J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, transphobia, Rolling Stones


British author J.K. Rowling, well-known for her Harry Potter books, recently came also in the news because of transphobic views.

This 16 September 2020 musical parody video from Britain says about itself:

The Rowling Stones – You Can’t Ever Be What You Want

J. K. Rowling’s Rolling Stones tribute band.

United States novelist Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street


This 2017 video from the USA says about itself:

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. Documentary.

By James McDonald in the USA:

Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street at 100

16 July 2020

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street, the breakthrough work of an author who would become, a decade later, the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, which he later described as “a prairie village in that most Scandinavian part of America, Minnesota,” the son of “a country doctor.” ..

In all, Lewis published 24 novels, including six books of varying seriousness prior to Main Street. The latter, his first important work, was an enormous success, selling 180,000 copies in its first six months and within a few years, an estimated 2 million.

In the following decade and a half, Lewis produced what readers and critics generally consider his most important books, namely Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), Dodsworth (1929) and It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

Although Lewis, who died in 1951, has long since fallen from the syllabi of high school and college American literature courses, his major works merit reading a century or so later not only for their engaging storytelling and the vivid chronicle they offer of American middle-class life in the first half of the twentieth century in particular, but also for their withering satirical attack on the hypocrisies, and worse, of that American life.

Main Street tells the story of Carol Kennicott. When we meet her, in the first decade of the last century, she is still Carol Milford, a highly sensitive but moderately talented co-ed at the fictional Blodgett College on the outskirts of Minneapolis.

Carol yearns “to conquer the world—almost entirely for the world’s own good”—but cannot determine how to accomplish this feat. With a humor that is characteristically frank yet sympathetic, Lewis tells us that at “various times during Senior year Carol finally decided upon studying law, writing motion-picture scenarios, professional nursing, and marrying an unidentified hero.” Such vacillation on Carol’s part seems at first the result of youthful wistfulness, but the beauty of her character is that, as Lewis warns us early on, “Whatever she might become, she would never be static.”

After a few dull years working as a librarian in St. Paul, Carol meets and marries the “solid” Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, feeling for him an affection short of love that will evolve through moods and complications to form as clear-eyed a portrayal of a marriage as is to be found in American literature. (In the marriage to a doctor and the banality of small-town life, there are obvious hints of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, 1856.)

Kennicott’s Gopher Prairie is a market town loosely based on Lewis’s hometown of Sauk Centre, but generic of Midwest prairie towns of the time in its ad hoc ugliness and devotion to money-making. Kennicott persuades the relatively, and self-consciously, urbane Carol to travel back with him and make Gopher Prairie “artistic”, pleading with her, “Make us change!”

The prospect of beautifying “one of these prairie towns” ignites in her a passionate enthusiasm, and the novel follows Carol’s various schemes for accomplishing this mission, from attempting to build a beautiful town hall to wishing to produce edifying plays by George Bernard Shaw. Time and again her efforts bump up against the complacence and venality of her neighbors, and Carol contemplates what it is that makes “the more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility” and not come back in passages such as this:

“It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment…the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking.”

It is to Carol’s credit as a character, and Lewis’s as a novelist, that her understanding of Gopher Prairie and her relationship to it are not summed up in such passages. At times she is filled with compassion for the town’s inhabitants and at others becomes swept up by the beauty of the countryside and is convinced that she loves Gopher Prairie. Such moments of peace, though, Lewis likens to “the contentment of the lost hunter stopping to rest.”

Throughout Main Street, Lewis sees to it that Carol’s consciousness develops, growing more complex as she continuously examines town life, her marriage and herself. Further, her restless spirit—her dedication to beauty, to frankness, to justice for the farmers who are exploited by the town’s businesses, to her own fulfillment as a human being—never flags, making her one of the most compelling female characters in American literature. As she says of herself near the end of the novel, “I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them.”

As noted above, Main Street was an instant bestseller and its publication a national literary event. As Lewis’s biographer Mark Schorer remarks in Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961), “It was the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” Part of the novel’s importance at the time was that it partook of both fame and infamy. Schorer again: “No reader was indifferent to Main Street: if it was not the most important revelation of American life ever made, it was the most infamous libel upon it.” The novel’s popularity and influence were underscored by the fact that the phrase “Main Street” became a common term denoting a particularly American brand of philistinism.

