Monday, November 26, 2012

Howard Zinn A Life on the Left: An Interview with Martin Duberman

Martin Duberman's books include biographies of Paul Robeson, Lincoln Kirstein and James Russell Lowell. Mr. Duberman has written extensively on gay issues including Stonewall and Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey. Duberman's latest is a biography of political scientist/historian/sociologist/citizen/mensch Howard Zinn (1922-2010).

No doubt about it, Zinn's political views were radical. His 1980 book A People's History of the United States presented an antidote to history textbooks celebrating white male supremacy. This book infuriated many, and does not pretend to be impartial. A People's History has been updated several times and has never been out of print. 

Howard Zinn was on the faculty of Spelman College, then an all-black institution for women from 1956 until he was fired in 1963. While at Spelman, Zinn participated in bus boycotts, restaurant sit -ins and was very much involved with the attempts at desegregation, complete with physical abuse and several arrests.  He moved on to Boston University, where he was Professor of History from 1964 to 1988. His time there was marked by a rancorous relationship with BU President John Silber, described as a brilliant intellect by some and a fascist by some others. Zinn was among the highest profile BU faculty, and at the time of his retirement was the lowest paid professor in the University.

Here's part of my conversation with Martin Duberman, who has written the first biography of Howard Zinn,

CP: What attracted you to Howard Zinn?

Marin Duberman
MD:  I knew Howard somewhat. We were never close friends, but we would pass here and there and say a few words. I also had met his wife, Roz. Howard and I had almost always been on the same wavelength politically, at least in the early years. I went on to become interested in feminism and the gay rights movement, and those two issues never became central to Howard's agenda.

CP: Do you consider Howard Zinn a political scientist, a professor, how would you describe him?

MD: These discipline boundaries are so artificial.  He certainly was a historian. He also was a political theorist, and he also wrote to some extent about group behavior, so he was a sociologist as well.
 ...It wasn't fun and games for Howard. He was a deeply principled man who was very committed to the causes he took on.

CP: It seems to me that Zinn was not afraid not only to stand up for his own principles but also to question the motivation and principles of those with whom e disagreed.

MD: I think that's quite true. Howard was fearless, and strongly held to certain views, and stuck to them, regardless of the abuse that he received.  He as always himself. He was a man without any affectation.

CP: Where do you think his passion came from?

MD: I think it came in part from being born into a poor, Jewish immigrant family, and I mean very poor. Often the only way they could have a roof over their heads was from his resourceful mother, to find an apartment where the first month's rent was free and then they had to pay the second month, and then they would always leave, and find a similar deal somewhere else. Both his parents had very limited education, both worked very hard. His father was a window washer and a waiter, even when he suffered severe back problems  he had to go on doing those jobs, because there were no alternatives. Howard grew up knowing full well the central American myth, that anybody can get anywhere if they're willing to put in the hard work, he knew that was nonsense.

CP: Which of Zinn's many books would you consider essential to understanding who he was?

MD: Probably his autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. I don't think its his best book, but if a reader his interested in his life as opposed to his political activities that would be the book. But he's never very revelatory about his inner life and his relationships. That wasn't Howard. He was very much a public figure, and in fact he went out of his way to conceal his private life to the point when I arrived at the archives, I discovered that almost all personal correspondence he had destroyed. I think the main reason was he didn't want to get political fiends into trouble for anything they had written to him. And also, Howard was very private.  He simply didn't talk about his inner feelings.

CP: Zinn was on the faculty of Boston University for many years. For much of that time he had to deal with the President of the University, John Silber. The two men did not see eye to eye. It often became very difficult and ugly. Why do you think Howard Zinn stayed at BU? He probably could have gone many other places?

MD:  No, I'm not sure that's true. Howard's politics were very radical. The subtitle of my book is a life on the left.By the 1980s. certainly;y in the Reagan years, there weren't many other places Howard could have gone. I didn't come across any invitations offering him positions. Until he wrote A People's History,his big selling book, the family lived on his BU salary.  John Silber always saw to it that Howard was the lowest paid full professor in the University.  So he couldn't afford to simply resign.  After People's History was published, which by now I think has sold around two ad a half million copies., and ever year the book sells more than in the year preceding-and the book was published in 1980. But it was only then that he had extra income.

CP: A People's History was saying the exact opposite of what many people were taught in the public schools
I thik Howard Zinn and his books have a lot to do with requiring kids today to think critically.

MD: Absolutely,.  The year before People History came out there had been a very respected study of high school textbooks. The study showed overwhelmingly the heroic lives of our presidents and business elite. No mention was made of the uglier parts of our history. Certainly no mention was made of the working class and the poor, and the various strikes they engaged in order to better their condition.  It was a shocking study, because it showed that American children are indoctrinated generally with a triumphalist  version of American history.

I think its better now, thanks to Howard and other young radicals who are writing textbooks.

Howard's main issues were centered in race and class. He made a few gestures later in life to feminism and the gay rights movement. But Howard's house had long been built. His orientation was toward race and class. No matter what generation you belong to, you are born into a certain set of problems, and if you're an activist, those are the ones you tend to be drawn to. Feminism and gay rights were simply not salient movements when Howard was coming up in the 1930s and 40s. But he never said a negative word about either of those movements.

CP: Finally, how would you sum up Howard Zinn?

MD: As a person Howard was a very gentle and kind and generous human beig. I hate reducing a life to one lesson, but if I have to I'd say what Howard's life demonstrates is that it is possible and necessary to commit oneself to public issues, at least to some extent.  Howard was a professional historian and political scientist, bu he recognized he was also a citizen. We are responsible for the ills of our society. As citizens, we have the responsibility to lend our efforts to some degree. We can't simply be self absorbed consumers. I think that's the lesson of Howard's life.   


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Author Interview: D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace

D.T. Max is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and the author of a medical mystery, The Family That Couldn't Sleep.  

 Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is D.T. Max's  is a new biography of writer David Foster Wallace, (1946-2008) either the most original writer of the last thirty years, or a literary con man.
Take your pick D.T. Max comes down in the former camp and he'll take you there as well.

"David and I are just a year apart in age. When he published his first novel, The Broom of the System, it was a revelation to me to read such an extraordinary, funny,  masterful and overwrought piece of prose from someone my own age...When David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker asked me to write a piece about David's death, I was immediately interested, because I knew so little about David Foster Wallace. I didn't know that he had depression, I didn't know that he had addiction issues, I didn't know how funny he was." 

For those who have yet to encounter Wallace's work, Max says,

"David Foster Wallace mastered a kind of writing that really had not been done before.  Long,  winding sentences that try and capture everything about the world.  They are what it sounds like when you think. (italics mine.) They are the sound of our own minds going....David brought a wonderful knowledge of sentence structure and how a sentence should sound to this disorderly, exciting kind of mental state...the sort of David Foster Wallace mind dump."

By the time of his suicide in 2008, Wallace was the author of several collections of short stories and non fiction, and his massive novel, Infinite Jest. This 1,000 page novel runs from locker room towel snapping to very detailed discussions of experimental films made by the deceased, but still very present father of one of the novel's leading characters.  There are massive of footnotes as well, and some of the footnotes have footnotes, every word worth reading. You will stay with this book even if you wonder why it so entertaining.

"Infinite Jest is less difficult than most people think. It makes it hard at times to know where you are, but its really an absolutely wonderful story, or really two stories, partially a story about a bunch of kids at a tennis academy outside of Boston, and its partially about a bunch of recovering addicts in a half way house that's just down the hill. David wanted people to read this book. He was not James Joyce. He did not want to make it impossible for you to understand what's going on.

D.T. Max
Max recommends "modestly submitted" Every Love Story is a Ghost Story as a good primer to Wallace's work (he's right) and recommends the on line "road maps" for Infinite Jest. "These reassure you that you are going somewhere, especially early in the book when you have reason to doubt!"

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story  is no facile expose of a life of addiction and mental illness interspersed with flashes of brilliance. It's impressive literary criticism, along with the facts of a complex life.

"I didn't want to write about David without writing about David as a writer. It tries to relate the writing to the life and the life to the writing...In the years since his death (2008) he's become a kind of person people just want to know about. There's a kind of moral force around David, especially for younger people, there's a cliched "Saint Dave"...David used to say when he didn't like something he'd go straight to the bathroom, and that would make him go straight to the bathroom. People think of him as someone who had experiences and wrote about them in ways can help them be stronger, and be more centered and happy in their lives.  That's his great theme, that he's writing for you. He's writing for you as a reader, so you can take away, experience and knowledge that will help you to experience your life more fully . It's a big task. Most fiction writers don't do that, . David wanted you to emerge from his books stronger ."

 D.T. Max points out that he never met David Foster Wallace.

 "I tell people when I started this book I was in love with David Foster Wallace, and when I finished it I was even more in love with David Foster Wallace.  People ask how that's show so many of his flaws, but to me he's like a Thomas Merton . He's somebody who lived hard in the world and made a lot of mistakes. He did a lot of learning. We can learn from him. In writing the book,  I was trying to learn what David was trying to teach me, about how to live more fully in the world. Our saints today are not going to be virgins! David spent much of his life in 12 step programs. I think that's where he learned that its only those who've been there who know how to get out of the cul-de-sac that we're in, or how to avoid getting into that dead end. That to me is David's great value."


