According to Enrique Anderson Imbert in his book Historia de la literatura hispanoamericana, (History of Latin American Literature), José Martí is one of the great treasures that the Spanish language has given to the world. While he left behind a number of organic works, he was essentially a chronicler; a master of merging information and commentary in a single line, and of intertwining literature and life in his chronicle. He wrote a great deal about Cuba and about the America that he called “ours.” However, a significant part of his journalistic work was devoted to what he himself referred to as North American Scenes: five volumes—more than 2,500 pages—of the 28 volumes that make up the 1963 edition of his Complete Works. He lived in New York for the last 15 years of his life almost uninterruptedly, and he is considered as the Latin American who was most familiar with the United States. He knew that country so well that today, when U.S. scholars want to dig deep into the reality of their country at the close of the 19th century, this Cuban’s Scenes are essential.
In 1879, after returning to Havana, Martí was arrested and deported to Spain. He fled to France and crossed the ocean again. By January of 1880, he was in New York. What was known as the Little War was taking place in Cuba at that time, and Martí devoted himself to the new liberation effort until it failed. What did he do then? He wrote for several U.S. newspapers, such as The Sun, which eventually became the most important periodical of its era. It was then that Martí began to gain a reputation in Latin America, thanks to the articles and chronicles that he wrote in New York for Spanish-language newspapers such as La Opinión Nacional, of Caracas, La Nación, of Buenos Aires, and El Partido Liberal, of Mexico, articles that were later reprinted in 20-some countries.
He was the consul of Argentina and Paraguay in New York, and Uruguay appointed him as its representative at the International Monetary Conference. He also worked in a trading house and was a professor of languages and a translator of English and French. His labors were many, but they provided him with only a modest living. His wife, who wanted him to be involved in more lucrative activities, left him, taking their son and departing the United States under the protection of the Spanish consul. It was also in New York that Martí published Ismaelillo (1882), a real revelation for the poetry of that era, and his novel Amistad funesta (Disastrous Friendship), in 1885. In 1889, he announced La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age), a magazine for the children of America. Another book of his poetry, Versos sencillos (Simple Verses), was published in 1891. And a year later, he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party and its newspaper, Patria (Homeland); the struggle for Cuba’s independence was to be his last great effort.
Because of his North American Scenes, José Martí is the great chronicler of life in the United States from 1880 to 1889. We can find in his writing admirably critical biographical sketches of poets and thinkers and references to the great events of those times, when extraordinary transformations were taking place in the United States—its economic growth, religious and social problems, businessmen, and famous adventurers and bandits. He wrote a wonderful account of the inaugural party for the Statue of Liberty, and was reaffirmed as a sage observer in his comments about the First International American Conference; he was a thinker who scrutinized the future. Sometimes the chronicler gave way to the essayist, and more than a few of his chronicles can be described as essays. That was the case with his article on Emerson, and with another a literary treasure who had never before written about in the Spanish language, but who after Martí’s chronicle began to be appreciated throughout Latin America as a representative of a new poetic expression: Walt Whitman.
For Martí, journalism was a living and fruitful way of approaching life, as Cuban Raimundo Lazo wrote. His chronicles of New York are impressive because of his admirable flexibility of style, his spot-on personal views, and his wise opinions about whatever topic he addressed, whether it was an ephemeral or pathetic incident of everyday life or a major event. He transformed journalistic style in the Spanish language and his journalism made his prose dynamic, filling it with life.