Friday, October 20, 2017

Puerto Rico: Forgotten Family

Marc outside a registration booth in El Barrio.
To be sure, Puerto Rico existed before a recent hurricane blew the island, and its debt, onto the front pages of national publications.

It came as something of a surprise to most citizens of the United States that they count Puerto Ricans among their numbers.

Puerto Rico, everyone found out, had deep financial problems, all of which were served up as novelties to a largely oblivious American public.

If we had not forgotten Vito Marcantonio, we might have been more aware of Puerto Rico's plight, for as Professor Gerald Meyer has asserted, in his time, he was the unofficial congressman for Borinquen.

Puerto Rico's problems have been long in the brewing and a reading of Vito Marcantonio's extensive remarks in the House of Representatives will provide the curious with all they need to know about the subject.

On May 6, 1936, Marcantonio introduced into Congress the first of many bills aimed at Puerto Rican independence from the U.S.



Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, Mayor of San Juan
Puerto Rico and Nasty Girl
He outlined the misery wrought in Puerto Rico by U.S. occupation after the Spanish-American War: 

“Only these gentlemen who stand for reaction in America, the American Tories, the banks and sugar corporations, who have kept the Puerto Rican people in hunger and misery, are interested in Puerto Rico as a colony, not only for their profits, but also as a fortified war base.”

Marcantonio's activities in support of the island's independence movement, on behalf of his own constituency and as an advocate in Congress represent a significant page in the history of Puerto Rico, yet have gone largely unrecorded, according to Meyer,

Meyer's work, “Vito Marcantonio: Congressman for Puerto Rico,” addresses these efforts in detail. 

“In this capacity,” Meyer writes, “Marcantonio introduced bills to meet the island's specific needs, provided services for individuals and, in general, acted as spokesman for Puerto Rico and its people.”




In his piece, Meyer identifies two valuable sources for filling in the portrait of Marc as Puerto Rico's stalwart: “Vito Marcantonio y Puerto Rico: Por Los Trabajadores y Por La Nacion,” and Bernardo Vega's “Memorias.” 

With Puerto Rican Chapter of I.W.O.
(International Workers Order)
Not only was Puerto Rico in the headlines following the tropical tempests that battered it, but Marcantonio was also in the news – “The Daily News” – regarding his strong bonds to the island.

The article, reproduced from an earlier printing, was written by the now-departed Jay Maeder, and observed that European immigration had slowed to a trickle when New York City suddenly found itself awash in a new arrivals.

“They came from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico,” wrote Maeder, “catastrophically overpopulated, desperately impoverished, devastated by decades of sugar company plantations. All at once there were many thousands of them in the city, where it said a man might earn in a week what he labored for a year to earn at home. Thus did a new people arrive, as had the forlorn other before them.”

The difference between these new immigrants and the earlier European edition, Maeder pointed out, was that the Puerto Ricans had come during hard times, rather than boom times. The other difference, he noted, was that they were citizens of the U.S. and could vote.



The final fact, Maeder said, did not escape Vito Marcantonio's attention: 

Newsman Jay Maeder
“Vito Marcantonio indignantly denied suggestions that he had personally engineered the postwar Puerto Rican migration purely to pad voter rolls in his district. Still, it was a fact that in November 1946, as the new arrivals came and came and came, he was running for mayor.”

Maeder's piece parrots the urban legend that “Marcantonio brought the Puerto Ricans to New York.”

The article touches upon the break between Marcantonio, a backer of Puerto Rican independence and Luis Munoz Marin, the island's first and newly elected governor.

Those interested in the subject would do best to watch Professor Edgardo Melendez's authoritative discussion of the same.

Marc's commitment was not a trawl for bought votes. His commitment was genuine. He left the continental U.S. just one time in his life. And that was a trip to Puerto Rico. 

As we noted in our inaugural essay, “Where's Marc?”: “Style, philosophy, attitude, and analysis are all lost when Marcantonio's voice is erased from the historical accounting of the times in which he played so vital a role.”

