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Now that Wright’s books can be read in the sequence in which they were written, we can see more clearly the dominance that this belief came to have in Wright’s thinking. It didn’t replace his interest in the subject of race; it subsumed it. Wright intended
Black Boy
, for example, to have two parts—the first about his life in the South and the second about his experiences with the Communist Party. But the Book-of-the-Month Club refused to publish the second part. Wright was convinced that the Communists were behind the refusal (and it is hard to find another reason for it), but he agreed to the cut, and
Black Boy
became an indictment of Southern racism (and a best-seller). Wright managed to publish segments of the suppressed half of the book in various places during his lifetime—the most widely read excerpt is undoubtedly the one that appeared in Richard Crossman’s postwar anthology
The God That Failed
(1950). When the autobiography is read as it was intended to be read, though, it is no longer a book about Jim Crow. It is a book about oppression in general, seen through three examples: the racism of Southern whites, the religious intolerance of Southern blacks, and the totalitarianism of the Communist Party.
The idea that there are no “better” forms of human community but only different kinds of domination—that, in the metaphor of
Native Son’s
famous opening scene, Bigger must kill the rat that has
invaded his apartment not because Biggers are better than rats, but because if Bigger does not kill the rat, the rat will kill Bigger—is what gives The Outsider, the novel Wright published in 1953, its distinctly obsessive quality.
The outsider
is a black man, Cross Damon, who is presented with a chance to escape from an increasingly grim set of personal troubles when the subway train he is riding in crashes and one of the bodies is identified mistakenly as his. Cross has been, we learn, an avid reader of the existentialist philosophers, and he decides to assume a new identity and to see what it would be like to live in a world without moral meaning—to live “beyond good and evil.” He quickly discovers that perfect moral freedom means the freedom to kill anyone whose existence he finds an inconvenience, and he murders four people and causes the suicide of a fifth before he is himself assassinated. (Wright was always drawn to composing lurid descriptions of physical violence. There are beatings and killings in nearly all his stories; his first published work, written when he was a schoolboy and now lost, was a short story called “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre.”)
The influence of Camus’s
The Stranger
is easy to see, but Wright’s book is even more explicitly a
roman à
Two of Cross’s victims are Communists; a third is a fascist. Cross kills them, it is explained, because he recognizes in Communists and fascists the same capacity for murder and the same contempt for morality he has discovered in himself. The point (which Wright finds a number of occasions for Cross to spell out) is that Communism and fascism are particularly naked and cynical examples of the will to power. They accommodate two elemental desires: the desire of the strong to be masters and the desire of the weak to be slaves. Once, as Cross sees it, myths, religions, and the hard shell of social custom prevented people from acting on those desires directly; in the twentieth century, those restraining cultural influences have been stripped away, and in their absence totalitarian systems have emerged. Communism and fascism are, at bottom, identical expressions of the modern condition. And is racism as well? Race is only a minor theme in
The Outsider,
but there is no evidence in the book that Wright regards racism as a peculiar case, and
The Outsider
reads, without strain, as an extension of the idea he was developing
at the end of
Native Son
—that racial oppression is just another example of the pleasure the hammer takes in hitting the nail.
It’s not completely clear how we’re meant to understand this analysis. Is the point supposed to be that twentieth-century society is unique? Or only that it is uniquely barefaced? If it’s the latter—if the idea is that
societies are enactments of the impulses to dominate and to submit, but that some have disguised their brutality more cleverly than others—we have reached a dead end: every effort to conceive of a better way of life simply reduces to some new hammer bashing away at some new nail. But if it’s the former—if Wright’s idea is that modern industrial society, with its contempt for life’s traditional consolations, is a terrible mistake—then racism is really an example that contradicts the thesis. For the South in which slavery flourished was not an industrial economy; it was an agricultural one, with a social system about two steps up the ladder from feudalism. That civilization was destroyed by the Civil War, but the racism survived, in the form that Wright himself described so unsparingly in the first part of
Black Boy
and in the essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” (1937): as part of a deeply ingrained pattern of custom and belief. To the extent that the forces of modernity are bent on wiping out tradition and superstition, institutionalized racism is (like fascism) not their product, as Wright seems to be insisting, but a resistant cultural strain, an anachronism.
