I have been waiting for Manifesta to come out. I had certain hopes for this book. In particular, I was looking forward to using it as a corrective addition in a course I'm teaching on "Third Wave Feminism and Girl Culture." When I first taught this class last spring, my students became increasingly frustrated with the overwhelmingly personal tone of the contemporary feminism we were reading. Our central texts, and until now they have been the central texts of the self-proclaimed Third Wave, were three anthologies, all published in the past five years: Barbara Findlen's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation; Rebecca Walker's To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake's Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. While each of these collections takes its own approach to the Third Wave, they share an emphasis on the singular experience of young women and the occasional young man as grounds for a new generation of feminist politics ("young" in this context generally designates those born between 1964 and 1980). Specifically, all three anthologies grapple with how to combine some version of feminist politics with what Third Wave Agenda calls the "lived messiness" of real life. After reading assorted articles in which individual Third Wavers describe their intimate struggles with eating disorders, gender dysphoria, racial difference and antifeminist workplaces or, conversely, their sustaining attachments to various punk rockers, my students begin to ask, "Isn't there some Third Wave theory we could read?"
Last spring I suggested to my students that, for the moment, this return to experience in all of its messy multiplicity might be the unifying theory of the Third Wave (we might see it, for instance, as a historically necessary return to the "personal" moment of "the personal is political"), but I share their longing for a militant, argumentative feminism--one that would abandon the personal essay with its fetishization of contradiction and get on with elaborating a political program. Contemporary feminism needs the kind of intervention Manifesta purports to be. Billed as "a powerful indictment from within of the current state of feminism, and a passionate call to arms," Manifesta aims to challenge the experientialism and fragmentation of the emerging Third Wave with history, political argument and activism. These are, to my mind, exactly the grounds on which to confront the Third Wave, but how effectively Manifesta manages this confrontation is another question entirely.
Written by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, both journalists, activists and Third Wavers themselves, Manifesta turns out to be a strange book. Some of this strangeness no doubt derives from its collaborative production. The two writers seem to be trying to repress, rather than sharpen, their differences, and this results in a book that is, narratively, both bland and contradictory by turns. This general atmosphere of forced consensus extends to the content as well. As Richards outlines in her introduction (each writer provides an introduction, not to the book but to herself), she and Baumgardner created Manifesta by combining their separate book projects, one on activism and the other a cultural analysis of current feminism, into one text. The end result is a long, wide-ranging and episodic book that touches on everything from Barbie and Riot Grrrls to voter registration and Title IX without ever fully integrating its cultural and activist components. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book is its title, for Manifesta is neither short nor scrappy like the best of its genre (e.g., the SCUM and Communist manifestoes). I was, however, encouraged to find that the book does contain (finally! on page 278) an actual "thirteen point" manifesta that distills its uncontroversial pro-choice, pro-ERA, anti-domestic violence agenda.
Its structural peculiarities aside, Manifesta does supply several potentially powerful correctives to contemporary feminism--the first of which is a historical perspective. One of the striking features of works of Third Wave feminism published so far is their general impatience with, and desire to break from, the feminist past. (Although the editors of both Listen Up and Third Wave Agenda make a point of pledging their allegiance to the Second Wave, their contributors for the most part do not.) Third Wavers frequently accomplish this break by declaring the Second Wave outmoded, unrealistically militant and irrelevant to the lives of young women. Melissa Klein describes this renunciation in her contribution to Third Wave Agenda, "Duality and Redefinition":
Many young women hesitate to take on the mantle of feminism, either because they fear being branded as fanatical "feminazis" or because they see feminism not as a growing and changing movement but as a dialogue of the past that conjures up images of militantly bell-bottomed "women's libbers."
In Third Wave writing, reductive caricature--those "bell-bottomed feminazis"--often displaces and deters real historical knowledge about the politics, accomplishments and legacy of the Second Wave, not to mention earlier feminisms. (For an especially sharp and poignant instance of the Third Wave's failure to recognize the Second, see the foreword and afterword to Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, in which a bewildered Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis wrestle with the treatment that feminism of the sixties and seventies receives in the book.)
Baumgardner and Richards reject this species of feminist ahistoricism. Point 5 of their manifesta aims
To tap into and raise awareness of our revolutionary history.... To have access to our intellectual feminist legacy and women's history; for the classics of radical feminism, womanism, mujeristas, women's liberation, and all our roots to remain in print; and to have women's history taught to men as well as women as a part of all curricula.
Against the Third Wave's rebellious declarations of independence, Baumgardner and Richards insist on a cross-generational, continuous understanding of feminism secured through the study of feminist history. "Having no sense of how we got here," they write, "condemns women to reinvent the wheel and often blocks us from creating a political strategy." Manifesta works throughout to supply some of this prehistory by linking current feminist cultural forms and figures to earlier ones. The Lilith Fair, for instance, is presented in the tradition of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and prosex profemininity Girlie feminists are recognized as descendants of Helen Gurley Brown.
The authors systematize their version of feminist history in a chapter titled "What Is Feminism?" Here they produce a sketchy, breakneck overview of United States feminism from Seneca Falls, through the Nineteenth Amendment, the Second Wave and the ERA, up to the Third Wave. They make some attempt to be multiculturally and politically inclusive by mentioning Native American matriarchies, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman, but what they call feminist history here is fundamentally the history of white, middle-class liberal feminism and its record of US governmental reforms. Manifesta's restricted focus on liberal feminism is, unfortunately, systemic. In the rest of the book, where Second Wavers provide most of the historical counterpoint, Baumgardner and Richards repeatedly offer up liberal feminists as representative of all feminism: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem... Please note that our authors met while interning at Ms.
Feminists on the left and feminists of color will not find their history represented in Manifesta. The contributions of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Lydia Sargent, bell hooks, Heidi Hartmann, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, to name only a few, go pretty much unmentioned. This historical prejudice is especially striking, given that recent anthologies tend to date Third Wave feminism from the critiques that women of color launched against liberal feminism toward the end of the Second Wave. In this context, Manifesta's historical sensibility reads as reaction, as a call for a return to some imagined white, homogeneous Second Wave feminism. On the few occasions that Baumgardner and Richards deign to mention leftish feminisms, they criticize leftists not for their politics but for being unnecessarily divisive, for undermining some presumed feminist consensus. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt, for instance, receive sharp criticism for having the gall to "[point] their fingers" at other feminists.
This anxiety about feminist dissent permeates Manifesta. Like a mantra, Baumgardner and Richards repeat phrases like "everyday feminism," "the same old feminism" and "organic" feminism, as if there were some reassuring common sense that united all feminists. For our authors, this "same old feminism" designates the same old liberal reformism, and while I praise their historical instincts--the Third Wave needs its past more than it knows--I wish Baumgardner and Richards had worked harder to be more fully historical. Not only do they provide the feminist history that is most likely to be familiar to readers without their help (through mainstream institutions like Ms., NOW and the Democratic Party) but their reductive version of the feminist past is unlikely to speak to the interests and experiences of women of color, working-class and radical women, or queers (though of all differences among women, they give the most lip service to sexual difference). Manifesta's history simply isn't adequate for comprehending, much less galvanizing, the actual class, racial, sexual and political heterogeneity of American women.
