Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 22, 2007

Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and a new graphic history of SDS

Filed under: art,Jewish question,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

Last week I received a copy of “Students for a Democratic Society: a Graphic History” from Hill and Wang. This book was written mostly by Harvey Pekar, with art (again, mostly) by Gary Dumm, a long-time Pekar collaborator, and edited by Paul Buhle. The publisher enclosed a letter that said:

“Harvey Pekar requested that we send along advanced copy of Students for a Democratic Society: a Graphic History in thanks for your hospitality while he was in town earlier this week. I hope you enjoy the book.”

The hospitality took the form of allowing Harvey to spend the night at my apartment while he was in town. His co-author Paul Buhle was a guest the previous evening. Both were in town discussing future projects with their publisher, including a series of graphic books on jazz musicians that would cover two of my favorites, Lester Young and Django Reinhardt.

Harvey Pekar

Writing about jazz might seem like a natural topic for Harvey Pekar since he used to be a free-lance reviewer for Downbeat years ago, but SDS? As it turns out, Harvey has always had a deep interest in politics even though it is obvious from his ongoing graphic memoir “American Splendor” that he is not an activist. Partnering with Paul Buhle makes perfect sense, however, since Paul is evolving more and more in the direction of this medium himself as his book on the IWW should make obvious.

For all three of us, the comic books of the 1950s were a big influence. Paul and I have discussed the importance of Mad Magazine, Tales from the Crypt, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck et al to us when we were 10 years old or so. If you were looking for something off the beaten track in the 1950s, but were just a bit too young to have discovered the Beats, there was nothing that could top comic books. In May, 2003 Paul wrote an article titled “The New Scholarship of Comics” in the Chronicle of Higher Education that noted:

The growing interest in researching and writing about comics by intellectuals who were born in the 1940s only partly reflects what’s happened in the world of commerce. More, I think, many of us are attempting to find, or relocate, ourselves — almost like an earlier generation tried psychoanalysis. Some of today’s more indulgent theorizing about comics, indeed, suggests a considerable overlap between the two. Most of us, however, have simply been struck by how much mass culture, from the early moments when we could take it in as children, has affected us. Memories of childhood grow more intense with aging, and we find Unca Donald (of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, that is), Wonder Woman (speaking for boys, our first sex goddess), and the hilarious Mad comics satires of the likes of them considerably more vivid in recollection than our real-life relatives.

His article also singled out the work of Harvey Pekar, who sought to bring his own working-class experience in Cleveland to life using this medium:

The never-say-die types continue, with a lot of nearly thankless effort. Two decades along, past Crumb-collaborator Harvey Pekar, an occasionally hectoring presence on the Letterman show of the 1990s, still brings out American Splendor, a narrative description of daily life in Cleveland, mostly his own life. An independent film under the same title, barely fictionalizing Pekar’s story, won the drama category at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Indeed, it was my own passion for Harvey Pekar’s work that connected me with Paul originally. Scott McLemee, a book reviewer for a number of venues including the Chronicle of Higher Education at one time, was a subscriber to the Marxism mailing list that I had launched in 1998. After I wrote something about Harvey Pekar to the list, he sent me a copy of an interesting article on Harvey that he had written and put me in touch with Paul, another fan.

Paul Buhle

Harvey Pekar’s approach to SDS is an unlikely but altogether compelling mixture of “American Splendor” and Paul Buhle’s radical history, a perfect marriage of art and scholarship. If you are going to tell the story of SDS, you are naturally going to have to bring together personal human drama and the overarching struggles of the period.

Some of the stories involve people who eventually left SDS and joined the Trotskyist movement, where I first came in contact with them. Two are now highly regarded scholars of the left, Alan Wald, the literary critic who acknowledges Paul Buhle as a primary influence, and Paul LeBlanc, who–like Paul–is a CLR James scholar. I should add that CLR James, who had a life-long interest in popular culture, is an important figure for people like LeBlanc and me who went through the painful sectarian experience of American Trotskyism and seek a more nuanced kind of Marxism today.

