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Joseph Campbell, Myth Master

By the time he died last October at 83, he was a little prone to rhapsodies and exhortations. Like a modern Emerson, he let the boldness of his voice drown out the subtlety of his words, sang the praises of the cosmic round too loftily for the tragic sense to bear. He spoke on “human potential” at Esalen and pub­lished books with titles like Myths To Live By and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. A documentary termed his life “A Hero’s Journey.” And he was eulogized finally as a sort of guru to celebrity, a shaman whose ideas inspired Watership Down and Star Wars

At his best, though, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived. His effect on modern narratives may not be as central as Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; her review of the Holy Grail legend as a record of fertility rites served as a subtext for “The Waste Land” and a virtual plot outline for The Sun Also Rises. But Campbell’s scope is far wider, and his prose approaches liter­ature on its own. 

In fact, Campbell is tough to place among his colleagues. His name does not carry the weight of Sir James Frazer: the Golden Bough remains seminal in its en­cyclopedic comparison of myths and ritu­als. But Frazer skirted the controversial links between ancient rites and Chris­tianity and so, as Robert Graves said, “was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death …” Graves, on the other hand, leans too heavily on historical explana­tions in The White Goddess and Greek Myths. Each myth to him was the trace of some ancient conquest or migration, and behind them all he saw the con­quered, suppressed but recalcitrant God­dess figure whom, not to put too fine a point on it, he worshipped like a crazy man. Belief also underlies the works of Mircea Eliade, which Campbell consid­ered the scholarly counterpart of his more popular writings. For Eliade, like Campbell, the body of human mythology makes up a metaphysic. But Eliade, un­like Campbell, thought faith in that metaphysic — faith in God, that is — was our only bulwark against despair. 

Which is exactly what makes Campbell so fine, so different. In his best stuff, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and much of the four-volume Masks of God, he never sinks beneath the powerful spell of his subject; he balks at scuttling no belief in his search for a synthesis of them all. Nor does he argue that the synthesis refers to any extrinsic truth. You get all your favorite gods for free, and no evangelist will call. As a result, these books take on a mythic quality themselves — they produce, at times, the liberating effects they describe. Maybe this places Campbell not with the philos­ophers of myth, and certainly not with scientists like Claude Levi-Strauss, but with the authors of “campus classics”: creators of Self-Help Books for the Real­ly Smart like Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown. But Campbell goes beyond them because he does not, as they do, create a closed system of belief. Reading his books, rather, is like putting your hand out in the dark to find a door­way where you thought there was a wall. They offer, in their moment at least, free­dom not only from faith but from faith-lessness, a third way of thinking for those who will neither kneel down nor be shallow. 

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Campbell’s life, on the surface any­way, seems something other, if not less, than a hero’s journey. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a hosiery importer and his wife, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His annual visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show inspired an interest in Indian culture, and his studies inevitably turned up the fact that the themes of Catholic dogma recur in Indian lore and other legends around the world. Pursuing his interests at Dart­mouth and then Columbia, Campbell won a traveling fellowship to Paris and Mu­nich in the late 1920s. There, he discov­ered the new world of Joyce and Mann, Picasso, Freud, and Jung — and found that it too was based firmly on the old world of myth and legend. He returned to the States just as the market crashed and spent the next few years jobless, wander­ing and, most of all, reading. By 1934, however, he was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence, where he would stay for the next 38 years. In that time, he be­came moderately famous as an author and editor of books on myth and religion. His mind, even then, was clearly focused on the spiritual — at least one student compared him to a swami. But after his retirement from teaching in 1972, he be­came more completely a preacher on the uses of mythology in the modern world, rejecting the title of guru yet abdicating any claims to scholarly disinterest. At the end, not only George Lucas and Richard Adams, but the Rolling Stones, John Barth, and Denis Johnson could be counted among those whose work was affected by his. 

It sounds like a nice life. Even, as he used to say, a “serendipity.” But it’s pos­sible Donald Newlove got just a tad car­ried away when he wrote in a 1977 Es­quire piece: “His right eye is a falling blossom, his left a fading ember, his way of seeing is the way of genius, of art, of the world’s eye wrapped in a smile of madness. He weighs suns and shadows. He has a will of steel that works titanic labors. He is not mad. He is mad. His cosmic vision lives in two views of the world at once and is beyond duality … ” His office hours are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s in­sights were less than transcendent, (They would have to be, peering through a fall­ing blossom and a fading ember.) It’s just that the origins and nature of that tran­scendence have been misplaced — and were misplaced even, perhaps especially, by Campbell himself. The Power of Myth illustrates this. The book is edited from a series of interviews Moyers did in 1985 and ’86 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and at the Museum of Natural History; some of these talks will be broadcast in a six-part series on PBS starting May 18. The intelligence and ob­vious decency of the two participants make the book likable enough; Camp­bell’s seemingly bottomless erudition sometimes makes it fascinating. But there can be no mistake: Campbell had by this time followed the path of his study into dogma. It’s a good dogma, as dogmas go, a sort of spiritual humanism, but the limitations and stagnation of such doc­trinal thinking are obvious in pontifical exchanges like this: 

Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? 

Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any ritu­als, read The New York Times

Moyers: And you’d find? 

Campbell: The news of the day, includ­ing destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. 

Those young people! Bring back Torque­mada with his powerful mythology, his rituals, his civilized society — and, oh yeah, those hot pincers, too. 

Such flashes of stodginess show up even in earlier lectures. In 1970, for instance, Campbell scolded “those sociolog­ical geniuses that are, these days, swarm­ing on our activated campuses” because they’d sneered, heaven help us, at the first moon walk. And when, over the years, he mixed these bits of jingoism with a doctrine that seemed to offer en­lightenment without social disruption, he began to become a magnet for the furrow-­browed magi of our more genteel media. The wages of fame is banality.

As a result, it now appears that Camp­bell will be remembered as one of those lovable, harmless philosophers who shake their heads at human madness while re­affirming the “civilized society” that pro­duces it and was produced by it. This is a blessed shame, because it undercuts the power and complexity of the man’s great — sometimes visionary — books. And if the vision of those books congealed over time into priestcraft, if their author, among the first to interpret Finnegans Wake, was interpreted at the last by Jabba the Hut, it only goes to prove a portion of Campbell’s own thesis: “There must always remain … from the stand­point of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be brought from the transcendent deep be­comes quickly rationalized into nonenti­ty, and the need becomes great for anoth­er hero to refresh the word.” 

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That need “to refresh the word,” to revitalize the vehicle of mythic transmission, seems to me the im­plied core of Campbell’s great work. Like Freud, he is far more interesting when viewed not as a guru but as a literary critic: one who tells his tale by giving other tales new life. From this angle, Campbell was a sort of reconstructionist, dedicated to narrative not only as a method of journeying beyond narrative, but also as the place to which silence ceaselessly returns. He was willing to sub­mit to all that narrative implies — causal­ity, authority, and the duality of speaker and listener — but only so that causality would be extinguished, authority re­placed, and the listener metamorphosed into the teller in a round that never ends. Such an outlook, more practically, trans­forms the systems that threaten to crush us into an egress, a way out. The church that makes lapsed Catholics quail, the government that incites revolutionaries, the vagaries of parents and the false stratagems of art are not swept away here, but used as works, as stories that transport us to a place where they cease to exert their power. 

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written with Henry Morton Robinson, sets the tone of Campbell’s dialogue with world literature. Still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication, the Key identifies Joyce’s use of generic mythic themes. The protagonist’s tumble from a ladder is linked with the Fall; the many faces of Shem and Shaun are pegged to the recurring Brother Battle; the wake becomes a comic rehearsal of Resurrec­tion; and the riverrun which begins and ends the book is seen as the cycle of the One Mother, who is the life of everything that lives and the death of everything that dies. With these themes as guides, the Key proceeds to distill Joyce’s “root language” into something approaching English, and his massive “dreamwork” into something approaching a linear table of creation, manifold life, dissolution, and promised rebirth. 

This is actually kind of a wicked trick: it joins together what Joyce had torn asunder. Finnegans Wake, after all, oper­ates by dismantling itself. Its referential neologisms smudge the borders between the text and all that is not the text. Virtually no word among the book’s many thousands can be read in a single contextual sense; all evoke a series of connected words and ideas which, as the end of the novel suggests, arise from and fall into a unity of silence. This tech­nique, as the author of “Usylessly” brings into focus the accidental nature of the writer’s role. If all words unite finally into one, why are we reading these words? Why Finnegans Wake with all its difficulties and not Dr. No or Peanuts? Or Star Wars? As in the New Testament, the storyteller has to answer the ques­tion: “By what authority doest thou these things?” Joyce, though a fine gentleman in his own right to be sure, had not quite the recourse of his predecessor. 

Campbell and Robinson believed, how­ever, that Joyce had not abandoned his claims on the reader but simply reestab­lished the seat of narrative authority in the collective unconscious. The universal mythic themes enumerated in the Key are worked together throughout the Wake into a recurring dream of the Jung­ian all-mind, an ever-repeating complex of stories that Joyce terms the “mono­myth.” That story-without-end provides its own authority to the teller because, as actual dreams speak the underknowledge of the individual, the monomyth speaks in the hidden voice of us all. 

So an artist like Joyce, as seen in the Key, takes on the heroic role embraced by Stephen Dedalus when he said, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the real­ity of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” That is, he must plunge into the collective unconscious as it is temporarily incarnate in himself and his own life, experience the essence of the monomyth, and retell it afresh, giving his own accidental shape — “a local habita­tion and a name” — to the unchanging human story. 

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, is an attempt to decipher that “one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It is Campbell at his peak, the book people cite when they say Campbell “changed their lives,” and many of its interpreta­tions form the underpinning of the Campbellian spiritual approach. I find this irritating: it seems to me the book delivers its kick not with its mythic con­tent, but with its literary method. Camp­bell does not simply analyze the universal tale of the hero-task, he retells it, reforges it, as it were, in the smithy of his soul. To illustrate the unity of diverse tales, he patches together myths from all over the world. Where the voyages of Odysseus or Jason leave off, the descent into Hell of the Sumerian goddess lnanna takes up only to give way to the reawakening of Kamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights or the resurrection of Jesus. “We do not particularly care whether [they] ever ac­tually lived,” Campbell writes of these characters. “Their stories are what con­cern us … ” 

The outline of those stories, which are one story, is simple. First, the hero is called to adventure. If he accepts the call, he encounters a protective figure, usually an old man or woman, who supplies him with charms and instructions. “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him,” the hero overcomes the guardian of a threshold and moves into “the regions of the unknown” which are “free fields for the projection of uncon­scious content.” Here, “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are … reflected back against the individual and his soci­ety in forms suggesting threats of vio­lence and … dangerous delight.” 

These regions, however, are also the womb of the hero’s rebirth. Because now, “the hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assim­ilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) … One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” 

If he is fortunate, these trials prepare the hero’s consciousness for the ultimate adventure. This could be his atonement with the Great Father or his own apothe­osis; sex with the mother of all things or with an immortal god. Then, if the hero I chooses to accept the challenge of return — have constructed the sort of — critique he had in Hero, literature studying litera­ture. But even he confessed that Hero had been a uniquely vital moment in his work, and that Masks was more of an ”intellectual stunt.” In Creative Mytholo­gy, we are given only a stolid uncovering of the ”norms of myth” as Campbell finds them almost exclusively in Western writings. 

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From Hero to Creative Mythology, Campbell has shown the history of the monomyth to be the monomyth itself: the story of the human race moving from its sterile unity with a mother-envi­ronment, traveling into the realm of threats of violence and dangerous delight, ultimately to reach the threshold of the holy of holies — where perceiver and envi­ronment meet again — where we must try to embrace the other and bring back the boon … which is a retelling of the mono­myth. In this madness of reflection upon reflection, Campbell saw the best vision of the oversoul, the “controlled and in­tended statements of certain spiritual principles” of mankind. But what if the method to the madness lies not in our relationship to eternity, but in our rela­tionship to the structure of narrative it­self? Because once it is seen that every story, even the history of stories, is a mirror on a mirror, we next begin to question whether it is the form of the story that keeps imposing itself upon the content. That is, we begin to ask: does a narrative, simply by virtue of being a narrative, mold its accidental contents into the One Great Narrative? 

John Barth did a comic turn with this Chinese box version of storytelling in his 1972 novel Chimera, which is an extension of Campbell’s ideas. In it, he writes of the “recycled” hero: “‘Loosed at last from mortal speech, he turned into writ­ten words: … letters afloat between two worlds, forever betraying … the man they forever represent.” Likewise, a few years earlier, Jacques Derrida had discov­ered in Plato the idea of the word as the son of the speaker; the spoken word re­mains close to the father, retaining his living power; the written word is the or­phan or parricide who, as Plato writes, “always needs its parent to come to its aid.” Again, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus is depicted as the Logos emitted by the father God, sent to plant his own logos, his parables, like secJs. Which brings us in a circle back to Barth, whose characters like to talk as if ”writ­ing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally making love.” 

The mythic narrative begins to look a lot like the hero it describes. Once this myth grows sterile and codified in the mind of the true believer, it travels from him into the hearing of the faithless. Overcoming the resistance there, it meets with and embraces its opposite, the si­lence of illumination, and so refreshes the wasteland of the mind in which it lives once again. Small wonder all stories are the same, when the simple process of telling stories shapes the contents in the mold of itself. 

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To go further: “The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time,” writes Northrop Frye in The Great Code. He goes on to say that myth means ”first of all, mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential or­dering of words. As all verbal structures have some kind of sequence … all verbal structures are mythical in this primary sense.” 

In light of this, Campbell’s work con­tinues into places where Campbell him­self did not go. In his conversation with Moyers, he laments our “demytholo­gized” world (with its wayward youth) and seeks a new universal mythology: “The eye of reason, not of my national­ity; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community.” But this is a myth that misses the point. The universal myth is already with us: Language is myth, and any communication in time partakes of the mythic nature Campbell described so well. 

This accounts for our sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same, our sense of what might be called inclusion — an infuriating realization that our history, our ideas, our very method of thought trap us within them­selves. Inclusion is at work, for instance, when Freud uses objections to his theory to prove his theory. It is inclusion when radical opponents of a system can only work change insofar as they shed their radical values and are absorbed into the system, or overturn the system and take on its oppressive nature. Each approach to the structure, each new dogma, is found finally to be bankrupt, because it is never more than a retelling of the same old story. Each attempt to isolate the story — as Roland Barthes did, for instance, in Mythologies — reiterates the story — as Barthes did with his holy trin­ity of signifier, signified, and sign. Inclu­sion, it seems clear, is an aspect of narrative thought because the method of narrative shapes all contents to its own form. 

Another way to represent that method is as a succession of authorities. The voice of authority implants itself in the listener, a new authority is born in the listener and so overturns the original voice. In short, narrative can be seen as an emanation of the complexes we think of as patriarchal. The sequential ordering of words, linear thought, mythic thought is a “patriarchal” endeavor. It is, after all, a patriarchal system that depends on a verbal or written lineage in conferring power over life and death. 

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These sexual images are only images, of course. Our flesh imposes the meta­phors of duality, even when we’ve learned not to impose the metaphors on our flesh. Following along with them, though, it is possible to find an alternative form of communication that, having what we consider “feminine” or yin features, has been largely devalued in the West. In Zen, it is called I shin den shin, meaning “from my soul to your soul,” i.e. word­lessly. It is central to a way of life in which, as the Tao te ching puts it, “those who know speak not.” A ”fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities,” stagnant and enraging as it may be, does create a society in which actions speak louder than words. This is the communi­cation of direct transmission, as life is communicated from mother to child. 

But as Campbell demonstrated, that silence, insofar as it partakes of life, ceaselessly returns to narrative thought just as narrative thought is always jour­neying toward silence. Whether the movement represents the motion of hero and cosmos, or lover and lover, or body and womb, or the mind and itself — and who’s to say which is the most pro­found? — every story can lead us to a sense of something beyond words, and from that sense we bring new symbols with which we may tell the story again. 

Campbell saw revelation and societal good in some of the moments when story and silence merge, but all that can really be said with certainty is that the conjunc­tion gives us pleasure, like sex, in and of itself. That, stripped of all other mean­ing, may be ”all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Whenever we speak, we tell stories — stories that sound like myths, stories that sound like scientific theories, stories that sound like religions, stories that sound like interpretations of all the stories ever told. When these sto­ries are well received, we experience a silent sense of pleasure, which satisfies us till we need to hear the tales once more. 

To imprison this pleasure in moral law is to lose a bit of paradise through the knowledge of good and evil. As with sex, our judgment need only attend to the different levels and qualities of physical and emotional satisfaction. By this stan­dard, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the greatness of his prime, was a master mythmaker, a giver of bliss. 

And for that, more than anything else, may the Force be with him. ❖

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Langston Hughes Rides a Blue Note

The burden of the past plays itself out rather differently in the white and black literary traditions. For the scholar of West­ern literature, the authority of canonized texts and interpretations can hobble cre­ativity. How many years would it take just to read all the commentaries on Shake­speare, let alone make the corpus one’s own — and then to transcend it through a novel interpretation? The scholar of main­stream Western culture quickly collides with an enshrined collective memory that can confine just as surely as it preserves continuity and enables the extension of tradition.

The curse that the scholar of African and African-American studies bears, by con­trast, is the absence of a printed, catalogued, collective cultural memory. Despite the interest in Black Studies since the late ’60s, we still have relatively few reference works — biographical dictionaries, annotat­ed bibliographies, disciplinary histories, and especially encyclopedias, concordances, and dictionaries of black language use. The absence of these tools almost always forces one to recreate from degree zero the histori­cal and critical contexts that mainstream scholars can take for granted (imagine a critic of Shakespeare having to do primary research just to identify the poet’s allusions and his historical contemporaries). The ter­rible excitement that scholars of Black Studies feel stems from the knowledge that virtually everything they see or write can be new — free of the burden of the canonical past, the prison house of tradition. To pub­lish criticism still feels like making a fresh inscription on a large tabula rasa. Too of­ten, African-Americanists must reinvent the wheel, their work forever trapped in the paradox of “repeating themselves for the first time.”

The stories of individual African-Ameri­can lives are not exempted from this dearth of basic information. As Arnold Rampersad demonstrated in the Yale Review a few years ago, very few blacks have written full-­length biographies of black subjects. This is particularly curious because remembering is one of the cardinal virtues of black cul­ture — from subtle narrative devices like repetition of line and rhythm (the sermon, black music, oral narration) to more public commemorations such as the observation of “black” holidays (“Juneteenth,” Black His­tory Month, Kwaanza) or eating “Hoppin’ John” on New Year’s Day or reinterpreting the Fourth of July to make it analogous to Good Friday rather than Easter … from Founder’s Day ceremonies and family re­unions to the naming of institutions and places — Wheatley, Carver, Dunbar, and Washington public schools, Martin Luther King boulevards — to repeated historical concepts or metaphors, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Remembering characterizes African­-American culture because blacks have been systematically denied access to their histo­ry, both during and after slavery. Under slavery, of course, they were forbidden the tools of formal memory — reading and writ­ing. They were also denied their native lan­guages and even the drum itself (deemed subversive by many masters, and correctly so, as it was the “home” of repetition and contained a Pan-African language many blacks could understand). The intent was to deprive blacks of their memory, and their history — for without history, as Hegel said, there could be no memory, and without memory there could be no self. An aboli­tionist described in his memoirs this en­counter: he asked after one slave’s “self,” and the man responded, “I ain’t got no self.” Without hesitation the abolitionist asked, “Slave are you?” ”That’s what I is.”

This connection among language, memo­ry, and the self has been crucial to African-Americans, intent as they have had to be upon demonstrating both that they had common humanity with whites and that their own “selves” were as whole, “inte­gral,” educable, and noble as those of any other ethnic group (including, among the historical twists and turns, sundry “white ethnics”). Deprived of formal recognition of their subjectivity in Western arts and let­ters, in jurisprudence, and in all that signals full citizenship, African-Americans sought the permanence of the book to write their rhetorical selves into language. I write therefore I am. The perilous journey from object to subject is strewn with black auto­biographies; “Unscathed by Slavery” could very well be the subtitle of the hundreds of memoirs published by ex-slaves between 1760 and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in 1901.

This passionate concern with the self makes Rampersad’s discovery — the lack of an individual biographical impulse in the black tradition — especially fascinating. Al­though over 300 collective black biographies were published between the late 18th centu­ry and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the domi­nant genre in the African-American tradi­tion), only a handful of black writers have recreated the lives and times of other blacks.

It is as if the very vitality of autobiogra­phy produced a concomitant nonvitality of black biography; the energy necessary to proclaim “I am” could not be dissipated in making that claim for another. One’s public initiation was a most private act; one crossed, alone, the abyss between nothing­ness and being — positing humanity, self­hood, and citizenship with the stroke of one’s own pen. Only in biographical dictio­naries was this isolation overcome; biogra­phy was collective, a testament to the exis­tence of “the Negro” from A to Z, alpha­betically ordered parts amounting to an African-American whole. Nurses and churchmen, club women and members of fraternal orders, freemasons and free citi­zens of Cincinnati — each group had its own collective testimony.

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Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Lang­ston Hughes has ended this trend. For Rampersad, in elegant but understated prose, has rendered the world that Lang­ston Hughes made and the world that made him.

The recreation of detail is Rampersad’s most stunning achievement. He has ar­ranged volume two in 16 chapters, each of which addresses one, two, or three years between February 1, 1941, Hughes’s 39th birthday, and May 25, 1967, the day of his memorial service at Benta’s funeral home in Harlem. The book opens with a descrip­tion of Hughes’s gonorrhea and its painful cure, and ends with a meticulously recreat­ed account of his prostate surgery, brief recovery, then ultimate deterioration. Be­tween these rather intimate frames we learn who Hughes is, reading over his shoulder as he reveals his likes and dislikes, whom he admires and envies, when he is brave and when not so brave, when he is petty and jealous and when he is noble, when he writes for art and writes to eat, and his concerns and anxieties about his own im­mortality, the place of his icon in African­-American letters.

Of the several rhetorical techniques Rampersad employs, none is more effective than his use of “free indirect discourse.”

Emotionally more content, Langston also spoke now with a clearer voice on politics. Attending a Carnegie Hall memorial to W. E. B. Du Bois, undeterred by the fact that Du Bois had died a communist, he also published a tribute to him in the New York Post and in black newspapers through the Associated Negro Press. To interviewers from Italian televison and the Voice of America, and in an appearance for CORE at Barnard College, he spoke confidently, but in the interests of moderation, about the freedom movement. The present turmoil was a good thing, because it was making people think. Those who did not think, but wailed apocalyptically, were doing little good.

The “voice” in those last two lines reveals thoughts that are those of both Hughes and Rampersad, and, strictly speaking, of nei­ther. Rampersad merges, to great effect, the third-person narrative voice of the biogra­pher with the first-person voice of his sub­ject. He is able to tell us what Hughes thought and felt without resorting unduly to direct quotations from Hughes’s notes or letters The technique is effective preciselely because it is scarcely noticeable amid so much detail.

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I have to confess that in reading this book I fell in love with Hughes, the person, for tht first time. The more I learned of his complex emotions about his peers and ri­vals (Du Bois, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, a mad Ezra Pound sending him fan letters from the asylum) the more I admired him. My respect and affection for Hughes grew so much that I found it difficult to finish the book because I knew he was going to die. I mention these feelings because I think they’re symptomat­ic of a literary-critical generation that rec­ognized Hughes as icon and little else­ — failing, among other things, to read his po­etry closely, a mistake that led to glib asser­tions about a body of work that was actually unfamiliar. Rampersad has removed Hughes’s cardboard cutout from the Black Hall of Fame, and replaced it with a three­ dimensional figure who created a specific vernacular idiom in African-American po­etry, one informed by the blues and jazz — ­by both the classic and the urban blues and early jazz in his two masterpieces, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and by bebop, the cool, and even postmodern, poststructural, early/transitional Coltrane in Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961). Ask Your Mama is to Hughes’s canon as Duke Elling­ton’s longer compositions are to his earlier, shorter, popular pieces — that is, either ma­ligned or ignored. Hughes’s experiments with vernacular music and speech, and their combination into a new idiom of American and African-American verse, in­sure for him a permanent place in both canons.

Just as important was Hughes’s role in mediating among African cultures in the old world and the new. Only Du Bois, as both convener of the Pan-African congress­es and epitome of African intellection, can possibly rival Hughes in being the conduit between black poets and their poetry in Spanish, French, and English. Aimé Cé­saire and Léopold Senghor read Hughes:­ Hughes translated them into English, just as he did Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (with Mercer Cook). He also translat­ed Nicolás Guillén and García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads from the Spanish. Hughes’s role in creating a Pan-African literary culture, where poems by black authors in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English directly inform the shape of other poems by other black authors, has no rival in our intellectu­al history. Hughes’s poetry and his transla­tions forged a direct line between the new Negroes in Harlem and the Pan-Africans in Paris, Havana, Rio, Lagos, Dakar, Kings­ton, and Port-au-Prince. He worked to cre­ate a Pan-African intellectual culture just as Latin and the Church forged a Pan-Eu­ropean culture in the Middle Ages, even when peasants in what is now Germany or France knew not one jot about a ”European” anything.

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Hughes preserved his letters and memo­rabilia as if he were his own historian or archivist, with one eye on his correspon­dent, and the other on the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, where Carl Van Vechten had arranged for Hughes’s papers to be housed. Over almost a decade, Rampersad patiently pored over and sifted through the voluminous documentation, supplementing the testimony of the corre­spondence with thousands of hours of taped interviews. The result of such diligent labor, rendered in a highly readable narrative style, is a splendid thing to behold: Ram­persad has published the most sophisticat­ed biography of a black subject, and set the example by which all other biographies of black subjects will be judged. He has in other words, defined a standard of excellence and simultaneously created a field: the success of these books, as measured in sales, accolades, and well-deserved prizes, will certainly make biography a central field in African-American literary studies. Meet­ing the standard he has established, howev­er, will be extraordinarily difficult.

Rampersad’s two volumes have been reviewed extensively, from Greg Tate’s fasci­nating essay in these pages (VLS, July 1988) and Darryl Pinckney’s meditation in The New York Review (February 16, 1989), to two full-length reviews in the Times Book Review by two black women Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove — surely a coup of sorts in the history of black literary criticism. It is a tribute to Rampersad’s skill that each of these reviews has become a basis for dis­cussing the implications of Hughes’s life and art, as if the biographer’s own work could be taken for granted or was, somehow, transparent. Of course, one measure of successful biography as Rampersad practices it is just this “transparency,” this ab­sence of methodological discussion in favor of a full-scale engagement with Langston Hughes, or rather with ”Langston Hughes” as lovingly recreated by this subtle biographer.

Rampersad brings us into Hughes’s world, feeling as he feels, seeing as he sees. Not once do we feel the hand of the author on our shoulder, pushing us to interpret this way or that:

The day was cool, the sky above the Monterey Peninsula murky with rain and winter mists when Langston rode from the hospital to the grounds of his friend and patron Noel Sullivan’s estate, Hollow Hills Farm some five miles away in Carmel Valley. Since September, he had been living there as a guest of Sullivan’s in a one-room cottage built especially for him, where he could write and sleep free from most distractions. Now, however, he unpacked in an upstairs room in the main house where, over the next two weeks or so, he would nurse himself back to health. The room was comfortable, and soothingly decorated entirely in blue. On a side table was a gift sent form New York by his loyal friend Carl Van Vechten — a flowering plant, ”a kind of glowing little tree growing out of white pebbles in a white pot…”

Imagine how much research was necessary to recreate these scenes; the lines read like passages from a novel. Rampersad shows us what it was like to be Hughes as a human being, a human being who smells and breathes and hurts, who dreams and is am­bitious, who can be loving and peevish and jealous, who laughs rather too much when he is most anxious or full of dread, and who cares enormously about maintaining a love affair with the entire race.

