About Missives for Curtis Gram


Missives for Curtis Gram was conceived through an ongoing engagement with the writing of Carleton Beals.  This progressive American journalist was quite popular in the 1920’s and 30’s and was seen by his contemporaries as “the dean of American correspondents writing about Latin America.”[1]  His 1928 interview of Augusto Sandino in a remote Nicaraguan camp was his first international breakthrough.  Afterwards, his journalistic work was found repeatedly in The Nation, The New Republic and The New York Times.  He wrote over 41 books and novels, with several key volumes translated into Spanish. 


Beals was an old-school “free thinker” and, as such, often bristled at the boundaries of propriety—both personal and professional.  He vehemently criticized Cuban Ambassador Harry Guggenheim for his support of Cuban dictator Antonio Machado only a year or two after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship for book on Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.[2]  He tendered a very public resignation from the 1937 Dewey Commission in Mexico City intended to clear the name of Leon Trotsky after infuriating the defendant with too many pointed questions.[3]  A staunch anti-imperialist and populist, Beals was quite skeptical of traditional politics.  While his writing style was both meticulous and sarcastic, his overall approach was systemic and forward thinking.  Consider this sample from the introduction to his 1937 book, America South:


Most of what we have done in the past in Latin America—as a government, by social or medical institutions, as engineers, as individuals—has been opportunistic, at best fragmentary, unillumined.  Our great engineering feats are strewn about like jig-saw puzzles no one has thought to fit together to find their meaning in terms of abiding relationships between two great peoples.  These deeds of mechanical achievement—many of them as magnificent as any in the world—are like barren islands left behind a sunken continent that someone long ago dreamed about and made more real than the present scattered pieces.[4]


While his stance is quite confident, this rhetoric belies a certain vulnerability that, I feel, parallels a particular intensity of experience as well as a precarious investment of expertise.


I was first drawn to Beals while writing a paper concerning his 1934 book The Crime of Cuba, illustrated by photographer Walker Evans.  Conventional wisdom held that Evans’ photos were strikingly insightful, while Beals’ writing was second-rate.  My paper argued that Beals’ writing was ignored or misunderstood at best, denigrated or misconstrued at worst.  I point out how Andrei Codrescu grossly mischaracterized Beals in his introduction to the art book, Walker Evans Cuba, condemning Beals’ supposed “communist-fascist rhetorical excesses.”[5]  Codrescu claims that “Beals’ characters are conspiratorial ciphers who move in a world of creepy statistics and damning facts.”[6]  When considering the Evans picture featured on the cover of the book--Woman on the Street, Havana--he quips, “Of course, Beals would say, America made Cuba a whore. But there is no America on this Havana street, only a sexy woman, an interested man, and an eternal tension.”[7]  Codrescu--eager to denounce an assumed proponent of state socialism--pits the subjective and anonymous (erotic) actor against Beals’ supposedly paranoid, socio-political prudery.  However, I feel that a fuller reading of Beals shows an ongoing and deep concern for the subjective (political) subject against imperialist exploitation.  In this passage from Cuba, Beals critiques not “America” but the limits of the American tourist’s awareness and what is erased from its view:


The footsteps of the tourists are not likely to carry them late at night past the darker portals removed from the Prado, under which homeless families sleep for blocks on end; they are not likely to ask the meaning of the soldiers in front of the National University, their feet cocked up on the imposing bronze statue of Alma Mater; they are not likely to know that a wrecked building is the product of a "pineapple" tossed the night before. Soothed by their freedom from domestic obligations, they come back with glowing accounts of Cuba's remarkable hospitality and vigorous denials of the unsettled conditions prevailing in Cuba for the past six years.  


For if they thus fail to observe the most outward signs of political and social distress, they will hardly discern the deeper indications of disintegration. They would be astonished if told that the average Cuban is so terrorized that unless he is known to the police as a tout or Cicerone, he will fear to associate with an American or any other foreigner. [8] 


During my work on that project, I was fortunate enough to visit the Beals Archive at the Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center at Boston University.  It was amazing to see the correspondence behind some of his intrigues and to see his hand-scrawled comments as rejoinders to some critical book reviews.  However, I was quite shocked when I came to Box 100.  This box was completely filled with pages upon pages of unpublished poetry!  Here were drafts and edits of poetic writing stretching back into the 1920s, jumbled in no particular theme or chronological order.  And all these poems were written under his chosen pseudonym, Curtis Gram.

