Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” (1973)

The twenty four stories in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories shift across the Jewish Diaspora creating a network of relationships and themes across Poland, New York, and Palestine. His most common characters are scholars frustrated by profound questions or hedonists without an ultimate purpose. The stories set in the United States are mostly shrouded by the legacy of the Holocaust. This was not a strong theme in some of his earlier stories that I looked at months ago in this blog. It seems that the Holocaust became a greater part of Singer’s consciousness over time. In the same way, the Diaspora becomes more significant. His first stories were all set in Poland and emerged from Jewish folklore. These carry on elements of that folklore tradition but thrust them onto a global stage. One thing that seems to run throughout his work without too much alternation is the feeling that characters have lost control of their lives, whether due to malevolent beings, malevolent historical burden, or others powers (institutions, family, and ideas). As with A Friend of Kafka, the characters in A Crown of Feathers are unable to find freedom under the heavy weight of the historical burden they carry. Even in the mundane and slightly beneficial this is true. “The man in the white uniform must have been the owner, or the manager, and the cashier didn’t want him to see that he was a customer get by without paying. The powers were conspiring to provide me with one stroke of luck after another. I went out, and through the glass door I saw the cashier and the man in the white uniform laughing. They were laughing at me, the greenhorn, with my Yiddish.” (304)

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One thing we can consistently take away from Singer’s work is that freedom is difficult and the institutions that surround us shape so much of the details of our lives that escape is often unthinkable. The solution is either resistance, flight, or acceptance. However, none of these really work out. Flight most of all, because if the demons from Poland can come to haunt Jewish immigrants in New York (or more to the point the brutal legacy of the Holocaust). I am often reminded of Melville’s thesis in Omoo when I ponder desertion, flight and migration in respect to freedom. In his maritime fiction, Melville’s characters were often seeking something better elsewhere but always feel short, necessitating a permanent state of wandering. This may be seen most strongly in Mardi, where the wandering is truly endless.  Singer’s scale is less grand and his characters less able to move. Whether due to family, tradition, language, or age, their mobility cannot take them much farther than New York (or more rarely Miami). These migrants had one chance to leave the burdens of their homeland and they failed.

A Crown of Feathers also discusses the legacy of Jewish radicalism in the later twentieth century. Movement anarchists do not often come up in American literature despite the fact that vernacular anarchists are almost always there (a point I am trying to make in this blog). Singer’s Jewish intellectuals in Poland or New York often had ties to anarchists movements, but he describes these people as used up radicals, sometimes akin to the dried up and useless hedonists he also likes to describe. This point is strongest in the story “Property,” which is a deeply nostalgic look at these radicals. “Our Socialists have completely cooled off. They use the old phrases, but the spirit isn’t there. As for our Communists, they read the Red Sheet every morning, and repeat it like gospel… If their paper came out saying that Stalin was an enemy of the people and a mad dog, they would repeat it too.” (338) The anarchists were in decline even though Singer asserts that they were the ones with individuality (“even the ignorant ones had a kind of independence.”) Most of the story is a conversation with a movement anarchist Max Peshkin, who like the narrator, has moved to New York from Poland. However, his old radicalism exists only in memory, like the pictures of radical thinkers hanging on the apartment walls of washed up movement activists. Peshkin’s story moves from discussing the state of the movement to giving a rather gratuitous account of one of his affairs. The affair becomes metaphoric for the movement. “Strange, I remember in all its details how our affair began, but I have forgotten how it collapsed.” (346) If you read any histories of radical movements and revolutions you will know that this is commonly true.  (This is actually a good thing, since it means that movements and currents never fully die. Their body is never found.)

A second story on the theme of radicalism in Jewish life takes a look from the completely opposite perspective. “Grandfather and Grandson” is about a young man who rejects his grandfather’s strong Jewish identity through the emergence of his anti-capitalist beliefs. Instead of “Property,” which looked at a dying radical spirit this story considers it at its birth. As an idealistic and rather uninformed socialist, the youth thinks that all exploitation is rooted in capitalism. His grandfather tries to correct him by looking (like Singer does in these stories) at the numerous powers working to take away our freedom. The son thinks that capitalism is the only cause of Antisemitism. But his grandfather reminds him that “whoever rules will persecute Jews.” (552) I suppose both views are narrow and can be broken down without too much trouble, but we do find in this generational tale how the immigrants were ultimately able to break free of one form of ideological confinement (only to enter another one).

