by Susan Hurlich, Havana, 6 May 98
In a ceremony that was dignified and modest - as is the man himself - Dr. Keith Ellis
became the first Jamaican scholar to receive a doctor honoris causa (honorary doctorate)
from Cuba'sillustrious University of Havana.
Opening the ceremony in the university's beautiful Aula Magna, Rector Juan Vela Valdes
thanked Dr. Ellis for his "outstanding contribution to the study of the literature of
"Nuestra America"(Our America).
In her eulogy to Dr. Ellis, well-known Cuban poet and essayis Nancy Morejon says that one
of his most important contributions to the study of Hispanic-American literature has been
his analysis of the origin and development of modernism, what Dr.Ellis calls
What is this "americanismo"? And why is it that Dr. Ellis himself has been
singled out by the prestigious University of Havana toreceive recognition for his work in
The two go hand in hand: "americanismo" and Dr. Keith Ellis.
Today a professor of literature in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the
University of Toronto, Dr. Ellis was born in April 1935 in Jamaica. In his words of thanks
after receiving the doctor honoris causa in philological sciences, he explains how - when
he was a secondary level student, it was hearing Cuban music, language, and ideas about
literature and history on Jamaican radio that was "the first stimulus" that
captured his interest in Hispanic culture.
Dr. Ellis talks about how he was a member of "a small group of eight" -
including P.J. Patterson, now Prime Minister of Jamaica - who reached a higher level of
studies in history and literature in their later years of secondary school. Feeling
"a thirst that we were unable to satisfy" in a British-imported educational
system, they were aware that Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti and Nicolas Guillen were important
figures in the Caribbean, but did not know about their work as writers and historic
personalities until later.
This passionate interest in the interrelation between history, culture and literature,
with a specific focus on Hispanic-American language and literature, was to influence Dr.
Ellis's entire university studies, first at the University of Toronto, and later during
his post-graduate studies at the University of Washington.
"From the appearance of his first book," says Morejon, Dr. Ellis "directed
his attention to one of the fundamental movements of Hispanic-American literature:
modernism." Morejon explains how his seminal book, 'Critical Approaches to Ruben
Dario' (1974), is a major contribution to the analysis of the origin and development of
this modernism, which Dr. Ellis calls"americanismo" - referring to the new
sensibility of form and subject matter that typifies this literature.
This ability to articulate the relation between literature and society, between science
and humanity, and to "recognize" the writer in his/her social context, is what
Morejon calls "the new and true core" of Dr. Ellis's work. And he does this
while celebrating the rich cultural diversity that characterizes the "New
World", affirming - as does Dario - that it is more than simply European, or simply
African or simply indigenous. Rather, it is a culture of synthesis of its many rich
"More than any other region," says Francisco Lopez Sacha, president of the
780-member Writers' Association of Cuba," Caribbean literature is a rich and complex
mixture of different social, cultural, ethnic and historical forces. Growing during three
centuries of slavery, oppression and resistance, you go 50km in any direction and you find
a different people, a different history, a different metropolis, even within the same
"Finding the common themes in Caribbean literature is a challenge,"
continues Lopez, "but Keith Ellis - and our own Nicolas Guillen - have accomplished
Nicolas Guillen - Cuba's national poet - and another profound link in the work of Dr.
During the '70's, while deepening his investigations about the theme of
"americanismo", Dr. Ellis turned his attention to the Antilles and began to
study the poetry of Guillen, another modernist. It was during his first visit to Cuba in
1972 that Dr.Ellis met Guillen. He was later to publish his 'Cuba's NicolasGuillen:
Poetry and Ideology' (1983), which in 1985 was awarded the prize as "best academic
book on Spanish literary themes" by the Canadian Association of Hispanists.
(This book was later published in Spanish by the Writer's Association of Cuba.)
According to Morejon, Dr. Ellis shows that the Hispanic-American literary tradition truly
began when writers became aware that literature is not simply "an isolated
exercise". One of the distinctive characteristics of Hispanic-American literature is
the transparency that writers - "of (their) own will" - give to the events which
have affected it from continental society, politics and romanticism.
