I’ve got a YouTube channel now! I have three videos thus far. I’m gonna try to do one every week or two. Here’s a link to the latest: here.
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I’ve got a YouTube channel now! I have three videos thus far. I’m gonna try to do one every week or two. Here’s a link to the latest: here.
Also consider subscribing to my newsletter if you haven’t, at http://peterberard.substack.com
Doris Lessing, “Stories” (1978) – I often find short story collections difficult to review. The lack of a single perspective or narrative thread throws me some, I guess. I also find Doris Lessing a little hard to write well about, which is odd because she is one of my favorite writers. Like a few other great writers I generally write short about — Primo Levi comes to mind — in her realist fiction, Lessing wrote, in direct, compelling language, about what she saw. She appears to have been mostly telling the truth, too, anyway the truth as she saw it. She didn’t have much of an “angle.” She was a feminist, but was never a movement person. She was a leftist, but left the Communist Party in the fifties and never got back into movement politics in that direction either. Her feisty, independent streak and extremely low tolerance for bullshit handicapped her in terms of following the ideologies of the time (arguably, any time). I’ve yet to read much of her science fiction, I plan on getting to that.
This is a collection of her short stories (except those about Africa, where she grew up in a South Rhodesian settler household, for some reason- maybe just length) ranging from a period from the 1950s to the late 1970s. With some exceptions — a great story about a boy determined to swim through a dangerous underwater tunnel, and another great one about British tourists creeped out by postwar West Germans — They cover many of the topics and concerns we see in her longer realist works, such as “The Golden Notebook.” We get some stuff about how being a communist was confusing, a fair amount of material about the hypocrisy and opacity of the British class system to which Lessing was something of an inside-outsider, and more than anything, we get Lessing’s depictions of women’s lives. The compilation includes stories of young women trying to find their way, middle-aged wives and spinsters negotiating the grind of marriage (or lack thereof), old women holding on to their dignity. In all of them, a combination of societal forces, internalized weaknesses, and the actions of inadequate men batter these women about, sometimes to their madness or death.
There are no plaster saints in Lessing’s work, no tiny violins playing for the victims of the world. The women are (almost) as cynical and self-dealing as the men- Lessing knows that oppression does not make saints out of people, it makes messes. Maybe this is one of the reasons I like Lessing so much. There is a lot of feeling in her work — love and it’s attendant miseries, grief, anger, isolation, fleeting stabs of joy — and there is no sentimentality, not even a whiff of it that I’ve noticed. Take, for instance, her notions on child rearing. Marriage has its compensations for women, in Lessing’s world; child rearing, almost none. She finds changing diapers and cleaning up after kids boring, a waste of a smart woman’s talents, and isn’t shy about saying so- wasn’t shy, in her own life, about leaving her children in Rhodesia to come up to London to start a literary career. A contemporary writer either wouldn’t say that, or hedge it in with so much self-analysis and back and forth it’d be rendered meaningless. Lessing says it, plainly, and explores the consequences of its truth. That is worth something, in this world. *****
Temporal frames distend and collapse when I look at “A Confederacy of Dunces,” one of my favorite novels: the early 1960s, when it was written; the early 1980s, when it was published; the early 2000s, when I first read it; the early 2020s, as I write this. I try to explain the novel to people who don’t know much about it- “the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a gigantic eccentric with a medieval mindset let loose on mid-twentieth century New Orleans,” I’ll say, and the response I’ll get is “oh, he sounds like today he’d be an alt-right forum troll!” It’s a thought I’ve had myself, though these days I’ve been leaning away from that conclusion. Let’s just say I recognize that a character like Ignatius, a fat thirty year old virgin living with his mother and screaming about violations of “geometry and theology” comes off a certain way today for very legitimate reasons… but it’s still wrong, and the way that it’s wrong speaks to the uniqueness of what John Kennedy Toole accomplished.
Maybe a “just the facts” approach to the book is called for here… “A Confederacy of Dunces” follows the doings of Ignatius Reilly and assorted people with whom he is in contact across a few weeks in early sixties New Orleans. Tracking the narrative incident by incident won’t work, too much occurs. Ignatius is ejected from the cozy womb of his house with his mother when she drunkenly crashes their car into a building, causing damages that forces Ignatius into the workforce to repay. Going to work, as far as Ignatius is concerned, is the central perversion of a historical epoch that has only gotten more and more perverse since the pre-Reformation period. He gets a job as a clerk in a pants factory and as a cart-based hot dog man, and is fired from both jobs due to a mixture of spectacular incompetence and sabotage- it’s hard to tell where the one begins and the other ends. His mother, meanwhile, grows concerned about his increasingly erratic behavior and her own shrinking list of options, and egged on by new friends, moves towards decisively ending Ignatius’s free existence.