Singer wrote these tales at a time when cultural malaise was strong across America, affecting not only Jewish immigrants burdened by the legacy of the Holocaust. The paralysis evident in these tales is as horrifying as any of the demons that Singer’s characters encounter.

Here is Studs Terkel’s interview with Singer.

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Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970) Part 2: “Something Is There”

One story from the second half of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Friend of Kafka seems to me to summarize the thematic running through all the stories: the feeling of paralysis most of us get from the banality of life, whether it comes from our relationships, our community, our job, or even our religions. The early  story of the book, “Dr. Beeber,” is about a hedonist and libertine who finds boredom first in his lifestyle and then later in his a marriage he uses to replace his vulgar pursuit of pleasure. In “Something Is There,” the final story of the collection, Rabbit Nechemia fights a war against God, emerging from his growing disgust with religion, largely due to the problem of evil. “Yes, you are great, eternal, all mighty, wise, even full of mercy. But with whom do you play hide-and-seek—with flies? What help is your greatness to the fly when it falls into the net of the spider that sucks out its life?” (240) He projected all of the evils of the world – evils that as the head of the local Jewish court he helped perpetuate – onto God, his laws, and capricious nature.  His final thoughts before turning away from God was “God, is this your world?” (247)

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His choice is to reject entirely his world, the village, and as much as he could, his religion, thinking that he can learn from the “heretics” in the city. He does this by moving to the city, where his brother resides. He finds it hard to escape the life of his village. He does not know how to order food to ensure it is kosher and he notices openly blasphemous books in the window of booksellers. He even toys with prostitution, but does not go through with it. He is completely out of his element. Despite his desire to leave the village he is unable to break free at the foundational level. His freedom is confined by all the experiences of his life. “Each time the rabbi asked how to reach Smotcha Street, where Simcho David [his younger brother] lived, he was advised to take a trolley car or a droshky, but the trolley seemed too formidable and a droshky was too expensive. Besides, the drive might be a Gentile. The rabbi spoke no Polish… He passed by stores that sold leather, hardware, dry-goods, and ready-made clothes. The salesman vied for customers, tore at their sleeves, winking and interspersing their Yiddish with Polish.” (249) Such disorientation shapes almost all experiences in the novel. The rabbi has detached himself from what he knew and whatever intellectual freedom he enjoyed is illusionary and burdened by the challenges of getting through life. Even his brother, he learns, is no longer familiar. He has become “a modern.” “What they worship is the ego,” he said pondering his brother’s change.

Things begin to change for Nechemia when he takes a closer look at a book on cosmology, How the Universe Came into Being. He discusses with the storekeeper about science. He warms him that the book is dated and that while the author can describe evolution, he cannot state how the universe began. He tells him to pick up the book in a few weeks and points out to him that urban life is beyond the dilemma of belief or unbelief. “In my time there were a few [unbelievers], but the old ones died and the new generation is practical. They want to improve the world but they don’t know to go about it.” (254)

In addition to learning a bit about modern science, the rabbit discovered much about the modern institutions, the prison, the hospital, and the police from a coal dealer. He mocks his stated desire to be a coal dealer, and like the book store owner suggested, had a practical understanding of God. He does not know if God exists, punishment comes in this world, not the next, and the way to make it in this world is to learn a trade, not teach ancient books. He is friendly, however, and allows the rabbi to stay with him, while he tries to teach him of the city (where to find healthy prostitutes, where he might get a job teaching if that is all he is good for).

