Part of His Time

(Tikkun, March 1999)

When Murray Kempton died in 1997, Newsday put his photograph on the cover. The headline declared: "A Half-Century of Elegance and Truth." It isn't often that a newspaperman's death makes the front page, but Kempton, who joined Newsday in 1981, was no ordinary scribe. Garry Wills called his journalism "the most perceptive of our time." David Remnick considered him "the best since Mencken." Jimmy Breslin remarked that "the man has brought more honor to newspapers than anyone in my lifetime." But Kempton wasn't universally revered: J. Edgar Hoover dubbed him a "snake" and a "rat."

For Kempton's admirers, the Modern Library's handsome new edition of his forgotten 1955 masterpiece, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties, is a cause for celebration. Of the four books he wrote, this is the one for which he will be remembered. It is probably the most outstanding book on early twentieth-century American radicalism, and certainly one of the most beautifully written non-fiction works published since 1945.

Part of Our Time is about people shaped by the left-wing "myths" of the Thirties, people who, in Kempton's words, "read and discussed every interior short paragraph of The New York Times," people who were "the committed and the dedicated." If W.H. Auden considered the Thirties "a low dishonest decade," Kempton saw it as a period filled with idealism and sacrifice. Of the various individuals he describes, some buckled under the weight of that idealism: others endured and became useful citizens. At the end of another low dishonest decade, when irony and sarcasm have replaced idealism and commitment, Part of Our Time, rescued from oblivion, still glows with a feverish intensity. But it imparts an overwhelming sense of melancholy and yearning.

The year 1931 was not a time when the American businessman held his head high," writes Kempton. "All the ancient values he represented seemed to wither around him." As America declined - 192,000 workers were on strike in March 1937 - many turned to Russia for inspiration: "It was possible to believe that, as Lenin had achieved the revolution, Stalin was building the new Jerusalem." These days the culture industry is eager to manufacture imagery of American sacrifice in World War II, but the bleak period that preceded it is routinely forgotten. Part of Our Time takes us there, and we see, for instance, how in Detroit in 1932, "there were whole city blocks without light or artificial heat ... so many families had their water turned off that the schools instituted compulsory weekly showers for their pupils."

The breakdown of the nation's economy helped to alter the consciousness of a generation, and it was artists and intellectuals who succumbed most forcefully to the belief that "no man was an island. He could not escape history. If Madrid fell, he fell with it." Those were some of the "myths" of the depression decade. But Kempton is no prosecutor; he himself was a radical in those years, first with the Young Communist League and then with the Socialist Party, and he understood the impulse that prompted Archibald MacLeish to write poems hailing the true comrades "who have fought the police in the parks of the same cities."

Meticulously constructed from interviews, direct observation, old newspaper clippings, and books like Upton Sinclair's Boston and Saul Alinsky's John L. Lewis, Part of Our Time recreates this forgotten landscape of Thirties radicalism: the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; the odyssey of young left-wing actors from New York to Hollywood; the rise of the Communist-led National Maritime Union on the New York waterfront; and the quest of the Reuther brothers to organize Detroit's auto industry. We see James T. Farrell refusing to yield to literary Stalinism; Alger Hiss struggling to escape from "shabby-genteel" Baltimore; and J.B. Matthews, Joe McCarthy's hatchet man in the Fifties, spouting revolutionary slogans from the stage of Madison square Garden. Kempton's method, for the most part, is to construct each chapter around two oppositional personalities: one whose radicalism led him into the Communist Party, and one whose radicalism kept him out of it. It's an ingenious, if problematic, organizing principle for a book, and achieves its maximum effect in "The Dry Bones," which is about two forgotten men, Gardner "Pat" Jackson and Lee Pressman.

The chapter begins with one Boston morning in 1926, when Jackson's wife, peering over her morning paper, prodded: "Pat, there's something strange about this trial down in Dedham. Why don't you see if you can find out something about it?" Jackson, a young reporter on the Boston Globe, immediately realized that Sacco and Vanzetti were being railroaded, and quickly resigned from the Globe to head their defense committee. The verdict energized an entire generation of intellectuals and eventually drove Jackson to government service in Washington, where the New Deal was in its most idealistic and heady phase. He was one of the bright young men in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and he intended to use his influence to help poverty-stricken tenant farmers. But Jackson's illusions were shattered when his boss, Henry Wallace, purged the department's young "extremists" in an effort to curry favor with conservative southern Democrats.

