Monday, February 27, 2017

"Beloved Comrades," Annette Rubinstein, Marc and the Great Tradition in English Literature



Annette T. Rubinstein was a titan who excelled as an author, educator and activist known to very few.

That was by design. Rubinstein was an uncompromising leftist, a member of the Communist Party for 15 years, but even McCarthyism and the blacklist could not silence or still her completely.

As with Vito Marcantonio, with whom she ran on the American Labor Party ticket once, her extensive labors ceaselessly expended over most of her 97 years, have been erased from this country's recent historical memory.

The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) will take a first step in the remembering of Rubinstein on March 4, with a program entitled, “Beloved Comrades,” featuring Dr. Gerald Meyer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” VMF co-chair, and a friend of Rubinstein's, who will discuss the nature of her relationship to East Harlem's congressman.

Meyer has written of Rubinstein and her ability, “to influence countless numbers from every generation and to continue her work under all circumstances, including political repression and advanced age, in combination with her decent and caring approach to individuals, stands as a model for those who themselves have questioned what it can mean to live a good and productive life within the often vilified and marginalized American left.”

Her political and life choices, he has written, were motivated by her progressive secular Jewish identity.

Rubinstein was accepted to Barnard College at the age of 15, but was turned away on orientation day, because the quota for Jews had been calculated incorrectly. She went to New York University instead, and by the age of 24, had earned her doctorate.

Bryn Marr offered her a professorship at the height of the Great Depression, if she would anglicize her name, and Rubinstein refused.
George Gordon - Lord Byron

That led to a job in the Depression-era Home Relief Bureau where she encountered the difficulties of Italian and East European Jewish families coping with America. Characteristic of most everything to come, Rubinstein joined efforts organize her fellow caseworkers into a union.

In 1939, she joined the American Labor Party (ALP) and ran for assembly on Manhattan's upper West Side in 1942 and 1947. In 1949, she returned to the hustings at Marcantonio's urging, unsuccessfully contesting a congressional seat against Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr.

She became an educator, through her purchase of the Robert Louis Stevenson School, which eventually started accepting GI education benefits from World War Two Puerto Ricans veterans. The school absorbed 600 of the vets, whom nobody seemed willing to take on.

Rather than lauding Rubinstein, the federal Veterans Administration initiated a process that ended with her blacklisting and that of 12 other teachers at the school, including her 67-year old mother.

Of course, Marcantonio is gone by now. How many lost a protector with his untimely passing?

Writes Meyer, “[I]t was really from the moment of her blacklisting that her work as an important left intellectual began.” More than half of Rubinstein's output was concerned with literature, according to Meyer.
John Keats

Her signature work is the 900-plus page volume, “The Great Tradition in English Literature From Shakespeare to Shaw.”

As part of the “Beloved Comrades” program, author Stephen Siciliano will discuss Rubinstein's analysis of the 18th century Romantics.

Rubinstein was influenced by Hungarian social and literary theorist Georg Lukacs. In his 1937 book, “The Historical Novel,” Lukacs developed a new Marxist aesthetic intent on humanizing the way history is recounted by breaking down broad based political and social movements to the interaction of its particular agents, the people.

Rubinstein's reading of English literature at the dawn of the great bourgeois epoch focuses on the writers' public lives, political activities and the social component to their work.

She penned a second review following "The Great Tradition..." entitled,  “American Literature Root and Flower: Significant Poets, Novelists and Dramatists, 1775-1955.” Rubinstein was the driving force and editor behind the publishing of “I Vote My Conscience,” a collection of Vito Marcantonio's speeches, debates and writings in the years immediately after his death in the 1950s.

She wrote some 200 articles and reviews for outlets diverse as “Mainstream,” “Monthly Review,” “Jewish Currents,” “Science and Society,” and the “National Guardian.” There were countless pamphlets, essays and letters, almost all of it, Meyer writes, “organically connected” to Rubinstein's political activism.

In the communist world, her reception was otherwise. “Root and Flower,” was published in China where schools used it as a text. She traveled the Soviet Union and Eastern block, where her works were celebrated and she got to see socialism in practice.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
She continued an activist's life, was called to testify before Congress a few times and was questioned by Tailgunner Joe McCarthy himself. Lecturing was yet another activity which she engaged at a heroic pace, covering the length and breadth of the country.

Professor Meyer has written that Rubinstein explained how her lectures on Shakespeare, “were motivated by an encounter during the thirties with a Communist who scoffed at her suggestion that he attend a production of 'Macbeth.' He responded, 'Why would a leftist want to see a play about kings and queens?'”

Answering that question became, “a type of life-long mission for her,” wrote Meyer. 

Rubinstein died in 2007 and achieved too much, worked too hard, affected too many lives for the good, to be erased from memory by a collective insanity that impacted she and so many others.

Please join the Vito Marcantonio Forum for a revival of Annette T. Rubinstein's politics and literature and life.  

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