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The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

He knew nobody and nobody knew him. What he was after, at the beginning as at the end, was a sign—a word from Out There, to acknowledge his difference, his specialness. But before the first hint reached him (from New York, on Party stationery), there were terrible silences and several bad blows.

Some of the blows can be numbered: No hero’s spot in the backfield. He was fast, loved to hit, but nature, weighing him lightly, picked him for “B” teams. No job with a title. In a world in which work is the only “socialization” and socialization the only salvation, he had no mastered technique, no low number slot on the plant bowling team, no lunch hour appointments with a personally interested aide in the department of human engineering, hence no on-the-job redemption.

The right uniform offered a chance. As the Navy was better than the Army, so the Marines were better than both. But once a Marine there you were again: the others, as it developed, were also Marines.

A second language, foreigness itself, seemed promising—choose Russian, a shocker. But once a Russian there you were again: the Russians were over-worked and overwatched, and only turned up their hands.

Love was well-regarded. He tried an imprisonment by marriage. He bore a smiling innocent from those who spoke her language, the better to insure the absoluteness of her need. But then in the customs shed in New York there was someone waiting by his luggage, a Traveler’s Aid man speaking Russian to his wife. And then Texas produced, from nowhere, for her, a cercle russe. And then, although still manacled in his glassy charm, she herself drove a lance into his “love”; the alien bride, his dependent, taught herself to say “Hello.”

At every moment politics beckoned. But the sequel proved time and time again that, in his sense, there was no politics—no prize ring of argument from which a gutsy little guy, able in debate to knock over any number of Birching patsies, could jump up overnight into the Congressional bigtime. In Moscow, Mexico City, North Dakota, New Orleans, in the Corps, in the Bronx, there was only fuzz and more fuzz, an administrative wall, government as a cool promoter.

The resources of fantasy were endless. A scrapper and an expatriate and a hunter, he was therefore a writer, therefore entitled to compare himself with “E. Hemingway.” (The letter naming his grievance and proposing the comparison to the Governor, then Secretary of the Navy, had but a single misspelled word.) Later he was a counter-agent, a jungle man pursued but ferocious, equipped with beard and gun. Still later he found comfort in an assumed name with a reserved patrician sigh in its sound A. Hydell, A. Hidell. But within the soft blur of the name fantasy selves whirled like the blades of a fan. (Hydell, Hidell; hide, hell, hideous, idle, idol, Fidel, Hyde, Jekyll…) The unbearable problem with fantasy was that sooner or later characters in it began devouring each other.

The best course led toward knowledge. Be informed. Study. In the chaos of print seek a coherence. Write. Periodically he turned in this direction, and, toward the end, we see him on a New Orleans porch, reading “all day long”—newspapers, magazines, books from the public library. Marxism pro and con. And, for a change a pace, adventures in governor-gunning. He frightens his landlord with his bookish jag, and, a fast reader, makes other real progress. He finds his way freshly, learns to anticipate criticism and head off objections. Already he can argue with an aircraft engineer, beat the man to the phrase evening after evening, almost embarrassing. Nor is it just this chap who sees his stuff. New York too, on printed stationery. What a moment for an opening in textbooks to appear!

But once more there is a problem. The job isn’t right. Maintenance again. He is carrying books, lugging cartons. Quick hands, quick mind, world traveler, two languages, radio debater, author spells dialectic and other hard words—this is the way up? Senator Fidel Hemingway a slavey? Bastards! Nigger-bombers! Pricks! The whirling begins—New York, the Party, Huey, the Marines, Robert Jordan, the hunter. His memory falling apart, idle Fidel returns to the Louisiana fantasy, but plans the raid in earnest. From the top of the mountain. Eating a reconnoitred chicken on the side of the hill with his mates, he shoots the infiltrators and then—grace under pressure—laughs aloud, bravely, with his fellow comrades who have commandeered a bus in the city streets. And here at last is the echo, on its way unblocked, enormous in the tiled tunnel, lights, cries—calling him by some other name but still calling him—And here too as usual is the enemy, familiarly behatted and white-shirted, lunging for him, crushing his belly. Screaming, Hydell down for the count hears his name again, the last words in his ears—“you son of a bitch.”

Vermin, wretch, madman, sneerer—these and worse are the names by which this man has since been known. They are at once useful and useless terms. They release feeling, but, like the interminable sermons on “responsibility” (who bears it? left? right? left? right?), they fail to raise relevant questions. Some of the latter are: How many similar men—unsocialized, anomic, workless—survive? Are their opposites all “safe”? Is it true that the completely socialized man, the viewer and voter who has work, a kindly oblivion—is it a fact that this man can be counted upon to maintain himself? Finally: can a few decades of such self-maintenance be called a human life?

The task of bringing these questions alive into the public consciousness seems on its face insuperable. Thus far thinkers only, not doers, have conceded their urgency. (Among these “thinkers,” as may as well be added, have been far too many figures of bombast, apocalyptic buffoons.) Few believed that the dead President, himself a pragmatist, a tough customer, would one day venture to address such matters. City and County wits alike knew him as a minuteman trapped in immediacies, taxes, deterrents and Nato. “…I cannot think of a single person in high public office whom many intelligent persons regard with deep respect,” says a writer in the issue of this journal that lies at hand. And where was the evidence to disprove this standard line? An odd eye for dark lines in a newly lionized poet. Adeptness at grasping unlovely tangles in the motives of giving men, “selfless contributors to the public weal.” (Self-love, nothing finer, said the President, propelled the Adams family.) A witty protected manner, an inclination to yield only a piece of himself to audiences—the mark of a man who has met his own torment and believes in the reality of troubles that do not meet the eye. And above the rest: readiness to pretend that a tentative step toward complication—toward diversity as a value—might be possible in public discourse.

In sum: bits and snippets. This writer, who matters not at all, learns (doubtless with others) that he had pinned his hope to these snippets. To a fantasy that after eight years of pragmatics, eight years in which personal beauty, physical vibrancy, relish and competence at the urgencies of doers had established him as the only voice of the nation, there would come, in the Kennedy retirement, a turn to a new subject—the American character, the need for the defense of humanity. Awareness of this need wouldn’t do wonders, but couldn’t fail to help. An intermediary between the genuine two cultures—men who think, men who do—was essential to its creation. There were but three requirements for the position: mind, capacity for balancing concern for others with knowledge that such concern is indeed “unnatural,” immense personal attractiveness that encourages the audience to listen. And the murdered Chief had them all.

Whether real or fancied, that chance is gone. The task of defending “free institutions” and the task of preserving the naturalness and wholeness this defense imperils return, even for the fantast, to their separateness. Assurances have been given: “policy” will not change, a campaign against name calling is to be mounted, the Outdoor Advertising Council promises its aid. But this remains a bad moment. If the dead President did not yet know his assassin, he did possess mind enough and more to find him out. It isn’t easy to believe that the future will quickly announce a winner with a better chance of learning A. Hydell’s real and fearful name.

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