The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
RIVERA’S PERSONAL REVOLUTION
Portrait of Mexico, paintings by Diego Rivera,
text by Bertram D. Wolfe.
New York: Covici-Friede, 1937.
Portrait of Mexico might well be the good, honest final job destined to end books about Mexico. Or maybe that is only cheerful wish-thinking on the part of this reviewer.
There is—or was, for friendships collapse as swiftly as other things in Mexico—a long and firm bond between the collaborators on this book: personal and esthetic sympathies, similarity of political belief, and a shared continuous loving preoccupation with Mexico. This has resulted happily in a sound book, giving for the first time in my experience an inclusive and coherent history of Mexico from preconquest days to the present, and a key to the work of Diego Rivera, not only as painter but as pictorial historian of Mexico, the land and its people.
Mr. Wolfe is the typical international Jew, born student and reformer, a man without a country save as he adopts it; even then, as we see at present in Germany, he is always in peril of finding himself homeless. Still, this capacity for choice makes for a special kind of patriotism, as for instance in Mr. Wolfe, based on love and attention and a desire to know one’s chosen country really. Mr. Wolfe has the keen eye and the nose for research of a first-rate reporter, and he is in fact the only man I ever trusted to give me a straight story about political and social situations as they came in Mexico. He has his own political faith, schismatic and obdurate, and this gives to his conclusions a certain slant, of course, but in the mean time he has told a dreadful story of cross-purpose and treachery and corruption which would appall and discourage a less-seasoned campaigner.
Mr. Wolfe has sorted out his mass of material and divided it into logical sections, each admirably concise and full. He finds his way deftly through the almost inextricable knot of political and personal relationships and conflicting motives of the “revolutionists” from Madero to the present Cardenas. He proves by implication rather clearly that the first step to a stable “revolutionary” government is to kill off all the real rebels as early in the game as possible. His list of honest murdered men and living crooks is impressive.
He has incorporated into this history the history of Diego Rivera as painter in Mexico, painter of Mexico, with a key to the no-doubt thousands of square yards of murals, crowded with historical faces drawn from life, from imagination, and all too often, from bad photographs or old portraits, which cover nearly all the available wall space in Mexico’s public buildings. The total effect is monstrous, as is the total energy of this big slow-moving man, half hero, half mountebank, as artists sometimes are. He has been “news” in the most literal sense of the word, from the day he first mounted his scaffoldings in the Preparatoria: broadbeamed, ox eyed, wearing the costume of the day laborer and the pistols of the mestizo, and he has been “news” ever since, on this side of the world. Amid interruptions, uproar, personal battles and political ones, he has continued imperturbably at his self-appointed task: to make the walls of Mexico his monument, as once the walls of Basel were Hans Holbein’s. But there is a moral here; for Hans Holbein’s wall paintings have clean vanished from Basel, and his monument is elsewhere. All the more reason, then, for this book, to keep the record when all that is left of Rivera’s work will be his canvases, preserved in private collections and museums.
No single man in his time has ever had more influence on the eye and mind of the public who know his work than Diego Rivera; for he has made them see his Mexico, to accept his version of it, and often to think it better than their own. This is no small feat, and indeed, the hugeness of his accomplishment is the wonder of America, given as we are to the love of minor masterpieces and the minute perfections. For myself, and I believe I speak for great numbers, Mexico does not appear to me as it did before I saw Rivera’s paintings of it. The mountains, the Indians, the horses, the flowers and children, have all subtly changed in outlines and colors. They are Rivera’s Indians and flowers and all now, but I like looking at them.
The photographs are good, not too brilliantly reproduced perhaps, but not misleading, they give one a very good notion of the originals. There are in these pictures—there were always, from the beginning—some stunningly beautiful spots, whole walls of painting better, I dare say, than anything else being done today. There are also long dreary stretches of plain hack-work, overcrowded, incoherent, mechanical; a breathless jostling of anachronistic characters, and too much detail, which, when shown in the large, do not justify their presence by any special beauty or excellence.
One of the best spots has been reproduced on the jacket. Rivera, for all his completely muddled politics, his childish social theories and personal opportunism, is saying, in this painting, just this: that bullets cannot destroy the spirit you see looking out of the eyes of these three men. Wolfe, much clearer and more “literate,” as the special jargon of his special wing has it, backs him up with the facts. But even he is confused as to the probable results of the encroaching machine on the Indian, agrarian, manual worker, primitive communist. He ends his valuable study on the conventional note of hope for a new dawn, and soon; a hope so rosy one would like to share it, and so vague one does not know where to begin. It seems, in this book, to be based on the expectation of an organized and expertly directed revolt of the Indian peasant and worker, and bestows upon them, for the future, a capacity for unity and steadiness of purpose they have not shown in the past. According to Mr. Wolfe’s own findings, the Indian social system was decayed with class war, religious tyranny, social injustice, even when Cortés found them. There was, it would seem, revolution in Mexico, even then.
