On March 16, 1972, readers in Italy and throughout the publishing world
were shocked by the day's headlines.
As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the
knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological
economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side
We are all fascinated by the lives of the powerful and famous, and in
the last part of the twentieth century Andrei Sakharov became one of
Russia's most famous. He burst onto the world stage in the summer of
1968, and seemingly overnight he went from the high-clearance obscurity
weapons to world fame. His essay advocating "convergence" of capitalism
and socialism, which was smuggled to the West, was extraordinary. It did
not matter that its contents were naïve and sophomoric (he
envisioned a world government by the year 2000). Its author was the
"father" of the Soviet H-bomb, someone who understood that life and
civilization could be incinerated in an hour's time and as such
commanded instant respect. Moreover, he was a member of the elite, whose
views were "profoundly socialist" and who abhorred the "egotistical
ideas of private ownership and the glorification of capital." But there
were deeply heretical undertones in his thinking. He insisted that the
Soviet Union needed economic and political reforms, and if necessary a
multiparty system, even though he did not regard the latter as an
essential step "or even less, a panacea for all ills."
This was, of course, the time of the Prague Spring, when the peoples of
the Communist part of Europe followed with sympathy and apprehension
Prague's reformist Communist leaders taking Czechoslovakia down the path
of democratization. A nascent democratic movement had emerged in Russia
in the mid-1960s as well, spreading through large sections of the
intelligentsia. "What so many of us...had dreamed of seemed to be
finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia," Sakharov said later. "Even
from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and
enthusiasm of the catchwords: 'Prague spring' and 'socialism with a
All hopes were squelched on August 21, 1968, when Russian tanks entered
Czechoslovakia and arrested the reformers. It was also a fateful moment
for Sakharov: His essay had transformed him into the leading personality
of a small dissident movement. The regime ended his career at the secret
weapons lab in Turkmenistan but allowed him to work at the Institute of
Physics in Moscow. After a decade of defending dissidents, he was
arrested in 1980 and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni
Novgorod), where he was force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike. The
dramatic struggle between a lone individual and a mighty totalitarian
state ended with an astounding concession by the state: On December 16,
1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally invited
Sakharov to return to Moscow and "go back to your patriotic work." It
was an act of contrition that also enhanced Gorbachev's reputation in
In this first English-language biography of Sakharov, Richard Lourie
offers a beautifully written and engaging account of the physicist's
life. Lourie is a distinguished author and a leading translator of
Russian literature. He also translated Sakharov's own Memoirs,
which they had discussed at length. Lourie has had extended help from
Elena Bonner, Sakharov's second wife, and the portrait of their marriage
is one of the most insightful aspects of the book. But writing a
biography of so complex a figure as Sakharov is more difficult than it
may seem, in part because his life was the stuff of which myths are
made. It had two distinct phases.
In the first he eagerly served the state and performed his great
bomb-making accomplishments. It was a period of Stalinist terror and
appalling privations in which Sakharov accepted everything with
"cheerful fatalism." Like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, he clung to his
belief that everything Stalin did was for the best, that creating the
most destructive weapons mankind had known was his patriotic duty, that
"the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future." Even the
repugnant KGB system of informing seemed to him a normal fact of life,
an "ordinary link in the network of surveillance that enveloped the
whole country." When the dictator died in 1953, Sakharov was deeply
moved. "I am under the influence of a great man's death," he wrote to
his wife. "I am thinking of his humanity."
The second period--one of political activism, open dissent and real
sacrifices by Sahkarov--has been meticulously documented in the press.
Needless to say, he was lionized in the Western press and awarded a
Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his impact on the events that led to the collapse
of the Soviet Union remains unclear. As a leading actor in the dissident
movement, he seemed from the beginning a tragic figure who most fully
reflected its strengths and weaknesses. Sakharov not only lacked
charisma, as Andrei Amalrik said, but he also rejected the leadership
role bestowed upon him by the dissidents. Sakharov, Amalrik says in
Notes of a Revolutionary, wanted to be "a solitary monk under a
leaky umbrella whose voice in the defense of the oppressed would be
heard because of his moral prestige."
It is difficult to explain the almost complete break between these two
periods. It coincides roughly with the publication of his controversial
essay, "Reflections on Progress, Co-Existence, and Intellectual
Freedom," and the death of his first wife. What made him do his U-turn,
or, in Professor Philip Morrison's apt image, what made him go "from a
Teller to an Oppenheimer"?
We can only speculate what went on in Sakharov's head. His explanation
seems incomplete. He said he confronted a "moral dilemma" at the time of
the 1955 H-bomb test because his calculations of death by fallout over
the generations made it clear that the total numbers were staggering. He
was also appalled by the ecological consequences and began advocating a
ban on nuclear testing.
An incident at a banquet to honor a successful test may have had a
greater impact on Sakharov. His toast at the banquet--"May all our
devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites
and never over cities"--was immediately countered by Air Marshal
Mitrofan Nedelin, who wanted to put the scientist in his place by
telling a crude story:
"An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon: 'Guide me,
harden me. Guide me, harden me.' His wife who was lying on the stove
said: 'Just pray to be hard, old man, I'll take care of the guiding.'"
"And so," said the air marshal, "let's drink to getting hard."
Sakharov felt "lashed by a whip." An exceedingly proud man, he was
humiliated before his colleagues. He drained his glass and never said
another word for the rest of the evening. He was, he said later, shocked
into a realization that he and his colleagues had created a terrible
weapon whose uses "lie entirely outside our control."
After the first successful test, in 1953, Sakharov's self-confidence was
at a peak. Still "outwardly modest," inwardly he was "actually quite the
opposite." The director of the atomic weapons program, physicist Igor
Kurchatov, had called him "the savior of Russia!" He had replaced Igor
Tamm, his mentor, as scientific head of the hydrogen bomb project. He
alone had written a report on his conception of the next generation of
nuclear weapons and delivery systems; he attended a Politburo meeting
that approved it. To outsiders he seemed able to walk on water. He
enjoyed every privilege the state could bestow. He had the attribute of
highest importance: a high-frequency phone, a direct line to all
leaders. He was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the nation's highest
honor (for the first of three times). He was elected to full membership
in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, bypassing the usual period of
candidacy (Tamm's had lasted twenty years in an election before he
became a full member).
Yet, as Yuli Khariton, the director of the secret weapons lab, put it,
Sakharov's immense self-confidence was both his strength and his
failing. Sakharov "felt his own strength and could not imagine anyone
understanding better than he." When others found the solution to a
problem he was unable to solve, Sakharov would set about with
"exceptional energy" to search for the flaws in it. Not finding them, he
was forced to admit that the solution was correct.
If the 1955 test was the turning point in his thinking, it was reflected
only in his interest in and advocacy of a ban on nuclear testing.
Clearly he had little understanding of the politics of nuclear weapons
or the domestic political pressures that Nikita Khrushchev was facing.
Ignoring his pleas, Khrushchev insisted that the largest Soviet bomb
ever be tested so it would coincide with the Communist Party Congress
(and the expulsion of Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red
Square). Having been overruled and slavishly following orders, Sakharov
proposed that not one bomb but two be tested at the same time. This
would provide sufficient information to eliminate the need for further
testing for a long time. Even more bizarre was his grandiose proposal
for a giant, atomic-powered torpedo with a 100-megaton charge that could
inflict enormous casualties on enemy ports. A Russian admiral Sakharov
tried to consult would not give him the time of day. As a military man,
the admiral believed in "open battle" and was disgusted and outraged by
the idea of merciless mass slaughter.
By 1957 the Russians had sent Sputnik into orbit and the competition for
the control of outer space became a top priority. In the 1960s the space
program was allocated the largest chunk of the research budget. Sakharov
and other bomb-makers were shunted aside. This may be one of the reasons
for Sakharov's foray into political theory, though Lourie does not
explore it. But Sakharov is a hard man to assess. For example, his role
in enabling Russia to detonate its first hydrogen bomb just nine months
after the Americans is indisputable, but his accomplishments as a
physicist must await final judgment. So far, none of his peers have
placed him in the pantheon of top Russian physicists. None doubted his
talent, but the common judgment may have been summed up by Lev Landau,
the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who called him "outstanding" and
said: "While I would not consider him a genuine theoretical physicist,
he is rather a 'constructive genius.'" Tamm, another Nobel Prize winner,
was more generous. Sakharov's tragedy, Tamm said, was "that he had to
sacrifice his great passion--elementary-particle physics--first to
create an atomic and hydrogen bomb," then sacrifice it a second time in
the struggle for social justice.
It's even harder to assess him as a man. I first met him in the hospital
of the Academy of Sciences in 1967, where he was a patient. I was
visiting another patient, the writer Nikolai Erdman, who took me "to say
hello" to Sakharov, who was recovering from a hernia operation. First
impressions often gel into lasting images. I have subsequently written
dozens of stories about him, and I never had any doubt that he was a
rare good man who was prepared to oppose evil. As an absent-minded and
eccentric professor, he was unassuming and humble. Yet his benevolent
smile somehow demanded respect. He was born into a family that belonged
to that section of nineteenth-century intelligentsia that believed it
their duty to fight Russia's backwardness and authoritarianism. There
was a sense of entitlement about him, something that must have come
about from special considerations and privileges that had been extended
to him over the years. Following the publication of his controversial
essay, he was banned from military projects but accepted the position
offered him at the Physics Institute, working under Tamm. He accepted.
Neither side had entirely given up on the other. What if Sakharov came
up with a new discovery? At the time, neither science nor politics had
much meaning for Sakharov, who was grieving for his late wife and
looking after his 12-year-old son, Dima.
Sakharov was still a unique figure, both admired and envied. His
unanimous election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was without
precedent for two reasons: Not only had he not completed his doctorate
(he was a candidate of science), but his work was so classified that
more than 99 percent of those who voted for him had no idea why he was
honored. Academic Vasily Yemelyanov, who headed the Soviet atomic energy
commission in the 1950s, told me in an interview how Khrushchev had
asked him to insure Sakharov's election without revealing his role in
the H-bomb project. Yemelyanov replied that that was impossible. People
are going to ask questions. After all, Sakharov, 32 at the time, was a
molokosos (baby). "You tell them that he had done a great service
to the state but you are not at liberty to reveal what it is,"
Yemelyanov quoted Khrushchev as saying.
Sakharov was still viewed as salvageable when two prominent dissidents
were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions: Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko and
biologist Zhores Medvedev, twin brother of Marxist historian Roy
Medvedev, a friend of Sakharov's who distributed his original 1968 essay
in samizdat form. Roy Medvedev's book about Stalin, Let
History Judge, which Sakharov read in samizdat, played a
major role in his developing politics. As Soviet policy hardened under
Leonid Brezhnev, open dissent turned into a concerted opposition to a
return to Stalinism. Sakharov created an international incident in 1970
when he appeared at an international symposium held in Moscow and
announced that he was collecting signatures in defense of Medvedev, who
was under psychiatric detention. A week later he protested directly to
Brezhnev. Medvedev was freed in mid-June, but Grigorenko remained
incarcerated for four years.
A void of ostracism, however, began to form around Sakharov. He had
crossed over to the other side. This became irrevocable when he met his
second wife, Elena Bonner, a die-hard political dissident.
Ironically, Sakharov was finally happy, being married to a woman he
loved and who shared his ideas. Like God's fool from the Russian
tradition, he was regularly challenging the lies on which the system was
constructed yet not ending up in jail, because God's fool was the only
person who could speak the truth to czars. The authorities, unwilling to
lash out at Sakharov himself, instead targeted Bonner's children. Bonner
herself was reviled in the press. Sakharov fought back--hunger strikes
were his ultimate weapon. The state had considerable success in
radicalizing his image and making it appear that the human rights
movement was used by Sakharov to obtain exit visas for his family and
Lourie presents a compelling account of Sakharov's personal odyssey,
going behind the glossy picture we painted and repainted over the years.
If there is a serious shortcoming here it is that Bonner's role has
been, perhaps inadvertently, minimized. The book leaves the reader with
a sense of disappointment that this genuinely great man did not have a
more lasting effect. But we'd be remiss to forget the electrifying
impact on Russia of his return from internal exile in 1986. Even more
significant was his decades-long struggle to keep alive the best
traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Like his beloved Pushkin, he
will remain loved because--in the poet's words--"I've struck the chords
of kindness/and sung freedom's praise in this cruel age,/calling for
mercy to be shown the fallen."
Reading Robert Caro to learn about Lyndon Johnson is like going to an
elaborate buffet in order to get the four basic food groups; they both
give you what you need along with much, much more. In fact, we're only
at the appetizers, since Caro's third and latest volume, Master of
the Senate, comes in at over1,000 pages and still doesn't take the
story up through the 1960 election! Nonetheless, both are experiences to
be savored. Caro is a gifted and passionate writer, and his
all-encompassing approach to understanding LBJ provides readers with a
panoramic history of twentieth-century American politics as well as a
compelling discourse on the nature and uses of political power.
