Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago
Search for the New Land
Parentheses: An Autobiographical Journey
Left at the Post
Moving Through Here
All the books in this remarkable collection, except for Mr. Wakefield’s novel, are works of reportage; and all of them are perceptive and sophisticated in their understanding of how life goes on in America today. Each is well worth reading; together they complement and reinforce one another. Two of them, Mr. Lester’s Search for the New Land and Mr. McNeill’s Moving Through Here, are incomparably fine. The quality of Mr. McNeill’s work is almost entirely a reflection of the human qualities of its author, whose accidental death by drowning, at the age of twenty-three, just at the moment when his tough gentleness was most needed by the kinds of young people he understood best, and might have defended, suggests that God is petty and meanspirited as well as cruel—but this, presumably, has always been evident to those who believe in Him and may even be what most attracts them. Certainly, little evidence of divine mercy appears in the composite picture of America that these books present.
Nevertheless, the persons appearing in these books who make the strongest impression—and Mr. Lester, who dominates his own, surely makes the strongest of all—would clearly agree with the statement of A. Finley Schaef, the minister of the Washington Square Methodist Church, whom McNeill quotes: “We’re trying to say that life can still be celebrated. It’s still in our hands. I think that’s the essence of the Gospel. However hard times get, it’s still our life. We’re not victims.”
Unfortunately, this belief, taken as an article of faith by minds more naïve and less educated politically than Mr. Schaef’s or Mr. Lester’s, serves a profoundly reactionary political purpose by leading those who hold it to blame themselves for what social forces have done to them, and for their failure to overcome odds that the American social and political system has set insuperably against them. The ideological cornerstone that has thus far supported an increasingly insupportable American society is the conviction, so widely shared among Americans, that their lives are still in their hands, however little influence they may actually have on how those hands and lives are to be used.
Therefore, paradoxically, though these books vividly portray social conflict as it affects the individuals involved in it, and make it poignantly clear how their often heroic lives develop or are truncated by it, they provide almost no sense of what, in most countries, would be called political life. A partial exception should be made for Uptown, since its authors, old SDS activists, were founders of one of SDS’s early urban political projects, JOIN—Jobs or Income Now—which began operations in 1964 and provided them the opportunity to live among the Chicago poor whites whom they allow to tell their own stories in the pages of this book.
But this is, quite literally, the exception that proves the rule; for JOIN, like most efforts to promote social change by legitimate political means, failed. Uptown is an account of that failure, shrewdly and movingly told from the experiences of a small number of poor Chicagoans, largely in their own words, and with some superb photographs. It is a story of what happens in Chicago when the poor attempt to claim their formal right to demand a better life. As such it is an excellent political case study, since Mr. Gitlin and Miss Hollander combine the skills of James Agee and a more involved Oscar Lewis with much political acumen and cold candor.
But the four-page chronology of JOIN’s activities that they place at the beginning of the book to help the reader synchronize the lives presented in it concludes by observing that “roughly speaking, the history can be broken into four phases, overlapping but distinct,” of which the last two read:
(3) January, 1967, through October, 1968: Not being able to win concrete changes in the neighborhood, or to sustain work momentum, the organizational forms break down. Radical organizers, most of them indigenous, hunt for new approaches to poor and working-class white youth, looking beyond the limits of the neighborhood.
(4) November, 1968, through 1970: Popular movement against urban renewal secures the neighborhood as an arena for organizing. New organizational forms make explicit alliance with revolutionary groups. [All italics in original.]
This is to concede—as the life stories in Uptown indeed demonstrate—that what Americans define as the normal processes of political life and hence as preconditions of both freedom and legitimacy simply do not work; or, rather, serve to bring especially brutal forms of oppression down on those with the audacity to really try, with some prospect of success, to use them to change the reward system of the society.
One reason for this failure is surely the absence, from the minds of most Americans, of any conception that political life is concerned with anything except wheeling and dealing out the power and resources that exist. Instead of ideology, or, better yet, of an earthy, concrete, yet realistic and comprehensive idea of one’s position in the political scheme of things, and hence of the possibilities for altering the scheme as well as improving that position, there is a vulgar demonology. Thus Ras Byrant, a West Virginian born in 1903, comments in Chicago in 1965:
I’ll tell you, if I was a president of the United States, I’d rather help the pore people. I wouldn’t send my money to these foreign countries and let people starve to death. They ought to do something for the old people, the same way they’s bringin them furrners over here. Every month they bring about seventy-five a month over here. And bring cars over here and build them big mansions to live in, modern house, bathroom right in the house. They don’t have to step out for nothin. Take em hunkies and put em in big hotels and feed em up until they can get these apartments ready for em, you know. Get these houses all ready for them, and then they turn around and give em the best jobs that they are in the United States, the biggest-paying jobs. There are a lot of pore people all over the world, but listen—let them take care of their poor people, we’ll take care of ours. And there wouldn’t be so damn many poor people if it weren’t for them. Listen, can you find an American store in town. There are very few.
