An Array of Activist Authors

There are loner authors who do little but write during their working hours, and then there are activist authors who spend a fair amount of time on various causes that are important to them. This post is about that second group of fiction writers, living or dead.

Looking outward can be a mixed bag for activist authors. The time they spend advocating for various things can siphon valuable hours from writing, perhaps make their fiction too polemic for some readers’ tastes, and/or turn off some politically opposite readers even if the fiction doesn’t get strident.

On the other hand, being an advocate can enrich authors’ literary output by giving their works more passion and more of a seen-it-firsthand foundation, and by making their fictional characters more vivid and realistic because activist authors meet many more people than reclusive authors do. Also, the advocacy of authors can engender intense loyalty from their ideological soul mates among readers.

Of course, working for causes isn’t admirable if the causes aren’t admirable. A case in point is the way Orson Scott Card of Ender’s Game fame has spent lots of time ranting against same-sex marriage — making him a “poster child” for anti-human-rights blather. But many Card fans say his homophobia isn’t noticeable in his fiction.

Activism obviously takes many forms, and I’m going to mostly discuss activist fiction writers of the liberal persuasion. But please feel free to also mention conservative authors in the comments section below.

I’ll start with Upton Sinclair, who spent nearly two months working incognito as a meatpacking plant worker to help research The Jungle novel that exposed the horrendous, unsanitary condition of those plants. Nearly three decades later, another example of Sinclair’s activism would be his campaign for governor of California.

Then there are the fiction writers who, in wartime, help the wounded (as Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman did during the American Civil War), work as journalists (as Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway did during the Spanish Civil War), or even participate in military action at an older age than the typical fighter (as George Orwell did during the Spanish Civil War). In some cases, those actions directly result in a novel (like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls) or nonfiction book (like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia).

Parker’s sympathetic writing about Spain’s anti-fascist forces for a leftist magazine, along with her other political work over the years, eventually got the humorist/short-story writer/screenplay writer blacklisted by Hollywood movie bosses during the McCarthy era — affecting her work in that way. And right-wingers were surely not pleased to learn that Parker, who died in 1967, bequeathed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Speaking of civil rights, one example of South African author Nadine Gordimer’s anti-apartheid activism was helping to edit the famous “I Am Prepared to Die” courtroom speech that Nelson Mandela gave in 1964 before being sentenced to his long prison term.

Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize-winning author of the novel The Interpreters and other works, was also a political prisoner, in Nigeria. He was denied writing implements in jail — hardly conducive for an author to continue one’s career — but still managed to compose some poems, among other creations.

In the French literary realm, Victor Hugo went into exile after criticizing Napoleon III’s autocratic regime, and Emile Zola fled to England in 1898 after authorities targeted him for taking his public “J’accuse” stand against the anti-Semitic railroading of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. Zola’s courage may not have greatly affected his novel writing (which had creatively peaked between 1877 and 1890), but it could have affected his life: Zola’s 1902 asphyxiation death from a blocked chimney may have been retaliatory rather than accidental.

Among the many other past and present authors who have been activists in deed or speech include Douglas Adams (animal rights), Margaret Atwood (feminism, the environment), Margaret Drabble (anti-war, anti-imperialism), Alice Walker (civil rights, anti-war), Rita Mae Brown (civil rights, anti-war, gay rights, feminism), Arundhati Roy (anti-globalization, anti-imperialism, anti-nuclear power), Stephen King (pro-gun control, pro-higher taxes for the rich, anti-Tea Party), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (anti-czar, anti-serfdom), Booth Tarkington (served a term as a Republican legislator in Indiana), Norman Mailer (ran for mayor of New York City), and Gore Vidal (ran for U.S. Congress).

Many authors in the above paragraph, and in this blog post as a whole, were involved with other causes in addition to those I mentioned. And the very act of writing certain books is activism, with an obvious example being Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Who are some of your favorite activist authors? (As noted earlier, I named mostly liberal ones but you’re welcome to name conservative ones, too.) As an optional question, do you think author activism is a good, bad, or mixed thing — and why?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

163 thoughts on “An Array of Activist Authors

  1. I think i missed this post somehow. Harriet Beecher Stowe is definitely right up there as one of the most “active” activists in the anti-slavery movement after “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. She was also pop for civil rights. popular in the female suffragette movement.

    Alice Walker also comes to mind. Githa Hariharan in India is a popular activist for women’s rights there. her “The Thousand Faces of night” tells a great story of a woman’s search for identity in a country which gives so few rights to Indian females while at the same time weaving together some of India’s most famous fab;es, tales, and stories.

