In The Island Called Paradise, Philip D. Beidler shares his personal discovery of the vast, rich, and astonishing history of the island of Cuba and the interrelatedness of Cuba and the US.
Cuba first entered Beidler’s consciousness in the early 1960s when he watched with mesmerized anxiety the televised reports of the Cuban missile crisis, a conflict that reduced a multifaceted, centuries-old history between North America and Cuba to the stark duotones of Cold War politics. Fifty years later, when Beidler traveled to the US’s island neighbor, he found a Cuba unlike the nation portrayed in truculent political rhetoric or in the easy preconceptions of US popular culture. Instead he found an entrancing people and landscape with deep historical connections to the US and a dazzling culture that overwhelmed his creative spirit.
In twelve original essays, Beidler reintroduces to English-speaking readers many of the central figures, both real and literary, of Cuban and Cuban-American history. Meet Cecilia Valdés, the young mixed-race heroine of a 1839 novel that takes readers to the poor streets and sumptuous salons of Spanish colonial Cuba, and Narciso López, a real-life Venezuelan adventurer and filibustero who attempted to foment a Cuban uprising against Spain. Both would have been familiar figures to nineteenth-century Americans. Beidler also visits the twentieth-century lives of “the two Ernestos” (Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara), and the pop-culture Cuban icon Ricky Ricardo.
A country not with one history but multiple layers of history, Cuba becomes a fertile island for Beidler’s exploration. Art, he argues, perpetually crosses walls erected by politics, history, and nationality. At its core, The Island Called Paradise renews and refreshes our knowledge of an older Atlantic world even as we begin to envision a future in which the old bonds between our nations may be restored.
Introduction: Cuba and the Imagination
1. Romancing Cecilia Valdés
2. Un Militar Español de Origen Venezolano
3. Mambises in Whiteface
4. The Ghost of Walker Evans
5. Ignacio Piñeiro, George Gershwin, and the Schillinger System
6. The Secret Life of Ricky Ricardo
7. Good Neighbor Batista
8. The Two Ernestos
9. Steverino in Gangsterland
10. Why No One in Havana Speaks of Graham Greene
11. Inspector Renko on the Malecón
12. The Example of Yoani Sanchez
Conclusion: The Autumn of the Comandante
Source Notes and Reading Suggestions
“What do we think about when we think about Cuba? The challenge Philip D. Beidler faces in answering this question is a major one. On the one hand, Christopher Columbus described it as a paradise. On the other, American policy has made it a forbidden land for the past fifty years. At best we have fantasies of Papa Hemingway and Che Guevara, their nicknames marking these “two Ernestos” as trademark brands demanding the scrutiny Beidler supplies. In The Island Called Paradise, we learn that the country’s iconography is even more extensive and complex, reaching back over two hundred years in fiction and even farther in national legend, all of which Beidler considers with the depth true cultural portraiture demands. From Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and any number of flamboyant filibuster adventurers to television star Desi Arnaz and novelist Graham Greene, Beidler draws insights worthy enough to make him our man in Havana.”
—Jerome Klinkowitz, author of Kurt Vonnegut’s America and Frank Lloyd Wright and His Manner of Thought