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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 81-108

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Retracing The Lost Steps:
The Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, and Publishing Alejo Carpentier in the United States

Deborah Cohn
Indiana University, Bloomington

IN CREATING FAULKNER'S REPUTATION: THE POLITICS OF MODERN LITERARY Criticism, Lawrence Schwartz details the process that legitimized an avant-garde aesthetic in the U.S. academic and popular media as part of a post-World War II, Cold War cultural project. As part of this process, formalist aesthetics and modernism displaced the realism and naturalism of the prewar years, which had been "taint[ed] . . . by an overt political orientation and ties to international Communism and support of the Soviet Union," 1 and critics condemned the representation of politics in literature—unless, of course, these politics were clearly anti-Communist (201-2). "The demands of the Cold War," Schwartz writes, "required a cultural politics which promoted new literary and artistic voices as evidence of a 'true' allegiance to the arts, and which also appeared to be an aesthetics without political content or motivation. In the morality play of the Cold War, American 'liberalism' represented democracy; and its literature and art, cultural freedom" (201)—a direct contrast to those of the Soviet Union, where Stalinist politics and the propagandistic, state-imposed social realism squelched artistic freedom and individualism (ibid.). In the late 1940s, this campaign [End Page 81] culminated in a reinterpretation of the work of William Faulkner that elevated the author's status in the United States from that of a regionalist to a writer who spoke to universal human values, and whose explorations of the Southern myth were reinterpreted as allegories of the human condition in the modern world; during the same period, as Schwartz details, social novelists such as Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright, who had enjoyed significant success in the 1930s, fell out of favor (3).

The prescriptive view of literature, as defined by its treatment of universal themes and concerns, and by its separation from politics, dominated the treatment of U.S. literature by the U.S. academy through the McCarthy era and into the early 1960s; the strength of this view was bolstered by that of structuralist literary criticism and New Criticism, which were predominant modes in the academy during this period. At the same time, however, these years bore witness to the growing popularity of Spanish American literature in the United States, the rise of the movement known as the "Boom." For the first time, the fame of authors such as Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, whose works were highly experimental and drew heavily on modernism and surrealism, transcended national and regional boundaries, as they were translated into English and numerous other Western languages. In contrast to the Cold War clampdown on both politics and culture in the United States at this time, Spanish America was characterized by a surge in socialist activism, which culminated in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The Revolution was viewed by many as inspiration for achieving self-determination for Spanish America, and it enjoyed the support of many of the region's intellectuals, as well as numerous others internationally, during its first decade. As Donoso has attested, support of the Cuban Revolution provided ideological coherence to the Boom through the late 1960s, and the literary movement was itself viewed as indicative of the autonomy of the region's literature and the end of literary colonialism. 2 Additionally, as Jean Franco notes, Spanish Americans (as well as North Americans and Europeans) "at first found in Cuba the freedom to innovate and experiment that was missing in other socialist states." 3 In contrast to the situation in the United States, then, in Spanish America, modernism was not at all antithetical to socialism and, [End Page 82] rather than being apolitical, the literature of this region was deeply marked by politics.

This situation had a direct and somewhat contrary effect on the experience of...


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