Isserman Reviews Che's Afterlife in The Nation

Maurice Isserman
Maurice Isserman
Maurice Isserman, the James L. Ferguson Professor of History, penned an in-depth review of Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image by Michael Casey in the June 10 issue of The Nation. In the article, titled "Afterimages," Isserman examines the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the "Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary comandante turned itinerant guerrilla" and Casey's analysis of "the head-and-shoulders portrait of a bearded, longhaired, 31-year-old Che, wearing a bomber jacket and his trademark beret emblazoned with the comandante star."

"Casey makes this image the central concern of Che's Afterlife, and in the book's opening chapter he offers a vivid re-creation of the 'frozen millisecond' when the photo was taken, Isserman explains. "The date was March 5, 1960; the location a spot near Havana's Colón cemetery; the occasion a public funeral sponsored by the revolutionary government. The previous day a French munitions ship delivering arms to Cuba had mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds. CIA involvement was suspected but never proven. Che, who had been at a meeting nearby in downtown Havana when the ship exploded, rushed to the docks and helped provide medical aid to the wounded and the dying."

The author, Michael Casey is bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires and a frequent correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Isserman writes that Casey "seems especially to relish the commercial taint of recent appropriations of Che's image, the 'commoditization of an anticapitalist rebel who opposed all that his hyper-commercialized image now represents.'"

According to Isserman, "There's much to like about Che's Afterlife, but the book would have benefited greatly from a sturdier historical frame. Perhaps reflecting his training as a business reporter, Casey seems overly enamored with the language of advertising and consumption. The popularization of Che's image, he writes, was 'one of the Cuban revolution's greatest marketing accomplishments.'" Isserman also notes that, "Casey also displays an uncertain grasp of US history in the late 1960s, claiming that 'the culture and politics of the '68 youth movement in the United States were dominated by the antiwar, pro-peace hippies.'"

In closing Isserman observes, "Che's image was not uniquely popular among Western radicals in the 1960s--it was not the undisputed 'defining icon' of the era, as Casey would have it. There was the famous photo of Malcolm X in full rhetorical flight, finger pointing in accusation. There was Huey Newton sitting in a wicker chair, with a rifle in one hand and an African spear in the other. There were anonymous Vietcong soldiers, men and women, clutching AK-47s, the Guerrilleros Heroicos of another struggle, their images a regular feature in the pages of New Left Notes and similar publications. There were even enough posters of Chairman Mao to provoke the Beatles to sing in 1968, 'If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't going to make it with anyone, anyhow.' Could John Lennon not think of anything to rhyme with 'Che'?"
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