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If ever a loving concern for “the race,” and a concomitant concern with its regard for him, defined what it means to be a “race man,” then Hughes was the example of it. Hughes cared passionately about regular Negroes, and about the importance of not appearing distant from them; as Ramper­sad says, “Langston psychologically needed the race in order to survive and flourish.” What’s more, he was “one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspira­tion for black artists.” Hughes earned the right to call himself the poet laureate of the Negro race. And Rampersad’s art as a biog­rapher lets us understand why.

Rampersad explains how the “depth of [Hughes’s] identification with the race” helped free him

not only to understand that the profession of writing was distinct from the “subject,” but also to see his race in a rounded humane way, rather than mainly as a deformed product of white racism. To Langston, Baldwin was tortured by a sense of an “all but irreconcilable” tension (in Baldwin’s words) between race and art because he lacked confidence in his own people and certainly did not love them, as Langston did. To Hughes, only a deep confidence in blacks and a love of them (two qualities that could not be divorced) would allow a black writer to reach the objectivity toward art that Hughes saw as indispensable. Baldwin was undoubtedly more troubled by race than he was, but Langston was far more what blacks regarded approvingly as a race man, far more involved with other blacks on a daily basis as a citizen and an artist, far less willing to estrange or exile himself from the culture, as Baldwin had done in going to live abroad.

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Rampersad treats Hughes’s attitudes to­ward Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and other black peers at fascinating length. For exam­ple, in 1953 a young Ralph Ellison, whom Hughes had befriended early on, emerged almost overnight as the dominant black voice in American letters:

Ellison’s triumph with Invisible Man was crowned when he accepted the National Book Award in fiction. Present at the cere­mony but obviously alienated in spirit, Langston reported to Arna Bontemps [a black novelist and Hughes’s closest friend since the Renaissance] that the proceedings were “mildly interesting,” dull really, with all the speeches stuffily delivered from pre­pared texts. Not long afterwards, at a cock­tail party at the Algonquin Hotel in mid­Manhattan to welcome Ellison as a new member of PEN, he begged the new star of Afro-American writing not to read a long, dull paper when he visited Fisk University soon — long papers were so dull. As he had with Wright almost fifteen years before, Langston was feeling the chill of his own eclipse.

But it was Baldwin with whom Hughes had the most difficult relations:

He shivered again early in February when an advance copy reached him of the latest sensation in black literature, James Bal­dwin’s dramatic first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a black boy’s troubled passage to manhood in the face of raw con­flicts with his domineering father and the terrifying pressures of black “storefront” religious fundamentalism. Worse yet, from Hughes’s point of view, the book was being published by Knopf, who for all practical purposes had dropped him (the reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred had gutted its interest in his volume of selected poems). Criticizing Baldwin’s sometimes unstable blending of gritty realism and refined rheto­ric in the novel, Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, “with her feeling for the folk idiom,” had been its author, “it would probably be a quite wonderful book.” Bal­dwin, however, “over-writes and over-poeti­cizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them,” in what finally was “an ‘art’ book about folks who aren’t ‘art’ folks.” Go Tell It on the Moun­tain, he concluded, was “a low-down story in a velvet bag — and a Knopf binding.”

In spite of this criticism, Langston duti­fully mailed a blurb for the novel to Knopf.

Nine years later Baldwin still troubled him.

To Langston, there was little that was truly creative, much less visionary, about Anoth­er Country. Privately to Arna Bontemps, he described Baldwin as aiming for a best-sell­er in “trying to out-Henry Henry Miller in the use of bad BAD bad words, or run [Har­old Robbins’s] The Carpetbaggers one bet­ter on sex in bed and out, left and right, plus a description of a latrine with all the little­boy words reproduced in the telling.” In the same letter, Langston linked what he saw as Baldwin’s excesses to the trend of integra­tion sapping the strength of black youth. Paying a stiff price for the modicum of inte­gration allowed them, young blacks were abandoning the old values and practices in the rush to be like whites. “Cullud is doing everthing white folks are doing these days!” Langston mocked … “Integration is going to RUIN Negro business,” he predicted — as it apparently threatened to ruin the finest young writer of fiction in the race.

Rarely have we been privy to the real feel­ings of black creative artists and intel­lectuals toward one other. The disagreement with Baldwin was, sure, one of many. Indeed, Hughes’s reactions to Melvin Tolson, Robert Hayden, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka — in addition to Wright, Bal­dwin, and Ellison — reveal how fraught with rivalry life “behind the veil” is, just as Jessie Fauset’s comments to him (“I’ve suffered a good deal from colored men writers from Locke down to Bontemps­ you know”) begin to suggest the degree of sexism that also has characterized African-­American literary relations.

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I had never realized that Hughes inter­acted with so many major figures in the artistic world between 1925 and his death in 1967. Hughes knew everybody, if almost no one knew him, or was able to penetrate the veils and masks that the truly vulnerable fabricate to present public personas to the world. Leafing through Rampersad’s index, one finds a veritable Who’s Who of 20th century art, from Stella Adler and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thomas Mann and Dorothy Maynor, to Ezra Pound and Allen Tote, Mark Van Doren, Kurt Weill, Max Yergan, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In so many ways and to so many people, Hughes was “the Negro,” or at least “Negro literature,” its public face, its spoken voice and cock­tail-party embodiment as well as the source of its printed texts. Reading Rampersad’s volumes makes it clear how deeply in­grained American Negro literature was in the larger American tradition, even if schol­ars, until very, very recently, bracketed it into a ghetto apart, the Harlem of the American canon.

In rendering Hughes’s reactions to and interactions with his equally famous con­temporaries, Rampersad’s biography chron­icles almost half a century in the history of both American art and the life and times of one of its most important figures. Through him we see and feel exactly how the great events in black history — the Harlem Re­naissance, the Depression, World War II, McCarthyite repression, the civil rights movement, the emergence of Africa and the larger process of decolonization as the Age of Europe came to a close with the lifting of “the color curtain,” and the rebirth of black nationalism in the Black Power era — how all of these large forces simultaneously de­limit and open up individual choices in the daily events that, taken together, define a life. Never has an account of a black human being revealed more vividly the particular­ities of a life within the context of large, public forces and events. No life, no matter how great, can possibly escape its context, its historical moment. For all his political ambivalences, Hughes saw this clearly, say­ing in one unpublished reflection:

Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.

What is poetry? It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words. The ethnic lan­guage does not matter. Ask Aimé Césaire. He knows … Perhaps not consciously — but in the soul of his writing, he knows … The Negritudinous Senghor, the Carib­beanesque Guillén, the American me, are regional poets of genuine realities and au­thentic values. Césaire … takes all that we have, Senghor, Guillén and Hughes, and flings it at the moon, to make of it a space­ship of the dreams of all the dreamers in the world.

As a footnote I must add that, concerning Césaire, all I have said I deeply feel is for me true. Concerning politics, nothing I have said is true. A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics?

Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.

Rampersad deftly creates a sense of the social, the political, and the historical as these are locked in a dialectical relationship with individual choices, determining their range of response yet determined by such responses as well. Nowhere in black biogra­phy has this relation between “text” and context been rendered as sensitively and truly.

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For most of his professional life, Hughes lived hand to mouth, his choices circum­scribed perhaps even more by economics than by racism. He was supported by pa­trons like Noel Sullivan, a dependence necessitated by the insulting treatment he re­ceived from publishers and the pittance he earned for his writings and readings.

Hughes’s books were widely reviewed in mainstream journals by mainstream writ­ers, even if few understood his experiments with black vernacular forms. His newspaper character, Jesse B. Semple (a/k/a “Sim­ple”), who appeared in a regular column Hughes wrote for the Chicago Defender, was remarkably popular; he was the vox populi persona of Hughes the “race man.” Simple once spoke eloquently to an obtuse friend on the meaning of bebop music:

That is where Bop comes from, … out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-Bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That’s why folks who ain’t suf­fered much cannot play Bop, and do not understand it. They think it’s nonsense — ­like you. They think it’s just crazy crazy. They do not know it is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY­ — beat right out of some bloody black head! That’s what Bop is. These young kids who play it best, they know.

Simple’s discussion of bebop shows how rich the Defender columns were, and how crucial jazz was to Hughes. Accordingly, we must learn to read him in new ways, “through” or “against” the African-Ameri­can vernacular.

As Rampersad puts it:

At varying, unpredictable times witty, sardonic, ironic, expository, whimsical, docu­mentary, and tragic, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is an expansiue poetic statement on the fate of blacks in the modern, urban world. The manuscript was Hughes’s an­swer in 1948 to the overwhelming question of the day in Harlem and communities like it, and possibly, prophetically, of the Afro­-American future: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a rai­sin in the sun?” “This poem on contempo­rary Harlem,” Langston wrote as a preface, “is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.” The poet’s love for the community is paramount, but his brooding intelligence is such that the wooden phrase “community in transition” is really portentous.

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In “Jazztet Muted,” for example, the 11th section of Ask Your Mama, Hughes introduced the poem with a musical cue that called for “bop blues into very modern jazz burning the air eerie like a neon swamp-fire cooled by dry ice”:

IN THE NEGROES OF THE QUARTER
PRESSURE OF THE BLOOD IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
WHERE BLACK SHADOWS MOVE LIKE SHADOWS
CUT FROM SHADOWS CUT FROM SHADE
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
SUDDENLY CATCHING FIRE
FROM THE WING TIP OF A MATCH TIP
ON THE BREATH OF ORNETTE COLEMAN.
IN NEGRO TOMBS THE MUSIC FROM JUKEBOX JOlNTS IS LAID AND FREE-DELIVERY TV SETS ON GRAVESTONES DATES ARE PLAYED.
EXTRA-LARGE THE KINGS AND QUEENS
AT EITHER SIDE ARRAYED
HAVE DOORS THAT OPEN OUTWARD
TO THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
WHERE THE PRESSURE OF THE BLOOD
IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER —
DUE TO SMOLDERING SHADOWS
THAT SOMETIMES TURN TO FIRE.

HELP ME, YARDBIRD!
HELP ME!

Rampersad’s assessments of Hughes’s poetry are always judicious; he never claims more for Hughes the poet than the poetry can deliver, yet his sensitive analyses of the poems should dispel forever the whisper among our critical generation that Hughes’s poetry does not withstand the rigors of for­mal analysis. Quite the contrary, Ramper­sad’s readings of Hughes’s best work — his vernacular poetry, cast in “the idiom of the black folk” and found especially in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and Ask Your Mama — should go a long way toward generating interest in rereading, closely, Hughes’s work, since as Hughes himself recognized, “only poetry can be [the poet’s] resurrection.” As Senghor wrote, Hughes excels in the creation of “images, analogical, melodious, and rhythmical, with assonance and alliteration. You will find this rhythm in French poetry; you will find it in Péguy, you will find it in Claudel, you will find this rhythm in St. John Perse … And it is this that Langston Hughes has left us with, this model of the perfect work of art.”

Hughes was wrong when he wrote that only his poetry could possibly resurrect him, for it is also true that a great biogra­pher resurrects the poet and the poetry, a life and a body of work — the latter “as frag­ile as pottery,” as Hughes put it. One of Arnold Rampersad’s great gifts to Hughes, and to all of us who love literature, is that never again shall the poetry or the poet be silenced.

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Rampersad’s other great gift is that he has made biography a glamorous pursuit within the new black criticism, which has been dominated recently by feminist and poststructural theorizing. This two-volume biography will go a long way toward generating other biographies and thereby build­ing up an African-American cultural memo­ry. We need good biographies of so many figures, from Phyllis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs to Du Bois and Alain Locke, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry — virtual­ly everyone who was anyone in the tradition remains to be written about, honestly.

For far too long, each of us has been imprisoned by peer pressure, forced to rep­resent only certain images of the Negro in order to avoid inadvertent reinforcement of racist stereotypes. This sort of tortured logic has surfaced most glaringly in mis­guided protests against key black feminist texts: Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls … , Alice Walk­er’s The Color Purple. “What will white racists think of black men?” the protesters asked, barely managing to keep a straight face. (Since when does a racist read The Color Purple — or anything at all, for that matter?)

No, we no longer need to sanitize the black past as we set about the complex business of generating our own African­American icons of the near and distant past. For it is our generation of African­Americanists that, at last, has the where­withal to encode the cultural memory in print, in video, on compact disc and on-line, freed at last from forever reinventing the wheel.

Rampersad has made a breathtaking start in treating Langston Hughes, who suffered more than most from the cramped solitude of iconography. Hughes’s public face(s) — and although he sought and found refuge in his beloved Harlem, he was cer­tainly our most public poet, speaking in one week alone to some 10,000 people — were crafted such that his true human substance could not be seen among his carefully man­ufactured shadows. He was a lonely man, and he suffered this isolation in the most private ways, almost never voicing it. The irony did not escape him; he fondly quoted Dickinson’s famous lines — “How public­ — like a Frog —/ To tell your name — the live­long June —/ To an admiring Bog!”

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The ironies hardly end there. Hughes protected — censored — himself as a racial icon; Black Studies scholars have censored their treatment of many figures in the in­terest of positive images; and black artists today, indeed most any black public figure, must contend with the tradition of self-censorship. Consider the impact this had on Langston Hughes’s sexuality. As Ram­persad judges, with great sensitivity:

The truth about his sexuality will probably never be discovered. If Hughes indeed had homosexual lovers, what may be asserted incontrovertibly is that he did so with al most fanatical discretion. On this question, every person curious about him and also apparently in a position to know the truth was left finally in the dark. He laughed and joked and gossiped with apparent abandon but somehow contrived to remain a mystery on this score even to his intimates. His ability to appear to be at ease and defenseless, and at the same time to deny certain kinds of knowledge to those with him, was ex­traordinary. All his life he prized control far too highly for him to surrender it in his most mature years. Control above all meant to him the preservation of his position as the most admired and beloved poet of his race. That position, which he saw as a mor­al trust, and which intimately connected his deepest emotional needs to his function as an artist, may have meant too much for him to risk it for illicit sex.

Rampersad was unable to prove our as­sumption about Hughes’s homosexuality, despite his impressive research skills. Had it been provable, Rampersad would have done so. His bolder conclusion is that this most basic “fact” about Hughes remains elusive after two volumes precisely because of Hughes’s determination to be a racial icon, to be presentable as the public face of the race. “Don’t go to that swimming pool,” my mother used to say, “without that mois­turizing cream. I don’t want you to embarrass the race by turning ashy.” That’s one part of black history we need to bury, the urge to produce a public Negro somehow more palatable to white people than the real thing. In defining the standard by which literary biography in our tradition, and in every tradition, shall be measured, Ramper­sad has helped to do just that. As Hughes and his alter ego, Arna Bontemps, liked to say, Rampersad has “done himself brown.” ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I, TOO, SING AMERICA, Volume I: 1902-1941. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $27.50; $9.95 paper.

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I DREAM A WORLD, Volume II: 1941- 1967. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $24.95.

SELECTED POEMS OF LANGSTON HUGHES. Vintage, $5.95 paper.

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Langston Hughes: A Genius Child Comes of Age

Warts and all, the Langston Hughes who emerges from the first volume of Arnold Rampersad’s exceptional biography doesn’t suffer badly in comparison with the var­nished Poet Laureate of Negro America that blacks have been raised on for generations. A staple of high-school curricula and home recitation, Hughes figures in African-Ameri­can life as significantly as in its letters, a literary hero the culture cozied up to like a warm hearth. Hughes was the first black American writer many of us ever read, and some of his verses hold the high honor of having been accepted into the canon of black mother wit — “Son, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is the most famous; “Nobody loves a genius child” runs a close second. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Nicolas Guillen, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron were all bene­ficiaries of Hughes’s lifelong encouragement of younger dark writers, and his career re­mains an inspiring model for black writers determined to make a living solely from their work.

Well, an inspiring model of sorts. As Rampersad details, Hughes spent the first two decades of an adventuresome life chas­ing fortune more doggedly than literary fame. He was fortunate in having fame thrust upon him early — publication in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Crisis in 1921 brought him the kindness of patrons black and white. Nevertheless, his youth reads like a 20th century guide to writing your way into history on $5 a day. Being a pauper didn’t keep him from covering the globe; much of Rampersad’s volume is spent tracking Hughes’s movements from the Midwest to Mexico, New York, Africa, Russia, and Spain.

Blessed with a facility for cheeriness, Hughes seems to have made it on little more than good vibes and curiosity. In the late ’30s, his veteran-bohemian advice to Man­hattan newcomer Ralph Ellison was “Be nice to people, and let them buy your meals” (according to Ellison, it paid off immediate­ly). Still, the specter of capital, or rather the lack and hungry pursuit thereof, viciously haunts Rampersad’s Hughes. In plying the writer’s trade to serve the race and feed himself, Hughes made considerable artistic, personal, and political sacrifices and com­promises. These form the core of the biogra­phy’s character revelations, though Rampersad appropriately notes how deeply Hughes’s upbringing conditioned his adult persona.

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True to the old saws that artists need unhappy childhoods and bad relationships with their fathers, Hughes spent at least half his life drawing upon the misery fate had doled out to him on both counts. His parents, James and Carrie Hughes, separat­ed not long after he was born, and young Langston thereafter saw little of his mother, who left him for long stretches in his grand­mother’s care. She was out seeking clerical work where she could find it in the poet-to­-be’s birth-state, Kansas. On his mother’s side, Hughes was descended from distin­guished free blacks, the abolitionists Charles and Mary Langston, who’d worked for the underground railroad. Mary lost her first husband, James Leary, in the Harpers Ferry raid. Hughes’s father, the self-educated son of slaves, was anything but a race man. “Detesting the poor, he especially disliked the black poor. He was unsentimental, even cold. ‘My father hated Negroes,’ Langston Hughes would judge. ‘I think he hated him­self for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes.’ Where Carrie’s parents had instilled in her a sense of noblesse oblige, Jim Hughes seemed to look upon most blacks as undeserving cowards.”

Rebellion against his father, as certainly as the race history he got on grandma Lang­ston’s knee (she used to wrap him in her first husband’s blood-stained shawl), played a large part in Hughes’s decision to become a race-conscious bard. Growing up in all­-white neighborhoods throughout his school years, he developed a diplomatic approach to race relations and an intellectual and emotional rapprochement with black work­ing-class culture. Like many subsequent black middle-class writers, he entered into a professional relationship with that culture which derived in equal parts from a sense of mission and a need to work out his own obsessions. The desire to resolve the conflict between responsibility to the race and re­sponsibility to literary ideals informs much black American writing. Hughes’s resolution would both nourish and compromise his art.

In 1915, when Hughes was 13, he was taken to a revival meeting by his aunt and lied about having been saved by the Holy Ghost. While he wept over the lie, he also recognized its necessity in allowing him to keep faith with black culture. “At thirteen, Hughes probably already viewed the black world both as an insider, and far more im­portantly, as an outsider. The view from outside did not lead to clinical objectivity, much less alienation. Once outside, every intimate force in Hughes would drive him toward seeking the love and approval of the race, which would become the grand obses­sion of his life.”

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After high school, Hughes went to Mexico to live with his father, who responded to his wish to write for a living with the advice that he should learn a skill which would take him away from the United States, “where you have lived like a nigger with niggers.” Fueled by his father’s hate, Hughes wrote poems that fused his personal hurts with his desire for love from blacks — black maternal love in particular. Through these poems, he would eventually find a home in Crisis and an empathetic editor in Jessie Fauset, doy­enne of the Harlem Renaissance. After going to New York in the fall of 1920 to attend Columbia, Hughes upped the ante with ra­cial verse aimed as much at unnerving his father as at providing uplift for the masses. According to Rampersad,

At lectures and readings at the Harlem Branch Library on 135th Street, Hughes met the black intelligentsia; but his main interest was the people, of whom his vision was both intensely romantic and cold.. . Fastidious and yet bohemian, moral but determined never to judge his people, Hughes instead celebrated his kinship with these 

Dream singers,
Story-tellers,
Dancers,
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate­ —
My people … 

Dishwashers, elevator boys, maids, crap­shooters, cooks, waiters, hairdressers, and porters — he sang the ordinary and the low. In this way he met his father’s contempt for black folk and for the poor.

Hughes also wrote his pioneering jazz and blues poems in this period, works that forged the bond between the muse of black poets and 20th century black music:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway … 
He did a lazy sway …
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

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In June 1923, Hughes shipped out to Africa as a sailor. As Rampersad notes, he saw Africa before elder Africanists Marcus Gar­vey and W. E. B. Du Bois set foot on the continent. Significantly, his initial observations of Dakar were anything but romantic and bordered on racist. “Hughes’s first im­pression was of crudeness and absurdity. Wandering through the town in ninety de­gree heat, his head spinning from glasses of cheap white wine, Langston that day saw Africa as ridiculous — black men dressed in billowy white gowns, sweating market wom­en with bare breasts, children stark naked to the world. Giddy, he sat down to describe the scene to his mother. ‘You should see the clothes they wear here,’ he wrote Carrie, ‘everything from overcoats to nothing. I have laughed until I can’t. No two people dress alike. Some have on capes, some shawls, some pants, some wear blue cloths fastened around their necks and feet blowing out like sails behind. Some have on preachers’ coats, others knee pants like bloomers, with half-hose and garters. It’s a scream!’ ” But by the end of August, Hughes would see Africa less as a “blur of exotic images” than as a place held in underdevel­opment by colonialism’s grip. For Hughes, Africa had become “ten year old wharf rats offering nightly to take sailors to see ‘my sisters two shillings,’ ” elephantiasis and swollen bodies under palm trees, white men with guns at their belts, inns and taverns with signs up, EUROPEANS ONLY, missionary churches with Negroes in the back seats and the whites who teach Jesus in the front rows.”

“The white man dominates Africa,” Hughes would write. “He takes produce and lives, very much as he chooses … And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower below the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws made in Europe for the black colonies.” Hughes had been writ­ing African-identified poetry but found that no African believed him, with his copper-­brown skin and straight Indian hair, to be black like them. In response, he began to write poetry inflected with the Pan-Afri­canist ideal.

The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

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Hughes visited Europe before returning to Harlem in 1924, just as the well-engineered Harlem Renaissance was entering full swing. Yet his participation in the many fêtes aimed at securing white patronage and book contracts for black bohemian intellec­tuals would be stymied by a move to Wash­ington with his mother. Life in Washington, as an upstart black poet, brought him into conflict with the black middle class, toward whom he turned up his nose in a bohemian sniff. It’s nearly tragicomic that what Hughes thought about his upwardly mobile brethren and sistren of the day describes a fair portion of their ’80s successors to a tee. “The younger blacks were obsessed by money and position, fur coats and flashy cars: ‘their ideals seemed most Nordic and un-­Negro.’ Lightskinned women coolly snubbed their darker acquaintances. College men boasted of attending pink teas graced by only blue veined belles almost indistinguishable from whites … they had all the manners and airs of reactionary ill-bred nou­veaux riches except that they were not really rich. Just middle class.”

Washington was also responsible for Hughes’s sharpening his knowledge of blues and jazz culture and further developing his working-class consciousness. Hilariously, the anything but mellifluous Hughes once dared to unleash his brand of blues singing on the Rock Creek Bridge. It provoked a passerby to rush to his aid, mistaking his unsoulful moans for agony. Hughes had en­counters with notables black and white in D.C., including famed black historian Carter G. Woodson, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom he slipped some poems while working as a busboy. In Baltimore, he met Bessie Smith. When Hughes asked for her “theory of the blues,” Smith dished how all she knew was that the blues had put her “in de mon­ey.” (Though Rampersad gives this seemingly trivial rejoinder short shrift, it would carry considerable weight with poststructur­alist blues scholars and folklorists.)

In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published. Between 1926 and 1939, he would write and publish much of the best and most influential work of his prolific career — his second volume of poems, the controversially titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (“When hard luck over­takes you/ Nothin’ for you to do/ Gather up yo’ fine clothes/ An’ sell ’em to the Jew”), a short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, the novel Not Without Laughter, the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, several children’s books in collabora­tion with his lifelong friend Arna Bontemps, and the most financially successful of his plays, Mulatto. He also spent time gathering information and soaking up the scenery in Cuba and Haiti, did a foreign correspondent stint in Spain during the Civil War, and spent a year in Russia. The Russian sojourn came about in 1932, when Hughes and a host of young Harlemite writers and activ­ists were entreated by a German film com­pany to star in a fiasco production of a working-class musical.

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His flirtations with socialism were partly out of self-interest — when mainstream pub­lishers wouldn’t come through for him, New Masses would pick up the slack. But his leftist poetry compromised little of his plain-spoken lyricism and engaged some very radical views. While undertaking his Russian expedition, Hughes wrote the most radically strident poem of his life, “Good­bye, Christ,” — all the more blasphemous for its sermon-like cadences.

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day I reckon­ —
But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too.
Called it Bible —

But it’s dead now.
The popes and preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers­ —
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s church …
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson.

Hughes never intended for this poem to leave Russia, but it was passed on to black American communist leader Harry Hey­wood, who published it. This was much to Hughes’s later regret when the rabid evan­gelist Aimee Semple McPherson mounted an attack that gathered black church forces behind her.

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There was a profound contradiction be­tween Hughes’s radicalism and his need to be accepted by the black masses. He was neither the first nor the last black intellectu­al to feel tugged apart by the ideological demands of a white-dominated left and his nationalist tendencies, as Harold Cruse’s ep­ochal work on that conundrum, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, makes clear. To his sometime patron of the ’30s, Noel Sulli­van, Hughes confessed that since poverty seemed to be his lot, “the only thing I can do is string along with the Left until maybe someday all of us poor folks will get enough to eat, including rent, gas, light and water.”

Hughes’s disavowal of politics in the late ’30s was influenced by dollar signs more than politics or feeling for the masses. “To a large extent, he gave up on radicalism not on ideological grounds, but as an impractical involvement that endangered his career as a writer. Radicalism paid very poorly in America; it also tended to estrange him from the black masses. Accordingly, he had been returning the needle of his conscience to its oldest and deepest groove, that of race. But instead of attempting to explain or jus­tify this realignment, Hughes had done ev­erything he could to conceal it … he could point to his renewed emphasis on race as proof of his distance from communism, and pass off as deep alienation what was in fact pragmatic withdrawal.”

In 1940, when Richard Wright’s Native Son became a Book of the Month club best-­seller and the best-selling black book ever, Hughes reacted with dismay and envy, not least because he had shelved a project simi­lar to Native Son, fearing it would have no market in New Deal America. Talk about your deferred dreams. Rampersad leaves Hughes still struggling (acclaim and notori­ety notwithstanding) to make ends meet for himself and his mother, whose welfare he assumed like a guilty burden rather than the duty of a loving son. In his need to become the most beloved genius child in black liter­ary history, he had sacrificed his writerly independence and forced himself to bedrock his maturity on filial responsibility. How Hughes’s recurrent conflict with mom, muse, money, and the masses is played out will surely add to the drama of Rampersad’s next chapters. ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: Volume 1, 1902-1941 I, Too, Sing America By Amold Rampersad Oxford University Press, $22.95; $9.95 paper

[Editor’s note: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the photographer credit for the illustration at the top of this article is “Griff Davis / Black Star,” while on the original page back in 1988 (below) the credit is for “Greg Davis / Black Star.” We recently learned that this portrait of Langston Hughes was indeed taken by Griffith J. Davis, a storied photographer who was Ebony magazine’s first Roving Editor. Starting in 1949, he became an international photojournalist for the the Black Star Publishing Agency, and was later a U.S. Foreign Service Officer during the early U.S. civil rights movement and the Independence Movement of Africa. More information is available at www.griffdavis.com.]

