This is what Slava Gelman, the young psychological warrior of A Replacement Life is up against: “I was told they had seen a bottle of blood on the Jew’s table,” says the conniving mother of a slain boy, pointing at Yakov Bok, a Jew who has been living under false pretexts in Kiev circa 1911.
“The Jew killed my child....”
The mother and her lover killed the boy, actually, but the entire village is happy to send a Jew to the gallows. The villagers believe that Jews bake their matzos with the blood of Christian children.
The scene is not from Boris Fishman’s illuminating debut novel, but from Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel, The Fixer.
Fishman has said that while writing the novel he read Malamud every day. And at the end of his novel he presents a note acknowledging all of the writers whose words or thoughts he borrowed.
“Life is sin and art is theft,” he writes
Most novelists call this kind of theft “inspiration,” but it’s a fitting tribute in a novel that is about borrowed stories —and ultimately, about how those borrowed stories give shape to Slava’s amorphous identity.
As a man of 25 in pre-recession New York, Slava lives with survivor guilt and identity crisis and all that comes with being part of a lucky generation that doesn’t know a history of oppression and slaughter first-hand. But like so many immigrant children who become writers—including Fishman himself and Gary Schteyngart, the best-known so far of the new-generation Russian Jewish writers stuck between a history of suffering and crazy-money globalization—Slava has to distance himself from his heritage before he can tap into it.
Fishman himself was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1979 and came to the U.S. in 1988, when he was nine; to be specific, to the Russian Jewish community in Brooklyn. He left the Soviet Union shortly before its dissolution, at a time when about 1,000 Soviet Jews were leaving each month, but the authorities still held tight controls over emigration.
The pre-hipster Brooklyn that became Fishman’s new home would have still held echoes of Malamud’s life two generations earlier. Malamud was born in 1914 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents who spoke Yiddish and ran a small grocery store in Brooklyn
The Fixer itself was a story Malamud borrowed from Mendel Beilis, a Jew who was arrested in Kiev in 1911 on a charge of ritual murder, then acquitted two years later. The trial made headlines around the world, and in 1925 Beilis, then living in America, self-published a memoir of his ordeal. He had a son, David Beilis, who complained to Malamud that he had presented a distorted and unkind view of his father, and accused him of plagiarizing the memoir, a charge that came up again last year, 100 years after the trial, when Jay Beilis, a grandson, wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward: “The actual Mendel Beilis was a dignified, respectful, well-liked, fairly religious family man with a faithful wife and five children. Malamud’s Bok, though ultimately a heroic figure, is an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer.” But then, alienated heroes were Malamud’s stock in trade.
And therein lies a legacy that trails Slava, who like his creator was born in Minsk and left as a child. The fictional immigrant little memory of his birthplace except for “an unfocused dread of bodily harm due to he was a Jew and the scent of lilac trees that clotted the yard.” Even so, from the very beginning, when Slava’s landline rings at 5:00 on a Sunday morning in the summer of 2006, there is something in Fishman’s dexterous language that looks half old-world and half new. “....in the cobalt square of the window, the sun was looking for a way up,” suggests the kind of claustrophobic view Jacob Bok had in a brief period when he was fortunate enough to have a window. When Fishman describes “the great towers of the Upper East Side ready for gilding,” there is an echo, albeit unconscious to Slava, of unattainable façades.
Slava has never been in a synagogue. Nor is he truly present in the writing world. What he does understand is rebellion. Jacob Bok, at the end of The Fixer thinks: “If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature, it's the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!"
Yet for Slava there is no abhorrent state; there is only a mecca in Manhattan that is hard to crack, as it is for all young aspirants from west of the Hudson River and east of the Atlantic. Slava, having grown up with tales of oppression, however, takes rejection rather politically and personally.
Slava lives in a doorman building on the Upper East Side, in a studio that even he knows is “miraculously affordable.” (The affordability is left unexplained.) He has an entry level editorial job at a charmingly print-centric magazine called Century that sounds very much like the New Yorker in the days when it read like Eustace Tilley perpetually peering over his monocle.
Slava's main duty is to dig up bloopers and lapses in sophistication from newspapers across the heartland so that an editor in New York can come up with wryly bemused rejoinders
On one typical day in his life he finds a nugget from the New Orleans Times Picayune, writes his own quip making fun of proofreading capabilities down south, then tucks away his little gem, Soviet-dissident style. It’s his editor’s job to come up with the rejoinders.
In the past Slava has tried sending suggestions, and once his editor ran Slava’s rejoinder without so much as a thank you, “leaving Salva to feel like he had been slept with but not called the next day.” Hello, junior-staffdom. Slava, though, sees his self-sabotage as defying a certain kind of oppressor.
But immutable forces are about to drag him back to Brooklyn and dredge up memories of Belarus in a time before he was even born. The phone call at 5:00 that morning is from his mother. “Your grandmother isn’t,” she says in Russian. In Russian, Slava knows, you don’t need the adjective “alive.”
Here is what Fishman has borrowed from reality: The German government has operated a monetary reparations program for Holocaust survivors called the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany since 1951. Between 2006 and 2011, however, the Claims Conference was subject to a number of investigations for high staff salaries and paying fraudulent claims in exchange for kickbacks.
But Fishman, like Malamud before him, knows that the power of a story lies less in the mere act of greed or fraud than in the way victimization might shape a person. Slava is about to attend his grandmother’s funeral, then face down his grandfather, Yevgeny Gelman, who has been a hustler all of his life. Now Grandfather wants to take advantage of an offer from the Claims Conference, which has promised payments to those who can prove they were in ghettoes, forced labor, concentration camps or any combination thereof between 1939 and 1945.
Slava’s grandmother, Sophia, would have qualified. Grandfather, though, hustled his way out of World War II entirely; he hopped a train and made his way to Uzbekhistan. If he hadn’t escaped he probably would have been killed and a whole line of descendants never born. Slava has long wondered if his grandfather was a hero or a coward. That is the revelation that brings this novel to life: isn’t it the lesser evil to scheme against an abhorrent state? Is behaving with honor a luxury unavailable to the grandson of Yevgeny Gelman?
Slava knows one true story about the war, the only story his grandmother could bear to tell. It’s about how, as a young girl in bombed-out post-war Minsk, she went to a dance club one night. Her parents were dead. She didn’t know how they’d been killed. To escape from a captain who was coming on too strong, she did something just as loathsome—she appealed to Yevgeny Gelman to pretend to be her boyfriend. He was a neighbor boy known as a hooligan. “He got what needed to be got, whether it was beets from old Berbershteyn’s garden or a set of silver spoons from God knows whom, and you could do yourself a favor by not worrying how.”
Later Sofia waited for Yevgeny while he served time for cutting up a Belarussian who made a comment about “those kikes” in the street. His talents for fighting and hustling kept them alive.
Slava writes one restitution letter for his grandfather, and that letter leads to a request from a neighbor for a similar appeal, then another neighbor and another. In the process he learns a lot about the rules of storytelling. It helps that back in Manhattan, he has become romantically involved with a cubicle-mate, Arianna Bock, who is a fact-checker for Century. She could be a descendant of Yakov Bok herself, but she grew up in middle-class America and sees a clear dividing line between truth and lies.
Slava learns that if your aim is a bigger truth than mere reality, however, don’t give facts that can be checked, such as exact addresses. Distract the reader, make him forget that there’s no verifiable detail. At the same time, he understands that details are what make a story work. He writes about young girls in the ghetto who had the job of sorting through the clothes of the murdered, and of how, “after a while, the Germans wised up and made people undress first. By the end of ’42 the clothes had no holes or blood. You could still smell the people in the fabric, though: sweat and hay and sour milk and something else that must have been fear.”
He tells of a girl witnessing a baby trying to drink milk from its mother’s breast but the mother was dead. About seeing the Belarusian police, who worked for the Germans, sit down for beer and drumsticks between executions, and about a girl keeping her mouth closed because she’d lost half her teeth and they shot you on sight if you weren’t healthy.
Eventually even a German from the Claims Conference comes along with his own revelations about what makes a story believable. “You must include one specific detail, like the color. Would you have believed my story about the tea if I had not said yellow shoes?” says the German.
Fishman is hard on his immigrant community, painting a picture of victims who don’t know any game except fighting and hustling to get by. In his dedication he writes: “.... to the walking wounded who survived the degradations of a life in the Soviet Union. For all their warts, they, too, are survivors.” What is a revelation to Slava is just how deep a chasm he inhabits between those who hustle and those who know how to work the system more subtly.
“There is a style. It’s not your style,” a colleague from the magazine who is always getting assignments tells him, and the innuendo is that it’s more than just a writing style.
Slava has a choice, sort of, between two women who act as stand-ins for his heritage and his aspirations. In Brooklyn there is Vera, who has “the eyes of a hunter for a husband in the Russian classifieds,” and when she kisses him her beige powder scatters finely between them. Vera has a scheme to layer upon the reparations scheme, and she could lead Slava that way for the rest of his life, gaming the money-making holes in any system.
Then there’s Arianna. One of these two women—need I say which one?—delivers an insightful retort about how lovers can disagree and enjoy it if the disagreements are like frosting; underneath you are the same. What doesn’t work is if you are different all the way through.
In measuring his hero’s reluctance to understand who he is, however, Fishman has given us a unique new American voice. It’s as if, in his spiked humor and flippant tragedy, this debut novelist is just begun to drill down into something one of the old men seeking reparations tells Slava of his prose: “‘It’s got that silence of ours. That terrible Russian silence that the Americans don’t understand. They are always making noise because they need to forget life is going to end. But we remember, and so we have silence, even when we’re shouting and laughing.’”
Here is a young writer who, no matter what he borrows in the future, is on his way to delivering much more about the power of that silence.
When I accepted the job as only the sixth editor of the Crisis magazine, the official publication of the NAACP, the magazine founded in 1910 by W.E.B. Du Bois, the only real direction I received from the CEO of the organization, Benjamin L. Hooks, and the man who recruited me, was “see if you can get more of the arts in there.”
At that time, at the very end of 1984, coverage of the arts had long been absence from the magazine, as much as everything else. But that was not always the case. Once in its long history, the Crisis was highly praised, and quickly became one of the most influential and respected publications in America because of political fearlessness, its understanding of the written laws of this country and the unwavering willingness to fight for the equal rights of blacks; and, interestingly enough, for its coverage of the arts.
In fact, the arts quickly became a central focus of the NAACP, founded in 1909 by white liberals, one year before the Crisis magazine.
The author of Art for Equality, a lecturer in modern history at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England, framed her book perfectly in the first paragraph of the introduction, which went to the very heart of Dr. Hooks mandate to me.
In 1926, Dr. Du Bois one of the first blacks to get a degree from Harvard University, rhetorically asked an audience in Chicago, “How is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about art?”