The evil of modern society isn’t that it creates racism, but that it creates conditions in which people who don’t suffer from injustice seem incapable of caring very much about people who do. Wright knew this from his own experience. There is a passage in the restored half of
Black Boy
which is as fine as anything he wrote about race in America, and which has an exactness and a poignancy often missing from his fiction. Shortly after he arrived in Chicago, Wright went to work as a dishwasher in a café.
One summer morning a white girl came late to work and rushed into the pantry where I was busy. She went into the women’s room and changed her clothes; I heard the door open and a second later I was surprised to hear her voice:
“Richard, quick! Tie my apron!”
She was standing with her back to me and the strings of her apron dangled loose. There was a moment of indecision on my part, then I took the two loose strings and carried them around her body and brought them again to her back and tied them in a clumsy knot.
“Thanks a million,” she said grasping my hand for a split second, and was gone.
I continued my work, filled with all the possible meanings that that tiny, simple, human event could have meant to any Negro in the South where I had spent most of my hungry days.
I did not feel any admiration for the girls [who worked in the café], nor any hate. My attitude was one of abiding and friendly wonder. For the most part I was silent with them, though I knew that I had a firmer grasp of life than most of them. As I worked I listened to their talk and perceived its puzzled, wandering, superficial fumbling with the problems and facts of life. There were many things they wondered about that I could have explained to them, but I never dared … .
(I know that not race alone, not color alone, but the daily values that give meaning to life stood between me and those white girls with whom I worked. Their constant outward-looking, their mania for radios, cars, and a thousand other trinkets made them dream and fix their eyes upon the trash of life, made it impossible for them to learn a language which could have taught them to speak of what was in their or others’ hearts. The words of their souls were the syllables of popular songs.)
This feels much closer to the reality of human interaction than the simplified Nietzscheanism of
The Outsider.
But, having rejected first the religious culture in which he was brought up, then the American political culture that permitted his oppression, then communism, and, finally (as Cross’s death symbolizes), the existential Marxism he encountered in postwar France, Wright seems, by 1953, to have found himself in a place beyond solutions. He was not driven there by an idiosyncratic logic, though; he was just following the path he had first chosen. Wright’s experience, that of a Southern
black man who became one of the best-known writers of his time, was unusual; his intellectual journey was not. The attraction of communism in the 1930s, the bitter split with the Party in the 1940s, the malaise resulting from “the failure of ideology” and from the emergence, after the war, of an American triumphalism—it’s a familiar narrative. Wright’s role as a writer was to take one of the literary forms most closely associated with that narrative, the naturalist novel, and to add race to its list of subject matter. What Upton Sinclair did for industrialism in
The Jungle
, what John Dos Passos did for materialism in U.S.A., what Sinclair Lewis did for conformism in
Main Street and Babbitt,
Wright did for racism in
Native Son:
he made it part of the naturalist novel’s critique of life in the capitalist era. And his strengths and weaknesses as a writer are, by and large, the strengths and weaknesses of the tradition in which he worked. He changed the way Americans thought about race, but he did not invent, because he did not need to invent, a new form to do it.
This helps to explain the Nietzschean element in
Native Son
and the nihilism of
The Outsider:
they are the characteristic symptoms of the exhaustion of the naturalist style. The young Norman Mailer, for example, used Dos Passos and James T. Farrell as his literary models in writing
The Naked and the Dead,
but added a dash of Nietzsche to the mixture, and then produced, in the early 1950s—like Wright, and with comparable results—a cloudy parable of ideological dead-endism,
Barbary Shore.
Wright’s most famous protégés, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, both eventually dissociated their work (Ellison more delicately than Baldwin) from his. They felt that Wright’s books lacked a feeling for the richness of the culture of African-Americans—that those books were written as though black Americans were a people without resources. Someone reading
Native Son,
Baldwin complained, would think that “in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse”
by which black Americans could sustain themselves in a hostile world. But that is what Wright did think. He believed that racism had succeeded in stripping black Americans of a genuine culture. There were, in his
view, only two ways in which black Americans could respond actively to their condition: one was to adopt a theology of acceptance sustained by religious faith—a solution Wright had resisted violently as a boy—and the other was to become Biggers (or Crosses), and live outside the law until they were trapped and crushed. Otherwise, there was only the “cesspool” of daily life described in
Lawd Today!—
a perpetual cycle of demeaning drudgery and cheap thrills. It’s not hard to understand why writers like Ellison and Baldwin resisted this vision of black experience, but it is a vision true to Wright’s own particular history of deprivation. Ellison, by contrast, grew up in Oklahoma, a state that has no history of black slavery (though it certainly has a history of segregation), and he attended Tuskegee Institute, where he was introduced to, among other works, T. S. Eliot’s
The Waste Land,
a poem whose influence on his novel
Invisible Man
is palpable—as is the influence of jazz and of the Southern black vernacular. Ellison had a different culture, in other words, because he had a different experience.