In 1930, Lewis observed that the novel had been a succès de scandale, because one of “the most treasured American myths had been that all American villages were peculiarly noble and happy, and here an American attacked that myth. Scandalous. Some hundreds of thousands read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth.”

Lewis’s greatest strength as a novelist was his sensitive detection of large social forces as they work themselves out culturally and in the desires and behavior of individuals. Carol Kennicott, for instance, in addition to constituting an intensely detailed and convincing consciousness, serves for Lewis as an embodiment of middle-class liberalism. She imagines improvements to Gopher Prairie that will make the town more pleasant to look at and live in, and she significantly wants to ease the discomfort of the economically oppressed, as when she dresses up the rest room that Gopher Prairie grudgingly provides for the wives of farmers who have been brought to “G.P.” on market day.

Yet Carol is also easily discouraged, giving way to personal emotion when she meets with resistance or ingratitude. And though she occasionally mouths “socialistic” sentiments, she has no stomach whatever for the hard, unglamorous work of political organization. (Toward the end of the novel she does lend a hand to the suffrage movement, but she notes the vast difference between herself and those women who are truly committed to the work.) …

His remarkable novel Babbitt is his first to explore these themes in any depth, with the “boosterism” practiced by businessmen like George F. Babbitt (again, Lewis contributed something to the English language) in the fictional city of Zenith, Ohio, shown to be at once inane in its promotion of “pep” and “zip,” and sinister in its suspicion of those who would challenge the premises of the money-worshipping life. A glimpse of Babbitt can already be seen in Main Street, in the person of “Honest Jim” Blausser, a land speculator and hustler who comes to Gopher Prairie to “boost” it, that is, to make it grow, and who delivers demagogic speeches against “all knockers of prosperity and the rights of property.”

In It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis confronts fascism head-on. While the novel may not compare favorably with his novels of the 1920s as a work of art, its analyses of fascism—as a tool of capitalism, as ruthless toward opponents and as fundamentally irrational—and of specifically American demagoguery make it valuable reading in 2020 America.

Burzelius “Buzz” Windrip is a senator with dictatorial aspirations, intended by Lewis to echo the governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic. …” Like Donald Trump and others, Windrip is a symptom of the objective conditions of his time, a worldwide depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, and in It Can’t Happen Here, an obviously ironic title, Lewis considers seriously and with insight just what an American “corporatist” (Windrip’s word) authoritarianism might look like and how the American people might respond.

Willow warbler in Ireland, poem


This June 2019 video says about itself:

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) Singing. Recorded in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands.

By Francis Devine in Britain today:

Willow warbler

Hearing a Willow Warbler on Howth Head, April 2020

Half baffled by the wind,
there it is, first of the year,
the sallypecker’s trilling song,
flittering somewhere among
saffron whin, matted tangle
of bracken, couch and briar.

It is a thrilling, tonal emollient,
soothing lockdown despair,
lifting the spirit, a welcome
renewal, its first-thing-on-arrival
carnal clarion, unintended for us,
but a beautiful misplacement.

Black Lives Matter mass movement, a poem


This 9 June 2020 video from the USA says about itself:

Seattle Police Use Tear Gas On Protesters Days After Ban | NowThis

Police fired tear gas and flash bombs at protesters only 3 days after Seattle banned the use of tear gas.

In US news and current events today, as Black Lives Matter protests continue around the U.S., Seattle police are still using deploying tear gas on protesters despite the city’s ban.

