologies include New Voices of Hispanic America (1962), Unstill Life: An Introduction to the Spanish Poetry of Latin America (1970), Cien poemas de Robert Graves (One Hundred Poems of Robert Graves, 1981), Nuevas voces de Norteamérica (New Voices of North America, 1981), and On the Front Line: Guerrilla Poetry of El Salvador (1989). While living in Paris from 1962 to 1966, Alegría and Flakoll met the writers of the Spanish American "Boom" who resided in that city. The couple became lifelong friends of the Argentine Julio Cortázar, who participated in their enthusiasm and support of the Sandinista Revolution until his death. Flakoll and Alegría lived for years in Deyá, on the island of Majorca in Spain, which serves as the setting for the novella Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga (1985; translated as Village of God and the Devil, 1991).

In 1979 Alegría and Flakoll relocated to Nicaragua to join the Sandinista reconstruction efforts. They cowrote an historical text, Nicaragua: La revolución sandinista—Una crónica política, 1855–1979 (Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution—A Political Chronicle, 1855–1979, 1982), and produced several anthologies of poetry and prose, published in solidarity with the revolutionary movement in El Salvador. During this period Alegría and Flakoll were prolific, publishing La encrucijada salvadoreña (The Salvadoran Crossroads, 1980), Homenaje a El Salvador, and On the Front Line. They also collaborated in the writing of testimonial and resistance texts such as No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en la lucha (1983; translated as They Won't Take Me Alive: Salvadorean Women in Struggle for National Liberation, 1987), Fuga de Canto Grande (1992; translated as Tunnel to Canto Grande, 1996), and Somoza: Expediente cerrado: La historia de un ajusticiamiento (1993; translated as Death of Somoza, 1996). Alegría explained to Velásquez that, in this testimonial production, it was Flakoll who took charge: "En los testimonios los dos escribimos todo, pero él sabía estructurarlos mejor porque era periodista" (We wrote everything in the testimonies, but he knew how to structure them better than I since he was a journalist).

Many critics have marveled at Alegría and Flakoll's personal and professional relationship, often asking them to explain the secret of their success. In a 1990 interview with David Volpendesta, Alegría explained that Flakoll "at the beginning of our marriage, was my critic in poetry." In his Gestos ceremoniales: Narrativa centroamericana, 1960–1990 (Ceremonial Gestures: Central American Narrative, 1998), the critic Arturo Arias suggests that Alegría and Flakoll's collaboration manifests a new north-south sensibility in Alegría's work, which transgresses the stereotypes ascribed to both North Americans and Central Americans and facilitates a better understanding between both peoples. Married to a progressive North American man, Alegría, according to Arias, was forced to "confrontar esa otreadad que era constitutiva de su ser" (confront an otherness that was part of her being) and to adopt a "transformativa" (transformative) and transnational perspective.

Equally known for her poetry and prose innovations, Alegría describes her work as sui generis. Her first novel, Cenizas de Izalco, and her novellas—Luisa en el país de la realidad (1987; translated as Luisa in Realityland), Despierta, mi bien, despierta (Awaken, My Love, Awaken, 1986), El detén (1977; translated as The Talisman, 1991), Album familiar (1982; translated as Family Album, 1991), and Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga, the last three of which are collected in an English translation titled Family Album (1991)—combine various literary genres in single texts. Alegría's novels and novellas incorporate literary forms such as poetry, diaries, and letters to produce the effect of a literary montage or collage. This interpolation and mixing of literary forms articulates, at times, multiple voices and perspectives. Alegría populates her texts with members of the aristocracy and exploited groups, foreign travelers, and subjects of all classes, genders, ages, and political positions. Converging in single texts, these voices represent the constructed nature of literature and the complex mosaic of Salvadoran society. Although appearing sometimes deceptively simple and written in girls' voices, Alegria's prose texts, especially Cenizas de Izalco and the novellas, question the foundations of Salvadoran traditional values, social hierarchies, and power structures, which are embedded in the ideals of family, home, nation, and reality. Sometimes possessing a poetic quality, as in the case of Luisa en el país de la realidad, Alegría's prose narratives are also highly lyrical and enigmatic. Her poetry and prose narrative, hence, cannot be separated, although in her interview with Velásquez, Alegría claimed, "En realidad creo que mi pasión es la poesía" (In reality, I think my passion is for poetry).

Alegría began her literary career writing poetry, which has remained a constant endeavor throughout her life. She has written many books of poetry, including Anillo de silencio, Suite de amor, angustia y soledad (The Suite of Love, Anxiety, and Solitude, 1950), Vigilias (Vigils, 1953), Acuario (Aquarius or Aquarium, 1955), Huésped de mi tiempo (Guest of My Time, 1961), Vía única (One Way, 1965), Aprendizaje (Learning, 1970), Pagaré a cobrar y otros poemas (Paid on Delivery and Other Poems, 1973), Sobrevivo, Suma y sigue (Sum Up and Continue, 1981), Flores del volcán/Flowers from the Volcano (1982), Poesía viva (Living Poetry, 1983), Mujer del río (1987; translated as Woman of the River, 1989), Y este poema río (And This River Poem, 1988), Fugues (1993), Variaciones en clave de mi (Variations in the Key of Me, 1993), Umbrales/Thresholds: Poems (1996), and Saudade/Sorrow (1999). Flakoll and Carolyn Forché have faithfully translated many of Alegría's poems, although some of these books of poetry have not been translated into English, especially her earliest works. Throughout these works Alegría has produced poems that are lyrical, self-reflective, and intimate and that speak to the universal themes of joy, love, desire, anger, angst, sadness, loss, melancholy, and mourning. At the same time, her poetry has responded to the sociopolitical struggles in Central America, increasingly becoming self-referential and critical of power structures in the region. Poetry has remained a constant in Alegría's life, and with the passing of her husband in 1995 she has returned to poetry in her later projects.

According to Alegría, her poetry is not political but rather a "mis poemas son poemas de amor a mis pueblos" (love poetry for her people), an ideal that is most apparent in her poems such as "Tamalitos de Cambray" (Little Cambray Tamales), "Mujer del río" (Woman of the River), "Documental" (Documentary), all published in Mujer del Río, and other poems dedicated to the memory of fallen Central American writers and revolutionaries such as Roque Dalton. Along with the Salvadoran poet Dalton, who claimed in his 1977 poem "Como tú" (Like You) that "la poesía es como el pan, de todos" (poetry, like bread, is for everyone), Alegría produces literature that is accessible to a wide range of readers. In the field of contemporary poetry, she draws from the poetic traditions of Central American exteriorismo (exterior poetry), Latin American conversational political poetry, and the international decolonizing militancy of engaged poets of the mid to late twentieth century. Alegría's poems abound with concrete images, historical allusions, colloquialisms, and revolutionary themes. Her "Ars poética," from Fugues, celebrates the literary craft that brings her closer to political awakening and understanding of the transformational power of commonplace objects and experiences. In the images of the crow, sun, valleys, volcanoes, and debris of war the poet is able to "catch sight of the promised land."

Her book of poetry Mujer del río overflows with images of water, trees, and leaves, all inter-mingling in the poet's memory. In "Desde el puente" (From the Bridge) the poet recounts the passing of her life as "the water flows below," and she rushes to remember "la masacre / que dejó sin hombres" (the massacre / that left Izalco without men) that she witnessed at the age of seven. The adult poet asks herself, "cómo podré explicarte / que no cambiado nada / y que siguen matando diariamente?" (How can I explain to you / nothing has changed / they keep on killing people daily?). By the end of "Desde el puente" the committed poet questions an intellectualism masked in philosophy and a poetry detached from life, one that "cuidadsomente omitían / la inmundicia que nos rodea / desde siempre" (carefully omitted / the filth / that has always / surrounded all). With resolve, Alegría's committed poet grows claws and beaks in order to survive the "tufo a carroña" (stench of carrion) left behind by the destruction of El Salvador. In 2000, when interviewed by Velásquez, Alegría reconfirmed her lifelong endeavor to produce literature committed to universal themes, local struggles, and common people. She states that "Para mí el oficio de escribir es un oficio como tantos otros, y así como el zapatero tiene que hacer buenos zapatos, el escritor está llamado a comunicar, a comunicar ideas, sentimientos" (For me the craft of writing is a craft like many others. Like the shoemaker has to make good shoes, the writer is called to communicate, communicate ideas, feelings).

In "The Writer's Commitment" Alegría recognizes that with the wars in Central America, especially in El Salvador, her "poems took on an edge of protest." She also began to write more narrative texts that assumed marginal testimonial perspectives. She dedicated herself to developing parallel yet intertwined projects: the "literary-poetic" and "crisis journalism"—in other words, poetry and prose narrative. Many critics analyze Alegría's multifaceted literary production, paying particular attention to her representation of women, social movements, revolution, and history. They examine Alegría's early use of fantastic literature, feminist discourse, and testimonios. In 1994 Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan published Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature, an anthology of critical essays on Alegría's work, in which critics such as Arias, Jorge Rufinelli, Ileana Rodríguez, Margaret Crosby, Boschetto-Sandoval, and Phillips McGowan discuss Alegría's lifelong commitment to producing socially, politically, and artistically engaged literature. Along these lines, the critic George Yúdice, in "Letras de emergencia: Claribel Alegría" (Literature of Emergency: Claribel Alegría, 1985), examines Alegría's production of "letras de emergencia," an emergent and urgent literature. Whether in poetic or prose form, Alegría's texts respond to particular historical conditions and represent distinct literary discourses and perspectives such as the testimonial voices of female revolutionary fighters and marginalized people.

According to Arias, Alegría is the initiator of a new wave of Central American poetic and prose narrative in the 1960s. Although living most of her adult life outside of Central America, Alegría is associated with a generation of committed writers in El Salvador such as Dalton, Manlio Argueta, and Matilde Elena López. Like these writers, Alegría addresses political, historical, and cultural issues and challenges power structures and hierarchies in El Salvador. She has pushed the limits of social realism and linear narrative, fusing poetry and prose in her experimental texts and crossing the lines between history and literature. Her poetry reconstructs historical events such as the conquest of El Salvador and "La Matanza" (The Massacre) in 1932, in which more than thirty thousand peasant and indigenous people were killed almost overnight in El Salvador by the military government of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. The dictator Martínez virtually erased this event from the public record by having all related documentation destroyed. Rectifying this act of "lobotomía cultural" (cultural lobotomy), as Alegría calls it in "Clash of Cultures," an essay for the September 1986 issue of Index on Censorship, Alegría's work preserves and retells the history of the massacre for generations of Salvadorans, who read her poetry and prose in school. In lieu of proper documentation, Alegría's personal memories and poetry restore the lost memory of the Salvadoran people. As she explains in "Clash of Cultures," she and Flakoll "had to reconstruct from my childhood memories when I was seven years old and what grown-ups had told me in hushed tones as I grew older."

Alegría and Flakoll's life of partnership and collaboration ended with his death on 15 April 1995, a loss so great that Alegría was moved to write a farewell book of poetry, Saudade/Sorrow. According to her, the Portuguese word saudade refers to the deep sense of loss and sadness experienced with the death of a loved one. Alegría has continued to live in Managua, Nicaragua, where her neighbors include the Nicaraguan writers Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez.

Claribel Alegría's prose narrative and narrative poetry withstood one of the most repressive periods in Central American history. Writers such as Alegría sought a revolution in form and content, but always with the idea that literature belongs to people and might speak with them, not for them. Hence, testimonio and testimonial poetry has been a strong discursive current in Central America. Alegría's command of multiple literary genres, including prose and poetry, undoubtedly has placed her at the vanguard of political, solidarity, feminist, and third-world literary movements. During her lifetime she has worked tirelessly to put Central America on the literary map and to make literature, especially poetry, "a basic human right" within reach of all people.

Source: Ana Patricia Rodríguez, "Claribel Alegria," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 283, Modern Spanish American Poets, First Series, edited by María A. Salgado, Gale, 2003, pp. 10–16.

Margaret B. Crosby

In the following essay, Crosby discusses the roles Alegría has fulfilled as both a human-rights activist and poet.

"My main concern, rather than to talk about me, is to talk about my countries," says Claribel Alegría in the Fall 1989 issue of Curbstone Ink. "To talk about what is happening in El Salvador and Nicaragua is important," she continues. "Just to let people know what is happening right there, right then: that's my main concern. Nicaragua and El Salvador. I consider them both my countries."

Alegría, who was born in Nicaragua on 12 May 1924 and grew up in El Salvador, is one of the major contemporary voices in the struggle for liberation in Central America. As a poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, translator, and indefatigable human-rights activist, she combines both love and revolution, the personal and the political, in her work. It reflects not only a strong commitment to Latin-American social change, but also her concern for the status of Latin-American women. As Nancy Saporta Sternbach observes, "Women of all ages and stages of growth and personal evolution populate her work. Whether Alegría is writing testimony or fiction, poetry or essay, the voice, the heart, the mind of women—Latin American women—are central and omnipresent. From an early age, Alegría defined herself as a feminist, as her work amply demonstrates."

