Everybody’s going to Havana these days. Obama, the Rolling Stones, half of my chums in Knoxville. I’ve always wanted to see Havana, myself.
Cuba doesn’t intersect with Knoxville history very much. The word “Cuba” is on the Spanish-American War statue on Main Street, indicating that local soldiers ended up on the big island in 1898. By one theory, it was that war that popularized the exotic Spanish instrument known as the guitar. I don’t know whether it’s true, but you do see guitars mentioned in Knoxville newspapers more often after that war than before.
White Lily Flour became international when J. Allen Smith’s big mill began shipping to Cuba in the 1920s. It’s fun to think of the barrels of the Central Street’s most delicate product ending up in the pastelitos and churros and medianoches of Havana.
I’m impressed with the easing relationships, how many Americans are convinced they need to see Havana now, urgently, because they’re certain Americans are going to ruin it.
If you’re like me and can’t afford a Havana trip any time soon, read an essay James Agee wrote for Fortune magazine in 1937. It’s included in Paul Ashdown’s 1985 collection, James Agee: Selected Journalism. It’s called “Havana Cruise,” and it’s a classic.
He was just a working journalist when he went there on assignment with his friend, photographer Walker Evans. It was a year after the two of them made a very different summer trip to Alabama to live among tenant farmers for a month to create a picture that became immortal as a unique work of nonfiction called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Those who know Agee mainly for the warm empathy of that book and also his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, and “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” may not know James Agee could also be, given sufficient provocation, a smartass.
James Agee was 27 years old in the summer of 1937 and he could be a sarcastic fellow, especially when cooped up on the same ship with more than 100 frantic, silly tourists. Mercilessly, he described middle-class Americans on a middle-class cruise aboard a ship called the Oriente, as they tried to impress each other with little to work with. Things continued along the same theme when they arrived at their destination, sunny Havana.
Politics were different then. Agee, the Tennessee Episcopalian, was pretty far to the left of the government of Cuba which, in 1937, was in the early years of the thrall of military dictator Fulgencio Batista.
It was 20 years before anyone had heard of Castro. For that matter, it was before anyone had even heard of Desi Arnaz. Maybe Havana was a destination more exotic than some, but a fairly common vacation for the affluent American. Cuba was in some regards freer than the United States. Gambling was legal, and so were all manner of alcoholic drinks. During Prohibition, Americans went to Havana to get really drunk. They kept the habit even after rum became legal here.
The Oriente dumped its load of American tourists in Havana, where they boarded automobiles for a guided tour of the highlights of Havana.
One particular corner bar in Havana made a fortune catering to Americans’ fantasies of Havana, and became a legend, at least to Americans. Opened by a Cuban named Jose—his last name was either Garcia, Abeal, Otero, or some combination of the three—it became known as Sloppy Joe’s. (It’s not to be confused with another bar of the same name in Key West, advertised on T-shirts with the big bearded face of former patron Hemingway.)
“At Sloppy Joe’s, the Grant’s Tomb of bars, at which no self-respecting Cuban would be caught dead, the tourists themselves seemed a little embarrassed,” Agee wrote. “They huddled rather silent in the bar, and few of them ordered more than one drink.”
Agee, a connoisseur of bars in New York, was not much impressed with Sloppy Joe’s.
“Night life in one of the whoriest cities in the Western Hemisphere was represented by the San Souci, meaning carefree, and the Casino, meaning casino. Lowing gently, the tourists stepped out of their vans. The marble floors were absolutely beautiful. The trees were just exquisite. The music was every bit as smooth as Wayne King,” the mainstream-radio bandleader, “and even the native Cubans that went there seemed an awfully, nice, refined class of people.”
After four hours of sleep, a “heroic majority” of the tourists “spent the morning buying cigars, perfumes, rum, and souvenirs. Later they hung at the rail and talked of Havana,” Agee wrote. “Of those who liked Havana, the elder spoke of it as quaint, the more youthful as cute. Most of the passengers disliked Havana and were happy to be leaving it.”
For a travel article that appeared in one issue of Fortune, “Havana Cruise” has enjoyed unusual attention from scholars for decades.
French author Genevieve Moreau remarked that “Agee raises his piece to the level of profound social criticism,” a commentary on “the essential emptiness of middle-class life.”
Poet and critic Robert Fitzgerald called “Havana Cruise” a “masterpiece of ferocity.”
Of course, it’s not mainly about Havana, but about people with a little money and no clear idea of what to do with it. Despite Agee’s dismissal of Sloppy Joe’s, there’s one thing to envy.
Havana, which has since endured a brutal dictatorship, a violent revolution, years of Soviet domination, and another brutal dictatorship, still has a bar called Sloppy Joe’s. It was closed for some years, when American tourists were scarce, but reopened three years ago, in the same famous corner location, with its famous 59-foot-long bar and array of rum.
And Sloppy Joe’s isn’t even one of the oldest bars in Havana. The Floridita is almost two centuries old.
Knoxville, James Agee’s hometown, which has selected Republican representation in Congress every two years for a century and a half, is a seemingly more stable place than Havana. But Knoxville has no single restaurant, bar, cafe, or snack shop that James Agee would recognize from his lifetime.