The second correction that Manifesta brings to the Third Wave is an insistence on political argumentation. If Third Wavers are vulnerable to charges of navel-gazing, of musing endlessly and confessionally over the contradictions between feminism and life, the authors adamantly resist this deferral of political consciousness. Throughout Manifesta they insist on making feminist sense of the world, using anecdotal narratives and statistical data (they admit to being obsessive fact-checkers) to remind us that the pay gap between women and men persists and remains substantial (74 cents to the dollar, by current calculations), that rape and domestic violence still operate to restrict women's independence, that the sexual double standard continues to distort female sexuality and that reproductive rights are only partially and tenuously secure. Although their political consciousness remains disappointingly close to their own experiences and needs as young professional white women (they give an inordinate amount of time to the injustices that face female journalists in New York City, while other feminist issues, like daycare, racism, gay-bashing and collective bargaining in the pink-collar ghetto, receive little to no treatment), at least Baumgardner and Richards model the process of politicizing experience, of seeing the personal as political. "Consciousness-raising," they argue, "must precede action."
At a deeper level, however, Manifesta simply isn't argumentative enough. In fact, the argument we most expect from a work of contemporary feminist theory--a systemic analysis of the causes of women's oppression today--is entirely absent. If the Third Wave intends to remake feminism for this generation, then it needs a comprehensive account of the specific material conditions that currently determine (and determine differentially) the social and economic position of women in the United States and outside the United States as well. Such an account requires thinking through systems (capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia) in the way many Second Wavers did, although it does not require that the Third Wave simply redeploy arguments generated in the seventies. After all, material conditions change. Instead of systemic argumentation, however, Baumgardner and Richards offer up a loose platform of issues: prison reform, pay inequality, military access for women, negative body images, the ERA, egalitarian healthcare, etc. Because Manifesta lacks a coherent structural account that could link these disparate issues (e.g., through the underlying socioeconomic processes that produce them), readers are unlikely to recognize any inner logic in this collection of so-called women's issues. Nor can Manifesta provide an argument for prioritizing one issue over another. In Baumgardner and Richards's account, feminism becomes analytically rootless, seemingly implicated everywhere, but no more effective or necessary in one arena than another.
In the absence of sustained structural analysis, our authors use large quantities of populist boosterism to hold the book together. Their populism underwrites two of Manifesta's larger claims, the first of which is that despite what critics say, feminism is everywhere in contemporary culture, just waiting to be acknowledged. The authors announce the existence of what they call a contemporary "Feminist Diaspora"--a large, dispersed population of "everyday" feminists who embody the Second Wave's success in establishing feminism as part of our cultural common sense. "For anyone born after the early 1960s," they assert, "the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it--it's simply in the water." Of course this is a controversial proposition, as it assumes that the feminism of the sixties and seventies was disseminated uniformly to young women throughout the United States, irrespective of class, racial, educational or geographical distinctions. You get a very different picture of feminism's reach if you talk to women who, although "born after the early 1960s," were raised in rural areas, in immigrant families or in working-class neighborhoods. But if it's true, as our authors say, that feminism can now be taken for granted, that it has become part of popular consciousness, this presents Baumgardner and Richards with a unique dilemma. "The only problem," they acknowledge, "is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert." So even though they see "a generation of [young women] leading revolutionary lives," our authors concede that these same women are "best known for saying, 'I'm not a feminist, but...'"
Point 1 of the manifesta contains their plan for attacking this lack of feminist self-identification: "To out unacknowledged feminists, specifically those who are younger, so that Generation X can become a visible movement and, further, a voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds." As far as I can tell, "outing," in this context, consists of making feminism so enticingly broad and nondemanding that young women, realizing they are in no way required to interrogate themselves or their social practices, will claim feminism for themselves. "Maybe you aren't sure you need feminism," Baumgardner and Richards coax,
...or you're not sure it needs you. You're sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are--but with a political consciousness.
By asserting that young women are already feminists, if unconscious ones, Baumgardner and Richards feel empowered to claim that there is, indeed, a feminist "movement" afoot today. Although they admit that it does not consist of "a huge force of conscious feminists" (i.e., it does not look like anything we'd recognize as collective action), they repeatedly refer to "the movement" as if saying the word could call the social form into being. I share Manifesta's desire for a movement (the fizzled Riot Grrrl was arguably the closest--and it wasn't very close--we've come to collective feminist action in the last decade), but I don't believe that calling whatever women do to survive "a movement" or trying to swell the feminist ranks with prepolitical young women is the most effective way to get us there.
Baumgardner and Richards's populist strategies also emerge in the second of their larger claims, namely that political differences between types of feminism really don't, and ideally shouldn't, matter all that much. Our authors take a staggeringly latitudinarian approach to feminism. They stage extended defenses of Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, both of whom most feminists consider conservative backlashers, in order to assert their rightful membership in the feminist camp. "We have to put down our relentless search for feminist purity," they argue,
...and look at Katie Roiphe, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Naomi Wolf, and the rest of the emerging young women as what they are: feminists, the next generation.... Yes, all feminists deserve critique and debate, but save your political vitriol for the young babes who are right-wing and political.
Baumgardner and Richards also extend feminist inclusion to "Girlie" types, those young women, vaguely associated with Bust's readership, who find personal empowerment in the cultural trappings of traditional adolescent femininity. They even make a case for Monica Lewinsky as a contemporary feminist icon, calling her "a twenty-three-year-old White House intern who owned her own libido and sexual prowess."
What our manifesta writers hope to gain by stretching feminism to its outer limits in order to include Roiphe, Wolf, Girlies and Lewinsky is a kind of "big tent" feminism that could take on "right-wing babes" like Christina Hoff Sommers, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. And they are not the first Third Wavers to promote this kind of feminist populism. Rebecca Walker, in To Be Real, argues that we should "[broaden] our view of who and what constitutes 'the feminist community,'" so as to "stake out an inclusive terrain from which to actively seek the goals of societal equality and individual freedom." What they lose in the stretch, however, is any real content to feminism, other than the crudest and too often imaginary distinction between the right and left wing. Baumgardner and Richards would do for feminism what Clinton did for the Democrats over the past eight years: try to absorb, rhetorically, everyone from left-liberals to centrists in order to build a strategic coalition against the radical right. But why should the broad spectrum of feminists be forced to define themselves negatively and homogeneously against a few shrill right-wingers? While feminists need to be able to come together around issues that concern us, and I think we do, our differences are politically meaningful and, to my mind, ultimately productive. Roiphe, Wolf et al., for instance, raise important questions about the Third Wave revalorization of beauty, sexual power and femininity. What happens to feminism when it reclaims the very sources of power the patriarchy has always been happy to grant us? Why is it difficult to recognize feminist "agency" in the circumstance of a young female intern, smitten with male presidential power, dropping to her knees? Rather than subordinate our differences in the service of the flabby populism Manifesta promotes, I would like to see contemporary feminism embrace contention, sharpen its differences and strengthen its analysis.
There are limits, however, even to Baumgardner and Richards's feminist magnanimity. Their inclusionism breaks down not only around the "divisive" left but in their engagement with psychoanalytic Second Waver Phyllis Chesler. Chesler elicits their ire for, apparently, using the wrong tone of voice. In her 1997 Letters to a Young Feminist, Chesler draws on her longstanding engagement with feminism to delineate what she sees as the Second Wave's "legacy" to the next generation. Specifically, she focuses on the contradictions produced by Second Wave feminisms (e.g., between the ideology of "sisterhood" and the reality of female competition, between movement egalitarianism and the hierarchies "professional" feminism reproduced) and presses younger feminists to learn from and supersede these contradictions. In keeping with her training, Chesler approaches her Letters through the lens of the family drama and uses the persona of a feminist mother to address imagined feminist daughters (and, in the last chapter, her real-life feminist son). The phony intimacy of this address makes for some serious rhetorical melodrama: The reader is regularly addressed as "darling" and "my dear" by an overbearing Ma Chesler. Despite its stylistic goofiness, however, Chesler's book remains one of the few Second Wave feminist "memoirs" (and there are now many) that work to instrumentalize, rather than glorify or recant, the feminist past in order to serve the feminist future.
Baumgardner and Richards are unable to recognize how Chesler's book, like their own, attempts to build a bridge between the Waves. Instead, in an angry "Letter to an Older Feminist," our authors perform their rebellion against Chesler and her cohort, exclaiming "You're not our mothers." "We let you off your mother trip," they announce, "Now you have to stop treating us like daughters. You don't have the authority to treat us like babies or acolytes who need to be molded." As much as our authors say they want to connect with the Second Wave, they clearly want the connection on their own terms. It's OK for Chesler to participate in the Third Wave as an icon, as an inspiring bit of history, but Baumgardner and Richards would rather she quit trying to contribute her own work. "Read our books, buy our records," they command the Older Feminist. Ever vigilant of ageism when it's directed at younger feminists, here Baumgardner and Richards themselves, unnecessarily, reproduce a generation gap.
My favorite part of Manifesta, and the final corrective it offers to the Third Wave's nearly exclusive focus on cultural critique, is its insistence on activism. In the final section of the book, in a chapter titled "What Is Activism?" Baumgardner and Richards push young feminists to take action. "Activism," they write, "starts with the acknowledgment of injustice, but it doesn't stop with the rant...or even with the manifesta." To insure that their readers develop realistic expectations, the two debunk what they say are four myths about activism: that "activism will bring an immediate and decisive victory," that activism "has to be huge," that activism requires "superleaders" and, finally, that contemporary feminism is "politically impotent." Baumgardner and Richards also challenge the common preconception that volunteering is necessarily the highest form of activism. They make a fabulous distinction between "activist" and "charity" types of volunteer work, defining the latter as those positions (like candy stripers and literacy instructors) that have a long tradition of relying on unpaid female labor. Readers are directed away from the feminized sector and are encouraged instead to turn their efforts toward the "activist" groups--those "organizations that are too ahead of their time to be funded by the government"--and to continue to lobby for pay for their work. Central to successful activism, Baumgardner and Richards suggest, is a "clear intention, a realistic plan, and an identifiable constituency," and they provide steps for developing these strategic elements. In addition to an appendix containing contact information for numerous activist organizations (along with record labels, makeup brands and sex-toy shops), Baumgardner and Richards also provide a series of "creative social justice" issues that they think warrant activist involvement, such as political asylum for female refugees who have suffered gendered forms of violence, getting female reproductive care into prisons and pressing the National Honor Society to strike down its exclusion of pregnant women. For each issue they provide concrete avenues for action: Lobby the President, recruit Ob-Gyns to go into prisons, petition the NHS with lists of male members who have impregnated women.
While I love its demystification of activism, I remain unenamored with Manifesta's overall political vision, which never moves much beyond liberal reformism. For all their talk of "revolution," Baumgardner and Richards are primarily interested in, as they call it, putting the "participatory back into participatory democracy." The book, moreover, contains no clear sense of how issue-by-issue reformism of the type they advocate could lead to the "revolutionary movement" and larger social transformation they often invoke as their long-range goal. Despite its political tunnel vision, however, Manifesta works productively, in my view, to reorient the Third Wave toward action, particularly action beyond just the cultural level. Baumgardner and Richards encourage young feminists to engage with politics, the law and (to some extent) the economy, and they supply concrete strategies and realistic expectations for beginning this kind of activist work. Manifesta provides a solid starting place for reformist-style activism, and in the current moment, any activism is better than none. Who knows how young feminists might be revolutionized through the types of activism Baumgardner and Richards advocate; Manifesta could lay the groundwork for more radical forms of political action.
All in all, I think Manifesta suggests a formula, if not the specific content, for a better version of Third Wave feminism. We need to build on the feminisms that have preceded us, but we need the history of all feminisms, not just the least controversial, most mainstream forms. We need to embrace political argument, but we need to root our arguments in a larger understanding of the conditions that oppress us--all of us. We also need to be able to argue among ourselves about what feminism at this historical moment ought to look like, and to do that we have to dispense with the idea--itself an artifact of the backlash--that feminism needs warm bodies more than it needs theory or principles. We need to fight the seemingly widespread preconception that a state of feminist grace is prerequisite to action and that essay writing should be our preferred mode of activism. We need to get busy in the ways Manifesta urges and in many more. Without meaning to, Manifesta also prompts us, through some of its engagement with "older feminists," to think about how the Third Wave may be founding itself on unexamined ageism. In the end, a better version of Third Wave feminism might involve changing the name as a first step toward unloading altogether the dubious politics of generationality.
They laughed when I sat down with these two writers--and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! "I came to find my mind's disorder sacred," said the poet on a camel. "Good prose is like a window pane," said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell's dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: "I is somebody else.")
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career "as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user," as well as "an emergency exit from the house of convention" for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored "to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia"--just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell's name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been "disappeared" or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is "Myanmar." In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that "all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed." So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.
And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left's long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.
Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 "was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing 'pétroleuses.' More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War." While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo'd in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant--announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.
On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy." Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community "where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking," and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.
Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
"The first poet of a civilization not yet born," as René Char called him, showed up on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in French Flanders, three years after Napoleon III's coup d'état. At age 4, already precocious, he tried to trade his baby sister for some colored prints in a bookshop window. At age 6, his father shipped off for Algeria and never came back, leaving Arthur at the mercy of a mother devoted to church, shopping and whist, with a "phenomenal capacity for not showing affection." At age 7, he entered the "corpse-yellow" rooms of the local lycée as if preparing "for a life in prison." By age 14, he had inhaled all of French poetry, won every academic prize and developed acute self-consciousness:
I have the bluish-white eyes of my ancestors the Gauls, their small brains, their clumsiness in battle. I find my dress as barbaric as theirs. But I do not butter my hair.
Picture him in the summer of 1870, chatting up navvies and quarrymen, reading Verlaine for the first time and stowing away under a seat on the train to Paris, where he will be arrested on suspicion of republicanism and/or spying for Bismarck, and spend maybe a week in prison, during which not even Robb can say for sure what happens to him, except lice. There followed, as if on an elastic string that kept snapping him back to "the Mouth of Darkness," as he called his disapproving mother, an itchy six-month period of itinerant journalism, cafe polemics, bohemian sonnets and shopping for surrogate fathers, during which he swore like a prisoner, ate like a pig, refused to pass the salt and came to believe that "the mind could be shaped by an act of will," that morality "is a weakness of the brain" and that Society "will fall to the axe, the pick and the steamroller."
In the cities, the mud suddenly appeared to me red and black, like a mirror when the lamp moves about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and saw a sea of flames and smoke in the sky, and, to left and to right, all riches blazing like a billion thunders.
This is a kid ready for a Commune. He sells his watch for a third-class ticket to Paris in February 1871, and for two weeks walks the streets "feasting on theatre bills, advertisements, pamphlets and shop signs," sleeping on coal barges, competing with dogs for scraps of food--a "vagrant poet with a fish in his pants." Six days after he has hoofed it home, workers rise, generals are lynched and he has to go back again: "Paris had fallen to poets who worked with laws and human beings instead of words." A new chief of police removes "Saint" from every street name and issues a warrant for God's arrest. Maybe words actually do have "a direct, controllable influence on reality."