Moreover, in the midst of the plagiarism contretemps over Stephen
Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is refreshing to read a popular
history that is original and well written. There is clearly no "Caro
Inc." with an army of researchers cutting and pasting books together as
fast as the printing presses can take them. Aided only by his wife, Ina,
Caro's project is now in its third decade. This slow pace results from a
methodical and exhaustive research process. One might well disagree with
Caro's analysis and interpretations, but no one can accuse him of
overlooking an important piece of evidence.
In reality, Master of the Senate is not one book but several.
Caro sets the stage with a history of the United States Senate. The
Senate is virtually unique among legislative bodies in any modern
democracy. With its six-year terms, equal representation for each state
regardless of population and its tradition of unlimited debate, the
Senate is an institution designed for inaction. Individual senators have
little or no incentive to yoke themselves together to advance the
national interest. By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1949, the
body was increasingly seen as too inefficient to meet the demands of
modern government. Since the turn of the century, the President had
increasingly usurped its power in foreign policy, and many observers
predicted that the Senate would eventually have to go the way of most
legislative upper chambers and become, in effect, an American House of
That the Senate did not wither away and the reasons for this fact form
the basis for another of Caro's books within a book, Lyndon Johnson's
ascent to "Master of the Senate." Possessed of ambition that can only be
described as obsessive, Johnson campaigned to increase his own power and
influence with a relentlessness and ruthlessness that would have made
Before Johnson could amass power in the Senate, however, he first had to
shore up his political base in Texas. Having only narrowly "won" (stolen
is the more appropriate word, as Caro vividly and convincingly
demonstrated in his previous volume) election to the Senate in 1948,
Johnson now had to prove his fealty to the Lone Star State's reactionary
and powerful oil and gas titans. To do so, Johnson organized a
behind-the-scenes campaign to block President Truman's reappointment of
Leland Olds as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. A staunch New
Dealer and a committed public servant, Olds had used his position at the
FPC to make sure that electric and natural gas companies did not gouge
their customers. As a result, he was anathema to the Texas natural gas
companies, who saw even the smallest and most reasonable limitation of
their already vast profits as socialist tyranny.
In earlier days, Johnson had fought the same fight as Olds, working as a
freshman Congressman to provide cheap electricity to rural farmers.
Doing so had secured Johnson a place in the hearts of his poor Texas
Hill Country constituents, but that counted for little against the
political power of the state's oil and gas industry. Ambition now
required Johnson to destroy Leland Olds. Unable to attack him on the
substance of his work at the FPC, Johnson instead distorted Olds's
writings as a journalist in the 1920s to portray him as a Communist.
Using a phrase that Joe McCarthy would have appreciated, Johnson
denounced Olds on the floor of the Senate, asking, "Shall we have a
commissioner or a commissar?" The choice of the Senate was clear; the
Olds reappointment failed by a vote of 53 to 15.
The Olds fight secured Johnson's political base and brought him into the
warm embrace of the Texas establishment. After his victory over Olds,
Johnson flew back to Texas on the private plane of Brown & Root, the
giant Texas construction company. "When the Brown & Root plane
delivered him to Texas, it delivered him first to Houston, where a Brown
& Root limousine met him and took him to the Brown & Root suite
in the Lamar Hotel. Waiting for him there, in Suite 8-F, were men who
really mattered in Texas: Herman and George Brown, of course, and oilman
Jim Abercrombie and insurance magnate Gus Wortham. And during the two
months he spent in Texas thereafter, the Senator spent time at Brown
& Root's hunting camp at Falfurrias, and in oilman Sid Richardson's
suite in the Fort Worth Club."
Caro shows how, having won over the men who really mattered in Texas,
Johnson set out to win over the men who really mattered in the Senate,
the "Old Bulls." As a result of the Solid South and the seniority rule,
nearly all of these men were the Southern barons who controlled the
powerful Senate committees. In many ways, currying favor with the Texas
establishment had been relatively easy; all it had required was
destroying the naïve and principled Leland Olds. But the Old Bulls,
men like Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia, Walter George of Georgia and
Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, were a much tougher crowd, not easily
deceived and viciously protective of their power and prerogatives.
Traditionally, one did not attain power by winning over such men;
rather, power came by becoming one of them. But this required the time
and patience necessary to accumulate enough seniority to land a choice
committee assignment and then more time and patience to ascend to the
But, as Caro points out, Johnson had a very short supply of time and
patience. Indeed, he had risked everything to run for the Senate in 1948
in order to avoid the seniority trap of the House. Now he found himself
in the same bind. Even before he was sworn in, Johnson tried to persuade
the venerable Carl Hayden, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which
was in charge of office space, to give him an extra room. When Johnson
pressed his case too zealously, the usually courteous Hayden shut him
down, saying, "The trouble with you, Senator, is that you don't have the
seniority of a jackrabbit."
If Johnson didn't have the seniority to become one of the Old Bulls, he
would surely do everything he could to gain their favor. The usual
method was obsequiousness, telling these men how powerful and important
they were, and how much he had learned from them. According to Caro,
Johnson's behavior "proved the adage that no excess was possible."
One device, also favored by a more recent Texas politician, was to
bestow nicknames. Edwin "Big Ed" Johnson of Colorado was dubbed "Mr.
Wisdom," while Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts became "Old Oil on
Troubled Waters." Johnson resented having to use such tactics, telling
aide John Connally after fawning over a senior senator, "Christ, I've
been kissing asses all my life"; but ass-kissing worked. As Caro writes,
"In December, Hayden had refused to give Johnson that extra room in the
basement that he had asked for; in February Hayden found that an extra
room was, indeed, available."
While Hayden had the power to provide extra office space, real power in
the Senate rested with the acknowledged leader of the Old Bulls, Richard
Russell of Georgia. Just as Johnson in his earlier career had gained
power by making himself a protégé of House Speaker Sam
Rayburn and President Franklin Roosevelt, he now set out to cultivate
Russell. Though different in temperament and politics, all three men
shared a common element that Johnson used to ingratiate himself: As Caro
points out, all three men were lonely. Both Rayburn and Russell were
childless bachelors, while Roosevelt was largely estranged from his
children and wife. This provided the perfect opportunity for Johnson to
be the dutiful son and companion.
Mere companionship and filial piety, however, were not enough to win
over Russell. According to Caro, "It wasn't a son that Richard Russell
wanted, it was a soldier--a soldier for the Cause." And that cause was
white supremacy. In describing Russell's views on this issue, Caro shows
that while they were almost always cast as a reasoned, nonracist defense
of states' rights, racism was at their core, and such moderation was
merely tactical. "His charm," writes Caro, "was more effective than
chains in keeping blacks shackled to their terrible past." Caro's
description of Russell is not just of historical interest. With calls
for states' rights gaining renewed popularity and legitimacy, it is
important to remember that while not every states' rights advocate is a
closet racist, nearly every advocate of racial inequality has used
states' rights to cloak his real aims and beliefs.
Johnson was willing to take up arms for Russell's cause. In his maiden
speech in the Senate, Johnson denounced President Truman's call for
civil rights legislation in the same reasoned tones used by Russell.
When Johnson finished, Russell was the first to shake his hand, telling
him that his speech was "one of the ablest I have ever heard on the
Having gained Russell's and the Old Bulls' trust, Johnson now began to
build his own power. In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, he
convinced Russell to allow him to chair a special committee on
preparedness. Caro's description of Johnson's committee is a textbook
example of the Washington version of stone soup, in which, with the
right skills and connections, one can turn nothing into something. For
the most part, the committee did very little original research or
investigation, instead recycling work done by other committees and
agencies. The difference, however, was that Johnson had a gift for
working the media. In this pretelevision era, the term "soundbite" had
yet to be coined, but Johnson was a master of it nonetheless. The
committee's first report was really an earlier, prewar report on the
nation's rubber supply. In the hands of Johnson and his staffer Horace
Busby, the report became a major story. "Phrases like 'darkest days,'
'business as usual,' 'too little and too late' leapt out of the final
report," writes Caro. Newspapers were particularly enamored of Johnson's
description of Defense Department desuetude as "siesta psychology."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of substance, the preparedness
committee gave Johnson his first national attention. But the favor of
the Old Bulls and a handful of headlines were not nearly enough to
secure Johnson's ultimate prize, the presidency. Recognizing that the
traditional path to power in the Senate, and ultimately to the White
House, was still largely closed to a junior senator, Johnson decided to
create his own path. Here was where Johnson's cunning as a political
entrepreneur came into play. As Caro writes:
Lyndon Johnson's political genius was creative not merely in the lower,
technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there
was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his
career, most impressive, it was his capacity to look at an institution
that possessed only limited political power--an institution that no one
else thought of having the potential for any more than limited political
power--and to see in that institution the potential for such substantial
political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such
power, and in the process of transforming it, to reap from that
transformation substantial personal power for himself.
Johnson aide Bobby Baker put it more succinctly: "He knows what makes
the mules plow."
The institution that Johnson chose was the party leadership of the
Senate. Almost utterly lacking in formal power, party leadership was
more often the graveyard of political careers than the launching pad. No
Senate Democratic leader had possessed any influence to speak of since
Joseph Robinson in the 1930s. The Democratic leaders immediately
preceding Johnson, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of
Arizona, had been disasters, utterly incapable of bridging the
differences between the party's liberal Northern and conservative
Southern wings. In fact, the demands of the job had contributed to the
election defeats of both men, Lucas in 1950 and McFarland in 1952. Now,
following the Republican sweep of 1952, the position of minority leader
stood open. Since no else wanted the position, Johnson, with Russell's
blessing, ascended to the post. Only four years into his first term,
Lyndon Johnson was now at least the nominal leader of the Senate
And Johnson soon converted nominal leadership in their power, explaining
that they needed to put their best people forward to defend against the
Republicans. But that would require handing out committee positions on
the basis of ability, not seniority. Using a combination of persuasion
and horse-trading, Johnson managed to make enough room to place every
Democrat on at least one major committee. In doing so, he transformed
the Senate, imbuing its committees, at least on the Democratic side,
with fresh blood. More important for Johnson, his own power had been
enhanced greatly. Dozens of members, liberals and conservatives,
Northerners and Southerners, now owed their committee assignments to
him, and that meant power.
Revamping the seniority system was but the first way Johnson became
master of the Senate. While much has been written about the famous
Johnson "treatment," LBJ's in-your-face style of persuasion, Caro
demonstrates that these skills, effective though they were, were not the
only ones at his disposal. Deploying a skilled staff, he soon knew more
about what was happening in the Senate than any other member, making him
the "go-to guy" for information. He managed to negotiate unanimous
consent agreements to limit debate, so that minor bills of importance to
individual senators could be passed with dispatch. Johnson was also a
skilled parliamentarian, using his knowledge of Senate rules and
procedures to outwit the majority Republicans. Finally, Johnson had an
astute grasp of national politics, demonstrated most effectively in the
battle over the Bricker Amendment. Advanced by Republican isolationists,
the constitutional amendment would have severely restricted presidential
power in foreign policy by requiring treaties to be approved by the
state legislatures as well as the Senate. Johnson not only managed to
defeat the amendment but to do so in a way that aligned the Democrats
with the popular Eisenhower against Congressional Republicans.
No method was beneath Johnson. He was just as willing to destroy the
careers of his Senate colleagues as he had been with Leland Olds.
Perhaps more than any other senator, Kentucky's Earle Clements had been
loyal to Johnson, "dog loyal," in Caro's words. But after a bill
supported by Johnson failed to pass on a tie vote, Johnson forced
Clements to switch his vote, although he knew it would destroy
Clements's re-election hopes. In the case of Virgil Chapman, also of
Kentucky, Johnson helped to destroy not only his career but his life.
Even though Johnson knew Chapman was falling further and further into
the depths of alcoholism, his response was not compassion but
manipulation. He would bring Chapman to his office after the Senate
recessed and ply him with drinks until the inebriated Kentuckian would
agree to anything Johnson wanted. Chapman eventually died in a drunk
Johnson's success as minority leader helped the Democrats regain control
of the Senate after the 1954 elections. Now the majority leader, Johnson
further extended his power. As a consequence, the Senate began to act
with new efficiency and effectiveness. And even though Johnson never
strayed too far from Russell and the other conservative senators upon
whom he relied, he still managed to help Democratic liberals to achieve
at least some of their legislative goals. By the mid-1950s, the changes
wrought by Johnson had dispelled much of the criticism leveled against
Caro, however, suggests that Johnson might have destroyed the Senate in
order to save it, since these changes came at the cost of diminishing
deliberations, where individual senators could educate and inform the
public on the great issues of the day. He quotes Paul Douglas, liberal
Democratic senator from Illinois during the 1950s and oftentimes a foe
of Johnson, who charged, "Under Johnson, the Senate functions like a
Greek tragedy. All the action takes place offstage, before the play
begins. Nothing is left to open and spontaneous debate, nothing is left
to the participants but the enactment of their prescribed roles." Caro
goes further, suggesting that by limiting debate, Johnson was making the
Senate an expression of his own mania for control and aversion to debate
Regardless of Johnson's real motivations for limiting debate, this is an
overly romantic view of Senate proceedings, in which debate consists
more of partisan bickering and mundane bloviating than reasoned and
informed discourse. Furthermore, unlimited debate is tailor-made for
defenders of the status quo, allowing them great power to block any
measure to which they object. Caro even seems to acknowledge this in a
footnote, where he quotes Johnson aide Harry McPherson, "Complaints
about limiting debates...often turned out to be based on a plaintiff's
annoyance that he must either miss a vote or forgo a speaking engagement
back home. And besides, who knew better than liberals the enervating
consequences of unlimited debate."