Alegría divides her work into two categories: literary-poetic and letras de emergencia (emergency letters). The first category refers to the sentimental, introspective, lyrical poetry that typifies her early collections published from 1948 to 1961. The second category describes her politically conscious poetry and prose, published from 1965 to the present. These works address the prevailing realities and problems in her Central American homeland. As she explains in her 1988 essay "The Writer's Commitment," letras de emergencia is a phrase that captures "the double meaning of urgency and the emerging spirit of her work" and is a response to a crisis situation. She further defines this concept in her essay "Our Little Region" (1991), where she says that it "is any book, poem, article or speech that openly defends a cause or situation in which [the writer] deeply believes, such as the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution or the necessity for a thorough political revolution in El Salvador." Whether her reply to the political crisis in her countries is expressed by writing or by speaking at international symposia about Central America, it is a heartfelt response that characterizes all of her work.

Alegría believes it is crucial for artists to take sides and commit themselves to the struggle for liberation. In commenting on the role of the artist, she adamantly states in "Our Little Region" that "Any artist who avoids commitment in the struggle is guilty at least of ivory tower escapism and at worst of complicity with the Squadrons of Death and the total militarization of society." Furthermore, in "The Writer's Commitment" and also in an interview with American poet Carolyn Forché she admits that if she were to meet a Central American writer who sidestepped political commitment and favored the Latin-American Right, she would refuse to be his or her friend.

Born in Estelí, Nicaragua, Alegría is the daughter of a Salvadoran mother, Ana María Vides, and a Nicaraguan exile. Her father, Daniel Alegría, was a medical doctor and an anti-interventionist during the U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua in 1924. Since he openly opposed the marines' presence in his country, they terrorized him and his family by aiming and firing at his wife and six-month-old daughter. Three months later the family fled Nicaragua and settled in Santa Ana, El Salvador where Alegría was raised and educated. From El Salvador her father helped Augusto César Sandino, who initiated the Sandinista movement in 1927 and who led the peasant uprising against the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua. In 1934 Sandino was assassinated. After that there was a price on Daniel Alegría's head, and he could only return to Nicaragua clandestinely.

In 1943 Alegría came to the United States, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and letters from George Washington University. During this time she was the protégée of Juan Ramón Jiménez, the renowned Spanish poet and recipient of the 1956 Nobel Prize for literature. Jiménez taught Alegría the rigor, discipline, and craft of writing, and his influence can be seen in her early volumes of poetry. In 1947 Alegría married Darwin J. ("Bud") Flakoll, a U.S.-born journalist she met at George Washington University.

Alegría published Anillo de silencio (Ring of Silence), her first collection of poems, in 1948. This book marked the beginning of several collections of subjective, lyrical, and somewhat introspective and self-searching poetry. Her first narrative piece was Tres cuentos (Three Stories, 1958), a collection of three short stories for children. In all three stories, according to Diane E. Marting in Women Writers of Spanish America, "flora and fauna communicate with children, revealing a special fantasy world.… [T]he impossible becomes the possible … and the fine line between dreams and reality is temporarily banished."

The Cuban revolution in 1959 represented a turning point in Alegría's life. To her the revolution demonstrated that social and political change in Latin America as well as an end to U.S. imperialism and oppression in Cuba were possible. The events of the revolution also raised her political consciousness and caused her to depart from what she calls the egotistical navel gazing and childhood nostalgia of her earlier works. As her global perspective expanded, her poetry began to change, focusing more on the misery, injustice, and brutal repression in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

During the course of their life together, Alegría and Flakoll have traveled, lived, and worked in the United States, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, France, and Spain. In 1961 they lived in Uruguay, where he worked for the American embassy. During this time they befriended Uruguayan writers such as Mario Benedetti, Carlos Martínez Moreno, Carlos Real de Azúa, Idea Vilariño, and Manolo Claps.

From 1962 to 1966 they lived in Paris, where they associated regularly with the Latin-American Boom novelists Julio Cortázar (Argentina), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)—all of whom were at that time committed political leftists. In addition, Alegría and her husband began a lifelong friendship with Cortázar and his two wives, first Aurora Bernárdez and later Carol Dunlop.

During this period Alegría became obsessed with Latin-American politics and literature as well as her childhood memories. Fuentes urged her to write a novel based on her memories of the 1932 peasant uprising at Izalco, El Salvador, where dictator Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martínez and his army slaughtered thirty thousand peasants and Indians in the name of anticommunism. Since writing about the massacre was both painful and difficult for her, Flakoll suggested they write the novel together. The result was Cenizas de Izalco (1966; translated as Ashes of Izalco, 1989). Published by Seix Barral, a major Barcelona press, the novel was a finalist for the publisher's annual literary prize.

The novel anticipates Alegría's subsequent recurring themes: mother-daughter relationships, U.S. intervention in Central America, female/male relations, Third World—First World relations, political repression as reality and metaphor, and revolution as the eruption of a volcano. In addition, the matanza (massacre) of 1932, which forms the setting in this novel, appears as a regular motif in other works. As a historical novel, Cenizas de Izalco is one of the first El Salvadoran novels to deal with the horror of the 1932 insurrection.

The relationship between mother and daughter forms the nucleus around which all other conflicts in the novel revolve. The protagonist, Carmen, a bourgeois El Salvadoran woman who lives in Washington, D.C., returns to El Salvador for her mother's funeral. Married to a conservative gringo, Carmen experiences an identity crisis roused by her mother's death and her reading of the diary her mother left to her. The diary, which belongs to her mother's secret North American lover, "serves as a bridge between the cultural, social revolution (the political sphere) and the private, intimate one (the personal) of one woman's life," according to Stern-bach. Carmen realizes that she has never known her mother and that they both have been stifled by the same cultural constraints. They have lived lonely and meaningless lives restricted by a lack of personal autonomy and intellectual freedom. The novel also critiques the sexist and racist social structure that subordinates women and peasants.

In order to write the novel, Alegría and Flakoll traveled to El Salvador in 1964 to do research on the massacre. There they discovered that General Hernández Martínez had performed what Curbstone Ink termed a "cultural lobotomy on the Salvadoran people." In a 1986 essay, "The Two Cultures of El Salvador," Alegría explains that in 1932 General Hernández Martínez "ordered the destruction of all newspaper files in the country that dealt with the bloody events of those days. Libraries were ransacked to make sure no documentation of the massacre remained … the only documentation we could find consisted of three yellowed newspaper clippings a friend had hidden in his private library and a brief account in William Krehm's book Democracies and Tyrannies in the Caribbean. All the rest we had to reconstruct from my childhood memories of when I was seven years old and what grown-ups had told me in hushed tones as I grew older."

The events of 1932 have had a profound effect on Alegría. In talking with Forché she recalls, "I remember the Guardias Nacionales (National Guard) bringing dozens of prisoners into the fortress across the street from my home with their thumbs tied behind them with bits of cord, shoving them along with rifle butts. I remember the shots at night." "And then," she says in an excerpt from Curbstone Ink, "I started learning at a tender age about the terrible injustices."

When Cenizas de Izalco was first published, the Alegría family did not like its criticism of their upper-class standing and burned most of the first edition. Consequently, the novel did not reach El Salvador until ten years later. According to Alegría, Col. Arturo Armando Molina, the El Salvadoran dictator at the time, wanted to leave office as a great liberal. Shortly before the end of his term in 1976 he requested that all Salvadoran writers be included in the publications of the El Salvadoran ministry of culture. They published Cenizas de Izalco without reading it, classifying it as a high-school textbook because the title spoke of El Salvador. Alegría believes that since then the novel continues to be available in El Salvador because it has the seal of the ministry of culture. It has gone through twenty printings, and within El Salvador it is her best-known work.

In 1966 Alegría and her husband moved to the village of Deyá on the island of Majorca, Spain. There they spent twelve tranquil and productive years, resulting in the publication of several joint translations. In addition, Alegría published three volumes of poetry—Aprendizaje (Apprenticeship, 1970), Pagaré a cobrar (Installment Payments, 1973), and Sobrevivo (I Survive, 1978)—as well as a novella, El detén (1977; translated as "The Talisman" in Family Album, 1991). In this novella Alegría treats the shocking subject of a young woman's sexual abuse. Karen, the fifteen-year-old Central American protagonist, attends a Catholic boarding school in the United States, where she befriends the bitter and aloof Sister Mary Ann. Throughout their conversations, Karen shares her memories of her childhood friends as well as her sexual abuse by her mother's sadistic boyfriend. Karen learns that the nun is also a survivor of sexual abuse.

The novella is important for several reasons. First, Alegría makes central to the novel two themes that emerged in Cenizas de Izalco: the sexual oppression and powerlessness of women, and the relationship between mother and daughter. Second, she critiques Catholicism and its inherent condoning of physical abuse, personal suffering, and the denial of pain such as that experienced by the nuns and boarding school students who must prove their love for the Lord. Finally, by treating a rather taboo subject such as sexual abuse, she leads the El Salvadoran novel in a new direction: from an overt concern for linguistic experimentation, narrative technique, and social realism, all of which typified El Salvadoran fiction of the 1970s, to a preoccupation with feminist and women's issues.

The late 1970s represent a significant period in Alegría's life, characterized by a stronger political commitment on her part. In 1978 Sobrevivo won Cuba's prestigious Casa de las Américas prize for poetry. In this collection Alegría the "spokespoet" serves as an eyewitness to certain events. Through pre-Columbian myths and Central American history and geography Alegría addresses cultural imperialism, family relationships, exile, poverty, class differences, torture, disappearance, death, and the urgent need to change the political and social situation in her homeland. Electa Arenal contends that in Sobrevivo Alegría "asserts the strength of human life and mourns human suffering," adding that "the title refers both to the daily act of surviving and to the miracle and the guilt of surviving in our times."

In 1979, at age fifty-five, Alegría with her husband returned to Nicaragua for the first time since she fled the country as a small child. This visit represented another turning point in her life as she witnessed the triumph of the Sandinista movement and the end of Somocismo, the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and his two sons. As Arenal observes, "Alegría's [political] exile and return to Nicaragua run parallel to the history of the Sandinista [resistance] movement. This almost lifelong exile taught perseverance and gave perspective." For the next six months, Alegría and Flakoll traveled throughout Nicaragua gathering information and testimonies from people associated with the revolution for a five-hundred-page book of history and testimony entitled Nicaragua: La revolución sandinista—Una crónica política, 1855–1979 (Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution—A Political Chronicle, 1855–1979). They did the actual writing in Majorca and published the book in 1982.

In 1982 Alegría also published Flores del volcán/Flowers from the Volcano, a book of previously published poems translated into English by Forché, and a novella, Album familiar (translated in Family Album, 1991). In the latter she returns to the theme of political awakening that had emerged earlier in Cenizas de Izalco. While the main action takes place in Paris, where the protagonist Ximena lives, a subplot occurs in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1978, on the day Edén Pastora seizes the national palace in a concerted effort to overthrow the Somoza regime. Alegría shows how Ximena, an upper-middle-class El Salvadoran-Nicaraguan wife and teacher, explores her relationships with her French husband, other family members, and nanny. When her politically active cousin confronts her fears and indifference as well as the disparity between her familial values and the nature of Central American reality, her political and social consciousness is awakened, and she commits to helping the revolutionary cause and the construction of a new Nicaraguan society.

During the 1980s testimonies dominated both El Salvadoran poetry and prose. With Flakoll, Alegría published two testimonial works that echo the voices of marginalized and oppressed people. The first work, No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en lucha (1983; translated as They Won't Take Me Alive: Salvadoran Women in Struggle for National Liberation, 1987), is dedicated to the thousands of Salvadoran girls and women who continue to fight courageously in the struggle for liberation. The book charts the politicization and militarization of Eugenia, a young woman from a bourgeois background who joins the guerrilla forces, becomes a commanding officer, and later dies in the struggle. The reader learns about her through the testimonies of her sisters, friends, and other companions, at the same time learning about women of different social classes whose testimonies describe their experiences with war and their ability to survive hardship. In addition, the book describes Eugenia's relation-ship with her politically active husband, outlines and discusses the problem of machismo within the revolutionary organizations, and explores the role of the children of revolutionaries and their participation in the struggle. Eugenia incarnates the "new Salvadoran woman" and the new revolutionary subject. Her story speaks collectively for countless other women who have valiantly risked their lives so that others may live a life of peace.

The second work, Para romper el silencio: Resistencia y lucha en las cárceles salvadoreñas (Breaking the Silence: Resistance and Struggle in Salvadoran Prisons, 1984), is the testimony of Toño, a politically aware student leader who spent two years incarcerated as a political prisoner. The book recounts his ordeal as well as the tribulations and testimonies of many other political prisoners. Covering a six-year period, the book describes in detail the prisoners' daily suffering and the methods of torture the authorities used on them. While the book is painful to read at times, it also conveys hope. When the prisoners organize to demand more food as well as improvements in sanitary facilities and general living conditions, each request granted represents a small triumph. By singing collectively and scratching messages in a communal cork cup passed around the prison, they restore and maintain a sense of self while giving voice and dignity to their struggle.

Between 1985 and 1987 Alegría stopped writing poetry and testimonies to create three novels. The first of these, Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga (1985; translated as "Village of God and the Devil" in Family Album, 1991), depicts the life of Slim and Marcia, a married couple who have recently moved from Paris to Deyá, Majorca. Their relationship suggests an autobiographical parallel to that of Alegría and Flakoll. In this work Alegría radically departs from some of the recurring themes seen in her previous novels to delve into magic realism. The novel humorously treats the idiosyncrasies of the local people, whose traditions and behavior are steeped in legends, folklore, superstitions, and rituals. Everyday life is a bizarre mixture of the supernatural and natural worlds, including the creation of a black hole that escapes from a rusted old bird cage where it is stored.