PARVENU. . .
Mexico: A Study of Two Americas, by Stuart Chase,
in collaboration with Marian Tyler.
New York: The Literary Guild of America, 1931.
Mexico is not really a place to visit any more, or to live in. The land has fallen prey to its friends, organized and unorganized; its arts and customs are in the dreadful convulsions of being saved, preserved, advertised and exploited by a horde of appreciators, amateur or professional. They swarm over the place and eat the heart out of it like a plague of locusts. Tourist busses go roaring over the beautiful mountain roads, loaded with persons carrying note books and cameras, and you may be certain that one in five of them is writing a study, or an interpretation, or a survey; hardly one of them will admit he is a simple traveller taking the air and viewing the scenery and buying harmless little knickknacks by way of proving to himself he is really travelling.
In a published letter Kay Boyle has written that Americans are the best travellers. In Spain they become entirely Carmen swinging her behind, they are each in turn Christ on the cross in Jerusalem. In Mexico, I find, they are all prophets and experts, flustered and uneasy, nosing about in a crowd of other self-appointed prophets, trying to squeeze themselves into the esoteric skin of the Indian; their ears buzz with the altitude and the cross-currents of misinformation, and besides, often they are under contract to stuff it all down in a hurry and rush back with a book while the racket is still good.
Most of these travellers fall with deadly monotony into the arms of the resident authorities on Mexico, who have placed the whole subject on production basis. They publish slipshod little magazines full of glib pieces about those native dances; they peddle Mexican painting, act as scouts for art shops, instruct the Indian craftsman how to make his stuff more acceptable to the tourist taste, and in every way help on the destruction of Mexican art and life as much as they can. Next the visitor is introduced to a picked half-dozen of “representative” Mexicans, who speak English, and who are invariably courteous, hospitable and charming. He then goes, or is taken, on a sightseeing tour: to Xochimilco (floating gardens!), Teotihuacan (the pyramids!), the frescoes of Diego Rivera (the greatest painter in the world!), to a show school in the country (Actopan or Oaxtepec), Cuernavaca (Mr. Morrow’s town), Taxco, with the only foreign art colony in Mexico, and
Mr. Chase did it all, and in record time. His Mexico: A Study is a got-up, trivial affair, concocted out of two short trips and two other books which had covered very thoroughly all the ground he goes over: Tepoztlan by Robert Redfield, and Middletown by Helen and Robert Lynd. The knack of rewriting other people’s books, using other people’s researches as one’s own, is a trick on which many a journalistic career is based. One expects better of Mr. Chase, who has a field of his own and credit for original findings. Brilliant as his idea may have been of making a comparison between Middletown and Tepoztlan, he is the victim of his own mind, and has turned out a machine-made hymn of praise to life without machines. . . . Or is it a cautious bread-and-butter letter to a friendly host? For of all bad books written recently on Mexico, this is the most peculiarly irritating mixture of glossing over, of tactful omission, of superficial observation, of, above all, surprising errors in simple fact. It dashes in all directions at once, with a hasty flick at everything in sight, full of the confusions apt to occur when a trained economist attempts in one short volume to be historian, explorer, critic and apologist of a way of life strange to him. With a little patience and work he might have learned something. But he repeats at second, third, fourth hand all the old familiar jargon about the Indians (they are unchangeable, they have no nerves or inhibitions, they don’t want anything, they are insulted if you offer them money for their work, and so on to eternity), takes a passing whack at grafting politicians but is careful not really to tell anything, praises all the things the professional propagandists have been paid for praising all these years; in short, there is not one shred of evidence that Mr. Chase ever set foot in this country, except for some rather sketchy glances at the scenery. Everything else, he could, and did, I believe, read from books, and most of them very silly books recently published on Mexico. His bibliography itself is a curiosity.
