Chile's first national hero was the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia (1500?–53), who founded Santiago in 1541. The Indian leader Lautaro (1525–57), another national hero, served Valdivia as stable boy and then escaped to lead his people to victory against the Spanish. His exploits are celebrated in the great epic poem La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533?–96), a Spanish soldier. Bernardo O'Higgins (1778–1842), a leader of the fight for independence, was the son of the Irish soldier of fortune Ambrosio O'Higgins (1720?–1801), who had been viceroy of Peru. Diego Portales (1793–1837) helped build a strong central government. Admiral Arturo Prat (1848–79) is Chile's most revered naval hero because of his exploits during the War of the Pacific. Arturo Alessandri Palma (1868–1950), who became president in 1921, initiated modern sociopolitical reform. Salvador Allende Gossens (1908–73), the Western Hemisphere's first freely elected Marxist head of state, served three years as Chile's president (1970–73), initiating a broad range of socialist reforms and dying in the throes of a violent military coup in September 1973. The coup's leader was Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (b.1915), a former commander-in-chief of the army. Outstanding church figures have been Crescente Errázuriz (1839–1931), archbishop of Santiago, and his successor, José Cardinal Caro (1866–1958). Benjamin A. Cohen (1896–1960) was an undersecretary of the United Nations.
Three distinguished historians, Miguel Luis Amunátegui (1828–88), Diego Barros Arana (1830–1907), and Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna (1831–86), brightened the intellectual life of the second half of the 19th century. José Toribio Medina (1852–1930) gained an international reputation with works ranging from history and literary criticism to archaeology and etymology. Important contemporary historians include Francisco Antonio Encina (1874–1965), Ricardo Donoso (b.1896), and Arturo Torres Rioseco (1897–1971), who is also a literary critic. Benjamín Subercaseaux (1902–73) was a popular historian as well as a novelist.
The first indigenous literary movement was that of the "generation of 1842." One of its leaders was the positivist writer José Victorino Lastarria (1817–88). The novelist and diplomat Alberto Blest Gana (1830–1920) wrote panoramic novels about Chilean society in the tradition of Balzac. Twentieth-century writers include novelist Eduardo Barrios (1884–1963), an explorer of the abnormal psyche; Joaquín Edwards Bello (1887–1968), an author of realistic novels of urban life; the symbolic novelist, poet, and essayist Pedro Prado (1886–1952); and José Donoso (1925–96), perhaps the best-known contemporary novelist.
Poets of note include Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, 1889–1957), who won the Nobel Prize in 1945; Pablo Neruda (Neftalí Ricardo Reyes, 1904–73), the nation's greatest poet, who was awarded a Stalin Prize as well as the Nobel Prize (1971); and the poet-diplomat Armando Uribe Arce (b.1933). The nation's first native-born composer was Manuel Robles (1780–1837); Silvia Soublette de Váldes (b.1923) is a leading composer, singer, and conductor; and Gustavo Becerra (b.1925) is a composer and teacher. Claudio Arrau (1903-91) is one of the world's leading concert pianists. Well-known painters are Roberto Matta (1911–2002) and Nemesio Antúnez (1918–1993), while sculptors include Lily Garafulic (b.1914) and Marta Colvin (1917–1995).