“Waugh’s Mexico” in the New Criterion

In the latest issue of the New Criterion, Mark Falcoff has written an updated review of Waugh’s 1939 political travel book Robbery Under Law. Falcoff opens with a discussion of the book’s history, noting Waugh’s agreement to write the book in return for a specified fee and trip to Mexico for him and his wife.  Falcoff also describes how Waugh abandoned the book after its publication and never had it reprinted in later editions or excerpts. He might have mentioned in this regard that the Catholic Book Club did issue a UK reprint in 1940, probably in view of Waugh’s extensive defense of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.

Falcoff (who seems to be quite conversant in Mexican history) goes on to carefully examine the book, which he thinks that Waugh underrated. Aside from the few pages devoted to the oil expropriation, which were part of the fee arrangement, he describes the book as an accurate and often sympathetic description of Mexico’s history and how it got to where is was at the time Waugh made his visit:

…The far larger part of the book, … consists of an astonishingly learned exposition on the history of Mexico, a subject that Waugh must have spent considerable time studying before his trip. He shows a firm grasp of the central themes of the country’s past, particularly the damaging aspect of its wars of independence, its long periods of civil war, the loss of half of its national territory to the United States, and above all the conflict between its Spanish heritage and what might be called the resentments of a half-caste (mestizo) middle and lower-middle class. He is also alert to the purposeful destruction of historic architecture, libraries, churches, and so forth in the attempt to purge the country of any trace of the ancien régime, at the cost of divesting itself of more than three centuries of schools, hospitals, and charitable foundations. The most dangerous aspect of this, Waugh writes, is the Mexican effort “to accept the centuries of Spanish rule as a closed incident and to look to the preconquest elements for the eventual salvation of the country.” This, of course, was the ideology of the regnant Mexican Revolutionary Party and remains so in its present-day incarnation, the Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI)…

What follows is a fairly detailed analysis of the book, concluding with this:

…Mexico today, of course, is a very different country than it was when Waugh visited it almost a century ago. He could not foresee the kinds of changes that gave it greater stability and even a measure of prosperity, such as the 49/51 rule, which allowed foreign investment to return by facilitating silent arrangements with local politicians. Nor did Waugh predict the coming of the Second World War, which for a time rendered even the nationalized petroleum industry profitable, nor—in the even longer term—could he see the massive future transfer of populations to the United States, acting as a generous conduit of remittances, particularly to the poorest regions of the country. Neither he nor anyone else could foresee the emergence of a new industry that put oil in the shade: the lucrative traffic in illicit drugs, produced and processed in Mexico and exported to markets in the United States and elsewhere.

What strikes the reader most about Robbery Under Law is not the harsh critical tone but rather Waugh’s underlying affection for the country, what it had been and what it could still be. Waugh harbored a deep admiration for pre-revolutionary Mexico, despite all of its faults and limitations, and could justify his attitude with a serious consideration of its achievements and possibilities. Those who know the country today can read a book written so long ago and recognize many features that have endured, all the while enjoying the precision and elegance of the prose of a true English master.

Falcoff offers what is effectively an updated and favorable review of the book. The copy he reviewed was that included in Nicholas Shakespeare’s 2003 edition in the Everyman’s Library collected travel writings entitled Waugh Abroad.  That may, indeed, have been the first reprint of the book. His literary editor may have let him down a bit here, however, as he seems to have been unaware of the OUP edition of the book issued last year as volume 24 of its Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. (See review in Evelyn Waugh Studies 54.1.) It would be interesting to read how his own analysis of the book compares with that of OUP’s editor, Michael G Brennan, on several of the points they both discuss at some length. A copy of the New Criterion issue (June 2024) that includes this essay can be purchased at this link.

UPDATE (25 May 2024): Readers interested in the foregoing article may also have an interest in a paper to be offered at the 25th Graham Greene International Festival. This will convene 3-6 October at Berkhamsted, HERTS:

“Traveling the Lawless Roads: Anglophone Writers in Mexico, 1926-1946. Julia G. Young (Catholic University of America) will discuss how writers flocked to Mexico, and, describing the church-state conflict, provided a beautiful but distorted view of the country.”

The paper will be delivered at 0945a on Friday, 4 October 2024 at Town Hall, Berkhamsted. Details are available at this link: https://grahamgreenebt.org/festival/

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