And so is Puerto Rico. 

Literature in the Red Decade: Kempton and Rubinstein Reflect


Marc wrote and was written about.


Literature, oh literature, you are a most useless thing. Only those without power talk about you; no one with real strength bothers to talk, they just murder people.” Lu Xun (revolutionary Chinese writer). (link) 

The 1930s economy was in Depression, the middle- and working-classes ravaged, and talk of revolution commonplace on American streets. This tumult is reflected in the period's literature when now mostly forgotten names challenged the genteel traditions of the book-reading and theater-going worlds.

In her comprehensive analysis of American literature, “Root and Flower” (1988), Annette Rubinstein posits that, “A cultural period is seldom as precisely delimited as was the 'Red Decade' in the literary history of the United States.”

Disillusionment with American capitalism was widespread and young literati turned to address the vital economic concerns of the time.

“This disillusionment was so widespread,” Rubinstein writes, “that in 1934 the American Labor Party (ALP) representative, Vito Marcantonio, could declare unrebuked on the floor of Congress that it would be impossible for the nation to solve its problems until it had begun production for use and not for profit.”

Rubinstein worked on Marcantonio's staff and ran for office on the ALP ticket. She was, for a time, a member of the Communist Party.

A Writer's Times

Influenced by Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukacs, Rubinstein held writers to a standard of engagement with their times. She valued literature that reflected a writer's concern,
"with the vital current which moves steadily beneath the innumerable eddies and confusing crosscurrents of life's surface." 

Murray Kempton was a contemporary of Rubinstein's. A columnist for the “New York Post,” his writings suggest an impassioned observer unburdened by any commitment other than to what he called, “the writer's quarrel with himself.”

Kempton was not a member of the Communist Party and never dragged before committees engaged in the red witch hunt of the 1940s and '50s. Instead, he wrote about those who were.

Rubinstein was one such writer who landed in the same purgatory of the forgotten to which Marcantonio had been banished. She labored earnestly at the margins into her nineties. Kempton's columns were bound into mainstream book releases and yielded a Pulitzer Prize.

He too, wrote about the Red Decade in “Part of Our Time, Some Ruins and Monuments of the 1930s” (1955).



Kempton and Rubinstein evaluated the experimental and leftist currents that washed over literary culture during those years in significantly different ways.

Annette Rubinstein
Communist Encouragement

“Root and Flower” highlights the Communist Party's fundamental role in developing the revolutionary literature. Hard times heightened the Party's appeal to beleaguered American workers. The resulting jump in resources financed the creation of a cultural infrastructure that both groomed writers and promised a potentially ample audience.

For example, Rubinstein writes: “[T]he John Reed Clubs, initiated in the fall of 1929 to develop radical young writers of working class background, had established branches in 30 cities before they were dissolved in 1934.”

In “American Hunger,” Richard Wright recalls that, “With the exception of the church with its myths and legends, there was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist Party.”

“Many intellectuals,” Rubinstein says, “were attracted to Marxism primarily because of historical materialism. With its concepts of class exploitation, surplus value and the real nature of the state, “it offered the only coherent rational explanation of the economic crisis.”

For Kempton, “They believed that to be a great writer one needed simply to be on the side of the future and substitute outer reconciliation for interior quarrel.”

Rubinstein saw merit in the social and political activity of the new proletarian writers. For her counterpart at “The Post,” this turning away from writer-like isolation represented the fatal flaw.

Plebes

Kempton writes that the Party's literary recruits were, “plebeians; their Mermaid Tavern was a cafeteria on Fourteenth Street in New York or the John Reed Club in a loft in the Loop in Chicago or the office of the 'New Masses'. All other doors seemed closed to them...”

He says proponents of this “plebeian realism” believed the genre would, “come to dominate American literature and that the proletarian poem and the proletarian novel would outlive James and Joyce and Yeats and Eliot, because history was on its side.”