Caro may be right that Johnson saved the Senate, but he doesn't consider
whether it was worth saving in the first place. Yes, Johnson did reform
the chamber so that it could legislate more effectively, but the
institution remained and remains a throwback to a predemocratic era. Not
only does the Senate's equal representation of states grossly distort
the one-person, one-vote principle, but the ability to filibuster means
that forty-one senators, even if they represent the twenty-one smallest
states (with only 11 percent of the total population), can veto any
piece of legislation. And since Republicans predominate in small states,
the institution serves only to magnify their power. For example, even
though Democrats have a 50-49 edge in the current Senate (the
remaining member is Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont), sixty senators
represent states won by George W. Bush in the 2000 election. By saving
the Senate, one might argue, Johnson only succeeded in maintaining an
institution that has traditionally served to reinforce conservatives and
the status quo.
In 1956, Johnson thought the time was right to make his move for the
Democratic nomination. But this effort was doomed before it even began.
First, he refused to be an active candidate, thus much of the support
from the South and West that might have been his if he wanted it went to
other candidates. Even if Johnson had run a more active and skillful
campaign, it was clear that he never had enough liberal support to win
the nomination. For all that he had accomplished in the Senate, Johnson
was still viewed as suspect by Democratic liberals. In some ways, as
Caro suggests, the liberals' criticism was unfair. Johnson was no Hubert
Humphrey, to be sure, but he was also no Richard Russell or James
Eastland. During his twelve years in the Senate, Johnson's Americans for
Democratic Action liberal-voting score was fifty-six, just about average
for the party and essentially splitting the difference between the
Southern Democratic average of thirty-seven and the Northern Democratic
average of seventy-five. Moreover, during his tenure as majority leader
from 1955 to 1960, Johnson's average score was sixty-five.
But Johnson recognized that his overall ADA score was not the real
issue. By the mid-1950s, Democratic liberals increasingly used civil
rights as a litmus test for support. According to Caro, Johnson would
tell friends privately, "I want to run the Senate. I want to pass the
bills that need to be passed. I want my party to do right. But all I
ever hear from the liberals is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra." (During the 1964
campaign, Johnson would use the same refrain in a very different
context, telling a New Orleans audience of a dying Southern senator who
wanted to give one more speech, a good Democratic speech, because the
only speeches the people of his state ever heard were "Nigra, Nigra,
Nigra.") Caro goes on to add that the conclusion for Johnson was clear:
He knew now that the only way to realize his great ambition was to
fight--really fight, fight aggressively and effectively--for civil
rights; in fact, it was probably necessary for him not only to fight but
to fight and win: given their conviction that he controlled the Senate,
the only way the liberals would be satisfied of his good intentions
would be if that body passed a civil rights bill. But therein lay a
seemingly insoluble dilemma: that way--the only way--did not seem a
possible way. Because while he couldn't win his party's presidential
nomination with only southern support, he couldn't win it with only
northern support either. Scrubbing off the southern taint thoroughly
enough within the next four years to become so overwhelmingly a liberal
favorite that he could win the nomination with northern votes alone was
obviously out of the question, so dispensing with southern support was
not feasible: he had to keep the states of the Old Confederacy on his
side. And yet a public official who fought for civil rights invariably
lost those states.
This dilemma sets up another book within a book and the dramatic climax
of Master of the Senate, the battle over the 1957 Civil Rights
Act. This is where Caro's gifts as a storyteller really come alive, and
his account provides what is surely one of the best analyses of the
legislative process ever written. Moreover, Caro is right to label
Johnson's role in the passage of this legislation as an exercise of
"genius." But Caro goes too far in suggesting that the 1957 Civil Rights
Act marked a turning point at which Johnson's "compassion, and the
ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last."
Caro does recognize that the practical impact of the 1957 legislation
was inconsequential and far less significant than the later Civil Rights
Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while the bill's
proponents described it as half a loaf, Caro agrees with Humphrey, who
described it as a "crumb." Nonetheless, Caro claims that as the first
civil rights measure to pass the Senate and to be enacted into law since
1875, the legislation was of immense symbolic importance and the
harbinger of things to come. "The Civil Rights Act of 1957," according
to Caro, "was hope." Caro has a point, but a debatable one. The law did
raise hopes, but by accomplishing so little, many of those hopes ended
up dashed. Furthermore, while the 1957 act was a first step toward more
effective legislation, it would take another eight years to complete the
journey, eight more years of Jim Crow and disfranchisement, of
oppression and violence. Hope was better than nothing, but help is what
was really needed.
And help would have been provided then, if not for Lyndon Johnson. Help
was contained in the civil rights bill proposed by the Eisenhower
Administration and passed by the House, with strong provisions against
discrimination in public accommodations and voting, along with effective
enforcement mechanisms. But Johnson knew that such a bill was utterly
unacceptable to his Southern colleagues. Thus, while Johnson recognized
that he had to fight for a civil rights bill, it couldn't be
this civil rights bill.
Consequently, Johnson's first maneuver was to help defeat an effort by
Republicans and liberal Democrats to rewrite Senate Rule 22 in order to
short-circuit the expected Southern filibuster. At the opening of the
1957 session, pro-civil rights senators sought a ruling from Vice
President Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as the Senate's
presiding officer, that the Senate was not a continuing body and
therefore was not bound by previous rules. That would mean that a
majority of senators could establish a new rule allowing debate to be
shut off with only a simple majority, not the usual and nearly
unobtainable sixty-four votes. Indeed, Nixon, hoping to swing black
votes to the GOP, would have issued such a decision. But before he could
do so, Johnson used his prerogative as majority leader to move to table
the proposed rules change. Using all the skill and power he had amassed
as majority leader, Johnson managed to get a majority for his motion.
But it was a 55-38 tally. If only seven votes had gone the other
way (the three absentees having announced against Johnson's motion), the
motion would have lost, Nixon would have issued his decision, the
filibuster would have been broken and an effective civil rights bill
would have been passed in 1957, not 1964. As a result of the defeat on
Rule 22, the bill that ultimately did pass was only a very weak voting
If ever one needs evidence of the contingency of history, imagine, if
you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have
died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The
Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil
rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson. From there, one can spin
off any number of plausible scenarios that result in a very different
history of the past forty years.
But none of these scenarios were acceptable to the Lyndon Johnson of
1957, since they would have conflicted with his ambition; and at that
point, despite Caro's claim, his ambition was still more important than
his compassion. Switching sides on Rule 22 would have destroyed his
Southern support and with it any chance he had of becoming President.
Johnson's compassion would eventually shine through, and as a result,
civil rights would eventually come to black America. But they would not
come until Lyndon Johnson's ambition would allow them to come.
In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece
Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who'd consorted with
cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
(1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based
on his adventures, some of them sex-
ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold
pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo
(1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman
Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.
The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter
of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself.
Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of
Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also
related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch
equivalent of Boston blue blood.
Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance
of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as
his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed
by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic
The scene is set. Melville is "the first American literary sex symbol,"
writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2,
1851-1891. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that
typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who
sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as
his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of
mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all
the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had
squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his
sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.
Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after
Allan's death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year; he also worked in
his elder brother's store, ran an uncle's farm, taught school and in
1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. "Whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," says Ishmael in
Moby-Dick, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as
I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." In 1841 Melville
signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of
All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker's Herman
Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851 (1996), which ends when
Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire
neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted
Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity,
its printed dedication to Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his
In fact, Parker's fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed
in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville
meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts,
conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the
Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as
Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates
that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends
lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to
Hawthorne. ("In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon,"
As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book
in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker,
"and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing
now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or
that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he
did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his
fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of
Ronald Reagan. "Take it all in all," Parker concludes, "this was the
happiest day of Melville's life."
This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a
mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and
circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet
despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers,
a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to
name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted
speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth
between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering
his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a
jarring case in point--and surprising in the work of a scholar as
seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the
Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.
Yet the happy dinner is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography,
Volume 2, 1851-1891, another prodigious undertaking, 997 pages, that
chronicles the second, sad half of Melville's life. Here, Parker focuses
on Melville's relationship to Hawthorne. But it's one of his book's more
contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing.
Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one
another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were
yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, "if
remembered at all," snaps Parker, "as a man who had known Hawthorne,
the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox
Of course, Parker isn't the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame
for Melville's neglect at Hawthorne's feet. Laurie Robertson-Lorant,
whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the
first installment of Parker's biography, doesn't much like Hawthorne.
Though Hawthorne appreciated Moby-Dick, he took Melville
literally when he said not to write about it, and Robertson-Lorant never
forgave him, particularly since Moby-Dick met with
uncomprehending reviewers who called it "careless," "patchy," "dazzling"
and "absurd." Sales were predictably bad.
Worse yet, in 1852 Melville published Pierre, or, The
Ambiguities, an undomestic novel about incest and authorship (the
two symbolically related), which also contained a coruscating sendup of
writers and editors. They were not amused. Herman Melville Crazy ran a
headline in one New York paper. Enter Parker, who reasonably argues that
Melville's screed against publishers was a wanton act of
self-destruction (or hubris) and then less reasonably suggests that
Melville "may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for
the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne." This is
Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker
is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence
suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's
posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely
identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords
with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like
But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own
posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker
declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre
take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the
establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all
these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a
friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They
understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but
not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman."
Take that, you American fools.
The question of Hawthorne's immense popularity aside--the truth is, he
couldn't earn a living as a writer--Melville's treatment by a boorish
America obsessed with commonplace prosperity is another of Parker's
themes, and he strews his biography with the silly statements of vapid
critics like Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck, whom he also holds
responsible for Melville's eclipse. The trouble here isn't that Parker
is wrong but that his target--American stupidity--is too wide a mark.
Americans can be stupid, to be sure, and Melville's gifts are
staggering, but so is his tendency for self-subversion; his almost
vicious search for meaning--"if man will strike, strike through the
mask!"--ends with his pervasive, magniloquent sense that nothing will
avail. This makes him a complex, fascinating man and genius of
heartbreaking proportion. "Ourselves are Fate," he wrote in
After Pierre, Melville presumably wrote another book from a story
he'd heard, while vacationing in Nantucket, about Agatha Hatch, the
abandoned wife of a bigamist sailor. According to Parker, who expertly
excavated information about the lost manuscript, including its title
("The Isle of the Cross"), Melville finished this book, which his
publisher, Harper's, was prevented from printing for some unknown
reason. (Parker thinks the Harper brothers feared a suit from survivors
of Agatha Hatch, should they have recognized themselves, although he
concludes that the prospect is unlikely.)
Parker nicely points out that "The Isle of the Cross" is the missing
link between Pierre and Melville's subsequent magazine tales,
including the brilliant story "Bartleby, the Scrivener," an inquiry into
moral accountability and the fecklessness of social norms. It was
collected in a volume of stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), which
also includes the great "Benito Cereno," about an insurrection aboard a
slave ship that turns shallow parlor values upside down, and "The
Encantadas," sketches that Melville may have purloined from a longer,
unpublished manuscript of his about tortoises, whose crowning curse,
Melville writes, "is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a
belittered world." This is pure Melville: philosophical, rueful, ironic,
bold. He also serialized a historical novel, Israel Potter, in
Putnam's Monthly Magazine, in which he forecast, argues Parker,
the ultimate loss of his own career. But he didn't stop writing.
Now the father of four (two boys and two girls), Melville had already
begun the satiric Confidence-Man (1857) when his health
collapsed, likely under the weight of depression and heavy debt. Loans
due, he had to sell off eighty acres to save his farm from seizure by a
creditor; humiliated, he borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law, who'd
already contributed $5,000 to family coffers. A kind man where Melville
was concerned (though he cut an equivocal place in history by enforcing
the Fugitive Slave Act), Judge Shaw dispatched the ailing Melville to
Rome, Egypt and the Levant, where Melville had long wanted to go, hoping
to find among the hieroglyphics tidings to quiet his uneasy soul.
