Lenny as Paterfamilias

 

Jamie Bernstein, Famous Father Girl:

A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper)

 

In Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Jamie Bernstein, daughter of legendary conductor, composer and overall musical genius Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), sheds light upon how she grew up in the shadow of the legend.  In Jamie’s early years, her family looked outwardly conventional, or at least conventional for the upper crust Manhattan milieu in which she and her two siblings were raised.  Jamie, the oldest child, was born in 1952; her brother Alexander followed two years later, and their younger sister Nina was born in 1962.

Their mother Felicia Montealegre – “Mummy” throughout the memoir — was a native of Chile and a Roman Catholic from a semi-aristocratic background, a contrast to her American-born Jewish husband from a first-generation immigrant family.  Felicia was an accomplished pianist and aspiring actress, an elegant and insightful woman who was highly engaged in the lives of her children and served as the family “policeman” and “stabilizer” (p.100).   But Felicia died of cancer in 1978 at age 56.

In 1951, Felicia married Jamie’s father, most frequently referred to here as “Daddy,” but also as “Lenny,” “LB,” and “the Maestro.”  Felicia’s husband was already a world-class conductor and composer when they married, and became ever more the celebrity as the couple’s three children grew up.  Jamie’s portrait of Bernstein the father and husband conforms to what most readers passingly familiar with Bernstein would anticipate: a larger than life figure who quickly filled up any room he entered; ebullient, exuberant, and eccentric; a chain smoker, a prodigious talker as well as music maker; and a man who loved jokes,  spent much time under a sunlamp, and had a proclivity for kissing on the lips just about everyone he met, male or female.  The insights into Bernstein’s personality and how he filled the role of father and husband are one of two factors that make this memoir . . . well, memorable.

The other factor is Bernstein’s sexuality. Despite the appearances of conventional marriage and family life, the bi-sexual Maestro leaned heavily toward the gay side of the equation.  Jamie’s elaboration upon how she became aware of her father’s preference for other men, and the effect of her father’s homosexuality on her mother and the family, constitute the memoir’s backbone.  Although she provides her perspective on her father’s musical achievements, she spends more time on Bernstein as paterfamilias than Bernstein as music maker.  Jamie also reveals how she struggled to find her own pathway through life as an adolescent and young adult, feeling stalked by her family’s name and her father’s fame.

* * *

                        Jamie became aware of her father’s sexual preferences as a teenager.  She had landed a summer job at the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival in Western Massachusetts, where her father conducted.  People at Tanglewood talked freely about her father and the men he was involved with:

They talked about it quite casually in front of me, so I pretended I knew all about it – but I didn’t. I mentally reviewed past experiences; had I sensed, or observed, anything to indicate that my father was homosexual?  He was extravagantly affectionate with everyone: young and old, male and female. How could I possibly tell what any behavior meant? And anyway, weren’t homosexuals supposed to be girly? . . . Yet there was nothing I could detect that was particularly effeminate about my father. How exactly did he fit into this category?  I was bewildered and upset.  I couldn’t understand any of it – but in any case, my own existence seemed living proof that the story was not a simple one (p.123).

Thereafter, Jamie wrote her father a letter about what she had learned at Tanglewood.  When she joined her parents at their weekend house in Connecticut, her father took her outside.   He denied what he described as “rumors” that were propagated, he said, by persons who envied his professional success and hoped to jeopardize his career.  Later, Jamie wondered whether her mother had forced her father to deny everything.  After her confrontation with her father, she began to discuss her father’s sexual complexities with her siblings but never again raised the subject with either parent.

Jamie learned subsequently that prior to her parents’ marriage, Felicia had written to her future husband: “You are a homosexual and may never change . . . I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar” (p.124).  Her clear-eyed mother had entered into her marriage knowing full well, Jamie concluded, that she was “marrying a tsunami – and a gay one at that” (p.172).  Her  parents may have reached an agreement, perhaps tacit, that her father would confine his philandering to the time he was one the road.  At home, he was to be very conventional.

But that agreement came to an end in in 1976, when Leonard took a separate apartment in New York to spend time with a young man, Tommy Cothren, with whom he had fallen “madly in love” (p.188).  Her father, Jamie writes, was “starting a new life – so he was cheerful, acting exuberantly gay and calling everyone ‘darling’” (p.188).  In the rift between her parents, her brother Alexander seemed to be taking Felicia’s side while Jamie worried that she was not being sufficiently supportive of her mother.  She was “trying so hard to be equitable.  I wanted my father to find his true self and be happy with who he was . . . but I couldn’t help being ambivalent over how gracelessly he was going about it, and how much pain he was inflicting on our mother . . . Sometimes I wondered if I should have been taking sides.” (p.187).

These wrenching family issues became moot two years later, when Felicia died of breast cancer. Jamie notes that her father was quite attentive to her mother as her condition worsened.  The loss of Felicia “ripped through our family’s world with a seismic shudder.   She was so adored, so deeply beautiful . . . and gone so unbearably too soon, at fifty-six” (p.218).  In the absence of Mummy, Jamie writes, her father became “as untamed as a sail flapping in a squall. The family’s preexisting behavioral boundaries were gone; now anything could happen” (p.233).  Her father’s “intense physicality and flamboyance had always been there, but now, in the absence of Felicia’s calming influence, it became a beast unleashed” (p.235).  After Felicia’s death, Leonard spent an increasing amount of time in Key West, in the Florida Keys, where the sunshine and gay intellectual culture attracted him.

Bernstein himself died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 72, from a form of lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure rather than his life-long cigarette habit (a habit which his wife shared and one which Jamie detested from an early age).  The Maestro’s final years were ones where sexual liberation combined with physical and mental decline.  He suffered from depression and “hated getting older, hated his diminishing physicality.  But the other part of the problem – and the two were inextricably intertwined – was that he was continuing to put prodigious quantities of uppers, downers, and alcohol into a body that was growing ever less efficient at metabolizing all those substances” (p.258).  His “decades of living at maximum volume appeared to be catching up with him at last” (p.316), Jamie writes.

At a concert at Tanglewood just months prior to his death, Bernstein had trouble conducting Arias and Baracollees, a piece he had written.  “[H]is brain was so oxygen-deprived by that point that he couldn’t track the complexities of his own music” (p.319).  When he came out afterwards for his bow, he was “tiny, ashen, and nearly lost inside the white suit that now hung so loosely on him, it looked as if it had been tailored for some other species” (p.319).

One shining exception to Bernstein’s downward spiral in his final years occurred at concerts in Berlin during the 1989 Christmas holiday season, the month following the fall of the Berlin wall.  Bernstein conducted a “mighty ensemble comprising players volunteering from various orchestras around the world who, along with four soloists and a local girls’ chorus, gave a pair of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: one in East Berlin and one in West Berlin.”  And to make the performances “extra-historic,” Bernstein changed Schiller’s text in the final “Ode to Joy” movement: “now it was ‘Ode to Freedom.’ “Freiheit!’ The word rang out again and again, wreathed in Beethoven’s harmonies, and the world watched it on television on Christmas Day” (p.313).  The Berlin concerts were in Jamie’s view her father’s “peak performance,” the “pinnacle” of his lifelong advocacy for world peace and brotherhood, “never more eloquently expressed, and never to so many, than through Beethoven’s notes in that historical Christmas performance” (p.313).

But Bernstein’s progressive political orientation did not always play so well at home.  In 1970, Felicia hosted a fundraiser at their Park Avenue apartment which Leonard attended, designed to assist the families of 21 members of the Black Panther party who were in jail with inflated bail amounts, “awaiting trial for what turned out to be trumped-up accusations involving absurd bomb plots” (p.109).  The Black Panthers advocated black empowerment “by any means necessary” and were anti-Zionist, making them scary even in liberal New York.  No journalists were invited to the fundraiser, but somehow two snuck in, the New York Times society writer and an upcoming journalist, Tom Wolfe (deceased subsequent to the memoir’s publication).

An article in the Times the next day heaped scorn on the event.  “Everything about this article was loathsome,” Jamie writes, “and my parents were both aghast. But that was just the beginning” (p.112).  The Times followed a few days later with an editorial chastising the couple for mocking the memory of Martin Luther King.  The militant Jewish Defense League organized pickets in front of the Bernstein’s building and the couple became the “butt of ridicule” (p.113) in New York and nationally.  Then, weeks later, Wolfe came out with an article in New York magazine entitled “That Party at Lenny’s,” followed by Radical Chic, a book centered on the event.  “My mother’s very serious fundraiser had become her celebrity husband’s ‘party’” (p.116), Jamie writes.

Wolfe’s works had the effect of setting in stone the misinterpretation and mockery of the Panther event.  Jamie contends bitterly that Wolfe never comprehended the depth of the damage he wreaked on her family.  Unlike her father, Felicia had no work to back her up in the aftermath of the Panther debacle and grew increasingly despondent.  Four years later, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a mastectomy.  Four years after that, she was dead of the disease.  Even when Jamie wrote her memoir, a time when Wolfe himself was near death, “my rage and disgust can rise up in me like an old fever – and in those nearly deranged moments, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to lay Mummy’s precipitous decline, and even demise, at the feet of Mr. Wolfe” (p.117).

Nor did Wolfe comprehend, Jamie further argues, the degree to which his “snide little piece of neo-journalism rendered him a veritable stooge for the FBI.”  Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover “may well have shed a tear of gratitude that this callow journalist had done so much of the bureau’s work by discrediting left-wing New York Jewish liberals while simultaneously pitting them against the black activist movement –thereby disempowering both groups in a single deft stroke” (p.116).  With the Panther incident, the FBI became “obsessed with Leonard Bernstein all over again. Hoover was deeply paranoid about the Black Panthers” (p.305).  But Jamie reveals how, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request for files on her father, the family learned that Hoover had been “obsessing on Leonard Bernstein since the 1940s, when informers started supplying insinuations that Bernstein was a Communist” (p.315).  The 800-page Bernstein file “substantially increased in girth during the Red Scare years in the 1950s, when my father had even been briefly denied a passport” (p.305).

Well before Felicia’s death, it was clear to Jamie that her father had become a “Controversial Person – a long, complex evolution from his wunderkind public persona of the 1950s” (p.296).  But in addition to her father’s story, Jamie’s memoir also provides her perspective on her own challenges “growing up Bernstein,” the memoir’s  sub-title.

* * *

                      Jamie grew up with so many of the trappings of Manhattan wealth that this portion of the story seems stereotypical, bordering on caricature.  Her family lived in fancy Manhattan apartments, eventually the famous Dakota, where John Lennon was a neighbor until he was killed in front of the building (he was killed shortly after Jamie had walked past the shooter, seemingly just one of many groupies waiting to get a glance of the singer).  The Bernstein family had a life-long South American nanny, Julia Vega, who was a major part of the family and is a presence throughout the memoir.  The three children relied primarily upon chauffeurs and limousines for local transportation. They enjoyed a secondary residence for weekend and summer getaways, first in Connecticut, then in East Hampton.  The children traveled all over the globe with their father as they grew up.  They attended elite Manhattan private schools, and all three attended Harvard, the school from which Leonard had graduated prior to World War II.  Jamie indicates that admission to Harvard brought little elation for herself or her two siblings; they always had “crippling doubts” (p.148) whether they gained admission on their merits or because they were Leonard Bernstein’s children (at Harvard, Jamie’s first year roommate was Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Pakistan’s prime minister who was assassinated when she became Pakistan’s prime minister).

As a young adult, Jamie followed her father into the music world, although her particular niche was more popular than classical music (a niche her father deeply appreciated; he too loved the Beatles). She was hardly surprised that she enjoyed considerably less success than her father. “Sure, I was musical, but I really was a very poor musician” (p.277).   She stopped fretting about comparisons to her father when she stopped trying to be a musician herself. “It turned out that if I just refrained from making music with my own body, I was much calmer . . . [M]aking music with my own body had mostly made me a mess” (p.362-63).

Jamie had her share of boyfriends as a teenager and young adult, and she manages to tell her readers quite a bit about many of them.  Her first date was with Marlon Brando’s nephew.  She smoked a lot of marijuana, experimented with a host of other mind-expanding substances, and spent a good portion of her early adulthood stoned – with her brother Alexander seemingly even more of a pothead as a young man.   She also partook of Erhard Seminars Training, aka “EST,” a “repackaging of Zen Buddhist principles for Western consumption” (p.175) and a quintessential 1970s way of “getting in touch with one’s inner feelings,” as we said back then.

Late in the memoir, a few years before her father’s death in 1990, Jamie married David Thomas, a man she had met several years earlier at Harvard.  By the end of the memoir, she has given birth to two children, a boy and a girl, and is a devoted mother — but one either separated or divorced from her husband.  She writes that her marriage had centered on David’s ability to relate to her father and fit into the family.  The thrill was gone after Leonard died.  Although the marriage “hung on for another decade,” the “deep harmony we experienced while Daddy was alive never returned” (p.337).   After the detailed run through so many boyfriends, readers will be disappointed that Jamie provides no further insight into why her marriage floundered.

Jamie found her professional niche in preserving her father’s legacy by chance, after volunteering to help her daughter’s preschool start a music program.  “It was the one and only regular music gig I ever had” (p.336), she writes.  Finding that she had a knack for bringing music to young people, a forte of her father, she devised The Bernstein Beat, a project modeled after her father’s Young People’s Concerts but focused on her father’s music.  Jamie presented The Bernstein Beat across the globe, in places as diverse as China and Cuba (in Cuba, she surprised herself by narrating in Spanish, her mother’s native tongue).  She also co-produced a documentary film, Crescendo: The Power of Music, on a program she had observed in Venezuela designed to use music as a way to reach at risk young people and keep them away from street violence.  The film, first presented at the Philadelphia Film Festival, won several prizes and Netflix bought it.

Around 2008, Jamie’s long-time friend, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, asked her to design and present educational concerts for adults with his Miami-based orchestral academy, the New World Symphony. It turned out to be “the best job ever” for her, to the point that she felt she had become the “poster child for life beginning at fifty” (p.361).  She also began to edit a Leonard Bernstein newsletter, apprising readers of Bernstein-related performances and events.  Preserving her father’s legacy has been a “good trade-off,” she writes: “leading a musician’s life minus the music–making part” (p.362-63).

* * *

                        Jamie writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style, mixing candor – her memoir is nothing if not candid — with ample doses of humor, much of it self-deprecatory.  But without the connection to her father, Jamie’s story is mostly one of a Manhattan rich kid’s angst.  The memoir’s real interest lies in Jamie’s  insights into the character and complexity of her father.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

January 25, 2020

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Music

Uncovering Hair and Corruption in Iran

 

Masih Alinejad, The Wind in My Hair:

My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Little, Brown & Co.,)

              Masih Alinejad, an Iranian national now living in Brooklyn, is recognized internationally as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and human rights.  She is best known for supporting Iranian women’s right to decide for themselves whether they wish to wear the hijab, the veil covering a women’s hair that is mandatory attire for women and girls as young as seven in contemporary Iran.  She has amassed an impressive string of awards, including the United Nation’s International Women’s Rights Award, the Association for International Broadcasting’s Media Excellence Award, and the Swiss Freethinker Association’s Freethinker Prize.

The title of Masih’s autobiography/memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, captures her objective for herself and for women who wear the hijab not by choice: all women should have a right to feel the wind in their hair, if that’s what they desire.  From an early age, Masih explains, she looked at her hair as “part of my identity, but you couldn’t see it.  When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf” (p.30).  Before challenging the compulsory hijab, Masih was an investigative journalist in Iran, exposing corruption within the most powerful spheres of the country’s political elite.

Masih was born in 1976, three years prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ending nearly two millennia of rule by Persian kings.  She describes herself as a child of that revolution, one who has “lived nearly all my life under its shadow.  My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties” (p.23).  The Shah had reformed Sharia law to allow women many basic rights, with the hijab being largely a matter of personal choice.  But the Shah’s reforms were reversed after the revolution and the state extended increasing control over women’s lives, including the compulsory hijab.  The changes “didn’t happen overnight,” Masih writes, and Iranian women “resisted and put up a fight, especially over the issue of compulsory hijab, which set the tone for how women’s rights would shape up” (p.29).

Through a Facebook page that she established while in exile, entitled “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih provided a platform for widespread resistance to the compulsory hijab.  On a whim, she posted a picture of herself with no hair covering and cherry blossoms in the background. Exalting in how free she felt, she says she was no longer a “hostage,” a loaded word in Iran. “That simple photograph and message changed my life” (p.308).   Critics complained that she was exploiting a freedom available to her only because she was not in Iran.  Even her reform-minded friends back in Iran thought this was the wrong fight to pick.  To many , the hajib was at best a minor irritant in a country where so many things were wrong.

True enough, Masih responded, but she was sure that, given “half a chance, millions of Iranians would remove their hijab, especially in the privacy of their own cars” and that “every Iranian woman had picture like this, taken in private moments, alone or with friends” (p.311-12).  Even though they could be arrested for showing themselves without covered hair, Iranian women proved eager to show they were “free, powerful, and not ashamed of their bodies” (p.315).  In numbers that astounded her, Iranian women posted photos capturing the “guilty pleasure of breaking unjust rules that allow us a modicum of dignity” (p.313).  Her campaign against the compulsory hijab attracted the attention of super-executive Sheryl Sandberg, who encouraged her to write this memoir.

Masih traveled an improbable path to international fame.  She was born and spent her early years in a dirt-poor rural village in northern Iran, Ghomikola, population 650 — “as far away from the country’s elites as possible,” she notes (p.9).  Parents raising children in this traditional Shiite Muslim village hoped above all that their children would conduct t themselves with  honor and avoid bringing shame to their families.  Young Masih, mischievous and rebellious, fell well short of these overriding parental expectations.  She was expelled from her high school after stealing books from a local bookstore and incurred a jail sentence for the seditious activity of organizing a book club of high school age students.  She found herself pregnant without being married, and gave birth to a son after entering into a hurried if not quite arranged marriage. When the marriage floundered shortly thereafter, she divorced and lost custody of her son.

But divorced and without her son, Masih almost miraculously landed a job as a journalist with a reform-oriented newspaper in Iran, where her professional career took off.  Tensions surrounding the controverted 2009 re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced Masih into exile, first in the United Kingdom, then in the United States.  In exile, she regained custody of her son, completed a university degree, met the man to whom she is presently married, and undertook her campaign against the compulsory hijab. 

Masih’s effervescent personality shines through all phases of her memoir.  She has an audacious streak that often borders on recklessness. She is frequently absent-minded and disorganized. She has difficulty wearing matching sox, and is always losing apartment and car keys.  Yet, she has an uncanny ability to concentrate when the moment requires intense concentration.  In her frequent face offs with authority figures, among them the omnipresent religious and security police in Iran, along with ayatollahs and political leaders, almost always male, she is breathtakingly quick on her feet.  Her sharp responses to authorities are often leavened with irony that borders on wisecracking. She is someone most of us would like to know.

Masih’s memoir can be broken into three portions: 1) her youth and early adulthood, including her imprisonment, pregnancy and divorce; 2) her years as an investigative reporter in Iran; and 3) her exile years, when she achieved international stardom.  Surprisingly, the last portion, detailing her most highly visible accomplishments, is the least engrossing; it seems disjointed and scattershot, as if written hurriedly to meet a publication deadline.  But the first two sections, charting her unlikely pathway to stardom, make for engrossing and often compelling reading.