For culture is not something that just comes with one’s race or gender. Culture comes
through experience; there isn’t any other way to acquire it. And in the end everyone’s culture is different, because everyone’s experience is different. Some people are at home with the culture they encounter, as Ellison seems to have been. Some people borrow or adopt their culture, as Eliot did when he transformed himself into a British Anglo-Catholic. A few, extraordinary people have to steal it. Wright was living in Memphis when his serious immersion in literature began, but he could not get books from the public library. So he persuaded a sympathetic white man to lend him his library card, and he forged a note for himself to present to the librarian: “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?”
He had discovered, on his own, a literary tradition in which no one had invited him to participate—from which, in fact, the world had conspired to exclude him. He saw in that tradition a way to express his own experience, his own sense of things, and through heroic persistence he made that experience part of the culture of other people.
ames Bryant Conant was made president of Harvard in 1933, when he was forty. He had been a professor of chemistry, and was sufficiently untested as an administrator to have been passed over, not long before, by his own high school, Roxbury Latin, during its search for a new headmaster. But he proved an active and modernizing educator. Conant had supervised the production of a poison gas (never used) called lewisite during the First World War, and shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War he was invited to join a government body created to oversee scientific contributions to military research. In 1941 he was appointed head of a subgroup known as S-1, which was the code name for the atomic bomb, thus becoming the chief civilian administrator of American nuclear research and, eventually, a principal figure in the decision to drop the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He continued to play a role in the articulation of nuclear policy after the war, and in 1953 he left Harvard to become Eisenhower’s high commissioner,
later ambassador, to Germany. After his return to the United States, in 1957, he undertook a series of widely circulated studies of public education, underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation. In 1965, his health began to fail, and he gradually withdrew from public life.
My Several Lives,
an autobiography notable for its reticence, appeared in 1970. He died in 1978.
It’s a career that touches on many areas: science, government, education, the cold war, the national security state, the politics of the atom. Conant’s biographer, James Hershberg, mostly concentrates on the story of Conant’s role in nuclear policy from 1939 to 1950, and although the nuclear Conant is important, the educational Conant is equally important. This is not only because the changes in American higher education for which Conant was largely responsible affected two generations of professors and students—the generation that lived through those changes and the generation that lived through the backlash against them. The educational Conant is also important because Conant’s educational philosophy—which, since it was the educational philosophy of the president of Harvard, once commanded a large and attentive audience—and Conant’s political philosophy were reciprocal things. Conant believed that admissions policy was a weapon in the battle against communism; and he believed that the existence of a Communist state in possession of nuclear bombs was a factor in the formulation of admissions policy. For American educational doctrine in the postwar period was just as historically conditioned as American foreign policy. The educational views of people like Conant rose to prominence at the beginning of the cold war, and their authority only dissipated completely around the time of the cold war’s demise. Those views had as much effect on life in the bipolar world as big defense contracts did. Conant helped to create the atomic bomb; he also helped to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Americans born after 1945 were raised in the shadow of both.
Conant was not an especially colorful character. He seems to have cultivated, even as a Harvard undergraduate, the personal style dictated by the first commandment of university presidency: Offend no one. He liked committees; he liked to chair committees;
and when he wasn’t being invited to serve on or to chair someone else’s committee, he was likely to be starting up a committee of his own. In a time when consensus was the official face of public policy, he was the consummate stage manager of consensus.
