Category Archives: American Society

Stirring Rise and Crushing Fall of a Renaissance Man

 

 

Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:

In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 21, 2019

 

 

6 Comments

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

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.

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               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

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

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Filed under American Society, United States History

Two Who Embodied That Sweet Soul Music

 

Jonathan Gould, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life 

Tony Fletcher, In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett 

        By 1955, the year I turned 10, I had already been listening to popular music for a couple of years on a small bedside radio my parents had given me. My favorite pop singers were Patti Page and Eddie Fisher, whose soft, staid, melodious songs seemed in tune with the Big Band and swing music of my parents’ generation. The previous year, 1954, a guy named Bill Haley had come out of nowhere onto the popular music scene with “Rock Around the Clock,” which he followed in 1955 with “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Haley’s two hits became the centerpiece of my musical world. They were so different: they moved, they jumped – they rocked and they rolled! – in a way that resembled nothing I had heard from Page, Fisher and their counterparts.

        The term “rock ‘n roll” was already in use in 1955 to describe the new style that Haley’s songs represented. But “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” were not the only hit tunes I listened to that year that seemed light years apart from what I had been familiar with. There was Ray Charles, with “I Got a Woman;” Chuck Berry with “Maybelline;” and, most exotic of all, a man named Richard Penniman, known in the record world as “Little Richard,” rose to fame with a song titled “Tutti Frutti.” What I didn’t realize then was that Charles, Berry and Penniman were African-Americans, whereas Haley was a white guy, and that Charles and his counterparts were bringing their brand of popular music, then officially called “rhythm and blues” (and more colloquially “R & B”) into the popular music mainstream on a massive scale for white listeners like me.  Within a decade after that breakthrough year of 1955, “soul music” had largely supplanted “rhythm and blues” as the term of choice to refer to African-American popular music.

          Also listening to Charles, Berry and Penniman in 1955 were two African-American teenagers from the American South, both born in 1941, both named for their fathers: Otis Redding, Jr., and Wilson Pickett, Jr.  Redding was from Macon, Georgia (as was “Little Richard” Penniman). Pickett was from rural Alabama, but lived a substantial part of his adolescence with his father in Detroit. Each had already shown talent for gospel singing, which was then becoming a familiar pathway for African-Americans into secular rhythm and blues, and thus into the burgeoning world of popular music. A decade later, the two found themselves near the top of a staggering alignment of talent in the popular music world.

          As I look back at the period that began in 1955 and ended around 1970, I now see a golden era of American popular music.  It saw the rise of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, along with oh so many stellar practitioners of that “sweet soul music,” to borrow from the  title of a 1967 hit which Redding helped develop. Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard Penniman may have jump-started the genre in that pivotal year 1955, but plenty of others were soon competing with these pioneers: Sam Cooke, James Brown (another son of Macon, Georgia), Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, the Platters, the Temptations, Clyde McPhatter and later Ben E. King and the Drifters, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were among the most prominent male stars, while Aretha Franklin, Mary Wells, Dionne Warwick, the Marvellettes, the Shirelles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were among the women who left their imprint upon this golden era.

          But if I had to pick two songs that represented the quintessence of that sweet soul music in this golden era, my choices would be Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” two songs that to me still define and embody soul music. Two recent biographies seek to capture the men behind these irresistible voices: Jonathan Gould’s Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, and Tony Fletcher’s In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett.  Despite Redding and Pickett’s professional successes, their stories are both sad, albeit in different ways.

         Gould’s title reminds us that Redding died before the end of the golden age, in a plane crash in Wisconsin in December 1967, at age 26, as his career was soaring.  Pickett in Fletcher’s account had peaked by the end of the 1960s, with his career thereafter going into a steep downward slide. Through alcohol and drugs, Pickett destroyed himself and several people around him. Most tragically, Pickett physically abused the numerous women in his life. Pickett died in January 2006 at age of 64 of a heart attack, most likely brought about at least in part by years of substance abuse.

        Popular music stars are rarely like poets, novelists, even politicians who leave an extensive written record of their thoughts and activities.   The record for most pop music stars consists primarily of their records.  Gould, more handicapped than Fletcher in this regard given Redding’s premature death in 1967, gets around this obstacle by producing a work that is only about one-half Otis Redding biography.  The other half of his work provides a textbook overview of African-American music in the United States and its relationship to the condition of African-Americans in the United States.

        Unlike many of their peers, neither Redding nor Pickett manifested much outward interest in the American Civil Rights movement that was underway as their careers took off and peaked. But the story of African-American singers beginning their careers in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the lucrative world of 1960s pop music cannot be told apart from that movement.  At every phase of his story of Otis Redding, Gould reminds readers what was going on in the quest for African-American equality: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King’s marches, Civil Rights legislation passed under President Lyndon Johnson, and the rise of Malcolm X’s less accommodating message about how to achieve full equality are all part of Gould’s story, as are the day-to-day indignities that African-American performers endured as they advanced their careers.  Fletcher does not ignore this background – no credible biographer of an African-American singer in the ‘50s and ‘60s could – but it is less prominent in his work.

        More than Fletcher, Gould also links African-American music to African-American history.  He treats the role music played for African-Americans in the time of slavery, during Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow era, and into the post-World War II and modern Civil Rights era. Gould’s overview of African-American history through the lens of African-American music alone makes his book worth reading, and may give it particular appeal to readers from outside the United States who know and love American R&B and soul music, but are less familiar with the historical and sociological context in which it emerged.  But both writers provide lively, detailed accounts of the 1950s and 1960s musical scene in which Redding and Pickett rose to prominence.  Just about every soul music practitioner whom I admired in that era makes an appearance in one or both books.  The two books should thus constitute a welcome trip down memory lane for those who still love that sweet soul music.

* * *

        Otis Redding grew up in a home environment far more stable than that of Wilson Pickett.  Otis was the fourth child, after three sisters, born to Otis Sr. and his wife Fannie. Otis Sr. had serious health issues, but worked while he could at Robbins Air Force base, just outside Macon, Georgia.  Although only minimally educated, Otis Sr. and Fannie saw education as the key to a better future for their children.  They were particularly disappointed when Otis Jr. showed little interest in his studies and dropped out of high school at age 15. As an adolescent, Otis Jr. was known as a “big talker and a good talker, someone who could ‘run his mouth’ and hold his own in the endless arguments and verbal contests that constituted a prime form of recreation among people who quite literally didn’t have anything better to talk about” (Gould, p.115; hereafter “G”).

        Wilson Pickett was one of 11 children born into a family of sharecroppers, barely surviving in the rigidly segregated world of rural Alabama.  When Wilson, Jr. was seven, his father took the family to Detroit, Michigan, in search of a better life, and landed a job at Ford Motor Company. But the family came apart during the initial time in Detroit. His mother Lena returned to Alabama, and young Wilson ended up spending time in both places.  Wilson was subject to harsh discipline at home at the hands of both his mother and his father and grew into an irascible young man, quick to anger and frequently involved as an adolescent in physical altercations with classmates and friends.  His irascibility “provoked ever more harsh lashings, and because these still failed to deter him, it created an especially vicious cycle,” Fletcher writes, with the excessive violence Wilson later perpetrated on others representing a “continuation of the way he had been raised” (Fletcher, p.17; hereafter “F”). For a while, Pickett attended Detroit’s Northwestern High School, where future soul singers Mary Wells and Florence Ballard were also students. But Pickett, like Redding, did not finish high school.

         Both married young. Otis married his childhood sweetheart Zelma Atwood at about the time he should have been graduating from high school, when Zelma was pregnant with their second child.  Otis arrived more than an hour late for his wedding. Despite this less-than-promising beginning, he stayed married to Zelma for the remainder of his unfinished life and became a loyal and dedicated father to two additional children. Pickett married his girlfriend Bonnie Covington at age 18, when she too was pregnant. The couple stayed technically married until 1986, but spent little time together. Pickett’s relationships with his numerous additional female partners throughout his adult life all ended badly.

        Pickett discovered his singing talent through gospel music both in church in rural Alabama and on the streets of Detroit.  In the rigidly segregated South, Fletcher explains, the African-American church provided schooling, charity and community, along with an opportunity to listen to and participate in music.  Gospel was often the only music that young African-Americans in the 1940s and early 1950s were exposed to. “No surprise, then, that for a young Wilson Pickett, gospel music became everything” (F., p.18).  Similarly, it was “all but inevitable that Otis Redding would chose to focus his early musical energies on gospel singing” (G., p.62) at the Baptist Church in Macon which his parents attended.

       Redding gained attention as a 16-year old for his credible imitations of Little Richard. Soon after, he was able to replicate fluently the major R & B songs of the late 1950s. Through a neighborhood friend, Johnny Jenkins, a skilled guitarist, Redding joined a group called the Pinetoppers which played at local African American clubs – dubbed the “Chitlin’ circuit” – and earned money playing at all white fraternity parties at Mercer University in Macon and the University of Georgia.  Redding also spent a short time in Los Angeles visiting relatives, where he fell under the spell of Sam Cooke. Pickett started singing professionally in Detroit with a group known as the Falcons, which also featured Eddie Floyd, who would later go on to record “Knock on Wood,” a popular hit of the mid-60s.  Pickett’s first solo recording came in 1962, “If You Need Me.”

          Redding and Pickett in these two accounts had little direct interaction, and although they looked upon one another as rivals as their careers took off, each appears to have had a high degree of respect for the other. But each had a contract with Atlantic Records, and their careers thus followed closely parallel tracks.  Based in New York, Atlantic signed and marketed some of the most prominent R & B singers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin (whose charms were felt by both Redding and Pickett), along with several leading jazz artists and a handful of white singers. By the mid-1960s, Atlantic and its Detroit rival, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, dominated the R & B sector of American popular music.

       Both men’s careers benefitted from the creative marketing of Jerry Wexler, who joined Atlantic in 1953 after working for Billboard Magazine (where he had coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace “race music” as a category for African American music). Atlantic and Wexler cultivated licensing arrangements with smaller recording companies where both Redding and Pickett recorded, including Stax in Memphis, Tennessee, and Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Redding and Pickett’s relationships with Wexler at Atlantic, and with a colorful cast of characters at Stax and Fame, play a prominent part in the two biographies.

