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Cuba and Oscar Lewis: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I would like to comment on several errors and misinterpretations in Professor Womack’s long review of Four Men (NYR, August 4). Like so many reviewers in the NYR, Womack devoted much space to subjects other than the book being reviewed, in this case to Oscar Lewis’s career in anthropology and to a very minor aspect of his life’s work, namely the concept of the “culture of poverty.” This would be all very well except for the fact that the “culture of poverty” has already been chewed up and spat out by many critics and Womack has nothing new to offer. It also becomes clear that the web of words being spun about Oscar is not to give the reader straightforward background material or even to present an honest critique of his work but to carefully build up Oscar in such a way as to make it easy to knock him down.

Womack declares, for example, that the “culture of poverty” concept was Oscar’s most impressive “recent notion” (which Oscar would certainly have denied), then he proceeds to “prove” that it is not. In another place, Womack incorrectly interpreted Oscar’s use of the term “redistributing wealth” to be synonymous with “ending poverty”—which cannot be true of countries with little wealth to distribute—then Womack used this error to accuse Oscar of circular thinking. It also seems unfair for Womack to admit on the one hand that Oscar did not blame the poor for their poverty, and then to criticize him because others did blame the poor. Oscar may rightly be held responsible, as Womack does, for the looseness in the concept of the “culture of poverty” that made it so liable to misinterpretation and misuse by “the bourgeois public and by politicians,” but it is not right to ascribe to him their same prejudices.

In discussing Project Cuba, Womack combined my account with that of “other reliable sources” who differ from me on some questions. Without mentioning any of these questions, Womack wrote to me before his review was published, asking me if there was anything I would like to add to the Foreword. I declined the open-ended invitation and now I wonder why he didn’t take that opportunity to ask me to comment on the accusations raised by his informants.

Womack doesn’t state who his informants were but they sound as though they might be one or more of the non-Cuban field staff whom Oscar had fired, or perhaps they were their friends, or friends of their friends. Oscar was admittedly a hard taskmaster and difficult for some people to work with and I can understand students and assistants becoming disgruntled, but I am nonplussed that any of them could say that he kept his non-Cuban staff separate from the “natives” and from the Cuban trainees. The non-Cuban staff was there to learn about Cuba from Cubans and it would hardly make sense to keep them isolated, nor would it have been possible to do so. Why Professor Womack accepts such information uncritically I do not know.

As to the relations between the Cuban and non-Cuban staff members, the latter’s residence and the project office were in adjacent buildings and there was constant interchange between them. Whatever their personal relations with each other were, the Cubans and non-Cubans saw each other professionally and socially every day, those doing field work attended the same training sessions, the entire staff participated in parties, went to the beach together, did volunteer labor as a group, etc. They did, however, have different living quarters (a requirement of the Cuban government) and different work assignments. For pedagogical purposes and for reasons of rapport with the ex-slum dwellers, Oscar assigned the Cuban students to work in the Bolívar and Buena Ventura housing developments. Some North American staff members worked with the Cuban staff and at least two of the Cubans worked with informants in other sections of Havana. In any case, it is absurd and somewhat paranoid to think that work assignments were made for the express purpose of keeping anyone apart from anyone else.

In reference to Oscar’s treatment of the Cuban students, I do not doubt that they had never worked as long and hard or as meticulously as they did on Project Cuba, doing and re-doing their surveys and interviews until Oscar found them methodologically acceptable. Undeniably he was impatient and demanding but if in his conscientiousness and frustration he “made them pay in pride,” a judgment Womack accepts from a second-or third-hand source, I can only hope that the Cuban students who are now supervising research projects of their own or holding responsible jobs in Cuba think it was worth it.

Womack is in error in stating that Oscar sought the “low-down on the love lives” of Cuban leaders and I resent the insinuation that he was interested in such information for political or “spooky” reasons. Womack doesn’t give his source for this one either, but at least he is consistent in believing the worst about Oscar. Actually, Oscar was worried when in interviewing the X family, there came to light something along those lines in connection with one (please note there was only one) highly placed government official. It was the kind of explosive material we occasionally stumbled upon, but it was a legitimate part of the life experience of the informant and was accepted as such.

