Ch 8: The Culture of Cuba

The visitor to Cuba is at once impressed by the quality and abundance of its contemporary publications. The daily newspapers of Havana and the larger cities are numerous and excellent, and devote much space to foreign news. The list of provincial papers is surprisingly large. There are many well-printed illustrated weeklies also, and the minor host of periodic publications devoted to Art, Science, and Literature denotes a highly-cultured reading public and a taste somewhat higher than that to which our bookstalls now cater. The first statue erected in Free Cuba was to Cervantes, the second to the Cuban philosopher and educator, La Luz-Caballero, whose works are mentioned by Scott and Longfellow. The Government liberally fosters all branches of Art, Science, and Letters.
   Inheriting much from Spain, Cuban culture has received its greatest inspiration from France, with strong Anglo-Saxon influences derived from educational associations with the United States and England. For many years the most popular books there have been translations from standard French and British authors, with a more recent influx from the works of American writers. But there is growing a vigorous national literature which has blended these divergent influences with the germinal spirit of a people whose evolution has passed from a long period of tragedy and exile to an infinite vision of liberty and idealism. This interesting quality of contemporary Cuban literature is a strong outgrowth that has sprung rapidly from a celebrated past obscured by political troubles and conflict.
   To all branches of Art, Science and Literature there are notable contributions from the Pearl of the Antilles, which have born their chief fruits abroad. They can be traced in the three Americas and in Spain. And if we take the culture of France during the nineteenth century, we find a succession of celebrated men and women of Cuban birth, domiciled in Paris, and famous in literature (notably poetry), drama, painting, sculpture, music and medicine. Some of these are mentioned in the Tour du Pin letters. They shone in the salons of Madam de Stael, of the H6tel Castellane, of Princess Mathilde, and in other centres of culture and art which shunned the anarchic cults of cruder realism through the recurring periods of Republic and Empire. They have not figured so strongly in published memoirs because they lived apart from the political atmosphere that brought notoriety to many salons; but they are sprinkled liberally through the annals of a cultured century in Europe before their own country recalled them. Glance through Les Salons Celebres, by Madame Sophie Gay, Les Salons d'Autrefois, by Countess Bassonville, scan the lists of Mademoiselle Abbatucci at Rue de Berri and St. Gratien, and you will see how strongly the suppressed spirit of Cuba found an outlet in the literary and artistic circles of France. Many of the brilliant women married European notables of the last century. One wedded a famous English Duke and played an illustrious part in London society.
   Trebutien has stated that Cuban poetry, published in Paris, set a lyric standard for French poets. If we take only those Islanders who won international fame we have a formidable list. The first name that comes to mind is naturally "La Avellaneda," who stands among the most famous of the world's women poets. Born in Puerto Principe, Cuba, 1814, celebrated in Europe for her poetry, dramas and novels, her works have been translated to all civilised languages. La Hija de las Flores is perhaps known best in Europe. Dos Mujeres Spanish critics consider her best novel. Hernan Cortes and Baltasar are her most notable classic dramas. Her plays have been performed in France, Spain, Italy and throughout Latin America. Another famous Cuban poet, Maria Santa Cruz, Countess of Merlin, maintained a salon in the Rue Bondy, which attracted the most notable people of Paris. She is the author of many charming books, essay, travel and verse.
   The works of Jose Maria Heredia need no introduction to English readers, and translations of his Ode to Niagara appear in many school books. His Saul, Tiberio, and Los Ultimos Romanos are also well known, and he is listed among the twenty great poets of the nineteenth century. This famous Cuban family has been prolific in genius. Severiano de Heredia succeeded Victor Hugo as president of the Philotechnic Society. Jose de Heredia, the poet's grandnephew, and author of Les Trophes, was elected to the French Academy. Nicholas de Heredia was a well known critic and author.
   Jose Saco and La Luz Caballero, eminent philosophers, head a long list of their countrymen whose works have added to the world's thought: Noda, Varela, Suzarte, Dr. Zambrana, Bachiller, Costales, and Vivanco. The writings of Aguero are well known in England. Armas, Arrate, Blanchet and Del Monte were noted historians. Calvo was a collaborator of Baron Humboldt. Poey, the Cuban naturalist, Dr. Morales, an authority on tropical botany, Labra, the abolitionist who co-operated with Wilberforce and was a guest of Gladstone at Hawarden, Dr. Abreu, the pathologist and authority on cholera morbus, Dr. Albarran, famous in French medical annals, need no special introduction. In literature, Alfonso, Valdes, Urrutia, La Sagra the economist, and Echeverria, are linked with Cuba and France, friends and contemporaries of de Musset, Balzac, Hugo and Dumas. In Paris, too, Matilda Penuela is listed with the foremost women painters. Carlos Varona reorganised the shattered finances of Mexico, and established them on a basis which inspired the confidence of foreign capitalists.
   Streets in Havana remind us of Cuba's connection with the Latinised Irish families O'Farrill and O'Reilly, which gave Spain two famous generals. The Duquesne family transferred an illustrious name from France to Cuba, where the descendants of the fighting Marquis have since flourished. General Urrutia, Zarco del Valle, Ezpeleta, Zayas, and Arango were sons of Cuba who figured prominently in Europe during the first Napoleonic era.
