JUMPING THE LINE:The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical.
WASN’T THAT A TIME?Growing Up Radical and Red in America.
RED STAR SISTER:Between Madness and Utopia.
We live, not in the Information Age, but in the Age of Autobiography. On radio and TV talk shows, on ubiquitous websites, in magazine articles and of course in books, we are telling our stories as never before. So much so that inevitably the question is, “Who cares?”
It is telling, of course, that we are swamped with autobiographies: people’s life stories in their own words. Biographies, after all, are generally written by the famous – publishers search out those who have earned a place in the history books and whose stories, therefore, are presumed to be of interest to the general public. Now, however, technology permits each of us (at least in theory) to be the sole arbiter of whether our own lives are worthy of general interest. Whether that interest indeed follows is perhaps another matter.
The populist in me welcomes this development: why should history be limited to the stories of the rich and powerful? Is the life of, say, a third-rate political hack more worthy of our attention than that of an articulate bricklayer? As a writer, however, the onanistic hubbub makes me cringe. In a rising tide of banality, the real treasures are as lost as Atlantis. My own questionable contribution to the flood – a brief daily observation on life and politics distributed via e-mail to about a hundred recipients around the country – makes me a self-appointed expert on the subject. In that daily bulletin, I struggle – sometimes successfully, often not – for the extraordinary in the pedestrian, and search for the universal in the individual experience.
The bar is necessarily higher for published memoirs, however. The recipients of my daily missives are family and friends who have at least a nominal interest in my observations, and more to the point, they haven’t paid good money to read them. Three recent memoirs illustrate both the promise and the failure of this genre, sharing a common thread, although not the obvious one.
Robert Schrank’s Wasn’t That a Time?, William Herrick’s Jumping the Line, and Leslie Brody’s Red Star Sister are all memoirs by veterans of America’s political left. But the similarity begins and ends there, as the three books, linked by a single red strand, weave stories that are as individual as the people who wrote them.
In Herrick’s case, his veteran status is literal: he fought in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Herrick is the author of ten novels, including ¡Hermanos!, which was based on his Spanish Civil War experiences. His memoir is also the best known, because his revisionist views of the Brigade, the war, and the communists have sparked support from the right and denunciations from the left. Anyone with less than an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the American left is ill-advised to tread too far into the crossfire, but I will say that it strikes me as odd that Herrick’s sources for his most damning accusations all tend to be conveniently dead. And it is particularly significant that his biggest bombshell – that he informed on his communist friends – is mentioned casually, only at the very end of the book.
But the biggest problem with Herrick’s memoir lies less in his politics than in his life itself. Despite accumulating enough experiences for several lifetimes, at eighty-two all he seems to have left is a healthy appetite for settling old scores. It may well be an old man’s prerogative to wander aimlessly down dead-end streets of treacherous memory, but it doesn’t make good reading. The book is written as though dictated into a tape-recorder and then sent directly to the printing press, and the hapless reader wanders in thickets of unexplained acronyms and ancient Communist factions, wishing for nothing so much as the firm hand of an editor to guide him to safety.
There is undoubtedly value in the story – even when told badly – of an interesting life. But Herrick, who finds room to disclose details of romantic escapades, cannot quite manage to examine the arc of his life quite as closely, and so leaves much more intriguing areas in the dark. His conclusion – “I have not lived the life of a vegetable” – while inarguably true, leaves one wishing he’d included a bit more meat in the book.
Robert Schrank’s Wasn’t That a Time?, though suffering from a similar case of fashionable anti-communism, is a much more satisfying memoir. Like Herrick, Shrank has crammed several lifetimes into his eighty years, but where Herrick glides serenely through, almost a stranger in his own life, Schrank stops to show us around, lovingly touching each memory like an old familiar piece of furniture. Schrank has been a plumber and a top union official, a coal miner, management consultant, and just about everything in between. He threw himself into everything he did and, with the sure ear of a polished public speaker, knows how to spin a good yarn without putting his audience to sleep.
Unlike Herrick, who relishes kicking the commies while they’re down, Schrank – while applying the unforgiving lens of history and personal reflection – does not disavow the political, social, and labor movement that shaped and, eventually, turned on him. He was expelled three times from union office by a corrupt international, and his legal battle – Schrank v. Brown – established a legal landmark in union democracy. And even though – like Herrick and many other American communists – he became disillusioned with the Party in the 1950s, he never abandoned the principles of social justice that he absorbed as a young radical.
Indeed, this history makes Schrank’s ultimate career shift to management consultant even more intriguing, although it is largely left unexplored in this memoir (although presumably explicated in his book Ten Thousand Working Days). Still, Wasn’t That a Time? weaves a gripping story of a life lived with the purpose and a measure of self-awareness that is so lacking in Herrick’s bathetic wallow. Schrank manages to draw political lessons from sources as unusual as horseshoe crabs. “I have often watched the long struggle as they fight their way out of the shell in order to grow a new one,” he writes. “If they don’t, they die. Fighting off old dogmas was much like that; it required enormous effort. The process of questioning all aspects of my life left me with a numbing depression.”
For a man who has waged tremendous political, social, legal, and personal battles, including regular bouts with depression, Robert Schrank’s memoir provides the most valuable and precious gifts of all: self-awareness and optimism.
When it comes to self-awareness, it’s hard to top Leslie Brody’s Red Star Sister, the most accessible memoir of the three. Brody’s book is an improbable mixture of autobiography, journal, and historical tour of the radical fringe movements of the sixties and seventies. Against all odds, it works, drawing us – as Brody puts it in the book’s subtitle – into a strange world “Between Madness and Utopia.”
Brody’s tale of White Panthers, sex, drugs, and self-discovery may set your teeth on edge. She constantly pushes the envelope of intimacy by sharing diary entries, like this one from high school: “Was it better to be happy or suffer for one’s work?” The leaden cliché lies there on the page, an embarrassment, but Brody knows that all of us, whether we made the mistake of writing it down or not, thought the same things at that age. And so we indulge her, as we must indulge our younger selves. And where both Herrick and Schrank (as befitting men of an earlier generation) are reticent, Brody persistently strips herself naked emotionally (and physically as well: in keeping with the period, there’s plenty of unabashed sex and drugs), as she struggles to understand herself, one of the confused young people who fought against the war in Vietnam in the best, muddled way she could.
The arcane and complex leftwing political battles, explored in the Herrick and Schrank books, give way here to memorizing Chairman Mao and endless self-criticism sessions, including battles over such mundane – but still politically and socially significant – issues as housework. Living in a White Panther collective, Brody refuses to do the dishes because, she explains to housemate ‘Desperado,’ “Women have been doing dishes for thousands of years. That’s chick consciousness and there’s not going to be any chick consciousness around here.”
Right on, sister.
Like Schrank, Brody can still trace her radical heritage without qualms. “I come from the old immigrant socialist traditions of brotherhood and sisterhood and equality now and peace and justice and solidarity forever. I think the wealthy should spend money on the poor, the powerful should protect the weak, science should be practiced in the public interest and everyone should respect the rights of the psychologically unstable.” There’s more good stuff, but you get the idea. This is someone who, despite having ingested enough drugs to stock a medium-sized pharmacy, knows herself and the world she lives in, and has kept lucid enough notes to tell us something interesting about her, and it.
Chris Garlock is communications director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, in Washington, D.C.