By Fred Voss from the USA today:

21ST-CENTURY POETRY

Today the Young People Are Marching in the Streets

The young are marching
young as the Golden Rule
the first human eye turned toward the heavens in wonder
young as a raindrop
a hammer blow cracking the Bastille
Blake
seeing his first angel
a knee is on our neck
but the young are shouting
strong and beautiful as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet
Billie Holiday’s croon
a knee is on the neck of the black man and the brown man and the homeless man
and the homeless woman and the working man and the working woman
a knee is on the neck of freedom
but the young are marching
young as Rosa Parks’ feet planted firmly in the front of the bus
Frederick Douglass
wrestling his slave-master down to the ground
Joe Hill yelling, “Organize!”
the dawn sun burning on Walt Whitman’s open road horizon
a knee is on the neck of George Floyd and the poor
and the poem and Vincent Van Gogh with a sunflower
in his paintbrush
and this story is as old
as Bessie Smith’s blues and James Baldwin’s sad eyes and every man
without hope who ever thought
of throwing in the towel but today
the young are marching in the street
marching for the homeless man trying to sleep on a sidewalk
the man from El Salvador
cheated out of his wages as he slaves
in a downtown L.A. sweatshop factory today the young
are marching and shouting and singing young
as Martin Luther King’s dream
and the flame of the human spirit that must never
go out.

US poet and novelist Fred Voss is a machinist, who chronicles and reflects on his working life in numerous outstanding collections, the latest of which is Robots Have No Bones, published by Culture Matters. 21st-century Poetry is edited by Andy Croft, email info@smokestack-books.co.uk

Swedish crime novel author Maj Sjöwall, RIP


This 2010 video says about itself:

Nordic Noir – Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo

BBC documentary about Scandinavian crime novels.

From The Local site in Sweden:

Maj Sjöwall, one of the ‘creators of Nordic Noir’, dies aged 84

Maj Sjöwall, one half of a Swedish crime-writing couple credited with inventing “Nordic Noir”, has died aged 84, her publisher said on Wednesday.

Sjöwall, a pioneer of gritty realism and an inspiration to modern crime writers, “passed away today after an extended period of illness,” Ann-Marie Skarp, head of publisher Piratforlaget, told AFP.

With her partner Per Wahloo, who died in 1975, Sjöwall penned a ten-book series centred on the dour, middle-aged and decidedly unheroic Martin Beck and his team of detectives in Stockholm’s National Homicide Bureau.

Books like “Roseanna”, “The Laughing Policeman” and “The Abominable Man”, featured tightly structured plots packed with realistic details, charting the unglamourous slog and grind of police work.

“Her and Per Wahloo’s ten novels about Martin Beck… will become classics and have inspired, I dare say, all now living authors of crime novels,” Skarp said.

The duo also penned the series decades before the likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson made the genre of “Nordic Noir” into a worldwide hit.

“They broke with the previous trends in crime fiction,” Henning Mankell wrote in an introduction to the 2006 English edition of “Roseanna”. His own Inspector Kurt Wallander series would owe much to Beck three decades later.

Sjöwall was “the giant on whose shoulders the titans of modern Scandi crime fiction stand,” Britain’s Daily Telegraph wrote in 2015, in a story headlined “The couple who invented Nordic Noir”.

Both committed Marxists, they went beyond crime fiction, breaking new ground by carrying out a forensic examination of the failings of Swedish society. The modern themes they tackled included paedophilia, serial killers, the sex industry and suicide.

“Through the eyes of Martin Beck and his colleagues, they held a mirror up to Swedish society at a time when the ideals of the welfare state were beginning to buckle under the realities of everyday life,” Scottish crime writer Val McDermid wrote in the introduction to the 2006 edition of “The Man Who Went Up In Smoke”.

Born September 25th, 1935 in Stockholm, Sjöwall studied journalism and graphics. She worked as a translator, and art director, and as journalist for Swedish magazines and newspapers. It was through her work that she met Wahloo, a successful political journalist, in 1961. The two quickly became a couple and had two sons.

Then they decided to launch the Martin Beck series.

After dinner and having put their sons to bed, they would sit opposite each other and write through the night, a chapter each.

“We worked a lot with the style,” she explained to The Guardian newspaper in 2009. “We wanted to find a style which was not personally his, or not personally mine, but a style that was good for the books.”

Before actually writing, the couple carefully planned their plots, travelling, taking hundreds of photographs, meeting people and drawing maps, Sjöwall explained in a Q&A in the first book “Roseanna”.