Lee Pressman, following a stint at Harvard Law School, also joined the AAA and was discharged along with Jackson. Unlike Jackson, Pressman was a Communist. One evening in Pittsburgh in 1937, a friend casually asked him when the killing in Russia would cease. "Do you mean," Pressman replied with astonishment, "that you reject the Terror?" Pressman's talent and cunning subsequently made him an influential figure in the CIO, but after the war the Party's influence in the unions reached its nadir. In 1948, the CIO's president, Philip Murray, decided to make an example of Pressman: Murray told him that he would have to resign if he persisted in his support of Henry Wallace's ill-fated third-party presidential campaign, where the Communist Party made its last stand. Forced to "choose between his career and his vision of history," Pressman selected the latter, and, in the wake of Wallace's defeat, found himself under investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

For Kempton, Jackson and Pressman represent two distinct breeds of radicals. After his departure from the AAA, Jackson joined the leftist daily PM, and "had a hard time finding the assurance of a permanent commitment." But he kept at it: "He worked with the co-operatives; he spent himself in causes ranging from civil liberties to the American Indian. And most of what he did, he did for nothing." Pressman, on the other hand, took care of himself, sending the CIO an $83,000 bill for some routine paperwork on the Taft-Hartley Act. To the end, he remained an unrepentant Communist but a loose-lipped witness before HUAC, naming his closest friend. Kempton's final judgment is acidic: "His disasters were his own ... they cost him not just a friend but his only friend, not just a dream but his only dream, and not just the sale of something clear, but the sale of himself." When we leave him, "there were reports that Pressman was interested in Israeli real estate: an old enemy commented that he was still seeking history and a solid six per cent."

In a similar way, Kempton examines the distinct trajectories of Paul Robeson and A. Philip Randolph. Kempton's sympathy lies with Randolph, the independent pacifist, socialist, and labor leader who led the Pullman porters to victory and later, by threatening a march on Washington, played a decisive role in desegregating the defense industry and the military itself. About Robeson, however, Kempton is scathing: "He came to Harlem only upon special occasions," writes the author, "almost always for assemblages honoring the Negro's putative identification with the Soviet Union."

Kempton concludes Part of Our Time with a stunning final chapter on those Americans who joined the anti-fascist struggle in Europe. We are told that Sam Levinger, a twenty-year-old leftist from Ohio State University, "is dead in a grave which is either unmarked or desecrated in Franco's Spain"; before he perished, he wrote in a poem: "Comrades, the battle is bloody and the war is long/Still let us climb the gray hills and charge the guns." Concludes Kempton on the last page:

Those are tired words, and they have absorbed all the agony which is the truth of life. They are resigned, but they are undefeated. They do not suggest that somebody else charge the guns. They know the worst, but they will make the charge themselves. I miss them very much and I wish we had them back.

If Lee Pressman, Paul Robeson, and Alger Hiss were the "ruins" of the Thirties, the "monuments" were A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Pat Jackson, and James T. Farrell, "whose real triumph ... was in being true to himself and his calling." Looking back nearly half century later, we can say that Kempton was correct about his monuments. To the very end, despite some twists and turns, each remained true to himself and his calling: Randolph to civil rights, Reuther to trade unionism, Jackson to journalism, and Farrell to the novel. Part of Our Time insists that very little was accomplished by radicals in the Thirties, but Kempton's heroes bequeathed a concrete legacy.

Regarding the villains, however, the record is a bit more ambiguous. Consider his treatment of Paul Robeson. Robeson "did not know the Negro," proclaims Kempton. His view of Robeson as a Stalinist robot and aspiring aristocrat falls short, especially in light of Martin Duberman's monumental Paul Robeson. Kempton could have produced a more nuanced portrait of Robeson, but the architecture of Part of Our Time - which entailed a stark juxtaposition between rigid Communists and freethinking Socialists - prevented him from doing so. (Reviewing Duberman's biography in The New York Review of Books in 1989, Kempton retrospectively acknowledged Robeson's complexity and depth.)

