Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar is dead

Filed under: comedy,Jewish question,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Harvey Pekar 1939-2010

I just discovered from a link that Dennis Perrin posted to Doug Henwood’s mailing list that Harvey Pekar is dead.

The article is worth reading in its entirety for people who were fans of Harvey, like me, and anybody else who wants to learn about one of America’s great literary talents. I first heard about him in a May 11, 1986 NY Times Sunday book review of a collection of his comic book stories titled “American Splendor” (I should mention that Harvey preferred the term comic book to the pretentious graphic novel term used for works like “Persepolis” and “V for Vendetta”):

Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why. His stories, as he puts it, are about “the cosmic and the ordinary,” about the working stiff’s search for love and transcendence, the bleak reality of life in a hard town and the reflections of a volatile, passionate sensibility that vibrates with everything around it.

That was the first book of his that I read, joined eventually by a host of others, including what might be his last published book: “The Unrepentant Marxist”. Here’s the story on how that project came to be.

In 2008, I got a call from my old friend Paul Buhle, who had become Harvey’s writing partner on a number of comic book projects including ones about the beat generation and SDS. He was in town with Harvey to meet with their publisher and asked if I could put him up. Sure, I said. As a huge fan of his work, I was anxious to meet him.

Harvey is not much of a talker–at least he wasn’t that night up at my place. He had a tendency to interject “ya knows” into just about every sentence and seemed a bit out of it. So, to pass the time I began telling him about my past. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains resort area when people like Sid Caesar were coming up. Living above the Kentucky Club and hanging out with Jewish boxing legend Barney Ross, a greeter at the club, on the sidewalk where he would show me how to put up my dukes. Joining the SWP and going to Houston where I had a relationship with a woman comrade who had just quit her job as an exotic dancer. Dropping out of the SWP after a Chaplinesque stint as a spot welder. And all the rest.

At some point, the conversation turned to his own work and I told him how much I appreciated the story about his father denigrating Harvey’s beloved jazz collection and telling him how superior Jewish cantorial music was. As it turns out, I love both jazz and cantorial music and invited him to listen to a few minutes of one of my favorite records that featured old-time greats like Yossele Rosenblatt. Here’s Rosenblatt singing a prayer for the dead, appropriate for the topic at hand:

About a month later, Harvey called me from Cleveland and asked me if I’d like to work on a book about my life. Sure, I said. I spent about six weeks putting together some material that he and the very gifted artist Summer McClinton turned into a book—the final page appears below.

I haven’t talked to Harvey since early 2009, but assumed that the book would eventually come out. He had a two-book contract with Random House and they have obligations to his widow and to Summer. But there is the possibility that they might just pay them off and let the book die in their vaults. Who knows? According to Paul Buhle and Summer, there is a strong possibility that his death might ensure its release since there is always a market for the remaining works of authors who have died, Chile’s Roberto Bolaño being a prime example.

Speaking on my own behalf, I would say that “Unrepentant Marxist” is a terrific book largely due to the incredible work done by artist Summer McClinton. The book is written in a kind of Jewish stand-up comedian style with lots of political observations familiar to anybody who reads this blog, including my evolution since 1981 after coming into contact with Peter Camejo, who is a major presence in the book. Ironically, I had plans to send Harvey a copy of Peter’s memoir in the next day or so. I should add that one of the last times I heard from Harvey was the day that Peter’s obit appeared in the NY Times.

I have no idea what is going to happen with this book but—believe me—I will not rest until it can be read by the public. I don’t have much use for publishing houses, or any other capitalist firm for that matter, and will make sure to remind them that this book was important to Harvey Pekar, one of the outstanding dissident voices of our era.

The last page of “Unrepentant Marxist”

Updates:

Very perceptive article on Pekar and David Letterman

Dennis Perrin on Harvey Pekar

My other articles on Pekar:

American Splendor

The Beats

SDS

The Quitter

18 Comments »

  1. Wow, I just have to get Unrepentant Marxist, that splash page looks great. If anybody can humanize Proyect it’s Pekar.

