Back in the fifties, before the term “new journalism” was coined, back when Gay Talese was writing minor obituaries for the New York Times, Tom Wolfe was a grad student at Yale and Joan Didion came out of Berkeley to serve as a college guest editor at Mademoiselle, Murray Kempton was contributing a fresh, personal, novelistic style of writing about current events and characters three times a week in the columns of the New York Post. Kempton would have been the last to call what he did “journalism” of any variety (much less “new”), for he scorned the term as pretentious, preferring the plain, old-fashioned–and to him more honorable–designation “reporter.”
By the same token, he eschewed the title “columnist,” though his columns in the Post and, later, in Newsday made him famous and even revered in his profession and earned him the Pulitzer Prize. Rather than observe the world from his office and spin lofty opinions in the manner of traditional columnists, Kempton took to the streets (on foot, by cab and, in later years, on his bicycle), assigning himself stories, covering courtrooms, political campaigns, union elections, papal politics, gang wars, mob rivalries and jazz and sports events (his pieces on boxer Archie Moore and New York Giants pitcher Sal Maglie are classics), salting them with literary references. He might quote the likes of Yeats to illuminate the ways of mobsters and Ford Madox Ford to explain internecine union wars. At the Teamsters convention I covered for The Nation that elected Jimmy Hoffa president, Murray assured me that the only way to truly understand the proceedings was to read literary critic Robie Macauley’s introduction to Parade’s End.
Kempton won the 1974 National Book Award in contemporary affairs for his book on the Black Panthers, The Briar Patch: The People of the State of New York vs. Lumumba Shakur et al., and he published two collections of columns (America Comes of Middle Age and Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events), but I believe that Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (which, happily, has been reissued by the Modern Library) will stand as his major and lasting contribution to the literature of journalism and the history of this country.
Kempton called the ten chapters of the book “a series of novellas which happen to be about real persons”–people who were, like Kempton himself, swept up in the passions of their time and became radicalized, people like Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, the Reuther brothers, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, the writers of the Hollywood Ten, the “Rebel Girls” like Elizabeth Bentley and Anne Moos Remington, and all those during that decade, from Ivy League students to dockworkers, poets to grape pickers, who created “the myth of the nineteen thirties.” Kempton says, “The heart of the myth of the thirties was that there were no neutrals,” but the reality he sees looking back from the fifties is that “most people are neutral.” Kempton is concerned with the committed minority who wanted to count and be counted, who could not live on the sidelines: “The dustbin of history was, to the revolutionary of the thirties, what Hell was to the Maine farmer.”
Known for his compassion for the underdog and the defeated, Kempton had a special feeling for the “ruins” as well as the “monuments” he writes about, for he too was caught up in what he calls the myth of his time: “I have my own stake in the thirties. I was in high school when Roosevelt was inaugurated; I belonged for a little while to the Young Communist League, and thereafter to the Socialist party.” He makes clear that he is not the objective journalistic observer but that “the eye which I bring to this inquiry is neither as cold nor as detached as I might wish it to be.”