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Fidel's Man in Manhattan

By Samuel McCracken

The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times
by Anthony DePalma
(Public Affairs, 308 Pages, $26.95)

The conventional wisdom about Herbert L. Matthews, The New York Times, and Fidel Castro is that Matthews ’22CC, wittingly or not, used the pages of the Times to put Castro into power. The conventional wisdom is divided as to whether this was a Bad Thing or a Good Thing.

That is a severe oversimplification, as Anthony DePalma shows. In The Man Who Invented Fidel (Matthews’s own phrase), DePalma — who as Times bureau chief in Havana was assigned in 2001 to write a standby obituary of Fidel Castro — has given us a meticulous, unsparing, yet compassionate account of Herbert Matthews’s life, his best-known work, and the newspaper for which he did it.

Matthews (1900–1977) rose to the front and editorial pages of the Times before the age of academic hatcheries for journalists. Columbia’s School of Journalism had been open for seven years when Matthews came to Morningside Heights, but he was aiming for an academic career. He studied Romance languages at the College and, after joining the Times as an assistant to the business manager, continued on to graduate study for what he hoped would be a PhD. (The hope went unfulfilled.)

The fluent Spanish he gained from these studies was to facilitate his major achievements in Spain and Cuba; his Italian proved useful in covering Italy’s 1936 invasion of Ethiopia and the following year in Spain, where he was able to interview members of the allegedly nonexistent Italian forces.

“In March 1937, Franco’s forces swooped down toward the Spanish city of Guadalajara, north of Madrid,” writes DePalma. Matthews “drove to the front, where he got his first eyewitness view of the familiar Italian troops he had followed to Abyssinia.
“The battleground was littered with Italian tanks, Italian rifles, and Italian dead. The Loyalists had captured Italian troops and Matthews spoke to the prisoners of war in Italian, confirming their identities and providing proof that despite all pledges of noninterference, Mussolini had done more than simply lend technical advisers to the rebels as he claimed.”

In a foreshadowing of its treatment of David Halberstam’s dispatches from Vietnam, the Times rewrote Matthews’s description of the soldiers and equipment he had seen from “Italian and nothing but Italian” to “Insurgent and nothing but Insurgent,” an edit as leaden as it was dishonest.

Matthews was in Italy at the outbreak of WWII and was interned when the U.S. joined in. Finally exchanged, he was sent to India and returned to Italy with the U.S. invasion forces. After the war, he went back to New York, where Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger gave Matthews the unparalleled position of a seat on the editorial board while he was still an active correspondent.

Despite his hopes to be a scholar and his position as an editorialist, Matthews retained the journalist’s passion to be where the news was. At the beginning of 1957, although in uncertain health, he jumped at the chance to interview Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra. News from Cuba was tightly censored under Batista, and the official line was that Castro had been killed in his failed invasion.

Matthews reached Castro at considerable personal risk, and the two men found each other muy simpático. Castro’s legendary flair for public relations ensured that even a reporter of Matthews’s abilities overestimated the strength of his forces and his devotion to Jeffersonian democracy.

But the crucial impact of the three articles that the Times ran in February 1957 was the news that Castro was alive and in the field. This information penetrated Batista’s censorship and resurrected Castro in the popular mind.
Not that Matthews limited himself to a simple flash! Castro alive and well! As Castro assured him, “We are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship.” “La dictadura,” presumably the noun Castro used, inescapably carried the definite article; “the dictatorship” was possibly that of Batista, not necessarily that of Castro, nor, for that matter, of the proletariat.

Matthews, writing in the Times, may have led his readers to broaden Castro’s horizon beyond Fidel’s gaze. Describing what would follow victory over Batista, he used language with extraordinary resonance for Americans: “It amounts to a new deal for Cuba . . . radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist.”

In the years that followed, Matthews repeatedly visited Cuba as a privileged guest. In his reports, he insisted that the Cuban revolution was in no sense Communist; when in 1961 Castro publicly embraced Marxism-Leninism and allied Cuba with the Soviet Union, Matthews fell back on the claim that Castro had not been a Communist before taking power.