After Wahloo’s death from cancer aged 48 in 1975 — weeks after the last book in the series, “The Terrorists”, was published — she continued working as a translator.

She also collaborated on “The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo” with Dutch crime writer Tomas Ross in 1990.

The Martin Beck books have been translated into 40 languages and served as the source material for dozens of movies.

United States poets against Trump


This 1990 video from the USA is called Poetry Breaks: Martín Espada on Being a Political Poet.

By Andy Croft in Britain today:

TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY POETRY: Poems with empathy and outrage

In a new collection, US poets challenge the dehumanisation of the Trump era

THE CORONAVIRUS has already brought out the best in almost everyone — our common human instincts for solidarity, compassion and co-operation. On the other hand, there are those who are working hard to remind us that the real virus is human selfishness and stupidity.

Which is why the publication of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, £29.50) is so timely and so welcome.

Edited by the great New York-Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada, the book contains work by more than 90 poets, including Kwame Dawes, Juan Felipe Herrera, Richard Blanco, Carolyn Forche, Patricia Smith, Robert Pinsky, Donald Hall, Sam Hamill, Elizabeth Alexander, Doug Anderson, Marge Piercy, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brian Turner, Jim Daniels, Daisy Zamora, Naomi Shihab Nye and Espada himself.

No June 2020 Rotterdam Poetry International festival


This video from the Netherlands says about itself:

The Last Poets – She is

The Last Poets & Metropole Orkest

50th Poetry International Festival Rotterdam, De Doelen, 13th June 2019

From Poetry International today:

With a heavy heart Poetry International has decided to postpone the 2020 Poetry International Festival Rotterdam which was to take place June 25-28. We were looking forward to it very much. Under the theme What You Will Hear Is True, we were well underway to creating a truly unforgettable 51st festival, much as we did during our successful anniversary edition in 2019, together with poets, translators, musicians, volunteers, partners, and of course the audience. Because of the current COVID-19 crisis, and the necessary measures limiting movement that have been taken in the Netherlands and abroad, it has proven impossible to prepare a festival worthy of its participants by the end of June.

We are primarily concerned with the health of the poets, translators, partners, visitors and co-workers of the festival, and the uncertain circumstances in which they now find themselves. We will try to support them to the best of our ability.

With the decision to postpone made, we are currently exploring the possibility of presenting poets, poetry, and events online or on stage at a later point in time. In the meantime we reach out to loyal and new audiences via our websites and social media, aiming to inspire and offer some comfort and consolation in these times, for example through our Archive Tours. Soon we will also be presenting our short term plans for various Book Clubs.

We will keep sharing new information on our websites and social media. We feel encouraged by the solidarity and creativity that we have seen blossoming all around us. And we wholeheartedly thank our sponsors for their support as we take the difficult decision of postponing our festival. We wish everyone much strength and resourcefulness in these surreal times. Keep your distance, stay healthy, and support one another.

On behalf of the board and staff of Poetry International,

Inez Boogaarts, director

Poem ’Stay the F*ck at Home’, Samuel L. Jackson


This 5 April 2020 video from the USA says about itself:

‘Here I am, Samuel F*cking Jackson, imploring you, keep your ass at home’ — Please listen to Samuel L. Jackson and just stay home if you can.

In US news and current events today, Hollywood legend Samuel L. Jackson read the poem on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ on March 31. The poem was written by Adam Mansbach, the author of ‘Go the F**k to Sleep’, a 2011 dark humor children’s book. Watch Samuel L. Jackson read the poem: ‘Stay the F*ck at Home’ during his own quarantine.

The Plot Against America, TV series reviewed


This 138 February 2020 video from the USA is called The Plot Against America (2020): Official Trailer | HBO.

By David Walsh in the USA:

Adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America on HBO: If the US had gone fascist

25 March 2020

Two episodes of The Plot Against America, a television miniseries based on the 2004 novel of the same title by Philip Roth, have now aired on HBO. These initial hour-long installments reveal that the series, which raises a host of historical issues, is serious and valuable. Those who have access are encouraged to make the effort to watch it.

