charles macomb flandrau, “viva mexico!”

Charles Macomb Flandrau
Viva Mexico!
(introduction by C. Harvey Gardiner)
(Illini Books, 1964; originally 1908)

Viva Mexico! is a book about Mexico from 1908 by Charles Macomb Flandrau, who was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, though he doesn’t seem to have lasted particularly well. His father, a Minnesota lawyer, merits mention in Wikipedia; the younger Charles Flandrau was briefly famous for his narratives of college life (Harvard Episodes, The Diary of a Freshman, Sophomores Abroad), which I have not seen, before writing this book about Mexico. His brother ran a coffee plantation north of Jalapa; Flandrau seems to have helped out, though exactly what he would have done is unclear from the book. A century-old American travelogue of Mexico isn’t particularly promising; I think I found a mention of this in Kenneth Gangemi’s The Volcanoes from Puebla, though I might be misremembering.

Eland Books put out an edition of this in the U.K. in 2004; there are countless print-on-demand editions available now, but this edition, from the University of Illinois Press in 1964, might be the most recent American edition, which seems a shame: with a new introduction, this would fit very nicely in the New York Review Books series. C. Harvey Gardiner declares at the start of his introduction that this “may well be the finest twentieth-century travel account of Mexico,” a bold claim to make with thirty-six years left in the century; but it’s defensible. Flandrau’s book is an odd one, and not what you’d expect an American to write in 1908, especially one well-to-do; there’s more resemblance than you might think to Eisenstein’s similarly titled ¡Que viva México!; it’s entirely possible that Upton Sinclair and Jay Leyda, involved in that project, would have known this book. Viva Mexico! probably betters D. H. Lawrence’s Mexican books; and it compares favorably to Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Octavio. Gangemi’s book is better than all of them, for my money, but there’s an argument to be made for Flandrau.

Part of the appeal of this book is how Flandrau can float invisibly as an observer, not quite tourist – he seems to have spent nearly a decade in Mexico at the time he wrote this book – but clearly not a native. Tourism, he understands, is a dirty business which implicates everyone; after a discussion of the misbehaviors of American tourists (washing their hands in holy water in the cathedrals, cutting souvenirs of tapestry from the President’s palace) he ends with this passage:

Chiefly from constant contact with tourists, the cab drivers of the City of Mexico have become notoriously extortionate and insolent, and, for the same reason, Cuernavaca, one of the most beautiful little towns, not only in Mexico, but in the world, may soon – tourist-ridden as it is – be one of the least attractive. There, among the cabmen, the hotel employees, the guides, and the mozos who have horses for hire, the admirable native manner has lamentably deteriorated. Egged on by underbred Americans, many of them have themselves become common, impudent, and a bore. They no longer suggest Mexico. One might almost as well “see Naples and die.” (pp. 228–9)

There’s undoubtedly something patronizing about his seeing the “real Mexico” disappearing – this was written in 1908, after all – but it’s not as patronizing as one might expect. (Alberto Moravia’s book about Africa at the end of colonialism, the unfortunately titled Which Tribe Do You Belong To? also occupies this space.) There’s still truth in what Flandrau reports, though the details may have shifted: travel in the Yucatán, for example, which has a large tourism-based economy largely based on tourism, is considerably less pleasant than in Mexico City, mostly tourist-free. Ex-pats are as bad as tourists, if not worse – this book can’t have helped relations with his acquaintances:

It is not generally realized that the male inhabitants of Great Britain do not make a practice of wearing drawers, although such is the strange dissembled fact. Now, while the possession of underclothes is not necessarily indicative of birth and wealth, I have always assumed, although perhaps with a certain apathy, that the possession of wealth and birth presupposed underclothes. This, in England at least, does not seem to be the case, for my young friend, whose name is ancient and whose purse is well filled, announced to me in Mexico not long ago, with the naïveté that so often astonishes one in thoroughly sophisticated persons of his race: “I’ve knocked about a good bit and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s usually something to be said for the peculiar habits of different peoples even if you don’t know exactly what it is. Since I’ve been in this country I’ve noticed that everybody seems to wear drawers – even the peons. There must be some reason for it – connected with the climate very likely – and I’ve taken to wearing them myself. I don’t particularly care for the things,” he hastened apologetically to add, “and I dare say they’re all rot, but I’m going to give them a try. Why don’t you!” (pp. 262–3)