          But the most affecting business relationship in the two books is that which Redding established with Phil Walden, his primary manger and promoter during his entire career. Walden, a white boy from Macon the same age as Redding, loved popular music of all types and developed a particular interest in the burgeoning rhythm and blues style.  Phil initially booked Otis to sing at fraternity parties at all-white Mercer University in Macon, where he was a student, and somehow the two young men from different worlds within the same hometown bonded. Gould uses the improbable Redding-Walden relationship to illustrate how complex black-white relationships could be in the segregated South, and how the two young men navigated these complexities to their mutual benefit.

       In 1965, Pickett produced his first hit, “In the Midnight Hour,” “perhaps the song most emblematic of the whole southern soul era” (F., p.74). The song appealed to the same white audiences that were listening the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the other British invasion bands. It was “probably the first southern soul recording to have such an effect on such a young white audience,” Fletcher writes, “yet it was every bit an authentic rhythm and blues record too, the rare kind of single that appealed to everyone without compromising” (F., p.76).

         Pickett had had three major hits the following year, 1966: “634-5789,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally.” The first two rose to #1 on the R & B charts.  Although “634-5789” was in Fletcher’s terms a “blatant rip-off” of the Marvellettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and the “closest Pickett would ever come to sounding like part of Motown” (F., p.80), it surpassed “In the Midnight Hour” in sales. In 1968, Pickett turned the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” into his own hit. He also made an eye-opening trip to the newly independent African nation of Ghana, as part of a “Soul to Soul” group that included Ike and Tina Turner and Roberta Flack.  Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” worked the 100,000 plus crowd into a frenzy, Fletcher recounts. Pickett was the “ticket that everyone wanted to see” (F., p.169) and his performance in Ghana may have marked his career’s high point (although the tour included an embarassing low point when Pickett and Ike Turner got into a fight over dressing room priorities).

          “Dock of the Bay,” the song most closely identified with Otis Redding, was released in 1968, and became the only posthumous number one hit in American music history.  At the time of his death in late 1967, Redding had firmly established his reputation with a remarkable string of hits characterized by powerful emotion and depth of voice: “Try a Little Tenderness,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Pain in My Heart,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Like Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” a Beatles’ hit, Redding also “covered,” to use the music industry term, the Rolling Stones’ signature hit, “Satisfaction,” with his own idiosyncratic version.  Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” and Redding’s “Satisfaction,” the two authors note, deftly reversed a trend in popular music, in which for years white singers had freely appropriated African-American singers’ work.

         Gould begins his book with what proved to be the high water mark of Redding’s career, his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. There, he mesmerized the mostly white audience – “footloose college students, college dropouts, teenaged runaways, and ‘flower children’” (G., p.1) – with an electrifying five-song performance, “song for song and note for note, the greatest performance of his career” (G., p.412).  The audience, which had come to hear the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, rewarded Redding with an uninterrupted 10 minute standing ovation.

          After Monterey, Redding developed throat problems that required surgery.  During his recuperation, he developed “Dock of the Bay.” Gould sees affinities in the song to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Otis was seeking a new form of musical identity, Gould contends, becoming more philosophical and introspective, “shedding his usual persona of self-assurance and self-assertion in order to convey the uncertainty and ambivalence of life as it is actually lived”(G. p.447).

          Redding’s premature death, Gould writes, “inspired an outpouring of publicity that far exceeded the sum of what was written about him during his life” (G., p.444). Both writers quote Jerry Wexler’s eulogy: Otis was a “natural prince . . . When you were with him he communicated love and a tremendous faith in human possibility, a promise that great and happy events were coming” (G., p.438; F., p.126). There is a tinge of envy in Fletcher’s observation that Otis’ musical reputation remained “untarnished – preserved at its peak by his early death” (F., p.126).

          Pickett’s story is quite the opposite.  Although he had a couple of mid-level hits in the 1970s, Pickett’s life entered into its own long, slow but steady demise in the years following Redding’s death.  Pickett drank excessively while becoming a regular cocaine consumer during these years. His father had struggled with alcohol, and Pickett exhibited all the signs of severe alcoholism, including heavy morning drinking. Fletcher describes painful instances of domestic violence perpetrated against each of the women with whom Pickett lived.  He was the subject of numerous civil complaints and served some jail time for domestic violence offenses.  Of course, Redding might have gone into a decline as abrupt as that of Pickett had he lived longer; his career might have plateaued and edged into mediocrity, like Pickett’s; and his personal life might have become as messy as Pickett’s.  We’ll never know.

* * *

          Pickett was far from the only star whose best songs were behind him as the 1970s dawned.  Elvis comes immediately to mind, but the same could be said of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Barry Gordy moved his Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, where it never recaptured the spark it had enjoyed . . . in Motown.   By 1970, a harder form of rock, intertwined with the psychedelic drug culture, was in competition with that sweet soul music. The 1960s may have been a turbulent decade but the popular music trends that began in 1955 and culminated in that decade were, as Gould aptly puts it, “graced by the talents of an incomparable generation of African-American singers” (G., p.465). The  biographies of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett take us deeply into those times and its unsurpassed music. It was fun while it lasted.

Thomas H. Peebles

Marseille, France

February 26, 2018

P.S. For an audio trip down memory lane, please click these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTVjnBo96Ug

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGVGFfj7POA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp3JOzcpBds

 

 

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Filed under American Society, Biography, Music, United States History

Using Space to Achieve Control

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto:

The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea 

            In 1516, Venice’s ruling authorities, concerned about an influx into the city of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, created an official Jewish quarter. They termed the quarter “ghetto” because it was situated on a Venetian island that was known for its copper foundry, geto in Venetian dialect. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Rome’s Jews into a similarly enclosed section of the city also referred to as the “ghetto.” Gradually, the term began to be applied to distinctly Jewish residential areas across Europe. After World War II in the United States, the term took on a life of its own, applied to African-American communities in cities in the urban North. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines the origins and usages of the word “ghetto.”

            The major portion of Duneir’s book explores how the word influenced selected post World War II thinkers in their analyses of discrimination against African-Americans in urban America. While there were a few instances pre-dating World War II of the use of the term ghetto to describe African-American neighborhoods in the United States, it was Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe that gave impetus to this use of the term. By the 1960s, the use of the word ghetto to refer African-American neighborhoods had become commonplace. Today, Duneier writes, the idea of the black ghetto in the United States is “synonymous in the social sciences and public policy discussions with such phrases as ‘segregated housing patterns’ and ‘residential racial segregation’” (p.220).

          Duneier wants us to understand the urban ghetto in the United States as a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks” (p.xii).  It is not the result of a natural sorting or Darwinian selection; it is not an illustration of the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” He discourages any attempt to apply the term to, for example, poor whites, Hispanics or Chinese. The notion of a ghetto, he argues, becomes a “less meaningful concept if it is watered down to simply designate a black neighborhood that varies in degree (but not in kind) from white and ethnic neighborhoods of the city.  .  . Extending the definition to other minority groups . . . carries the cost of obscuring the specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks” (p.224). Duneier shows how, in the decades since World War II, theorists have emphasized different types of external controls over African-American communities: restrictive racial covenants in real estate contracts in the 1940s, precluding the sale of properties to African-Americans; the rise of educational and social welfare bureaucracies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and, more recently, police and prison control of African-American males resulting from the war on drugs.  But Duneier’s  story, tracing the idea of a ghetto, starts in Europe.

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            In medieval times, Jews in French, English and German speaking lands lived in “semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help” (p.4). But Jewish quarters were “almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century” (p.5). Jews were always free to come and go and were, in varying degrees, part of the community-at-large. This changed with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with many migrating to Italy.  Following the designation of the ghetto in Venice in 1516, Pope Paul IV gave impetus to the rise of separate and unequal Jewish quarters when he issued an infamous Papal Bull in 1555, “Cum nimis absurdum.” In that instrument, the Pope mandated that all Rome’s Jews should live “solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three [places] or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians” (p,8).  After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, Duneier writes, suddenly Rome’s Jews were forcibly relocated to a small strip of land near the Tiber, “packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river” (p.8).

          This pattern prevailed across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with Jews living in predominantly Jewish quarters in most major cities, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory.  “Isolation in space” (p.7) became part of what it meant to be Jewish.  Napoleon’s war of conquest in Italy in 1797 led to the liberation of Jewish ghettos in Venice, Rome and across the Italian peninsula.  In the 19th century, ghettos began to disappear across Europe. Yet, Rome remained stubbornly resistant. When Napoleon retreated from Italy in 1814, Pope Pius VI almost immediately reinstated the Roman ghetto, sending the Jews back into the “same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries” (p.12). A product of papal authority, the Roman ghetto was formally and officially abolished with Italian unification in 1870. Thus, Rome’s Jews, among the first in Europe to be confined to a ghetto, “became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country” (p.12).

          Duneier perceives a benign aspect to confinement of Jews in traditional ghettos.  The ghetto was a “comfort zone” for often-thriving Jewish communities, a designated area where Jews were required to live but could exercise their faith freely, in a section of the city where they would not face opprobrium from fellow citizens. Jewish communities possessed “internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions” (p.11). In Venice and throughout Europe, the ghetto represented a “compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled [Jewish] presence in the city” (p.7). The traditional European ghetto was thus “always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom” (p.10).

      In the early 20th century, the word ghetto came to refer to high-density neighborhoods inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews. In the United States, the word frequently denoted neighborhoods inhabited not by African-Americans but by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they gave ominous new meanings to the word ghetto. Privately, Hitler used the word to compare areas of enforced Jewish habitation to zoos, enclosed areas where, as he put it, Jews could “behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals” (p.14). Publicly, and more politely, Hitler argued that confined Jewish quarters under the Nazis simply replicated the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews in 19th century Rome.

          But ghettos controlled by the Nazis were more frequently like prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire walls. The Nazi ghetto was a place established with the “express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality” (p.22), a place where the state exercised the “firmest control over its subjects’ lives” (p.220). The Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, Duneier concludes, “transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency” (p.22).