"Order is vanquished!" declares the 16-year-old, and writes his own revolutionary Constitution: A permanent state of referendum! Abolition of families and their "slave-holding" of children! Communication with animals, plants and extraterrestrials! He will return in late April, at the delirious height of the Commune, to enlist as a Left Bank guerrilla: "To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?--In what blood shall I walk?" When government troops bomb their own capital, he slips away, suffers what he suffers and enters the gaudy tent of his own legend: "I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart."
In fact, says Robb, he has decided "to seize control of the means of intellectual production.... In terms that were unavailable to him in 1871, he was considering the possibility of detaching the censorious superego from the endlessly imaginative id." And the "superego incarnate" is Mme. Rimbaud, from whom he's always hiding out in attics, cellars or latrines, and to whom he always returns, until Africa. You are saying this is reductive. But every once in a while, praxis so improves on theory that we get a penguin.
That summer of 1871 he posts a batch of poems to Verlaine so full of kinky innuendo that The Nasty Fellows raise a subscription to bring the prodigy to the capital and subsidize his genius. Rimbaud arrives with "a strange nostalgia for the future," one of the most remarkable poems in any language, "The Drunken Boat," and a plan to fold, bend, spindle and mutilate his own personality. Almost immediately, he will trash hotel rooms like a rock star and leave turds behind on pillows. Verlaine, of course, will fall in love with him, when he isn't rotting his brain with absinthe or setting his wife's hair on fire. Verlaine is easy to make fun of only if you've never been smitten by somebody bad for you, or until you are reminded that Pol Pot was one of his great admirers.
We are now in familiar territory, with the familiar contradictions. Rimbaud the vandal, hooligan, sadist and "murderous" prankster is also the Rimbaud who writes a lovely article about "human alarm-clocks" who for a small fee rush around in the early hours in the poorer sections of the city waking up factory workers. The "vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is also the author of the marvelous "Voyelles," a poem in which each vowel has its own color (noir, blanc, rouge, vert, bleu)--inspired by Ernest Cabaner, a composer who plays piano in a bar, collects old shoes to use as flowerpots and believes that each note of the octave corresponds to a particular color and vowel. According to Robb:
This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Rimbaud's work: the ardent search for powerful systems of thought that could be used like magic spells, conducted by an acutely ironic intelligence--a combination that rarely survives adolescence gracefully.
He loses a notebook, the Belgian poems and the manuscript of "Spiritual Hunt." Since he believes "every being...to be entitled to several other lives," why not go to England, live with Verlaine in Soho, grub sixpence from writing business letters and teaching French, admire the boys in tight-fitting suits waiting outside public urinals and read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe and Swinburne? Certainly, like all ex-Communards in jittery Europe, they are spied upon and hassled. So should they be. They hobnob with the socialist underground. They see Karl Marx. Robb even suggests that several of The Illuminations can be construed as glosses on Kapital--on "the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune and the magic wand of global capitalism."
Not so his astonishing A Season in Hell, in which Modernism rears its contrary head; in which experiments with language are investigations into the unstable self; in which, "like a particle accelerator," repellent forms of thought collide: Job and Goethe; fairy tales and Taine; Fleurs du Mal and "the Mouth of Darkness." "Rimbaud, at the age of 18, had invented a linguistic world that can be happily explored for years like the scrapyard of a civilization." After which, confoundingly, he abandoned literature, France, fame and Mme. Rimbaud.
Well, now: Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan, Siena. Enlisting in the Carlist rebel army, then absconding with the cash bonus. Enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, then deserting the minute he gets to Java. Trying to enlist in the US Navy, then having instead to run off to Scandinavia with a circus. Going over the Alps on foot, setting sail for Alexandria, learning Russian, Arabic and Hindi. Discovering at last that while no tree grows in Aden, there is a nearby Forbidden City unseen by Europeans since Richard Burton, and money to be made trading coffee, tobacco, incense, ivory, spices, spears, swords, ostrich eggs, animal skins and guns. He will wear a turban, keep a woman, chew khat, catch syphilis, ride camels, write mom, lose another manuscript (on Abyssinia) and then his right leg (to bone cancer). At the end, he refuses opium for fear of what he might say in his delirium to his sister.
Disregard previous rumors, even in Enid Starkie. He neither converted to Islam nor traded in slaves, though you couldn't do business in his part of Africa without cutting the warlords in on the deal. What he did do, by selling guns to Menelik, was help an African army defeat a European nation--well, at least Italy--for the first time. Disregard as well the Tragic Aura. He didn't die bitter and broke. He actually made a lot of money, which he hid from his mother in bank accounts all over the Middle East. Some people are still looking for it.
Some people are also still looking for the poet. Rimbaud killed him off when he stopped living with other people, after he realized that the world couldn't be changed by verbal innovation. Literature, Robb explains, hadn't worked:
For Rimbaud, poetry had always been the means to an end: winning esteem, causing irritation, changing the nature of reality. Each redefinition of the goal had rendered the old technology obsolete. The prose Rimbaud had shown no more nostalgia for verse than most mathematicians showed for their slide-rules after the invention of the personal computer.
It's hard to read this as anything other than a triumph of capitalism over Bohemia.
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
(Orwell, "Why I Write")
Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant "Literary Life" by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the "Modern Masters" series, we even need another account is open to question. "'Father Knew George Orwell' is a cracked old song," wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.
According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: "his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education," not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. "All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life," Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.
We've heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn't explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn't have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, "When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder"?
From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his "Last Literary Notebook" about "their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness" and "their terrible, devouring sexuality":
Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making.... In any marriage of more than a year or two's standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same--the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.
How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell--an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he'd come to feel all politics "was a mode of adjustment to one's own wishes and fantasies." Hadn't he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, "Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me"?
But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell's "submerged despairs"--the "radical pessimism" and "accommodation to capitalism" of this self-described "shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie." Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison--on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jack London's Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink--all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers's many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell's recurring patterns:
This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell's important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.
To think these thoughts is then to ask whether, on a fundamental level, Nineteen Eighty-Four had much of anything to say to Chinese students or the Velvet Revolutionaries, who turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Winston Smith.
Instead, we get the same old stories: St. Cyprian's, with Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton; Eton and his unrequited crush on a younger boy; Burma, where he briefly imagined that the "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts"; Paris, where he wrote and destroyed two novels; teaching boys, selling books, being rejected by T.S. Eliot, marrying Eileen; Spain, Morocco and the Blitz; the BBC, the adopted child and the dead Eileen; P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Wilson, Animal Farm and the audition of the widows in waiting--after which egregious Sonia, the widow everybody loves to hate, who is said here to have spat in disgust whenever she passed a nun on the street.
And along with the famous decency, the equally famous abuse: W.H. Auden was "a sort of gutless Kipling." William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair were "dull, empty windbags." Off with the heads of "the creepy eunuchs in pansy-left circles" and "all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearing and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat." Wouldn't it be loverly "if only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"
Wilfrid Sheed once said that Orwell wrote best about the things he hated. So maybe we're just lucky that some of the things he hated were more important than sandals and vegetarianism.
But for now, it's the night before. Let us receive all influxes of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.
(Rimbaud, A Season in Hell)
I am reminded of Simone Weil, who also negated herself, who willed herself out of this world. At her funeral, the priest arrived too late, because of a stalled train. At Rimbaud's funeral, nobody came, because his mother kept it secret. Orwell is remembered on the one hand, by Malcolm Muggeridge, as having "loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future," and on the other by H.G. Wells, as "a Trotskyist with big feet." And George himself told us that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
So Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn't have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet's name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. "I have never belonged to this race," said Rimbaud.
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."