He was therefore much more successful as an administrator than as a politician: he preferred to work his will anonymously, and the prospect of public division invariably made him pull in his horns. If he was compelled to cast a vote on a controversial matter, he took every care to keep his ballot a secret one—a cautiousness that could sometimes be ridiculous. In 1961, the journalist Carl T. Rowan was nominated to join the very establishmentarian Cosmos Club, in Washington, D.C. Conant, as a longtime Washington insider, belonged to the Cosmos, and he agreed to write a letter on Rowan’s behalf. Rowan would have been the club’s first black member; when he was rejected by the admissions committee, in 1962, there was an embarrassing public scandal, in which some distinguished gentlemen threatened to resign and some equally distinguished gentlemen vowed to stay on and fight discrimination “from within.” Conant was tormented by indecision: when the ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, took opposing stands, what was the ex-president of Harvard to do? He was deeply relieved when the matter was resolved by a vote of the membership in favor of nondiscrimination, before he had to declare his own position. In 1962 Conant was no longer a Harvard official; he was no longer a public official; he believed in racial integration wholeheartedly. But the thought of breaking ranks made him miserable. This was not a man well equipped to face the 1960s.
The two-word ideological gloss on Conant is “liberal anticommunist,” but he was a liberal anticommunist of a particular midcentury stripe—one of those high establishment figures for whom, at the deepest level, “liberal anticommunism” was an oxymoron. Liberalism is about the tolerance of ideas and practices; anticommunism, as Conant interpreted it, is about the intolerance of one idea and one practice. These views can coexist much of the time; but at certain moments the anticommunism asks the liberalism for a concession,
and then a conflict comes into view, and the liberalism is in danger of being trumped, if ever so hesitantly and apologetically, by the anticommunism. Two of these conflicts in Conant’s career are especially interesting.
The first has to do with the bomb. In 1945, Conant became a member of the Interim Committee (“so-named,” as Hershberg explains, “to forestall congressional charges of executive usurpations of authority”),
which had been formed to advise Truman on atomic issues. On May 31, the issue was the use of the bomb against Japan. According to the minutes: “At the suggestion of Dr. Conant the Secretary [of War, Henry L. Stimson] agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.”
Conant’s suggestion became, of course, atomic reality. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, Nagasaki on August 9 (before Japanese officials had had time to inspect the damage from the Hiroshima explosion). There were 200,000 casualties. On August 14, Japan surrendered.
Conant seems never to have doubted that the destruction, without warning, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the wisest thing to do, and he never publicly expressed regret about it afterward (though Conant’s grandchildren told his biographer that they remember him admitting privately, very late in life, that the Nagasaki bomb had been a “mistake”). Tactically, the decision involved a calculation, subsequently much disputed, about the number of lives it would have cost to win the war by conventional means (which would undoubtedly have included the continued firebombing of Japanese cities). But Conant’s reasoning wasn’t only tactical. He was given to geopolitical speculation anyway, and as one of the few people privy to knowledge about the bomb from the inception of the nuclear program, he had plenty of time to contemplate its usefulness in strategic terms.
The consideration that dominated his long-term thinking was the need for international control of atomic weapons. Conant believed that unless the American government was willing, after the war, to share nuclear information with the other powers, and to submit to the authority of an international atomic energy commission,
it would sooner or later find itself engaged in a ruinous arms race. (Conant’s friend J. Robert Oppenheimer believed the same thing; they were right about the arms race.) But Conant also believed that unless the American public was convinced, by some kind of demonstration, of the bomb’s terrible power, it could never be persuaded to accede to international regulation, for it would be unable to imagine what an indiscriminate holocaust a nuclear war would inevitably be. He may have thought, too, although here the evidence is not so clear, that the Soviets, while still without a bomb of their own, required a similar demonstration to draw them to the arms control bargaining table. Was Conant’s advice to bomb Hiroshima therefore influenced by a desire to show the world, by the instantaneous incineration of tens of thousands of Japanese citizens, how monstrous a weapon he had helped to produce? And was the decision of the administration as a whole dictated by a desire to impress the Soviets, with a view either to persuading them to agree to international regulation, or to chilling any postwar expansionist intentions they might have harbored?
The answer is difficult. Revisionist historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, have suggested that future relations with the Soviet Union were on the minds of the men who decided to use the bomb against Japan. There seems to be very little written evidence to support this claim, and it is clear that whatever other considerations it may have entertained, the Interim Committee’s decision-making in 1945 was dominated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible and with the least loss of life. In 1946, though, Conant thought he perceived the beginnings of a backlash against the bomb—something he feared, because he felt it could lead to atomic paralysis on the part of the American public, and therefore to an end to any strategic usefulness the bomb might have. If we couldn’t bring ourselves to drop the bomb, what was the advantage of having it? John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which appeared in the
New Yorker
on August 31, 1946, is the best-known sign of this backlash, but there were rumblings elsewhere, as well, and Conant felt obliged to orchestrate a response. True to form, he kept his own role hidden.