Alan Wald’s story is of particular interest since it situated in Cleveland, Harvey’s home town:

When I read this story, a flood of associations came to the surface like the madeleine in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. Just 4 years later Alan and Cecilia Wald (they had since married) found themselves on the opposite side from me in a bitter faction fight in the Socialist Workers Party. They were in something called For a Proletarian Orientation (FAPO) that was viewed as a concession to the PLP Worker-Student Alliance in SDS. As the name implied, it urged that the SWP send some members into the trade unions.

Up in Boston, FAPO had many supporters. I was asked to move up there in early 1970 to work with Peter Camejo, who had been assigned to do combat with FAPO. Peter, like the majority of SWP leaders, thought that the real action was on campus and sought to keep young Trotskyists in Boston on campus. One of the FAPO supporters was a Harvard student named John Barzman, the son of Hollywood blacklistees Ben and Norma Barzman (Norma was interviewed in Paul Buhle’s “Tender Comrades”). John had taken a job as a hospital worker alongside SDS’ers, who disdained the antiwar movement as “petty bourgeois”.

Peter Camejo, who is now battling lymphoma and working on a memoir that he hopes he can finish before fate gets in the way, asked me to prepare a contribution to the debate with FAPO on the Cochranites, a group that had been expelled from the SWP in the 1950s. Led by Bert Cochran, an organizer in the UAW in the 1930s, and Harry Braverman, the author of “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, this tendency sought to root Marxism in the American rather than the Russian experience and break with sectarianism–just like CLR James and Paul Buhle.

But for the SWP leadership in 1970, the Cochranites were a symbol of capitulation to capitalism. By downplaying the need for a vanguard party and urging the need for broad unity on the left, the Cochranites were supposed to be a symbol of how petty-bourgeois tendencies can afflict even auto workers, who in this case were supposedly being bought off by the 1950s economic boom. I made all these points in my report to the Boston branch, but never really thought that much about what the Cochranites really stood for.

Suffice it to say that both Peter Camejo and I came around to seeing things in the same terms as the Cochranites. For the past 27 years, a much longer time than I ever spent in the Trotskyist movement, I have been advocating the need for Marxism to be rooted in the American experience and to shun sectarianism. While the SDS of the 1960s imploded–largely as a result of the enormous frustrations of trying to end a seemingly endless war–there are many lessons that can be learned from Pekar, Dumm and Buhle’s graphic history.

SDS was a grass roots phenomenon that sought to build a movement from the bottom up. Despite the enormous media attention that figures such as Mark Rudd received, SDS was fundamentally a movement that was built from the initiative of young people acting on their own. There will obviously always be a need for such an organization as the rapid growth of the new SDS would indicate. Let’s hope that the young radicals of today can withstand the enormous pressures that a new seemingly endless war will generate. So far, the picture looks pretty good. Today’s SDS is militant but not self-destructive. Hopefully, its members and young activists in general will read this book to get a better grasp of the problems a previous generation tried to grapple with.

I want to conclude with some brief impressions of Harvey Pekar, who alongside Charles Bukowski, remains one of my favorite cultural icons. Although I didn’t have that much time to chat with him, we did manage to cover some topics that are very important to us. Paul had already mentioned to Harvey that I was interested in Jewish popular culture and he wanted to find out a bit about my experiences growing up in the Catskills.

I told him about how Murder Incorporated, a gang of Jewish hit-men led by Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, used to throw their victims in nearby Loch Sheldrake. I told him about all the famous comedians who used to work at local hotels, including Sid Caesar–a vegetarian–who used to buy vegetables from my father’s store. I studied piano briefly with the sister of the man who owned the Avon Lodge, where Sid got his start. She was just one of dozens of Communists in my little village that had been driven out of New York City. She had copies of Soviet Life all around her little house. I told Harvey about delivering fruit and vegetables to Joseph Greenstein’s bungalow colony. Better known as “The Mighty Atom”, Greenstein was a strong man who grew his hair long like Samson and followed a vegetarian diet like Sid Caesar, a strong man in his own right. Harvey had been checking out the career of another famous Jewish strong man, a Pole named Hersche Steinschneider who was the subject of Werner Herzog’s “The Immortal.”