One of the major themes of the novel is nostalgia for life before tourists began to invade the island every summer. The town of Deyá is in a transition period in which the traditional way of life is dying out due to rapid population growth and construction. Sensing that things will never be the same as they once were, Slim and Marcia decide to return to Central America, where Marcia finds comfort in her ceiba tree.

The second novel Alegría published during this period was Despierta, mi bien, despierta (Wake Up, My Love, Wake Up, 1986). As Sternbach notes, "The intersection of a feminist and political consciousness in her female protagonists" is a recurring theme in novels such as Cenizas de Izalco and Album familiar. Despierta, mi bien, despierta also exemplifies this theme. Sternbach explains, "Speakers in the poems and protagonists in her fiction are often Central American women who have chosen a comfortable, bourgeois life outside their country. Furthermore, these women are not in a state of political exile, but rather are complacently content with their washing machines and other technological comforts."

The novel takes place in 1980, a few months before the assassination of El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero. The protagonist, Lorena, is an upper-middle-class El Salvadoran woman married to a member of the oligarchy. Although her social class affords her many privileges, her life is virtually meaningless. She is lonely and bored, and her marriage is dull. When she has an affair with a young guerrilla poet she meets at a writer's workshop, she becomes more attuned to the political and social situation in her country. As a result, her consciousness is raised and her dormant sexuality awakened. Furthermore, she volunteers to help Archbishop Romero and the revolutionary cause by doing clerical work at his office.

Despierta, mi bien, despierta adheres to a formula that Alegría began in Cenizas de Izalco, and like Album familiar it falls into the category of resistance narrative, a term that describes much El Salvadoran prose fiction during the 1980s. According to literary critic Barbara Harlow, resistance narratives "propose specific historical analyses of the ideological and material conditions out of which they are generated, in Nicaragua, … El Salvador … or elsewhere.… [Moreover, they] contribute to a larger narrative, that of the passage from genealogical or hereditary bonds of filiation to the collective bonds of affiliation." In both Album familiar and Despierta, mi bien, despierta, Alegría criticizes upper-class values and shows how the protagonists, by their own ignorance and indifference, are complicit in the oppression of rural working-class people. As each protagonist looks critically at the values her family and social class uphold, she decides to break the "hereditary bonds of filiation" and join the collective struggle to help her people effect social change in her country. Once her political and social consciousness is awakened, she is forever changed and can never go back to the way she once was.

Alegría's most recent novel is Luisa en el país de la realidad (1987; translated as Luisa in Realityland, 1987), which consists of alternating prose vignettes and poetry. The English translation, which includes two extra episodes and repeats seven key poems at the end, was published first because the Mexican publisher delayed production of the book.

Alegría gives a collagelike effect to the novel by weaving fiction, Central American history and folklore, Mayan mythology, testimony, and auto-biographical memoir into the narrative structure. According to literary critics John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman, her objective is "to give some sense, through a montage of different literary forms, of the overall historical and political process Central America has gone through from the 1930s to the present, in her case presented, however, from within the intimate world of a particular woman's memories and experience."

Memories are central to this novel. Alegría uses the perspective of Luisa, the seven-year-old child protagonist, to reflect class struggle and keep alive the collective memory of the rural working people. Luisa learns her family history and the history of her country by observing what happens and by listening to the anecdotes, adventures, memories, and testimonies told by her parents, relatives, nanny, and others. One of the points Alegría makes in the novel is that without a sense of one's past, one cannot imagine a future. Furthermore, she ends the novel in the American edition with a long poem entitled "The Cartography of Memory," in which the poetic voice speaks from a position of exile. Lamenting her inability to return to El Salvador, the poetic voice remembers her country and its history and imagines a future of "rebellious, contagious peace." In short, as Sternbach contends, "more than any other aspect of Alegría's writing, the role and function of memory, especially that of female protagonists in fiction or speakers in poetry, serves as a powerful tool for self-realization, recognition, and determination."

Alegría's latest work is a bilingual collection of combat poetry she and Flakoll edited, On the Front Line: Guerrilla Poems of El Salvador (1989). The collection is comprised of poems by El Salvadoran revolutionaries on the different fighting fronts of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation front (FMLN) and includes poems by well-established poets as well as lesser-known poets. The poetry conveys the struggles, hopes, and dreams of writers whose greatest desire is the collective construction of a better future for El Salvador.

Despite Alegría's lengthy career and impressive list of publications, she has been until recently virtually unknown outside Latin America; criticism devoted to her work has been minimal. Her popularity is growing, however, as more of her work becomes available in translation and as more scholars study Central American literature. It is safe to project that within the next few years the critical attention paid her will steadily increase.

At present Alegría and her husband divide their time between their homes in Managua, Nicaragua, and Majorca, Spain. Since 1980 Alegría's commitment to social change and her opposition to successive regimes have kept her in exile from El Salvador, where she cannot safely reside. Once she is able to return, however, she hopes to promote a national literacy campaign.

Source: Margaret B. Crosby, "Claribel Alegria," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 145, Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers, Second Series, edited by William Luis and Ann Gonzalez, Gale Research, 1994, pp. 25–32.


Agosín, Marjorie, "The Volcano's Flower," in Americas, Vol. 51, No. 1, January–February 1999, pp. 48–53.

Alegría, Claribel, "Accounting," in Fugues, Curbstone Press, 1993, p. 31.

——, "Summing Up," in La Mujer del Rio (Woman of the River), translated by D. J. Flakoll, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989, p. 89.

Boschetto-Sandoval, Sandra Maria, "Alegría, Claribel," in Contemporary World Writers, 2d ed., edited by Tracy Chevalier, St. James Press, 1993, pp. 14–16.

Engelbert, Jo Anne, "Claribel Alegría and the Elegiac Tradition," in Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan, Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1994, pp. 183–99.

Hammond, Gerald, The Reader and Shakespeare's Young Man Sonnets, Macmillan, 1981, pp. 71–72.

Innes, Paul, Shakespeare and the English Renaissance Sonnet: Verses of Feigning Love, St. Martins, 1997, pp. 125–26.

McGowan, Marcia Phillips, "Closing the Circle: An Interview with Claribel Alegrí," in Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan, Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1994, pp. 228–45.

Moyers, Bill, "Claribel Alegría," in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by James Haba, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 5–16.

Review of Fugues, in Booklist, Vol. 95, Issue 5, November 1, 1998, p. 483.

Review of Fugues, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 42, October 18, 1993, p. 69.

Shakespeare, William, "Sonnet 55," in The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition: Romances and Poems, W. W. Norton, 1997, p. 587.

——, "Sonnet 81," in The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition: Romances and Poems, W. W. Norton, 1997, p. 596.

Valenzuela, Luisa, Review of Fugues, at, (last accessed May 17, 2004).

Further Reading

Agosín, Marjorie, ed., These Are Not Sweet Girls: Latin American Women Poets, White Pine Press, 1995.

This anthology of Latin American poets includes poets from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century. The poems are arranged thematically, and the editor has included lesser-known poets to balance the inclusion of those who are well known.

Alegría, Claribel, Death of Somoza, Curbstone Press, 1996.

This is a nonfiction book that reads like a novel, as the author relates the attempts of Somoza's own self-appointed assassins to murder the dictator.

Heyck, Denis Lynn Daly, Life Stories of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Routledge, 1990.

This book contains the stories of twenty-four individuals. The book is divided into political lives, religious lives, and survivors' lives.

Kunzle, David, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, 1979–1992, University of California Press, 1995.

After the Sandinista revolution in 1979, more than 300 murals were created that depicted the issues that Nicaragua was facing at the time of the revolution. After the Sandinista government was voted out of office in 1990, many of the murals were destroyed. This book is one way to preserve them.

Ramirez, Sergio, and D. J. Flakoll, Hatful of Tigers: Reflections on Art, Culture and Politics, Curbstone Press, 1995.

This book is a collection of essays that explores the U.S. involvement in supporting the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. It is very much an indictment of U.S. policy in Central America.

Randall, Margaret, and Floyce Alexander, eds., Risking a Somersault in the Air: Conversations with Nicaraguan Writers, Curbstone Press, 1990.

This book is a collection of interviews with fourteen Nicaraguan writers whose writings were important in the period leading up to and following Nicaragua's revolution.

Rushdie, Salman, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, Henry Holt, 1997.

This book was the result of Rushdie's 1986 visit, during which he witnessed events as diverse as political protests and poetry recitals. Rushdie also includes interviews with soldiers and observations about ordinary life in Nicaragua.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Accounting has been defined as "the language of business" because it is the basic tool keeping score of a business's activity. It is with accounting that an organization records, reports, and evaluates economic events and transactions that affect the enterprise. As far back as 1494 the importance of accounting to the success of a business was known. In a book on mathematics published that year and written by the Franciscan monk, Luca Paciolo, the author cites three things any successful merchant must have. The three things are sufficient cash or credit, an accounting system to track how he is doing, and a good bookkeeper to operate the system.

Accounting processes document all aspects of a business's financial performance, from payroll costs, capital expenditures, and other obligations to sales revenue and owners' equity. An understanding of the financial data contained in accounting documents is regarded as essential to reaching an accurate picture of a business's true financial well-being. Armed with such knowledge, businesses can make appropriate financial and strategic decisions about their future; conversely, incomplete or inaccurate accounting data can cripple a company, no matter its size or orientation. The importance of accounting as a barometer of business healthpast, present, and futureand tool of business navigation is reflected in the words of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which defined accounting as a "service activity." Accounting, said the AICPA, is intended "to provide quantitative information, primarily financial in nature, about economic activities that is intended to be useful in making economic decisionsmaking reasoned choices among alternative courses of action."

A business's accounting system contains information relevant to a wide range of people. In addition to business owners, who rely on accounting data to gauge the financial progress of their enterprise, accounting data can communicate relevant information to investors, creditors, managers, and others who interact with the business in question. As a result, accounting is sometimes divided into two distinct subsetsfinancial accounting and management accountingthat reflect the different information needs of the end users.

Financial accounting is a branch of accounting that provides people outside the businesssuch as investors or loan officerswith qualitative information regarding an enterprise's economic resources, obligations, financial performance, and cash flow. Management accounting, on the other hand, refers to accounting data used by business owners, supervisors, and other employees of a business to gauge the enterprise's health and operating trends.


Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) are the guidelines, rules, and procedures used in recording and reporting accounting information in audited financial statements. In order to have a vibrant and active economic marketplace, participants in the market must have confidence in the system. They must be confident that the reports and financial statements produced by companies are trustworthy and based on some standard set of accounting principles. The stock market crash of 1929 and its aftermath showed just how damaging uncertainty can be to the market. The results of U.S. Senate Banking and Currency Committee hearings into the 1929 crash caused public outrage and lead to federal regulation of the securities market as well as a push for the development of professional organizations designed to establish standardized accounting principles and to oversee their adoption.

Various organizations have influenced the development of modern-day accounting principles. Among these are the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The first two are private sector organizations; the SEC is a federal government agency.

The AICPA played a major role in the development of accounting standards. In 1937 the AICPA created the Committee on Accounting Procedures (CAP), which issued a series of Accounting Research Bulletins (ARB) with the purpose of standardizing accounting practices. This committee was replaced by the Accounting Principles Board (APB) in 1959. The APB maintained the ARB series, but it also began to publish a new set of pronouncements, referred to as Opinions of the Accounting Principles Board. In mid-1973, an independent private board called the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) replaced the APB and assumed responsibility for the issuance of financial accounting standards. The FASB remains the primary determiner of financial accounting standards in the United States. Comprised of seven members who serve full-time and receive compensation for their service, the FASB identifies financial accounting issues, conducts research related to these issues, and is charged with resolving the issues. A super-majority vote (i.e., at least five to two) is required before an addition or change to the Statements of Financial Accounting Standards is issued.

The Financial Accounting Foundation is the parent organization to FASB. The foundation is governed by a 16-member Board of Trustees appointed from the memberships of eight organizations: AICPA, Financial Executives Institute, Institute of Management Accountants, Financial Analysts Federation, American Accounting Association, Securities Industry Association, Government Finance Officers Association, and National Association of State Auditors. A Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council (approximately 30 members) advises the FASB. In addition, an Emerging Issues Task Force (EITF) was established in 1984 to provide timely guidance to the FASB on new accounting issues.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, an agency of the federal government, has the legal authority to prescribe accounting principles and reporting practices for all companies issuing publicly traded securities. The SEC has seldom used this authority, however, although it has intervened or expressed its views on accounting issues from time to time. U.S. law requires that companies subject to the jurisdiction of the SEC make reports to the SEC giving detailed information about their operations. The SEC has broad powers to require public disclosure in a fair and accurate manner in financial statements and to protect investors. The SEC establishes accounting principles with respect to the information contained within reports it requires of registered companies. These reports include: Form S-X, a registration statement; Form 10-K, an annual report; Form 10-Q, a quarterly report of operations; Form 8-K, a report used to describe significant events that may affect the company; and Proxy Statements, which are used when management requests the right to vote through proxies for shareholders.

On December 20, 2002, the SEC proposed a series of amendments to the rules and forms that it imposes on companies within its jurisdiction. These changes were mandated as part of the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This law was motivated, in part, by accounting scandals that came to light involving firms as well known as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, Kmart, and Arthur Andersen to name a few.


An accounting system is a management information system responsible for the collection and processing of data useful to decision-makers in planning and controlling the activities of a business organization. The data processing cycle of an accounting system encompasses the total structure of five activities associated with tracking financial information: collection or recording of data; classification of data; processing (including calculating and summarizing) of data; maintenance or storage of results; and reporting of results. The primarybut not solemeans by which these final results are disseminated to both internal and external users (such as creditors and investors) is the financial statement.

The elements of accounting are the building blocks from which financial statements are constructed. According to the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the primary financial elements directly related to measuring performance and the financial position of a business enterprise are as follows:

  • Assetsprobable future economic benefits obtained or controlled by a particular entity as a result of past transactions or events.
  • Comprehensive Incomethe change in equity (net assets) of an entity during a given period as a result of transactions and other events and circumstances from non-owner sources. Comprehensive income includes all changes in equity during a period except those resulting from investments by owners and distributions to owners.
  • Distributions to Ownersdecreases in equity (net assets) of a particular enterprise as a result of transferring assets, rendering services, or incurring liabilities to owners.
  • Equitythe residual interest in the assets of an entity that remain after deducting liabilities. In a business entity, equity is the ownership interest.
  • Expensesevents that expend assets or incur liabilities during a period from delivering or providing goods or services and carrying out other activities that constitute the entity's ongoing major or central operation.
  • Gainsincreases in equity (net assets) from peripheral or incidental transactions. Gains also come from other transactions, events, and circumstances affecting the entity during a period except those that result from revenues or investments by owners. Investments by owners are increases in net assets resulting from transfers of valuables from other entities to obtain or increase ownership interests (or equity) in it.
  • Liabilitiesprobable future sacrifices of economic benefits arising from present obligations to transfer assets or provide services to other entities in the future as a result of past transactions or events.
  • Lossesdecreases in equity (net assets) from peripheral or incidental transactions of an entity and from all other transactions, events, and circumstances affecting the entity during a period. Losses do not include equity drops that result from expenses or distributions to owners.
  • Revenuesinflows or other enhancements of assets, settlements of liabilities, or a combination of both during a period from delivering or producing goods, rendering services, or conducting other activities that constitute the entity's ongoing major or central operations.


Financial statements are the most comprehensive way of communicating financial information about a business enterprise. A wide array of usersfrom investors and creditors to budget directorsuse the data it contains to guide their actions and business decisions. Financial statements generally include the following information:

  • Balance sheet (or statement of financial position)summarizes the financial position of an accounting entity at a particular point in time as represented by its economic resources (assets), economic obligations (liabilities), and equity.
  • Income statementsummarizes the results of operations for a given period of time.
  • Statement of cash flowssummarizes the impact of an enterprise's cash flows on its operating, financing, and investing activities over a given period of time.
  • Statement of retained earningsshows the increases and decreases in earnings retained by the company over a given period of time.
  • Statement of changes in stockholders' equitydiscloses the changes in the separate stockholders' equity account of an entity, including investments by distributions to owners during the period.

Notes to financial statements are considered an integral part of a complete set of financial statements. Notes typically provide additional information at the end of the statement and concern such matters as depreciation and inventory methods used in the statements, details of long-term debt, pensions, leases, income taxes, contingent liabilities, methods of consolidation, and other matters. Significant accounting policies are usually disclosed as the initial note or as a summary preceding the notes to the financial statements.


There are two primary kinds of accountants: private accountants, who are employed by a business enterprise to perform accounting services exclusively for that business, and public accountants, who function as independent experts and perform accounting services for a wide variety of clients. Some public accountants operate their own businesses, while others are employed by accounting firms to attend to the accounting needs of the firm's clients.

A certified public accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has 1) fulfilled certain educational and experience requirements established by state law for the practice of public accounting and 2) garnered an acceptable score on a rigorous three-day national examination. Such people become licensed to practice public accounting in a particular state. These licensing requirements are widely credited with maintaining the integrity of the accounting service industry, but in recent years this licensing process has drawn criticism from legislators and others who favor deregulation of the profession. Some segments of the business community have expressed concern that the quality of accounting would suffer if such changes were implemented, and analysts indicate that small businesses without major in-house accounting departments would be particularly impacted.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is the national professional organization of CPAs, but numerous organizations within the accounting profession exist to address the specific needs of various subgroups of accounting professionals. These groups range from the American Accounting Association, an organization composed primarily of accounting educators, to the American Women's Society of Certified Public Accountants.


"A good accountant is the most important outside advisor the small business owner has," according to the Entrepreneur Magazine Small Business Advisor. "The services of a lawyer and consultant are vital during specific periods in the development of a small business or in times of trouble, but it is the accountant who, on a continuing basis, has the greatest impact on the ultimate success or failure of a small business."

When starting a business, many entrepreneurs consult an accounting professional to learn about the various tax laws that affect them and to familiarize themselves with the variety of financial records that they will need to maintain. Such consultations are especially recommended for would-be business owners who anticipate buying a business or franchise, plan to invest a substantial amount of money in the business, anticipate holding money or property for clients, or plan to incorporate.

If a business owner decides to enlist the services of an accountant to incorporate, he/she should make certain that the accountant has experience dealing with small corporations, for incorporation brings with it a flurry of new financial forms and requirements. A knowledgeable accountant can provide valuable information on various aspects of the start-up phase.

Similarly, when investigating the possible purchase or licensing of a business, a would-be buyer should enlist the assistance of an accountant to look over the financial statements of the licensor-seller. Examination of financial statements and other financial data should enable the accountant to determine whether the business is a viable investment. If a prospective buyer decides not to use an accountant to review the licensor-seller's financial statements, he/she should at least make sure that the financial statements that have been offered have been properly audited (a CPA will not stamp or sign a financial statement that has not been properly audited and certified).

Once in business, the business owner will have to weigh revenue, rate of expansion, capital expenditures, and myriad other factors in deciding whether to secure an in-house accountant, an accounting service, or a year-end accounting and tax preparation service. Sole proprietorships and partnerships are less likely to have need of an accountant; in some cases, they will be able to address their business's modest accounting needs without utilizing outside help. If a business owner declines to seek professional help from an accountant on financial matters, pertinent accounting information can be found in books, seminars, government agencies such as the Small Business Administration, and other sources.

Even if a small business owner decides against securing an accountant he or she will find it much easier to attend to the business's accounting requirements if a few basic bookkeeping principles are followed. These include maintaining a strict division between personal and business records; maintaining separate accounting systems for all business transactions; establishing separate checking accounts for personal and business; and keeping all business records, such as invoices and receipts.


While some small businesses are able to manage their accounting needs without benefit of in-house accounting personnel or a professional accounting outfit, the majority choose to enlist the help of accounting professionals. There are many factors for the small business owner to consider when seeking an accountant, including personality, services rendered, reputation in the business community, and expense.

The nature of the business in question is also a consideration in choosing an accountant. Owners of small businesses who do not anticipate expanding rapidly have little need of a national accounting firm, but business ventures that require investors or call for a public stock offering can benefit from association with an established accounting firm. Many owners of growing companies select an accountant by interviewing several prospective accounting firms and requesting proposals which will, ideally, detail the firm's public offering experience within the industry, describe the accountants who will be handling the account, and estimate fees for auditing and other proposed services.

Finally, a business that utilizes a professional accountant to attend to accounting matters is often better equipped to devote time to other aspects of the enterprise. Time is a precious resource for small businesses and their owners, and according to the Entrepreneur Magazine Small Business Advisor, "Accountants help business owners comply with a number of laws and regulations affecting their record-keeping practices. If you spend your time trying to find answers to the many questions that accountants can answer more efficiently, you will not have the time to manage your business properly. Spend your time doing what you do best, and let accountants do what they do best."

The small business owner can, of course, make matters much easier both for his/her company and for the accountant by maintaining proper accounting records throughout the year. Well-maintained and complete records of assets, depreciation, income and expense, inventory, and capital gains and losses are all necessary for the accountant to conclude her work; gaps in a business's financial record only add to the accountant's time and, therefore, her fee for services rendered.

The potential management insights that can be gained from a study of properly prepared financial statements should not be overlooked. Many small businesses see accounting primarily as a paperwork burden and something whose value is primarily in helping to comply with government reporting requirements and tax preparations. Most experts in the field contend that small firms should recognize that accounting information can be a valuable component of a company's management and decision-making systems, for financial data provide the ultimate indicator of the failure or success of a business's strategic and philosophical direction.

see also Certified Public Accountants


Anthony, Robert N., and Leslie K. Pearlman. Essentials of Accounting. Prentice Hall, 1999.

Bragg, Steven M. Accounting Best Practices. John Wiley, 1999.

Fuller, Charles. The Entrepreneur Magazine Small Business Advisor. Wiley, 1995.

Lunt, Henry. "The Fab Four's Solo Careers." Accountancy. March 2000.

Pinson, Linda. Keeping the Books: Basic Record Keeping and Accounting for Successful Small Business. Business & Economics, 2004.

Strassmann, Paul A. "GAAP Helps Whom?" Computerworld. December 6, 1999.

Taylor, Peter. Book-Keeping & Accounting for Small Business. Business & Economics, 2003.

                              Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                              updated by Magee, ECDI


views updated Jun 11 2018



Accounting is an information system. More precisely, it is the measurement methodology and communication system designed to produce selected quantitative data (usually in monetary terms) about an entity engaged in economic activity. Alternatively, accounting has been described as the art of classifying, recording, and reporting significant financial events to facilitate effective economic activity. The accounting entity (the focus of attention) may be a profit-seeking business enterprise, a governmental unit or activity, an eleemosynary institution, or any other organization for which financial data will be useful in determining the proper conduct of its economic affairs.

The major functions of accounting are (1) to provide summarized reports of the financial position and progress of the firm to a variety of groups who are not part of management, including those who furnish capital, and (2) to furnish detailed data that will facilitate the effective control and planning of operations by management. To fulfill the first function, a statement of financial position (balance sheet), a statement of operations (income statement or profit and loss statement), and a statement of fund flows (sources and applications of funds) are usually furnished. These statements are designed to indicate the current status and the changes during the period of the entity’s resources and of the relative position of the various claimants—owners (stockholders), creditors, employees, and the government in its regulatory and taxing role. The second function includes all the appurtenances of cost accounting that are useful in the efficient administration of an entity’s resources—for example, standard costs, flexible budgets, cost-profit volume analysis, and responsibility accounting.

Historical development. From the very earliest times, the levying and collection of taxes by government has called for record keeping and reports. Governmental reporting requirements have served since antiquity to reinforce business needs for accounting systems and controls. Clay tablets used by Babylonian businessmen to record their sales and money lending some four thousand years ago are still in existence. Egyptian papyri describing tax collections before 1000 b.c. are on exhibit in museums. The Greeks and Romans had welldeveloped record-keeping systems, especially for government affairs. The Emperor Augustus is said to have instituted a governmental budget in a.d. 5. Somewhat later, inspectors from the central government in Rome were sent out to examine the accounts of provincial governors.

During the Middle Ages, accounting, in company with most other elements of learning and trade, languished. With a barter, manorial economy, the financial transactions that are the lifeblood of accounting tended to disappear. Only the church and strong monarchs maintained and occasionally pushed forward the earlier systems of record keeping and control. Conspicuous developments during the medieval era included the annual inventory of property instituted by Charlemagne in the year 800 and the pipe rolls of various English rulers, which recorded the taxes and other obligations due the monarch. The pipe roll of Henry i in 1131 may be the most complete of these records.

The revival of Italian commerce in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created a need for records: to help merchants control their dealings with customers and employees, to indicate the relative interests of creditors and owners, and to apportion profits among partners. The first double-entry systems of bookkeeping evolved during this period; there are extant sets of double-entry records prepared in Genoa in 1340. The earliest systematic description of the double-entry procedure was provided by the Franciscan friar Luca da Bargo Pacioli in 1494 in his book Summa de arithmetica, geometria proportioni et proportionalita (which was, incidentally, the first published work on algebra). The system outlined by Pacioli in the section entitled “De computes et scriptures” (“Of Reckonings and Writings”) was a surprisingly complete one, and for four centuries almost all texts on accounting were closely patterned after it.

As it has developed in the more than four and a half centuries since Pacioli, the term “double entry” has probably referred to the two-sided nature of transactions, to the debit and credit aspects of each event. Some writers, however, have chosen to emphasize the dual steps in recording, i.e., the use of a book of original entry (the journal) and a classified record by accounts (the ledger). A more refined requirement of double-entry record keeping is the provision of separate accounts for the recording and analyzing of gains and losses, with a periodic reckoning of income and closing of these accounts into ownership capital. Pacioli’s treatise dealt with all these attributes of double entry, and it still serves as the basis for the far more complex accounting systems of today. The many modifications and elaborations that have been introduced have largely resulted from the desire for periodic financial statements of publicly held corporations and the need for additional financial data to facilitate the control and planning of operations of the large-scale firm.

Financial statements. Commencing in the nineteenth century, increasing emphasis was placed on the preparation of annual financial statements. The position statement (or balance sheet) was originally viewed as the most significant financial report and frequently was the only statement prepared. More recently, interest has shifted to the operating data of the income statement, and this now usually commands major attention.

The income statement is a systematic array of revenues, expenses (including depreciation), income taxes, and interest charges, culminating in the net income. The disposition of net income between dividends and reinvested earnings is usually shown either at the bottom of the income statement or in a separate statement of retained earnings (surplus). One major problem of income statement presentation is the treatment to be accorded unusual gains and losses, especially where the event giving rise to the gain or loss relates to a different or longer time period than that of the income statement. Many accountants feel that these items should be treated as adjustments of capital, but the more common view is to include them in the income statement, segregating them in a nonoperating category.