    RIP, Harvey.

    Comment by Angelus Novus — July 12, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  2. When will your book be out, Louis?

    Comment by liberalvirus — July 12, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  3. This is terrible news.

    R.I.P. Harvey Pekar.

    Comment by epoliticus — July 12, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

  4. shitshitshit. that’s really too bad :-(

    Comment by PfromGermany — July 12, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

  5. RIP Harvey. I really hope your book comes out. Pekar + Marxism = My idea of a good time.

    Comment by Rose — July 12, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

  6. Louis, I am sorry to learn of Harvey’s death. I sent him a copy last year of my book In and Out of the
    Working Class and spoke to him briefly by phone. Cleveland is having a terrible week. It is a town close to my heart, as I visited my artist uncle there in the summer when I was a boy. I met a lot of characters at his shop on Euclid Avenue. Harvey captured the grittiness of the city with wit and wisdom.

    I am sorry too that this could put your book on hold. I hope not. To other readers of Louis’s blog and work, I can say that, from the pages of this book I have seen, we are all in for a rare treat and plenty of insights. The art work is fantastic.

    Louis and Harvey have a lot in common. Both are national treasures in their own ways.

    Rest in peace, Harvey. Maybe like Don McLean sang about Van Gogh, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

    Comment by michael yates — July 12, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

  7. I just printed out the pdf and posted it on my office wall.

    Not much more to be said about what it means to lead a decent life.

    Words to live by and/or at best to live up to.

    Comment by John Halle — July 12, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  8. What a loss. I’ve read a lot of Pekar’s work, and always loved it.

    The last page of that book is indeed salivatory. I’ll be watching for the appearance of the whole thing, hope it’s fairly imminent.

    Comment by macon d — July 13, 2010 @ 12:08 am

  9. And thinks for the link to the “In These Times” piece, a good read indeed.

    Comment by macon d — July 13, 2010 @ 12:10 am

  10. I am very sad to hear this, and am hopeful the book will still come out.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — July 13, 2010 @ 2:32 am

  11. Is there any great cantorial singing on CD or mp3 you could recommend?

    Comment by Michael Pollak — July 13, 2010 @ 4:09 am

  12. 4 years ago I’ve spent an entire summer reading up American Splendor and a bunch of works from after Harvey retired American Splendor, and that was also how I’ve made my way into Crumb that summer.

    If by some distressing occurrence the book won’t “officially” come out in the coming year or two I respectfully predict that the good people would put it up on the BitTorrents.

    Comment by Michael T — July 13, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  13. Yazoo Records has a good collection: http://www.amazon.com/Mysteries-Sabbath-Various-Artists/dp/B000000G9B/

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2010 @ 11:54 am

  14. [...] Louis Proyect remembers Harvey Pekar and what might be his last ever project: [...]

    Pingback by Harvey Pekar and the Unrepentant Marxist | Wis[s]e Words — July 14, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  15. Sorry to hear the loss of Harvey Pekar. His work will remain for the future generations.

    There should more than sufficient interest in Pekar’s last book, The Unrepentant Marxist, particularly given the current economic crisis in the U.S., and the rest of the world.

    I’d definitely pre-order the book if it becomes available.

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — July 15, 2010 @ 12:22 am

  16. It would truly be fantastic to read that book, and that it would attract new visitors to the debates on your site.

    R.IP. Harvy Pekar

    Comment by brendan — August 31, 2010 @ 6:14 am

  17. Apologies- that should read R.I.P. Harvey Pekar… And thanks also Louis, for noting Pekar’s more political works here, that is my first introduction to them

    Comment by brendan — August 31, 2010 @ 6:16 am

  18. [...] Harvey Pekar died last year, Louis Proyect talked the book they had collaborated on, Louis’ biography. At the time he was optimistic that despite Pekar’s passing the book would still come out. [...]

    Pingback by Harvey Pekar: the one that got away? | Wis[s]e Words — May 11, 2011 @ 9:30 pm


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