Monday, September 12, 2011

Francisco I. Madero by Stanley R. Ross

Re: The rightly famous and splendid biography by Stanley R. Ross, Francisco I. Madero: Apostle of Mexican Democracy. If you're interested in learning more about Mexico, put this on your short-list for reading ASAP. Originally published in 1955 by Columbia University Press, it is the first major biography to include original archival research as well as interviews with eyewitnesses, including Madero's widow, Sara Pérez de Madero.

For Americans, it explains much of the hostility many Mexicans still feel about U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Madero, who was not only the leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution which torched the decades-long rule of Porfirio Díaz, but, after De la Barra's interim government, Mexico's democratically elected President. In Ross's work, U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson comes across as a coldly contemptuous and narcissistic intriguer. In 1913, in the aftermath of General Victoriano Huerta's violent coup and Madero's assassination, Ambassador Wilson was, quite rightly, recalled by President Woodrow Wilson (no relation) shortly after the latter assumed office.

Though backed by deep research, Ross's biography reads like a novel, each chapter ending in a cliff-hanger.

Its major drawback is that Ross does not give Madero's Spiritism the serious consideration it deserves for, neither Madero's political career nor his downfall can be understood without taking his deeply held, if unorthodox beliefs and his mediumship into full account.

Ross does address Madero's Spiritism in the opening chapter, explaining that, when a young student in Paris, Madero came upon the Revue Spirite, the magazine founded by Allan Kardec, the 19th century founder of Spiritism. Without delving into the nature of Spiritism, -- then already well-established among Mexican urban and provincial elites--nor the extensive writings of Kardec, nor his followers, Ross, as if swatting a fly, dismisses it thus: "Madero lacked sufficient preparation to develop his own doctrine and did not subject his acquired beliefs to penetrating analysis."

Then briefly, in a single paragraph, Ross covers the influence of the Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of the Hindus. Ross does not mention that it was from this book that Madero took his pen name, Bhima, for his Manual Espirita, published in the same year Madero took office, 1911. Nor does Ross mention Madero's Manual Espirita or even include it in his bibliography.

Both U.S. Ambassador Wilson and General Huerta referred to Madero's "peculiar" beliefs with acid contempt and even discussed whether or not Madero should be confined to a lunatic asylum. Ross quotes them both, but does not probe the reasons underlying such hostility. No doubt, in part, this was because Madero was, in fact, a leading evangelist for Spiritism, even as he fought the Revolution and then defended his administration. The narrative begs for more explanation.

Others, including Enrique Krauze, Yolia Tortolero, Ignacio Solares, Manuel Guerra de Luna, and Alejandro Rosas, have written about Madero's Spiritism. To be fair, however, until Krauze's work came out in the 1980s, for historians, Madero's Spritism was something to be mentioned only as briefly as possible, for it was too strange and, for many, embarrassing, to treat seriously. Fortunately, this is changing. There is also a fine documentary on the subject. I'll be commenting on these works anon.

UPDATE: My book, Metaphsyical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual, which includes my complete translation of Madero's Spiritist Manual of 1911, is now available in paperback and Kindle and in Spanish.

More blog posts on this subject here.