This version of Roth’s novel has been created and written by David Simon and Ed Burns. Simon is a well-known journalist, producer and writer, responsible for The Wire (2002-08), Generation Kill (2008), Treme (2010-13) and Deuce (2017-19), among other efforts. Burns has been Simon’s writing partner on a number of projects.

Roth, one of the leading novelists in the US in the postwar period, who died in May 2018, is listed as a co-executive producer of The Plot Against America. He met with Simon in October 2017 and discussed the proposed miniseries.

The novel and its television adaptation imagine an alternate history in which aviation hero and Hitler admirer Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-74) becomes the Republican Party’s candidate for president in 1940 and, running on an anti-war platform and on the basis of his personal popularity, wins the general election against incumbent Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The book’s narrator is a character named Philip Roth, who, like the novelist, was 7 in 1940 and lived in the predominantly Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey with his father, Herman, an insurance agent, and his mother, Bess.

Roth, being Roth, does not devote all his attention to world and national politics. The novel is also about growing up in a complex and traumatic era. The author peoples his book with a host of remarkable, colorful figures. His observations about men and women strike home with great regularity and often (even at times of extreme stress) very amusingly.

Speaking of his early friend Earl Axman, for example, the narrator explains, “And whenever we’d finished up in his kitchen with our stamps and he was momentarily done with his domineering, he’d giggle and say, Now let’s do something awful,’ which was how I got to see his mother’s underwear.”

Of his brother Sandy’s finer qualities, Philip observes that they “served only to magnify my awe of an older brother who everyone agreed was intended for great things, while most boys his age didn’t look as though they were intended even to eat at a table with another human being.”

In the HBO series, through the eyes and experiences of the Levins (at Roth’s request, the family name has been changed from the original), we witness the process of America “going fascist” under a Lindbergh administration, with increasing persecution of the Jewish population in particular. The Plot Against America belongs to a tradition in American literature that portrays and warns against domestic dictatorship and mass repression, a tradition that prominently includes Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908) and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

In the first episode, we meet Philip Levin (Azhy Robertson), an intense, earnest young boy, his brother Sandy (Caleb Malis), his mother Bess (Zoe Kazan), father Herman (Morgan Spector), orphaned cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who lives with the family, and his single aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder).

As the series opens, the most immediate drama facing the Levins is whether Herman should accept a promotion offered by his insurance company and move the family to Union, New Jersey, where they would be able to own a larger home with a proper backyard. His wife is concerned, based on her early life, that their boys would be more isolated and vulnerable in a community with a much smaller or almost non-existent Jewish population.

In a drive through Union, the Levins come upon a beer garden patronized by a crowd of people who seem to be associated with the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi outfit. Herman expresses contempt for the “fascist bastards”, but he still stubbornly wants the house promised by the American dream. In the end, however, Bess holds sway and her husband declines the new post.

The family and Herman in particular follow world developments—including, above all, the state of the world war that broke out in September 1939—through radio broadcasts at home and newsreels at a local movie theater. Herman reacts with outrage to a speech given by Charles Lindbergh in Des Moines, Iowa (the address was actually delivered in September 1941) in which the flyer alleges that the “three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”

Lindbergh goes on to say it is not difficult “to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.” He adds, however, that “no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. … A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.”

Sandy, a budding artist, seems oddly taken with Lindbergh, as part of an almost inevitable adolescent rebellion against his strong-willed and opinionated father. Sandy refuses to tear up and, in fact, conceals sketches he has made of the aviator and carries on a mostly subterranean campaign in Lindbergh’s defense.

Alvin Levin is presented as a combative young man with a significant chip on his shoulder. The first episode concludes after he and a pal, in retaliation for a Jewish friend’s having taken a beating from anti-Semites, set on a couple of the Bundists.

In the second episode of The Plot Against America, a rabbi from Newark, Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a haughty, pompous man, who has already showed an inclination to support Lindbergh, helps the Republican candidate by appearing at the party’s national convention and lending his “America First” program legitimacy (“koshering” him for “the Christians”, in Alvin’s bitter phrase). Aunt Evelyn and Bengelsdorf become an item, much to the dismay of the other adult Levins.