Lacking in prestige, Kempton writes, “they were young and could believe that they were the future. They did not feel lost or tired or bankrupt. Some of them felt that they were the precursors to a new kind of American realism that would open up subjects and explore a side of life neglected in the literature of their country. They would find their poetry in the world of urban poverty from which so many of them had come and which only the sociologists and the census takers had penetrated before them.

“The most important thing after all was to feel that you were not alone and hunched over your feeble candle in the night. No one owed Richard Wright a living, but somebody owed him a home.”

Only the Communists had an offer, according to Kempton, and the response to that offer was revolutionary.

“Except for [Nelson] Algren and James T. Farrell,” he says, “all were able at one stage in their lives to believe that art is a weapon or it is nothing and that its first test is whether it is on the side of history.”
Murray Kempton

Rubinstein covers the early purveyors of what she labels “proletarian fiction,” defined as any creative writing in which the author identified with the working class and championed its cause.

The proletarian novels, for Rubinstein, “centered about a then-important development – the almost spontaneous self-organization of hard-pressed workers in an individual mill or factory, their confrontation with the employers, and a consequent strike or lockout.”

In Michael Gold's, “Jews Without Money” (1930), and Agnes Smedley's “Daughter of the Earth” (1929), Rubinstein sees, “books of enduring human and literary value.” James T. Farrell's “Studs Lonegan Trilogy,” she deems “savagely effective” in its indictment of the “destructive culture capitalism creates.” 

But the marriage of revolutionary writers and revolutionary party, Kempton suggests, was not a natural fit, their common goal notwithstanding.

The Party Novel

Waldo Frank's “The Death and Birth of David Markand” (1934), is another example of the form. Kempton says it was, “a tract for the wandering cerebral man; it had nothing to say to the anchored, action proletarian whose search was not for reconciliation with himself, but comfort for his kind.”

Under Communist guidance, says Kempton, the proletarian novel became the Party novel, “which is something very different.”

“The story line,” he says, “was basic and always reiterated.” Its necessary elements were a community of workers without class consciousness undergoing an economic education that concluded, “there are no halfway houses, the Party is their only ally, the owning class their enemy, and that they have a world to win.”

They say literature can be used to publicize, promote incite, and advance the revolutionary cause, and thus bring about revolution,”says Lu Xun. “Still it seems to me that this sort of literature has no strength because good literature has never been about following order and has no regards for its effects. It is something that flows naturally from the heart.”

Richard Wright would not bend his literature to the guidelines required by party discipline.

“It was not courage that made me oppose the Party,” he explains. “I simply did not know better. It was inconceivable to me, though bred in the lap of southern hate, that a man could not have his say.”

Retreat

One of the more bitter pills Wright swallowed was the closing of the aforementioned John Reed Clubs where he had gotten his chops.

Rubinstein explains how, “The anti-fascist united front policy in the literary world made it important to enlist as many prestigious authors as possible, and the emphasis on developing unknown young worker-writers to create a proletarian literature was therefore somewhat abruptly abandoned.”

Kempton observes that, “A major talent like Richard Wright's could continue to grow, but the truncated careers of many promising young novelists was largely caused by the radical orientation.”

Says Lu Xun,Only when revolutionaries start writing will there be revolutionary literature.”

The writers who came after were largely of middle-class background and education. Rubinstein's highest praise is saved for Josephine Herbst whose “Rope of Gold” trilogy whom, she said, earned its author a place among those great writers who can, “feel the future in an instant.”

The Communist Party never delivered on making the proletarian artist a popular success, says Kempton. The first-wave plebeians, “did not search; they only sat and waited, those of them who did not go to Hollywood, reciting their litanies; and whether in Hollywood or New York, the sap went out of them.”
Lu Xun

Bending Towards Light

For Rubinstein, although the output of these writers was, “far better than average American fiction, they were all buried in the reactionary Cold War period of politics.” A shared experience with the progressive writers of her time colors Rubinstein's analysis in a way Kempton's dialectic with himself can produce neither empathy or understanding.

