Issue 132, Fall 1994
From the Journals of a Lifetime
Before Asya and I were married, we decided to keep a daily record of our lives. Of course we won’t keep it up. I do need a notebook journal record of some sort, and this may be it. Asya is like nothing I ever anticipated or even hoped for. She’s priceless.
“They will more than arrive there, every one.”
• • •
A Sunday afternoon walk to the river with Asya. In this industrial kitchen of Long Island City, where the factories lie scrubbed and waiting in the sun like so many pots and pans hung up to dry, there is a weariness in the air. The river is not the sluice of New York harbor it usually is, but a pallid turgid stream breaking weakly against neglected docks and piers and river dumps.
Sunday: the fog over the river and the long line of yellow lamps all along the subway line near the “project,” where Italians live in modern art slums, cut and parcelled like cheap dresses in a factory. The Italians play an old game with a few balls and a hole in the ground. It just needs a little earth, a wall, a gutter for us to play a game!
I remember the sadness of Sunday because I was so terrified of school the next day —the waiting, the fear before the soul returns to its treadmill, the fear of stammering in class the next day as my mother stammered when she was afraid. And when was she not afraid, even as she passed the fear on to me? She could not speak my English, and I hated falling into her Yiddish, it was so broken with her fear, her grief over everything she had left full of dark Poland, Jew hating Poland. Even when there was no school I wanted not to leave the sand at Coney Island as the beach emptied and I could still look to another world in the water.
Sunday: the walk to Highland Park out of Brownsville and East New York, out of everything I knew to the wonderful line of yellow lamps across the embankment before the park — the dumped eanh we used to climb over to the playing grounds, where the boys played a last game of touch football in the twilight, and we would sit on the benches near the reservoir, petting so madly as the lights of the YMCA spread out before us, challenging us, that I came, astonished to ecstasy by the weights in my body falling from tier to tier.
Sunday: playing Bach duets with Anne, my partner in the violin section of the Franklin K. Lane High School orchestra. Then her mother’s Polish cups of tea. The sharp reproving taste of lemon in my mouth as we go over French irregular verbs for tomorrow. Sunday: Highland Park and the reservoir around which my teacher Julian Aaronson and I walked, dis secting the first stories I wrote in high school. Sunday: always Highland Park and the trees in shadow, the flower garden we could barely see in the growing dark. Darkness, the darkness! And then the walk through the Italian neighborhood to home — the butcher shops busy of a Jewish Sunday — the pushcarts lining Belmont Avenue, Cousin Sophie’s old room with a bed and a table for me to write on and the fragrance of Sophie still where she had kept her dresses behind a curtain, forever bring her back. And sitting there, looking out on Sutter Avenue and thinking Israel! Israel! Why have you forsaken me! Sunday: the long remembered waiting and then Nancy’s rhinestone dress as we huddled together against the wall of the toilet, hoping her parents would not return too soon. Sunday: the waiting, the waiting for the next day, the benches in Highland Park, the cold, the kitchen sink, the water in the reservoir.
• • •
Every once in a while some token —a sentence in a book, a voice heard, will recall for me the fresh instant delight in American landscape and culture that I felt when I really got into On Native Grounds, The sentence this morning, fresh as a spring wind, comes from Constance Rourke’s book on Audubon, on the sudden realization that his ornithology showed a national sense of scale, that like Whitman he was a great voice of American nationality.
I recall the excitement under which I lived for weeks in 1939, when I knew that I had this passionate and even technical interest in images of the American past. Thomas Eakins, always a hero to my spirit. I would walk up and down the “American” rooms of the Metropolitan Museum taking in the portraits of solemn Colonial and Revolutionary figures—dull glazed transcriptions of a Sunday morning in ye olde Flatbush 1836. Images that brought back the delight I had taken even as a boy in old narratives of American discovery, the indomitable Henry Hudson always at the center—in life stories of Americans at all times and in all conditions. As a college student during the depression, one of my jobs for the National Youth Administration ($15 a month) was to comb the Dictionary of American Biography for southerners who had graduated from college before the Civil War. I never got tired of reading their stories. I have never been able to express the excitement I get from “Americana,” from Constance Rourke’s saying “the poet of American nationality” —from the very names Cope, James, Peirce, Dickinson, Roebling in Lewis Mumford’s The Brown Decades—from Thomas Beer’s Hanna and The Mauve Decade—from the letters of William James. To think of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henry James, of Emerson and Whitman and Dickinson in the same breath, as it were, gives me extraordinary satisfaction. Makers and movers and thinkers —observers in the profoundest sense. I loved to think of America as an idea, to remember the adventure and the purity, the heroism and the salt,
Of course I love all this from the outside, as the first native son after so many generations of mudflat Russian Jews who never saw America. But my personal need is great, my inquiry is urgent.
