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“The Fire Last Time,” a review of Carol Polsgrove’s “Divided Minds”

The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2001

Divided Minds book cover

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 appreciate.”

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.