* * *

                Masih was the youngest of six children; all slept in the same room. Their house lacked indoor plumbing, a kitchen and a place to bathe or shower (but did include a television).  The family grew most of its own food.  Despite grinding poverty, Masih seemed to have had a happy childhood.  She loved to climb trees and pick pears and walnuts. Her family spoke a local dialect and Masih didn’t learn to speak Persian until she went to school.

Masih’s parents were religiously observant Shiite Muslims, a trait that they somehow failed to pass to their youngest daughter.  Neither was formally educated, but both believed in education for their children.  They wanted their daughters to complete high school before they married, whereas many Ghomikola families saw no advantage to educating girls.  Masih’ s father, AghaJan, was a peddler who sold fruits and vegetables.  He was a fervent believer in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  His highly traditional views of appropriate roles for girls and young women placed him increasingly at odds with his youngest daughter.  Masih found less and less to talk about with her father as a teenager and, in her adult life, the two stopped communication altogether.

Masih experienced no such break with her mother, Zarrin.  Functionally illiterate and barely five feet tall, Zarrin married AghaJan when she was 14.  But she had skills as a tailor and worked on clothes for people in the village, sometimes offering sewing classes.  It was unusual in Ghomikola for a married woman to earn her own money, rather than being entirely dependent upon her husband.  Her mother was also the source of a decidedly non-traditional expression that guided Masih throughout her adult life: “If they lock the front door, go in through the back door. If the doors are barred, go through the windows. If they shutter the windows, climb through the chimney. Never let them lock you out. Always try to get in” (p.156). Yet, as much as Masih loved and respected her mother, she seemed to know from an early age that she wanted a different life for herself.  “For Mother, family and reputations had special meanings that were lost on me.  Her days were predictable, while I wanted mine to be full of surprises” (p.78).

Thanks to her mother’s intervention with local school authorities, Masih was reassigned to another high school when she was apprehended stealing books from a local bookstore, which she rationalized as necessary to feed a voracious reading habit in a family that could not afford to buy books.  At her new school, Masih and a classmate started a book club that featured leftist literature about human rights, freedom and the meaning of democracy.  The group also drafted and distributed an underground pamphlet advocating freedom for political prisoners,  activities considered seditious in Iran.  The group included a young man, Reza, who seemed interested in Masih, telling her that he was writing poetry for her.

Although Reza turned out to be Masih’s first romantic interest, the romance was placed on hold when first Reza, then Masih, were arrested and sent to prison for anti-revolutionary activities.  While in prison, Masih learned that she was pregnant with Reza’s child.  After appearing in a “Revolutionary Court, ” with secret proceedings and no right to a lawyer, Masih received a five-year sentence, suspended on condition of what amounted to “good behavior.” But she did not graduate from high school and still had to deal with her pregnancy.

“I had dreams of traveling and exploring the world,” Masih writes, “and now before I had even left Ghomikola I was trapped. My destiny was already set. . . I had to explain away another mark of shame to my parents – I was pregnant before being properly married” (p.100). Abortion proved not to be an option and she bore the child she carried, her son Pouyan, who in different ways remains part of his mother’s story for the rest of the memoir.  Although she was not ready for being either a wife or a mother, Masih married Reza.  It was not the usual sequence in Ghomikola, where “very few women get pregnant before their wedding night . . . I was bringing dishonor to my family” (p.107).

With Reza unable to find a job, the couple set out for Tehran.  Masih worked briefly as a photographer while Reza wrote poetry. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Reza returned to their apartment one day to announce that he was in love with another woman, whom he wanted to marry.  He found their marriage too confining for his poetic ambitions and needed a divorce – he couldn’t write and she was holding him back. “Once again, I had notched a family first,” Masih writes despondently: “The first woman in our family to be arrested, the first to be jailed, and the first to be pregnant before her wedding. I would now be the first in all of Ghomikola to be divorced. It didn’t matter that Reza was leaving me; everyone would think that it was somehow my fault” (p.134).

Masih had no chance of retaining custody of the couple’s son under Iranian law.  AghaJan urged her to return to Ghomikola where he would help her find a new husband, leading her to the realization that divorced women in Iran have “no identity of their own. My father was not unique; he was a reflection of Iranian culture.  In many villages and small cities, there is an expectation that a divorced woman should sit at home and wait for her next husband” (p.144). As she turned 24, Masih’s short marriage was over, she had lost custody of her son and she had a prison record but no high school diploma.  Yet, she says she “blossomed” after her divorce and loss of custody. “It was painful,” she writes, “but I was suddenly free to grow and be myself. I wasn’t looking for new directions in my life, but I had little choice. The hardships I went through forged me” (p.143).

* * *

                     By sheer audacity, Masih landed an interview with Hambastegi, a daily paper associated with reform politics. She volunteered to work without pay at the outset, to see how it worked out.  She was assigned to cover Iran’s parliament, the Majlis.  She memorized the phone numbers of relevant parliamentarians and called them at all times of day or night, playing up her status as a neophyte woman reporter.  She knew the parliamentarians’ personal histories, had a loud voice, and understood how male politicians “can be relied upon to be patronizing to women,” thereby providing her with “great quotes” (p.157).  Iran’s conservative newspapers referred to her as “the Ugly Duckling,” which she considered a badge of honor.

In her most sensational scoop, using carefully cultivated sources – shades here of Watergate and “Deep Throat” – Masih exposed how lawmakers routinely lined their pockets with secret bonus payments above and beyond their salaries.  Through tough talk and more than a little bluffing –Masih says she became a master of the art of bluffing — she extracted a pay stub from a deputy that showed the equivalent of about $1,100 US for “consideration of Deputies’ Expenses.” Suddenly, she had hard evidence of a slush fund to make undeclared payments to the deputies. “There’d be no going back,” she writes. “I would be marked, but the story was worth it. It was for moments like that that I had rebelled against my family and endured all sorts of hardships. I wasn’t naïve. I knew there’d be a price to pay later” (p.195).  Conservative newspapers claimed she had stolen the pay stub, and some indicated that she had obtained it through “flirting.”

Masih “loved being a Majlis reporter . . . [H]olding politicians accountable and exposing their lies were all part of a day’s work,” she writes.   As disorganized as she was in her private life, when it came to covering politics, it was “as if a switch had been turned on” (p.190). Not surprisingly, Masih became persona non grata at Parliament and in 2005 achieved another first: the first journalist to be expelled from the Majlis.  But her expulsion sparked a latent interest in issues particular to women.  “Feminism was taboo in Iran,” she explains. “As a parliamentary journalist, I couldn’t risk being seen to be involved in feminism and women’s rights activism. To be honest, I didn’t have the time; nor did I want to risk another black mark against my name” (p.211).

* * *

                      Masih had vigorously opposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his first election to the Iranian presidency in 2005, in an election probably abetted by voter fraud.  As the 2009 elections approached, Masih, like many younger Iranians, thought the country was poised to elect a genuine reform candidate.  But the election resulted in Ahmadinejad being declared the winner, again amidst credible allegations of voter fraud, precipitating massive post-election demonstrations in June 2009 and a savage crackdown.  Masih was advised to leave Iran for her own safety, and to this day has not returned.

She landed in Britain, where she pursued a degree in communications at Oxford Brooke University, and regained custody of her son, who was then a teenager.  She began producing documentaries focusing on the families of victims killed in the post-election crackdown.   She also pursued a quixotic idea to interview newly elected American president Barack Obama, and surprised herself by how close she came to being granted an interview. She received a visa to enter the United States, but in the aftermath of the contested 2009 Iranian presidential election, the White House decided that strategically the timing for her interview was not right.  While in the United States, Masih made the acquaintance of an Iranian-American journalist for Bloomberg News, Kambiz Foroohar, who became an increasing presence in her life. From the time of their initial meeting, the unflappable Kambiz served as an invaluable check on Masih’s enthusiasm and her tendency to get too far out in front of herself.  The couple married in 2014.

After Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg mentioned Masih’s “My Stealthy Freedom” page at the “Most Powerful Women Summit,” an event sponsored by Fortune magazine, she and Masih exchanged emails.   Sandberg then invited Masih to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.  During the visit, Sandberg suggested to Masih that she write a book about her life’s experiences for English-language readers (she had already published a handful of works in Persian).  While in the United States, as a follow up to “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih also established #WhiteWednesday, which encourages Iranian men and women to wear white on Wednesdays to protest against the compulsory hijab.  She has tried, without much success, to convince high-level women visitors to Iran not to cover their hair.  Almost all, to Masih’s dismay, contend that they need to show sensitivity to local customs.

In the summer of 2016, Masih came out firmly against the ban in some French towns of the burkini, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women. “The police in France were behaving just like the morality police in Iran,” (p.367), she writes.  Both had “problems with choices made by women, and both acted as if women’s bodies were the territory of lawmakers and law enforcement, who alone knew what was best” (p.367). But she nonetheless found it more than ironic that Iran, which denies its own women the freedom to choose, called on France to “respect the human rights of Muslims who chose to dress in Islamic fashion” (p.367).

Masih presently works today for the Voice of America’s Persian Service.  Recently, her brother and two siblings of her first husband were arrested, and even her mother was called in for questioning by security officials, all part of what Masih considers an effort to intimidate her into silence from abroad.  Like Masih’s memoir itself, this recent heavy-handedness constitutes a reminder of how little has changed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Iran remains a repressive religious dictatorship, with few secular spaces and no tolerance for notions like due process and the rule of law.  The place of women is still determined by, as Masih puts it, laws “devised by misogynists who find guidance and precedent in the seventh century” (p.141)..

* * *

                         Assiduous readers of this blog will see many resemblances between Masih Alinejad and Manal al-Sherif, the Saudi Arabian woman of about the same age who wrote a memoir about her championing the cause of women driving in her native land, reviewed here in October 2017 (that review also included a work by Sherin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who was the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize; Ebadi makes brief appearances in Masih’s memoir).  Notwithstanding the geopolitical and religious rivalries that divide their two countries, it is striking how similar the two women’s stories are.  Each mobilized Facebook and other social media to launch a campaign designed to eliminate a state-imposed obstacle to women’s rights.  Each endured a jail sentence.  The personal stories of the two women also align.  Each was raised in poverty by uneducated parents who nonetheless valued education for their children.  After unsuccessful early marriages in countries where the husband-wife relationship is far from equal, both became divorced mothers of young sons.  Each pursued a career and advanced study after divorce, and both now appear to be happily married.  While both continue to be active in issues involving women’s rights and human rights in their native countries, each must do so from afar, with al-Sherif now living in Australia.  How I’d love to put these two women in the same room together, then assume a fly-on-the-wall posture as they exchange war stories.

Saudi Arabia recently lifted its ban on women driving, while the hijab remains obligatory attire in today’s turbulent Iran.  But anyone reading this memoir will come away convinced that, at a minimum, no one should ever underestimate what Masih Alinejad is capable of achieving, for herself and for her country.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 29, 2019

 

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, Gender Issues, Middle Eastern History

Fathers and (Literary) Sons

 

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know:

The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner)

                 In the second half of the 19th century, Dublin was considered a cultural backwater.  Although less industrial and less populous than Belfast to the north, the city was known for its widespread poverty.  But some of the leading lights in modern literature were raised and spent youthful years in Dublin during the half century, among them playwright and critic Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); and novelist James Joyce (1882-1941).  Yet, the literary careers of each blossomed more in places like London and Paris than in Dublin.  Was there something in the 19th century Dublin air that encouraged youthful literary aspirations? Were these aspirations which could only be realized away from Dublin?

These questions lurk in the background of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, the erudite work of Irish journalist and prolific writer Colm Tóibín.  Tóibín wrestles with these questions through the prism of the “three prodigal fathers” (p.22) of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce, as he calls them.  He does so in what amounts to three separate essays, each bearing  a catchy title: “An Eminent Victorian: Sir William Wilde;” “John B. Yeats: The Playboy of West Twenty-Ninth Street;” and “The Two Tenors: James Joyce and His Father.”  In differing degrees, the three essays combine biographical sketches of the three fathers with an exploration of their relationships with their sons and the impact of those relationships upon the sons’ literary output.

Only thin threads hold the three essays together.  The sturdiest is late 19th century Dublin itself, where the three fathers sought to raise families as part of the city’s burgeoning middle class – upper middle class in the case of William Wilde; precarious middle in John Yeats’ case; and at best lower middle class in that of John Stanislaus Joyce.  Wilde and Yeats were urban Irish Protestants, distinctly different from Ireland’s unloved land-owning Protestant gentry, while Joyce was part of Dublin’s majority Catholic population.  Dublin was growing rapidly when the three fathers were raising their families, Tóibín writes, but was “poor, down at heel,” with an image as a “place of isolated individuals, its aura shapeless in some way, a place hidden from itself, mysterious and melancholy” (p.9).

Dublin and Ireland were then part of what was officially termed the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” governed by Parliament in London, with the central British government appointing most local authorities.  None of the three fathers was on the front lines of the movement for self-government (“Home Rule”) that began to gain serious traction around 1870.  Yet each was sympathetic with the notion of Irish independence from Britain, and the political leanings of the three fathers play minor parts in all three essays.

The Wilde and Yeats portraits revolve less around the two fathers’ relationships with their literary sons and more around their relationships with women who were not their wives. In William Wilde’s case, a significantly younger woman with whom he may or may not have had an intimate relationship sued William’s wife Jane for defamation, precipitating a spectacular public trial.  Yeats’ relationship was with a woman his age that came to light through their exchange of letters in the aftermath of the death of Yeats’ wife Susan, at a time when he had left Dublin and taken up residence in New York.  Linking their two stories is Isaac Butt, a prominent Dublin attorney and political activist credited with being the first to use the term “Home Rule.”  Although a friend of William and Jane Wilde, Butt represented Mary Travers, the plaintiff in the defamation action against Jane Wilde.  Butt’s daughter Rosa, in turn, was the woman with whom William Yeats exchanged letters while he was in exile in New York.

John Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce both struggled financially in a way that William Wilde never did.  But from Tóibín’s account, the senior Joyce was by far the least likeable of the three men, with few professional or personal accomplishments to point to.   Unlike either Wilde or Yeats, Joyce had an alcohol problem that frequently led to violence.  These differences may help explain why Tóibín’s Joyce essay takes a path altogether different from those on Wilde and Yeats, diving far more deeply into son James’ literary output than he does with Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats.  Tóibín demonstrates how, in the aftermath of a fractious relationship with his father as an adolescent and young man, James Joyce managed to recreate his father through his writings, rendering him more benign and nuanced.

The book’s title, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, remains for me a puzzle. Tóibín notes that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce referred to his “cold, mad father” (p.154).  Although undoubtedly a difficult and unpleasant man, it is not clear that John Stanislaus Joyce was anywhere near “mad” in the conventional sense.  And while “bad” and “dangerous” might also fit the senior Joyce, neither adjective applies naturally to the senior Wilde or Yeats.

* * *

                   Of the three fathers, William Wilde (1815-1876) was easily the most successful professionally.  The son of a doctor, William became a noted eye and ear specialist.  But he had plenty of interests beyond medicine.  He was an important antiquarian, topographer, folklore collector and archaeologist, all at a time when the study of ancient Ireland was becoming “both fashionable and politically resonant” (p.39).  He also became  a distinguished statistician who served as Dublin’s Census Commissioner.  Prior to his marriage to Jane Elgee in 1851, William fathered three children out of wedlock.   In addition to their son Oscar, William and Jane had another son, William, and a daughter Isola who died in childhood.

William’s wife Jane, known as “Lady Wilde,” was herself a prominent Irish literary figure, one who was “prone to grandiloquence” and “saw herself in lofty terms” (p.44).  Publishing widely under a pen name Speranza, Jane earned renown through her words and wit in the manner that would subsequently make her son Oscar famous.   With no other aristocracy in Dublin, the Wildes represented what Tóibín describes as a “type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity” (p.32).  It was Jane who precipitated Mary Travers’ lawsuit, the core of Tóibín’s Wilde essay.

Mary had been one of William’s patients who at age 19 came to William for ear surgery. Once her treatment ended, she continued to see William.  With  the agreement of Mary’s father, Williams “gave her manuscripts to correct and oversaw her informal education by recommending books to her.  Soon, they began to write to each other. He took her to public events, helped her financially and included her in family outings” (p.55).  But Lady Wilde mistrusted Mary and William seems to have tired of her.

William at one point paid Mary’s fare to visit Australia, where her brothers lived. Twice, she went as far as Liverpool, only to fail in each instance to board the Sydney-bound ship.  But she continued to write William, and he continued to assist her with medical problems. Then she wrote a thinly disguised and highly unflattering portrait of William as a doctor, sent copies to William’s patients and, for good measure,  distributed copies of letters she had received from William — “letters that suggested their relationship had moved beyond that normally associated with a doctor and his patient” (p.58).

Jane sent Mary’s father a letter informing him that his daughter was trying to extort money from the Wildes.  Mary responded by suing Jane for defamation, claiming £2000 in damages, almost a quarter of a million pounds today.  William became a co-defendant because, under the law at the time, a husband was responsible for the civil wrongs committed by his wife.  After the Wildes determined not to settle, a six-day trial took place in December 1864 that, as The Irish Times put it, “shook society in Dublin like a thunderclap” (p.63).

Isaac Butt, Dublin’s best-known barrister, represented Mary at trial even though he was a social friend of the Wilde family. Butt sought to disclaim the idea that Mary might have had an intimate relationship with William.  He portrayed Mary as a young and naïve woman who had been exploited by William.  The most serious allegation against William was that he had raped her while she was unconscious during a medical operation.  The jury determined that Jane’s letter to Mary’s father had defamed her, but awarded only negligible damages. The Wildes were nonetheless liable for court costs in the amount of £2000, the same amount as the damages Mary had sought.

Tóibín notes the similarities between the case against William and Jane and that against their son Oscar three decades later, brought by the Marquees of Queensbury, the father of Oscar’s partner Alfred Douglas.  The two trials were the result of “frenetic, fearless, almost manic activity of both Travers and Queensbury, who sought to embarrass and harass in public and private Sir William and Oscar Wilde respectively, both of whom were becoming increasingly famous and feeling more and more unassailable” (p.64; Oscar Wilde’s trial was the subject of a work reviewed here earlier this year).

But William and Jane were not ostracized and sent to prison, as Oscar was.  His parents’ case “may have nourished the later work [Oscar] Wilde did as a dramatist, but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box, when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence” (p.67-68).  And William rebuilt his life in his 11 remaining years, in a way Oscar was unable to do in the 3-½ years remaining to him after his trial and release from prison.  Mary Travers’ court case “did not seem to affect the lives of the Wildes in any obvious way” (p.66), Tóibín writes.

* * *

                Late in life, John Yeats (1839-1922) achieved a degree of literary success himself and, like his son and the younger Wilde and Joyce, did so away from Dublin, in his case in New York City.  John was the son of a Protestant clergyman whose parents moved easily in the best Dublin society.  They were frequent visitors to the home of William and Jane Wilde, and Isaac Butt was a family friend.  John married Susan Pollexfens in 1863, and the couple had four children together, future poet William Butler, the eldest, called “Willie” within the family, two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan Mary, known as “Lilly” and “Lally,” and a second son, Jack Butler.   John appeared destined to serve as an apprentice to Butt on the pathway to becoming a barrister.  But he had an attraction to portrait painting that drew him away from the law.