The effect on his journalistic reputation was disastrous. DePalma’s detailed narrative of how a generation of Times editors dealt with the Matthews problem is one of the best things in the book. Their reporter brought some baggage to the Cuba controversy: in the 1930s he had been briefly enamored of Mussolini, and his reporting from Spain led to exaggerated charges of partisan bias. His editors, unhappy with his dual role as editorial writer and reporter, increasingly saw him as entangled, emotionally if not ideologically, in the story he was covering. In the end, he was forbidden to report on Cuba, although he continued to editorialize until his retirement in 1967. Matthews himself said that, given the controversy, no other paper would have given him so long a run.

DePalma makes clear that Matthews was a reporter of parts, one who until the day he died believed he had written nothing but the truth about Cuba and Castro. For his pains, he was subjected to outrageous surveillance by the FBI and the CIA and to brutal mistreatment by the Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee.

Although Castro would almost certainly have come to power had Matthews never written about him, the reporter propelled the rebel into the world’s consciousness
as the heroic idealist still believed in by declining numbers on the fringes of the left.

In 2005, DePalma — sharing his subject’s passion to see where things happened — traveled Matthews’s path to the Sierra Maestra and the place where he met with Castro. It was not easy, but as proof that his guides knew what they were about, at length DePalma stood looking at a commemorative marker set up in 1997. This was the only apparent change in the area in the 40 years since the encounter. The peasants there lived as they had in the last year of Batista. But not without hope: they told DePalma, “Castro cannot live much longer.”

Samuel McCracken, a critic and essayist living in Boston, is working on a book about nuclear power and global warming.
 


 
  Whitman Sampler (& Dickinson, Poe, et al.)

By Maggie Dietz

The Oxford Book of American Poetry
Edited by David Lehman (Oxford University Press , 1132 Pages, $35)

There is something about an anthology that inspires dread in the world of letters, as if the survival of an art — or of particular poems or poets — depended on it. The fear is half-founded: editors of major anthologies influence what will be respected and, in some cases, remembered. So it takes bravura to tackle a project of this kind, particularly one that encompasses the poetic history of a poetry-rich country. David Lehman ’70CC, ’78GSAS, the editor of the newly updated Oxford Book of American Poetry, acknowledges in his introduction that his choices will not please everyone: “There is no court of final appeal beyond your own taste, eclectic or focused, wide or narrow, as the case may be.”

Lehman, the author of several books of poetry and criticism and founder of the Best American Poetry series, is well matched to the book’s mammoth editorial task, and his contents are commendably more varied and broader than previous editors’. Lehman’s book comes 30 years after Richard Ellman’s New Oxford Book of American Verse and more than 50 years since F. O. Matthiessen’s Oxford Book of American Verse. Lehman extends the anthology, moving the cutoff for poets’ birth dates from 1934 to 1950, and expands it, adding a huge number of poets previous editors overlooked, including many African American poets, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, and Robert Hayden.

“In this case there are more poets, with less space for most,” the editor explains—211 in Lehman’s Oxford, compared to Ellman’s 78 and Matthiessen’s 51. “Less space for most” means that Lehman preserved the ample pages given to Whitman and Dickinson, “our poetic grandparents,” and reserved fewer for John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, once-beloved and oft-recited Fireside Poets whose Victorian sensibility has fallen out of fashion.

But Lehman is no snob. He’s kept chestnuts like Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “Old Ironsides” and Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” — not great poems by literary standards, but echoes of an era and part of the fabric of American poetry. The collection opens with Anne Bradstreet, the English emigrant whose father, brother, and husband all became governors of Massachusetts. “The first American poet” is not without English counterparts, or counterpoints: she was born four years before Shakespeare died and is almost an exact contemporary of Milton. In her “Prologue,” Bradstreet makes excuses for her “lowly lines”:

Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women
   what they are,
Men have precedency; and still excell,
It is but vaine, unjustly to wage war,
Men can doe best, and Women know
   it well.


