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

 

 

 

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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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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

Imprisonment and Exile as Liberation

 

Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde:

The Unrepentant Years (Harvard University Press)

            In February 1895, Dublin-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), then 40 years old, was at the top of his game as a poet, playwright and critic, known throughout the English-speaking literary world for his brilliant wit, glittering conversational skills and charming if flamboyant appearance.   Two of his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were playing to packed houses in London’s West End, with the latter about to open in New York.  Wilde was married to wealthy Englishwoman Constance Lloyd and the couple had two sons whom Wilde adored, ten-year-old Cyril and nine-year-old Vyvan.

            Wilde’s marriage to Constance was by then more than a bit shaky, in no small part because Wilde had fallen passionately and recklessly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, a brash, unpredictable, and frequently imprudent aristocrat, sixteen years younger than Wilde.  Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, heartily disapproved of the relationship between the two men, threatening at one point to “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” if Douglas did not end it.   This included showing up at Wilde’s house accompanied by a boxer, and almost disrupting the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, before Wilde got wind of his intentions and barred him from the performance.  Then, on February 18, 1895, the Marquis left a calling card at Wilde’s home addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” misspelling “sodomite.”  Against the advice of nearly everyone, including George Bernard Shaw, Wilde decided to sue the Marquis for criminal libel in an effort to put an end to the harassment, once and for all.  It was not a good decision. 

            Douglas’ father employed spies to dig up evidence that Wilde was in reality a “sodomite,” a term frequently used in late Victorian England as a synonym for homosexual.  His lawyers introduced romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquis’s son.  The court found the Marquis’s description of Wilde as a “posing sodomite” to be legally justified, and Wilde withdrew his suit.  He was then arrested on charges of “gross indecency” under a loosely worded and subjective statute that made almost any private and consensual action potentially subject to criminal prosecution.  After a sensational trial that aroused much interest in England and abroad, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. 

               In Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, Nicholas Frankel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, focuses upon Wilde’s last years, both his imprisonment, from May 1895 to May 1897, and the remaining three and a half years of his life, which he spent in exile in Dieppe, in Northern France, Naples, Sicily, and above all Paris, where he died in November 1900.  Unlike more comprehensive Wilde biographies, Frankel argues that his “represents the first sustained effort to understand Wilde’s imagination through the prism of his final years” (p.16).  Frankel provides a perceptive account of the unforgiving prison conditions that prevailed in late Victorian England, and much insight into the surprisingly open environment available to homosexuals on parts of the European continent as the 19th century came to a close. 

                 But the sturdiest thread tying together Frankel’s biographical narrative is Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, the “defining love affair of his life. . . [which] lasted well beyond his imprisonment,” an affair that was “at times intense, passionate, petty, rhapsodic, tender, ill-tempered, and vituperative” (p.31).  Wilde spent only limited time with Douglas after his release from prison, the rest seemingly in an endless pursuit of a variety of men – mostly younger men and boys.  But even when the two were not together, Douglas dominated Wilde’s psyche.

                Wilde fled Britain immediately upon his release from prison in May 1897, never to return.  He realized then that he needed to “reinvent himself as someone who could live and write unapologetically in spite of the poverty, ostracism, and isolation that he already knew he would face upon release” (p.77).  He never regained his full literary aplomb after his release from prison.  But to emphasize this, Frankel argues,  is to miss  the import of Wilde’s post-prison years.  Paradoxically, Frankel writes, imprisonment and exile liberated Wilde to “pursue an uninhibited life, and the pleasure he received in consequence could be enjoyed more fully, as a total experience of heart, mind, soul and body, with conversation as its medium and laughter its index . .  . Wilde’s greatest achievement in exile was himself” (p.303).

* * *

                Wilde served his prison term in several jails (“gaols” in the British spelling).  The prison system in Britain in Wilde’s day was known for being “harshly punitive,” centered on  “hard labor, hard board, and hard fare” (p.36).  The prison population included children as well as seasoned criminals.  Almost every prisoner was held in solitary confinement, with one hour out per day, and no talking among prisoners allowed.  There was little sense that prisoners could be reformed or rehabilitated. 

                Shortly after his release, Wilde wrote a long letter to the Daily Chronicle, a paper interested in prison reform, documenting the “brutality of the current British prison system and the terrible cruelty that it inflicted on child prisoners especially” (p.97).  He had kind words for the other prisoners, the “only really humanizing influence in prison.”  By contrast, prison authorities were “obliged to execute some of the most inhumane regulations” and were the “source of mindless cruelty” (p.98).  The letter, which Frankel describes as a  “masterpiece of plain rhetoric” (p.99), had a clear effect on the 1898 Prisons Act, marking the beginnings of modern penal reform in Great Britain by setting the stage for the subsequent abolition of hard labor and the establishment of separate institutions for young offenders. 

                Wilde’s prison experience also produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a lengthy poem still today considered one of the most cogent analyses of prison conditions, an “indictment not merely of the late-Victorian prison system but of the society that convicted and imprisoned Wilde” and, indirectly, a “moving and unapologetic reassertion of Wilde’s sexual orientation” (p.169-70).   The poem was based on the execution of fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, which had a “lasting effect on Wilde’s sense of himself and other prisoners as victims of a cruel, inhuman machine” (p.62).  The Ballad of Reading Gaol ends with Wilde’s “personal views on the justice system and its antithetical character to Christianity” (p.179).  The poem turned out to be the best selling of Wilde’s published writings in his lifetime and has never since been out of print.

                Although Wilde had begun his prison sentence vowing undying love for Lord Douglas, thoughts of Douglas rendered him angry, alienated and depressed as his prison term progressed.  At one point, he considered reconciliation with his wife Constance, who had officially barred him from seeing his children, in exchange for a small allowance upon his release.  During the prison term, Constance temporarily put her divorce plans on hold, but shortly thereafter reversed herself, changed her name, and took her sons to Genoa, Italy, where she died prematurely in 1898.  Wilde never saw his sons again,  “arguably the most tragic element of his final years” (p.103), Frankel suggests.

               In Frankel’s view, Wilde’s changing affections for Douglas were a reflection of his isolation and depression.  Wilde wrote a lengthy letter to Douglas while in prison (toward the end of his term, he was accorded special writing and reading privileges).  The letter has come to be known a De Profundis, much of which was Wilde’s expression of how he wanted to live and what he wanted to do upon release from prison.  But the first third was full of vitriolic recriminations against Douglas.   Prison regulations prohibited Wilde from sending the letter during his incarceration and Douglas claimed he never received a copy.   Frankel sees the intensity of Wilde’s attack on Douglas as a “clue that Wilde still loved him and intended some kind of reconciliation with him upon release,” (p.77), but that he wanted to set the terms for that reconciliation.   

                Shortly after Wilde’s release in May 1897, the pair met in Rouen, Normandy, but it was a fleeting encounter.  They met up again six weeks later in Naples, where they tried over the course of three months to reestablish their relationship.   Naples in the last decade of the 19th century was a city to which Northern European homosexuals naturally gravitated.  “Homosexuality was not a crime in Italy: Italian police, politicians, and prosecutors made little attempt to ban homosexual behavior, expel homosexuals expatriates, or otherwise harass them, and . . . Southern Italy provided an especially appealing destination for Northern homosexuals in flight from strict homophobic laws in their home countries” (p.129). 

            Wilde and Douglas rented a villa in Naples, and had four house servants.  Wilde took Italian lessons from an Italian poet and translator.   They both turned their attentions to writing, with Wilde completing the Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Although they were happy together, the English community in Naples ostracized them. A representative of the British Embassy in Rome traveled to Naples to tell Douglas “discretely” that his cohabitation with Wilde was causing a scandal back home and pressured Douglas to “eject Wilde from the house”  (p.153).  Moreover, both men had extravagant tastes and money was a never-ending problem, one that put an end altogether to the sojourn in Naples.  

               Douglas received money from his mother, Lady Queensbury, now divorced from the Marquis, and Wilde had an allowance as part of his settlement with Constance.   But Lady Queensbury threatened to cut off her son’s allowance if he continued to cohabit with Wilde.   Douglas concluded that he had no choice but to leave Wilde, while demanding that his mother send Wilde £200.   She did so, but only after receiving Wilde’s pledge that he would never again live under the same roof as her son.   Although both Douglas and Wilde expected their relationship to continue in some form thereafter, in fact their time as a couple ended in Naples.

               Wilde arrived in Paris in February 1898 and, with the exception of a two-month return visit to Italy from March to May 1900, remained there up to his death.  Paris for Wilde represented the “glittering capital of the World Republic of Letters, and he had always enjoyed a greater sense of intellectual freedom and recognition in the city. . . [I]t was above all the contrast between English public condemnation and French acceptance of his most controversial works that led Wilde to feel more at home among the French” (p.194-95). 

                  With a thriving and extensive homosexual subculture, centered on cafés and bars near the Champs Elysées, Paris had “long possessed a reputation for openness and toleration, especially in the eyes of the British” (p.193).  Homosexuals bonded socially as well as sexually in late 19th century Paris, Frankel writes, “relatively untroubled by any fear of police repression and scrutiny” (p.207).  Many of the active homosexuals were quite young, between 14 and 20.  Wilde called meeting with these young men “feasting with panthers,” and made no effort to hide his determination to continue such “feasting,” now that he lived singly, with no social standing to protect and hence little reason to be furtive.  “Within days of his arrival in Paris, Wilde began a series of open, public liaisons with young men offering him personal and sexual companionship” (p.207).