“But the most evident impact of the depression on American literature was made, surprisingly, not on the printed page but in the playhouse,” according to Rubinstein. “The rapid formation of unemployed councils, the sudden spurt of radical activity on all sides, greatly increased the pressure from below for a people's theater.”

Rubinstein quotes Hallie Flannagan, who would eventually lead the influential Federal Theater Project: “Unlike any art form existing in American today, the workers' theaters intend to shape the life of the country, socially, politically, and industrially.”

Rubinstein sketches the lives and productions of various workers stage groups, starting with the Theater Guild, which offered John Howard Lawson's “Processional.” The playwright himself called it a “jazz symphony,” and said he was trying to “build something of a definitely American character and rhythm.”

Harold Clurman, one of the founders of the Group Theater said, “...our interest in the life of our times must lead us to the discovery of those methods that would most truly convey this life through the theater.”

Lawson joined The Group Theater along with Clurman, Paul Green and others. Despite some modest successes and long lines waiting to purchase the cheaper balcony seats, the orchestra sections were empty and the company went belly-up.

Personal versus Public

Rubinstein saw Lawson as a leading cultural spokesman for the Communist Party as well as an important film critic and a distinguished script writer. He stood fast as one of the Hollywood Ten and Marcantonio stood with him.

Kempton found these facts closer to flaws than virtues. Lawson, for Kempton, is a writer who took the wrong path, became more of a politician than scribe, and lost his way, winding up as neither thing.

Before it dissolved, Rubinstein insists, the Theater Group made theater history “in a number of ways,” including the development of an important young playwright by the name of Clifford Odets.

His “Waiting for Lefty,” she notes, generated an extraordinary response beyond the cultural left.

Kempton's assessment of Odets, and other communist writers is, as in the case of Lawson, personal.

This new theatrical bent is, for Rubinstein, an imperative from the streets. Kempton sees writers aping a “fashion” or “social myth” of the time, rather than responding to its prompts.

“They were all angry young apprentices,” he writes of the new school playwrights. “They began, most of them, during the Hoover administration, close to Union Square with the Workers Laboratory Theater, whose offerings carried spare, didactic labels like 'The Klein-Ohrbach Strike.' By 1934, many of them were with the Theater Union, still downtown but apparently more substantial, and their productions conveyed an impression of foundation.”

An examination of their lives, their habits, leads Kempton to conclude that, “They were really rather conventional young men.”

The celebrated Odets, he says, “wanted comfort and safety of a sort foreign to the plays he wrote. And he does not appear to have been alone among the revolutionary dramatists in withheld commitment.”

Hollywood

For some years, Odets toggled between lucrative Hollywood stints and work with The Group, until the latter dissolved and the writer settled on the West Coast.
Clifford Odets

Kempton says that, “When Odets returned to Hollywood in 1937, he found that The Workers Laboratory Theater appeared to have moved, spiritually if not physically, over to the Warner Brothers lot. And to a degree Odet's old friends set the tone for the community, which was pro-Roosevelt and anti-fascist.”

This concession aside, he contends that being inside the Hollywood Golden Circle was more important to the Party's writer/members than any revolution.

After the witch hunt, which had cast writers as a vanguard that, Kempton suggests, had an infinitesimal impact on film output, “Their banners still carried the old wild cries. But inside they were different men; they did not feel for each other as they had; they lived according to Hollywood habit, and it was not unusual for them to step upon one another's faces.”

The Communist Party habitually generalized from the particular, says Kempton, but it is he whom extends the writers' personal foibles to a decade's-worth of theatrical literature. Although Rubinstein agrees with his flogging of Odets as a Hollywood sell-out, she finds much that was worthy of note and analysis in theater's Red Decade.

And that analysis entertains the question of why the 1930s were the only time since Elizabethan England that the English-speaking stage occupied the center of a national culture.

She posits that, “Unlike the twenties, when the essential choices seemed to be individual ones and the conflicts largely generational, when politics seemed irrelevant to daily life, every hotly contested government decision in the thirties was fateful. Struggles on the floor of Congress about money to be appropriated for home relief or WPA jobs, about a moratorium in foreclosing family farms, about the legality of strikes and picket lines, affected one's daily life.”