Throughout married life, John struggled financially, finding it challenging to support his four children. He was haunted by a lingering sense of remorse at having left the law and being unable to provide his wife Susan and their children with the life Susan had imagined when she married.  John studied art for a while in London.  Always gregarious and considered a stellar conversationalist, John was less successful as a painter, with a tendency to leave his works unfinished.  Son William faulted his father for an “infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career” (p.91).

Yeats’ financial circumstances worsened after Susan died in 1900, at a time when his four children had reached adulthood and had established themselves professionally.  Unlike their father, the four Yeats’ offspring “worked and made money . . . [T]hey were serious, determined and industrious” (p.90).  John frequently criticized William, but continually asked his oldest son to send him money.  In 1907, John sailed with his daughter Lily from Liverpool to New York.

John was then 68, a widower for seven years, with little hope for success as a painter.   When Lily left New York for Dublin six months later, John stayed behind, taking  up residence in a boarding house on West 29th Street.  In New York, John evolved into what Tóibín terms “one of the best letter writers of the age” (p.99), writing with “astonishing freshness and seriousness” (p.100) on art, poetry and life.  Far from his children and familiar surroundings, John was able to “let his mind take him where it would, to seek out good company, to study life closely, to put more energy into his talk and his letters than into his art” (p.104).  Exile and distance from his poet son proved in particular to be a gift for John.

Yeats attempted to guide son William from afar by sending him “intelligent and compelling letters about art and life, about poetry and religion, about his own hopes as an artist and his life in the city.  Since the letters were so well written and original, his son would, at least some of the time, come to appreciate and admire his wayward and improvident father” (p.99).  Instead of witnessing first hand his father’s slow and inevitable physical decline, the son received letters from his father, “filled with good humor and wisdom and a soaring hunger for life and ideas,” rendering his father’s exile “enabling and inspiring for his son’s work” (p.99).  But as the senior Yeats wrote to his son, he was also corresponding with Isaac Butt’s daughter Rosa.

John had met Rosa when both were about 20. Their correspondence began in the year before John’s wife’s death, but became more frequent once he was in New York.   Some kind of relationship had developed between the two when both were in Dublin, but its nature remains a mystery.  Some of John’s letters to Rosa from New York appear to assume that they their relationship went beyond mere friendship.   John “seemed to enjoy writing openly about his physical passion for her, knowing that she would disapprove of his explicit tone. . . There is the freedom in the letters of someone idly dreaming . . . The possibility of his going home remained a constant theme” (p.111-112).

Tóibín describes John’s correspondence to Rosa as centered on “impossible or dreamed-of love and the imagined loved one” (p.119).  A “foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate, fantastical imagination,” John wrote to Rosa about the life he imagined, and “gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only somehow possible, but almost present” (p.122).  His letters were “filled with defiance in the face of old age” (p.120), embracing one of son William’s major themes as a poet: the “vitality that remains in the spirit as the body ages” (p.99),  In his final years before his death in New York in 1922, the “old painter still imagined what could have been” (p.129).

* * *

                      More than John Yeats, John Stanislaus Joyce (1849-1931) squandered his opportunities to realize a comfortable bourgeois life for his wife and children.  The senior Joyce was born into a family of well-to-do merchants and property owners in Cork.  He studied medicine at Queens College in Cork but did not graduate. He had a good tenor voice, enjoyed singing and also became involved in amateur theatre.  At age 25, John Stanislaus moved to Dublin to work in a distillery.  When the distillery went broke, John lost both his job and a significant amount of money he had invested in the enterprise.  In May 1880, he married 19-year-old May Murray, without the approval of parents on either side. Together, the couple had ten children, with James, born in 1882, the oldest.

When John Stanislaus and May started their family, they were well off and could expect a life of comfort.  John had by then found a sinecure job as a rate collector, making good money.  The job required him to be out and about all day long, with little supervision. “It was the perfect job for someone who was social and garrulous” (p.139), Tóibín writes.  At the end of the work day,  John frequently found himself in one of Dublin’s many public alehouses.  When John’s mother died,  he inherited several properties in Cork, bringing him additional income.  But despite a good income from his job and the rents on the Cork properties, from the beginning of his marriage John had difficulty living within his means.  He had to remortgage some of his properties and borrow money to supplement his income.  Nor was he particularly successful in his job.

In 1893, with moneylenders after him, rent due on his house, court judgments against him, and bailiffs seizing his furniture, John had to sell his inherited properties in Cork.  That same year, almost all Dublin rate collectors were dismissed.   Most were offered generous pensions. But because of his poor work record, John received a significantly reduced pension (initially he was offered nothing and had to bargain for even the reduced pension).  With nine children to support (one child did not survive), John was able to find only odd and short-term jobs.  Several years later, John’s son Stanislaus, James’ brother, wrote about how his father’s financial difficulties had poisoned the family environment.  Stanislaus noted frequent drunkenness and outrages, in one of which he tried to strangle his wife.  It would be easy, Tóibín writes, to consign John Stanislaus Joyce to the position of “one of the worst Irish husbands and worst Irish fathers in recorded history” (p.147).

But that’s not what James Joyce did with his father in his literature.  James had escaped his father’s clutches at a boarding school, university and later in Italy and Paris.  Since his father’s presence loomed so large in Dublin, James went into exile “not only to escape the city of his birth but so that both Dublin and the man who had begotten him could move into shadow” (p.135).  As a novelist, James “sought to recreate his father, reimagine him, fully invoke him, live in his world” (p.135).  Although he resisted incorporating his anger toward his father into his writing, his father remained “raw and present” (p.173).

In Stephen Hero, an early and subsequently abandoned version of the heavily autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James portrayed his mother as “intelligent, open-minded and sensitive, as well as a devout and serious Catholic who pays attention to her priest,” whereas his father was depicted as “hard-hearted and callous” (p.156-57).  In Dubliners, another of Joyce’s earlier works, a collection of short stories published in 1914, his last story was based on an incident when John Stanislaus had fallen down the stairs of a public ale house.

But in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, Joyce presented his relationship to his father as “oddly mysterious and painful, evoking a tone that is melancholy, puzzled, almost poetic” (p.158).  James rescued his father by moving him “from the private realm, where he clearly is a bully and a monster, into the public sphere.  He allows him to be the man he is with his friends rather than with his family” (p.158-60). But he is no “model citizen or a father to be proud of” (p.158-60).

John Stanislaus reappeared as Simon Dedaleus in James’ epic novel Ulysses, not published in its entirety until 1922 (the ordeal to publish Ulysses is the subject of a work reviewed here in August 2016).  Simon is a “complex figure of moods, an unsettled rather than a solid presence in the book” (p.167).   He is a man “whose children do not have enough money for food as he himself moves easily in the city. . . [He is a] man more at home with his companions and acquaintances than with his family” (p.165).

In James Joyce’s fictive world, Tóibín concludes, “fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, becoming more complex, fulfilling theirs sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way” (p.136).  From 1920 to his death in 1931, the real world John Stanislaus lived alone in a Dublin boarding house. He probably did not see James during these years.

* * *

               In this slim volume, Colm Tóibín presents three elegantly styled, thought provoking portraits of three very different 19th century Dubliners. With his razor-sharp perspective on Irish literature, sensitivity to Ireland’s historical ambiguities, and insider’s view of Dublin’s geography and demographics, Tóibín himself supplies the glue that binds the volume together.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

December 4, 2019

3 Comments

Filed under History, Literature

Catastrophic Miscalculation

 

 

Benjamin Carter Hett,  The Death of Democracy:

Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

(Henry Holt & Co)

                  Benjamin Carter Hett’s title, The Death of Democracy, may sound similar to several recent works addressing the contemporary decline of liberal democracy throughout the world, including of course in the United States  — the most obvious example being Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s highly regarded How Democracies Die.  Hett’s sub-title better captures the focus and scope of his work: it is an account of how Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party (officially, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) were able to undermine the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I experiment in liberal democracy, and achieve power in the turbulent 1930s.  To be sure, there are snippets here that may send readers back to the present.  

                 Hitler “lied all the time” (p.38), Hett writes.  Like most  “basically ignorant people,” Hitler had a complex about “not needing to learn anything” (p.53), and routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts.  The Nazis found their strongest electoral support – their “base” in today’s lexicon – in rural Protestant areas of the country.  Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, advocated building a “thick wall around Germany . . . a protective wall” (p.109; but with no indication yet to surface that he promised that Poland would pay for the wall).  For the most part, however, Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, leaves to his readers the option of drawing lessons for our era from his account of Germany’s post-World War I experience.

                 The sobering story of Hitler’s ascendancy has of course been retold frequently, but Hett tells it concisely and well.  He does so by breaking the story into two general chronological parts, 1914-1929 and 1929-1934.  The first, 1914-29, is a macro-account that includes World War I and Germany’s defeat, the vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the turbulent decade of Weimar politics that followed, when extremists of left and right threatened to undermine the fledgling republic.  Yet, Hett reminds us, up until the Great Depression intervened toward the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic somehow managed to find its footing.  

                  The second part, 1929-1934, delves deeply into the background behind the Nazi ballot box insurgency in legislative elections in 1930 and 1932 that led Weimar President, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, on January 30, 1933, to appoint Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor  — the head of the Weimar executive branch, roughly equivalent to a Prime Minister within Weimar’s parliamentary democracy.  Hett details the frenetic maneuvering of key Weimar personalities in December 1932 and January 1933 to persuade the aging Hindenburg, then 85 years old, to take the fateful step of appointing a man to run the Weimar government whom he had always distrusted and disdained.  The appointment, Hett emphasizes, was “constitutionally legitimate” and “even democratic” (p.3) under the 1919 Weimar constitution.   

                   Each of he book’s eight chapters begins with a “real time” anecdote that paves the way for the historical narrative that follows.  The first constitutes a powerful scene-setter: the burning of the Reichstag, Weimar’s legislative chamber, on February 28, 1933, one month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor.   The Nazis portrayed the fire as the opening act of a Communist uprising that provided a pretext to invoke emergency powers, marking that February 28 as the “last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy” (p.3).  The final anecdote, the introduction to the book’s last chapter, involves the “Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934, when Hitler eliminated much of the potential opposition to his regime.   The six other chapters also begin with real time anecdotes that add spice to the book’s straightforward, narrowly focused yet engrossing historical narrative.

* * *

                    Hett observes at the outset that Hitler’s Germany is “unique among all regimes in human history in at least one respect: serious historians are unanimous in judging it a catastrophe with no redeeming features.  There is no other regime, not even the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that can claim such a dubious distinction” (p.8).  But the agreement ends at this point, he indicates.  Historians and intellectuals continue to grapple with the question how and why civilized Germany, with its abundant contributions to European culture, descended into the barbarism of the Third Reich.  No single answer suffices to explain how the land of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms wound up in the hands of Hitler and Himmler.  

                   Like many analyses of Weimar’s downfall and Hitler’s ascendancy, Hett begins with Germany’s loss in the First World War.  It is no exaggeration, he writes, to say that the “answer to all questions about Weimar lies somewhere in the First World War” (p.11).  Weimar Germany never developed a “general social consensus on why the war had been lost or how to respond to the postwar settlement” (p.32-33).  Hett returns repeatedly to a comparison between August 1914 and November 1918 that found its way into right wing mythology in the post WW I era: the purported unity that bound the country together in August 1914, when Germany sent its soldiers off to what was considered a noble cause, versus the disunity of November 1918 when, according to the mythology which Hindenburg helped foster, German troops on the battlefield suffered a “stab in the back” from elites in Berlin and elsewhere, far from the front lines — with “elites” always of course encompassing Jews.   More than any other political party, the Nazis were able to convince the voting public that they could recreate the spirit of 1914 and expunge the stab-in-the-back “betrayal” of 1918.  

                  Hett also follows other analyses in emphasizing how between 1929 and 1933 conservative political elites came to accept Hitler and his unruly followers as a necessary bulwark against what it perceived as the existential threat of Bolshevism.  Authoritarian by disposition and at best only weakly committed to democratic principles, conservative elites reached the conclusion that if a violent Bolshevik uprising were to be averted on German soil, they had “no choice but to find a way to work with Hitler — to use him and his movement” (p.234).  Those who pushed for a role for Hitler in the Weimar government did so notwithstanding their doubts about the Nazi leader and his party, remaining confident that he could be controlled from within – a strong candidate for history’s most catastrophic miscalculation.

                 But if neither of these points of emphasis could be considered groundbreaking, less conventional is Hett’s view that Nazism is best understood as a reaction to “globalism,” by which he means the liberal, capitalist order emanating from Great Britain and the United States, an order based on free trade, the international gold standard and, for Germans, onerous war reparations payments.  After harnessing superior wealth, resources and power to defeat Germany militarily during World War I, Britain and America continued in the post-war era to define the world in which Germany had to operate.   It was a global order that no German could control, a “way of keeping Germany tied down and harmless” (p.108).  More than anything else, Hett argues, the Nazis were a “nationalist protest movement against globalization” (p.106), even if that term was not in use in the 1920s and 1930s.    

                Germans could accept the hegemony of Anglo-American globalization and try to make it work to their advantage.  Or, “against all odds and perhaps against all reason, they could rebel against it.  This was the fundamental foreign policy choice that faced the Weimar Republic throughout its existence” (p.33).  Accommodation to the liberal capitalist order was the reflex of Germany’s democratic parties and politicians, whereas rebellion was the path of the nationalist right.   Among the nationalist groups choosing the path of rebellion, the Nazis offered the most radical approach.  They maintained that Germany could “cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, with no imports, exports, or foreign investment” (p. 109).  Hitler’s frequent invocation of Germany’s need for lebenstraum, living space, in the east should be seen in this light, Hett argues.  Hitler’s “entire program was fundamentally directed to making Germany economically self-sufficient by conquering the Soviet Union” (p.114).  

                 The Nazis and  Germany’s other political parties trolled for votes within the framework of the 1919 Weimar constitution.  That instrument created what Hett terms a “state-of-the-art modern democracy,”  establishing a “scrupulously just proportional electoral system” (p.7) that depended upon coalitions and compromises among Germany’s diverse range of political parties, with small and marginal parties having   outsized n influence.  The constitution also offered protection for individual liberties, voting rights for women, and express equality between women and men.  But Weimar democracy operated in conditions that were “hardly promising: a catastrophic lost war and a hated peace settlement, followed by extraordinary political and economic turbulence” (p.73).  The Weimar Republic witnessed top-level political instability throughout its fourteen years, with thirteen chancellors and twenty-one different administrations.  Yet, despite unfavorable odds, the Republic survived and even flourished in the latter portion of the 1920s, thanks in no small measure to the instrumental work of Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s Foreign Minister from 1923 up until his death in 1929. 

                 Stresemann’s tenure at the Foreign Ministry marked a period when Germany “shed its pariah status and returned to its place as a respected and important force in European and world politics”  (p.57).  During Stresemann’s tenure, Germany joined the League of Nations and obtained significant debt relief.   Weimar Germany’s integration into the international community in the 1920s under Stresemann presents a “forceful reminder that the Republic was not doomed from the start, contrary to another persistent myth” (p.73), Hett writes.  At the time he died in 1929, Stresemann was convinced that Hitler and his party represented the most dire threat to Germany’s reintegration into the international community.

                  Hitler’s rise as force to be taken seriously in Weimar politics coincided with Stresemann’s years as Germany’s Foreign Minister.  The polar opposite to Stresemann “in every important way” (p.54), Hitler led the so-called Munich Beer Hall putsch in 1923 that sought to overthrow the Weimar government.  After serving only a few months in prison for what amounted to an act of treason, Hitler emerged as a national celebrity. He and his Nazi confederates spent the next several years building the party at the grass roots level.   Between 1925 and 1929, Nazi party membership increased from 25,000 to about 180,000.   Hitler by then was convinced that his party could come to power only by peaceable means. 

                The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed dramatically increased unemployment and bankruptcy rates across Germany, enhancing the appeal not only of the Nazis on the political right but also of the Communists on the left.  A potent force with some 360,000 party members by the early 1930s, the German Communist Party was “just as dedicated as the nationalist right to overturning the democratic system” (p.74).   The Communists consequently refused to engage in political coalition building with the  Social Democrats, Germany’s strongest democratic party which, like the Communists, drew its base from the urban working classes.  The Communists hated no party, Hett observes, maybe not even the Nazis, more than the Social Democrats, whom they considered “not just enemies . . . [but] traitors” (p.65).  Stalin’s German auxiliaries, he notes ruefully, “could, and did, frustrate efforts at forming a united left that might have kept the Nazis from power” (p.113). 

                 The Communists had their own paramilitary forces, much like the Nazis’ SA (or Brownshirts), and conflicts between the two were rampant throughout much of Germany as the 1920s came to a close.  By the early 1930s, conditions in major German cities “came close to a state of civil war” (p.127).     

* * *

                   The second half of the book zeroes in on the maneuvering that took place between 1929 and 1933, as Weimar conservatives wrestled with the recurring question: what to do with Hitler and his Nazi party, increasingly successful at the polls at a time when economic conditions were worsening and civil war was threatening.  The lead roles in what amounts to a “palace intrigue” tale belong to three men: Franz von Papen, Kurt von Schleicher, and President Hindenburg.  Papen served as Chancellor from May to December 1932, and as Hitler’s Vice Chancellor from January 1933 into 1934.  Schleicher served as Defense Minister in 1932 and as Germany’s last Chancellor before Hitler, from December 1932 to January 1933, but was at least equally influential out of government.  

                   Hett describes Schleicher as arguably the “most important actor in the last five years of the Weimar Republic” (p.81).  Before becoming Defense Minister, Schleicher served as a sort of lobbyist for the army and, from behind the scenes “made and unmade chancellors and administrations” (p.12).  He was a “champion manipulator and intriguer, always creeping from door to door, whispering in important ears. . . [He was] calculating, manipulative, and often dishonest” (p.81).   Papen, a career military officer and devout Catholic, had an aristocratic air, “smooth, urbane, and always elegantly tailored” (p.146), but was considered an intellectual lightweight who lacked gravitas and expertise in policymaking.

                The Nazis’ string of successes at the ballot box began before Papen’s chancellorship, in the fall of 1930, when they exceeded their own expectations by winning 107 seats in the Reichstag with 18.3% of the vote, compared to 12 seats and 2.6% of the vote in 1928.  In sixty years of German national elections, Hett notes, no party had ever risen so far so quickly as the Nazis in 1930.  The equally anti-democratic Communists also realized substantial gains.  Then, in July 1932, the Nazis won another stunning electoral victory in legislative elections, earning 37.3% of the vote and 230 Reichstag seats.  Although not a majority, the Nazis became by a wide margin the Reichstag’s largest party.  The Communists were the only other major party to gain seats.  The success of anti-democratic parties on both the left and right, Hett writes, was an “unsurprising product of the dramatically worsening economic situation since 1931 and of growing German anger at uncontrollable global forces” (p.150).  

                 The Nazi electoral successes convinced Schleicher that they would be “ideal foot soldiers” in coping with the civil unrest that was threatening to engulf the country.  But he was “not so foolish that he wanted the Nazis to have any real power.  His strategy always ran simultaneously on two tracks: trying to find a way to use the Nazis, if they could be used, but preparing to fight them if they could not be.  It probably never occurred to him that he might be outmaneuvered in his own devious game” (p.93). 

                   In May 1932, Schleicher convinced Hindenburg to appoint Papen as Chancellor.  Schleicher arranged for himself to become defense minister in the new administration and “imagined he would be the real power in the cabinet,” with Papen serving as “his puppet”  (p.147).  Papen’s cabinet, dubbed the “Barons’ cabinet,” was more right wing and socially elite than any of its predecessors.  Papen’s most dramatic lurch away from democratic constitutionality and the rule of law came through what was  known as the “Papen coup,” a national takeover of most of the functions of Prussia, Germany’s largest and most influential constituent state where the Social Democrats were the dominant party.  Papen himself became special  “Reich commissar” and head of the Prussian government.  He defended this move as a preventive action against a communist insurrection.  Hett characterizes the maneuver as a “decisive coup in the coffin of German democracy” (p.150), comparing it to an American president simultaneously removing the governors of New York and California from office and taking over their functions.

            Hett’s narrative reaches a dramatic crescendo in its account of the fateful and frantic months of December 1932 and January 1933, centered around a flurry of meetings in which Papen, Schleicher and Hindenburg searched for an appropriate role for Hitler and the Nazis, with Hindenburg’s son Oskar, a contemporary of Papen and Schleicher, often in attendance.  Hitler consistently refused any role in the government but the chancellorship and, throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg just as consistently opposed Hitler’s appointment to that position..

            In the first such meeting, on December 1, 1932, when Papen proposed that Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Schleicher countered by proposing himself as Chancellor.  Hindenburg wavered, then determined to give Schleicher a chance to find the best way forward.  Two days later, Schleicher, stepping out fully from his long years in the political backroom, was sworn in as the chancellor.  Schleicher would “try his luck at a broad coalition, his last, desperate effort to bring political stability on right-wing terms without civil war” (p.161).

            Throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg found the “very idea of having as his chancellor the man he called ‘the Bohemian private’ an outrage” (p.154).  As late as January 26th, Hindenburg told a friend that Hitler was “at best qualified to be his postal minister” (p.177).  But the following day, Friday, January 27, 1933, the Reichstag forced Hindenburg’s hand when senior Reichstag leaders from all parties agreed to hold a session the following week to vote no confidence in the Schleicher government.

             Schleicher saw the appointment of Hitler as the only way out.  Hindenburg still didn’t agree, and Schleicher and his cabinet resigned rather than face the no-confidence vote.  It was only on the following day, Saturday, January 28, 1933, that Hindenburg reluctantly agreed that no other constitutional solution appeared possible other than to form a government under Hitler’s leadership.  Schleicher would serve as Vice-Chancellor, part of a strong “counterweight against National Socialist predominance” (p.178).  Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor the following Monday, January 30th

                 Schleicher, Papen and their associates sincerely believed, Hett writes, that the presence of conservatives in the cabinet, along with the authority of Hindenburg and, in the last resort, the army, “would surely keep Hitler on the straight and narrow” (p.182).  But as a result of Papen’s 1932 “coup” against the Prussian government, the key Prussian ministries were now part of the national government.  Hitler arranged for Hermann Göring to be named Prussian interior minister, placing the Nazis in control of the powerful Prussian state police.

                 From the beginning, the Nazis struck out at anyone who might be a Nazi opponent.  Hindenburg signed a decree on February 4, 1933, giving the police wide powers to break up political meetings, ban associations, and shutdown media outlets.  The Nazis spent much of February 1933 awaiting a Communist coup that never materialized.  Then the Reichstag fire occurred, six days before the country was to vote in another round of legislative elections.  There is still no consensus, Hett indicates, whether the Nazis themselves started the fire.  There is a consensus, however, that Marinus van der Lubbe, the 24 year old Dutch citizen apprehended inside the Reichstag at the time of the fire, could not have started it by himself. 

                  The Nazis immediately characterized the fire as an act of political arson, the opening act of a Communist uprising.  On the morning following the fire, the cabinet passed and Hindenburg signed an executive order known informally as the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” which  “tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic” (p.187).  The decree cancelled freedom of speech and assembly, the confidentiality of post and telegraphic communications, and freedom from arbitrary searches, arrest and detention.  The decree became the “legal foundation for Hitler’s twelve-year dictatorship” (p.187-88), in effect the “Constitution” of the Third Reich.  In the course of the next four months, in a “remarkably fast and relentless process of consolidating power” (p.206), most other guarantees of liberty and the rule of law were swept away.  

                 Hett’s narrative finishes in the summer of 1934, first with the June 30th  “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Hitler eliminated the sources of opposition and potential opposition to the Nazi regime.  Hitler contended that he had squelched a percolating plot among his rowdy SA storm troopers, an argument that Hess considers a pretext for Hitler to strike against his more dangerous enemies within the conservative establishment.  In large part because of the genuine unpopularity of the SA, the Night of the Long Knives “restored a good deal of the regime’s popularity within Germany – and the conservative resistance was shattered” (p.230).

                 Hindenburg, long the most influential and perhaps most resistant among Germany’s conservative elite, sent Hitler a telegram praising  his “decisive intervention,” through which his Chancellor had “nipped all treasonous machinations in the bud” and “saved the German people from great danger” (p.229).  Schleicher was among the victims of the June 30th purge, killed by Nazi assassins in his home.  Papen, unlike Schleicher, had been plotting against Hitler but was spared after writing a groveling letter to Hitler complementing him for his “soldierly decisiveness” in “saving the fatherland from an enormous danger” (p.230).

                  Hindenburg died a little more than a month later, on August 2, 1934.  He went to his grave “serene in the belief that his good name had been secured by Hitler’s success in overcoming the political divisions of the early 1930s” (p.235).  Hitler took over immediately the powers of the presidency.  No one could ever replace the esteemed war hero, Hitler explained to the German public, and the office of the president itself was therefore abolished.  Hitler assumed the formal title of “Führer and Reich Chancellor.”  All members of the armed forces and all civil servants were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally.  Hitler’s’ hold on power was “now complete, and all efforts to control or ‘tame’ him had decisively failed”  (p.231).  From Hindenburg’s death in August 1934 onward, “the switches were set for war – a war to overcome the global economic dominance of Great Britain and the United Sates and to make Germany an economic superpower by seizing a massive land empire in eastern Europe” (p.231). 

* * *

                   Whatever one’s views on parallels between Germany in the early 1930s and the United States in the current era, everyone who values democracy should have an understanding of the case of Weimar Germany.  Benjamin Hett presents that intricate case  meticulously — and often chillingly.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 19, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under German History, History

Stirring Rise and Crushing Fall of a Renaissance Man

 

 

Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:

In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)

            If you are among those who think the term “Renaissance Man” seems fuzzy and even frivolous when applied to anyone born after roughly 1600, consider the case of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man whose talents and genius extended across an impossibly wide range of activities.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Robeson, the son of a former slave, thrilled audiences worldwide with both his singing and his acting.  In a mellifluous baritone voice, Robeson gave new vitality to African-American songs that dated to slave plantations.  On the stage, his lead role as Othello in the play of that name gave a distinctly 20th century cast to one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.  He also appeared in a handful of films in the 1930s.  Before becoming a singing and acting superstar, Robeson had been one of the outstanding athletes of his generation, on par with the legendary Jim Thorpe.  Robeson  further earned a degree from Columbia Law School and reportedly was conversant in upwards of 15 languages.

Robeson put his multiple talents to use as an advocate for racial and economic justice internationally.  He was among the minority of Americans in the 1930s who linked European Fascism and Nazism to the omnipresent racism he had confronted in America since childhood.  But Robeson’s political activism during the Cold War that followed World War II ensnared the world class Shakespearean actor in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension, providing a painful denouement to his uplifting life story.

Although Robeson never joined a communist party, he perceived a commitment to full equality in the Soviet Union that was missing in the West.  While many Westerners later saw that their admiration for the Soviet experiment had been misplaced, Robeson never publicly criticized the Soviet Union and paid an unconscionably heavy price for his stubborn consistency during the Cold War.  The State Department refused to renew his passport, precluding him from traveling abroad for eight years.  He was hounded by the FBI and shunned professionally.  Robeson had suffered from depression throughout his adult life.  But his mental health issues intensified in the Cold War era and included a handful of suicide attempts.  Robeson spent his final years in limbo, silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing, up to his death in 1976.

In No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist, seeks to capture Robeson’s stirring rise and crushing fall.  The book’s subtitle – “In Search of Paul Robeson” — may sound like any number of biographical works, but in this case encapsulates precisely the book’s unique quality.  In nearly equal doses, Sparrow’s work consists of the major elements of Robeson’s life and Sparrow’s account of how he set about to learn the details of that life — an example of biography and memoir melding together.  Sparrow visited many of the places where Robeson lived, including Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898; Harlem in New York City; London and Wales in Great Britain; and Moscow and other locations in today’s Russia.

In each location, Sparrow was able to find knowledgeable people, such as archivists and local historians, who knew about Robeson and were able to provide helpful insights into the man’s relationship to the particular location.  We learn for instance from Sparrow’s guides how the Harlem that Robeson knew is rapidly gentrifying today and how the economy of contemporary Wales functions long after closure of the mines which Robeson once visited.  Sparrow’s travels to the former Soviet Union take him to several locations where Robeson never set foot, including Siberia, all in effort to understand the legacy of Soviet terror which Robeson refused to acknowledge.  Sparrow’s account of his travels to these diverse places and his interactions with his guides reads at times like a travelogue.  Readers looking to plunge into the vicissitudes of Robeson’s life may find these portions of the book distracting.  The more compelling portions are those that treat Robeson’s extraordinary life itself.

* * *

            That life began in Princeton, New Jersey, world famous for its university of that name.  The Robeson family lived in a small African-American community rarely visited by those whose businesses and lives depended upon the university.  Princeton was then considered,  as Sparrow puts it, a “northern outpost of the white supremacist South: a place ‘spiritually located in Dixie’” (p.29).  William Robeson, Paul’s father, was a runaway former slave who earned a degree from Lincoln University and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.  His mother Maria, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family and was of mixed ancestry, died in a house fire when Paul was six years old.  Thereafter, William raised Paul and his three older brothers and one older sister on his own.  William played a formidable role in shaping young Paul, who later described his father as the “glory of my boyhood years . . . I loved him like no one in all the world” (p.19).

William abandoned Presbyterianism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the oldest black denominations in the country, and took on a much larger congregation in Somerville, New Jersey, where Paul attended high school.  One of a handful of African-American students in a sea of whites, Robeson excelled academically and played baseball, basketball and football.  He also edited the school paper, acted with the drama group, sang with the glee club, and participated in the debating society.  When his father was ill or absent, he sometimes preached at his father’s church.  Robeson’s high school accomplishments earned him a scholarship to nearby Rutgers University.

At Rutgers, Robeson again excelled academically.  He became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was selected as class valedictorian.  As in high school, he was also an outstanding athlete, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and track.  A standout in football, Robeson was “one of the greatest American footballers of a generation,” so much so that his coach “designed Rutgers’ game-plan tactics specifically to exploit his star’s manifold talents” (p.49).  Playing in the backfield, Robeson could both run and throw. His hefty weight and size made him almost impossible to stop.  On defense, his tackling “took down opponents with emphatic finality” (p.49).  Twice named to the All-American Football Team, Robeson was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1995, 19 years after his death.

After graduation from Rutgers in 1919, Robeson spent the next several years in New York City.  He enrolled in New York University Law School, then transferred to Columbia and moved to Harlem.  There, Robeson absorbed the weighty atmosphere the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American culture, thinking and resistance in the 1920s.  While at Columbia, Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Goode, known as “Essie.”  The couple married in 1921.

Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923 and worked for a short time in a New York law firm.  But he left the firm abruptly when a secretary told him that she would not take dictation from an African-American.  Given his talents, one wonders what Robeson could have achieved had he continued in the legal profession.  It is not difficult to imagine Robeson the lawyer becoming the black Clarence Darrow of his age, the “attorney for the damned;” or a colleague of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 20th century’s legal battles for full African-American rights.  But Robeson gravitated instead toward singing and acting after leaving the legal profession, while briefly playing semi-pro football and basketball.

Robeson made his mark as a singer by rendering respectable African-American songs such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that had originated on the plantations — “sorrow songs” that “voiced the anguish of slavery” (p.81), as Sparrow puts it.  After acting in amateur plays, Robeson won the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about inter-racial sexual attraction that established Robeson as an “actor to watch” (p.69).  Many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance criticized Robeson’s role in the play as reinforcing racial stereotypes, while white reviewers “blasted the play as an insult to the white race” (p.70).  An opportunity to star in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on the London stage led the Robesons to Britain in 1925, where they lived for several years.  The couple’s  only child, Paul Jr., whom they called “Pauli,” was born in London in 1927.

Robeson delighted London audiences with his role in the musical Show Boat, which proved to be as big a hit in Drury Lane as it had been on Broadway.  He famously changed the lines to “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’” and “feared of dyin'” to a declaration of resistance: “I must keep fightin’/Until I’m dyin'”.  His rendition of “Old Man River,” Sparrow writes, transported the audience “beyond the silly narrative to an almost visceral experience of oppression and pain.”  Robeson used his huge frame, “bent and twisted as he staggered beneath a bale, to convey the agony of black history while revealing the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance” (p.103).

The Robesons in their London years prospered financially and moved easily in a high inner circle of respectable society.  The man who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities lived as an English gentleman in London, Sparrow notes.  But by the early 1930s, Robeson had learned to see respectable England as “disconcertingly similar” to the United States, “albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class.  To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them” (p.131).

In London, as in New York, the “limited roles that playwrights offered to black actors left Paul with precious few opportunities to display any range. He was invariably cast as the same kind of character, and as a result even his admirers ascribed his success to instinct rather than intellect, as a demonstration not so much of theatrical mastery but of an innate African talent for make-believe, within certain narrow parameters” (p.107). Then, in 1930, Robeson received a fateful invitation to play Othello in a London production, a role that usually went to an actor of Arab background.

Robeson’s portrayal of Othello turned out triumphal, with the initial performance receiving an amazing 20 curtain calls.  In that production, which  ran for six weeks, Robeson transformed Shakespeare’s tragedy into an “affirmation of black achievement, while hinting at the rage that racism might yet engender” (p.113).  Thereafter, Othello “became central to Paul’s public persona,” (p.114), providing a role that seemed ideal for Robeson: a “valiant high-ranking figure of color, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed” (p.109).

While in London, Robeson developed sensitivity to the realities of colonial Africa through friendships with men such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah, future leaders of independence movements in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively.  Robeson retained a keen interest in African history and politics for the remainder of his life.  But  Robeson’s commitment to political activism seems to have crystallized through his frequent visits to Wales, where he befriended striking miners and sang for them.

Robeson supported the Welsh labor movement because of the “collectivity it represented. In Wales, in the pit villages and union lodges and little chapels, he’d found solidarity” (p.149).  Robeson compared Welsh churches to the African-American churches he knew in the United States, places where a “weary and oppressed people drew succor from prayer and song” (p.133).  More than anywhere else, Robeson’s experiences in Wales made him aware of the injustices which capitalism can inflict upon those at the bottom of the economic ladder, regardless of color.  Heightened class-consciousness proved to be a powerful complement to Robeson’s acute sense of racial injustice developed through the endless humiliations encountered in his lifetime in the United States.

Robeson’s sensitivity to economic and racial injustice led him to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which he visited many times and where he and his family lived for a short time.  But a stopover in Berlin on his initial trip to Moscow in 1934 opened Robeson’s eyes to the Nazis’ undisguised racism.  Nazism to Robeson was a “close cousin of the white supremacy prevailing in the United States,” representing a “lethal menace” to black people.  For Robeson, the suffering of African Americans in their own country was no justification for staying aloof from international politics, but rather a “reason to oppose fascism everywhere” (p.153).

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Spain became the key battleground to oppose fascism, the place where “revolution and reaction contested openly” and “Europe’s fate would be settled” (p.160).  After speaking and raising money on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause in the United States and Britain, Robeson traveled to Barcelona, where he sang frequently.  Robeson’s brief experience in Spain transformed him into a “fervent anti-fascist, committed to an international Popular Front: a global movement uniting democrats and radicals against Hitler, Mussolini, and their allies” that would also extend democracy within the United States, end colonialism abroad, and “abolish racism everywhere” (p.196-97).

Along with many progressives of the 1930s, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union to lead the global fight against racism and fascism.  Robeson once said in Moscow, “I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up.  Here I am not a Negro but a human being” (p.198).  Robeson’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a place where  a non-racist society was possible “sustained him for the rest of his political life” (p.202).   Although he never joined a communist party, from the 1930s onward Robeson accepted most of the party’s ideas and “loyally followed its doctrinal twists and turns” (p.215).  It is easy, Sparrow indicates, to see Robeson’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the “drearily familiar tale of a gullible celebrity flattered by the attentions of a dictatorship” (p.199).

Sparrow wrestles with the question of the extent to which Robeson was aware of the Stalinist terror campaigns that by the late 1930s were taking the lives of millions of innocent Soviet citizens.  He provides no definitive answer to this question, but Robeson never wavered publicly in his support for the Soviet Union.  Had he acknowledged Soviet atrocities, Sparrow writes, he would have besmirched the “vision that had inspired him and all the people like him – the conviction that a better society was an immediate possibility” (p.264).

Robeson devoted himself to the Allied cause when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side fighting Nazi aggression during World War II, “doing whatever he could to help the American government win what he considered an anti-fascist crusade” (p.190).  His passion for Soviet Russia “suddenly seemed patriotic rather than subversive” (p.196-97).  But that quickly changed during the intense anti-Soviet Cold War that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Almost overnight in the United States, communist party members and their sympathizers became associated “not only with a radical political agenda but also with a hostile state.  An accusation of communist sympathies thus implied disloyalty – and possibly treason and espionage” (p.215).

The FBI, which had been monitoring Robeson for years, intensified its scrutiny in 1948.   It warned concert organizers and venue owners not to allow Robeson to perform “communist songs.”  If a planned tour went ahead, Sparrow writes, proprietors were told that they would be:

judged Red sympathizers themselves. The same operation was conducted in all the art forms in which Paul excelled.  All at once, Paul could no longer record music, and the radio would not play his songs.  Cinemas would not screen his movies. The film industry had already recognized that Paul was too dangerous; major theatres arrived at the same conclusion. The mere rumor that an opera company was thinking about casting him led to cries for a boycott.  With remarkable speed, Paul’s career within the country of his birth came to an end (p.216).

In 1950, the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport after he declined to sign an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party.  When Robeson testified before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1956, a Committee member asked Robeson why he didn’t go back to the Soviet Union if he liked it so much.  Roberson replied: “Because my father was a slave . . . and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.  And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (p.228). Needless to say, this was not what Committee members wanted to hear, and Robeson’s remarks “brought the moral weight of the African-American struggle crashing down upon the session” (p.228-29).

Robeson was forced to stay on the sidelines in early 1956 when the leadership of the fledgling Montgomery bus boycott movement (which included a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) concluded that his presence would undermine the movement’s fragile political credibility.  On the other side of the Cold War divide, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a not-so-secret speech that winter to party loyalists in which he denounced Stalinist purges.   Sparrow hints but doesn’t quite say that Robeson’s exclusion from the bus boycott and Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of the crimes committed in the name of the USSR had a deleterious effect on Robeson’s internal well-being.   He had suffered from bouts of mental depression throughout his adult life, most notably when a love affair with an English actress in the 1930s ended badly (one of several Robeson extra-marital affairs). But his mental health deteriorated during the 1950s, with “periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude” (p.225).