                 Frankel gives particular attention to a friendship of another sort which Wilde struck up in Paris, with Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man later determined to have framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  L’Affaire Dreyfus, with its clear anti-Semitic overtones, was at its height when Wilde arrived in Paris in mid-February 1898 (I reviewed three books on the Dreyfus affair here in February 2012).  Esterhazy’s combination of “charm, bravura, and obvious criminal guilt fascinated Wilde” (p.12).  Although his friendship with Esterhazy has since elicited “severe moral disapproval,” Frankel sees it as “perfectly consistent with much that Wilde had written and done at the height of his social and literary success” (p.231).  Esterhazy, with his “frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind,” represented the “true liar” (p.231) whom Wilde had celebrated in his writings.  But the friendship ended suddenly when the proof against Esterhazy became irrefutable and he fled France – for England. 

               Paris provided opportunities for Douglas and Wilde to see one another “without attracting the disapproving attentions of English journalists”  (p.212).  They met frequently, often dining out together, although Frankel finds it unlikely that they had a sexual relationship during this time.  Both were pursuing younger men; they often shared partners.  And they continued to quarrel over money, with Wilde pressing the case that Douglas should be supporting him financially.  Douglas initially rejected Wilde’s entreaties, but he sent Wilde about £125 in the last months of 1900.  In August of that year, Wilde and Douglas dined together for the last time, at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra, their preferred dining site. 

               The saddest element of Wilde’s final year in Frankel’s view was that he “could no longer write.  For at least two years after his release, he had remained determined to prove that he still possessed literary genius and that prison had not killed his creative spirit”  (p.261).  Although his arrival in Paris in February 1898 had coincided with the publication in England of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with significant critical and commercial success, Wilde came to the realization in Paris that there would be no “artistic resurrection.”  He would “never again recover the social and literary standing he had lost” (p.205).  

                 By 1900, Wilde had become increasingly unable to “step out of the wreckage his life had become: he could no longer write creatively, his health was declining, and he was rapidly losing the confidence of some of his most loyal friends and supporters” (p.258). He succumbed to “fits of lassitude and self-pity” (p.205), with depression, sadness and drinking to excess dominating his last year.  Wilde by then was a “physically altered person” who had “put on weight, and his once luxurious hair was thinning and turning grey.  He had grown distinctly deaf . . . and he now often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth to hide his bad teeth” (p.257).  But if he could no longer write, he could still tell beautiful stories to anyone willing to listen, talking with a  “brilliance and fertility of tongue and imagination that nobody could match” (p.262).     

                In early September 1900, Wilde suffered a fatal relapse of an ear infection that had afflicted him while in prison and went untreated. The only solution was a radical operation with a high risk of permanent hearing loss.  Wilde submitted to such an operation on October 10, 1900, creating an open wound that left him in constant pain and required daily dressing and cavity packing.   Although he realized some improvement toward the end of October, in November the infection spread to his brain.  He died on November 30,1900, in his Paris hotel room, six weeks short of his 46th birthday, alone and with little fanfare.   Douglas paid about £20 in funeral costs.

* * *

                 Queen Victoria died less than two months after Wilde. Their deaths together, Frankel contends, marked the end of the Victorianism with which Wilde had always been at odds.  Frankel concludes his thoughtful biography by noting that Wilde had served as the “harbinger of new attitudes that would eventually come to replace the repressive Victorian laws and morality surrounding matters of sex and gender” (p.294-95).   His imprisonment and exile may have liberated future generations more than they liberated Wilde himself.     

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

June 26, 2019

3 Comments

Filed under English History, History, Literature

Public Intellectual Within the Portals of Power

 

 

 

Richard Aldous, Schlesinger:

The Imperial Historian (W Norton & Co.)

                Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) is best known today for serving as a presidential advisor to President John F. Kennedy and, after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, writing what amounted to a quasi-official history of the short Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.  Schlesinger entered the White House in 1961 as one of America’s most accomplished 20th century historians, with highly regarded works on the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt already to his credit; and as a political activist who had helped define post-World War II anti-communist liberalism and advised the unsuccessful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.  Schlesinger thus personified what we might today term a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who also engaged in politics throughout his adult life.

                Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days received favorable reviews, became an immediate best seller, and won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography.   But the book has not aged well, and today is often dismissed as hagiography.  It helped cement Schlesinger’s reputation, deservedly or not, as an acolyte of the Kennedys, their pit bull defender in the court of public opinion.  A Thousand Days and Schlesinger’s post-White House years raise the question whether historians can enter the public arena as political actors, yet remain true to their calling when they seek to write about their real-world experiences.  Richard Aldous, author of an incisive analysis of the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reviewed  here in June 2013, wrestles with this intriguing question in his biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. 

                Aldous suggests that Schlesinger might fairly be considered the last of the “progressive” historians, a group that included Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., himself an eminent professor of American history at Harvard University.  The younger Schlesinger  “believed in the uses of history and in useful history” (p.191), Aldous writes.  But was he a “great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?” he asks.  Or “was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the Establishment that nurtured his career?”  (p.2-3).  No clear-cut answer to this question emerges from Aldous’ study, but he explores its implications adeptly in this crisply written and thoroughly researched biography, arranged chronologically (assiduous readers of this blog will recall Schlesinger’s collection of letters, reviewed here in December 2015).

                Along the way, Aldous traces the several paths that Schlesinger traveled to become one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals of the post-World War II era.  He provides good if not necessarily fresh insights into the personalities of Stevenson and Kennedy, the two stars to whom Schlesinger hitched his political wagon, coupled with one more  tour of the Kennedy White House (another such tour is Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, also reviewed here in December 2015).   The post-White House years in Aldous’ account were less kind to Schlesinger, who found his unabashed liberalism yielding to other approaches to politics and the writing of history.

* * *                

                  Readers may be surprised to learn that Schlesinger was not born a “junior.”  As a teenager, he determined to change his name from Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr.  It was an odd change, since Bancroft was not merely his mother’s maiden name.  She was descended from one of America’s greatest 19th century historians, George Bancroft, a man whom Schlesinger later came to revere as a prime example of an “historian-participant.”  But the name change symbolized the extent to which Schlesinger was beholden to his father, who never lost his grip on his son.

                 Young Arthur was a gifted student who skipped grades and thus was two years younger and significantly smaller than his classmates in secondary school.  He performed brilliantly but was socially awkward due to the age difference.  When it came time to go to university, there was no real choice.  He went to Harvard, where he took many of his father’s courses and was, as Aldous puts it, a “homing bird, happy living in his father’s intellectual coop,” (p.28).  Schlesinger and John Kennedy, born the same year, were contemporaries at Harvard but had little interaction.  Schlesinger was a serious student, Kennedy significantly less so. 

                 Schlesinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, and even then had been spotted as an upcoming historian slated for distinction in the field.   His father had steered him to a senior thesis on an obscure 19th intellectual, Orestes Brownson, which led to a book on Brownson published in 1939, the first of many for the budding scholar.  His father pulled the appropriate strings for its publication (which Aldous’ compares to Joseph Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of his son John’s senior thesis on the 1938 Munich crisis, published as Why England Slept).  In his work on Brownson, Schlesinger sought to demonstrate how venal and anti-democratic business interests worked against the interests of common people, a youthful perspective that would be reflected in his subsequent studies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.

                As war loomed in Europe, Schlesinger spent the academic year 1938-39 on a fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, after graduation from Harvard.  He returned to Harvard for graduate studies, where his seminal work on Jackson began to take form.   American entry into World War II in 1941 precluded him from putting the final touches to his work, and bad eyesight prevented him from enlisting in the armed forces until nearly the end of the war.   But Schlesinger had a series of desk jobs during the war years, in Washington, D.C., and London.

                Among them was a stint at the Research and Analysis section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA.   There,  he analyzed Nazi propaganda, which he considered a waste of time.  Aldous recounts how a disagreement with Maurice Halperin, head of the OSS Latin America desk, over how to characterize a change of governments in Bolivia resulted in an altercation between the two that may have involved physical blows and led to a less-than-favorable performance evaluation for Schlesinger, who was chided for his lack of “cooperativeness” (p.82).  Halperin was subsequently exposed as a Soviet spy, reinforcing Schlesinger’s conviction that there could be no accommodation between American liberalism and Communism.

                After the war, Schlesinger returned to Harvard, where he finished The Age of Jackson.  The work challenged the then widely held notion of Jacksonian democracy as a regional phenomenon confined primarily to the western frontier.  For Schlesinger, Jacksonian democracy was national in scope, characterized by a vigorous federal government countering entrenched business interests on behalf of urban workers and small farmers across the country, including in the Northeast.  Schlesinger won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson at the impossibly young age of 29, aided in part by his father’s lobbying on his behalf.  While not determinative, the senior Schlesinger’s efforts marked another instance, Aldous writes, of Arthur Jr. “living on the inside track, a placement that had served him well throughput his rise to national prominence, so often giving him a head start in an always-competitive race” (p.102).  The Age of Jackson was criticized in subsequent years for ignoring issues of Indian removal, race and gender, criticism that its author admitted was valid.  But Schlesinger’s study remains, Aldous indicates, the point of reference against which other studies of the Jacksonian era continue to be measured.   

