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?