A Good Man is Hard to Find

America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1949-1962

by Murray Kempton
Little, Brown, 265 pp., $6.50
Murray Kempton
Murray Kempton; drawing by David Levine

“And I should hope that I should never cross a picket line; when men are cold and hungry, it takes someone more principled than I to insult them for no better reason than that they are wrong.”

—Murray Kempton

Not the least funereal aspect of a New York City that has come during the past few years to seem ever more distinctly ashen is the disappearance of Murray Kempton from the pages of the New York Post. Mr. Kempton’s musings on the political and other comedies of our time are still available, to be sure—though in a somewhat altered format—in the New Republic. But the very special place they once occupied in the daily life of New York now stands depressingly (perhaps the word is shamefully) empty. Three times a week, in the bleak years between 1949 and 1963, he broke into the afternoon with a momentarily heightened sense of the reality of things. Sanity has been known to depend on a good deal less.

In spite of the very great comfort of having him around Mr. Kempton at the time did not always seem to be reliably coherent—either from one event or character under discussion to another, or, occasionally, even within the space of a single column. His prose may be the closest thing we have to what the eighteenth century meant by wit; but so much compression when applied to the kind of subjects Mr. Kempton was dealing with sometimes made his observations sound gratuitously tangled or perverse. Moreover, his particular angle of social vision is fixed by the idea that in America what is deemed respectable and what shoddy or criminal is largely a matter of class style—an idea unifying enough, certainly, but one that when worked out in fragments of comment from day to day could look dangerously relativistic. It requires a rare flexibility of maneuver to lay aside the pieties through which, say, the editorial writers of the New York Times have been able to distinguish between such people as the labor racketeers and the business establishment that has happily exploited them. Thus in following the columns one often found the same figure being attacked at one moment and defended the next on the ground that his accusers, though classier, were no better.

Even Mr. Kempton’s most devoted and admiring readers, then, are apt to be surprised by this collection of his Post columns. It turns out that he was, in haphazard sequence, writing a book all those years. Selected and put together between covers, these pieces do something more than collect well. Whichever of them seemed unduly compressed or strained by itself is now revealed as having suffered from a lack of proper context; and whichever of his positions seemed not altogether consistent can now be seen as having been firmly taken, only with respect to a different problem than the one going by…

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