                Schlesinger’s first volume of The Age of Roosevelt,  The Crisis of the Old Order, appeared in 1957, with The Coming of the New Deal appearing in 1959 and The Politics of Upheaval in 1960.  Schlesinger never completed the last two volumes in what he had envisioned as a five-volume series.

* * *

                No ivory tower recluse, Schlesinger in 1948 joined famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and a group of other prominent Americans, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, to form the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a group that sought to mobilize support for what became mainstream American liberalism of the 1950s.  The ADA championed a strong federal government to regulate capitalism, assist those working within the capitalist economy, promote civil rights, and advance the national interest, while respecting civil liberties yet taking a vigorous stand against Communism at home and abroad.  

                The following year saw the appearance of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, his first overtly political tract, in which he made the argument for liberal democracy as the only viable option for the post World War II era between the totalitarian temptations of Communism on the left and Fascism on the right.  The Vital Center turned out to be among Schlesinger’s “most enduring works” (p.139).   It was also a product of Schlesinger’s friendship with Niebuhr, another well-placed mentor for the rising academic star as he sought to influence the contemporary political debate.  Niebuhr gave Schlesinger “both the confidence and the intellectual underpinning” for The Vital Center, “which in turn would do more than perhaps any other book to popularize the theologian’s ideas” (p.137).

                Schlesinger moved even more directly into the political arena during the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, supporting the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson.  Stevenson ran twice for president against American war hero Dwight Eisenhower, and lost by substantial margins each time. Schlesinger thought Stevenson had a chance to win the 1956 election because of Eisenhower’s heart attack the previous year, with lingering questions about his health and physical stamina giving the Democratic nominee a glimmer of hope.  Schlesinger entered into the Kennedy world during the 1960 presidential primary campaign as an intermediary between Stevenson, again a candidate, and Kennedy.

* * *

                Although Kennedy and Schlesinger hit it off well almost from the beginning, many within the Kennedy clan looked at him suspiciously, as a Stevenson infiltrator within their camp.  Schlesinger’s primary contribution to the 1960 general election between Kennedy and then Vice-President Richard Nixon was a book, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make any Difference, cobbled together quickly to dispel the notion that there was no substantive difference between the two candidates.   Schlesinger’s work, effusive in its praise for Kennedy, ’showed him “writing at his most brilliant and polemical best” (p.214), Aldous observes.

                 After Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin in the 1960 presidential election, Schlesinger eagerly accepted an offer to work at the White House.  Kennedy and Schlesinger reached what Aldous suggests was an implicit understanding that Schlesinger would at some point use his White House experience to write The Age of Kennedy, preserving – and perhaps defining – Kennedy’s legacy.  His official title at the White House was “Special Advisor to the President,” but it was a position that lacked both clearly defined duties and a place in the White House hierarchy, a formula that guaranteed confusion and friction with other White House officials.  Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s long-term assistant, bumped heads frequently over speechwriting responsibilities as they both sought the president’s attention and favor.  Unlike Sorenson and most of the other officials with whom he was competing for presidential attention, Schlesinger had no staff at the White House.  It was therefore more difficult for him to stay in the loop on the key issues that were reverberating through the administration. 

                 Schlesinger often worried that Kennedy was “no liberal” (p.224) and, throughout his White House years, came to feel that he was an “embattled liberal minority in the White House, constantly forced to fight [for] his corner as the administration settled into an essentially conservative character” (p.266).  Still, Schlesinger wrote memos to the President – lots of them, long ones, and on a wide range of subjects.  Even Kennedy, who appreciated Schlesinger’s sharp intellect in a way that many of his subordinates did not, “seemed to tire of Schlesinger’s barrage of ideas and proposals” (p.302).  In the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, however, in the early months of the Kennedy presidency, Schlesinger wrote what in retrospect appears as a remarkably prescient memorandum. 

                Schlesinger’s memorandum tried to convince the president not to go forward with the operation, arguing that insufficient attention had been afforded to the operation’s long-term political implications.  At one point, he thought he had convinced the president, only to be told subsequently by brother Robert Kennedy that he should keep his doubts to himself.  The operation turned into a spectacular failure, a serious blot on the young presidency, and Schlesinger came to regret that he had too dutifully followed Robert’s directive to fall into line.  

                Schlesinger had no role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  He attended none of the major meetings, which were so secret he “did not even know that they were taking place”  (p.289).   Moreover, he showed little interest in Vietnam during his time in the White House, although he became a passionate opponent of the war during the Johnson years.  The major substantive area where he arguably had the greatest impact was on Berlin.  After Kennedy’s disastrous confrontation with Soviet Party Secretary and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, Schlesinger pleaded with the President to reject the views of several hawks in the administration pushing for military solutions to the Berlin crisis (Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev is the subject of Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, reviewed here in February 2013).  When the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall in August of that year, Kennedy’s restrained response reflected the views Schlesinger had expressed a few weeks earlier.

                Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 provided urgency to Schlesinger’s long-planned project to write The Age of Kennedy as a complement to his works on Jackson and Roosevelt.  Schlesinger’s “entire life had prepared him for this moment” (p.2), Aldous writes.  If he had been somewhat of an outlier in the Kennedy White House, he moved front and center in the Kennedy circle in the aftermath of the assassination.  The “legacy project mattered for everyone: for [Kennedy’s wife] Jackie in reinforcing the Camelot myth; and for [brother Robert], who had to position himself in relation to the dead president, not just the living one.  At stake was the political agenda for the ‘60s” (p.317).   Although Schlesinger stayed briefly into the Johnson administration, he left in the winter of 1964 to concentrate on the book. 

                 A Thousand Days, appearing in 1965, became the vehicle by which Schlesinger worked through his shock, depression and grief in the aftermath of the assassination.  Schlesinger termed his work a memoir rather than comprehensive history, “only a partial view” (p.319) which emphasized what he had seen first hand.  The book placed Kennedy squarely within the progressive tradition of Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, rendering him arguably more liberal than he actually was.  Like Jackson and Roosevelt, the Kennedy in A Thousand Days, was “tough-minded” and “pragmatic” (p.326), ready to take on the moneyed elite for the benefit of the many.

                Eminent historian James MacGregor Burns, writing in the New York Times Book Review a month after delivering a withering review of a similar work by Theodore Sorenson, found that A Thousand Days had captured the “sweep and the ferment of the thousand days,” placing the Kennedy presidency in the “widest historical and intellectual frame.”  A “great president,” Burns concluded, had “found – perhaps he deliberately chose – a great historian” (p.331).  But by the end of the 20th century, views on A Thousand Days had changed.  Typical were the 1998 observations of acerbic critic Christopher Hitchens, who termed the book a “court history” which served as the “founding breviary of the cult of JFK” (p.320).  Yet, to Aldous A Thousand Days still constitutes a “foundational text on the Kennedy administration.  Not only did Schlesinger establish the ‘first draft’ of history on the Kennedy years, but he offered an invaluable personal account of life on the inside. . . [T]he book remains a must for any historian working on Kennedy” (p.387). 

                 Much to his father’s dismay, Schlesinger had resigned from the Harvard faculty in 1962 to stay at the White House after taking the maximum allotted leaves of absence from the university.  He thus had no home to return to in 1965 when he finished A Thousand Days.  Just weeks prior to the book’s publication, moreover, the senior Schlesinger died suddenly of a heart attack, a devastating loss for Arthur Jr.  Later in 1965, the younger Schlesinger moved to New York to take a teaching position at City University of New York (CUNY).  In the same period, Schlesinger’s marriage of 25 years to wife Marian came unraveled.  Aldous does not dwell on Schlesinger’s personal life, but makes clear that his marriage was at times turbulent, enjoying more downs than ups.

                 Schlesinger had by this time become a vehement critic of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.  In 1967, he published a critique of the war, The Bitter Heritage, an “undisguised attack on the Johnson administration” and its “heedless military escalation” in Vietnam (p.342).  He supported Robert Kennedy’s short-lived presidential campaign in 1968, and was again gripped by depression and grief when he too was assassinated in June of that year.  The death of the second Kennedy, along with that two months earlier of Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the “destruction of a broader idea,” bringing to an “ugly, violent end the optimism that framed much of Schlesinger’s life” (p.349).  For Schlesinger, the 1960s had become the “decade of the murder of hope” (p.351). 

* * *

                 Schlesinger continued to write while teaching at CUNY, but never finished The Age of Roosevelt, and never published anything approaching The Age of Jackson in stature.  In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate crisis, he produced The Imperial Presidency, a work that upbraided Johnson and Nixon’s presidential usurpations, while largely absolving Kennedy of any such transgressions (the book’s title appears to have yielded Aldous’ strained subtitle, which seems off point as applied to Schlesinger the historian).  In 1978, Robert Kennedy and His Times appeared, a biography Schlesinger had reluctantly agreed to write in the aftermath of the younger Kennedy’s assassination a decade earlier.  The work was greeted with mostly lukewarm reviews.