Womack stated that Lewis suspended Project Cuba for the summer of 1970 because he “figured he had enough on Havana.” (What a talent Womack has for giving a phrase a sinister sound!) The fact is that the work was to be continued by the staff and we planned to return to Cuba at the end of the summer for another year and a half to do the rural study, as well as to continue the work in Havana. The research in the more “integrated” Bolívar housing development was incomplete, not because “success stories bored” Oscar (what an idea!) but because the work in Buena Ventura had taken so long. Contrary to Womack’s theory about Oscar’s interest level, Oscar very much wanted to present a contrast to Buena Ventura where the revolutionary mass organizations were almost non-functioning. It was one of his big disappointments that he could not finish the Bolívar study. The implication that Oscar preferred “fine turmoil” to “success stories” and that he allowed it to influence his research is another example of the not-so-subtle technique Womack uses to attack Oscar’s character.

Turning to a discussion of the book itself, Womack is less polemical. But almost immediately he made a careless error in stating that Ruth Lewis wrote Four Men and Four Women, and several times he refers to “Ruth Lewis’s stories,” which they in no sense are. As stated in the Foreword, the life stories in all three volumes of the series were edited and prepared by Ruth Lewis and Susan Rigdon, with the assistance of various editors who did preliminary editing. Susan Rigdon wrote all three of the introductions, as well as an Afterword and two appendices on rationing and on family budgets for the final volume which is to appear in January. Susan has also done the difficult job of footnoting, and of up-dating them as time went on. The Afterword also brings the material up-to-date by discussing developments in Cuba since 1970 when the research ended. In the light of this, I cannot agree with Womack that it is misleading to say the books are about contemporary Cuba and that only journalists can do contemporary studies on revolutions. The dictionary meaning of “contemporary” is not half so narrow as Womack’s.

Our material does not agree with Womack’s view that people in the “culture of poverty” live in fits and starts between poverty and periods of relative affluence. Here he is confusing the poor working class with those on the very bottom rung of poverty, who live a grinding, hand-to-mouth existence all their lives. Nor do I agree that it is “specious” to apply ethnographic methods such as inventories or recorded “days” to slum-dwellers. How else would people like Womack be able to say “the urban poor” changed their “inventories” from week to week, and rarely had a “typical” day? And if Womack sees a cultural and psychological resemblance between the very rich or a Harvard Professor and a man like Nicolás Salazar, who grew up in miserable poverty, he is optimistic indeed, or very near-sighted. The problem of Womack’s vision also comes up when he compares Oscar’s writings on the poor with Moynihan rather than Mayhew, again taking the “culture of poverty” concept to be Oscar’s main contribution rather than his extensive work with recording the lives of slum-dwellers.

There are other points of disagreement but I will make just one final complaint about one more of Womack’s statements. He says, in his strangely negative way, that our book is a “commodity” that “comes in a package shrewdly (and falsely) designed for the intellectual market.” If he had a more positive, cheerful frame of mind he might as easily have said the book is well-designed to appeal to discriminating readers and to sell. This it is, and I hope it does, Mr. Womack.

Ruth M. Lewis

Department of Anthropology

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Urbana, Illinois

To the Editors:

In her Foreword to Four Men Ruth Lewis wrote that the “general purpose of our project in Cuba was to study the impact of a revolution-in-progress upon the daily lives of individuals and families representing different socioeconomic levels in both rural and urban settings…. We also hoped to observe the mass organizations and revolutionary institutions as they functioned at the local level and to evaluate, albeit tentatively, the degree of success or failure in achieving some of the goals of the Revolution.” The proposal also called for “a special study of slum families….” This study, as is clearly stated in the Foreword, is not a part of this series but will appear separately at a later date.

John Womack did not want to review Four Men as it stands, or as one volume in a series whose stated purpose was quite different from what he wanted it to be. Womack wanted to write a critique of the culture of poverty and of Oscar Lewis, and he has reviewed the book with that purpose—but not ours—in mind….

The culture of poverty “notion” is an easy target for criticism; the name alone presents a labyrinth of definitional problems. When first used in Five Families (Basic Books, 1959), culture of poverty was little more than an evocative phrase for characterizing the lifestyles of certain poor people. But when the concept was picked up by others and when Oscar was asked to elaborate on it, unfortunately he tried, and the result was, as Womack says, that he just kept repeating himself. The primary reason for this was that, while Oscar was eager to maintain his association with so popular a concept, he was not willing to apply it in his research. His original idea about the existence of a subculture was an impressionistic statement about what he thought, after years of working among the poor, was true and what he believed would be confirmed when he did a systematic analysis of his material. This he never did, nor did he redesign his field work to test the concept.