Each scenario adds new characters with their own trajectories that intersect at various angles to create comedic situations: the proprietress of a dive bar who looks to make a quick sleazy buck any way she can; a hapless policeman; a black man forced to work for sub-minimum wage looking to do some sabotage of his own; the owner of the pants factory and his wife; a member of the city’s gay demimonde; Ignatius’s old college lady-frenemy and civil rights agitator; and a few more.
All of the characters in the book are what I modestly call “Berard-complete”: they are believable characters with motivations but without tedious fleshing out and psychologizing ala mainstream literary fiction. The character who makes the most out of a “rich inner life” is Ignatius, who is at one and the same time something of a wonder of complexity, a complete failure as a human being, and a repudiation of most accepted ideas of “character development” and depth psychology. This approach to character runs into some contemporary issues. Tedious complexity (which usually means inconsistency and unreality, but that’s a story for another day) is the sine qua non for “fleshed out” characters, “fleshed out” characters from marginalized groups is a major progressive literary bona fide and, more to the point, a way to avoid being labeled a “white bro” writer or whatever. Ignatius is fleshed out, figuratively and literally- he overawes other characters and readers with his fleshiness and persona, his sudden shifts in mood and ideas (all explicable within his larger system), with, as he puts it, his “rather grand being.” It’s a good thing for the other characters and the world they live in, I think Toole might argue, that they aren’t. This is just another way reading this book collapses frames of assumption that build up and layer over each other over time.
These descriptions don’t really get across what the book is like. Humor is notoriously difficult to analyze in such a way that the funniness remains intact. Toole uses third person omniscient narration to keep all of these characters in play. He mostly lets the situations spool themselves out but isn’t shy about letting the reader know the dire facts of the situation when it makes things funnier, typically some situation involving Ignatius’s body or a botched attempt at communication. In terms of genre, it’s satire in the old sense of Juvenal and Swift (the title of the book is extracted from the writings of the latter), of holding up a mirror to society and showing its distortions, while at the same time being a comedy in the Shakespearean sense- everyone winds up, if not married, then content enough with their just desserts. One wonders — well, I wonder anyway — if this book being released and becoming a hit when it did, in the early eighties, helped cause the satire-comedy confusion that continues to this day. It seamlessly combines the two and was a hit with the Gen Xers who have done a lot to define humor in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries… more funny temporal dilations attributable to this singular novel.
One of the reasons this book is funny with time is because of its unusual path to publication, which isn’t funny at all. Toole finished the book in 1963 and shopped it to publishers. Rejection wasn’t the issue- all writers face that. What Toole got was an extended back and forth with the editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, a major figure in the industry, best known for having discovered “Catch-22.” Gottlieb kept praising Toole on the one hand and denying him on the other, insisting that in order to be published, the book would need to have “a point.” Toole never satisfied Gottlieb on that score and eventually gave up. After facing a series of further rejections and declining mental health for much of the rest of the sixties, Toole asphyxiated himself with car exhaust in 1969, at age 31. His mother, Thelma, with whom Toole was close (she is, arguably, the model for Ignatius’s mother Irene, an ambiguous tribute if there ever was one), spent the next decade trying to get publishers interested in the manuscript. The foreword to my copy of “Confederacy” is by prominent novelist Walker Percy, who tells the story of how this strange woman shoved her dead son’s book into his hands, how he wanted it to be bad so he could go about his business, but it turned out to be “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Percy shepherded it into print and the rest is history. I’m not the biggest fan of the Percy books I’ve read, but I owe him a debt of gratitude for hearing Thelma out. We can rage at the gatekeepers like Gottlieb, if we want, and I’ve seen some “Confederacy” nerds do so, with more or less justification. But even then, the book and way it plays with time doesn’t make it easy for us- Toole got the last laugh.