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       The fight in World War II against Hitler and Nazi tyranny, in which African-Americans participated in large numbers, understandably had the effect of highlighting the pervasive discrimination that African-Americans faced in the United States. The modern Civil Rights movement came into being in the years following World War II, focused primarily on the Southern United States and its distinctive system of rigid racial separation know as “Jim Crow.” A less visible battle took place in Northern cities, where attention focused on discrimination in employment, education and housing. A small group of sociologists, centered at the University of Chicago, emphasized how African-Americans in nearly all cities in the urban North were confined to distinct neighborhoods characterized by sub-standard housing, neighborhoods that came to be referred to as ghettos.

       Framing the debate in post-war America was the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote what is now considered the classic analysis of discrimination in the United States, “An American Dilemma.”  Myrdal’s work, based on research conducted during World War II and published in 1944, took on a high level of importance in post-war America.  Myrdal’s research focused principally on the Jim Crow South, where three-fourths of America’s black population then lived.  But Myrdal also advanced what may seem in retrospect like a naïve if idealistic view of Northern racial segregation: it was due primarily to the practice of inserting restrictive covenants into real estate sales contracts, forbidding the selling of property to minorities (along with African-Americans, Jews and Chinese were other groups often excluded by such covenants). Restrictive covenants directed against African-Americans had a component of racial purity that was uncomfortably similar to Nazi practices, most frequently excluding persons with a single great-grandparent of black ancestry. Such clauses, Myrdal argued, were contrary to the basic American creed of equality.  Once white citizens were made aware of the contradiction, they would cease the practice of inserting such restrictions into real estate contracts, and housing patterns would desegregate.

        Myrdal himself rarely used the term ghetto and his treatment of the urban North was “perfunctory by any standard” (p.58). His main contribution was to view Northern segregation not as a natural occurrence, but as a “phenomenon of the majority’s power over a minority population” (p.63). Myrdal’s notion of majority white control over African-American communities influenced the views of two younger African-American sociologists from the University of Chicago, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In 1945, Cayton and Drake published Black Metropolis, a work that focused on discrimination in Chicago and the urban North but failed to gain the attention that Myrdal’s work had received. Duneier indicates that Myrdal’s analysis of the urban North suffered because he was unable to work out an arrangement with Cayton to use the younger scholar’s copious notes of interviews and firsthand observations of conditions in Chicago’s African-American communities.  

         Cayton and Drake sought to “systematically explain the situation of blacks who had recently moved from the rural South to the urban North” (p.233). They were among the first to use the word ghetto frequently as a description of African-American communities in the North.  The word was for them a “metaphor for both segregation and Caucasian purity in the Nazi era” (p.71-72): blacks who sought to leave, they wrote, encountered the “invisible barbed wire fence of restrictive covenants” (p.72; Duneier’s emphasis). Cayton and Drake considered black confinement to black neighborhoods as permanent and officially sanctioned, unlike Hispanic or Chinese neighborhoods, giving African-American neighborhoods their ghetto-like quality.  For Cayton and Drake, therefore, ghetto was a term used to highlight the differences between African-American communities and other poor neighborhoods throughout the city.

         Echoing the interpretations of traditional European Jewish ghettos discussed above, Cayton and Drake emphasized the “more pleasant aspects of black life that were symbolic of an authentic black identity” (p.69). They argued that racial separation had created a refuge for blacks in a racist world and that blacks had no particular interest in mingling with white people, “having accommodated themselves over time to a dense and separate institutional life – ‘an intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations, ordered by a system of social classes’ – in their own black communities. This life so absorbed them as to make participation in interracial activities feel superfluous” (p.69). Today, Black Metropolis remains a “major inspiration for efforts to understand racial inequality, due to its focus on Northern racism, physical space, and the consequences of racial segregation” (p.79).

            Another protégé of Myrdal, renowned Columbia University sociologist Kenneth Clark, emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s the extent to which external controls of black neighborhoods – absentee landlords and business owners, and school, welfare and public housing bureaucracies – produced a “powerless colony” (p.91). Clark’s 1965 work, Dark Ghetto, which Duneier considers the most important work on the African-American condition in the urban North since Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis two decades earlier, argued that the black ghetto was a product of the larger society’s successful “institutionalization of powerlessness” (p.114). Clark looked at segregated residential patterns as just one of several interlocking factors that together produced in ghetto residents a sense of helplessness and suspicion. Others included discrimination in the work place and unequal educational opportunities. Clark thus saw urban ghettos as reenforcing  “vicious cycles occurring within a powerless social, economic, political, and educational landscape” (p.137). Together, theses cycles led to what Clark termed a “tangle of pathologies.”

       For Clark, the traditional Jewish European ghetto bore little resemblance to American realities. Rigid housing segregation was “more meaningfully a North American invention, a manner of existence that had little in common with anything that had come before in Europe or even in the U.S. South” (p.114).  More than any other thinker in Duneier’s study, Clark provided the term ghetto with a distinctly American meaning.  In the 1980s and 1990s, African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson rethought much of the received wisdom that had come from or through Myrdal and Clark.

            Wilson took into account the out-migration of African Americans from inner cities that had begun to gather momentum in the 1970s.  In understanding the plight of those left behind, Wilson argued that class had become a more significant factor than race. African-Americans were dividing into two major classes: a middle class, a “black bourgeoisie,” more and more often living outside the urban core – outside the ghetto – in outlying areas of the city, or in the suburbs, not uncommonly in mixed black-white neighborhoods. The black ghetto remained, concentrating and isolating the least skilled, least educated and least fortunate African-Americans, a “black underclass.”  In contrast to the African-American communities Cayton and Drake had described in the 1940s, those left behind in the 1970s and 1980s saw far fewer black role models they could emulate. A new form of American ghetto had emerged by 1980, Wilson argued, “characterized by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Unlike in previous eras, middle-class and lower-class blacks were having very different life experiences in the 1980s” (p.234).

        Wilson further posited that any neighborhood with 40 percent poverty should be termed a ghetto, thereby blurring the distinction between poor black and poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods.  Assistance program that target poor communities generally, Wilson theorized, were more likely to be approved and implemented than programs targeting only African-American communities.  For the first time since the term ghetto had become part of the analysis of Northern housing patterns in the early post-World War II era, the term was now used without reference to either race or power. With Wilson’s analysis, Duneier contends, the history of the idea of a ghetto in Europe and America “no longer seemed relevant” (p.184).

         Duneier devotes a full chapter to Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic community activist rather than a theorist and scholar. In the 1990s and early 21st century, Canada came to see early education as the key to improving the quality of life in African American neighborhoods – in black ghettos – thereby increasing the range of work and living opportunities for African American youth.  Canada was one of the first to characterize the federal crackdown on drug crime as a tragic mistake, producing alarming rates of black incarceration.  As a result, the country was spending “far more money on prisons than on education” (p.198).

        Two white theorists,  Patrick Moynihan and Oscar Lewis, also figure in Duneier’s analysis. Moynihan, an advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and later Senator from New York, described the black ghetto in terms of broken families. The relatively large number of illegitimate births and a matriarchal family structure in African-American communities, Moynihan argued, held back both black men and women.  Lewis, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois, advanced the notion of a “culture of poverty,” contending that poverty produces a distinct and debilitating mindset that was remarkably similar throughout the world, in advanced and developing countries, in urban and rural areas alike.

         In a final chapter, Duneier summarizes where his key thinkers have led us in our current conception of the term ghetto in the United States. “By the 1960s, an uplifting portrait of the black ghetto became harder to draw. Ever since, those left behind in the black ghetto have had a qualitatively different existence” (p.219). The word now signifies “restriction and impoverishment in a delimited residential space. This emphasis highlights the important point that today’s residential patterns did not come about ‘naturally’; they were promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive” (p.220).

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         Duneier has synthesized some of the most important sociological thinking of the post World War II era on discrimination against African Americans, producing a fascinating, useful and timely work.  But Duneier does not spoon feed. The basis for his hypothesis that the links between the traditional Jewish European ghetto and the black American ghetto have gradually faded is not readily gleaned from the text. Similarly, how theorists used the term ghetto in their analyzes of racial discrimination against African Americans seems at times a minor subtheme, overwhelmed by his treatment of the analyzes themselves.  Duneier’s important work thus requires – and merits — a careful reading.

          Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D. C.

July 27, 2017

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under American Society, European History, United States History

Can’t Forget the Motor City

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David Maraniss, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story

     In 1960, Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, America’s undisputed center of manufacturing, and its fifth most populous city, with that year’s census tallying 1.67 million people. Fifty years later, the city had lost nearly a million people; its population had dropped to 677,000 and it ranked 21st in population among America’s cities in the 2010 census. Then, in 2013, the city reinforced its image as an urban basket case by ignominiously filing for bankruptcy. In Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, David Maraniss, a native Detroiter of my generation and a highly skilled journalist whose previous works include books on Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, focuses upon Detroit before its precipitous fall, an 18-month period from late 1962 to early 1964.   This was the city’s golden moment, Maraniss writes, when Detroit “seemed to be glowing with promise. . . a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things” (p.xii-xiii; in March 2012, I reviewed here two books on post World War II Detroit, under the title “Tales of Two Cities”).

      Detroit produced more cars in this 18 month period than Americans produced babies.  Barry Gordy Jr.’s popular music empire, known officially and affectionately as “Motown,” was selling a new, upbeat pop music sound across the nation and around the world.  Further, at a time when civil rights for African-Americans had become America’s most morally compelling issue, race relations in a city then about one-third black appeared to be as good as anywhere in the United States. With a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector dedicated to racial harmony and justice, Detroit sought to present itself as a model for the nation in securing opportunity for all its citizens.

