Jonathan Lethem (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)
Jonathan Lethem is the author of eight novels, including Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. His new novel, Dissident Gardens, involves three generations of left-wing activists, from Communist Party members in Queens in the 1950s to leftist hippies in the East Village in the ’60s to the Occupiers of Zuccotti Park in our own time. I spoke with him by phone in mid-September. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jon Wiener: The star of your book is Rose Zimmer, the “Red Queen of Sunnyside” in the 1950s—you also call her “the Last Communist,” in capital letters. Where did you get Rose?
Jonathan Lethem: The mystery I was trying to explore was my grandmother’s political dark matter. As a kid, by the time I knew her she wasn’t talking about these things. But there was a famous photo of her in Life magazine in 1938 marching against Hitler in Manhattan. She was very proud of this photo, and it was an indication that she had been an activist and had lived the life of a dissident.
JW: The big question of the ’50s: Was your grandmother a member of the Communist Party?
JL: I can honestly say I have no idea. I never got her FBI dossier. I asked this question in my family, and no one could answer it. If you’re a memoirist or a historian, what you don’t know is crippling. But if you’re a novelist, the things you don’t know are the avenue that your dreams and your speculations and your wishful and fearful imaginings move along.
JW: You talk about the American communists of the 1950s, like Rose, “in the mouth of history, shaken like a mouse in a cat’s.” That is such a powerful image—it gave me the chills.
JL: I think we’re all “in the mouth of history,” not just people with particular political commitments. The twentieth century had a special capacity for hanging people out to dry the more they believed in a utopian possibility—whatever their affiliation.
JW: You call the Brooklyn Dodgers “the secret official team of the American Communist Party.”
JL: Baseball seemed like a necessary part of the story. I discovered that the original pressure on [Walter] O’Malley to desegregate baseball, to bring in Jackie Robinson, was applied by a sportswriter, Lester Rodney, at a Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. It was this guy who led the charge. It’s one of those things that gets forgotten, and credited instead to O’Malley’s good intentions. But I couldn’t fit it in.
JW: I’ve read a lot of books about American communism, but yours is the first, I think, to connect the effects of Khrushchev’s “Crimes of Stalin” speech in 1956 with Walter O’Malley’s announcement in 1957 that the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn.
JL: I tend to write about people whose worlds are being pulled out from under them. Everything you might have believed was yours is temporary and could be withdrawn or stolen.
JW: Rose’s grandson Sergius visits an Occupy camp. You spoke at the Occupy camp at Zuccotti Park. Last week was the second anniversary of the birth of that camp. What do you think it accomplished—and what do you think about how it ended?
JL: I couldn’t be there much. I regarded it from afar. It stirred me deeply in ways I found complicated and difficult to get a grip on. Part of what fed the whole last phase of writing this book was realizing how I had to draw this historical novel into the present to say what I felt—which is that these things don’t go away. These feelings don’t go away. The American communist movement is remembered mostly as a disaster area, and yet it was a vehicle for people’s yearning, for their passion to live in a world that was other than the one they had been plopped into. And that matters.
I feel that way about Occupy. Suddenly there was this eruption. We had an American left again. And with some sort of strange Internet-era magic, it rapidly developed every positive and every negative the American left ever could have imagined for itself. Yet it was hugely brave. It enunciated this possibility, this yearning, this wanting to change the world that is still, to me, tremendously real.
In 2003, The Nation reviewed Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude.