How Political Revolutions Spark Literary Revolutions

Fifty years before Black Lives Matter led to a push for more representation in literature, the Cuban Revolution led to the Latin American Boom

Grey typewriter with blue keys on red desk
Che Guevara’s typewriter. (Photo by Frank Kehren)
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“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” goes the old, though sadly still relevant joke. Political conflicts have always had a way of monopolizing the public’s attention, and this extends well beyond the geography lessons of current events coverage, into the culture section, too. Along with the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, for example, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in the works of Black authors: platforms encouraging their voices, listicles promoting their books, the National Book Awards acknowledging and trying to compensate for their marginalization.

The definitive model for this relationship between political conflict and literary trend may be the Cuban Revolution. In 1959, Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and the other Cuban guerillas succeeded in ousting Fulgencio Batista, a U.S.-backed dictator who had terrorized Cuba for nearly a decade. The Cuban Revolution would go further though, catalyzing not only other anti-imperialist movements, but a literary movement too—namely, the Latin American Boom, a widespread celebration of the works of authors from Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

The definitive model for this relationship between political conflict and literary trend may be the Cuban Revolution.

The Cuban Revolution today is overshadowed in the U.S. imagination by later events of the Cold War, but the contemporary perspective was quite different. As Tony Perrottet explains in Cuba Libre!, his nonfiction account of the era, many average Americans were at first supportive of Castro’s revolution. Throughout the ‘50s, Batista’s dictatorship received institutional backing from the U.S. government, but news of his forces torturing civilians in peace time, and committing war crimes against suspected guerilla strongholds once the revolution began, aligned public sympathy firmly with Castro, Che, and the other rebels. It undoubtedly helped that Castro, formerly a Cuban lawyer, had yet to embrace communism, instead framing the revolution as a war of independence.

The push of Batista and pull of Castro resulted in a cultural phenomenon dubbed “Fidelmania,” in which media coverage of the Cuban Revolution inspired new fashions, like beards and berets. Fidelmania reached its apex on January 11, 1959, when 50 million viewers tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show to watch the host’s interview with Castro, which was recorded just hours before the latter entered Havana, victorious.

“The people of the United States, they have great admiration for you and your men,” Sullivan told Castro. “Because you are in the real American tradition—of a George Washington—of any band who started off with a small body and fought against a great nation and won.”

The literary corollary of “Fidelmania” was the Latin American Boom. While the love affair between Castro and the U.S. public fizzled by 1960, following Cuban land reforms which threatened U.S. business interests on the island, the reading public’s interest in Latin American literature was just beginning to take hold, aided by both Cuban and U.S. efforts. As John King notes in “The Boom of the Latin American Novel,” from The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel, the new Cuban state directly promoted Latin American literature by offering residencies, awarding prizes, organizing events, and even publishing a journal, Casa de las Americas. To counter communist influence, the United States promoted “developmentalism,” pushing for the integration of Latin American countries into international markets, including the arts.

While contemporary critics seldom mentioned the Cuban Revolution, the writers themselves acknowledged their debt.

The critical praise that would usher in the Latin American Boom soon followed. In 1966, the Times Literary Supplement declared Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar to be the “first great novel of Spanish America.” The next year, it won the National Book Foundation award for fiction in translation, while Miguel Angel Asturias received the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming only the second Latin American so honored. In 1970, The New York Times described One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” While contemporary critics seldom mentioned the Cuban Revolution, the writers themselves acknowledged their debt even decades later.

“In a sense, the boom in Latin American literature in the United States has been caused by the Cuban Revolution,” Garcia Marquez told The Paris Review in 1981. “Every Latin American writer of that generation had been writing for twenty years, but the European and American publishers had very little interest in them. When the Cuban Revolution started there was suddenly a great interest about Cuba and Latin America.”

But if it was the Cuban Revolution that birthed the Latin American Boom, it was also revolutionary Cuba that laid the Boom to rest. King notes in his essay that the subsiding of the Boom as a literary trend in the 1970s coincided with rifts between the new Cuban state and the wider literary community. In 1971, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, once a supporter of the revolution, was imprisoned for criticizing the government in his work. Padilla faced a show trial, where he was forced to confess his “crimes” and make accusations against other writers, including his wife.

“This infuriated a number of intellectuals, from Latin America, North America, and Europe, who wrote two open letters to the Cuban regime complaining about Padilla’s shoddy treatment,” writes King. “Fidel Castro replied in a furious manner, castigating bourgeois intellectuals who were the lackeys of imperialism and agents of the CIA…”

(As absurd as that accusation may sound, the CIA was in fact connected to the literary establishment. Peter Matthiessen, co-founder of The Paris Review, for example, worked for the CIA in the 1950s and used the magazine as his cover while spying on communists and others.)

The question remains why it takes a revolution for readers to consider new writers.

The Boom still echoes, most clearly in the lasting appreciation of virtuosos like Garcia Marquez, but its relationship with the Cuban Revolution also demonstrates that popular political movements can inspire corresponding literary trends, much like the Black Lives Matter movement continues to inspire interest in the works of Black authors from a literary community that had previously been more hostile. The question remains why it takes a revolution for readers to consider new writers—but as Garcia Marquez suggested in his interview with The Paris Review, the search for such validation is, in part, what makes political conflict necessary.

“It was discovered that Latin American novels existed that were good enough to be translated and considered with all other world literature,” he said of the Boom. “What was really sad is that cultural colonialism is so bad in Latin America that it was impossible to convince the Latin Americans themselves that their own novels were good until people outside told them they were.”

To build upon Garcia Marquez’s criticism: The common hope of revolutionaries and writers should not be to momentarily gain access to either the rights or the recognition that have been withheld from them by gatekeepers. If revolutionaries and writers can find common cause, it should be in tearing down those gates, so that they can never be put out again.

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