Saturday, March 29, 2008

Another Liberal Myth Bites The Dust

The action moved fast, with precision. A sedan drove up and stopped under the tree. A man climbed on to the top quickly. Another. They stood black against the sky. From beneath, a group of men, shoving and pushing, got Hyacinth's limp thin body up to them. Hyacinth half lay, half squatted on the roof. From the ground a length of rope sailed up, hung in the air, curved and fell. A man tried again and the rope caught and hung down from a limb. The noosed end was thrown to one of the men standing on the car-roof.

The noosed end was thrown to one of the men standing on the car-roof. He held it and shook Hyacinth. There were no words now, only vague instructions, half-spoken. The crowd stood still; you could hear the mosquitoes whining. The other man held something in his hand it; looked like a great jug. He held it over Hyacinth, who shivered suddenly, and came to life. His voice rose out of him like something apart, and it hurt one's ears to listen to it; it was higher than a voice can be, not human.

"Boss," he said, "Boss I didn't do nuthin, don't burn me, Boss, Boss . . ." The crowd had trembled now, stirred by his voice, and there were orders to hurry, to kill the bastard, what the hell were they waiting for. The two men held him up and put the noose around his neck, and now he was making a terrible sound, like a dog whimpering. The minute they let go, he slacked into a kneeling position and his whole body seemed to shrink and dwindle and there was this noise he made. The two men jumped down from the roof; the rope was taut now. The car started and the silly sound of the starter failing to work, then the hesitant acceleration of the motor were so important that nothing else was heard; there were no other sounds anywhere; just these, and a moment's waiting.

The car moved forward, fast. Hyacinth skidded and fought an instant - less than an instant - to keep his footing or some hold, some safety. He snapped from the back of the car, hung suspended, twirling a little on the rope, with his head fallen sideways. I did not know whether he was dead. There was a choked sound beside me and it was Joe, crying, sitting there crying, with fury, with helplessness, and I kept looking at Hyacinth and thinking: 'It can't have happened.' There had been a noise, a sudden gutteral sound as of people breathing out a deep breath, when the rope carried Hyacinth twisting into the air.

Now a man came forward with a torch made of newspaper, burning. He reached up and the flames licked at Hyacinth's feet.

Even knowing what I know now, it's difficult stuff to read. Martha Gellhorn's description of a lynching in the southern United States, "Justice At Night", first published in the (London) Spectator in August 1936, was in Reader's Digest by March 1937 - and that meant it was in millions of American homes.

It's considered (admittedly by the cheap'n'cheerful "Mammoth Book of ..." series) to be one of the Top 100 pieces of journalism.

You can buy a (bloody awful - cheating students should pinch Camilla Wright's excellent Normblog piece) student essay on it - which means that it's still being taught in schools and colleges, like the poor innocents Sacco and Vanzetti, as fact.

Camilla Wright's fine Normblog essay, while a tad over-influenced by more modern cinematic echoes (the whole Deliverance/Texas Chainsaw narrative didn't exist in 1936) sums up the impact perfectly.

Originally published in The Spectator in 1936, 'Justice At Night' is perhaps the most perfect piece of eyewitness journalism. History, politics, human interest and gut-wrenching emotion are all mixed in together. It's unashamedly biased - there's no disengaged, disinterested reporter here. It's straight from the heart. But these short paragraphs tell so much more than a personal anecdote. In this micro-story, the macro-narrative of 20th Century American history is imparted: north v south, urban v country, black v white, the civil war and the civil rights movement.

It's not only true, it illustrates a wider truth ! And it's brilliantly written.

Every time I read this I feel the same shock as reading it the first time. Like I've been a first-hand witness to a truly inhuman event. I don't think there is better praise a writer could get.

It's still a perfect piece of writing. But eyewitness journalism ?

Gellhorn was writing a novel herself ... the book caught the attention of Harry Hopkins in the Roosevelt administration, who was assembling a team of young reporters to fan out across the Depression-ravaged country and document the lives of ordinary people ... two episodes stand out from Gellhorn's modest contribution to this worthy effort: she made up a story about a lynching in the South and published it as fact, and she encouraged laborers in North Carolina to break factory windows to protest their working conditions.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a college friend of Gellhorn's mother, admired the lynching article, and Martha explained, giddily and lamely, that she was "getting a little mixed-up around now and apparently I am a very realistic writer (or liar), because everyone assumed I'd been an eye-witness to a lynching whereas I just made it up." Her fake story dogged her for the rest of her life. And her incitement to riot got her fired by Hopkins.

Did the fakeness "dog her" ? Eleanor Roosevelt may have known about it, but it was still presented as fact when I read it as a teenager. No-one told Camilla Wright, either.

Caroline Moorehead, Gellhorn's biographer and editrix of her letters, to whom this revelation is due, doesn't seem like a member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to me. Indeed her Wikipedia entry is stamped 'paid-up liberal'. And she's the daughter of the great Alan Moorehead, so I believe everything she writes.

Only one thing bothers me, as I post in haste. Could Christopher Benfey, author of the book review from which I've taken the 'I just made it up' quote and professor of English at "a liberal arts womens college" in Massachusetts, be a secret member of the VRWC ? Is the quote real ? Time for Laban to find the library website and read both books for himself.

(I shouldn't have to write this, but the fact that this writing turns out to be fiction doesn't mean that nobody ever got lynched in America. Hell, it's still happening now.)


Anonymous said...

Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years

Anonymous said...

re: Sacco and Vanzetti.

The LA Times link is dead but I recall that it was followed up by a claim that the letter was misquoted: eg. Jonah Goldberg.

Now we've know that Sacco was guilty since about 1941 but my understanding is that Vanzetti was possibly an innocent who was persuaded to trust the lawyers.

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