                Schlesinger supported George McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency, which he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.  He had to strain to generate enthusiasm for the last two Democratic presidents of his lifetime, Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton  (Clinton, Aldous reports, searched in vain for his own Schlesinger to “take care of the history,” p.387).  Neither espoused the pragmatic federal activism that Schlesinger had championed since the late 1940s.  Schlesinger further worried that the Democratic Party’s emphasis upon what we would today call “identity politics” – highlighting the interests of minorities, women, gays – risked undermining its capacity to unite working and middle class voters across racial and ethnic lines.  And he similarly worried that the emphasis on race, gender and sexual orientation in the writing of history had superseded his more traditional approach.

* * *

                 Schlesinger died in 2007, just short of his 90th birthday.  Although “perhaps the most famous historian of his time,” unlike most of  his fellow historians, Schlesinger was, Aldous writes, “never quite sure whether his loyalties lay mostly with his profession or with the people whose lives he chronicled” (p.2-3).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2019

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized, United States History

Exploring Joseph Conrad’s World

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch:

Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin Press) 

               Joseph Conrad, born Konrad Kurzeniowski in 1857 to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, spent most of his adult life either at sea or writing novels in his adopted homeland, England.   Conrad is one of a handful of authors in the last two centuries who have made their mark writing in an acquired rather than their native language (others include Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Koestler; I reviewed a biography of Koestler here in 2012).   In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasonoff aims, as she puts it, to explore Conrad’s world “with the compass of an historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” (p.9).  Jasonoff, a professor of history at Harvard University,  skillfully uses each of these tools to produce a masterful account of the late 19th and early 20th century world that shaped Conrad’s personal life and literary output.

Conrad set his novels in the late Victorian period, a time when the British Empire was at its height and Europe’s powers were scrambling for territory in Africa and Asia.  He offered stories about places that his English-speaking readers considered exotic, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  But they were discomforting stories that in different ways highlighted the darker side of imperialist adventures.  His most famous work, Heart of Darkness, detailed a boat trip into what was then known as the Congo Free State, a trip in which the lines between savagery and civilization, madness and sanity, seemed to blur.   Conrad developed similar themes in The Secret Agent and Nostrodomo, novels about Asia and a fictional Latin American country that resembled Paraguay.  Jasonoff concentrates her study on these works, along with The Secret Agent, a novel about Russian anarchists operating in London.

Jasonoff recognizes a form of international connectivity — globalization — emerging in Conrad’s lifetime.  By the first decade of the 20th century, she writes, there had “never been such global interconnection – and never such manifest division” (p.285).  Democracy advanced, as liberal revolutions challenged autocrats and women stormed for the vote.  “But imperialism intensified as a handful of Western powers consolidated their rule over the majority of the world’s people. Rising prosperity went with increasing inequality. More conversations across cultures came with more elaborate theories of racial difference” (p.285).  Conrad grasped this interconnectedness and elevated it to a central motif for his writings.  Wherever he set his novels, Jasonoff writes, Conrad “grappled with the ramifications of living in a global world: the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption brought by technological change” (p.11).

Jasonoff, who took her own tour down the Congo River as part of her preparations for this book, divides the work into four parts: “Nation,” focusing on Conrad’s youth; “Ocean,” his years at sea; “Civilization,” an ironic reference to Conrad’s trip to the Congo in 1890 and writing Heart of Darkness nearly a decade later; and “Empire,” how Nostrodomo reflected Conrad’s late life views about a globalized world of empires and competitive nation-states.  Throughout, she shows her stripes as an historian with concise,  ingeniously detailed treatment of the times and places depicted in Conrad’s novels, juxtaposed with her analyses of the novels themselves.  As an able biographer, moreover, she does not neglect her subject’s enigmatic personal life.

* * *

               Konrad Kurzeniowski’s father Apollo was a member of the Polish landed nobility, the szlachita. But Apollo was also a fervent Polish nationalist, a political activist who dedicated his life to the cause of independence for Poland, which had been partitioned between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1795.  The young Konrad’s mother Ewa died when the boy was eight and Apollo passed away when he was 12, leaving the task of raising the orphaned lad to his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. To Tadeusz, Apollo had been “feckless, quixotic, and fatally incapable of supporting his family” (p.45). Tadeusz hoped to shape the young Konrad into a “pragmatic Bobrowski, not a dreamy Korzeniowski like his father” (p.45). Uncle Tadeusz continued to support Konrad financially until the young man was well into his adult years (throughout much of the book, Jasonoff uses the birthname “Konrad” interchangeably with “Conrad”).

As Konrad neared twenty, he felt a need to get away from from Kraków, where he was living with his uncle, and especially from the ruling Russians, who were looking to conscript him into military service.  He had grown up “obsessed with the idea of becoming a sailor.”  Sailing may have seemed a “completely fantastical notion for a young man who’d been raised hundreds of miles from the ocean.”  But Konrad had been “adrift his whole life. Going to sea just made it official” (p.49). Surprisingly, Uncle Tadeusz allowed him to leave for Marseille, where Tadeusz had connections with the extensive Polish diaspora there, including a cousin who owned a shipping company.

Bureaucratic hurdles prevented Konrad from working on French ships, and the young man experienced one of the lowest points in his life.  He ran out of money, tried unsuccessfully to get it back in casinos, and even attempted suicide.  Uncle Tadeusz went to Marseille and tried to convince Konrad to return to Kraków.  When the young man refused, he and his uncle decided that he should try to join the English Merchant Marine. Konrad had a bad experience on one ship, the Mavis, left it and departed for London, never writing again about Marseille or this part of his life.

The young man arrived in London in 1878 without a firm command of the English language.  His initial impressions upon arriving in London were “as if he’d wandered into a novel by Charles Dickens. Everything he knew about London he’d learned from Dickens” (p.62).  His Dickensian vision “lit the way from Konrad Korzeniowski, the bookish son of a Polish writer, to Joseph Conrad, a critically acclaimed English novelist . . . On the rare occasions that Conrad wrote about his early life, it was these first years in London that he most often recalled” (p.62).  In an insightful passage, Jasonoff shows how London at the time of Conrad’s arrival was already the center of a globalized empire and a melting pot offering many freedoms that distinguished it from Eastern Europe.  Conrad never lived more than an hour or two from London again. But he spent most of the next decade and a half, to 1894, in various capacities as a professional mariner.

More than in London, it was at sea that Konrad Korzeniowski “turned into Joseph Conrad” (p.93), Jasonoff argues.  For over fifteen years, Conrad sailed to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa on some of the longest routes that sailing ships regularly plied.  He learned to speak English on British ships, where native-born Britons were usually in the minority.  For Conrad, a sailing ship represented a “distinctive – and distinctively British – sense of ethics” that called for “experience, training, courage, perception, creativity, adaptability, and judgment” (p.109).  Conrad “transformed the British sailing ship into a gold standard for moral conduct.  It became for him what Poland had been for his parents, a romantic ideal that served as a guide for life” (p.94).  Sometime toward the end of the 1880s, Conrad started to write fiction – “the beginning of a lifetime of writing about sailors, ships, and the sea” (p.94).  But Conrad resisted the label of “sea writer.”  Stories about the sea were, for him, “stories about life” (p.108).

* * *

                    Conrad’s most famous story about life, Heart of Darkness, was based on his own trip in 1890 down the Congo River as captain of a Belgian steamer.  Conrad kept an extensive journal of what he observed, most of which worked its way into the story he started to write in December 1898.  None of Conrad’s other works of fiction, Jasonoff notes, could be “so closely pegged to contemporary records of his experience” (p.205).  The novel was published in 1898.  Its narrator, Charles Marlow, tells the story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the Thames in London of his effort to locate Kurtz, an ivory trader in the Congo.  Marlow discovered that Kurtz, a “prophet of civilization” who “promised civilization while snatching ivory,” had become a “savage lord” (p.204).

On its face, Heart of Darkness appeared to be what Jasonoff describes as the “quintessential river story, running from here to there: a journey from Europe to Africa, overlaid by metaphorical journeys from present to past, light to dark, civilization to savagery, sanity to madness” (p.205).  But by nesting Marlow’s experience in Africa inside the telling of his story in England, Conrad warned his readers against the complacent notion that “savagery” was far from “civilization.” “What happened there and what happened here were fundamentally connected. Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark” (p.237).

The extent to which Conrad’s fictional portrait of the Congo accurately depicted its actual conditions did not become fully known until years later.  But Jasonoff captures well the “appalling greed, violence, and hypocrisy” (p.3-4) of the regime of Leopold II, King of the Belgians.  She colorfully describes Leopold as an “outsized man, usually the tallest man in the room, with a nose like a mountain slope and a beard like a waterfall foaming over his chest” (p.173-74).  Determined to be a geo-political player on par with those from the larger European powers, Leopold sought to “open up to civilization the only part of the globe which it [had] not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness in which entire populations are enveloped” (p.173-74).

From 1885 to 1908, Leopold privately controlled and owned what was known as the Congo Free State, about 75 times larger than Belgium.   He used his personal control to strip the county of vast amounts of wealth, especially ivory and rubber.  These labor-intensive industries were serviced by locals who were forced to work through torture, imprisonment, maiming and terror.  Beneath a veneer of idealistic principles, the Congo Free State was, in Jasonoff’s words, the “most nakedly abusive colonial regime in the world” (p.205).

