Category Archives: History

Imprisonment and Exile as Liberation

 

Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde:

The Unrepentant Years (Harvard University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

June 26, 2019

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Filed under English History, History, Literature

Public Intellectual Within the Portals of Power

 

 

 

Richard Aldous, Schlesinger:

The Imperial Historian (W Norton & Co.)

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

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

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

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

* * *                

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2019

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized, United States History

Exploring Joseph Conrad’s World

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch:

Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin Press) 

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2019

7 Comments

Filed under British History, History, Literature, World History

Searching for Kafka’s Soul in the Courts of Israel

 

Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under German History, Israeli History, Literature

A History of Overcoming Obstacles

 

 

Herb Boyd, Black Detroit:

A People’s History of Self Determination

(Amsted/HarperCollins)

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 12, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under American Society, United States History

Relighting The City of Light

 

Agnès Poirier, Left Bank:

Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950 

(Henry Holt & Co., $30)

             Agnès Poirier, a Paris-born and London-educated journalist, takes on two weighty subjects in Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950: Parisian artistic, cultural and intellectual life during what was surely Paris’s darkest 20th century period, the four years of German occupation, 1940-44; and the efforts to restore the City of Light to its former eminence in all things artistic, cultural and intellectual in the remaining years of the turbulent decade.  Her book consists primarily of short anecdotes or vignettes – what she terms a “collage of images” (p.4) — about some of the leading artistic and intellectual personalities in 1940s Paris.  With much emphasis upon the shifting romantic attachments among these personalities, the book has a gossipy flavor.

             The grim occupation years constitute only about a third of Poirier’s narrative.  The book begins to gather momentum when she turns to the second of her two weighty subjects, how artists and intellectuals sought to regain their footing in the second half of the decade.  One of the primary tasks Poirier sets for herself is to capture the euphoria that accompanied the liberation of Paris in 1944 and the end of hostilities the following year.

            Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long partner Jean-Paul Sartre are undoubtedly the book’s lead characters, the personalities Poirier returns to consistently in this collection of anecdotal portraits.  In an appropriate rebalancing from other works on philosophy’s ultimate power couple, Beauvoir receives more attention than Sartre; she is the book’s star.  Behind Sartre in supporting roles are novelists Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler (both Camus and Koestler have been subject of books reviewed on this blog, here and here).   In addition to these four, Poirier provides glimpses of a dizzying number of luminaries who congregated at the Café de Flore and the other Left Bank cafés along or near the Boulevard St. Germain where Beauvoir and Sartre hung out.

            At the outset, Poirier provides a list of 32 individuals who make up the book’s “Cast of Characters” — her “band of brothers and sisters” (p.2), as she terms them, the men and women who appear in the book’s vignettes as we glance at their personalities and interactions in their professional and personal lives. Among the continentals likely to be familiar to readers are Raymond Aron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paulhan, and Simone Signoret.  Irish playwright Samuel Beckett makes several appearances.  There is also a heavy contingent of Americans, including James Baldwin, Sylvia Beach, Saul Bellow, Art Buchwald, Alexander Calder, Miles Davis, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway,  Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Theodore White, and Richard Wright.  They were “budding novelists, philosophers, painters, composers, anthropologists, theorists, artists, photographers, poets, editors, publishers and playwrights” (p.1).  Most were under 40 when the war ended and many either came to Paris from abroad in the post-war period or returned to Paris after taking refuge elsewhere during the war years.

            Together, Poirier’s band of brothers and sisters:

founded the New Journalism, which . . . forever blurred the lines between literature and reportage. Poets and playwright slowly buried Surrealism and invented the Theater of the Absurd; budding painters transcended Socialist Realism, pushed Geometric Abstraction to its limits, and fostered Action Painting.  Philosophers founded new schools of thought such as Existentialism . . . Aspiring writers found their voices in Paris’s gutters and the decrepit student rooms of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while others invented the nouveau roman.  Photographers reclaimed their authorship through photojournalism agencies . . . black [American] jazz musicians, fleeing segregation at home, found consecration in the concert halls and jazz clubs of Paris, where New Orleans jazz received its long-overdue appreciation while bebop was bubbling up (p.2).

            Despite this range of creativity and artistic output, Poirier argues that after 1944 “everything was political” in Paris (p.2).  Among Left Bank denizens, there was a near-universal conviction that France desperately needed an independent, social democratic political movement.  Such a movement would challenge not only the Communist Party that dominated the post-war French political landscape but also the hyper-nationalist Gaullist movement that was the Communists’ main rival and the American free-market capitalist model that hovered in the background.

            The elusive quest for an independent political movement constitutes one of two threads that tie together the book’s vignettes and elevate the text to something more than a series of gossipy anecdotes.  The second is Beauvoir herself, especially the development of her seminal work, The Second Sex, and how she became a model of female emancipation, breaking social conventions by combining intellectual ambition, financial independence and sexual freedom.

* * *

            Poirier’s vignettes begin before the German occupation and follow a rough chronological order.  She provides some sense of how Parisian artists and intellectuals survived the war years.  A deeper and more satisfying study of Parisian artistic and cultural life during the occupation may be found in Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012.  As in Riding’s book, Poirier delves into France’s pained efforts to decide how to come to terms with these dark years, and how writers, artists, and intellectuals fared after the war in a process termed épuration, best translated as “purification.”

            Epuration in Poirier’s view amounted to little more than an entire nation adopting the fiction that almost everyone had been part of the resistance during the occupation, with Charles de Gaulle willing to go along and even encourage this fiction as the most effective means to reunite a divided and demoralized nation.  But she characterizes the épuration process as a “murky affair, and the discrepancy in punishments opened up a national debate on the nature of revenge and justice.  Never more public than among writers and journalists, the debate tore friends apart” (p.74).

            One writer, Robert Brasillach, who had collaborated with the Nazi and Vichy governments, was executed, notwithstanding petitions signed by Sartre, Camus and other writers who abhorred Brasillach’s political convictions yet pleaded to spare his life.   Every other writer with collaborationist tendencies avoided this fate.  Poirier wryly notes the generosity underlying the épuration process, which seemed designed to demonstrate that it was “never too late to be a patriot” (p.71).  Those French men and women who had lived through the four years of the occupation “with the shame of the armistice but had not had the courage to join the Resistance or go to London seized the opportunity to clear their conscience” (p.71).  As Beauvoir observed, the joie de vivre which liberation generated was “tempered by the shame of having survived” (p.76).

            Poirier earnestly seeks to capture that tempered joie de vivre.  As Paris’s galleries, boulevards, jazz clubs, cafés, bistros, and bookshops returned to life, the city’s intellectuals and artists were, she writes, eager to unleash their “unquenchable thirst for freedom in every aspect of their lives.  Whether born into the working class or the bourgeoisie, they wanted little to do with their caste’s traditions and conventions or with propriety. Family was an institution to be banished, children a plague to avoid at all costs” (p.116).  It was, Poirier writes, a time to “stare at the reality with lucidity in order to change it” (p.95), a time to “experiment with life, love, and ideas, to throw away conventions, to reinvent oneself, and to reenchante the world” (p.95).