A few years later, James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP’s first black Executive Secretary, fully articulated in an article the answer to Du Bois’ question. He believed that the “race problem” was “more a question of national mental attitudes toward the Negro than a question of his actual condition.”
Later Johnson wrote, “No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.”
Although over the years the leaders of the NAACP fought long, bruising battles over which direction to take to gain equality for blacks and bring true democracy to America, most wholeheartedly agreed with Dr. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson that what the Negro needed most, beside bread and water, and protection from lynching, was a makeover that would then compel whites to reconsider their negative attitudes towards black people.
The NAACP’s first major battle, the book rightly points out, was trying to get the groundbreaking movie, Birth of a Nation, banned from movie theaters.
Director D.W. Griffith film, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, made cinematic history. Even members of the NAACP called it “a masterpiece,” although Walter White, who succeeded Johnson as the leader of the organization, noted “by its very excellence…make it to my mind a most vicious and dangerous thing.”
Over the years when I was teaching the film segment in my History of the Mass Media course, I would often show the film (When I was teaching at UC Berkeley a white radical organization called the Socialist Workers Party threatened to interrupt my class if I showed it again. I gave them the finger).
The film was indeed vile.
Woodley points out that “the racist imagery that filled the screen was not just the creation of Dixon and Griffith. They drew on at least a hundred years of American culture for their inspiration. African Americans are portrayed in a derogatory manner, using almost every stereotype in American culture. There are happy, loyal slaves (complete with “Mammy” and “Uncle Tom); foolish comics; watermelon eating, banjo-playing “darkies” oversexed, lustful and power hungry mulattos (male and female); dandified, ridiculous upstarts; and vicious and savage black brutes.”
And, as I often pointed out to my often incredibly bright students, the major scorn in Birth of a Nation was not against blacks, but those “oversexed, lustful, power hungry Mulattos.”
Writes Woodley, “It is no coincidence that the two most important named black characters in Birth are mulattos…the storyline betrays one of the great obsessions of both Griffith and Dixon, as well as many white southerners: interracial sex.”
I would add to that that they hated mixed race Americans so much because they also knew that these people were their children; their cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandkids. The One Drop Rule they invented, while it gave some cover, couldn’t change that. What they feared most about mixed race Americans, and still do, as you bare witness to all the grief President Obama is getting—is that they saw themselves; that they were looking deeply into their own souls and didn’t like what they saw.
These were the kind of blacks that you couldn’t trust.
In the end, the campaign against the movie ultimately failed. But it put the fledgling film industry on notice that they would be watched. It also was the first major national campaign for the new organization. It can be said, as it has been noted by a number of historians, that some good did come from the campaign against Birth of a Nation. All the national, and indeed, international publicity generated, help put the NAACP on the map.
The next major boost for this cultural campaign was helped along by the rise of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. It also produced major challenges to the idea that the arts should be only used for only political reasons.
Woodley points out “the Harlem Renaissance lasted from around 1919 until the middle of the 1930s. This was a period when many intellectuals and artists debated what was meant by “Negro art.” In the 1920s Harlem, New York, became the center, psychologically and physically, for an outpouring of African American culture. This concentration of poets, novelists, artists, dancers and musicians was, in part, a product of the massive migration of African Americans out of the South to the cities of the North and Midwest. In the 1920s nearly a million blacks moved from the rural South to the cities. Men and women were drawn to Harlem because of the promise of jobs and the bright lights of city life. James Weldon Johnson called Harlem, “’the Negro capital of the world.’”
NAACP leaders like Du Bois, Johnson, Walter White and Jessie Fauset played an important role in shaping the movement. But the question soon became what kind of art should artists be producing? All of the folks I just mentioned were well educated, mixed race blacks; and only one, the composer, novelist, literary editor, song writer, James Weldon Johnson, was an artist in its truest sense; but even he was “grounded in the notion that the creation of ‘high’ art…was seen as a signifier of a group’s status.”
Soon, younger members of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman started pushing back at the NAACP, and especially at Dr. Du Bois, who they came to see as “controlling.” They considered themselves artists first, not makers of racial propaganda just to please white folks, and black college professors.
Langston Hughes put it best in his famous essay in the Nation, The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain: ”We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
There is so much more to write about in this insightful book, but I will end this review with an observation. In the end, the leaders of the NAACP were proven right in thinking that art could elevate the image of American blacks. But both Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were wrong that this welcome change in perception would come about through what they called “high art.”
They both, especially Du Bois, had a distain for the art coming from the brothels and greasy spoons that dotted black America. Yet, Bessie Smith singing, “Give me a pig foot and a beer” helped bring forth music, lowbrow that it was, that conquered the entire world, and made black Americans among the most famous people on the planet.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a delightful story written by South Korean author Sun-mi Hwang. The story is part fairy-tale, part pastoral, part allegory, and focuses on the ingenuity of a plucky hen named Sprout. In essence what happens is after Sprout makes a move to change her life, a series of adventures unfold—friendships are made and hearts broken, and Sprout acts in a way that is extremely brave.
But back to the beginning. Bred to produce eggs for a poor South Korean farmer, Sprout becomes depressed with the realization that her egg laying is for naught—she will never hatch a baby chick.
Faced with this epiphany, she realizes that she has a choice—to give up all hope and die or try to accomplish the one thing she wants in life—to have a baby.