He traveled by way of Liverpool, where Hawthorne, stationed as American
consul, briefly entertained him. "He certainly is much overshadowed
since I saw him last," Hawthorne observed, noting Melville's strange
comment that he'd
"pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not
seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until
he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and
has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in
wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the
sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be
comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to
try to do one or the other.
Melville never received a more searching analysis.
As Hawthorne surmised, Melville would not find what he sought in the
vastness of the Pyramids, and after returning to America, he beached his
pen to earn a scant living on the lecture circuit, his audiences
complaining that his whiskers muffled his words. A platform fiasco, he
took off again, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but when he
disembarked in San Francisco and learned that publishers had rejected a
new manuscript, he returned home, defeated and miserable. His works
falling out of print, he solaced himself in long walks around New York
City after he and his family moved there in 1863, and eventually landed
a dry-dock job as a Custom House inspector.
Oddly, the unsold manuscript was a book of poems. Why write poetry?
Given the prestige of poetry in the nineteenth century, it's not a
question, says Parker, Melville would have thought to ask. But that's no
answer. The man was chronically depressed, debt-ridden and rightly fed
up with publishers and readers; yet write poetry he did, perhaps seeking
something unavailable to the novel, especially during wartime. The
trenchant Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) contains
such poems as "The House-top," Melville's reflection on the 1863 draft
riots, and his ironic depiction of Sherman's "March to the Sea." Parker
favors Melville's allusive, ambitious epic, "Clarel: A Poem and a
Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876), though the jury's still out on
that. I myself would like to be convinced, but Parker prefers to tease
out the poem's hypothetical references to Hawthorne rather than traffic
in enormities, poetic or otherwise.
Similarly, Parker gives remarkably short shrift to the tragic death of
Malcolm, Melville's firstborn, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound
at 18. Here, Parker should indulge his penchant for speculation: Why did
Malcolm tuck his gun under his pillow each night? What was he trying to
tell his father, with this pistol and ball? Did Melville hear him? And
wouldn't it be safe to assume that Malcolm's ghost, not Hawthorne's,
spooked Melville when he visited the Berkshire Hills in 1869, just
before he began writing "Clarel"? Do littérateurs haunt only one
Likewise, Parker could dig deeper into allegations about Melville's
abuse of his wife, which so upset her brothers they wanted to kidnap her
and the children and hustle them back to Boston. Psychological abuse,
Parker admits; but physical abuse? Throwing her down the stairs?
Poet Charles Olson reportedly got the word from Melville's oldest
granddaughter, and he's not a source a responsible biographer can put
much faith in, says Parker, except that the claims are worth
interpreting at least in terms of Melville's fascination with violence.
The posthumously published tour de force Billy Budd, an inside
narrative, as Melville terms it, tells of an innocent youth's murder:
Malcolm? Melville's younger, more sexual self? The beleaguered Melville
frequently did abandon his wife, whom he seemed to love, though he was
clearly drawn to the company of men, either in fantasy or in the context
of his work. (Edwin Miller, an unreliable biographer, imagines Melville
propositioning Hawthorne in the Berkshire Hills and Hawthorne rejecting
him: more grist for the anti-Hawthorne mill. On this subject, Newton
Arvin remains the best, most elegant, Melville interpreter to date.)
Commendably cautious, Parker eschews reckless or fashionable theories
about Melville's sexuality. Yet questions remain, skirted by Parker, as
if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing
them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville
might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff
he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. "Knowing
Melville's sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals," Parker
obfuscates, "chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for
superb views." He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper
reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical
imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life
and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife
or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments
that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant
writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.
Still, Parker offers a sweeping history of the reviews Melville
received, a comprehensive account of Melville's reading (ditto his
literary sources), a jeremiad against mediocrity in American letters,
all the characters in Melville's extended family, a record of his aching
debt and a peevish defense of an artist who needs, as artist, no defense
Grateful scholars will chew over this massive undertaking in years to
come, as they should, saluting Parker for his devotion, solemnity and
sheer stamina. As for Melville the man: As Ishmael presciently remarks
in Moby-Dick, "I cannot completely make out his back parts; and
hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face."
Jason Epstein's Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future is the third memoir of a major American life in book publishing to reach print in less than two years. It is at once a sign that the guard is changing and a recognition that the business has already changed. It is also, in the case of the 72-year-old Epstein, an opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball to predict the changes to be, something he has been rather good at during the course of his long career.
Simon & Schuster's Michael Korda got the triumvirate rolling in 1999 with Another Life, gossipy and entertaining and novelistic, like the books Korda often publishes. The New Press's André Schiffrin--famously ousted from Random House's Pantheon Books, the once independent imprint his father started--followed suit more recently with The Business of Books, the kind of polemic he has sometimes featured on his list [see Daniel Simon, "Keepers of the Word," December 25, 2000].
It's not surprising, then, that the tone pervading Epstein's memoir--which began with a series of lectures he gave at the New York Public Library, formed two essays in The New York Review of Books and was coaxed into a book by Norton president Drake McFeely--is cool and elegant and full of the gravitas of a man who wanted to be a great writer and instead ended up publishing many such, Morrison and Mailer and Doctorow among them.
He arrived at Random House in 1958, having deemed it time to leave Doubleday when he was prevented from publishing Lolita there. While at Doubleday he had founded Anchor Books and with it the trade paperback format in America. He retired as Random's editorial director in 1998, and during the four decades in between started the Library of America, a unified series of reprints of great American literature; The Reader's Catalog, a kind of print precursor to Amazon; and The New York Review of Books. He had a reputation as a brilliant editor but went beyond that to envisage change and make it happen, and in the process made himself into a pillar of the New York intellectual establishment.
"If I have any regrets, I can't think what they are," he declared during an interview recently, sipping homemade espresso at his large kitchen table in an opulent downtown apartment that could double as the upscale set for one of Woody Allen's Manhattan tales. He still edits authors he's been associated with but now does it from home. He prefers to be based there rather than in the Random corporate offices, wishes to put space between himself and an "increasingly distressed industry" mired in "severe structural problems." Prominent among them are a chain-driven bookselling system that favors "brand name" authors and often returns other new books to their publishers after only a few weeks on the shelves, before the titles have a chance to establish themselves; and a bestseller-driven system of high royalty advances that often do not earn back the money invested, a system that ratchets up unrealistically high sales expectations for new titles overall, and in so doing makes it increasingly difficult to publish certain kinds of books.
One-third of the way through his slim text, Epstein writes that his career has demonstrated an "ambivalence toward innovation." Ambivalence also pervades this elegiac book. Perhaps it is inevitable when a man looks back to his youth and forward to a future in which he will not play a major part, even if he is hopeful about that future. Perhaps, too, it is inevitable when confronting the distress signals of an industry he has spent his life in and clearly loves. Epstein shares his visions of a publishing future liberated electronically, but that future harks back to a deep-seated nostalgia, a longing for what was. His book seems to predict that technology in the form of the Internet will restore to the book business a certain lost rightness from the past.
His first chapter, like Dickens's Christmas tale, moves back and forth among past, present and future in an attempt to limn the larger changes of the past fifty years and what may yet unfold. The rest of the book is chronologically structured. It follows Epstein's career and the transformation of publishing from primarily small-scale, owner-operated enterprises rooted in the 1920s "golden age" of Liveright and Knopf to the "media empires" of today, which are forced to operate within an "overconcentrated," "undifferentiated" and fatally "rigid" bookselling structure. Now, he says, "there can't be Liverights or Cerfs because the context is so different. Roger Straus is the very last of them," and even he has sold his company to the German firm von Holtzbrinck.
Publishing must return to being "a much smaller business again," Epstein is convinced. "It has to, it's a craft and can't be industrialized any more than writing can. It's about to undergo a huge structural shift and there's nothing the conglomerates can do about it. The marketplace has shifted out from under them: the system of big money bestsellers defeats the possibility of building a sustained backlist. And without a sustained backlist, publishing cannot function in the long term. Providentially, just as the industry was falling into terminal decadence, electronic publishing has come along."
Epstein is in no way predicting the demise of print. Rather, his future is predicated on a kind of universal electronic Reader's Catalog, "much like Amazon" but far beyond it, "multilingual, multinational, and responsibly annotated. People will access it on their computers at home, in the office, and in kiosks like ATMs. It will be possible to browse those books, and downloading technology will eventually solve the problem of making it possible to buy those books. They won't exist in print until they're actually bought.
"There is no room on the Internet for middlemen, who sell the same product as their competitors, competing on the basis of price and service, and in so doing eat up their margins." Epstein is of course speaking of the Amazons and B&N.coms of today. "I think Amazon can't be here that much longer," says the man who sat at this same kitchen table doling out advice to its CEO, Jeff Bezos, a few years back.
As for brick-and-mortar stores, "the chains aren't tenable, either. They never were. The superstores have become what the old mall stores were. There are far too many of them, Waldens with coffee bars, and they will shrink. Stores run by people who love running bookstores will arise spontaneously like mushrooms and find a way to stay in business once the chains begin to recede."
And the conglomerate publishers? "I think they can show some financial progress for some years by cutting costs and cutting out redundancies, but eventually they'll find themselves with expensive traditional facilities that are increasingly irrelevant. They'll have to offload many functions on to specialist firms. In the end, they in turn will look for a buyer if they can find one. They should have noticed that the previous owners were all too happy to sell."
Meanwhile, authors will have found a way to bypass their publishers by going directly to the web. People will start independent authors' websites. Books will be much cheaper. Authors will have a much larger share of the revenue.
Stephen King has already gained notoriety in trying to do so. But the spectacular starting bang of Riding the Bullet, done in conjunction with his publisher, Simon & Schuster, attenuated when he tried to serialize online a novel, The Plant, on his own. A downturn in paying customers for the later chapters led King to abandon the project. Asked about this, Epstein insists, "It's like the days of the early cars that ran off the road into the mud. People said cars would never work. Well, one of these days e-publishing will work."
Of other experiments now being tried Epstein is openly dismissive, and he sees a kind of Darwinian process filtering chaff from grain. Mighty Words and similar online publishers "don't know what a book is," he contends. "But people know what a book is. Human beings are designed to distinguish value, and in my opinion that problem will take care of itself."
He disregards the tremors that have gone through the publishing houses ever since B&N.com announced it was getting into the business of publishing books. Barnes & Noble Digital was formed the first week in January to compete with the new electronic subsidiaries of traditional publishers, which are bringing out digital versions of new titles readable on PCs or dedicated devices, as well as original works specifically created for electronic distribution. In addition, they are digitizing backlist and out-of-print books that can be reprinted in very small quantities in a process known as print-on-demand."It's yet another premature entry," says Epstein. "B&N's publishing experience is limited to a remainder operation. That's entirely different from bringing out original works."
While Epstein criticizes the proverbial naysayers' laughing at those early cars stuck in the mud, at the same time he cautions, "I don't think an author who has worked hard to create something of value will want to risk it in the electronic format at this point." He says bookstores will wind up selling new titles at much lower prices than is now the case, $10 or so, but "can't figure out" how that will be done in the black. His predictions are compelling, but they are also much too vague--for instance, he sets out no time frame or actual mechanics for what he believes will transpire.
The bloat of the superstores is something publishers have worried about for years, almost from their rollout. This holiday season's flat sales at the three biggest chains; the margin-slashing of Amazon; and the re-energizing of the independent stores through a marketing program called Booksense, which includes web-based retailing, all serve to illustrate Epstein's points. Borders went so far as to put itself on the block, but found no willing takers. Recent murmurs about B&N's CEO Len Riggio entertaining a buyout offer from media conglomerate Gemstar-TV Guide International, which has aggressively entered the e-book technology market, did not result in a deal but also were more than simple gossip.
The past twenty years have seen the RCAs, MCAs, Advance Publications and the like learn their lessons and abandon book publishing, as Epstein has noted. Other conglomerates have already tried to offload their publishing components and in time will try again. But it also can't be ignored that companies like the German-based Bertelsmann (which acquired Bantam, Doubleday Dell and Random House and consolidated them) and von Holtzbrinck (which has bought Holt, St. Martin's and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) have their roots in the book business itself. They are therefore not as likely to exit the scene as Epstein would have us believe.
Undoubtedly, many of Epstein's electronic dreams are prescient and will one day come to pass. The companies that first turn them into reality, though, will likely be turning out works in the professional, scholarly, reference and educational sectors rather than in the trade world he knows so well. But although the Internet will change book publishing profoundly and in ways even Jason Epstein can't predict, other forces are at work as well and shouldn't be ignored.
A couple of years ago a brilliant and rich entrepreneur who also happens to be a profoundly bookish man devised a model, not unlike Epstein's nostalgic vision, of devolved companies publishing real books that share a central financial source. It is called the Perseus Group. It is still in its early days, far too soon to know whether it will last. But Epstein's longing for a more civilized, human-scale publishing business is shared by many. The Internet may help bring it about, but it won't do everything.