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Jack London’s Endless Journey

The Inevitable White Man

But remember, my reader, whom I hope to have travel far with me through time and space — remember, please, my reader, that I have thought much on these matters … I have been alone with my many selves to consult und contemplate my many selves. I have gone through the hells of all existences to bring you news … 

— The Star Rover (1915)

In his 40 years, Jack London never could stop traveling. Born in San Francisco in 1876, the product of a one-year common-­law marriage between Flora Wellman and the footloose no-account astrologer William Chaney, he was John Chaney for nine months until Wellman married John Lon­don, whose name was given to Jack. He grew up in Oakland and on nearby farms; at 15, he tapped the African American wet nurse who partly raised him, the former slave Virginia Prentiss, for $300 — ”my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her ‘white child’ the money?” (John Barleycorn, 1913). She would. Jack London bought the Razzle Dazzle for use in pirating oysters from the beds on the Bay, and he would spend the rest of his short life sailing away.

“I wanted to be where the winds of ad­venture blew” (John Barleycorn), which in London’s adolescence meant the Bay, the scrappy tumbling life of the Oakland docks, the doubled universe of sober hard work and inebriated fancy, “life raw and naked, wild and free … And more than that, it carried a promise. It was the beginning. From the sandpit the way led out through the Golden Gate to the vastness of adventure of all the world … ” (John Barleycorn).

So it did. By the age of 19, London had sailed across the Pacific, via Hawaii, to Japan and the Bering Sea, an able seaman before the mast on the Sophia Sutherland; he tramped across the U.S., briefly with Coxey’s Industrial Army of the Unem­ployed then on his own until Buffalo, where he was arrested for vagrancy and served 30 days in jail, returning west across Canada on a coal car, south from Vancouver as a stoker; he sailed to Juneau for the Gold Rush, wintered on Split-Up Island 80 miles from Dawson City, then rafted down the Yukon and, penniless, sailed home.

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London would draw on his teenage ad­ventures for the rest of his life. But in 1898, back in Oakland, he realized that some travels are more difficult than others. Working at backbreaking manual jobs, sup­porting the family of his impecunious step­father, London decided that life as an in­dustrial worker would make him an animal. “I would be a laborer, and by that I mean I would be fitted for nothing else than labor” (1898). He had to escape: “[I]f I knew that my life would be such, that I was destined to live in Oakland, labor in Oakland at some steady occupation, and die in Oakland — ­then tomorrow I would cut my throat and call quits with the whole cursed business” (1898). He determined to travel out of his social class.

That’s never an easy trip; certainly not when you, as Jack London did, try to make it by becoming a writer. He never really explained why he chose writing over some more likely path; his earliest published let­ters are already full of ambition. In the event, he approached writing as an indus­trial laborer might. He faced down the ma­chine: a borrowed typewriter.

How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a pipe-stem for a back … I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I’d have operated it with a carpenter’s hammer. (John Barleycorn)

His teenage life was a series of bouts, and he remembered it that way, in his letters, in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, and his boozer’s memoir, John Barleycorn: bouts of writing, labor, education (brief stints in high school and a cramming acade­my, a semester at the University of Califor­nia, and, above all, feverish periods of inde­pendent study). “If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself” (1898). By the end of 1899, he had published 24 pieces — essays, stories, poems, jokes.

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Within a few years London was a well­-established writer; within a few more, he ranked among America’s best-paid, most widely read authors. Though remembered now chiefly for his dog novels (The Call of the Wild and White Fang), he was never just a writer of complicated adventure sto­ries any more than Mark Twain was a crackerbarrel tale-spinner. London pushed American literature in new and strange di­rections. He created his own unique land­scape, a combination of Yukon and open seas, utterly American yet utterly bizarre: at once American and bizarre because the emphatic Jack London landscape, with its heartbreaking solitude, its violence, its mo­mentous choices made according to terribly simple codes, its Darwinism, greed, and straightforward racism, was evidently rec­ognizable to white Americans, and yet hardly any of them had or ever would mush their dogs into Dawson or sail the high seas. Many would, like young Jack, be working in jute mills or laundries — in other words, live the life he said he would rather die than perpetuate. He brought his readers on a trip to a landscape that seemed not only made for them but made by them, a peculiarly visceral American place that practically none of them would ever really see. London, the harsh realist, was from the beginning a writer of fantasy.

London succeeded, in a way. He became rich and famous. His travels through social class provided him with The People of the Abyss (1903), a pioneering nonfiction book on conditions in London’s East End; The Road (1907), a fictionalized account of his tramping experiences; numerous stories, sometimes set among the upper classes; the two autobiographical books; and a number of essays, often given as lectures, that ar­gued for the certain demise of capitalism in favor of socialism and a just, rational, healthy society. His radicalism was of long standing — he ran as a Socialist Democrat for mayor of Oakland in 1901 — and had his characteristic intensity.

I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat … I ran back to California and opened the books. I do not remember which ones I opened first. It is an unimportant detail anyway. I was already It, whatever It was, and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist . … [N]o economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom. (“How I Became a Socialist,” 1903)

London did not like the ruling class. His story “The Minions of Midas” (1900), for example, is a remarkably sadistic fantasy of working-class vengeance. London described The Iron Heel (1908), a sci-fi novel in which we look backward on the 20th century and marvel at its capitalistic idiocy, as “some very excellent socialist propaganda” (1906) in which “I handle … the inevitable breakdown of capitalism under the structure of profits it has reared” (1906).

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Yet London’s socialism was of an espe­cially American kind. It foundered on indi­vidualism. The class struggle was too sharp, and its sharpness too romantically attrac­tive, for London to adopt the reformism through which individual effort is some­times rewarded. Moreover, socialism of­fered London no objective correlative, so to speak, in the world he knew, and thus no imaginative landscape comparable to his Yukon or ocean. The choices that mattered most to him were those made at the limits of real experience — individual choices.

London wrestled with the implications of individualism. He wrote in a 1905 letter of having “recently emerged” from the Nietz­sche “sickness.” The fight against individ­ualism became an article of faith for him. “I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world. At the same time I have been an intellectual enemy to Nietzsche. Both Martin Eden and The Sea Wolf were indictments by me of the Nietzschean philosophy of the super­man” (1915).

But socialism, in the end, provided little more than a placebo for the Nietzsche sickness. London did agitate for socialism, emphasizing the cruelties of the existing sys­tem and the steady empowerment of the ground-down masses. However, he felt these masses would build their power less through organization than through one-by­-one conversion. As seen in “How I Became a Socialist,” London located the power of this conversion in a fear of the Social Pit. In other words, an individual would convert to socialism from terror of remaining in the lower class.

Hatred of one’s class position is probably not the best way to build class solidarity. London’s 1905 statement that he had trav­eled upward in society, then “went back to the working-class in which I had been born and where I belonged,” doesn’t hold up un­der biographical or artistic scrutiny. Lon­don managed to live with an unstated dis­tinction between individual superiority and socialist consciousness. He was not averse to terms such as “herd” for describing the mass of humanity. His heroes nearly always make their decisions alone.

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Socialism leaves little room for tragedy — ­that’s partly the point of it — and London was in love with the tragic. A socialist world, as he envisioned it, wouldn’t be much to write about. “The Strength of the Strong” (1911), which London wrote explicitly as a defense of socialism, features a group of trib­al types sitting around bemoaning their inability to band together. Thanks to this lack of solidarity, they are always being de­feated. But some day, Long Beard says at story’s end, ”all the fools will be dead and then all live men will go forward. The strength of the strong will be theirs, and they will add their strength together, so that, of all the men in the world, not one will fight with another.”

Some day. Meanwhile, the passions that kept London traveling wouldn’t let him an­chor in socialism. The tension between the individual and the collective — between London and the world — that propelled his journey would have to be resolved elsewhere.

London sought the elemental, and the elemental qualities he located in American life were not the inevitability of socialism but selfishness and death. In “The Minions of Midas,” an exceedingly elemental story, the titular minions are a cabal of workers who blackmail a capitalist. He must give them $20 million, or they will kill people. They are, they explain, tired of being drudges and need capital to win life’s battle. The capitalist stands firm; the minions murder innocents steadily and with impuni­ty; the capitalist kills himself. The minions declare their intention to continue killing until the last capitalist generation. And there the story ends.

Despite this tooth-and-claw view of real existing capitalism, or perhaps because of it, London searched for a bedrock collective beyond class. He found one in an imaginary region at least as American as pitiless in­dustrialism: race. (Even in 1900 he wrote, in a letter, that economics only “plays one of the strongest leading parts in the drama of the races.”) The Yukon stories, in particu­lar, present race as central to the human experience. London frequently makes his heroes’ whiteness, their understanding of it and its requirements, the animating fact of their destinies.

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What was this whiteness? Two things, mainly: an inexplicable tribal imperative and a historical force. London saw the white race — sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Western, often just white — as fulfilling a mission compelled by its special characteristics and taking advantage of his­torical conjuncture. In a famous essay on Kipling from 1901, he wrote: “The Anglo­-Saxon is a pirate, a land robber, and a sea robber … The Anglo-Saxon is strong of arm and heavy of hand, and he possesses a primitive brutality all his own … He loves freedom but is dictatorial to others, is self­ willed, has boundless energy, and does things for himself.”

London felt pride in his own race, or rather in the race he imagined for himself. He hated half-breeds. As a correspondent, he blamed the Mexican-American war on that portion of Mexico’s population he found to be of mixed racial parentage. “Like the Eurasians, they possess all the vices of their various commingled bloods and none of the virtues.” His 1916 letters to a Greek ex-friend, Spiro Orfans, show Lon­don in full cry: “You … who are too heterogeneous through your bastard mixture of uncountable breeds, get up on your little dunghill and announce that all life is mongrel … Your logic is as rotten as your 2000-years degenerate race.”

London’s hatred of the mongrel had a corresponding virtue, namely racial or trib­al purity and the guarding of racial distinctiveness. For example, his most famous rac­ist activity in an American context came in his coverage of Jack Johnson’s heavyweight title fights: against Burns, in Australia, in 1908, then against Jeffries, the Great White Hope, at Reno in 1910. ”Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win.”

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What could be clearer? Many things: Jack Johnson won both fights, and London was delirious in his praise. He went on and on about Johnson’s intelligence, coolness, and grace, his ”pure fun, gentle wit,” this “amazing Negro from Texas, this black man with the unfailing smile, this king of fighters.” After Jeffries’s defeat, he wrote: “Once again has Johnson sent down to de­feat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them all. And as of old, it was play for Johnson.” London admired Johnson as a brilliant fighter; he doubly admired him because he was black. “And he played and fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd.”

London’s racism may have been ahead of its time. It often sounds like a hard multi­-culturalism. He wanted the races to be true to themselves. This gave him the possibility of a worldview unlike that of socialism, one which accommodated both firm collective identities and human drama and tragedy on a global scale, without end. Life for London had to be a struggle; and racism, racial con­flict, was full of promise.

And yet, and yet: London also wrote, though not often, against racial prejudice. Furthermore, he doesn’t appear to have liked his own race much more than he liked his own class. “The Inevitable White Man” (1908) stands as a racial analogue to “The Minions of Midas.” A typical men-sit-­around-chatting yarn, it presents several white men in a New Hebrides bar debating the white man’s mission “to farm the world,” farming being understood as a met­aphor for conquest and control. One char­acter explains: “Tip it off to him that there’s diamonds on the red-hot ramparts of hell, and Mr. White Man will storm the ramparts and set old Satan himself to pick-­and-shovel work.”

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All the characters recognize this as in some way stupid. And the bulk of the story is devoted to Saxtorph, “the one inevitable white man,” as Captain Woodward de­scribes him to his boon companions: “He was certainly the most stupid man I ever saw, but he was as inevitable as death.” Saxtorph has the brain of a gnat, but he’s a great shot. The story’s central drama con­cerns a black slave revolt. Saxtorph kills the rebels, one by one, in an excruciating slaughter. This is the murdering imbecile whom London presents as the one truly inevitable white man.

And so race does not quite deliver the happy marriage of individual and collective destiny. Where, then, could the lonesome traveler head for next? London’s science-­fiction and fantasy are difficult to find. The Library of America does not include them. Yet here London’s conundrums assume rare and telling form. He allows himself to travel across time and space. He fragments himself, tears himself up, and the joy he feels in this process is palpable. For once he can travel with a coherent pleasure. At last he frees himself from the collective; or rather, he spreads the individual self over time, creating an imaginary collective of selves unhindered by geography, liberating himself for adventures of identity that nei­ther class nor racial solidarity could ever allow.

As far as book-length work goes, the process began with Before Adam (1907, an obscure work today though widely read at the time. He told an editor: “[I]t is the most primitive story ever written … It goes back before the cave-man … to a time when man was in the process of Becoming.” In it, the first-person narrator reveals his special ability to dream himself into an ear­lier existence. “Some of us have stronger and completer race memories than oth­ers … I am a freak of heredity, an atavistic nightmare.”

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Before Adam is a weak, nearly lifeless novel. Only a few passages stand out: the long description of the narrator’s simian father, whom he sees in infancy and never again; and the scenes involving Red-Eye, the youthful narrator’s unconquerable nem­esis, who takes a wife as it pleases him, beats her, then kills her and finds another. It’s hard not to read this novel in the shad­ow of London’s own paternity. All that lives on its pages are the body of the absent father and the inevitable Red-Eye — “Red-Eye, the atavism,” the book’s last words.

In Before Adam London found the dream-device, and he returned to it in his last completed novel, The Star Rover (1915). “All my life I have had an awareness of other times and places,” it begins. Lon­don’s narrator posits an idea of childhood (“You were plastic, a soul in flux”): Chil­dren can dream their previous existences. While still in flux a child will scream in fear — but the fear is not the child’s fear, it is the fear of the child’s “shadowy hosts of progenitors” whose voices scream through the child’s voice. The progenitors’ experi­ences are the child’s reality: “The stuff of our sheerest dreams is the stuff of our experiences.”

And at last the harsh realist London found the imaginary landscape he had been traveling toward, a vast non-place in which his individualism and his collectivism could play at will. In a 1907 letter to his editor he wrote: “[I]n all that I have said and written and done, I have been true. This is the character I have built up; it constitutes, I believe, my big asset.” An asset, but also a burden. In The Star Rover he shatters his character into pieces and scatters it over thousands of years. Where does the proud man choose to travel now that he’s free; now that the only collective is memory? He changes form at will. He is a Roman slave, a medieval European aristocrat. He is a beggar in Korea, and a king, and a frontier boy. He falls in love with nonwhite women, fervently in love, and displays a tenacious loyalty to them. He learns languages easily and merges with other cultures. The Star Rover is the only London novel in which the narrator has much fun. He manages, sometimes incongruously, to remain blue-eyed, male, smart, and physically fit.

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The Star Rover‘s narrator — Darrell Standing, a former professor — is also, how­ever, a prisoner on death row. “They are going to take me out and hang me pretty soon. In the meantime I say my say, and write in these pages of the other times and places.” Standing has learned the trick of time travel from a fellow prisoner. He trav­els under special conditions: when the war­den has him laced into a straitjacket. The warden is torturing him to get information Standing doesn’t have. Unable to move and soon to be dead, Standing tells us:

I am life. I have lived ten thousand genera­tions. I have lived millions of years. I have possessed many bodies … Cut out the heart, or, better, fling the flesh-remnant into a machine of a thousand blades and make mince meat of it — and I, I, don’t you understand, all the spirit and the mystery and the vital fire and life of me, am off and away. I have not perished. Only the body has perished, and the body is not I.

Apparently London, late in his brief life, found a country and a collective big enough that he could roam without feeling bound, without hating or fearing his companions and surroundings. The country was every­thing he could remember about history; the collective was all the people he could imag­ine, and all the people he could imagine himself being. That London was only able to reach this destination through a charac­ter straitjacketed on the floor of a cell, an­ticipating death, is the sort of paradox one comes to expect of him. ❖

THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.96 (three volumes).
THE LETTERS OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.50 (three volumes).
JACK LONDON: The Novels and Stories. The Library of America, $27.50.
JACK LONDON: Novels and Social Writings. The Library of America, $27.50.
THE STAR ROVER. Westview, $12.95 paper.
BEFORE ADAM. Star Rover: $6.95 paper.

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

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In Praise of Pulps

Bannon’s Lusty Lesbian’s

“Ann Bannon” — a pseudonym — now teaches college English somewhere in Cali­fornia, but from 1957 to 1962 she wrote and published six interconnecting potboiler nov­els about contemporary capital-L Lesbian life. These pulp stories are simply amazing reads — engaging, sexy, and unexpectedly il­luminating. It is almost impossible to believe they were written when they were because there was — and is — so little like them. Ban­non took the soft-porn/illicit-love genre and, without denying the reader’s expectation of simplistic, unlikely plot and routinely pas­sionate characters, opened up the form to allow a serious study of three women corning to grips with their attraction to women.

Why did Bannon write potboilers and not “serious” novels? Her pulps were read, passed around, but no library carried them, and they dropped out of sight. (A few years ago, the Arno Press “Homosexuality” series, edited by Jonathan Katz, reissued four; now Tallahassee’s Naiad Press has reprinted five, leaving out the one called Marriage.) A couple of books from the same period used similar “coming out” lesbian themes — The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (Patricia Highsmith) and the moving Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule — but these are straight­forward novels, somewhat quiet in tone if you ignore the shock of their woman-loving protagonists. Although Highsmith and Rule were brave, Ann Bannon “got away” with much more rafter-shaking woman-chasing because potboilers aren’t subject to system­atic cultural censorship. Highsmith’s and Rule’s novels lack the protective subterfuge of genre conventions. The potboiler ploy was Bannon’s strategy. Her problem was to sneak guilt-free prolesbian values past the genre’s sniggering or unsuspecting reader: to find her audience within an audience, or to create it.

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Cultural values are found under any rock the culture has produced. Gemstone or flagstone, the various culture-worms are un­derneath. This is not to say that each rock covers the same ground. In the late 1950s, in these United States, the values most often affirmed in novels, TV shows, advertising, you name it, were the goodness of America, the benefits of progress, and the inalienable right to a home, car, and wife. Of course, these assumptions as well as others — like the status quo of blacks — were openly and covertly challenged, for that’s the way values are defined.

Yet in the late ’50s, some worms still dared not speak their name. Both “high” and popular culture evaluated homosex­uality by denying it. A few exceptions were allowed: complete repression (to invoke the psychoanalytic trope) gives the repressed thing totemic power, and we certainly don’t want that. High culture managed this dif­ficulty through a medical paradigm, defining same-sex inclination as deformity, neurosis, illness, or whatever the culture needed to contain the worm and consolidate control over it. When high culture broached the topic outside the hospital, it did so at its own peril. The spate of novels and stories about male-male love that appeared, logically, just after World War II (Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, John Horne Burns’s The Gallery, Ward Thomas’s Stranger in the Land) were pulled off the market, to live on only as dog-eared documents of a sub­cultural underground — at least until they could be revived in more temperate com­mercial times. In the ’50s, if a novel was “gay,” it was not really a Novel. In this way the forbidden subject of homosex was forced to cancel out the high-cultural ambitions of its vehicle.

Popular and ethnic culture, on the other hand, gave homosexuality some living room in jokes, jazz songs, vaudeville, drag shows, pornography, and pulp lit. Homosex was allowed here, but acknowledgment is not the same as acceptance or, heaven forbid, celebration. Although it must have been pleas­antly surprising to hear any mention of the guy with the pink necktie or the horsey butch with the close-cropped hair at a time when isolation and invisibility were major methods of containment, such pigeonholing was not always accurate. More important, it was rarely humane. And culture is never passive; when provided with only these exag­gerated and derided models, the unformed male-loving male or woman-loving woman may feel obliged to conform to them. It’s true that once a woman-loving woman sees the butch-femme possibilities she can get away with, she will take the roles into her own hands: outsiders make tools of their chains. But lesbian inventiveness, lesbian reality, never floated to the surface. Popular culture admitted a tiny “gay culture,” but one over which those we now call lesbians and gay men had little control.

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Control over culture. Attempting to con­trol one’s culture is not as foolhardy as it sounds; culture is neither “natural” nor nec­essarily handed down by one’s betters. Indi­viduals and groups can be destroyed by cer­tain cultural values, just as we can be in vigorated and empowered by others. How does anyone gain entrance into culture? Storming Random House (why bother?) or zapping The Village Voice (as in the ’70s) may simply allow the cunningly compliant target more accurate knowledge of you. On­going pressure — cultural, electoral, eco­nomic, in the streets — is needed. But during the ’50s, when little or nothing honest about gay male and lesbian lives was available culturally, how could a truth teller grab a niche? Others had learned the lesson: not through high culture. So Bannon stormed the low.

College freshman Laura Landon meets junior Beth Cullison in Odd Girl Out, and after reticent testing of emotional waters, Laura falls in love and makes love with the dominant, flirtatious, but possibly nongay Beth. The risks are made clear not only through the lovers’ sensible caution, but through a subplot in which roommate Emmy is thrown out of sorority and school because she is caught making love — with a man. Bannon’s obvious lesson is that women, one way or another, have little power over their loves and lives unless they somehow take control of them. But this is a trash novel! Laura loses Beth to Charlie, though she has loved and been loved by a woman.

In I Am a Woman, the same Laura Landon leaves her cold, violent father — he never forgave her for dropping out of college so suddenly — and travels to New York, where she gets a job and falls passionately in love with Marcie, who flirts, cries, and ma­nipulates but is just not “that way.” Laura also meets Jack Mann, the gay male deus ex machina of the series. He’s sympathetic and intelligent, yet because he falls in love with young, handsome men who don’t always fall in love back, he has a few troubles of his own. Laura matches up with the colorful, free­-drinking Beebo — don’t ask — Brinker, five-­ten in sneakers and pants. In the throes of passion she refers to Beebo as “Beth.” Laura finally faces her cruel father, tells him her secret, and discovers his. She knocks him out with an ashtray.

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In Women in the Shadows, Laura­ — who’s been with Beebo for two years — can’t stand her anymore. She falls for the first woman who crosses her path. After great difficulty and indecision, she agrees to marry Jack Mann and have his baby by artificial insemination. But she is still not happy. Journey to a Woman reintroduces Beth, who married Charlie and had two kids. Beth hates her life. She has an affair with a neurotic alcoholic model named Vega, then leaves for New York to find … Laura, whom she hasn’t seen since college. She tracks down her spurned love, but after a sexual interlude and much interesting dialogue, Beth and Laura understand that they can’t go home again. Beebo, who hated Beth even before she met her, now makes a play for her. Beth, by the way, is introduced to the New York lesbian scene by Nina, a worldly writer of lesbian novels, which Beth read hungrily while trapped in her suburban home.

The final book, Beebo Brinker, is a ram­bunctious prequel that charts the moves of the 17-year-old Wisconsin farm girl after she was virtually kicked out of town for wearing drag at the State Fair. Beebo Brinker is the most ridiculously plotted of the five. It in­cludes a vengeful Beat-looking lesbian named (you guessed it) Mona, a straight but lesbian-attracted overgrown hood named Pete Pasquini who, with his French wife Marie, runs an Italian takeout restaurant on Carmine Street, through which their deliv­ery “boy” Beebo meets (and falls for) post-­Monroe movie queen Venus Bogardus, who falls for her. Toss in a Beverly Hills mansion, the star’s unhappy teenaged son, a well­-timed epileptic fit, and you’ve got the most unlikely vehicle for straight-faced lesbian commentary imaginable.

Yet all these books, however silly they sound, grab you and don’t let go. Imagine them as maps, with all the plot-quirks and dialogue as cities. As you read, the maps seem directionless, but pull up to an over­view and some of the city-dots — forceful conversations, arguments, emotions — just glow by themselves, ready to be connected. Which scenes stand out? Those that reso­nate with shared gay experience: Laura’s slow and steely resistance to Beth’s unknow­ingly sadistic flirting; Jack’s ambivalence about working as a closeted draughtsman in an office of “virile engineers”; and most touching, young Beebo, uncomfortable in a skirt, wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan with only a yellow “Guide to Greenwich Village” to help her.

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I’m not sure Laura, Jack, or Beebo are there to “like.” Laura’s too hot-cold, Jack’s too selfish, and Beebo’s too … well, too stubborn to be easily sympathetic. Yet the emotion a reader can feel for them is strong, and it results from possible identification with their lot. This identification isn’t lim­ited to gay readers — a measure of Bannon’s skill. “Identify” is an unpopular literary verb, but in this case the “I’ve been there” response overwhelms more sensible distanc­ing. These characters are historical victims in the process of becoming fighters.

Bannon’s pulp world for homosexuals is not an easy one. Everyone drinks too much — alcohol is a common medicine to treat unhappiness. These lesbians, gay men, and nongay characters also drink to keep alive dying passions, drink to keep up with a lover on the gay-bar prowl, or drink to lose their dead-end childhood and become mem­bers of the adult, urban world: for coming out is, in Bannon’s terms, growing up. Her characters fly from family tradition but fear its loss as well. This ambivalence shows itself in odd ways. While family people, real peo­ple, have dinner, Bannon’s lesbians eat sandwiches, which can be ordered from around the corner. The books are full of sandwiches. Jack and Laura get married to insulate themselves from the evanescent gay world of the martini and the sandwich. You can almost hear, in Jack’s nightmare, Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away.”

Bannon’s permanent home for lesbian impermanence is Greenwich Village. Most pre-Stonewall lesbians and gay men will know what I mean when I say that the Village is really Bannon’s main character. In the Village the fringe is central, even though Jack Mann, the Village Virgil, notes in pass­ing that the neighborhood is “filled, too, with ambitious businessmen with wives and families, who play hob with the local bohemia. A rash of raids is in progress on the homosexual bar hangouts at the moment, with cops rousting respectable beard-and-­sandals off their favorite park benches; hustling old dykes who were Village fixtures for eons, off the streets so they wouldn’t offend the deodorized young middle-class wives.”

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What’s new and heartening about Ban­non’s sometimes self-pitying Village is that the fear of impermanence, fear of an anchor-­less life that haunts her more cynical charac­ters, is assumed not to be their fault. Rather, it’s the product partly of an ignorant, puritanical, sometimes bigoted world. Ban­non has few scenes of confrontation between lesbian-hater and lesbian because she is more interested in solutions to self-hatred and in the interaction of lesbian characters themselves. But the outside (non-Village) world’s disgust is the foundation on which these lesbians must build their loves. An ­argument between Laura and Milo, a nongay black man married to a black lesbian trying to pass as Indian, is remarkable for its just-short-of-liberation militance and political connection between sexual and racial oppression:

“What makes you queer, Laura? You tell me.”

“What makes you normal, Milo?”

“I was born that way. Don’t tell me you were born queer! Ha!” And he was sarcastic now. 

“I was made that way,” she said calmly.

“By who?” he asked skeptically.

“A lot of people. My father. A girl named Beth. Myself. Fate.”

He snorted. “Why don’t you give up women?”  

“Why don’t you?” she flashed. 

He blinked at her, beginning to feel her stormy intensity. “Is it that bad?” he asked.

“Sure, it’s that bad! Do you think I live this way because I like it? Would you live like you do if you could live like a white man?”

After a moment he shook his head, look­ing curiously at her.