I was curious about Harvey’s father. He told me that he was a shopkeeper like my own father, but a bit older. If he were alive today, he’d be 102. (Harvey is 6 years older than me.) Born in Poland, Harvey’s father was a bit more old country than my own father, who was European in his own way. Deeply religious, Harvey’s father spent his free hours studying the Talmud. After he retired, he became completely devoted to religious studies and even began wearing a fedora.

Harvey’s mother was a communist. She was also quite short, 4’9″ to be exact. Harvey’s father, who was living as a bachelor in the U.S., hooked up with her on a trip back to the old country. Here’s how Harvey described his background and his interest in Jewish culture to ClevelandJewishNews.com:

 Pekar, whose picture adorns a wall in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, admits he doesn’t stay in contact with Jewish institutions much anymore. He went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah ceremony, but grew increasingly alienated from the organized community. “I didn’t show much interest,” admits Pekar about his Hebrew education. “In those days, they didn’t concentrate much on teaching what the (words) meant. Just reading what was there.”

Pekar’s father was a Talmudic scholar who loved cantorial music. His mother was a socialist who supported Progressive candidate Henry Wallace for President in 1948. Both parents had an impact on young Harvey’s views.

 
 

“I’m strongly influenced by Jewish culture, but I’m not a nationalist,” he says. “I’d like to see (Israel) make an agreement with the Arabs, get an independent Arab state over there. Maybe internationalize Jerusalem.”

Pekar says he used to speak Yiddish fluently, and characters in his comic books spend a lot of time kibitzing in Jewish delis. Pekar even worked in a deli for a time during his fallow period and occasionally refers to himself in his comics as a “Yid.”

“I got a strong dose of things Jewish,” he says.

Although Harvey comes across as somewhat overwrought in the movie “American Splendor” and in appearances on the David Letterman show, he seemed perfectly relaxed in the time he spent with me. I imagine that being retired and being able to write full-time must go a long way to overcoming a sense of futility that comes with working in a low-paying job in a veteran’s hospital. One hopes that he and Paul, who has also just retired, will have many fruitful years of writing projects ahead of them. Insallah, I will be joining them soon.

One of my favorite Harvey Pekar stories from “American Splendor” is about a bit of an argument that took place between him and his father when he still lived at home. As an avid jazz fan, Harvey’s tastes were not identical to his father’s who preferred Jewish cantorial music. In the story, we see his father playing a record of one of his favorite chazzans (cantors) in the final panel for Harvey, slapping the record cover and proclaiming, “Now that’s music.”

As it turns out, I am both a jazz fan and a fan of cantorial music. Towards the end of our conversation, I played a performance of “Rozo D’Shabbos” by Pierre Pinchik– a renowned chazzan–for Harvey. I can only agree with his father: “Now that’s music.”

8 Comments »

  1. The paths followed by 1960s’ radical cartoonists is as disconcerting as that of their purely political comrades. The admirable Harvey Pekar hasn’t detoured. Robert Crumb is currently peddling a signed edition, limited to 1000 copies, that costs $700.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 23, 2007 @ 10:21 am

  2. Great post, Lou. I’ll definitely have to check out this book. I love Harvey Pekar. Your mention of cantorial music brought back some memories. When I was a kid in Phoenix, my mother, who was a Unitarian, used to listen to the cantors on the radio occasionally on Saturdays. Don’t ask me why – maybe it had something to do with a Jewish fella she was dating for a while. The show was sponsored by Arnold’s Pickles and my mom used to complain about how irritating the Arnold’s Pickles jingle was amidst all the sacred music.