Chaplinesque Rapscallion New Leader of Germany's National Socialist Party
"I have nothing to say about Hitler." With this line Karl Kraus, turn-of-the-century Vienna's most famous journalist, began his 300-page anti-Hitler invective, The Third Walpurgis Night. Kraus's fate has been shared widely. Hitler tickles and tortures the authorial imagination like no other twentieth-century figure. At first as a hero, for the most part, then as a villain, also for the most part, Hitler has been a fantastically popular subject among all kinds of writers since his postputsch courtroom antics transformed him into something much larger than a right-wing rabblerouser. Indeed, between 1923 and 1995, more than 120,000 essays and monographs on Hitler were published. Attenuation seems unlikely. For if it has changed at all, our fascination with Hitler appears to have grown even stronger in the past five years.
And so we should not be surprised by the fact that a lot of books about Hitler have been published recently. Yet there is a twist here; it has to do with quality rather than quantity. We expected more books about Hitler. What we did not expect is that the most prominent of them would be so good. This remark is less cynical than it sounds. Over the years able scholars have produced a very substantial body of excellent research on Hitler. Of course, it would be absurd to regard as unexpected everything that adds to it.
Furthermore, we had reason to hope for significant new contributions. Ideology does not play quite the same role in Hitler studies that it did fifteen years ago. Historians in East Germany tended to treat Hitler as an effect of capitalism, while historians in the West often viewed him in narrowly personal terms, as a deranged, gigantic individual crushing a fragile democratic experiment. But scholars in the West, and especially in West Germany, were not exactly of one opinion with regard both to Hitler's causes and his effects. In the mid-1980s, a new revisionist conservatism led to a new contentiousness. At issue was a series of incendiary questions--even the question of whether it was appropriate to ask them: Was Hitler a revolutionary? Which of his policies were rational? Ernst Nolte, who had been drifting steadily away from the trenchant analysis of Nazism he advanced in the early 1960s, went so far as to call Hitler's worldview an understandable reaction to a perceived Bolshevik threat. Just a few months ago, Nolte received one of Germany's most prestigious awards for cultural achievement, which simply confirms what we already knew: Hitler remains an intensely politicized field of inquiry. However, in general, the intellectual atmosphere in this area has improved. It is more open, as are archives in Moscow. And material discovered there--for example, Hitler's skull and a complete copy of Goebbels's diary--has helped to answer old questions.
But discovering new sources will only get you so far. It certainly will not explain a phenomenon as complex as Hitler. Nor will sheer intellectual openness. The great majority of the thousands of open-minded books about Hitler have little interpretive value. In fact, until recently there were only two truly formidable biographies of him: Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952, revised 1962) and Joachim Fest's Hitler: A Biography (1973). We now have a third major biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw's two-volume masterpiece Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000). It is the best of the three, by far.
Improvements in biographical research do not always imply a general shift in the significance of the subject. Yet that is likely to be the case here. For, again, the publication of Kershaw's biography was accompanied by a procession of incisive and well-researched books: The Hitler of History (1997), John Lukacs's useful survey of, and critical engagement with, historical scholarship on Hitler; Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (1999), Fritz Redlich's illuminating "psychography" of Hitler (this should not be confused with "psychohistory": Redlich, who is a psychiatrist, works carefully with relevant sources and examines Hitler's mental condition at every stage of his life, minutely charting the changes, and he does not seek to "solve" the enigma of Hitler's psychopathic behavior by focusing on childhood trauma or a particular psychic disturbance); Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), Ron Rosenbaum's extensive collection of interviews with scholars, intellectuals and artists who, in some form or other, have tried to "explain Hitler"; and Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999, German original 1996), Brigitte Hamann's scrupulously researched and intelligently argued account of Hitler's early years in Vienna (1906-13) and of their influence on his later development.
Every one of these books represents an attempt at sustained, comprehensive critical reckoning with Hitler. In the past, the most compelling works on him were often of a very different character. (Consider Eberhard Jäckel's and Sebastian Haffner's shorter, much more synthetic books on Hitler's Weltanschauung, which were published in 1969 and 1978.) But if there has been a structural change, what has caused it? Kershaw himself offers an insightful answer. "Reflecting" on Hitler's historical significance in the preface to Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, he writes: "Hitler's dictatorship has the quality of a paradigm for the twentieth century." Kershaw also claims that "Hitler's mark on the century" has been "deeper" than anyone's. The implication is clear. Taking leave of the twentieth century means trying to settle our accounts with Hitler, its paradigmatic problem, which, in turn, means engaging in sustained, comprehensive critical analysis. Certainly something close to this seems to be at stake in Rosenbaum's work, and in Hamann's. She suggestively tracks the full extent of Hitler's debt to "twentieth-century culture" by examining his encounter with one of its paradigms: fin de siècle Vienna. Kershaw has given us a twenty-first-century biography of Hitler that could have been written only at the end of the twentieth century.
Kershaw's biography is a true "social biography," to use a phrase the great film theorist Siegfried Kracauer coined, in exile, as he wrote about the culture that Hitler's Germany had begun to annihilate. Without a trace of moralism, and without losing himself in quotidian minutiae and psychological speculation, Kershaw nonetheless shadows Hitler the way a conscience might have. He examines Hitler's daily life, as well as his emotional and political development, in vivid detail. At the same time, he situates Hitler's personal narrative within its social context, charting their reciprocal influence and pointing out how Hitler's experiences and attitudes were emblematic of large social trends. And he does so with impressive erudition. The result is a kind of interpretive balance, which is very difficult to bring off in Hitler's case. With him, moving back and forth between the microlevel of personal narrative and the macrolevel of social context entails entering into not so much a hermeneutic circle as a dizzying spiral. For, at a certain point, Hitler's narrative begins to reshape--as few, if any, personal narratives have--the social context that shaped it, only, of course, to be shaped again itself by the context it reshaped.
Neither Bullock nor Fest came close to producing a real social biography, as both of their books focus on the personal narrative. They offer well-informed, penetrating answers to one crucial question: Why did Hitler commit the terrible crimes for which he will be remembered? But neither one makes a serious attempt to shed light on Hitler's path to the chancellorship or to understand how he remained in power for twelve years while executing policies of mass destruction and mass self-destruction. They do not tell us how Hitler became Hitler.
Kershaw's book works so well as social biography because his approach proceeds from a transitional concept: charisma. Elaborating on the argument he developed in The "Hitler Myth" (1987), Kershaw invokes charisma as a sociological category. Here charisma is a modern, postliberal structure of authority, one that became possible in Weimar Germany for a number of impersonal reasons. These include the "ignominy of Versailles," the concomitant collective longing for national redemption and the inability of the democratic government to appeal to a strong democratic tradition in Germany.
Charisma is also a psychological category. It can therefore function as a way to mediate between the levels of biographical analysis. And, indeed, Kershaw makes his overriding concern the fateful match between Hitler's personal charisma and Germany's impersonal readiness for charismatic rule. Summing it all up, Kershaw writes, "The Germany which had produced Adolf Hitler had seen its future in his vision, had so readily served him, and had shared in his hubris, had also to share in his nemesis." Germany followed the charismatic leader it "produced" because he envisioned, in just the right way, at just the right time, the Germany it wanted to see.
In Hubris, Kershaw explains how Hitler's idiosyncratic "vision" for a "better" future and Germany's receptiveness to it took shape. In Nemesis, he tracks the bloody business of implementation. We might expect the second volume of a two-volume Hitler biography to begin in 1933. But Kershaw divides Hitler's life into pre- and post-1936 stages, because 1936 marks "the culminating point of the first phase of the dictatorship." Kershaw wants Nemesis to begin with the beginning of the end, with the onset of the "ceaseless radicalization" that persisted until 1945. Both volumes are well written and come equipped with helpful maps and eerie photographs. And because Kershaw keeps his debates with other scholars, as well as his extensive remarks about primary sources, neatly contained in his footnotes, Hubris and Nemesis read smoothly, remarkably so, given their factual girth and cognitive intricacy. Some chapters are structured as accounts of Hitler's life stages, such as his "dropout" years in Vienna, while others are organized around seminal events, for example, Germany's strategic "miscalculation" during the 1939 Poland crisis. Kershaw puts personal narrative into the foreground when it seems to be of decisive importance. And he does the same with social context. Tellingly, all the chapter headings in Nemesis refer to large historical developments, starting, again, with the Nazis' "ceaseless radicalization."
In 1936, according to Kershaw, Hitler was at once more delusional than ever and cannily realistic. His early diplomatic and economic successes had fed his surging megalomania. Both Hitler and the nation that, at the time, overwhelmingly supported him believed that he could achieve whatever he wanted to. Yet Hitler also astutely recognized that his authority could not rest on a foundation of rationally organized domestic prosperity. It would last only as long as he was associated with a "project of national salvation." The pressure to expand, "to radicalize" unremittingly, came from outside as well as from inside his circle.
Kershaw's most original, most provocative claims have to do with the place of Nazi Party leaders in this constellation of causal forces. He insists that even as they used the most cynical images and slogans to manufacture Hitler's charisma, men like Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler and especially Joseph Goebbels remained fanatically in Hitler's thrall. As Kershaw puts it, they "combined pure belief and impure propaganda." Working closely with Goebbels's complete diary, which proves to be a key new source (Hitler's bond with Goebbels was the closest thing he had to a friendship), Kershaw draws out the full, chilling extent of this belief. He also shows that well into the war, and until the very end, defeat did nothing to shake it. For in taking huge risks and losing, Hitler remained true to the principles that had won him such loyal disciples.
Perhaps even more chilling is Kershaw's account of how these same party leaders influenced the Final Solution. Here again Goebbels's diary is crucially important. More lucidly than other sources, it reveals that Hitler had to be prodded into instituting not only the policy of mass deportations but even the compulsory-identification measure (the yellow Star of David) for Jews living in Germany. Party leaders had urged Hitler to take this latter step in the wake of Kristallnacht (November 1938). He resisted it until August 1941, when Goebbels finally "convinced" him to act. And in the summer of 1941, he repeatedly "rejected" Reinhard Heydrich's proposals to make the destruction of Eastern Jewry more systematic. Why? Certainly moral compunction cannot be the answer. According to Kershaw, Goebbels expressed a certain dismay at the inconsistency between Hitler's behavior and his stated principles on the "Jewish Question," yet he never suggested that Hitler had softened his attitude toward the Jews. During this time Hitler continued to cite his own prewar "prophecy," according to which the Jews would be destroyed if they started another world war, and to provide various justifications for large-scale murder. Kershaw speculates that Hitler may have been acting, or not acting, out of denial. For to devise a "Final Solution" before winning the war in the East was to acknowledge that the war could not be won anytime soon. As long as the fiction of imminent victory could be sustained, it made more "sense" to wait for the acquisition of vast new territories. After all, the Nazis were trying to figure out how to dispose of millions of people and had not yet begun to think seriously about gas and ovens.
The problem, for Kershaw, is that Hitler had given up this illusion by the fall of 1941, and yet he remained reluctant to authorize mass deportations and overtly genocidal policies. Hitler did not enumerate his reservations, at least not on records available to us. And so we are left wondering. What is clear is that the solicitations of Heydrich, Himmler and Goebbels had the desired effect--Hitler eventually did license extermination. Yet, as Kershaw stresses, he did so only in the most general terms. Pushing his claim, Kershaw goes so far as to contend, "Whatever the reasons, [Hitler] could never have delivered the sort of speech which, notoriously, Himmler would give in Posen two years later  when he described what it was like to see 1,000 corpses lying side by side and spoke openly of the 'extermination' (Ausrottung) of the Jewish people as a 'glorious page in our history....' Even in his inner circle Hitler could never bring himself to speak with outright frankness about the killing of the Jews." Hitler "could not bring himself" to discuss the Holocaust directly, apparently not even with Goebbels. This is an unsettling idea. Indeed, David Irving, the British historian and notorious Hitler apologist, rushes from Hitler's silence to the conclusion that he did not know about the death camps. What Kershaw does is very different. With unrivaled precision and without polemicism, he circumscribes Hitler's unwillingness to speak about the Holocaust, ultimately treating it as a question. Far from exculpating Hitler, Kershaw's move invites further inquiry. Nemesis does more than inform exhaustively and explain brilliantly: It points to what remains to be said about Hitler.
A quarter-million people thronged Abraham Lincoln's Memorial that day. In the sweltering August humidity, executive secretary Roy Wilkins gravely announced that Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois--NAACP founding father and "senior intellectual militant of his people"--had died in exile the day before.
It's easy to forget. What we now think of, monolithically, as the civil rights movement was at the time a splintering half-dozen special-interest groups in ill-coordinated pitched camps. Thurgood Marshall, never known for tact or political correctitude, called the Nation of Islam "a buncha thugs organized from prisons and financed, I'm sure, by some Arab Group." The NOI viewed the Urban League as a black front for a white agenda. A fringe figure gaining notoriety for his recent Playboy interview with an obscure journalist named Alex Haley, Malcolm X irreverently dismissed both "the farce on Washington" and the young minister just moments away from oratorical immortality, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as "Bishop Chickenwings."