            It was also a time of sexual liberation, for women as much as men, Poirier emphasizes, with a high percentage of assertive bi-sexual women and “female Don Juans” (p.3) among the book’s cast of characters.  In post-war Paris, where such traditional categories as race and religion were deemed inconsequential, gender still counted. “Only the strongest of women survived,” Poirier writes, but those who did “shook the old male order.” Using their “wizardry with words, images, and concepts,” Left Bank women “revolutionized not only philosophy and literature but also film and modern art” (p.288-89).  The romantic interactions among the band of brothers and sisters, a theme to which Poirier returns consistently, were multiple and complicated, none more so than those involving Beauvoir herself.

            By 1944, Beauvoir and Sartre were more like business partners, writing and generating ideas together while pursuing romantic interests independently (not unlike Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; see Jospeh Lelyveld’s His Final Battle: The Last Six Months of Franklin Roosevelt, reviewed here in March 2017).  Beauvoir’s interests included both Koestler and Camus.  Beauvoir was attracted to Koestler upon reading the initial proofs of his signature novel, Darkness at Noon.   Poirier describes in some detail one intensive soirée the couple spent together, perhaps their only one, after which Beauvoir concluded that Koestler was a “violent and impulsive man, a world-weary seducer” (p.122).

            The electricity between Beauvoir and Camus lasted longer although, we learn, Camus was frightened by Beauvoir’s intelligence.  Beauvoir, by contrast, had “no reservations about [Camus].  Nothing in him could turn her off, except perhaps his moralizing” (p.120).  Poirier also pays close attention to Beauvoir’s most sustained and deepest heterosexual relationship in the post-war period, with American writer Nelson Algren.  During her affair with Algren, Beauvoir appears to have ceased liaisons with countless younger women, many of whom Sartre also pursued.

            Both Sartre and Camus “often fell for pretty students and groupies.  It was easy, Poirier writes. ” Those young lovers were enthusiastic, malleable, a little naïve perhaps, and would recover in no time once the affair with the great man had ended” (p.120).  The two men, at different times, also pursued Koestler’s girlfriend and wife-to-be Mamaine Paget, while Koestler was ranging  widely among the Left Bank female contingent.  One of Koestler’s liaisons was with Dominique Aury, who translated some of Koestler’s articles into French.

            Poirier describes Aury as a “seductress, a conqueror of both men and women [who] knew how to snare her prey” (p.125).  Aury’s most intriguing relationship was with not Koestler but Édith Thomas, a relationship Aury struck up after leaving an unidentified man whom Poirier speculates might have been Camus.  Both Aury and Thomas had been part of the resistance during the war.  Aury was from a traditional, right-wing Catholic family; Thomas,  a published novelist, was  a member of the Communist Party. Despite these differences, they shared a “passion that would transport Édith to a state of delirious ecstasy” (p.127).  But Aury, a “born huntress” who after passion subsided “always chased other prey” (p.125), ended the affair with Thomas for another with a married man, famed publisher and literary critic Jean Paulhan, leaving Thomas with a sense of betrayal she never got over.  And so it went on the Left Bank.

            Amidst the musical beds, Sartre and Camus endeavored to establish a social democratic alternative to the Communist party.  By 1946, the first full year after the war, France’s leading political parties were the Communists and the Gaullists. The non-Communist Socialist Party was too splintered to be a force attractive to Parisian artists or intellectuals.  Nor were they attracted to the bourgeois nationalism and cautious reformism of the Gaullists. The French Communist Party’s association with wartime resistance, moreover, gave it a huge advantage with the public.

            The “terrible and deep guilt felt by so many French people who did not take part in active résistance against the Nazi occupiers meant that they could not and would not criticize the Communists, the most active members of the French Resistance” (p.158).  With a “kind of spiritual power over the youth and the intelligentsia,” the Communist party was for many a “conscience, and a magnet” (p.138).  The party was “intent on invading every nook and cranny of public life” (p.138).  It received a jolt of positive energy when Picasso officially joined in 1944.

            Few Left Bank artists or intellectuals followed Picasso’s example, although in Poirier’s view most saw Communism, on balance and in theory, as preferable to capitalism.  Beauvoir and Sartre certainly felt the tug of the party’s appeal, but were not ready to “bargain their freedom, espirit critique, and independence for the sake of acceptance into the Communist fold” (p.143).  Although Camus and Koestler had both flirted with Communism in their younger days, by 1946 they were among the Left Bank’s most vocal anti-Communists.  

            Camus had credibility as having been an active member of the resistance (Sartre, by contrast, was as an “armchair” resistant although he had been jailed during the war, p.67).  Koestler, even more firmly anti-Communist, leaned toward the Gaullists and tried with limited success to convince his Left Bank associates that there was “no greater threat in Europe than Communism” (p.153).  Although the Left Bank denizens may have been clashing among themselves at the Café de Flore and elsewhere over arcane philosophical and historical implications of Marxism and Communism, the Party, hardly into nuance, “put them all in the same bag” (p.160) as traitors. The influential French Communist press “used all their might to promote their ideology and to attack all those who did not think like them, including Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir” (p.77).

            Poirier credits Camus with having a vision for a political alternative. Rather than promote a “tired compromise between left and right,” Camus “dreamt of a humanist socialism, of new boldness in politics, a fresh, harsh and pure new elite coming from the Resistance to rule over an old country.   He dreamt of social justice and of individual freedoms” (p.136-37).   But it fell to Sartre to take concrete steps toward building a new political party, the Rassemblement Démocratique et Revolutionnaire (the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance or RDR), which he co-founded in 1948 with novelist David Rousset.

            The RDR’s aim was to unite the non-Communist Left and promote an independent Europe as a bridge between the Soviet and American blocs. The RDR opened to a big splash, with the public support of Camus.   But the party never really got off the ground.  The cantankerous Left Bank intellectuals “proved too heterogeneous a mélange to speak with one strong voice” (p.157) on the notion of a third force that would be hostile to both the Gaullists and the Communists. The inglorious end of the RDR prompted Sartre to withdraw from political activism.  “No more party membership. From now on, there would be only literature” (p.265).

            Beauvoir lent little support to Sartre’s RDR project. She was feverishly at work at what had started as a short essay and grew into the voluminous The Second Sex (Le deuxième sexe in French), as well as deeply involved with Nelson Algren.  The Second Sex, a meticulously researched and easily accessible work, sought to demonstrate “how men oppress women” (p.285).  Looking at biology, psychoanalysis, and history, Beauvoir found “numerous examples of women’s ‘inferiority’ taken for granted but never had she found a convincing justification for it” (p.285).  Poirier summarizes Beauvoir’s composite portrait of women as:

conditioned by society into accepting a passive, dependent, objectified existence, deprived as they are of subjectivity and the ambition to emancipate themselves through financial independence and work. Whether daughter, wife, mother, or prostitute, women are made to conform to stereotypes imposed by men . . . [O]nly through work, and thus economic independence, can women obtain autonomy and freedom (p.286)

             The Second Sex’s brilliance lay in Beauvoir’s “rigorous intellectual approach combined with a cool and superbly concisely style” (p.132). Beauvoir “at last” was “considered worldwide an equal to Sartre and Camus” (p.285).

* * *

            Poirier indicates at the outset that Left Bank is not an “academic analysis” (p.4), to which she could have added that the book is not a conventional history either.  Herein lies the primary reason why,  despite its weighty subject matter, the book fell short of my expectations.  While Poirier’s anecdotal portraits of the leading lights in Paris during a fraught decade make for entertaining reading, they don’t add up to a portrait of the city itself during the decade.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 26, 2019

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

* * *

          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

* * *

          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

* * *

            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

* * *

            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, German History, History, Intellectual History, United States History

100% American?

