The Lives of Others | The Nation


The Lives of Others

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Cunard's self-awareness evaporated when her political energies were engaged. And those who differed with her seemed to her incomprehensible. "Her vast anger at injustice embraced the universe," Solita Solano, a writer and companion of Janet Flanner, said. "There was no place left in her for the working of any other emotional pattern.... It was her mania, her madness." Cunard leapt from sympathizing with the oppressed to trying to become them, a literal form of identification that alarmed her friends and delighted her detractors, who seized upon it as evidence that she was unstable. In one of her favorite poems, which she called her own "Battle Hymn," she imagined herself as a black man bidding his "fierce farewell to the United States" and threatening to "tear the Crackers limb from limb" as "vengeance...for the days I've slaved," before he "heads for an Africa that should be his." Imagining this point of view gave Cunard a new perspective on racism. That assuming this man's voice might be seen as presumptuous, if not offensive, no more occurred to her than the possibility that she--and the scandalmongering press that followed in her wake--would be unwelcome in Harlem. ("Nancy's back," some of her black Harlem friends would remark, "we're in trouble.") Whether marching with hunger strikers or showing up in Harlem, Cunard expected to fit in and be accepted.

About the Author

Carla Kaplan
Carla Kaplan, the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, is a Guggenheim...

In the arguments over identity that roiled the 1920s and continue to reverberate today--when does empathy become appropriation? is speaking for others unethical? what links "love and theft"?--Cunard took a position that was at once admirable and disconcerting, particularly for someone of her abundant privilege: admirable because she identified with the oppressed with a rare passion; disconcerting because in trying to merge with the objects of her concern, she displayed scarcely any awareness that this performance was a further manifestation of her privilege. This left her often incapable of distinguishing between being genuinely helpful, as she was in Spain and in the American anti-lynching campaign, and appearing to others as Lady Bountiful visiting the slums. But Cunard was convinced that she could--and should--shed her background as an act of solidarity and will, an expression of the "vital life-theme" of human "contact." When she declared that she had Africa in "my ego, my soul," or wrote that "I speak as if I were a Negro myself," she felt she was demonstrating not arrogance but connection. The "Authors Take Sides" form she invented--"the tragedies of suffering humanity [must] become as their own"--was another manifestation of this belief in the possibility of changing places with others. Failure to do so left her feeling "sick at heart." Cunard has elicited a fair amount of abuse for this stance. The noted feminist scholar Susan Gubar pronounces her a "schizophrenic, self-loathing...vamp who used her social status, her money, and her promiscuity" for the "appropriation of a [black] culture very much not her own."

Happily, Gordon provides a more balanced and sympathetic account. Her Nancy Cunard is brave, hardworking, dedicated and honorable, a woman of serious ambition and admirable talent. She is generous, funny and well loved by her friends. She is wry and self-effacing. Unfortunately, she is also hopelessly introspective and romantic, although lacking, in Gordon's view, "that sense of wholeness or self-worth that makes for appropriate self-love--and subsequent love of an other." And in accounting for Cunard's politics, Gordon succumbs to the temptations of amateur psychology. Like professor Ann Douglas, who dismisses Cunard as a "profligate...Electra figure" whose entire political life amounts to no more than a "blow she struck at her mother"--or Cunard's former associate Wyn Henderson, who viewed her "identification with the underdog" as "an outlet...for feeling or love that can neither be offered nor accepted in the case of individuals"--Gordon lights on the minutiae of childhood disappointment, as if political love, or empathy, were always somehow suspect. Cunard's racial politics, she writes, were her compensation for poor family "bonds." Her lifelong "identification with those who were unempowered or unjustly punished," she claims, stemmed from being "whacked on her hands" when she was a child. And so on.

Cunard was permanently damaged, Gordon insists, by being "deprived" as a child of "the parental nurturing and devotion that makes for self-confident adult independence." Cunard's later politics, she claims, were extensions of her feelings for Henry Crowder, who provided some of the nurturing she lacked. "Crowder was the 'first cause' not only of her project Negro," Gordon writes, "but, one can assume by extension, of all the human rights causes that consumed her for the rest of her life." Even Negro looks, to Gordon, like Cunard's surrogate family: "Negro was the child she would never have.... Nancy seemed fulfilled in creating Negro in the way a parent bonds forever with a child."

These personalizations of Cunard's politics are not based on new information. In fact, Gordon's biography does not differ significantly from Anne Chisholm's, published almost thirty years ago. And it relies on many of the same sources, including Crowder's posthumously published memoir As Wonderful As All That?, a bitter postaffair account about which there has always been much question of actual authorship. Even though Crowder elsewhere praised Cunard and admired her courage, Gordon leans heavily on this memoir's most damning statements. Gordon also ignores some of the better recent work on Cunard, such as Jane Marcus's spirited defense of her as an overlooked heroine of feminism and the left. And she doesn't ask why Cunard's male friends, many of whom caused fewer eyebrows to be raised for even more outlandish behavior, were able to get away with the same politics of identification that Cunard was criticized for practicing too recklessly. Even Carl Van Vechten, the period's most notorious white race-crosser (Cunard called him "the spirit of vulgarity"), is more often given the benefit of the doubt.

Michael Arlen remarked that Cunard was like "some invention, ghastly or not, of her own.... She didn't fit anywhere." That inconsistency or "passionate inconstancy," as William Carlos Williams called it, consisted of, as one male friend described it, "baffling contradictions"--she was passionate but unromantic, loyal but unforgiving, unconventional but fastidious, emotional but unsentimental, hedonistic but anorexic. Huxley summed her up as "one of those women who have the temperament of a man." Ghastly indeed. We don't have much in the way of flattering language for high-fashion, pleasure-seeking, charming and seductive female revolutionaries. Trying to classify or categorize Cunard must have been like trying to put together Emma Goldman and Myrna Loy, or Paris Hilton and Betty Friedan. But beyond uncanniness, with which Cunard abounds, is the problem of what to say about someone whose steely determination could be as alienating and self-destructive as it was effective and admirable, whose failures were often as spectacular as her successes, and who, despite titling a poem "Remorse," seems to have felt very little of it. To her credit, Cunard knew these things about herself.

Nancy Cunard paid a high price for her nonconformity. She was disinherited, arrested, beaten, institutionalized and eventually declared insane. Her legacy includes her refusal to regret, or attempt to explain, any of it.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.