If the legacy of Du Bois's long life was unclear then, what can it all mean now? What possessed him to renounce the widely coveted citizenship for which those gathered there that day--inspired in part by his example--were marching? What can a scholarly biography of the patron saint of African-American intellectuals--written by a tenured professor for a prestigious publishing house, impatiently awaited by specialists and educated generalists alike--what can all this mean to 101 million eligible nonvoters "entirely ignorant of my work and quite indifferent to it," as Du Bois said in his time, much less to 30 million African-Americans beyond the Talented Tenth and those few old-timers in Harlem who remember Du Bois as being, mostly, a remarkably crotchety old man?
With these mixed feelings of pleasure, gratitude, frustration and momentous occasion, I read the monumentally ambitious sequel, seven years in the making, itself a National Book Award finalist, to David Levering Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.
"I remember well," Du Bois wrote, famously, "when the shadow swept across me." He was born "a tangle of New England lineages"--Dutch, Bantu, French Huguenot--within living memory of the Fourteenth Amendment and The Communist Manifesto, one generation removed from slavery. And though he laid claim to both his African and European heritage, still it was a peculiar sensation. "One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Yet Du Bois knew full well that had he not felt, very early on, this double-consciousness, he might easily have become just another "unquestioning worshiper at the shrine of the established social order."
Willie D. charted his course as early as his teens, inaugurating his writing and public-speaking careers with articles in the Springfield Republican and a high school valedictory address on abolitionist Wendell Phillips. He arrived at the Harvard of Santayana and William James, who thought him easily among the most gifted of his students, already notorious for the "arrogant rectitude" others would resent all his life. He graduated cum laude, honing his prose with a rigorously liberal education in Latin, Greek, modern languages, literature, history and philosophy. But for a graduate student in sociology during the 1890s, Max Weber's Berlin, not Cambridge, was the place to be. And it was there, chain-smoking fluent German, celebrating both his 25th birthday and "his own genius," that W.E.B. Du Bois spelled out his life's ambition: "to make a name in science, to make a name in literature, to raise my race." Only because his scholarship ran out did Du Bois return to America for the consolation prize: Harvard's first African-American PhD.
Atlanta, after Europe and the North, came as a shock. Not that the recent lynching was in itself any great surprise. Du Bois simply wasn't prepared, passing by the local grocer, to see the souvenirs of severed fingers on display out front. Headquartered at Atlanta University, for the next twelve years he taught history and economics. By the time Frederick Douglass died in 1895, the Tuskegee model of black higher education was dominant, and Booker T. Washington its leading lobbyist. That same year Washington, whose power had been growing since 1885, had delivered his famous Atlanta Exposition speech: "In all things purely social," he said, holding up both hands, digits spread wide, "we can be as separate as the [five] fingers"--he paused dramatically, clenching each hand into a fist--"yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Convinced that Washington's appeasement had paved the way for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Du Bois and other black intellectuals felt sold down the river. Du Bois's scathing review of Washington's Up From Slavery (1901), declaring war on merely vocational training of a "contented and industrious peasantry," was collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois and Washington came, notoriously, to ideological blows. It was the beginning of the end for Booker T. Washington.
Yet there was no personal animus between them. Shrewdly, Washington tried to hire Du Bois away to Tuskegee, even taking him along on one of his fundraising junkets. But once at Andrew Carnegie's office, Washington--who knew where his bread was buttered and that Du Bois could be counted on not to keep his mouth shut--left him waiting downstairs. "Have you," Washington asked, "read Mr. Carnegie's book?" W.E.B. allowed he had not. "You ought to," said Booker T. "Mr. Carnegie likes it."
Around 1909, certain Niagara Movement radicals and Jewish abolitionist holdovers formed a coalition that became the NAACP. Du Bois moved to New York, where, as editor of The Crisis for the next twenty-five years, his word was gospel.
Meanwhile, Marcus Garvey addressed a Harlem crowd of 2,000 in 1917, preaching black economic independence and resettlement. He even offered, to the resurgent Klan's delight, to transport them back to Africa. Now, the masses might be fooled by the plumed and gold-braided pretensions and Napoleonic pageantry of
the Emperor Marcus Mosiah Garvey--self-proclaimed High Potentate and Provisional President-General of all Africa, Commander in Chief of the Black Star Line, an entire fleet of three dubiously seaworthy vessels--with his back-to-the-motherland schemes, his dukes and duchesses of Uganda and Niger, his knight commanders of the Distinguished Order of Ethiopia and the Nile. But Du Bois, who had just returned from Firestone's Liberia as diplomatic envoy, knew better. (Besides, everybody who was anybody knew that what Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association really stood for was "Ugliest Negroes in America.") As far as Du Bois was concerned, Garvey was either a lunatic or a traitor. Whereas, it seemed to Garvey--who saw Du Bois's NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People--that the lunacy was for blacks to expect equality in America. In the end, his daring, energy and charisma were surpassed only by his ignorance of finance. Du Bois sounded the rallying cry: "Garvey Must Go." The FBI agreed. And if deportation on the grounds of being an undesirable alien wouldn't hold up in court, mail fraud would do nicely. Arrested in 1922, tried and convicted in 1923, Garvey took up residence at Atlanta Federal two years before Malcolm X was born.
Remember, back before they were Jim Crowed into academic ghettos, when history was literature and vice versa? When nonspecialists read Macaulay, Michelet? Poet, short-story writer, essayist and novelist as well as historian, Du Bois was by no means master of all the genres he assayed. But he electrified African-American literature as writer during the twentieth century's first decade. Then, as editor, he paved the way for younger writers during subsequent decades. Biography, however, is a late development in the tradition. What advances have eminent African-Americans like David Levering Lewis made in that "most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing"? And do his tomes amount to a "masterpiece of the biographer's craft"?
With their cast of legendary characters, colorful set locations, gripping storylines and virtuoso draftsmanship, they certainly aspire to it. For analytical rigor, judicious gossip and subtle insight into the social, political and economic "roots and ramifications" of "racial, religious, and ethnic confrontation, and assimilation in America" between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Lewis is fully equal to the task of his formidable subject. And his lucid, downright old-fashioned good writing, so full of fine flourishes and phrases, is mostly innocent of academic jargon. So much so that for years--visiting the same archives, examining the same documents and cross-examining the same witnesses while working my way carefully through these volumes, underlining passages in mechanical pencil, leaving yellow flags on every other page--I kept trying to figure out my misgivings.
And then it hit me. The problem here is not one of length--Boswell's massive Life of Samuel Johnson still startles, 200 years later--but scale, of Turgenev's "right relation" among a dozen or so vivifying narrative elements beyond character and what used to be called "plot." All of these together in a constant juggle of transitions--abstract to concrete, poetic to prosaic, description to dialogue, sentence length and rhythm--can create compelling momentum. Any one of these, overrelied upon in a fact-filled narrative of 1,500 pages, can be lethal. "With the 20th century," said Virginia Woolf,
a change came over biography, as it came over fiction and poetry.... the author's relation to his subject is different. He is no longer the serious and sympathetic companion, toiling slavishly in the footsteps of his hero.... Moreover, he does not think himself constrained to follow every step of the way.... he sees his subject spread about him. He chooses; he synthesizes; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist.
Cautious of overstepping the bounds of the historically permissible, the distinguished professor has crafted a straightforward chronicle. Far too often, characters are molded not organically from suggestive situation but by accretion of meticulous archival detail--endless lists of academic pedigree heaped, all at once, in static inventories of naturalistic description--then left to atrophy in the reader's mind. A compelling narrative begins where the dossier leaves off. And a good biographer is a historian, but a good historian isn't necessarily a biographer. The progression from one to the other is no more formally inevitable than that from short-story writer to novelist. But don't get me wrong. The aesthetic quibble is really by way of illustrating how close this life might have come to greatness, to the artistry of all that Lytton Strachey left out in tending toward that "becoming brevity...which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," and which, "surely, is the first duty of the biographer."
Du Bois's influence on African-American literature, as both writer and editor, is hard to exaggerate. Between Phyllis Wheatley, the publication of Souls, the silence of Charles Chestnutt and the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar from drunken disillusionment in 1906, dozens of poets, authors and pamphleteers emerged, boycotting the happy-blacky-nappy, banjo-strumming, watermelon-eating, darky dialect of previous eras. Of this work, says James Weldon Johnson in the classic history Black Manhattan, "Some was good, most was mediocre, much was bad, and practically all of it unknown to the general public." As late as 1914, with the exception of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, there wasn't much in the way of African-American literature, and Du Bois thought things looked bleak. By 1920, New York was America's greatest city, and Harlem--a two-square-mile city within the city where a quarter-million African-Americans boasted more poets, journalists, musicians, composers, actors, dramatists and nightclubs than any other spot on earth--became the world-famous capital of black America. It seemed to Du Bois that a renaissance of American Negro literature was now due.
His lover/literary editor Jessie Fauset, to put the arts on equal footing with social policy, urged an editorial shift in the pages of The Crisis. In short order, she published Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921 and prose poetry by Jean Toomer, later collected in Cane (1923). For the first time in history--just when Du Bois feared he'd have no worthy successors--a literature of African-Americans, by African-Americans and for African-Americans and anyone else who cared to listen was not only a possibility but a reality. The Harlem Renaissance was under way.
One prodigy Du Bois particularly delighted in was pinky-ringed young poet Countee Cullen. Companionable, uncombative, anxious for the kind of credibility a tidy résumé and Harvard degree could confer, Cullen idolized Du Bois to a degree perhaps predictable in a cautious orphan risen from impoverished obscurity to international fame by the age of 22 yet lacking, in the final analysis, the kind of intellectual and artistic daring that could sustain it. Du Bois, for his part, perhaps projected onto Cullen some of the paternal pride and ambition long buried with the infant son he'd loved and lost. And so he married off his only daughter. Langston Hughes rented a tuxedo, an organist played Tannhäuser and sixteen bridesmaids wore white. The only problem--aside from the fact that Countee Cullen was gay--was that the girl admired but didn't love him. It was a match made in Hell, a dramatic example of how "spectacularly wrongheaded" Du Bois could be.
For a decade or more, the Harlem Renaissance promised 10 million African-Americans "taken for granted by one political party and despised by the other, poor and overwhelmingly rural, frightened and disunited," the illusion of an era of freedom, justice and equality undreamed of since Reconstruction. To his immense credit, Du Bois was not lulled into submission, mistrusting the impulse toward "salon exotica" and a smattering of prizes for prodigies. Then as now, the means of production--the Hollywood studios, the recording studios, the theaters--were for the most part white-owned. As early as 1926, he warned about "the politics of patronage," challenging that African-Americans would get the art that they deserved--or were willing to pay for: "If a colored man wants to publish a book, he has to get a white publisher and a white newspaper to say it's great; and then [black people] say so." (Ain't a damn thang changed.) By 1934 it had become embarrassingly clear that civil rights would not follow logically from "forceful prose" and a demonstration of artistic excellence on the part of a few Ivy League Negroes. The movement was dead, "scuttled," as chief publicist Alain Locke put it, as much from within as from without, by faddish market swings and stock speculations of Zora Neale Hurston Niggerati, on the one hand, and the liberal Negrotarians on the other.
For Du Bois, as for most African-Americans, the Depression hit harder and faster and lasted longer than for the country at large. The royal wedding had wiped out his savings, and his Crisis salary hadn't been paid for months. He was broke.
Du Bois became increasingly radicalized during the 1930s and '40s. As he saw it, the NAACP, by focusing almost exclusively on legal strategy, was beginning to work "for the black masses but not with them." In 1934, out of sync with the mainstream leadership, he left in disgust. He returned to Atlanta University, reading Das Kapital and writing Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Du Bois, who first visited the Soviet Union in 1926, returned in 1936. Home from History's frontlines a self-professed "Bolshevik," even though, as a Socialist, he combined "cultural nationalism, Scandinavian cooperativism, Booker Washington and Marx in about equal parts," Du Bois remained unconvinced that the Communist Party, which never attracted more than a few hundred black members, was their last best hope. In any case, African-Americans did not "propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution."
During the McCarthy era, the black leadership, bending in the prevailing ideological winds, began to distance itself from the left. Back in New York, involved in nuclear disarmament activity declared subversive by the US government, Du Bois was arrested and tried as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. He was acquitted in 1951, but the State Department confiscated his passport, prohibiting travel abroad. It was the last straw.
The prophet was without honor only in his own country. So when the government embargo was lifted in 1958, Du Bois went on lecture tours of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, becoming a kind of poster boy in the Communist effort to discredit the States. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959, and in Red China, his birthday was declared a national holiday by Chou En-lai. Did the party use Du Bois? Or did Du Bois use the party to further his own agenda? Both, most likely.