He certainly penned some of these poems as a World War I draft resister arriving penniless in Mexico City in 1918 teaching English to high-ranking Mexican officials.  Others possibly were written while caught up in the profound potential of the Mexican Revolution.  Yet others were conceived as ongoing arrests, including his own, and escalating bloodshed made Beals increasingly disillusioned and critical.[9]  I only got a chance to copy a handful of poems during my visit.  Here are a couple stanzas from the poem, “The Generations Peered Over My Shoulders”:


To cauterize my pride in her arms,

To match shame with shame; to reel

Through hours of fleshly bliss,

Forgetting all in the carnal kiss,

In the breathless abyss, on the whirling wheel.


I have torn the hot-house lily

From my breast.  My feet

Have trampled the family crest in the mire,

Molding their hate and their conceit

With the lust of primordial atoms and fire.[10]


Now my point is not that Beals was an unrecognized poetic genius.  He may not even have been exceptional for generating pages of unpublished poetry or for his need for a pseudonym.  What interests me is the motivation for and function of this parallel production of writing.  In fact, this unpublished poetic space may have been helpful or at times necessary to Beals’ published work and public persona.


After his time as an opinion-maker, Beals’ career waned as World War II shifted the American focus away from both the Western Hemisphere and an era of popular dissent.  The McCarthyism accompanying the Cold War made it all but impossible for him to get printed.  Between 1940 and 1955 his publishing plummeted both in quantity and intensity.  Relying on writing for a living, Beals’ financial situation became desperate at times.


In the late 1950’s, Beals had a resurgence of sorts due to the buildup and aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Now in his sixties, Beals acquired a new relevance--his depth of knowledge of Latin American political movements quite without parallel.  His article, “The New Crime of Cuba,” for The Nation in 1957 featured both an extensive interview with Batista and one of the first in-depth analyses of Castro. He knew not only the players personally, but their histories as well. 


But even this newfound productivity did not come without a cost.  He HeBecause of a tangential association with the controversial Fair Play for Cuba Committee he was summoned before a Senate interrogation committee.  Despite that inquisition, Beals visited Cuba later that year, during which he wrote articles anticipating the “Bay of Pigs” Invasion attempt and its aftermath.[11] 


A fuller reading of Beals’ many articles, his books on Latin America, his several fictional novels as well as his unpublished poems may help us uncover what may be erased from legacies of committed, populist writers.  Rereading Beals may also lead to an appreciation of alternative and overlooked passions that underpin and inform social engagement.[12] 


At this point, Missives for Curtis Gram does not deal directly with Latin American affairs, Cuban history or McCarthyism.  It does not speak to the specific content of Curtis Gram’s poems and are not fragments of Beals’ writing.  Instead, they are in fact my own dated fragments that somehow I felt resisted further completion.  It is in Beals’ spirit of engagement and consequence, commitment and erotics, effort and misconstruction that I present these initial Missives for Curtis Gram. 


I would like to thank Aryanil Mukherjee and Tyrone Williams whose ongoing collaboration spilled over at times into this work.  Also I thank Aryanil for translating into English the poem “adbhut andhar ek”[13] by the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das that serves as the project’s epigraph.

~ Pat Clifford, May 17, 2011

[1] McWilliams, Carey. “Second Thoughts”. The Nation. July 14-21, 1979. Beals’ Obituary. 

[2] Britton, John A. Carleton Beals: A Radical Journalist in Latin America. University of New Mexico, 1987. 101

[3] Beals, Carleton. The Fewer Outsiders the Better. The Saturday Evening Post. June, 12 1937

[4] Beals, Carleton. America South.  J.B. Lippincott Company, New York. 1937. 14. 

[5] Walker Evans Cuba. Getty Museum, 2001. 12 

[6] Walker Evans Cuba, 16 

[7] Walker Evans Cuba, 20 

[8] Beals, Carleton. The Crime of Cuba.  Lippincott, New York. 1934. 36-37.

[9] Britton, 99. 

[10] Original in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University

[11] Beals, “Cuba’s Invasion Jitters.” The Nation. November 12, 1960. 

[12] I have yet to uncover the articles he contributed to Stag Magazine for Men in the ‘30s, which may yet provide further insights, I’m sure. 

[13] I first encountered this powerful poem in William Radice’s Teach Yourself Bengali (McGraw-Hill, 2003).



[ Missives for Curtis Gram ]




pat-clifford-bw.pngPat Clifford is the author of several chapbooks including Ring of Honor (2007) and Embrace (2010). He is co-author with Aryanil Mukherjee of two books of poetry: chaturangik/SQUARES (CinnamonTeal, 2009) and The Memorandum/MOU (Kaurab, 2011).  His poetry and critical work has appeared in Moria,  Jacket, The Sunday Indian and Kaurab and has been translated into Bengali.  He is a graduate student at the Mandel School of Applied Social Science at Case Western Reserve University and is the Stone Senior Fellow at the HUC-UC Ethics Center at Hebrew Union College.  He has a background as a community leader, activist and consultant in areas of human services and public policy.