It’s a mistake, from what I can tell, to read too much of Ignatius into John Kennedy Toole. Toole could function outside of New Orleans, away from his mother, unlike Ignatius. He had friends and lovers and was apparently a hit at the Tulane cocktail circuit when he taught there. But like Ignatius, he had a lot to communicate and difficulty finding listeners, especially listeners not keen on fitting his words into one or another agenda of theirs. Ignatius could not have written something like “A Confederacy of Dunces” — that took someone who strived, got somewhere, but never truly got himself across (except posthumously), like Toole. Like a lot of great humor, “A Confederacy of Dunces” relies on the necessity and impossibility of communication. We need to say what is going on with us but we can never be sure we are saying it right or are being understood properly. The calamities this causes, the whys and wherefores that can be processed and laughed at from a distance and the immediacy of squirming discomfort great writers and comedians can make you feel witnessing this most basic human problem, is probably my favorite kind of humor, if I had to get analytical (i.e. not funny) about it. This puts “A Confederacy of Dunces” in a third of the classic genres, along with satire and comedy: tragedy, the tragedy of failure to connect or to connect only under false pretenses. Managing to keep the satirical, the comedic, and the tragic ball in the air at the same time is not the least of Toole’s feats.
Did Toole manage to communicate with us, beyond the grave, as it were? There’s near infinite ways to understand (or misunderstand) “A Confederacy of Dunces” — as goofy humor, as southern gothic, as New Orleans tourism ad, as predicting the modern reactionary troll as discussed near the beginning of this piece, as “pointless” like Gottlieb thought, etc. The pedant in me — maybe the Ignatius, though unlike him, I try to treat my dear mother well — wants to say all of those are wrong, that Toole didn’t, couldn’t communicate through the fog of his lacking interlocutors (except maybe to me, the right one). But no- there’s basis for most or all of those, and it’s genuinely a good thing high school kids (like I was when I first read it), New Orleanians, the legion of failed film adaptors (everyone from Jim Belushi to Divine to Will Ferrell has been cast as Ignatius at some point or another) get what they get out of it. Out of the tragedy of the human need to communicate, sometimes, something good grows- and in keeping with its roots in the murk of discourse, it will be something different for everyone. This is the real way to collapse time: to tell stories, always changing but maintaining recognizable lineaments, across the years.
René Guénon, “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times” (1945) (translated from the French by Lord Northbourne) – “Traditionalism” is a thing among the far right kids these days. As I’ve written in a few places, seemingly all of them confuse “Tradition,” the mystical bundle of essential truths the original early-twentieth century Traditionalists believed in, and “tradition,” i.e. whatever bits of the past a zoomer chud thinks is cool. And they’re not generally deep readers in any event. The only name amongst the Traditionalists they really check is that of Julius Evola, waving around copies of “Revolt Against the Modern World” like little totems, which, more than a text, the book — any book — is to them. I thought it would be interesting to look more at some of the other Traditionalists from the early twentieth century, especially René Guénon, arguably the granddaddy of them all and a major influence on Evola. To the extent Evola is having a moment in the sun, Guénon lives in his shadow — put the search term “Rene Guenon” into the Wikipedia search bar, and Julius Evola’s article is the first result — and I wondered why that was.
Reading “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times,” arguably Guénon’s great Traditionalist statement (others say it’s other books- these folks are squabblers), does indeed shed some light on this question of Guénon’s twenty-first century reception. From previous readings, I understood that Evola emphasized action in this world, where Guénon preached something closer to withdrawal- Evola the warrior-priest (wannabe) vs Guénon the priest (wannabe, but closer than Evola got to his beau ideal). Evola got involved in fascism, recruited for the SS, and inspired terrorists during the Years of Lead; Guénon fucked off to Cairo for the war years and became a Sufi mystic. I also knew that Evola explicitly racialized Traditionalism much more than did Guénon, making Aryans the bearers of the sacred Tradition and Jews it’s traducer.
What I didn’t know before reading a full length Guénon work was how fucking boring he was. I wouldn’t call Evola an exciting writer. He would go on at length about all sorts of nonsense in “Revolt,” his later work amounts to edgy self-help, and he was no stranger to pedantry. But Guénon puts him in the shade, pedantry-wise, and does so in plodding, Aristotelian writing. It’s worth remembering Guénon came out of the French right-wing Catholic milieu of his time, and Thomism — LARPing Thomas Aquinas’s application of Aristotelian thought to Christianity, just without the actual vital lived belief Aquinas brought to the picture — was big stuff with that crowd. Every term — quality, quantity, time, space, science, craft, art, etc etc — needs to be defined and redefined because our modern world is so fallen that we don’t know what terms mean anymore… but what Guénon mostly means in his redefinition is “the usual definition, but excluding stuff that aesthetically displeases me.”