     Maraniss begins his 18-month chronicle with dual events on the same day in November 1962: the burning of an iconic Detroit area memorial to the automobile industry, the Ford Rotunda, a “quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity and consumerism” (p.1-2); and, later that afternoon, a police raid on the Gotham Hotel, once the “cultural and social epicenter of black Detroit” (p.10), but by then considered to be a den of illicit gambling controlled by organized crime groups.  He ends with President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark address in May 1964 on the campus of nearby University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Johnson outlined his grandiose vision of the Great Society.  Johnson chose Ann Arbor as the venue to deliver this address in large measure because of its proximity to Detroit. No place seemed “more important to his mission than Detroit,” Maraniss writes, a “great city that honored labor, built cars, made music, promoted civil rights, and helped lift working people into the middle class” (p.360).

     Maraniss’ chronicle unfolds between these bookend events, revolving around on what had attracted President Johnson to the Detroit area in May 1964: building cars, making music, promoting civil rights, and lifting working people into the middle class. He skillfully weaves these strands into an affectionate, deeply researched yet easy-to-read portrait of Detroit during this 18-month golden period.  But Maraniss  does not ignore the fissures, visible to those perceptive enough to recognize them, which would lead to Detroit’s later unraveling.  Detroit may have found the right formula for bringing a middle class life style to working class Americans, black and white alike. But already Detroit was losing population as its white working class was taking advantage of newfound prosperity to leave the city for nearby suburbs.  Moreover, many in Detroit’s black community found the city to be anything but a model of racial harmony.

* * *

     An advertising executive described Detroit in 1963 as “intensely an automobile community – everybody lives, breathes, and sleeps automobiles. It’s like a feudal city ” (p.111). Maraniss’ inside account of Detroit’s automobile industry focuses principally upon the remarkable relationship between Ford Motor Company’s chief executive, Henry Ford II (sometimes referred to as “HF2” or “the Deuce”) and the head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, during this 18 month golden age (Manariss accords far less attention to the other two members of Detroit’s “Big Three,” General Motors and Chrysler, or to the upstart American Motors Corporation, whose chief executive, George Romney, was elected governor in November 1962 as a Republican). Ford and Reuther could not have been more different.

     Ford, from Detroit’s most famous industrial family, was a graduate of Hotchkiss School and Yale University who had been called home from military service during World War II to run the family business when his father Edsel Ford, then company president, died in 1943. Maraniss mischievously describes the Deuce as having a “touch of the peasant, with his manicured nails and beer gut and . . . frat-boy party demeanor” (p.28). Yet, Ford earnestly sought to modernize a company that he thought had grown too stodgy.  And, early in his tenure, he had famously said, “Labor unions are here to stay” (p.212).

      Reuther was a graduate of the “school of hard knocks,” the son of German immigrants whose father had worked in the West Virginia coalmines.   Reuther himself had worked his way up the automobile assembly line hierarchy to head its powerful union. George Romney once called Reuther the “most dangerous man in Detroit” (p.136). But Reuther prided himself on “pragmatic progressivism over purity, getting things done over making noise. . . [He was] not Marxist but Rooseveltian – in his case meaning as much Eleanor as Franklin” (p.136). Reuther believed that big government was necessary to solve big problems. During the Cold War, he won the support of Democratic presidents by “steering international trade unionists away from communism” (p.138).

     A quarter of a century after the infamous confrontation between Reuther and goons recruited by the Deuce’s grandfather Henry Ford to oppose unionization in the automobile industry — an altercation in which Reuther was seriously injured — the younger Ford’s partnership with Reuther blossomed. Rather than bitter and violent confrontation, the odd couple worked together to lift huge swaths of Detroit’s blue-collar auto workers into the middle class – arguably Detroit’s most significant contribution to American society in the second half of the 20th century. “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” Maraniss writes, “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class . . . Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, two giants of the mid-twentieth century, were essential to that result” (p.212).

      Reuther was aware that, despite higher wages and improved benefits, life on the assembly lines remained “tedious and soul sapping if not dehumanizing and dangerous” for autoworkers (p.215). He therefore consistently supported improving leisure time for workers outside the factory.  Music was one longstanding outlet for Detroiters, including its autoworkers. The city’s rich history of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues musicians gave Detroit an “unmatched creative melody” (p.100), Maraniss observes.   By the early 1960s, Detroit’s musical tradition had become identified with the work of Motown founder, mastermind and chief executive, Berry Gordy Jr.

     Gordy was an ambitious man of “inimitable skills and imagination . . . in assessing talent and figuring out how to make it shine” (p.100).  Gordy aimed to market his Motown sound to white and black listeners alike, transcending the racial confines of the traditional rhythm and blues market. He set up what Maraniss terms a “musical assembly line” that “nurtured freedom through discipline” (p.195) for his many talented performers. The songs which Gordy wrote and championed captured the spirit of working class life: “clear story lines, basic and universal music for all people, focusing on love and heartbreak, work and play, joy and pain” (p.53).

     Gordy’s team included a mind-boggling array of established stars: Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and his Miracles, Martha Reeves and her Mandelas, Diana Ross and her Supremes, and the twelve-year-old prodigy, Little Stevie Wonder.  Among Gordy’s rising future stars were the Temptations and the Four Tops. The Motown team was never more talented than in the summer of 1963, Maraniss contends. Ten Motown singles rose to Billboard’s Top 10 that year, and eight more to the Top 20.  Wonder, who dropped “Little” before his name in 1963, saw his “Fingertips Part 2” rocket up the charts to No. 1.  Martha and the Vandellas made their mark with “Heat Wave,” a song with “irrepressibly joyous momentum” (p.197).  But the title could have referred equally to the rising intensity of the nationwide quest for racial justice and civil rights for African-Americans that summer.

      In June 1963, nine weeks before the 1963 March on Washington, Maraniss reminds us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the outlines of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the end of a huge Detroit “Walk to Freedom” rally that took place almost exactly 20 years after a devastating racial confrontation between blacks and whites in wartime Detroit. The Walk drew an estimated 100,000 marchers, including a significant if limited number of whites. What King said that June 1963 afternoon, Maraniss writes, was “virtually lost to history, overwhelmed by what was to come, but the first time King dreamed his dream at a large public gathering, he dreamed it in Detroit” (p.182). Concerns about disorderly conduct and violence preceded both the Detroit Walk to Freedom and the March on Washington two months later. Yet, the two  events were for all practical purposes free of violence.  Just as the March on Washington energized King’s non-violent quest for Civil Rights nation-wide, the Walk to Freedom buoyed Detroit’s claim to be a model of racial justice in the urban north.

      In the Walk for Freedom and in the nationwide quest for racial justice, Walter Reuther was an unsung hero. Under Reuther’s leadership, the UAW made an “unequivocal moral and financial commitment to civil rights action and legislation” (p.126).   Once John Kennedy assumed the presidency, Reuther consistently pressed the administration to move on civil rights.  The White House in turn relied on Reuther to serve as a liaison to black civil rights leaders, especially to Dr. King and his southern desegregation campaign. The UAW functioned as what Maraniss  terms the “bank” (p.140) of the Civil Right movement, providing needed funding at critical junctures. To be sure, Maraniss emphasizes, not all rank-and-file UAW members shared Reuther’s passionate commitment to the Walk for Freedom, the March on Washington, or to the cause of civil rights for African-Americans.

     Even within Detroit’s black community, not all leaders supported the Walk for Freedom. Maraniss  provides a close look at the struggle between the Reverend C.L. Franklin and the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the March for Freedom and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice in Detroit. Reverend Franklin, Detroit’s “flashiest and most entertaining preacher” (p.12; also the father of singer Aretha, who somehow escaped Gordy’s clutches to perform for Columbia Records and later Atlantic), was King’s closest ally in Detroit’s black community. Cleage, whose church later became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, was not wedded to Dr. King’s brand of non-violence. Cleage sought to limit the influence of Reuther, the UAW and whites generally in the Walk for Freedom. Franklin was able to retain the upper hand in setting the terms and conditions for the June 1963 rally.  But the dispute between Reverends Franklin and Cleage reflected the more fundamental difference between black nationalism and Martin Luther King style integration, and was thus an “early formulation of a dispute that would persist throughout the decade” (p.232),

     In November of 1963, Cleage sponsored a conference that featured black nationalist Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots,” an important if less well known counterpoint to King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in August of that year.  In tone and substance, Malcolm’s address “marked a break from the past and laid out a path for the black power movement to follow from then on” (p.279). Malcolm referred in his speech to the highly publicized police killing of prostitute Cynthia Scott the previous summer, which had generated outrage throughout Detroit’s black community and exacerbated long simmering tensions between the community and a police force that was more than 95% white.

     Scott’s killing “discombobulated the dynamics of race in the city. Any communal black and white sensibility resulting from the June 23 [Walk to Freedom] rally had dissipated, and the prevailing feeling was again us versus them” (p.229).  The tension between police and community did not abate when Police Commissioner George Edwards, a long standing liberal who enjoyed strong support within the black community, considered the Scott case carefully and ruled that the shooting was “regrettable and unwise . . . but by the standards of the law it was justified” (p.199).

      Then there was the contentious issue of a proposed Open Housing ordinance that would have forbidden property owners from refusing to sell their property on the basis of race. The proposed ordinance required passage from the city’s nine person City Council, elected at large in a city that was one-third black – no one on the council represented directly the city’s black neighborhoods. The proposal was similar in intent to future national legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and had the enthusiastic support of Detroit’s progressive Mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh, a youthful Irish Catholic who deliberately cast himself as a mid-western John Kennedy.

      But the proposal evoked bitter opposition from white homeowner associations across the city, revealing the racial fissures within Detroit. “On one side were white homeowner groups who said they were fighting on behalf of individual rights and the sanctity and safety of their neighborhoods. On the other side were African American churches and social groups, white and black religious leaders, and the Detroit Commission on Community Relations, which had been established . . . to try to bridge the racial divide in the city” (p.242).   Notwithstanding the support of the Mayor and leaders like Reuther and Reverend Franklin, white homeowner opposition doomed the proposed ordinance. The City Council rejected the proposal 7-2, a stinging rebuke to the city’s self-image as a model of racial progress and harmony.

