Roberto González Echevarría
National Humanities Medal
When Roberto González Echevarría was a young boy growing up in Cuba, his world teemed with “epic elements, with heroes, fables, and [the] lore” of baseball. Playing the sport year-round, González Echevarría and his friends threw pebbles, fruit, and stones at any nearby object, competing with one another, developing their accuracy, dreaming about playing professionally. And they “revered the great players we heard about and whose pictures we saw in the newspapers and magazines, no matter what their nationality or race.”
After his family emigrated to the United States in 1959 at the advent of the Cuban revolution, González Echevarría eventually came to study and write more formally about “epic elements.” He attended Yale, earning his doctorate in 1970. Except for six years at Cornell University, he has taught at Yale, where he is currently the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures. His first work in English, Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home, surveyed one of the towering figures of Latin American literature and the inventor of the term “magic realism,” while his next, The Voice of the Masters: Writing and Authority in Modern Latin American Literature, explored how writings by Carpentier, Cortázar, García Márquez, and others were shaped by a distinctive Latin American ideology of what literature is and how it should be read.
Both works were marked by erudition, verbal grace, and creative thinking—elements even more in evidence in his Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative, which won the 1989–90 MLA’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize and the Latin American Studies Association’s 1992 Bryce Wood Book Award. Described by one reviewer as the “prime-moving intellectual force for [the] comprehensive project” of Latin American literary and cultural historiography, González Echevarría sought in Myth and Archive to show how authors employed the language of science and law to legitimize their own writings.
Throughout his career, González Echevarría has brought his wide reading and considerable intellectual talents to an ever-expanding range of subjects, including Cervantes and the law (first addressed in his 2002 DeVane Lectures at Yale and then later in Love and the Law in Cervantes) as well as the baroque in Spanish and Latin-American literatures. He has served as editor or coeditor of The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories, Don Quixote: A Casebook, and The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, among other collections. An international symposium was held in his honor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Arecibo, in 2002, and two years later an issue of Encuentro de la cultura cubana was published in his honor.
The last decade has witnessed even more divergent directions for the critic, who has returned to the early scene that shaped his sensibilities. The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball chronicles the sport from the nation’s first amateur leagues in the 1860s to its present centrality and its vexed political relationship to the United States. The book, which won the Dave Moore Award for the Best Baseball Book of 2002, is a rich admixture of social and sports history, explaining, among other things, how baseball assumed national dominance with the rejection of Spanish bullfighting and how Fidel Castro shrewdly associated himself with the sport in order to advance his revolutionary aspirations.
But it is the personal evocation of an earlier time, when childhood and the communal activity of baseball were synonymous, that is most striking about The Pride of Havana. Warm recollection mixed with compassionate analysis also inform González Echevarría’s most recent book, Cuban Fiestas, a discussion of how this elemental cultural event has kept Cuban society together for more than two centuries. Examining the fiesta cubana as portrayed in novels and paintings as well as in his own memory, González Echevarría manages that most difficult task: fusing art, criticism, and memoir into a startlingly original form.
As Harold Bloom has remarked, “Roberto González Echevarría is the leading critic of Hispanic literature—American and Iberian—now living. His synthesis of contemporary critical modes with the classical and romantic traditions of interpretation is original and influential.” Turning his attention to Cuban baseball and the tradition of fiestas, the eminent scholar and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has brought to life for his readers a world they might otherwise never have known.
By Randall Fuller