Page 26


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Red Scare to Red Diapers Three Generations of Left-Wing Memoirs BY CHRIS GARLOCK JUMPING THE LINE: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical. William Herrick. The University of Wisconsin Press. 308 pages. $21.95. WASN’T THAT A TIME? Growing Up Radical and Red in America. Robert Schrank. The MIT Press. 452 pages. $30.00. RED STAR SISTER: Between Madness and Utopia. Leslie Brody. Hungry Mind Press. 209 pages. $15.00. e live, not in the Information Age, but in the Age of Autobiog raphy. 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 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 i 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 eightytwo 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 36 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 22, 1999