    Comment by John B. — December 24, 2007 @ 1:23 am

  3. Nice stuff. I like Harvey Pekar’s work quite a lot, and often wonder what happened to the strain of underground cartooning that emerged during the sixties and seventies. There are a few promising U.S. talents out there like Los Hermanos Hernandez, Evan Dorkin, Jim Woodring, Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown, but not many with the deep political bite that seemed to permeate the generation of sixties and seventies cartoonists. Most cartoonists these days start out pretty tight- Aaron McGruder and Kyle Baker being good examples, but television contracts seem to have co-opted McGruder at least pretty easy. If anyone can look at the Boondocks television series and tell me it has the same level of satirical thrust the the early strip had, I have to tell them they’re kidding themselves in a big way. Obviously McGruder had to move beyond much of the “inside” stuff he was lampooning in the black experience in the U.S., but his animated series seems as though it’s being written by his own character, the wannabe thug Riley.

    Some cartoonists from the sixties have bridged the last generation and this, Frank Stack, Harvey, Carol Lay, Trina Robbins. But the same postmodern stuff that permeates literature seems to have followed into comics. I just don’t see where Kaz, Tony Millionaire hold up comparatively. I tire of the never-ending critique of mainstream comics that comes from today’s alternatives. Mainstream comics seems too easy a hit to me.

    Harvey P. sort of pioneered the autobiographic comic, and he remains fresh because you never really know what direction he’s going to head. Everything and everybody who he comes into contact with seems to work its way into his storyline(s). I can’t think of anyone else who works the autobiographic form in comics in such an endearing manner. I like his no nonsense attitude about everything. HIs assessment of Art Speigelman’s Maus, which everyone thought was so magnificent a few years back, got a lot more critical distance from Harvey. And Maus was tight to be sure, but Harvey asked why it wasn’t better if it was so great.

    Well, anyway, nice to see some stuff on comics in your column. I read a pretty wide variety of stuff in both the mainstream and the alternatives, I just miss stuff with the kind of bite Harvey P. still has after all these years.

    Harvey keeps it real. As does Paul Buhle, although I’m not quite so enthused about the revival of SDS as you seem to be, Louis. They may not be self-destructing, but they don’t seem to be doing much of anything either. I fired them off a donation and inquiry quite some time ago, aside from a letter in the beginning I never hear anything from them. I think they’ve got too deep an anarchist element thus far.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — December 24, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  4. I’m no nationalist, but Chester Brown is Canadian! I highly recommend his book on Louis Riel.

    Comment by raghu — December 24, 2007 @ 3:27 pm

  5. Yes, C. Brown is Canadian, of course. I suppose I should have said North American talents. I’m thinking the Riel book is out of print, I’ve not seen it anywhere in awhile. Thanks for the headsup.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — December 26, 2007 @ 5:57 pm

  6. Louis Proyect: Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and a new graphic history of SDS

    SDS was fundamentally a movement that was built from the initiative of young people acting on their own. There will obviously always be a need for such an organization as the rapid growth of the new SDS would indicate. Let’s hope that the young radic…

    Trackback by www.buzzflash.net — January 7, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

  7. [...] SDS Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Harvey Pekar.Answers: H.M. Comments (4) [...]

    Pingback by Harvey Pekar is dead « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 12, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

  8. Meeting John Barzman (briefly) was an education about sectarianism for me. I first saw him and Hedda Garza (?) at Oberlin in the full heat of sectarian disputes around 1973. I was with the SWP/LSA majority tendancy, and they were on the other side. With encouragement from my comrades, I thought that Barzman and his supporters were mentally ill, evil, and stupid.

    Later (74-78), I lived in Japan where the majority agreed with Barzman. I had no option but to work with the comrades there and accompanied one of them to speak at an American Trotskyist convention. We met John Barzman at that time (and I met Hedda in the 80s in the Nicaragua solidarity movement). What a surprise to find that they were no more mentally ill, stupid, or evil than any of the rest of us! In fact, they seemed quite sensible! Showed me how easily I could be influenced by the opinions of those around me.

    Comment by cherie macdonald — November 23, 2012 @ 3:23 pm


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