The balance sheet is a schedule of financial position or financial condition; and one of these two terms is being increasingly used as the title of the statement. The balance sheet contains a list of the entity’s assets (economic resources), divided into current and longterm categories. Cash, marketable securities, receivables, and inventories are the major current asset items. Land, buildings, and equipment are usually the major items in the longterm (fixed) asset section. Intangible assets, such as patents, copyrights, and purchased goodwill, are often accorded a separate classification. Like other assets, they are valued at cost. The “going value” of the entity is not listed as an asset and must be judged by the ability of the firm to earn a higher than normal rate of return.

Total assets are equal to the total liabilities (the rights and claims of all creditors) plus the ownership equity. The ownership equity indicates the interest of the proprietor or partners of an unincorporated entity or the equity of the stockholders of a corporation. If there are several classes of stockholders, it is customary to show the interests of each group separately. It is common to stress the distinction between contributed capital and reinvested earnings portions of the stockholders’ equity.

A recent development is an alternative form of balance sheet presentation that emphasizes the entity’s current position. This is accomplished by deducting current liabilities from current assets and labeling the difference net working capital; to this subtotal, long-term assets are added and other liabilities deducted. The resulting figure is the excess of all assets over all liabilities. The components of the ownership equity are then listed, and their summation is equal to this total net asset figure.

The most recent of the three major accounting reports is the statement of fund flows (sources and applications of funds statement). Its general nature is well described by the title originally applied to it by Cole—a “where got, where gone” statement. The major sources of fund inflows for the period covered are shown (operating transactions with customers and clients, proceeds of the issuance of securities and debt instruments, and occasional sales of noninventory assets), and these are compared with the major uses of funds (distributions to investors, reduction of long-term debt, retirement of stock, and investment in plant and equipment). Funds are usually defined as net working capital (current assets minus current liabilities). An alternative definition that would exclude inventories from the funds total has been suggested. If this suggestion were adopted, change in inventories during the period under consideration would be shown explicitly as a source, or use, of funds. Other alternatives, such as defining funds as cash (or cash plus marketable securities), are occasionally used. The result, practically speaking, is to trace the flows of cash of the business.

Income determination. The usual economic concept of income relates it to the enhancement of wealth. Focusing on the business entity, periodic income can be described as the amount of wealth that can be distributed to the owners during a certain period without making the entity’s prospects less than they were at the start of the period. To make such a concept operational, it would be necessary to have well-defined rules for measuring the firm’s prospects or wealth at the start and close of the period. This requires a measure of the discounted value of the entity’s anticipated net cash inflows. Such a measure would be highly subjective, depending wholly on the measurer’s current prognosis of the likely amount, and timing, of future inflows and on the appropriate discount rate to employ.

A more restricted definition of wealth would limit it to the sum of the values of individual tangible assets, rather than the worth of the firm as a whole. With this definition of wealth, income would be determined by intertemporal differences in total asset values (adjusted for changes in liabilities and capital contributions and withdrawals). This view of income was widely accepted in accounting until the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. About that time, it became more and more apparent that there would be continuing increases in the significance of specialized long-lived assets that would be difficult to value; also, and perhaps more important, a graduated income tax was imposed in the United Kingdom in 1909, and the sixteenth (income tax) amendment and related legislation were adopted in the United States in 1913. These developments led to the gradual displacement of the increase in value view of income by one that emphasized market transactions. Early tax decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that held that there was no income without “severance” of property from the firm added support to the newer view. This was reinforced by the unhappy experience of many firms with appraisal values during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

For several decades now, the emphasis has been shifted toward evaluation of enterprise operating performance and a more restricted view of income measurement that focuses on the matching of asset inflows (revenues) and asset outflows (expenses) in the rendering of services. The following four concepts play central roles in the income reporting process:

(1) Realization. Reflects accounting’s preference for objectivity. Only events that have come to fruition by a market transaction or some ascertainable change in an asset or liability are recorded in the accounts.

(2) Consistency. Indicates that comparable events are treated in similar fashion from period to period. Although some alternative procedures may be acceptable, consistency minimizes the yearto-year effects of different procedures by requiring that the same alternative be selected each period.

(3) Conservatism. Relates to the feeling that where a choice exists it is better to understate, rather than overstate, income and ownership equity.

(4) Disclosure. Emphasizes the need to furnish all relevant information about the firm’s financial position and operations. It accepts the fact that some financial events are difficult to express adequately in the formal reports; footnotes are integral parts of the reports, and significant information that is not indicated in the body of the report is disclosed by footnote.

In considering when to recognize revenue, there is controversy among experts about how liquid the asset received in a sales transaction must be. In some cases, especially for income tax reporting, it is held that revenue recognition should be deferred until the cash is in hand (the installment method). Usually, however, revenue is recognized when a bona fide sale results in a legally enforceable receivable. Neither the receipt of orders nor activity in the productive process is normally accepted as a basis for recognizing revenue; instead, the realization concept suggests that all revenue from a transaction should be recorded at the time of sale.

The measurement of expense is largely a matter of recognizing the expiration of the economic usefulness of assets. All purchases are made to acquire services that will benefit the production of revenue; in fact, the most operational definition of an asset is simply that of a service potential or an unutilized service that will render a future benefit to the firm. As services are utilized, assets become expenses. Determining when, or what portion of, service potential has expired is the difficult practical problem. Conservatism has long been a guiding principle in external financial reporting; in doubtful cases, accountants have tended to minimize recognition of anticipated future benefits. Under a conservative approach, costs of such items as research and development, advertising, and employee training are charged to expense in the period during which they are incurred. The extreme form of this view results in recording assets only when their physical presence makes it embarrassing to ignore them.

In the income determination process, the cost of purchased merchandise must be divided between expense (cost of goods sold) and asset (inventory); the operational rule for measuring remaining service potential (asset) in this area is the acquisition cost of units physically present in final inventory. Costs of long-lived assets, like plant, must similarly be apportioned between depreciation expense and asset valuation. Operating procedures for handling assets in this category stress a systematic apportionment of plant costs, based to some extent on the relative expiration of service potential during this period compared to estimated total service potential available from the asset.

At the time of acquisition, the present value of anticipated services from an asset must be at least equal to its acquisition cost, or the purchase would not be made. Thus minimum initial value is established by acquisition cost, and acquisition cost remains the basis for the accounting valuation of the asset as long as the asset retains its power of rendering services. As service expirations occur, the original cost valuations are charged to expense. In periods of rapidly changing prices, some expense figures may lag significantly behind current values. Since revenues tend to adjust to changing prices more rapidly, the matching process may result in the comparison of revenues stated in current price terms with expenses stated in prices of a different vintage.

To cope with this problem, some accountants have recommended that expenses be recognized on a replacement cost basis. This view has not received general acceptance, but partial approaches to the same goal have received some approval. The last-in, first-out (LIFO) inventory procedure has come to be generally accepted in the United States. By charging the cost of the most recent purchases to expense, it results in an expense figure that approximates current costs in most cases. The firstin, first-out procedure (FIFO) is based, in most cases, on a more realistic assumption about inventory flows, but the expense amount is stated in less current terms. In the late 1940s, efforts by a few American firms to base depreciation on replacement cost failed to win general approval, and advocacy of this method has waned. However, acceleration of depreciation charges based on acquisition cost, by recognition of a faster rate of service expiration, has won acceptance both in financial reporting and in the income tax laws; this may offset, in part, the effect of price level changes.

The use of replacement costs for expenses implies a concept of wealth measured by physical resources or productive capacity; income emerges only after resources or capacity are maintained. An alternative correction for price changes would apply an index of general price level change to all assets and then charge these restated costs to expense in the traditional fashion. This approach implies a purchasing power concept of wealth.

All measurements of income for periods shorter than the life of the entity are tentative. The shorter the time period of the income statement, the more difficult the measurement of income. Many asset acquisitions represent joint costs of long periods of service, and there is no known logical way of allocating their costs to shorter periods of income reporting. The date of expiration of service benefits of many other assets cannot be determined exactly. There are alternative, acceptable procedures in many areas. Reported income for relatively short periods is, at best, a rough indicator of enterprise performance. The seeming accuracy indicated by reporting income to the nearest dollar (or in larger firms to the nearest thousand dollars) gives an improper impression of precision. Since the income data have their greatest significance in guiding investment decisions and facilitating evaluation of management, a knowledge that income of a firm falls within a relatively narrow range may be virtually as satisfactory as knowing its exact amount. The effort of the accounting profession to reduce the number of permissible alternative procedures reflects the desire to narrow this range and increase the usefulness of income reporting.

Cost accounting. Cost accounting (managerial accounting) is chiefly concerned with measuring, analyzing, and reporting the operating costs of specific centers of activity. Early developments in cost accounting were associated almost exclusively with manufacturing operations. They focused on measuring the cost of products, processes, and departments for inventory valuation and pricing purposes. Since about 1930, there has been an enormous expansion in cost-accounting activity. It has been extended to administrative and distributive activities, and it has become clear that the more significant uses of cost accounting are found in the areas of cost control and cost planning, rather than in product costing for purposes of inventory valuation and income determination.

Cost accounting operates as a branch of the general financial accounting system. It provides a detailed analysis of the costs associated with specific products or processes that are important enough to warrant such attention. If costs are accumulated by departments or operating centers, the system is described as a process-cost system; if accumulated by jobs or products, it is known as a job-order system. Most existing systems, however, are hybrids that contain some aspects of both the process-cost system and the job-order system.

Certain costs, like production labor and raw materials, can be assigned directly to jobs or processes with little question. These costs usually vary with the level of operations. The jobs or processes responsible for the incurring of these costs can be identified, and they receive all of the benefits of the services used. However, there frequently are many costs that are not directly associated with individual jobs or processes but, instead, are joint to several activities. For the most part, these costs are fixed. Under a “full-costing” procedure, these common costs (fixed overhead) are also assigned, somewhat arbitrarily, to jobs or processes. The basis for assignment is usually some subjective estimate of relative benefit as measured by labor cost, labor hours, machine hours, or some other measure of activity.

There is a growing tendency to question the desirability of assigning indirect fixed costs to jobs and activities. The advocates of the direct-costing (variable-costing) view argue that the assignment serves no useful decision-making purpose and may distort the data that are relevant for short-run price, and output, decisions. They stress that in making short-period decisions the significant figure is the excess of additional revenues over variable costs, rather than over “full costs”. They describe the excess of revenue over variable costs as the “contribution” to the meeting of fixed costs and the earning of profit.

The control aspect of cost accounting is based upon the use of operating budgets and performance standards. Budgets have been used in government finance for many years, but their major purpose has been to place a limit on authority to spend. In contrast, managerial accounting views the budget as a financial plan and a control over future operations, a means whereby it is determined whether operations are proceeding in accord with management’s plans and policies. Recently some government budget practice has come closer to this view [seeBudgeting]. By combining performance standards (standard costs) with estimates of physical activity, the budget spells out the position that the firm should achieve at the end of the budget period. Comparison of the results of operations with budgeted figures indicates the areas where managerial attention and action may be needed.

To be effective as a control device, the budget must be prepared in sufficient detail for estimated and actual costs to be assigned to those areas specifically responsible for their incurrence. To prevent individual managers being charged with responsibility for costs that are not under their control, careful preliminary studies and even modification of organizational structure may be necessary before the installation of a budget and a standard-cost system.

Standard costs for units of performance are a central part of the control process. Standard costs have connotations of normative behavior and indicate what the effort expended (assets given up) to attain the entity’s production objectives should be. The development of appropriate standards is a complex task, which may require the cooperative effort of industrial engineers, psychologists, statisticians, personnel men, and accountants. Standards are usually expressed in terms of both prices and usage, and they frequently contain more detail than is found in the budget.

In a standard-cost system, actual costs are recorded for each activity, and differences between actual and standard costs are isolated in variance accounts; separate variance accounts for the cost of materials, materials usage, labor wage rates, labor effectiveness, idle capacity, and overhead expenditures are commonly provided. These are usually expressed in monetary units, although a minority view holds that the conversion of physical variances, that is, materials usage and labor effectiveness, to dollar terms serves no useful purpose. The investigation and analysis of major variances is a prime task of the internal accounting staff.

Cost accounting contributes to cost control in other ways as well. The timekeeping and payroll systems that are required for cost assignments help to assure management that workers are actually on the job and being paid according to wage agreements. Control of issuance of materials is usually built into the cost-accounting system, as are detailed records of machine and tool availability and maintenance costs.

Special studies utilizing data produced by the cost-accounting system play a central role in many planning decisions of management. Decisions on equipment replacement, size of production runs or quantities ordered, discontinuance of “unprofitable” products or territories, as well as make-or-buy decisions, are frequently guided by reports relying on cost-accounting information. The analysis underlying management decisions in these areas is based on incremental cost data rather than full costs. Proper classification of costs into fixed and variable categories for cost-measurement and cost-control purposes ensures that much of the needed information will be available for these special studies. Not all costs that are significant for measurement and control purposes are relevant for management planning. An effective cost-accounting system will have the capability of providing the data that are needed for all three purposes.

Auditing and public accounting. Auditing is concerned with the independent verification of the statement of financial position and the results of operations of an entity. An audit is an outside expert’s professional attestation that the financial reports have been prepared in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles on a basis consistent with that of the preceding period. This independent appraisal of the fairness of the financial statements has traditionally been the major function of the public accounting profession. The growth of large-scale enterprise, with its separation of ownership and management, emphasizes the need for an external verification so that present and potential investors may rely on the published financial statements.