There has been almost no progress in the rabbi. He is as mixed up as ever about life in Warsaw. He has managed to create a routine that gives his life some semblance of normalcy, but in truth he is still fully in the world of the village. This is most evidenced by this ongoing conflict with God, while surrounded people who have moved beyond such fears and concerns.  But all of that changes when the rabbi reads the cosmology book at the library. For the first time he learns of the scientific perspective. “Man descended from an ape—but where did the ape come from? And since the auuthor wasn’t present when all this happened, how could be be so sure? Their science explained everything away in distance of time and space. The first cell appeared hundreds of millions of years ago, in the slime at the edge of the ocean. The sun will be extinguished billions of years hence. Millions of stars, planets, comets, move in a space with no beginning and no end, without a plan or purpose. In the future all people will be alike, there will be a Kingdom of Freedom without competition, crises, wars, jealousy, or hatred… All books had one thing in common: they avoided the essential, spoke vaguely, and gave different names to the same object. They knew neither how the grass grew nor what light was.” (262) Bold certainty, optimism and confidence intersected with ambiguity and doubt.

At this point the story ends and the rabbi returns to the village, his spiritual conflict ended. He concludes that the entire world “worships idols” or “invented gods,” but that there are no heretics Heresy, it would seem, requires a certain engagement with religion that is lost on the urbanites.

The rabbi resolves his spiritual conflict by returning home but accepting some of the randomness, possibility, and diversity of human potential. He did not find freedom in the physical vagabondage that he pursued when he left the village, but rather in the intellectual uncertainty which is home to curiosity and wonder.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970): Part One, Bordeom and Alienation

The major dilemma of the twentieth century has been the conflict between the individual and the institution. While the nineteenth century saw the rise of nations, industrial capitalism, and expanded state power, as well as ideologies that serviced the needs or challenged the foundation of those institutions (liberalism – for the welfare state, scientific management – for industrial capitalism, anarchism – in opposition), the twentieth century proved that these institutions were in practice horrific and degrading. We do not need to even get into the list of horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare. It is enough to point out the failure of these institutions to deliver on their promise of expanded human freedom or happiness. A Friend of Kafka, a collection of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, was published in 1970 with most of the stories appearing in the previous decade. He and his readers had plenty of time to dwell on the growing feeling of alienation that came from decades of broken promises. One of the most powerful themes in these stories is the exhausting banality of life and a total feeling of rootless isolation. Often all that is left for people is to play the game against fate. Interestingly, these stories came at a time when Singer’ career was peaking. He had a solid income and much success, but he was also looking to leave the United States for Palestine.

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For today, I read the first half of the stories in A Friend of Kafka. It began with the story “A Friend of Kafka,” which is about a bohemian amateur philosophy and former actor, Jaques Kohn, who spent his life pursuing women, drinking and otherwise living the hedonist lifestyle that his life philosophy demanded.  He was an intriguing figure for the narrator who saw in him glimpses of Western Europe. “The very way he carried his silver-handled cane seemed exotic to me. He even smoked his cigarettes differently from the way we did in Warsaw.” (7) He was also an acquaintance of Kafka, or more precisely a woman that Kafka loved. It often seems he inflated his connection to the writer. Kohn likes to tell a story about Kafka’s failure in a brothel. His sexual reservations are the same as the reservations he had about writing.  Kohn is obsessed with the idea that he is playing a game of chess with fate. “My partner wants to play a slow game. He’ll go on taking my pieces one by one. First he removed my appeal as an actor and turned me into a so-called writer. He’d no sooner done that than he provided me with writer’s cramps. His next move was to deprive me of my potency.” (14) In short, while he finds something invigorating about the struggle, he is slowly dying. His stories of his acting career and his knowledge of Kafka are all that keeps him from total fatalism. Many if the characters in this collection are involved in same sort of slow death. No longer capable of a projectural life, they limp along, trying to find meaning in banalities, religious, hedonism, of their own delusions.