The basic point of the book is that we are now in an “age of quantity,” where modernity and egalitarianism have made everything from personalities to consumer goods so standardized that nothing has unique qualities anymore. The Tradition — the one path to enlightenment handed down the ages from time immemorial to select bands of initiates — is the only thing that can save us from this fate, but probably not until the time cycle (borrowed from Hinduism) cycles down through this vulgar age and back to a golden age of spirituality and quality.
This reminds me of nothing so much, oddly enough, as something in the works of Orson Scott Card. In Card’s “Alvin Maker” series, the big enemy of the main character, Alvin, a mage based on Mormon founder Joseph Smith, is no less than the element of water. Alvin brings things together and raises them to their essences- water submerges and smooths everything out into sameness. Card relates how water constantly tries to kill Alvin, through drowning, waterborne disease, etc. But… like… Alvin is seventy-odd percent water! If water wants to kill him, why don’t his cells just do the deed?! The early Alvin Maker books are among Card’s better books before he started to suck/became more of an asshole, but you can see the lack of thoughtfulness and mental balance that helped bring Card low. You need water, along with the other three elements. You need entropy and even death for a balanced system where things grow.
Guénon is a little smarter than Card and so doesn’t come out and say quantity is unimportant or bad in and of itself. It’s just how modernity substitutes quantity for quality that is at issue. Still- as far as I’m concerned, quantity is a quality all its own. God favors the big battalions, as Voltaire put it. A fine (fewer molecules) point pierces better than a dull (more molecules) one. Quantitative changes make quality differences.
Blah blah, etc etc… this is the sort of talk we’re reduced to when dealing with Guénon, idiotic generalities dressed up in erudite clothes and put in the service of elitism. As I read, I found myself casting around for points of interest and finding very few. One I did find was the translator of this work, Lord Northbourne, who did his best with what was doubtless highly persnickety French. Northbourne was an Olympic medalist in rowing and the inventor of the phrase “organic farming” along with being a Traditionalist translator! If you’re wondering, the Northbourne lordship goes back to the 1790s when some relative was a bureaucrat/fundraiser for the king’s wars, not the mists of time, but that’s Traditionalism for you. All in all, a shit book, probably “better” than Evola — smarter, less racist — but duller. *’
Jeff Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” (2017) – One interest my sisters and I had in common when we were kids was cults. Whenever something about cults was on tv — and it seemed that it happened pretty frequently in our nineties youth — there was no more arguing over what to watch (for my younger readers, this was from an era when most middle-class families had only one tv, and the internet wasn’t much of a thing yet). It was presumably from one of these tv programs that I learned about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I thought it might be interesting to get a better idea of what went on for historical purposes and so picked up this book.
Jeff Guinn, a journalist, exhaustively documents Jones’s early life and the activities of the Temple. Of course, we all know going in what Jones became, and so we are primed, jumpy, like people watching a horror movie. Will child Jim reveal what a monster he would become? When will we get the gruesome details of all the weird shit that must have been going on at the Peoples Temple?
Well… Jones was something of an odd little kid, bold, theatrical, an accomplished liar from an early age… but not at all outside the ambit of how kids act. He didn’t have a good family life — maimed WWI vet dad, domineering delusional mother, in the context of upright, disapproving small town Indiana — but nothing truly spectacularly wrong. It probably did help him become the charismatic megalomaniac he became, both because his mother insisted he was destined for great spiritual power and because he had the attraction of one of those guys who needs mothering. This is roughly how he won his wife, Marceline, who would be with him every step of the way on his journey to Jonestown.
As for Peoples Temple, for a long time, and it seems clear Guinn hates to admit it, it actually did do a lot of good for a lot of people. Starting in Indianapolis, Jones created a genuinely racially and class-integrated organization. He worked indefatigably for the welfare of his people, sorting out bureaucratic hassles, feeding the hungry, providing clothing. The Peoples Temple nearly single-handedly integrated many of the businesses of Indianapolis by the expedient of just showing up as integrated groups, and making it clear they would keep doing so regardless of what happened. The reader, primed by their knowledge of what happened at Jonestown and what they know of other cults (Scientology, say) keeps waiting for the catch. Early on, there wasn’t one. Jones and Marceline begin opening up pay-what-you-can old folks homes, and you cringe, waiting for them to exploit the poor old people- but no, they were some of the best facilities in the state. Jones badgers white business owners to hire his black followers, and you wait for it to be a scam that makes integration look bad- nope, the followers work hard and make a good impression.