Don’t let the simplicity of the story fool you. Sprout’s dilemma is existential. By focusing on a scraggly hen, Hwang asks serious questions such as What does it mean to have a good life? And is there a point to our perpetual striving? The answer seems to be yes and the book vibrates with the tenacity of that answer.
One of the strengths of the book is Hwang’s depiction of relationships and of loneliness. Sprout longs for companionship. However, her lot in life—a scraggly hen—makes her low in the pecking order of the farm. As in Charlotte’s Web, Hwang creates a complex ordering for the animals on the farm, from the dog whose main job is keeping strangers out of the barn (including Sprout) to the mallard who becomes Sprout’s friend.
Her uncertainty about her position in life is eloquently phrased by Hwang: “She didn’t know what to do. She turned to look at the path she’d taken. The yard suddenly seemed so far away. I don’t want to go back to the yard. It wasn’t because of the mallard that she had wanted to live in the yard, but now that he wasn’t there she didn’t feel like going back. She wanted to escape from the heat and go to sleep for a long time. Nobody likes me. She didn’t want to live under the acacia tree anymore; she looked longingly at the barn.”
Just as Hwang describes the way we long for friendship, she describes the overwhelming joy in having a baby. It seems sweetly funny to me that some of the best passages I’ve read about having a child were in this book about a hen who sits on a duck egg and becomes the adopted mother of a duck, but there you have it.
Sprout loves her baby. And when she has a baby her life feels complete. No wishy-washy, “I-thought-my-life-would-be-perfect-but-it’s-not” pouting for this mother. There is an unabashed thread that runs through this novel—being a mother (and therefore a father) is the most extraordinary and important thing we can do. Perhaps it is the only important thing we do in our lives. Hwang writes about the moment of birth:
“Oh, my goodness!” Sprout stood still, in a daze. She had known there was a baby inside the egg, but this was like a dream. Small eyes, small wings, small feet—everything was tiny. But they all moved, and every movement was tiny and adorable. “Baby, you’re here!” Sprout ran over and embraced him with outstretched wings. He was a real baby, all small and warm.”
But the “problem” of her son’s difference—he is a duck after all and will fly away—is also explored in The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. Sprout faces that cruel dilemma that all parents face—how to encourage a child’s differences, while protecting him or her.
Sprout loves Greentop beyond belief, yet she also wants to see him succeed with the ducks. She can’t teach him to fly because she’s a hen, but by golly she’ll get him the best flying teacher she can. I think, as parents, we’ve all been there, playing those duel roles of encourager and protector. Of course, when Greentop flies away for good, we feel a welling of sadness just like Sprout. If only he could stay… but isn’t it amazing that he’s going…
All this good stuff is even better because there is a menacing, evil weasel lurking around. The weasel represents death, but also cunning and grit and determination. The weasel is as determined to get Sprout for a meal as Sprout is determined to live a life worthy of living. Playing in the background through all of Sprout’s joy—her true friendship with the mallard and her all-encompassing love for her child—is the awful weasel, tracking her, trying to catch her, almost grasping her with his sharp teeth.
But Sprout is always too sly to be devoured by the weasel. During a bad winter the weasel even loses an eye, making him even scarier. The weasel is constantly stalking Sprout and her son and he comes so close several times to catching them.
Often Sprout has to stay up all night guarding Greentop when he is young (in the dark, the weasel is most formidable) and then she is exhausted during the day. This happens for years and this part of the book adds another layer or excitement to the story. I will not ruin it for you by saying what happens between Sprout and the weasel at the end of the story. That is for you to get to. But I will tell you this—it will be worth it.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that this book is beloved in South Korea and that there has been a movie made of the book. It seems to lend itself to animation. Also the story of the author is fascinating. Having grown up in a rural environment, she learned to read from the school library after she could no longer go to school. The story and the author are revered in South Korea. I hope that the tale becomes popular here. It’s a little bit darker than Disney (thank goodness), but has all the drama of a major kids’ flick. I’m crossing my fingers.
Elizabeth Kolbert is a foremost writer on catastrophic happenings, such as global warming and its consequences (see Field Notes for a Catastrophe, published in 2008.) She is a staff writer for The New Yorker, an observer and commentator on environmentalism. Field Notes attempts to bring attention to the causes and effects of global climate change. To write it Ms. Kolbert traveled around the world where the effects from climate change are the most evident—to Alaska, Greenland, The Netherlands and to Iceland. The effects consists of rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, diminishing ice shelves, changes in migratory patterns and increasing forest fires due to the loss of precipitation.
She writes about America’s reluctance to reduce our carbon emissions, the primary culprit that is causing global warming. And yet, with all the evidence at hand, there are those who deny what is happening to our planet and assign it to “business as usual” on planet earth!
And now with the publication of The Sixth Sense Ms. Kolbert tackles the sister phenomenon caused by carbon emissions—that many species of animals in our world are becoming extinct!
There have been five previous times when our poor planet has undergone widespread extinction:
It is believed that this last extinction was caused by a huge asteroid that collided with planet earth on the Yucatan Peninsula, causing such a cloud of dust to blot out the sun and enough heat to broil the planet, wiping out 100% of the dinosaurs, ¾ of all birds, 4/5 of all lizards, 2/3 of all mammals, and 98% of all ocean plankton. Following what is called the KT extinction it took millions of years for life to recovery its former diversity—everything alive today is descended from organisms that somehow survived the impact.
