Response to The Nation review

Berkeley, Calif.

The wonderful thing about books of letters is that one can see the letter writers’ views on the fly, at various stages of their lives. Letters written over decades are full of the contradictions, joys, griefs, high passions and the mundane moments of real human life as it progresses over the years. Unfortunately, reviewers can, if they choose, pick this or that passing comment from a letter written at some point during the subject’s life, compare it with another quote from a letter written on another occasion for another purpose in another stage of life and build a case for any preconceived notion they wish. A collection of letters provides a sandbox for ideologues hunting for a logical consistency that no life possesses.

Charles Taylor has chosen to take that approach in reviewing Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford [“Class Consciousness,” Dec. 11]. He created a portrait of a Jessica Mitford I don’t recognize from the years I spent editing these letters. It’s a portrait that won’t be familiar, either, to readers or to the many reviewers on two continents who have greeted this book with almost universal acclaim. By selective quotation, misrepresentation and interpretive sleight of hand, Taylor sets up a series of straw men and, with great flourishes, sets them aflame. The approach may be entertaining for ideological pyromaniacs; however, it is not only misleading but–as when I find my own words distorted to fit a critic’s preconceptions–personally insulting. Just a few of many possible examples:

“Mitford clings to the notion that the Communists were the only people fighting for civil rights.” Taylor seems to have derived that baseless conclusion from a footnote relating to Mitford’s musing, approvingly, about white students from the North going South to assist the civil rights movement. It’s a misappropriation of a passing comment for the purpose of “exposing” a position that Mitford never held.

Taylor claims that I, too, asserted that position by “dismissing the efforts of both the NAACP and the ACLU” and “seconding…[Robert] Treuhaft’s ridiculous implication that the NAACP didn’t concern itself with poorer blacks” and “trivializing [the NAACP’s] accomplishments as ‘some notable successes’ in overturning discriminating laws.” Yes, I wrote that the NAACP had some notable successes in the courts, which is hardly a way of trivializing its accomplishments; no one said in the book I edited that “the NAACP didn’t concern itself with poorer blacks.” Nor can I find any comment I made in the book on the ACLU, of which I am a longtime, proud member and collaborator. On what page did you find my dismissal of the ACLU, Mr. Taylor?

“Are we to seriously believe,” Taylor asks in his bewildering commentary, that “only the black middle-class was affected by” Brown v. Board of Education? No one in the book made any such ignorant assertion.

Taylor says that Mitford and Treuhaft’s praise of the work of the East Bay Civil Rights Congress “deprives blacks of any agency on their own behalf.” In fact, most of those in their chapter were blacks; and by the way, not all were Communists. The larger point was that the NAACP’s primary focus in the 1940s and early ’50s was on overturning discriminatory laws in the courts while the Treuhafts’ local chapter was operating in poorer black districts “on a day-to-day basis in the streets,” as Treuhaft put it, coming to the aid of individual victims of racism. Surely there is room for both approaches without impugning one’s civil rights credentials.

Taylor wags an accusatory finger at a statement by Treuhaft: “When Decca makes up her mind, she never changes it.” He says I found that admirable–on what evidence I can only guess since there is no such statement. In any case, that quote is laughably unrelated to Taylor’s case that “Mitford clings to what history has proved nonsense.” The quote comes from a letter the jubilant Treuhaft wrote his mother shortly after 26-year-old Jessica had consented to marry him! It has no bearing whatsoever on the rigidity of her Communist ideology in the ’40s or ’50s–which, incidentally, Mitford freely acknowledged: “Oh dear,” she wrote in a letter eight years after she left the party, “we were so rigid!”

Taylor also characterizes me as writing “approvingly” of one reason Mitford gave for leaving the party. (Several other reasons are mentioned in her letters–including the party’s doctrinaire inflexibility, which she tried to liberalize–but he chooses not to deal with that degree of nuance.) Won’t someone explain to Taylor that quoting from or describing someone’s views is not the same as approving of what she says?

Taylor can’t even bring himself to enjoy the humor that, as every other critic has written, permeates Mitford’s letters. He chooses to call it “forced heartiness.” Saddest of all is that The Nation‘s critic chose to force the irrepressible personality, the infectious humor, the social commitment and the sprightly intelligence of Jessica Mitford into his own dated ideological straitjacket.