Even after Robeson’s passport was restored in 1958 as a result of a Supreme Court decision, he never fully regained his former zest.  A broken man, he spent his final decade nearly invisible, living in his sister’s care before dying of a stroke in 1976.

* * *

                     Sparrow describes his book as something other than a conventional biography, more of a “ghost story” in which particular associations in the places he visited form an “eerie bridge” (p.5) between Robeson’s time and our own.  But his travels to the places where Robeson once lived and his interactions with his local guides have the effect of obscuring the full majesty and tragedy of Robeson’s life.  With too much attention given to Sparrow’s search for what remains of Robeson’s legacy on our side of the bridge, Sparrow’s part biography, part travel memoir comes up short in helping readers discover Robeson himself on the other side.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 21, 2019

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, European History, History, Politics, United States History

The Contrarian’s Disconcerting Dualism

 

Fintan O’Toole, Judging Shaw:

The Radicalism of GBS (Royal Irish Academy, $40.00) 

            By 1920, theatergoers throughout the world recognized the three letters “GBS” as a shorthand reference to George Bernard Shaw, not only the era’s most prolific and successful English language playwright but also a prominent social and political commentator with radical left-wing views.  GBS in 1920 was Shaw’s self-created brand, which he cultivated carefully and marketed shamelessly.  In Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS, prominent Irish journalist and cultural critic Fintan O’Toole explores how the brand GBS interacted with Shaw the man and evolved over the years.  O’Toole does so through eight thematic essays, each a section on a separate aspect of Shaw’s long life (1856-1950), but without adhering to a strict chronology.  His work is more appraisal than biography.

Author of over sixty plays, among them Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923), Shaw was also a prodigious writer of letters, pamphlets, and speeches.  By one estimate, O’Toole notes, Shaw wrote at least a quarter of a million letters and postcards.  Although he analyses Shaw’s plays, O’Toole also draws liberally upon them and other writings to cast light upon Shaw’s social and political thought – upon the “Radicalism of GBS” to use the book’s sub-title.  At the book’s heart lies Shaw’s disconcerting dualism: in the post-World War I era, the outspoken political progressive became an apologist for the totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany and Soviet Russia, as well as an ostensible proponent of eugenics.  It is primarily in Shaw’s capacity as a social and political thinker that O’Toole engages his readers in an exercise in “Judging Shaw,” the book’s title.

Although not a conventional biography, the book contains a detailed and helpful chronology at the outset, with year-by-year highlights of Shaw’s life.  It also contains an impressive series of visual memorabilia between each section. The series includes relevant photos but also vivid photocopies of letters, drafts of published writings, and other reminders of Shaw’s contrarian career.

* * *

                O’Toole’s initial section, “The Invention of GBS,” describes  Shaw as “among the first private citizens in world history to create for themselves a personal brand with global resonance.  GBS was an almost universal signifier” (p.20).  None of Shaw’s predecessors created a brand that was “as deliberate, as resonant, as widespread and as sustained as GBS. He shattered cultural boundaries in ways that still seem breathtakingly bold, confounding the apparently obvious differences between seriousness and showmanship, personality and politics, art and propaganda, the mainstream and the outré, the voice in the wilderness and the voice on the radio, moral purpose and charlatanism” (p.23).  GBS, the “invention of a single, obscure impoverished Irishman,” was “one of the great achievements of the history of advertising” which produced a “unique form of celebrity: a vast popularity that depended on a reputation for insisting on unpopular ideas and causes, for pleasing the public by provoking it to the point of distraction” (p.21-22).  Quite simply, GBS was “Shaw’s greatest character” (p.22).

O’Toole’s initial section also looks at Shaw’s early years growing up in a Protestant family in Dublin.  Shaw’s ancestors on the side of his father had been quite prosperous, but his grandfather lost the family money and his alcoholic father, George Carr Shaw, struggled to earn a living sufficient for Shaw and his two older sisters.  The realization that George Carr was a “drunk,” O’Toole writes, “introduced him to reality in a way that permanently shaped his consciousness” (p.26).   Shaw’s career might be seen as a “backhanded compliment to his family.  His teetotalism and vegetarianism were reactions against the toxicity of alcoholic addiction. His ferocious, almost manic work ethic was surely driven by the fecklessness and failure of his Papa” (p.30-31).

Shaw acquired his artistic sensibility mostly from his mother, Bessie Gurly.  O’Toole recounts how Bessie invited another man, George John Vandeleur Lee, Bessie’s piano teacher, to live with the family. Lee became a substitute father for Shaw, from whom the young man derived his lifelong affinity for classical music, along with a “studied individuality of ideas about food and health” (p.37).  Lee had a certain flamboyance about him that presaged the GBS mark.  Shaw’s relationship to Lee involved a process of “mentally killing off his real father and replacing him, for a time at least, with Lee” (p.36-37), O’Toole writes.  There was some speculation that Lee might have been Shaw’s actual father.  This is surely wrong, O’Toole argues, but if the young Shaw may have looked like Lee, the reason was “not genetic but mimetic. Consciously or not, he imitated the man who had displaced his father.  Shaw never explicitly acknowledged Lee’s influence on him, but it is stamped on one of his most successful plays, Pygmalion. . . [where] Henry Higgins is a mélange of GBS and Lee” (p.38).

Shaw left Dublin for London in April 1876, three months before his 20th birthday, the “culmination of an imaginative process of slow disengagement from Dublin and thus from the physical realities of his youth” (p.47).  With Shaw’s arrival in London, where he lived for most of the rest of his years, O’Toole abandons any pretense at chronological biography in favor of his thematic essays.  One, “GBS versus England,” addresses Shaw’s general relationship to England, where he always retained a sense of himself as an exile, followed by “GBS versus Ireland.” Here, O’Toole explains Shaw’s relationship to Ireland and the Irish independence movement during his adult years.  Shaw “always saw an independent Ireland remaining voluntarily as an active member of a democratized Commonwealth.  But he never deviated from a passionate insistence that Ireland was and must be its own country and that British rule was an illegitimate imposition. He insisted that aggressive Irish nationalism was a fever that could be cured only by freedom” (p.113).

In the next section, “The Thinking Cap and the Jester’s Bells,” O’Toole turns specifically to Shaw’s plays and how he used the stage to shatter multiple norms.  Shaw wrote in a society and a culture “deeply committed to notions of human difference – that the upper class was vastly different from the lower, the imperial power from its subjects, the superior races from the inferior.”  Shaw’s dramaturgy was a “conscious revolt against these notions” (p.153).  Shaw used the stage to suggest that “how we behave is a function not of our characters, but of social roles and circumstance” (p.162-63).  O’Toole compares Shaw’s characters to a set of Russian dolls: “we never know whether, if enough layers were exposed, we would actually find a ‘real’ self. . . [T]he haunting thought is that the real self may not exist” (p.170).

Unlike most playwrights of his day, Shaw took great care in preparing a preface to his plays.  The preface helped Shaw’s readers and viewers see him “not as a famous playwright but as a famous man who wrote plays and used his celebrity to generate an audience for them” (p.95).  Shaw’s plays were democratic in their themes but also in their targeted audiences and readership, persons of modest income and education, the first generation of mass readers.  Shaw’s plays appealed to:

the millions who devoured newspapers and haunted public libraries, who joined trade unions and feminist organizations, social clubs and socialist societies, who hungered for ideas about the world. . . The history of the cheap paperback book is intertwined with the history of GBS. And not for nothing – they both belonged in the hands of working men and women (p.308-09).

In two sections, “GBS’s War on Poverty” and “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” O’Toole draws heavily on Shaw’s plays as well as his other writings to set out the contours of Shaw’s political and social thought.  At least until the 1960s, Shaw was “by far the most widely read socialist thinker in the English language.  And at the heart of his thought was that visceral hatred of poverty he breathed in with the fetid air of the Dublin slums” (p.197).  More than any other factor, Shaw’s deep hatred for economic oppression and inequality shaped his social thought.

Shaw challenged the perception of poverty as a “product of personal failure or mere bad luck, or as a necessary and inevitable corollary of economic progress” (p.198).  For Shaw, poverty was “not the cause of crime – it is the crime” (p.204).  Moralizing constructs like the “deserving poor” were only “self-serving cant” (p.310).  Shaw began to write in an era like ours, O’Toole observes, when wealth was expanding rapidly but distributed ever more unequally, giving his thought “renewed relevance in the twenty-first century” (p.198).

Shaw was one of the first intellectuals to suggest that children have rights independent of their parents.  He became a fierce fighter for woman’s suffrage and advocated for repeal of laws against consensual adult homosexual activity.  Almost alone among public figures, Shaw stood by and defended Oscar Wilde when Wilde was released from prison after serving nearly two years for “gross indecency,” i.e., homosexual acts (the subject of a review here earlier this year).

But Shaw’s progressive heroism was more than tempered for me by O’Toole’s section “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” in which the task of “judging Shaw” considers his embrace of some of the 20th century’s darkest moments: Fascism, Nazism and Communism.  Shaw also appeared to embrace the now discredited notion of eugenics, the use of selective breeding to “ensure that ‘bad’ human traits, ranging from physical and mental disabilities to moral delinquency, were ‘bred out’ of the human race” (p.267).  O’Toole provides startling quotations in which Shaw seems to support not just determining who should be allowed to give birth but also a massive increase in capital punishment for those inclined to criminality or what was considered deviant behavior.  “A part of eugenic politics,” Shaw told an audience in 1910, “would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber.  A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them” (p.268).  Shaw’s critics jumped on this and similar statements as evidence of the extremes to which his socialism invariably led.

Here, O’Toole turns lawyer for Shaw’s defense.  Shaw’s critics were willfully missing the irony behind his provocative suggestions, O’Toole argues.  Shaw was using the device of “pushing an idea to a grotesque conclusion in order to highlight an absurdity or an injustice” (p.269).  O’Toole compares Shaw to the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who argued in a deadpan tone that the rich should be allowed to eat the children of the poor.  But when O’Toole comes to Shaw’s attraction to Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s, he admits that he cannot serve effectively as Shaw’s lawyer.

Shaw imagined fascism as an “incomplete and underdeveloped version of his own communism” (p.277), O’Toole writes.  He saw Mussolini’s persecution of left-wing parties “not as part of the essence of fascism, but merely as a mistake” (p.277).  After a 1927 lunch with famed socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Beatrice recorded that Shaw had “gabbled” on the subject of Mussolini, demonstrating that he had “lost touch with political reality” and “could no longer be taken seriously as a political thinker” (p.276).  Webb blamed Shaw’s enthusiasm for Mussolini on his intellectual isolation and weakness for flattery, the result of his “living a luxurious life in the midst of a worthless multitude of idle admirers” (p.277;  Webb’s notes on this lunch appear as one of the between-section visuals, at p.294-95)

The Webbs must have been even more aghast with Shaw a few years later as Hitler rose to power in Germany.   Shaw had presciently seen the folly of the Versailles Treaty and, like John Maynard Keynes, had argued that it was little more than an invitation to another war.   Shaw’s early lack of objections to Hitler may have been in part because Shaw viewed Hitler’s rise as a natural reaction to Versailles.  “His sympathy for Hitler was driven in part by a sense that the rise of the Nazi leader was proving GBS’s warnings correct,” O’Toole writes (p.281).  Shaw supported Hitler’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, and rapid rebuilding of Germany’s armed forces.

Throughout the 1930s, Shaw maintained a “hopeless inability to understand what Nazism was about” (p.279).  Although Shaw despised Nazi racial theories, as he despised all racial theories, his “great delusion” was to think that the problem with anti-Semitism was an “excrescence of the ‘great Nazi movement’ that must be capable of something nobler. . . What Shaw seemed incapable of grasping was that anti-Semitism was not a stain on the otherwise pure cloth of Nazism. It was Hitler’s primary color” (p.279-80).  Shaw “blinded himself to the murderousness implicit in Nazism and choreographed his own ridiculous dance around one of the central realities of the 1930s” (p.282).  It was only after Germany invaded the Soviet Union that Shaw admitted he had been wrong about Hitler’s intentions.  But here, too, his apology was couched in terms that were neither “gracious” nor a “searching self-reflection – Shaw essentially apologized for Hitler not being as intelligent as GBS” (p.288).

Shaw’s infatuation with Communism is easier to square with his left-wing political outlook.   Shaw was hardly the only Westerner of a leftist bent who saw a potential “socialist paradise” in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and applauded its apparent rapid modernization while the Western democracies remained mired in a worldwide economic depression.  O’Toole recounts an interview with Stalin that Shaw and Nancy Astor conducted when the pair traveled to Moscow in 1931.  Astor, Britain’s first female parliamentarian although an American by birth, asked Stalin why he slaughtered so many people.  Shaw seemed to have been satisfied with Stalin’s “bland assurance that ‘the need for dealing with political prisoners drastically would soon cease’” (p.279).  Thereafter, O’Toole indicates, Shaw’s view of Stalin “approached hero-worship: a photograph of Stalin was beside his deathbed, though with characteristic perversity it was balanced by one of Mahatma Gandhi” (p.278-79).

As he considers Shaw’s embrace of these totalitarian regimes as part of the task of “judging Shaw,” O’Toole sounds more like a prosecutor delivering an impassioned closing argument:

The great seer failed to see the true nature of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. The great skeptic allowed himself to believe just what he wanted to believe, that the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were rough harbingers of real progress and true democracy.  GBS was by no means the only artist or intellectual to be deluded by the promises of regimes that ‘got things done’ while democracies struggled to end the Great Depression.  But no other artist or intellectual had his standing as a global sage.  His sagacity proved to be useless when it mattered most (p.275).

After wearing both a defense lawyer’s hat and that of a prosecutor, O’Toole seems to find a judicial robe when he reminds his readers that Shaw’s dark phase coincided with an almost entirely barren period for him as a playwright and writer.   From the late 1920s onward through World War II, Shaw’s output came to an almost absolute halt.  In O’Toole’s view, the Great War marked the death of GBS, depriving Shaw of his most potent message.  Shaw had used mockery, paradox and comic absurdity to remind his readers and viewers that what was termed “civilization” was merely a “veneer on cruelty and hypocrisy. But the Great War swatted aside the gadfly. It revealed, through the scale of its horror, all the hidden truths that GBS had delighted in exposing” (p.240).

The great failure of GBS the sage in the post-World War I era, O’Toole contends, “cannot be divorced from the waning of the powers of GBS the dramatist.  It was in his art that Shaw tested and contradicted and argued with himself.  But that ability dried up” (p.289). Unlike artistic creators as varied as Beethoven, Titian, Goya and W.B. Yeats, all of whom found newborn creativity late in life, Shaw was “unable to develop a successful late style” (p.289).  His last great play was in 1923, Saint Joan, when he was 68. He “long outlived the GBS who could spin ideas and contradictions on the end of his fingertips” (p.290).

* * *

                The GBS brand may have died in the wake of World War I, and Shaw the social and political commentator remains tainted by his dalliances with the totalitarian ideologies of the 1930s.  Yet, in closing out this erudite and elegantly written exercise in judging Shaw, O’Toole concludes that nearly three quarters of a century after his death, Shaw’s status as playwright and artist — and contrarian — seems  “more secure now than might have been predicted even a few decades ago” (p.305-06).  Shaw’s revolutionary impact continues to lie in his insistence that the “right to question everything, to hold nothing sacred” belongs to the “common man and woman. And that it was not just a right – it was a duty” (p.306).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 29, 2019

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, History, Literature, Political Theory, Politics

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Raphael Minder, The Struggle for Catalonia:

Rebel Politics in Spain (Hurst, £15.99 ppb)

            Two years ago, in the last quarter of 2017, Spain faced its most severe constitutional crisis since its transformation into a modern democracy began in 1975 in the aftermath of the death of long-term military dictator Francisco Franco.  On October 1, 2017, the regional (and semi-autonomous) province of Catalonia, the northeast corner of Spain that incudes Barcelona, held a non-binding referendum on the question whether the region should declare its independence and secede from Spain. The central government in Madrid vigorously opposed the referendum and took measures to impede it.

90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum. But several major Catalan parties boycotted the referendum, and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted.   Later that month, on October 27, the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution unilaterally declaring the province an independent republic.  The central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and enforce direct rule from Madrid over the region.  Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, with Spain’s Attorney General pressing for their return to Spain to face charges of sedition and misuse of public funds.

At this writing, the 2017 Spanish secession crisis continues to simmer, with no clear winner.  Catalonia remains a part of the Spanish republic – indeed one of its most prosperous parts, with an economy larger than that of Portugal, accounting for almost twenty percent of Spain’s GDP.  Puigdemont and his cabinet colleagues remain outside Spain, still sought by Spanish justice.  The country has held two national elections since the October 2017 crisis, prompting some newspapers to label Spain the “new Italy.”  The secessionist movement seems somewhat less potent than it did two years ago, but has in no sense disappeared.

Raphael Minder’s The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain first appeared in the spring of 2017, and thus does not address that year’s momentous last quarter events.  But it almost appears to anticipate them.  Minder, a Swiss-born, Oxford-educated journalist who is now the Madrid-based correspondent for the New York Times, ranges widely in describing Catalan life and culture, including language, religion, sports, tourism and cuisine.  He seeks to explain the factors that have produced the mindset of contemporary Catalans – of those who believe, often fervently, that their region’s future lies outside the Spanish republic and those who, with equal fervor, maintain that Catalonia is and should remain part of Spain.  Throughout, he relies heavily on the views of academics, Catalan especially but not exclusively, for their takes on his broad range of subjects.  He  also includes the fruits of his discussions and interviews with a diverse range of Catalans and those interested in the future of the region, including journalists and business people.

Minder engages the arguments for and against secession mostly indirectly and obliquely, scrupulously avoiding the appearance of taking sides in the polemical debates on the subject.  Catalonia’s complicated contemporary politics, with multiple parties representing all points on the spectrum on the secession question, are thus part of Minder’s story but far from the major part.  He treats Catalonia’s history, but not systematically, preferring to weave pivotal historical background into his consideration of contemporary Catalonia and its culture.

The historical background includes the 2008 global financial crisis, in Minder’s view the most immediate catalyst for the current Catalan separatist challenge.  During the recession that followed, several Catalan parties and much of the public became “increasingly convinced that Catalonia had more to gain than to lose by breaking away from a crisis-hit Spain. As the recession deepened, secessionism shifted from fringe to mainstream thinking in Catalonia” (p.204).  Minder also returns repeatedly to other pivotal historical events and periods which have abetted the secessionist urge, especially Barcelona’s fall in 1714 to Phillip V, ending the War of Spanish Succession; and Spain’s Franco period, including both the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, and the long Franco dictatorship, 1939-1975.

The 1714 conquest by Phillip V, the grandson of Louis XIV who was born at Versailles and became the first Bourbon king of Spain, constitutes the “historical wrong that needs to be challenged for Catalonia to assert its nationhood” (p.21), Minder writes.  For many Catalans, Bourbon rule entailed a “model of governance that sought to crush diversity in Spain. The Bourbons imported and imposed French centralism, which left no room for the recognition of the singularity of Catalonia” (p.193).  Phillip’s troops completed their conquest on September 11, 1714, Catalonia’s 9/11.  Long before hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan, Catalans observed September 11 as a day of commemoration and remembrance.