The elusiveness of the term “culture of poverty” is demonstrated once again by Womack’s inability to use it as Oscar defined it. The concept, to the extent Oscar developed it, did not attempt to explain the origins of poverty as Womack implies (anymore than our three volumes attempt to do so for Cuba); but it did purport to define a set of “traits”. that Oscar thought were acquired under certain conditions by people who had lived in poverty for some time. Precisely how and when these “traits” were acquired and under what exact political and economic conditions, Oscar was never able to define. Acquisition of the “traits” was said to be a consequence of poverty not a cause of it and, although Oscar did say that the self-perpetuating nature of these “traits” made the eradication of the concomitant problems of poverty more difficult, it is a serious misrepresentation to claim that these “traits” were seen as a barrier to the elimination of the political and economic structures that sanctioned material inequities. The concept is, in my opinion, devoid of explanatory (and certainly of predictive) capability, is too inherently confusing to be a useful heuristic device or even a labeling device, and is totally marginal to the value of Oscar’s work. Oscar was guilty of having promoted the concept and of exploiting its notoriety, and for that he has paid and will continue to pay in professional estimations of his work. Had he not exploited its popularity, and were so many fast guns not in need of straw men to shoot down, I think the concept would have received a decent burial long ago.

If one wanted to give time to a serious consideration of the culture of poverty a number of fundamental questions would have to be answered: for example, the extent to which the nature and scope of Oscar’s research could support such a concept; the extent to which the content of the interviews themselves could support it (this problem, which Womack just breezes by, has never been systematically treated since the great bulk of the material is unpublished); and the extent to which a subculture that is founded on “traits” which are also prevalent in the larger culture could be said to be a deviation or a discrete cultural grouping. About these and other questions of scholarly interest, Womack has nothing to say. He does quote a few critics of the concept as to the circular nature of Oscar’s reasoning; the rest is largely criticism by insinuation.

Womack raises a number of vague questions about Oscar’s (and also about Ruth’s, although he does not seem to realize this) intentions and sincerity, although he is unable to bring himself to make any outright statements of attribution with respect to Oscar’s integrity. Here Womack is hedging his bets, even in regard to the Cuba trip, where, although it is stated that Oscar received a clean bill of health from the Cuban government, the possibility of the CIA connection is kept open. Why did Oscar really want that information from Señor X? What is the real story behind the project’s end? After all, these days one can believe just about anything about anyone.

With respect to Oscar’s writings on the poor, questions of intent and motivation appear to be resolving toward a verdict of guilt—guilty by reason of possible association (past, present, or future) with persons who might use the work to justify poverty (a few names and examples please!). To me what Womack is saying about the potential for misuse of the material is that when readers start looking at what some of these poor people are really like they are going to blame them for being poor. That is more Womack’s problem than Oscar’s. Oscar genuinely loved the people he was studying (that is one reason why he was always more interested in field work than in the analysis of it, although it can not be a justification of his failure to do more of the latter) and was in awe of their ability to survive. He did not judge them and I guess did not give enough thought to other people judging them or placing blame upon them. To him the “wretchedness” was not in the people but in the social, political, and economic inequities, and in the systems that perpetuated them. From reading Womack’s review (p. 25) I would conclude that he sees it the other way around.

In the three volumes that make up Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba, Ruth and I have assiduously avoided use of the culture of poverty concept, primarily because only one (Nicolás Salazar) of the thirty-three principal informants could be said to have possessed the set of “traits” Oscar characterized as constituting a subculture. Perhaps because this series begins with a book about four poor men some will assume that it necessarily is about the culture of poverty. We can be justly accused, I think, of not attacking the problem head-on, but with the editing, foot-noting, writing of a Foreword and Introduction, we had enough headaches without dragging in this Trojan horse. We also did not want the life story material to get lost in a renewed controversy over the concept, anymore than we wanted it to be overshadowed by the project’s problems in Cuba. We also knew that a separate volume was being prepared on the slum study. Womack, however, has insisted on tailoring his review of the first volume to fit his writing needs.