 

Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK:

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (Livernight Publishing)

            The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

         The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

          In between was the Klan’s second iteration, emerging in the post-World War I 1920s and the subject of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.  Gordon, a prominent American feminist and historian, portrays the 1920s Klan as significantly more complex than its first and third iterations.  Although bigotry and intolerance were still at the heart of the 1920s Klan, it directed its animosity not only at African-Americans but also at Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.  Gordon considers the second Klan to be a reaction to the supposed licentiousness of the “Roaring Twenties” and the rapidly changing social mores of the decade.   With a central mission of purging the country of elements deemed insufficiently “American,” the Klan in the 1920s sought to preserve or restore white Protestant control of American society, which it saw slipping away.

            As the reference to the “American Political Tradition” in the sub-title suggests, much of Gordon’s interpretation consists of an elaboration upon how six distinct American “traditions” came together to give rise to the Klan’s rebirth after World War I: racism, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism, and populism.  She also includes a final section on how, despite ostensible similarities, the Klan differed from the European fascism that came to power in Italy and was bubbling in Germany in the same time frame.  Although it shared with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany a vision for the future based on “racialized nationalism,” the Klan’s nationalism melded racism and ethnic bigotry with evangelical Protestant morality.  The second Klan thus turned its enemies into sinners in a manner that set it apart not only from European fascism but also from the first and third Klan iterations.

            The 1920s Klan was anything but a secretive organization.  It elected hundreds of its members to public office, controlled newspapers and magazines, and boasted of six million members nationally.  It was a fraternal organization with innovative recruitment methods and a decentralized organizational structure, only marginally different from the Rotarians and the Masons.  Whereas the Klan in its first and third iterations was a distinctly southern organization, the 1920s Klan flourished in northern and western states as well as the American South; it was particularly strong in Indiana and Oregon. 

            In Gordon’s interpretation, the Klan in the 1920s further differentiated itself from its first and third iterations by engaging only rarely in what she terms “vigilantism” — overt intimidation and violence.  Readers expecting a gruesome recitation of middle-of-the-night lynchings, the Klan’s trademark form of domestic terrorism, are likely to be disappointed by this volume.  She rarely mentions the term “lynching.”  The primary incident of overt intimidation she highlights is one already familiar to many readers: the Klan’s nighttime assault in 1925 on the Omaha, Nebraska, house of the family of Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X.  Klansmen on horseback surrounded the Little house, shattered the windows and forced the family to flee Omaha.  The assault, Gordon indicates, was “typical of the northern Klan’s vigilantism – usually stopping short of murder or physical assault, but nevertheless communicating a credible threat of violence to Klan enemies.  The vast majority of Klanspeople never participated in this vigilantism” (p.94).  

            But what about vigilantism in the South?  Gordon hints at several points that murder and physical violence may have been more extensive in southern states than in the North and West (e.g., vigilantism was the Klan’s “core function” in the South, whereas Klan organizations in the North and West “rarely” engaged in violent attacks; p.206).  But she barely treats the American South, focusing almost exclusively on northern and western states, thereby leaving readers with the sense that they may not have received a full account of the vigilantism of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, and that a book which delved more deeply into the 1920s Klan in southern states might have been altogether different from this account.

            At least in northern and western states, Gordon argues, the Klan’s views were not out of step with most white American Protestants, the majority group in the United States in the 1920s.  “Never an aberration” in its prejudices, the second iteration of the Klan was, “just as it claimed, ‘100% American’” (p.36).  But in enunciating values with which a majority of white American Protestants of the 1920s probably agreed, the Klan:

whirled these ideas into greater intensity.  The Klan argued that the nation itself was threatened.  Then it declared itself a band of warriors determined to thwart that threat.  In the military metaphors that filled Klan rhetoric, it had been directed by God – a Protestant God, of course – to lead an army of right-minded people to defeat the nation’s internal enemies (p.36). 

* * *

            Antagonism to diversity, a “form of pollution, uncleanliness,” is key to understanding the Klan in the 1920s.  “Fear of heterogeneity” underlay its “extreme nationalism and isolationism; Klanspeople saw little to admire in any foreign culture” (p.58).  The Klan viewed Catholics as threats because their religion was global, making Catholics subservient to Rome and disloyal to America  —  “underground warriors for their foreign masters” (p.45).  The Klan charged Catholics with what amounts to “unfair competition,” alleging that emissaries of the Pope in Rome had helped Catholics “take over police forces, newspapers, and big-city governments” (p.203). 

            Jews were guilty of a different kind of foreign allegiance, to a “secular international cabal of financiers who planned to take over the American economy through its financial institutions” and establish a “government within our government” (p.49).  Jews did not produce anything; they were mere financial middlemen who contributed no economic value to the United States.  The Klan blamed the Jews for the decline in morality, for women’s immodest dress, and for the debasement of the culture coming from Hollywood.   But, “in one remarkable silence about the Jews,”  Klan discourse “did not often employ the reverse side of classic anti-Semitism: that these dishonest merchant capitalists were also Communists” (p.49).  

            Among immigrants, the Klan targeted in particular Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and East Asians, along with Southern and Eastern Europeans (which of course included many Catholics and Jews).  Exempted were what it termed “Nordic” immigrants, generally Protestants from Germany, the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles.  The Klan argued “not only for an end to the immigration of non-‘Nordics’ but also for deporting those already here.  The date of their immigration, their longevity in the United States, mattered not” (p.27).  No matter how long such immigrants remained in the country, they could never become fully American.

            With rites based on Bible readings and prayer, the second Klan’s religiosity “might suggest that it functioned as a Protestant denomination.”  But the Klan was “not a denomination,” Gordon writes.  It sought to “incorporate existing Protestant churches, not replace them, and to put evangelism at their core.  It was in many ways a pan-Protestant evangelical movement, that is, an attempt to unite evangelical Protestants across their separate denominations” (p.88).  The Klan relied heavily upon evangelical ministers for recruitment, a mobilization that “foreshadowed – and probably helped generate – the entry of Christian Right preachers into conservative politics fifty years later” (p.90).  The 1920s “may have been the first time that bigotry became a major theme among [evangelical Protestant] preachers” (p.91).   

            The Klan joined enthusiastically with evangelical Protestants to support Prohibition, the anti-alcohol movement that succeeded in enshrining temperance into the American constitution in the form of the constitution’s 18th amendment.  For a full 14 years, from 1919 to 1933, the Klan theoretically had constitutional sanction for its vision of a world without alcoholic beverages.  Defense of Prohibition was universal among the Klan’s diverse chapters, and in Gordon’s view was “arguably responsible for the fact that many relatively tolerant citizens shrugged off its racist rhetoric” (p.95).  Supporting Prohibition, the Klan blamed its enemies for violations.  In Klannish imagination, “Catholics did the drinking and Jewish bootleggers supplied them” (p.58).

            The Klan also joined with many women’s groups in supporting Prohibition.  Klanswomen formed a parallel organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK), which Gordon finds close in outlook and approach to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the major groups backing the 18th amendment.  The WKKK supported woman’s suffrage – for white, Protestant women.  Klanswomen also supported women’s employment and even called for women’s economic independence.  Although outnumbered about 6 to 1 in the Klan, women contributed a new argument to the cause: that women’s emergence as active citizens would help purify the country, bringing “family values” back into the nation’s governance.  Women engaged in charitable work on behalf of the Klan, raised money for orphanages, schools and individual needy families, and placed Protestant bibles in the schools.  Women often led youth divisions of the Klan.  Without women’s long hours invested in Klan activties, Gordon argues, the second Klan “could not have become such a mass movement” (p.129). 