To buy or not to buy turns out to have been the question of the century in America--Just Do It or Just Say No. And in the past fifteen years, consumer society has moved to the center of historical inquiry as well. It began with the social history of commercial culture and the advertising industry, in books such as Kathy Peiss's Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream (1985). Drawing inspiration from the pioneering anthropological explorations of Dick Hebdidge (Subculture, The Meaning of Style, 1979), Arjun Appadurai (The Social Life of Things, 1988) and, especially, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (The World of Goods, 1979), investigators then turned to the cultural history of how ordinary people use and assign meanings to commodities. A good example of this genre is Alison Clarke's Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999). In recent works--such as Robert Collins's More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (2000) and Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)--they have studied the political history of how nation-states promote and foster particular regimes of consumption. Where once consumption was deemed relevant only to the history of popular culture, in other words, it is now seen as intertwined with the central themes of American history, touching as it does on economics, politics, race relations, gender, the environment and other important topics.
Gary Cross, a professor at Penn State University and a pioneering and prolific historian of Europe and America, has explored the social, cultural and political dimensions of consumption before. In the past decade, he has published a half-dozen books on topics ranging from the history of leisure and working-class commercial amusements to the material culture of children's toys. Cross may study leisure, but his scholarship suggests that he doesn't take a whole lot of time to participate in consumer society. Fortunately, his work ethic has enabled the rest of us to understand our consumer ethic with clarity and historical perspective. Indeed, An All-Consuming Century displaces Daniel Horowitz's still-impressive but less wide-ranging The Morality of Spending (1985) as the best survey yet written of the history of modern American consumer society. Much more than a summary of recent scholarship (although it performs this task admirably), it is an informed, balanced, thoughtful and surprisingly passionate meditation on the making and meaning of our society. Avoiding the extremes of celebration and condemnation that too often pass for analysis, Cross's searching book is imbued with a generous concern for the revival of an active, democratic and participatory public sphere.
According to Cross, a paradox lies at the heart of American consumer society: It has been both an ideological triumph and a triumph over politics. Although it may be "difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology," this is, Cross argues, precisely how it functions. It is, in his words, the "ism that won," the quiet but decisive victor in a century of ideological warfare. Over the course of the twentieth century it became naturalized to such an extent that few citizens "consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it."
In describing this ideological victory, Cross eschews conspiratorial interpretations of advertising and business collusion and gives consumer society its due for concretely expressing "the cardinal political ideals of the century--liberty and democracy--and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation." It won, Cross believes, because in large measure it met people's basic needs, helped them to fit into a diverse society even as it enabled them to forge new understandings of personal freedom, and served to fulfill, rather than mock, people's desire for the pleasures of the material world.
In spite of its popularity and successes, Cross believes that the ascension of consumer society has come at great cost: the abrogation of public life in favor of private thrills. By valorizing the private over the public and the present over the past and future, consumer society has "allowed little space for social conscience" and truly democratic politics. Rather than shoring up civil society, consumerism has pretty much replaced it: "The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded" as individual acquisition and use of goods has become the predominant way that Americans--and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world--make meaning of their lives. The suggestion that there should be limits to commercialism--that there are sacred places where the market does not belong--is, according to Cross, no longer taken seriously in a society that equates commercialism with freedom. Moreover, by the end of the century, "there seemed to be no moral equivalent to the world of consumption." The politics of consumption, in Cross's view, makes alternative conceptions of the good life virtually unimaginable in large part because it encourages people to think about themselves in isolation from the rest of society and from their history. (Reading Cross's book, I was reminded of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, in which a customer at an urban diner sits alone, utterly disconnected from the humanity that surrounds him.) If Cross ultimately loses sight of the paradoxical nature of American consumerism and concludes on this dark note, An All-Consuming Century nonetheless provides important resources for others to explore the democratic potential of consumer society.
The narrative unfolds both chronologically and analytically. Cross divides the development of modern consumer society into four periods: 1900-1930, 1930-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980 to the end of the century. In this breakdown, the first three decades of the century were a takeoff period, during which a number of crucial elements converged to make America a consumer society. Cross consistently overstates the degree to which nineteenth-century America was a "traditional" society, untainted by commercialism; many elements of consumer society were born in the market revolution of the early 1800s and the corporate revolution of the later nineteenth century. But he is right to single out important developments that transformed the country from what we might call a nineteenth-century society with consumerist features to a full-blown consumer society in the twentieth century. The keys were increases in leisure time and personal income on the demand side, along with new products and innovations in selling on the supply side.
New, nationally advertised, branded products became widely available and affordable after the turn of the century. These products alleviated material needs, but more than that, Cross astutely notes, they became markers of new feelings of "comfort and ease" and "new sensations of power and speed." Modern products like cigarettes, candy and soft drinks made the sensational available on a daily, indeed almost hourly, basis. Amusement parks like Coney Island and other "cheap amusements" also made the regular purchase of spectacular thrills affordable for working people. In the consumer society, the utilitarian was always mixed with the sensual. The embodiment of this mixture was, of course, the great symbol of early-twentieth-century consumer society, the automobile. Already characterized by an increasing number of what Cross calls "private pleasures," in this period, as he shows, mass culture contributed to political and social changes as well: It blurred ethnic and class divisions and encouraged the children of immigrants to redefine themselves as members of a blended, multiethnic, if still racially segregated, youth culture.
The period 1930-1960 was one of consolidation in time of crisis. The constraints of the Great Depression and World War II led to a "frustrated consumerism more than a rejection of the capitalist system." Rather than blame the new consumerism, most policy-makers and indeed many ordinary Americans came to see "underconsumption" as the root cause of the slump. After the war, government policy encouraged the development of mass purchasing power rather than efforts to equalize the distribution of wealth. During the cold war, consumer society became "a positive answer to communism." In his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon drove this point home by contrasting modern American appliances with outdated Soviet culinary technology. Despite the linkage in these years between consumption and freedom, Cross notes that the consumerism of the postwar years was not hedonistic but "domesticated," focused on the suburban home and the nuclear family. Signature developments of these years were Levittown, McDonald's and Holiday Inn, sites of responsible, respectable, family-oriented consumption.
From 1960 to 1980 consumer society faced a very different set of challenges but emerged stronger than ever. First, the counterculture challenged the very premises of consumerism, and in the 1970s, the specter of scarcity called into question the permanence of the cornucopia upon which consumer society depended. In spite of these challenges, "consumption became even more ubiquitous." Indeed, Cross suggests, the roots of the even more individualistic and socially fragmenting consumerism of the late twentieth century lay in part in the 1960s critique of consumerism: While countercultural figures critiqued conformity and idealized the "authentic self," many Americans sought to achieve this authenticity through consumption. Businesses began to modify the Fordist practice of mass production in favor of flexible production and segmented, demographically distinct markets. Drawing on the work of cultural critic Thomas Frank (rendered throughout the book as "Frank Thomas"), Cross writes that consumerism became "adaptable to the green and the hip." Similarly, during the energy crisis of the 1970s those politicians who took the shortage to be the result of overproductionwere rebuked as naysayers. With great political success, Ronald Reagan attacked President Jimmy Carter for a speech in which Carter had the temerity to suggest that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." Reagan called that 1979 "malaise" address un-American in its pessimism and its call for restraint.