                 Lord Jim, published in serial form in 1899-1900 and in hardcover in 1900 was based loosely on the scandal of the S.S. Jeddah, a British-flagged, Singapore-owned steamship that perished at sea in 1880, carrying Muslims from Singapore to Mecca.  The story revolves around the abandonment of a ship by its British crew, including a young British seaman named Jim.   Jasonoff likens Jim to the main character of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a man who had “‘dreamed of battles all his life’ only to run away from the field the very first time he fought” (p.145).  Lord Jim remained Conrad’s most popular work for so long that, twenty years later, he “complained about critics who measure his new books against it” (p.144).  The novel appeared at a time “when Europe and the United States had colonized virtually all of Africa and Asia” (p.144-45).  It told of Europeans in Asia “not from the veranda of a British colonial bungalow, still less an armchair in a London club – but as Conrad had seen them, from the steamer’s deck” (p.145).

Although Nostromo was Conrad’s only major work about a place he had never been, Jasonoff prefers that we look at it as a “novel about every place he’d been” (p.283).  The novel came out in book form in October 1904, with the sub-title, “A Tale of the Seaboard,” a tale of the coast (the novel started out being about Italian immigrants in Argentina; the title is a clumsy translation of  “our man,” nostro unomo, in Italian).   A coast was something new in Conrad’s work, Jasonoff writes. The “border of land and sea, a coast could be both barrier and meeting place – a voyager’s point of departure, the place where an invader lands.”  In Nostromo “outsiders, conspiracies, and families” met the “themes of honor, community, and isolation he had [previously] set at sea” (p.278).

                  Nostromo takes place in Costaguana, a New World creation that Conrad made up, based primarily upon what he had read about Paraguay. The main storyline concerned the poisoning impact of the San Tomé silver mine on individuals and corporations, particularly British and American. Charles Gould, a native of Castaguano of English ancestry, believed the mine could bring peace to a war torn country.  But the extraction of silver only heightened the country’s unrest.

The secret to Nostromo’s “extraordinary prescience,” Jasonoff argues, was that Conrad “folded between its covers his own ‘theory of the world’s future’” (p.283). In Nostrodomo, Conrad anticipated the “ascent of an American-led consortium of ‘material interests,’” which would “dictate the fortunes of new nations” and “make imperialism continue to thrive whether or not it had the word ‘empire’ attached to it” (p.283).  Jasonoff finds it “ironic if not surprising” that Costaguana, a place Conrad had fabricated, “felt so stunningly real to readers.  Conrad had fashioned his ideas of Latin America from precisely the same kinds of books and newspapers his audiences might have read.  Nostromo thus confirmed their stereotypes” (p.279). Readers and reviewers in the United States in particular read Nostromo as a “vindication of all their prejudices about Latin America” (p.279).

                    The Secret Agent was set in London and dealt with anarchists, the only major Conrad novel not set at sea. Based loosely on the plot to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, The Secret Agent was Conrad’s “tribute to his beloved Dickens” (p.70-71).  More than anything else Conrad wrote, The Secret Agent “mapped the contours of his early life” (p.81) – the novelist Joseph Conrad writing about Konrad Kurzeniowski, as Jasonoff puts it.  Some critics characterized The Secret Agent as a novel written by a “foreigner,” criticism that stung Conrad badly.  The Secret Agent captured an irony of Conrad’s life: he couldn’t go back to Poland, yet he worried that he didn’t really fit into his adopted country either.

* * *

                   Conrad’s major novels conspicuously lack meaningful roles for women. There are no contemporary clues, moreover, whether he had sexual relationships with any women during his sailing days, in Europe or beyond, Jasonoff indicates.  He had one odd attachment to Marguerite Poradowska, a widow living in Brussels whose recently-deceased husband was a distant cousin of the Kurzeniowski family.   Their relationship appears to have been primarily on paper, in “effusive, emotionally charged correspondence between the two” (p.165).   Eight years older than Conrad, and in a way part of the family, the new widow was a “‘safe’ repository for Konrad’s intimate confessions, and in the coming years he poured them out in sometimes dozens of letters per year.  Marguerite became the first woman with whom the adult Konrad formed a sustained emotional relationship” (p.165).

Then, suddenly, their correspondence ended and, seemingly out of nowhere, Conrad announced “solemnly” (p.227) in a letter in 1896 to another woman he had had his eye on that he was about to marry Jessie George, an 18 year old working class girl from Peckham, nearly twenty years younger than her future husband.  In a letter to a cousin in Poland, Conrad described George as “small, not at all striking-looking person (to tell the truth alas – rather plain!) who nevertheless is very dear to me” (p.228). Marriage did not frighten him, he indicated, because he was “accustomed to an adventurous life and to facing terrible dangers” (p.227).

Conrad’s friends “couldn’t believe he had married such an uneducated, unrefined person” (p.230).  But the marriage worked.  George had qualities that Conrad “needed and craved: an even temper, good humor, patience, an impulse to nurture” (p.230).  The couple had two sons, Borys, born in 1898, and John, born in 1906.  During Conrad’s peak years as a writer, the family lived together in genteel poverty in rural locations outside London (Conrad had long since spent the inheritance he received from his Uncle Tadeusz, who died in 1893).

In the summer of 1914, Conrad took his family of four back to Poland, at precisely the moment when European-wide war broke out.  His son Borys later served in the war.  He was gassed and shell-shocked in the last weeks of the conflict and came home to convalescence.  As an expatriate living in Britain, Conrad became increasingly involved in Polish affairs during the war years and their aftermath.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Conrad sought to protect Poland from what he termed “Russian barbarism” and Germany’s “superficial, grinding civilization” (p.292). He wrote a formal note to the Foreign Office in 1917, advocating “an Anglo-French protectorate” as the “ideal form of moral and material support” (p.297) to defend Poland from its more powerful neighbors.

In April 1923, Conrad arrived in New York for his first visit to the United States, where he was surprised to learn what a celebrity he was. Despite his concerns about American imperial overreach, he enjoyed the visit and appreciated the Americans whom he met.  He died in August 1924 at his home near Canterbury, at a time when the entire family, including his first grandchild, had fortuitously gathered for Bank Holiday weekend.

* * *

               Jasonoff sees many similarities between today’s globalization and the iteration Conrad wrote about.  Ships and sailing remain central to the world’s economy.  Today, “Internet cables run along the seafloor beside the old telegraph wires.  Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists” (p.7-9).   Conrad’s world thus “shimmers beneath the surface of our own” (p.7), she writes.  Conrad’s world may have been  one where cynicism, hypocrisy and cruelty too often prevailed.  But through her formidable use of the tools of the historian, biographer and fiction reader, Jasonoff manages to cast much light on the darkness of that world.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2019

7 Comments

Filed under British History, History, Literature, World History

Searching for Kafka’s Soul in the Courts of Israel

 

Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial:

The Case of a Literary Legacy (W.W. Norton & Co.)

          Franz Kafka is today known for his terrifying vision of faceless bureaucracies and irrational state power.  Some see in Kafka’s most famous works an eerie foreshadow of the totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  The English poet W.H. Auden once remarked that Kafka was to his age what Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe had been to theirs.  But when he died of tuberculosis in 1924, just short of his 41st birthday, Kafka, German-speaking, Jewish and Czech, was a writer of no particular acclaim.  He had yet to complete a single novel and the little he had published had failed to attract significant attention. 

           As he approached death, Kafka instructed Max Brod, his long time friend and literary companion, to burn his remaining papers, including manuscripts, diaries and letters.  This was typical of Kafka, who was plagued with deep-rooted anxiety and feelings of inadequacy throughout his life, feelings that animated his unfinished novels and other works.  Fortunately, Brod ignored Kafka’s directive and not only preserved but also edited significantly the Kafka papers.  Many went on to be published, including The Trial and The Castle, now considered among the 20th century’s most consequential novels.

          Brod, also German-speaking, Jewish and Czech, fled his native Prague with his wife Elsa in 1939 while carrying the Kafka papers in a suitcase, barely a step ahead of the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia.  He wound up in Tel Aviv, where he became a close friend of Ilse Hoffe, another German-speaking Jew from Prague, along with her husband Otto and their two young daughters, Eva and Ruth.  Ilse, who at Brod’s suggestion changed her first name to the Hebrew Esther, became Brod’s personal secretary, albeit without a regular salary.  Rather, Brod, during his lifetime, as a form of compensation bequeathed the Kafka papers still in his possession to Esther as a gift.  After Brod’s death in 1968, Esther in turn bequeathed the papers to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, with the proviso that during her lifetime, she retained the right to publish and sell the papers. 

          When Esther died in 2007 at age 101, Eva and Ruth sought to probate their mother’s will.  But before the court acted on what Eva and Ruth thought would be a routine request, the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem intervened to assert a proprietary interest in the Kafka papers. To further complicate the proceeding, the Literature Archive in Marbach, the German counterpart to the Israeli National Library, also intervened. Each contended that it was the appropriate repository for the papers.  The case continued in Tel Aviv Family Court for five years, after which it progressed through higher levels within the Israeli judicial systems, up to the Israeli Supreme Court.  Not until 2016 did the case become final.