• • •
His name is Howard Nott Doughty, and he comes from a family so long settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts that they are still in touch with their English cousins. They don’t, it seems, quite approve of these cousins across the sea, who are so backward in the way of our advanced American ways that in sending over some silver spoons as a wedding present, they neglected to add the bride’s initials to the groom’s.
At Harvard in the twenties (he was born in 1904), he was with Lincoln Kirstein and Varian Fry, one of those advanced undergraduates who put out Hound & horn, that great founding journal of American modernism. Tall, rangy, languidly humorous about his descent in the world, he is still the proud Yankee and is writing a biography of his distant kinsman Francis Parkman. He is so glad to meet up with another literary bloke in dreary Long Island City that he has taken to presenting me with rare editions inscribed to me in It tench — Mo by Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent and Madame de La Fayette’s beautiful little seventeenth century novel. La Princesse de Clèves, the story of the exquisite heroine’s overcoming the temptation to illicit passion.
The question about this Yankee patrician and kindly friend is what is he doing in Long Island City? He is teaching at the Police Academy! Why he is fallen this low is a question around which he genially circles without ever telling me anything. Until the other day, when he said, as if exasperated, “Of course you know Tm homosexual.” Of course I hadn’t known any such thing, and probably exasperated him even more by having nothing whatever to say on the subject.
He is married, with a daughter, and is regularly unwell. He suffers such spasms from colitis, which he offhandedly describes as “a stress disease,” that he frequently doubles up as he is talking to me. What interests me is his stoical sense of failure, his clearly having a “failing,” as his ancestors might have said.
He is interested in me because of my book, but my being a Jew seems to be a problem to him. His feisty little wife Binx laughs in a knowing way as she makes “jokes” about Jews. These pass over me like air, since despite her malice on the subject, I never quite know what she is talking about. In his turn, Howard seems to feel that my being a Jew is a terrible loss to me. This bothers him a lot. The other day, assuming for no reason that I observe the dietary laws, he came by not only with his usual gift of a book but with a bag of oysters that he carefully shucked and cleaned, then to my amazement hotly demanded that I eat them right then and there.
• • •
Thinking of John Dewey this morning. Some weeks ago, as I was walking to the subway after my day at the Forty-second Street library, I saw Dewey on Lexington Avenue with a woman I took to be his daughter. I looked at him with affection and pleasure that I had recognized him. He stared back. After half a block I looked back. He was still staring, talking to his daughter as if to say, “Now, when did I have him in my classes?”
I was thinking of Dewey because my impression of his career and significance is different from that of students of his philosophy alone. For me Dewey represents more than the pragmatic adaptable twentieth century intelligence that was going to fit philosophy to the scientific age. He really speaks with the security and serenity of a vanished world. I think not of his lack of elegance, the clumsy handiwork of his style, but of his nobility, his steadiness, the work of immense quiet usefulness, the moral achievement that constitutes his life.
• • •
Passing under our kitchen window on my way home from the subway at Borough Hall, I loved to look up at Asya standing in the window in the last light, preparing our evening meal. And then all the ease and charm of our young marriage would unfold for me, right there on Clinton Street, before I got to our front door on Remsen.
Brooklyn Heights, 1938: the downtown streets dense with traffic for Brooklyn Bridge on a winter’s day, and lined with churches, banks, courts, municipal offices, stationers, the old Brooklyn central library on Montague Street, the main offices of Brooklyn Union Gas, the one big street clock in the neigh borhood, lawyers on Court Street hungrily bunched together but looking to grab any passerby who could be turned into a client. The air was resonant with bailiffs, city marshals, lined legal paper foolscap size. But in the center of the center, one room and a kitchen, fifty a month, we had our love.
The minute I left the house for the Forty-second Street library and my excited all day reading in American writers for my first book, I could feel in an instant flush of delight how that grid of dark radiating lines, offices, marble bank fronts, subway openings, the elevated on Fulton Street and the trolleys for the bridge —how all that dark, busily official and end less hum of topmost Brooklyn life —enclosed us, enclosed us tight. So that at night, as we lay on our just made up sofa bed listening to a Haydn cello concerto on WQXR against the fits and starts of city traffic, we had a delicious sense of being alone and all to ourselves on one sluggishly turning flywheel of the city. In the sudden stillness of a Sunday night, one shining cross in the venerable church across the street (Brooklyn, the city of churches) burned at our windows.