The Kempton of the 1980s and 1990s was never without sympathy for the underdog, but this book reveals a younger man full of anger and disgust for the "cheap and terrible" treason of Elizabeth Bentley, the hubris of the student radicals, and the mediocrity of Hollywood Communists "unable to corrupt the movies with their ideas; the movies corrupted them and they got rich fabricating empty banalities to fit Hollywood's idea of life in America." Is that an accurate description of the Hollywood radicals? Some prominent historians of the period - Richard Pells in particular - think Kempton was excessively harsh in that judgment.

Equally debatable is Kempton's sweeping generalization about the personality traits of people who became Communists in the Thirties. They were not traitors, he says, but rather philistines, lazy second-raters and men and women "desperate to conform." That may have been so with many of the Party members Kempton knew personally, but it was certainly not true of Robeson, Benjamin Davis, Robert Thompson, and others. Recent books by Mark Naison and Robin D.G. Kelley confirm the opportunism of the Party leadership, but show how the experience of the ordinary Communist was not always "ephemeral and trivial," as Kempton argues.

It is worth noting that Kempton's rancor toward the Party, which is a steady undercurrent of Part of Our Time, vanished after its publication in 1955. In the middle and late 1950s, Kempton wrote beautiful and stirring columns about Communists caught in the web of McCarthyism. (The best of them are in his collection America Comes of Middle Age.) In 1962 he agreed to speak at a political demonstration in New York called to protest the McCarran Act. The auditorium was overflowing with Communists. This is what he said:

This country has not been kind to you, but this country has been fortunate in having you. You have been arrested, you have been followed, you have had your phones bugged.... Throughout this, I can think of numbers of you I have known who have remained gallant, and pleasant and unbroken.

Kempton's speech concluded: "Our children's children will some day walk together in the light and they will do so because numbers of you have done what you could to keep your courage and your patience. I salute you and I hope for times to be better."

Despite his later generosity and eloquence, Kempton's core argument in Part of Our Time is sound: "There is a not-inglorious record of an American radicalism which swam against the stream," he wrote in the book. "The part that failed was the part which rode with a stream that was outside America." In contrast, Kempton delineates the sort of "old breed of radical" personified by his friend Pat Jackson, a breed that "knew disaster and pain and bereavement." Its members understood that "the art of life is to save enough of yourself from every disaster to begin again in something like your old image." The "old breed" of radical was a person anchored in the American tradition, a person who drew inspiration not from the Comintern and Earl Browder but from Whitman and Thoreau, Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair. Kempton wanted us to remember that Gardner Jackson and his comrades honored that tradition, while Lee Pressman and his comrades did not. In an afterword to the 1967 paperback edition of Part of Our Time, Kempton did not budge from that assessment. But he was honest enough to admit that Pressman, "dismissed as a ghost, still functions usefully as a labor lawyer."

Kempton was fond of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s dictum that "every man should take part in the actions and passions of his time or else risk being judged not to have lived." By that standard, Kempton lived. Because he had no use for the phony doctrine of journalistic objectivity, and because he believed in action, he spoke at the first national convention for Students for a Democratic Society. He moderated panel discussions in Harlem between Malcolm X and James Farmer on the fate of the Freedom Riders. He wrote pamphlets for beleaguered members of the Black Panther Party. And he served as a Eugene McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention.

If Kempton's activism waned in the Reagan/Clinton years, no doubt it had much to do with the general temper of the times. But the rebel spirit continued to move his pen, and, to the end, he brought an egalitarian demeanor to a profession that has lost its moral corn pass - a profession that, increasingly, has no use for men and women like Kempton. In the last paragraph of his last column for New York Newsday - shuttered by the Times Mirror corporation in 1995 - he wrote in farewell:

It is a very bad deed, my masters, to set a tree to growing and then kill it full of life and growing still. It is not a much better deed to look at an enterprise that has served you honorably and done you honor and throw it away with no more ceremony than it takes to sear it with the brand: Failure. And there cannot be much health left in a social order where corporations can clamorously proclaim a failure on Friday with entire assurance that therefore their stock will go up on Monday. Oh well. That is the way with masters.

In his work over five decades, and in his life, Kempton never forgot the essential difference between masters and servants, and he always sided with the latter. His triumph was that he remained true to himself and his calling, and to the best impulses of the Thirties.