Paul Robeson: A Biography.
By Martin Bauml Duberman.
Knopf. 763 pp. $24.95.
For all of Paul Robeson’s manifold achievements as an athlete, a singer, and an actor, it was his political activities, and in particular his long record of devotion to the Soviet Union, that turned him into a culture hero. This helps explain why Martin Duberman’s massive biography has been awaited with such eagerness, and also such trepidation, by many of Robeson’s admirers on the Left. Lloyd Brown, a black writer long close to Robeson and sympathetic to the Communist party, had been originally slated to write the authorized biography, but he was removed by Robeson’s son Pauli, himself a lapsed Communist. Although Duberman’s own political sympathies lie with the Left, there were fears that his treatment of Robeson’s politics would end by submerging or diluting them, or that revelations about Robeson’s personal life might tarnish the reputation of a “people’s artist.”
Such fears have proved only partially valid. Duberman’s interpretation of Robeson’s life and politics is sympathetic, admiring, and exculpatory—but it is also true that thanks to his prodigious research, and to the sometimes tediously encyclopedic book based on it, enough details emerge to allow readers to reach very different conclusions from his own. In brief, Duberman views Robeson’s life as “the American tragedy writ large”; it could more appropriately be seen as the Communist tragedy writ small.
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898. His father, born a slave, had obtained a theology degree and become the pastor of a black Presbyterian church. Despite some hardships—his mother died when he was six years old, his father was removed from his pulpit, and the family was poor—Robeson, as Duberman writes, was insulated by “accidents of geography, family, and talent . . . from the brutalities of daily life commonplace for black Americans in the pre-World War I years.” He was able to win a scholarship to Rutgers University, becoming only the third black to enroll there, and during his undergraduate years he excelled at everything he tried. As an athlete he won fifteen varsity letters in four sports, capping his career by being chosen twice to an ail-American football team. He was a varsity debater, a four-time winner of the class oratory award, a member of the glee club, junior-year Phi Beta Kappa, and class valedictorian. And he did all this in the teeth of indignities and slights of the sort that faced all black Americans. He seemed, in short, destined for greatness.
After college Robeson obtained a law degree at Columbia, but quickly became convinced that racial discrimination would limit his opportunities as a lawyer. Instead, he turned to the stage, an arena where his race, far from impeding his career, actually enabled him to capitalize on his talents much more quickly than would ordinarily have been the case. In the mid-1920’s, he stunned critics in two Eugene O’Neill plays, most notably The Emperor Jones. Among his other hits were Showboat and Othello. And in a second career as a singer of spirituals and folk songs he was also able to bypass the long years of apprenticeship in poverty and small clubs routinely endured by even the most talented.
Still, his stage and screen roles were limited. Noting that Jericho was one of his better movies, Duberman adds: “Not, to be sure, among the highest compliments one can pay to his career.” Although in part he was restricted by the lack of sufficient roles, Robeson also suffered from severe technical deficiencies—“awkward body movement, a tendency to declaim”—and turned down some parts that carried risks. As Duberman observes, Robeson “let others think he was stumbling through his roles on instinct, as a hedge against being judged by standards he himself . . . felt unable to meet; should he be found wanting when measured against those standards, he could fall back on his noble-savage disguise.” Still, his striking stage presence frequently earned him plaudits even when the vehicle was panned.
Robeson’s personal life was deeply troubled. Married in 1921 to Eslanda (“Essie”) Cardoza Goode, a calculating, protective, light-skinned black woman who managed his career for a number of years, he was frequently and regularly unfaithful; for most of their long marriage they lived apart. Women threw themselves at him. (Duberman does lay to rest the rumor that Robeson was bisexual.) Essie was particularly bitter about his affairs with white women, once complaining that “he is just one more Negro musician, pursuing white meat.” Nor was he a doting father; his wife asserted that his interest in Pauli manifested itself only when it benefited “the artist to mention such prosaic things as children and parenthood.” Robeson had a rationale for his neglectful habits: in any conflict between art and the family, he maintained, the artist had to “consider his responsibilities to this multitude rather than to those few.”