The more we advance in time the more we know about our past. Before the 18th Century Enlightenment we knew little because the tools that we use to investigate our lonely planet careening through space vulnerable to crashing asteroids and poisonous gases, had not yet been developed. Astonishing as it may seem, when President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase he expected they would encounter prehistoric creatures. At the end of 18th Century, George Cuvier’s pioneering work in the nascent field of archeology began uncovering skeletons of giants beasts in Europe—mastodons and mammoths.
Until the end of the 18th Century the very category of extinction didn’t exist. Cuvier’s discovery that the earth had undergone extinctions of species, of “a world previous to ours,” was a sensational event, and news of it spread across the Atlantic
Another geologist, Charles Lyell, published in three thick volumes, Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. Among the readers who snapped up Principles was Charles Darwin, whose seminal work, On the Origin of Species, remains one of the most influential books ever written.
Our era, since the conclusion of the last ice age 11,700 years ago, is called the Anthropocene Era, the era of human beings. (Keep in mind that Abraham lived approximately 4000 years ago.) We have altered the composition of the atmosphere—the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen 40% in the last two centuries and the concentration of methane has doubled.
Writes Kolbert, “Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned through enough fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to add some 365 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons. Each year, we throw up another nine billion tons or so, an amount that’s been increasing by as much as six percent annually. As a result of all this, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today—a little over four hundred parts per million—is higher than at any other point in the last eight hundred thousand years… If current trend continues CO2 concentrations will top five hundred parts per million, roughly double the levels they were in preindustrial days, by 2050. It is expected that such an increase will produce an eventual average global temperature rise of between 3½ and 7 degrees Fahrenheit, and this will, in turn, trigger a variety of world-altering events, including the disappearance of most remaining glaciers, the inundation of low-lying islands and coastal cities [like New York and Los Angeles!] and the melting of the Arctic ice cap. But this is only half the story.
“Ocean covers 70% of the earth’s surface, and everywhere that water and air come into contact there’s an exchange. Gases from the atmosphere get absorbed by the ocean and gases dissolved in the ocean are released into the atmosphere. When the two are in equilibrium, roughly the same quantities are being dissolved as are being released. Change the atmosphere’s composition as we have done, and the exchange becomes lopsided: more carbon dioxide enters the water than comes back out…”
Roughly 1/3 of the CO2 that we have pumped into the air has been absorbed by the oceans. The pH of ocean’s surface water had already dropped .1 making the oceans more acidic than they were in 1800. This increased acidification of the water content has eroded the world’s coral reefs and marked all organisms that build an external shell, such as clams, barnacles and oysters, and following that herring, salmon and whales, as candidates for extinction, and this is but the tip of the iceberg concerning the changes that our lovely oceans will undergo. It reminds me of the verses in the book of Revelation saying that a third of all ocean life will die…
A subsequent chapter deals with the huge number of bats which have been killed because of white fungus called psychrophile. Oddly enough Ms. Kolbert makes no mention of the severe reduction in the number of bees on the planet, nor our inability to ascertain what’s killing them. Bees, as we know, are necessary agents for the pollination of many species of plants.
Here is a bit of news that I find of interest. In a later chapter called “The Madness Gene” we are told that the Neanderthals vanished roughly thirty thousand years ago and that modern human arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, leaving a gap of 10,000 years in which humans intermixed with Neanderthals. As a result most people alive today are slightly—up to four percent—Neanderthal!
Ms. Kolbert ends this book on a positive note—just as we have caused the recent chain of events that are precipitating these mass extinctions so we can take measures to curb carbon emissions and to prevent certain animals from becoming extinct. I’m of a less sanguine opinion. I think it’s already too late.
In the world of publishing, as in many other walks of life, timing is everything. Whether it was intended or just happened to arrive on 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Charles E. Cobb, Jr. will not quibble about the publication of his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed—How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Even before you open the first page, the mere fact that this is an effort by one of the movement’s most endearing members, one of unimpeachable integrity, is enough to command at least a cursory glance.
That cursory glance quickly becomes a lengthy read as Cobb transport you across a history of encounters where guns, both real and imagined are at the foci of his absolutely absorbing narrative. “This is not a book about black guerrilla warfare, retaliatory violence, or ‘revolutionary’ armed struggle, and I make no attempt to argue such actions were either necessary or possible,” he explains in the introduction.
“Nor is this a book about nonviolence. Rather, it is about people—especially young people—who participated in a nonviolent movement without having much commitment to nonviolence beyond agreeing to use it as a tactic.”
Cobb addresses this history with authority since as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee right in the center of Jim Crow’s bowels in Mississippi, he experienced firsthand the danger of the Ku Klux Klan, had his near-brushes with the legacy of martyrdom that was the fate of so many of his comrades.
Whenever guns and the civil rights movement are juxtaposed, it’s hard not to think of Robert Williams, the militant NAACP leader in Monroe, North Carolina who defied white reactionaries and later authored the book Negroes with Guns. The other image from this combination is the Deacons for Defense, an unflinching group of armed men based in Louisiana and distinguished by their vow to protect civil rights workers.
Cobb devotes considerable time and insight to both Williams and the Deacons, and rightfully so. As he notes, nothing terrifies white Americans—even Klan members—like the prospect of a black man with a gun, or a group willing “to stand their ground.” And in this engrossing account you will be surprised by some of the men—and women—who talked nonviolence but kept a weapon nearby.
In the first pages of the book Cobb recounts the usual incidents of violence, most of them perpetrated or instigated by whites, thereby provoking a response from African Americans. Many of these episodes are common fodder in the best books about black struggle for liberty and justice, including chapters about the numerous slave revolts or conspiracies. But there are several of these violent encounters that are rarely given a full discussion, such as Bacon’s Rebellion or the planned uprising led by “Father” Moses Dickson and the Twelve Knights of Liberty. I will leave these intriguing moments for you to discover.