       Detroit’s failed bid for the 1968 Olympics was an equally stinging rebuke to the self-image of a city that loved sports as much as music. Detroit bested more glamorous Los Angeles for the right to represent the United States in international competition for the games. A delegation of city leaders, including Governor Romney and Mayor Cavanaugh, traveled to Baden Baden, Germany, where they made a well-received presentation to the International Olympic Committee. While Detroit was making its presentation, the Committee received a letter from an African American resident of Detroit who alluded to the Scott case and the failed Open Housing Ordinance to argue against awarding the games to the city on the ground that fair play “has not become a living part of Detroit” (p.262). Although bookmakers had made Detroit a 2-1 favorite for the 1968 games, the Committee awarded them to Mexico City. Its selection was based largely upon what Maraniss considers Cold War considerations, with Soviet bloc countries voting against Detroit. The delegation dismissed the view that the letter to the Committee might have undermined Detroit’s bid, but its actual effect on the Committee’s decision remains undetermined.

         Maraniss asks whether Detroit might have been able to better contain or even ward off the devastating 1967 riots had it been awarded the 1968 Olympic games. “Unanswerable, but worth pondering” is his response (p.271). In explaining the demise of Detroit, many, myself included, start with the 1967 riots which in a few short but violent days destroyed large swaths of the city, obliterating once solid neighborhoods and accelerating white flight to the suburbs.  But Maraniss emphasizes that white flight was already well underway long before the 1967 disorders. The city’s population had dropped from just under 1.9 million in the 1950 census to 1.67 million in 1960. In January of 1963, Wayne State University demographers published “The Population Revolution in Detroit,” a study which foresaw an even more precipitous emigration of Detroit’s working class in the decades ahead. The Wayne State demographers “predicted a dire future long before it became popular to attribute Detroit’s fall to a grab bag of Rust Belt infirmities, from high labor costs to harsh weather, and before the city staggered from more blows of municipal corruption and incompetence. Before any of that, the forces of deterioration were already set in motion” (p..91). Only a minor story in January 1963, the findings and projections of the Wayne State study in retrospect were of “startling importance and haunting prescience” (p.89).

* * *

      My high school classmates are likely to find Maraniss’ book a nostalgic trip down memory lane: his 18 month period begins with our senior year in a suburban Detroit high school and ends with our freshman college year — our own time of soaring youthful dreams, however unrealistic. But for those readers lacking a direct connection to the book’s time and place, and particularly for those who may still think of Detroit only as an urban basket case, Maraniss provides a useful reminder that it was not always thus.  He nails the point in a powerful sentence: “The automobile, music, labor, civil rights, the middle class – so much of what defines our society and culture can be traced to Detroit, either made there or tested there or strengthened there” (p.xii).  To this, he could have added, borrowing from Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit, “Dancing in the Streets,” that America can’t afford to forget the Motor City.

 

                   Thomas H. Peebles

Berlin, Germany

October 28, 2016

11 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History

Blithe Optimist

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Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge:

The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

     Rick Perlstein has spent his career studying American conservatism in the second half of the 20th century and its capture of the modern Republican Party. His first major work, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was an incisive and entertaining study of Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican Party nomination for the presidency and his landslide loss that year to President Lyndon Johnson. He followed with Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a description of the nation at the time of Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory over Senator George McGovern  — a nation divided by a cultural war between “mutually recriminating cultural sophisticates on the one hand and the plain, earnest ‘Silent Majority’ on the other” (p.xix). Now, in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Perlstein dives into American politics between 1973 and 1976, beginning with Nixon’s second term and ending with the failed bid of the book’s central character, Ronald Reagan, for  the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination.

     The years 1973 to 1976 included the Watergate affair that ended the Nixon presidency in 1974; the ultra-divisive issue of America’s engagement in Vietnam, which ended in an American withdrawal from that conflict in 1975; and the aftershocks from the cultural transformations often referred to as “the Sixties.” It was a time, Perlstein writes, when America “suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history” (p.xiii). 1976 was also the bi-centennial year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which the nation approached with trepidation. Many feared, as Perlstein puts it, that celebration of the nation’s 200 year anniversary would serve the “malign ideological purpose of dissuading a nation from a desperately needed reckoning with the sins of its past” (p.712).

     Perlstein begins by quoting advice Nikita Khrushchev purportedly provided to Richard Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Perlstein does not return to Khrushchev’s advice and, as I ploughed through his book, I realized that I had not grasped how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into his lengthy (804 pages!) narrative. More on that below. There’s no mystery, however, about Perlstein’s sub-title “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”

     About one third of the book addresses Nixon’s fall in the Watergate affair and another third recounts Reagan’s rise to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination, including the year’s presidential primaries and the maneuvering of the Ford and Reagan presidential campaigns at the Republican National Convention that summer. The remaining third consists of biographical background on Reagan and his evolution from a New Deal liberal to a conservative Republican; an examination of the forces that were at work in the early 1970s to mobilize conservatives after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 defeat; and Perlstein’s efforts to describe the American cultural landscape in the 1970s and capture the national mood, through a dazzling litany of vignettes and anecdotes. At times, it seems that Perlstein has seen every film that came to theatres in the first half of the decade; watched every television program from the era; and read every small and mid-size town newspaper.

     Perlstein describes his work as a “sort of biography of Ronald Reagan – of Ronald Reagan, rescuer” (p.xv) — rescuer, presumably, of the American psyche from the cultural convulsions of the Sixties and the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam that had shaken America’s confidence to the core. Perlstein considers Reagan to have been a gifted politician who exuded a “blithe optimism in the face of what others called chaos” (p.xvi), with an uncanny ability to simplify complex questions, often through stories that could be described as homespun or hokey, depending upon one’s perspective. Reagan was an “athlete of the imagination,” Perlstein writes, who was “simply awesome” at “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty” (p.48). This power was a key to “what made others feel so good in his presence, what made them so eager and willing to follow him – what made him a leader. But it was why, simultaneously, he was such a controversial leader” (p.xv).   Many regarded Reagan’s blithe optimism as the work of a “phony and a hustler” (p.xv). At bottom, Reagan was a divider and not a uniter, Perlstein argues, and “understanding the precise ways that opinions about him divided Americans . . . better helps us to understand our political order of battle today: how Americans divide themselves from one another” (p.xvi).

* * *

     In a series of biographical digressions, Perlstein demonstrates how Reagan’s blithe mid-western optimism served as the foundation for a long conversion to political conservatism.  Perlstein begins with Reagan’s upbringing in Illinois, his education at Illinois’ Eureka College, and his early years as a sportscaster in Iowa. Reagan left the mid-west in 1937 for Hollywood and a career in films, arriving in California as a “hemophiliac, bleeding heart liberal” (p.339). But, during his Hollywood years, Reagan came to see Communist Party infiltration of the film industry as a menace to the industry’s existence. He was convinced that Communist actors and producers had mastered the subtle art of making the free enterprise system look bad and thereby were undermining the American way of life.   Reagan became an informant for the FBI on the extent of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, a “warrior in a struggle of good versus evil – a battle for the soul of the world” (p.358), as Perlstein puts it. Reagan further came to resent the extent of taxation and viewed the IRS as a public enemy second only to Communists.

     Yet, Reagan remained a liberal Democrat through the 1940s. In 1948, he worked for President Truman’s re-election and introduced Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey to a national radio audience. In 1952, Reagan supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s bid for the presidency. His journey toward the conservative end of the spectrum was probably completed when he became host in 1954 of General Electric’s “GE Theatre,” a mainstay of early American television. One of America’s corporate giants, GE’s self-image was of a family that functioned in frictionless harmony, with the interests of labor and management miraculously aligned. GE episodes, Perlstein writes, were the “perfect expression” of the 1950s faith that nothing “need ever remain in friction in the nation God had ordained to benevolently bestride the world” (p.395). Reagan and his blithe optimism proved to be a perfect fit with GE Theatre’s mission of promoting its brand of Americanism, based on low taxes, unchallenged managerial control, and freedom from government regulatory interference.

     In the 1960 presidential campaign, Reagan depicted the progressive reforms which Democratic nominee John Kennedy advocated as being inspired by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, noted Reagan’s evolution and directed his staff to use Reagan as a speaker “whenever possible. He used to be a liberal” (p.374). By 1964, Reagan had become a highly visible backer of Barry Goldwater’s presidential quest, delivering a memorable speech in support of the candidate at the Republican National Convention. Reagan went on to be elected twice as governor of California, in 1967 and 1971.

     While governor, Reagan consistently argued for less government.  Our highest national priority, he contended at a national governors’ conference in 1973, should be to “halt the trend toward bigger, more expensive government at all levels before it is too late . . . We as citizens will either master government as our servant or ultimately it will master us” (p.160). Almost alone among conservatives, Reagan projected an image of a “pleasant man who understands why people are angry” (p.604), as one commentator put it. He gained fame if not notoriety during his tenure as governor for his hard line opposition to student protesters, particularly at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, attracting scores of working class Democrats who had never previously voted for a Republican. “Part of what made Berkeley [student unrest] such a powerful issue for traditionally Democratic voters was class resentment – something Ronald Reagan understood in his bones” (p.83).

     Early in Reagan’s second term as California’s governor, on June 17, 1972, four burglars were caught attempting to break into the Democratic national headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office and apartment complex. Throughout the ensuing investigation, Reagan seemed indifferent to what Time Magazine termed “probably the most pervasive instance of top-level misconduct in [American] history” (p.77).

* * *

     Watergate to Reagan was part of the usual atmosphere of campaigning, not much more than a prank.  Upon first learning about the break-in, he quipped that the Democrats should be happy that someone considered their documents worth reading. Throughout the investigation into corruption that implicated the White House, Reagan maintained a stubborn “Christian charity to a a fallen political comrade” (p.249). The individuals involved, he argued, were “not criminals at heart” (p.81). He told conservative commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that he found “no evidence of criminal activity” in Watergate, which was why Nixon’s detractors were training their fire on “vague areas like morality and so forth” (p.249-50). Alone among political leaders, Reagan insisted that Watergate “said nothing important about the American character” (p.xiv).