Things got weirder as they got on. Worried about nuclear war, Jones moves his congregation from Indianapolis to rural California. They continue doing good works but paranoia intensifies (no doubt helped along by the very real revelations of government spying on and sabotaging progressive groups). This allowed Jones to increase his control. Never one to brook opposition, he began going through the usual tyrant’s playbook, encouraging snitching, cutting followers off from the outside, etc. At the same time, he began making moves with power players in California politics. He got in, somewhat, with the Hollywood glitterati crowd, garnering praise from the ever-credulous Jane Fonda among others. He delivered votes and campaign work for liberal San Francisco pols like George Moscone. He had an official audience with Rosalyn Carter after Jimmy Carter got elected. He was something of a pillar of the community, though it was never enough for him.
This is also when things take the more salaciously hinky turn the reader presumably awaited. Physical punishment became a thing within the Temple, including one guy who got his junk smashed flat by a rubber hose (admittedly, for pedophilia, which you can see wanting harsh penalties for). Jones more and more insisted on being God, or Jesus, or the reincarnation of Lenin (more on Peoples Temple socialism anon). He also started sleeping with his followers, including at least one underage girl, publicly sexually humiliating some and basically sexually assaulting others (especially male followers, during his occasional forays into bisexuality). He also started talking a lot about destruction and about the example of Masada, where the Jewish Zealot rebels slew themselves rather than let the Romans take them alive.
Jones was always interested in having his own little remote colony, a perfect socialist utopia/place where he’d have complete control. He was already looking into Guyana, fledglingly independent and possibly the weakest country in the Americas at the time, as a place to set up a rural commune, when articles started coming out about how weird Peoples Temple was appeared in the San Francisco press. It’s weird how sensitive Jones was to bad press. He fled to Guyana with as many of his followers as he could convince to follow him, to a settlement barely hacked out of some of the thickest jungle on earth, where his people worked sixteen hour days in the sun while an increasingly unhinged Jones ranted at them via loudspeaker about the coming apocalypse.
As cult panic took hold in hungover post-sixties America, more and more people began looking critically into Peoples Temple, including California congressman Leo Ryan. In a very seventies turn, much of the action against Jones turned on a complicated paternity/divorce/custody battle. Ryan came down to investigate, a few Temple members tried to leave with him, Jones had his goons murder Ryan and a few others. Realizing he was at the end of his tether, Jones took his people with him. Something like nine hundred people — nearly three hundred of them children — died out in the jungle. Jones didn’t drink the Flavor Aid (not kool-aid, as in the sayings). Cyanide poisoning is a nasty way to die. He shot himself.
What can we learn, here? Guinn restrains himself admirably in terms of trying to slap a moral on the story. As he puts it, unlike most cults, Peoples Temple really did appeal to the best in the people, their altruism, empathy, and desire to be helpful to the world. In the end, Guinn sort of shrugs and says this is just one of those “evil in the hearts of man” things, with a little soupçon here and there of the desire to believe and belong driving people to do unimaginable things. There’s truth to these.
Let’s dig a little though- throughout the book, Jones, the Peoples Temple, their followers, their actions and their beliefs are described as “socialist.” At first, I thought Guinn might have been attributing that to them himself, his own reading, but no, he provides quotes of them talking socialism. This was difficult for me, not just because it sucks to have such a villain describe themselves the way I do (there’s plenty of those historically, after all) but because of my ingrained pedantry. Jones was of that post-McCarthy tendency (that we’re not shot of yet) to think of the word “socialism” as designating mostly “organized sharing and niceness” with some overtones of “what self-declared socialist states do.” This is not a useful definition of socialism, which I define as the working class’s control over the means of production and governing institutions derived therefrom (as our governing institutions are derived from the capitalist mode of production). Did Jones even know about that idea? Peoples Temple followers threw themselves into all kinds of causes pre-Guyana, but if they ever joined a union picket line, Guinn doesn’t report it. Labor conditions within the Temple were abhorrent and naturally, no one even dreamed of organizing against “Father” Jones to improve them, let alone control them.