Womack believes that the Cuba project failed (although as yet he has seen only one of four volumes) because Oscar was unable to understand poverty. If he means that Oscar did not truly understand what causes poverty in every instance and that he did not understand what would be necessary to end it, then I believe the latter half of his assertion to be fact. And now where are we? Who does understand poverty? HEW? The policy advisors he lumps Oscar with? The authors he says we should have read? Well, Mr. Womack has the answer: poverty is caused by unemployment; end unemployment and thereby end poverty. Very impressive! I wonder why Oscar could not figure this out? Does Womack really believe that full-time employment is the answer to all of the problems of the poor? Are we to believe that by stating in the Introduction what we knew to be true—that the dead season caused seasonal unemployment and disastrous dislocations in the national economy—that we would have provided the key to understanding poverty in Cuba or in the lives of these four men?

Without doubt the cyclical nature of unemployment and underemployment in Cuba was related to the creation of slums like Las Yaguas, to the creation of erratic work habits (this is briefly discussed in the series’ Afterword), and to the perpetuation of poverty. However, once men and women landed in slums like Las Yaguas they were deliberately and effectively excluded from participating in the national economy (a point I tried to make in the Introduction). Many functioned within the slum’s own minieconomy, both in and out of the harvest season. We had no evidence that the incomes of the four men were any longer directly affected by the harvest season. During both the harvest and the dead seasons Benedi made his wooden chairs, Salazar’s father begged, and Barrera supplemented his income with illegal transactions. Capote worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, twelve months a year for the same seventy-five cents a day. He was exploited year-round and he knew it; by stealing he was getting back some of what he felt was rightfully his. The incomes and lives of some of our other informants were much more directly affected by the dead season; its impact on the lives of individuals and on the country as a whole is much more evident in the Neighbors volume where among our informants were a cane-cutter, an agricultural laborer, and an employee of a company store on a colonia. (See especially the stories of Armando Cárdenas and Domingo Labrada in Part II.)

After their history of chronic unemployment or underemployment, Cuban workers, Womack claims, once they were employed full-time, “felt creative, resolved and helpful—feelings that Mrs. Lewis’s stories convey vividly.” Where in the stories does Womack find this creativity, this resolution? The one example he gives is a distortion of the role of work in the life of Nicolás Salazar. “The best teacher anybody can have is work…,” Salazar says. “It calms you down, it makes you understand many things—sharing, comradeship…” (p. 425). The “lesson” here, Womack says, “was lost on Lewis.” Let us first put aside the problem that Oscar did not interview Salazar (as the source note on p. 319 explains) and that he did not live to read the material carefully or to draw any conclusions from it. The fact is that Salazar made this statement in part as a rationale to explain why he insisted that his wife take a job, no small thing for a real macho to do. But, in wanting her to work, he had motives other than those stated above; he wanted to get her out of the house and the neighborhood because she was having an affair with a man living on their block. This is quite clear in context. Soon after his wife began working Salazar quit his job, in part because of the difficult time he was having adjusting to full-time employment. Although his work record and his income level were incomparably better than they had been before the Revolution, Salazar was still unsettled in his work, complained about not being advanced rapidly enough, and was a chronic absentee.

I believe it is true (and have said so in at least two places in the series) that Salazar’s self-esteem was greatly enhanced after 1959, particularly by his integration in mass organizations, but I do not believe that in his work he felt “creative” or “resolved,” or that Benedi or Barrera did. Is life so simple after all that full-time employment brings feelings of creativity and resolve? Why, if work makes one feel so fulfilled, did the Revolution struggle for over a decade, when jobs were going begging, to end its monumental problems with vagrancy and absenteeism? And why is it, after all the years of full employment in the Soviet Union, that that country still suffers from serious problems of absenteeism?