     Thus, few were surprised when Reagan supported President Gerald Ford’s widely unpopular presidential pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed related to Watergate, issued one month after Nixon’s resignation. Nixon had already suffered “punishment beyond anything any of us could imagine” (p.271), Reagan argued. Ford’s pardon of Nixon dissipated the high level of support that he had enjoyed since assuming the presidency, sending his public approval ratings from near record highs to near new lows. Democrats gained a nearly 2-1 advantage in the House of Representatives in the 1974 mid-term elections and Reagan’s party “seemed near to death” (p.329).

     As Ford’s popularity waned, Reagan saw an opportunity to challenge the sitting president. He announced his candidacy in November 1975. Reagan said he was running against what he termed a “buddy system” in Washington, an incestuous network of legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists which:

functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker, who supports it with his taxes. . . I don’t believe for one moment that four more years of business as usual in Washington is the answer to our problems, and I don’t believe the American people believe it, either (p.547).

With Reagan’s bid for the 1976 Republican nomination, Perlstein’s narrative reaches its climatic conclusion.

* * *

     The New York Times dismissed the presidential bid as an “amusing but frivolous Reagan fantasy” and wondered how Reagan could be “taken so seriously by the news media” (p.546). Harper’s termed Reagan the “Candidate from Disneyland” (p.602), labeling him “Nixon without the savvy or self pity. . . That he should be regarded as a serious candidate for President is a shame and embarrassment” (p.602). Commentator Garry Wills responded to Reagan’s charge that the media was treating him unfairly by conceding that it was indeed “unfair to expect accuracy or depth” from Reagan (p.602). But, as Perlstein points out, these comments revealed “more about their authors than they did about the candidate and his political prospects” (p.602), reflecting what he terms elsewhere the “myopia of pundits, who so frequently fail to notice the very cultural ground shifting beneath their feet” (p.xv).

     1976 proved to be the last year either party determined its nominee at the convention itself, rather than in advance. Reagan went into the convention in Kansas City as the most serious threat to an incumbent president since Theodore Roosevelt had challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican Party nomination in 1912. His support in the primaries and at the convention benefitted from a conservative movement that had come together to nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a committed “army that could lose a battle, suck it up, and then regroup to fight a thousand battles more” (p.451) — “long memoried elephants” (p.308), Perlstein terms them elsewhere.

     In the years since the Goldwater nomination, evangelical Christians had become more political, moving from the margins to the mainstream of the conservative movement. Evangelical Christians were behind an effort to have America declared officially a “Christian nation.” Judicially-imposed busing of school students to achieve greater racial balance in public schools precipitated a torrent of opposition in cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky – the Boston opposition organization was known as ROAR, Restore our Alienated Rights. Perlstein also traces the conservative reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. The 1976 Republican party platform for the first time recommended a Human Rights amendment to the constitution to reverse the decision.

     Activist Phyllis Schlafly, who died just weeks ago, led a movement to derail the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, intended to establish gender equality as a constitutional mandate. Schafly’s efforts contributed to stopping the proposed amendment at a time when approval of only three additional states would have officially adopted the amendment as part of the federal constitution (“Don’t Let Satan Have Its Way – Stop the ERA” was the opposition slogan, as well as Perlstein’s title for a chapter on the subject). Internationally, conservatives opposed the Ford administration’s intention to relinquish to Panama control of the Panama Canal; and the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union which both the Nixon and Ford administrations pursued.

     Enabling the long-memoried elephants was Richard Viguerie, a little known master of new technologies for fund-raising and grass roots get-out-the-vote campaigns. Conservative opinion writers like Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon White House Communications Director, and George Will also enjoyed expanded newspaper coverage. A fledgling conservative think tank based in Washington, the Heritage Foundation, became a repository for combining conservative thinking and action. The Heritage Foundation assisted a campaign in West Virginia to purge school textbooks of “secular humanism.”

     With the contest for delegates nearly even as the convention approached, Reagan needed the support of conservatives for causes like these. But Reagan also realized that limited support from centrist delegates could prove to be his margin of difference. In a bid to attract such delegates, especially from the crucial Pennsylvania delegation, Reagan promised in advance of the convention to name Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate. Schweiker came from the moderate wing of the party, with a high rating from the AFL-CIO. But the move backfired, infuriating conservatives — North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in particular — with few moderate delegates switching to Reagan.   Then, Reagan’s supporters proposed a change to the convention’s rules that would have required Ford to announce his running mate prior to the presidential balloting, forcing Ford to anger either the moderate or conservative faction of the party. Ford supporters rejected the proposal, which lost on the full floor after a close vote.

     The 150 delegates of the Mississippi delegation proved to be crucial in determining the outcome of the convention’s balloting. When the Mississippi delegation cast its lot with Ford, the president had a sufficient number of delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, 1187 votes to 1070 for Reagan. Ford selected Kansas Senator Robert Dole as his running mate, after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom conservatives detested, announced the previous fall that he did not wish to be a candidate for Vice President. Anxious to achieve party unity, Ford invited Reagan to join him on the platform following his acceptance speech. Reagan gave an eloquent impromptu speech that many thought overshadowed Ford’s own acceptance address.

* * *

     Perlstein includes a short, epilogue-like summation to the climatic Kansas City convention: Ford went on to lose to Democratic governor from Georgia Jimmy Carter in a close 1976 general election and Reagan emerged as the undisputed leader of his party’s conservative wing. But as the book ended, I found myself still asking how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into this saga. My best guess is that the notion is tied to Perlstein’s description of Reagan as a “rescuer.”  Reagan’s failed presidential campaign was a journey across a great divide – over an invisible bridge.

     On the one side were Watergate, the Vietnam War, repercussions from the Sixties and, for conservatives, Goldwater’s humiliating 1964 defeat. On the other side was the promise of an unsullied way forward.  Reagan’s soothing cult of optimism offered Americans a message that could allow them to again view themselves and their country positively.  There were no sins that Reagan’s America need atone for. Usually dour and gloomy conservatives — Perlstein’s “long memoried elephants” — also saw in Reagan’s buoyant   message the discernible path to power that had eluded them in 1964.. But, as Perlstein will likely underscore in a subsequent volume, many still doubted whether the blithe optimist had the temperament or the intellect to be president, while others suspected that his upbeat brand of conservatism could no more be sold to the country-at-large than the Goldwater brand in 1964.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 2, 2016

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography

Becoming FLOTUS

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Peter Slevin, Michelle Obama: A Life 

             In Michelle Obama: A Life, Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent presently teaching at Northwestern University, explores the improbable story of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, now Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (a position known affectionately in government memos as “FLOTUS”). Slevin’s sympathetic yet probing biography shows how Michelle’s life was and still is shaped by the blue collar, working class environment of Chicago’s South Side, where she was born and raised. Michelle’s life in many ways is a microcosm of 20th century African-American experience. Michelle’s ancestors were slaves, and her grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” of the first half of the 20th century that sent millions of African-Americans from the rigidly segregated south to northern urban centers in search of a better life.  Michelle was born in 1964, during the high point of the American civil rights movement, and is thus part of the generation that grew up after that movement had widened the opportunities available to African Americans.

            The first half of the book treats Michelle’s early life as a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and her experiences as an African-American at two of America’s ultra-elite institutions, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.  The centerpiece of this half is the loving environment that Michelle’s parents, Fraser Robinson III and his wife Marian Shields Robinson, created for Michelle and her older brother Craig, born two years earlier in 1962.  The Robinson family emphasized the primacy of education as the key to a better future, along with hard work and discipline, dedication to family, regular church attendance, and community service.

            Michelle’s post-Harvard professional and personal lives form the book’s second half. Early in her professional career, Michelle met a young man from Hawaii with an exotic background and equally exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama. Slevin provides an endearing account of their courtship and marriage (their initial date is also the subject of a recent movie “Southside With You”). Once Barack enters the scene, however, the story becomes as much about his entry and dizzying rise in politics as it is about Michelle, and thus likely to be familiar to many readers.

            But in this half of the book, we also learn about Michelle’s career in Chicago; how she balanced her professional obligations with her parental responsibilities; her misgivings about the political course Barack seemed intent upon pursuing; her at first reluctant, then full throated support for Barack’s long-shot bid for the presidency; and how she elected to utilize the platform which the White House provided to her as the FLOTUS.  Throughout, we see how Michelle retained the values of her South Side upbringing.

* * *

        Slevin provides an incisive description of 20th century Chicago, beginning in the 1920s, when Michelle’s grandparents migrated from the rural south.  He emphasizes the barriers that African Americans experienced, limiting where they could live and work, their educational opportunities, and more. Michelle’s father Fraser, after serving in the U.S. army, worked in a Chicago water filtration plant up to his death in 1991 from multiple sclerosis at age 55. Marian, still living (‘the First Grandmother”), was mainly a “stay-at-home Mom.”  In a city that “recognized them first and foremost as black,” Fraser and Marian refused to utilize the oppressive shackles of racism as an excuse for themselves or their children.  The Robinson parents “saw it as their mission to provide strength, wisdom, and a measure of insulation to Michelle and Craig” (p.26). Their message to their children was that no matter what obstacles they faced because of their race or their working class roots, “life’s possibilities were unbounded. Fulfillment of those possibilities was up to them. No excuses” (p.47).

     The South Side neighborhood where Michelle and Craig were raised, although part of Chicago’s rigidly segregated housing patterns, offered a stable and secure environment, with well-kept if modest homes and strong neighborhood schools. The neighborhood and the Robinson household provided Michelle and Craig with what Craig later termed the “Shangri-La of upbringings” (p.33).  Fraser and Marian both regretted deeply that they were not college graduates. The couple consequently placed an unusually high premium on education for their children, adopting a savvy approach which parents today would be wise to emulate.

      Learning to read and write  for the two Robinson children was a means toward the even more important goal of learning to think. Fraser and Marian advised their children to “use their heads, yet not to be afraid to make mistakes – in each case learning from what goes wrong” (p.46).  We told them, Marian recounted, “Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow even us to say just anything to you” (p.47). Fraser and Marian granted their children freedom to explore, test ideas and make their own decisions, but always within a framework that emphasized “hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. There were obligations and occasional punishment. But the goal was free thinking” (p.46).

