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The Island Called Paradise

Cuba in History, Literature, and the Arts

Philip D. Beidler

Publication Year: 2014

A personal and cultural mediation, Philip D. Beidler’s The Island Called Paradise explores the fascinating ways Cuban history and culture have permeated North American consciousness, and vice versa.

In The Island Called Paradise, Philip D. Beidler shares his personal discovery of the vast, rich, and astonishing history of the island of Cuba and the interrelatedness of Cuba and the US.

Cuba first entered Beidler’s consciousness in the early 1960s when he watched with mesmerized anxiety the televised reports of the Cuban missile crisis, a conflict that reduced a multifaceted, centuries-old history between North America and Cuba to the stark duotones of Cold War politics. Fifty years later, when Beidler traveled to the US’s island neighbor, he found a Cuba unlike the nation portrayed in truculent political rhetoric or in the easy preconceptions of US popular culture. Instead he found an entrancing people and landscape with deep historical connections to the US and a dazzling culture that overwhelmed his creative spirit.

In twelve original essays, Beidler reintroduces to English-speaking readers many of the central figures, both real and literary, of Cuban and Cuban-American history. Meet Cecilia Valdés, the young mixedrace heroine of a 1839 novel that takes readers to the poor streets and sumptuous salons of Spanish colonial Cuba, and Narciso López, a real-life Venezuelan adventurer and filibustero who attempted to foment a Cuban uprising against Spain. Both would have been familiar figures to nineteenth-century Americans. Beidler also visits the twentieth-century lives of “the two Ernestos” (Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara), and the pop-culture Cuban icon Ricky Ricardo.

A country not with one history but multiple layers of history, Cuba becomes a fertile island for Beidler’s exploration. Art, he argues, perpetually crosses walls erected by politics, history, and nationality. At its core, The Island Called Paradise renews and refreshes our knowledge of an older Atlantic world even as we begin to envision a future in which the old bonds between our nations may be restored.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

For institutional support in the travel, research, and writing that made this book possible, I am indebted to the Cuba Initiative of the University of Alabama and in particular to Dean Robert Olin of the College of Arts and Sciences, who initiated projects and established contacts with Cuban...

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Introduction: Cuba and the Imagination

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pp. 1-13

Sunday, 28 October 1492: “Esta es la tierra mas hermosa que ojos humanos vieron” (“This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen”). So Christopher Columbus is said to have spoken on first beholding the island of Cuba. Nearly five centuries later, according to writer Carlos Eire, at the Christian...

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1. Romancing Cecilia Valdés

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pp. 14-28

Last spring, on the first day of a return visit to Cuba, I walked the streets of my Havana of happy memory, spending a large part of the time in quest of the subject of a study I had begun two years earlier. Her name was Cecilia Valdés. She was the fictional heroine, I had discovered at the time, of...

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2. Un Militar Español de Origen Venezolano

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pp. 29-36

Among the most visited and quietly beautiful historical sites near el Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta de Havana—itself sitting serenely across the mouth of the harbor from the Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, the famous “Morro Castle”—is a small shrine marking the site of the 1871...

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3. Mambises in Whiteface

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pp. 37-49

Whether in war, politics, trade, or popular-culture history, the United States has always required an image of Cuba constructed in terms of its own ideological presuppositions. This has been emphatically true of the racial imagination, from the days of the pre–Civil War annexationists...

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4. The Ghost of Walker Evans

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pp. 50-59

In the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, a young American named Walker Evans forsook his privileged education—a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, he had finished one year at venerable Williams College in Massachusetts—to go out and find a way of bearing cultural...

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5. Ignacio Piñeiro, George Gershwin, and the Schillinger System

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pp. 60-69

What follows is a fable about the transcultural alchemy of art. Its broad purview takes in the early twentieth-century musical cultures of Cuba, the United States, and Europe. Its array of styles includes Afro-Cuban rumba/salsita, American jazz/Tin Pan Alley, and European modernism/ popular classicism. Its topical focus will be on a specific case of the twentieth...

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6. The Secret Life of Ricky Ricardo

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pp. 70-85

Somewhere around the end of 1957, Fidel Castro became the most famous living Cuban in the world. Before that, the title was held by a US show business celebrity costarring in the nation’s favorite TV comedy show, and doing so largely, it was assumed by most viewers, by playing himself as a...

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7. Good Neighbor Batista

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pp. 86-98

Diaz, Machado, Gómez, Ibarra, Perón, Trujillo, Duvalier, Somoza, Stroessner, Pinochet, Castillo-Armas, Batista: for the better part of the twentieth century, US policy makers held their noses and cozied up with politically useful tyrants in Latin America. Somewhere back in junior high...

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8. The Two Ernestos

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pp. 99-114

The actual first name of Che Guevara, the legendary international political figure still most familiarly associated with mid-twentieth-century Cuba, was Ernesto. (According to one theory, in the street vernacular of his native Argentina, “Che” is a common nickname, translating as “pal” or...

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9. Steverino in Gangsterland

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pp. 115-125

My purpose here is to recount a curious episode—a representative late anecdote, it might be called, of post–World War II US-Cuban commercial and popular-culture relationship—connecting golden-age American television programming with Mob-era Cuban tourism and entertainment...

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10. Why No One in Havana Speaks of Graham Greene

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pp. 126-139

Among the unique features of Cuban culture over the centuries is the readiness with which people of the island have taken to their hearts and honored in historical memory the various writers, painters, and composers of other nationalities who have come there and embraced the life of...

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11. Inspector Renko on the Malecón

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pp. 140-150

Twenty stories high, a monument to the totalitarian gigantism favored by twentieth-century dictators worldwide, from Benito Mussolini to Mao Tse Tung, Adolf Hitler to Kim Jong Il, the former Soviet Embassy in Cuba to this day dominates the otherwise shining and resort-like skyline of...

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12. The Example of Yoani Sanchez

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pp. 151-163

In theme and chronology, it is appropriate that the last of the chapters comprising the main body of this book on Cuba and the imagination becomes a historical and cultural mirror image of the first. The study began with an essay about the fictionalized early nineteenth-century life history...

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Conclusion: The Autumn of the Comandante

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pp. 164-180

For a substantial period, the world has now witnessed and wondered at the seclusion of Fidel Castro in what nearly everyone has assumed to be a final decline and slow progress toward the end of life. The Castro deathwatch, as it might be called, began more than a decade ago with rumors of...

Source Notes and Reading Suggestions

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pp. 181-186


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pp. 187-193

E-ISBN-13: 9780817387433
E-ISBN-10: 0817387439
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817318208
Print-ISBN-10: 0817318208

Page Count: 205
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Cuba -- In literature.
  • National characteristics, Cuban.
  • Cuba -- In popular culture.
  • Cuba -- In art.
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