I once heard a novelist tell a story about a fellow he knew in college (this would have been in the early 1970s) who openly admitted that his parents were Communists. Asked what this meant in the course of their daily lives, the young man answered, without a trace of irony, "It means that when we sit down to dinner the maid eats with us."
In the 1989 introduction to the reissue of her 1960 memoir Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford recalls this of its composition: "I was staying with my mother at Inch Kenneth, her remote Hebridean island, in the summer of 1959." There are no figures on how many authors of memoirs about their Communist political awakening had mothers who owned remote islands, Hebridean or otherwise--but probably not many. We shouldn't forget that Mitford's first plan was to donate her share of the island to the British Communist Party, nor that for many years she and her second husband, the lawyer Robert Treuhaft, lived in ordinary middle-class comfort in Oakland, California. Nor should we fall for the dreary, doctrinaire notion that the moneyed and privileged are inherently incapable of having a social conscience. (How many protests, strikes and candidacies have been rescued by infusions of cash from the simpatico rich?)
But can we also admit that Mitford's sense of her position lacks a certain irony? Had the maid been invited to join the family for a meal during Mitford's upper-class English upbringing, you get the feeling Mitford would have seen it not as a nod in the direction of the classless society but, to borrow one of her favorite adjectives, as the most extraorder thing.
The communications that make up the new doorstop Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, as well as Mitford's two-volume autobiography, Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict (1977), seem to exist in a double bubble of privilege and ideology. Mitford's account of her and her siblings' upbringing--the girls were taught to read but, educationally, were otherwise on their own; their mother was close to a caricature of the oblivious society matron; their father was every bit the tyrant that Mitford's sister Nancy captured in her novel The Pursuit of Love--suggests the Glass family as rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse. Unfortunately, the latter's sense of absurdity is outweighed by what Mary McCarthy described as the closed-circuit mentality of the former. With their secret languages and endless nicknames (Muv, Farve, Boud, Hen) with endless variations, the Mitfords come off as the privileged center of one of those closed circuits. A family friend once said to Mitford, "It has always seemed to me that your family regards the rest of the world, and everything that happens in it, as a huge joke put on for their benefit."
There is evidence in Decca of the benefit Mitford brought others with the bombshell impact of her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. In a 1964 letter to Treuhaft, Mitford writes of a message she received from Bobby Kennedy, who had been charged with picking out a coffin for his murdered brother. Offered a choice between one for $900 and one for $2,000, RFK chose the former, telling Mitford that had he not read her book he would have felt obligated to get the more expensive choice as the last gesture he could make for his brother. You read that and know that if Mitford's muckraking was able to reach Bobby Kennedy in his awful circumstance, she must have done the same for people who were less in shock and had considerably fewer resources than the Kennedys.
But that judgment of the detached, superior Mitford sense of amusement is dead on. When you read through Decca and the two autobiographies, it's impossible to ignore that Mitford's detachment functioned as both naïveté and snobbishness.
Rebel she may have fancied herself, but she kept an aristocrat's sense of the wrong and right kind of people. "Offhand," she writes in a 1959 letter, "I don't agree with the starting point of your criticisms (that one can't generalize about classes of people--I've always thought one could; the Dutch, for instance, are as depressingly clean as one is always told they are; the Southern French, as warmly filthy; Southern U.S., faintly squalid etc. etc. and the Petit Bourgeoisie, as Lenin so truly said, vacillating)." So much for those people. This sort of thing rears its head in Decca with dependable regularity. A guest at the home of her friends Virginia and Clifford Durr is described as "a French man of the greasy type." At least there is the consolation that the house is run by "large, competent Blacks." When Virginia Durr takes Mitford to the 1940 Democratic Convention, she describes a meeting of the Resolutions Committee: "More or less anyone can speak before it & there were a number of rather boring ones about insurance companies, & the status of Indians etc." And this is not the only bit of dismissiveness to roll off Mitford's silver-forked tongue.
A January 1941 letter brings a reference to a friend of the Durrs, "rather a dull girl called Ladybird Johnson," reflecting a lifetime of disdain for the Johnsons in particular and for white Southerners in general. A 1959 letter declares that you can tell that Germans, like Southerners, are bad by "the backs of their necks (which were classic: huge, red and beefy)." A 1965 letter to Virginia Durr recalls "the days when [LBJ] and Ladybird used to slop around your garden with their outlandish manners and accents"--and that to a Southern friend. The view down Mitford's nose does not allow for an acknowledgment of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, nor for an inkling of why Ralph Ellison called LBJ "the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes."
But that acknowledgment would have required more nuance than an either/or thinker like Mitford was capable of. It also would have impinged on Mitford's fantasy of the role she and her fellow Communists played in the civil rights saga. This is not to deny her any part. As a member of the American Communist Party, Mitford worked for an East Bay group called the Civil Rights Congress. The group monitored police brutality cases in Oakland, used white members to front for blacks buying homes in white neighborhoods and was involved with local and national cases, particularly the case of a local man, Jerry Newson, who had been framed for murder. But throughout A Fine Old Conflict and in Decca, Mitford clings to the notion that the Communists were the only people fighting for civil rights. "Isn't it an extraordinary advance from a few short years ago," she writes of the student civil rights movement, "when nobody would lift a finger except us reds?" Even if that were true--and it requires editor Peter Sussman's dismissing the efforts of both the NAACP and the ACLU to assert it--it deprives blacks of any agency on their own behalf. Of course, you can note the influence and contribution of people like Stanley Levinson--and the way J. Edgar Hoover used Levinson's presence in the movement to discredit Martin Luther King Jr.--and the inevitable intersections that occurred between the CPUSA and people working for civil rights. But to conclude that "nobody would lift a finger except us reds" is fantasy. It ignores, for instance, A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And it requires Sussman's seconding of Robert Treuhaft's ridiculous implication that the middle-class NAACP didn't concern itself with poorer blacks, and trivializing its accomplishments as "some notable successes" in overturning discriminating laws. Brown v. Board of Education, anyone? Are we to seriously believe only the black middle-class was affected by that ruling?