Womack’s conjecture that the stories of the four men have “happy endings” is completely lost on me. It is true that employment, better housing, and the government’s social welfare policies did greatly improve the material lives of these men and their families, and in the long run these changes may improve the more intangible aspects of their lives as well. But Benedi was disappointed in his children, in his personal life in general, and also in his political “career,” which did not amount to much. His story ends with his frustration over being too ill to maintain his role in the local CDR, and in his declining stature in the community. Barrera will probably never be completely at home in a socialist system and, given his personality, will probably never feel “resolved.” Salazar was disappointed in his neighbors and in the failure of the local CDR he was so proud of; he had all he could do to get to work each day and to hang on to his wife. Capote was a diligent and responsible worker, but he was so disillusioned with the Party’s unwillingness to solve the housing problem that was threatening his children’s health that he, in turn, withdrew from the Youth, then deserted his wife and children for a fling with his wife’s best friend. These are qualified success stories and just because they contain rhetorical upsurges about working for the collectivity and fighting for a socialist world does not mean that they have happy endings. But Womack believes they do because the answer to poverty, the answer to fulfillment in life (whatever one’s past might have been), is full employment.

Womack would have us believe that Oscar was disappointed, even “bored,” by the stories of “success” he heard in Havana. But he has already told us at the outset of the review that Oscar was disillusioned with socialism. What are we to conclude from this? That Oscar was disillusioned because he found that under socialism poor people were more successful than they had been under capitalism, or because he found that some “culture of poverty” people could work their way out of poverty after all? If this is not the case, then are we to conclude that Oscar was disillusioned with socialism simply because he could not do his research there and that, therefore, he went to the countryside looking for stories of failure to prove his own disillusionment was justified? It is undeniable that Oscar was disappointed in the lack of freedom, for himself and for others, that he found in Cuba, but it is absolutely false to say that he was anything other than happy over the improvements in the material wellbeing of ex-slum dwellers. For Womack to imply that Oscar tailored his research to fit his personal feelings borders on character assassination. If the research techniques were so bad, the researcher so biased, how come Womack thinks the stories are so good?…

Nowhere do we suggest that the four men in the first volume of this series are typical, average, or representative, although Womack implies that we do. And nowhere do we say that their stories in themselves constitute an oral history of contemporary Cuba; the latter is a series subtitle (the Press insisted that we remove the volume numbers from the covers and in allowing this to happen we were in error) and is meant to characterize the information that can be found in the stories of all of our thirty-three principal informants. I strongly disagree that the material is falsely “packaged” or that it does not give a fair picture of life in contemporary Cuba. Although 1969-1970 was an exceptional period, a fact we stress in each of the volumes, I do not believe that the quality of life has changed profoundly since 1970 or that the mechanisms for solving the problems of daily life have changed much. I do not know why Womack insists that the four men “must have new appreciations of their country and themselves”; they may or may not, but how could this be a reason for not publishing what they thought in 1970? Their ideas about themselves and their country are solidly set in the context and time period in which they spoke; we do not represent them as anything more. Womack thinks, however, that “contemporary,” which simply means “of the same age,” is synonymous with current events and that contemporary history should be left to journalists. (If this comes to pass a lot of his colleagues are going to be out of work.) Naturally we have worried from the beginning about the datedness of the material; we could have rushed into print with sloppy editing and no footnotes or commentary. As it is, the footnoting of the third volume, first done almost three years ago, had to be completely revised before it went to press this spring. We have also used the Afterword to update some of the material, to say something about what has been happening in Cuba since 1970, and to evaluate the series in the context of the project’s original objectives….

Ruth Lewis has worked for eight years and I for five on the Cuba project; we have written several hundred pages of description and commentary (most of which Womack has not waited to see) without having come to grips with the causes of poverty. But for this we have not been judged, Oscar has; Womack’s verdict is that he has failed “posthumously.” It can be little comfort to the living to know, after taking such a beating in life, that they can go right on failing after death, even in tasks which they did not undertake. In the six months between his return from Cuba and his death, Oscar was hospitalized and, for some time, bedridden, as Womack undoubtedly knows. He was never able to undertake the work of digesting the material, let alone writing up his conclusions. Oscar can be judged for his role in deciding to go to Cuba, for his research objectives (wrongly stated by Womack), and for the way he carried them out, but he cannot fairly be criticized for work he did not and could not do because he was seriously ill or no longer living. If Womack has concluded that Oscar failed in his lifetime of work, let him write his obituaries on someone else’s time, but in the work we did, let Ruth and me succeed or fail on our own.

Womack does compliment Ruth on her writing and editing and suggests that a “good part of the art” in Oscar’s work may have been due to her involvement—that is probably the most on-target observation he makes in the review—but then he proceeds to ignore her role in the Cuba project. Oscar, he says, “went wrong”; he was “buffaloed” by Cuba. But what is Womack’s judgment on Ruth? How did she fare in Cuba? She refers to Senor X as “our informant,” for example, but Womack ignores the “we” in the Foreword. Ruth apparently can share in Oscar’s successes but not in his failures. Is this because Womack is only interested in picking on the mistakes of the dead, or is it because he thought that Ruth was in the kitchen baking cookies when all the decisions were made?

In writing that Oscar did not understand poverty and that the culture of poverty concept is at best circular and at worst a justification of poverty, Womack has written an unjust and extremely ungenerous epitaph for a lifetime of work. Oscar may not have solved the problems of poverty, he may have exploited an intellectually empty concept, but these shortcomings will not overshadow his very substantial contributions to the study of poverty and of anthropology in general. His criticism of traditional approaches, his classic restudy of Tepoztlán and rethinking of the folk-urban continuum, the solid, scholarly work (and also the best writing in my opinion) contained in his earlier essays such as “Urbanization Without Breakdown,” and the development of techniques for the study of families and for the use of autobiographical materials, will stand as very constructive, and in some cases very creative, contributions for years to come. His personality, which created so many problems for him professionally, also aided him immeasurably in developing his justifiably praised interviewing skills. Last but far from least is the massive body of field materials, collected over a period of thirty-five years in collaboration with Ruth and many dedicated and skilled field workers, that is left behind for future archival use. This collective effort I believe to be one of the most outstanding contributions to the study of poverty made in our lifetimes.

I leave Womack with his smoking pistol, in the hope that in due time, when the thrill of the shoot-out is over, he will notice that when his gun went off, the man and the concept were already dead. As for the Cuba series, it may not lend itself to Womack’s needs, but I think it does quite well what it set out to do.

Susan M. Rigdon

Urbana, Illinois

To the Editors:

I am puzzled and disturbed at Professor Womack’s review of Four Men by Ruth and Oscar Lewis and Susan Rigdon. The critique of Oscar’s theory of the “culture of poverty” is not at issue and has not been, at least among most anthropologists and sociologists who, as Womack indicates, have long since rejected it. But perhaps that was the trouble: if Womack had confined himself to reviewing the substance of the book he could have had nothing to say that had not been said a hundred times before. Womack thus sets out to review Oscar Lewis’s professional career and to pass judgement on his life. Professor Womack’s scholarship and sense of humanity, however, do not seem to qualify him for that Olympian undertaking. He seems to understand neither the grounding of Lewis’s politics and scholarship nor his life.

I might say, by way of preface, that for several years the Lewises and I were neighbors in Urbana while we both taught at the University of Illinois, I in Sociology and he in Anthropology. We shared a common “fence line” which we usually crossed once a day or more, and we often visited in the evenings out on our back porches. We got to know one another as intimately as colleagues ever do, I never saw anything that indicated the least sympathy for the CIA or its role anywhere in the world. Oscar’s general position was that if the CIA supported anything he was against it. I cannot understand why Womack wants to relate rumors and stories, some from unnamed “reliable sources,” that can only darken Oscar’s reputation without any foundation. In effect, this constitutes the publication of unfounded rumor, a kind of oblique character assasination. In the end, Womack seems to regard the Cuban security director as the final authority on this matter (although I see no reason for doing so) and he held that Oscar “was clean.” But even this is not good enough for Womack, for he himself makes no such unequivocal judgement. Instead, observing that Raul Castro sanctioned gossip that Lewis was CIA, Womack makes the curious statement that “this seems concretely false.” Thus to Womack it only “seems” as if Oscar was clean. Moreover, what does it mean to say that the charges against Lewis were only “concretely” false? Does it mean that only the particular charge was false, but that the essence of the accusation against Lewis was true? Womack is not as ready to clear Oscar, with a forthright and untwisted judgement, as the Cuban security director. Why? Does Womack know something more? If not, I think he owes Oscar a simple, clean bill of health, without “seems” and without dark qualifications about “concrete” falsity or truth.

Womack repeatedly condemns Oscar for having a successful career and he condemns the book for being a “commodity.” But Oscar was never so successful as to have a career at Harvard. If Womack is against the commoditization of books, then it is difficult to understand why he publishes in the The New York Review of Books, which probably could not survive without book advertising. How could Womack have the sense of moral superiority to condemn Lewis for doing things that he allows himself to do?