            But, in an organization based on male hierarchy which played specifically to white Protestant males’ anxiety over loss of privileged status in the new and unsettling post-World War I years, many women rose to national prominence as leaders of the Klan’s second coming.  Perhaps the most striking characteristic of such women was their “entrepreneurship,” which involved “both ambition and skill, both principle and profit . . . Experienced at organizing large events, state-of-the-art in managing money, unafraid to attract publicity, they were thoroughly modern women” (p.122-23).  Gordon seems unsure how to present these strong, assertive women who freely embraced the Klan creed of bigotry and intolerance.   The Klanswomen’s activism “requires a more capacious understanding of feminism,” she writes.  Their “combination of feminism and bigotry may be disturbing to today’s feminists, but it is important to feminism’s history.  There is nothing about a generic commitment to sex equality that inevitably includes a commitment to equalities across racial, ethnic, religious or class lines” (p.123).  At another point, she admonishes readers to “rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s” (p.110).

            In its economic values, the Klan was wholly conservative.  It was devoted to the business ethic and revered men of great wealth, with its economic complaints invariably taking the form of “racial and religious prejudices”  (p.203).  The Klan sought to implement its vision of a white Protestant America “without fundamental changes to the political rules of American democracy.  The KKK was a political machine and a social movement, not an insurrectionary vanguard” (p.208).   What made the Ku Klux Klan so successful in the early 1920s was an aggressive, state-of-the-art approach to recruiting:

Far from rejecting commercialization and the technology it brought, such as radio, the Klan’s system was entirely up-to-date, even pioneering, in its methods of selling.  From its start, the second Klan used what might be called the social media of its time.  These methods – a professional PR firm, financial incentives to recruit, advertisements in the mass media, and high-tech spectacular pageants – produced phenomenal growth for several years (p.63).

            The Klan in its second iteration faded quickly, beginning around 1925.  By 1927 Klan membership had shrunk to about 350,000.  Several highly publicized scandals and cases of criminal embezzlement among Klan leaders, exposing its leaders’ crimes, hypocrisy, and misbehavior, induced the Klan’s precipitous fall in the latter portion of the 1920s, along with the “profiteering” of Klan leaders — “gouging members through dues and the sale of Klan paraphernalia” (p.191).  Power struggles among leaders produced splits and even rival Klans under different names.  Rank-and-file resentment transformed the Klan’s already high turnover into “mass shrinkage as millions of members either failed to pay dues or formally withdrew” (p.191). 

            But the longest-term force behind the Klan’s decline may have been the increasing integration of Catholics and Jews into American society.  The “allegedly inassimilable Jews assimilated and influenced the culture, both high-brow and low-brow.  The alleged vassals of the pope began to behave like other immigrants, firm in their allegiance to America” (p.197).   By contrast, the Klan “never gave up its hatred for people of color.  As African-Americans moved northward and westward, as more Latin American and East Asian immigrants arrived, the latter-day Klan shifted toward a simpler, purer racial system, with two categories: white and not white” (p.197-98).

* * *

            Despite its precipitous decline, the Ku Klux Klan in its second iteration triumphed in many respects.  The biggest tangible Klan victory was in legislation restricting immigration.  Although the Klan was not solely responsible, its propaganda “surely strengthened racialized anti-immigrant sentiment both in Congress and among the voters” (p.195).  Less tangibly, the Klan “influenced the public conversation, the universe of tolerable discourse” (p.195).  The second Klan “spread, strengthened, and radicalized preexisting nativist and racist sentiments among the white population.  In reactivating these older animosities it also re-legitimated them.  However reprehensible hidden bigotry might be, making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact” (p.195).   In this sense, Gordon’s compact and captivating interpretation serves as a reminder that the Klan remains a presence still to be reckoned with today, nearly a century after its second coming. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 28, 2019

11 Comments

Filed under United States History

A Tale of Three Cities’ Spaces and Places

Mike Rapport, The Unruly City:

Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution

In The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution, Mike Rapport, professor of modern European history at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, provides a novel look at three urban centers in the last quarter of the 18th century: Paris, London and New York.  As the title indicates, the century’s last quarter was the age of revolution: in America at the beginning of the approximate 25-year period, as the 13 American colonies fought for their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America; followed by the French Revolution in the next decade, which ended monarchial rule, abolished most privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, and uprooted deep-rooted social and cultural norms.  Great Britain somehow avoided any such an upheaval during this time, and that is one of the main points of the story. 

But radical democratic movements were afoot in all three countries, favoring greater equality, a drastically expanded franchise and opposition to entrenched privilege  – objectives overlapping with but not identical to those of the revolutions in America and France.  How these democratic impulses played out in each city is the real core of Rapport’s story — or, more precisely, how these impulses played out in each city’s spaces and places.  In examining the contribution of each city’s topography – its spaces and places — to political outcomes, Rapport utilizes a “bottom up” approach which emphasizes the roles played by each city’s artisans, small shopkeepers, and everyday working people as they struggled against entrenched elites.  Rapport thus brings the perspective of an urban geographer and demographer to his story.  But there is also a geo-political angle that needs to be factored into the story. 

The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, in which France and its archenemy Britain vied between 1756 and 1763 for control of large swaths of the American continent, ended in ignominious defeat for France.  But both Britain and France emerged from the war with staggeringly high debts, triggering financial crises in both countries.  A decade and a half later, in 1777, monarchial France lent assistance to the American colonies as they broke away from Britain.  The newly formed United States of America in turn largely supported the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789, and sided with revolutionary France when it found itself again at war with Britain in 1792.  Rapport’s topographical approach, with its concentration on the cityscapes of Paris, London and New York, provides a fresh perspective to these familiar late 18th century events.

In the final quarter of the 18th century, Paris and London were sprawling nerve centers of venerable, centuries-old civilizations, while New York was far smaller, far younger, and not quite the nerve center of an emerging New World civilization.  In 1790, moreover, in the middle of Rapport’s story, New York lost its short-lived position as the political capital of the newly created United States of America.  But Paris was different from both New York and London in ways that are consequential for this multi-layered, complex and ambitious tale of three cities. 

Although France’s revolution was nation-wide, its course was dictated by events in Paris in a manner altogether different from the way the American Revolution unfolded in New York.  France in the last quarter of the 18th century lived under a monarchy described alternatively as “despotic” and “absolute.”  It benefitted from nothing quite comparable to America and Britain’s shared heritage from England’s 1688 “Glorious Revolution,” which established critical individual rights and checks upon monarchial power, all of which were “jealously defended by British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic and enviously coveted by educated, progressive Frenchmen and -women” (p.xv). Democratic radicalism in France thus had an altogether different starting point from that in America or Britain, one of the reasons radicalism fused with revolutionary fervor in France in a way it never did in either America or Britain.  These divergences between France on the one hand and America and Britain on the other help explain why Rapport’s emphasis on urban spaces and places serving political ends works best in Paris.   