In 1960, seventeen African states, including Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, gained independence. At Nkrumah's invitation, Du Bois exiled himself, renouncing his American citizenship. He officially joined the Communist Party in 1961. Shrunken now and a bit stooped, his memory not quite as sharp as it once was, the scholar-citizen spent his last days in a spacious house with a view of flowering shrubs in Accra's best neighborhood, an honored guest of state, surrounded by busts of Lenin and Chairman Mao and an impressive library of Marxist thought, editing the Negro encyclopedia and receiving visitors the world over. At last, on August 27, 1963, the visionary whose long life--spanning Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, two World Wars, Brown v. Board of Education and now the civil rights movement--had been the literal embodiment of the nineteenth century's collision with the twentieth, died in Accra, where he was accorded an elaborate state funeral.
The bioepic ends, as it began 1,500 pages ago in Volume I, with the death of W.E.B. Du Bois. A living institution, he was "productive, multiple, controversial, and emblematic." His influence--as cultural ambassador, as writer and editor, as activist whose spectrum of social, political and economic thought seems refracted in phenomena as varied as Ho Chi Minh, the Negritude of poet-statesmen Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor as well as the Black Power movement that peaked after his death--is ubiquitous.
A difficult man as capable of coldness to old friends as he was reluctant to admit mistakes, a prickly Brahmin who walked with kings but failed to acquire the common touch, Dr. Du Bois emerges a kind of tragic hero as flawed as he was gifted. At times you wonder whether he wasn't his own most formidable enemy. But whatever his blind spots, he was only too well aware, looking backward, that battling racism real and imagined at every turn had twisted him into a far less "human" being than he might otherwise have been.
Fifteen years and two computer crashes in the research and writing, these volumes were a lifetime, literally, in the making. As a boy born in Little Rock two decades before the civil rights movement began, Lewis had a portentous encounter with the great man. Fisk man and author of books on South Africa and the Dreyfus Affair, he's now a professor of history at Rutgers. And just as Renaissance scholarship would be incomplete without When Harlem Was in Vogue, the twenty books and 100 articles of W.E.B. Du Bois's eighty-year publishing career, so handsomely anthologized in Nathan Irvin Huggins's Library of America Writings, are indispensably complemented by what is, if not a masterpiece of biography, then almost certainly the standard social, political and intellectual history of his life and times.
The twentieth century produced few American heroes like Joe DiMaggio. He was arguably the best all-around ballplayer who'd ever taken the field, a unique combination of power, speed and grace, a lifetime .325 hitter with a classic swing and an unworldly calm whose fielding was as nearly flawless as it seemed effortless. He was not a fidgeter, adjusting batting gloves a hundred times (there were no batting gloves). Once he squared his bat, said his friend Tony Gomez, "the guy was a statue." There was no wasted motion on the field--he flowed to the ball--and no hotdogging: The fielders' mitts were too small for snap-catches. Those of us who saw him play when we were teenagers would caricature the batting styles of other players, but we all wanted to look and move like DiMaggio. He was also the possessor, as any fan knows, of what is the most extraordinary feat in baseball, and perhaps in any sport, a fifty-six-game hitting streak that defies all statistical logic and that most people believe will never be matched again. That in itself is the material of myth.
But there was something else as well. When he first appeared in a New York Yankees uniform in 1936, he seemed to come from nowhere at the very moment when both the Yankees and a depressed nation--and the rising second generation of Italian-Americans--seemed to need him most. Paul Simon's line "where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio," could have been written as anticipatory longing thirty years before it became ironic sentimentality.
Unlike the boisterous beer-swilling Babe Ruth, who'd retired the year before, DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant Sicilian fisherman from San Francisco, became the essence of that elusive thing called class. He rarely spoke; he dressed superbly--another thing he would become known for--and he seemed to conduct himself, both on and off the field, with a royal calm, even an icy distance, that only enhanced the allure. The Yankees, in those days when baseball was the national pastime, had won the World Series just once since their Murderers' Row rampage of the 1920s. In the four years after he arrived, they would win four times. In his thirteen war-interrupted seasons--the last was 1951--they would win the pennant ten times. He played not only to win--to drive his team to win, often playing through his own pain, the bone spurs in his heels, the aching knees, the trick shoulder--but to play flawlessly. He was the epitome of Yankees royalty.
And somehow, after those thirteen seasons, when the myth might have faded into an endless haze of celebrity golf tournaments and testimonial dinners, it seemed only to thrive--through the 286-day klieg-light royal marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the ensuing divorce and the love that seemed to survive both, through the Mr. Coffee and Bowery Bank commercials and through tawdry rounds of high-priced baseball-card shows and memorabilia signings--little seemed to tarnish the mythic glow. If anything, the forty-eight years after DiMaggio's retirement--he died in 1999--seemed only to burnish it. Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, people wanted to touch him, do him favors, run his errands, drive him places, give him things. Cops gave him access to places denied anyone else. He rarely paid for his own meals, his own cars or even his own hotel rooms. There would always be guys eager to be his delivery boys, to bring him women--mostly the blond showgirls he preferred--even some who moved out of their homes to be with him, to take care of him. Anything for the Dago. The namewas used with so much affection that it became an honorific.
But of course there was more--lots of it--and Richard Ben Cramer is there to mine every ugly moment: the money, ultimately more than a million, that came under the table in hundreds and two hundreds from mobsters (who adored him even more than did other American males, and who found him a useful draw to Toots Shor's, El Morocco or the other clubs and restaurants they controlled in New York); DiMaggio's compulsive whoring, combined with his possessiveness--unto physical abuse--of his two wives; the estrangement from his own brothers, who were also big-league ballplayers; frosty rejection of his son (except when publicity photos were required), who would die of a drug overdose; the envy directed at other great players; the grudging World War II military career that he spent in safe, warm places playing baseball for the prestige of the brass under whom he served; the obsessive money-grubbing--$150, or $175, for each signed baseball, each signed bat, each photograph, thousands upon thousands of them, deals upon deals.
Cramer contends that DiMaggio not only wanted the money--he was pathological in the thought that others would profit: "Who else would make money off the deal? How much? Why should those guys make a buck off my life?" The fear went back to the beginning of his career, to the days before free agency when ballplayers were chattel: Club owners like Ruppert beer baron Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and his general manager Ed Barrow owned not just the players but many of the writers and columnists as well. You could try to hold out, but in the end, it was the owners who set the terms; you either played for the team that owned you or you didn't play at all. Worse, as DiMaggio discovered early in his career, even the attempt was likely to expose you to a torrent of press and fan abuse as an ingrate. The same newspaper hacks who could manufacture heroes could just as easily be turned to embarrassing them or tearing them down. DiMaggio, the idol who was making the owners additional millions in attendance, was lucky to get his $25,000, or his $40,000. In the Depression years, those seemed like princely sums. In a way, you could understand the paranoia about other people making money off you. Lots of them tried.
In the course of telling the story, Cramer seems to have turned over every rock in DiMaggio's life, but in the end even he seems uncertain how to frame his flawed hero's life, caught up, on the one hand, in the man's greatness and lavishing us, on the other, with his rage, his distrust, his shabbiness.
DiMaggio excelled and continued to excel, against the mounting "natural" odds. He exceeded, withal, the cruelest expectations: He was expected to be the best--and he was. He was expected to be the exemplar of dignity, class, grace--expected to look the best.... And he looked perfect.
DiMaggio did for us--for the sake of our good opinion--through every decade, every day. He was, at every turn, one man we could look to who made us feel good. For it was always about how we felt...with Joe. No wonder we strove for sixty years to give him the hero's life. It was always about us. Alas, it was his destiny to know that, as well.
Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about? But as with a lot of other latter-day muckraking of heroes "who did for us"--Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy--the ground rules have changed. Even the un-kept, independent sports writers of the 1930s and 1940s would never have written the other DiMaggio story, would have respected the man's privacy, as the White House press respected Kennedy's. (Through Marilyn Monroe, of course, the two stories were linked: DiMaggio thought maybe the "fucking Kennedys" had killed her.) If we were charmingly naïve then, a nation of hicks who liked simple morality tales, our confessional age now demands full disclosure--we expose our potential heroes before they even have a chance to show their stuff. Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and wrote a fine book about the 1988 presidential campaign, gets himself caught in between--still in love with the performance, the style, the heroism, but probing the private, inner man until little is left. Heroes on pedestals are all fair game. But Cramer gives us little help in squaring the two DiMaggios. How do we hold the one without forgetting the other? In the end, it's even hard to square what Cramer tells us about DiMaggio's admiration for--and friendship with--people like Woody Allen with the shallow DiMaggio he mostly gives us.
What makes that even more exasperating is that Cramer gets into his characters' heads, reports events and quotes conversations with no attribution. The book's acknowledgments include a huge list of people, from old ballplayers to Henry Kissinger, himself a DiMaggio idolater from the 1930s who would later sit with the Clipper at Yankee Stadium and get enlightenment about the subtleties of big-league pitching and hitting. But there are no footnotes, no lists of sources. In the hours after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Cramer reports, DiMaggio rushed to his sister's house in the Marina--the house, which he had given to his family many years earlier, was undamaged--and emerged with "his big right hand around the neck of a garbage bag...which held six hundred thousand dollars, cash." How does he know that--not the part about the bag, but about the contents? And where did the cash come from? (It seems to have belonged to some long-gone mobster who was making certain that he could make a fast exit if necessary, but we are not sure.) There's also the touching story about Marilyn Monroe's tour entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954, three years after DiMaggio--who wanted his wives to be homebodies and never approved of their careers--had retired. "Joe," she said on her return, "you never heard such cheering." "Yes, I have," he said. Where did that come from? And when "he was off to himself, on his cot, thinking about (his first wife) Dorothy," where did that come from?
To compound the exasperation, Cramer likes to affect a wise-guy writing style that's often more annoying than evocative. The ambient sporting life of 1930s New York is itself a nice story, full of Guys and Dolls characters--prizefighters, jockeys, ballplayers; Broadway showgirls; politicians like La Guardia, columnists like Walter Winchell and Sidney Skolsky; small-time hoods like Jimmy "Peanuts" Ceres, who drove DiMaggio around, and some big-time ones as well, Ruggiero "Richie the Boot" Boiardo, Joe Adonis, Abner "Longy" Zwillman, "who put the 'organized' in organized crime"; Toots Shor himself, who loved the Dago and would later be spurned by him, as would so many other onetime friends. But the Runyonesque rhetoric gets in the way: sentences like "See, Joe had to have a private life," or "See, Gomez was gone," or "In the sixth, Joe got ahold of a pitch...", or "Winchell, Len Lyons, that nosy Kilgallen broad; even the battle-ax, Louella Parsons, used to write up Joe like an old friend" or (even more bizarre) "Joe was digging for second base, when Gionfriddo, in an act of God...and--Cazzo! Figlio di putana!--stole the home run away from DiMaggio." Now who said (or thought) that?
It's hard to deny Cramer's portrait of DiMaggio as an empty and increasingly lonely and embittered man, whose lifelong act as an aging public monument could only have added to the bitterness. "From the start," Cramer writes early in the book, "he had to have it both ways: he wanted to be well known at what he was known for--and for the rest, he wouldn't be known at all." We once allowed our heroes that privilege--but as Cramer's book demonstrates, we permit it less and less, either to the living or the dead. If DiMaggio had cooperated, he would probably have received more consideration, but DiMaggio being who he was, no such cooperation could have been expected. In the end, our sympathy is restored only by the venality of his lawyer Morris Engelberg, who continues to mine DiMaggio's memorabilia and exploit his name even more ruthlessly than DiMaggio did. In the penultimate moment in Cramer's book, a few minutes after DiMaggio's death, there is Engelberg, in DiMaggio's room, ordering the nurse to force DiMaggio's 1936 World Series ring, the only genuine one he had left, from the dead hero's finger. When the nurse succeeded, "Morris yanked [it] out of his hands, and left the room in a hurry." He would claim that DiMaggio "gave him that ring, on his deathbed--before Joe died in his arms."
Thirty years ago, I went to the San Francisco Giants Arizona spring-training camp to do a magazine piece on Willie Mays, another of our imperfect diamond heroes. How much, Mays asked, was he going to get paid for cooperating? At that point, I decided I would simply hang around for a week or two and watch and listen. There was little he could tell me, I decided, that would strengthen the piece. (In the days following, I learned more than I ever expected--about Mays, about the changing culture of baseball and about the game itself.) Sometimes, maybe, the work of athletes, like that of dancers or, for that matter, composers or actors or novelists, deserves to be well known, as DiMaggio seemed to wish, without the unceasing pursuit and exposure of all the rest. In some cases, say in Mozart's or Wagner's or J.D. Salinger's, or maybe even in Bill Clinton's, if you can't separate the neuroses or the anti-Semitism or just the ordinariness of a man from the public performance--you may never know greatness at all. But it gets harder every day.