None of that belonged to us —not the documents being turned over all day, not the proprietary New England airs Brooklyn Heights still gave itself as we walked down Remsen Street to the harbor against a solid line of classic brownstones. Beautiful wooden doors with exquisitely etched glass inserts. At night, you could often see the hall light, and even the curve of the stairs as they mounted. Another world, another world! I could write about the mansion dominating Columbia Heights that figured in Ernest Poole’s The Harbor (or so I guessed), but I could not imagine myself in it.
All this before the Esplanade. At the end of Remsen Street, however, you could wedge through the fence to face the great jeweled breast of Manhattan floating on the water. Now everything was ours —the cobblestones leading down to the piers under the old “Japanese” iron bridge at the end of Montague Street, the iron doored warehouses, the freighters tied up below with one small light in the rigging, and, out there to the right, above all and mastering all, the great Brooklyn Bridge itself. Everything on Columbia Heights was related for me to the bridge’s hard leaping and thrusting glory. The immigrant John Roebling had dreamed it; the immigrant’s son Washington had built it after the dreamer was struck by the Fulton Street ferry the bridge was going to replace. And here, right on Columbia Heights, Hart Crane had written the only lines that could match John Roebling’s dream:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry —
• • •
We were radicals; our friends Richard and Felice Hofstadter on one side of Montague Street, Richard and Eleanor Rovere, Bertram D. Wolfe and his wife, Ella, on the other. The depression lasted until the war. Hitler was on our heads day and night. Franco was killing his own people with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was inconceivable that anyone intelligent and of good will was not on our side, along with Auden, Malraux, Silone, Orwell, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Wilson, Farrell and every young writer, scholar, painter and medical student we knew. It was 1938. Thirteen men from City College —students, faculty, alumni —were to die in Spain.
At 68 Montague Street Bert Wolfe (an early leader of the American Communist Party, long since expelled as a Lovesto neite, a right deviationist) and his jolly wife covered a wall with photographs of their old comrades and friends from many countries in (O holy word) the “movement.” The central photograph was of Lenin, looking (it seemed to me) at all the others with his usual disapproval of anyone not up to his harsh standards. There was also a lot of Mexico on the wall. The Wolfes had been close to Diego Rivera (whose life he was writing when he was not writing Three Who Made a Revolution) and his stormy painter wife Frida Kahlo.
Bert and Ella of course ended up, like so many other exhausted radicals and neocons, at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto. Bert died there. Forty years later, when I was at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies, I was happy to see Ella, as delightful as ever, but was not prepared to see in Palo Alto the same lineup of photographs I had seen forty years before at 68 Montague Street. Lenin still looked disapprovingly at everyone else. Living amid the Hoover Institution’s remarkable collection of documents relating to the international Communist movement, Ella was more awash than ever in her old history. Just as she had joked in 1938 that a Comintern congress had no delegate from the jungle because “they couldn’t find a Jew willing to wear a nose ring,” so now she laughingly reported Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo and of how she had given him up as “that tiresome old man.”
• • •
The thirties were an age of faith, for a time, and a great many people I knew and knew of were soldiers of faith. We alone were pure. The only evil in the world was Fascism. That took care of all other things, like our personal lives.
I came home from the library one afternoon, radiantly happy, to find Asya face down on the floor, sobbing in anger, uselessly hitting the floor with her fists. The excessive smell of fresh paint in the newly occupied flat hit me as I bent to her. She had just had a visit from her mother, whose only way of dealing with a charmingly errant husband was to harangue Asya to the point of hysteria.
Her parents were Jews who proudly let me know that they considered themselves Russian “intelligentsia” and condescended to my easily subdued parents because they spoke Yiddish to each other. There was not a thing about the U.S.S.R. that Asya’s parents did not declare holy, perfect and adorable. The mother amused me —only her pretensions were amusing—by wearing severe suits and routinely choosing a straight kitchen chair to sit in with a fixed frown —I never saw her smile —rather than the wing chair that was our one luxury. This showed her contempt for “bourgeois” frippery. Otherwise she was an absolute terror, always on the attack. She just could not manage her husband. Often enough she could not even locate him.
Everything about Asya’s parents was strange to me. The mother’s cruelty to her children — Asya had a younger brother who was to succumb at an early age to the unbearable stress his mother dumped on him —went hand in hand with an idolatry of Stalin that made me laugh. Asya’s father and I were fond of each other; he even confided that his terrible wife had a sexual hold on him that explained his inability to tear himself away from her. He loved his daughter madly and loved me even when, like my friend Richard Hofstadter, I jeered at such political orthodoxy.
