July 22, 2013KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingRemembrances

Pocketbooks, Part 1

I used to carry everything in a black bike messenger bag but switched a few years ago to a backpack. The pack is canvas, gray, accented in blue and black. It’s got a shoulder strap I often use and has built onto its body, both outside and in, a generous assortment of zippers and compartments, variously sized, which I never use at all. Instead, I cram everything into the pack’s main body. On a typical weekday, that’s gym clothes, laptop, notebook, pens, a couple magazines, and a book or two. Nights and weekends, it’s the magazines, books, and whatever the kids will want or need: snacks, toys, extra pairs of Spiderman underpants.

Not long ago, after a couple weeks of hauling around in my pack the giganormous hardbound Collected Works of Milton— a colleague and I planned to read a book a week of Paradise Lost and then, for some reason I swear I can’t remember, film our discussions about it– I vowed I would, as soon as the archangel Michael led the young lovers out from Eden, read only books that fit into my back pocket. Milton was the straw about to break this camel’s back. I needed to lighten my load.

Plus, I’d recently read North Dallas Forty and so was in the mood anyway for the Seventies, the decade of my childhood and the last great decade, so far as I can tell, of the mass market paperback specifically designed to fit into one’s pocket. I remember an episode of All in the Family where Michael enters the living room with the newest avant-garde product slung over his shoulder: the leather man-bag. Archie calls the bag a purse and Michael a fag. Various market forces notwithstanding, it is this moment, I think, that marks the beginning of the end of the pocket paperback, for if Archie’s against the man-bag, hip culture must be for it. Suddenly, male models in Vogue and Village hipsters and badass Black Panthers and even Joe Willie Namath are sporting man-bags roomy enough to carry giganormous editions of Milton. Who now needs a paperback sized for a pocket?

My Milton project died after about the third week (film our discussions? Really?). I felt light as an angel. I scanned my shelves for books that fit in my pocket. In retrospect, I believe it was guilt or even shame at my unexpectedly quick good fortune– I had anticipated another nine weeks of Milton on my back– but at the time it seemed mere coincidence that the first three titles I chose were prison narratives: Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Desinovich. Though none of these were actually first published in the Seventies (1968, 81, and 62, respectively), the Cleaver and the Abbott are so of the decade as to practically define key aspects of it, and Solzhenitsyn, after winning the the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, published in 1973 the grandaddy of prison narratives, The Gulag Archipelago. So, Seventies-wise, I felt justified. But more importantly, each fit into my back pocket.

Of the three, I started with the Cleaver because I love James Baldwin. Last winter, in a fever, I read, except for the plays, all of Baldwin’s work. Head over heels, I began to view the world through Baldwin’s eyes and to account for that world with long, elegantly constructed thoughts. I copied and passed along to friends and colleagues prescient passages. One thing troubled me, though. Somewhere in Baldwin’s essays I expected to find, but never did, a rebuttal to Cleaver’s famous attack on him in “Notes on a Native Son.” In that essay, contained in Soul on Ice, Cleaver berates Baldwin for being homosexual (“Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors”) and for being a toady. On the latter, he writes: “There is in James Baldwin’s work the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note in our time.” Why did Baldwin not respond? I wanted to re-read Soul on Ice, then, to explore the heart of Cleaver, to find out what was in it that kept Baldwin from retaliating in kind. I thought I understood Cleaver’s politics, but where was he coming from that he felt so outraged at Baldwin?

I started with Cleaver also because in the midst of my Baldwin reverie, the Trayvon Martin case was developing. I followed the case not only through my own senses, but also Baldwin’s. I was outraged. I’m sure Baldwin would have been outraged. I know in his Soul on Ice days, Cleaver would have been outraged as well, but I was curious, because of his early Eighties conversion to the GOP, how Cleaver’s older self would have understood it. I hoped to find, finally, the seeds of his later conversion but also an understanding of how the politics of the Black Liberation Movement might inform the politics surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin.