A few years ago, an intellectual historian uncovered the story of Betty
Friedan's formative years as a Popular Front journalist and activist in
While going about their business, great artists often make monkeys of
the people who write about them.
Legendary New York Times obit writer Alden Whitman once observed,
"Death, the cliché assures us, is the great leveler; but it
obviously levels some a great deal more than others."
That the abused child will defend its parent is no arcane phenomenon of child psychology--hell, we've seen it on Law and Order.
"Felisberto Hernández is a writer like no other," Italo Calvino
announced once, "like no European, nor any Latin American.
On September 17, PBS aired Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman
Documents. On the surface, this documentary is a posthumous homage
to a worthy blacklisted screenwriter.
My hope: empathy, compassion, the capacity to imagine that you are not unique
American labor still pays lip service to the idea that it seeks "bread
and roses too"--a higher standard of living, plus the chance for workers
to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In reality, the famous
rallying cry of the 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, is no more than a faint echo in today's unions. Few offer
what anyone would call a rich cultural experience for their members.
Most of the labor movement is no longer rooted in immigrant communities
or working-class fraternal associations of the sort that once supported
folk music, dance, theater and even literature in foreign-language
newspapers like the Forward, the Yiddish daily. Postwar
assimilation and suburbanization, the decline of indigenous
working-class radicalism and the rise of "mass culture" and
entertainment have left American workers with little claim to a culture
of their own. Beset with many current problems (including threats to
their very survival), unions are not inclined to embrace the additional
challenge of making drama, poetry or music--in new or old forms--part of
their internal life again.
The one AFL-CIO affiliate that has attempted this, on a large scale, is
the union of New York City hospital and healthcare workers, best known
by its number--1199. Now part of the Service Employees International
Union, Local 1199 launched a cultural program called Bread and Roses in
1979, with labor and foundation funding. Since then, B&R has
sponsored an impressive stream of union musicals and documentary films;
exhibits of paintings, poster art, murals and photography dealing with
workplace themes; poetry and writing classes for workers, oral histories
of their struggles--all of which help foster membership solidarity and
connection to the union.
Not for Bread Alone is the story of that effort and a brief
history of the union behind it, as told by 1199's longtime publicist,
campaign strategist and cultural impresario, Moe Foner. The book also
traces Foner's own career as a labor PR man par excellence and contains
much useful advice for today's "union communicators." The author was a
scrappy, streetwise hustler of the press who couldn't type but had on
his desk one of the most formidable Rolodexes in the labor movement. A
product of left-wing politics and CIO unionism in its Big Apple heyday,
Foner was far more effective than the AFL-CIO's current crop of
blow-dried, inside-the-Beltway "media consultants" (whose idea of"party
work" is introducing labor clients to the Democratic candidates served by
their firms, so that union treasuries and political action funds can be
milked simultaneously). Foner displayed a different kind of political
savvy, in countless picket-line battles and major lobbying efforts. As
journalist Jack Newfield says, he "could publicize like P.T. Barnum,
organize like Joe Hill and network like Bill Clinton."
For example, Foner's pioneering work on 1199 campaigns among private,
non-profit hospital workers--who didn't have the right to bargain with
management forty years ago--provides a good model for any union trying
to make organizing rights a higher-profile issue today. Not for Bread
Alone also reminds us about the important role played by the Labor
Leadership Assembly for Peace--the anti-Vietnam War coalition launched
by Foner, 1199 and their union allies in the late 1960s.
The author completed this memoir, with the assistance of former 1199
news editor Dan North, shortly before his death in January at age 86. As
the book recounts, Foner was born into a Jewish working-class family in
Brooklyn that produced not one, but four radical activists. A member of
the Communist Party from the mid-1930s "until the Khrushchev revelations
in 1956 about what went on under Stalin," Moe--along with his twin
brothers, Jack and Phil--was victimized by an early purge of leftists
from higher education. All three were forced out ofteaching or
administrative jobs at City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941. (The
resulting controversy led the highly musical Foners to change the name
of their dance band--already popular on the Catskills small-hotel
circuit--to "Suspended Swing.")
Despite their dismissal, Phil and Jack went on to have distinguished
careers as academic historians. Henry Foner--youngest of the four and
then a student at CCNY--joined the Furriers Union and later became its
president. And the author, for much of his forty-year union career,
became the living embodiment of the cultural politics that developed
during the period of the Popular Front, when American liberals and
radicals united to oppose fascism abroad and support Roosevelt's New
Deal at home. Some of the best material in Foner's book is, thus, like a
collection of old photos in a family album, faded but fascinating
because of what it reveals about the social and political milieu of a
now largely deceased generation of labor activists who managed to
survive both McCarthyism and the self-inflicted wounds of the Communist
In the 1930s and '40s, Foner observes, the left created "a vigorous
cultural life that became part of its mass appeal."
The most famous writers...appeared in the New Masses magazine,
which was close to the Communist Party. The Daily Worker had
great cartoons by people like Robert Minor, William Gropper, and Art
Young, but artists from the New Yorker also appeared there.
This was the era of the experimental Group Theater and...Waiting for
Lefty, the Clifford Odets play about striking taxi drivers.... The
International Ladies Garment Workers Union had already put on its
immensely successful musical revue, Pins and Needles, and on a
smaller scale, the American Student Union put on a musical every year.
One of them, called Pens and Pencils, was a takeoff on the Marx
Brothers.... There was a Theater Arts Committee that had a cabaret to
support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. And the YCL [Young
Communist League] was always putting on skits and shows.
Foner was hired in 1947 as education director for a department store
union. Many Manhattan store clerks of that era--like waiters and
waitresses today--were aspiring actors. So when Foner put out a call for
auditions for the union's first theatrical venture--a seventeen-song
musical review called Thursdays 'Til Nine--400 members showed up.
Through his dance band and party connections, Foner also "had access to
an unusually large number of creative people who were, because of their
political beliefs, more than happy to participate for little or no money
in union cultural events." For music, lyrics or other help, he tapped
show-business talents like Millard Lampell, later a successful Hollywood
screenwriter; playwrights Arthur Miller and Norman Rosten; film
producer/director Martin Ritt (who went on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae); comedians Sam Levinson and Irwin Corey; actors Jack Gilford and Zero
Mostel; and future TV writer Mel Tolkin.
Although professionally written and produced, Thursdays 'Til Nine
drew on the job experiences of store workers themselves and provided
humorous commentary on contemporary labor issues (in numbers like "The
Taft-Hartley Rumba"). Thousands of members applauded its performances,
and Foner's singular career was launched. The show cost only a few
thousand dollars, but in return it "reaped immense rewards in good
publicity, education on labor issues, and membership pride in their
These positive results became a hallmark of Foner productions for his
later union employers as well. The store workers soon merged with
District 65, another "center of left unionism in New York," whose
stewards were deployed in Peekskill in 1949 to protect Paul Robeson when
a right-wing mob attacked one of his concerts. At District 65, Foner ran
educational, social and cultural programs for 20,000 workers in retail,
wholesale and warehouse jobs. One of the first things he did was start a
nightclub on the top floor of the union's lower Manhattan office
Each week, a different group of members would be in charge of selling
400 tickets at fifty cents each. Rank-and-file committees would set up,
check coats, wait on tables, serve drinks, etc.... I'd line up a band.
And every Saturday night, I'd get a guest star to perform for free....
Harry Belafonte was just breaking in then, and he'd come down and sing
in his dark glasses. We were packing them in, the place was always full.
On Saturday mornings, District 65 also had a "kiddy program," which
featured sing-alongs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, dance programs
conducted by Guthrie's wife, Margie, and magic shows by Doc Horowitz,
who brought along his daughter, a "terrific ventriloquist and puppeteer"
who acted as emcee. Her name? Shari Lewis, later the star of one of the
1950s' most popular children's TV shows.
In 1952 Foner moved to 1199, where he spent three decades--editing the
union newspaper, aiding strikes and organizing campaigns, advising union
founder Leon Davis and eventually creating Bread and Roses. At
midcentury, the union was quite different from what it is today; now it
has more than 200,000 members, most of whom are black, Hispanic and/or
female. When Foner was hired by Davis, a radical immigrant from Russia,
1199 had only 5,000 members and was overwhelmingly composed of Jewish
men working as pharmacists or clerks in New York City drugstores. But,
as Foner notes, 1199 had campaigned since the late 1930s for the hiring
of black pharmacists and was one of the first unions anywhere to
celebrate Negro History Week. When 1199 began organizing primarily
nonwhite hospital workers in the late 1950s--which led to its explosive
growth over the next twenty years--the union already had a strong record
of support for civil rights.