It is impossible in a short article to enumerate all the accomplishments of Dr. Ellis's
career as an internationally-known professor, researcher, essayist and literary critic. He
has taught and given seminars in various universities in the West Indies (Jamaica,
Barbados and Trinidad) as well as in the United States and Canada. He is the author,
editor and translator of a vast body of work as an essayist and literary critic that
represents an outstanding contribution to the study of the literature of "Nuestra
America". Since '59, he has received numerous distinctions and awards for his work.
He has appeared in 'Who's Who in Canada (1990) and is a member of diverse academic and
cultural institutions including the Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is an
honorary member of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba and the Fundacion Nicolas
Since its founding 270 years ago, the University of Havana has awarded only 104 honorary
doctorates, the latest to Keith Ellis.This is very few for an internationally-known
university. During the last ten years, honorary doctorates have gone to such literary
giants as Rafael Alberti, Spanish poet and friend of Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda,
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Spanish novelist, and Mario Benedetti, Uruguayan poet and
novelist - all fitting company for Dr. Ellis.
The event was attended by about 125 intellectuals, poets, writers and students, as well as
by Dr. Ellis's wife Zilpha (professor of French Studies at York University), daughter
Carmen (a law student at York University's Osgoode Hall), and cousin Claire Stoessel
"representing the family" in Jamaica (and conference interpreter with the United
Nations). Also present was Yolanda Wood, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Literature, the
cultural attaches from the Jamaican and Canadian Embassies and the second secretary from
the Venezuelan Embassy. At the end of the ceremony, the choral group Schola Carolina
Cantorum - the same choral group that sang the Mass for the Pope's first visit
toCuba in January of this year - gave a concert in honour of Dr.Ellis with songs based on
the poetry of Nicolas Guillen
During the several days following his receipt of the doctor honoris causa, Dr. Ellis
continued to demonstrate why he is such a highly regarded scholar. He gave a seminar on
"Ernesto Che Guevara as a Writer" at the University of Havana for students and
other interested academics. He launched his latest book "Torrente Prodigioso: A
Cuban Poet at Niagara Falls" - jointly published by Toronto-based Lugus Libros Latin
America and Cuba's Editorial Jose Marti. Edited and translated by Dr. Ellis and with an
essay by outstanding Cuban poet Eliseo Diego, this book is the story of Cuban poet Jose
Maria Heredia, who in 1824 - at 21 years of age - wrote his famous "Niagara",
generally regarded as the best poem ever written about the Falls.
In honour of Dr. Ellis, Canadian ambassador to Cuba Keith Christie, former student of Dr.
Ellis at the Univ of Toronto, hosted a dinner at his official residence. Among those
attending were the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Higher Education, the
Vice-Minister of Commerce, and some of Cuba's top literary and intellectual
But the honours for Dr. Ellis do not stop here. On 20 May, Cuban Minister of Culture
Abel Prieto presented Dr. Ellis with a medal for "Distinction for National
Culture" in a ceremony that was later shown on national TV. This medal is rarely
given to foreigners.
And how does Dr. Ellis himself feel about all this attention he is receiving?
"I feel overwhelmed," says Dr. Ellis. "It's an honour that I appreciate
very deeply, because the doctor honoris causa comes from the principle academic
institution in a country that profoundly and sincerely values education."
"(I've had) the unfailing pleasure to find myself in the midst of a population that
is constantly more and more in love with education," continues Dr. Ellis, "and
that constantly cultivates and refines its intelligence in the arts and sciences."
Unity and diversity of Latin American and Caribbean culture.Science and culture. Science
and poetry. The search for the true literary and cultural expression of "Nuestra
America". A synthesis of historical and cultural life, of literary and political
history. These are the phrases one constantly hears when Dr. Ellis's work is described - a
work in which he articulates the common thread in all these multi-textured dimensions
while applying a keen scrutiny of artistic elements.
Thus, Dr. Ellis creates the final synthesis: that between literary criticism and poetry