But Mr. Bryant is relatively advanced politically. His account makes it clear that he has always been an independent and intelligent man; he becomes active in JOIN. A month later, he returns to West Virginia, with Mr. Gitlin; the following encounter occurs:
Ras catches the eye of a florid man sitting on the ground near the depot, hands crossed on his knees, a battered hat beside him. A moment of recognition happens in the casual, unexcited way it has happened with all Ras’s relatives.
“Hello Ras. Set yourself down. Heard you been up in Chicago.”
“Yeah. I’m working outa JOIN….”
“JOIN? What’s that?” the man snaps.
“Oh, we’re just tryin to help the pore people. You know, somebody needs to go to the doctor, we get em to the doctor. Somebody needs to get on the DPA we take em down there—“
“You a Commonist, Ras?” The man has been staring at the “JOIN Community Union” button on Ras’s army jacket. His show of strength requires no answer. “I’d rather be called a cocksucker than a Commonist. Any Commonist sets foot in this county, I’d withdraw him. Better a cocksucker than a Commonist, I always say.” Ranting, he is plucking at the JOIN button.
With enormous dignity Ras shoves him away. “Don’t fuck with my button, man. Don’t you fuck with my button.” After some seconds, the man pulls away, sullen, muttering: “Better a cocksucker’n….”
There is hope in Uptown the book and, perhaps, in the district. The young members of JOIN are vastly different from their elders, more realistic and more militant, if not much closer to a coherent understanding of the political forces that use and abuse them. The suppression by Mayor Daley’s police that JOIN continually encountered is the best evidence that the organization might have been succeeding in generating the kind of political awareness that would make peaceful, democratic change possible. The Chicago authorities, however, are notoriously apt to overreact to challenge.
Mr. Lester, too, is in the revolutionary bag; but when he is being most doctrinaire, his otherwise considerable genius eludes him. The contrast between his two books confirms this. Revolutionary Notes is a collection of short pieces from the Guardian, two or three pages long, which are essentially hypes for a variety of revolutionary mini-doctrines, illuminated by flashes of the author’s dry and acid wit but often false and sentimental.
Since Grove Press has forbidden any quotation from the material without their permission, omitting the usual exception granted reviewers, I cannot conveniently illustrate why I say this; but the title of one of the selections, “Che is Alive—on East 103rd Street,” may give the flavor.
Che isn’t alive, there or anywhere else, and those who admired or loved him have the greatest obligation to recognize this fact and not mess around comforting themselves with metaphors. Besides, if he were, it would follow that Dwight D. Eisenhower was also alive in Kent, Ohio; Gamel A. Nasser on Jerusalem’s lower east side; and Senator Edward Kennedy on Chappaquiddick—none of which would do anybody much good. The back jacket of the book bears, in bold-faced type, the statement: “This is a book to carry to the barricades.” It isn’t, since it would tend to inspire overconfidence in whichever side read it, though for contrasting reasons.
Revolutionary Notes is not so much a bad book as a phony one. And the reason I feel so sure of this is the extraordinary quality of Search for the New Land, published in the same year, by the same man, and constructed, like Revolutionary Notes, from contemporary materials; so that the difference between the two can be accounted for neither by personal growth nor by the greater mastery of content in one book. Search for the New Land, appropriately subtitled “History as Subjective Experience,” which is the kind of history that means most, really is a revolutionary book in every sense of the word. In format: Mr. Lester makes savagely effective use of news reports of events that show what America is, presenting them without direct comment as found poetry.
The book begins perfectly with the sentence, “The Sixties is what happens when a child looks at his parents and hates what he sees,” followed immediately by The New York Times‘s report of February 7, 1968, of the suicide of Linda Ault whose parents ordered her to shoot her dog in retribution for what they viewed as her act of adultery the night before; she shot herself instead. Mr. Lester prints this, the text unaltered, as blank verse, as if it were a translation of a barbaric passage from Aeschylus; and proceeds to use it, in effect, as tragic prophecy.