   Many noted literary men paid the supreme penalty in effecting the liberation of Cuba, including Armas, Zenea, Placido, Cespedes, and Marti. It would take too long to outline the periods of Cuban literature, or to classify it even for the last century. Velez, Palma, Milanes, Navarrete, Medina, Gonzales, Villaverde, Bobadilla, Frias, Castillo, Angulo, Pineyro and Kindelan are each representative of definite branches of prose and poetry, when colonial education was beset with difficulty. Galvez, Arango, Guiteras, Montalvo, Garcia, Dr. Romero, Agramonte, La Torre, Galarraga the dramatist, Merchan the critic, Castellanos, author of Los Argonautas and La Manigua Sentimental, carry us through the period of transition which is still represented by writers like Pichardo, Trelles, and Sanguily (whose brilliant pen today remains undaunted by battle, long imprisonment and exile) to the brighter era of this generation.
   With modern culture we must associate the names of Varona, Argilagos, Peyrellade, Villoldo, Velasco, the brothers Carbonell, and De Armas who contributes to our leading Reviews and is a great authority on Shakespeare. Among many modern novelists, Insua, Cabrera and De Carrion must be mentioned, and Cata, the Cuban dramatist, Altunaga, the writer on International Law, bring us to a long list of the Island's modern poets Cancio, Vega, Urbach, Navarro, Madame Borrero, and other brilliant compatriots.
   In poetry, climate, scenery, the inheritance of romance and the fording of an Acheron of political trial, combined to give Cuba a heritage unparalleled in history. The art of declamation now taught in the Havana Conservatory, has been cultivated for three centuries, and no other people are so trained to love poetic recitation. Robust romance, ancient chivalry, fantasy, fable, nature, patriotism, and a resigned philosophy are characteristics of Cuban verse, sometimes tinged with sadness but without trace of morbidness or pessimism. Its most notable feature is its lyric quality, and a chapter could be devoted to its sonnets. The names of notable Cuban poets run to hundreds. Besides those already mentioned, Zequeira, Jorrin, Vinageras, Poveda, Santacilia, Tolon, Miyares, Sellen, Tejera, Carrillo, Manzano, Orgas, Matamoros, Zambrana, del Casal, Luaces, Mendive, Xenes, Mestre, Julia Perez, and Aurelia de Gonzales are only a few whose works extend with glory across the nineteenth century. Much of the verse is indigenous, some is epic, and its elegies and odes are generally models of conception and harmony.
   In letters Cuba strikes a note of independence even in periodical literature, which gives it a national and robust quality known universally as "Nosotros." In Art, the excellent work exhibited in the Havana Salon reveals strong influences of the artists who have received training and honours ,in Paris Rome and Turin. The works of Acosta, Collazo, Romanach, Menocal, Chartrien, Subroca and Melero are well known abroad. Valderrama, Cabrera, Ramos, Vega, Lillo, Jiminez, Pena, Morey, Blanco, Oliveras, Miss Melero, Miss Arisa, and many other Cuban painters are producing pictures which would create notice in any of the regular exhibitions in Europe. But with so much distinctive scenery in the Island, there is a sense of disappointment to the outsider that local themes, especially in landscape, are not more frequent. Verestchagin made dozens of studies of Cuban scenery for ultimate works which, alas, could never be completed. He was enraptured with the tropical colouring, and was recording his impressions when War recalled him to his forte and death.
   The French government has recently purchased several examples of a special school of Cuban portrait painting so fully emancipated from conventional conceptions that its originality constitutes a new achievement in composition and media which has attracted wide interest in France and Italy. In sculpture Corrieri, Palacios, Torres and Ramos are representative names, and Miss Bacardi has executed permanent works in the United States. The Island has produced some famous architects, and her civil engineers and their achievements would need a lengthy chapter to enumerate the Menocals, Albear, Portuondo, Clark, and Villalon, among others.
   In Music, long known to audiences throughout the world as composers and on the concert platform, Villate, Brindis de Sala, Espadero, Aristi, Raffelin, Natalia Broche, Desvernine, Cervantes, Agremonte, and White, need no introduction. Today, the compositions of Fuentes, Marin Varona, and Tomas are maintaining this high standard. For the Stage, Covarrubias, Robrefio, Jose la Coste of the Theatre Francais, and Luisa Casado are a few on a long list.
   And in the cerebral sphere, the Chess Champion of the world, Capablanca, is a Cuban who is to play in the English tournament this summer.
   In this short compendium of Cuban culture there are probably some unfortunate omissions, but it has been prepared without data, not as an exhaustive treatise, but as a brief outline of a subject which deserves attention. Mr. John Barrett, Director General of the Pan American Union in Washington, is often referred to in England as the arch priest of American commerce in the southern countries. Mr. Barrett has a far wider and deeper vision. The Union which he represents works not only for trade-increase and linked railroads, but for a broad basis of mutual understanding in the New World in which Canada plays an important part. The Union is fundamentally a clearing house for ideas in all branches of human effort and progress in the Americas. It provides a common meeting ground for diplomats, politicians, educators, inventors, writers, artists and merchants of the Western nations. Its keynote is to dissolve prejudices and misunderstandings, to effect an interchange of thought and culture between the English speaking north and the Latin American countries, chiefly through exchange of educators, lectures, and translations of the best literature in the respective countries. Mr. Cecil Rhodes aimed at similar ideals in his Foundation Scholarships. With such bonds mutual commerce is a natural sequence.
   Latin America can afford to smile at Lady Palmerston's indiscreet generalisation of its status, but we must ask ourselves how far it reflected an official viewpoint of stilted snobbery and sacrosanct ignorance in world affairs which has been so detrimental to the interests of the British Isles, a potent factor in the gentle art of making enemies, expecting their trade as a matter of course.

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