Carleton Beals was among America’s most distinctive foreign correspondents. His colorful, combatively critical reporting of U.S. intervention in Latin America had a fearless energy and authority that won him millions of readers. He interviewed the Nicaraguan rebel leader Sandino in the camp from which he fought thousands of U.S marines in 1928, covered two revolutions in Cuba (1933 and 1959), and interpreted the Mexican Revolution for American readers. Beals’s dispatches and features appeared regularly in the Nation, New Republic, Current History and the Progressive, and often in the New York Times. Time magazine called him “the best informed and the most awkward living writer on Latin America.”
Forty books, including chronicles, political analysis and novels, drawn mostly from his travels and wide-ranging contacts in what he called “America South” made that characterization apt. But Beals was also an eyewitness reporter on Mussolini’s rise in Italy. He wrote on U.S. topics too, such as Louisiana’s Huey Long, and the environmental damage and rural migration in the 1930s caused by emerging agri-business in America’s South and West. Many of his books were best-sellers, their evidence-based assessments earning at least grudging respect even among those who took issue with his indictments of U.S. economic and government elites.
At once biography and analytical history, The Rebel Scribe tells the story of a fiercely independent non-conformist. It probes Beals’s interactions with political leaders, democrats, demagogues, populists and revolutionaries, and reveals how his ability to immerse himself in their societies gave his accounts a palpable authenticity and, time has shown, a prescience that is almost prophetic. Christopher Neal’s layered narrative traces how Beals identified patterns of political behavior and concepts that later became fully-fledged schools of thought, such as the idea of a Third World, dependency theory, U.S. neo-imperialism, and aspects of critical theory. His story sheds light on the evolution of U.S. foreign policy and intervention, from Mexico and Nicaragua in the 1920s, to Cuba and Vietnam in the 1960s. It reveals the fraught trail that faced—and still faces—contrarian journalists who challenge conventional assumptions, while also showing how probing journalism drives change.
Christopher Neal was a freelance journalist in Latin America in the 1980s, who later managed communications in the region for the World Bank. He has a Masters of International Policy and Practice from George Washington University, where he concentrated on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1: Conscientious Objector Heads South
Chapter 2: Rags to Respect in Mexico City
Chapter 3: Witness to Rising Benito Mussolini
Chapter 4: Return to Mexico
Chapter 5: Revolutionary and Literary Adventures from Manhattan to Mexico
Chapter 6: Sandino’s Mythmaker
Chapter 7: Mexican Maze
Chapter 8: The Crime of Cuba
Chapter 9: Fire and Love on the Andes
Chapter 10: Crossing Swords with Trotsky and the American Left
Chapter 11: Wartime Visions of America North and South
Chapter 12: Hitting a Wall
Chapter 13: Second Act in Cuba
Chapter 14: Radical in Winter
Chapter 15: A Stranded Ghost’s Journalistic Legacy
Additional Sources: Articles, Newspapers, Magazines, New Agencies, and Interviews
About the Author
Neal admires the fierce intellectual independence and penetrating, skeptical eye of Carleton Beals, who died in 1979 at the age of 85. Beals was a remarkably prolific freelance writer of some 40 books and innumerable magazine articles that skewered the ruling elites of Latin America and their U.S. sponsors. As recorded in Neal’s highly entertaining biography, Beals’s best books, enriched by his extensive travels, offered colorful, often acerbic portraits of the leading political and intellectual figures of the day.
This book is an informative history of a singular correspondent, but in the telling of Beals’s story, Neal illuminates many lost or forgotten aspects of the history of the entire twentieth century.
The book’s dry subtitle, Carleton Beals and the Progressive Challenge to U.S. Policy in Latin America, belies an epic tale of adventure, romance, and revolution…. Beals’ own story is poignant and inspirational; his work, as documented by Neal, is a sobering reminder of the malevolent forces that have always shaped history, and the bravery and difficulty of standing up to them.
In his time and at his best, Carleton Beals was an original, a pioneer who wrote well and got many things right early on, especially on Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Christopher Neal brings this alive in a thought-provoking biography that is also a really good read.
A timely work of impressive scholarship, full of original perspectives on American journalism and foreign policy, crisp and provocative.
This is more than a story about an interesting character. It deftly reminds us about the importance of critical journalism and the price paid by those (few) who have dared to practice it with selfless rigor.
Christopher Neal’s The Rebel Scribe is an engaging biography, written by one experienced journalist about another: the American radical Carleton Beals who, during his long, eventful life (1893–1979), traveled the world—especially Latin America—penning some forty history or “current affairs” books (he often needed the money), as well as several inferior novels. Neal has diligently researched Beals’s archive and produced, in brisk, nonjargonistic style, a vigorous account of his interesting and complicated life. –Alan Knight, emeritus professor of Latin American history, University of Oxford
The Rebel Scribe adds richly to our knowledge of both 20th-century Latin American history and the history of American journalism.
Short-listed, Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction (Quebec Writers' Federation, 2022)
Norman Stockwell, publisher of The Progressive magazine named The Rebel Scribe: Carleton Beals and the Progressive Challenge to U.S. Policy in Latin America as one of his "Favorite Books of 2022." View the article here.