Lindbergh obtains the Republican nomination in Roth’s counter-factual (Wendell Wilkie was the actual, losing Republican candidate) and begins touring the country with a simple message: the choice is not between Lindbergh and Roosevelt, he asserts, but “between Lindbergh and war.”

Alvin, meanwhile, has become a driver and errand boy for Abe Steinheim, the owner of a multimillion-dollar construction company. In the novel, around this time, Alvin and Herman would “converse heatedly about politics, about capitalism particularly, a system that, ever since my father had gotten him to take an interest in reading the paper and talking about the news, Alvin deplored but that my father defended … He’d warn Alvin, ‘You don’t have to tell Mr. Steinheim about Karl Marx. Because the man won’t hesitate—you’ll be out on your keister.”

Alvin cannot bear Steinheim and denounces him (again, in the book) in no uncertain terms—“he’s a fake, he’s a bully, he’s a cheapskate, he’s a screamer, he’s a shouter, he’s a swindler, he’s a man without a friend in the world, people cannot stand to be anywhere near him.” He sums up his view of Steinheim: “The man to me is one thing only—a walking advertisement for the overthrow of capitalism.”

(Roth has a lovely line later on in the novel, when he describes two categories of “strong men”, one includes people like Abe Steinheim, “remorseless about their making money, and those like my father, ruthlessly obedient to their idea of fair play.”)

Election night 1940 produces a stunning result, a Lindbergh victory over Roosevelt. Herman and the rest of the Levins are horrified. Alvin quits his job with a flourish and catches a train to Montreal, where he plans to enlist in the Canadian armed forces, already at war with Germany.

The Plot Against America on HBO is well done, intelligently done. Although they rearrange events and add details of their own, Simon and Burns are clearly committed to faithfully presenting the thrust of Roth’s cautionary tale. That an insidious version of initially smiling and “friendly” fascism, which wraps itself in homilies and “Americanism”, can and will arise, given the right circumstances, is a truth, and a reality, that millions need to understand.

Roth wrote the book in the early 2000s. He apparently denied it was meant as an allegorical commentary on the Bush-Cheney administration and its “war on terror”, but, assuming he was telling the truth about his conscious intentions, the novel is clearly marked by definite social processes and events, including the general, global emergence of neo-fascist trends and movements.

In developing an adaptation of Roth’s book in the present day, Simon makes no bones about the fact that he has Donald Trump and his administration in mind when dramatizing the dangers of authoritarianism and xenophobia.

Simon told an interviewer from Collider that the “verdict is in on Lindbergh” and that there was no point in “re-arguing that.” The reason to do the book, the writer-creator went on, “is that we’re in the same moment now, but the vulnerable cohorts are people of black and brown skin and Muslims. They are being used as the feared other to drive a nationalism and a latent racism and anti-Semitism. In our current moment, Jewish Americans are not the most vulnerable cohort, although anti-Semitism is on the rise because it always is when intolerance has its day. That train is never late. But the people who are genuinely vulnerable to human rights abuses are people who are black and brown and Muslim. You’re seeing it from the Southern border and you saw it in the airports, immediately after the inauguration, you see it in the demonization of this current culture of immigration. … So, what you’re seeing is the same thing that Roth depicted, brought forward. Once you read the book, a mini-series seems inevitable.”

These concerns are entirely legitimate and they provide the series its considerable dramatic impetus and intellectual strength.

There are also ways in which the book and the series are much weaker. We plan to write more about those issues when the series is completed, but a few points can be made here.

Roth was very strong on family and personal dynamics, in all their potential dysfunction and madness; no American novelist of his generation was stronger. And, what’s more, he had an intuitive antipathy for fakery and hypocrisy in public life. No one who reads it is likely to forget his scathing reference, in one of his fictions, to the appearance of “Doctor [Henry] Kissinger” at Richard Nixon’s funeral: “high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode—and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge.”

However, although one of the angriest and most perceptive writers of his day, Roth, a product of the postwar, Cold War period, remained, in his general social conceptions, within the framework of angry, perceptive liberalism. His presentation of Alvin’s views indicate that, again intuitively, he knew there was something beyond that, that there was much to despise in the existing system and that fervent opposition could be fully justified. Roth’s description of individual socialists and communists can be quite sympathetic, but when he turns to his overall picture, he is always drawn back toward fairly conventional tributes to hard work, practicality, family, American democracy and so on. The era and its problems, including the state religion of anti-communism, took their toll.

Simon, who describes himself as a “social democrat,” apparently holds many of the same general views.

These ideas color The Plot Against America and its attitude toward Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, the American working class and the political character of the era in question. To a certain extent, the novel has the character of a nightmare, from which the reader abruptly and somewhat inexplicably wakes up. Roth doesn’t pretend to resolve all the political issues he brings to our attention. We are left hanging, more than we should be, on a number of different scores.

The novelist never addresses certain questions that were incumbent on him to tackle in some manner: under what social, economic and political conditions does fascism arise as a serious and threatening force? Is it “merely” a matter of latent anti-Semitism (or racism), always present in the population, being brought to the surface? How was it possible for Lindbergh to appear (and disappear) so rapidly, as though from and back into the clouds? What was the general mood of the American population in 1940? What is it today? Was “white racism” responsible for the victory of Trump?

In regard to these matters of social dynamics, the book and series falter.

In any event, when The Plot Against America, which we highly recommend our readers to view, finishes in a month’s time, we will return to this discussion. Readers are encouraged to weigh in.

African American author James Baldwin, new biography


James Baldwin, flanked by actors Charlton Heston (left) and Marlon Brando at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963. Photo US Information Agency, Press and Publications Service

By Tom King:

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Seeker of justice in the here and now

TOM KING recommends a new biography of the great black writer and political activist James Baldwin

Living in Fire
by Bill V Mullen
(Pluto Press, £20)

IN TRENTON, New Jersey, in 1942 the 18-year-old James Baldwin walked into a diner and ordered a hamburger and a cup of coffee. “We don’t serve Negroes here”, the waitress replied.

He left, calmly and without a fight, heading straight to an “enormous, glittering and fashionable restaurant” where he “knew not even the intercession of the Virgin” would get him what he asked for.

He went inside, repeated his order, received an identical reply and, lifting a mug full of water from the nearest table, threw it at the waitress. She ducked and it smashed against the mirror behind the bar.

“I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp,” Baldwin would later say of that day. “One was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder.

“I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”

Living in Fire, Bill Mullen’s biography of Baldwin — the first in over 10 years — gives a context to understanding the activist and writer against the upheavals of the last decade, as well as his often overlooked radical political commitments.

Baldwin was an angry young man, with much to be angry about. Born in Harlem on August 2, 1924, to Emma Burdis Jones and a father he would never know, he grew up in Depression-era New York in the neighbourhood where unemployment in the 1930s reached 50 per cent.

His mother later married David Baldwin, a factory worker and son of slaves, and they proceeded to have eight more children together. Baldwin, with both parents out working, often looked after them “with one hand and held a book with the other.”

His stepfather left New Orleans in 1919 “to save his life”, Baldwin recalls. “They were hanging niggers from trees… and my father left the South therefore.” It was the “Red Summer” of 1919, when African-Americans in cities such as East St Louis and Chicago were brutally beaten, even killed, by soldiers returning from the first world war, whose jobs they had filled in their absence.

Baldwin Snr was a fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher and, from the age of 14 to 17, Baldwin himself was a young minister and spoke from the pulpit regularly. It was formative in two critical ways, by inspiring a love for the language and poetry of the King James Bible and honing his oratorical skills.

The ubiquity of Harlem’s churches also led Baldwin to sympathise with Marx’s famous observation that religion was “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.”

This dovetailed perfectly with Baldwin’s experiences of racial oppression: “Religion operates here as complete and exquisite fantasy revenge: white people own the earth and commit all manner of abomination and injustice on it; the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, for God is not sleeping, the judgement is not far off.”

But for Baldwin, this wasn’t good enough. He wanted justice in the here and now.