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Fear of impermanent relationships also arises from another given in Bannon’s les­bian world: passion. Physical attraction and love may merge, but lust can happily flower without — and in spite of — love. Passion is part and parcel of the potboiler, to be sure, but where before had anyone seen such firm, promiscuous, demanding, heartfelt lust orig­inating from women, lesbian or not? In the past, sexually active lesbians were in­troduced to the culture as vampires, sucking the life from innocent girls. Bannon sex­ualizes but defangs her lesbian characters, and by doing so helps to create a new lesbian public image: lustful as well as loving. To manage such multidirected passion requires arcane logistics, and much of the trouble Bannon’s heroines face results from their sleeping with one woman while being in love with another: surely a difficulty not un­known in heterosexual climes. The unhappi­ness — and happiness — that results is the human lot, not the lesbian one. Nowhere does Bannon put an old pulp convention, constant sex, to more liberating use.

Her writing style does the job and no more. Sex scenes manage to be erotic, in the tradition of pre-’60s potboilers, without be­ing organ-specific or obscene. Most of the books’ language is the language of melodrama — love, love, love, hate, hate, hate — but once in a while the result is ab­surd and almost poetic: “In the pale radi­ance of the dashboard they gazed at each other.” Typically, after a character’s ex­clamation of why she did this or that, Ban­non the narrator repeats the same informa­tion: Laura did it because of her father, etc. This framing is wooden, of course, but an odd protective tone hangs on, as if the au­thor is afraid to exhibit her people without herself as buffer. Bannon employs little irony — irony could destroy a potboiler, rais­ing it to camp — and except in Beebo Brinker, she uses few exact historical details. The lesbian-bar jukebox plays, but what song? The lovers shop for a dress, but what style? There may be a reason for this. When Los Angeles movie-star details are dragged out for Beebo Brinker, they detract from the impetus of the book: which is to define the nature of love, lesbian love. To accomplish this, everything is pared down to plot, sex, and frequent tearful discussion.

Potboilers use simple exaggeration to ac­complish their tasks, but when Bannon ex­ploits melodramatic conventions something unusual happens: they become realistic. The only explanation I have is that her lesbian and gay characters are influenced by the melodramatic conventions of the culture that excludes them. As Beebo tells Laura, “That’s all the Village is, honey, just one crazy little soap opera after another.” Beebo and her friends were raised on the primacy of family and the sanctity of love, and though they understand the falsity of these better than most, they still carry around and mouth the trappings. I can’t say that melodrama-as-life is realistic pre-Stonewall behavior, though camp with its selective ex­aggerations has for years been used by gay people as a mode of self-definition and self­-defense. I can say that melodrama does throw its arms around the arenas of daily ’50s gay struggle: not the courts or battlefields, but the dormitories, apartments, and bars. No high-cultural language existed to play out “lesbian heartbreak” so truthfully. Through melodrama, Bannon has backed into a kind of gay realism of her time.

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The lesbians I’ve met who chanced to read Bannon’s potboilers in their first in­carnation remember them as special and very important. “I thought no one else knew about these,” one said, with the assumption that something lesbian and valuable was also, in the past, necessarily secret. It is not hard to imagine what lesbian and gay male readers thought about these books when they first appeared — if they saw them. Ban­non’s work creates a community larger than the Village; anyone, anywhere, who reads “her own” story is connected to the others who read it. Even pulp writing is powerful when it vanquishes isolation.

But what about the nongay reader? Did Odd Girl Out or Journey to a Woman cross the border from titillation, fulfilling its genre promise, to become something more? Would he (or she) skip the plot and gab to get to the you-know-what? Didn’t lesbians do you-know-what all the time? Bannon’s books must have worked as regular pulp, and I can’t guess if a straight audience would have seen through the hot stuff to its mean­ing, or to one of Laura’s short, passionate assertions of self-respect:

“No, I’m facing it,” Laura said. “I know what I am, and I can be honest with myself now. I’ll live my life as honestly as I can, without ruining it.”

Are reprinted potboilers still potboilers? Naiad’s jacket notes call these novels “les­bian classics,” and whatever their initial genre strategy, they have become something more than train-station propaganda. Pas­sage of time, and liberating action — for which Bannon may have planted some of the seeds — have pushed Odd Girl Out and the others into history, gay and lesbian history. These stories were brave, original, and sly. They still are. Readers will recognize the ghost of the old potboiler, but the books have won another life. ■

ODD GIRL OUT; I AM A WOMAN; WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS; JOURNEY TO A WOMAN; BEEBO BRINKER
By Ann Bannon, Naiad Press, $3.95 each, paper

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Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols

Vicious and His Circle: Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols
From the Voice Literary Supplement

On the level of gossip, where most rock hagiographies tend to begin and end, the Sex Pistols’ bio contains no more death and decadence than a hundred other tales of fame and misfortune. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, even Geraldo Rivera all have more skeletons in their closets. “What you can never get in your book,” prophesies John Lydon to Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, “is the utter, total boredom of being in a band.” But by placing their story in the context of the time — and even more significantly, by filtering its unprecedented theoretical drainage — Savage transforms the Pistols’ tale into an intellectual epic (and at 600 pages in length, including dis­cography, it had better be). Especially when stacked up against other recent takes on the same scene, one by a journalist and another by a band member, England’s Dreaming is a no-nonsense rendering of punk’s over­determined glory.

The whole project, however, is grounded in Savage’s personal enthusiasm, as one of several diary entries makes clear: “30.10.76: I go to see my first proper punk group. I know what it’s going to be like: I’ve been waiting for years, and this year most of all: something to match the explosions in my head. The group are called the Clash … One song: a genuine cry, a child scream­ing in fear: ‘Waa waa wanna waa waa.’ Within ten seconds I’m transfixed, within thirty, changed forever.”

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***

Formed by guitarist Steve Jones, fronted by a shamanic singer with rotten teeth, and named by manager/provocateur Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols (“Why didn’t they just call themselves the Penises?” wonders an analyst of my acquaintance) produced records that were clarion calls to anarchy and transformed concerts, inter­views, and meetings with their record com­panies into incendiary, tabloid-titillating events. During a two-year carnival of chaos, from 1976 to their breakup in 1978 as toothless victims of the apparatus they at­tempted to undermine from within, they ceaselessly disrupted business as usual on tired, stodgy Planet Rock. Less rock band than art project, “the group embodied an attitude into which McLaren fed a new set of references: late-sixties radical politics, sexual fetish material, pop history and the burgeoning discipline of youth sociology,” explains Savage, high claims he actually justifies without lapsing into either mind­less boosterism or I-was-there-and-you-­weren’t smugness.

Savage constantly returns to the primal fitting room scene, however, reminding us that punk rock can never be dissociated from its mondo-bondo dress code. “Never forget,” McLaren says to Savage early on in England’s Dreaming, “that clothes are the things in England that make your heart heat!” He omits the transitional artifice an introduction or preface might provide and instead tosses the reader into the middle of swinging England, onto the stoop of 430 King’s Road. There Vivienne Westwood and McLaren, “Couturiers Situation­nistes,” launched a mordantly entertaining and highly influential fashion movement generating countless safety-pinned cheeks, strategically torn T-shirts, besloganed jack­ets, and spikey haircuts tinted various col­ors unknown to nature. Chez Savage, their conception and dissemination were no less significant than the music itself in the con­struction of punk’s willful mocking of ev­eryday perversity. The clothing mirrored the era’s recessionary and reactive tenor in all its Thatcher-motivated bleakness and paranoia. As glam rock waned and disco had yet to wax, punk style provided the perfect cultural jolt, a new kind of “No!” that brought together fashion, music, press, and politics to tell the world a story En­gland still can’t be too eager to bear.

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More self-conscious than any popular music ever, and postmodern to the max, the Pistols and punk operated at the level of iconography, spectacle, and low-to-high concepts rather than mere sonic signifiers. McLaren’s genius was to exploit boredom with rock as institution, and then to sell a brutalist version of the same back to the kids under the guise of something com­pletely different, which it wasn’t. The Ra­mones, the Dolls, and a generation of New York art-school bands preexisted as role models from which McLaren took the ball and ran in the wrong direction, disguising his Warholian commercial inclinations be­hind naive appropriations of anarchist, Si­tuationist, and Lettrist fantasies.

In this regard, England’s Dreaming also functions profitably as an extended gloss on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (wherein Savage is acknowledged as a “co-conspira­tor”), and that’s a compliment. Marcus’s wild analysis recuperates the Sex Pistols phenomenon as a hot and gnostic coda upon Dada, Situationism, Lettrism, etc. But where Marcus interprets the Sex Pis­tols as the mythic tale of John Lydon’s negation of the negation, Savage avoids apotheosizing McLaren, Lydon, or even Sid Vicious as a prime mover of this particular cultural blip. If punk is the subject, the Sex Pistols were its object. At times Savage sounds like a closet idealist, as when he quotes Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in hopes of making this confusing era rever­berate mythically; but his analysis always returns to the fresh bedrock of modem mu­sic sociology as pioneered by such writers as Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige.

For a fly-on-the-wall perspective, it’s at least worth skimming Glen Matlock’s whinging I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol for a brisk reality check. The group’s original bass boy and primary songwriter was ex­pelled from the group in favor of Ur-punk Sid Vicious, so his bitterness, if not his syntax, are to be expected: “We created a lot of talk and a lot of pie-in-the-sky theor­ising, but what was the end result of it all? When you cut right to the chase, The Pis­tols — and the whole punk phenomenon — ­were an inoculation for the music business which has enabled it to survive in its cur­rent depressingly flat state … The Pistols have become one of history’s big So What?’s” And of course Matlock’s absolute­ly right and absolutely wrong at the same time. Punk rock’s recuperation by big busi­ness surprised only the most credulous believers in pop art as a revolutionary activity.

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Charles Shaar Murray offers a different report from the front in his embarrassingly titled Shots From the Hip, an uneven col­lection containing what seems like every syllable scribbled by the veteran hack be­tween 1971 and 1990, gaffes and all. For example, amid a somewhat prescient over­view of the New York punk scene circa 1975, Murray notes that “Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough.” And then, a couple of months pri­or to the show that would change Savage’s life forever, Murray appraises the Clash as being “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, prefer­ably with the motor running.”

Beyond proving that John Simon has at least one British fan, Murray’s observations on the punk scene back then illustrate how much what we think of as punk rock is a journalistic construction after the fact. Punk was not particularly subtle as music, yet it threw open the doors to endless theo­rizing. These days, amid an almost inslilu­tional “punk revival,” it seems nothing less than the most immediately nostalgic pop style to come down the pike. Abject nihilism is still in fashion and, as Murray wrote in 1986, “The punchline is this: most people don’t want things changed to any funda­mental degree, but they do like a little bit of excitement now and again.”

You can’t get much more reductionist than that, but in that whimper of defeat there’s an element of the conclusion Savage draws in England’s Dreaming. Everything changed after the Pistols’ infamous appearance on Britain’s Today show in December 1976, during which allegedly intoxicated host Bill Grundy provoked Steve Jones into a volley of live-on-the-air curses. “From that day on,” Jones tells Savage, “it was different. Before then, it was just music: the next day, it was the media.” According to Savage, the subsequent backlash forced the Pistols into a reactionary trajectory leading to stasis, and worse: it reduced them to being an ordinary rock band and transformed punk from move­ment into cult. “They left the creation that was to follow destruction unstated and unresolved: as very few people had the courage to see nihilism through, this negation curdled into the nullities of dogma, cynicism or self-destruction.”

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***

Punk’s death was inscribed in its birth, of course. Born under a bad sign and swathed in basic black, London punkdom fought to overturn an overexposed city in which speed, both chemical and cybernetic, had subsumed space. The movement even had the audacity to present the swastika as its über-icon, which may have been its most unforgivable transgression. Punk’s dark lib­eration suggested what writer Nick Kent early on termed “Rock’n’Roll Fascism,” but Savage tends to take swastika usage at face value, as mere shock therapy. More than a merry détournement, punk’s fascination with fascist symbolism betrayed a somewhat less than healthy interest in au­thoritarianism and a decidedly masculinist sexography, while suggesting that punk rock, despite Rock Against Racism’s utopian rhetoric, was always more interested in exclusion than inclusion. And while Savage lauds the Crass as an example of a group that transcended punk’s political limita­tions, he neglects the battles of punk ideology still being waged in the pages of such fanzines as Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll.

But that is now and this was then. Cul­turally, nothing has happened with quite so much velocity and spunk since (William Burroughs’s recipe for riot — “Record, instant playback, fast forward” — becomes a nervous mantra for these events). Punk was a fabulous meaning generator, and Savage’s book is the movement’s most finely tuned reading so far. By the time you hit the 45-page discography that concludes England’s Dreaming, however, you might be less eager to reimmerse yourself in the music than in such responsive texts as Lipstick Traces and Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s 1989 collection On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Punk lives in these traces, these theories — and in a million bands— even more than in boxfuls of decaying singles and CD reissues. In its own way, punk is as dead as Elvis. Histories such as Savage’s, however, ensure that the zombie movement will stumble on for the diversion and edification of its believers — by their rainbow Mohicans and steel-tipped boots ye shall know them — at least until some­thing badder this way shambles. ■

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ENGLAND’S DREAMING: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond
By Jon Savage
St. Martin’s Press, $27.50

I WAS A TEENAGE SEX PISTOL
By Glen Matlock with Pete Silverton
Faber and Faber, $12.95 paper

SHOTS FROM THE HIP
By Charles Shaar Murray
Penguin, $10.95 paper

1992 Reviews of books about the Sex Pistols in the Village Voice by Richard Gehr

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Emma Goldman Is Alive and Well and Making Trouble on the Lower East Side

Emma said it in 1910/Now we’re gonna say it again!
—Protest marchers on Fifth Avenue, 1970

A certain kind of career is well known among American intellectuals. An eager young person joins the Socialist Something-­or-other movement and spends several fer­vent years in its ranks. He develops literary and analytic skills. And after a while the Socialist Something-or-others begin to dis­appoint him. They aren’t prospering the way he expected. They need to shape up. He tells them how. But they won’t hear of it.

The young comrade therefore undergoes a crisis. Why, he asks himself, can’t the Something-or-other movement do better? Why is the Party a failure and why is social­ism not proving popular in America?

Different answers come to mind. Maybe socialism doesn’t deserve to be popular. In that case the young militant becomes a con­servative. Maybe socialism is all right but the Party’s version is extreme, rigid, or mis­guided. The militant becomes some sort of liberal or social democrat. Maybe what the Party believed as literal truth should be reinterpreted figuratively. The militant be­comes a sophisticated radical.

In any case, the young person makes some amazing discoveries, namely three. (A) He discovers his interests have broad­ened. In his days in the Party he wrote and talked about economics and the doctrines of Marxism or anarchism. But in pondering why socialism hasn’t prospered, he finds he requires answers from literature and drama and every possible field. He is no longer a militant, he is an intellectual. (B) He is a very smart intellectual. He may have gone to a seedy public college or to no college at all, and in formal terms his education may be none too great. But in fact his education turns out to be superb. The Trotsky alcove at City College and the dingy office at Union Square stand revealed as schools of the first rank. And these places have put their stamp on him. The pitch of his voice is a little higher than what you find among intellectuals who lack the left-wing back­ground. His tone is a little more urgent. He has the knack for debate, perhaps in excess. He is a little tougher, a little shrewder, than other intellectuals. (C) He discovers, won­der of wonders, that people listen to him. In the old days he addressed no one but his own comrades, who never paid much atten­tion, anyway. Now he gets up to talk and notices that the auditorium, if not exactly full, isn’t empty either. Quite a few people seem to take an interest in why the Some­thing-or-others have failed, or at any rate take an interest in the broader topics this inquiry has led him to explore. In the old days the young militant had the distinct impression of standing on the remote side­lines of American life; but by a miraculous development, he now finds himself as close to the center as intellectuals get to be in America.

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How many times this story has been told! Among writers who came up in the 1930s you find it, in whole or in part, in autobio­graphical accounts by William Phillips, William Barrett, Sidney Hook, Lionel Abel, Richard Wright, Daniel Bell, and Dwight Macdonald. Among the young writers of the 1940s, you see it in memoirs by Irving Howe and Irving Kristol. Last year the radical historians’ organization published a volume of interviews called Visions of History in which the same story is told over and over by scholars who came up in the 1950s, such as the late Herbert Gutman, and in the 1960s. Soon enough we will, I am positive, be hearing the same story from student rad­icals of the 1970s. For some reason the story has never much been told on stage or in the movies, though traces can be found. One very striking version exists in fiction, Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, though otherwise it hasn’t been too prominent there, either. Still, Norman Mailer’s Trotskyist novel, The Barbary Shore, touches on some of the themes. Bits and pieces of the story turn up in Mary McCarthy’s early fiction and in early writings by Saul Bellow, where Trotskyism or Commu­nism is always lurking in the background. James T. Farrell evoked the story. Clancy Sigal’s novel, Going Away, follows the clas­sic plot: young militant despairs of the left and goes off to become a writer. And from the sundry autobiographies and fictions a generalization can be drawn. Intellectual classes must always come from somewhere; they are not self-generating. The some­where might be life at Versailles, or training in the ministry, or work on the daily press; and in the case of modern American intel­lectuals, a prominent somewhere turns out to be apprenticeship in the socialist ranks, then one or another kind of breaking away.

What can explain this very curious phe­nomenon? Socialism has not, after all, played a central role in a great many areas of American life. Thus far its failure has been real, and it’s not often that movements produce, in the dismal course of failing, dy­namic intellectual cultures. Yet this does occur sometimes. The collapse of a movement can under certain circumstances send up dust and rubble that are altogether stim­ulating to writers and thinkers who happen to be in the way. American literature offers a 19th-century example. New England Puri­tanism went into a decline after the Ameri­can Revolution. As an intellectual system and as a social system, Puritanism no longer seemed to work. Young intellectual-minded people who grew up in the Puritan environment were shocked. They retained the in­tense Puritan emotions, the sense of pain and suffering that derived from settler days in New England, plus the keen desire to create a perfect society. The young people retained these feelings because that was their tradition, and because their own par­ents underwent those experiences. They also retained the old Puritan tone of voice. But the dogmas had stopped making sense, and the young people had to ask why. Why, and what should come next? And by some mysterious process, these questions, posed in the tone that only Boston intellectuals could achieve, produced a main current of the 19th century. You see it in Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many lesser writers, refugees all from the collapse of the Christian church.

Surely something similar accounts for the New York intellectuals of the present cen­tury. Over the course of many years, the socialist church more or less fell apart. The young intellectual-minded militants were shocked. The intellectuals retained certain of the feelings expressed by the old socialist cause. Those feelings were a sense of suffer­ing and pain deriving from immigrant days, the feelings of people who fell victim to the horrors of the industrial revolution — com­bined with a keen desire to make a perfect society for industrial times. The modern intellectuals retained these feelings because that was the tradition they learned from socialism, and because they themselves in some cases, or their parents or grandpar­ents, were the oppressed and exploited workers. They also retained the old socialist tone of voice, the instinct for moral urgency, the conviction that ideas are a form of pow­er. But the dogmas had collapsed, and like the Boston intellectuals contemplating the failure of old-fashioned Christianity, the New York intellectuals had to ask why. Why, and what should come next? And by that same mysterious process, these ques­tions, posed in the inflection commanded only by writers with a background in social­ism, have produced, well, something less than the Boston renaissance, but surely a main impulse of modern culture — the urge to experiment with the new, the tendency to emphasize social interpretations and to scorn the narrowness of academic life, the habit of debating with a little more passion than American intellectuals are used to summoning up, the orientation toward Eu­rope, the tendencies, in short, that we think of in connection with New York.

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***

Emma Goldman makes an odd example of a New York intellectual. She is certainly remote in time. Her own generation is the one that came up in the 1890s. Her best­-known book, the autobiography Living My Life, which Knopf brought out in 1931, suc­ceeds chiefly when it recounts events that took place at the turn of the century. What influence she once had dissipated after 1919, when she was deported. Nearly every­thing about her, in short, reflects an era considerably earlier than that of modern intellectual life. Nevertheless that autobiog­raphy, read with a proper eye, has one very noticeable quality. Buried within it is pre­cisely the story I’ve just described — the sto­ry of a radical militant who leaves behind her first revolutionary enthusiasm and blos­soms into an arts critic or philosopher, finds herself championing everything modern and innovative, finds that she is no longer on the despised sidelines of American life but instead in its vanguard. It is the classic story of a New York intellectual. Only it is that story in an exceptionally early and primitive version.

Naturally some of the sophistication, not to say campus tranquility, of later variants cannot be seen in Emma Goldman’s long-­ago version. She converted to revolutionary socialism in sympathetic indignation over the 1887 Haymarket hangings in Chicago, and the doctrine she embraced, though it contained several virtues, was less than a shrewd theoretical system. There was a good deal of talk about proletarians rising up to massacre the capitalist bloodsuckers. Gory social vengeance was the characteris­tic note. The doctrine was, in fact, a furious sort of raw left-wing fundamentalism. The commitment she made likewise differed from that known by certain more fortunate later generations. One went to anarchist meetings in the years after the Haymarket affair as if going to the gallows. There was an unmistakable cult of martyrdom. The Martyrs of Chicago had died in a mood very close to exhilaration, and the young people of Goldman’s age who followed them into the revolutionary ranks half-expected, half-­hoped, to come to a similarly glorious and grisly end, perhaps a death like that of Louis Lingg, who blew himself up rather than let the government put a rope around his neck. Louis Lingg, Goldman tells us, was the special hero of her little circle of comrades.

His fate, as it turned out, was something she always managed to avoid, but not for fear of running a risk. Five years after the Chicago hangings, she and her companion Alexander Berkman were building bombs in a tenement on East 5th Street, New York City, and conspiring to avenge the wronged steelworkers of Homestead, Pa., by assassi­nating their odious employer, Henry Clay Frick. Berkman, for reasons of economy, ended up all alone in the attack on Frick, and afterward he did have to endure suffer­ing on a martyr’s scale. He was imprisoned from 1892 until 1906, spent years at a time in solitary confinement, at one point was locked in a straitjacket for two days in a pitch-black room. During most of his term he was denied the right to receive visitors. Goldman got off scot-free, somehow. But even with the best of luck, an anarchist commitment meant a great deal of punishment. A year after Berkman’s assassination attempt, at the depth of a depression, social democrats and anarchists led an unem­ployed movement and Goldman, the 24-year-old firebrand, was invited to speak at Union Square. She commended the anar­chist tactic of direct action; she may have advised direct assaults on the homes of the wealthy; and in the anti-labor, none-too­-libertarian atmosphere of the time, she found herself serving 10 months on Black­well’s (Welfare) Island, the New York City jail. That was the minimum a prominent revolutionary could expect. And thus it went through all of her younger years. The anarchists in Europe had adopted a policy of tyrannicide — during the 1880s and ’90s revolutionaries assassinated the president of France, the archduke’s wife in Austria, the king of Italy (liquidated by a New Jer­sey comrade named Gaetano Bresci), the prime minister of Spain, and many lesser figures — and each time one of these individ­ualist deeds of insurrection took place Goldman was likely to find herself under suspicion, handcuffed to some unsympa­thetic uniformed agent of the upper classes.

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Then came 1901 and President William McKinley was assassinated by a young man on the outskirts of the movement named Leon Czolgosz, who regrettably professed to be a follower of Emma Goldman. This time she spent two weeks in the Chicago jail, where she was alternately treated well (Mc­Kinley was Republican, and Chicago was Democratic!) and subjected to beatings. One of her front teeth was knocked out. The shadow of the Haymarket gallows was definitely creeping up on her then. One of her guards had stood watch over the Mar­tyrs themselves 14 years before. Her friends were convinced a new Haymarket was in the making, and that Comrade Emma would hang, and Comrade Emma’s friends would hang, too. They advised caution. But Emma herself, being in the Martyr mold, the mold of Berkman and the old Russian revolutionaries, was nothing fazed. From her cell in the Chicago jail she insisted on defending Czolgosz, not because she be­lieved that shooting presidents did any good, but on a principle of solidarity. It was because of her admiration for rebels, her respect for the out-of-control emotions of people who cannot tolerate an unjust social order even for one moment more; and it was because Berkman was in prison and she thought Czolgosz was another Berkman. Neither fear nor any other sort of personal consideration could have much effect on someone with a commitment like that. Fa­naticism is not an inappropriate word.

Yet the autobiography shows that she nearly broke in 1901. It was due to the political situation. The Haymarket Martyrs went to death 14 years earlier convinced that a popular revolutionary labor movement was cheering them on and that a mili­tant finale would hasten the day of retribu­tion. But no one could sustain such beliefs in 1901. Goldman discovered that she was the only well-known person in America to say a good word for the assassin of William McKinley. Her own comrades were keeping quiet, or worse, heaping abuse on the poor imprisoned avenger. They were changing, these comrades. Even on the Lower East Side, where anarchism enjoyed a certain popular acceptance, a mob attacked the offices of the Jewish revolutionary paper, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, and the previously courageous stalwarts, from behind their overturned desks and chairs, pretty much found that accustomed ways of thinking, the belief in individual deeds and justice by tyrannicide, the willingness to suffer and die in the expectation of barricades tomor­row and a new world the day after — in short, the primitive flags of the Haymarket revolution — were hard to wave with the old enthusiasm. She was still waving them. But she was the only one. Then she got out of jail and things were so bad she couldn’t rent an apartment or find a job. She was obliged to print up calling cards labeled “E.G. Smith,” nurse. (Nursing was what she learned during the year on Blackwell’s Island.) With her self-professed follower in the electric chair and Berkman in a Penn­sylvania penitentiary and herself on a blacklist one name long, she entered the new, crucial phase of her long career. It was the moment of crisis, the moment of real­ization that the movement had failed and revolution was not about to descend on America. It was, in its antique, exaggerated way, the crisis that so many milder, less operatic militants of the left have under­gone at a certain point in their careers, the crisis, that is, of the left-wing intellectual.

What to do? In 1901 the possibilities were as follows. One could pretend nothing had happened. That was no response. One could try to cover up the difficulties with rhetori­cal maneuvers. Anarchists had been trying that for some years. Reading through Pitts­burgh newspapers for the period of Berk­man’s attentat, I came across a story of three comrades who arrived at Homestead to rally the striking steelworkers to anar­chist action and addressed them with all sorts of appeals to Washington, Jefferson, Tom Paine, and other “noble revolution­ists” of 1776, as if revolutionary socialism were nothing but George Washington brought up to date. That didn’t work; that never works. The three anarchists were run out of town. Alternatively, one might drop out. Goldman’s most important lover of that period, Ed Brady, who served 10 years in Austrian prisons for his anarchist propaganda, quietly dropped out and went into business. Goldman considered it, too. She was despondent after Czolgosz’s execution; she felt contempt for her cowardly com­rades; she wanted nothing more to do with them. That was her urge, anyway. There was also the possibility of defecting to other movements. A good many anarchists were becoming electoral socialists, like Abraham Cahan, the novelist and editor. According to Living My Life, still others were drifting toward William Jennings Bryan, the Demo­crat. Yet how could an Emma Goldman do such things? She had shouted too many illegal slogans from wagon tops in Union Square to give it up now, and in any case could neither convert nor drop out without betraying Berkman in his cell at Pittsburgh and the Martyrs in their Waldheim graves. Whatever Goldman did had to be in the name of revolutionary anarchism, had to feel like anarchism, had to be a plausible continuation of what the Martyrs set out to do, had to wage the revolution.

The revolution, though, can mean differ­ent things. The Haymarket image of a working-class insurrection, the battle-to­-death with the capitalist class, the creation overnight of new socialist institutions — that was the fundamentalist idea. But there’s no reason revolution can’t also be gradual, even unto 300 years. C.L.R. James has ob­served that the democratic revolution in England began in the 1640s and wasn’t completed until women got the vote in the 20th century. That is the social democratic idea. Then again, even 300 years may not express revolution’s possibilities. There is a third idea, not usually acknowledged by those who hold it, according to which revo­lution will take place neither at once nor over the course of an epoch. This third kind of revolution isn’t historical at all. It is a feeling of expectation, a sense that inequal­ity and injustice are false and intolerable, and that truer, greater, more human princi­ples exist. These truer principles we intu­itively assign to the future. We say, “The revolution is coming.” But we’re careful not to assign a date. Our phrase is a metaphor. “In common speech we refer all things to time,” Emerson wrote. “And so we say that the Judgement is distant or near, that the Millennium approaches, that a day of cer­tain political, moral, social reforms is at hand, and the like, when we mean that in the nature of things one of the facts we contemplate is external and fugitive, and the other permanent and connate with the soul.” Injustice and tyranny may be facts of the present moment; but justice and liberty are principles for all moments. That’s what we mean when we say the revolution is com­ing. Naturally the revolution in this third or metaphoric version looks a little different than revolution in its other meanings. Some people can’t see it at all. The feeling of anticipation, the notion that what exists to­day is too horrible to last forever, that a tremendous new potential exists, that the potential is burrowing steadily underground, advancing always, retreating never — this feeling is not something that everyone experiences. Yet it is an actual emotion not just a figure of speech. Revolutionaries feel it and other people don’t. The other people must accept its existence on faith.

The anarchists of the 19th century always stood for revolution in its primitive or fundamentalist sense. But once they had dispatched sundry heads of state without sparking the expected insurrection, there was reason to think anew. That was Peter Kropotkin’s role. Socialists of all varieties accepted the progressive idea of history according to which society advances from primitive to the present to future perfection, and it was this view that justified revolution in either its gradual or overnight forms. But in the 1890s Kropotkin proposed something more anthropological. History in his theory reveals a struggle between what he called mutual aid as a factor in society, and the principle of hierarchical authority. In some eras, the happy ones, mutual aid has dominated; in other eras, authority. The goal of anarchist revolution was a society of perfect mutual aid, which he called anarchist communism; but it was an implication of his theory (which be hesitated to draw out) that such a society could never fully exist. Mutual aid or anarchist communism could someday flower, possibly even soon; but authority would never entirely go away and would require constant opposition. In this respect the revolution as final stage of history would never come about but the revolution considered as endless struggle for more mutual aid and less au­thority — this revolution exists always. Rev­olution is evolution; evolution never ends. Anarchists might use a lot of rhetoric about the impending upheaval; he himself was prone to inspired passages about the chariot of humanity advancing into the future; but the actual goal should be the creation of ever-increasing spheres of liberty and mu­tual aid in the present, not the future.

Where might these spheres be estab­lished? Among the European anarchists, events presented an unexpected answer. The world center of the anarchist move­ment in the 1880s and ’90s was Paris, and revolutionary tenor and tyrannicide in Par­is didn’t greatly bestir the oppressed and exploited classes. Instead, it was the radical artists and intellectuals who felt excited. The problem that tyrannicide presented to the workers’ movement — that it failed to advance the movement’s future goals — was no problem to artists and intellectuals, to the bohemians. Their goal was in the present­. They wanted to criticize bourgeois life, which is to say, “dynamite” the bourgeoisie, and bold and grisly attentats presented a kind of model. Anarchist heroes and bandits ­threw bombs, and avant-garde artists and writers rushed to join the anarchist ranks — much to the horror of old-timers like Kropotkin who never intended such a re­sult. Some of these old-timers broke away to build the trade unions, and the movement that remained consequently veered in a bohemian direction. The movement’s language, the talk of proletarian revolution, remained the same, but the meanings began to shift. All kinds of ideas about individual rebellion, about the need to shake up mid­dle class sensibilities, about the sanctity of the individual and the importance of artis­tic creation, ideas about realizing human capacity in the here and now instead of in some abstract revolutionary future — these ideas, which had never played much of a role in the anarchist workers’ movement, now gathered under the anarchist flag. It was the triumph of the revolutionary meta­phor. Nietzsche was the new prophet, Sym­bolism the new literary form. There were slogans like “Long live anarchy! Long live free verse!”

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That was Paris, but it’s plain in Living My Life that something similar was hap­pening in New York City, in a slightly dif­ferent and more provincial way. When Goldman first arrived on the Lower East Side in 1889, the environment she encoun­tered was dominated by old-fashioned revo­lutionaries, the kind of radical fundamentalists who were hanged at Chicago. These men were by no means negligible as intellectual or cultural types. Johann Most, her first mentor, who fulminated so ferociously for dynamite and assassination, was a frustrated actor whose deformed jaw had pre­vented him from attempting a career on the stage, yet who still got up to perform now and then. He loved Schiller and the Romantic writers and was happy to lend her books during the time of their affair. He took her to the opera. He was not narrow. The same could be said of a man like Robert Reitzel of Detroit, who was influential in the move­ment nationally through his weekly news­paper, Der Arme Teufel. Reitzel published some of the only reports in America of the artistic avant-garde in Europe. When he got up in public, he was likely to deliver the old anarchist ferocity with a cultured touch. He addressed the funeral for the Chicago Mar­tyrs in Waldheim Cemetery and quoted Herwegh: “We have loved long enough/Now we are going to hate!” Yet no one could call these men rounded intellectuals. They were, rather, conspirators and revolu­tionists of the old European type, men who might have consorted with Blanqui or Bakunin in 1848. They were consumed with revolutionary wrath and with plotting con­spiracies and with accusing one another of being police spies. That was the fundamen­talist environment. Nor was the immigrant world they inhabited rich with cultural in­stitutions. There were the choral societies and the revolutionary press, and there were the anarchist bars and cafés. Goldman de­scribes some of these hangouts in Living My Life, Sach’s cafe on Suffolk Street and Justus Schwab’s saloon on 1st Street. They sound lively, Schwab’s especially. American intellectuals like Ambrose Bierce and James Huneker went to Schwab’s to meet the immigrant radicals. Six hundred books were stacked behind the bar. But that didn’t make for a very profound cultural environment. The old-fashioned fundamen­talist revolution didn’t require a profound cultural environment. It required social bit­terness and determined militants, and these it had.

***

What you see in Living My Life, though, is the growth of something more like the bohemian environment that took up anar­chism in Paris. Goldman’s generation of militants, the people who were in their twenties in the decade after Haymarket, were sincere about the revolution, but their interests showed a new dimension. Her em­phasis on attending opera and theater indi­cates what this was. She got up a sort of commune with three or four other young comrades, moving from apartment to apart­ment for a couple of years, everyone falling in and out of love with one another, and among this group was Berkman’s cousin Modest Stein, called “Fedya” in Living My Life — an anarchist, but rather more of an artist. Already she was arguing with Berkman over the place of art and beauty in the revolution, which Berkman, as a man tem­peramentally of the older rock-ribbed gen­eration, thought was no place at all. She describes going with other young people to Netter’s grocery on the East Side, where they would sit around in the back room discussing serious issues over tea and snacks with the learned grocer and his family. Netter’s grocery was the kind of place where she got to know young men like Da­vid Edelstad — an anarchist, but a poet, too (in Yiddish). She began a romance with Max Baginski, who went to Chicago to take the job once held by August Spies, one of the Martyrs, as editor of the anarchist daily, the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and what she empha­sizes is that Baginski personally knew the great German playwright Gerhart Haupt­mann. She lists the writers that she and Baginski discussed: Strindberg, Wedekind, Nietzsche, and so forth. In fact, with almost every one of the lovers she had in those early years, she pauses to list the books they read together, which is nice to see. It’s always enjoyable to watch the unfolding of an intellect, the eager way someone young gob­bles down an education. The enthusiasm captures what it means to follow that non­vocation, “intellectual.”

We watch, too, the growth not just of Goldman herself but of a large community, the community we see over her shoulder, the crowd at her lectures. This community, the readers of the radical literary press, the audience at productions of Chekhov in Rus­sian or the German playwrights in German, the crowd before whom Goldman played her part, was the new intellectual class of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, with outposts in Chicago and other places. It’s hard to look at this crowd without feeling a certain fondness. The downtown intelligentsia of 75 years ago had several qual­ities that have largely disappeared today, not to our benefit. The fact that tendencies like bohemian anarchism had emerged from the labor movement meant that the artists and intellectuals remained tied in some way to the unions and the working class. Anar­chism and social democracy — in their newly loosened, more metaphoric forms — pro­vided something of a coherent view of the world. They gave a purpose to artistic and intellectual work, which was to serve the cause of the people, and they rooted that work in the neighborhoods where the peo­ple live. You see the results in the work of anarchist artists like George Bellows and Robert Henri (who were followers of Gold­man) and electoral socialists like John Sloan (who admired her, but disagreed). Historic innovators in the world of art these men were not; but they were dedicated to capturing the life of the city, and at this they succeeded. They caught the New York spirit, indeed they were the only artists ever to do that, so that when one thinks of the authentic New York hurly-burly, of the life of the stoops and the vistas that appear from second-floor windows and tenement roofs, it is these artists who come to mind. That intellectual class may not have been the most brilliant in New York history, but it was surely the most local, the most close­ly tied to the lives of ordinary people, the most expressive of the city — no matter how many languages it spoke. Living My Life is a classic example. Goldman tells us she lived now on 3rd Street, now in a Bowery flophouse, now on East 13th Street, now she ran a facial massage parlor on Union Square. Those are addresses of the intelli­gentsia and of the working class both. Now she toiled in a factory, now she hung out with a visiting Russian theater troupe in the Bronx. She wasn’t escaping from the work­ing class, she was living the peculiar kind of working-class life that was also the life of the intellectual.

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The anarchists were never a very large party on the East Side, but they did play an important role in helping to build that envi­ronment. Their characteristic “deed” was, after all, the lecture, and once the Czolgosz debacle was behind them those lectures ex­panded into a handful of notable institu­tions. In 1910 Goldman herself helped orga­nize something called, after a martyred Spanish anarchist, the Ferrer Center on St. Mark’s Place (later 12th Street, still later East Harlem), which until it was suppressed by the government served as a meeting ground for teachers like Will Durant and Robert Henri and students like Moses and Raphael Soyer. Artists and writers rubbed shoulders there with union organizers and the ordinary working people who came by to take a class or attend a talk. Trotsky, during his exile in New York, studied art at the Ferrer Center. Similarly, she started a “revolutionary literary magazine,” the monthly Mother Earth, which for most of its history was published on 13th Street. Mother Earth was a stolid journal, digest-­size, with magnificent political cartoons by the great Robert Minor and other anarchist artists, though with political articles by Goldman and Berkman and other comrades that were often wooden, sometimes looney in the old bomb-throwing style. One issue was dedicated to the memory of Leon Czol­gosz. Still, Mother Earth had influence: it published items on European literature and theater, it championed the cause of artistic realism and the legacy of Walt Whitman (still considered innovative and daring in 1906, when the journal began) and it was able now and then to set an appropriately riotous tone. The founder famously waltzed in a nun’s habit at the magazine’s “Red Revel” anniversary ball in 1915. Such was the spirit. It’s worth mentioning that this Lower East Side monthly constituted the first journal of its type — the journal of radi­cal culture and radical politics — to appear in New York. What was arising was Man­hattan’s downtown left-wing arts communi­ty. In those years she was also conducting free speech campaigns coast to coast, and these too ought to be regarded as part of her cultural work, a free speech committee being a sort of muscle wing or enforcer unit for cultural radicalism. (The free speech campaigns laid a groundwork for the American Civil Liberties Union, “that most vital organization in America,” whose founder was happy to acknowledge Gold­man’s inspiration.)

Her shift from anarchist fundamentalism to the new-style bohemian radicalism came without any shift in rhetoric, which is how it always is when the revolution turns to metaphor. And this same supercharged rhetoric, vivid though it could be, did not necessarily generate great sensitivity to her new artistic themes. During the period of her largest success, 1908–1917, she fastened on drama criticism and lectured around the country on European playwrights; but you can barely read these lectures today with­out squirming in your chair at all those dynamite bombs besprinkling the page. She praised the arts as “a greater menace to our social fabric” than “the wildest harangue of the soapbox orator.” Ibsen she described as a “dynamiter of all social shams and hypoc­risies.” Drama as a whole she defended as a kind of revolutionary tactic. “In countries where political oppression affects all class­es, the best intellectual elements have made common cause with the people, have become their teachers, comrades, and spokesmen. But in America political pressure has so far affected only the ‘common’ people. It is they who are thrown into prison; they who are persecuted and mobbed, tarred and deported. Therefore another medium is needed to arouse the intellectuals of this country, to make them realize their relation to the people, to the social unrest permeating the atmosphere” — this medium being excellent plays imported from Europe. The normal language of drama criticism this was not.

What the radical rhetoric did, of course, was fend off the old-style purists among her comrades. To their philistine claim that art is no help in revolutions, she was replying in semi-philistine fashion that art is, too, a help. She never did get beyond this debate, never managed to loosen up the oratorical style, either (except when she wrote about herself). Great claims therefore cannot be made for her critical achievement. Even her interpretation of the political and social val­ues in plays tended to be what you’d expect from essays called, in their collected form, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. She saw what she wanted to see. Yet testimony is strong that those interpre­tations played a very large role in populariz­ing Ibsen and Strindberg and helping estab­lish the “little theater” revolt against Broadway. “No one did more,” said Van Wyck Brooks. One can cite remarks by Eu­gene O’Neill, Rebecca West, Kenneth Rex­roth. Henry Miller described meeting Emma Goldman as “the most important encounter of my life” because of how she “opened up the whole world of European culture.” And it was the revolutionary approach, in spite of everything, that made these successes possible. For Goldman’s revolution, in turning metaphoric, had tak­en on a new list of enemies entirely suited to the stage, no longer just capitalists, po­licemen, and politicians, but also busybod­ies, puritans, preachy monogamists, cen­sors, and defenders of civic virtue. Let one of these walk into the room and the anar­chist drama critic would swell up “like a toad” about to burst. (We know this physi­ognomical detail from a fellow convict dur­ing one of Goldman’s spells in jail, who happened to watch when an evangelist came to address the inmates.) If that was her idea of the revolution’s enemies, then she was not at all out of tune with the advanced European theater, even if the sound of bombs going off begins to wear on the ear. In Ghosts, Ibsen spent an entire play swelling up like a toad at the local minister, who is the seat of all hypocrisy, nastiness, and oppression unto the second generation. Goldman loved Ghosts. “Verily a more revolutionary condemnation has never been uttered in dramatic form before or since.” Boom! Brieux, in Damaged Goods, showed how sexual prudishness leads to calamities of venereal disease. Brieux was a “revolutionary.” Boom again! Those booms were in the right spirit: that was the main thing. The plays were meant to be subversive, and no one attending an Emma Goldman lecture was going to forget that.

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The “social significance” that she pointed to mostly concerned the difficulties faced by women and the horrors that derive from sexual repression, and about these topics it is reasonable to ask how feminist was her point of view. Alix Kates Shulman, who has been championing Emma Goldman for many years, argues that it was entirely (and on this question Margaret Forster, in her history of feminism’s precursors, funda­mentally agrees). Goldman saw, as the earli­er anarchist theoreticians did not, that women suffered as women, not just as pro­letarians, that what must be swept away are not only the economic and political rela­tions of class society but the web of atti­tudes and relations obtaining between men and women. Therefore she stood up and defended the reasonableness of women sometimes abandoning their husbands, as in Ibsen, or of women having children with­out being married, as in Brieux. She de­fended the idea of women playing many different roles, living without families or pursuing careers, and many ideas of that variety, for which today we have a clear and undisputed name. So Shulman is right. Yet Goldman herself did not like that name, and it’s important to see why. Feminism for her was a word to describe the kind of wom­an reformer who was too much in the old American Protestant vein. The people she considered feminists looked to institutional reforms, like giving women the vote, which Goldman thought would do no good at all. And they were too keen for morality. The American feminists, in her eyes, wanted more morality, loftier morals, a stronger way for society to condemn the wayward and the wicked. But Goldman watched all those European plays and knew that as soon as talk goes to lofty morals, duties and obligations are about to descend on women. She wasn’t a feminist; she was a radical.

Her ideal was Dr. Stockman in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Stockman is the man who blows the whistle on the town health spa, having discovered pollution in the wa­ter, and then discovers his scientific analy­sis has been censored from the newspaper, and no auditorium in town will let him speak, and rocks are coming through his window. That was easy to identify with: Goldman had been in Stockman’s position from coast to coast. She was the national Dr. Stockman. But what she liked especial­ly was Stockman’s individualist ethic, his contempt for the stupid conformist masses, his assurance that “the strongest man is he who stands alone.” Dr. Stockman doesn’t want to improve the town morals or make the general tone loftier. He’s not a moral guardian, he’s a hardcore individualist, he wants to take his own position and let the world do as it may. That was Goldman’s viewpoint, too. From the perspective of feminist solidarity, this kind of strong-indi­vidual stuff was a trifle problematic. To tell people to go do like Dr. Stockman can be a pretty heartless thing. Stockmanism has many virtues, but sympathy for the weak is not among them. There was nothing in Goldman’s individualism that couldn’t lead to sudden lapses of sympathy. And in fact she was, on the issue of women’s solidarity, an undependable ally. She liked Strindberg, for instance. Strindberg wrote all those plays in which poor bedeviled men get trampled by hateful harridans, and even James Huneker, who quaffed beers at Schwab’s and wasn’t averse to a bit of anar­cho-individualism himself, called him a mi­sogynist. Goldman would have none of that. She responded to the wild note in Strind­berg, the bitterness against the upper class, the sympathy for outcasts, the hatred for hypocrisy. She saw him ripping down veils of deception, and if ripping veils left women looking bad for once, that was for the best. Strindberg wrote a play called Comrades satirizing an emancipated woman who de­mands alimony, and Goldman stood with Strindberg. Why should a woman who has no children require alimony? Why shouldn’t a woman be equal with a man, therefore have to suffer and labor just as men do? A hard line, which she was happy to make too hard, on occasion. But the hard line was what Goldman had in mind when she said, in her most famous passage, that “true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul.” Institutional equality or support for women wasn’t her goal, nor even collective action against society’s oppression of wom­en, not that she was against these things; she looked instead for personal strength, self-reliance. Woman “must realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches.” The power of individuals: that is what Ibsen and Strind­berg showed on stage. “The strongest man is he who stands alone.”

***

There was a lot of this Dr. Stockman stuff — superman, blond beast, it was all the same — at the turn of the century. Rough-­tough individualism was a useful corrective to the sickly sentimentality of the age. Sometimes the individualism was right-­wing, sometimes left-wing. Among the writ­ers of her generation, Jack London, the So­cialist, was making it right-wing and left-wing both. Goldman’s inspiration was to apply the individualist idea not only to women but to matters of love. That was her stroke of genius. The passage about true emancipation beginning in woman’s soul continues like this: “The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but, after all, the most vital right is the right to love and be loved.” Why she intro­duced this issue, why she went so far be­yond even the bohemian anarchists on this particular point, isn’t hard to see. In certain respects she didn’t suffer very much as a woman and encountered no more obstacles in her career as lecturer and agitator than men with similar views encountered (though she did often feel she had to resist the objections of various men in her life). But for “the right to love and be loved” she had always had to struggle. The reason she left Russia for America in the first place was to escape her despotic father’s schemes to marry her off. Then she married a man of her own choice, discovered the choice was bad, and needed to get out of it, for which she lacked courage. That was 1887 and the example of the Chicago Martyrs gave her courage. She left the husband and was os­tracized by “the entire Jewish community of Rochester,” New York. But off she went to the arms and comradeship of such as Berkman the terrorist and Most, the mad dog propagandist. The Dr. Stockman question, then, the revolt of the individual against the tyrannical community, intruded into her life from the start, and it took the form of struggling for the right to love as she chose.

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The principle she enunciated, the anar­chist doctrine of Free Love, was of course a kind of libertarian rationalism. “Every love relation should by its very nature remain an absolutely private affair.” No church, no state, no entire Jewish community of Roch­ester. That meant if a woman wanted vari­ety in love, variety was her right; indeed variety, a bit of flitting about, seemed a good idea. She populated Living My Life with quite a few lovers, some of them more serious than others, to show what she had in mind. There was “Fedya,” Johann Most, “Dan,” Hippolyte Havel, Baginski, Ed Bra­dy, not to mention Berkman, with whom she maintained an always tender and close lifelong relation that was sometimes amo­rous, sometimes amicable. And she de­scribed going rather easily from one or an­other of these men to the next. Baginski, who ran off to Europe with another woman at the wrong moment, was the only one to make her suffer. More often it was the men who took it hard. Most, Brady, and Havel were all heartbroken by her: they wanted homes, children, a faithful life’s companion. What she wanted was her career as lecturer and revolutionary, and resented anyone who proposed something different. She was generally the strong one in these relations, the indomitable, the free spirit. That was the idea. Everyone was supposed to be strong and indomitable.

On the other hand, Free Love was more than a rationalist doctrine, it was a celebration of high passion. This notion came natu­rally from all those Romantic plays and novels she read. Or possibly she merely reflected her geographical base, for after she left Rochester she ultimately arrived on the Manhattan square mile bounded by East 14th and East Broadway, and this neigh­borhood has always been a seat of emotion­al abandon, a thumping heart to the rest of the country’s phlegmatic body. The history of the Lower East Side is, after all, a story of successive youth movements, the young generation of anarchists in the 1890s and early 1900s, Young Communists of the 1930s, beatniks of the ’50s, hippies of the ’60s, punks and neo-anarchists of the ’70s and ’80s; and each of these movements has in its own way, whether impressively or not, elevated high emotion to a principle. Some­thing like that certainly emerges in the first hundred pages of Living My Life. Those early chapters are practically an ode to emotional excess, abandon, outrage, inflam­mation of the heart. And in accordance with that romantic sensibility, Free Love was supposed to enable something a bit warmer, a bit more passionate than anything associ­ated with stability or convention. This her early loves demonstrated — in moderation.

Then in 1908, when she was 38, she took up with Ben Reitman, who was a kind of low-life gynecologist, hobo activist, friend of prostitutes and pimps, lost soul. “The fan­tastic Ben R,” went Margaret Anderson’s famous remark, “wasn’t so bad if you could hastily drop all your ideas as to how human beings should look and act.” Anarchists were a bit quicker than others at dropping their ideas, but even among the comrades Reitman proved a trying case. His under­world connections brought him uncomfort­ably close to the police; on one of her first evenings out with him, Goldman sat aghast at the table as he jumped up to greet warm­ly the very Chicago cop who had arrested Louis Lingg in 1886. He was oddly devoted to his mother, whom he preferred to live with, and he was relentlessly promiscuous, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, and was always showing up with someone new. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see, almost 80 years later, what the man’s at­tractions were, apart from his good looks and exotic appeal, which were not negligi­ble. The promiscuity expressed a profound need both for sex and for mothering, a de­sire to lose himself in love, to drown in it, and the fact that this desire was, at least in his younger years, so insistent, only made it keener. Women who met Reitman must have felt repulsed or attracted, but in either case impressed, and in a matter of minutes. Goldman was attracted. Reitman made her feel more powerfully desired than anyone had made her feel before. She wasn’t averse to mothering him; she loved it. And he opened doors to places she had never quite been. Odd as it seems for someone with her experiences, she felt herself to be the pris­oner of refinement, she had the scholar’s fear of missing out on raw life — even her. And in Reitman she found a barbarian (“You are the savage, the primitive man of the cave”), which pleasantly fit the bill. As for her appeal to him, this too is pretty clear. The cave man wanted civilization, and in Goldman he stumbled on one of the only champions of high culture in America who managed also to identify with his own world of outcasts. She was his match emo­tionally, too, for if the rushing about from lover to lover expressed a desire on his part to be wanted with more than ordinary power, to be desired endlessly, then Goldman had a lot to offer. Her energy was no small thing. To be taken up by her meant to receive letters day after day, outpourings of love, endearments, heart-wringings, complaints, naggings, emotional explosions, confessions of need. Other men might have been appalled by the directness and sensuality, might have felt themselves under siege, but to someone like Reitman it must have seemed his heart’s desire. At last! he must have exclaimed, and she must have exclaimed, when they first met, and the walls of their Chicago hotel must have trembled assent, for there was bound to be no end of intensity in the coming together of people as formidably equipped as these remarkable characters.

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Reitman’s wanderings did raise certain difficulties. Goldman, the “arch-varietist,” had no objection on principle, needless to say, though she did worry that Reitman was exploiting the women he met and perhaps was even seducing them with the glamour he drew from being the lover of Emma Goldman, which wasn’t thrilling to contemplate. But this time she wanted more from her man than she wanted from earlier loves, she wanted to feel she was satisfying him completely. Her own interest in variety by and large disappeared; the thought of other men suddenly repulsed her. And she was always abruptly discovering that he could never respond in the same way. This was not a happy situation. “I am mad, absolute­ly mad and miserable.” Candace Falk, in her biography of Goldman, prints so many letters in this vein that you wish poor Emma would go champion some cause to take her mind off her problems — and of course she did accumulate causes and was continually organizing solidarity commit­tees for the Mexican Revolution or cam­paigns to free IWW boys from Texas jails. But the Mexican Revolution was only so much help. From Reitman’s perspective, too, there were plentiful fields of unhappi­ness. He was not a cowardly man, he was willing to risk life and limb going around the country as Goldman’s manager year after year, spreading the news about Henrik Ibsen and birth control and getting at­tacked by mobs and tyrants. On behalf of birth control he went to jail twice and served more than six months. On behalf of Ibsen he was tortured and tarred and feath­ered by vigilantes in San Diego, and the letters IWW were seared into his buttocks. Yet in the anarchist crowd into which he had fallen, Alexander Berkman set the standard for bravery, and Reitman, who was not above beating an indecorous retreat now and then, came out second best. Com­parisons to Berkman were unfair, as Gold­man herself recognized in one passage of Living My Life, though not in other pas­sages. Berkman was “a revolutionist first and human afterwards.” He was without fear, therefore it was nothing for him to be brave. Nevertheless that was the standard, and Reitman looked like a mouse. Intellec­tually, he stood at mouse-level as well in the bookish anarchist world. So there was hu­miliation for him, too, in his long affair. And these powerful things, her insecurity, his humiliation, her unsatisfied desires, his frustrated rage, took on, between passages of serene delirium, an almost sensual antag­onism, a “voluptuousness,” in Alice Wexler’s word. Their letters show the two of them luxuriating in mutual pleasures, and something very close to luxuriating in their individual pains. The resulting insta­bility, the inequalities now tipping one way, now the other, only tied them closer togeth­er. Love requires sacrifice, Goldman thought, and they were both sacrificing like mad.

It was inescapable in any such affair that what was rationalist in Free Love would run up against what was passionate. As one of the biographers points out, Emma Goldman the rationalist was roaming the country delivering a lecture called “Jealousy: Causes and a Possible Cure,” in which the causes were linked to the institution of private property and the possible cure was linked to varietism and the triumph of anarchy, and all the while the woman behind the podium was dying of jealousy while her faithless manager stalked members of the audience. A bad scene. Eventually she was throwing chairs at him. The lecturer herself saw it all too clearly. “How is it possible that one so decided, so energetic, so independent, as I, one who has defied a World and fought so many battles, should have wound herself around a human being without whom life seems absolutely desolate. How has such a process taken place? I cannot find an an­swer. I only know it is so, that my being is so closely glued to yours, I feel as if all interest, all energy, all desire had gone with you and left me numb and paralyzed.…” So she had to make a choice about Free Love, had to decide between high passion and level sensibleness, and during the 10 years when her lectures were proving suc­cessful, she stuck to her heart’s yearning and quietly let a few shafts of irony fall across her public doctrine. The biographers, Falk and Wexler, both express disappointment at this decision. They think the life failed to live up to the dogma. They find their Goldman a little neurotic and self­-destructive. Reading these writers, one can appreciate what Goldman had in mind in complaining about the over-moral feminists of her own time.