            At the heart of these proceedings was a single, perplexing question: to whom did the Kafka papers belong?  From one angle, the question was narrowly legal, involving Brod’s intent in bequeathing the Kafka papers to Esther as a gift in her lifetime; Esther’s intent in making a subsequent lifetime conveyance to her daughters; and the legal effects of both conveyances (Kafka’s intent was both clear and irrelevant).  These issues will be attractive to present and former law students, familiar with the exercise of teasing the intent of dead people out of complex and ambiguous factual situations.  But the courts also approached the question from a broader angle, one likely to be more engrossing to more readers: with the presence in the litigation of the Israeli National Library and the German Marbach Archive, the courts found themselves with little choice but to embark upon a search for Kafka’s literary soul and determine whether that soul might be considered either Israeli or German.

           Neither the Israeli National Library nor the Marbach Academy presented an overly compelling case that it was the appropriate repository for the Kafka papers.  Kafka never set foot in Palestine, the predecessor to Israel, and Judaism played no evident role in his writings.  Nor was Kafka a German national.  He only wrote in that language, like an American or Australian writing in English, a Belgian or Québécois in French, or a Peruvian or Bolivian in Spanish, but with the hardly insignificant qualification that Germany had both invaded and annexed his native country and was responsible for the deaths of his three sisters and other family members in the Holocaust.

           The fate of  the Kafka papers in the Israeli courts makes for a story that their  deceased author would likely have found suitable for a novel – a story for which the adjective “Kafkaesque” seems unavoidable (“having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality,” according to Merriam-Webster, “often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening”).  Benjamin Balint’s aptly titled Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy tells that story with aplomb, skillfully moving back and forth between the 21st century litigation and its 20th century predicates: Kafka’s own life, his relationship with Brod up to his death, Brod’s efforts to keep the Kafka flame alive before his flight from Prague, and his new life in Tel Aviv with Esther and the Hoffe family. 

          The story involves a three-person chain of custody for the Kafka manuscripts. After having “so vitally linked Brod to his former heyday in Prague,” by the 1950s the manuscripts “began to link Brod with Esther – the currency of their relationship” (p.195).  Then, when Brod, who had been like a second father to Esther’s daughters Eva and Ruth, died in 1968, the manuscripts became a part of the relationship between Esther and her two daughters.  Ruth died during the litigation, in 2012, making Balint’s story as much about Brod, Esther and Eva as it is about Kafka.  But the competing claims of the Israeli National Library and he Marbach Archive highlighted the fraught relationship between Germany and Israel in the aftermath of World War II.  

           These competing claims, Balint writes, “threw into stark relief the very different ways Israel and Germany remain freighted by their ruptured pasts and by the noble lies on which their healing depended” (p.223-24).  Both brought to the judicial proceedings a “concern about their respective national pasts. . . [B]oth sought to use Kafka as a trophy to honor those pasts, as though the writer was an instrument of national prestige” (p.8).  The litigation offered a lesson in “how Germany’s claim on a writer whose family was decimated in the Holocaust is entangled with the country’s postwar attempt to overcome its shameful past,” while reawakening in Israel a long-standing debate about Kafka’s “ambivalence toward Judaism and the prospects of a Jewish state – and about Israel’s ambivalence toward Kafka and toward Diaspora culture” (p.223-24).

* * *

               Max Brod, born in 1884 in Prague, met Kafka when both were students at Charles University in Prague.  Brod, Balint observes, was as exuberant and outgoing as Kafka was inward looking.  With his “joie de vivre, alive with surplus energies,” Brod “radiated a verve, vitality and communion with human life lacking in Kafka” (p.20).  Of a “sunnier temperament, less divided against himself,” Brod appeared  “free of the kind of self-doubt that accompanied Kafka’s pitiless self-scrutiny” (p.20).  Whereas Kafka seemed to care little about worldly success, Brod was “consumed with his own ambition” (p.20).

         During Kafka’s lifetime, Brod was by far the more successful writer, producing poetry, treatises, 20 novels and a variety of “polemical broadsides” (p.25).  Unlike Kafka, Brod was a staunch Zionist whose novels were “suffused with Jews and Jewishness” (p.86).  Early in their relationship, Brod perceived Kafka’s potential literary genius and “obsessively collected anything that Kafka put his hand to.  Kafka, in contrast felt the impulse to shed everything” (p.25-27).  Acknowledging Kafka’s incapacity for self-promotion, Brod “came to serve as his friend’s advocate, herald, and literary agent” (p.28).

         Rather than obey Kafka’s directive that all his papers be burned, Brod in the decade following Kafka’s death in 1924 dedicated himself with a “singular passion to saving the manuscripts and rescuing Kafka from oblivion,” transforming himself into the “greatest posthumous editor of the twentieth century” (p.132).  Brod twice rescued Kafka’s legacy: “first from physical destruction, and then from obscurity” (p.133). The Kafka we know today is almost entirely the creation of Brod.  Without Brod, “there would be no Kafka,” Balint writes. “We cannot help but hear Kafka’s voice through Brod” (p.133).  But without Kafka, he emphasizes, Brod, the “curator of Kafka’s posthumous fame,” would have “long since faded from public memory” (p.135).  

           Not long after he arrived in Tel Aviv, Brod met the Hoffe family, Otto and Ilse (Esther) and their two daughters, Eva and Ruth.  In the early 1940s, Otto and Esther had taken their daughters out of Prague “on a holiday,” as they told them, never to return.  After a stop in Vichy France, the family of four ended up in Tel Aviv.  Brod was then grieving from his wife’s recent death, and became close to the Hoffe couple and their children.  All felt like outsiders in Tel Aviv.  Brod at one point suggested that Esther help him inventory the papers he had carried from Prague in his suitcase.  Esther went on to work regularly at Brod’s apartment, becoming, in Brod’s words, his “creative partner,” “stringent critic,” and “rescuing angel” (p.195). 

* * *

             On two separate occasions, in 1947 and 1952, Brod noted in writing that he had gifted to Esther “all the Kafka manuscripts and letters in my possession” (p.195).  He added in the 1952 note that he and Esther had “jointly” deposited this material in a safe in 1948.  Esther acknowledged the gift by a writing in the margins of the 1952 note.  Brod also executed two wills, in 1948 and 1961, both of which named Esther as his sole heir and executor, bequeathing to her all his possessions. In the 1961 instrument, Brod instructed that after her death his literary estate – not the Kafka papers — should be deposited in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the municipal public library of Tel Aviv, or another public archive in Israel or abroad, with Esther to determine which institution and under what conditions.  Neither instrument mentioned the Kafka papers, indicating that Brod did not consider them part of his estate, having already been gifted to Esther.

          In April 1969, a half year after Brod’s death, Tel Aviv District Court granted probate to Brod’s last will and appointed Esther as executor of his estate.  In 1970, Esther in turn formally bequeathed the Kafka manuscripts to daughters Eva and Ruth as gifts, in equal portions, but retained substantial rights over the papers, including the right to dispose of them as she, Esther, saw fit.  So the matter stood until 1973, when the State of Israel, concerned that Esther might seek to sell Kafka’s manuscripts abroad, sued Esther for possession of the Kafka papers.  

          Under applicable Israeli law, the State’s Archivist was empowered to prevent the removal from Israel of privately owned records that are of “national” value and which, “irrespective of where they are found, are deemed relevant to the study of the nation’s history, its people, the state, and society” (p.200).  The court rejected Israel’s claim, ruling in January 1974 that Brod’s last will “allows Mrs. Hoffe to do with his estate as she pleases during her lifetime” (p.10).   Esther then auctioned off some Kafka letters and postcards in 1974.  In 1988, she put the 316 page original of Kafka’s 1914 draft of The Trial up for auction at Sotheby’s in London.  It sold for £1,000,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript.   The sale precipitated no reaction from Israeli state authorities.

          After Esther’s death at age 101 in 2007, Eva and Ruth went to Tel Aviv Family Court to  seek probate of their mother’s will, which had been executed in 1988.  The will noted that Esther had already given the Kafka manuscripts to her daughters as gifts.  Anticipating a routine proceeding, Eva was stunned when a lawyer for the National Library appeared, contending that Brod’s will had been misconstrued in the 1974 decision (the Library challenged the 1974 ruling under an article of the Israeli succession code that allows an interested party to ask for the amendment of a probate order on the basis of facts that have come to light since the original order, even if the party did not participate in the original proceeding).  The Library argued that Brod had left the papers to Esther as an executor, not as a beneficiary.  Brod intended Esther to have them only in his lifetime; when he died, he intended that they go to a public archive.  The manuscripts were therefore never Esther’s to give, and she could not now pass them on to her daughters — essentially a repeat of the arguments the court had rejected a third of a century earlier.  Esther had betrayed Brod’s will, the lawyer contended, “much as the Brod had betrayed Kafka’s” (p.34).

* * *

         The German Literature Archive in Marbach, the world’s largest archive of modern German literature, is a state-of-the-art facility for cataloging and preserving papers.  It houses the papers of several writers who had been persecuted by the Nazis.  It entered the litigation when it was negotiating with Esther to buy at least some of the papers, hiring a top Israeli lawyer who contended that the proceedings were a pretext for an Israeli seizure of private property.  If Israel were acting in good faith, he argued, it would negotiate with Eva rather than try to expropriate the papers through litigation. 

