"The Evil Was Very Grave ..." Jose Marti's Description of Our 1884 Election Sounds Eerily Contemporary

By Goldman, Francisco | The American Prospect, August 2004 | Go to article overview

"The Evil Was Very Grave ..." Jose Marti's Description of Our 1884 Election Sounds Eerily Contemporary


Goldman, Francisco, The American Prospect


THE CUBAN INDEPENDENCE HERO AND poet Jose Marti lived in New York from 1880 to 1895. He was a New Yorker, and easily the most important literary figure then residing in the city (after Walt Whitman's departure to rural New Jersey). During most of those years he made his living as a journalist, writing about the United States for the readers of Latin America's most important newspapers. His U.S. cronicas take up more than 2,000 pages of his collected works--an unrivaled treasure of information, detail, in sight, analysis, and thought about America's Gilded Age, all written in a vibrant, poetic prose that revolutionized the Spanish language. (Guillermo Cabrera Infante calls Marti's newspaper prose the greatest baroque instrument in the Spanish language since Francisco de Quevedo, the 17th-century Spanish poet imprisoned by the Inquisition.)

A keen observer of politics, Marti closely followed the presidential election of 1884, which pitted Republican James G. Blaine against Democrat Grover Cleveland. It is often called one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. The Republicans exposed Cleveland as having fathered a child out of wedlock. Cleveland acknowledged paternity, weathered the storm, and went on to win what was also one of the closest elections in American history, 48.5 percent to 48.2 percent.

Marti devoted more than a hundred pages to the Blaine-Cleveland race. I've translated just a few excerpts, which appear below. As you read them, you will be reminded of a presidential election altogether more recent than the one of 1884.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN lives in Brooklyn and Mexico City. His new novel, The Divine Husband, in which Jose Marti figures as a character, will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press in September.

"It's brutal, and nauseating, a presidential campaign in the United States. The mud comes up to the chairs. The white beards of the newspapers forget all about the decorum of old age. They dump buckets of mud on all our heads. They knowingly lie and exaggerate. They stab each other in the belly and the back. Any defamation is treated as legitimate. Every blow is good, as long as it staggers the enemy. He who invents an effective slander proudly struts.... A good faith observer has no idea how to analyze a battle in which everyone considers it legitimate to campaign in bad faith. …

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