• • •
The Hofstadters were another left wing couple in marital disarray, but here the problem was startlingly, openly one of rival careers. The unstoppable Felice (only cancer would stop her at twenty-nine after she had borne a son she typically named Dan after “the smallest and most belligerent tribe in Israel”) had come down from a prominent medical family in Buffalo as if she expected New York to fall at her feet. And it damned near did. At first the Hofstadters in their rough lodgings over a bakery on Montague Street were so poor that Felice seriously tried to get Dick work in a nightclub as a stand up comic. We all howled when he did his imitation of FDR and of the Ozark farmer whose daughter had fallen into the well. “Must get her out of there one of these days.”
Before long Felice, starting only as a researcher for the medical columnist on Time, was writing the medical column. Women had traditionally been restricted to research for writers exclusively male. But of course Felice broke through all that. She was irresistible in her ability not only to accept and affirm but to display her various loyalties. Only robustly left wing Felice could have decided on living so close to the harbor so that she could keep up with members of the Norwegian Seamen’s Union. They would wander in of a Saturday afternoon for a taste of Felice’s famous cholent, the Sabbath dish prepared by Orthodox Jews before the Sabbath, when no cooking is allowed.
Felice publicly loved being Jewish, as she publicly flourished feeding her “comrade” Norwegian seamen, shining to advantage as one of the first women writers on Time. When she left her office high up in the Chrysler Building of a Saturday night (working the weekend “for Luce” was routine), she never seemed surprised to be greeted by the many male friends waiting to take her out for dinner. She carried in every step the pride, the gusto, and for me the very romance that comes with sudden success for the young in New York, and which from that time forward remains embodied for me in the Chrysler Building itself, rising up there over Forty-second Street like the only true New York cathedral, its shining spire scraping the sky all right and challenging it to find another so confident in its potency and silver beauty. And this in the midst of a depression, weighing down millions, a whole quarter of the American working class unemployed, that aroused all Felice’s scorn and indignation as a radical.
After uneasily trying this and that, Dick was in graduate school at Columbia and began writing Social Darwinism in American Thought as I was lurching into On Native Grounds, We were soon doing our reading side by side in the great Reading Room 315 of the Forty-second Street library. He was never an outspoken and public personality like his wife —not even when he was recognized as one of the most significant contemporary American historians. But not uninfluenced by his early Marxism, he had attained an intellectual certainty that won me, along with the gift for mimicry he displayed in private. The mimicry—of all possible American characters but always returning to that central presence, the President of the United States, who in our eyes was just not doing enough—was the voice of his essential skepticism. His German background Lutheran mother had died early, his Polish Jewish father had given his gift for Yiddish an irresistible turn. Between two such worlds —who would have guessed that the middle name of this former Lutheran altar boy was Irving!— he had become the amused outsider who looked Gentile, was married to a Jew and whose friends were regularly Jews.
I was linked to Richard Hofstadter by our passion for America as history. America was more than the radical alienation, the critical edge we brought to it. When Dick read aloud from Mencken’s unforgettable portrait of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, when he laughingly quoted Mr. Dooley on Theodore Roosevelt’s looking all teeth—“Teddy bit his way to the platform” in an ecstasy of enjoyment that someone else equally relished every little bit of the American scene. Dick would say of Columbia University that he loved observing it as “a society.” In the same way I was fascinated by the depression crowds jostling us in Room 315 as we did our reading, the mass of impatient, often clearly troubled unemployed people in the Automat across the street on Forty-second Street where we often gobbled our lunch at the stand up table before going off to a local pool parlor to play Ping Pong. We had left our books and notes on one of the golden library tables under a note —BACK SOON. PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB. —I would sit back
All the while Dick was quietly preparing himself for the great career that was to end all too soon in 1970 of leukemia. Felice was growing more restive. I was not prepared to understand—not until it cut my own life in half—the urgency of rebellion that erupted in the Hofstadters’ public quarrels over the way she drove their new car. Their increasingly prosperous and fashionable lifestyle made the Hofstadters as a couple less fun than they had been in their old Bohemian lodgings in Brooklyn Heights. Felice loved being important to Time more than she could ever love Time itself. Writing up a frightful industrial accident in which a worker had been pressed to death by a machine, she had thought it clever to write that the victim could now be slipped under a door. On her way home she felt horrified by her callousness, rushed back to the office to change the piece and found the managing editor roundly congratulating her.
Felice was ambitious, morally sensitive to a degree, but she was not as serious as she thought, not a serious thinker like her husband. She wanted to be a novelist, she wanted to be acclaimed, she wanted, she wanted! When I could not respond as expected to her one published novel, of intense social content, the roof fell in. I never saw her again. As the war was ending, she became deadly ill. Dick, looking after her, sitting by her side in a darkened room, began The American Political Tradition in the dark, on a yellow pad, not always able to see his words.