In the Acknowledgments section of his biography of Saul Bellow, James Atlas quotes a somewhat greater biographer, Samuel Johnson: "We know how few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind, and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original."
Johnson knew few of those whose lives he described and none nearly as well as Boswell knew him. (Would he have been as pessimistic about the unreliability of history and biography if he'd read Boswell's book? Probably more so. The truer the portrait, the more repellent to such a subject.)
I'm not as pessimistic about discovery as Johnson was. So, for instance, well as I knew Bellow before reading Atlas's biography, I think I know him better now.
I mean that I know more about the places he lived, what his parents were like, what others thought of him, what he said about many things, including me. (To my surprise, I learned that I was once mentioned in his will and that, perhaps after one of our arguments, I was removed from it.) It doesn't mean that my view of Bellow now is Atlas's. By no means.
Atlas also knows Bellow and was helped by him in the course of writing his book.1 He writes that he immersed himself in Bellow's records and acquaintances far more than he'd done in work for his prizewinning biography of Delmore Schwartz (whom he'd never met). Atlas wonders, though, if familiarity and labor have produced a better book. I think this is a better book, largely because Bellow is a more brilliant and interesting man than Schwartz was. (Indeed, his version of Schwartz in Humboldt's Gift is more interesting, amusing and touching than the one in the Atlas biography, which was--we learn in the new book--inspired by it.)
Better, truer; more interesting, more touching.
The first two distinctions don't matter in works of fiction. So the uproar over Bellow's Ravelstein and the real Allan Bloom doesn't bear on its power as a novel or, on the other hand, on the pain it gave and gives some who saw themselves "portrayed" and/or "betrayed" in it. They do matter, however, for biography. Would Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson be as good a book if it were a work of fiction--if, say, the Johnson in it hadn't lived or been a totally different man? It would not be. The understanding a biographer establishes with his readers includes the sense that he is telling as much of the truth as he's been able to gather about actual people and events. If that understanding is compromised, it constitutes an aesthetic betrayal different from--and, in my view, worse than--the "betrayal" of a fiction writer's acquaintance in his fiction.
I'm one of the many Bellow friends Atlas interviewed and whom he cites in Bellow: A Biography. Much I know and feel about Bellow is not in the book because I didn't tell Atlas about it. Some of it would have somewhat altered his portrait of Bellow; none of it would have altered it significantly.2
Most of the book's citations from me are from letters Bellow wrote me or I him.3 Such citations constitute the sort of record biographers and other historians have drawn on for the two or three hundred years in which history has been assessed as a function of it. If I'd given Atlas access to my diaries, he would have found another source of Bellow matter that would have expanded--if not deepened, let alone altered--his view of his subject. The subject of every biography has had millions of thoughts and experiences that have never--thank God--been recorded. It means that the gulf Johnson wrote about is an uncrossable one.
The difference between modern history/biography and, say, what constituted their equivalent in Thucidydean Athens or seventeenth-century Europe is enormous. Scholars don't believe that Pericles delivered the magnificent oration that Thucydides attributed to--that is, wrote for--him, though he probably delivered a speech that resembled it. Our problem with a presidential speech today is not the actuality of the words pouring from the presidential mouth but who wrote and even who conceived them. We're content that our conception of Periclean Athens is to no small degree that of Thucydides' interpretation of it, but the historical standard is different for modern events and people, those who leave their tracks in letters and diaries, interviews and film.
Atlas uses such archival materials and such biographical techniques as interviews, and he is far more aware of the hazards as well as the advantages of such usage than, say, Vasari was in his verbal portraits of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, some of whom he knew. An experienced journalist, Atlas has a nose for bias and such vested interest as the desire of ordinary people to be part of the record of extraordinary ones. (This is probably a trait of most biographers.) He also raises the question of how his long biographical labor affected his book. Did he, like his mythical namesake, get so weary of "holding up" the "bewilderingly complex" Bellow world that the exasperated weariness created a portrait as far from actuality as Thucydides' Pericles was from the "actual" Pericles?
I've known Bellow for almost forty-five years. For many of those years, we've been close friends and have said things to each other we may not have said to other people. We have also quarreled, disagreed and not seen each other for months and even years at a time. Our politics have been different, and the difference counted--perhaps more for him than for me. Nonetheless, we are close enough so that a few days before I write these words, we could tell each other on the phone--the first time we'd spoken since my wife and I stayed with him and his wife in their Vermont house two years ago--that we loved each other. We are old men now, and I believe that we both thought it possible that we wouldn't see each other again. In that conversation, I told Bellow that I'd read much of Atlas's book and that he shouldn't be concerned about it. I said that Atlas had built a crate large and secure enough to deliver the marvelous sculpture within.
A few hours later, I finished the last 100 or 150 pages of the book. In them, I detected the kind of weariness Atlas himself mentions, but I saw it as a weariness complicated by judgmental anger. Atlas had interviewed many people who'd been hurt--or said they'd been hurt--by Bellow. Partly as an attempt to maintain his independence of and objectivity about Bellow, partly from exasperated weariness, partly from his sense that he'd surrendered--his verb--his life to another man, a man whom he'd been seeing in part through the angry eyes of others, Atlas became harsher and harsher in his assessments. So I wrote Bellow telling him that although what counted--the portrait of a remarkable person becoming over decades ever more remarkable--was intact, I believe that it was deformed by Atlas's querulous anger, if not by sanctimonious contempt, and that he and Janis (Bellow's wife) would do well not to read it. "Hector and Andromache," I wrote, "Don't need to know Thersites' version of their lives."
This was perhaps as unfair to Atlas as I thought he was, at times, to Bellow, but then Atlas writes that I am Bellow's "old and loyal friend," the "Boswellian explainer of the great man to the general public," so any unfairness to him has been--clairvoyantly?--subverted.
Very well. As friend of subject and author,4 I am disqualified from reviewing this--I'll risk two adjectives--fascinating and sometimes brilliant book. I will instead talk about Johnson's concern, the gulf between actuality and its representation in biography, conversation and history.
I've read a number of books and hundreds of articles about people I've known. There are few, though, from which I've not learned often surprising, even shocking, facts, none in which I haven't felt at least some distance between what was written and what I knew. At times, as in the case of Bellow, my complex admiration for the central portrait has complicated and deepened my admiration for the friend portrayed. Reading remarks Bellow made or wrote years before I met him made me realize even more how remarkable a person he was and is.
Twenty-odd years ago, the day after I finished reading the manuscript of Humboldt's Gift, I had lunch with its author and said to him that it was difficult for me to think that the man across the table was the same man who'd written that profound, delightful and beautiful book. The man eating a sandwich and drinking tea talked with me about ordinary as well as extraordinary things, but nothing out of his mouth came close to the depth and beauty of what was on its best pages, and I said something like, "Yet there's less distance between you and your work than between any writer I've known and his."5
Atlas's biography has narrowed that distance for me. For all the schmutz that accumulates about and spatters the central portrait, it emerges as that of a very great man becoming great in the course of a long life of activity, acquaintance, introspection and expression. There is more original power in the intelligence recorded here than in 95 percent of biographies. Atlas does not have the mimetic power of Boswell or of a writer he rightly praises here, Mark Harris, author of a delightful Bellow book called Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck;6 he does not have the stylistic or analytic gifts of Samuel Johnson or Richard Ellmann, but what he does have is access to hundreds of brilliant Bellow observations and analyses outside of Bellow's books. Atlas's Bellow is like a match, Atlas's contribution being the assemblage and, perhaps, the wooden stem, Bellow's the sulfur that, rubbed, ignites and fires the wood.
The day the galleys of this book arrived in the mail, I saw my sister-in-law, who, days earlier, on a trip with her husband to Israel, had swum in the Dead Sea. She said there were all sorts of perils there, the crystalline spears one dodges to get to the viscous water, which deposits a salty scum on one's skin, and the water's semi-impenetrability, so that if one somehow managed to dive into it, ascending would be dangerously difficult. I felt an analogy to the perils of biography. The subject is himself almost impenetrable, guarded by fearful suspicion and his own complexity; even after getting access to him, the progress is difficult, and biographer-readers are left with the scum of his resistance to their penetration.
I've thought and talked about Bellow--and now this biography--with a few friends who also know him. Each sees Bellow in a somewhat different way; all condemn Atlas's version more than I. (I credit Atlas for collecting and organizing the materials that enable us to know more about Bellow; they blast him for his inability and/or unwillingness to understand him.) One friend, a first-rate novelist, thinks Atlas not only misunderstands Bellow's radical independence but resents it. So he sees a politically correct Atlas piling up criticism along familiar--to Bellow critics--misogynist, conservative and racial lines. He thinks that Atlas is shocked by Bellow's anarchic "cocksmanship," and when I suggested that Bellow had a grand streak of bad boy, if not outlaw, in him, he found a different way to express his own view: "He's a transgressive monkey. And a great con man."7 He makes Bellow into a version of a favorite character of his own fiction, a brilliantly anarchic, half-crazed sexual adventurer.
A former woman friend of Bellow's talked of his powers of devotion and charm. She detests Atlas's portrait, especially the account--to which she feels one of her letters has contributed--of his lovemaking.8 "He made me feel wonderful. I still love him." (She hasn't seen him in ten years.)
I myself have written about Bellow as a man simpler in many ways than other people, one who very early in his life discovered his own powers and let them set his course. More important than what happened to him--and I'm persuaded by Atlas that such things as the death of his mother help explain much later behavior--were these exceptional powers, an extraordinary memory, an extraordinarily acute and cultivated sensorium (visual, musical, olfactory, tactile) and--let's call it--emotional power (unusual ability to empathize, sympathize, love, hate and also, be detached). Like most of us, Bellow is many things, but unlike most of us, he's more of a piece and has been that way a very long time. The piece is stamped "writer," indeed "great writer," and the pressure of that stamp isn't like most other professional pressures; but this is something that is talked about ad nauseam meam, and I'll not add to the nauseating complex here.
What I've mostly wanted to hint at is the difficulty of writing, reading and being the subject of other people's descriptions of oneself, and to spell out what Johnson said was the distance between the real, the remembered and the written version of reality, the deformation of the "was" in the "is."
Yet such versions are what we have of the past, the history and biography with which we're left. One work of history can challenge or even refute another, or it can add, refine or subtilize it. Even memories rub against one another. Yet I do not subscribe to the notion (of, say, Peter Novick's splendid book That Noble Dream) that tries to dispose of the actuality of objectivity. I don't think we should abandon the recording of actuality as an ideal or ever think that there's no crucial difference between what we believe is actual and what we know we've made up or lied about. Nonetheless, what we get when we describe something or someone is, at its driest and purest, metamorphosis.
The greatest--at least the most delightful--investigator of such metamorphoses, Marcel Proust, claimed that only in what he called "involuntary memory" does the past ever re-emerge with its original--and even more than its original--power. (Beckett's comment about this was that Proust showed that the only real paradise was a lost one.) That sensuous, unsummoned memory is clarified as reflections in a clear pool are, free of the dust particles and blinding light that make what's reflected almost impossible to see.
Atlas's Bellow is a work built around voluntary, elicited and recorded memory. It is a version of actuality that may be read, sometimes with shivers of remembrance, by its subject and his acquaintances. It has a truth of its own, somewhere between the original actualities, the complex feelings and memories of those who supplied the author with data, and the author's own gifts and feelings. The portrait of the great man who is its subject will be difficult to dislodge. Luckily, the man has left a far more powerful self-portrait, that of the mentality behind his beautiful books.
1. Although Bellow recently told me that he "opened himself" to Atlas, who, lately, seemed to have turned away from him. I said that Atlas probably didn't want his work to be compromised by affection. After I wrote him not to read the book, he answered that he wouldn't, that there was "a parallel" between it "and the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar." This image of biography as the soak of spilled drinks is the sort of thing Bellow has invented for most of his 85 years.
2. One description of me there is so peculiar--"the Oblomov-like Stern"--that I actually wrote Atlas to ask what it meant. When I told Bellow, he said that Atlas had probably not read the wonderful Goncharov novel. When I questioned the adjective in a letter to Atlas, he replied genially that Oblomov "is a sympathetic character and so are you."
3. Most of our letters are filed in the Special Collections of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.
4. Cf. Atlas's well-done interview with me, originally commissioned by George Plimpton for the Paris Review, in Chicago Review, Fall-Winter, 1999.
5. No one seemed more different from his work to me than Samuel Beckett, whom I saw about once a year between 1977 and 1987. Cf. the portrait of him inOne Person and Another (Dallas: Baskerville Books. 1993).
6. A book dedicated to me in which I play a minor role.
7. We both remember Bellow's early portrait of the terrific Chicago con man, Yellow Kid Weil.
8. One of John F. Kennedy's "girls" is said to have described the relationship as "the greatest thirty seconds of my life."