Commitment to that cause was symbolized by 1199's close relationships
with leading black artists and entertainers. Then relatively unknown as
actors, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who contributed a loving foreword to
this book) became lifelong friends and collaborators with the author.
The couple directed or performed in a series of productions at 1199's
annual "Salute to Freedom." Much later they helped Foner create Bread
and Roses' best-known musical review, Take Care, which used
humorous songs and sketches to tell the story of hospital workers' daily
lives, their frustrations on the job and hopes for the future.
In 1199's initial hospital organizing and strikes, the union tried to
fuse civil rights and working-class consciousness. Several vivid
chapters in Not for Bread Alone describe how its "Union Power,
Soul Power" campaigns were built--first in New York, then in Baltimore,
Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, site of an epic 113-day
walkout aided by Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and
other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The
photographs accompanying Foner's memoir confirm the breadth of the
union's political alliances--with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.,
Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Adam Clayton Powell.
If the 1960s and early '70s were years of triumph for 1199, they
culminated in a decade of byzantine internal feuding. Leon Davis
suffered a stroke in 1979 and decided, after nearly five decades as
president, to turn over the reins to Doris Turner, an African-American
and former dietary clerk who headed 1199's hospital division. At the
same time, the union's founder tried to realize his longtime dream of
creating "one big union for all healthcare workers" by merging 1199 with
SEIU. Neither the merger nor the internal transfer of power proceeded as
planned. Instead, the union was plunged into a terrible "civil war,"
replete with "bitter elements of racism, sexism, red-baiting, violence,
For a majority of 1199 members, two things eventually became clear:
Turner was an incompetent autocrat and their union had become a "busted
Stradivarius." Turner purged all staff critics, surrounded herself with
goons, moved the union to the right politically, engaged in vote fraud
to win re-election and then, in 1984, led "one of the most inept,
unplanned, and disastrous strikes in New York history." To get the union
back on track, Foner and other 1199 veterans joined forces with Dennis
Rivera, a staff organizer from Puerto Rico recently fired by Turner.
They created a dissident group called "Save Our Union," which ran a
slate headed by Georgianna Johnson in a federally supervised rerun
election for 1199 officers. Johnson narrowly defeated Turner, but her
presidency was only slightly less troubled. She was soon ousted by her
former backer, Rivera, who has led 1199 in New York since 1989 (and
engineered its long-delayed affiliation with SEIU three years ago).
On the subject of 1199's "self-destruction"--what Foner calls "the most
heart-breaking experience" of his life--Not for Bread Alone is
both unreflective and unrevealing. "To some extent, we all played out
events based on our backgrounds, and mistakes were made. But the union
survived," the author writes. Elsewhere, Foner admits that "the whole
affair had disturbing overtones" but claims, unconvincingly, that during
the union's 1989 leadership race he "was removed from the day-to-day
running of 1199, and [has] only a hazy idea of the details."
As a history of 1199, then, Not for Bread Alone is best read
along with Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg's Upheaval in the Quiet
Zone (which Foner, to his credit, helped the authors research,
despite its dissection of various 1199 flaws). Upheaval appeared
thirteen years ago, when the union's bloody and embarrassing leadership
succession fight was still unresolved. Yet it remains the definitive
study of what went wrong then--and its analysis is just as relevant
today, in light of 1199's recent right turn, under Rivera, into the camp
of Republican Governor George Pataki, a questionable ally for any
"progressive" trade union.
Fink and Greenberg criticize Davis not only for his disastrous choice of
Turner as heir apparent but also for functioning as a "charismatic
patriarch" whose "unquestioned authority verged on benevolent
despotism." According to them, even the 1199 bylaw reforms championed by
Save Our Union failed to address the problem of overly centralized
decision-making in a "local" union far larger than most national ones.
"Without provisions for an elected 'chief delegate' at each hospital or
elected area directors, there is still no structural accommodation to
pluralistic power centers within the union and little place for leaders
of the future to spread their wings," they contended. "Communication as
well as decision-making will still be formulated in a room at the top."
The local's history and internal politics aside, the main question
raised by Foner's memoir is whether Bread and Roses offers a viable
model for cultural programming elsewhere in labor. Or is it too much a
product of New York City exceptionalism--a unique expression of 1199's
interracialism and now-fading political traditions, including its
Popular Front alliance with artists and entertainers long in the orbit
of the Old Left?
B&R has, from the beginning, inspired other labor arts initiatives.
Just as 1199 once tried to spread its unique brand of hospital unionism
elsewhere in the country (with varying degrees of success), Foner helped
organize, in 1980, the first in a series of Bread and Roses cultural
festivals in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which have been held there on
Labor Day weekend ever since. For almost as long, the Labor Heritage
Foundation in Washington has hosted an annual Arts Exchange and
Conference on Creative Organizing, which brings together union activists
and entertainers. LHF also sells poster art, videos and CDs of union
music to help publicize the work of labor choruses and individual
singer-songwriters. At the local level, however, few unions have the
kind of membership base and staff support--or access to foundation
funding--that has kept B&R afloat for nearly twenty-five years.
(During his period of forced exile from 1199 during the mid-1980s, even
Foner found it hard to reproduce his past successes while working
part-time for a small Meat Cutters local in Queens.)
According to Esther Cohen, Bread and Roses' current director, the
project continues to achieve its founder's goal of providing
professional-quality programming and opportunities for creative
expression by 1199 members themselves. B&R's permanent art gallery
at union headquarters currently hosts eight exhibits a year, on topics
ranging from Haitian culture and Dominican religion to the lives of
Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Pennsylvania coal miners, and the
death-row experiences of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Once a month, Cohen reports,
the gallery becomes "a cozy nightclub" and cafe, with entertainment
provided by 1199 rank-and-filers. More than 150 members recently signed
up for a creative-writing workshop as well; and as part of an amateur
photography program called "Unseen America," Bread and Roses is helping
scores of its members--and other immigrant workers--record and display
scenes of workplace and community life rarely shown in the mass media.
However, in the issue of New Labor Forum that recently published
Cohen's account of B&R activity, the Queens College magazine also
bemoaned the fact that most professionals in the arts are no longer
stirred by "the plight of working people and the intoxicating promise of
their liberation." According to NLF's editors:
For two centuries, until now that is, there was always a cultural
alternative, a point of opposition that said no to the callous
calculations of the marketplace.... While many kinds of people and
institutions have, at one time or another, joined the opposition, the
labor movement was always part of the picture, sometimes at the center
of the canvas. No more.... The labor movement is at a cultural dead end.
It has been defeated in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our
Such funereal observations were not part of Moe Foner's game. He was
ever the optimist, the union survivor and upbeat promoter of new ideas
and causes. If still on the job at B&R, he'd be on the phone right
now buttonholing talent for its next production, badgering reporters to
cover it and rallying members to fill every seat in the house--while
organizing labor opposition to US intervention in Iraq on the side! He'd
also be applauding the role played by hip-hop stars in the mass rally of
New York City teachers (and thousands of their music-loving students)
held in late May during contract talks between Mayor Bloomberg and the
United Federation of Teachers. Better than some activists in his field,
the author knew that if "labor culture" is going to be sustained, it
must be periodically renewed--that Ossie and Ruby must finally give way
to the likes of Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Erykah
Badu, all of whom graced the platform of the UFT.
As New York City union historian Joshua Freeman observed, in another
recent exchange about the future of labor-oriented art and
entertainment: "There is no going back in time, and no reason to do so.
The strength of mid-century New York left culture lay in its organic
relationship to the needs and tastes of the city's working class. It
remains for another generation, in its own way, to build a new culture
of labor and the left."
Soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the reporter Martha Gellhorn
made her way to Dachau. There she interviewed a recently liberated
doctor who told her how the Germans immersed inmates in icy water for
hours at a time to determine the human body's ability to withstand
"Didn't they scream or cry out?" asked Gellhorn. The doctor smiled.
"There was no use in this place for a man to scream or cry out. It was
no use for any man ever."
For Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies and author of People's
Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics, the exchange and the
article that surrounds it are great examples of what journalism should
be. It bears witness, it is "truthful" and "faithful to the facts," and
it matches a story with "adequate feelings and moral judgment." Gellhorn
is the first of a long procession of journalists who march through this
book over the course of the twentieth century. The best of them, in
Inglis's view, fight the good fight for democracy, decency and
international solidarity. The worst bow to the pressures of the market
or fawn before the powerful. Together, their lives teach lessons about
the purposes of journalism and its place in the history of what the
historian Eric Hobsbawm has popularized as the short twentieth century,
the period stretching from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the
fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Inglis insists that the purpose of journalism is about more than
providing objective information. He conducts a respectful but pointed
debate with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: From the
Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth
Maker. Where Knightley criticizes generations of war correspondents
for partiality, errors and becoming little more than government
propagandists, Inglis treats objectivity as an impossibility. Truthful
reporting is possible, Inglis argues, but the search for the facts and
their presentation can't be separated from values and beliefs. "The
moral view is always somebody's, located somewhere," Inglis writes,
adding later that "the best journalists square their human allegiance
with their feeling for truth."
In showing how journalists responded to war, revolution, the Depression
and the cold war, Inglis charts a ragged story that identifies the
reciprocal relationship between journalists and their time. Themes that
structure other histories of journalism--the quickening speed of
communications, the growth of freedom of expression, professionalization
of the press--receive less attention. More important for Inglis is how a
journalist in a particular time and place balanced ideals and
expedience, and helped to move the world toward more cruelty or less.
His method is to present a series of biographies, grouped according to
events or themes. With a few exceptions (such as the Italian journalist
and political theorist Antonio Gramsci) those chronicled here are
British or American. Gellhorn's story illuminates the moral lessons of
covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Walter Lippmann's life
suggests the challenges of retaining intellectual integrity amid the
American rise to globalism and Lippmann's own proximity to the heights
of power. Harry Evans's career at the Times of London shows what
happens when an intelligent and crusading editor meets with the purse
and politics of a Rupert Murdoch.
The length of the biographies varies, from more than two dozen pages for
the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to a few sentences for the murdered
Irish reporter Veronica Guerin. The longer biographies in People's
Witness provide rewarding lessons, but the short ones can be too
brief to be satisfying.
The sources for People's Witness are generally published
biographies, memoirs and collected articles. (The book contains some
unfortunate errors. James "Scotty" Reston is rendered as "Sonny." Arthur
O. Sulzberger of the New York Times is presented as "Sulzbeyer."
And Ben Bagdikian is identified as Ben "Bagdikim.") Fresh material for
the volume comes from the author's interviews and own analytical
insight. Some of the book's most memorable lines are in its summary
passages, as when Inglis describes Alistair Cooke as "tranquilly
reactionary," and Norman Mailer, on the eve of writing The Armies of
the Night, as one who "had done everything a dustjacket could
Yet People's Witness is more than a collective biography that
extols engaged journalism and criticizes conventional ideas about
objectivity. What makes this book valuable is not one life story or
another but its historical perspective--the place of journalism from
World War I to 1989.
Inglis's story is largely an international narrative, framed mostly by
British and American experiences during World War II and the cold war.
The book's chapter on World War II, revealingly titled "The Blessed
Simplicity of Action," argues that for many journalists the war provided
a way of reconciling reporting and antifascism. In the story of Edward
R. Murrow, Inglis finds broadcasting that closed the distance between
Britain and America with vivid details and high ideals. During the
bombing of London, Murrow told listeners how "shrapnel clicked as it hit
the concrete road nearby." Covering the Normandy invasion, he said it
was possible to imagine hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" above
the roaring motors of Allied bombers.
Things get messier during the cold war. Some American reporters, such as
I.F. Stone, maintained their independence. Others uncritically accepted
government lines. In discussions of coverage of the Korean War, Vietnam
and more, Inglis's dual perspective--British and American--provides a
second line of sight on America's global struggle with Communism. For
many American readers, the book is likely be an introduction to
Commonwealth journalists--John Pilger and James Cameron, for
example--whose perspectives have departed from the standard frames found
in the US media.
