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.
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.
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.”