In any case, matters of love emphasize again what a rock of integrity this woman was. The Chicago Martyrs set a standard of absolute courage and independence, and this standard became a norm in American anarchism, became in fact that movement’s greatest accomplishment. Berkman merely followed in that path, and some years later Sacco and Vanzetti did the same. Goldman spent her years in America always expecting that someday she too would be called on to die for the cause or to suffer in some other monumental way, and beyond her lost tooth, some beatings by the police, the three years she spent in jail (her imprison­ment in 1893 was repeated for a longer term in 1918–9 for the crime of opposing the World War I draft) and the numberless arrests for speaking out on birth control or Ibsen or something, plus the federal sup­pression of her magazine and ultimately her cruel deportation — beyond this continual wretched treatment, nothing worse ever happened, miraculously enough. But the iron adherence to principle was the same, and that was as true of her life in love as her life in politics. She was many things, but she was certainly dauntless. When love had ended with Brady or some other man, she left him; and when it began with even some­one as preposterous and embarrassing as the hobo doctor, she was not afraid to join him. Appearances meant little to her, even appearances within the anarchist move­ment, where Reitman was always in bad odor. In her older years it was more difficult, she was living in exile, and she suffered what she called the hardships of an emanci­pated woman, which become severer with age. The loneliness and instability that she acknowledged were a risk of Free Love afflicted her then (though it’s true she always had Berkman in his role as comrade-for-life). But even then her romantic heart still managed an occasional insurrection. In Ger­many in the 1920s, she struck up an affair with a Swedish man — her “Swedish sunbeam” — more than 20 years younger than herself. The next decade, during the time she was living in Montreal, it was with an anarchist delicatessen man from Albany, New York. She was in her sixties, a “grandmotherly person with a blue twinkling eye,” or alternatively “a battleship going into action” (two contemporary descriptions), yet once again she was besieging the new light of her life with sexy billet doux and one can only imagine what in person. Later still she found a blind young man from Chicago who, full of enthusiasm for her, traveled to Canada and raised her to “sublime heights.” “Imagine, last Thursday, the 27th of June, I was sixty-six years of age. Never did I feel my years so much. Never before was it borne in on me how utterly incongruous is my mad infatuation for you, a man thirty years younger than I.…” She complained to Berkman about her own per­sonality: “I wish I could at least make my peace with the world, as behooves an old lady. I get disgusted with myself for the fire that is consuming me at my age. But what will you do? No one can get out of his skin.” In the end she was not, of course, failing to live up to the dogma. “Anarchism,” she wrote to a European comrade, “must be lived now in our relations to each other, not in the future,” and on that basis the battleship steamed steadily forward.

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More to the point, her labor as writer was also steaming forward, for all those experi­ences always managed to express them­selves in words. How do you become a prophet, Allen Ginsberg was asked. “Tell your secrets,” he said. Goldman devoted two volumes of memoirs plus sundry other writings and something approaching a quarter-million letters (not all of which survive) to telling her secrets. In a sense even the drabbest of her lectures and essays told a secret, for everything she did was intended to mythologize its author, and the myth revealed a secret about people’s capacity for experience. That was her success. Ginsberg isn’t wrong. In the early years, when she lectured solely on the proletarian revolution, she never reached more than a small number of sympathizers. But when she be­gan presenting herself as the woman who has lived, as the real-life Nora or female Dr. Stockman, the woman who has fled the so­cial conformities for a free-fall through the anarchist air — then she was someone people wanted to see. That person was no longer on the despised immigrant sidelines. That per­son had stumbled into a series of debates that still seem recognizably current. It’s not too much to say that in her half-cranky, not always deft manner, she had become the first stalwart of the radical left to make the move into modern intellectual life.

***

Emma Goldman’s final distinction was to last so long in the revolutionary movement, 53 years altogether, that she went through the crisis of the socialist intellectual not once but several times. About the last of these crises, which occupied the final four years of her life, very little has been known. This crisis had to do with the Spanish Civil War. She was 67 when the war broke out, living in France, burdened by Berkman’s suicide a few weeks earlier, and reluctant to get involved. But the comrades insisted and two months later she was in Barcelona, wel­comed by the anarchist groups as their “spiritual mother.” She addressed 16,000 people at a Barcelona anarchist youth rally (characteristically, she quoted Ibsen), toured areas where social revolution had begun, then took up duties, in answer to her Spanish comrades’ instructions, as solidari­ty organizer in London. She returned to Spain for two additional extended visits in the next couple of years and she wrote at length about it. But these writings never received much play. Her condemnations of the Soviet Union — she was already talking about Communism and Fascism in the same breath — had damaged her standing among the duller and more authoritarian liberals and radicals in the United States, and liberal magazines like The New Republic and The Nation, where her writings nor­mally ought to have appeared, were no long­er open to her. The energy to write another book was more than she could summon. Her Spanish commentary took the form, then, of lectures, personal letters, and articles for obscure British and American anarchist magazines whose public influence was zero. Only today have these writings been collect­ed, under the title Vision on Fire, in an edition laboriously edited by David Porter, and even this book is a product of a not­-very-powerful movement press.

The importance of Goldman’s Spanish commentary ought, however, to be immedi­ately apparent. Many well-known English ­language writers reported on Spanish events, but none of these writers was especially sympathetic to the anarchists. George Orwell, who didn’t hate the anarchists, be­longed to a splinter party of Marxists and wrote about Spain more or less from that party’s perspective. Even John Dos Passos, who was a bit anarchisant, wrote affection­ately about anarchists in his Spanish novel yet in practice sympathized mostly with a moderate non-revolutionary breakaway fac­tion of the Spanish “libertarians.” Heming­way went to Spain and was positively terrified of the anarchists. He called them “dirty, foul, undisciplined, kind, loving, sil­ly and ignorant, but always dangerous be­cause they were armed” (For Whom the Bell Tolls). Their personal habits revolted him. And of course that was not Emma Goldman’s view. The more armed and dan­gerous were the men in red and black, the more she liked them. She went to live among them, during her time in Spain, at the expropriated ITT building in Barcelona which served as anarchist headquarters, and she earned their respect by refusing to flee to bomb shelters when German and Italian planes were bombing the city. She was no old lady, one might say; she was Hemingway. And since the anarchists were, in fact, the largest single political group in Spain, the dominant force in several re­gions, and the group chiefly responsible for holding off the Fascist uprising at the start of the war, her writings are singularly im­portant. Fragmented and occasional as they are, they constitute the one book we have that was written in English by a well-known observer whose principal sympathies were with the mainstream of the Spanish resistance, not with a splinter party or secondary force.

She went around to the anarchist collectives and the experiments in workers’ self-management, the Syndicate of Public Amusement, the Socialized Milk industry, the anarcho-syndicalist chicken farms and rabbit breeders, and the textile factories that were organized on principles of libertarian self-management. She didn’t describe at great length these constructive achievements of the anarchist revolution — the experiments in democratizing industry, in collectivizing the land in a libertarian manner, in establishing a nonstate variety of grassroots socialism, el communismo libertario — mostly because she didn’t know Spanish (she had to get by with French) and because she was touring in any case with Augustin Souchy, the German anarcho-syndicalist, who was taking this duty on himself. But what she did describe conforms generally to accounts provided by other witnesses. Needless to say, she was thrilled. “There was never a more proletarian revolution than the Spanish one,” she wrote, no doubt correctly. “Yes, my dear, I feel it was worth all I have given to the Anarchist movement to see with my own eyes its first buddings. It is my grandest hour.” But the enthusiasm didn’t extend to every particular. The ecstatic tone that writers fell into in regard to the Spanish revolution, the tone you see in Orwell’s de­scriptions of Barcelona, crops up in Gold­man’s reports only in fleeting passages and often then leads to a raised eyebrow, a bit of skepticism, a holding back. “Yesterday I visited the largest, most important champag­ne vineyards and industry in this country­. It was founded in the 16th century and continued by a long line of the same family until the Revolution. It is the most modern and perfectly organized plant I have seen there. And would you believe it, the entire personnel including the manager are members of the CNT [the anarchist labor federation]. The plant is now collectivized and run by the workers themselves. The manag­er, a comrade who fell on my neck when he learned my name, was quite surprised when I asked him whether the workers will have a chance to drink the champagne. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘What is the Revolution for if not to give the workers what they never en­joyed?’ ” — to which she added, “Well, let’s hope this will really be so.” She was espe­cially critical of women’s status in the anarchist areas. She thought the women needed to speak a little louder. “It is true of women, as it is of the workers. Those who would be free must themselves strike the first blow.” She lectured the anarchist men and sent furious letters to her old comrade Max Nettlau explaining that no, all Spanish women don’t want broods of babies.

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The chief point of skepticism concerned the political policies of the anarchist leaders toward the Communists. What Orwell re­ported about the Communists — the rise of the tiny Communist party through shrewd use of Soviet aid, which was the only significant source of arms, the start of Communist assassinations and executions, the jailing of anarchists and other revolutionary anti­-Fascists, finally the Communist assaults on the farmworkers’ collectives and self-man­aged factories, which is to say the outbreak of civil war within the civil war — Goldman reported, too. What was different in her account was that, as an “influential” in the anarchist ranks, she partook in the debate over how to respond. There was, alas, no way to respond. It would have been possible for the anarchists to establish a dictatorship in anti-Fascist Spain and to suppress the Communists altogether, but this they were against on principle (though it is striking to see that the possibility was discussed). Be­sides, where would they get arms if they alienated the Soviet Union? They were stuck, these anarchists. They were stuck in the very situation that in later years would recur several times in the Spanish-speaking world, the situation of indigenous revolu­tionaries fighting a Catholic feudal reaction that is tacitly backed by the Western de­mocracies, and in which their own allies are tied to the Soviet Union whether they like it or not. The Spanish anarchists agreed to appease the Communists. They accepted a limit on the anarchist revolution, recog­nized Communist areas of power, agreed not to publish unfavorable truths about the Soviet Union. They went further yet and joined the United Front with the Commu­nists, which meant taking their place as members of what they had sworn to destroy, the centralized state. They were given four ministries in the Spanish Republic. And all this Goldman went along with. More: she herself accepted a position from the United Front government. She became an official representative to England of the Catalan government. A state official at the age of 68! But she wasn’t happy about these concessions. Certain of the anarcho-syndicalist leaders seemed actually to like the Communists, even to like Stalin, and this naiveté revolted her. She had little expectation that allying with the Soviets would do any good. But she did not go public with her reservations and she corresponded with an­archists around the world telling them not to go public either. Solidarity with the Spanish libertarians was her priority, and the Spanish libertarians felt they had no alternative. So she exercised “discipline”­ — her word — an anarchist discipline, self-imposed. Then, of course, it turned out that appeasing the Communists was no good anyway. The jailing of labor militants and the executions and murders began in ear­nest; her own building, the expropriated ITT headquarters in Barcelona, was as­saulted by Communist troops, though not while she was there (it was this attack that Orwell described). She toured a Communist prison and saw non-Communist revolution­aries from all over Europe locked up there, men who had fought fascism in their own countries and then continued after defeat to fight it in Spain only to fall into the hands of their supposed allies. Some of the in­mates turned out to be Communists them­selves, at any rate members of the Commu­nist-led International Brigades, jailed on charges of Trotskyism and other preposter­ous offenses. It was an appalling scene. And finally she unmuzzled herself.

The Communists, she wrote to John Dew­ey, “have done so much harm to the labor and revolutionary movement in the world that it may well take a hundred years to undo.” To another correspondent, she blamed Marxism itself: “The introduction of Marxist theories into the world has done no less harm, indeed I would say more, than the introduction of Christianity — at any rate in Spain it has helped to assassinate the Spanish revolution and the anti-fascist struggle.” She swore undying hostility. “The rest of my years will be devoted to the exposure of the scourge that has been im­posed on the world by Soviet Russia.” But by then the war was lost. The revolutionar­ies were getting massacred in Spain by Franco, and those who escaped were locked in concentration camps by the French, and within the concentration camps the Com­munists were continuing their persecutions, incredibly enough. And there was nothing to be done. Her influence over liberals was long over, and now the one place on earth where anarchism had prospered was elimi­nated, too. She had reached the ultimate point in the crisis of the left-wing intellectual, the point of total political isolation. Henceforth anything she said spoke only for herself. She came up with a lecture called “Stalin: Judas of Spain” and delivered it to Canadian audiences. But she could hardly pretend to be a leader of a political move­ment anymore.

A younger person under those circum­stances might have done some rethinking. Reading her Spanish commentaries, you can almost see what that rethinking could have been. It is what Orwell came up with. So much of Goldman’s commentary resem­bles Orwell’s that you can’t help supplying some of his conclusions and observations. She did read his book and approved of it heartily, and you keep expecting to find her own version of his analysis of totalitarian­ism, with its unavoidable corollary, which is that worse things exist on earth than bourgeois democracy. There was, in fact, a breeze blowing toward democratic liberalism among some of the older anarchist thinkers in the 1930s. The German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker was going soft on democracy. Certain comrades in America were finding friendly things to say about liberalism. These people were becoming, in the contemptuous phrase of the harder-line comrades, “almost social-democratic.” And Goldman was definitely wafting in that particular breeze. She was one of the “social democratic anarchists.” You see it in some of her surprisingly sympathetic references to Franklin Roosevelt (who for his part returned the interest to the extent of reading Living My Life, not that he ever lifted a finger to rescind her deportation).

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But more than a breeze this never came to be. Social democratic anarchism died aborning. In one passage of her Spanish writings she would acknowledge that the democracies were infinitely to be preferred to the totalitarian states, but in another passage she would write that democracy was totalitarianism in disguise. She was against the Communists, but sometimes she would indulge just as much hostility to the parliamentary Socialists. She opposed the fascist above all, to be sure. But did she oppose them in the only way that commanded rea­sonable degrees of might, once the anarchist alternative was defeated — which is to say, was she willing to go far enough beyond anarchist tradition to endorse the Allied war effort? She pointed out that the democ­racies were, from a colonial point of view, themselves vile dictatorships. (That was a good point.) Sometimes she thought about pacifism. She was leaning in that direction.

The debate over World War II — should anarchists come to the defense of the anti­fascist governments? — was the last she en­gaged in. She conducted it in circumstances that were anything but happy. She was in Canada because Western Europe was fall­ing to the Nazis and because she loathed every aspect of British life and wouldn’t dream of staying there; but mostly because Canada was close to what she still consid­ered home, the United States. She used to get a comrade to drive her to the border so she could look across. Meanwhile the anar­chist circles were growing pathetically small. My Yiddish translator and old friend Ahrne Thorne, the last editor of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme many years later, tells me he used to come around in those days to cheer the venerable comrade up. He himself supported the war, anarchism notwithstanding. He took an exceptionally dim view of the Germans; he felt that as a Jew the issues were entirely clear. But by then Emma had reverted to tradition all the way. An imperialist war was an imperialist war. She recalled that Kropotkin let the cause down in World War I by deciding the Ger­mans were especially evil and the Allies ought to be supported. “Look, you are now assuming the same attitude as Kropotkin,” she said. “But look at the Germans today!” said Thorne. “Maybe Kropotkin was right.” But no. That was not going to be Goldman’s line. The woman who came alive by reading about the martyrdom of Haymarket, who had thrown herself into the most forward trenches of the class war and then was first in America to follow the path from revolu­tionary militant to free-lance intellectual, the woman who had transformed so much of the old proletarian revolutionary bitter­ness into a passion for European theater and free speech and modem ideas, who her­self embodied American labor’s role in gen­erating modern intellectual life and went on to raise some questions that have not exact­ly disappeared from contemporary debate — this woman was not going to do anything else. And as if to mark the completion of her work, the anarchist comrades in Canada and the United States arranged, after she died, for her body to be brought across the border — then the American authorities would let her in — and buried her at Waldheim Cemetery, Chicago, a few feet from where the Martyrs themselves, her inspiration, were buried.

I have only one story about Emma’s death to add to what has already been pub­lished. It is a story that Thorne tells. He remembers when he first learned, in Toron­to, that she had suffered a stroke. He ran to her apartment — it was upstairs from the home of some Dutch comrades — and found several other anarchists already gathering. They were mostly Italians. The Italian an­archists in Toronto loved Emma because she had led a quiet campaign to save them from deportation back to Mussolini. The comrades stood around in front of her door, and the narrowness of the corridor formed them into a sort of honor guard. Then Emma was carried out on a stretcher, para­lyzed on her right side. She stared at the honor guard through her thick eyeglasses, and as she passed, she pulled her skirt down to cover her knee. This detail somehow stuck in Thorne’s mind. A few days later he figured out why.

The tug on her skirt reminded him of a story he read by Y.L. Peretz 20 years earli­er, during his childhood in Lodz, Poland. In this story, “The Three Gifts,” a beautiful Jewish girl is caught wandering outside the ghetto, where Jews are not allowed to go. It is a Christian holy day and for a Jew to wander about on such a day is a heinous crime. Worse, her beauty has attracted the attention of a noble knight and thereby sul­lied his religious purity. Guards bring the girl before a magistrate, who condemns her to a gruesome death. Her long hair will be tied to a horse’s tail and she will be dragged through the streets until the blood from her corpse has washed away her sin.

The magistrate allows her, however, one wish. She asks for pins. Pins? No one can imagine what she has in mind. Still, the wish is granted, the pins are brought, and she fastens the hem of her dress to her feet, sticking the pins right into the flesh. Then her hair is tied to the horse’s tail and the horse begins to trot. The doomed girl gets miserably dragged through the streets. Yet as this happens her skirt remains immovably fastened. The girl will die but her mod­esty will never be violated. The crowd will gape but never will anyone see anything that should not be seen. It is a story about defiance. ■

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Norman Mailer’s Greatest Hits

The Time of His Prime Time

Any biography whose subject is still alive is suspect. Nine bombs out of 10, we get to choose between two brands of meretriciousness: sensationalism or sycophancy. Certainly our Norman, who has a talent for sending the most sensible heads into wild yawing, offers rich pretexts for either. Hilary Mills has avoided both. How? The gods of biography (they’re the ones that look like shoe clerks, halfway down the big hill) clap each other on their backs at the joke. By all appearances, it never occurred to Mills that having an opinion about Mailer might be to the point, or just handy. Now, indifference still ranks as one of the odder incentives for undertaking a biography. We have to look elsewhere for Mills’s purpose, as a (the hit car skids wildly around the corner) minor-league purveyor of bookchat, in making Mailer the first flag she nails to her mast. I fear — I revel in it, actually, but the forms have to be observed — that the book is an act of pure career-making: Mailer’s name is First National in the literary marketplace, and any young litterateur looks for targets of opportunity, hang caring. (The car now gets a quick paint job, in a safe garage.)

For Mailer to be used this way has its rough justice. Saul Bellow, turning even his idiosyncrasies impersonal, can make himself a classic while still breathing — when you light upon him saying “After all, I am not Goethe, and this is not Weimar” in the Times Book Review, you know it’s not because the interviewer asked him if he was Goethe and this was Weimar. Mailer, by contrast, only thrives in the up-for-grabs media-age thick of things. You may think this is a polite way of saying he has a knack for making an ass of himself on talk shows, but there’s more to it than that. What distinguishes pop art from high art is its sense that the real aesthetic moment exists in the collision between work and audi­ence. Mailer conceives of his own work, in tandem with his public persona, as only half of a continuing relation­ship that his audience completes. And he knows that by claiming a relationship with you, he forces you to have a relationship with him. For Mailer, the neurotic appeal of writing as a vehicle for imposing one’s consciousness isn’t art’s necessary evil but its whole value. His work is so subjective that it’s justified solely by his audience’s equally subjective response — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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This is why Mill’s reportorial synopsis falls short — the way Norman has set the terms, not to have a poetic view of him is to have no view at all. But she’s a victim of the People mentality: facts (exhaustive) plus quotes (copious) equals truth. Needless to say, she misses her target completely. Certainly, she’s labored hard and conscientiously at putting the facts and quotes together, and much of it is interesting — fascinating, if you happen to be on an airplane. But she’s so tone-deaf to Mailer’s sensibility that when it comes to the heavy stuff, she’s reduced to rote-mouthed para­phrases of Mailer’s writing that diagram its sense while canceling its personality — in other words, its substance. Here’s Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, talking about a sad time in his career: “My mood of those poor days was usually tied to the feeling that I had nothing left to write about, that maybe I was not really a writer — I thought often of becoming a psychoanalyst. I even considered going into business to get material for a novel, or working with my hands for a year or two.” And here’s Mills: “He was beginn­ing to feel he had nothing left to write about. At one point in that depressing win­ter Mailer thought of becoming a psychoanalyst or even going into business to garner new experience for a novel.”

Indeed, Mills’s comprehension can slip so low that when Mailer describes an un­finished novel of his as “rather mechanical,” she quotes “mechanical” as if it were the term for a new genre. But I’m not bringing this up just to attack her mundane writing style. Style, as critic Samuel Hynes ob­served, is nothing less than the writer’s sense of reality; few writers have gone so far as Mailer in seeing style as the pure expression of personality, and personality as the only valid vehicle of insight. The claim he stakes that his unsupported sensibility can not only explain reality but take it one-on-one in a wrestling match. Mills seems unable to grasp this fundamental idea. Her transcription of the data leaves unexplained a life’s progress that only makes sense as bravura media psychodramatics; her reduction of Mailer’s ideas into neat, accessible little formulas, about cancer, totalitarianism, etc., also misses the point. Mailer doesn’t use his obsessive personal craziness to feed his intellect, but puts his intellect, like everything else, in the service of obsessive personal craziness.

But Mills isn’t just writing an extended magazine profile; her book also reflects the attitudes of the literary establishment at its most highbrow. On both levels, Mills’s book is an attempt to rationalize Mailer — which for the masses means laying out his career with Connect-the-Dots simplicity, and for the literary mavens means categorizing, exp­laining, and filing away his literary output by the usual received literary methods. But such explications, good or bad, don’t really work with Mailer, because you have to read his books for him. One quality he shares with a number of great writers is that he is forever outside of literature. This is why the people who run writing in this country like him only when they have to: the books that work as crucibles of embattled sensibility violate their notion of the way books ought to behave, while Mailer’s career traduces their idea of how to understand writers’ lives — as a polite and regulated trajectory that Mailer himself once described as “They are born with a great talent, they exercise it, and they die.” Of course, this mindset exemplifies the timidity that has kept the American literary establishment secluded from the swarm of American life Mailer so insistently plunges into. To understand Mailer you need a pop sensibility that responds to the rules he plays by — and accepts the game itself as valid.

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Well, to work.

It’s a dirty job, but some people really love it, you know?

Obviously, a poetic view of Mailer doesn’t have to mean a rapturous one; many people find him valuable precisely for being such a perfect symbolic embodiment of everything they can’t stand. For those of us in the far trench, though, “rapturous” is ex­actly the right word. At 13, watching my parents visit some friends of theirs, I came on Advertisements for Myself amid the alien shelves. Reading that startling opening soliloquy, near-Marlovian in its cumulative rhythm — “Like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I be­gan” — I knew this was the first book I was ever going to steal from anybody. I had never run into writing that threw its character into my face so directly; right then, books stop­ped being a scoundrel’s last refuge and be­came, instead, a means of hacking one’s way through the world. The impact had next to nothing to do with content — it was like get­ting off on the beat first, and sitting down with the lyric sheet later.

Of course, by the time people my age started reading, Mailer had already arrived. In 1963, The Presidential Papers defined the existential hero as “a consecutive set of brave and witty self-creations”; six years later, he was tossing off self-creations faster than alimony payments. The late ’60s saw Mailer at his most dramatically fulfilled — ­his prismatic sensibility gave new curves to every light that entered. In fact, I was sur­prised to find out later on that he hadn’t always been thought of as such a bellwether; conversely, his intermittent ups and more frequent downs since the ’60s have always taken that status for granted.

It may help to take the definition of the hero above, and replace the word “existen­tial” with “media-age” — or “pop.” This may be the key, in fact, to understanding Mailer’s version of existentialism. To Mailer, any event whose end is unforeseen is “existential.” By his own admission, that description could apply to a trip to the dentist. But add the modern media fishbowl to that “existen­tial” sense of events, modify that definition of the “existential” hero with the media notion of the hero as pure public image — in short, remember that trips to the dentist don’t get shown on prime-time TV — and boom. In other words, the Mailer hero, whether it’s himself, Jack Kennedy, or Stephen Rojack, makes sense only as a cele­brity, and his philosophy makes sense only within the media arena. Mailer has said that what “thrust” existentialism on him was his coming to grips with his own fame, Q.E.D.

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One virtue of Mills’s work is that she supplies enough graph-points of narrative to chart Mailer’s path whole, instead of being dazzled/appalled by whichever episode is currently in style. What we see — although she doesn’t seem to — is that Mailer’s rela­tion to his own pop celebrity provides the continuity in his life. The most intriguing parts of Mills’s book reveal unlike Nor­man Mailer Mailer was at the start, and how many “uncharacteristic” veins of timidity, conventionality, and plain wrong guesses marble each successive slice of attempted rebellion before they cohere, almost despite themselves, into transformations. There’s plenty here for any debunker, but only a thoroughly smug and scared age sees all attempts to be larger than one is as quackery. To grab center stage first, and count on luck, talent, and wit to measure up later, is as basic to a media-age protagonist’s self-creation as losing the sled was to Citizen Kane’s.

In ’48 Mailer bounced in with The Naked and the Dead only to find that, as John Updike remarked, the party was already breaking up. Thank God. If his youth hadn’t kept him from vested interest in a version of literary success outmoded by World War II, he’d be Herman Wouk by now. For my money, Naked is his worst book — because it’s the only one that somebody else could have written. But what bad timing. The previous generation’s literary rebellion had been co-opted into respectability by the time young Norman developed a yen to emulate it at Harvard, the “New Criticism” was handily covering up the passing of the critical baton to the academics, and for the first time in the century writers were ex­pected to be society’s boosters and not its natural enemies. On top of that Mailer’s private psychological disorientation — fa­mous at 25; call the sanatorium — was oper­ating as a heating coil on his public ideology. Cut off from the safe norms of Brooklyn, Harvard, and earnest-young-writer, he lunged toward whatever could locate him, and became, as Mills paraphrases Norman Podhoretz, the only American liberal whose response to the cold war was to embrace revolutionary socialism. Hence Barbary Shore, in which political commitment and neurotic psychological dislocation engage in a frantic chase to turn the other into a mirror — probably the strangest, loneliest, and most tortured novel published in Amer­ica since Pierre.

What follows over the next several years are the flailings of a mind determined to have an impact on its time, and finding no new fissures in the time’s huge blandness. Mailer had always wanted to be larger than life (see The Naked and the Dead’s trans­parent Great War Novel ambitions), but had a hard time accepting that society offered no polite way of doing so (ambitious or not, a man doesn’t get disillusioned easily with a system that lets a Brooklyn boy discover literature at Harvard). Mailer, to a degree surprising in a figure who appears so self-sufficient, seems to have yearned, then and maybe later, for the cosseting safety of being part of a group. His attraction to socialism may well have rested in part on its being the institutionalized way to rebel. How else to explain the attempts, which Mills recounts, to gather a Village salon around himself after Barbary Shore? Or his plummy satis­faction in finding the ’60s a time so Maileresque that he could comfortably criticize its excesses? Or for that matter the sycophantic retinues he’s surrounded him­self with for 20 years? The worst crisis he faced in the early ’50s was the realization that he was going to have to go it alone — his eventual strategy was to convert necessity into opportunity.