For all its cruelty and bloodshed, and for all the confusion that has
appeared since its end (especially since September 11, 2001), the short
twentieth century was a remarkably good period for journalism. The years
from the end of World War II to the end of the cold war, in particular,
saw a flowering of public service broadcasting, muckraking, dissenting
critics, samizdat publishers, adventurers reporting from
hellholes and reporters' efforts to hold democratic countries to their
best values. Why?
Part of the explanation has to do with historical circumstances. As
People's Witness suggests, memorable journalism opposes something
in the name of something better. (American journalists today may
subscribe to a belief in "objectivity," but some of their most revered
forebears--Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Jessica Mitford--have been
muckrakers with a pronounced political purpose in their work.) During
World War II and the cold war, journalists in Britain and America had a
great choice of adversaries--from fascists to Stalinists to citizens of
democratic countries who trampled their country's best values in the
name of fighting Communism. Even if the early years of the cold war were
marked by an excessive faith in government sources among American
journalists, once conflict broke out within government over the Vietnam
War, journalists began to expand and enrich public debate.
As communications professor Michael Schudson has observed, news gains
power in societies when people believe that if they are armed with
knowledge, they can influence the course of events. America in the era
of the civil rights movement was such a place, and it produced great
journalism that connected the demands of the oppressed with the
consciences of the many.
In the same period, the successes of social democracy--or at least the
mixed economy--gave journalists breathing room from the kind of economic
pressures that afflict them today. In the extraordinary thirty years
after World War II, in Western Europe and North America, nations
concluded that the market was not to be the measure of all things.
Activist governments were willing to provide everything from national
health insurance to grants for artists. In journalism this meant
financial support for public broadcasters who were, at least in theory,
independent of both the political pressures of the state and commercial
pressures of advertisers. The best work of the British Broadcasting
Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service testifies to the
enduring validity of this idea. Among private broadcasters, specifically
in American television, federal regulations required fairness and public
service in broadcasting--a requirement that fostered, in thoroughly
commercial networks, the creation of substantial news and documentary
units. The death of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 led to the decline of
public service broadcasting. People's Witness offers yet more
proof that journalists, whatever their party affiliation, have a strong
interest in the maintenance of societies where the profit motive does
not always rule.
In America, the journalists of 1945 to 1989 also enjoyed the benefit of
reporting for a society characterized by mass media and mass politics.
Particularly in television, journalists could act with the confidence
that they were reaching large segments of their fellow citizens. Today,
in the age of 24/7 cable television, when the public is subdivided into
niche markets, much news and journalism can seem to be both ubiquitous
and insubstantial. Then came September 11.
From journalists, in Inglis's view, the good journalistic responses to
9/11 combined individual survivors' stories and "what they could count
on as the trustiest of their national values," finding its heroes in
self-sacrificing firefighters. Some of the worst reactions, he argues,
came from elements of the left--which he would normally support--that
failed to recognize the flaws in radical Islamism and the virtues of
Western democracy. He identifies three journalists whose work can help
bring us into an uncertain future: Seymour Hersh, who "discovers what we
could not possibly discover for ourselves, and tells us what it is";
Tim Judah, whose reporting from the Balkans and then Afghanistan "moved
easily between the obligatory self-deprecation of being there and
the sure deployment of big strategic tropes"; and Michael Ignatieff, who
calls for an internationalism with a strong sense of both ideals and
Is this enough? As People's Witness suggests, journalism as an
institution rises and falls with the currents of its time. Journalists
as individuals sometimes do better. Since economics triumphed over
politics, it is harder to envision a solution to the market pressures
that deform public and private broadcasters. This book, for all its
virtues, has no obvious solution to that problem.
But in the lives of journalists, and in Inglis's ruminations on the
meaning of journalism, possibilities emerge. In the face of Pentagon
media managers who would censor war news in the name of keeping up
morale on the home front, journalists will need Knightley's dogged
insistence on independence and truth. In the face of the kind of men who
murdered Daniel Pearl, journalists will need Inglis's stouthearted
vision of reporting that stands for democracy and decency, and against
cruelty and sectarianism. But without a new version of the ideals and
structures that serve to protect public service journalism, will this be
William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about
writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a
horse on the cover of your novel: "The people who buy it will think it's
some goddamned shoot-up. And they'll hate it when it isn't."
For more than a century, picking up a "western" meant caressing a myth.