It’s not exactly Paradise Lost, but there’s delight in the fact that this woman has “precedency” in American poetry, despite her polite self-effacement.

America, in addition to being the poets’ home turf, is strikingly often the subject of their poems. Early in the anthology, Philip Freneau, “the Poet of the American Revolution,” bemoans “Europe’s proud, despotic shores” and paints noble prospects for his “Western Country.” The poet’s patriotism is stirring, his imperfect prediction haunting:

Far brighter scenes a future age,
The muse predicts, these states will hail,
Whose genius may the world engage,
Whose deeds may over death prevail,
And happier systems bring to view,
Than all the eastern sages knew.


Fast-forward two centuries to Allen Ginsberg’s (’48CC) post-atomic 1950s “America”: “America when will we end the human war? … America when will you be angelic?” Ginsberg, a poetic grandchild of Whitman’s, with his repetition and rangy lines, “sings” America more cynically than his ancestor, who celebrates the vast and varied country; but Whitman in his turn lamented the tragedies of the Civil War.

Here, discrete voices shed different light on the past. Phillis Wheatley, the slave of a wealthy Boston tailor and the first African American poet to be published, writes: “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land.” Mercy, she explains, because the slave ship sailed her toward Christianity and redemption. A hundred and fifty years later, in his poem “Bitter Fruit of the Tree,” Sterling Brown depicts his ancestors’ bondage as anything but merciful: “They said to my grandmother: ‘Please do not be bitter,’ / When they sold her first-born and let the second die.”

These pages, brimming with history, are also filled with American places — Robert Frost’s New England and Hart Crane’s New York, Robert Hass’s Lagunitas and Wallace Stevens’s Key West. Anyone who’s ever taken a road trip will appreciate Stephen Vincent Benet’s “American Names,” which commemorates back-road outposts and mining claims like “Skunktown Plain” and “Lost Mule Flat.”

Toward the end of the collection, in a poem titled “Morning in America,” John Koethe tries to imagine “the pages of some legendary volume marked / Forever.” Certainly if there were such a volume, it wouldn’t be an anthology. Lehman knows this. “Successive generations,” he says, “need to replace the retrospective anthologies of the past.” Lehman has responded to that need now, as someone else will a generation from now.

But such a hefty anthology sets precedents, and there will be those who take exception to Lehman’s selections. The fiercest debate will arise over the living poets who appear (or don’t) in the last 200 pages of the book. But these pages will likely change the most in the book’s next edition: some of Lehman’s predictions will be right, some wrong.

A reader may be disappointed to find Sharon Olds’s (’72GSAS) silly poem “The Pope’s Penis” here, or Billy Collins’s already-tired “Introduction to Poetry,” which will be taught with a knowing smile by the next generation of high school teachers. The same reader might praise the inclusion of Aaron Fogel’s (’67CC, ’77GSAS) extraordinary poem “The Printer’s Error,” or the resurrection of lesser-read poets, such as Ted Berrigan or Laura Riding. If John Ashbery’s (’50GSAS) 25 pages — against Frank O’Hara’s 11 — upsets the equilibrium, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s outweighing Carl Sandburg helps to right it. Lehman has added poets as disparate as George Oppen, Weldon Kees, and May Swenson. A future editor may do the same for Jack Gilbert, Alan Dugan, or Rita Dove, none of whom appear here.

Lehman’s selections may lean too far in certain directions, but to read a collection that catered to every taste would be the most boring business imaginable. The Oxford Book of American Poetry contains some of our richest cultural treasures and offers a wide-ranging, lively history of poetry in this country. If Lehman is right that in such matters “there is no court of final appeal,” he has been, in any case, a shrewd and mindful judge.

Maggie Dietz is coeditor of three books, most recently An Invitation to Poetry. Her first book of poems is Perennial Fall.
 