Friday, November 16, 2012


Now that I'm approaching the other side of fifty heading to sixty,  I'm becoming reflective.

A number of years ago it was time for me to get a vasectomy.
The reasons are unimportant, but as a lot of the younger men around me are becoming new fathers,
I began reminiscing about the procedure itself and its aftermath.

I was of a certain age, delighted with the child I had and not expecting more. A call to the OSU Medical Center referred me to the dept. of Urology, and a date was made. No muss no fuss.

Men are always sold the line that snip-snip on your lunch hour and, simple band aid in place in the lower extremities, go off and play racquet ball. You won't feel a thing. All of us hold on to this myth. I did uneasily recall a neighbor who spent a week post snip wandering around his yard in his jammies, when not sitting on a pillow and looking dazed. I decided his procedure was part of something , well, I don't want to say larger in this context, but maybe prostrate surgery.

If there were any pre- appointment instructions, I ignored them. Do Not Do This. On arrival, meticulously showered and you bet with clean NEW skivvies, I was met by a very large woman holding a 35 cent disposable Bic razor. She was not a soft spoken large lady, either.


In the background ran a tape of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor liking the night life and
God bless us and spare us, liking the booty. This when I'm about to lose mine.


I looked for the butt open hospital gown and seized it gratefully but once stirruped
(is this a woman's revenge on male OBGYNs?) I realized that no gown would be of any use.




And so she set to work in and near where the sun don't shine.
Meanwhile Gloria Gaynor continues to rock.
Many of you will not recall the disco era. Ask your parents.
(Get them drunk first)

As she scraped and shaved I muttered the expected, "My its cold in here"
 to which the response was IF I HAD A NICKEL EVERY TIME I HEARD THAT FROM A MAN...
Apparently she was able to feel her way around the objects which were in full retreat.
I guess that made the shaving easier. I don't want to know.

I sweat to God, she really did say 'chop away'.

Now, bald in my privates-and it really WAS cold-I awaited the arrival of my surgeon.
Sure enough, a very distinguished looking Asian gentleman arrived..
And his name was...wait for it...Dr. Gong.

You can't make this stuff up.

Dr. Gong was pristine, after- shaved, nail trimmed (thank God) polite and heavy accented.
I didn't get a word but I had a translator.


Well, I could have it reversed or take my denuded privates off the table and go home.
But in for a penny.....

Dr. Gong was accompanied by a pack of acolytes (I wanted to call then mandarins but that would have been in poor taste, considering.) I was reminded that OSU is a teaching hospital. A large group of white coated women and men, the former looking smug and the latter terrified.

A digression. I had never met Dr. Gong but a routine physical a few years earlier morphed into my first ever prostate exam. I'll spare you most of this except to say that not one person put on a glove, about FIFTEEN people put on a glove. I was a Thanksgiving turkey to these good folks, and the male students were more mortified even than I was, bless them. And the attending that day kept saying to each of them, "No! You're not feeling around correctly! Do it THIS way! I was there for an hour and never again will the phrase "A hole's a hole" escape my lips.

Before and After?
Back to the Vaz. Dr. Gong is seated primly while I have no secrets left and very little dignity.
(And it being so cold did nothing for my ego, if you know what I mean).
I cut now! he proclaimed.,.


and at this point Donna Summer began "Let's Dance". You betcha. Call me later.

Tug tug pull pull. Have you ever had a distinguished looking Asian gentelman pulling  on you "down there". Even if you have, at least presumably the room was warm and the lights were low. Not here. The good doctor wanted to share the (lack of) wealth with each of the acolytes, so that-again-all could have a look and take turns watching the scalpel ONE AT A TIME.


Just, what looks good?!?.

I love it when even through Novocaine doctors ask "Am I hurting you?" and  "Gotta cut deep with this one". Two of the acolytes took phone calls during, and I swear one said, You'll never believe what I'm seeing now.

The sewing kit was shared by three of them. The men had the kindness not to snicker, not so the woman.
You get up, now.


And by God doctor and acolytes alike filed back to take a deeper look at my large, loud lady friend and her disposable Bic. I thought,  if she offers me that razor as a souvenir, I'm going to throw up.

"No sex two weeks!" said the doctor. "I give you Viagra."
He's giving me Viagra and telling me no sex for two weeks.
You might want to write that down.

Since it really was my lunch hour, I was hungry. This in spite of a packet of instructions with words like blood, pus, and my personal favorite, discharge.
I headed to McCarthy's on Indianaola for blueberry pancakes, stopping at home first for a pillow on which to....oh, never mind.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Monica Wood and When We Were the Kennedys

 Did you know there's a Mexico, in Maine?