       Both Robinson children were good students, but with diametrically opposite study methods. Michelle was methodical and obsessive, putting in long hours, while Craig largely coasted to good grades. Michelle went to Princeton in part because Craig was already a student there, but she did so with misgivings and concerns that she might not be up to its high standards. Prior to Princeton, Craig and Michelle had had little exposure to whites. If they experienced animosity in their early years, Slevin writes, it was “likely from African American kids who heard their good grammar, saw their classroom diligence, and accused them of ‘trying to sound white’” (p.49). At Princeton, however, a school which “telegraphed privilege” (p.71), Michelle began a serious contemplation of what it meant to be an African-American in a society where whites held most of the levers of power.

       As an undergraduate between 1982 and 1986, Michelle came to see a separate black culture existing apart from white culture. Black culture had its own music, language, and history which, as she wrote in a college term paper, should be attributed to the “injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experience of any other race of people through this country’s history” (p.91). Michelle observed that black public officials must persuade the white community that they are “above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people” (p.91-92). Slevin notes that Michelle’s description “strikingly foreshadowed a challenge that she and her husband would face twenty two years later as they aimed for the White House” (p.91). Michelle’s college experience was a vindication of the framework Fraser and Marian had created that allowed Michelle to flourish. At Princeton, Michelle learned that the girl from blue collar Chicago could “play in the big leagues” (p.94), as Slevin puts it.

            In the fall of 1986, Michelle entered Harvard Law School, another “lofty perch, every bit as privileged as Princeton, but certainly more competitive once classes began” (p.95). In law school, she was active in an effort to bring more African American professors to a faculty that was made up almost exclusively of white males. She worked for the Legal Aid Society, providing services to low income individuals. When she graduated from law school in 1989, she returned to Chicago – it doesn’t seem that she ever considered other locations. But, notwithstanding her activist leanings as a student, she chose to work as an associate in one of Chicago’s most prestigious corporate law firms, Sidley and Austin.

       Although located only a few miles from the South Side neighborhood where Michelle had grown up, Sidley and Austin was a world apart, another bastion of privilege, with some of America’s best known and most powerful businesses as its clients. The firm offered Michelle the opportunity to sharpen her legal skills, particularly in intellectual property protection and, at least equally importantly, pay off some of her student loans. But, like many idealistic young law graduates, she did not find work in a corporate law firm satisfying and left after two years.

        Michelle landed a job with the City of Chicago as an assistant to Valerie Jarret, then the City of Chicago’s Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development, who later became a valued White House advisor to President Obama. Michelle’s position was more operational than legal, serving as a “trouble shooter” with a discretionary budget that could be utilized to advance city programs at the neighborhood level on subjects as varied as business development, infant mortality, mobile immunization, and after school programs. But working for the City of Chicago was nothing if not political, and Michelle left after 18 months to take a position in 1993 at the University of Chicago, located on Chicago’s South Side, not far from where she grew up.

    Although still another of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, the University of Chicago had always seemed like hostile territory to Michelle, incongrous with its surrounding low and middle-income neighborhoods. But Michelle landed a position with a university program, Public Alliance, designed to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities. Notwithstanding her lack of warm feelings for the university, the position was an excellent fit.  It afforded Michelle the opportunity to try her hand at bridging some of the gaps between the university and its less privileged neighbors.

          After nine years  with Public Allies, Michelle took a position in 2002 with the University of Chicago Hospital, again involved in public outreach, focused on the way the hospital could better serve the medical needs of the surrounding community. This position, Slevin notes, brought home to Michelle the massive inequalities within the American health care system, divided between the haves with affordable insurance and the have nots without it.  Michelle stayed in this position until early 2008, when she left to work on her husband’s long shot bid for the presidency. In her positions with the city and the university, Michelle developed a demanding leadership style for her staffs that she brought to the White House: result-oriented, given to micro-management, and sometimes “blistering” (p.330) to staff members whose performance fell short in her eyes.

* * *

       While working at Sidley and Austin, Michelle interviewed the young man from Hawaii, then in his first year at Harvard Law School, for a summer associate position. Michelle in Slevin’s account found the young man “very charming” and “handsome,” and sensed that, as she stated subsequently, he “liked my dry sense of humor and my sarcasm” (p.121). But if there was mutual attraction, it was the attraction of opposites. Barack Obama was still trying to figure out where his roots lay. Michelle Robinson, quite obviously, never had to address that question. Slevin notes that the contrast could “hardly have been greater” between Barack’s “untethered life and the world of the Robinson and Shields clans, so numerous and so firmly anchored in Chicago. He felt embraced and it surprised him” (p.128; Barack’s untethered life figures prominently in Janny Scott’s biography of Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, reviewed here in July 2012).  For Barack, meeting the Robinson family for the first time was, as he later wrote, like “dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver” (p.127).  The couple married in 1992.

        Barack served three 2-year terms in the Illinois Senate, from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives, losing in a landslide. He had his breakthrough moment in 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential candidate, invited him to deliver a now famous keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention.  Later that year, he won  a vacant seat in the United States Senate  by a landslide when his Republican opponent had to drop out due to a sex scandal.  In early 2007, he decided to run for the presidency.

       Michelle’s mistrust of politics was “deeply rooted and would linger long into Barack’s political career” (p.161), Slevin notes.  Her distrust was at the root of discernible frictions within their marriage, especially after their daughters were born — Malia in 1998 and Sasha in 2001. Barack’s political campaigning and professional obligations kept him away from home much of the time, to Michelle’s dismay. Michelle felt that she had accomplished more professionally than Barack, and was also saddled with parental duties in his absence. “It sometimes bothered her that Barack’s career always took priority over hers. Like many professional women of her age and station, Michelle was struggling with balance and a partner who was less involved – and less evolved – than she had expected” (p.180-81).

        Michelle was, to put it mildly, skeptical when her husband told her in 2006 that he was considering running for the presidency. She worried about further losing her own identity, giving up her career for four years, maybe eight, and living with the real possibility that her husband could be assassinated. Yet, once it became apparent that Barack was serious about such a run and had reached the “no turning back” point, Michelle was all in.  She became a passionate, fully committed member of Barack’s election team, a strategic partner who was “not shy about speaking up when she believed the Obama campaign was falling short” (p.219).

         With Barack’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Michelle became what Slevin terms the “unlikeliest first lady in modern history” (p.4). The projects and messages she chose to advance as FLOTUS “reflected a hard-won determination to help working class and the disadvantaged, to unstack the deck. She was more urban and more mindful of inequality than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” (p.5). Michelle reached out to children in the less favored communities in Washington, mostly African American, and thereafter to poor children around the world. She also concentrated on issues of obesity, physical fitness and nutrition, famously launching a White House organic vegetable garden. She developed programs to support the wives of American military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women struggling to “keep a toehold in the middle class” (p.293).

        In Barack’s second term, she adopted a new mission, called Reach Higher, which aimed to push disadvantaged teenagers toward college. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Michelle tried valiantly to provide her two daughters with as close to a normal childhood as life in the White House bubble might permit. Slevin’s account stops just prior to the 2014 Congressional elections, when the Republicans gained control of the United States Senate, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the prior mid-term elections in 2010.

       Slevin does not overlook the incessant Republican and conservative critics of Michelle. She appeared to many whites in the 2008 campaign as an “angry black woman,” which Slevin dismisses as a “simplistic and pernicious stereotype” (p.236). Right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh began calling her “Moochelle,” much to the delight of his listening audience. The moniker conjured images of a fat cow or a leech – synonymous with the term “moocher” which Ayn Rand used in her novels to describe those who “supposedly lived off the hard work of the producers” (p.316) — all the while slyly associating Michelle with “big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole” (p.315).  Vitriol such as this, Slevin cautiously concludes, “could be traced to racism and sexism or, at a charitable minimum, a lack of familiarity with a black woman as accomplished and outspoken as Michelle” (p.286). In addition, criticism emerged from the political left, which “viewed Michelle positively but asked why, given her education, her experience, and her extraordinary platform, she did not speak or act more directly on a host of progressive issues, whether abortion rights, gender inequity, or the structural obstacles facing the urban poor” (p.286).

* * *

       Slevin’s book is not hagiography. As a conscientious biographer whose credibility is directly connected to his objectivity, Slevin undoubtedly looked long and hard for the Michelle’s weak points and less endearing qualities. He did not come up with much, unless you consider being a strong, focused woman a negative quality. There is no real dark side to Michelle Obama in Slevin’s account, no apparent skeletons in any of her closets. Rather, the unlikely FLOTUS depicted here continues to reflect the values she acquired while growing up in Fraser and Marian Robinson’s remarkable South Side household.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 17, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography, Gender Issues, Politics, United States History

Changing the Definition of Literature in the Eyes of the Law

Joyce.1

Joyce.2

Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book:
The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

      James Joyce’s enigmatic masterpiece novel Ulysses was first published in book form in France in 1922. Portions of the novel had by then already appeared as magazine excerpts in the United States and Great Britain. The previous year, a court in the United States had declared several such excerpts obscene, and British authorities  followed suit in 1923. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham describes the furor which the novel provoked and the scheming that was required to bring the novel to readers.

     Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, characterizes his work as the “biography of a book” (p.2). Its core is the twofold story of the many benefactors who aided Joyce in maneuvering around publication obstacles; and of the evolution of legal standards for judging literature claimed to be obscene. Birmingham also provides much insight into Joyce the author, his view of art, and the World War I era literary world in which he operated. The book, Birmingham’s first, further serves as a useful introduction to Ulysses itself for those readers, myself emphatically included, who have not yet garnered the courage to tackle Joyce’s masterpiece.

     Ulysses depicted a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. On the surface, the novel follows three central characters, Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly Bloom. But Ulysses is also a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, with the three main characters serving as modern versions of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Peering into the 20th century through what Birmingham terms the “cracked looking glass of antiquity” (p.54), Joyce sought to capture both the erotic pleasures and intense pains of the human body; fornication and masturbation, defecation and disease were all part of the human experience that Joyce sought to convey. He even termed his work an “epic of the human body” (p.14).