Flandrau was a sensitive observer; he was not, perhaps, very interested in organization, and the book moves from subject to subject almost at random, following what seems to be Flandrau’s consciousness. It’s a willfull book, and it’s hard to imagine what a contemporary audience would have made of it: Flandrau doesn’t seem to have been interested in satisfying anyone but himself. The book occasionally risks drifting into outright solipsism (in an extended passage about being along he confesses to occasionally doubting the reality of other people and cities when he’s not around to see them), but Flandrau’s grace is not exempting himself from his criticism:

I have grown rather tired of reading in magazines that “the City of Mexico resembles a bit of Paris”; but I have grown much more tired of the people who have also read it and repeat it as if they had evolved the comparison unaided – particularly as the City of Mexico doesn’t in the least resemble a bit of Paris. It resembles absolutely nothing in the world except itself. To criticise it as having most of the objectionable features and few of the attractions of a great city would be unfair; but first telling myself that I am unfair, I always think of it in those terms. In truth it is a great and wonderful city, and it grows more wonderful every day; also, I am inclined to believe, more disagreeable. (p. 280)

My quotations might give the impression of Flandrau as dour and disagreeable, which isn’t the case at all. He is a man resigned to his fate, which isn’t likely to be as bad as all that:

When the worst comes to the worst, as by an unforeseen combination of circumstances it sometimes does, and you are on the point of losing your reason or, what is much worse, your temper, the inevitable kind lady or kind gentleman, who is to be found in every country and who knows everything, always appears at the proper moment, asks if he can be of any assistance, and sends you on your way rejoicing. In any event, in provincial Mexico nothing unpleasant is likely to happen to you. (p. 193)

3 thoughts on “charles macomb flandrau, “viva mexico!”

  1. Pingback: Reviews: Viva Mexico! by Charles Macomb Flandrau | LibraryThing

  2. Your observations are, indeed, excellent. My great-grandfather and his daughter (my grandmother) lived near the area of Flandreau’s brother’s operation, perhaps 20 miles to the north by straight-line. They were familiar with each other, and exchanged visits.
    Because of extended generations it was not my pleasure to know my grandmother. She died several years before I was born, as did my great grandfather….Peter Bonesteel Christian. They were people with a New York – Minneapolis background.
    By my father’s stories about his mother’s adventures, it is certain that Flandreau’s accounting and observation of Mexico was as fair as a man of his class could make it. My readings and re-readings of his opus seem to me to be at least as classic as Matthew Brady’s photography. As one who has lived, done business in, travelled throughout, now retired in as a homeowner of a pleasant little Quinta,it seems to me to be the definitive description of Mexico for all times. Even now.
    We owned and operated a touring company for many years, providing deluxe transportation, accommodation, meals, events, and so forth. We moved through the entire Republic and its interminable attractions and fascinations. We recommended the reading of various lesser known books to our clients….who were a bit academic…and I cannot tell you the number of times …at the saloon at the end of the day….as we travelled through some interesting piece of geography…as we studied some archeological site…or any of an interminable number of other instances….that I would hear, “It’s just like Flandreau wrote…”

    Your critique of Flandreau is accurate, and you are kind to put on his “drawers” and walk a mile in them. He was more than a bit snobby, but that is the nature of the cat…What are we to do? Are we to train him up in humility? He seemed to be rather “pro-Mexican” and “pro-Mexico” for a person of his class and station. He was a damned sight better than Col. House, Woodrow Wilson, and Mr. Lind.

    Without the right, and with total presumption, however, it is my pleasure to give you a 99% on your review. Thanks for your time, and for the memories that your review dug up in the recesses of a very old brain.

    David Christian Newton
    El Gringo Viejo

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