The trend toward fragmented, individualistic consumption accelerated during the last two decades of the century, an era that Cross labels "markets triumphant." Radical faith in the virtues of the market led politicians like Reagan to put a moral gloss on the "unfettered growth of market culture in the 1980s." Government constraints of an earlier era, in the form of environmental and advertising regulation, weakened, and commerce entered unfettered into areas where it had previously been kept at arm's length: children's homes and classrooms. By century's end the "Victorian notion that some time and place should be free from commerce" seemed as quaint as a Currier and Ives lithograph. Cross, who has a knack for unearthing telling statistics, notes that "supermarkets carried about 30,000 different products in 1996, up from 17,500 in 1986 and about 9,000 in the mid-1970s." Even the all-time-high consumer debt--$1.25 trillion by 1997--did nothing to stop the belief that the future of American prosperity and freedom depended upon the continuing expansion of the realm of consumption. Indeed, shopping had become the nation's primary form of entertainment, and monuments to consumption like the gargantuan 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America became a haven for tourists from around the world.
In Cross's telling, the attractions and problems of consumer society are in effect one and the same: the cult of the new, immediate gratification and the valorization of "private pleasures." Consumerism is the "ism that won," owing to its ability not only to withstand challenges but, through a magical jujitsu, to co-opt them. Although initially formulated in terms neither celebratory nor condemnatory, Cross's story is ultimately one of declension. While he avoids the nostalgia of many commentators, there is little doubt that Cross finds contemporary consumer society to be a negative force: asocial, apolitical, amoral and environmentally dangerous. Whereas consumerism once helped integrate the diverse inhabitants of an immigrant nation in a youthful mass culture, by century's close, cynical marketers were happy to divide an equally multicultural nation into segmented demographic units based on "multiple and changing lifestyles." Thus the shift from an integrative, public-spirited popular culture in the early twentieth century to an increasingly privatized, solipsistic commercial culture of the late twentieth century. What was seductive in 1900--cornucopia and pleasure for the masses--became obscene by 2000, as a cultural stimulant turned into a dangerous narcotic.
An All-Consuming Century is one of the few indispensable works in the ever-expanding library of books on American consumer society. But in an otherwise rich overview the author has surprisingly little to say about the role of women, African-Americans and ethnic minorities (and nothing about regional variations) in the construction of consumer society. These are serious omissions. As admen and women's organizations recognized early on, women have performed the vast majority of the unpaid labor of consumer society: the shopping, budgeting and refashioning of older items. Cross notes that African-Americans were excluded from many of the benefits of the emerging mass culture, but he does not address the ways popular culture served to reinforce both the whiteness of the "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe--a skin privilege that was not yet fully acknowledged by the majority culture--and the otherness of Asian and Latino immigrants.
Nor does Cross discuss the attractions of nationwide retailers and national brands for African-Americans, who often took advantage of what the historian Edward Ayers has called the "anonymity and autonomy" made possible by the advent of the Sears catalogue (and chain stores in the nonsegregated North), whose mass customer base and "one price" system reduced the possibilities for racial discrimination that frequently accompanied visits to the corner store. For this group, the private pleasures occasionally afforded by the advent of national markets offered advantages over the public humiliations that so often accompanied local commerce.
Cross's relative neglect of women and minorities leads him to underestimate the importance of grassroots consumer activism as well, which has often been led by members of these groups. Meat boycotts, cost-of-living protests, "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns and sit-ins were integral to the development of American consumer society because they represented demands to expand the benefits of consumerism beyond a middle-class elite. One of the most important women's political organizations of the first half of the century, the National Consumers League, which pioneered the crusade for "ethical consumption" and labor rights, goes unmentioned. Cross stresses the ways marketers attempted to co-opt the civil rights movement, but he does not address the degree to which the demand for full participation in consumer society was a key ingredient in that crusade for social justice. By virtually ignoring these movements, Cross leaves out an important part of the story of consumer society--efforts to unite citizenship with consumption.
The critics of consumer society whom Cross discusses most often are proponents of what he calls the "jeremiad," the high-culture dismissal of mass culture as vulgar. He condemns the elitism and arrogance of such thinkers and is surely correct to note that their criticism had little impact on ordinary shoppers. Cross is less critical of the "simple living" tradition and calls the self-provisioning movement of the 1960s "the most positive aspect" of the counterculture. He argues that "the idea of the 'simple life,' perhaps never more than a daydream, had almost ceased being even a prick to the conscience," but he only briefly mentions the growing popularity of the "voluntary simplicity" movement, a topic addressed in more detail in Juliet Schor's The Overspent American (1998).
Cross also develops a persuasive critique of the consumer rights movement. While the Depression era saw the rise of groups like Consumers Union, which sought to make consumers a greater force against the power of business and advertisers, he notes that by focusing primarily on product quality and prices, many consumer rights groups have served only to reinforce "the individualism and the materialism of American consumption." This tradition of angry but apolitical individualism can still be found at innumerable websites, like starbucked.com, that highlight at great length the indignation of formerly loyal customers: "The sales clerk who sold me the machine was rude, then decidedly refused to hand over the free half pound of coffee given with every purchase of a Starbucks espresso machine...." The democratizing power of consumer demands for corporate responsibility is too often dissipated by such narrowly cast diatribes.
In spite of the failure of the jeremiad, the seeming irrelevance of simplicity and the individualization of the concept of consumer rights, Cross is too definitive about the nature of the "victory" of consumer society. Many Americans still recognize that however much advertisers and marketers attempt to cover it up, consumption is fundamentally a social and political act. So although it is true that "late twentieth century consumerism turned social problems into individual purchasing decisions," it is also the case that individual shopping decisions have frequently been viewed in the context of social problems. As consumer activists from the League of Women Shoppers in the 1930s through environmentalists today have pointed out, the goods that we buy leave ecological, labor and government "footprints." In spite of corporate attempts to fetishize goods, diligent activists like John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning of Northwest Environment Watch have described--and tried to estimate--the hidden social costs incurred by the purchase of quotidian products, including coffee and newspapers. The actions of students in the antisweatshop campaigns of recent years indicate that a growing number of consumers are looking behind the logo to determine the conditions under which the clothing they buy is made. As Naomi Klein has recently argued in No Logo:Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, the ubiquity and importance of brands provides an opening for protesters who can threaten, through consumer boycotts and other actions, to sully corporate America's most valuable asset, the brand name. One teen in Klein's book puts it this way: "Nike, we made you. We can break you." Cross may decry the "inwardness of the personal computer," but the protests at the Seattle World Trade Organization and Washington International Monetary Fund meetings reveal that the Web creates alliances and expands social bonds. The history of consumer activism--and its recent incarnations--shows that consumerism does not necessarily lead to an antipolitics of radical individualism.
Cross does put forth important arguments about the "excesses of consumer culture": the environmental degradation, the waste, the lack of free time and the sheer mind-numbing meaninglessness that accompany modern consumerism. But these must be balanced with the recognition that most Americans, especially those in the working class, have viewed the enjoyment of the fruits of consumer society as an entitlement, not a defeat. This should not be dismissed as false consciousness or "embourgeoisement." Far from allowing consumerist demands to erode political impulses, working people--through living-wage, union-label and shorter-hour campaigns--have consistently politicized consumption. Rather than pitting the culture of consumption against democracy, it will be important to continue this tradition of democratizing, rather than demonizing, the culture of consumption. In his assessment of the twentieth century's most influential "ism," Cross provides important warnings about the difficulties of such an effort. But in its stress on the paradoxes of consumer society--an emphasis that then too rapidly gives way to condemnation--An All-Consuming Century also provides lessons from history about the necessity of the undertaking.