Womack does not understand Oscar as a product of his political and professional environment, and thus does not understand Oscar. Oscar is condemned for subverting Anthropology into an art form, a species of literature. But this was always a reading of Anthropology congenial to some Anthropologists, such as his great teacher, Ruth Benedict. I am not persuaded that this is a greater threat to truth than those (Anthropologists, Historians, or Sociologists), whose transparent pretense is that they are “Scientists.” Better good art, than trashy and specious Social Science.

If one reads Oscar’s critique of Redfield, in his Life in a Mexican Village, it will be obvious that Oscar was not the innocent that Womack portrays. (Indeed, the only evidence of such innocence, inadvertently indicated by Womack, is that Oscar believed Castro’s guarantees.) Oscar’s work manifested an effort to bring his reading of Marxism into Anthropology. Doubtless true Marxists will quickly tell us that Oscar’s was a poor Marxism. Yet, I would submit, that Marxism is a theoretical underpinning of Oscar’s critique of Redfield. In his conclusion to that work, Oscar observed that Redfield had overstressed the solidarity of the village, and neglected its internal class divisions, economic problems, and the suffering of the vast majority. In that study, Oscar corrected the weaknesses of much of the conventional Anthropology in the United States by focussing systematically on the village economy, land system, and class divisions. Not so innocent.

Womack’s conclusion is that the Lewises do not understand the redeeming character of labor and steady work. But this re-treaded Gospel of Labor would not seem to be more scientifically sophisticated than Oscar’s “culture of poverty.” It may be an ideology good enough for welfare social workers or for socialist bureaucrats, anxious (as Womack revealingly writes) to “put the poor to work,” but it is not exactly the hottest idea in social history today.

Finally, what is one to say of Womack’s conjecture that the art of Oscar Lewis’s “earlier books could have come in good part from his wife.” This is reminiscent of Woody Allen. It is tantamount to saying that Oscar Lewis’s books were bad; and he didn’t write them anyway.

Alvin W. Gouldner

Washington University

St. Louis, Missouri

John Womack Jr replies:

These letters pose some considerable questions. The ones I think I can most usefully address are:

1) Who wrote Four Men? Obviously Oscar Lewis should figure as a co-author. As for Ruth Lewis and Susan Rigdon, Ruth Lewis wrote that Rigdon did “organize and write up Neighbors and…wrote the Introductions to Four Men and Four Women and shared with me the work of organizing the editing the life stories of the men and women presented in them” (Four Men, xxv). This last is hard to parse. I read it to mean that Rigdon helped Ruth Lewis to organize the editing that Ruth Lewis had already done on the stories for Four Men and Four Women. Now Ruth Lewis says both she and Rigdon “edited and prepared” the stories in all three volumes. Her correction is important. If both women wrote the stories, both deserve credit for how good they are.

2) Why is Four Men more about a rancorous neighborhood than about a harmonious one? According to Ruth Lewis, there were plans to do both kinds of neighborhoods, but not enough time: the eighteen months that Oscar Lewis initially allowed for research on both sufficed for continuous study of 100 families in “a poorly integrated” settlement, Buena Ventura, but evidently little on a “well-integrated” one (ibid., xvi). It was Oscar Lewis’s business to study what he wanted, and to alter the project as he developed it. But the critic must ask why, having planned to study two subjects, he studied one so much more than the other. Maybe he had reasons for the risky priority he followed. But neither Ruth Lewis nor Rigdon now adduces any. For ten years before, the hallmark of Oscar Lewis’s scholarship had been a concern with frustration and bitterness. And “boring” was how I was told he described interviews in 1970 that would have represented modest “success stories”; he reassigned the staff member at work on them to sadder cases.

3) Despite the rancor, does Four Men have happy endings anyway? Rigdon indicates that it would take more than “qualified success stories” to make her happy. But how much “success” did she expect? The stories show not only how difficult it is for people long used to wretchedness to deal with belonging and responsibility, but also that in safer circumstances these people can change some old habits and values, above all become much more willing to try to trust themselves and others. That was enough to make them happier than before, and make me happy for them, without making me think it was the kingdom come, for them or me.