Rapport resolutely links phases of the French Revolution to discrete Parisian spaces and places: giving impetus to the revolution’s early stages were the Palais-Royal, a formerly aristocratic enclave on the Right Bank, and the artisanal district of the Faubourg St. Antoine, located just east of the hulking Bastille fortress; Paris’ central market, Les Halles, and the Cordeliers district, centered around today’s Placed de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, sustained the revolution’s more radical stages.  The distinct character of these sections of Paris, Rapport writes, goes “a long way to explain how the events unfolded and where much of the revolutionary impulse came from.”  Their geographical and social makeup made Paris a “truly revolutionary city, with a popular militancy that kept politics on the boil with each new crisis.  This combination of geography, social structure and political activism distinguished the Parisian experience from that of London and New York” (p.202). 

When he moves from revolutionary Paris to New York and London, Rapport’s urban topographical approach seems comparatively flat and somewhat forced.  He shows how New York’s Common, located near the city’s northern limits in today’s lower Manhattan, became the focal point for the city’s’ rising democratic fervor and its resistance to British rule.  In London, he focuses upon St. George’s Field, functionally similar to New York’s Common as a location where large groups from all walks of life and all parts of the metropolis gathered freely.  St. George’s Field, which today encompasses Waterloo Station, became the center of mass demonstrations in support of democratic radical John Wilkes, who was jailed for seditious libel in a prison overlooking this largely undeveloped, semi-rural expanse.   But the most compelling story for New York and London is how the democratic energy in the two cities stopped short of the thorough social and cultural uprooting of the French Revolution, much to the relief of elites in both cities.     

* * *

By the fateful year of 1789, Paris’ Palais-Royal, then an “elegant complex of colonnades, arcades, gardens, fountains, apartments, theatres, offices and boutiques” (p.127), had become a combative pubic gathering place where journalists and orators “intellectually pummeled, ideologically bludgeoned and rhetorically battered the old order” (p.125).  Questions involving royal despotism and the rights of citizens were debated and discussed across Paris and throughout France, but “nowhere did these great questions generate more white hot fervor than in the Palais-Royal”(p.127).  The Palais-Royal gave political voice to the insurrection against the monarchy and inherited privilege that broke out in Paris in the spring of 1789 and spread nation-wide.  Without the “contentious cauldron” of the Palais-Royal, Rapport concludes, it is “hard to imagine the insurrection unfolding as it did – and even having the revolutionary results that it did” (p.145),

The Faubourg St. Antoine contributed “special vigor” (p.126) to the 1789 uprising, which resulted in a transfer of power from the King to an elected chamber, the National Assembly, and the subsequent July 1789 assault on the Bastille. An artisanal district famous for its furniture and cabinet makers, Faubourg St. Antoine’s topography and location, Rapport writes, made the neighborhood “especially militant” (p.137) because it was conscious of being outside the old limits of the city.  There was nothing in either New York or London to match the Faubourg’s “geographical cohesion, its homogeneity, its separateness and its defensiveness” (p.137). In Faubourg St. Antoine, a political uprising became a social and cultural upheaval as well.  As “bricks and mortar places,” Rapport writes, both the Palais-Royal and the Faubourg St. Antoine had a “material impact on the shape and outcome of events” and played outsized roles in marking the “final crisis of the old order” (p.126),

As the revolution became more radical, the central market of Les Halles, “the belly of Paris,” also played an outsized role.  Les Halles was the largest and most popular of several Parisian markets.  Its particular culture and geographic location gave Les Halles a “revolutionary dynamism” (p.177) that bound together those who lived and worked there, especially women.  A coordinated women’s march, fueled by food shortages throughout Paris, emanated from Faubourg St. Antoine and Les Halles in October 1789.  The march ended in Versailles, where the women invaded the National Assembly and gained an audience with King Louis XVI.  The King agreed to give his royal sanction to a series of revolutionary demands and, more to the point, promised that Paris would be supplied with bread.  Later the same day, the women forced the King and his family to return to Paris, where they lived as virtual hostages in a city whose women had “demonstrated their determination to keep the Revolution on track” (p.183).

In the aftermath of the march, the National Assembly, instilled by fear of the “unpredictable, uncontrollable force of popular insurrection” (p.185-86), restricted the vote to “active” citizens, adult males who paid a set level of taxes, only about one-half of France’s male population.  The subsequent move to expand the franchise in 1789-90 originated in the Cordeliers district, an “effervescent combination of an already articulate, politicized artisanal population, combined with the concentration of a sympathetic radical leadership” (p.188).  After Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, husband-and-wife journalists from the district, wrote an important article in which they attacked the restriction of the franchise – “What is this much repeated word active citizen supposed to mean?  The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille” (p.190) – the Cordelier district assembly in June 1790 proposed that all males who paid “any tax whatsoever, including indirect taxes, which included just about everybody, should have ‘active’ citizenship” (p.188-89; notwithstanding the thorough uprooting of the French Revolution, there was no move to extend the franchise to women).   

The Cordeliers district narrowed the political divide between social classes in no small part because of the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, founded in the heart of the district.  Made up of merchants, artisans, tradesmen, retailers and radical lawyers, the Society also encouraged women to attend its sessions.  It saw its primary purpose as “rooting out the threats to the Revolution” and “challenging the limits placed on political rights by the emerging constitutional order” (p.191).  Its influence “rested in its distinctly metropolitan reach” and in having its roots in a neighborhood whose “social and political character made it a linchpin binding the axle of middle-class radicalism to the wheels of popular revolutionary activism” (p.195-96).  As the revolution entered its most radical phases, the Cordeliers district proved to be “one of the epicenters of the metropolitan outburst,” unlike any other district in Paris, bridging the “social gap between the radical middle-class leadership of the burgeoning democratic movement and the militants of the city’s working population” (p.195).    

            No specific Parisian neighborhoods are linked to the turn that the Revolution took in 1793-94 known as the Terror, “synonymous with the ghastly mechanics of the guillotine” (p.223).  This phase occurred at a time of multiple crises, when the newly declared French Republic grasped at repressive and draconian means to defend itself.  Driven by the  “blunt, direct and violent”  (p.226-27) radicals who called themselves sans-culottes (literally, those “without breeches”), the Terror was the period that saw King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette executed, followed by a chilling string of prominent figures deemed “enemies of the revolution” (among them prior revolutionary leaders Maximilian Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton, along with Cordelier journalist Camille Desmoulins).  Rapport’s chilling chapter on this phase serves as a reminder of the perils of excessive revolutionary zeal.

Throughout the Revolution, all sections of Paris felt its physical effects in the adaptation of buildings for the multitude of institutions of the new civic order. The process of taking over buildings in every quarter of Paris  — churches, offices, barracks and mansions — not only “made the Revolution more visible, indeed more intrusive, than ever before, but also represented the physical advance of the revolutionary organs deeper in the neighborhoods and communities of the capital” (p.226).  The “physical transformation of interiors, the adaptation of internal spaces and the embellishment of the buildings with revolutionary symbols, reflected the radicalism of the French Revolution in constructing an egalitarian order in an environment that had grown organically out of corporate society based on privilege and royal absolutism” (p.310).  In New York, the physical transformation of the city was not so thoroughgoing, “since the American Revolution did not constitute quite such a break with the past” (p.171).     