Economic circumstances, says Rubinstein, forced collective action, and those that participated were encouraged to see it could prompt change. This sense of possibility, she says, coupled with the need for collective struggle informed an exciting literature in a depressing age.

Drama, which requires struggle to be drama, “had a naturally important part to play in that literature,” says Rubinstein.

A labor action could represent “vital contemporary forces” or “signal a momentous shift in power,” although the example chosen, Rubinstein asserts, “must be rooted in the significant conflicts of its own time, even though the action may take place in another place, or the past, or future.”

The art form's popularity in the 1930s, she said, might also be attributed to the “necessarily collective nature of theater, the collective nature not only of its creation but also of its reception. A play is and must be a shared experience, appealing to a common emotional denominator in its audience.”

As Antonio Gramsci might have told us, the surviving ideology from the 20th century battles dictates the kind of writer and writing western societies sustain and consume. Rubinstein notes that the end of the Federal Theater Project, “marked the end of the first period of a people's theater in the United States. There has, as yet, been no second.”

Lu Xun, a contemporary of both Rubinstein and Kempton says, “When there is revolution, the contours of literature itself change. However, only real revolution can change literature; a small revolution won't because it doesn't revolutionize anything, so neither can it change literature.”



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Report: "The Madonna of 115th Street" by Robert A. Orsi


Like the many penitents he renders, Robert Orsi sees all things in "The Madonna of 115th Street."

A scholar of things religious, and connoisseur of matters Italian-American, Orsi combines these two interests so that one defines and explains the other.

To the uninitiated, the Madonna of Mount Carmel is just a statue like countless others throughout Europe and the Americas that renders the Virgin Mary in plaster relief.

But in Orsi's erudite hands La Madonna (and the faith she engenders) becomes an analytical tool that unlocks doors to discussion on Italian-American family life, the role of work, the trials of immigration, the history of colonization in the old country, and, of course, food.

His base of scholarly operations is the now-vanished Italian East Harlem, but those raised in the culture will recognize themselves, their families, and neighborhood networks in its residents.The author did years of in-depth research, but found most of his truths on the streets of Little Italy. The resulting interviews may have informed the text, but don't make many actual appearances.

Much of "Madonna" is given over to Orsi's ornate reasoning, and even speculation, about the meanings of the religious icon, and how they can be discerned in the behaviors of mid-century Italian-Americans in urban New York.

East Harlem water dance.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody had to do it and his thoughts mostly ring true. Where they don't, the opportunity for debate and discussion naturally arise, and that is a second service the author rendered.

Don't give this book to your Aunt Rosina in Coney Island unless she's got a college degree and a sociological bent. "Madonna" is a scholarly text that can be dense as a zeppole with academic jargon or leavened as a sfogliatelle with deeply meditative conclusions.

But it is a delightful trove of considerations on the Italian-American and immigrant experience; a beautiful piece of history that might have otherwise been lost to those who care them.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

VMF, IAWA Present Screening of "Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)"


On Saturday Aug. 12, the Vito Marcantonio Forum and Italian American Writers Association(IAWA) will cosponsor a screening of “Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)” followed by a discussion with director Gianfranco Norelli and co-producer Suma Kurien.

The screening will take place at the Mulberry Street Public Library, 10 Jersey Street in lower Manhattan.

A review by University of Missouri professor Linda Reeder explains that the film, “traces how American racial ideology fell hard on the first generation of immigrants, placing all Italians below American whites in the racial order that defined status, rights and opportunities.” 

In her review, Reeder highlights the film's focus on the immigrant experience through “the lens of American racial hierarchies,” as a scholarly addition to the study of Italian immigration. “Historians have only recently explored the ways in which race shaped the meanings of ethnicity among European migrants, and very few students of U.S. migration know the racial history of Italians.” 

