Absorbing dual biography of two gay writer-activists who helped shape America’s left-wing radical community in the 1960s.
Bancroft Prize–winning historian Duberman (Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985–2008, 2009 etc.), founder of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, writes with empathy about the personal and political lives of Barbara Deming (1917–84) and McReynolds, 81, longtime friends and allies in the disarmament, civil rights and antiwar movements. Deming, a contributor to Partisan Review and The Nation, grew up apolitical in an upper-middle-class Manhattan family, attended Bennington, read Gandhi and in 1960 plunged into protests on racial equality and other issues, eventually becoming a noted theorist of nonviolence. McReynolds, a decade younger, was a student radical at UCLA in the ’50s, a conscientious objector during the Korean War and rose to prominence at Liberation magazine and the War Resisters League, where he served for 45 years. Both wrestled with their homosexuality in the closeted pre-Stonewall years. Deming, battling to “claim my life as my own,” shared a complex, unstable love life with artist Mary Meigs and others, and after 1969 became a leading activist on feminist and gay issues. McReynolds, wracked by guilt and regret, often argued about his sexual orientation with his father and finally learned to accept it with the support of dancer friend Alvin Ailey. Drawing on letters and papers, Duberman offers incisive portraits of these deeply introspective intellectuals as they struggled to find love, intimacy and self-acceptance in a homophobic society and take courageous public stands against discrimination and injustice. The narrative occasionally bogs down in the details of internecine bickering within political groups, as lefties of the era—Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, Dave Dellinger and others—parade through the pages. McReynolds might as easily have been speaking for Deming when he wrote, “I am not a passive bystander—and that is what makes life exciting.”
An evocative rendering of committed lives.