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Short Reviews

A Bill of No Rights: Attica and the American Prison System

by Herman Badillo, by Milton Haynes
Outerbridge & Lazard, 204 pp., $6.95

The Fifth World of Forster Bennett: Portrait of a Navaho

by Vincent Crapanzano
Viking, 245 pp., $7.95

Red Square at Noon

by Natalia Gorbanevskaya, translated by Alexander Lieven
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 288 pp., $7.95

Roosevelt, New Jersey

by Edwin Rosskam
Grossman, 148 pp., $7.95

Dawn and the Darkest Hour: A Study of Aldous Huxley

by George Woodcock
Viking, 299 pp., $7.95

A denunciatory account of the massacre at Attica in which Badillo, a Democratic congressman from the Bronx, acted as part of the Observers’ Committee which tried vainly to negotiate a settlement between rebelling inmates and the New York State Correction officials. Lashing out at the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key philosophy which governs prison rule in general, Badillo finds Governor Rockefeller and State Correction Commissioner Oswald particularly blameworthy in this vivid account of the preparations for slaughter by trigger-happy officials.

While the Monday morning attack was in progress, Badillo notes, “We [the negotiators summoned by Rockefeller] were all very concerned that we might be shot by our guards.” Stressing the moderation of prisoner demands—“on virtually all matters talked about basic constitutional rights or basic issues of health and safety were involved”—the authors draw up a damning indictment of the institutionalized bestiality which characterizes lock-ups in general: the racism of guards administering beatings with “nigger sticks,” First Amendment violations which deny inmates the right to books and papers, the chronic travesty of the Eighth Amendment clause forbidding “cruel and unusual punishments,” etc.

Though his emphasis is legalistic his anger is genuine and his recommendations sound. Among these he includes immediate establishment of Boards of Ombudsmen (as in England) to function as inspectors inside, more black and Spanish-speaking guards, and an end to censorship. To date, he charges, most reform-mongers and blue-ribbon commissions have been hypocritical and useless. This sweeping assault on the prison system (“a destructive and monumental failure”) includes some data on recidivism and the challenge to reconsider the entire fortress mentality which precludes real rehabilitation. You know that he knows that nothing much will be done—Rockefeller recently announced a new super-maximum security prison for the incorrigibles, a response which Badillo calls “despicable.”

Sensitive firsthand observations of a “moderately acculturated” Indian family straddling traditional culture and American sodapop modernity. Several years ago while still a graduate student, Crapanzano, an anthropologist, spent a summer with Forster Bennett, a fiftyish Navaho paterfamilias, on an Arizona reservation, keeping a notebook which in retrospect becomes an episodic evocation of the “flat, slow quality of reservation life.” Inquisitive and introspective, Crapanzano has not attempted to expunge the personal “I” from his narrative; rather his own naïve, often baffled attempts to understand the motivations and attitudes of his protagonist are fully incorporated in the psychological and literary quest for the “ordinary Navaho.” Patiently he waits for Forster to reveal himself. Apparently disjointed conversations gradually reveal his ambivalence toward the Squaw Dance and various Navaho ceremonies of healing and purgation—Forster seems embarrassed to show his credulity to the white man from Columbia University.

Repeatedly, perhaps compulsively, Forster recalls his World War II battle experiences, furtively drinks cheap wine, and morosely lectures his inscrutable and taciturn children on the importance of education. Fragmentary conversations with neighbors and relatives are sometimes suggestive, but more often dreary and scrambled accounts of ancient legends and local genealogies with admixtures of Romance Comics and flying saucers. To the end Crapanzano’s insider-outsider role in the family remains ill-defined. “Little Bluffs is boring. Very little ever happens,” he writes. Yet the “very little” here recorded is stamped with a kind of muted authenticity which more sensationalized and polished accounts of Indian life generally lack.

Students of the liberalization movement in the USSR will be familiar with the case of the eight young intellectuals who sat down in Red Square to protest the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Gorbanevskaya, one of the eight, is a poet who was released because she had small children. She has collected various eyewitness accounts of the demonstration, the interrogations and searches that followed, and the transcript of the trial, which resulted in harsh sentences and, for Viktor Feinberg, incarceration in a prison mental hospital. The descriptions of the sit-down stress the role of the plainclothes secret police, who beat up the demonstrators, shouting anti-Semitic slogans. The crowd was unfriendly—“You’ve eaten our bread!” “My father died liberating the Czechs!”—but passive. Relatives and friends were kept out of the trial. The contrast between the elaborate formal guarantees of fair procedure and the foregone conclusion is a telling one.