* * *

New York in the late 18th century was already an important business center, the major gateway into the New World for trade and commerce from abroad, with a handful of powerful, well-connected families dominating the city’s politics.  Although its population was a modest 30,000, diminutive in comparison to London and Paris, it was among the world’s most heterogeneous cites.  In its revolutionary years, New York witnessed what Rapport terms a “dual revolution,” both a “broad coalition of colonists against British rule” and a “revolt of the people against the elites,” which blended “imperial, local and popular politics in an explosive mix” (p.2). The contest between the “people of property” and the “mob” was about the “future forms of government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles” (p. p.28-29), in the words of a future New York Senator.

The tumultuous period that ended with independence in 1783 began when Britain sought to raise money to pay for the Seven Years War through the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a duty on all legal documents (e.g., deeds, wills, licenses, contracts), the first direct tax Britain had imposed on its American colonies.  Triggered by resistance to the Stamp Act, the dual American revolution in the years leading up to war between the colonies and Britain moved in New York from sites controlled by the city’s elites, especially the debating chambers of City Hall, to sites more accessible to the public, in particular the open space known as the Common, along with the city’s taverns and the streets themselves. 

More than just a public space, the Common was “also a site where the power of the state, in all its ominous brutality, was on display” (p.18).  Barracks to house British troops had been erected on the Common during the Seven Years War, and it was the site of public executions.  It was on the Commons that the Liberty Pole, the mast of a pine ship, was erected and became the city’s most conspicuous symbol of resistance, a “deliberate, defiant counterpoise” (p.18) to British state authority.  The first Liberty Pole was hacked down in August 1766, only to be replaced in the following days.  This pattern repeated itself several times, as the Common became the most politically charged place in New York, where a more militant, popular form of politics emerged to challenge the ruling elites.

  It was on the Common, at the foot of the Liberty Pole that New Yorkers received the news in April 1775 that war with the British had broken out in New England.  In 1776, George Washington announced the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence on the same site. During the war for independence, the Liberty Pole became the symbolic site where people declared their support for independence – or, in many cases, were compelled to do so.     

In 1789, after the American colonies had won independence from Britain, the Common served as the start and end point of a massive parade through New York City in support of a proposed constitution to govern the country now known as the United States of America, at a time when the entire State of New York was wrestling with the decision whether to become the last state to ratify the proposed constitution.  The choice of the Common as the parade’s start and end point was, Rapport writes, highly symbolic, “connecting the struggle for the Constitution with the earlier battles around the Liberty Pole” (p.162).  Dominated by the city’s tradesmen and craft workers, the parade was a “tour of artisanal force” that “connected the Constitution with the commercial prosperity upon which the city and its working people depended,” serving as a reminder to the city’s elites that the revolution had “not just secured independence, but [had also] mobilized and empowered the people”(p.163).

The parade from the Common through New York’s streets also demonstrated the degree to which democratic radicalism in New York had been tempered.  The city’s radicals, aware that New York’s prosperity depended upon good commercial relations and a thriving mercantile community, “reached beyond mere vengeance and aimed at forging a more equal democracy, in which the overmighty power of the wealthy and the privileged would be cut down to size, allowing artisans and ‘mechanics’ to enjoy the democratic freedoms that they had done so much to secure” (p.156). 

With their vested interest in the financial and commercial prosperity of the city, New York’s radicals were not yet ready to call for “leveling,” or “social equality,” among the greatest concerns to the city’s privileged classes.  In London, too, democratic radicalism stopped short of a full-scale challenge to the social order. 

* * *

While Britain was attempting to rein in America’s rebellious colonies, a movement for democratic reform emerged in London, centered on parliamentary reform and expansion of the suffrage.  The movement’s unlikely leader was journalist and parliamentarian John Wilkes, who symbolized “defiance towards the elites and the overbearing authority of the eighteenth-century British state” (p.35).  The liberties that Wilkes defended began with those specific to the City, a small and nearly autonomous enclave within metropolitan London.  Known today as London’s financial district, the City in the latter half of the 18th century was a “lively hub of activity of all kinds, not just finance but also highly skilled artisans, printers and merchants plying their trades” (p.37).  It had its own police constables and enjoyed privileges unavailable elsewhere in London, including direct access to King and parliament. 

Wilkes, writing “inflammatory satire,” excoriated the government and campaigned for an expansion of voting rights with a mixture of “irony, humor and vitriol” (p.42).  Wilkes tied his in-your-face radicalism to a defense of the traditional liberties and power of the City.  But his radicalism caused him to be expelled from the House of Commons, then tried and convicted of seditious libel.  For London’s working people, Wilkes became “another victim of a harsh, unforgiving system that seemed staked in favor of the elites” (p.51).  Wilkes was jailed in a prison that overlooked St. George’s Fields, London’s undeveloped, semi-rural gathering point on the opposite side of the River Thames from the City.  St. George’s Fields came to represent symbolically a “departure from the narrow defense of the City’s privileges towards a broader demand for a national politics more responsive to the aspirations of the people at large” (p.44).   

When authorities failed to release Wilkes on an anticipated date in 1768, a major riot broke out in St. George’s Fields in which seven people were killed.  Mobilization on St. George’s Fields on behalf of Wilkes, Rapport writes,  “brought thousands of London’s working population into politics for the first time, people who had little or no stake in the traditional liberties of the City, let alone a vote in parliamentary elections, but who saw in Wilkes’s defiance of authority a mirror of their own daily struggle for self-respect and dignity in the face of the overbearing power of the state and the social dominance of the elites” (p.44).

Once freed, Wilkes went on to be elected Lord Mayor of the City in 1774 and chosen also to represent suburban Middlesex in Parliament.  Two years later he was pushing the altogether radical notion of universal male suffrage. But, rather than attacking the privileges of the City, the movement in support of Wilkes fused with a defense of the City.  This fusion, in Rapport’s view, “may be one reason the resistance to authority in London, though certainly riotous, did not become revolutionary . . . Londoners were able to make their protests without challenging the wider structure of politics” (p.52-53).   By coalescing around the figure of John Wilkes, the popular mobilization “reinforced rather than challenged the privileges that empowered the City to resist the king and Parliament” (p.56).

As revolution raged on the other side of the English Channel after 1789, many in London believed that that Britain’s 1688 revolution “had already secured many basic rights and freedoms for British subjects; the French were starting from zero” (p.257).  Arguments about the French revolution and criticisms and defense of the British constitution were kept within legal boundaries in London.  It was the British habit of free discussion, Rapport concludes, “alongside, first, the commitment to legality among the reformers and, second, the relative caution with which . . . the government proceeded against them that ensured that London avoided a revolutionary upheaval in these years” (p.221).

* * *

Rapport sets a dauntingly intricate task for himself in seeking to demonstrate how the artisanal and working class populations of Paris, New York and London used each city’s spaces and places to abet radical democratic ideas.   How those spaces and places helped shape revolutionary events in Paris from 1789 onward and thereby transformed the city are the best portions of his work, insightful and at times riveting.  His treatment of New York and London, where no such physical transformation occurred, has less zest.  But the tale of three cities comes together through Rapport’s detailing of moments in each place when “thousands of people, often for the first time, seized the initiative and tried to shape their own political futures” (p.317).