The quiet grace of Ring Lardner Jr., who died the other week at 85, seemed at odds with these noisy, thumping times. I cannot imagine Ring playing Oprah or composing one of those terribly earnest essays, "writers on writing," that keep bubbling to the surface of the New York Times. He was rightly celebrated
for personal and political courage but underestimated, it seems to me, as a protean writer who was incapable of composing an awkward sentence. It ran against Ring's nature to raise his voice. Lesser writers, who shouted, drew more acclaim, or anyway more attention.
The obituaries celebrated his two Academy Awards but made less of other achievements. Ring's novel,The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, begun in 1950 while he was serving his now-famous prison sentence for contempt of Congress, drew a transatlantic fan letter from Sean O'Casey. Ring felt sufficiently pleased to have the longhand note framed under glass, which he then slipped into a shirt drawer. He was not about advertisements for himself. In 1976 he published The Lardners: My Family Remembered. Garson Kanin commented, "In the American aristocracy of achievement, the Lardners are among the bluest of blue bloods. In Ring Lardner, Jr. they have found a chronicler worthy of his subject. The Lardners is a moving, comical, patriotic book."
The progenitor was, of course, Ring Lardner Sr., the great short-story writer, who sired four sons, each of whom wrote exceedingly well. James Lardner was killed during the Spanish Civil War; David died covering the siege of Aachen during World War II; a heart attack killed John in 1960, when he was 47. Add Ring's prison term to the necrology and you would not have what immediately looks to be the makings of a "moving, comical" book. But The Lardners was that and more because of Ring Jr.'s touch and slant and his overview of what E.E. Cummings called "this busy monster, manunkind."
From time to time, Ring published splendid essays. The one form he avoided was the short story. He wrote, "I did not want to undertake any enterprise that bore the risk of inviting comparison with my father or the appearance of trading on his reputation."
We became close in the days following the death of John Lardner, who was, quite simply, the best sports columnist I have read. I set about preparing a collection, The World of John Lardner, and Ring, my volunteer collaborator, found an unfinished serio-humorous "History of Drinking in America." He organized random pages with great skill. Reading them I learned that the favorite drink of the Continentals, shivering at Valley Forge, was a Pennsylvania rye called Old Monongahela. George Washington called it "stinking stuff." At headquarters the general sipped Madeira wine.
A year or so later, with the blacklist still raging, I picked up Ring for lunch at the Chateau Marmont, an unusual apartment hotel on Sunset Boulevard near Hollywood. Outside the building, a fifty-foot statue of a cowgirl, clad in boots and a bikini, rotated on the ball of one foot, advertising a Las Vegas hotel. I asked the room clerk for Mr. Robert Leonard. Ring was writing some forgotten movie, but could not then work under his own name. "Robert Leonard" matched the initials on his briefcase.
This was a pleasant November day, but the blinds above Ring's portable typewriter were drawn. When I asked why, he opened them. His desk sat facing the bikinied cowgirl, bust-high. Every eighteen seconds those giant breasts came spinning round. "Makes it hard to work," Ring said and closed the blinds.
The Saturday Evening Post was reinventing itself during the 1960s, on the way to dying quite a glorious death, and with my weighty title there, editor at large, I urged Clay Blair, who ran things, to solicit a piece from Ring about the blacklist. Ring responded with a touching, sometimes very funny story that he called "The Great American Brain Robbery." He explained, "With all these pseudonyms, I work as much as ever. But the producers now pay me about a tenth of what they did when I was allowed to write under my own name."
Clay Blair lived far right of center, but Ring's story conquered him, and he said, "Marvelous. Just one thing. He doesn't say whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Ask him to put that in the story."
"I won't do that, Clay."
"He chose jail, rather than answer that question."
"Then, if he still won't, will he tell us why he won't?"
Ring composed a powerful passage.
The impulse to resist assaults on freedom of thought has motivated witnesses who could have answered no to the Communist question as well as many, like myself, whose factual response would have been yes. I was at that time a member of the Communist party, in whose ranks I found some of the most thoughtful, witty and generally stimulating men and women in Hollywood, I also encountered a number of bores and unstable characters.... My political activity had already begun to dwindle at the time [Congressman J. Parnell] Thomas popped the question, and his only effect on my affiliation was to prolong it until the case was finally lost. At that point I could and did terminate my membership without confusing the act, in my own or anyone else's head, with the quite distinct struggle for the right to embrace any belief or set of beliefs to which my mind and conscience directed me.
These words drove a silver stake into the black heart of the blacklist.
Ring won his first Oscar for Woman of the Year in 1942, and when he won his second, for M*A*S*H in 1970, numbers of his friends responded with cheering and tears of joy. The ceremony took place early in 1971, and Ring accepted the statuette with a brief speech. "At long last a pattern has been established in my life. At the end of every twenty-eight years I get one of these. So I will see you all again in 1999."
Indeed. Early in the 1990s I lobbied a producer who had bought film rights to my book The Boys of Summer, to engage Ring for the screenplay. Ring, close to 80, worked tirelessly. A screenplay is a fictive work, and Ring moved a few days and episodes about for dramatic purposes. His scenario ended with the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series from the Yankees and my account of that ballgame landing my byline on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. The sports editor is congratulating me on a coherent piece when the telephone rings: My father has fallen dead on a street in Brooklyn; I am to proceed to Kings County Hospital and identify his body.
As I, or the character bearing my name, move toward the morgue, I bump into two beer-drunk Dodgers fans. One says, "What's the matter with him?" The other says, "He's sober. That's the matter with him." The body is there. It is my father's body. Beer drunks behind us, my mother and I embrace. Fin.
I can only begin to suggest all that Ring's scene implies. I would start with the point that winning the World Series is not the most important thing on earth, or even in Brooklyn. I was always careful not to embarrass Ring with praise, but here I blurted out, "This is the best bleeping screenplay I've ever read, Ringgold. Oscar III may come true in '99."
"Curious," Ring said. "I seem to have had the same thought myself."
The blacklisting bounders were now dead, but a new generation of Hollywood hounds refused to shoot Ring Lardner's scenario. The grounds: "a father-son angle" was not commercial. "It worked in Hamlet," Ring said, but to unhearing ears. And then we were talking about Ring writing a screenplay for a book I published in 1999 about Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties. "Have to cut it back a bit," Ring said. "Following your text would give us the first billion-dollar picture."
Years ago, the critic Clifton Fadiman wrote that Ring Lardner Sr. was an unconscious artist and that his power proceeded from his hatred of the characters he created. Ring told me: "If my father hated anyone or anything, it was a critic like Fadiman. Unconscious artist? My father knew perfectly well how good he was and--better than anyone else--how hard it was to be that good."
Ring Jr. knew the very same thing about himself. Or so I believe. Yeats writes, "The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work." As well as anyone in our time, my suddenly late friend Ring Lardner came pretty damn close to achieving perfection in both.
Long before Carrie-Anne Moss rips open Val Kilmer's shirt and begins pounding his chest, providing him with a version of CPR that she must have learned from a Japanese drum troupe, the makers of Red Planet have resorted to their own thumpings and flailings, as if to resuscitate a film that's gone limp. It's a panic response, coming from people who have realized too late that the hookup of a radio would be a high point of their picture.
Their script has stuck Moss in a stricken spaceship that's orbiting Mars; by this point, her comrades Kilmer and Tom Sizemore have been marooned, incommunicado, on the planet's surface. So when the boys stumble upon an old circuit board in the dust, it's time for high-energy drama. "Let's do it!" shrieks Sizemore, as if he were starting the Indy 500. With a roar, guitars and drums begin pounding away on the soundtrack. Kilmer, in closeup, damn well solders a wire, sending a meteor shower's worth of sparks across the screen--at which point, back on the spaceship, Moss decides to strip down to a sleeveless T-shirt, giving us a much better view of her breasts.