By now, most Americans who have delved more than a book or two into black history are aware that Dr. King kept a few guns around the house for self-defense. One dramatic example of this occurs when the late William Worthy and Bayard Rustin visit King. Worthy, a radical journalist, almost sat on one of the guns partly concealed on a chair. King may have been unwavering in his speeches about the practice of nonviolence but he was ready with a veritable arsenal to protect his family.
So was seemingly mild-mannered Walter White, who replaced James Weldon Johnson as executive secretary of the NAACP. Cobb, in vivid prose, reconstructs the race riot in Atlanta in 1906 and White’s courageous role. “The mob moved toward the lawn,” White related in his autobiography that Cobb cites. “I tried to aim my gun, wondering what it would feel like to kill a man.” White never got off a shot because others fired in advance making it unnecessary for him to shoot.
During the same disturbance, W.E.B. Du Bois, then a sociology professor at Atlanta University was poised to deal with anyone daring to approach his house. Armed with a double-barreled shotgun, Du Bois sat on his front porch, determined to protect his wife and daughter. “If a white mob had stepped on the campus where I lived,” Du Bois wrote later, “I would without hesitation have spread their guts over the grass.”
A few of our legendary black women were also ready to unleash a barrage of gunfire against a lynch mob. “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give,” wrote Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Daisy Bates was given the assignment to chaperone the Little Rock Nine as they sought to integrate Central High School. As the publisher of a black newspaper, Bates and her husband were not unfamiliar with racism and violence. One evening someone threw a rock through their living room window with a note attached to it threatening their lives. That might have prompted her to begin carrying a .32 caliber pistol in her handbag.
Reading Cobb’s riveting accounts is reminiscent of the late James Forman’s The Making of Black Revolutionaries. In fact, they provide bookends to the movement, especially during Cobb’s eyewitness retelling of those harrowing moments in Mississippi.
For all the violence, the senseless murders of civil rights volunteers, Cobb concludes that there were few shootouts of any kind from the organized groups. “Fear explains this fact,” he opines. “Few if any white terrorists were prepared to die for the cause of white supremacy; bullets, after all, do not fall into any racial category and are indiscriminately lethal. Wisely, I think, black defenders who could have opened up with killing gunfire usually refrained. In place after place, a few rounds fired into the air were enough to cause terrorists to flee.”
Fleeing, however, was never part of Cobb’s itinerary and he has done a wonderful job following the gun trail and giving body to the words once spoken by H. Rap Brown (Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”
This comprehensive and in-depth study, with photos, extensive notes and biographical references was written over a ten-year period. It provides the reader with an additional lens by which to view the legacy of Harlem’s Rattlers. It is a book that readers of military history will cherish and that general readers and lovers of history will find informative. It is both a reference book and an important historical narrative that lays the ground for the civil rights movement.
At a recent forum on Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War at Medgar Evers College, Sammons began his presentation by describing how the story of the Black soldiers who served in this unit was a testimony to the character of these men:
He told the audience “that it is character, not reputation that determines your place in history and the legacy which you will leave. If these men had been dependent on the reputation by which they were labeled, they would have never formed the unit that marked them in history. Their character speaks loudly in this important study of the “Undaunted 369th Regiment.”
The rattler, distinguished by its rattle and considered aggressive, a deadly foe and natural predator, uses it venom to strike at internal forces within its own environment and when it perceives a threat, will strike at external forces it encounters. This book chronicles the history of the 369th Regiment, the original 15th Regiment of Black soldiers who fought in France during World War I.
The rattler became the insignia of this unit as evidenced by its image on the Commemorative Firsts History Proclamation of the 15th New York Colored Infantry and the 369th Infantry. This proclamation was presented to Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Commanding Officer of the 369th Infantry, on June 23rd 1939.
One of the longest serving infantry combat units on the front line (191 days in France) theirs was known as a unit that never lost a soldier to capture or a foot of the ground it had captured. Although this Regiment, which earned the Croix de Guerre, is more commonly known as Harlem’s Hellfighters, Sammons and Morrow, deliberately choose not to use this name which they suggest was made popular by the media.
They inform us that this name, never embraced by the unit itself, limits the entire narrative behind Harlem’s Rattlers. Sammons and Morrow have chosen to expand this comprehensive narrative of Harlem’s Rattlers by giving the back story leading up to the legislation that legitimatized the formation of the 369th Infantry Regiment (formerly known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment), the post-war challenges faced by the unit after its return from France, and the current state of the 369th Unit.
Sammons and Morrow have done an extraordinary job in conveying the complex narrative of the men who dared to resist and to demand a valued place for their participation in WWI. When initially approached to write the story of Harlem’s Rattlers, Sammons enlisted the partnership of his colleague Morrow, a leading military historian of World War I with fluency in French and German who had great familiarity with the records of the 369th Regiment.
The resulting 500-page book of military history provides a sociological and political context in which the highly charged drama of the 369th unfolds. The writers describe the city, state and national politics surrounding the formation of the 369th Regiment and the many obstacles faced by the men, soldiers and leaders who advocate for a Black combat infantry regiment.
