Robert S. Boynton


A review of Carol Polsgrove’s “Divided Minds”

The Fire Last Time

The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2001

There is a puzzling ambiguity at the center of "Divided Minds." Carol
Polsgrove is an able portraitist who takes the social responsibility of writers
seriously. In her previous book, "It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have
Fun?" (1995), her subject was the extraordinary group of journalists (Gay
Talese, Tom Wolfe and Michael Herr, among others) that Esquire magazine's editor
Harold Hayes recruited during the 1960's. In "Divided Minds," Polsgrove's
subject is less distinct. Is it intellectuals and the civil rights movement – a
study of various thinkers' attitudes toward the struggle? Or the intellectuals
of the movement – the theorists and strategists who were actively involved in
the protest itself?

Polsgrove, who teaches journalism at Indiana University, never resolves this
issue, preferring to alternate between central and peripheral characters as they
suit her narrative. Somewhat confusingly, she draws from an extremely broad
group of "novelists, literary critics, even academic historians – all writing
for readers outside the academy and beyond the narrow circles of the
avant-garde. . . . How would they respond to the challenge the Supreme Court had
thrown down to the country?" To answer this question, she surveys an assortment
of historians (C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Franklin, Howard Zinn, James Silver,
Staughton Lynd), white novelists (William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Norman
Mailer, Lillian Smith), black novelists (Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James
Baldwin) and miscellaneous intellectuals (the psychologist Kenneth Clark, the
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the psychiatrist Robert Coles, the philosopher
Hannah Arendt, the critics Norman Podhoretz and Irving Howe) – all of whom held
strong opinions about the movement.

Polsgrove says her research for the book left her disillusioned by how "fully
intellectuals can fail the test of history," and much of "Divided Minds" is
spent assessing the moral courage (or lack thereof) displayed by her subjects.
Those who advocated any version of a "gradualist" approach to integration –
Woodward, Warren and Faulkner – are reprimanded, while liberals like Zinn,
Coles and Lynd are celebrated.

Polsgrove's moral zeal sometimes leads her to blur important distinctions. At
one point she lumps Faulkner – who ruined his integrationist reputation when he
told an interviewer, "If it came to fighting, I'd fight for Mississippi against
the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting
Negroes" – with Woodward, whose sin, according to Polsgrove, was coining the
phrase "New Reconstruction" to characterize the social upheaval of the South
after the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in 1954. A steadfast
opponent of segregation, Woodward is found wanting ("he was not a radical,"
Polsgrove writes) because his "professional commitment to detachment" kept him
"well within the bounds of his role as a historian." For Polsgrove, Faulkner's
racist regional chauvinism and Woodward's scholarly reserve are distinctions
without a difference: "For all his good intentions, Woodward, like William
Faulkner, had weighed in on the side of 'going slow.' "

Among the intellectuals Polsgrove admires, Baldwin – whom she places at the
movement's moral, if not organizational, center – receives the most attention.
He was the archetypal media intellectual, a celebrity whose presence at a
protest guaranteed the requisite reporters and cameras would show up. Baldwin
"was, in the terms of the trade, a great interview: he took journalists'
questions and ran with them." When The New Yorker published Baldwin's "Letter
From a Region in My Mind" in 1962, the essay filled the entire magazine, which
quickly sold out and became a collector's item. Published in 1963 as "The Fire
Next Time," it was a best seller for 41 weeks. Baldwin's portrait graced the
cover of Time the week it appeared; the next week, Life anointed him "the
monarch of the current literary jungle."

In Baldwin, Polsgrove (like the liberal literary establishment at the time)
finds a literary voice that is at once threatening and reassuring, provocative
and sophisticated, cosmopolitan yet thoroughly American. In his enigmatic,
brooding essays, Baldwin offered rapt white liberals "the menace of forgiveness
and redemption," in Darryl Pinckney's felicitous phrase. It was also Baldwin's
good fortune to demand a radical transformation of consciousness at precisely
the moment when such notions were in vogue.

Baldwin's relationship with white liberals was always tinged by mutual
exploitation and opportunism – something he acknowledged in "No Name in the
Street" (1972), when he wondered whether he had been "the Great Black Hope of
the Great White Father." He made white liberals feel bad, and they loved him for
it. In 1970, before Tom Wolfe used the phrase, Seymour Krim accused The New
Yorker of "stretching its now rubber conscience to include tokens of radical
chic" by publishing Baldwin's essay after years of ignoring racial issues.
According to Polsgrove, this was the peak of Baldwin's reputation. It was not
long before Amiri Baraka would denounce him as the "Joan of Arc of the cocktail
party," and an Esquire profile would accuse him of wielding "his blackness as a
battering ram assaulting the mind mercilessly with an idea of suffering, a
quality of life and experience that he maintains no white man can fully

But that didn't stop white people from trying. "Society hostesses wanted him
at their social gatherings as the latest star," Baldwin's biographer, W. J.
Weatherby, wrote. "When he lectured them about the evil that whites had done to
blacks, they seemed to enjoy it." "I met another bunch of masochists," Baldwin
would say after such encounters. While many of Baldwin's readers were no doubt
captivated by his complex and often demanding formulations, the press usually
portrayed him simply as the movement's celebrity spokesman – a role he said
made him uncomfortable. And this is precisely Polsgrove's approach; paying only
cursory attention to the substance of his ideas, she depicts him almost purely
from the perspective of the white, liberal literary elite who were awakened to
America's racial turmoil by his apocalyptic prose. In a sense, "Divided Minds"
is not so much about intellectuals and (or of) the civil rights movement as it
is about what white intellectuals thought of James Baldwin.

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