I spoke some about how “normal” and even decent Jones and the Temple seemed early on. Even at the end, Leo Ryan found far fewer people willing to jump ship than he thought he’d find. Very few people were coerced, in the classical sense of gun-to-the-head force, by Peoples Temple. Rather, Jones drew people in through his good deeds and socialism-lite talk and then slowly cut them off from other options. But most of them could have walked at any time (this did become harder, practically, in the jungle, but not impossible), and several did. Any good con relies on the complicity of the mark, the desire to believe.
None of this is to say there weren’t red flags from the beginning. Above all else, Jones was a liar. Especially early on, in Indiana, he did a lot of public faith healing, pulling chicken gizzards from planted followers and claiming he healed tumors they didn’t know about. He lied about believing in God and the Bible, insisting to initiated followers that he was “infiltrating” organized Christianity for his social message. Jones’s opposition to bigotry, while seemingly at least somewhat sincere, was also deeply patronizing in a familiar way, “jive talking” to prove how down he was black people, insisting everyone is actually gay, etc, and did nothing to alter his strict control over his organization. And he lied about random bullshit, stuff that wouldn’t even help him, the mark of a compulsive liar, from his childhood on.
Followers knew about these things, but most of them decided to keep following, for the demonstrable good Jones was doing for the community. Jones may have been ignorant of the more substantive meanings of socialism, but it wouldn’t have mattered had he known. He, presumably, would have lied about it, to an audience composed of people — spiritual seekers, desperate slum dwellers, educated progressives looking to make an impact — prepared to believe that socialism was in any way compatible with Jones’s lies and megalomania… and of course, the history of socialism is littered with movements and regimes that took roughly the same path. I guess if there’s a “lesson” here it’s this: do not follow someone who lies to their followers or to their supposed beneficiaries. Lie to enemies if you have to, but whatever excuse a leader makes for lying to their followers or those they are meant to be helping isn’t good enough to keep following them. As usual, with worthwhile lessons, it is simple, brutal, not always especially usable, but there it is.
Guess I should talk a little about the qualities of the book. It’s exhaustive! Guinn did a lot of footwork, old records, newspapers, talking with surviving followers, including Jones’ surviving sons (who were away from Jonestown when the mass suicide occurred). If anything, it skews too much towards description rather than analysis for my taste. This probably makes it highly useful for students of the subject, but also made it a bit of a slog. All in all, a dispiriting story, exactingly told. ***’
Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963” (1988) – I might eat this assessment, but from where I sit it looks like the eighties and nineties were the prime era of what I think of as “bow wow popular histories” — big, sweeping, chonky books of (usually American) history, aimed at a popular (but educated) audience, roughly centrist-liberal in politics, often taking the form of “life and times” biographies, heavy on the “times,” often written by non-historians. I’m thinking of Robert Caro’s biographies of Robert Moses and of LBJ, Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground” on the Boston bussing crisis, Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s “Gotham” on the early history of New York City, Jack Beatty’s “The Rascal King,” about legendary Boston politico James Curley, Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”… I feel like there are more examples, provided I didn’t make this genre up out of whole cloth. I’m rather partial to these sort of books. They’re fun.
Taylor Branch’s triple-decker history of the civil rights movement, of which “Parting the Waters” is the first volume, fits right in. It is a bow-wow, bells-and-whistles, life-and-times look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he symbolized, weighing in at over nine hundred pages. The book begins with a lengthy discussion of King’s predecessor at the Dexter Street Church, Vernon Johns, a peripatetic Christian intellectual who waged his own nonviolent battle against the oppression of black people. This establishes Branch’s interest in bringing out the unsung heroes of the black freedom struggle, those who preceded King, fighting hard during much less congenial times, and those who worked alongside him. Many of those figures, like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, are now better-known than they were in the late eighties when this was written, with major biographies of their own. It’s admirable that Branch sought to make King share the stage with others, something King seemed more comfortable with than those (mostly white) image-makers who would render him the sole symbol of the acceptable face of civil rights…
All that is in the future, and presumably comes up in the next two volumes. What we have now are your classic “humble beginnings.” Admittedly, they are a little less humble than the quasi-christological mythology of the civil rights movement might suggest. Rosa Parks wasn’t (just) a tired woman who wanted to sit on a bus- she was a longtime activist who know what she was doing, if not the scale of what she would kick off. Branch takes us from MLK’s upbringing and education to the Montgomery bus boycott, to King’s rise to fame, to the partial defeat in Albany, Georgia, back to Alabama for the protracted struggle in Birmingham, ending with the ghastly bombing of the 16th Street Church, to the March on Washington. We learn of MLK’s intellectual development and influences. We follow other campaigns, like the Freedom Rides and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drives in the depths of Mississippi. There’s plenty of back and forth and competition between the organizations — King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the student radicals at SNCC, the older establishment figures at NAACP, CORE, and so on. Branch describes riots (including one at a black Baptist conference) and meetings with politicians with equal aplomb. Like a good Bollywood picture, you get your money and time’s worth of interesting stuff, well-conveyed.
