The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
And, ironically and caustically, with relish and innuendo, with much dropping of the eyelid and sweet turning of phrase would he delight a Spanish audience with an account of that so-amusing America he has just discovered if a Spanish publisher decided to make it worth his while.
It is not likely to happen. They have never made it worth Ibanez’ while in Spain. Let him fill American platters with his spiced and vinegared scandal-mongering between nations. That is the logical place for it. But it should be devoured and forgotten by the third day.
PATERNALISM AND THE MEXICAN PROBLEM
Some Mexican Problems,
by Moisés Sáenz and Herbert I. Priestly.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926.
Aspects of Mexican Civilization,
by José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926.
I shall not pretend that these books present unbiased opinions of conclusions on the problem of Mexican-American relations, for liberalism has a bias of its own. The main virtue of the liberal temperament is its almost pious regard for the facts, its genius for patient research: for me, the wonder of the liberal temperament is that no amount of findings can upset its preconceived theories. Earth hath no sorrows that a firm mild course of popular education cannot cure.
It is true that ill-regimented minded are inclined to be noisy, warm and argumentative, and there is something about the Mexican question that raises the hackles even on the peaceful minded. These admirable books contain all the elements of free-for-all controversy, but all is so adroitly smoothed away there is nothing in the tone to frighten the most timid liberal. Four diverse, informed and civilized minds have here collaborated in presenting quite horrifying facts in an almost painless form. In this series of lectures they tested their theories of education before the Chicago Annual Institute, and it is cheerful to think that hundreds, maybe even thousands of students went away from there happy in the thought that nations may be taught understanding of each other by gentle degrees, as children are led from one grade to another. Even oil magnates may be taught international good manners by suggestion. In this thought everybody may happily go to sleep and leave the job of teaching them to some one else.
Each of these four gentlemen is an expert in his subject, a fine flower of academic culture. They share an Olympian balance in viewing all sides of a question. If at times Mr. Saenz shows fight he controls himself quickly, remembers his rôle of mediator, and gives a superhumanly just statement of the present intolerable situation in Mexico due to foreign investments, the condition of Mexican labor and the problem of rural education. He is a nationalist, a good one, I should like to hear him speak more freely. But he remains well within the bounds of what is expected from a foreign lecturer before an institute, and ends on a note of optimism scarcely warranted by the facts he has managed to expose. I suspect him of radical tendencies. Given a chance, I believe he would be warm and noisy. The balance of his head is threatened by the insurgence of his heart.
Mr. Vasconcelos, former secretary of education in Mexico, has for some years past occupied himself with promoting peaceful relationship between the Latin countries of America. He is equally opposed to the present system of government in these countries—dictatorship or caudillism—and foreign interference. He professes faith, more especially in the Mexican Indian, and rejects alien paternalism, but preaches a vast religious native paternalism fully as debilitating to his people. Mr. Vasconcelos has an incurable, almost romantic faith in the perfectibility of human nature, and his plan roughly is this: the lion and the lamb have essential differences, it is true, but one should reason with the lion and persuade him not to eat the lamb. In the meantime, the lamb shall be given a few setting up exercises that will enable him to hold his own with the lion in case one or the other of these essential differences should crop up in their future together.
Aside from this he gives an excellent historical survey of Mexico.
Into Mr. Priestley’s scholarly essay creeps now and again his sense of responsibility as big brother of Mexico. He, with the others, is pleased that the Ford and the phonograph are now commonplaces of Mexican life. He believes in sane, conservative propaganda for Mexico, such as these books represent, setting aside all the roaring of distempered radicals and frivolous reports by prosperous Chamber of Commerce gentlemen. Truth being, of course, our aim, I only wish that these honest men and good investigators could manage to be half so entertaining as the liars and hotheads. There must be some way of making facts attractive! Why do not these liberals find it?
In his first chapter Mr. Priestley is gloomy as death about sickness in Mexico. But this, he says, is being remedied. Sanitary measures are being enforced, active steps taken against contagion and infection, a study of regional diseases promises a cure of them. These things are good, who could quarrel with them? But they continually miscall this sort of thing civilization. Maybe it is, and I am thinking of something else: I am persuaded it is too tall a name for our cult of machinery and the bathtub. Still the standard of washing and eating in Mexico remains very low.
The average of washing and eating in the United States is, as you know, unnaturally high. We have our bread lines, true, and miners’ strikes, and the garment workers of this superlatively clothed nation have a permanent grievance, and the silk manufacturers will tell you that if we wear silk, even at excessive prices, a certain number of workers must live in acute discomfort. In the South we persist in the aristocratic old tradition, of Negro peonage, and there is a discouraging percentage of poor whites whose insides are riddled with the hookworm. We are exceedingly rude to multitudes of our foreign population, and what with our modern efficient methods of banditry, somebody should hold a round-table discussion about us.
