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Poet, Writer, Orator, Statesman, Martyr

SELECTED WRITINGS: By Jose Marti, Edited and translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen, Penguin: 462 pp., $15 paper

July 21, 2002|TOM MILLER | Tom Miller is the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba" and editor of "Travelers' Tales: Cuba." He is a fellow of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Jose Marti is the most remarkable figure in the history of Cuba, though he spent almost all of his adult life outside his homeland. His importance can't be overestimated. Marti was born in Havana, in January 1853, to a low-level Spanish officer and his wife. At 16, he wrote passionately against Spanish control of Cuba, activity that landed him hard labor in a stone quarry for "disloyalty," after which he was granted clemency and banished to Spain. In 1878, after living in Mexico and Guatemala, Marti returned to his patria. He was arrested and deported again the following year, this time for conspiring against Spain, a charge he would be guilty of for the rest of his life. Pepe, as he was universally known, left Spain that same year for New York City, which was to be his home base until just before his death.

There, in Spanish, English and on occasion French, he wrote poetry, plays, essays, polemics and art criticism. For a few years, he wrote commentary about life in the United States, its politics, literary heroes, industry, expansion and personalities. These essays on Walt Whitman, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island and Buffalo Bill appeared in Latin American newspapers. Marti was, in effect, a syndicated columnist for the Americas, describing subjects such as the memorial service in New York for Karl Marx, organized crime in the states, the Haymarket rioters and women's suffrage.

Over the years, he also worked as a translator and for an import-export concern, taught night-school Spanish and took part in a hemisphere-wide conference on economics that, in retrospect, dealt with globalization as it existed at the time. His grief-stricken poetry often dealt with nature and love, frequently infused with a subtle sensuality.

Most of what Marti wrote, whether personal letters, verse, public tracts or journalistic essays, has been saved and published. The collected works, some 27 volumes, were brought out most recently in Havana in the mid-1970s. Some of it has been translated, but no English-language collection is as comprehensive as "Selected Writings," the handsome new addition to the Penguin Classics series edited and translated by Esther Allen, a book that follows Marti's thinking, his activities and his pen, starting with his thoughtful teenage letters to his mother from the stone quarry right up to the day before he died. It also includes the never-before-translated-into-English "War Diaries."

The motivating force that drove Marti was not gaining a reputation for his writing or for his worldly expertise but rather for a two-word slogan coined by him: "Cuba libre." He organized tirelessly on behalf of a Cuba free of Spain, writing, raising money, giving speeches, forming a political party and meeting publicly and clandestinely to further this singular goal. As U.S. annexation of his homeland was bandied about, he grew increasingly fearful of Washington's ham-handed foreign policy. He envisioned "a free Cuba ruled by love and justice," writes Yale scholar Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria in his admirable introduction to this new volume, "free of prejudice and oppression, exempt from arbitrary rule by military leaders, in harmonious commerce with the rest of the world, and enjoying absolute self-determination." His dreams faced the Caribbean.

The broad sweep of his humanist and optimistic outlook is available in this new volume, intelligently selected and in a translation neither obsessed with late-19th century formality nor condescending to contemporary idioms. There's not one off-key note.

A Marti sampler: About Emerson, he wrote, "Marvelous old man, I lay my sheaf of green palm fronds and my silver sword at your feet!" Of Coney Island: "Everything is out in the open: the noisy groups, the vast dining rooms, the peculiar courtship of the North Americans

To fellow Cuban revolutionary Maximo Gomez, who, unlike Marti, foresaw a military role in an independent Cuba: "A nation is not founded, General, as a military camp is commanded." And of race: "Anything that divides men from each other, that separates them, singles them out, or hems them in, is a sin against humanity." Shortly after moving to New York: "Everywhere, a woman's soul has come to bless and sweeten my exhausted life. But I have not found in New York my two lovely eyes! ... American women seem to have only one necessary thought when they see a new man: 'How much is that man worth?' " Madison Square Garden, after a walking marathon: "Full of rinds, cigarette butts, empty kegs, and red-shirted ruffians, the Garden reeks!"

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