She observes that at the time many sympathetic friends thought the eight were foolish to make such a futile gesture, but later changed their minds. The gesture was indeed futile; the participants knew it was futile—and knew what would happen to them. Still, given the lack of other channels, it is hard to indict their conscientious objection no matter how impotently “symbolic.” Among the other demonstrators were the wife of the persecuted writer Daniel and Pavel Litvinov, grandson of Maxim. In a rather high-flown introduction, Harrison Salisbury underlines the anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, and conformism of the Russian citizenry, used effectively against dissenters by the regime, as when the lumpen outside the court were bribed with drink to harass those sympathizing with the defendants.

Shortly after she compiled this book in 1970, Gorbanevskaya was sent to a prison mental hospital. Her book is an important addition to the growing literature on Russia’s “human rights” insurgents and their suppression.

This melancholic portrait of a unique New Jersey town is more than local history or community survey. Established in the mid-Thirties as a socialist-oriented cooperative (part factory, part farm) community for immigrant East European Jewish garment workers, Jersey Homesteads had about as much utopian staying power as Fruitlands or Brook Farm. For a time the federal government underwrote the venture, but even before the name was changed to Roosevelt (upon the death of its benefactor FDR) the co-op spirit was dying; and by the time Rosskam (author of the novel The Alien) arrived in 1953, nothing was left of the dream except the town itself and the factory building which had become an automated button plant.

Rosskam tells of those pioneering Jews for whom the Homesteads represented “affirmation against the national terror of collapsing certainties”—Benjamin Brown, the prime mover; Mr. Buxbaum, the high-handed manager of the co-op store; Nathan Gratz, who finally left when the village changed irrevocably and unbearably. The McCarthy era brought charges of “Jew-communists”; non-Jews began moving in and “our patch of separateness” was lost (the final insult was a very blond engineer from West Germany, “the very stereotype of the Waffen SS. What did he want in our nest of Jews?”). Ben Shahn, Roosevelt’s most famous resident for many years, drifted away (“The fish had grown too big for the pond”). Then came the developers, the drugs, the new morality, the pestilence of racism (or, as Rosskam puts it, “the terror of blacks sucked out of the very air of the vast prejudice called New Jersey”).

Roosevelt is not dead, Rosskam says, “Towns don’t die that easily.” But time killed the dream. Roosevelt can “serve as a warning” to contemporary planners of artificial communities because “here nothing developed as planned: the community found its own form and feeling, perversely, you might say, to become something nobody could possibly have foreseen.”

When the microcosm is sick,” wrote Aldous Huxley of Leopardi, “the macrocosm is liable to be infected with its disease.” He might as well have been speaking of himself. Though Huxley came from a celebrated family and grew up in an Edwardian world of culture and privilege, he had a traumatic adolescence, overshadowed by an ocular disease and by the deaths of his mother and younger brother. His career is famously complex: a brilliant and satirical novelist of ideas; a popular journalist and essayist on scientific and political subjects; a prophet of the future (Brave New World); a pioneer of psychedelic experimentation (The Doors of Perception). After World War I, Huxley immersed himself in the modern malaise as few men of letters have done—but then he had no choice.

He was a man plagued by excessive intellectual curiosity and a withdrawn melancholic nature. The conflicts of his own life continually forced him to confront the problems of the age. To some, of course, he has become passé. But in a striking and encompassing critical biography George Woodcock persuasively asks us to reconsider Huxley’s works as “a movement out of darkness towards light,” the stages of “a spiritual pilgrimage,” where the hedonist and the guru, doomsday centralization and communitarian decentralization, the multifarious themes and counter-themes of his fictions and nostrums, ultimately cohere: “the progress of a dedicated generalist seeking to bring all knowledge into a synthesis that will give total meaning to existence.” No doubt, that is too large a claim; Huxley can be inconsistent or merely provocative. Still, the dramatic range of his characters and the encyclopedic quality of his thought do offer, in Woodcock’s acute analyses, markers of what we’ve gone through and guideposts to what may come.

(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)

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