She infused her work with political and feminist perspectives and insisted that art had to be understood within its social context.
An obituary by Clay Risen for The New York Times.
Jean Franco, a literary scholar who did much to shape Latin American studies in the late 1960s and ’70s, examining the region’s literature through feminist and political perspectives, died on Dec. 14 at her home in Manhattan. She was 98.
Her son, Alexis Parke, confirmed the death.
Latin American studies was just emerging when Dr. Franco began her academic career in the mid-1960s, and much of it was focused on economics, sociology and political science. But it was also the moment when a new generation of writers was appearing across the region, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes.
Through a series of wide-ranging studies, including her landmark book “The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist” (1967), Dr. Franco argued that the region’s literature deserved its own sustained focus — a radical idea at a time when most Spanish-language scholarship was still focused on the likes of Miguel de Cervantes and Federico García Lorca.
Dr. Franco, who taught in England and later at Stanford and Columbia, did more than just highlight new writers. A follower of British Marxist scholars like Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, she insisted that the study of literature had to take into account the cultural and political context in which it was created — a sharp contrast to the conventional, close-reading method in which she was trained.
She was likewise a pioneer in applying feminist perspectives to what had been a male-dominated field. In books like “Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico” (1989), she reshaped the understanding of women in Latin American politics and culture, showing how they had often resisted traditional gender roles.
And she was an early advocate for what came to be known as cultural studies, which treats all forms of culture — highbrow, popular, mass media — as interrelated and equally worthy of study. In the early 1980s she founded Tabloid, a twice-yearly journal that published deeply considered analyses of cultural phenomena like Jazzercise and talk radio.
“Few critics share Franco’s capacity to conceptualize and define the big picture without losing sight of the fact that this picture is known through its details: a text, a song, an advertisement, graffiti, a Puerto Rican funeral,” Mary Louise Pratt and Kathleen M. Newman wrote in their introduction to “Critical Passions: Selected Essays” (1999), a collection of Dr. Franco’s writing.
It was a type of scholarship Dr. Franco came by from personal experience. Before she entered graduate school, she lived a bohemian life in Guatemala City and Mexico City. Married to a Guatemalan painter, she fell in with a circle of artists, writers and activists and saw firsthand the way art and politics could swirl together.
After a C.I.A.-backed coup overthrew Guatemala’s left-wing government in 1954, many of her friends were arrested, and several were murdered for their beliefs. She came to see that art was a vital point of resistance to oppression, and that analyzing literature through its political context was not just a methodological choice but also an ethical imperative.
In her last book, “Cruel Modernity” (2013), about the political use of cruelty by Latin American authoritarian governments, she wrote that her time in Guatemala was “an experience that was to leave a trace in everything I have written.”
Jean Swindells was born on March 31, 1924, in Dukinfield, a town east of Manchester, England. Her father, William Swindells, was a baker, and her mother, Ella (Newton) Swindells, was a homemaker.
Along with her son, she is survived by a sister, Pauline Swindells.
Jean studied art history at Manchester University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1944 and a master’s in 1946. Upon graduating, she received a travel grant to research art across Europe. She eventually settled in Florence, Italy, where she met a Guatemalan artist, Juan Antonio Franco. They married and, in 1953, moved to Guatemala City.
Mr. Franco was close to the country’s left-leaning president, Jacobo Árbenz, which made him a target after the coup. The Francos fled to Mexico City, where she worked as a typist, teacher and actor.
The Francos later divorced, and after a brief sojourn in Jamaica, she and her son returned to England. She began taking night classes in Spanish-language literature, but she found that almost no British academics were interested in the study of work from Latin America, of the sort she had encountered in Guatemala.
In 1960 she received a second bachelor’s degree, in Spanish literature, from the University of London. She received her doctorate in the same subject four years later, also from the University of London.
Dr. Franco held a series of teaching jobs in London, and in 1968 the University of Essex hired her as a full professor of Latin American literature, England’s first. Four years later, she moved to Stanford.
Her timing was perfect. Stanford and the nearby University of California, Berkeley, were at the forefront of Latin American studies, and she soon became a leading figure in the discipline on the West Coast. She created a joint study center between the two universities and, through it, influenced scores of graduate students who were pouring into the field.
Dr. Franco made frequent extended trips around Latin America, keeping in touch with artists and political activists. She invited many of them back to the United States to lecture and meet scholars and students, in the process helping to build a network of intellectual exchanges.
She served as president of the Latin American Studies Association from 1989 to 1991. She received service awards from literary organizations and governments across Latin America, and in 1996 PEN America gave her a lifetime achievement award for her work to spread the study of Latin American literature.
“She kept the field open to new ideas, and she herself was always exploring new ideas,” Dr. Newman, who studied under Dr. Franco and teaches at the University of Iowa, said in a phone interview. “She really was the example of the professor we’d all like to be.”