Also, the VMF and Chelsea Rising will convene a fifth reading circle around the speeches and writings found in “I Vote My Conscience: Vito Marcantonio: Debates, Speeches and Writings of Vito Marcantonio,” edited by Annette Rubinstein. 


The August session will focus on speeches and debates from Marcantonio's fourth term in Congress, pages 171 to 189 in “I Vote My Conscience.” 

The date is Aug. 16, the time 6 p.m., and location the “community room” in Penn South at 339 W. 24th St., between 8th and 9th avenues.  

Copies of “I Vote My Conscience” will be on sale for $10, or can be purchased in advance by sending a $13 check to Gerald Meyer, 381 2nd Street, Broooklyn 11215.

"Activism Matters" Reasons for the Triangle Fire Coalition

Professor Mary Anne Trasciatti
“Remembering the Triangle Fire: Performances, Screening and Presentations,” was held March 24 at New York University's Casa Italiana. The occasion was the 96th anniversary of the tragedy.

The program included Mary Anne Trasciatti, a professor at Hofstra University and president, board of directors, Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition, who talked about the group's plans and inspirations.

Trasciatti told those gathered that her connection to the fire is an organic one in as much as her mother worked in the clothing business and was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

The first person to tell her of the tragedy, her mother explained, “how she knew she was safe in the factory where she worked because of what happened to the girls of the Triangle Fire.”
Clara Lemlich.

To read and study such things, labor history in general, Trasciatti observed, is to require a healthy optimism, “because you lose many of the battles.” 

However, the dark cloud of the Triangle tragedy is not without a silver lining.

“People who witnessed the fire were determined to do something,” Trasciatti explained. “And so unions did something. They stepped up their organizing. In 1913, they called a general strike in New York City. They won raises, a shorter work week and better labor management conditions.”

She highlighted the work of Clara Lemlich in helping to shape ILGWU Local 25 into a formidable entity.

Lamentably, Trasciatti noted, the union responded by denying her a pension when she refused to renounce her membership in the Communist Party. 

In 1919, Trasciatti said, Italians in New York formed their own Italian-language local. “The history of Italians and Jews is rather interesting. They worked together pretty well, but there were some issues in the union about language.”

Organizing in Local 89 of the Italian Dressmakers was driven by Angela Bambace, an important figure/character in Jennifer Guglielmo's “Living the Revolution.” “If you haven't heard of Angela Bambace, you should look her up," Trasciatti urged.

Suffragettes, women muckrackers, all contributed to the effort at making Triangle a turning point in industrial history, she stated.

Angela Bambace.
Frances Perkins, who would become the first female Secretary of Labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, was part of the Factory Investigation Committee which informed landmark safety legislation in New York State.

“So look around this room,” Trasciatti directed. “Exit signs, sprinklers, maximum occupancy limits, outward opening doors. These are all the legacy of Triangle.”

The less obvious aspects of the Triangle legacy are the establishment of Social Security Insurance, a jewel of the New Deal, which Perkins claimed began on March 25, 1911, the day of the Triangle Fire. 

“Triangle showed that the state has a role in freeing us from the worst aspects or ourselves,” said Trasciatti. “In this case, the unfettered pursuit of profit.”

The hard-won victories of the New Deal are imperiled in the present political moment, said Trasciatti, “but the story of Triangle is more relevant than ever. Activism matters!"

The American cult of individualism, she observed, renders collective action a form of cultural subversion. Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition, “aims to channel this kind of subversion. To channel 'I' into 'We.' We are building a memorial, in part, to fulfill that aim," she said.  

A design has been chosen and a deal has been made with the building owner, NYU. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) budgeted $1.5 million for the project, but it is not enough and fundraising for an endowment to maintain the memorial is ongoing. 

“This is a globally significant site for women's history, immigrant history and labor history,” said Trasciatti. “We want something on the building that forces people to stop and take notice.”

The program, linked to here, also features a performance by LuLu LoLo of two acts from her play, "Soliloquy for a Seamstress." LuLu is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, which is a constituent member of the coalition and committed to supporting its important work. She is also a member of the Triangle Coalition's board.