But this round-table is about Mexico, so let us get on. Mr. Gamio is a true scientist; I feel he has come nearer to the real life of his own country than either of his compatriots or the liberal minded Mr. Priestley. During his work as director of the Bureau of Anthropology he made a profound sympathetic study of racial origins. His findings presented him with his own special phase of the Mexican problem: that of incorporating this deep-grounded native Indian life with the modern mixed currents of Mexican culture. This incorporation would result in a recognized Indian nation instead of a three-layer, disorganized structure of white, mestizo and Indian. He knows that Mexico and the Indian belong to each other, and consistently refuses to regard him as other than the rightful owner and proprietor of his country. He recognizes the futility of imposing on the Indian customs and standards alien to him: considers the economic and geographical factors and the human one.
The appeal has not all been aimed at the altruistic spirit which may or may not function, according to the weather, in the bosom of man. Each lecturer in turn has pointed out that there would be money, good solid gold to be had out of Mexico in exchange for the same rules of commerce and diplomacy that more important nations are able to enforce from us. They recommend that the wealth now concentrated in the hands of a few vast corporations be loosed and allowed to flow through a thousand new channels, reminding us that there are other riches in Mexico besides oil.
These are books to be read for solid information. The remedies suggested are so very slow the problems they are intended to solve will have died by nature, decayed and reflowered into something else, before they could begin to take effect. Cleaning up is dirty work, this is a mere project for washing face and hands. The thundering racket you hear outside is Mexico getting her pockets picked by her foreign investors.
The Rosalie Evans Letters from Mexico,
arranged, with comment, by Daisy Caden Pettus.
Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1926.
Rosalie Caden Evans was an American woman, born in Galveston, Texas. She married a British subject, Harry Evans, who became owner of several haciendas in Mexico during the Díaz regime. They lost their property in t
H. A. C. Cummins, of the British legation, was expelled from Mexico for his championship of Mrs. Evans, and a fair amount of trouble ensued between Mexico and Great Britain about it. The case of Mrs. Evans was cited in the United States as an argument against our recognition of the Obregón government. An impressive volume of diplomatic correspondence was exchanged between the three governments concerning the inflexible lady, who held her ground, nevertheless, saying that she could be removed from her holdings only as a prisoner or dead.
In August, 1924, the news came that Mrs. Evans had been shot from ambush by a number of men while driving in a buckboard from the village of San Martín to her hacienda, San Pedro Coxtocan.
Reading the letters Rosalie Evans wrote her sister, Mrs. Daisy Caden Pettus, from Mexico, this adventure takes on all the colors of a lively temperament; the story is lighted for us like a torch. The aim in publishing the letters was to present Mrs. Evans to a presumably outraged Anglo-Saxon world as a martyr to the sacred principles of private ownership of property: to fix her as a symbol of devotion to a holy cause. “Some Americans,” says Mrs. Pettus in a foreward to the volume, “in ignorance of Mexican conditions, have said the fight carried on by Mrs. Evans was unwise, if not unworthy, in that it is charged that she was resisting the duly established laws and principles of the Mexican people. This is very far from true.”
It is true, however, that she opposed, and to her death, the attempts of the Mexican people to establish those laws and principles which were the foundation of their revolution, and on which their national future depends. She cast her individual weight against the march of an enormous social movement, and though her fight was gallant, brilliant and wholehearted, admirable as a mere exhibition of daring, energy and spirit, still I cannot see how she merits the title of martyr. She was out for blood, and she had a glorious time while the fight lasted.
Her letters are a swift-moving account of a life as full of thrills and action as any novel of adventure you may find. They are written at odd moments, dashed off in the midst of a dozen things all going at once: the episodes are struck off white-hot. The result is a collection of letters that could scarcely be equaled for speed, for clarity, for self-revelation, for wit and charm. We are shown the most fantastic blend of a woman: fanaticism, physical courage, avarice, mystical exaltation and witch-wife superstition; social poise and financial shrewdness, a timeless feminine coquetry tempered by that curious innocence which is the special gift of the American woman: all driven mercilessly by a tautness of the nerves, a deep-lying hysteria that urges her to self-hypnosis. Toward the last she had almost lost her natural reactions. Anger, fear, delight, hope—no more of these. She was a Will.
Mrs. Evans returned to Mexico to take up her husband’s fight when he had wearied to death of it. Belief in private property had not yet become a religion. She was animated by sentiment for her dead husband. All feminine, she insisted that his shade still guarded and directed her. The demon that possessed her was by no means of so spiritual a nature as she fancied: she was ruled by a single-minded love of money and power. She came into Mexico at harvest time, and after a short, sharp battle she got hold of the ripened wheat on her main hacienda. This victory fired her, and was the beginning of the end. Shortly afterward the shade of her husband left her. “I stand alone.”
No single glimmer of understanding of the causes of revolution or the rights of the people involved ever touched her mind. She loved Spaniards, the British, the Americans of the foreign colony. She thought the Indians made good servants, though occasionally they betrayed her. She writes with annoyance of Obregón’s taking Mexico City and creating a disturbance when she was on the point of wresting from the Indians her second crop of wheat—“gold in color, gold in reality!” She is most lyrical, most poetic when she contemplates this gold which shall be hers, though all Mexico go to waste around her. Carranza’s flight interested her merely because it menaced her chances of getting the only threshing machine in the Puebla Valley.
Of all the machinations, the crooked politics, the broken faiths, the orders and counter orders, the plots and counterplots that went on between literally thousands of people over this single holding, I have not time to tell. Mrs. Evans was passed from hand to hand, nobody wanted to be responsible for what must eventually happen to her. She pressed everybody into her service, from her maids to the high diplomats. Every man of any official note in Mexico, connected with the three governments, finally got into the business, and she shows them all up in turn.
The story of the double dealing here revealed is not pretty, showing as it does some of our eminent diplomats engaged in passing the buck and gossiping behind each other’s backs. But sooner or later they all advised her to listen to reason, accept 100,000 pesos for her land and give way. At least they perceived what she could not; that here was a national movement that must be reckoned with.
At first she would not. And later, she could not. She loved the romantic danger of her situation, she admired herself in the role of heroine. Her appetite for excitement increased; she confessed herself jaded, and sought greater danger.
Speaking of a safe conduct she obtained in order to go over her hacienda and inspect the crops, she says: “You see it means a chance of gaining 80,000 pesos besides the adventure.” After each hairbreadth encounter with sullen Indians armed with rope and scythe, with troops bearing bared arms, she was flushed with a tense joy. Later, when she came to open war, she would ride into armed groups with her pistol drawn, singing “Nous sommes les enfants de Gasconne!” She cracked an Indian agrarian over the head with her riding whip during an altercation over the watercourse and patrolled the fields during harvest with a small army.
Her love of the drama was getting the upper hand of principle. If at first her cry was all for law and justice, later she refers to herself merrily as an outlaw. “You have no idea how naturally one takes to the greenwood!” She became a female conquistador—victory was her aim, and she was as unscrupulous in her methods as any other invader.
There is not a line in her letters to show that she had any grasp of the true inward situation, but her keen eye and ready wit missed no surface play of event. She maintained peaceable relations first with one, then another of the many groups of rebels. Inexplicably the situation would shift and change, her allies would vanish, leaving her mystified. She had all Mexico divided into two classes: the Good, who were helping her hold her property, and the Bad, who were trying to take it from her.
She could be self-possessed in the grand manner, and seemed to have second-sight in everything immediately concerning herself. She sat for three days and fed her pigeons while serious persons advised her to pay the 300 pesos ransom demanded for her majordomo, kidnapped to the hills. She refused. It was too much to pay for a majordomo, and she felt they would not shoot him anyhow. They did not. When he returned she sent him back with a present of $80 to the kidnappers.
At another crisis she played chess. After a brilliant encounter with some hint of gunfire, she came in and washed her hair. At times she studied astronomy, other times she read Marcus Aurelius or poetry. At all times she played the great lady. Her love for her horses, her dogs, her servants, her workers and allies was all of a piece, groun
There was something wild and strange in her, a hint of madness that touches genius; she lived in a half-burned ranch house with her dogs, near a haunted chapel, hourly expecting attack, and longed to join the coyotes in their weird dances outside her door. She foretold the manner of her own death, and related for sober fact the most hair-raising ghost story I have ever read:
The last night I was there I had been in bed an hour perhaps and was growing drowsy when I heard some one crying at my window. The most gentle attenuated sobbing; the most pitiful sounds you ever heard. I never for a minute thought of the spirits, but called the girl to light the candle. She heard it too—but the strange part is, I said it was at the back window and she heard it at the front, and neither did she think of spirits. As she opened to see who was there, IT came in sobbing—and we looked at each other and closed the windows. Perhaps you think we were frightened or horrified? I can only answer for myself—it filled me with an intense pity. I only wanted to comfort it and I said to the girl: “If it would only be quiet.” I then promised to have the mass said and invite the people, and it left, sobbing. And we, of course, both went to our beds to sleep dreamlessly till morning.
Revolution is not gentle, either for those who make it or those who oppose it. This story has its own value as a record of one life lived very fully and consciously. I think the life and death of Mrs. Evans were her own private adventures, most gladly sought and enviably carried through. As a personality, she is worth attention, being beautiful, daring and attractive. As a human being she was avaricious, with an extraordinary hardness of heart and ruthlessness of will; and she died in a grotesque cause.