Polsgrove raises a blunt, uncomfortable question: Why did so many bright, educated people fail the principal moral test of...




A vivid, evocative assessment of the activities (and inactivities) of intellectuals—black and white—during the most volatile years (1953–65) of the US civil-rights struggle.

Polsgrove (Journalism/Indiana Univ.; It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties, 1995) has found a unique perspective on the Movement: instead of rehearsing the actions in the streets and courtrooms, she scoured the middle- and high-brow magazines of the period for pieces about race by important intellectuals. And she read their books. The experience left her shaken: “Only as I worked my way through this powerful story did I begin to see more clearly how fully intellectuals can fail the test of history.” She begins in 1953, shortly before Brown v. Board of Education, as Ralph Ellison accepts a National Book Award, and then segues to a consideration of William Faulkner’s racial attitudes. Although she acknowledges Faulkner’s generous spirit in his fiction, she disdains his later embarrassing and even racist public utterances. Polsgrove then examines the contributions of Southern intellectuals like Lawrence Dunbar Reddick and C. Vann Woodward. Turning her gaze northward, she offers devastating analyses of the hesitations and equivocations of Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Mailer, and Hannah Arendt—all of whom, to varying degrees, urged black Americans to “slow down.” (Throughout her text, Polsgrove employs the word “Negro” because, she says reasonably, it was the accepted contemporary term.) The star here is James Baldwin, who emerges as the most impassioned and eloquent spokesman for the cause, and there is a riveting account of the angry 1963 exchange between Baldwin and Robert Kennedy on what black leaders considered JFK’s failure of leadership. A wistful penultimate chapter charts the fates of some of the principals, and a postscript asserts that race remains “the great unmentionable.” Paul Robeson is a near-spectral presence here—and Thurgood Marshall remains an entirely invisible man.

Polsgrove raises a blunt, uncomfortable question: Why did so many bright, educated people fail the principal moral test of contemporary American history?

Pub Date: May 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-393-02013-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2001

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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