Mr. Chase winds up by some extraordinary advice to the Mexicans from a parvenu cousin. I know better than to give advice to Mexicans, after living here for four years over a period of ten. But I should like to seize this opportunity for a little advice to my fellow authors who come here. You would do well to visit Mexico quite as you visit other countries, without meddling, without presuming that you are a natural candidate for official favor, and without that condescending kindness which is so infuriating to intelligent Mexicans. If you really love the way of life you find here, keep your hands off it. All this uproar of publicity helps to change, commercialize, falsify it. Do not apologize for Mexican political corruption, any more than you would for your own rotten politicians. Mexicans are quick to resent this. The Indian arts are very beautiful, but so are the folk arts of other countries, and there is no special occult value to them. Their fiestas have about the same degree of meaning as popular fiestas in other countries. The nature of the Indian is as complicated and mysterious as human nature is, and if one of you would take the time and trouble to be well acquainted with even one of them, I think you might be ashamed to talk of him always as a problem, a spectacle, a kind of picturesque social monstrosity to be approached always in this arty-scientific-sociological manner. Americans, travelling, seem to believe there is nothing so integral, so good of its kind, but can be improved by their pawing and fumbling it over a little. It is better, when you visit here, to leave your superiorities at home, and if possible to shed your ignorances here, before you write a book interpreting Mexico.
With these farewell words, I sit back and wait for the next flood of books written by this year’s crop of seminarists, folk lorists, prophets, students, friends of Mexico, propagandists, art enthusiasts, and the common carriers of good will. But I shall not read them.
HISTORY ON THE WING
The Stones Awake: A Novel of Mexico, by Carleton Beals.
Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1936.
Shortly before my last visit to Mexico, 1930–31, Carleton Beals, with several friends of his, looked over the roof ledge of his apartment and saw several strange men coming in, as it proved, to arrest him. They took him away very quietly and popped him into jail and kept him incommunicado for an uncomfortable length of time. Mr. Beals, who rarely confuses himself with the hero of his own works, was bored and angry and nervous all at once, being uncertain whether they meant to shoot him. He persuaded himself that it seemed unlikely. In the meantime, they had interrupted several books, articles and journeys of his, all of which have been finished since, and dozens more. His arrest had been ordered by a certain politician, really a quite dangerous thug, who objected to Mr. Beals’s truthful and therefore damaging account of the politician’s life and works. Why he let Mr. Beals go again I do not remember, but I imagine he is regretting it. Mr. Beals has gone on his cheerful career of gathering, arranging more or less neatly and publishing great floods of damaging, disrespectful truths about Mexico’s corrupt politicians ever since. Side by side with this tenacious labor of hatred, or rather, knotted and woven in with it, goes his labor of love: a patient, constant presentation of the life and fate of the Indians, the wronged, the disinherited, the endlessly exploited industrial and agricultural workers of Mexico.
He never fails, you know always where to find him. It must be nearly twenty years since he went to Mexico, and if he lives a hundred more he could never write all he has seen and heard and learned about the life in that most complicated and confused country. But no doubt he means to try, and if anyone of our time can get all the essentials on record, he can.
He might have been a fine novelist if he had had time to stop and learn. He could have been a frightfully overpaid newspaperman if a sensational career had been his aim. He is neither, as it happens; when he writes facts, he really sticks to the facts, and that capacity is beyond praise. But when he turns to the art of the novel, he does not stick to art, and that is a pity. He is still a first-rate reporter writing his memories, telling good stories, explaining the predicament of the Indian and rousing sympathy and indignation for him, kidnaping his characters whole and sound out of real life and setting them in the midst of real events, so that instead of marveling at their reality, you would think it odd if they didn’t seem real. Of course they are real. That is why, in his scenes of absolutely private lives and relationships, Mr. Beals suffers from a failure of imagination. He cannot follow his characters into the locked doors of their hearts and minds because he did not create them. With one exception. He knows Esperanza, the Indian village girl born in peonage. She is one of the most natural, breathing, appealing women in American fiction. No doubt he has worked faithfully from a model, for knowing his methods any other assumption would be fantastic, but he knows, for once, more about a certain kind of woman than she could be apt to know about herself. And he presents her, carries her through, develops her character and mind and personality, shows her growing up, growing older, arriving at a logical point of experience, in the end, which is merely a point of departure for another cycle of experience, and she really does live on quite tangibly after the book is closed.
This is a feat; how it happens I do not know, in the jungle of episode, the confusion of political crime and constant revolution, the crowds of characters and changes of scene. You will learn a great deal about Mexico from any one of Mr. Beals’s books, whether novel or chronicle of that country. But you can know Esperanza only by reading The Stones Awake. She is worth knowing.
THIRTY LONG YEARS OF REVOLUTION
The Wind That Swept Mexico:
The History of the Mexican Relvolution, 1910–1942,
by Anita Brenner, with 184 historical photographs assembled by George R. Leighton.
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943.
In Cuernavaca there is a pavement with the celebrated commemorative motto, ?