Since 100 per cent checking of records would be prohibitively expensive, auditing necessarily uses sampling procedures. In the analysis of a firm’s activities and records, the independent public accountant examines selected documents and transactions until he is satisfied professionally that the financial statements prepared by management “present fairly” the position and results of operation of the firm. (The quoted words are from the standard auditor’s report in the United States; the British wording is a “true and fair view.”) In recent years, professional accountants have often relied on probability theory and formal statistical sampling techniques in deciding on how much testing and evidence is needed before an opinion on the financial statements can be rendered.

Public accounting and auditing have a long history in the commercial and industrial world, but the dramatic growth of the public accounting profession has been a fairly recent phenomenon. The first New York Directory, compiled in 1786, listed only three accountants in public practice in New York. At about the same time, similar directories prepared in Great Britain showed 14 public accountants in Edinburgh, 10 in Glasgow, and 5 each in London and Liverpool. The substantial growth of corporations in the nineteenth century demanded expanded and improved public accounting services for the protection of investors and the effective operation of securities markets. In order to improve standards, professional organizations evolved in most industrialized nations. Accreditation for public identification of professional competence and status developed somewhat later. Accreditation procedures take one of two general forms—acceptance to membership in a government-approved professional society, as in Great Britain; or state designation under an applicable statutory enactment, as in the United States.

The first British accounting society was founded in Edinburgh in 1854, followed in the next year by a similar society in Glasgow. These two societies form the basis of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. The Institute of Accountants was formed in London in 1870 and ten years later was incorporated by royal charter as The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. The Society of Incorporated Accountants was formed five years later and merged into the English and Scottish Institutes in 1957. The Association of Certified and Corporate Accountants came into being shortly after the turn of the century.

The Companies Act and various other legal enactments in the United Kingdom list certain responsibilities that may be discharged only by members of one of the institutes or societies. Each of the groups imposes an experience requirement for membership. To become a member of a chartered institute the experience must be acquired in an articled clerkship under the direction of an accountant who is a member of the group. In addition, satisfactory written examinations in accounting theory and practice, as well as related subjects, are required by each of the groups. By 1965, membership in these British organizations totaled more than fifty thousand.

In the United States, the title of certified public accountant (CPA) is conferred by each of the states. In 1896 New York became the first state to provide for such certification, followed in 1899 by Pennsylvania. By 1923, all the states provided for the legal designation of CPA’s. Each state has its own education and experience requirements for the certificate; many states require some college education and a small, but growing, number require a college degree as a prerequisite for certification. All the states use a uniform CPA examination, prepared and graded by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In 1965 the number of CPA’s in the United States was approximately 90,000, compared with 38,000 in 1950, 13,000 in 1930, and 250 in 1900.

Most of the nations of the British Commonwealth and many European nations follow the English lead of having government-chartered organizations prescribe their own rules for membership and thus admission to the public accounting profession. A smaller number of countries use the American plan of licensing of qualified accounting practitioners.

The professional groups in each country have developed roughly comparable codes of ethics and standards of conduct. All emphasize the concept of independence, which intends that the auditor be able to give an unbiased evaluation of management’s representation about financial position and progress. Other rules stress maintenance of high levels of professional competence and integrity. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has, in addition, been active in seeking to define generally accepted accounting principles and to narrow the areas where alternative treatments are acceptable. The Opinions of the Accounting Principles Board, established by the American Institute, are widely accepted as authoritative statements on accounting concepts.

In addition to their auditing function, accountants have traditionally played an important role in the preparation of business and individual income tax returns. Although the statutory definition of taxable income differs to some extent from accounting formulations of income, the accountant’s familiarity with a firm’s financial records and the income measurement process makes him the natural person to perform this service.

More recently, many public accounting firms have extended their activities in the management services area, where they render consulting service on a wide range of management problems. When these problems are financial in nature or relate to information or control systems, the public accountant’s management services work is comparable to that performed by the internal accounting staff of many large industrial firms. All signs indicate that the management services function is likely to be the public accounting activity that will grow most rapidly in the years to come.

Sidney Davidson

[See alsoCost.]



Accountants’ Handbook. 4th ed. (1923) 1956 New York: Ronald Press.

American Institute of Certified Public Accountants1921 Accountants’ Index: A Bibliography of Accounting Literature to December, 1920. New York: The Institute. → The Index is kept up-to-date by supplements.

Dickey, Robert I. (editor) (1944) 1960 Accountants’ Cost Handbook. 2d ed. New York: Ronald Press. → The first edition, edited by Theodore Lang, was published under the title Cost Accountants’ Handbook.

Edwards, Edgar O.; and BELL, Philip W. 1961 The Theory and Measurement of Business Income. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Horngren, Charles T. 1962 Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Kohler, Eric L. (1952) 1963 A Dictionary for Accountants. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Littleton, Ananias C. 1933 Accounting Evolution to 1900. New York: American Institute Publishing Company.

Mautz, Robert K.; and Sharaf, Hussein A. 1961 The Philosophy of Auditing. Madison, Wis.: American Accounting Association.

Paton, William A. 1952 Asset Accounting: An Intermediate Course. New York: Macmillan.

Paton, William A. 1955 Corporation Accounts and Statements: An Advanced Course. New York: Macmillan.

Paton, William A.; and Littleton, Ananias C. 1940 An Introduction to Corporate Accounting Standards. Chicago: American Accounting Association.


The Accountant (London). → Published weekly since 1874.

The Accounting Review. → Published quarterly with annual volume numbers since 1926.

Journal of Accountancy. → Published monthly (volume numbers semiannually) since 1905.

Journal of Accounting Research. → Published semiannually since 1963.

N.A.A. Bulletin. → Published by the National Association of Accountants from 1919. Title changed to Management Accounting in October 1965.


views updated May 23 2018


Accounting is a field of specialization critical to the functioning of all types of organizations. Accounting often is referred to as "the language of business" because of its role in maintaining and processing all relevant financial information that an entity requires for its managing and reporting purposes.

Accountants often have a specific subspecialization and function at one of several levels. Preparation for the field is provided by secondary schools, postsecondary business schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities.


Accounting is a body of principles and conventions as well as an established general process for capturing financial information related to an entity's resources and their use in meeting the entity's goals. Accounting is a service function that provides information of value to all operating units and to other service functions, such as the headquarters offices of a large corporation.

Origin of Accounting

Modern accounting is traced to the work of an Italian monk, Luca Pacioli, whose publication in 1494 c.e. described the double-entry system, which continues to be the fundamental structure for contemporary accounting systems in all types of entities. When double-entry accounting is used, the balance sheet identifies both the resources controlled by the entity and those parties who have claims to those assets.

Early histories of business identify the bookkeeper as a valuable staff member. As businesses became more complex, the need for more astute review and interpretation of financial information was met with the development of a new professionpublic accounting. In the United States, public accounting began in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first organization was established in 1887; the first professional examination was administered in December 1896.

In the early days of the twentieth century, numerous states established licensing requirements and began to administer examinations. During the first century of public accounting in the United States, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (and its predecessor organizations) provided strong leadership to meet the changing needs of business, not-for-profit, and governmental entities.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

No single source provides principles for handling all transactions and events. Over time, conventional rules have developed that continue to be relevant. Additionally, groups have been authorized to establish accounting standards. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) assumed responsibility for accounting standards and principles in 1973. It is authorized to amend existing rules and establish new ones. In 1992, the Auditing Standards Board established the GAAP hierarchy. At the highest level of the hierarchy are FASB statements and interpretations; APB opinions were issued from 1959 to 1973 by the Accounting Principles Board (APB), and Accounting Research Bulletins, issued until 1959 by the Committee

on Accounting Procedure (CAP); both the APB and CAP were committees of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

What type of unit is served by accounting?

Probably no concept or idea is more basic to accounting than the accounting unit or entity, a term used to identify the organization for which the accounting service is to be provided and whose accounting or other information is to be analyzed, accumulated, and reported. The entity can be any area, activity, responsibility, or function for which information would be useful. Thus, an entity is established to provide the needed focus of attention. The information about one entity can be consolidated with that of a part or all of another, and this combination process can be continued until the combined entity reaches the unit that is useful for the desired purpose.

Accounting activities may occur within or outside the organization. Although accounting is usually identified with privately owned, profit-seeking entities, its services also are provided to not-for-profit organizations such as universities or hospitals, to governmental organizations, and to other types of units. The organizations may be small, owner-operated enterprises offering a single product or service, or huge multi-enterprise, international conglomerates with thousands of different products and services. The not-for-profit, governmental, or other units may be local, national, or international; they may be small or very large; they may even be entire nations, as in national income accounting. Since not-for-profit and governmental accounting are covered elsewhere in this encyclopedia, the balance of this article will focus on accounting for privately owned, profit-seeking entities.

What is the work of accountants?

Accountants help entities be successful, ethical, responsible participants in society. Their major activities include observation, measurement, and communication. These activities are analytical in nature and draw on several other disciplines (e.g., economics, mathematics, statistics, behavioral science, law, history, and language/communication).

Accountants identify, analyze, record, and accumulate facts, estimates, forecasts, and other data about the unit's activities; then they translate these data into information that can be useful for a specific purpose.

The data accumulation and recording phase traditionally has been largely clerical; typically and appropriately, this has been called bookkeeping, which is still a common and largely manual activity, especially in smaller firms that have not adopted state-of-the-art technology. But with advances in information technology and userfriendly software, the clerical aspect has become largely electronically performed, with internal checks and controls to assure that the input and output are factual and valid.

Accountants design and maintain accounting systems, an entity's central information system, to help control and provide a record of the entity's activities, resources, and obligations. Such systems also facilitate reporting on all or part of the entity's accomplishments for a period of time and on its status at a given point in time.

An organization's accounting system provides information that (1) helps managers make decisions about assembling resources, controlling, and organizing financing and operating activities; and (2) aids other users (employees, investors, creditors, and othersusually called stakeholders) in making investment, credit, and other decisions.

The accounting system must also provide internal controls to ensure that (1) laws and enterprise policies are properly implemented; (2) accounting records are accurate; (3) enterprise assets are used effectively (e.g., that idle cash balances are being invested to earn returns); and (4) steps be taken to reduce chances of losing assets or incurring liabilities from fraudulent or similar activities, such as the carelessness or dishonesty of employees, customers, or suppliers. Many of these controls are simple (e.g., the prenumbering of documents and accounting for all numbers); others require division of duties among employees to separate record keeping and custodial tasks in order to reduce opportunities for falsification of records and thefts or misappropriation of assets.

An enterprise's system of internal controls usually includes an internal auditing function and personnel to ensure that prescribed data handling and asset/liability protection procedures are being followed. The internal auditor uses a variety of approaches, including observation of current activities, examination of past transactions, and simulationoften using sample or fictitious transactionsto test the accuracy and reliability of the system.

Accountants may also be responsible for preparing several types of documents. Many of these (e.g., employees' salary and wage records) also serve as inputs for the accounting system, but many are needed to satisfy other reporting requirements (e.g., employee salary records may be needed to support employee claims for pensions). Accountants also provide data for completing income tax returns.

What is the accountant's role in decision making?

Accountants have a major role in providing information for making economic and financial decisions. Rational decisions are usually based on analyses and comparisons of estimates, which in turn, are based on accounting and other data that project future results from alternative courses of action.

External or financial accounting, reporting, and auditing are directly involved in providing information for the decisions of investors and creditors that help the capital markets to efficiently and effectively allocate resources to enterprises; internal, managerial, or management accounting is responsible for providing information and input to help managers make decisions on the efficient and effective use of enterprise resources.

The accounting information used in making decisions within an enterprise is not subject to governmental or other external regulation, so any rules and constraints are largely self-imposed. As a result, in developing the data and information that are relevant for decisions within the enterprise, managerial accountants are constrained largely by cost-benefit considerations and their own ingenuity and ability to predict future conditions and events.

But accounting to external users (financial accounting, reporting, and auditing) has many regulatory constraintsespecially if the enterprise is a "public" corporation whose securities are registered (under the United States Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934) with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and traded publicly over-the-counter or on a stock exchange. Public companies are subject to regulations and reporting requirements imposed and enforced by the SEC; to rules and standards established for its financial reports by the FASB and enforced by the SEC; to regulations of the organization where its securities are traded; and to the regulations of the AICPA, which establishes requirements and standards for its members (who may be either internal or external accountants or auditors).

If the entity is a state or local governmental unit, it is subject to the reporting standards and requirements of the Government Accounting Standards Board. If the entity is private and not a profit-seeking unit, it is subject to various reporting and other regulations, including those of the Internal Revenue Service, which approves its tax status and with which it must file reports.

Largely as a result of the governmental regulation of private profit-seeking businesses that began in 1933, an increasingly clear distinction has been made between managerial or internal accounting and financial accounting that is largely for external users. One important exception to this trend, however, was the change adopted in the 1970s in the objectives of financial reporting such that both managerial and financial accounting now have the same objective: to provide information that is useful for making economic decisions.

But it must be recognized that although the financial accounting information reported to stakeholders comes from the organization's accounting system, its usefulness for decision making is limited. This is because it is largely historicalit reflects events and activities that occurred in the past, not what is expected in the future. Even estimated data such as budgets and standard costs must be examined regularly to determine whether these past estimates continue to be indicative of current conditions and expectations and thus are useful for making decisions. Thus historical accounting information must be examined carefully, modified, and supplemented to make certain that what is used is relevant to expectations about the future.