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Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C. USA

December 31, 2018

2 Comments

Filed under British History, French History, History, United States History

New Thinking in the Islamic Heartlands

 

 

Christopher de Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment:

The Islamic Enlightenment:

The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times 

          Christopher de Bellaigue is one of the leading English-language authorities on the volatile Middle East, an elegant stylist with an uncanny ability to explain that bewildering swath of the globe in incisive yet clear prose.  Heis the author of a perceptive biography of Muhammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister deposed in 1953 in a joint American-British covert operation, reviewed here in October 2014.  De Bellaigue’s most recent work, The Islamic Enlightenment: The StruggleBetween Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times, tackles head-on the widespread notion that Islam, the Middle East’s dominant religion, needs an intellectual, secular awakening similar to the 18th century Enlightenment which transformed Western society.  De Bellaigue delivers the message forthrightly that Islam has already undergone such a transformation.  Those who urge Enlightenment on Islam, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, are “opening thedoor on a horse that bolted long ago” (p.xvi; disclosure: I have argued in these pages that Islam needs  a 21st century Enlightenment).  

          For the past two centuries, de Bellaigue writes, Islam has been undergoing a “pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once,” an experience of “relentless yet vitalizing alternation – of reforms, reactions, innovations, discoveries, and betrayals” (p.xvi).  The Islamic Enlightenment, like its Western counterpart, entailed the “defeat of dogma by proven knowledge, the demotion of the clergy from their position as arbiters of society and the relegation of religion to the private sphere,” along with the “ascendancy of democratic principles and the emergence of the individual to challenge the collective to which he or she belongs” (p.xxiv).  Although influenced and inspired by the West, the Islamic Enlightenment found its own forms.  It did not follow the same path as the European version.

          De Bellaigue concentrates almost exclusively on three distinct Islamic civilizations, Egypt, Iran (called “Persia” up to 1935, although de Bellaigue uses the word “Iran” throughout), and the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  These three civilizations constitute “Islam’s heartlands” (p.xxvi), the three most consequential intellectual, spiritual and political centers of the Middle East.  Although he barely mentions such major Islamic areas as North Africa or East Asia, there is logic and symmetry to de Belliague’s choices, starting with a different language in each: Arabic in Egypt; Persian (or Farsi) in Iran; and Turkish in Ottoman Turkey.  Egypt and Iran, moreover, represent full-strength versions of Sunni and Shiite Islam, respectively, whereas the Sunni Islam of the Ottoman Empire interacted with Christianity as the empire extended its suzerainty well into Europe.

          The Islamic Enlightenment had a clear starting point in de Bellaigue’s account: Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, in which the Corsican general brought with him not only several thousand military troops bent upon conquest but also the transforming ideas of the French Revolution and the French Enlightenment.   The French occupation was short-lived.  The British dislodged the over-extended Napoleon from Egypt in 1802 and retained a foothold there that became full colonial domination in the latter part of the 19th century.  But the transformative power of the new ways of thinking embodied in the French Enlightenment could not be so easily dislodged.  

          De Bellaigue begins with three chapters entitled “Cairo,” “Istanbul,” and “Tehran,” concentrating on Egypt, Turkey, and Iran in the first half of the 19th century.   Here he demonstrates how, in a recurrent pattern throughout the first half of the 19th century,  the new ways of thinking arose in the three locations largely as unintended bi-products of regimes where relentless leaders pursued institutional modernization, particularly of the military to defend against foreign incursions.  The succeeding chapters, entitled “Vortex,” and “Nation,” treat the three civilizations collectively, and  center on the increasing interaction and integration between the three in the second half of the century, up to World War I, along with their increasing servitude to the West at a time when European colonial acquisition began to run up against Muslim resistance.  De Bellaigue contends that World War I marked the beginning of the end for the Islamic Enlightenment, setting in motion the forces that undermined the liberalizing tendencies of the previous century.  His final chapter, termed “Counter Enlightenment,” takes us up to the dispiriting present.

          Unlike many works on the Western Enlightenment, de Bellaigue goes beyond a history of ideas.  He is interested in how the new thinking of the Islamic Enlightenment was utilized in the three civilizations as an instrument of transformation — or “modernization,” his preferred term.  His work contains much insightful reflection on the nature of modernity and the process of modernization, as he  addresses not only the intellectual changes that were afoot in the Islamic heartlands during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also political and economic changes.  This broad focus renders his work something close to a comprehensive history of these lands over the past two centuries.  Along the way, de Belliague introduces an array of thinkers and political leaders, many also religious leaders, few of whom are likely to be familiar to Western readers.

* * *

           By way of background, de Bellaigue begins with a revealing picture of the three civilizations prior to 1798.   Many Western readers will be aware of the flowering of Islamic civilization from approximately the 9th century onward, a period of “glory, prosperity and achievement” (p.xxvi), in which the faith of the Prophet Muhammad created an “aesthetic culture of sophistication and beauty, excelling in architecture, textiles, ceramics and metallurgy” (p.xviii), along with mathematics — the study of algebra originated in the Arab world during this period, for example.  Dynamic centers of learning permitted the “unfettered exercise of the rational mind” (p.xviii) in a way that was unthinkable in Europe during what was considered Christendom’s “dark ages.” But sometime in the 15th century, Islam began to molder and decay, falling victim to the same wave of superstition and defensiveness that had beset Christian Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

          Egypt at the time of the Napoleonic conquest, nominally a province of Ottoman Turkey, “hadn’t produced an original idea in years.  Of the world outside Islam – the world of discovery and the Americas, science and the Industrial Revolution – there was a virtual boycott” (p.2).  Napoleon, inspired both by the prior intellectual vigor of Egypt and the transformative potential of the French Revolution, strove to restore the country to its earlier glory under France’s “benign tutelage” (p.4).  Napoleon brought with him a retinue of scholars who acted in the field of knowledge “as his army had acted on the field of battle, pointing to the future and shaming the past” (p.2).  The short-lived French occupation set in motion new ways of thinking that altered Egypt indelibly and, in de Bellaigue’s interpretation, jump-started the Islamic Enlightenment across the Islamic heartlands.

          The first of the Middle East’s “coercive modernizers” (p.18) was Muhammad Ali Pasha.  Although De Bellaigue resists the temptation to label Muhammad Ali the heavyweight champion of 19th Middle Eastern modernization, that is a fair summation of the man who served as the Ottoman Sultan’s viceroy in Egypt from 1805 to 1849.  Ali packed more reforms into the first half of the 19th century than had been carried out in Egypt over the previous 300 years. He reined in Islamic clerics and reformed the state bureaucracy, agriculture, and education.  Above all, he modernized the military, with the Egyptian army becoming “both a symbol and a catalyst of the new Egypt”  (p.21). 

          Muhammad Ali showed little interest in fostering the Enlightenment spirit of irreverence, skepticism and individual empowerment.  But this spirit nonetheless arose as an irrepressible component of modernization.  The interaction with French scholars convinced Hassan al-Atta, arguably the first major thinker of the Islamic Enlightenment, that the progress which had surged through Europe was a universal impulse that could gain traction anywhere, and was in no way foreclosed to Muslim civilizations.  Spellbound by the Frenchmen he met in the aftermath of the Napoleonic conquest, Al-Attar spent many formative years in Istanbul.  When he returned to Egypt, he took up the task of reconciling Islam with secular knowledge in fields as diverse as logic, history, science, medicine and geography.  One of al-Attar’s students, Rifaa al-Tahtawi, known as Rifaa, received from al-Attar “what may have been the most complete education available to any Egyptian at the time,” (p.29), and went on to build upon his teacher’s efforts to show that the Muslim faith was compatible with progressive ideas. 