     Treating sexuality in a more forthright manner than what public authorities in the United States and Great Britain were willing to countenance — sex at the time “just wasn’t something a legitimate novelist portrayed” (p.64) — Ulysses was deemed a threat to public morality, and was subject to censorship, confiscation and book burning spectacles. But the charges levied against Ulysses were about “more than the right to publish sexually explicit material” (p.6), Birmingham contends. They also involved a clash between two rising forces, modern print culture and modern governmental regulatory power, and were thus part of a larger struggle between state authority and individual freedom that intensified in the early twentieth century, “when more people began to challenge governmental control over whatever speech the state considered harmful” (p.6).

     There is a meandering quality to much of Birmingham’s narrative, which shifts back and forth between Joyce himself, his literary friends and supporters, and those who challenged Ulysses in the name of public morality. At times, it is difficult to tie these threads together. But the book regains its footing in a final section describing the definitive trial and landmark 1934 judicial ruling, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses, which held that the novel was not obscene. The decision constituted the last significant hurdle for Joyce’s book, after which it circulated freely to readers in the United States and elsewhere.  In his section on this case, Birmingham’s central point comes into full focus:  Ulysses changed not only the course of literature but also the “very definition of literature in the eyes of the law” (p.2).

* * *

     James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, educated at Catholic schools and University College, Dublin. As a boy, Joyce and his family moved so frequently within Dublin that Joyce could plausibly claim to know almost all the city’s neighborhoods.  But Joyce spent little of his professional career in Dublin. Sometime in 1903 or 1904, Joyce met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from rural Galway then working in a Dublin hotel. Barnacle followed Joyce across Europe, bore their children, inspired his literary talent, and eventually became his wife. Joyce and Barnacle lived for several years in the Italian port city of Trieste, then in Zurich and Rome. But the two are best known for their time in Paris, where Joyce became one of the most renowned expatriate writers of the so-called Lost Generation. In 1914, Joyce published his first book, Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories. Two years later, he completed his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While not a major commercial success, the book caught the attention of the American poet, Ezra Pound, then living in London. During this time, Joyce also began writing Ulysses.

      The single day depicted in the novel, June 16, 1904, was the day that Joyce and Barnacle first met. Although there may have been single-day novels before Ulysses, “no one thought of a day as an epic. Joyce was planning to turn a single day into a recursive unit of dazzling complexity in which the circadian part was simultaneously the epochal whole. A June day in Dublin would be a fractal of Western civilization” (p.55). The idea of Homeric correspondences and embedding references to the Odyssey into early 20th century Dublin may seem “indulgent,” Birmingham writes, yet Joyce executed it “so subtly that the novel can become a scavenger hunt for pedants . . . Some allusions are so obscure that their pleasure seems to reside in their remaining hidden” (p.130-31).

     In the early 20th century, censors sought to ban obscene works in part to protect the sensibilities of women and children, especially in large urban centers like London and New York. It is thus ironic that strong and forward- minded women are central to Birmingham’s story, standing behind Joyce and assuming the considerable risks which the effort to publish Ulysses entailed. The first two, Americans Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were co-publishers of an avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, an “unlikely product of Wall Street money and Greenwich Village bohemia” (p.7-8), and one of several small, “do-it-yourself” magazines which Birmingham describes as “outposts of modernism” (p.71). From London, Erza Pound linked Joyce to Anderson and Heap, and The Little Review began to publish Ulysses in 1918 in serial form.

      In 1921, New York postal authorities sought to confiscate portions of Ulysses published in The Little Review under the authority of the Comstock Act, an 1873 statute that made it a crime, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to utilize the United States mail to distribute or advertise obscene, lewd or lascivious materials. The Comstock Act adopted the “Hicklin rule” for determining obscenity, a definition from an 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin: “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (p.168).

     The Hicklin rule’s emphasis upon “tendency” to deprave and corrupt defined obscenity by a work’s potential effects on “society’s most susceptible readers – anyone with a mind ‘open’ to ‘immoral influences.’ . . . Lecherous readers and excitable teenage daughters could deprave and corrupt the most sophisticated literary intent” (p.168). The Hicklin rule further permitted judges to look at individual words or passages without considering their place in the work as a whole and without considering the work’s artistic or literary value. Finding that portions of Ulysses under review were obscene under the Hicklin rule, a New York court sentenced Anderson and Heap to 10 days in prison or $100 fines. The Post Office sent seized copies of The Little Review to the Salvation Army, “where fallen women in reform programs were instructed to tear them apart” (p.197). The court’s decision served as a ban on publication and distribution of Ulysses in the United States for another 10 years.

     The court’s decision also highlighted the paradoxical role of the Post Office in the early 20th century. Although the postal service “made it possible for avant-garde texts to circulate cheaply and openly to wherever their kindred readers lived,” it was also the institution that could “inspect, seize and burn those texts” (p.7). Moreover, government suppression of sexually explicit material in the United States during and immediately after World War I shaded into its efforts to stamp out political radicalism. Ulysses encountered obstacles to publication in the United States not so much because “vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists” (p.109).

     Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Harriet Shaw Weaver, a “prim London spinster” (p.12) published Ulysses in serial form in a similarly obscure London publication, The Egoist, also supported by Erza Pound. After Leonard and Virginia Woolf refused to publish Ulysses in Britain, Weaver imported a full version of the novel from France. In 1923, Sir Archibald Bodkin, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, concluded that Ulysses was “filthy” and that “filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country” (p.253; Bodkin also vigorously prosecuted war resisters during World War I, as discussed in Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, reviewed here in November 2014). Sir Archibald’s ruling authorized British authorities to seize and burn in the “King’s Chimney” 500 copies of Ulysses coming from France.

      The copies subject to Bodkin’s ruling had been printed at the behest of Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, a “hybrid space, something between an open café and an ensconced literary salon” (p.150), and a home away from home for Joyce, the young Ernest Hemmingway, and other members of the Lost Generation of expatriate writers. After Beach became the first to publish Ulysses in book form in 1922, she went on to publish eight editions of the novel and Shakespeare & Company “became a pilgrimage destination for budding Joyceans, several of whom asked Miss Beach if they could move to Paris and work for her” (p.260).

     Over the next decade, Joyce’s novel became an “underground sensation” (p.3), banned implicitly in the United States and explicitly in Great Britain. Editions of Ulysses were smuggled from France into the United States, often through Canada. The book was “literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents” (p.3). Throughout the decade, Joyce’s health deteriorated appreciably. He had multiple eye problems and, despite numerous ocular surgeries – described in jarringly gruesome detail here — he lost his sight. He also contracted syphilis. By the mid-1920s, Birmingham writes, Joyce was “already an old man. The ashplant cane that he had used for swagger as a young bachelor in Dublin became a blind man’s cane in Paris. Strangers helped him cross the street, and he bumped into furniture as he navigated through his own apartment” (p.289).

* * *

     In 1932, Beach relinquished her claims for royalties from Ulysses.  The upcoming New York publishing firm, Random House, under its ambitious young owner Bennett Cerf, then signed a contract with Joyce for publication and distribution rights in the United States, even though the 1921 court decision still served as a ban on distribution of the novel. To formulate a test case, Random House’s attorney, Morris Ernst, a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, almost begged Customs inspectors to confiscate a copy of Ulysses. Initially, an inspector responded that “everybody brings that [Ulysses] in. We don’t pay attention to it” (p.306).  But the book was seized and, some seven months later, the United States Attorney in New York brought a case for forfeiture and confiscation under a statute that allowed an action against the book itself, rather than its publishers or importers. The United States Attorney instituted the test case in the fall of 1933, a few short months after the first book burnings in Nazi Germany.

     The case was assigned to Judge John Woolsey, a direct descendant of the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Ernst sought to convince Judge Woolsey that the first amendment to the United States Constitution should serve to protect artistic as well as political expression and that the Hicklin rule should be discarded. Under Ernst’s argument, Ulysses merited first amendment protection as a serious literary work, “’too precious’ to be sacrificed to unsophisticated readers” (p.320). Ernst went on to contend that obscenity was a “living standard.” Even if Ulysses had been obscene at the time The Little Review excerpts had been condemned a decade earlier, it could still be protected expression in 1933, given the vast changes in public morality standards since The Little Review ruling.

     Unlike the judges who had considered The Little Review excerpts, Judge Woolsey  took the time to read the novel and ended up agreeing with Ernst. He found portions of the book “disgusting” with “many words usually considered dirty.” But he found nothing that amounted to “dirt for dirt’s sake” (p.329). Rather, each word of the book:

contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. . . when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture? (p.329).

Answering his question in the negative, Judge Woolsey ruled that Joyce’s novel was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States.

     A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge’s Woolsey’s decision, 2-1. The majority consisted of two of the most renowned jurists of the era, Learned Hand, who had been pushing for a more modern definition of obscenity for years; and his cousin, Augustus Hand, who wrote the majority opinion.  Once the appeals court issued its decision, Cerf inserted Judge Woolsey’s decision into the Random House printings of the novel, making it arguably the most widely distributed judicial opinion in history.  Two years later, the trial and appellate court decisions in the United States influenced Britain to abandon the 1868 Hicklin rule. Obscenity in Britain would no longer be a matter of identifying a book’s tendency to deprave and corrupt. Rather, the government must “consider intent and context – the character of a book was all contingent” (p.336).

     United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses established a test for determining whether a work is obscene and thus outside the protection of the first amendment, that, in somewhat modified form, still applies today in the United States.  This test requires a court to consider: (1) the literary worth of the work as a whole, not just selected excerpts; (2) the effect on an average reader, rather than an overly sensitive one; and (3) evolving contemporary community standards.  The decision, Birmingham argues, removed “all barriers to art” and led to “unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content – literary freedoms that were as political as any speech protected by the First Amendment” (p.11).

* * *

     It is an open question whether Birmingham’s book will inspire readers who have not yet read Joyce’s masterwork to do so. But even those reluctant to undertake Joyce’s work should appreciate Birmingham’s account of how forward-minded early 20th century publishers and members of the literary world schemed to bring Ulysses to the light of day; and how judicial standards evolved to allow room for literary works treating human sexuality candidly and openly.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
July 29, 2016

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Filed under American Society, History, Literature