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That delusional selfishness is the major theme of “The Key” about a woman so overcome by the fear and loneliness of urban life in New York City that she developed an intense hatred for everyone in her neighborhood. Overtime she comes to neglect everything about her life, paying her bills or writing her will included.  In the end she is barely able to speak to anyone else. She is completely blinded by modern life and saw enemies around every corner. “How many tricks were played on her and how much she had to wrangle in order not to perish or fall into insanity.” (34)

“Dr. Beeber” reminds us a bit of “A Friend of Kafka,” both stories are about bohemians living on the margin of respectability, living lives of hedonistic pleasure. “Mark Beeber remained good-natured and full of lust for life. Poor as he was, he smoked fine cigars. Though his suits were shabby, they were English tweeds. For hours, he would tell stories about Switzerland. He had known everyone personally: Lenin, Kropotkin, Bergson, Kuno Fisher, Wundt, Georg Kaiser – even a number of princes and pretenders to thrones.” (45) Now, while he does not think he is fighting a losing chess match with death, he does become more and more disgusted with his life of pleasure, especially as he ages. He makes the decision to marry. His wife, Saltsche, is fairly well-educated and beautiful. However he soon becomes bored with marriage as well, almost losing his entire family when he gambles away all of his wife’s money. It seems that there is a deeper misery at the heart of these characters. A simple change of position does not make things necessarily better. Like Melville’s characters in Omoo deserting one ship to take a job on a plantation only to leave that a few weeks later, Singer’s characters are unable to find happiness in the banality of their lives. Staying the same fails, changing circumstances fails.

“The Cafeteria” has a more interesting metaphysical argument about time and perception surrounding a former war-time prisoner working at a button factory, who claims she saw Hitler the night the New York City cafeteria she frequented burned down. The narrator, a successful author much like Singer, meets her several times over the years, seeing her one last time after she killed herself. The uncanny visions are disturbing but no more than the paralysis of the characters, rooted in loneliness and habit (such as eating at the cafeterias). The narrator’s vision of the woman shows her happy, in contrast to her normal malaise.

In a more brutal example of isolation, “Pigeons” tells the story of a retired Jewish history Professor at Warsaw University. He had lost interest in history – maybe he never had that curiosity about the past suggesting another example of paralysis – and embraces the study of science. He is alone in life and his only companions are the pigeons he feeds everyday. He is plagued (as he was during his final years teaching) by young gangs of anti-Semitic youth. Eventually, they wound him and he later dies.

These stories pose a very troubling dilemma. if no one seems happy in their habits, whether a career choice, a lifestyle, or a marriage, why is it that change does not help things. One problem is that the tendency of these characters is to replace one paralysis with another. Dr. Beeber replaced hedonism with marriage. The professor in “Pigeons” replaced history with feathered companions. So they question is why is it that our world so boring.

A. J. Liebling, “The Press,” (1964)

Put out a few months after his death, The Press, collects A. J. Liebling’s diverse writings on the state of journalism in the United States. In the sharp and humorous style that characterized most of his work, Liebling exposes the decline of the newspaper in the United States as an important element of civil society. This type of argument is, of course, old news by now. We have been hearing about the decline of the newspaper for years now. Media consolidation, the rise of the Internet commentators lacking the ability and skills to report, the 24-hour news cycle, and downsizing in newspaper are all clear to us, now. What strikes a 2013 reader of Liebling’s The Press is how predictable all of that was and how the roots of that decline went back to the early 20th century. I suppose Liebling’s critique has three parts. The first is that profitability of a newspaper interferes with its role in civil society. The most profitable newspapers are the only newspaper in town, making competition for stories rare and ensuring that much will be unreported (because with a captive audience one need to necessarily report in order to get buyers-or so they thought until the Internet). Media consolidation makes newspapers more profitable at the expense of the losing companies and the public good. A second critique that runs through The Press is that the newspaper is no longer speaking for the public interest and rather speaking to class interests (or some other subset). His analysis of the coverage of strikes, for instance, shows the press supporting owners while feigning objectivity.  This third critique is a bit more technical, but has to do with the ways in which news spread between papers, exaggerate claims, or carry on lies. They are essentially becoming gossip rags. Again, the fault for this seems to lie in media consolidation. With no need to compete for stories, there is no reason to have a bureau in Moscow, which means international news will largely rely on slight rewritings of wire stories. At best this is harmless, at worst it leads to the promulgation of falsehoods or exaggerations, as Liebling shows in the case of reportage on Chiang Kai-shek’s military strength.