            In support of its claim to be the natural home of Kafka’s papers, the Marbach Archive reminded the court that German literature, not the Jewish tradition, “indisputably constituted Kafka’s cultural canon” (p.156).  Even Kafka’s austere writing style was “inseparable from – and made possible by – the German language” (p.157).  Kafka wrote in what Balint terms a “merciless German that pares away superfluity and slack” (p.157; Brod once described Kafka’s prose as “fire” which “leaves no soot behind” (p.157)).  Germany’s claim to the papers, moreover, was an outgrowth of the critical role which literature had played in forging German cultural identity.  Long before the birth of the unified German state in 1871, German language and literature acted “not just as a vehicle of communication but as a crucible of national cohesion.”  To a degree unthinkable elsewhere, “literature has played – and continues to play – a consolidating role in helping Germans come to terms with their Volkgeist”  (p.160).

         The Israeli National Library’s attorney argued that there was “something obscene in the argument that the papers ‘belong’ in Germany, the country of the genocidal perpetrators, the country that gave unprecedented mechanized form to man’s inhumanity to man” (p.79).  But the library still had to support its somewhat amorphous contention that Kafka was a “touchstone of ‘Jewish culture’” (p.90).  It was able to point to some affinities to Zionism that Kafka had manifested as a young man, and demonstrate that he was not indifferent to Judaism so much as confounded by it.

         Before World War I, Kafka attended Zionist activities in Prague, as well the 11th World Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913.  He took courses on the Talmud and was able to speak and write in Hebrew.  He once wrote to one of his earliest loves, Felice Bauer (a distant cousin of Brod) about the “dark complexity of Judaism, which contains so many impenetrable mysteries” (p.62).  Among the items that Brod found in Kafka’s papers after his death was an unsent 100-page letter to his father on how Judaism, rather than bringing the two together, had actually driven them further apart.  While we “might have found one another in Judaism,” Kafka was prepared to tell his father, the flimsy vestiges passed along to him were an “insufficient scrap. . . a mere nothing, a joke . . . It all dribbled away while you were passing it on” (p.93).

           But several factors undermined Israel’s cultural claim on Kafka.  In all of Kafka’s fiction, there is “no direct reference to Judaism.  One searches in vain for Jews, or Jewish patterns of speech, in Kafka’s placeless fiction” (p.86).  There was never a Kafka “cult” in Israel comparable to that in Germany, France or the United States.  In marked contrast to Germany, there are no streets in Israel named after Kafka. Israel was one of last countries to translate Kafka into its national language. To this day, there is no Hebrew edition of Kafka’s complete works.  For many years, there were no German language or literature courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Even today, Germany funds these departments.   

            While Kafka’s cool reception in the Jewish state might be explained as a generalized resistance toward German language and literature, associated with Nazi barbarity, the better view for Balint lies in a widespread aversion to Diaspora culture in Israel.  The underpinnings of Kafka’s work — humiliation and powerlessness, anomie and alienation, debilitating guilt and self-condemnation — were the “very pre-occupations Israel’s founding generation sought to overcome” (p.112).  Balint surmises that Kafka exemplified to Israelis the “political impotence and passivity – the pessimism that flows from a sense of one’s powerlessness – that Zionists so vehemently rejected” (p.110-11).

* * *

            It was not until 2012, a half year after Eva’s sister Ruth died, that the Tel Aviv Family Court issued a 59 page opinion, which began by noting that a “simple request filed by the plaintiffs, the daughters of the late Mrs. Esther Hoffe, to execute her will” had “opened a portal onto the lives, desires, frustrations – indeed the souls – of two of the twentieth century’s great sprits” (p.74).  The court’s decision was appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court, where it remained until June 2015.  The Israeli Supreme Court then heard the case and rendered its decision in 2016.

          Among its many ironies, the litigation had exposed a proprietary attitude over the legacy of a writer whom Balint describes as “bound up in the refusal to belong to a fixed abode”  — a writer who “untethered both himself and his writing from the comforting anchors of national or religious belonging” (p. 226-27).  Balint concludes his cogent analysis by noting that although the Israeli judges had reached a verdict in this irony-riddled case, the “symbolic trial over Kafka’s legacy has yet to adjourn” (p.219). 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under German History, Israeli History, Literature

A History of Overcoming Obstacles

 

 

Herb Boyd, Black Detroit:

A People’s History of Self Determination

(Amsted/HarperCollins)

          Detroit, once known as the “automobile capital of the world” and, during World War II, as the “arsenal of democracy,” is today more readily written off as the quintessential urban basket case.  Census figures alone provide a good part of the reason.  From a population that reached nearly 2 million in 1950, by the year 2000, that figure had dropped by almost exactly half, to about 950,000.  This precipitous drop continued into the present century – today, Detroit’s population is estimated to be about 675,000.  But population drop is only one part of a story that can be told from many perspectives.   

             In Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self Determination, journalist, activist, and Detroit native Herb Boyd tells the story from the perspective of the African-Americans who have been part of the city’s building blocks from its earliest days in the early 18th century, when it was a French trading settlement along the straits that link Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, up through the present, as a majority black city.  Boyd describes his book as the first to consider black Detroit “from a long view, in a full historical tableau” (p.14). 

          Through his treatment of 18th and 19th century Detroit, Boyd introduces his readers to numerous African-Americans who have been overlooked or neglected in earlier histories of the city.  Their stories are ones of survival, thriving, and even heroism in the face of the overwhelming odds which racism placed upon 18th and 19th century African-Americans in Detroit and throughout the United States.   But Boyd’s story takes off in the early 20th century, as Detroit’s intimate connection to the American automobile industry took hold, offering unparalleled employment opportunities for Detroit’s African-American community.    

          Over half the book addresses Detroit’s history in the nearly three quarters of a century since the end of World War II, and it is largely a dispiriting story.  After roughly two decades of unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s for Detroit’s working classes, black and white, the city went up in flames in a devastating 5-day riot in July 1967 and has not been the same since.  The riot accelerated the already on-going flight of the city’s white population to the suburbs.  They were joined by many of the businesses that had provided jobs to the city’s working class, black and white, thereby decimating the city’s tax base.  Detroit hit what Boyd considers its nadir in 2013, when it ignominiously filed for bankruptcy, the largest city in the United States to do so. 

          Boyd finds in 21st century Detroit all the indicia of a Third World city, comparing it explicitly to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with its “concentration of poverty compounded by a declining tax base, spreading squalor, inadequate health facilities, and high infant mortality” (p.283).   Since Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, Boyd sees some signs of hope, especially in the revitalization of its downtown and midtown business areas, thanks to the efforts of several creative business entrepreneurs.  But daunting challenges remain, especially in the blighted neighborhoods beyond the city’s inner core.

* * *

            Boyd’s opening chapters emphasize how slavery was a fact of life in Detroit in the 18th century and into the early years of the 19th century.   By the time Michigan became a state in 1837, slavery had largely disappeared from Detroit but the city’s African-American population still faced enormous obstacles in exercising the rights and enjoying the freedoms that white Detroiters took for granted.  In the years before the American Civil War (sometimes called the “War Between the States”), Detroit and neighboring Canada became important end points in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used to escort African-American slaves to freedom.   Boyd details the heroic contributions of many Detroiters to the success of the network, with William Lambert standing out. Lambert was a “phenomenal” conductor on the Underground Railroad, “assuring the safety of runaway slaves during their stay in Detroit and then escorting them to freedom across the river” (p.35).  The general consensus among historians is that some 40,000 men, women and children passed out of bondage through Lambert’s “gentle and caring hands” (p.36).

          Detroit emerged as an industrial center during the last quarter of the 19th century.  Although industrialization provided Detroit’s black workers with increased employment opportunities, most had “little choice but to accept menial jobs as immigrants slowly replaced black workers as longshoremen, coopers (barrel makers), barbers, cooks, teamsters, and doormen.  It made little difference if the newcomers were not fluent in English” (p.54).  As the automobile age dawned during first two decades of the twentieth century, Detroit became a preferred destination for the many African-Americans fleeing the American South, attracted by the opportunities that the burgeoning automobile industry offered.  “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” David Maraniss wrote in Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, reviewed here in November 2016,  “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class.” 

          But Boyd emphasizes how Detroit’s African-Americans had to struggle far more than whites throughout the 20th century to gain a share of this middle-class prosperity.  Among Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, Ford Motor Company “quickly surpassed all other companies in the number of African American employees” (p.94).  Some manufacturers, Dodge in particular, preferred Eastern European immigrants, even those who couldn’t speak English, to native-born African-Americans. The relationship between black Detroiters and the automobile companies could thus not help but be troubled, a “classic black-and-white battle and clearly an unequal one” (p.69).  

          In the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression hit black Detroiters harder than any other ethnic group.  As labor unrest became a fact of life in industrialized Detroit, black workers were often reluctant to participate in strikes against the automobile companies.  Many felt uncertain about the promises made by the emerging United Auto Workers (UAW).  “After all,” Boyd writes, there was a “four-century history of white betrayal to counsel hesitancy and prudent neutrality.   A few blacks even went so far as to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ford’s security forces as they brutally attacked union members, and some joined the legions of strike breakers who dared to cross the picket lines surrounding the plants” (p.133).  