Two centuries after Phillip’s conquest, Barcelona and Catalonia constituted the center of resistance to General Franco’s 1936 anti-republican coup and the ensuing conflict, the fiercest in Europe since World War I (assiduous readers of this blog will recall my 2017 review of Adam Hochschild’s book on the Spanish Civil War).  Minder suggests that Catalonia may have been less anti-Franco during the Franco regime itself than popular mythology holds, with many businesses and Catalonian elites supporting the regime.  Nevertheless, Franco distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule.

Minder further addresses secessionist movements elsewhere, particularly in Scotland and Spain’s Basque country, concluding that they have little relevance to the Catalan separatist cause.  The current wave of Catalan secessionism coincides with the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.   Catalan secessionism might seem at first glance to be a cousin to the xenophobic nationalism of, for example, Hungary.  Both embody a form of tribalism, based on a powerful sense of identity and the prioritizing of a particular set of historical traditions over all others, and both thus constitute a challenge to modern liberal democracy.  Yet Catalonia has traditionally been one of the most progressive pockets of Spain, a sort of melting pot for migrants from other parts of the country and elsewhere; it was notably welcoming to Middle Eastern immigrants during the refugee crisis of this decade.  The main link between today’s Catalonia and Hungary with its xenophobic nationalism may be that the European Union takes an equally dim view of both.

* * *

               The Catalan language constitutes a natural starting point in seeking to grasp the diverse components of Catalan culture.  It is the glue that not only holds the components together but also links the region to other parts of the world where the language is spoken, including the area in and around Perpignan in Southern France and, most unlikely, in pockets of Sardinia.  About 11 million people understand Catalan while 9.1 million people speak the language, according to a recent government study. After Barcelona’s fall to Phillip V in 1714, Spain’s Bourbon monarchy banned the official use of Catalan.  In the late 19th century, a movement of Catalan poets and authors took on the task of reviving the language, “which was by then widely considered to be ‘doomed’ and irrelevant” (p.29).  In the early post-Franco years, Catalan became the obligatory first language in Catalan schools.

Although Catalans appreciate having their own language, a minority of Catalan speakers, fairly described as linguistic extremists, have pushed to make Catalan the only official language of Catalonia. “Certain separatists have shown a complete disregard for the benefits of a multilingual upbringing and society” (p.34), Minder writes.  The irony is that part of the wealth of Catalonia’s linguistic and literary tradition “lies in its ability both to attract and interact with other cultures” (p.35).  If its language sets Catalonia off from the rest of Spain, so too does its relationship with the most traditional of Spanish institutions, the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Minder considers the Spanish monarchy to be the most discredited national institution in Catalonia. “It is common to find Catalans displaying an indifference towards the monarchy that sometimes borders on ignorance” (p.193), he writes.  One Catalan told Minder that most of his fellow Catalans “feel no more for Spain’s King than they would for the Queen of England” (p.191). The relevance of Catholicism, moreover, has “declined faster in Catalonia than in other parts of Spain” (p.188).  A Catalan theologian and lawyer explained to Minder that Catalonia had:

modernized early because of the industrial revolution, and then it embraced anarchism and other anti-religious ideas more enthusiastically than other parts of Spain. . . After the civil war, Franco promoted his National Catholicism from Madrid. This too convinced many Catalans to break free of the church because it was an institution associated with a dictatorship. The fact that the Catalan church withdrew its support from the regime during Franco’s final years did little to reverse the decline (p.187-88).

Football might be considered Catalonia’s secular religion today, with enthusiasm for its flagship team, FC Barcelona (or “Borça”), a shared passion across the region. But, Minder notes, football and politics have become increasingly intertwined in Catalonia.   Some FC Barcelona fans shout for independence during matches and wave the independence flag, Estelada.  Fans also sometimes boo when the Spanish national anthem is played.  Bullfighting, once the rival to football as Spain’s national sport, is by contrast on the decline in Catalonia.  In 2010, shortly after a controversial decision of the constitutional court struck down a portion of Catalan’s statute of autonomy, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting as unjustified animal cruelty.  Animal rights activists applauded the ban while bullfighting proponents countered that it was politically motivated.  Some Catalan politicians acknowledged that the ban “helped present Catalonia as more modern than the rest of Spain” (p.177).

Sports enthusiasm in Catalonia took on a new cast in 1992, when Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games, the “real moment of transformation” for the city and the region, Minder writes, “brought about by sports rather than culture” (p.157).  The 1992 games allowed Barcelona to show itself off as a center for innovation.  The games also provided a giant shot in the arm for the region’s tourism industry, with the number of visitors roughly eight times greater now than in the years prior to 1992.   Today, Barcelona faces the dilemma of too much tourism – the city has more visitors than it can comfortably accommodate.

Minder includes Catalonia’s distinct cuisine as another component of its culture.  Catalonia has been a leader in European gastronomy since at least the 14th century, he indicates.  Catalonia today has more Michelin- starred restaurants than any other region in Spain, roughly one third of all such restaurants in the country.  Minder quotes an American food writer who describes Catalan cooking as looking outward, “toward Europe and the Mediterranean, rather than back into the Iberian interior . . . It is a real cuisine, distinct and elaborate in a way that the cooking of, say, Castile, Andalusia and Extremadura . . . [is] not” (p.282).

* * *

               Minder dates the start of the modern secessionist movement to 2006, when Catalonia adopted a new statute of autonomy.  Parts of that statute, as noted above, were struck down by Spain’s constitutional court in 2010.  The court’s decision “changed the mindset of many Catalans” (p.249-50), he writes, generating more enthusiasm for secession in Catalonia than had the adoption of the original statute.  In the interim, of course, the 2008 financial crisis intervened. The bursting of Spain’s property bubble in 2008 led to a huge number of people unable to pay their mortgages, in Catalonia and throughout Spain.  Although nobody knows exactly how many Catalans converted to secession after the 2008 financial crisis, politicians and sociologists generally agree that about half of those who voted for separatist parties in a Catalan regional election in 2015 had not supported secessionism a decade earlier.  In the 2015 election , 48 percent of Catalans cast their ballots in favor of separatist parties, “enough for separatists to gain a parliamentary majority” (p.11).

So is secession a good idea for Catalonia? Is it likely to succeed? Minder might provide different answers to these related but distinct questions today, in light of the events of the last quarter of 2017 and Spain’s current situation.  But in the early part of 2017, he answered both with a definite maybe.  The creation of a new Catalan state “does not look like a pipedream,” he writes.  But “neither, of course, does it seem inevitable” (p.300).  Although Minder notices a secessionist mindset taking hold among younger Catalonians, he finds secession unlikely to succeed as long as the region’s main separatist parties “find more reasons for disagreement than consensus.  Separatist politicians have sought to brush their differences under the carpet until their statehood project matures, but the voters have the right to receive a clearer roadmap before deciding in which direction Catalonia should go” (p.7).  Catalan politicians “need to consider the divisions that they have helped widen within a society that has always had its split personality, torn between what Catalans call their ‘seny i rauxa,’ or sanity and rage” (p.300).

Catalan secessionism differs  from secessionism in Scotland in that there are many parties with independence tendencies in Catalonia, often with conflicting agendas, whereas a single party has represented the cause of Scottish independence.  Scotland’s nationalist politicians, moreover, “have not seen any benefit in banding together with an independence movement that faces greater obstacles in Catalonia” (p.148).  Nor does secessionism in Spain’s Basque region resemble that of Catalonia. The Basque and Catalan regions have markedly different economic clout, and there are only about 2 million people in the Basque region, compared to more than 7 million in Catalonia.  Moreover, the Basque history of anti-state violence and terrorism has no analogue in Catalonia.  For these and other reasons, Basque and Catalan elites “have not come together to coordinate their response to separatism” (p.238).  But if neither Scotland nor the Basque region offers Catalonia either a viable model to follow or a potential partnership, I couldn’t help thinking as I worked my way through Minder’s comprehensive survey that the best lesson for Catalonia may lie in the Brexit ordeal currently convulsing Britain, namely that breaking away can be far more complicated than it initially appears.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 13, 2019

 

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Spanish History

More Than Just an Abundance of Good Music

Danny Goldberg, In Search of the Lost Chord:

1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books, $25.95)

 Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67:

The Year That Changed Soul Music (Polygon, £9.99)

                With good reason, there is a profusion of literature on 1968, one of those years that seemed to change everything and in which everything seemed to change.  Across the globe, student-led protests challenged the post World War II status quo. In May 1968, students and workers nearly toppled the government in France, while the student-inspired “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia ended in a Soviet invasion in August.  In the United States, 1968 is remembered less for student protests, although there were plenty of those, and more for two devastating assassinations sixty days apart, Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June.  1968 was also the year of an infamous police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, followed by a closely contested Presidential election in the fall that resulted in the election of future Watergate unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon.  By comparison, the previous year, 1967, has rarely been singled out for book-length treatment.

If that’s an oversight, it has been rectified with two recent books addressing the year that set the stage for 1968: Danny Goldberg’s In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, and Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul Music.  As the titles indicate, the two works focus on different aspects of 1967.  In what he terms a “subjective and highly selective history” (G., p.17), Goldberg, today a prominent music industry executive, describes the “hippie idea,” an elusive notion sometimes referred to as the “counterculture.” Cosgrove, a British journalist, examines with much stylistic flair the city of Detroit and its Motown Record Company during a particularly fraught year: in July 1967, Detroit suffered a devastating civil disorder that accelerated a downward spiral in the city’s fortunes that has yet to be fully reversed (three other reviews on this blog address Detroit’s spiral downward, here, here, and here).

Goldberg’s hippie idea was the loose sum of a variety of different tendencies and groups — Goldberg calls them “tribes” — as often as not at odds with one another.  It was “like a galloping horse in the wild,” no one ever controlled it (G., 15), he writes.  Yet, somehow, “dozens of separate, sometimes contradictory ‘notes’ from an assortment of political, spiritual, chemical, demographic, historical, and media influences” collectively created a “unique energy” (G., p.16-17).  The hippie idea peaked in 1967 with what came to be popularly known as “the Summer of Love,” when the author was 16.  But by the end of 1967, the counterculture and Goldberg’s hippie idea had entered a new and darker phase, with the summer of love never fully recaptured.

Detroit’s phenomenally successful Motown Records by 1967 was a mind-boggling collection of talent that included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, all under the tutelage of one Barry Gordy. Cosgrove’s lead character, Gordy was to Motown what Steve Jobs was to Apple: the founding father, driving force and marketing genius who put together a company that revolutionized an industry, popular music.  Motown lived through no summer of love in 1967 and, like Detroit itself, was on a downward spiral as the year ended.  Much of Cosgrove’s emphasis is upon how Detroit’s fall and that of Motown Records were intertwined.

1967’s popular music provides one key link between what otherwise appear to be two disparate works headed in different directions.  Motown had risen to prominence by making African-American popular music – initially called “Rhythm and Blues” or more simply “r & b” but by 1967 more frequently termed “soul” music – palatable to “mainstream” audiences, young and mostly white.  The world famous Motown sound “softened the rough edges of rhythm and blues, [and] draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love,” to the point that it was sometimes derided as “bubblegum soul” (C., p.5), Cosgrove writes.  But in 1967, young, white audiences were often looking elsewhere for their music, especially to the sound most closely identified with the counterculture and Goldberg’s hippie idea, perhaps best known as psychedelic rock, with Motown struggling to compete.

While young America was listening to an abundance of music in 1967, two overriding issues were tearing American society apart: the Vietnam War and the movement for full equality for African-Americans.  In different ways, these two weighty matters undermined both the counterculture and Motown Records, and constitute the indispensable backdrop to both authors’ narratives.  Richard Nixon’s narrow electoral victory the following year capitalized upon a general reaction in mainstream America to the counterculture and its excesses, which many equated with opposition to the Vietnam War; and upon reaction to the violence and urban disorders throughout the country, for which Detroit had become the prime symbol, which white America often conflated with the cause of African-American advancement.  As much as the music of 1967, the Vietnam War and racial unrest link these two works.

* * *

               One of the more enduring if anodyne songs from 1967 was Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco,” whose official title included a parenthetical sub-title “Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair.”  Among the song’s key lines: “There’s a whole generation/With a new explanation.” Goldberg’s work seems to strive to articulate that “explanation,” his hippie idea; it makes clear that San Francisco was indeed the place to experience that explanation in 1967.  The city where Tony Bennett had left his heart a few years previously was undoubtedly the epicenter of Goldberg’s hippie idea, especially its Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, in 1967 the “biggest counterculture magnet in the Western world” (G., p.30; nine summers hence, in 1976, I lived in the Haight neighborhood, a time when the summer of love was but a faded memory).

Although centered in San Francisco, Goldberg’s account also emphasizes what was going on in New York during 1967 – the Lower East Side was the Haight’s “psychic cousin” (G., p. 56) in 1967, he writes — with occasional looks elsewhere, including London.  Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the continent of Europe in the  year prior to  the earthshaking events in 1968 in France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere.  This is a work first and foremost about the United States.  At times the work reads like a college undergraduate textbook account of what  was going on in 1967 in and around the US counterculture, as if Goldberg were trying to enlighten those not yet born in 1967 on all that  their hippie parents and grandparents were up to and concerned about more than a half century ago, when they were the same age or younger.

Goldberg considers what was called a “Be In,” a musical event that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, to be the unofficial start marking the year as unlike its predecessors.  Organized in large part by poet Allen Ginsburg, one of the leading 1950s “beatnik” literary lights who was fully at home with the much younger hippies, the event attracted some 30,000 people.  Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Gracie Slick performed; all lived nearby in the Haight neighborhood, not far from one another.  Radical activist Jerry Rubin pontificated about politics and it was a turn-off, not well received by the energetic young crowd. The event also marked LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s first West Coast public appearance, in which he repeated what would become his signature phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  But the main point of the event, Goldberg contends, was simply “for members of the crowd to experience one another” (G., p.53).

Goldberg was not present for the Be In, but he was in San Francisco for a good portion of the summer, and his experiences there and elsewhere that year are very much part of his story.  He candidly reveals how he used LSD and other mind expanding drugs,  as well as how the music of 1967 seemed to feed off the drugs.  As the years have past, he reflects, the music has proven to be the “most resilient trigger of authentic memories,” even as much of it has been “gradually drained of meaning by repetitive use in TV shows, movies, and commercials, all trying to leverage nostalgia” (G., p.27).

1967 was the year of the Monterey International Pop Festival, which introduced Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and Janis Joplin to large audiences (Redding’s participation in that event was part of my review of his biography here in February 2018).   By 1967, Bob Dylan had already achieved mythic status.  “There is no way to overstate Dylan’s influence on other artists or on my generation” (p.167), Goldberg writes.  The Beatles in 1967 were in the “throes of a level of productivity that future artists would marvel at” (G., p.177).   Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant came out in 1967.  Judy Collins made a splash by introducing Leonard Cohen songs.  Joan Baez had some popular songs, but in 1967 was more political activist than singer.  Haight-Asbury hippies considered McKenzie’s “San Francisco” a “simplistic exploitation of their scene” (G., p.150).

The counterculture appreciated but did not prioritize the soul music of the type that Motown was churning out.  Along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones were staples of counterculture musical fare in 1967, but there were numerous additional British artists and groups vying for American audiences and American dollars that year.  Among them, the Scottish singer Donavon Phillips Leitch, known better as “Donavon” and known best for his 1967 hit “Sunshine Superman,” probably resonated most deeply with the counterculture.

Goldberg manages to lift his work beyond popular musical nostalgia and provide it with heft through his assessment of how the 1967 counterculture interacted with African-Americans’ struggles and the anti-war movement.  He also takes shorter looks at other weighty matters of the day, including the rise of women’s rights, environmentalism, and what we would today call gay rights.  Although strong support in the abstract for full equality for African-Americans was a non-negotiable common denominator of the counterculture, Goldberg rightly stresses the often-strained relations between the African-American community and the psychedelic world of the mostly white, frequently affluent hippies.

Goldberg confesses that he is perplexed and even ashamed today that Martin Luther King was not a more revered figure in the counterculture in 1967.  But in his last full year,King was the object of criticism from all sides.  His decision that year to oppose the war in Vietnam “permanently shattered his relationship with many in the liberal and moderate worlds” (G., p.202).  A fiery generation of younger black activists also challenged King in 1967, including Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, a group based in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco.  The younger activists rejected King’s traditional civil rights vision of integration with the white mainstream, to be achieved through non-violence.  “Black Power” was their slogan, with black control of black communities their most immediate objective. They were loath to renounce violence as a means to obtain their objective.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam was less abstract for 1967’s hippies, given that males over the age of 18 were subject to the draft. For the hippies, Muhammad Ali was a more revered than King because of his resistance to the draft.  1967 was the year Ali refused to be inducted into the military, was tried and found guilty of Selective Service violations, and stripped of his boxing title.  But Ali, a recent convert to the Nation of Islam, was a curious figure for reverence.  His creed of no smoking, drinking or drugs, and his disapproval of interracial dating, was wholly at odds with the counterculture ethos.

Just as the African-American community and the era’s hippies were frequently not in sync, opposition to the war brought out tensions between the most dedicated anti-war activists and much of the hippie community, with the former considering the latter frivolous and unserious. Goldberg attributes much significance to a major October antiwar march in Washington, the March on the Pentagon,  “arguably the last time that liberals, political radicals, and countercultural hippies effectively combined energies” (G., p.284).  Already, the various tribes had started to go their separate ways and that parting accelerated as 1967 drew to a close:

Hippies often felt that the antiwar “leaders” were boring and/or too angry.  Radicals and liberals accused hippies of being self-indulgent.  The old left claimed that the new left had no discipline.  Young radicals were not all that impressed with what the old left had accomplished.   Within each of these broad categories there were numerous sects, which were frequently at odds with each other.  At the same time, the American government and establishment increasingly harassed the civil rights and antiwar movements (G. p.268).

Goldberg doesn’t hide a dark underside to the 1967 counterculture.  A few “violent, delusional members of the peace movement discredited the movement in its entirety,” he writes. “An earnest spiritual movement became obscured by stoned, pontificating buffoons” (G., p.27).  There were, he writes elsewhere, “a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing” who “tried to take advantage of psychologically damaged kids who had been attracted to the hippie culture” (G., p.261).  In 1967 Haight-Ashbury, the “open sexuality in hippie culture was exploited by a predictable number of macho jerks” (G., p.303).

Stating what now seems all too obvious, Goldberg finds it was very naïve in 1967 to think that there could be “instant world peace” (G., p.335).  The hippie idea of prioritizing peace and love, he cautions, wasn’t a “gateway into a new age, just a flash to indicate that something different was possible” (G., p.337).

* * *

               Unlike Goldberg, Cosgrove arranges his book chronologically, in 12 monthly chapters, with Gordy a presence in each.  More than any other individual of his time, Gordy grasped how to bring African-American popular music into mainstream — that is white — America.  But by 1967, Gordy was losing his grasp on what white America wanted in its music.  He was “uneasy with strident political opinion and saw the counterculture, especially drug inspired lyrics, as a dangerous distraction” (C., p.390).  Although he initially resisted efforts to allude to drugs, racial discontent and protest over the Vietnam War in Motown music, he relented toward the end of the year with Marvin Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On,” which addressed all three.

