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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,251


This is the grave of Carleton Beals.

Born in 1893 in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, Beals came from an interesting background. His father was Carrie Nation’s stepson. I wonder what that was like. Anyway, the family got out of Kansas in 1882, moving to southern California. Beals grew up in Pasadena. He went to the University of California in Berkeley. He studied to be a mining engineer, the classic western field for rich guys who didn’t care that much about making money (you could make money in this but you usually didn’t, which is a big part of Wallace Stegner‘s Angle of Repose). But his heart wasn’t in it. He took all the literature and history courses he could fit in and won some university prizes for his writing.

It is hard to make a living writing and that was the case a century ago too. He took a job with Standard Oil, but hated it. He also refused to go to World War I and actually served some jail time for draft resistance. So this was already a left-leaning person from a pretty well-off background who wanted to write instead of work in the oil business. He really wanted something new. He and his first wife (not the one buried here with him) decided to move to Mexico, just to check it out and have some adventures. Well, this was a good time to have adventures in Mexico if adventures is what you wanted, since this was the later years of the Mexican Revolution and while that was technically over by 1920, it wasn’t really over in terms of the violence for nearly another decade.

Beals ended up in Mexico City, started a school, and somehow ended up on the personal staff of Venustiano Carranza at the end of his term as the first post-1917 Constitution president of Mexico. His job was teaching English to Carranza’s top officials. Carranza was soon killed as he attempted to loot the national treasury after he couldn’t stay in power or place a figurehead to replace him. Somehow Beals escaped all of this, though he naturally lost his job. Adventures indeed.

Well, Beals liked Mexico a lot. He did leave for awhile after his Carranza time, probably for good reason. He went to Spain, where he started writing books about his time in Mexico. His first was 1921’s The Mexican As He Is, which is such a weird title. He was at the University of Madrid for awhile and then the University of Rome. While he was in Rome, he witnessed the rise of Mussolini, was disgusted by it, and wrote about it in American magazines.

But as one of the only real left-leaning American elites with any understanding of Mexico, Beals was in high demand. The Nation hired him as their correspondent in Mexico so he went back. He continued to write about it, such as his 1923 book Mexico: An Interpretation, which was about the land reform programs of the Revolution. He got involved in left intellectual scene so strong in Mexico City, around figures such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who he knew well. He had his share of affairs in the rich sexual climate of this scene as well, which led to that first marriage falling apart pretty fast.

Beals was highly involved in promoting the new Mexico of the post-Revolutionary period to Americans. In this, he worked closely with other left leaning American intellectuals who had spent time in Mexico such as Katherine Anne Porter, as well as his friends in Mexico. In 1924, the magazine Survey Graphic had a special issue that Beals helped put together called “New Mexico,” which was not about the state of New Mexico but rather about the exciting life of a newly freed Mexico. In fact, this was so influential that Alain Locke used it as a model for his legendary article soon after also in Survey Graphic titled “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.”

Then in 1928, The Nation sent Beals to Nicaragua. There, he interviewed Augusto Cesar Sandino, the legendary revolutionary of that nation who the U.S. Marines spent years trying to hunt down. This was the only interview Sandino ever gave to an American reporter. The Marines were furious with Beals, who thought he was basically a traitor to the United States. At the same time though, Beals called out Sandino for exaggerations he made while also highlighting Sandino’s quite correct position on American imperialism. Moreover, he noted that Sandino was proud to have never attacked any American owned property–both wanted to make it clear that this was a civil war, not a war against the United States.

Beals was in Cuba for its 1932 revolution as well, reporting on the terrible conditions of that island under American quasi-imperialism and the dictator Gerardo Machado. Out of this, he wrote The Crime of Cuba, filled with the photographs of the great Walker Evans, one of the first books of its kind, before Evans worked with James Agee on the more famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Beals’ reporting and the book helped bring down Machado, with Sumner Wells stepping in to end the civil war and negotiate an exchange of power.

In short, Beals became perhaps the single greatest American expert on Latin America. He spent much of the rest of his life traveling and writing about it. He wrote like a fiend, an unbelievable level of productivity, with something like 45 books and hundreds of articles published. The books included a biography of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, 1937’s The Drug Eaters of the High Andes, which I assume is about coca leaf culture, 1939’s The Coming Struggle for Latin America, 1948’s Lands of the Dawning Morrow: The Awakening from Rio Grande to Cape Horn, and 1949’s The Long Land: Chile. He wrote U.S. history too, including a 1953 biography of Stephen F. Austin of all damn people, as well as a book on colonial Rhode Island, a biography of Carrie Nation (OK that one makes sense with the family connection), and a book on the Know-Nothings. He also wrote travel narratives.

Beals remained a serious thinker about Latin America way late in his life. In 1960, having traveled to Castro’s Cuba, he wrote Cuba’s Revolution: The First Year. He wrote articles at the time attacking the United States using the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz. What Beals ultimately brought to the world was a pretty sure-footed sense of politics. He refused to be fooled by American propaganda or stereotypes about Latin America. He also understood that different presidential administrations really did have different policies and so avoided the leftist “America is always evil” narrative that is so common. He could be a bit more susceptible to falling for leftist leaders in Latin America, but he remained pretty critical here too, much more so than some journalists.

After about 1940, Beals mostly lived in the U.S., but traveled a lot too. He spent his later years in Connecticut, where he died in 1979, at the age of 85.

Carleton Beals is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Killingworth, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other American writers on Latin America, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Katherine Anne Porter is in Indian Creek, Texas and Josefina Niggli is in San Antonio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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