Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, by Murray Kempton
Man of the 30’s
Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events.
by Murray Kempton.
Times Books. 570 pp. $27.50.
Murray Kempton, the dean of American newspaper columnists, is mostly unknown to readers—younger ones, at any rate—outside New York. His column, launched in 1949 and currently published in New York Newsday, is spottily syndicated; he has produced just four books (two of them, the present one included, being collections of essays, articles, and reviews); and he rarely lectures or appears on TV. His only other claim to literary celebrity is as a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, a berth that does not exactly make its occupant a household word.
Yet Kempton is greatly esteemed by one particular group of readers: his peers. He won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Last year, he was the subject of a New Yorker profile by David Remnick. Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, his new book, is festooned with blurbs from Remnick (“The best since Mencken”), Joan Didion (“Close study of [this book] should supplant enrollment in graduate schools of journalism”), and Elizabeth Hardwick (“Enlightened, intelligent, illuminating”). No doubt it would sport a blurb from William F. Buckley, Jr., one of Kempton’s biggest fans, were it not for the fact that the book is dedicated to Buckley. Also conspicuous by his absence from the dust jacket is Jimmy Breslin, who once claimed that Kempton “has brought more honor to newspapers than anyone in my lifetime.” Clearly, Murray Kempton is a journalist whom more successful colleagues like to admire.
Why is such a paragon so little known to the public at large? One reason is that Kempton writes frequently, if not mainly, about local matters. Another is that his prose is notoriously gassy, at times to the point of incoherence. (Here is Kempton on the death of Thurgood Marshall: “Memories come back to uplift the hearts of old men with powers to exhilarate that reside far less often in the recollection of grandeurs than of struggles.”)
Then there is Kempton’s quirkiness. Though he writes as a liberal, his frequent attacks of heterodoxy make him difficult to pigeonhole. “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower” (1967), reprinted here, is a quintessential example of Kempton’s ability to rethink conventional wisdom without lapsing into reflexive contrarianism. Equally trenchant is his no-nonsense verdict on Leonard Jeffries, the professor of black studies at New York’s City University known for his bizarre racial theories and his anti-Semitism:
What in the end is a black-studies department except the consignment of students of color to a separate and unequal system of education, with standards abysmally inferior to Tuskegee’s and with a teacher like Jeffries who owes his eminence to college administrators who think him no worse than his classroom deserves? . . .
Yet to call Kempton unpredictable, as his fans inevitably do, is to misunderstand him. Like most “unpredictable” thinkers, he is perfectly consistent when seen from the correct angle. In Kempton’s case, that angle is easily defined: born in 1917, he remains a man of the 30’s. He is intensely class-conscious (which is probably one of the reasons his fellow journalists admire him so much). He sees the modern civil-rights movement through the misty eyes of a man who knows well how hard it was for blacks in the 30’s. And he still has an essentially romantic view of 30’s radicalism.
Romantics are people who, no matter how clearly they see, are more interested in what they feel. This fits Kempton to a tee. After an early brush with Communism, he became an anti-Stalinist, and has never had any illusions about totalitarianism, whether in practice or in theory. Yet he has remained a man of the Left, and his vision of the 30’s is still that of one who remembers how it felt to be certain that the world had to be remade, and whose old age is warmed by the memory of that certainty. This goes a long way toward explaining Kempton’s belief, which he has expressed at regular intervals over the past four decades, that we should forgive the radicals of the 30’s their involvement with Communism.
Kempton is never crudely ideological. He is quick, for instance, to assail the moral deficiencies of leftists whose purely intellectual failings he finds excusable. (Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events contains some exceptionally sharp words about the “shallowness” of the middle-class radicals of the 60’s.) But early in the McCarthy era he became convinced that the “honor” of the radicals of the 30’s could only be preserved by their refusing to cooperate with the congressional investigators who were subpoenaing them. Again, this is by no means an unnuanced view; Kempton is one of the few defenders of Alger Hiss who has written with equal sympathy about Whittaker Chambers. In the end, though, it is the Hisses and Lillian Hellmans whom he admires most, for having stood pat and for refusing to “name names”:
There come times when you have to go into capital, and be ready to face up to the loss of a lot, because you are wise enough to sense that the alternative is to lose everything. You will get through, and there will be a time to come when all that will be remembered about you is whether or not you gave the names.
But there is, in fact, much more to be remembered about certain radicals than whether or not they “named names” in the 50’s before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Well-informed about the horrors of totalitarianism though Kempton is, he is sometimes prone to cull from the history of the 30’s those episodes that jibe with his idiosyncratic conception of honor, and to gloss over everything else. To praise Alger Hiss for standing pat is to ignore the damage done by his standing pat (not least to Whittaker Chambers); to dismiss 30’s radicalism as an excrescence of youthful idealism is to ignore the fact that many of those who professed it were in no conceivable way idealistic.
At times, Kempton actually seems to believe that there was little at stake in the cold war. “One small loss in an existence more and more deprived of the joys of the harmlessly ridiculous,” he wrote a few years ago, “is the shortening supply of Westerners who have seen the future and think it works.” One may doubt that many Russians regarded such Westerners as harmless; Solzhenitsyn certainly did not. But the Left-liberal culture from which Kempton springs spent the better part of the 20th century seeking to whitewash the Soviet Union, an undertaking which has—incredibly—outlived the fall of Communism itself. There are still plenty of professors at American universities who regard the existence of the Soviet purges (or the guilt of Alger Hiss) as a matter of opinion. Kempton is assuredly not of their number, but he elides a great deal of very dark history when he urges us yet again to forgive the radicals of his youth.
In one of the most characteristic essays reprinted in Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, Kempton compares Harry Truman unfavorably to Henry Wallace:
There are different sorts of foolishness, but we can be fairly certain that on the whole we have been damaged less by politicians like Wallace who vaporize human events into some “millennial and revolutionary march toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul,” and who dream of peoples singing to peoples, than by politicians like Truman who concretize all problems into formulas like “Dean, we got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what,” and who dream of dealing as Number One to Number One.
Considered solely as a character analysis of two politicians, this passage is shrewd and perceptive. Yet its subtleties become trivial when one pulls back far enough to compare the actual accomplishments of Wallace and Truman. Therein lies the flaw in Murray Kempton’s view of the world. His understanding of the psychology of American radicalism is profound; his recognition of the complexity of human motivation is astute. But a commentator who so often chooses to paint the world in shades of gray constantly teeters on the edge of suggesting that there is no difference between black and white.