 
  Mixed-up Media

By Dan Kennedy

Letters to a Young Journalist
by Samuel G. Freedman (Basic Books, 184 Pages, $22.95)

The post-Watergate construct of the journalist-as-celebrity has been harmful both to journalism and to the public it purports to serve. All too many journalists have given in to one of two temptations: to become opinion-mongers in the hopes of making it on the talking-head circuit; or to shade, cheat, and lie their way to success, somehow hoping that they, unlike so many of their humiliated forebears, won’t get caught.

The public has reacted by rewarding the news media with some of the lowest approval ratings this side of Capitol Hill. Even when journalists do manage to produce important work, it’s become all too easy to dismiss it as just another example of partisan politics, as flawed as the alleged bias that informs it.

Earlier this year, for instance, The New York Times and The Washington Post were awarded Pulitzer Prizes for exposing, respectively, the Bush administration’s no-warrant wiretapping program and the CIA’s secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Such journalism would once have been hailed. Today, pundits like the former secretary of education William Bennett demand that the reporters and editors who were responsible be jailed. And Bennett is hardly alone. President Bush called the Times’ reporting “a shameful act.” Polls suggest that a majority of Americans agree.

Samuel G. Freedman’s fine new book, Letters to a Young Journalist, is a useful antidote to the corrosive expectations of fame and fortune that have come to afflict the Fourth Estate. If enough aspiring reporters read it, and take it to heart, it may begin to improve public attitudes about journalism as well.

Freedman, an author, New York Times columnist, and professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, has divided this small book into four parts: temperament, reporting, writing, and career. His idea of journalism is exalted (“anyone who doesn’t enter journalism believing it is a moral enterprise might as well move straight on to speculating in foreign currency or manufacturing Agent Orange”); of the journalist, modest.

This is as it should be. A reporter for a community weekly who accurately informs her neighbors about a change in the property-tax rate is performing a service every bit as vital as that of a White House reporter who shouts questions at the president’s press secretary. (Or perhaps more important, given the redundancy of the latter.) Freedman’s journalist is the opposite of a celebrity: a curious, humble, driven professional who puts the story first, and who is determined to get it straight and tell it as simply as she can.

Freedman offers some excellent examples about the limits of passive, on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand objectivity (a bizarre decision by C-SPAN to pair a Holocaust historian with a Holocaust denier) and pack journalism (Howard Dean’s three-month roller-coaster ride in late 2003 and early ’04 in which he was portrayed as unelectable to a shoo-in to just plain nutty). His description of the journalist’s writing process — “conceptualization, reporting, outlining, rereporting, drafting, and revision” — is so sensible and succinct that I’m going to stick it on my wall for my next writing project.

If I have a bone to pick with Freedman, it’s that he misses the opportunity to show how the old-fashioned values he espouses are relevant in a media environment that is changing by the day. Instead, he writes of these values within the context of a framework that is rapidly disappearing. He has little to say about the Internet, and nothing positive. For example, he writes, “You’re going to hear all about the failings of journalism from bloggers and media critics who’ve never left their computers long enough to cover a fire or a city council meeting.” And in the course of criticizing CBS News for basing its flawed 60 Minutes report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service on “a forged document” (perhaps), he does not mention the key role played by bloggers in exposing that document’s suspicious provenance — some of whom, truth be told, have never covered a fire or a city council meeting.

Media thinkers such as Jay Rosen have observed that technology is transforming journalism from a one-way mode of communication into an ongoing conversation. Is there room for traditional reporting in this emerging paradigm? I hope so. I would have liked to see what Freedman thinks, especially since the “young journalist” to whom his book is addressed will be spending most of her career trying to figure it out.

Still, there’s no question that the young journalist’s task, before anything else, is to master the basics of reporting and writing, and to do so with a sense of fairness, empathy, and a genuine desire to tell the whole story. “You must shape reality without misshaping it,” Freedman writes. That’s as good a description of journalism as I have seen.

Dan Kennedy is a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. He writes the weblog Media Nation at medianation.blogspot.com.
 


