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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.