The book begins and opens with a description of Henry Lincoln Johnson, the first combat hero of the 369th Regiment, who is most closely identified with the regiment. When warned to retreat by a white French lieutenant in 1918 France, Johnson responds, “I am an American and I never retreat.” Johnson’s words underscore the impact of this experience for those who chose to fight in a Black regiment of the New York National Guard; there was hope that this fight for democracy on foreign soil would result in an affirmation of respect for Black Americans. This was a fight for civil rights and social justice, for manhood in a gendered society, for equal participation in a democracy, and for the freedom that should have been afforded all Americans. Johnson’s declaration of himself as an American who never retreats underscores the irony faced by those in the 369th Regiment. The paradox of going to their possible death in France while facing bigotry and prejudice in America cannot be underscored. Sammons and Morrow note that the scholar Richard Slotkin correctly labels the Regiment’s “transfer to the French army, “a liberation rather than an exile.”
The representation of historical events in film and literature never become visible in a vacuum. Sammons and Morrow illustrate this by providing the cultural and political context in which the story of the 369th Regiment emerged in popular culture. Almost 25 years after the original 369th had returned from WWI, the 369th, after serving in the Pacific during WWII, returned to New York in 1943. Like the soldiers of the original 369th Unit, they participated in an historic march up Fifth Avenue.
Sammons and Morrow offer critical commentary on the launching of the classic film Stormy Weather at this time. Racial tension and discrimination were intense; riots had erupted in Detroit, Harlem and Los Angeles. And Civil Rights leaders were pressuring Hollywood to employ more African Americans in less stereotypical and restrictive roles. Their critique of Stormy Weather focuses on the ways in which the contributions of Black soldiers were misrepresented and diminished in the film; for example, there is an implication that Bojangles Robinson, a central character in the film, was actually part of the 369th Regiment. The truth is that Robinson never served in the regiment. Thus, viewers of the film can come away from it with inaccurate information, with the perception that Black soldiers played a minimal role in France during WWI, and with a narrow and superficial rendering of which Black soldiers were actually part of the 369th.
One might say that the film is successful because: it has a high cast of Black talents (Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham, and Bojangles Robinson among others), is highly entertaining, and has extended reach. However, because the film is loosely based on characters in the 369th Regiment, Sammons and Morrow contend that the film is a disservice to the images of Blacks in WWI.
For example, the film refers to the 369th Regiment rather than the 15th Regiment; in omitting the name of the 15th Regiment, an important historical fact is inadvertently dismissed. Given that this popular film was a source of information on the Regiment (before this film, there had been only two dedicated treatments of the Regiment), Sammons and Morrow suggest that more could have been done to present an accurate portrayal of the Regiment. Moreover, because the band rather than the soldiers from the 369th Unit is highlighted in the film, it is not even clear that African Americans were actually part of a combat unit.
Throughout the book, Sammons and Morrow remind us that the very act of entering the military is and has been a gendered experience, one that is specifically significant for African American men who daily faced lynching and the discriminatory laws resulting from Jim Crow, and who were often a step away from dire poverty, high mortality rates, forced labor and continual attacks on their families.
For African American men, participation in the war also represented a symbolic affirmation of male masculinity and an act of resistance to the perpetuation of stereotypes of Black men as lazy, violent, dangerous, aggressive, angry and inferior.
A significant portion of the book is focused on detailing the politics and the racial climate behind the long struggle from a Provisional Regiment in 1911 to 1916 when the Regiment was formerly constituted in New York City. Republicans and whites attempted to delay the application of Black men, who were volunteers, not draftees, by establishing one unit at a time. One is surprised by some of the leaders who initially opposed the formation of the unit. W.E.B. DuBois, who was initially ambivalent about the unit, later encourages Blacks to join. A Philip Randolph questioned whether Blacks should fight this international war when they were facing injustice and racial discrimination at home.
Once formed, racism and efforts to deny the regiment full participation in the war continued. A Black unit was sent to the town of Spartanville, South Carolina and then to camps in Long Island and New Jersey where they faced hostility and rejection; they were even told not to retaliate. This was in response to the perception that there would be riots; the media also participated in perpetuating the myth that Black regiments would be harmful to the war effort. There was also a deliberate attempt to reject Black officers. The government placed inexperienced and less qualified white officers over experienced non-commissioned Black officers. This prolonged racism continued when the unit was initially sent overseas and although they had been trained for combat, they were relegated to serving as a labor battalion where they acted as stevedores, canal and ditch diggers until the French found it necessary to place them in combat.
Sammons and Morrow provide a comprehensive overview on the treatment of some of the soldiers upon their return to New York. The Regiment is disbanded. James Reese Europe, the band leader survives the war, but after achieving fame and performing a concert in Boston, Europe is fatally stabbed. Charles Ward Fillmore, who led the effort to form a Black regiment in the New York National Guard, should have had an opportunity to lead the unit. Like many other Blacks in the unit, he receives no American honors.
Horace Pippin, one of the non-commissioned officers and natural leaders, represents his wartime experience through his art. Noble Sissle, a member of Europe’s Fifteenth Band and an advocate for the representation of Black performers on army bases and camps, was one of the Regiment’s most important narrators. He is responsible for honoring the memory of General Gourard’s Fourth French Army and his dear friend James Reese Europe. These people are but a few of the many who are part of the historical record of the 369th Regiment.
Is another book about the author of The Great Gatsby really necessary?
Well, yes. We do need this new and highly personalized account of the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This is a luminous, eye-opening, deeply appreciative study about the writings of Fitzgerald, as opposed to yet another chronicle of his high life and hard times; his roller-coaster of a marriage to Zelda; and his foray into Hollywood, the struggles with booze and depression, and his whole latter-day life framed as a cautionary tale.