But it also must be recognized that accounting can and does provide information that is current and useful in making estimates about future events. For example, accounting provides current-value information about selected items, such as readily marketable investments in debt and equity securities and inventories, and it provides reports on what the organization plans to accomplish and its expectations about the future in budgets and earnings forecasts.

Who uses accounting information for decision making?

The information developed by the accountant's information system can be useful to:

  • Managers in planning, controlling, and evaluating their organization's activities
  • Owners, directors, and others in evaluating the performance of the organization and determining operating, compensation, and other policies
  • Union, governmental, regulatory, taxing, environmental, and other entities in evaluating whether the organization is conforming with applicable contracts, rules, laws, and public policies and/or whether changes are needed;
  • Existing and potential owners, lenders, employees, customers, and suppliers in evaluating their current and future commitments to the organization
  • Accounting researchers, security analysts, security brokers and dealers, mutual-fund managers, and others in their analyses and evaluations of enterprises, capital markets, and/or investors

The services that accounting and the accountant can provide have been enhanced in many ways since the 1970s by advances in computers and other information technology. The impact of these changes is revolutionizing accounting and the accounting profession. But the changes have yet to reach their ultimate potential. For example, accounting in the 1990s began to provide current-value information and estimates about the future that an investor or other user would find useful for decision making. The availability of computer software and the Internet greatly enhanced the potential for data and information services. Such changes create opportunities for accounting and accountants and also will require substantial modifications in the traditional financial accounting and reporting model.

What is the profession of accounting?

At the core of the profession of accounting is the certified public accountant (CPA) who has passed the national CPA examination, been licensed in at least one state or territory, and engages in the practice of public accounting/auditing in a public accounting or CPA firm. The CPA firm provides some combination of two or more of four types of services: accounting, auditing, income tax planning and reporting, and management advising/consulting. Analysis of trends indicates that the demand for auditing services has peaked and that most of the growth experienced by public accounting firms is in the consulting area.

Accounting career paths, specializations, or subprofessions for CPAs who join profit-seeking enterprises include being controllers, chief financial officers, or internal auditors. Other career paths include being controllers or chief financial officers in not-for-profit or government organizations and teaching in colleges and universities. Students should note that non-CPAs also could enter these subprofessions and that certificates, but not licenses, could be earned by passing examinations in several areas, including internal auditing, management accounting, and bank auditing.

How do environmental changes impact the accounting profession?

Numerous changes in the environment make the practice of accounting and auditing much different in the new century than it was in the 1970s. For example, professional accounting firms now actively compete for clients by advertising extensively in various media, a practice that at one time was forbidden by their code of professional conduct. Mergers of clients have led CPA firms into mergers as well, such that the Big Eight is now the Big Five and the second-tier group has been reduced from twelve firms to about five. Another result of competition and other changes has been that some of the largest employers of CPAs now include income tax and accounting services firms such as H&R Block and an American Express subsidiary.

Competition among CPAs also has led the SEC to expand its regulatory and enforcement activities to ensure that financial reports are relevant and reliable. From its inception, the SEC has had legal authority to prescribe the accounting principles and standards used in the financial reports of enterprises whose securities are publicly traded, but it has delegated this responsibility to the accounting profession. Since 1973, that organization has been the FASB, with which the SEC works closely. But because the FASB is limited to performing what is essentially a legislative function, the SEC has substantially increased its enforcement activities to ensure that the FASB's standards are appropriately applied in financial reports and that accountants/auditors act in the public interest in performing their independent auditsfor which the Securities Acts have given the CPA profession a monopoly.

How does a student prepare for the accounting profession?

Persons considering entering the accounting profession should begin by doing some self-analysis to determine whether they enjoy mathematical, problem- or puzzle-solving, or other analytical activities; by taking some aptitude tests; or by talking with accounting teachers or practitioners about their work.

Anyone interested in becoming an accounting professional should expect to enter a rigorous five-year education program and to earn a master's degree in order to qualify to enter the profession and to sit for the CPA examination. To build a base for rising to the top of the profession, students should select courses that help them learn how to think and to define and solve problems. The courses should help them to develop analytical (logical, mathematical, statistical), communication (oral, reading, writing), computer, and interpersonal skills. The early part of the program should emphasize arts and sciences courses in these skill-development areas.

The person should begin to develop word-processing, data-processing, and Internet skills long before entering college and should expect to maintain competence in them throughout his or her professional career. These skills greatly enhance and facilitate all phases and aspects of what accounting and accountants attempt to do. What can be done is limited only by technology and by the sophistication of the system, its operators, and users.

see also Accounting Cycle; Accounting: Historical Perspectives; Careers in Accounting; Ethics in Accounting


Hansen, Don R., and Mowen, Maryanne M. (2000). Management Accounting (5th ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Southwestern College Publishing.

Kimmel, Paul D., Weygandt, Jerry J., and Kieso, Donald E. (2000). Financial Accounting (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Harvey S. Hendrickson


views updated Jun 27 2018


Accounting comprises techniques to record, verify, report, plan, and analyze governmental, commercial, or personal financial transactions. As such, accounting is related to science, technology and ethics in two ways. First, particularly since the early-twentieth century, accounting is understood as a technology rationalized by scientific theories and practiced by professionals requiring ethical guidance (Whitley 1986). Second, both large-scale technological projects and big budget science are increasingly subjected to accounting-based evaluations. Accordingly, both scientific data and procedures, and fiscal accounts of technoscience, are being audited to verify the ethical behaviors of engineers and scientists.

Varieties of Bookkeeping

The emergence of modern accounting in the mid-nineteenth century is symbolically marked by a fire and an avalanche. In 1834 the British House of Commons was razed in a blaze fed by a pyre of wooden tallies, which had been used by the Exchequer since the thirteenth century. Around the same time, the social and natural worlds began to be blanketed by an "avalanche of printed numbers" that only gathered in force over the subsequent two centuries (Hacking 1982, p. 279). Accounting becomes recognizably modern when numbers are exclusively used to ascribe economic value not only to things and events but also to people.

Vernacular Accounting

On the far shore of modern accounting lie the myriad vernacular ways of counting wealth and recording transactions. It is perhaps anachronistic to speak of bookkeeping before books or of accounting before counting. Indeed recent archeological evidence of an archaic bookkeeping around 3000 b.c.e. suggests that it is reckoning that gave rise to alphabetic script and homogenous number (Schmandt-Besserat 1992). If bookkeeping refers to the ways of reckoning and recording trade and commerce, its history is overwhelmingly about how the unlettered and the innumerate kept count.

For most of human history, fingers, pebbles, abaci, and counting boards were used for calculating, while transactions were recorded as knots on strings, notches on sticks, inscriptions on tablets, pipe-rolls, and parchment. The diversity of vernacular accounting is exemplified by the tally stick on which peasants and princes, from China to Europe, recorded and verified commercial, tax, and even credit transactions through notches, incisions, and cuts that varied by region, by village, and even within villages and among products (Menninger 1992). Such heterogeneous measures of things and products were bound to place and purpose, and usually rooted in the human form, of which the foot remains a dim reminder. A bushel in Cracow was different in girth and height from that in Gdansk; Alpine peasants recorded the sale of sheep with different inscriptions than those for the sale of cheese because sheep were qualitatively distinct from cheese (Kula 1986).

Double Entry Bookkeeping

The homogenization of vernacular counting and recording is related to the emergence of double-entry bookkeeping (DEB), which is also the framework for modern accounting. It was popularized by Luca Pacioli (1445–1514), called the father of accounting, largely because his was the first book printed and published on the subject of DEB. For Pacioli, a friar and contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci, the visual order and quantitative balance of DEB served to justify commerce by showing every transaction as the result of an equal and, therefore, fair exchange. Accounting in the DEB form lent credence to business as an ethical enterprise at a time when commercialism was viewed with some suspicion (Aho 1985).

The technique of DEB involves recording every transaction twice: once each as a debit and a credit in two distinct accounts. For example, purchasing a computer for cash would require recording the increase in the value of an asset by debiting the computer account through a debit and recognizing the reduction in cash by crediting the cash account. It is the sum of such equal and opposing effects of a transaction that produces the famed doubled balance of DEB. At a technical level, the genesis and diffusion of DEB presupposed the replacement of Roman numbers by Hindu-Arabic numerals, the loss of the symbolic power of numbers, and perhaps crucially, the emergence of the text that had to be seen to be read. For example, 0 had to be rethought as a mere numeral instead of evoking the horror of nothingness (Rotman 1987), and the inherently temporal events of giving and taking became reduced to a spatially arranged textual record of equal exchange (Clanchy 1999).

The popular belief that DEB stimulated profit seeking and, therefore, capitalism was first suggested by the sociologist Werner Sombart (1863–1941). However, though the distinction between profit and capital is necessary to regularly calculate the rate of profit, the distinction itself is not necessary for DEB, which emerged no later than the fourteenth century in the time of little, if any, capitalist activity (De Roover 1974). It was disseminated, though spottily, throughout Europe only after the Italian Renaissance. Indeed DEB was not instrumental to the pursuit of profit well into the eighteenth century (Yamey 1964). For the Fuggers of the fifteenth century, the Dutch East India Company of the seventeenth, and numerous factories of the eighteenth, DEB played no part in the quest for profitable trade and commerce. The bilateral, columnar ordering of debits and credits in tables of interconnected parts that balanced is therefore better understood as an instrument of visualization and legitimization rather than one of economic rationalism (Crosby 1997).

Modern Accounting

Only after the early-nineteenth century did accounting became a technique to calculate the economic productivity of all factors of production (Hoskins and Macve 2000). Modern accounting is not mere record keeping of materials used, wages paid, and profits made as it was in the eighteenth century and before. Rather accounting achieves its contemporary status as the sine qua non of economic rationalism, which implies the coordination and control of humans, materials, and machines, only when human actions are rendered into a calculable form and people therefore measured as economic resources.

The modern technique for a system of accountability was forged in the classrooms of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Since 1817, each cadet has been subjected to a regimen of written and graded examinations (Hoskins and Macve 1988). When employed as managers in such companies as the Springfield Armory and the Pennsylvania Railroad during the 1830s, some graduates of West Point used the technique of student grading as a template to measure and calculate human performance in general. For example, the quantity of widgets producible after eight hours of effort, under normal conditions, can be measured and then used as a benchmark to calculate the productivity of a particular worker. Modern accounting thus induces double vision: On one hand, it reduces human action to a countable economic resource, while on the other, it fosters the belief that such accountability is ethical.

This writing of objects, events, and persons in financial terms soon spread to both the emerging governmental bureaucracies and large scale corporations during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Hoskins and Macve 1986). Modern accounting is thus coeval with large-scale corporations—the visible hand in modern economies—that manage resources across space and time to harness productivity, reduce costs, and increase profits. Economic rationalism, rooted in management by the numbers, hence came to fruition only by the late-nineteenth century; it is not coincidental that the word capitalism flowers when the invisible hand of markets begins to wither (Braudel 1982).

By the mid-twentieth century, modern accounting as performance evaluation had become a pervasive, if almost unseen, technique for controlling human action and holding people accountable (Hoskins and Macve 2000). Through accounting, governments, schools, hospitals, and even countries, as well as bureaucrats, students, doctors, and elected officials were increasingly described as economic objects and stimulated to behave as economic resources (Miller 1992). One measure of the current ubiquity of accounting is the extent to which the behavior of scientists and engineers are motivated, monitored and controlled through accounting-based techniques. This has been pronounced since the postwar years when both engineering projects and scientific research began to absorb ever increasing sums of money from both public and private sources. Public projects such as highways and dams are routinely subjected to cost-benefit analysis; time and cost overruns and penalties are measured and charged against budgeted figures; laboratory notebooks are maintained and used as evidence of employee input and performance in a manner similar to time cards in factories. despite its many failings, such as using budgets to evaluate inherently unpredictable long term projects, accounting-based techniques seem necessary to manage large institutions, whether governments, corporations, or technoscentific practices.

Accounting Science, Profession, and Ethics

Since the 1970s, accounting techniques have also gained much in the way of scientific respectability. Economic, sociological, and psychological theories of human behavior have transformed the study of accounting into a social science based on mimicking the methods of the natural sciences: the use of mathematical models, experimental tests, and statistical results. However because people are not atoms, the predictive and explanatory power of accounting theories is necessarily far below that of physics. Moreover, because it is based on the fact-value distinction scientific accounting research cannot prescribe changes in accounting techniques to better modify behaviors and decisions. In the breach between low explanatory power and the even lower normative force of scientific accounting, the mass production and ritual verification of accounting numbers continues unabated (Power 1999).

The perceived objectivity of numbers is a fundamental vehicle by which accounting techniques spread as a bureaucratic method to manage people in a manner consistent with liberal government (Porter 1995). However, by now, most students of accounting agree that all valuation techniques—whether of things or persons—are the result of conventional rules and not laws of nature. Accordingly the claim to objectivity in accounting should be understood less as an unbiased reflection of natural processes and instead as the adherence to conventional standards of measurement and calculation.

