They Bleed; You Read
Ann Arbor, Mich.
This letter is a prayer and a thank-you—a prayer for the safety of brave reporters everywhere who bring us extraordinarily important news we would otherwise not receive and a thank-you for their courage and intelligence. Specifically, I am thinking of Jeremy Scahill [“Target: Yemen,” March 5/12], with whom I shared a table on the Nation cruise in December. I also send a prayer and a thank-you for the anxieties his family must endure.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today
West Palm Beach, Fla.
Re Calvin Trillin’s March 5/12 deadline poem, “We Pick Rick” (sung to the tune of “I Like Ike”): Oh boy, a reference to a 1956 political song nobody my age or younger knows! And I’m approaching 50! It’s OK, though, Mr. Trillin. I found the song on YouTube and was able to sing along.
Thankful Fir That
Huntington Woods, Mich.
Although Michiganians have lost the right to vote in cities taken over by a private manager [Chris Savage, “State of Emergency,” March 5/12], we have consoled ourselves with the knowledge that our trees are the right height.
Wislawa Szymborska’s Translators
I’m a great admirer of Katha Pollitt, and I took great pleasure in her moving eulogy for Wislawa Szymborska [“Subject to Debate,” March 5/12]. But my pleasure was diminished by the fact that Pollitt didn’t name the translator or translators she is quoting. By their work they have made possible the experience she has had of Szymborska’s poetry, and then our experience of Pollitt’s beautiful tribute.
I am pleased that Katha Pollitt, with whom I am so often in agreement, mourns with the rest of us the death of Wislawa Szymborska. She purports to quote Szymborska’s words, however, as if the Polish poet had written her poems in fluent English. It would perhaps have been more generous—to say nothing of legal—had she acknowledged the accomplished translators, Stanisłav Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, who made Szymborska’s poetry accessible to her.
New York City
Brecht and Hitler
I was pleasantly surprised to see Paula Findlen’s “Galileo’s Credo” [March 5/12], a review of two new biographies of Galileo. As a student finishing my doctoral dissertation on Bertolt Brecht, I am familiar with Galileo within the context of Brecht’s work, and was writing a paper on his play The Life of Galileo. Findlen’s review is very informative and well written, and she handled the intricacies of Galileo’s life and contributions to science with great care.
However, I stumbled when I read that Brecht had lived in “Nazi Germany.” Hitler’s rise to power at the end of Weimar Germany was gradual, and he had been in coalition governments since 1932, but Brecht and his family did not actually live under Nazi rule, although they certainly lived with its consequences. They pre-emptively fled Germany—Brecht being a Marxist and his wife, Helene Weigel, being Jewish—in February 1933, just before Hitler consolidated his power. He was sworn in as chancellor in March 1933. (Of course, Brecht and other left-leaning intellectuals saw the oncoming storm in the early ’30s.) This factual “hiccup” notwithstanding, Findlen’s engaging review gave me much to think about for my own work on Brecht’s Galileo. Thank you!
Paula Findlen got part of the story about Brecht’s Life of Galileo right; but he didn’t write the first version of it in Nazi Germany, or he’d have been deader than a doornail, as Brecht was very high on Hitler’s hit list. Brecht left Germany the morning after Hitler’s Brownshirts set fire to the Reichstag. He began work on Life of the Physicist Galileo in 1937, completing his first draft in 1938, in exile in Denmark. After fleeing Europe to America in 1939, Brecht worked on an English translation, hoping that Hollywood would make it into a film. He finally collaborated with Charles Laughton on the first English production, which premiered at the Coronet Theatre in Beverly Hills in July 1947. At one point Orson Welles was interested in directing it with his Mercury Theatre in New York, but that wasn’t to be.
Birth Control for the Working Class
Glen Ridge, N.J.
Michelle Goldberg, in “Awakenings” [Feb. 27], wants to defend Planned Parenthood and its founder, Margaret Sanger, against charges of racism. She acknowledges that “in her single-minded devotion to birth control, Sanger was willing to work with deeply illiberal people, and some of their ideas became her own”—especially eugenics. Still, “eugenics was an elitist philosophy but not necessarily a racist one.” Goldberg concludes that “it’s unfair to condemn people in the past for failing to meet the moral standards of the present.”
But what about failing to meet the standard of Sanger’s own past? From 1912 to 1914, she was not single-minded about birth control but saw it instead as one resource for the working class to live better and become more powerful. Sanger’s original associates were not illiberal but radical. In Lawrence and in The Woman Rebel, both of which Goldberg mentions, but especially in Paterson in 1913, Sanger advocated working-class revolution. She spoke with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at Paterson to mass meetings of women only, urging them to limit their family size as part of their struggle for justice. She went to jail in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, fighting to extend the Paterson silk strike to the Pennsylvania mills. She saw birth control as part of the class struggle, which she embraced.
Later she embraced the class struggle in reverse. Birth control became associated with elitism. Divorced from the movement for workers’ control, birth control was sold as a means of controlling the working class. It takes nothing away from the heroic work of Planned Parenthood to acknowledge that both Sanger and working-class women lost a lot in this sad transformation.
STEVE GOLIN, author, The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913