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For a biographer, 1951–55 is the crucial period of Mailer’s career. He goes in at one end as (to enlarge the context of his own description in Advertisements) “a cornered rat,” and comes out the other as a recog­nizable Norman Mailer, first working model of “existential” world-view firmly gripped in fist, ego tilted combatively over one eye. This is also where Mills not only skips peb­bles across the surface of her subject as usual, but (through no real fault of her own) skimps on the biographer’s basic job. We know, in outline, that Mailer’s alchemy had something to do with sexual experimentation, “galloping” self-analysis, and drugs, but the specifics of who, when, and what happened necessary to a full understanding of the process and the results are private, which they ought to be, and so Mills’s revel­atory moment doesn’t, can’t, exist — she can only repeat Mailer’s own cautious gener­alities about it.

The record we do have is metaphorical­ — in the running battles of the developing Mailer prose style. After writing one book in “no style, best-seller style” (his words), and another whose overheated, near-hallu­cinatory raw material had incinerated its own genteel literary aspirations, he was fi­nally beginning to learn from Hemingway’s genius (where before, like thousands of others, he had only tried to ape Heming­way’s mannerisms). For Mailer at this time the most important lesson of the master was that the style, like it or not, really is the man, and if one’s manhood — neither of them would de-genderize that word into self-­hood — is seen as a search and not a possession, then every risky adjective becomes the equivalent of coming on to a policeman’s wife. Mailer’s style, even now, listens to itself; it’s constantly alert to its own poten­tial nuances.

Of course, both men’s sense of the quest as an exclusively masculine domain can make much of it sound distasteful now. I’d argue that at least part of the problem is terminology — if the words for risk-taking self-fulfillment have been largely male-ori­ented up to now, do you ditch the value, or change the words? — and that, in the Eisenhower ’50s, when most men were, symbolically, as much repressed housewives as their partners, the value of the stance outweighed its dubious aspects. But even so, enough of it was more than terminology, and remained part of Mailer’s thinking, to get him into trouble later on.

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At any rate Mailer had to plough through a thicket of bad writing — by turns clunkily earnest and facelessly hacklike, full of re­ceived political jargon, before he began to find his own voice (and subject, and world­view, and everything else that grew out of the voice). He may defend the famous revision of The Deer Park, all elegance dumped in favor of a one-three offbeat, in terms of not wanting to imprison Sergius O’Shaugnessy’s character. But the real jailbreak was his. The first version of the novel was about a tough, cocky young parvenu who told his own story — in a gen­teel voice that reflected Mailer’s lingering aspirations to literary respectability. Preserving that style would have made everything he was trying to grow into im­permissible etiquette. So O’Shaugnessy’s voice lost its manners, becoming colloquial, rough, and fliply tough-minded enough to make Papa himself proud. The new voice isn’t always convincing for Sergius either, but as Mailer discovering his own style by bashing in his bridges under him, it’s com­pletely believable. Literarily, the book is his crossroads; playing by the rules of the conven­tional novel, it reveals a growing sense of fiction, and maybe of all writing, as a set of useful masks and devices for the expression of pure public persona. Which may help explain why it’s also The Great Lost Mailer Book. Mailer’s detractors point to its dual nature as proof of his failure as a novelist; his admirers, who don’t care about such things, put it down in order to boost An American Dream, which brings the earlier book’s tentative authorial persona brazenly front and center.

The Deer Park, with its quasihipster hero, also obliquely marked Mailer’s entry into the Beat movement. The subculture had already been around — old Beats would insist that the life of On the Road was dead a decade before the book came out. But Mailer’s relation to such phenomena is that of a surfer to the wave — he catches it just as it begins to curl into mass consciousness. Even Mailer’s wildest ideas are idiosyncratic refractions of some presence becoming man­ifest in the great collective con. This is not necessarily calculated: in his relation to the culture, Mailer is a born counterpuncher, and the first quiver of an oncoming trend out there triggers his pop instinct. The same instinct instantaneously redefines the trend in terms of his own sensibility. But he has next to no use for fringes, at least when they stay that way. For Mailer, there are no he­roes in basements; for better and worse it’s one of the most American things about him.

Hip worked for Mailer two ways: as an intellectual framework it abetted his self­-excavation more than socialism or Studs Lonigan; as a public posture it allowed him to make raids on the national awareness with the illusion of armies behind him. And crucially, since the Beats used pop artifacts as ideological referents and pop mass communication as their playground, Mailer was also learning new, nonliterary and nonintel­lectual ways of marshaling his ideas and putting them across. When, in Advertise­ments, he does his existential-semiotics delineation of the philosophical merits of T­-formation over single wing, you feel his al­most palpable exhilaration at realizing that something as unliterary and universal as football can fit into his sensibility. But as usual — starting with his immediate substitution of “Hip” for “Beat” — Mailer’s involvement with the Beats rested much more on its temporal value to him than on ideological solidarity. “The White Negro” is a brilliant analysis, but it’s so much Mailer’s version of what Mailer wishes the Beat movement were like (him) that its con­siderable merits hardly have anything to do with the movement’s actuality. He must have realized the alliance’s drawbacks when Capote capped their talk-show argument about Kerouac with that’s-not-writing-only-­typing: to be punctured like that when you’re not even talking about you, but about another writer you don’t even like, out of revolutionary camaraderie — well, you start thinking that the only movements worth belonging to are the ones you start yourself.

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So even though Advertisements’ hun­dred-and-one topics are formally justified as a preview brochure for oncoming Hip, that’s just window-dressing for a personality on the verge of not needing any wrapping larger than its own skin. What does connect all those subjects, and give them meaning, is Mailer’s continuing story of his experience as a postwar American writer/culture hero/Jeremiah in the wilderness, and the fact that he perceives such ego display as intrinsic to his attack on ’50s America. The style has also come into its own. A man who goes out to the limits of experience may come back with a richer sense of the limits than of the experience — what the orgy ultimately gave Mailer, it seems, was a sense of irony. Now a new balance came into play, which in­tensified the game’s stakes instead of vitiat­ing them — unlike those academic contem­poraries for whom irony was a means to shrink life until it could comfortably fit their desk tops, Mailer, like Stendhal, used its zigzags to get further and say more than a straight man could.

Of course this formula makes neat a tran­sition whose reality was chaotic. Mailer’s sense of the edge still remained too in­fatuated to be unerringly accurate; “The Time of Her Time” is a comic masterpiece of sexual knowingness (and capping a book like Advertisements with a story in which every intellectual assumption of the ’50s is quite literally buggered is an act of wonderful pop mindfuck). But another piece in Advertise­ments, the “Prologue” to the same novel that “Time of Her Time” was to be part of, smothers insights in rhetorical adolescent posturing. And parting with his hipster-­phase hope for a sexual and social revolution that would start tomorrow morning (Mailer was the only one who thought a sexual revolution ought to include a Reign of Terror) wasn’t easy. Along with new confidence, there was plenty of dreck, fear, personal confusion, and an overwhelming sense of lost possibilities, all of which seem to have come to a head in the ugly episode of his near-fatal stabbing of his wife in 1960. To analyze something like this in purely literary terms might seem unseemly but if the man himself can have both the intellectual honesty and the outrageous insensitivity to say, “After that, I felt better,” surely a mere writer of wrappings for dead fish can point out that the aftermath of the stabbing coincides with Mailer’s shift, as a writer, from radical confrontation to gadfly opposition.

For which the Kennedys supplied the perfect occasion. Mirroring his cold war embrace of socialism, but this time on purpose, Mailer reacted to the institutionalization of liberalism by nurturing the conservative ele­ments in his thought. That his radicalism now flourished at precisely those points where the Administration stayed conserva­tive also suggests that he was charting his course in dialectical response to American culture, expanding his own persona into a pop symbol more pointedly and confidently than ever before. But his playing the vision­ary clown in Camelot depended on an animal awareness in both camps that their turfs overlapped — if Jack and Jackie hadn’t been so sexually interesting, on the ’50s rebound, Mailer might never have jumped ship from Hip to history. Kennedy believed that the president’s role as a nation’s mirror had more effect than his actual policy; Mailer believed that the artist’s role as the antenna of the race had more artistic value than just writing books. They were made for each other.

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The ’60s, the era that literature (or any­way “literature”) fumbled, will stand in­stead as Mailer’s decade. After struggling for a dozen years to flesh out the notion that existence is not only a war but a just war, that every event is a crossroads of choice between cheating life and intensifying it, and that the self is best defined as a kinetic relation to experience rather than a static bastion, Mailer found American culture coming into a parallel alignment with the same principle. The ’60s, after all, were one of the rare periods when the buried symbol­ism of American life upset the platitudes and practicalities that usually act to stifle it. Mailer did not in the least stop being a gadfly and outrageous eccentric — what he did was go from being an amateur to being a professional, because the times had changed a step behind his changes and now the ’60s were ready to install such a man as a seer. Suddenly, nothing in the culture seemed alien to Mailer’s sensibility. His lonely grap­pling with the paradox of being a literary outlaw — in society for his celebrity, exiled from it for his stance — had also, unwittingly, given him the key to the pop consciousness that was now (in the one decade in which pop culture became culture pure and simple, and almost politics pure and simple) uniquely apt. Laid end to end, The Presi­dential Papers, An American Dream, Can­nibals and Christians, Armies of the Night, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago add up to a single sustained chain reaction without any real parallel in our culture, unless it’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Har­ding. (To shift the analogy, but not by much: Why Are We in Vietnam? is Ringo.)

If Nabokov’s faith was that one individ­ual’s spirit could supersede and dismiss the whole machine of history — to him wit and playfulness were a desperately serious transcendence of evil — Mailer, altogether Amer­ican, sought to perform the same alchemy not by transcending the machine but by going to the mat with it, on its terms but also as its equal. If the battle royal for the Ameri­can Soul was being fought out on the top 40 and the evening news, then Mailer was going to be the news and top 40 all to himself. The best line in Mills’s book comes during her description of the march on the Pentagon that inspired The Armies of the Night: “By moving from the drunken, obscene-talking revolutionary provocateur of Thursday night to the man of action stepping boldly across the police line on Saturday to the humble lover of Christ on Sunday, Mailer had managed to encompass the spectrum of American sensibility within himself.” That isn’t literally true, as Mills no doubt knows, but it is exactly what reading Armies, or its fellows, makes you feel.

In the long run, this was a quixotic gamble, and even at the time many of its manifestations were simply foolish. But then nothing appeals to Mailer unless it holds out the chance of chivalry — and one thing we always risk forgetting about the ’60s is that for a good many people the decade offered a baby-boom lifetime’s only chance to feel romantic, or heroic. Few ob­servers had as many suspicions of the Chi­cago demonstrators’ style, assumptions, and ability to relate intent to result as Mailer; he thought much of their stance was posturing, and their antics counterproductive. But in­stead of dismissing them for that, he em­braced them — in that wonderful, absurd moment in Miami and the Siege of Chicago when he sees himself, at long last, as general of a countercultural army. How could he not? The whole guerrilla theater of the ’60s might be said to have begun on the night in 1960 that Mailer waved at a Provincetown police car, and called out: “Taxi!” The Yip­pies’ intuition that the real event of Chicago wasn’t what actually happened there but the media version of what happened, and their theatrical restaging of reality to make subversive use of that fact, was like a vastly expanded and streamlined version of what Mailer had begun reaching for, as the only viable personal style, years before. And since they were doing all this while engaging in a week-long running battle with the Chi­cago police, Mailer saw even their worst miscalculations as brave — which, for him, outweighed everything else.

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Of course, many reasonable people would, and did, dislike that standard. As a yardstick it’s risky, and it also mucks up the issues. But Mailer has never had much use for issues in that sense. In his view, America is the least ideological country in the world — the founding fathers were being good post-Enlightenment types in borrowing from Locke, but they showed their real Americanness by finding Locke romantic. The country’s real (which is to say submerged) politics are cultural, symbolic, and primally intuitive, and what propelled them to the forefront in the ’60s was the McLuhanized conception of media-filtered public image as the real nexus of events. (We know, for instance, that most New Left radi­cals had little use for hippies, and that the New Left itself was a spectrum of factions — but to most of America at the time, it was all one big happy counterculture, and had more impact for being misapprehended that way.) In America, poetic truths have real-life con­sequences, and Mailer is one of the few American intellectuals to perceive this fact as both fundamental and fundamentally good. Certainly he’s the only one who has set out to turn himself into one of those poetic truths.

But it’s pretty much inevitable that if you play the one-man zeitgeist of the ’60s, you’re going to flounder in the ’70s. Mailer started the new decade with The Prisoner of Sex, promptly blowing the counterculture cachet he’d spent the last one accumulating. Of course, if you remember where the coun­terculture ended up, getting out in 1970 starts looking like a good idea. But in fact, a large part of Mailer’s inner motive seems to be suppressed panic at the realization that he, Norman, the writer who knows more about alienation than anyone in America, has somehow managed to omit the single largest alienated segment of the country’s population. As it works out, Prisoner‘s ac­tual argument isn’t Mailer versus the feminists so much as romanticism versus totalitarianism. If you read the book care­fully (I can hear the rustle of all of you rushing off to your libraries), it’s obvious that Mailer doesn’t think he is opposing women’s liberation per se — what he argues against, typically, is its style, its refusal to envision liberation in the individualist, ro­manticized terms that, well, he imagines he would have cast it in, had he been born a woman. The truth is that he thought The Prisoner was an admission of defeat; what’s funny is that the form his surrender took was, unavoidably, gentlemanly — with a drunk’s courtly bonhomie he was figur­atively holding the door open for women all over again, and they, having seen that be­fore, strung up the doorman.

But the more serious problem with The Prisoner of Sex (and most of the rest of Mailer’s ’70s work) lay in Mailer’s own post­-’60s status. The Heisenberg principle of re­bellion is that it’s automatically vitiated if the authorities permit it; “always the challenger, never the champion,” as Brock Brower put it. Mailer’s sensibility was al­tered by altered circumstances. (The come­back to this, of course, is that turnabout is fair play; instead of his using the circum­stances, they used him.) The self-absorption of his work had always been justifiable as the strategy of an outsider with no other re­sources but himself to fight with — now, fa­mous, fifty, and flush, he could hardly be seen as a challenger to anything by anybody. And the creative use he had made of his celebrity, using it to express his own dis­sidence and alienation, no longer stood out against an establishment that had as­similated such guerrilla tactics (as indeed they had co-opted much of the countercul­ture) and reduced them to wacky, bad-boy fun. When the Bernsteins have the Black Panthers over to dinner, how much ruckus can a middle-aged Jewish novelist be expected to make? For a combative tempera­ment, the ’70s were a pillow fight with wet pillows. America had become a nation of hip hobbyists, and if being a zeitgeist was your particular bit, well, that was nice.

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Having more or less achieved his desire to be a pop lightning-rod to the country, only to discover after he had erected himself and plugged in that there was no more lightning, Mailer began writing, a little wistfully, about other American icons, to get that pop magic secondhand. But Marilyn Monroe, once archetypal, had by then dwindled to the coffee-table status that Marilyn only con­firmed; when Mailer finally got around to a book on Muhammad Ali, Ali had lost his grip on the national subconscious and become as empty as any other conventional politician. Well might Norman, seeing how the ’70s cult of celebrity had sapped celebrity of its totemic power, have sighed with Picasso that you do it first, and then somebody else does it pretty.

It took Gary Gilmore to make celebrity dangerous again. Betcha as a novelist he’d have been better than Genet — no one has ever articulated the con’s inversion of soci­ety’s moral scheme more forcefully, or used his Warholian 15 minutes to such disrup­tively threatening effect. No need here to write another blurb for The Executioner’s Song — you see, reader, we are now heaving within landfall of a media-age attention span — but I ought to point out that Mailer could write about Gilmore without (for the first time in 20 years) invoking Mailer be­cause Gilmore was so much the activist ver­sion of Mailer’s sensibility. (Which is not the same thing as saying that writing about the meaning of violence is the coward’s way of indulging in it. The two men’s world views had some remarkable affinities; certainly they both had a dramatic intuition of the uses of fame in enhancing and expressing those world views; but that’s as far as it goes.) And Gilmore’s world — haunted and matter-of-fact, dull and yet teeming with karmic mysteries — was the everyday man­ifestation of a country that Mailer had previously only inferred as a subconscious vision. It may have been Utah, but to Nor­man it must have seemed like Brigadoon. The Executioner’s Song is Mailer’s last book written in collaboration with America, and it connects on an even more mutual and accessible level than before, because instead of telling the country what it might secretly be, he’s simply telling it what it is.

One of those coincidences that could make anyone believe in synchronicity is that Gilmore’s moment of fame came within weeks of the Sex Pistols’ first single. I can remember, in college, reading Gilmore’s death-row Playboy interview while the Ramones’s first album played on the stereo; the murderer’s confession, spliced into the usual T&A, and the joyous blast coming from the speakers, felt like the negative and the positive of the same risky, disturbing new wind. To someone who thinks the punk movement was the single most worthwhile cultural event of the late ’70s, it’s no great leap to call The Executioner’s Song Mailer’s punk book, and see it as his finger’s return to the cultural pulse. But if part of punk’s ethos was energizing and conflating cultural negatives into positives, and part of its method, as Greil Marcus suggested, was to leap from the smallest personal experience to the widest social conclusions, then the parallel extends to Mailer’s career; and his sense of pop culture as an arena, the place where rebellion and acceptance, celebrity and subversion, come together in such a way that one man’s work can make an enormous difference, is directly analogous to rock and roll. I bring this up not just for the personal pleasure of introducing my tastes to each other (even though any taste worth its salt almost demands such continuity), but to make the point that Mailer’s inhabiting Elvis Presley’s frame of reference rather than John Barth’s does make him a better writer, precisely because it makes being a writer more valuable: it’s a recontextualiza­tion of literature that makes literature feel crucial again, while most other American writing since Faulkner has made it more ephemeral.

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The more you look at what used to be called Mailer’s self-advertisements and gen­eral imposition of himself on American life (when, people implied, he ought to be home hard at work), the more it seems not only intrinsic to a revolutionary notion of a writer’s role in his culture (I mean, this is the real postmodernism), but in some ways his greatest accomplishment. Mailer turned on end the debilitating self-awareness brought into modem life by everything from psy­choanalysis to television by subsuming it in a flamboyant new romantic self-conscious­ness. He used his own media-age modernity to open up the subconscious currents of American culture as showily as Orson Welles opened up movie tricks in Citizen Kane, and to much the same effect. Enormous amounts of expressive material were recast in newly knowing terms, then treated as jumping-off points for new explorations, instead of op­pressive dead ends crossbreeding entropy in the data banks. Mailer treated the cultural and historical givens of the age, which tend to reduce all its events to triviality, as mate­rial to be encompassed and dominated by his own sensibility. The result may succeed or fail; the gesture is a transvaluation that speaks volumes.

In that sense, Mailer’s job is probably done. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, whenever the forthcoming Ancient Eve­nings (announced for this spring) is men­tioned, thinks apprehensively of Faulkner’s A Fable. But even so, it’s the last, the perfect Mailer joke that after nearly 30 years of being our great media showman, our only literary pop star, he really is bringing out the “big book” he promised, just like Joyce and Proust, the book no one thought he would actually get around to writing. Inevitably, though, that pretty picture is defaced by the handful of shit lobbed into its center. The Abbott case served painfully to remind that when Mailer talks about taking chances, he’s not being rhetorical; it also served to remind that, in many ways, his gorgeous roman­ticism can be excruciatingly naive, wrong-headed, and simply foolish, and can have ugly consequences. It was an episode bound to bring out all our contradictory feelings about what Mailer represents — quixotic nobility in the midst of hideous error, the battle for culture fought out in the midst of a media circus, admiration and rage going hand-in-hand down the primrose path to hell.

Which is how the story has run all along. By that gauge, Ancient Evenings rightfully ought to confound everyone and be the best book Mailer’s ever written — good enough, even, for the critics to attack it, instead of bringing out the nostrums and encomiums they’ve already prepared. But that prospect makes life too difficult. It’s infinitely easier to wrap things up like this: look, that old man is turning 60 this month, and he’s publishing a 1000-page novel about ancient Egypt; and say happy birthday, pop, in spite of everything; because the fact of the matter is that I never really did get over reading Advertisements for Myself when I was 13. ❖

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James Fenimore Cooper’s Brave Old World

The Father of Us All

James Fenimore Cooper, once the most familiar of American writers, has by now become very nearly the strangest. He is an ancestor just remote enough to be im­penetrable, the voice of an origin to which we no longer feel intimately linked. Only a generation separates him from Melville, but that generation marks a great divide: in our perspective Melville seems the first of the moderns, and Cooper the last of the ancients. Yet this alienation from Cooper will perhaps enable us to read him fully for the first time. For Cooper’s scope is vast, and only a portion of his work — The Leatherstocking Tales, The Spy, a handful of the sea stories — was ever assimilated into the national canon. His extraordinary range en­compasses tendentious novels of ideas (Home As Found, The Chainbearer), idyllic regional chronicles (Satanstoe), grotesque satire (The Manikins), ideological dissec­tions of European history (The Bravo), travel books (Sketches of Switzerland), controversial political treatises (The Ameri­can Democrat), and increasingly experimental flights of social and religious allegory (The Crater, The Oak Openings). Taken as a whole, his work reveals him as a primordial inventor of genres, the cosmogra­pher of a new literature and a new mind. Traditionally, however, his books have been valued not so much on their own quirky terms as for their wealth of suggestive and infinitely plunderable images and situ­ations. He has functioned as a psychic com­post heap; until recently, any American writer could be counted on to have passed, usually at an early age, through Cooper’s primal landscapes of sea and forest. The glades and rapids and rocky barricades of The Last of the Mohicans and The Deer­slayer have served American literature as an internalized theme park, a terrain where every cranny became absorbed into the col­lective unconscious.

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Yet despite his penetration of the nation­al psyche, and his status as more or less the George Washington of American letters, the respect Cooper has received at home has rarely been more than grudging. The writer who so profoundly affected Balzac and Schubert and Belinsky was definitively classed by his compatriots as a maker of children’s adventures. There is hardly a lit­erary sin of which he has not been accused. His conception of novelistic form was said to be clumsily appropriated from Sir Walter Scott; his characterizations were wooden, his plots perfunctory. Worst of all, he was — ­and is — widely considered the most incom­petent of stylists. His prose, more than any­thing, has kept readers away from him — a style usually described as inexpressive, stilted, convoluted. It isn’t simply that his writing is old-fashioned; Cooper’s prose has been making problems for people right from the start. Early on, Poe took aim at “an awkwardness so remarkable as to be a matter of absolute astonishment, when we consider his long and continual practice with the pen,” and Mark Twain, elaborating irritably on the thesis that ”Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” testified to the queasiness that Cooper’s style can induce: ”When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper.”

I have my own rueful associations with that style, since Cooper was the first grown­up writer I ever attempted to read. Driven by a childhood obsession with war-whoops and musket-fire, and having exhausted ev­ery available synopsis, retelling, and comic book adaptation of the Leatherstocking novels, I felt it was time to enter the real forest. No doubt I envisioned some fabulous intensification of experience: the wooded playland glimpsed in N.C. Wyeth’s splendid illustrations would, if I could read the original, be brought to life. The disappoint­ment that ensued sent me back to Dr. Seuss and Little Lulu for another year. Where I had anticipated lakes and clearings and bracing wilderness air, I was assailed by thickets of subordinate clauses, labyrinths of circumlocution, and the meanderings of a syntax that seemed to move away from the reality I wanted it to reveal.

Cooper’s literary mannerisms can un­questionably be a trial. Despite his almost somnambulistic methods of composition —­ he wrote rapidly and prolifically, often without pausing to revise or even read over what he had done — his language is remark­able not for its fluency or forward drive but for its tentativeness, its tortuous entangle­ments, the sense of heavy lifting which in­forms its minutest transitions. Repeatedly we encounter the sentence that turns back on itself, the sentence that struggles to es­cape from its own beginning, the sentence that hauls itself breathlessly to shore: “Mabel was becoming used to a situation that, at first, she had found not only novel, but a little irksome, and the officers and men, in their turn, gradually familiarized to the presence of a young and blooming girl, whose attire and carriage had that air of modest gentility about them, which she had obtained in the family of her patroness, an­noyed her less by their ill concealed admira­tion, while they gratified her by the respect which, she was fain to think, they paid her on account of her father, but which, in truth, was more to be attributed to her own modest, but spirited deportment, than to any deference for the worthy serjeant.”

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Cooper’s admirers tend to get around such sentences by calling him a great or near-great writer who by chance wrote bad­ly — in which case he would seem to achieve by sheer ineptitude that discomfiture with language that some postmodernists inten­tionally induce. But I don’t think the sub­liminal implications of his style can be dis­missed as accidental side effects. The smoothness he lacks may be a smoothness that on some level he rejected; the torsions of his syntax may denote not a technical failure but a deep and unresolved debate over what is to be seen and what is to be said. This would make Cooper the first of a long line of American writers who have sought to crash through the web of “fine writing” to reach a rawer sense of things as they are. The unease and incompleteness of Cooper’s sentences are associated with an opening up to the things of the world, a desire to include everything.

In all his writings, Cooper is aware that he is the first full-scale imaginer, the progenitor of a literature. He has a blank book in which to transcribe a new world, but the only language available to him is that of the old world. The struggle starts there. He must shift that language around so that it can show something its makers never saw: a task, all the harder in that Cooper wasn’t much of a literary type to begin with. (An ex-Navy man living the life of a gentleman farmer, he had backed into a writing career at 31 — supposedly out of exasperation on reading a popular novel.) He becomes visi­bly frustrated at the difficulties of saying exactly what he means, but he persists, sac­rificing grace to honesty: Writing of a young girl unable to draw her lover’s face from memory, he compares her to “the author, whose fertile imagination fancies pictures that defy his powers of description”: a simi­le from the heart. In Cooper’s temperament one senses a rough impatience, an urge to seize hold of language and push it where he wants it to go. His prose is a battlefield, and sometimes the author himself seems to feel he is losing the battle. At such moments there is an impression of something just missed, an equation not quite completed, a mental flailing in which the boundary be­tween words and what they describe is momentarily smudged. His rocks have commas in them; the trees are made of paper; you part the glistening branches and find an unwieldy cluster of abstractions staring you in the face.

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“The season and the night, to represent them truly, were of a nature to stimulate the sensations which youth, health and hap­piness are wont to associate with novelty.” This might be a snapshot by John Locke, and it requires a leap of faith to find in it the weather of Lake Ontario on an autumn evening. Nevertheless the underlying sense of physical reality is so strong in Cooper’s books that some readers make the leap. We never doubt that there is a world there; its dynamics are evident in the very inarticulateness to which he is sometimes reduced. Seeing is rarely a simple process, least of all for Cooper. When he tries to say what is in the woods he finds himself caught between conflicting systems: there is the tree in it­self, the tree as the Indians see it, the tree as the whites see it. Cooper charts contradictory viewpoints with cumbersome preci­sion. Judge Temple, in The Pioneers, sees the woods with the foresight of a real estate developer: “To his eye, where others saw nothing but a wilderness, towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country, were constantly presenting themselves.” The mental baggage people bring to the wilderness is part of the scene, and the abstract nouns which haunt Cooper’s landscapes can be seen as the ghostly harbingers of the civili­zation which has come to despoil the lakes and forests. A phrase such as “vast sublimi­ty” hovers above the treetops like a malevolent helicopter.

