The wonderful thing about books of letters is that one can see the letter writers’ views on the fly, at various stages of their lives. Letters written over decades are full of the contradictions, joys, griefs, high passions and the mundane moments of real human life as it progresses over the years. Unfortunately, reviewers can, if they choose, pick this or that passing comment from a letter written at some point during the subject’s life, compare it with another quote from a letter written on another occasion for another purpose in another stage of life and build a case for any preconceived notion they wish. A collection of letters provides a sandbox for ideologues hunting for a logical consistency that no life possesses.
Charles Taylor has chosen to take that approach in reviewing Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford [“Class Consciousness,” Dec. 11]. He created a portrait of a Jessica Mitford I don’t recognize from the years I spent editing these letters. It’s a portrait that won’t be familiar, either, to readers or to the many reviewers on two continents who have greeted this book with almost universal acclaim. By selective quotation, misrepresentation and interpretive sleight of hand, Taylor sets up a series of straw men and, with great flourishes, sets them aflame. The approach may be entertaining for ideological pyromaniacs; however, it is not only misleading but–as when I find my own words distorted to fit a critic’s preconceptions–personally insulting. Just a few of many possible examples:
“Mitford clings to the notion that the Communists were the only people fighting for civil rights.” Taylor seems to have derived that baseless conclusion from a footnote relating to Mitford’s musing, approvingly, about white students from the North going South to assist the civil rights movement. It’s a misappropriation of a passing comment for the purpose of “exposing” a position that Mitford never held.
Taylor claims that I, too, asserted that position by “dismissing the efforts of both the NAACP and the ACLU” and “seconding…[Robert] Treuhaft’s ridiculous implication that the NAACP didn’t concern itself with poorer blacks” and “trivializing [the NAACP’s] accomplishments as ‘some notable successes’ in overturning discriminating laws.” Yes, I wrote that the NAACP had some notable successes in the courts, which is hardly a way of trivializing its accomplishments; no one said in the book I edited that “the NAACP didn’t concern itself with poorer blacks.” Nor can I find any comment I made in the book on the ACLU, of which I am a longtime, proud member and collaborator. On what page did you find my dismissal of the ACLU, Mr. Taylor?
“Are we to seriously believe,” Taylor asks in his bewildering commentary, that “only the black middle-class was affected by” Brown v. Board of Education? No one in the book made any such ignorant assertion.
Taylor says that Mitford and Treuhaft’s praise of the work of the East Bay Civil Rights Congress “deprives blacks of any agency on their own behalf.” In fact, most of those in their chapter were blacks; and by the way, not all were Communists. The larger point was that the NAACP’s primary focus in the 1940s and early ’50s was on overturning discriminatory laws in the courts while the Treuhafts’ local chapter was operating in poorer black districts “on a day-to-day basis in the streets,” as Treuhaft put it, coming to the aid of individual victims of racism. Surely there is room for both approaches without impugning one’s civil rights credentials.
Taylor wags an accusatory finger at a statement by Treuhaft: “When Decca makes up her mind, she never changes it.” He says I found that admirable–on what evidence I can only guess since there is no such statement. In any case, that quote is laughably unrelated to Taylor’s case that “Mitford clings to what history has proved nonsense.” The quote comes from a letter the jubilant Treuhaft wrote his mother shortly after 26-year-old Jessica had consented to marry him! It has no bearing whatsoever on the rigidity of her Communist ideology in the ’40s or ’50s–which, incidentally, Mitford freely acknowledged: “Oh dear,” she wrote in a letter eight years after she left the party, “we were so rigid!”
Taylor also characterizes me as writing “approvingly” of one reason Mitford gave for leaving the party. (Several other reasons are mentioned in her letters–including the party’s doctrinaire inflexibility, which she tried to liberalize–but he chooses not to deal with that degree of nuance.) Won’t someone explain to Taylor that quoting from or describing someone’s views is not the same as approving of what she says?
Taylor can’t even bring himself to enjoy the humor that, as every other critic has written, permeates Mitford’s letters. He chooses to call it “forced heartiness.” Saddest of all is that The Nation‘s critic chose to force the irrepressible personality, the infectious humor, the social commitment and the sprightly intelligence of Jessica Mitford into his own dated ideological straitjacket.
PETER Y. SUSSMAN
Charles Taylor seems a bit unfair to Jessica Mitford. From the time I got out of the WAVEs, in 1946, I was a pacifist/socialist, working with or belonging to the Progressive Party, Rosenberg-Sobell Committee, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, Fellowship of Reconciliation (my favorite) and many more. Naturally, I have known many Communists.
In the Depression, the Communists were on the cutting edge of union organizing and civil rights. They did what others wouldn’t and were beaten and lost jobs–a few even died. The NAACP brought the Emmett Till case to world attention, but later it faded away and left Till’s mother to carry on. And the ACLU would not help defend the Rosenbergs.
My experience with Communists was that the leadership was usually stupid and arrogant. Of the rank and file: One woman used to sell the People’s World in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. She would dress up, wear flowered hats and yell, “
! Buy the People’s World! It isn’t the people’s world yet, but it will be!” I loved her! She died after being attacked trying to help a young girl in a housing project.