The response Conant conjured up was the famous article by
Stimson (by then retired) called “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” which was published in
’s in February 1947. Stimson introduced the article as “an exact description of our thoughts and actions as I find them in the records and in my clear recollection”; but it was, in fact, an exact description of some of the Truman administration’s thoughts and actions, and a few of the recollections were Conant’s. The piece was initiated entirely by Conant, who (as was his custom) got an intermediary, Harvey Bundy, to persuade Stimson to write it. In his letter to Bundy, Conant expressed dismay at the argument he saw being circulated that the decision to drop the bomb was immoral, and said he felt no cause to second-guess his reasoning as a member of the Interim Committee, which was that the use of the bomb was justified “on the grounds (1) that I believed it would shorten the war against Japan, and (2) that unless actually used in battle there was no chance of convincing the American public and the world that it should be controlled by international agreement.”
There is ample evidence that Conant continued to use this ex post facto argument to defend the Interim Committee’s decision; but the letter to Bundy seems to have been the only place in which he acknowledged that the desire to provide an admonitory example was a factor in his own thinking at the time. Still, it is a striking admission.
Stimson accepted his assignment reluctantly: “I have rarely been connected with a paper about which I have had so much doubt at the last moment,” he complained to Felix Frankfurter.
The article was ghosted by Bundy’s son McGeorge, who presented his drafts to Conant for editorial advice—which, according to Hershberg, was extensive, and which included the insertion of a passage written by Conant himself. Specifically, Conant was insistent that a discussion about modifying surrender terms to permit Japan to retain the emperor be deleted (it “diverts one’s mind from the general line of argumentation,” as he put it),
and that the article be couched not as an argument against nonmilitary alternatives, but as the neutral account of a decision dictated solely by military needs. And, in the end, it was: “No man, in our position,” it concludes, “and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibility
for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”
There is no explanation for the second bomb; the Soviet Union, needless to say, is never mentioned.
Henry Stimson had been secretary of war in the administration of William Howard Taft, secretary of state under Herbert Hoover, and secretary of war under Roosevelt and Truman. There was no more credible witness, and “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” stood, as Hershberg says, “for almost two decades as the authoritative historical record of the events of 1945.”
What is remarkable is not that a statesman should wish to fix the record to reflect most favorably on himself: that was, of course, exactly what Conant counted on when he approached Stimson and asked him to put his name on the piece. What is remarkable is that the president of the country’s leading institution of liberal learning, having set in motion a process leading to the publication of the facts about an event, should intervene in order to censor details he judged it undesirable for the public to know.
The manner in which Conant handled the postwar issue of Communist Party members in the teaching profession is revealing, too, although the lesson can be misread. Harvard was celebrated at the time for its refusal to cooperate with McCarthy; but the university’s reputation for resisting the intrusion of government loyalty hounds has been challenged since—for example, by Sigmund Diamond, in a book on the collaboration of universities and intelligence agencies in the early cold war period,
Compromised Campus.
Diamond suggests that Conant may have acted, while president of Harvard, as a confidential informant for the FBI. How credible is the charge? It’s true that Conant’s position on loyalty issues was never exactly heroic. In 1935 he led a drive against a bill in the Massachusetts legislature mandating a loyalty oath for teachers, but when the bill was passed, he pledged Harvard’s cooperation. His general view seems to have been that an administrative inquiry into a teacher’s political beliefs was a violation of academic freedom, but that the state had a legitimate interest, which universities must respect, in exposing “subversives.” His position on Communists, therefore, was
that they should not be hired as teachers (since they were, in his view, subversives by definition), but that no effort should be made by universities to ferret out Communists already on the faculty. Ferreting, he felt, was the kind of thing the government ought to do. He also maintained that any faculty member who invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about Communist Party associations was, ipso facto, disloyal, and should be fired. (Membership in the Communist Party, it’s worth remembering, was not illegal.)
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