          Rifaa became the first 19th century Egyptian to study in France, spending five years there in the 1820s.  He wrote a seminal travelogue, the first comprehensive description in Arabic of post-revolutionary France.   Rifaa’s time in France “convinced him of the need for European sciences and technologies to be introduced into the Islamic world” (p.39).  Rifiaa sought to close the distance between modern ideas and the capacity of Arabic to express them.  De Bellaigue characterizes Rifaa as a translator in the “broad sense of someone who fetches ideas from one home and makes them comfortable in another” (p.42).  His translated works had a “huge impact on the engineers, doctors, teachers and military officers who were beginning to form the elite of the country; they were the forerunners of the secular-minded middle classes that would dominate public life for much of the next two centuries” (p.43).

          In the sprawling, multi-faith Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was but one province, Sultan Mahmud II was the approximate equivalent to Muhammad Ali, and Ibrahim Sinasi the complement to Rifiaa.   As the 18th century came to a close, Ottoman Turkey, although not nearly as backward as Egypt, had suffered a handful of painful military loses to Russia that convinced Mahmud II that the empire sorely needed to upgrade its military, not least to quell separatist tendencies emanating from Muhammad Ali’s Egypt.  But the reforms instituted under Mahumd’s rule went well beyond the military, extending to education, statistics, modern sociology, agricultural innovation and political theory, with some of the most stunning innovations occurring in the education of doctors and the practice of medicine. 

          Like Rifaa, Sinasi spent time in Paris, where he saw the inadequacies of the Turkish language.  Sinasi gave birth to modern Turkish prose and drama.  Emulating Victor Hugo, Sinasi popularized concepts like freedom of expression and natural rights.  Cosmopolitan, outward looking, and drawn to questions of human development, Sinasi was one of the first in the Middle East to “define rights not as conferred from above, but as inseparable from the growth of a law-based society,” making him a “pioneer of a new mode of thinking,” (p.80-81). 

          Iran was more isolated than Turkey or Egypt in the first half of the 19th century, and entered the modern era later and more sluggishly.  Yet, Iran had to contend throughout the century with the persistent meddling of Russia in its affairs, with Britain becoming equally meddlesome as the century progressed.  Iran in the first half of the 19th century had no forthright, determined and durable modernizer comparable to Muhammad Ali or Mahmud II.  It sent no fledgling intellectuals or future leaders to Europe for education.  Powerful Shiite clerics, proponents of “obscurantism, zealotry and fear” (p.129), served as a check on modernization.  

          But Nasser al-Din, who ruled as Iran’s Shah for 48 years, from 1848 to 1896, longer than either Ali or Mahmud II, found an engineer of reform in his tutor and then Chief Minister, Amir Kabir, 30 years older.   During a tenure that lasted only three years, Chief Minister Kabir pursued industrialization and manufacturing, introduced town planning, established a postal service, promoted reforms in medicine, education and agriculture, and reined in the Shiite clergy.  Nasser al-Din had Kabir removed from office, then executed, probably because he was perceived to have been too close to British and Russian diplomats.

          Al-Din’s increasingly tyrannical rule after Kabir’s demise saw the rise of Jamal al-Din Afghani, sometimes credited with being the Middle East’s first advocate of pan-Islamism, a complex set of ideas that revolved around the notion that Muslims needed to transcend state boundaries and stand up to Europeans.  Berating despotism and the European presence throughout the Muslim world, al-Din Afghani “embodied the use of Islam as a worldwide ideology of resistance against Western imperialism, knitting the Islamic heartlands together in a way that today seems impossible” (p.230).

            Backward and isolated Iran made the region’s most dramatic move toward modern nationhood when it underwent a constitutional revolution in 1905 that gave rise to a National Consultative Assembly, Iran’s first parliament.  The new powder of democracy was sprinkled over the land, with unprecedented levels of freedom of speech.  But Russia in 1907 signed an anti-German pact with Great Britain, a portion of which divided Iran in half, with Russia having a sphere of influence in the north, Britain in the south, all the while purporting to honor and respect Iran’s independence.  The two powers encouraged Iran to crack down on the constitutionalists, resulting in the installation of a military dictatorship in the name of the shah.  For the remainder of the century, democrats and constitutionalists in Iran were caught in the middle, with those who favored an unchecked monarchy competing with Shia clerics and their supporters for control over public policy.

          Turkey underwent a similar constitutional revolution following a military mutiny in Macedonia in June 1907.  The military officers formed a key part of a group of “young Turks” who came together to demand that the brutally repressive Sultan Abdulhamid revive and reform the Ottoman constitution of 1876.  With the surprising backing of the Sultan, a new legislative chamber met in December 1908, at a time when the Empire’s hold on its European provinces had begun to unravel.  The defeat by Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece in the First Balkan War in 1912 all but ended the Ottoman presence in Europe.   

          As the first decade of the 20th century closed, Egypt, by then formally a British colony which lacked Iran and Turkey’s experiences with electoral politics, was also developing institutions that might have underpinned a liberal political regime, “if permitted to mature” (p.293).  Across the region, a liberal, modernizing tradition had emerged strongly in the three intellectual and political centers of the Middle East.   In less than a century, de Bellaigue writes, the region had “leaped politically from the medieval to the modern” (p.291).  But World War I constituted an “unmitigated catastrophe” (p.295) for the region.

          The Ottoman Empire, which sided with Germany during the war, ended up as one of the war’s losers and was formally and finally dismantled in its aftermath.  Britain used the war to increase its hold on Egypt and suppress nationalist activity.  Iran, although officially neutral, was violated with impunity during the war, as Turkish, Russian and British armies “ran amok on Iranian soil” in an effort to exploit Iranian oil resources.  By the close of hostilities, Iran seemed “barely to have existed” (p.296). 

          The secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, to which Tsarist Russia assented, divided most of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence and has come to symbolize the “cupidity and arbitrariness” (p.299) of the Western powers in the Middle East.  But to de Bellaigue, Sykes-Picot was far from being the most consequential among the treaties, declarations, and gentlemen’s agreements that were imposed on the region.  This collection of instruments, “ill-considered, self-interested and indifferent to the desires of its inhabitants” (p.300), created a belt of instability across the region that endures to this day.  The post-war settlements also accelerated the importance of oil for world economies, skewing development and ensuring continued meddling of the West in the region.

          The Islamic counter-Enlightenment which de Bellaigue describes in his final chapter was a “response to the arbitrary settlements that had been imposed by the victors in the First World War” (p.315), expanding revulsion toward the West exponentially across Middle East.  Fueled by the “paradoxical situation of imperialists advocating democracy” (p.315), the revulsion expressed itself in many forms, among them militant nationalism that left little room either for democratic norms or for Islam as a force that could provide internal coherence and strength to the region.

* * *

          Today, de Bellaigue concludes, it is “hard to discern any general movement in favor of liberal, humanist principles in the Middle East” (p.352).  Rather, the trend seems to be toward violence and sectarian hate, which makes it easy to discount the Islamic Enlightenment.  De Bellaigue’s erudite and – yes – enlightening work thus leaves us yearning wistfully that the sparks of new thinking which ignited Islamic civilization in the 19th century might somehow be rekindled in our time. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

December 15, 2018

3 Comments

Filed under History, Middle Eastern History, Religion