Gordy moreover always considered Motown personnel to be one big, happy family and appeared flummoxed by growing disaccord that seemed to be on the rise among his stars throughout 1967.  His most visible internal problem was the in fighting within the Supremes, three photogenic young women with soaring voices, the main subject of Cosgrove’s early chapters.  A group whose origins were in the “the raw ghetto sounds of Detroit R & B,” the Supremes had been “magically transformed into the greatest girl group ever.”  Their songs “seemed to be blindly unaware of radical social change and looked backward with nostalgia . . . For some it was an audacious achievement and a triumph over racism; for other, it was a shimmering compromise” (C., p.329).

What many people listening to the Supremes in 1967 probably didn’t realize is that the group by then had become almost totally dysfunctional, due primarily to the breakdown in the relationship between two of its three members, lead singer Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.  By the spring of 1967, the two rarely spoke; they frequently took separate transportation to their engagements.  The third Supreme, Mary Wilson, was caught in the middle, unable to bridge the chasms and diminish the enmity that existed between her two partners.

Ballard had more than her share of personal and psychological problems; by 1967, she had become was a full-fledged alcoholic. Her erratic behavior prompted Gordy to line up a replacement for her when she was unable or unwilling to perform.  Ballard retaliated by filing suit against Motown, embroiling the company in litigation that lasted years.  She died of a heart attack in 1976, at age thirty-two.  Her early death “attached itself like a stigma to Motown, and for the remainder of his career it pursued Berry Gordy like a dark phantom” (C., p.421).

To complicate matters further for Gordy, Martha and the Vandellas, the number two girls’ group in the Motown pecking order, ended the year in a similar state of disaccord.  Martha Reeves, the group’s lead singer, had somehow managed to alienate her supporting Vandellas, Betty Kelly and Rosalline Ashford.  There is “no simple way to describe the layers of vitriol that surrounded the Vandellas,” Cosgrove writes, “fuelled by drug abuse, backstage jealousies and hurtful arguments” (C.,p.295-96).   As luck would have it, the Vandellas’ last high profile concert together took place at the Fox Theatre downtown on the weekend when the July civil disorder broke out a couple of short miles away.

Cosgrove’s July chapter is consumed by the disorder, an altogether too familiar story for Detroiters of a certain age – how it occurred on an early Sunday morning some 52 years ago, as police broke up what was known in Detroit lingo as a “blind pig,” an after-hours drinking establishment where most of the patrons had gathered that Sunday morning to celebrate a young man’s safe return from Vietnam; how it somehow spun quickly out of control; and how it devastated huge swaths of the city.  There’s nothing new or novel in Cosgrove’s account but, as always, it makes for painful reading for Detroiters who saw their city implode before their eyes.

Although Motown survived the July disorder “largely unscathed,” it marked the end of the “musical gold rush that had made Detroit the most creative black-music city ever” (C., p.268).   In the final months of 1967, Gordy began to contemplate what had previously been unimaginable, that Motown’s future might lie elsewhere than in Detroit: “The city that had given Motown its global identity and had been home to the greatest black-owned company in musical history was increasingly associated in the minds of the American public with urban decay, violent crime and social unrest,” Cosgrove writes. “Berry Gordy had begun to lose patience with one of his greatest romances: he had fallen out of love with Detroit” (C.p.297-98).  Gordy opened an office in Los Angeles in 1967 and moved all the company’s operations from Motown to Tinseltown in the early 1970s.

Playing in the background, so to speak, throughout Cosgrove’s month-by-month account is the kind of music Goldberg was listening to, the psychedelic rock that reflected the changing taste of the white middle class.  One Detroit group, the MC5 –“MC” standing for Motor City — achieved national prominence for a form which Cosgrove terms “insurrectionary garage rock” (C., p.12), far removed from the soft Motown sound (Goldberg mentions the MC5 briefly).  In the last months of 1967, Gordy moved lightly into the music of the counterculture with a hybrid form later known as “psychedelic soul,” reflected in the Temptations’ album Cloud Nine.

The unlikely spokesman for the local psychedelic hard rock sound was John Sinclair, who appears periodically throughout Cosgrove’s account, as if a foil to the straight laced Gordy.  Sinclair was an omnipresent promoter of many forms of music – he loved jazz way more the psychedelic hard rock – and also a promoter of mind altering drugs. He aggressively advocated the use of marijuana and much else, making him a target for law enforcement.  Sinclair spent time in jail for his promotion of the drugs and mind-altering substances of the type that Goldberg and his friends were indulging in and were at the heart of the counterculture.

* * *

               In an “Afterword” to the most recent paperback edition of Goldberg’s book, entitled “The Hippie Idea in the Age of Trump,” Goldberg valiantly strives to explain how a dormant form of the summer of love lives on in an era dominated by the current White House occupant.   Goldberg doesn’t try to draw a direct line from Nixon to Trump, but notes that the counterculture precipitated a “reaction of the right that we did not predict that is still reverberating today” (G., p.335).  Although immigration was not the issue in 1968 that it became in 2016, Trump’s narrow electoral victory capitalized on racial and cultural divisions similar to those that had helped pave Nixon’s path to the White House.

President Trump was a mere lad of 21 during the Summer of Love, but an improbable participant  – might the bone spurs that kept him out of the draft have also prevented him from traveling to San Francisco that summer?  The President seems unlikely to have fit into any of the disparate groups that make up Goldberg’s hippie idea; and it seems further unlikely that the man gets into his presidential groove today by listening to a collection of Greatest Motown Hits.  But wherever and whatever the President may have been fifty-two years ago, Goldberg and Cosgrove remind us not only how good the music was back then but also how much else was going on in 1967.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 26, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under American Society, Music, Music

Surviving Modernity

Surviving Modernity

 

 

 

David Brown, Paradise Lost:

A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) 

                A half century ago, most American college students had read at least one F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by the time they graduated, most likely The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald may not be found so readily in college and secondary school curricula these days; he was, after all, a white male and, since 1940, a dead one.  But Fitzgerald remains one of the most written about American writers of the 20th century, on par with his sometimes pal Ernest Hemmingway.  With many general readers, especially those of my generation, more than vaguely familiar with the contours of Fitzgerald’s  life, and with several Fitzgerald biographies available, a biographer faces a challenge in bringing a fresh perspective to any portrait of the intense and often unruly novelist.  In Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Brown, Professor of History at Elizabethtown College, seeks to find that perspective by emphasizing Fitzgerald’s credentials less as a novelist and more as a social and cultural commentator – “one of the more important cultural commentators America has produced”  (p.5-6), Brown writes. 

               In a handful of novels, but also in an abundance of notes, letters, essays and short stories, Fitzgerald produced “penetrating descriptions of the Western world’s leap from feudalism to capitalism, from faith to secularism, and from the tradition oriented to the flux oriented” (p.5).  Fitzgerald’s historical sensibilities “leaned toward the aristocratic, the pre-modern, and the romantic” (p.2).  Brown identifies affinities between Fitzgerald’s social thought and that of numerous other thinkers, among them Thorstein Veblen, Frederick Jackson Turner, and H.L. Mencken.  But he finds historians Henry Adams and the German Oswald Spengler to be Fitzgerald’s “truest intellectual contemporaries.”  Like Adams and Spengler, Fitzgerald “doubted whether older, pre-Enlightenment notions of art, creativity, paternalism, and worship would survive the onset of what we have since come to call ‘modernity’” (p.6). 

              The Fitzgerald who opined on the perils of modernity was very much an “America first” social commentator.  Although he spent limited but highly publicized time in Europe, the Old World entered into Fitzgerald’s commentary primarily as a gauge for measuring America.  Fitzgerald saw in America a “continent of possibilities, a place to escape the Old World’s rigidly enforced class structures and adopt new identities” (p.6), yet he shared the pessimism of Spengler and Adams.  In Fitzgerald’s view, the virtues he ascribed to America had all but expired during the so-called Gilded Age, the last three decades of the 19th century following the American Civil War.  The industrialization of the Gilded Age brought the “rise of vast industrial fortunes that blotted out an earlier idealism,” replaced by a “soulless materialism” (p.6).  Depicting an America “unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social-mobility mythology,” Fitzgerald’s writings were fused with the “disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth” (p.344).

              Although Fitzgerald considered himself politically on the left – he self-identified as a socialist in the 1921 Who’s Who in America — his critique of capitalism was conservative and sentimental, Brown contends, based on nostalgia for a bygone agrarian and small town era.  Much like Mencken, Fitzgerald refused to vest much faith in “the people.”  Brown also sees a linking of common concerns between Fitzgerald and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  A generation older than Fitzgerald, Turner became famous for his thesis that the closing of the American frontier around 1890 had indelibly shaped American democracy.  Both men, Brown writes, were “motivated by romantic impulses, and each observed the settlement of once-open territory as an enclosure of imagination as well as property” (p.176).  Fitzgerald asked in his own way the same question that Turner had raised: if the unsettled lands of the American frontier had created a “‘democratic’ personality type – independent, inventive, egalitarian – then what was the future of an America without frontiers?” (p.176).   

            Brown deftly weaves Fitzgerald’s social commentary into an erudite, chronologically arranged biography, situating Fitzgerald in three historical periods, each a separate section: 1) “Beginnings,” 1896 -1920, his early years and youth, ending with his famous  — perhaps infamous — marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920; 2) “Building Up,” 1920-1925, the “Jazz Age” (a term that Fitzgerald is credited with coining) that was his  triumphant period; and 3) “Breaking Down,” 1925-1940, when Fitzgerald’s world began to fall apart prior to and during the global economic collapse of the 1930s, up to his death in 1940.  Brown finishes with a final section, “Ghosts and Legends,” addressing Zelda’s life after Fitzgerald, up to her own tragic death in a fire in 1948, and the rise of a Fitzgerald legend which began unexpectedly after World War II. 

* * *

             Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the upper Mid-West, and spent his earliest years there.  His mother Mollie, of Irish immigrant stock, was the daughter of a successful immigrant wholesale grocer.  His father Edward, also of Irish descent, came from an entrenched landowning family that counted Francis Scott Key as an ancestor; Scott’s birth name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  Edward had grown up in Maryland, a border state during the American Civil War.  But his  family’s loyalties were unreservedly with the Confederacy during the war.  As an adult, Edward failed in many businesses.  Mollie and Edward, Brown writes, embodied “distinct sides of the American experience – the rising immigrant in Mollie’s case, the vanishing southern aristocracy in Edward’s,” all the while sharing a tendentious marital life “burdened by an inexorable slide into polite poverty” (p.9).

            The young Fitzgerald absorbed from his father much of the ethos and mythology of the Confederate “lost cause” and “doomed nobility,” retaining vaguely southern sympathies throughout his adult life.  But as Brown points out, Fitzgerald entertained an idealized notion of “Dixie,” chivalric, refined, and cavalier.  Like most white Americans of his day, Fitzgerald “never really considered the question of slavery and its aftermath as anything more than an abstraction, and thus he never wrestled with its deep ethical implications.  Consequently, he handled somewhat clumsily the few black Americans and Europeans who turn up in his novels and stories” (p.190).

            Bland St. Paul offered Fitzgerald a “wide avenue of exploration into the American character and its relationship to place and tradition” (p.26).  Fitzgerald’s St. Paul embodied “solidity and stability, a city of neighborhood hardware stores, spruced up Main Streets, and a few first families to establish tone” (p.26).  But Fitzgerald left St. Paul as an adolescent to attend the Newman School, a boarding school outside Hackensack, New Jersey, which styled itself as the “Catholic Andover.”   The young man played football, a rough contact sport that was relatively new at the time.  Although a mediocre player, he wrote about football frequently in future novels and short stories.  Despite poor grades and his share of fistfights, Fitzgerald manifested a talent for writing while at Newman.  When his maternal grandmother died and left his mother a small fortune, Fitzgerald determined that Princeton University, also in New Jersey, was the next place for him. 

              Princeton’s proximity to New York, its opportunities for literary output, and its aristocratic mien attracted Fitzgerald.  But he twice failed the entrance exam, after which he scheduled an appointment with the Admissions Committee.  Somehow the 17-year-old lad sold himself to the Committee (what a pity there is no record for posterity of that meeting), and he entered Princeton in the fall of 1913.  Then known as the Ivy League school for Southern gentlemen, Princeton was a place where callow, wealthy young men “basked in the superiority of their superiority” (p.44), as Brown puts it.  At best a mediocre student at Princeton, Fitzgerald never graduated. 

               Yet, Princeton shaped Fitzgerald profoundly.  He befriended future literary critic Edmund Wilson as an undergraduate and showed considerable promise as a writer.   Many of Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Brown notes, “bear the indelible impress of the Princeton years and more broadly his experiences within the privileged world of the Ivy elite” (p.48).  From Princeton onward, wealth became a subject of intense interest to Fitzgerald “primarily as an entry to experiences otherwise denied.” (p.43).  His “complex reactions to the leisure class,” dating from his undergraduate years, can be bluntly reduced to his view that “wealth was wasted on the rich”  (p.44).   

              Fitzgerald drank a lot as a Princeton undergraduate, but so did many of his schoolmates.  Excessive drinking was written off as “nothing more than a rite of passage, part of the collegiate experience as much as athletics, course work, and clubs” (p.49).  From his Princeton days onward, however, Fitzgerald was a “functional alcoholic” in an era when alcoholism was considered a character defect or a matter of personal weakness rather than an illness.  Fitzgerald came to view drinking as an “almost indispensable part of the writer’s world.  Occasions on which to discuss books, publishing, and composing were invariably occasions to drink” (p.116-17).  Hard spirits for Fitzgerald were the “due of an Irish novelist,” with excessive drinking serving as a “necessary precondition to composition” (p.228).

              Halfway through his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald fell head over heels for Ginevra King, a debutante from a prominent Chicago banking family.  Brown characterizes Scott’s courtship of Ginevra as a “fool’s errand, a case of begging for inevitable disappointment” (p.59).  But Ginevra proved to be a model for many female characters in his forthcoming novels, a “composite of flapper, flirt, and baby-vamp, the temptress who stands for wealth and irresponsibility in relation to a man situated precariously between his work and his woman” (p.59).  Fitzgerald’s courtship of Ginevra, Brown continues, “tells us something important about his mixed attitude toward women.  Even a cursory perusal of his published writing reveals a penchant for dividing the genders between female realism and male romance.  In the Fitzgerald canon, women are often wreckers of men, taking their dignity, extracting their vitality, and dulling their work habits” (p.63). 

               Fitzgerald left Princeton for the military after the United States entered World War I, but was never sent into combat.  While stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, near Montgomery, he met Zelda Sayre.  An Alabama Belle, as Brown repeatedly terms her, Zelda was four years younger than Fitzgerald.  Her father, then serving as a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, traced his family’s roots to the planter class of the Old South.  Zelda thus spoke to the side of Fitzgerald enamored of the “lost cause” and taken in by ostensible Southern gentility.  Scott’s interest in Zelda intensified after he learned of Ginevra’s engagement to another man.  But Zelda had doubts whether the aspiring writer had the means to support her.  By November 1919, however, he had proven himself to be a sufficient money-maker after he sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, and the couple married the following April in a small, rushed ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

              Eight days prior to the wedding ceremony, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, was published.   The novel, which he had worked on while stationed in Alabama, “touched on the social permissiveness of the era, increasingly candid attitudes toward sexuality, and the general coming down of prewar cultural taboos” (p.5).  A coming-of-age novel in which the main character “achieves a hard-earned insight . . . no love goes unpunished, no creed escapes unscathed” (p.85), This Side of Paradise established Fitzgerald’s reputation as an authoritative cultural commentator.  The novel in Brown’s interpretation demonstrated Fitzgerald’s particular affinity to radical economist Thorstein Veblen, offering a “penetrating commentary on the American failure to transcend the cash nexus that sustained, as Veblen had put it, the country’s peculiar loyalty to its glittering if rapacious ‘leisure class”” (p.86).

              The Fitzgeralds’ earliest days as a married couple coincided with Scott’s rising celebrity, due primarily to the early success of This Side of Paradise.   Despite strains that were evident early in the marriage, Scott and Zelda formed what Brown terms a “productive if one-sided partnership” (p.78).  But rather than simply enjoy the moment, they seemed “determined to push it forward, prolonging its intensity and exhausting its possibilities.  As if performing, they played up several personalities (the writer, the belle, the flapper, the moralist, the drunkard . .  . ) before attentive audiences.  What they lacked was a stretch of time off the society pages to develop a deeper rapport, though in fact neither seemed to want this” (p.77). 

              The nomadic couple was famous for living in Paris and the French Riviera (where Scott befriended fellow novelist Ernest Hemmingway, who never got along with Zelda); and in Manhattan and Great Neck, on Long Island.  But they also had stints in Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama and a return period in St. Paul.  Wherever they went, they rented.   Whenever they could, they rang up high hotel bills, kept cooks and nannies, and threw lavish parties.  Their only child, daughter Frances, always called “Scottie,” was born in 1921.  Fitzgerald also formed a long-standing relationship during this high-visibility period with Scribner, the distinguished New York publishing firm, and he earned steady money by selling imaginative short stories to the Saturday Evening Post. 

              Then, in 1925 and not yet 30 years old, Fitzgerald saw the publication of The Great Gatsby.  Written primarily while in France, The Great Gatsby brought Fitzgerald to the “summit of American letters” (p.11).  The novel takes place in the fictional Long Island towns of East and West Egg and portrays the mysterious Jay Gatsby and his obsessive passion for Daisy Buchanan (whose father was modeled after Ginevra’s father).  Gatsby, Brown writes,  “stands in a long line of Fitzgerald types – flawed heroes, poor boys – who smash against the collective might of their well-to-do tormentors” (p.125).  

              Fitzgerald’s portrait of Gatsby presented what Brown terms a “stunning interpretation of historical progression, commencing with the age of European discovery and concluding with the closing of the American frontier.  In place of the virgin land that once attracted European settlers stood a nation whose grandest dreams had run to a dull materialism” (p.172).  In his ruminations on the “restless nature of the human spirit in tension with a taming ‘civilization’” (p.179-80), Fitzgerald echoed the thought of Frederick Jackson Turner.  Brown also finds The Great Gatsby to be in line with Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Babbitt, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with their “sharp and unsparing” criticism of the “strong association of success with materialism” (p.169).

              Writing The Great Gatsby “marked the high point of Fitzgerald’s restive years abroad” (p.183).  In the years following their return to the United States,  Scott’s increasing alcohol abuse and recurrent financial difficulties coincided with Zelda’s hospitalization for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.  She spent time in institutions in Switzerland, Maryland and North Carolina, and never fully recovered.  Scott, “once the embodiment of twenties excess,” (p.12) seemed to be wrestling in the disorderly 1930s with what Brown describes as the “loss of a romantic idealism that had once served as the rock on which he rested – both emotionally and artistically” (p.281).  He came to recognize the cultural consequences of modernity:  the “volatile merging of capitalism, secularism, rationalism, and industrialism that had become the dominant impulse propelling Western civilization” (p.282).  Brown emphasizes affinities between Fitzgerald’s thinking and that of contemporaries also questioning the efficacy of modernism, among them philosopher George Santayana, poet James Russell Lowell, and art critic Bernhard Berenson.