During the twentieth century, the accounting profession used the notion of objectivity as a lever to promote the idea of accountants as disinterested professionals. As part of this attempt at professionalizing accounting practice the newly formed American Institute of Accountants established a code of professional conduct in 1917. Throughout the twentieth century, the code was to become both wider in scope and more specific in detail. For example, what started as a list of eight rules in 1917 had expanded to list of six principles and a series of five rules, each with a host of related "interpretations" (Preston et al. 1995), the elaboration of the code of conduct has been accompanied by a shift in the social status of the accounting professional: Increasingly the profession has disavowed its professionalism and embraced its function as service provider (Zeff 2003). Perhaps the strongest evidence of this shift away from professionalism is that accountants are no longer barred from advertising their services as they were until the 1970s.

In this context corporate bankruptcies and managerial misconduct can be understood. The much-publicized saga of the Enron Corporation reveals that greed and envy continue, with predictable frequency, to prompt fraud and duplicity by corporate chieftains, government officials, and accountants. The response, exemplified by the recently passed Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002), has been equally predictable: Additional accounting techniques are instituted to engineer valued behaviors, including cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments, audits, and budgets. In the blind spot of this spiraling cycle, the foundational questions of whether it is ethical to reduce human action to a quantity, whether engineered behavior is akin to ethical action, and whether human failings can be eradicated by technical devices remain.


SEE ALSO Economics and Ethics;Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Aho, James. (1985). "Rhetoric and the Invention of Double Entry Bookkeeping." Rhetorica 3: 21–43. An insightful rhetorical analysis of DEB emphasizing its religious underpinnings.

Bailey, Charles N., James R. Hasselback, and Julia N. Karcher. (2001). "Research Misconduct in Accounting Literature: A Survey of the Most Prolific Researchers' Actions and Beliefs." Abacus 37: 26.

Braudel, Fernand. (1982). The Wheels of Commerce. New York: Harper & Row.

Clanchy, Michael T. (1993). From Memory to Written Record. London: Basil Blackwell. A seminal work on the transition in Europe from oral to literate culture, focusing on legal documents, wills and accounting records.

Cohen, Patricia. (1999). A Calculating People. New York: Routlege.

Crosby, Alfred. (1997). The Measure of Reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A cultural history of the rise of quantification in different fields ranging from art and music to architecture and commerce. Convincingly argues the textual and therefore visual form of DEB.

De Roover, Raymond. (1974). Business, Banking and Economic Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hacking, Ian. (1982). "Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers." Humanities in Society 5: 279–295. Documents the rise of quantification in the newly emerging social sciences of the early nineteenth century.

Hoskins, Keith, and Richard Macve. (1986). "Accounting and the Examination: A Genealogy of Disciplinary Power." Accounting, Organizations and Society 11: 105–136.

Hoskins, Keith, and Richard Macve. (1988). "The Genesis of Accountability: The West Point Connection." Accounting, Organizations and Society 13: 37–73.

Hoskins, Keith, and Richard Macve. (2000). "Knowing More as Knowing Less? Alternative Histories of Cost and Management Accounting in the U.S. and the U.K." Accounting Historians Journal 27: 91–149. A deft and clear summary of the decade-long argument among accounting scholars on the origins of modern accounting. Places the original research presented in the papers listed below within a neatly formulated 'dialogue' with contesting interpretations.

Kula, Witold. (1986). Measures and Men, trans. Richard Szreter. Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press. An indispensable reference for the social history of modern measurement.

Menninger, Karl. (1992). Number Words and Number Symbols. New York: Dover Publications. A delightful book on the world history of numbers that includes excellent pages on the prehistory of modern accounting.

Miller, Peter. (1992). "Accounting and Objectivity: The Invention of Calculating Selves and Calculable Spaces." Annals of Scholarship 9: 61–86.

Porter, Theodore M. (1995). Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. A historian's documentation of the uses and abuses of 'objectivity' in the social sciences.

Power, Michael. (1999). The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A theoretically informed analyses of the contemporary proliferation of auditing in numerous arenas of life.

Preston, Alistair; David Cooper; Paul Scarbourgh; and Robert Chilton. (1995). "Changes in the Code of Ethics of the U.S. Accounting Profession, 1917 and 1988: The Continual Quest for Legitimacy." Accounting, Organizations and Society 20: 507–546.

Rotman, Brian. (1987). Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. (1992). Before Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press. Original argument from an anthropologist of the Near East on 'accounting' as a precursor of alphabetic script and numbers.

Whitley, Richard. (1986). "The Transformation of Business Finance into Financial Economics: The Roles of Academic Expansion and Changes in U.S. Capital Markets." Accounting, Organizations and Society 11: 171–192.

Yamey, Basil S. (1964). "Accounting and the Rise of Capitalism: Some Further Notes on a Thesis by Sombart." Journal of Accounting Research 11: 117–136. Seminal paper arguing against the so-called Sombart thesis about the relation between DEB accounting and capitalism.

Zeff, Stephen. (2003). "How the U.S. Accounting Profession Got WhereItIsToday:PartII." Accounting Horizons 17: 267–285.


views updated Jun 11 2018


A system of recording or settling accounts in financial transactions; the methods of determiningincome and expenses for tax and other financial purposes. Also, one of the remedies available for enforcing a right or redressing a wrong asserted in a lawsuit.

Various accounting methods may be employed. The accrual method shows expenses incurred and income earned for a given period of time whether or not such expenses and income have been actually paid or received by that time. The cash method records income and expenses only when monies have actually been received or paid out. The completed contract method reports gains or losses on certain long-term contracts. Gross income and expenses are recognized under this method in the tax year the contract is completed. The installment method of accounting is a way regulated utilities calculate depreciation for income tax purposes.

The cost method of accounting records the value of assets at their actual cost, and the fair value method uses the present market value for the recorded value of assets. Price level accounting is a modern method of valuing assets in a financial statement by showing their current value in comparison to the gross national product.

Where a court orders an accounting, the party against whom judgment is entered must file a complete statement with the court that accounts for his or her administration of the affairs at issue in the case. An accounting is proper for showing how an executor has managed the estate of a deceased person or for disclosing how a partner has been handling partnership business.

An accounting was one of the ancient remedies available in courts of equity. The regular officers of the Chancery, who represented the king in hearing disputes that could not be taken to courts of law, were able to serve as auditors and work through complex accounts when necessary. The chancery had the power to discover hidden assets in the hands of the defendant. Later, courts of law began to recognize and enforce regular contract claims, as actions in assumpsit, and the courts of equity were justified in compelling an accounting only when the courts at law could not give relief. A plaintiff could ask for an accounting in equity when the complexity of the accounts in the case made it too difficult for a jury to resolve or when a trustee or other fiduciary was charged with violating a position of trust.

In the early twenty-first century, courts in the United States generally have jurisdiction both at law and in equity. They have the power to order an accounting when necessary to determine the relative rights of the parties. An accounting may be appropriate whenever the defendant has violated an obligation to protect the plaintiff's interests. For example, an accounting may be ordered to settle disputes when a partnership is breaking up, when an heir believes that the executor of an estate has sold off assets for less than their fair market value, or when shareholders claim that directors of a corporation have appropriated for themselves a business opportunity that should have profited the corporation.

An accounting may also be an appropriate remedy against someone who has committed a wrong against the plaintiff and should not be allowed to profit from it. For example, a bank teller who embezzles money and makes "a killing" by investing it in mutual funds may be ordered to account for all the money taken and the earnings made from it. A businessperson who palms off a product as that of a more popular manufacturer might have to account for the entire profit made from it. A defendant who plagiarizes another author's book can be ordered to give an account and pay over all the profits to the owner of the copyrighted material. An accounting forces the wrongdoer to trace all transactions that flowed from the legal injury, because the plaintiff is in no position to identify the profits.

Arthur Andersen and Other Accounting Failures

The accounting profession, which is largely self-regulated, has suffered through a series of fiascoes since the late 1990s, resulting in a call for major changes in accounting standards. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has served since 1973 as one of the organizations responsible for establishing standards of financial accounting and reporting. Although the FASB is a private organization, its standards are recognized as authoritative by the securities and exchange commission (SEC) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, debacles involving major accounting firms required the FASB and the SEC, as well as other regulatory organizations, to consider new rules designed to improve financial reporting. Between 1996 and 2002, investors lost an estimated $200 billion in earnings restatements and stock meltdowns following failures in auditing processes. A number of high-profile auditing failures decreased confidence in the accounting profession. Among these failures were incidents involving such companies as Bausch and Lomb, Rite Aid, Cendant, Sunbeam, Waste Management, Superior Bank, and Dollar General.

One of the most highly publicized accounting failures in this period involved Houston-based Enron Corporation and its accountant, Arthur Andersen, L.L.P. Enron suffered a collapse in the third quarter of 2001 that resulted in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history and numerous lawsuits alleging violations of federal securities laws. Thousands of Enron employees lost 401(k) retirement plans that held company stock. The controversy extended to Arthur Andersen, which was accused of overlooking significant sums of money that had not been represented on Enron's books. Arthur Andersen was later found guilty on federal charges that it obstructed justice by destroying thousands of Enron documents. Enron reported annual revenues of about $101 billion between 1985 and 2000. On December 18, 2000, Enron's stock sold for $84.87 per share. Stock prices fell throughout 2001, however, and on October 16, 2001, the company reported losses of $638 million in the third quarter alone. During the next six weeks, company stock continued to fall, and by December 2, 2001, Enron stock dropped to below $1 per share after the largest single day trading volume for any stock listed on either the New York Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ.

Initial allegations focused upon the role of Arthur Andersen. The company was one of the "Big Five" accounting firms in the United States, and it had served as Enron's auditor for sixteen years. Arthur Andersen also served as a consultant to Enron, thus raising serious questions regarding conflicts of interests between the two companies. According to court documents, Enron and Arthur Andersen had improperly categorized hundreds of millions of dollars as increases in shareholder equity, thereby misrepresenting the true value of the corporation. Arthur Andersen also did not follow generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) when it considered Enron's dealings with related partnerships. These dealings, in part, allowed Enron to conceal some of its losses.

Arthur Andersen was also accused of destroying thousands of Enron documents that included not only physical documents but also computer files and e-mail files. After investigation by the u.s. justice department, the firm was indicted on obstruction of justice charges in March 2002. After a six-week trial, Arthur Andersen was found guilty on June 16, 2002. The company was placed on probation for five years and was required to pay a $500,000 fine. Some analysts also questioned whether the company could survive after this series of incidents.

The accounting issues in the Enron case extended beyond Enron and Arthur Andersen. Prior to this case and since 1977, the accounting field was supervised considerably by the Public Oversight Board (POB). When SEC chairman Harvey L. Pitt in 2002 made a series of inquiries about the system of self-regulation in the accounting profession, he did not consult the POB. The POB voted to disband, effective May 1, 2002. After the Enron case, the FASB emerged in the public spotlight as the leader of the system of self-regulation and has taken a significant role in the reform of accounting rules. In January 2003, the FASB announced new accounting rules designed to force U.S. companies to move billions of dollars from off-balance-sheet entities into the companies' balance sheets. The SEC has also stepped up its oversight of company accounting.

further readings

Meyer, Charles H. 2002. Accounting and Finance for Lawyers in a Nutshell. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Rachlin, Robert, and Allen Sweeny. 1996. Accounting and Financial Fundamentals for Nonfinancial Executives. New York: AMACON.


Accrual Basis; Cash Basis; Income Tax.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Accounting and bookkeeping practices introduced during the Renaissance made it easier for merchants to keep track of their profits and losses. The most significant of these new techniques was double-entry bookkeeping.

The Double-Entry System. During the Middle Ages, merchants and landowners used single-entry bookkeeping to track the money they spent and received. With this system, also called "charge and discharge," the merchant recorded each day's receipts and expenses in an account book. The book showed how much money the merchant took in or paid out on each individual transaction. However, it did not enable trades-people to see at a glance which customers owed them money or which accounts were most profitable over time.

Double-entry bookkeeping involved recording each transaction twice, often in two separate columns in the account book. In the left-hand column, the merchant listed the amount of money spent for goods, along with other information such as the date of the sale. When the merchant received payment for a sale, this information went in the right-hand column. This double-entry system allowed merchants to keep a running total of profits and losses. When the total in the right column was greater than that in the left column, it showed that the merchant had made money on a transaction.

Merchants often kept separate books for each account. Someone who dealt in grain, cloth, and sugar might have an account book for each product. Each transaction noted in the account books was later transferred to the ledger, a book that included transactions for all accounts. The totals for both columns in the ledger were supposed to be the same. The merchant would list any money made or lost on a sale in another category, "profit and loss," to make the books balance.

Spread of Double-Entry Bookkeeping. Italian merchants were the first to adopt double-entry bookkeeping, and by the 1400s the system had spread throughout Italy. It took some time for merchants in other countries to begin using the double-entry system. Records from France, Holland, and Germany indicate that the single-entry system was still common in the mid-1400s. Only after 1500 did double-entry bookkeeping become widespread throughout Europe.

Some scholars believe that double-entry bookkeeping was a major factor in Europe's move from feudalism* to capitalism* because it enabled merchants to calculate profits and losses. Others disagree, saying that merchants could have done this using single entry. A third view is that the two developments influenced each other. Expanding trade produced the need for more efficient bookkeeping systems. At the same time, the double-entry system encouraged the growth of commerce by making it easier to keep track of increased trade activity.

(See alsoEconomy and Trade; Money and Banking. )

* feudalism

economic and political system in which individuals gave services to a lord in return for protection and use of the land

* capitalism

economic system in which individuals own property and businesses


views updated Jun 11 2018

ac·count·ing / əˈkounting/ • n. the action or process of keeping financial accounts.


views updated May 21 2018