This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The legacy of Andrew Kopkind, the celebrated political journalist and associate editor of The Nation, continues in these pages to this day. Margaronis was his first intern and wrote this letter to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death.
It’s a strange habit, writing letters to the dead. But I sat down just now to write something else, and I opened a notebook I was keeping in the depths of the Greek crisis (gloom followed by doom, you would say), and on the first page I found these rather earnest questions:
“November 3rd: Leafing through The Thirty Years’ Wars, and thinking about political exhaustion and disillusion, and how Andy lived it and recovered from it, and what was lost in the recovery—a kind of engagement? Or just the belief that one could change things rapidly and completely? Energy and hope or an illusion of grandeur?”
So you come back, after twenty years, over and over again. You come back like the Cheshire Cat: a quizzical smile—I know that you know that I know. Your brown bald head bent over the pepper plants: part of the nightshade family. Broad fingers with garden soil worn into the nail beds. Trousers a little too tight from evening out the pie. The p-p-p-p of politics, brain faster than your tongue. Arms round the loaded laundry basket. And then the clatter of the keys, sentences cornering tightly, glued to the edge of thought. Sometimes it’s slicker than that: don’t get it right, get it written, go for the gag, you said. But even then it feels true, in the sense of being true to something, to what mattered then.
You emerge an hour later and head for the stove to check the sweet-and-sour cabbage soup. You want the sharpness of vinegar, the velvety undertones of almost-melted meat.
So, Andy, here we are: I in rainy London, you, ashes under an oak at the top of Kopkind Road, but both of us somehow also in Annie and Victor Navasky’s apartment with a roomful of people who loved you and who love you still. Relativity, you see, and memory, and the persistence of print. So much has happened in twenty years, children and 9/11 and Obama and Occupy and the deaths of friends and gay marriage and Iraq and the Arab Spring and climate change and smartphones and on and on and on…
But if you were really here—a little thinner maybe, eyes still sharply blue, picking at the good pickings still left on the table—the thing I’d want to ask you about (always a little earnestly) is that moment of exhaustion that came for you when the end of the ’60s turned too dark: about fraying and regrouping, about radical hope. The moments and the movements come and go, power shifts a little, rearranges itself to contain them. We burn out, pick up, go on a different way—or not. How do we do that? How do we hold on to the energy and the edge?