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The Press is made up of six pieces previously published by Liebling throughout his career, so these are not a deathbed condemnation of his profession. His chapter titles suggest clearly his major themes: “Toward a One-Paper Town,” “No-News,” and “Not Too Lopsided.” Liebling does very well describing what ails the newspaper industry, but what of the solutions? In fact, it seems to Liebling that the solution is quite simple. “[A] large number of competing newspapers, permitting representations of various shades of thought, are a country’s best defense against being stampeded into barbarism.” (911)  A greater diversity of views, leading not to greater amateurism but rather a greater focus on professionalism as papers compete for accuracy and relevance. That is certainly fine for his day. We have a more challenging problem today, namely, that diversity has not necessarily led to more professionalism. This blog, for example, is the product of someone who is entirely untrained in literature, politics, or philosophy but I discuss them all. In a search for Melville’s Mardi, I come up long before many real professional Melville scholars. (I mention this as one of my more commonly-viewed pages, which is also one of my worst efforts written during last Christmas over heavily spiked eggnog.) For better or for worse, good commentary, good reporting, and thoughtful analysis often gets shoved aside by. This is essentially David Simon’s renewal of Liebling’s argument. Simon is seeming to say that a one-newspaper town is acceptable as long as it has professionals, is committed to reporting on urban institutions engaged in the public interest, and (of course) financially viable. I do not recall him saying much about competition between newspapers. Maybe the hey-day Liebling recalls, when a city had half-a-dozen competing papers was too far gone for Simon to pine over.

Sorry for the string of clips:

If you watch those clips, you will see that Liebling and Simon essentially start from the same place, in a belief that the role of the newspaper is that of preserving civil society and that this job is impossible to carry out unless newspapers are not primarily concerned with the bottom line. I reckon a product-first focus would do much to aid the universities, another bastion of civil society almost completely engulfed by the profit motive, as well.

Another model that Liebling suggests, as he loses hope that competition can ever again be the force that provides objective and professional journalism is the endowed newspaper. “I think that a good newspaper is as truly an educational institution as a college, so I don’t see why it should have to stake its survival on attracting advertisers of ball-point pens and tickets to Hollywood peep shows. And I think that private endowment would offer greater possibilities for a free press than state ownership.” (698–699) Liebling hopes that an endowment model (rather than the daily panhandling for ads, would to more to ensure objectivity as long as those endowments were offered up without strings attached. I suppose this works well enough in other areas; I am not sure how often corporate sponsors of opera companies complain about what is put on each season. Yet, the news had more opportunities for opposing the interests of the elite so I am not as sure as Liebling is that the endowment model would work.

Some of what Liebling documents is just humorous and not necessarily a sign of illness. The tendency of the press to inflate stories to fill column inches (the media’s slow watch of Stalin’s death is fascinating if only because each days reporting could only report that he still lived). This may be how 24 hour cable stations now make their money but Liebling is able to present it as a fascinating piece of Americana.

As I see it, Liebling’s The Press is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of media in the United States. It is not as strong in imagining creative alternatives for the nature of reporting in free societies – Liebling was, after all, institutionalized and a professional but not so much so that he could not manage a critique of the press. One issue he did not speak much on was the division of labor among workers in newspapers. I know some anarchist publishers (AK Press) have managed to rethink how work is divided to ensure that no one person has too much power. In my brief experience with newspaper (I work at one now at a copy desk) only a handful of people in the company have any power over what appears in print and for the rest of us, the job is pretty Taylorized and repetitive. I guess that a newspaper of the future would need to be prefigurative.

