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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 of resignation and fatalism…, a belief in male superiority…, a corresponding martyr complex among women, and finally, a high tolerance for psychopathology of all sorts. [Children of Sánchez, pp. xxiv, xxvi-xxvii]

By the lights of the time this read like a brave new concept.

What Lewis proposed to Ford then was to discover whether the revolution in Cuba was eliminating not only material inequalities but wretchedness itself. If “our civilization” in 1960 needed such a study, probably no American social scientist had as good a claim as he to do it.

The problem was his innocence, an intellectual handicap common in that anti-ideological period. Precisely because the Cuban revolutionaries really were battling poverty, he could not isolate the results. With or without scholarly advice, the United States government would war against Cuban expropriation, nationalization, and popular redistribution of wealth, and the revolutionaries would have to mobilize the island as thoroughly as possible just to defend it. Wiser than Lewis to the ways of the world and the logic of research, Ford denied his request. A few months later the United States sponsored the invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

But Lewis persisted. And in August 1961, as a journalist, he spent five days in Cuba. Aiming to produce an article for Harper’s, he visited a place he had known in 1946, Havana’s worst slum, Las Yaguas. It “amazed” him. He found the same “alleyways of open sewage and filth,…kids with swollen bellies, and all the rest you see in any slum anywhere.” Yet

the families…spoke with great hope about the future, with great love for Fidel Castro, telling me about the plans for new housing for them and saying that now they had no unemployment. For the first time in my twenty years of research among the poor, I heard no gripes against the government leaders. I have never experienced that in a slum before.

The trip so moved him that he felt he should not publish anything about the new Cuba without spending more time there. He could not manage the time then and did not write the article. But he looked forward to the day when he would.

Through the 1960s Lewis went on to gain a remarkable reputation for understanding poor people. The Children of Sánchez, which Random House brought out in 1961, launched him into publishing’s major leagues and made “the culture of poverty” a standard phrase among the highly cultured around the globe. In Mexico the translation went speedily through two printings at the Fondo de Cultura Económica, caused a rightist furor that cost the foundation’s editor-in-chief his post, and won Lewis broad leftist compliments there. Though Pedro Martínez (Random House, 1964) featured a traditional Mexican peasant, not mired in “the culture of poverty,” it seemed to display Lewis’s increasing versatility in speaking for the poor. La Vida—A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty (Random House, 1966) won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 1967.

Actually for several years Lewis’s career had not been so much in social science as in letters. What he was writing was the “nonfiction novel” of the subtropics, “ethnographic realism,” he called it, or “a new kind of literature of social realism.” And in his genre he proved himself a master. He had a genius for finding fabulous down-and-outers. More wonderful still, he won their confidence and their families’, enough to produce thousands of hours of interviews from husbands, wives, relatives, and children. And these he rewove into stories with a skill reminiscent, if not of the Henry James he respectfully quoted, at least of Stephen Crane, who also told of beauty in the depths. The tales in Five Families, The Children of Sánchez, Pedro Martínez, and La Vida were vivid evocations of energetic and canny characters, desperate with loneliness but revealing even in their cynicism and self-pity how terribly they craved an honorable calling. Because Lewis obligingly hid his science to do art in the vernacular, he enjoyed a public not only extensive but also grateful.

He also had his critics. For besides “social realism,” in the introductions to his books he had taken to “humanist” social punditry. And here he proved himself a disaster. In professional and political journals, and at the American Anthropological Association meeting in 1966, scholars like Eleanor Leacock, Hylan Lewis, William Ryan, and Charles Valentine showed his contradictions ruthlessly. He propounded theories that his own stories belied. He presented culture as family writ large. He proclaimed that poverty bred pathology and that pathology bred poverty. And he kept repeating himself. Under criticism, it became obvious that far from a brave new concept, “the culture of poverty” was Part I of a sorry old myth—that the lumpenproletariat had itself most to blame, and was incorrigible.*

Confronted with such criticism, Lewis would deny it and insist that he stood with his critics—social justice would solve social misery. Explicitly referring to Cuba, he declared, “I am inclined to believe that the culture of poverty does not exist in socialist countries.” But when he tried again to formulate what he meant, he would contradict himself again. He argued in circles, for instance, that “by redistributing wealth, by organizing the poor and giving them a sense of belonging, of power and leadership, revolutions frequently succeed in abolishing some of the basic characteristics of the culture of poverty, even when they do not succeed in abolishing poverty itself.” That is, if you end poverty, you may end the worst of the culture of poverty, even if you do not end poverty. And then he asserted that “the culture of poverty” tended to perpetuate itself anyway. Whatever Lewis’s intentions, as Charles Valentine angrily observed, his least cryptic message could serve as a political warrant for neglect of deprivation, agitation over depravity instead, and eventual disgust with the poor who did not behave.

But this may have constituted a main reason for Lewis’s popularity. His artfully “humanist” statements on poverty were blessings to a public obsessed with the poor but determined to misunderstand them. Lewis himself did not intend to blame the victim. He protested inferences that the poor deserved their fate. But he left his notion of their “culture” so open that it could satisfy almost any prejudice toward them, justifying almost any policy toward them. Reading Lewis, a bourgeois public could feel right however its politicians acted on poverty.

In 1967, in the dying blazes of the War on Poverty, Current Anthropology featured a review of Lewis’s major books. Sixteen colleagues had their say on “the culture of poverty,” pro and con. Nothing substantially new emerged, except a note of fierce exasperation in Lewis’s reply to his critics. It may have come from a frustration with himself as much as with them, in view of all the inconsistencies he was trying to manage intellectually and politically. Maybe it came too from a darker worry, for he now suffered seriously from heart disease and angina pectoris.

In 1964 the Cuban government began inviting friendly but independent American journalists to visit the country and write books about it—among them Lee Lockwood, Elizabeth Sutherland, José Yglesias. In 1967 the Cuban Book Institute decided to publish translations of Tepoztlán and Pedro Martínez. And the Cuban Academy of Sciences, despite American criticism of his notions about the poor, invited Lewis to do community and family studies on the island. The full history of this Cuban-American enterprise will not come to the surface for many more years. But preliminary soundings are now in order. Lewis’s wife has published her first-hand account as the foreword to Four Men. The following is a reconstruction combining her version with accounts from other reliable sources who differ from her on secondary but still significant questions.

Duly authorized by the United States and Cuban governments, Lewis traveled to Havana in February 1968. As prudence then suggested, he had already decided that unless Fidel himself invited him, he would not undertake the proposed project. After days with professors, the minister of education, and the National Ideological director, he finally got to Fidel. During a morning and an afternoon Fidel drove him around the countryside, talking of agriculture, ranching, “underdevelopment.” That evening they discussed Lewis’s books. Fidel seemed to know about them and “the culture of poverty.” The Children of Sánchez he said he had read and found “revolutionary”—“worth more than 50,000 political pamphlets.” He asked Lewis, “Why don’t you come and do research like that here in our country?”

  1. *

    For the most thoughtful contemporary criticism, see Eleanor Burke Leacock, ed., The Culture of Poverty: A Critique (Simon & Schuster, 1971), and Charles A. Valentine, Culture and Poverty: Critique and Counter-Proposals (University of Chicago Press, 1968).

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