An American in Cuba

Four Men: Living the Revolution, An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba

by Oscar Lewis, by Ruth M. Lewis, by Susan M. Rigdon
University of Illinois Press, 538 pp., $15.00

It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.

—Graham Greene,
Our Man in Havana

Like all modern revolutions, the Cuban Revolution has attracted intellectuals—and buffaloed them. The most bewildered have often been liberal social scientists in Europe and the United States. The latest to go wrong, posthumously, is Oscar Lewis.

From 1959 Cuba fascinated Lewis. Having taught at the University of Havana’s School of Social Work in 1945-1946, he knew the island’s misery ran deep. Quicker than many other academics, he recognized the revolution’s radical egalitarian urge. And he keenly approved of it. In 1960 he asked the Ford Foundation to finance his research on the island’s social and psychological transformation.

He had impressive credentials for the job. A history undergraduate at City College (BSS, 1936), drawn into anthropology at Columbia by Ruth Benedict, who “completely enchanted” him, Lewis was only twenty-five when he received his PhD in 1940. He published his dissertation in 1942 (on the Black-foot Indians), and then several scholarly articles and four books: On the Edge of the Black Waxy (Washington University, 1948), Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied (University of Illinois, 1951), Village Life in Northern India (Illinois, 1958), and Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (Basic Books, 1959). Given tenure in 1948 at the University of Illinois, he had achieved extraordinary professional eminence and support—a Guggenheim in 1956, Wenner-Gren and Social Science Research Council grants in 1958, and a National Science Foundation grant in 1959.

Moreover, he had recently announced a new purpose for anthropology that especially suited a project on the new Cuba. “Traditionally, anthropologists have been students and spokesmen of primitive and preliterate peoples who…have little influence upon our civilization.” But now they should “serve as students and reporters of the great mass of peasants and urban dwellers of the underdeveloped countries who constitute almost eighty percent of the world’s population. What happens to the people of these countries will affect, directly or indirectly, our own lives.”

Most impressive was Lewis’s recent notion of “the culture of poverty.” In preliterate societies, he suggested, poverty was “a natural and integral part of the whole way of life….” Modern poverty, however, “becomes a dynamic factor which affects participation in the larger national culture” (Five Families, p. 2). In every country, he would soon declare, “it has a structure, a rationale, and defense mechanisms” of its own,

passed down from generation to generation along family lines…unemployment and underemployment, low wages,…unskilled occupations, child labor,…a chronic shortage of cash,…borrowing from local money lenders at usurious rates of interest, spontaneous informal credit devices…, the use of second-hand clothing and furniture…gregariousness,…alcoholism, frequent resort to violence in the settlement of quarrels… [and] in the training of children,…early initiation into sex, free unions or consensual marriages,…the abandonment of mothers and children,…mothercentered families…, a strong predisposition to authoritarianism,… a strong present time orientation…, a sense …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.