A. J. Libeling, “Between Meals” (1962): Celebration of Pleasure

Outside of reviews on restaurant windows, this may be the first piece of food journalism I have ever read. I have never cared much about food nor believed that food was a very important thing to spend one’s money on (compared to opera, books and booze anyway). Indeed, as a vegetarian, I always found the “foodie” craze a rather vile celebration of excess, undertook at the cost of violence against animals. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris did not convince me to start caring about food but I find myself in agreement with Liebling on one important point: that a life centered on pleasure and appetite is certainly better than one of restraint. Between Meals is a book that actually documents an entire host of appetites, not confined just to meals.

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When you did a Google search for this book by its title–neglecting the author–you find a host of pages calling for restraint. This suggests Liebling’s theme, that taking that extra meal is not a sin.

Liebling begins nostalgically (as he often does) of the time before the First World War when heroic eating was a respected pastime in Europe. “I have known some of the survivors, octogenarians of unblemished appetite and unfailing good humor–spry, wry, and free of the ulcers that come from worrying about a balanced diet–but they have had no emulators in France since the doctors there discovered the existence of the human liver.” (558) A common theme running through his work is that excess is not as unhealthy and restraint. This is probably a clearer case to make with sex, which he does in the second chapter on a M. Mirande. Liebling connects the new regime of restraint on eating with the emerging sexual restraint he saw in France. “He had the pleasure of women. Currently pleasure and women are held matters incompatible, antithetical, and mutually exclusive, like quinine water and Scoth. Mirande also gave women pleasure; many women had pleasure of him. This is no longer considered a fair or honorable exchange.” (574)

One of the major points running through Between Meals is that food is a subjective experience and in this runs some of its power. While the rich can certainly explore food more freely than the poor, there are many foods that the poor enjoy that the rich will rarely get to try. It is an experience shaped in no small degree by class. Tastes in food, wine, lovers, and cities are all ultimately individualized. Interestingly, Liebling is interested not only in the food and his company but in the chefs, who all tended to be colorful, emotionally expressive figures.

The story in Between Meals does not have a moral tale at the end. He does include a chapter about his time at a weight loss “prison,” which failed, as we might expect. (When was the last time a prison rehabilitated a criminal?) The book ends with a narrative of Liebling’s love life during the 1920s in Paris, again connecting the consumption of food with sexuality. Both have been labelled as evils, reflective of excess unsuited to the cultivation of a thrifty, diligent working class. Malthus more of less says this when condemning both charity to the poor along with the the working-poor’s reproductive lives.

Liebling died a very fat man, probably his interest in food played a role in his weight. It is not clear from the biographical details I have that this slowed him down at all. From the 1940s until his death in 1963 he traveled all around the world, spending much of his time in Europe. He continued writing until the end. He tried a few times to lose weight but failed. However, it was not the weight that directly killed him, he died of heart and renal failure after a bout of pneumonia. Perhaps the weight did not help matters, but I do not get the sense that he regretted his appetites at the end. This work, published a year before his death is not a biography of the appetites that killed him. Instead it is a celebration of appetite and a call for a certain degree of professionalism, based on the idea that if you want to write about something (including food) you best know it well.

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Personally, I am a bit conflicted about consumption. Taking the world as it is, I think working people should certainly be allowed to consume more. As the producers of the real wealth in the world, they have a right to consume at least as much as they produce in addition to their right to the commons (‘the common treasury of mankind’). Social inequality and stagnant wages has made it more difficult for working people to consume, although they are producing more than before, and more efficiently. However, I am also a believer that we should move toward less work and less consumption. In my own case, I am now working 6 hours a day but making more money than my modest lifestyle requires. I would much rather work 1-2 hours a day but take home a larger cut. As is commonly remarked, we have moved from to a consumer society which directed increased productivity into disposable goods rather than in time off. However we got here, and David Graeber makes a good argument about this in his article on “bullshit jobs,” I think that moving away from work, spreading it out (so that the unemployed and underemployed can contribute meaningfully), redefining what meaningful and remunerative work entails (so that service, raising children, homeschooling, etc. are not second shifts), and ending Puritanical prohibitions on healthy excess are important components of a free society.

