“The Evil Was Very Grave … ”

The Cuban independence hero and poet José Martí 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. crónicas take up more than 2,000 pages of his collected works -- an unrivaled treasure of information, detail, insight, analysis, and thought about America's Gilded Age, all written in a vibrant, poetic prose that revolutionized the Spanish language. (Guillermo Cabrera Infante calls Martí'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, Martí 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.

Martí 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.

“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.

But he who observes this country without rancor, as much as he is disgusted by the primacy ceded to the appetites here, and the forgetfulness, if not the disdain, in which the generous qualities are held, also has to recognize that whenever it appears that a danger is imminent, or that an institution has been profaned beyond redemption, or that some vice has devoured half the nation, there arises, with the reliability of a law, and without great apparatus, and when the evil can still be cured, the men and systems that can avoid ruin. They appear, do what they have to do, and drop from sight. And it also appears that a condition of this law is that the evil has to be extreme, as if the prosperous peoples never decide to change direction, or perturb their habits, until the reality becomes so dire that it is impossible to ignore.

This was the law affirmed by the election of Grover Cleveland. The evil was very grave: the Republicans, entrenched in power, cynically abused it; they subverted the integrity of the vote, and of the press; they mocked the spirit of the Constitution through partisan legislation, and copying the tactics of tyrants, used overseas wars to deflect attention from their actions. Who had a chance to compete against them? Defeat them? -- if elections are won by the force of money, if the Republicans have a free hand with the national coffers?

But a wave rose up that no one saw forming on the margins, and no one knows how it came, breaking over the heads of all the ambitious and illustrious politicians of the nation -- despite the anger of the members of his own Democratic party, despite time-proven practices and conceits -- and landed in the White House a man just a little more than barely known, a tough but humble man, fit for the task of fearlessly and patiently reforming the corrupt government … the wave brought Cleveland.

Up close you see that the change has not been essential or durable, but circumstantial and like a proof: an eruption proving that it can be done: that the eruption of a fistful of men, a fistful of honorable people, nothing more than that, have given victory to Cleveland -- a thousand votes less, among ten million voters, and the president would have been an impure and sinister man, a brilliant sofist: he would have been Blaine.”

Francisco Goldman lives in Brooklyn and Mexico City. His new novel, The Divine Husband, in which José Martí figures as a character, will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press in September.