4) Is “the culture of poverty” relevant to a review of Four Men, or anything else nowadays? Four times, quite positively every time, Ruth Lewis used the phrase in her Foreword (ibid., ix, xi, xxvi). And Rigdon, beginning her Introduction, quoted Lewis on Cuba in 1961: “I am primarily interested in how the poor react to this kind of revolution.” She continued: “Basically, that is what this book is about” (ibid., xxxiii). Now both Ruth Lewis and Rigdon disparage the notion of a “culture of poverty.” I agree that without it Oscar Lewis’s work would probably have been better. But unlike Ruth Lewis and Rigdon now, I think he believed in it.

More important than what the “culture of poverty” means in the collected works of Oscar Lewis is its meaning in American culture and politics. By all accounts, I repeat, Lewis himself did not believe “that the lumpenproletariat had itself most to blame….” But while he wasted no mercy on critics of his notion, he expressed only vague regret about the “misuse” that vulgarizers made of it against the poor. Thus it easily became a popular code for the hatred and fear of the poor that existed long before it came into style and will last long after it goes out of style. And as long as the code remains in style, where Oscar Lewis helped put it, it must suffer challenges against the prejudices it covers.

5) Are the miserably poor, like the very rich, different from you and me? Ruth Lewis recognizes no “cultural and psychological” resemblance. I have studied the poor only nineteen years, not nearly as long as she has, but the only differences I see worth worrying about now are that they have lousy jobs (if any), less money (or none), crummy medical service, outrageous schools, and no respect. I think if I had to do without all they have to do without, I would soon display the same “traits” they do—“the use of second-hand clothing…gregariousness,” the lot. Even as it is, I share many of their anxieties—about garbage, for instance, or alcohol, loneliness, infertility, noise, infidelity, working at the same routine all year round. I doubt that among us I am alone in these anxieties.

However our personal quirks add up, what matters greatly is the politics of the question. If the miserably poor differ culturally and psychologically from you and me, then the politics of the difference is the politics of civilization versus barbarism—we must control them and reform them in our image, before they swamp us. But if the miserably poor are only you and me stuck in the gutter, then the politics to pursue is that of solidarity—the long struggle to reorganize all us bastards into a noble public.

6) Does work solve everything? Rigdon and Gouldner do not think so. They think I do. I do not. I do, however, think that regular, productive, now and then varied work for everyone would solve enough to warrant fighting to provide it and require it. True, this is not a hot idea. But again what matters is the politics, where novelty is the worst guide. “Full employment” would not end a society’s problems. But that is no reason not to fight for it, only a reason not to let its establishment end the fight against other problems, including the ones it would create.

Other questions I would not rehash. But some of them seem so important to Ruth Lewis and Susan Rigdon that I will try to answer them.

1) Do I think Oscar Lewis was working in Cuba for the CIA? I would bet my limit of 100 to 1 that he was not.

2) Why did I not tell Ruth Lewis about the “accusations” I had heard? I wrote to her first, without any “accusations” to check. She said she had nothing to say that was not already in the book. I then communicated with other persons who I had no reason to believe would “accuse” anyone of anything. I do not regard their statements as “accusations.”

3) Why did I accept other versions about Project Cuba “uncritically”? I did not. As a historian and a journalist, I accepted them critically, for what I judged they were worth.

4) During the first weeks of training, did Oscar Lewis try to separate the non-Cubans not only from the general population but from the Cuban trainees as well? In trying to set my report straight, Ruth Lewis now talks about both training and social activities, which confuses me. But even in her new account the early antagonism between Oscar Lewis and some of his staff is clear. Whether it was good for the students is debatable. Whether it was good for Project Cuba is doubtful.

Of the multiple misreadings that Ruth Lewis, Rigdon, and Gouldner make of what I plainly wrote, I will mention one. Ruth Lewis says that I stated, “Oscar sought the ‘low-down on the love lives’ of Cuban leaders.” I wrote vice versa, that “X…had come to Lewis to tell his story” and “gave Lewis some low-down on the love lives of his country’s leaders.” (Maybe X did tattle on only one leader, as Ruth Lewis wrote and now says again, but the Lewises in Cuba left some persons I trust understanding that he had gossiped about several.)

As far as I can tell, the rest boils down to resentment and lament. The resentment is beside the point. The lament I honor and cannot imagine trying to answer. But it has nothing to do with an obligation to take Four Men seriously.

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