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

 

A. J. Liebling, “The Jollity Building” (1962)

The Jollity Building by the journalist A. J. Liebling is a fascinating examination of New York City’s history from below, by looking at one community between Forty-second street and fifty-second street in Manhattan known as the Telephone Booth Indians, a population of hucksters (“in what my Marxian friends would call a state of pre-primary acquisition”). The emphasis on “telephone booth” comes from the necessity of each member to have access to public phones for their lives. “The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have no attained the stage of culture in which they carry their own shelter. Like the hermit crab, the Telephone Booth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some other creature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth.” (412)

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The Jollity Building really seems to read like a history from way, way below, or perhaps what we can call a history from the gutter. It almost required a journalist to tell this story. Historians, focused on documents and official narratives, would tend to miss people like the mobile Telephone Booth Indians. But they seem to us, through Leibling’s account, to be entirely necessary to a full understanding of how the city worked politically, economically, and socially.

The book is made up of four stories. The first is about Izzy Yereshevsky, from Jewish peasant blood, who owned a cigar store on Forty-ninth street. Now, while Izzy himself seems legitimate (even refusing to drink and working all day), he is surrounded by a large population of more marginal people who are absolutely dependent on the cigar store as a center of their lives. Izzy offers credit (by accepting bad checks), helps book bets, and provides a neighborhood center of sorts. “The I. & Y. is also a free employment agency for hat-check and cigarette girls who meet concessionaries there. On winter nights, too, a few bedraggled ladies without escort come in to warm their feet.” (418) Places like Izzy’s cigar shop are the most important institutions for the working poor of the city.

The next story called “Tummler” is about Hymie Katz, a more suspicious figure from the neighborhood. He runs horse race betting establishments, clubs, whiskey wholesaling and other businesses crucial to the area but unlike Izzy lacked some of the legitimacy, partially because he constantly changed what he was doing. One club he ran made $250,000 in fourteen months. His social life is no more stable. As an unmarried man, Hymie is free to focus on his entrepreneurial activities. His clubs suggest a sort of capitalism from below, they are even capitalized from the gutter, so to speak. “All Hymie needs to open a night club is an idea and a loan of fifty dollars.” (421)

The next story is a closer look at the “Jollity Building” itself and the Telephone Booth Indian schemers. “A Telephone Booth Indian on the hunt often tells a prospective investor to call him at a certain hour in the afternoon, giving the victim the number of the phone in one of the booths. The Indian implies, of course, that it is a private line. Then the Indian has to hang in the booth until the fellow calls. To hang, in Indian language, means to loiter.” (432) This scheme requires them to sit all day in the lobbies so they become a conspicuous part of the neighborhood life. Inside the building there is a rich cultural life as well, as many tenants teach singing or dancing lessons, while others promote entertainers. The “Jollity Building” is really a history of entrepreneurial capitalism from below.

The final part of this short book, called “Yea Verily” moves our gaze up a bit, but we still find ourselves in the realm of scheming. It is about “Colonel John R. Stingo” who wrote articles for the New York Enquirer. He is a con-artist on a slightly larger scale than the Telephone Booth Indians. Liebling wrote about him in another work (The Honest Rainmaker). We see in some of Liebling’s other works (most notably The Press) that he was suspicious of journalism, but in this work it is hard to know for sure if Liebling is not playing a con on us (I suspect all journalism is the same, despite its desire for objectivity). Liebling had a history of falsifying names in stories himself. Stingo wrote on horse racing. Bear in mind, all of these stories were written and published separately before coming together in The Jollity Building. I think he wanted us to see the Telephone Booth Indians and Stingo as playing similar games. However, it ends with a rather interesting perspective on the role of truth in journalism (or any writing). “So I think the story is essentially, or in its entails, true, which is what counts.” (552) In this, Liebling suggests that the journalism may often replace deeper truths with banal truths.

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Another theme of the work is that the institutions that matter to the people are not the institutions that are typically deemed important. A building lobby, a cigar store, the pub, a night club, a gossip-laden newspaper all played important roles for the people Liebling looked at in this work, perhaps much more important roles than the police stations, schools, or government offices that tend to be the center of attention of newspaper writers.