We should take nothing for granted about Cooper’s writing; it’s too easy to focus on what he fails to do and thereby miss what he does. Even to think of his books as novels may be misleading. While they bear a close external resemblance to the romances of Sir Walter Scott — complete with poetic epigraphs and orotund expository preludes — their internal workings are en­tirely different: looser, more open to digression, more various on texture. A Cooper nov­el can be as much a hodgepodge of disparate elements as The Cantos or The Maximus Poems or any other example of that most American of genres, the universal collage, the Book of Everything. Although he was demonstrably capable of writing a polished, unified novel — The Bravo, his claustrophobic exercise in Venetian in­trigue, is a superb example — he often didn’t choose to do so. His books, become clearer if we read them as a succession of scenes,

sentences, fragments. Some are fragments of novels, some of other things: a descrip­tive geography, a manual of carpentry, a dialect comedy acted by off-duty militia­men, a pamphlet on land rights, a philosophical disputation, a demonstration of the art of wooing, a sermon, a bill of lading, the rant of a bearded prophet spawned by the wilderness. Cooper discon­certs by his unpredictability. One minute he evokes, with reverent awe, the glories of God; the next he’s muttering about the money-grubbing habits of Connecticut men or discoursing on the fine points of canoe construction. Jokes and massacres are found side by side. The balance is always uneasy, always improvisational.

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Essentially Cooper wants to do far more than his chosen form will let him. The stan­dard novel imposes standard destinies, but Cooper is trying to talk about things that have never happened before. His own origi­nality undermines the structures of his books, so that they are often most powerful just where the cracks in the design begin to show. How else account for the undeniable impression of reality he creates out of the most unreal elements? The Prairie, for, in­stance, features a plot that is clumsy to the point of incoherence; its characters shift about like peculiar operatic marionettes, and its scenes of comic relief are tedious even by Cooper ‘s standards. Yet the stagi­ness and the static rhythms fuse into an insistent solemnity. The melodramatic epi­sodes open up to reveal other scenes latent within them, the flowery speeches reverber­ate against an arid silence, and the stereo­typed characters startle into sudden life, as if without warning a mask became a dis­turbingly real face. Rocks and vegetation work their way into the story and somehow take it over: ”A solitary willow had taken root in the alluvion, and profiting by its exclusive possession of the soil, the tree had sent up its stem far above the crest of the adjacent rock, whose peaked summit had once been shadowed by its branches. But its loveliness had gone with the mysterious principle of life … The larger, ragged and fantastick branches still obtruded them­selves abroad, while the white and hoary trunk stood naked and tempest-riven. Not a leaf, not a sign of vegetation was to be seen about it. In all things it proclaimed the frailty of existence, and the fulfillment of time.” Such are the gnarled epiphanies of Cooper’s art.

If we assume that Cooper wrote the way he intended to write, even his most annoying traits begin to look like meaningful strategies rather than the result of haste and slovenliness. Take, for example, the verbiage he lavishes on the most fleeting of incidents. In The Deerslayer he spends nearly a page analyzing the way Natty Bumppo lifts his rifle and fires at a concealed target. In the midst of this split-second action, Cooper even finds time for a flashback, recalling “the long practices Deerslayer as a hunter” which enables him to aim without sighting; and when, an instant later, a wounded Mingo comes hurt­ling out of the bushes, Cooper informs us that Natty stands there “steady as one of the pines in the calm of a June morning.” He deliberately dilates the moment, creat­ing an effect curiously like slow motion by introducing images which crudely insert the idea of long duration.

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When his scenes of action really get rolling, Cooper’s methods sometimes anticipate cinema. In The Pathfinder, the lone survi­vor of an Indian massacre hides in an attic and stares helplessly at its open trapdoor: “As yet nothing was visible at the trap, but her ears, rendered exquisitely sensitive by intense feeling, distinctly acquainted her that some one was within a few inches of the opening in the floor. Next followed the evidence of her eyes, which beheld the dark hair of an Indian rising so slowly through the passage that the movement of the head might be likened to that of the minute hand of a clock. Then came the dark skin and wild features, until the whole of the swarthy, face had risen above the floor.” Again the effect is obtained by a distension of time, here made intolerable by the deadly simile (and time-consuming, with so little time to spare) of a minute hand. At moments of crisis Cooper evokes those dreams in which one cannot run. A kind of stupor overtakes him in the heart of the action, a suspended lurch, like the feeling of being in the top car when a ferris wheel stops turning. The apparently halting rhythms of his prose can also be experienced as a vibrant stasis.

This uncertain relationship to time is perhaps what is most American about “the American Scott,” as his contemporaries in­sisted on calling him. In Scott the perspec­tives and durations are of a piece; he preserves a fixed distance from the events depicted, an undisturbed frame; he has made his peace with space and time. The result is harmony, balance, unity of tone. But no terms had been set for what Cooper was trying to do. “On the human imagina­tion,” he notes at the beginning of The Deerslayer, “events produce the effects of time.” The opening up of the American wil­derness was a rent in the spatio-temporal fabric, and the coordinates by which the event could be measured remained indeter­minate. As a consequence, point of view and depth of focus shift erratically in Cooper’s fiction, and the unfolding of events is some­what random. Nothing is given to him; he has to work out on his own where he’s standing and where he’s going.

The groping, lumpy quality of his plots has often been criticized, yet their awk­wardness — like the awkwardness of his lan­guage — is what saves them from petrifac­tion. The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, consists largely of circuitous criss­crossing movements through different kinds of space: sieges, concealments, infil­trations, pursuits. Characters are defined by how they get from one point to another, which in turn is determined by their con­ception of place. In a typical scene, Cooper assembles his beleaguered protagonists in a clearing and for a few pages sustains a box­like little tableau — a hermetic salon — only to have an alien presence intrude from the underbrush and shatter the frame. The sweetly soporific tinkle of civilized chitchat is interrupted by “horrible cries and screams, such as man alone can utter, and he only when in a state of the fiercest bar­barity.” The woods become a collage of dis­similar noises. The Indians are acquainted with “the extremes of human sounds,” have access to shrill or guttural limits unknown to the whites, who cautiously stick to the middle register of the larynx, just as they hew to the main path through the woods and try not to think about the tangled shadows that border it.

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Cooper is mapping a wilderness, and to do so he must stand a little outside his civilized Christian heroes and heroines: he must spy on them like an Indian hidden in the branches. The whites carry a mental theater with them through the forest, a dia­gram of boundary lines and focal points which keeps them sane by giving them a false sense of security. The Indians, mean­while, inhabit a distinct space which happens to occupy the same ground. The colo­nists can’t see a thing, blinded by their notions of background and foreground, in­side and outside. The berries that Captain Heyward notes along the fringe of the trail are in fact “the glistening eye-balls of a prowling savage”: in other words, what seems a fringe to him is the center of a separate world.

The Indian’s relation to space is a dis­course the European cannot decipher. The eye of the treacherous Magua — “like a fiery star … fixed, as if penetrating the distant air” —  discerns invisible paths where the whites see only “thickening gloom … a dark barrier along the margin of the stream.” Civilized modes of perception be­come a positive drawback, an encumbrance like the elaborate skirts of Cooper’s endan­gered females. “What right have christian whites to boast of their learning,” cries Nat­ty Bumppo, “when a savage can read a lan­guage, that would prove too much for the wisest of them all!” Whatever can he said about Cooper’s depiction of Indian culture, he at least acknowledges that it exists and that its terms are valid within their own sphere. Much has been made of the Good Indian/Bad Indian dichotomy embodied by his Delawares and Hurons, but even the ferocious Magua is allowed a perfectly rea­sonable justification for his actions. In fact his eloquent fulmination against the whites reflects some of Cooper’s enduring preoccu­pations: “With his tongue, he stops the ears of the Indian; his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles; his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms enclose the land from the shores of the salt water, to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale-faces.”

What Cooper admits through the speech of Indians is an alternate description of the world, a description suffused, like the war­-song of Uncas, with “depth and energy.” When Chingachgook discourses on the history of his people, it isn’t simply an exercise in exotic diction. Cooper attempts to convey a different way of thinking about place and personal identity and the passage of time: “We came from the place where the sun is hid at night, over great plains where the buffaloes live, until we reached the big riv­er.” Cooper’s images often seem more re­ductive than they are. It’s true that he com­pares the cave dwellings of the Hurons to “the shades of the infernal regions, across which unhappy ghosts and savage demons were flitting in multitudes.” But he isn’t saying that the Hurons are demons, only that they look that way to the whites. A troubled relativism eats away at the moral certainties of his fictions. In the end little is left unquestioned.

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It was natural that his great saga should shape itself around the figure of an outsid­er, a detached onlooker. Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s infinitely serviceable hero, is both marginal and fundamental: the mystical frontiersman, Saint Francis of the Venison, “simple-minded, faithful, utterly without fear … a sort of type of what Adam might have been supposed to be before the fall.” Only Natty, of all the whites, understands the shape of the land and the code of its native inhabitants. Since he alone knows what’s out there, only he can assess the value of any particular action. The other Europeans simply flounder. Natty’s job much of the time is to conduct them from one controlled enclosure to another, the iro­ny being that the new imperial owners of the wilderness are powerless within it. They literally do not know where they are until they find themselves once again within a fortified zone. Natty is the indispensable conduit, the medium of translation, the Pathfinder who opens up connections be­tween alien cultures while fully belonging to none. Instead of being centered in one frame of reference, he stands at the edge, at the point where turfs collide.

To the hapless whites he materializes like the woodland sprite of a fairy tale. The multiplicity of his names — Deerslayer, Hawk-eye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, La Longue Carabine, or, in his transcendent old age, simply ”the trapper” — gives him the air of a mercurial being, and his powers of adaptation and camouflage are little short of magical. It takes all his serpentine litheness to save the whites from the conse­quences of their physical and conceptual rigidity. At the same time, the mythic ener­gies that Natty’s presence unleashes save Cooper from the stylistic rigidity into which he is ever in danger of lapsing. “His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and na­ture of the forests in which he passed so much of his time”: he is the Green Man of the American woodland, the Ariel of the vast and trackless island on which the Europeans have stranded themselves. He goes and comes silently and as he pleases. Natty might be said to embody Cooper’s imagina­tion, so much more rapid and flexible than the inherited mechanics of his storytelling.

Mostly, Natty passively endures. Like a rock or an oak he weathers the storms of history. Cooper first presented him, in The Pioneers, as a crotchety half-comical old man; brought him to his death in the mid­dle novel of the series, The Prairie; and then moved with him progressively back­ward in time, rejuvenating Natty until he recedes into a verdant prehistoric alcher­inga teeming with fish and game. From first to last he exists outside of historical progression; he carries about his person his own nimbuslike Golden Age; wherever he walks is the transient Eden that preceded the trauma of settlement. His heroism consists of refraining from action, and through all his adaptations he changes without chang­ing his surroundings. Like the Indians, he leaves no trail, and he hunts without deplet­ing: “If a body had a craving for pigeon’s flesh, why! it’s made the same as all other creaters for man’s eating, but not to kill twenty and eat one.” His experience of the new civilization is a slowly gathering sor­row: “I have lived to see what I thought eyes could never behold in these hills, and I have no heart left for singing.” The more deeply we are drawn into Natty’s view of the world, the more we understand why Cooper’s narrative halts and draws back, why he lingers so naggingly over uncompleted actions. It’s because he wants time to reverse, or to stop altogether. He doesn’t want the story to reach its appointed conclusion; he doesn’t want history to happen.

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The reasons were clear from the outset. In the first book of the series we have al­ready seen the end: the regulated streets of Templeton, the tree stumps testifying to decimated forests, the heaps of wild pigeons slaughtered to no purpose, the slow stran­gulation of liberty by lawyers and bailiffs. This was the world that Cooper’s father made. William Cooper established Coopers­town in the wilderness of upstate New York, and reigned there — as squire, judge, and congressman — in baronial style. Tem­pleton is Cooperstown, and The Pioneers, that jaggedly elegiac book, is Cooper’s at­tempt to project himself into what existed just before his own birth. That region be­yond memory is his paradise, but a paradise already hopelessly tainted. The noble Chingachgook has become Indian John, re­duced by civilization to alcoholism and a debased Christianity; he sells baskets for a living and when drunk lapses into ancient chants. Natty Bumppo, unable to fend off the encroaching “troubles and divilties of the law,” goes to jail for hunting out of season. The first American novelist writes, at bottom, of the death of America: a death, as it were, in embryo. All that might have been had already been uprooted, cast aside, trampled on. The Leatherstocking Tales spring from a rankling and obsessive nostal­gia, and they oscillate restlessly between the lost paradise of the virgin woods and the “vast and naked fields” of the prairie land to which Natty is finally driven “to escape the wasteful temper of my people. The Prairie as it progresses becomes more and more an apocalyptic recitative, the bitterly resigned death-song of Natty Bumppo: “It will not be long afore an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord!”

The inward agony of the novels lies in Cooper’s inability to detach himself either from the land or from the civilization that rips it apart. They are all in him: his father the builder of towns, Natty the magical woodsman drained of his powers by prog­ress, and Hard Heart, the Pawnee chief, who exclaims: “Is a nation to be sold like the skin of a beaver!” The warring elements can arrive at no real harmony. Each novel culminates in a retreat; the pieces will not fit together; one of the parties must with­draw or die. Cooper’s Romantic tastes failed to alleviate the painful objectivity with which he was cursed. He was stuck with an aesthetic of discomfort. The simplest of longings — for some stability, some respite from America’s dizzying and horrifying se­quence of transformations — could find nowhere to nest. Not in the culture of the Indians, which Cooper might in some re­spects admire but could never emulate; not in the rapacious culture of oligarchs and demagogues toward which he saw America evolving. His imagination took refuge in a sliver-thin interval of time that had already ended, or had perhaps never existed. He transcribed its dense unsettled woods into a fictional language equally dense and equally unsettled. ■

THE LEATHERSTOCKING TALES
Vol. 1: The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie.
Vol. 2: The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer
By James Fenimore Cooper
Library of America; $27.50 each

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Vampirical Evidence

Vampires don’t know what they look like. Dracula says so himself, speaking through Fred Saberhagen in The Dracula Tape. They don’t show in mirrors, you see, so unless they ask someone they have no way of knowing whether their ties are straight, or their hair’s gone gray. Luckily, or so the count says, they don’t need to shave.

Vampires get gray hair? Yes, if they don’t drink blood often enough — and that’s just one question I never asked that was answered by these books. Did you know that a vampire weighs 20 pounds more than a human of the same height and build? That’s what Jan Jen­nings says in Vampyr, and though she doesn’t explain the reasons for this physi­ological quirk, she does suggest that it ac­counts for the myth about vampires and run­ning water. They can’t swim, so when they’re chased to a river bank they have to stand and fight. Old-time vampire hunters didn’t understand, and got the idea that the vampires were afraid of water.

And get this: vampires have erectile tissue under their fangs. That too is from Dracula via Saberhagen, and while it’s obviously con­venient for vampires to tuck their teeth away when they’re not in use, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that drinking blood arouses them. That’s just what I’d expect, of course. You don’t have to watch women scream for Frank Langella to know that vampires are supposed to be sexy, and that their real horror — also their forbidden delight — is that they make their victims sexy too. If Dracula did nothing but drink blood, what would he be? Just a killer with an especially messy MO. What makes him horrid is that he drinks young girls’ blood; he taps their most blushing feel­ings, and then uses his legendary vampire power to turn them into lascivious creatures of the night.

Whoever does that has to be evil, right? Bram Stoker certainly thought so, and installed three wanton vampire tarts in Dracula’s castle, as if to demonstrate where the vampire life leads. When he shows us one of Dracula’s victims, his writing almost trem­bles with disgust. Lucy’s virgin sweetness, he insists, “was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and her purity to voluptuous wantonness.” Her eyes were “Lucy’s eyes in form and color, but Lucy’s eyes unclear and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.” She was a good girl once, in other words, but now she’s bad. Under the kiss of her vampire Don Juan, she’s suffered, in the never so apt old phrase, a fate worse than death.

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But that was years ago, in another coun­try. Maybe sex is ghastly still — you’d get that idea from recent horror fiction — but on the other hand virginity is not exactly fashion­able. Being sexy by itself isn’t enough to make modern vampires bad: they have to prove themselves, in effect, by being monstrously evil. In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot they take over a town; in Robert McCa­moon’s They Thirst (New York Post award for the most garish cover of the year) they take over Los Angeles. It helps, of course, if they’re vicious and corrupt. Daughters of Darkness is an unsettling film that ought to be shown much more often; in it, the languorous Delphine Seyrig dooms three poor souls with manipulations of straight and lesbian sex so unscrupulous that being a vam­pire is the least of her crimes. In Salem’s Lot, King carries on (with all the subtlety of a villain twirling his moustache) about why the town deserves its doom. “The town knew about darkness,” he begins. “It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.” Well. The town has its open secrets, but behind them are really secret secrets. People know that Albie Crane’s wife disappeared, and they think she ran off with a salesman from New York; what they don’t know is that “Albie cracked her skull open after the traveling man had left her cold … and tumbled her down the old well.” Everyone knows that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, “but they don’t know what he made her do first.” What, Stephen, what? In a Mexican film I came across on TV at some nameless hour of the night, the vampire is a family’s aged mother, kept locked in a crypt like a secret shame. When the horrors surface, it’s the innocent who are most horribly menaced. Both Count Yorga movies end with lovers doomed as they’re about to escape. One, bitten earlier, becomes a vampire and attacks the other. Whom can you trust? I can’t recall the name of the inept but astounding film about the vampire’s son who consumes raw meat in­stead of blood and fights his vampire heri­tage — literally, with a stake through his father’s heart. But his bloodlust breaks its bounds when his father dies, and with bared fangs he chomps his girlfriend, whom a few moments earlier he’d saved from being his father’s prey. There’s nastiness inside everyone, these stories seem to say, and vampires bring it out. That explains the power of my favorite bit of fangy lore, the old story that vampires can’t come through your door uninvited: the corruption they spread is really your own. Or as Lemora, the Lady Dracula, puts it in the movie that bears her name, “I only show people what they are.”

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That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. We might call it the pessimistic modern view: horror, horror everywhere. In the most recent crop of vampire books it finds its strongest expression in The Hunger, Whitley Strieber’s nasty follow-up to the much better Wolfen. Deathless vampire husks locked for­ever in their coffins are baleful tokens of Strieber’s apparent belief that horror allows no escape. But there’s also an optimistic modern view, according to which we can study, catalogue, understand, and even live with the turbulent emotional soup we’ve got inside. Most vampire tales I’ve read lately seem to be saying something of the sort, which must be why they read like little Kinsey reports, full of tasty trivia about vam­pire life, a subject that used to be shrouded in mystery and fear, like sex. Are you ready to open the forbidden curtain? Vampires have a body temperature of 68 degrees and a pulse rate of 35; they have internal guidance sys­tems like missiles or migrating geese; as they get older their fangs grow and they get less tolerant of light; they can starve to death but can’t catch cold; they can’t see well when they take the form of a mist. Fred Saberhagen even wants us to believe that they can be­come human again if their hearts are pure (it’d help, I guess, if we clapped for them as we did for Tinker Bell). Can these domesticated, near-sighted creatures really be vampires?

Vampyr begins with a vampire’s medical exam. Police in They Thirst stumble on dozens of vampires in their daytime sleep and cart them off to a hospital, to baffle the doctors (they wake up too soon, though: good-bye doctors, before they’ve learned any­thing). Even in The Hunger there’s a subplot about medical research that may reveal the secret of a vampire’s eternal life. Early in Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry there’s a fundamental reexamina­tion of vampirism in a lecture we assume is authoritative because the lecturer is the vampire himself, addressing people who think he’s speaking hypothetically. “The corporeal vampire,” he tells us, “would be by definition the greatest of all predators, living as he would off the top of the food chain … He would learn to live on as little as he could … since he could hardly leave a trail of drained corpses and remain unno­ticed … Fangs are too noticeable and not efficient for bloodsucking … Polish versions of the vampire legend might be closer to the mark: they tell of some sort of puncturing device, perhaps a needle in the tongue like a sting that would secrete an anticlotting substance.” If you think a vampire who needs an anticlotting substance is a little short on supernatural force, read on: Charnas turns the usual vampire tale on its head. It’s not the humans who are fatally attracted to the vam­pire, but the vampire (against his better judg­ment) who’s fatally attracted to humans. Our world begins to sap his strength. Ballet traps him with its seductive form, opera traps him with its passion, and psychotherapy traps him with its honesty, the most fatal snare of all. How did you feel about last night’s vic­tim? the therapist asks: “She was food,” the bloodsucker answers, with deep feeling, and later admits that the straightforwardness of therapy is “healthy in a life so dependent on deception as mine.” Not so, however: if any vampires reading this are in therapy, they’d better tell their doctors good-bye. Charnas’s hero gets his feelings muddled, loses the de­tachment a predator needs, and has to retreat into hibernation. It’s good pop psychology, I guess, but is it really a vampire tale? What kind of vampire sucks confusion from his victims instead of strength?

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And then there’s the ultimate excess of vampire revisionism, vampires who’ve been misunderstood and may even be virtuous. I’ll forgive Fred Saberhagen for making Dracula a loyal — if for hundreds of years lapsed —  Catholic because, routine plotting aside, The Dracula Tape and The Holmes-Dracula File are lots of fun. (An Old Friend of the Family isn’t much more than a routine thriller, with Dracula a kindly old vampire man bemused by American life.) Through selected quota­tions, The Dracula Tape allows Stoker to convict both himself and his hero van Helsing as intolerant prigs. Dracula made Lucy a vampire, if the truth be known, only to save her from the fatal effects of blood trans­fusions administered in an age when nobody knew about blood types. “You have done it before, butcher,” thunders the count in what we can almost believe is a long overdue reversal of roles. “Has any victim of your blood-­exchanging surgery yet lived?” Animal blood is his usual food, of course, and when you think of it, why not? As he himself says, we humans eat meat, but does that mean we eat human flesh? In The Holmes-Dracula File Dracula’s vampire dignity is badly shaken by an attack of amnesia, and if Dracula and Sherlock Holmes look alike (as passages from Stoker and Conan Doyle do suggest) it’s no coincidence: Holmes had a vampire twin brother. Not only that, he’s Dracula’s nephew, but the count spares him this knowl­edge. I’ll buy all this because Saberhagen’s just kidding around.

Jan Jennings, on the other band, thinks she’s serious. Valan, her vampire heroine —  “slender, beautiful, rich, cosmopolitan,” ac­cording to the jacket blurb — loves the all too human Theo, a “tall, handsome, brilliant” medical scientist with incurable leukemia. Get the point? These vampires are like Jane, the girl next door who puts on too much eyeliner one day and respells her name Jayne. “We are not Vampires, horrid nightstalkers who drink your blood,” they might say: “We are vampyr!” They feed from the willingly proffered necks of dumb beasts, who adore them because they’re so close to nature. (My fingers nearly refused to type that.) We humans, of course, are “only partly awake, partly alive.” At least Jennings understands vampires well enough to give each vampyr a fearful inner Beast, which it’s her life’s work to confront, but in spite of vampire murders and a ritual vampire beheading, these creatures don’t live the lives of “violence, lust, and strange bedfellows” they say they do, or at least no more than humans might. In the end, these vampyr are just, well, slender, beautiful, etc., and above all rich as hell (thanks to interest compounded over cen­turies) — a secret, glamorous, immortal, pretentious jet set.

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There’s one revisionist vampire book that’s deservedly become a kind of classic­ — for reasons rooted in traditional vampire fic­tion. Anybody with a vampire obsession who hasn’t read Interview with a Vampire has a vampire obsession that’s sadly incomplete. Anne Rice is not afraid of blood: her vampires are killers. They swoon in blood, and find their senses sharpened but their sensibilities dulled. Nothing in any vampire writing I know can match the sleepy luxury and final cruel shock of the vampire narrator’s first kill, accomplished under the guidance of his mentor:

The sucking mesmerized me; the warm struggling of the man was soothing to the tension of my hands; and there came the beating of the drum again, which was the drumbeat of his heart — only this time it beat in perfect rhythm with the drumbeat of my own heart, the two resounding in every fiber of my being, until the beat began to grow slower and slower, so that each was a soft rumble that threatened to go on without end. I was drowning, falling into weightlessness; and then Lestat pulled me back. “He’s dead, you idiot!” he said with his characteristic charm and tact. “You don’t drink after they’re dead! Understand that!”

Maybe you’re not impressed — one sensi­tive reader I know calls the book a soap opera — but compared to most vampire writ­ing, this might as well be Proust. Lestat’s “Understand that!” is a cruel joke because, in Rice’s world of shadows, understanding — sci­entific or emotional — is just what vampires lack. They’re too self-absorbed, too callous, and too routinely cruel to deserve their immortality and their sharp sensual delight­ — but if they had the human feeling to drink in the heightened excitement only a vampire can know, they’d be guilty, reluctant, ineffec­tive killers (cf. Suzy McKee Charnas), cut off from the soothing and searing experience that makes them what they are. They’re cold, in a word, frozen in their deathless lives just as, in the book’s most chilling metaphor, the immortal adult mind of a child vampire lies frozen in her five-year-old body. These vam­pires disappear in silence to die after a few hundred years, as Rice’s narrator perhaps does at the end, leaving his mortal in­terviewer/victim weak from excitement and loss of blood, searching through his tapes for the address of a vampire he may be able to trace, another lost soul seduced by the false hope that his vampire life would be better than his human one. Nobody but Anne Rice has penetrated a vampire’s heart like this, not with a stake but with pitiless clarity.

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The point, of course, is that she can look at vampires with the unswerving gaze of a revisionist, and still doesn’t forget what vam­pires are. Michael Talbot, on the other hand, so blindly ignores his vampires’ nature that I’ve almost forgotten to mention his book. Ignore the enticing blood-on-burnished-gold cover; The Delicate Dependency is incompe­tent nonsense, in which Victorians say “sort of” and “forget it,” use “virus” to name a kind of organism years before the word meant that, and refer to what anyone in their time would have called a deerstalker as a “Sherlock Holmes hat.” The plot, such as it is, dissolves into bursts of incoherent ac­tion — attempts to create suspense while the truth about vampires is revealed a little bit at a time. And what is that truth? That the vampires are a secret society of illuminati, the source of all human knowledge. For this I read nearly 400 pages? Talbot could have told the same story without making his heroes vampires, and, despite a nice gruesome bit about servants who wear scarves around their necks to hide their bites, actually seems to forget for tens of pages at a time that his illuminati drink blood, or in fact that there’s anything unusual about them except a bit of superhuman brains and brawn. This is sublimation with a vengeance. Romantic fanged jet-setters are bad enough, but vam­pires who turn their bloodlust into intellect have forgotten who they are. They probably even have reflections; instead of checking to see if their ties are straight (I’ll bet they are), they should turn from their mirrors in shame. Vampires without blood on their teeth aren’t vampires to me. ■

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THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY By Suzy McKee Charnas, Pocket, $2.75

VAMPYR By Jan Jennings, Pinnacle, $2.95

THEY THIRST By Robert R. McCamoon, Avon, $2.95

THE HUNGER By Whitley Strieber, Pocket, $2.95

THE DRACULA TAPE By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $2.25

THE HOLMES-DRACULA FILE By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $1.95

AN OLD FRIEND OF THE FAMILY By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $2.50

INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE By Anne Rice, Ballantine, $2.75

THE DELICATE DEPENDENCY — A Novel of the Vampire Life By Michael Talbot, Avon, $2.95