In the early 1930’s Robeson suddenly swung to the political Left. Duberman, linking his new militancy to the collapse of a three-year romance with a white Englishwoman, speculates that her decision to end the relationship reinforced Robeson’s belief that the white, Western world would always reject him. Be that as it may, in 1934 Robeson angrily announced that the “modern white American” was a “member of the lowest form of civilization in the world today,” and in the same year he accepted an invitation to the Soviet Union. Once there, he was smitten: “Nights at the theater and opera, long talks with [the director Sergei] Eisenstein, gala banquets, private screenings, trips to hospitals, children’s centers, factories . . . all in the context of a warm embrace.” Convinced that the Soviet Union had abolished racial prejudice, Robeson felt, he said, “like a human being for the first time since I grew up.” It was the start of a lifelong romance.
Nothing in subsequent years ever shook Robeson’s faith that the Soviets were on the road to creating a wonderful new society. In the late 30’s and beyond he justified the Stalinist purges even though they swallowed up some of his own friends; it was right, he said, for the Soviets to “destroy anybody who seeks to harm that great country.” In 1939 he defended the Nazi-Soviet pact, then dutifully changed his tune two years later when Hitler turned on his Soviet ally. His name graced the letterheads of numerous Communist fronts, and he gave benefit concerts for a host of left-wing causes.
Paul and Essie made frequent trips to Moscow. So taken were they with the Soviet Union that they sent their son Pauli to attend school there for two years with the children of Stalin and Molotov—even though, as Duberman notes, they were warned by Eugene and Peggy Dennis, prominent American Communists who had been unable to take their own American-born son out of the Soviet Union after they had completed a Comintern assignment, that it would be wise to issue a public announcement of Pauli’s presence there as a hedge against his being held hostage.
In 1949 Robeson arrived in Moscow in the midst of Stalin’s notorious anti-Zionism campaign. Uneasy at his inability to find old Jewish friends, he asked to see Itzik Feffer, the noted Yiddish writer. Feffer was brought from prison to Robeson’s hotel, where he silently communicated that their conversation was being bugged. Other Jewish cultural leaders, he was able to convey, had already been purged; drawing his hand across his throat, he indicated what was to be his own fate as well. Robeson’s response was to include a tribute to Feffer during his last Moscow concert. Duberman extenuatingly suggests that the gesture was “all that he could have done without directly threatening Feffer’s life,” but that life was doomed anyway; more telling is that on his return to the United States, Robeson vehemently denied the existence of Soviet anti-Semitism.
Although he read Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin, Robeson never commented on it in public or private. The closest he ever came to acknowledging that the regime to which he had given his allegiance was less than perfect was in a remark to a friend that some acts of individual injustice might have occurred. In public, from the mid-30’s on, there was no more devoted fellow-traveler than Paul Robeson. Indeed, he faithfully echoed the position of the American Moscow-line Communists that while prosecution of them under the Smith Act was illegitimate, Trotskyists did not deserve civil rights because they were “allies of fascism.”
For a long time Robeson’s political activities did not materially affect his career. What finally inflamed public opinion, brought down the wrath of the government, and led to the destruction of his commercial career in the United States were a number of comments and actions during the cold war. Thus, in 1949 he suggested that American Negroes would not fight on behalf of the United States in a war with the Soviet Union. In later years he equated American treatment of blacks with genocide and charged the United States with conducting germ warfare in Korea.
The State Department lifted his passport. In 1949, hoodlums and anti-Communist vigilantes disrupted one of his concerts in Peekskill, New York. Although Robeson engineered a brief comeback in 1958, primarily abroad, where he had always been popular, his health had begun to fail and in 1960 he slashed his wrists while in Moscow, beginning a long period of severe mental depression and withdrawal that continued until his death in 1976. His son Pauli was convinced that his illness was chemically induced by the CIA, but Duberman admits that there is no evidence to support the charge.
Paul Robeson is a depressing book, not only for its portrait of a squandered talent but also as a reminder of the immoral lengths to which moral outrage can lead. Duberman, to be sure, strains to apologize for Robeson’s obtuseness. Conceding that his political statements were sometimes “simplistic,” Duberman charges Robeson’s critics with “competing simplicities.” Robeson’s loyalty to the Soviets, he writes, is to be understood as fidelity “to the sanguine view that they were potentially as generous, as aware, and as concerned about the sufferings of mankind as he was”—in contrast to those “powers-that-be” who “must always vilify those purveying a more sanguine message.” And so forth.
The émigré Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky, quoted by Duberman, has recalled how bitterly he and his friends hated Robeson for singing at concerts in Prague while the Soviet-backed regime was killing and persecuting its “enemies.” Skvorecky charitably concludes: “May God rest his—one hopes—innocent soul.” From this biography it becomes apparent that any such hope in Robeson’s innocence was and is misplaced.