 

A. J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana” (1961)

The Earl of Louisiana is Liebling’s nostalgic study of regional politics in an era when regional politics were being enveloped by a national mass culture and national political forum. It is not insignificant that the subject of this book, Earl Long — brother of the the Great Depression-era governor of Louisiana Huey P. Long — made his last bid for governor in 1959, one year before the famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debates. The later foreshadowed the emergence of a national political culture, shaped heavily by television media. Despite spending some of his last term as governor in a mental institution for his erratic behavior he remained a strong governor and decided to run for what would have been a fourth term (he served three terms off and on between 1940 and 1960), but lost to Jimmie Davis — a musician (Country Music Hall of Fame inductee) turned two-term politician. All of this makes for an interesting context for local politics, and something I have come to feel some nostalgia over myself after reading The Earl of Louisiana.

earl

Liebling starts with the in the Great Depression era politics were so local that people like Huey Long could make the same jokes at every public appearance (there was no national media to scoop stump speeches). Today, such repetition is laughable. Huey Long, who thought he could become president based on his successes in his state on social reform, seemed not to know that his achievements (such as free text books) were long in place in most of the Northern states.  But the broader point is that what seems ridiculous to the majority makes perfect political sense locally. But it is safe to say, I think, that someone who had just left a sanatorium today (or just been caught leaving a brothel, or slapped with paternity suits) might not have much luck in even regional politics today. With 24-hour news channels desperate for a story, they would likely turn all of that into national news.

Here are some looks at these colorful characters.

We need to accept this fact with some hesitation. Liebling’s book was written during the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and more importantly during the era of massive resistance by Southern state governments to school integration. Those same colorful local political cultures that allowed someone like Huey Long to emerge also made it possible for so many white Southerners to find integration inconceivable. Part of Liebling’s attraction to Earl Long was his relatively moderate position on Jim Crow laws. By the 1959 election, he supported expanded voting rights for blacks and an end to some Jim Crow laws. While this may have been politically motivated (he wanted the black vote) it did put him in the rare position of being a Southern democratic not to openly race bait at every chance. Some were even making a campaign point that the Fourteenth Amendment (the basis for most civil rights laws) was not legally ratified. This is also a product of the bizarre local politics.

Earl Long at work

Earl Long at work

“He had no need of the race issue; white poverty and the backwardness of the state gave him all the ammunition he needed. He adopted a policy of speaking disrespectfully of Negrores in public to guard against being called a nigger lover, and giving them what they wanted, under the table, to make sure they would vote for him. As the poorest Louisianians of all, they benefited disproportionately from his welfare schemes; it would be a dull politician who would try to disfranchise his own safest voters.” (354)

One example of this strategy was when he discovered that black nurses were not being hired at a hospital, he used racial outrage over white nureses waiting on black men to force the hospital to hire black nurses. I am not sure if this shows indifference, opportunitism, or “three-dimensional chess” but it worked in getting black nurses hired at the hospital.  In any case, however we read Earl Long’s racial policies, Leibling shows how his absence did not help matters in the context of the civil rights struggle. The final chapter documents through newspaper articles how race baiting was quickly becoming common again. At the very least, the Longs, Liebling suggests, prevented the worst of these horrific policies.

Well, populism and local idiosyncratic politicians is certainly Janus-faced. It can often break free of the rigidity and stagnation of the national realm (often irrelevant to the local) but it can also cultivate and nurture the most strange and odd perspectives, without sustained outside criticism. A national political culture may be able to reign in local tyrants but it also seems to make getting things done harder.

I dwell on this because the most common criticism of anarchism I have heard from people (outside of criticism of utopianism) is that it we will just end up with thousands of local cultures each pursuing their own odd values system. Of course, as long as this is not internal oppressive, I do not have a problem with it. In an age of global capitalist banality, where taking a job in Beijing looks, feels, smells, and tastes like taking a  job in the US (same hierarchies, same computers, same cubicles, same exploitation), I doubt that a diversity of local bizarre cultures may not be instantly better.