I’ll illuminate two themes of interest to me. The first is one Branch makes explicit, King’s relationship to the Kennedys. Being a Masshole, it’s inevitable that I’d either love or hate the Kennedy clan- I have family in both camps. Being a pedant, I split the difference. Teddy did some good in this world (after killing a woman), and Bobby tried (after an early career as a red-baiter). I have little time for Jack. I wish fewer Kennedys would be like the Joe who ate shit last year running for Senate, and more like his dad (also Joe) who quit politics to use his money to help people with their heating costs. Branch inadvertently makes the case for crime writer James Ellroy’s assessment of John Kennedy: he was “all about looking good and kicking ass.” He cared less about civil rights than he did about a whole range of things: the Cold War, his image, his electability, keeping segregationists in his party happy. His brother/Attorney General Bobby cared a little more, but had his notional employee and guy who arguably ran the country, the Hoosier Gollum J. Edgar Hoover, to worry about. When either Kennedy helped civil rights, it was out of a combination of electoral calculation and irked pride- “were these crackers really going to defy — a Kennedy — because they didn’t want black people at their lunch counters?” seemed to be the attitude. Lyndon Johnson, far from perfect, did far more for civil rights, and his predecessor arguably helped the cause more dead than alive.
The other theme is not something Branch really dwells on, but I thought about it throughout the book. In my childhood, King and the civil rights movement were enshrined in American civil religion and taught to me as unquestionable avatars of good. This has had staying power, so much that conservatives have basically seized King (on the strength of one line of one speech, mostly). To the extent the black power phase of the black freedom struggle was discussed at all when I was a kid, it was as a decline- recall the sinister Black Panthers in “Forrest Gump,” that “Birth of a Nation” for centrist baby boomers. Then, in college and especially in grad school, I learned a lot more about black power and more radical manifestations of the midcentury black freedom struggle. This was mostly a good thing. Sometimes it gets into a kind of “radical chic” that threatens the project with superficiality.
But more to the point here, I’ve seen a fair amount of pooh-poohing of the civil rights movement, nonviolence, and King. All three warrant criticism. Every movement makes mistakes, King was far from perfect, as Branch shows- he could be domineering, over-sensitive, fascinated by power, and was a womanizer. I see nonviolence as a tool, not a principle, and the religious attachment to it on the part of some civil rights leaders was/is unhelpful. All that said, many of the critiques I hear, especially in some more pop-ier precincts, are unfair. The idea that integration was an unworthy goal, a psychological game between white liberals and self-hating black bourgeoisie… I’ve seen that bandied about, on podcasts and social media and even figures like Ibram Kendi flirt with the position. Truth be told, I see it more as a manifestation of the sicknesses of social-media-driven discourse — the glibness, the psychologizing of opposition, the black-and-white friend-enemy distinctions — than a serious position, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.
It’s possible to think integration in and of itself was a less worthwhile goal than others that could have advanced black freedom (though you’d be hard-pressed to say that getting hauled off to jail for sitting at the wrong seat of a bus is anything other than a serious violation). But the idea that all of the people who fought integration, put their bodies on the line in these dangerous actions, were all self-hating weaklings acting out of a sick love for whites… I’m sorry, but no. That doesn’t hold, and Branch’s work shows that. To use a term that has been sadly diluted, the civil rights movement empowered everyday black people the country over- maybe not as much or as quickly as it could have with different strategies, but still. And who knows what the latter stages of the black freedom struggle would have looked like had the civil rights pioneers not paved the way? History gives us our shots at times and with instruments not of our choosing. The civil rights movement concatenated context, individuals, masses, and ideas to make history- indeed, can a movement make history any other way? ****’
My latest review for DigBoston is up, in this case a look at a fun little volume by Adrian Daub that seeks to excavate the “intellectual bedrock” of Silicon Valley. You can find it here.