Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties
If print media are dinosaurs then newspapers are apatosauruses .
But I grew up with these now-lumbering beasts. We were a two-paper a day household and my first job was delivering the now long-defunct Long Island Press, a broadsheet like the Times. Our competitor was Newsday.
I don’t know why we were a Press household. We also took the Daily News and that was the paper I preferred–it had better (and more) comics, including Bill Gallo in the sports section. Like Newsday, it was a tabloid.
Eventually, when the Press shut down, my parents took Newsday, where I first met Murray Kempton. At that point all I knew of him was that he was a columnist. I didn’t know then, and still don’t know now, how someone earns that slot in the editorial section. I only knew that I’d glance at the offerings and tend to only read his contemporary, Jack Anderson. If I’ve any memory of Kempton at all it is that his writing was courtly.
Murray died in 1997 and I have stronger memories of that event. Kempton, it turns out, was a reporter’s reporter, a newspaperman’s newspaperman. In his later years, still working a beat as he crafted his columns, he was notorious for biking about Manhattan as he covered the news.
This volume predates that period by four decades and is itself removed by 20 years or more from the stories it tells. There is, to be clear, a retrospective element but the subject matter is the 1930s, a period I’m quite clear about because my parents grew up then but that is approaching the ancient history mark for younger people.
Child of an oral culture, I drank deeply at the well of Great Depression stories. So I have a faint understanding of the fears that gripped people and the choices that fear drove some of them to. In this book Kempton examines a handful of those decisions from the vantage of the 1950s.
Mostly the decisions have to do with aligning oneself, and often working fervently for, the Communist cause. At the time of publication, with McCarthy and HUAC ascendant, there was no greater transgression in the land.
Kempton’s project, my word, not his, is to present representative types as people. While never quite accusing the Red hunters of hysteria, he makes clear that very few of the activities being declared perfidious were animated by much more than personal circumstance. So is it always when the pull of politics is subject to the prism of history.
We all love decades and yet the calendar rarely lines up with the zeitgeist. For many, the Twenties ended a bit soon, with the crash of October of 1929. For Kempton, the Thirties begin withe trial of Sacco & Vanzetti in the 1920s. The two Italians are actually a sideline here. Kempton’s focus is Gardner Jackson, a newspaperman forever changed by the trial of the anarchists despite hailing from sound, native stock, and Lee Pressman, almost a cartoon of a New York red diaper baby. Both move on to organized labor where Jackson toils away in a way consistent with his upbringing while Pressman flames out and takes his pound of flesh in a healthy retainer ripped from the class he ostensibly served.
I say Kempton starts here because in a strictly chronological sense he does. In actual ordering his first subjects are the 1950s ur-spy-accusation combatants, Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. In this portrait Kempton draws on his own Maryland roots to cast Hiss, a man I’ve always encountered as a patrician’s patrician, and who is always contrasted with the schlubby, almost slovenly Chambers, as a product of shabby gentility.
In the telling that explains not just Hiss’ failure to rise beyond the mid-high level of government, it describes his curious choices and even, because it is a shared shabbiness, his relationship with Chambers. Almost remarkably, in a matter that was still sparkling debates 30 years later when I was in school, Kempton never takes a side, preferring instead to dwell on the human frailities of these would-be-topplers of the established order.
Other famous, and less famous, even unknown, characters are profiled. Kempton covers the Hollywood blacklist and the results are not Hollywood’s finest moment. The craven collapse of the studio heads is well-known. Until now, I did not know it was triggered by a single Congressional hearing. He profiles Joe Curran, an ordinary seaman turned union founder. Somehow the NMU became one of the most Communist-dominated unions even as Curran moved on to the respectability of a Westchester County address.
For me two profiles stood out. The first was, allegedly, about Paul Robeson, the African-American polymath and near-opera singer who was infamously a Communist (while living in, first, London and Paris, and then, suburban Connecticut). While the biographical sketch of Robeson was fascinating, the hero (who wasn’t even given second billing) is A. Phillip Randolph.
Randolph was, for decades, the President and public face of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first union organized by black Americans. In this telling Randolph is there very close to the beginning though he is not the founder as is commonly stated. More importantly, he is one of the first black leaders to use tactics associated with later successes including a March on Washington that yielded equality in the munitions industry during WWII.
The other portrait, a group portrait really, was of the Reuther brothers. Walter, for many years the President of the UAW, was known to me. Less well known were the contributions of his brothers, Roy and Victor. Together they did the less glamorous work of building the union. Oh the glorious strikes of 1937 that made the union possible are here but so is the bureaucratic drudgery necessary to persevere. The Reuthers made that pivot in a way many others did not.
Kempton fesses up to his own youthful dalliance with the Communist call. In his coda there lie buried two sentences, born of the compassionate perspective that age brings to one’s youth, that sum up the lesson here: “We were, most of us, fleeing the reality that man is alone upon this earth. We ran from a fact of solitude to a myth of community.”
Amen ( a sentiment I think Kempton would appreciate).