You will, and Monica Wood's new memoir When We Were the Kennedys will tell you all about Mexico, Maine and leave you begging for more

This was one of those books on a library display wall. I'd never heard of Monica Wood. I visited Maine often, in fact I was married there, but in touristy, faux-cute Maine.And the Maine people I knew catered to those visitors (summah people). Mexico is in Western Maine, far inland. It was the birthplace of Ed McMahon! But it was most crucially for this book the home of the Oxford Paper Company, the area's pollutant and largest employer. Ms. Wood makes clear. No mill, no schools, no doctors, no grocery stores, no libraries, no people. The mill didn't provide jobs, the mill was jobs-to residents of Mexico, Rumford and environs.

Monica Wood gives us the few years immediately following her father's sudden death on April 25, 1963. He was on his way to work, lunch pail in tow. (My father had a lunch pail. So did yours. The rest of you can ask your grandparents) Mr. Wood just...died. right there in the garage. Gone. Over and out. He left a widow and five children,  and a brother in law who adored him. In fact, if you're looking for a cold, taciturn down-easter paterfamilias,  look elsewhere.

There's an older son, Barry, a musician who works in the mill. Anne, who teaches school, and as the neighbors lamented "those three little girls". Betty is what we'd call today a "special needs child." Monica and Cathy are at home. Mum goes from  self reliance to a woman taking to her bed at every opportunity.

President Kennedy is assassinated the following November. the Wood family isn't close to recovering from Dad's unexpected death. Now another  family has lost their father, and the whole country lost a father figure. Irish Catholics took President Kennedy's death personally. I know. I was raised in a similar environment.

There are Catholic Schools, benevolent nuns (no silly jokes here) Father Bob, Mum's younger brother who thought of Dad as his own father, and who is undone by grief. There are nosy, difficult landlords from another old country, (Lithuania) kindly neighbors and good friends. No villains in this book. So is it too sweet, too cloying and unrealistic?

No. Along with the nice people there is on every page a sense of loss and grief  that complements the rest of the story, never weighing it down. Father Bob and Mum both die of cancer, too early. S Anne the school teacher sister gets the age of 68! The mills change hands multiple times before dying away, taking Monica Wood's world with it. And by the last page of When We Were the Kennedys, you'll wish that Mr.Wood was your Dad.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Cesare Civetta: The Real Toscanini

You want this book

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was the dominant figure in America's concert live form 1937 until his death twenty years later. David Sarnoff and RCA created the NBC Symphony for the Maestro. Concerts were broadcast weekly form Studio 8-H in New York, and these programs made Toscanini famous to all, after a fifty year career that began in the cello section of the word premiere of Verdi's Otello.

Toscanini led the world premieres of La boheme, Pagliacci and Turandot. He gave the Italian premiers of Wagner's Ring operas (with the extraordinary tenor Giuseppe Borgatti as Sigfrido). By 1937 he had served music directorships at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. He had given concerts with the BBC Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. The Maestro journeyed to Palestine, accepting no fee to lead the inaugural concerts of the Palestine Symphony (today the Israel Philharmonic)

He was an ardent anti-fascist who was beaten up by Mussolini's thugs in the early 1930s, for refusing to play the fascist hymn, Giovinezza. Toscanini conducted Tannhauser and Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth, refusing to return after 1933."I cannot go against my conscience as an artist and as a man."
He had love affairs with celebrated divas, children out of wedlock and a long marriage to Carla Di Martini.

Cesare Civetta is himself a noted young conductor. In 1976, when Civetta was very young indeed, he produced a radio series for WFUVin New York. Understanding Toscanini featured interviews with musicians, critics, writers and members of the NBC Symphony. From them and from Maestro Civetta we have the present volume, The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro.

Toscanini was known for his volcanic temper, and this is acknowledged in context. He was often enraged at himself, when he felt that his own powers were not up to the music at hand. Themes emerge as to the Maestro's demands on himself and others, but also on his humility, kindness and phenomenal memory. He could be paternal and he could be severe.   Today one of the few criticisms is the fast tempi Toscanini was thought to favor

"For me it was never too driving. It was never too fast for me. It was always under control, no matter what tempo. He knew exactly what he was doing".--George Koutzen, cellist NBC Symphony

"Toscanini sought expressive quality through dynamics or texture, not through tempo, which was the constant"
--Robert Shaw

Cesare Civetta
Cesare Civetta has produced a book by a musician with musicians about the supreme musician. The best books on music lead you back to the music itself, and The Real Toscanini is no exception. I read this twice in one sitting-and will read it again. It's a rich book. informative and entertaining. And every so often I put it down to listen to the Maestro in concert. I returned to the music,. as I'm sure Toscanini would have wished.