In the Life

La Vida

by Oscar Lewis
Random House, 669 pp., $10.00

If historians still exist fifty years from now, one of them might conceivably select two closely related trends as the dominant features of the period through which we are now living. By the 1960s, advanced capitalist society had succeeded, with the help of a prolonged war boom, in absorbing and neutralizing its own industrial proletariat, never in any case a really serious revolutionary threat. Simultaneously, on the other hand, the leading capitalist country had begun to spawn a new, dark-skinned proletariat in the heartland of its own cities and to use its terrifying military power to crush revolutionary uprisings among the wretched of the earth in the far parts of the globe. At the very least this perspective on our own time makes very relevant Oscar Lewis’s latest book, La Vida. Lewis has gradually become the foremost anthropological student of those who are wretched. His phrase, “the culture of poverty,” has become household property in quarters very remote from those of professional social scientists.

In La Vida he presents us with a slice of this culture, mainly in the form of tape-recorded autobiographies of several Puerto Rican individuals drawn from the same family and living in the slums of both San Juan and New York’s Spanish Harlem. Interspersed with the autobiographies are descriptions of characteristic single days in the lives of these people. Both life stories and descriptions have been woven together from huge masses of material, gathered with skill and sensitivity, but the resulting texture may be too smooth. Since much of the book gives the impression that the interviewer did no more than turn on the tape recorder and listen, it falsifies the character of genuine anthropological raw materials. These are always the product of a dialogue in which the personality and skills of the anthropologist play a decisive part. Here the editing conceals the way these elements become part of the raw data. At the same time the presentation in La Vida retains some of the disadvantages of raw material, especially those of bulk and lack of coherent organization.

This semi-raw material takes up nearly seven hundred pages of text, after which it abruptly stops. There is no real interpretation of these seven hundred pages. A fifty-page Introduction provides no more than a very minimal factual background and a very brief general discussion of the concept of “the culture of poverty.” Perhaps the main value of the Introduction lies in the way it reveals the understandable tension between Lewis’s meliorist outlook—his desire to be useful to the established order and its agents, the social workers—and his obvious feeling that nothing short of revolutionary change is likely to help these people, for whom he displays an admirable compassion completely free from condescension.

THUS THE READER must make whatever sense he can of the body of the book. Probably the majority of readers will enjoy the obscenity (as I did), heave a few sighs of compassion, and move on to other concerns. A few …

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