The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who'd left behind the corrupt
world--always somewhere to the east--came to a land of primeval beauty
and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice,
prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the
vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages,
horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no
choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms--often with the aid
of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence,
regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad
guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the
wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent
but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn
stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor
a silver bullet.
Louis L'Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those
lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all
over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone,
1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the
myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself.
The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue
roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its
variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest
runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to
grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less
uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an
Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or
unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn't find a major
publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.
"These stories have trees in them," he was told. And in a snotty review
in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called "puerile" and "dopey" and
was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved
canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not
in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth--except the
happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory
foreword from Kittredge's friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a
predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded
killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they
deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another.
"My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys,
reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail,
and could never have been enough anyway," Kittredge eventually admitted.
Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine
asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of "redneck secrets."
Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in
one of Kittredge's writing workshops at the University of Montana told
me that Kittredge recounted McDonell's advice this way: Give me five
scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy.
Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene,
bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It's that easy.
And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than
most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He's since
written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories
that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very
first essay: "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is
embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a
banker in broad daylight."
Yee-haw! Now we're getting someplace.
Kittredge's first essay collection, Owning It All, published in
1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books
to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He
followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his
youth and early manhood on his grandfather's ranch in southeastern
Oregon, a backlands enclave in a "huge drift of country...pretty much
nonexistent in the American imagination," where "we knew a history
filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies." Kittredge took
it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to
Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy
buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a
swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined
through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation
schemes and an overweening lust for property.
Over something like three decades my family played out the entire
melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another
real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories,
domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the
story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact
over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness
about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are
like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is
All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.
Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of
Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin,
not surprisingly, with women--Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the
Archbishop) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)--and continue with
writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne
Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the
bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that's
merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list
that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics
(Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott
Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have
enriched the region's literature.
Stegner dreamt of a West that had "a civilization to match its scenery,"
and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His
influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge,
The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn't live to see but
would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture
of the region had come. "The Westerner is less a person than a
continuing adaptation," he wrote. "The West is less a place than a
process." On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total
In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of
tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer)
and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of
history and the earthy flux of the present, and he's as fine a travel
companion as a reader could hope for. I'm with him for all but the golf.
It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and
Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug
Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke
in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a
perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest's
Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not
the tale is true--don't you like to think so?--it symbolizes the tension
at the heart of the region's history. What is progress? What are its
costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in
which we have less but are more?
Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco
Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles
between 1025 and 1100 AD. "The houses were fitted together from tons of
red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls,
five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of
thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in
mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses
or wheels." They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward
domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To
this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever
the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The
Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built
cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they
One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist.
Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the
landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be
compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought
would also send that city's inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable
climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed
out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future,
tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or
Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man's most
ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what
Kittredge calls "one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth," a
labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted
by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, "To grasp the
nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres
Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible." Kittredge
consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don't last
forever. I'm surprised it doesn't make him happier to think that dams
are even more ephemeral.
Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes
against humans and nature--that's one side of the coin. On the other:
spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes,
hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into
timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O'Keeffe to Mogollon
Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls,
decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories,
might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the
middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing "my mother's
powered face that last time before she was interned." You might be
forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison
But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the
keystone moments of the book. "On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi,
a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the
mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting
on me, running some scam, and I turned away." His failure to connect
gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a
"message" from the ancients: "Be communal, join up, share your goods,
and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and
you'll be as close to home as you're likely to be." He could have merely
bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and
despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some
cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own
homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for
anyone who does it seriously. "Intimacy with otherness is close to
impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of
anthropologist," he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard,
talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and
tears, bedrock and paradox.
From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila
National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles
in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the
east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks
covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and
grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month
ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of
commas, scourge of the split infinitive. "Flight involves a spot of
reinventing the sweet old psychic self," Kittredge writes. Amen.
Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven's
Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge's when he's on the road. Yet
the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on
the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a
gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of
exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling
Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of
a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of
I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All
across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape--dams,
clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe,
some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of
progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the
future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a
ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a
few cues from the ancients: "Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don't
destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the
seventh generation, the long future."