As for Mitford leaving the Communist Party because it became boring: It was. In the 1950s it was more cautious and concerned about its image, rather like the ACLU. Individual members were often brave and humble, and I am proud to be their fellow traveler on the road to peace and justice.
MARY GIBSON HATTEN
It does not bode well for an argument when it isn’t out of the throat-clearing stage and the writer is already resorting to the “many people loved my work” claim. My review of Decca made it clear that I was not one of the “readers” or “the many reviewers on two continents”–count ’em–“who have greeted this book with almost universal acclaim.” Peter Y. Sussman appears to want to defend Mitford against her own contention, quoted in my review, that “the whole point of letters is to reveal the writer & her various opinions & let the chips fall where they may.” Sussman wants the chips to fall only where they will reveal Mitford in the best possible light.
The point of my piece was that in these letters as in her autobiography, Mitford showed remarkable consistency–certainly neither history nor facts swayed her unshakable beliefs. It may comfort Sussman to believe that my case against Mitford amounts to “selective quotation, misrepresentation and interpretive sleight of hand.” I plead to the first. There would have to be such a thing as nonselective quotation before I could plead innocence. An examination of Sussman’s other charges should, however, dispense with his claims. He says that my statement, “Mitford clings to the notion that the Communists were the only people fighting for civil rights,” is baseless. What he doesn’t quote, as I did, is Mitford, speaking of the students who went South to work for civil rights, saying, “Isn’t it an extraordinary advance from a few short years ago–when nobody would lift a finger except us reds?” That provides as much of a base as my conclusion could have had.
Sussman’s own sleight of hand is in evidence in his attempts to weasel out of his condescending attitude toward the NAACP. In Decca he writes, “At the time, the NAACP was a prestigious association of largely middle-class blacks trying, with some notable successes, to overturn discriminatory laws in the Supreme Court.” For amplification and support, Sussman’s following line quotes Mitford’s husband, Robert Treuhaft: “the NAACP was ‘never involved in the day-to-day activities on the street,’ fighting for the rights of individual blacks, as was the [East Bay Civil Rights Congress].” Sussman contends, “No one said in the book I edited that ‘the NAACP didn’t concern itself with poorer blacks.'” Then why the characterization of the membership as largely middle class? Why does he second Treuhaft’s ludicrous claim that the NAACP was not fighting for “the rights of individual blacks”? What then, were they fighting for? If Sussman is not, as he says, belittling the impact of Brown v. Board of Education, possibly the most historic Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century, then why doesn’t he mention it by name rather than anonymously among “some notable successes”? In Decca and in his letter, he presents the NAACP’s work as if it were a lofty undertaking too removed to have an effect on the day-to-day lives of black Americans. That’s nonsense.
Sussman falsely contends that I claim “Mitford and Treuhaft’s praise of the work of the East Bay Civil Rights Congress ‘deprives blacks of any agency on their own behalf.'” That’s transparently false. My statement about blacks being deprived of agency is clearly made in response to Mitford’s romance about Communists being the only people to aid the civil rights movement.
Sussman would like me to be reminded that “quoting from…someone’s views is not the same as approving of what she says.” But neither is quoting someone’s views with no demurral, no expression of doubt, the same as refuting them. Sussman may well disapprove of much of what Mitford said. But his generally fawning prefaces hardly make that register. Thus, while Sussman may be a “longtime, proud member and collaborator” (collaborator?) of the ACLU, he finds nothing to object to in Mitford’s claim that as a “virtually all-white” organization, the ACLU “generally turned a blind eye to the vicious, rampant discrimination against blacks.” (What page, Mr. Sussman? Page 103 in the proofs.)
“When Decca makes up her mind, she never changes it” does indeed come from Treuhaft’s letter to his mother about their marriage. Is Sussman saying I can’t find examples of this in her political opinions? And while Sussman would like to claim he’s merely describing, not approving, when he writes of Mitford’s leaving the Communist Party “because it had become dull…boring. Rather like London’s debutante circuit,” that tone of dégagé amusement does little to denote disapproval. But then this quote, “Decca finally left the party, not primarily over some issue of high principle” may be the most palatable thing the poor man could come up with, given that neither Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin nor the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary was repugnant enough to Mitford to cause her to leave the party. As late as 1977 she was still advancing the absurd claim that the 1956 Soviet invasion prevented a fascist takeover of Hungary. And while Mitford did indeed acknowledge the rigidity of Communist ideology, as Sussman says, if she had any thoughts on the Czech uprising of 1968, the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the upheavals in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989, Sussman did not include them.
There may well be other sides to Jessica Mitford. They are represented neither by her two memoirs nor by the letters Sussman has chosen for Decca. He may not recognize my portrait of her. But in Sussman’s insistence that the facts are other than the ones so clearly revealed in his book, the influence of his subject is easy to discern.
To Ms. Hatten’s polite demurral, I’d just say that the long list of organizations she has belonged to or worked with, let alone credits with working toward “peace and justice,” suggests she possesses a widescreen view not present in Mitford’s tunnel vision.
AND THE WINNER WAS…
In Patricia J. Williams’s “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” (Dec. 25), Bill Montgomery’s 2006 bid for Arizona Attorney General was unsuccessful.