 
 
  The west side of Grand Central Terminal’s grand concourse after its restoration.
Grand Central to All Points

By Michael B. Shavelson

The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore
by Peter Pennoyer "80CC, '84APP and Anne Walker '00APP (Norton, 256 Pages, $60)

In July 1921, Nicholas Murray Butler laid the cornerstone to a great university library that would not bear his name. It was in Louvain, Belgium, where in the opening days of World War I the Germans had burned the historic city and pillaged the ancient university and its library. As president of Columbia and of the Carnegie Endowment, Butler led the American fundraising effort to build a new library, demonstrating his interest in benevolent internationalism and his nose for good publicity. To the project’s architect, Whitney Warren (1864–1943), the creative partner of the firm Warren & Wetmore, the rebuilding was not just a coup but a moral achievement. He had found his artistic vision some 40 years earlier at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (after an unhappy year at Columbia’s new School of Architecture) and felt that “rebuilding the devastated regions of Belgium and France,” as he wrote to his wife, “would be by all odds the greatest undertaking of the age.”

The building, as described by Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker in their book The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore, was of Flemish and Renaissance design but “clearly more American in inspiration.” The library, dedicated in 1928, and the 1929 New York Central Building (now the Helmsley Building) on Park Avenue were “the crowning achievements of the architect’s career . . . singularly successful in their interpretation of historical styles, bold sculptural details, and creative artistry.”

That career was indeed singularly successful. Warren had won a few commissions after his return to New York from Paris, including the design of the New York Yacht Club in 1898, when the young lawyer Charles D. Wetmore asked him to design a house. Worldly, artistic, and the products of aristocratic families, the architect and client clicked — and formed a partnership, with Wetmore handling the business and legal side of the firm. Within a very few years, Warren & Wetmore was the firm of choice for wealthy clients looking to build distinctive estates, town houses, or mansions, although the firm was also beginning to design apartment buildings, office buildings, and even train stations. Today, it is, of course, on a railroad station that Warren & Wetmore’s reputation rests.

Three decades and a world of aesthetic sensibility separate Warren & Wetmore’s 1929 New York Central Building (now the Helmsley Building) from the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building), which looms over it. The construction of the much-hated Pan Am office tower went a long way toward deepening New Yorkers’ appreciation of their city’s older buildings, particularly Grand Central Terminal.  

Grand Central Terminal (GCT) is one of New York’s favorite buildings not only for its massive beauty but equally for the way it works. It is a remarkably efficient building, easy to move through, pleasant to be in. Building the New York Central’s station was part of a ten-year undertaking that involved a world of underground infrastructure and the electrification of the railroad to permit the smoky trench north of the terminal to be covered and turned into Park Avenue.

GCT’s story has been told well elsewhere, especially since the completion of its fabulous restoration in 1998, but Pennoyer and Walker are good at untangling the confusion of competing claims for design credit. The firm of Reed & Stem had actually won the initial design competition in 1903, and Warren & Wetmore was asked to join the project in 1904. Reed & Stem was responsible for many of the practical elements of the station — the layout, ramps, and viaducts, for example — while Warren & Wetmore gave the building its aesthetic face. After GCT opened in 1914, write the authors, “Warren & Wetmore was more assertive in taking credit for the design and claiming the honors.” No matter how ugly the fight, those honors shouldn’t be diminished for either side, since the collaboration, however apportioned, gave us one of the best public spaces in the city.

Grand Central catapulted Warren & Wetmore into architecture’s highest sphere. The commissions that followed — including dozens along the newly created Park Avenue — were for splendid hotels, luxurious apartment houses, and proud headquarters for magnificently profitable companies. All told, the firm designed more than 300 major buildings by the time Warren retired in 1931. He stepped down just in time for the International Style to tell the world how backward-looking the dignified, if sometimes flamboyant, old Beaux-Arts buildings were. 

Pennoyer and Walker’s monograph is a tribute to an architect they admire and a useful guide to the scope of his work. The book is handsomely illustrated with archival material (much of it drawn from Columbia’s Avery Library) and enlivened by new photographs by Jonathan Wallen, many in color.

 

 
 
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