Indeed, this is precisely the kind of book that’s long overdue: A comprehensive overview of the fiction Fitzgerald created—the seemingly innumerable short stories, and his novels. This book is anchored by the author’s profound love for the literary achievements of a writer who is too often pigeonholed only as the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby. That classic was one of many distinguished offerings.
Perhaps the greatest offering of all is the gift that a major author like Fitzgerald leaves to generations of readers. That is, the gift of transporting others’ minds and imaginations to other eras and milieus through the artful, magical power of fiction.
From the get-go, this assessment of the life’s work left behind by F. Scott Fitzgerald is inextricably bound up with the life of the John T. Irwin himself. Irwin’s career has been spent teaching and writing and researching and publishing about literature and writers. His career is now topped off by this unique study, which is the third volume in a trilogy that includes his prior book on poet Hart Crane and a dual-study of Poe and Borges in relation to their innovations as writers of detective stories.
“Fitzgerald’s work has always deeply moved me,” John T. Irwin tells readers right away. Irwin goes on to say: “And this is as true now as it was fifty years ago when I first picked up The Great Gatsby. I can still remember the occasions when I first read each of his novels; remember the time, place, and mood of those early readings, as well as the way that each work seemed to speak to something going on in my life at that moment.”
It is for those and other reasons that this book assumes a lyrical, persuasive, all-absorbing tone. The reader who comes to this book knowing Fitzgerald’s work only by way of assigned readings in high school or college English classes will be treated to a smorgasbord of intelligent insights, astute analyses, and most of all a sweeping survey of one author’s canon. And the passion that John T. Irwin still feels for the value, integrity, and validity of Fitzgerald’s fiction illuminates the narrative.
The book is divided into six densely textured, highly compelling chapters with titles that indicate John T. Irwin’s thematic preoccupations. In chronological order, the six chapters are: “Compensating Visions in The Great Gatsby”; “Fitzgerald as a Southern Writer” (true, Fitzgerald hailed from Minnesota, but his writings were steeped in the life-transforming experiences he had in the U. S. Army of the World War One era, down South, where Zelda was raised); “The Importance of ‘Repose’ ”; “ ‘An Almost Theatrical Innocence’ “; “Fitzgerald and the Mythical Method”; and, finally, “On the Son’s Own Terms.”
All academic discussions aside, what truly animates this valuable book is the idiosyncratic personal passion that John T. Irwin retains for Fitzgerald’s work.
“Because the things that interested Fitzgerald were the things that interested me,” Irwin writes, “and because there seemed to be so many similarities in our backgrounds, his work always possessed for me a special, personal authority; it became a form of wisdom, a way of knowing the world, its types, its classes, its individuals.”
Surely we have all had a similar kind of passion for one powerful writer, whose works somehow convey to us such an array of information. Whether it’s James Baldwin or Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison or Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison or William Styron, or Truman Capote or anyone else . . . the great common factor is that a top-tier writer’s life’s work lives on long after the author has come and gone.
And the ultimate value of a book like this one is that it leaves the reader wanting to go to the nearest library or bookstore and to load up on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction.
As such, this capstone to John T. Irwin’s trilogy on American authors is sublime.
(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.)
If you are like me, you have a hard time keeping up with the news, and like me, you’ll say it’s because of the 24hr news system that promotes pointless and often ignorant commentary with obviously biased, agenda-driven dialogue. Having said that, the news is important, and I’m embarrassed to say how little I knew of the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012.
I heard about it, but it seems like even before the survivors were back on US soil, the news was looking to point fingers and shouting about conspiracies. I wanted to know what happened and what it meant for our country, but I tuned out the mainstream media. This personal confession leads us to Under Fire. If you want to know in an in-depth, play-by-play account of what transpired that September 11th in 2012, Under Fire is the audio book for you.
Starting with the authors, Under Fire is detailed and informed. Fred Burton is a former Department of State agent (like the ones in the mission fighting to protect the Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and the Information Officer, Sean Smith) and now vice president of Intelligence and Counterterrorism at Stratfor. He is an expert on security and terrorism.
Samuel M. Katz brings an expertise on the Middle East and the issues, ops, and international terrorism that have arisen and taken place in the region. The audio book combines these men’s’ experience and wealth of knowledge with deep research to bring to light the devastating situation that occurred that night, including the warning signs and the unheeded messages that the situation was becoming dire.
Katz and Burton do not insinuate there was a conspiracy, simply that the government, perhaps the CIA, valued the mission as a presence in the Islamic area during the Arab Spring. Whether or not the attack could have been avoided is not the question (although the answer seems apparent when all is said and done, but that is the funny thing about the past).
The focus of this book, from my perspective, is the action, training, determination, and heroism of the men on the ground, from the hurdles and red tape that hindered their movement to the decisions and sacrifices they made in order to complete their missions and rescue as many of their countrymen as possible.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the events on and leading up to September 11th 2012, as well as a lot of personal and tactical success stories to be remembered. Under Fire brings them and the heroes of that night to life with engrossing and informative narrative read by the Jeff Gurner, a recognizable voice from commercials with an extensive list of voice credits including numerous audio books and video games. His guttural voice, strong and appealing, will invoke your attention and lay out the events and action so dramatically you’ll think the descriptions of the weapons and vehicles could be an advertisement, and you’ll emerge with a greater understanding and appreciation for those who put their lives on the line for peace and our safety.