             After The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald did not publish another novel until 1934, when Tender is the Night — in Brown’s view Fitzgerald’s finest novel — appeared.  Within the narrative framework of a dying marriage, Tender is the Night analyzes the “collapse of the old Victorian universe and its replacement by a brave new world dominated by hardened ‘survivors’ who had managed to pass through the carnage of the Great War seemingly without regret or reflection,” only to inherit a “diminished social order bereft of compassion, sentimentality, or even the comforting consistency of . . . ‘middle class love’” (p.11).  In its criticism of a capitalist system in which money was the arbiter of power, prestige, and morality, Tender is the Night captured Fitzgerald’s historical vision “more completely than anything else he ever wrote” (p.263). 

              With Zelda hospitalized, Fitzgerald ventured to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter.  Hollywood seemed like an ideal location for Fitzgerald, a modern place with a special role in portraying and shaping American culture, as well as the geographic end point of the American frontier.  Fitzgerald had an intimate relationship in Hollywood with Sheilah Graham, a British-born gossip columnist.  Decidedly more stable than Zelda, Graham “may well have constituted a relationship of atonement for Fitzgerald.  Accordingly, he both loved and begrudged her as the devoted caregiver whose mere presence affirmed his fallen star” (p.301).  Fitzgerald “never liked living in California and found it impossible to mute his deeply ingrained aversion to the business-first mentality of the studio bosses,” contributing further to a “sense of alienation on the West Coast” (p.12).     

              In the last portion of the book, Brown brings into focus Fitzgerald’s relationship with his daughter Scottie.  We don’t learn much about Scottie’s youth, but she must have had an exceedingly difficult childhood, given her mother’s mental health problems, her father’s alcoholism, and the tumultuous existence her parents lived together.  While not discounting these factors in shaping Scottie’s life, Brown emphasizes the depth of affection between father and daughter (he spends little time on the mother-daughter relationship).  In passages from several letters which Brown quotes, Scottie shows an awareness of the degree to which she was denied a normal childhood.  Yet, love plainly bound her to her father.  Fitzgerald, for his part, was determined that Scottie be “self-sufficient, an equal partner, and to carry her share – all the things he had wished for in Zelda” (p.312).

               Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in late November 1940, as he was seeking to finish what would be his last novel, The Last Tycoon. He died amidst little fanfare on December 21, 1940, with The Last Tycoon appearing the following year.  Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was institutionalized. 

               Surprisingly, Fitzgerald’s works sold far better after World War II than they had during his lifetime.   His friend Edmund Wilson wrote that a cult had grown up around Fitzgerald after his death, which had “gone beyond mere admiration for the author of some excellent books.  He had taken on the aspect of a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage” (p.337).  Several biographies on Fitzgerald appeared in the post-World War II period.   In 1958, however, Sheilah Graham came out with Beloved Infidel, which disparaged all prior works on Fitzgerald.  “This is not the Scott I knew” (p.343), she wrote.  Approaching Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and other demons with compassion, Graham emphasized his humor, humanity, and efforts to finish his last novel while ill.   Wilson found her book to be by far the best on Fitzgerald.  In Graham, he wrote, Fitzgerald had found an “effective advocate, just as the debate over the ‘meaning’ of his life was beginning to take shape” (p.344).   

* * *

               In this complex yet highly readable biography, Brown shines intriguing light upon Fitzgerald as a social commentator and cultural historian, the “annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and bust thirties” (p.1).  Fitzgerald was able to write as powerfully as he did about historical change in America because, as Brown ably  demonstrates, he identified with the country in an intensely personal way. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

August 13, 2019

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Literature

Anything But Bland

 

Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell:

A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other Press) 

            Mark Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of contemporary America’s most eminent historians of modern Europe, the author of several books on Greek and Balkan history, along with others on 20th century Europe generally.  Born in Britain in 1958, Mazower grew up in the Golders Green neighborhood of North London.  His home environment bordered on bland: it was thoroughly stable if unflashy, but most assuredly not a place where his parents dwelled upon the family’s past.  Before writing this affecting family memoir, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, Mazower probably did not realize the extent to which his family background, at least on his father’s side, was anything but bland.

            Mazower’s quest to learn more about his father’s family history led him to surprising revelations about his paternal grandparents, Max and Frouma, both Russian Jews.  Grandfather Max, the memoir’s main character, had been a leader in the Bund, the underground Jewish labor movement that flourished in late 19th and early 20th century Russia and played key roles in the anti-Tsarist uprisings of 1905 and 1917.  Grandmother Frouma saw her family entirely uprooted by the civil wars that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917. 

                By the early 1920s, Max and Frouma had both left Russia for England.  Max never returned after leaving for the last time in 1923; Frouma did not return until 1959.  Max too left family members behind in Russia who were caught up in the civil wars that ravaged Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover.   Some family members on both sides who survived the civil wars perished later in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and in World War II and the Holocaust.  Max and Frouma settled in North London, far from the tumult of Russia, where they lived lives of bourgeois respectability as part of a thriving Russian-Jewish immigrant community concentrated in and around their neighborhood of Highgate, not far from the cemetery where Karl Marx is buried.

            Mazower also uncovered much new information about the two older half-siblings his father had grown up with: half-brother André, Max’s son by a relationship with Sofia Krylenko, herself a leading anti-Bolshevik Leftist on the European Continent in the 1920s; and half-sister Ira, Frouma’s daughter by an earlier marriage to a swashbuckling soldier in the Tsarist army who died fighting the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.  André and Ira, spectacularly different in personality, both led eccentric lives that included turns to political conservatism as adults.

             In the first two thirds of the memoir, Mazower shares his insights into Max and Frouma, André and Ira, and the families Max and Frouma left behind in Russia, along with fascinating detail on the Bund.  In the last third, in the most personal and heartfelt portion of the memoir, he turns to his father William, referred to as “Dad” throughout.  Here, Mazower explains how his Dad had the quiet, nurturing childhood that had been denied to both his parents, and to André and Ira.  His mother,“Mum,” enters the story only briefly, and only at the end. 

            As he links the turbulence of early 20th century Russia to the tranquility and stability of mid-20th century Highgate, Mazower poses and tries to answer for his grandparents broader questions about assimilation and place – how and why do we come to feel that we belong to any particular location?  What psychic struggles were involved for his grandparents to leave Russia behind and make Highgate home? What did it mean for Max never to see his birthplace again after he left in 1923?  How did Frouma come to terms with being separated from her family for 30 years?

              Mazower never knew his grandfather, who died in 1952, before he was born; and barely knew his grandmother, who died in 1964, when he was six years old.  He began thinking about writing a family memoir around 2009, the year his father was ill and died.  It was a time when Mazower returned frequently from Manhattan to Highgate and his own boyhood neighborhood, nearby Golders Green, feeling “acutely nostalgic for my native city” (p.5).   The “Journey Home” portion of the subtitle applies more to Mazower than to any character in his memoir.  The  title, “What You Did Not Tell,” is directed at his grandfather and his father.  Both seemed congenitally incapable of talking about their pasts.  But Max’s silence, unlike that of Mazower’s father, “had hidden real secrets” (p.6).  

* * *

               The oldest of three brothers, Max was born in 1874 in Gradno, in today’s Belarus, a town in the Pale of Settlement, that “vast swath of western Russia to which the empire’s Jews had been almost entirely confined by imperial order” (p.21).  Max was of the same generation as Vladimir Lenin and future Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, and almost certainly crossed paths with each during his younger years (Litvinov later lived for a while in Highgate, where he also crossed paths with Max).  Little is known about Max’s early life except that his father died when he was 14.  But he seems to have been involved from his teenage years onward in the “General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia” — shortened simply to the Bund.  More than any of the other intriguing and endearing charcters in this memoir, Max is a figure of genuine historical interest because of his role in the Bund.  

             Although only barely remembered today, the Bund in the first decade of the 20th century had become, “by some considerable margin,” the “largest and best-organized socialist movement in the [Russian] empire, dwarfing Lenin’s quarrelsome band of followers.  Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Bund successfully combined revolutionary agitation with organizing workers to improve wages and working conditions” (p.37).  The Bund wanted no single leader, and it aimed to speak mostly for Russian Jews, not all Russians.  National, cultural, and linguistic differences needed to be acknowledged, not ignored. 

               Although the Bund “rejected the terrorist tradition of Russian revolutionary activism,” it was “certainly neither pacifist nor prepared to allow the terror unleashed by the authorities go unchecked” (p.38).   Bund members hailed the initial revolution that ousted the Tsar in the spring of 1917.  Many were elected to new workers’ councils.   But the November 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power split the Bund apart.  Some Bundists went over to the Bolsheviks, but the majority did not, “believing they were dictatorial and dangerous.  The Bolsheviks reciprocated their suspicion”  (p.59).  By the mid-1920s, the Bolsheviks had largely wiped out the Bund

              Max was the Bund’s “organizer par excellence” (p.51), a behind-the-scenes man who lived a double life in which caution, silence and mistrust were keys to survival.  Outwardly a conventionally bourgeois salesman for a Russian shipping firm in Vilna (today’s Vilnius, Lithuania), Max was simultaneously a revolutionary activist who wrote, translated, published and distributed seditious tracts.  But he was “neither a rhetorician nor a lover of the limelight” (p.51).   He published nothing under his own name.  He forged passports and purchased guns. When the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising broke out, Max was assigned to coordinate the Bund’s activities in Łódź, in today’s Poland.  He never spoke again about this experience, but it formed the “climax of his life as an agitator” (p.42).

              Max was arrested in the aftermath of the 1905 uprising and imprisoned in Siberia.  An escape in 1907 led him all the way from Siberia to Dresden, Germany, at a time when he seems to have concluded that the possibility of overthrowing the Tsars had been foreclosed.  Eager to put his semi-clandestine existence and constant police surveillance behind him, while in Dresden he responded to an ad of the London office of Yost Typewriter Company.  An American firm, Yost was anxious to expand into the Tsarist Empire and was looking for a marketing manager with knowledge of Russian. Yost offered Max a job as a “glorified salesman” (p.55), charged with opening up the Russian market.  Over the next decade and a half – the tumultuous period that spanned World War I, the 1917 Revolution, and the post-revolution civil wars in Russia — Max lived in rented North London rooms while he spent much time back in Russia selling typewriters.

              During a  visit to Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg) sometime in the early 1920s, Max met Frouma Toumarkine.  Born in 1892 and thus 18 years younger than Max, Frouma was one of eight siblings, five girls, three boys, members of a close-knit clan of moderately prosperous Russian Jews.  Her father was a Moscow timber merchant.  Unlike Max, Frouma had a formal secondary school education, and had entered Kiev University shortly before World War I.  When the war broke out, she left university to sign up as an auxiliary nurse.  

             In her capacity as nurse, Frouma met her first husband, Alexander Batlermanants, a medical officer in the Tsarist army, more than 20 years older.  From a wealthy family of Jewish origins, Batlermanants liked to gamble, the “characteristic vice of the Russian upper classes” (p.170-71).  He was self-centered, with “suspect charm” and a “complete lack of dependability” (p.171).  The couple’s daughter Ira – officially Irina – was born in 1912.   Batlermanants died fighting for the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war that broke out after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

               Mazower was unable to discover many details about Max and Frouma’s courtship.  But he learned that Max returned to England in the summer of 1924 from one of his trips to Eastern Europe with Frouma, then a 32-year-old Russian widow, and eight year old Ira.  Frouma was pregnant when she arrived in London and spoke almost no English. The couple married in London in December 1924, and Mazower’s father William – William was supposedly the only English name Frouma then knew — was born the following year, 1925.

               Shortly after their arrival back in London, Max had a house built in Highgate, at 20 Oakeshott Avenue. Bordering Hampstead Heath, Highgate was full of recently constructed single-family dwellings, built along shade-filled streets — the “epitome of affordable bourgeois comfort” (p.189).  Max and Frouma never again moved from Highgate area.  “There is a privilege in being able to stay put, in choosing when to move,” Mazower writes, and the “upheavals, fears, and deprivations of their early lives had equipped Dad’s parents to appreciate it” (p.9).  For years, Max and Frouma opened their doors to other Russian émigrés, especially old Bundist comrades, including many Max had not known personally, “as though the domestic space he had never really known as a child emerged late in his life to help shelter the remnants of a movement that had found history against it” (p.86).

                 Frouma, the memoir’s most endearing character, transformed the Oakeshott Avenue house into a home with her warmth and intuitive affection.  Her “vitality invigorated the home of the Mazowers” and her “energy kept the family together” (p.166).  Throughout her time in London, Frouma sorely missed her family back in Russia.  She toyed with the idea of returning to Russia.  To preserve and nurture ties with loved ones and her homeland, Frouma wrote  letters, the “lifeblood” of her family’s continued existence “after it had been sundered” (p.196).  For Frouma, the nurturing of family ties was a “way to withstand the pain of history” (p.6).  Her son William was the anchor that kept her in England.

                 But Frouma and Max’s household also included William’s half-siblings, André and Ira.  André, born in 1909 and 16 years older than William, was a “shadowy and constantly shifting presence” (p.102) at 20 Oakeshott Avenue, rarely seen as William grew up.  The story of André’s mother Sofia Krylenko, and her relationship with Max, was at the pinnacle of Max’s most closely guarded secrets.  But Mazower was able to learn that Sofia had been a prominent Russian revolutionary in her own right, a woman of “culture and independence and means, a modernist, a free spirit” (p.133), whom Max probably met when both were exiles in Germany.  Unlike Max, Sofia never made the turn to familial life.  She “remained an activist and castigated others for their compromises” (p. 135).  She was institutionalized during World War II and probably died during the war.

                Mazower established that Sofia’s son André came to London in 1913, when he was not yet four years old, but was able to uncover little else about the boy’s early years.  He considers the possibility that Max was not André’s father, a possibility that André encouraged as an adult.  At a minimum, Mazower concludes, Max acted as if André were his son.   André went on to attend Cambridge University, where he tried his hand at poetry and came under the influence of the poet T.S. Eliot.  As he moved into adulthood, he remained financially dependent upon Max for long stretches of time.  Otherwise, there was little contact between the two.  He would show up in Highgate unannounced, and recounted little about where he had been or where he was going next.  Frouma wrote of on-going tension between Max and André.

                  André wrote The Red Thread, a controversial tract that indulged in discredited anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  He converted to Catholicism, moved to Spain and, much to Max’s chagrin, supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  Despite his tilt to the right side of the political spectrum, André shared with his revolutionary mother Sofia what Mazower describes as a “propensity for ideological extremism, an attraction to secrecy and the conspiratorial worldview, and perhaps too the combination of self-pity, stubbornness, and self-romanticization that often accompanied them” (p.162).  His repudiation of the leftist views of Max and Sofia was in Mazower’s view André’s way of dealing with the sense of being “unmoored by the storms of history, his form of reaction to living the aftermath of revolution”  (p.162).  André died at age 95, in 2005.

            In sharp contrast to André, Frouma’s daughter Ira was omnipresent in the Mazower family’s life as William grew up.  Born in Russia in 1912, by the time she was five, Ira had lived through a world war, a revolution, a civil war, mass epidemic and famine.  In what for her must have been “insufferably tranquil” North London, Ira became a “sardonic, self-absorbed, willful English-speaking teenager with an artistic temperament” (p.219).  Throughout her life, Ira pursued an ideal of “beauty and glamour as if seeking to wipe out her earliest memories and revive what they had effaced” (p.223).  In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Ira first married at age 17, in 1935.  The marriage lasted just weeks. 

                After World War II, Ira turned to clothes and fashion, initially a “source of fantasy,” her way of “turning life at home into something stylish and stylized” (p.226).  Her big break came when she took a position as art editor of a popular fashion magazine.  She proved to be a talented writer who demonstrated an “easy way with words” and did not “take herself too seriously” (p.227).  Ira wrote The Glass of Fashion, a “paean to glamour” (p.227) for austere post-war Britain, in which she argued that fashion was a good escape for women, reflecting the “daydreams of millions of women” (p.227).  The book received good reviews.  She went on to write several modestly successful fantasy novels, “packed with court intrigue, noble gamblers, dashing rakes, illegitimacy, mad passion and fatal attractions” (p.231).

                While living in Highgate with Max and Frouma and working in central London, Ira fell in love with the family’s neighbor, Richard Jeffries, known as “Jeff,” a banker in the City who was married with several children.  Max and Frouma considered Jeff “very English,” i.e., native born and not Jewish.  After Jeff left his first wife to marry Ira, the couple lived a lavish lifestyle, featuring fancy hotels, a Jaguar, luxury cruises, and lots to drink.  Ira wrote a memoir “designed to turn childhood pain into 1950s cocktail entertainment,” a sort of “Ballets Russes fantasy” with a “lighthearted style” which kept at bay the “fears, knowledge, and memories that lay close beneath the surface” after her life had become prosperous and comfortable  (p.221-22).  Like André, with whom she otherwise had very little in common, Ira too became “quite reactionary” as an adult, given to “making outrageous statements about peasants and workers” (p.218).

                In 1985, Jeff had a heart attack while driving, and was killed.  Not yet 70, Ira died of an overdose three days after Jeff’s funeral.  To Mazower, Ira’s death almost seemed as if she was living out one of her novels.  He describes his father’s half-sister as a woman who sought to “banish the memory of revolutionary deprivation, re-creating in the safety of an English suburb something of the comfort that had been snatched from her in childhood” (p.220). 

                 After the turbulent lives of Frouma and Max, and the unconventional lives of André and Ira, the memoir switches gears when Mazower addresses his father William.  William’s childhood was characterized by a “high degree of tenderness and gentleness,” along with the “omnipresence of his mother’s affection” (p.244).  Although Max was aloof and distant, “more or less incapable of demonstrating physical affection” with his son, Mazower’s Dad “never questioned that his father loved him, and felt both protective and proud of him as Max aged” (p.49).  Like his father, William was “not a talkative man, and he shied away from the personal like a nervous horse” (p.1).   

            William was a 14-year-old schoolboy when World War II broke out.  By war’s end in 1945, he was a “trained soldier with multiple technical skills.”  Although he never saw combat,  he had been through “bombing and air raids and knew about weapons and had seen the devastation they caused” (p.279).  After the war ended, he spent time with the British Army in occupied Germany.   He had been admitted in 1942 to Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College — the “powerhouse of the British political elite in the mid-twentieth century” (p.298) – but was not able to complete his studies at Balliol until several years after the war. 

              William spent his entire professional career as a middle manager in a multinational company, showing “no interest at all in climbing the greasy pole to executive glory” (p.333). He married in 1955, with children coming quickly thereafter: four boys, of which our author was the oldest.  William chose to be more present in his sons’ lives than his father had been in his.  But the responsibility he felt as the son of immigrants never left him.  His settled upbringing helps explain the “gratitude and respect” Dad “always felt to his parents, and his sense of obligation to them” (p.238-39). 

* * *

            The turbulence and upheavals of the twentieth century that had altered his grandparents’ lives and robbed his father’s half-siblings of normal childhoods had an impact on his father as well, Mazower concludes, “insofar as he understood the relationship to the place of his birth in a very specific and deeply felt way and because he knew what good fortune was whenever he looked at his family tree” (p.347).  As he journeyed physically and emotionally from New York to London to piece together this beguiling memoir, Mazower too must surely have recognized the good fortune he discovered in his family tree.   

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky USA

July 21, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, English History, European History, History, Russian History