I'm really grateful for the breasts. If not for them, I might have fallen asleep and missed the climactic scene, in which Kilmer performs a diagnostic check on a computer.
If only the makers of Red Planet had trusted in their story's essential schleppiness! Then, instead of giving us this lumbering, expensive beast, they might have realized the small but halfway-clever idea that's still dimly visible within: a story about the heroism-by-default of a spaceship janitor.
The character in question, a fellow named Gallagher, holds the job title of mechanical systems engineer; but to the rest of the personnel on this flight to Mars, that's like saying he's the guy who fixes the toilets. "It's high school," he remarks to a fellow civilian in the crew, after being brushed back by a swaggering NASA pilot. "They're the jocks, and we're the nerds." Just so. When he bumps into Moss--the ship's commander--on her way out of the unisex shower, Gallagher can think of nothing better to do than fumble with his fingers and blush. Later, when the outcome of the mission comes to rest on him, Moss has to give him a pep talk before he'll even get to his feet. Yet he's the guy who must save Earth from destruction and consummate a rendezvous with those breasts. What a role for Steve Buscemi! How the hell did it go to Val Kilmer?
He's good, of course. Kilmer is always good--but he's a guy who previously played Jim Morrison, Elvis and Batman. The only thing that's nerdlike about him is the hairdo he's been given for this picture, which is brushy and yellow and makes him look as if he's in crying need of a conditioner. Mind you, the premise of Red Planet is that all of Earth needs a conditioner. After these many years of environmental degradation, we've burned out our world and must colonize someplace else. Hence the desperate and very expensive project, in the year 2057, of sending Moss and her crew to Mars. Wouldn't it have been cheaper, as well as more practical, to institute a few conservation measures instead? No doubt. But humans, according to this movie, lack much capacity for self-discipline and forethought, and so must splurge on stupid but spectacular stunts. As if to prove this point, the producers have done their own splurging and hired Kilmer--the actorly equivalent of a rocket to Mars, compared with Buscemi's compost heap.
As they cast the lead, so too did they decide to ladle on the excitement: pounding guitars, sleeveless T-shirts, unmotivated shrieks. How were these choices made? I can venture a guess. The credits for Red Planet list three producers and two executive producers. This is a fairly standard aggregation in today's movie business; and with so many big shots keeping themselves busy on the picture, how could a mere idea survive? The story, written by a lone guy named Chuck Pfarrer, was almost sure to be buried alive; and into the dirt with it went a few other notions.
One of them might have involved some sexual role-play, based on the fact that the only females in the story are Moss, the shipboard computer (named Lucille) and a navigation robot called Amee. "She's my kind of girl," Gallagher says of the robot, just before it goes into killer mode. (It was designed for the Marines.) Somebody, maybe Pfarrer, seems to have wanted the nerdy Gallagher to feel ambivalent toward strong women: attracted to them when they shower, threatened by them when they turn into whirring kung-fu machines.
But since the production is at war with its own screenplay--have I mentioned that Red Planet is directed, more or less, by Antony Hoffman?--this kinky little idea is no better realized than the movie's religiosity. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that this latter theme gets only lip service. Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthlings in Outer Space have sought God, and found light shows. At least Red Planet spares us that final cliché--though it still makes us listen to a lot of spiritual blather.
Those Deep Thoughts are provided by Terence Stamp, who manages to be the crew's world-famous scientist despite having abandoned rationalism. Science cannot provide the answers he craves, Stamp explains to a sweetly patient Kilmer, and so he has turned to religion. Kilmer obligingly spends the rest of the picture looking for a divine purpose--which doesn't seem so misguided, considering the level of scientific expertise around him. When the crew's biologist (Sizemore) discovers a life form on Mars, he cries out, "Nematodes!" Either he's forgotten his Linnaeus--nematodes are worms--or else the solution to God's mysteries is to be found not in Outer Space but in the pages of old sci-fi magazines. These creatures are clearly arthropods: the genre's usual bugs.
Fans of the platoon-in-space movie will want to know that the Mars scenery is furnished with the necessary rocks, peaks and ravines. Fans of Carrie-Anne Moss--meaning the adolescent boys, of whatever age, who admired The Matrix--will want to know that here, too, she gets to fly around. Not every actress is suited to antigravity; and so, until such time as Moss gets the chance to deliver a performance, I will congratulate her on giving good float.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
The last chapter in Ring Lardner Jr.'s new memoir, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (Nation Books), is called "Sole Survivor." When Lardner, who died October 31, wrote it he was indeed (a) the last of a family of four boys with a famous father, the humorist and sportswriter Ring Lardner; and (b) the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten, who gained renown in 1947 when they refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities' question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" They were indicted, prosecuted and convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to prison-- in Ring's case for a year.
Among the first victims of the great Red purge to come, The Ten, also known as the Unfriendly Ten, are historically important because they were willing to risk prison to help prevent it, putting First Amendment principle ahead of personal convenience.
At the time, Billy Wilder, the witty director, cruelly and unjustly said, "Of the Unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly." Ring, who had already won his first academy award for Woman of the Year, starring Katharine Hepburn, was one of the two. The other was his buddy Dalton Trumbo, the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, who went on to win an Oscar for The Brave One, a movie he wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich.
At the time, the tabloid press and newsreels did their best to portray the Ten as obstreperous, dogmatic followers of the party line. Each of the Ten was, in fact, following his conscience, albeit they arrived at their decision on how to confront HUAC after collective deliberation with counsel, some of whom were party lawyers, others not.
Lardner's famously elegant response to the committee was a clue to how wrong that image was. "I could answer your question," he said, but "I would hate myself in the morning"--hence his memoir's title.
Even during the blacklist years, when he made his primary living writing under various pseudonyms, he never gave up on his social commitment. Thus in 1955, when Hannah Weinstein set up a production company in London and chose for its maiden effort in the new medium of television The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lardner, along with fellow blacklistees like Abe Polonsky and Walter Bernstein, leapt at the opportunity for, as he put it, commentary-by-metaphor "on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America."
After he was finally graduated from the blacklist--it took twelve years--and able to write under his own name, he gave us M*A*S*H, the black comedy that was, on the surface, about life in a medical unit during the Korean war; but beneath the surface, like Joe Heller's Catch-22, it was about the absurdities and contradictions of war itself.
Although his public positions were militant, privately he was a gentle soul. His main target was often himself. He would delight in telling how he recommended to David O. Selznick that he not acquire Gone With the Wind, the highest-grossing picture of its time, "because I objected on political grounds to the glorification of slave owners and the Ku Klux Klan." When progressives praised him for his principled stand against HUAC he would observe that the Ten did the only thing they could do under the circumstances "short of behaving like complete shits."
The loss of Lardner is a loss for both The Nation and the nation. One part Marxist democrat and two parts humanist-rationalist, he stayed true to his vision to the end. A few years ago he listed in The Nation "some of the strange things Americans believe 200 years after Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason." (Typical entries: "Eating fish is good for the brain"; "There never was a Holocaust.") He felt no comment was called for. But when a reader wrote to complain that "Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is a tiny flashlight shining here and there..." Lardner responded, "What he sees as a tiny flashlight, I call, in the words of Cicero, 'the light and lamp of life.'"
In an introduction to his memoir, I call Lardner "recrimination-challenged." In fact he seemed incapable of bitterness. Although he did once say of Martin Berkeley, a screenwriter who named a record 161 names before HUAC and specialized in writing animal pictures, "I always maintained that was because he couldn't write human dialogue."