          Many African-American men from Detroit went off willingly to fight World War II and acquitted themselves honorably in combat.  Their absence meant openings for women in the factories, including a dramatically increased number of black women.  But in the middle of World War II, tensions between black and white Detroiters exploded on a sweltering summer Sunday afternoon in June 1943.  A misunderstanding on the city’s recreational playground, Belle Isle, cascaded into an orgy of racial violence that spread across the city and turned into one of the most devastating civil disorders  to that point in American history, which Boyd painstakingly details.  

         The 1943 disorders were far from the first in the city’s history, and underscored how stark racial conflict between blacks and whites constitutes an inescapable part of Detroit’s history.  Other disorders, in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1941, had also scarred the city’s landscape physically and psychologically, with the worst still to come.

* * *

          Although Detroit began losing population sometime in the early 1950s, the two decades following World War II were years of extraordinary prosperity in the city and the United States as a whole.  As Detroit’s automakers met Americans’ seemingly insatiable desire for new cars, a middle class lifestyle became a reality for more and more of the city’s working population, black and white.  In the early 1960s, Detroit was selected as the US nominee in the competition to host the 1968 Olympics.  Although the games were ultimately awarded to Mexico City, the city bested other American competitors for the nomination in no small part because a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector had carefully cultivated an image of the city as a model of racial progress for the nation.   

          Detroit in the early 1960s felt the full force of the Civil Rights Movement.  In June 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led approximately 125,000 people in what was known as the “Walk to Freedom,” in which King delivered a speech that presaged his “I Have A Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington two months later.  Later that year, Malcolm X, who had grown up in nearby Lansing and had lived in Detroit for a while, delivered one of his most noteworthy speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots,” which emphasized community control as the key to black advancement, a notion at the core of what was coming to be known as the Black Power Movement. 

          But the five days of looting, arson and violence in July 1967 permanently shattered Detroit’s image as a bastion of racial progress.  The disorder left 43 dead and 473 injured.  More than 7,200 persons were arrested, with some 2,500 stores vandalized or destroyed.  Overall damage was estimated to be somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.  In the aftermath of the 1967 disorders, Detroit was moving inexorably toward becoming a majority black city. The city elected its first African-American mayor, the cantankerous Coleman Young, in 1974.   Young went on to serve four additional terms as mayor, dominating the city’s political landscape until 1994.  His outsized persona also dominates Boyd’s narrative of the final quarter of Detroit’s 20th century.    

          Young was what an earlier generation of blacks called a “race man,” with a combative, take-no-prisoners style that, as Boyd puts it, was “emblematic of a Detroit toughness, a self-determinative disposition that continues to resonate from those who experienced his furious passage” (p.9).  When first elected mayor, Young “wasn’t naïve about his victory, feeling that the city was his because the whites no longer wanted it” (p.231).  Young forged alliances with key Detroit business leaders, which led to the building of a new sports arena and glittering skyscrapers downtown.  But he was frequently criticized for ignoring the city’s residential neighborhoods, black and white (one scathing critique is Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of Eight Mile Memoir, reviewed here in 2012). 

          Many black middle class Detroiters joined in the exodus out of the city during Young’s rein, while powerful drug-dealing gangs came to dominate more and more neighborhoods and the citywide crime rate increased alarmingly.  One particularly painful reminder of the crime increase occurred in August 1994, when civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was mugged in her home by an intruder and robbed of $103.  “The irony of the attack was inescapable,” Boyd writes.  “Here was a woman who had risked her life to bring an end to a segregated society, an avowed nonviolent opponent of racism and discrimination, now waylaid by one of her own.  It was a horrible moment that circulated around the globe but with a particular resonance of despair in Detroit” (p.280-81). 

          By 2000, black middle class flight from the city exceeded white flight.  Politically, things seemed to go from bad to worse in the new century, as symbolized by the disheartening regime of Mayor Kilwame Kilpatrick.  Elected in 2001 at the age of 30, Kilpatrick appeared to be a young man on the rise, with charisma, oratorical skills and connections to the national Democratic Party elite.  But allegations of multiple forms of corruption hounded him from the very beginning of his term.  The most graphic involved Kilpatrick’s extramarital affair with his chief-of-staff, which Kilpatrick attempted to hide and lied about under oath, forcing his resignation, a guilty plea to several felony charges, and 120 days in jail. 

          Kilpatrick’s fall from grace, Boyd concludes, served as “another reminder of the city’s Third World circumstances”  (p.325).   In Detroit, as in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there was “very little left of a once prosperous manufacturing base, where residents purchase most goods from other countries and seldom own or control the means of production” (p.321-22).  Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy closes out Boyd’s narrative of downward spiral.  

          In recent years, mortgage and financial giant Quicken Loans has taken a lead role in the revitalization of the city’s downtown business district, where it established its headquarters,  accompanied by pledges to help employees find housing nearby.  Shinola, a Detroit manufacturer (not the defunct shoe polish company), produces not only watches, its main product, but also bicycles, leather goods and other items, offering myriad employment opportunities to Detroit residents.  And Boyd even sees cause for optimism in Detroit’s recent election of a white mayor, the first since 1974, who won “because he earned the black vote” (p.338).  But dozens of formerly vibrant residential neighborhoods beyond the downtown and midtown business districts remain severely blighted or nearly uninhabited.   

          Boyd steers away from a “big picture” attempt to dissect and explain Detroit’s precipitous post-World War II fall, a ground many other writers have treaded upon.  “I leave it to the social scientists and economists,” he writes, to “assess the damage, how it got there, and what can be done to restore and sustain the city” (p.338).  But a macro-theory explaining the fall can nonetheless be pieced together from his narrative, consisting most prominently of the following:

  • White racism/white flight: whites over the course of several decades “voted with their feet,” showing that they preferred to live in communities closed to blacks, outside the city limits; scores of businesses followed, decimating the city’s revenue base;

  • The devastating 1967 riot accelerated white flight and set the city on a downward course that, more than a half-century later, has yet to be fully reversed; and

  • Fiscal mismanagement and outright corruption within city government in the years Detroit was seeking to recover from the 1967 disorders, up to the 2013 bankruptcy. 

          Boyd gives less emphasis to changes in the automobile industry.  But Detroit’s famed Big Three automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, were generally outperformed by foreign competition during the 1970s and 1980s, while many of their key facilities left the city for the suburbs and beyond.   Then, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, General Motors and Chrysler themselves filed for bankruptcy.

* * *

           Boyd also elaborates throughout on how black churches served as institutional anchors for the city’s African-American community from Detroit’s earliest days, and he provides rich detail on the dynamic African-American music scene that flourished throughout Detroit’s history.  In the initial decades of the 19th century, prior to the American Civil War, Detroit’s Second Baptist Church became the “social, political, and economic bedrock” where black Detroiters could seek refuge from the ravages of the day.  “Here they could find succor and salvation from the slights of poverty, the insults, and the racism that were so much a part of their daily travails” (p.49).   

          In the 20th century, during the Civil Rights fervor of the early 1960s, the charismatic Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, minister at New Bethel Baptist Church, led the behind-the-scenes organization for the June 1963 Walk to Freedom and served as one of Dr. King’s key Detroit allies.   Franklin competed with the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the Walk and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice and equal opportunity in Detroit.  Cleage, whose church became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, sponsored Malcolm X’s November 1963 speech.

          In the post-Civil War decades, Detroit was awash in marching bands whose styles were subsequently popularized by John Phillip Sousa.  Through the work of Detroit organist, pianist, and composer Harry Guy, Detroit was arguably the birthplace of ragtime music, more frequently associated with Scott Joplin.  In the 20th century, Detroit came to rival such centers as Memphis and New Orleans as centers for the blues.  It was also a hothouse for jazz throughout the 20th century, from the “hot jazz” of the 1920s and 1930s to the “cool jazz” of the 1950s.

          But as the 1950s ended, Detroit’s music scene came to be dominated by marketing genius Berry Gordy, as he put together the popular music empire known officially and affectionately as Motown.  Gordy aimed to promote his Motown sound with white and black listeners alike.  His team included a mind-boggling array of stars (one who eluded him was Reverend Franklin’s daughter Aretha, who recorded instead for the Columbia and Atlantic labels).  He ran his popular music business like an automobile factory, Boyd writes playfully.  “When the song rolled off this assembly line of musicians and arrangers, the finished product was like a new Cadillac” (p.183).  Gordy stung the city psychologically in 1972 when he joined the exodus of businesses out of Detroit, moving his Motown empire to Los Angeles.

* * *

          In this comprehensive account of the African-American contributions to Detroit’s good and not-so-good times, Boyd shines light on a community that has always been “vigorous and resourceful” (p.26), as he puts it at one point, with a glorious tradition of “getting up off the floor [and] coming back” (p.339).  He writes about his native city’s downward spiral with circumspection, providing the details objectively, much like a physician reporting to family members on a seriously ill patient.  But there is more than a wisp of sadness and regret in his account of Detroit’s years of decline.  How could it be otherwise?

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 12, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under American Society, United States History