It was around this time that he came into contact with young teacher Orilla Miller, who recognised Baldwin’s talents immediately. Miller, a member of the US Communist Party, moved to Harlem to work for the Federal Theater Project and she took Baldwin to see his first play, Orson Wells’s production of Macbeth. Set in Haiti with an all-black cast, it’s considered a landmark of anti-racist US theatre.

This, along with the literature he was introduced to by Miller, including Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, lit Baldwin’s imagination and he began to write.

Baldwin’s sexual awakening soon followed his political one, with the loss of his faith and the realisation he was gay precipitating increasing tension with his father. At the age of 17 he moved to Greenwich Village, the New York bohemian quarter famous for its gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn.

There, Baldwin entered what he called “the most exploratory and economically tenuous period” of his life. He worked in precarious jobs such as meatpacking or waitering while working on his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It On the Mountain.

He became more politically engaged, joining the Young People’s Socialist League around the time of the Harlem riots in 1943, when a white policeman shot a black soldier in the back, igniting a furious response from a community either living in dire poverty at home or dying in huge numbers fighting a war half-way across the globe.

Baldwin persevered as a writer and activist over the next few years. But he was poor, black, gay and left-wing. Apart from his gender, it’s difficult to imagine a less advantageous position in the US at the dawn of the cold war, when it wasn’t just communism that McCarthy sought to eradicate from US life.

He left the US at the age of 24 and would never properly return. He went to Paris where, energised by the culture and radicalism of the Left Bank, he thrived. He wrote Giovanni’s Room, perhaps his most famous novel, as well as the essay collection Notes of a Native Son.

He became more successful throughout the 1960s and engaged in the political struggles of that tumultuous decade. These were anchored for him around the civil rights movement, which he saw as allowing him to both identify with, and properly understand, international suffering.

“No black man in chains in his own country, and watching the many deaths occurring around him every day, believes for a moment that America cares anything at all about the freedom of Asia… every bombed village is my hometown,” he said of the Vietnam war.

And though he hoped the creation of Israel as a home for the dispossessed would prove a model for African-American emancipation, the colonial realities of that endeavour clearly angered him greatly: “The creation of the State of Israel was one of the most cynical achievements — really murderous, merciless, ugliest and cynical on the part of the Western nations,” he declared in 1970.

Though he found a strong political voice in Black Power, Baldwin’s sexuality caused tension within the emerging movement. He was referred to as Martin Luther Queen and Eldridge Cleaver, leader of the Black Panther Party, accused Baldwin “in his real life and fiction of giving himself up to political sodomy from the white man.” …

The Black Panther Party expelled Cleaver, who turned to the right, joining the Moonie cult, the [historically racist] Mormons and the Republican party.

Living at this intersection between masculinity, sexuality and race, Mullin claims, drove Baldwin to a new awareness of women’s oppression. He corresponded with many feminist writers and became great friends with the scholar and poet Nikki Giovanni, with whom he discussed and argued about the gender dynamics of Black Power.

The twin oppressions of racism and homophobia clearly vexed Baldwin greatly. He recalled that he made David, the gay protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, white rather than black because he “could not handle both propositions in the same book.”

But he was unequivocal about what he considered the greater burden: “A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black.

“The sexual question comes after the question of color.”

Baldwin, it seems, considered the gay-rights movement a middle-class phenomenon, devoid of the radical commitments that would effect lasting change. As Mullin points out, this is curious, considering the role that queer and trans people of colour, such as Sylvia Rivera and Martha P Johnson, played in the Stonewall riots, which Baldwin never wrote about.

And though the Aids crisis would compel Baldwin as a public figure to speak out against the Reagan administration’s apathy, as well as nursing a partner who would die from it, the epidemic would barely feature in his writing at all.

Towards the end of his life, Baldwin described himself, sadly, as an “ageing, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.”

But he still seemed to enjoy visitors, jokes, laughter and discussion at his home in the south of France. “People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity,” Baldwin told Giovanni one day. “Straight cats invented faggots so they can sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves.”

Giovanni responds that love is a “tremendous responsibility”, to which Baldwin simply replies: “It’s the only one to take, there isn’t any other.”