THE TRIBES OF AMERICA by Paul Cowan

THE TRIBES OF AMERICA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Might a committed journalist help alleviate ""the tensions of tribalism"" that pervert shared values into factional wars? If Cowan didn't try, he'd be hard put to reconcile his own emerging longings--for a nourishing faith, an enriching family, a secure neighborhood: ""How can one embrace them and. . . still be a political progressive?"" He's rewritten twelve of his old Village Voice pieces after revisiting the battlegrounds and revising his perspectives; what was topical when first examined is not, therefore, dated, but even more resonant now. Their immediacy is a tribute to Cowan's ""journalism of immersion"": he lived with the Mexican family whose children he sees as prospective illegal aliens; he stayed with a leader of the Harlan County coal-strike, who was betrayed by the U.M.W.'s explicit promises and also by Cowan's implicit ones. He rode with the truckers who couldn't afford to participate in the gas-crisis slowdown orchestrated by vigilante drivers; he interviewed Mississippi's Hartman Turnbow after honoring him from afar for 13 years, ever since his SNCC-project days. The chapter on Boston's busing debacle derives its remarkable impact from Cowan's close focus (and follow-up) on two girls, one white and one black, both victims, and there--as in a piece on the West Virginia schoolbook controversy--he challenges premises beneath and beyond the arguments, yet always in an understated way, by reporting and ruminating rather than polemicizing. The style is especially well-suited to Cowan's unembarrassing account of his partial recovery of his heritage: while writing of New York's impoverished elderly Orthodox Jews, he met the mentor to whom he was ""a prodigal, not a heretic"" and even penetrated the isolation of the unyielding Hasidic culture. If Cowan is best on the Harrisburg jurors, whose honorable acquittal of Berrigan et al. surprised his elite-journalistic tribal self, it may be because the subject is most adaptable to the dual purpose here: the drama of jury-dynamics is as mighty as the display of tribal prejudice at work. Individually and collectively, Cowan's essays have unusual staying power.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 1979
Publisher: Doubleday