    Mohsin Hamid, who writes both fiction and non-fiction, is popular in Pakistani for modern civil rights. He wrote “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and at the same time fights for a more capitalist society in Pakistan.

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    • Thanks, Eric, for expertly discussing four writer-activists, past and present! I wasn’t familiar with the last two you mentioned, but they sound as impressive as the first two.

      As you might know, one of the activist-type things Alice Walker did was help in the 1970s to resurrect the memory of Zora Neale Hurston, who had fallen into obscurity even before her 1960 death. If I’m remembering correctly, Walker visited what was thought to be Hurston’s grave in Florida and wrote an influential Ms. Magazine article about the late author.

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  2. Dave, another great post. You’ve covered many of authors I know who have done activism. So I’ll fall back to my old standby of Terry Pratchett. Sir Terry has been very active in the past few years working to get right to die legislation past in the UK. He also has been active in getting Alzheimer’s research money raised, as he suffers from an early onset form.

    His personal illness has shaped his beliefs and activism in a way that is different than many others would go.

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    • Thanks, GL, for the kind words and your comment!

      Sobering to hear about Terry Pratchett’s condition, and wonderful that his activism includes work connected with that. A terrible illness for a writer, or anyone, to have.

      Whether it’s someone like Pratchett, or Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s), or others, a famous person can bring a lot of attention to a disease and raise a lot of funds to combat it.

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  3. Maya Angelou was an amazing, brilliant woman who was,among many other things, an auteur and political activist. “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” spoke to racism,feminism, empowerment. Her famous speech for Bill Clinton’s inaugural “The Pulse of Morning” spoke to renewal,rejoicing ,a liberal,progressive mindset of people of all races,creeds, rich,poor who looked out for each other, shared in a vibrant economy,took care of each other. We are fortunate for her voice,even though she passed in May,she lives on through her words, written and spoken, truth disseminated on many levels. The life she lived of service exemplified coming together, an antithesis of polarization so commonplace in the theatre of the absurd that is American politics.

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  4. James Baldwin, who got a mention in last week’s column, deserves a mention in this week’s, as he was very much an ‘activist author’. Saw him on a street corner here in NYC in the 80’s– I recognized him and smiled, and he, knowing I had recognized him, smiled back. The kind wisdom writ all over his face is unforgettable, and the first thing I think of whenever I see or hear his name.

    As was Camus. And Sartre.

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    • I (sometimes) try to space out mentions of authors, so I didn’t want to mention James Baldwin two weeks in a row. You’re right — he absolutely deserves a mention here.

      So tremendous that you got to briefly meet him in the last decade of his life! Superb author and speaker, dedicated activist, and one of the smartest people who ever put pen to paper.

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  5. Dave..what an interesting blog ……Arundhati Roy was a New Your Times best seller in her first and only Novel “The god of Small things”, the book is about how small things in life affects people and how they turn out to be in life. She is equally known for her political and Social activism on Human Rights and Environmental causes. We have discussed this book to a great length before, was a difficult one to read for me was about beauty and terror in life.

    Vikram Seth ” A Suitable Boy”, an ample 1200 pages book also is a well known novelist and poet and an equal right activist was described in New York Times a man with polite wit but firm in his belief. He calls himself a bisexual man and is very vocal in his activism.

    Both Roy and Mr. Seth are brilliant writers and are out there in forefront making headlines for their individual beliefs and various causes are both Asian Indian in origin that`s the only common ground they have.

    I understand a sequel of A Suitable Boy is coming up.

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    • Thank you, bebe, for your kind words about the column — and for recommending Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” a while back. What a magnificent (albeit depressing) novel, as you note. It’s a shame Ms. Roy hasn’t written more novels, but she’s definitely doing other, very important work, as you also note.

      As for Vikram Seth, being an activist and the author of an esteemed 1,200-page novel — well, that’s an impressive and admirable amount of energy. 🙂 I wonder if the sequel to “A Suitable Boy” will be very lengthy, too?

      I appreciate your interesting and informative comment!

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      • I don`t think Dave i could go through another 1200 plus novel again…yes Roy`s book was so profound and depressing . Looking at the world and politics is plenty these days .ha..

        I just found this poem by Vikram Seth

        Sit

        Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
        You’re twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
        No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I’ll
        Reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead.

        The world is too opaque, distressing and profound.
        This twenty minutes’ rendezvous will make my day:
        To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
        Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away.

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        • I hear you, bebe. Reading 1,200-page novels is for once in a while, not for very often!

          And you’re right that all the depressing real-life news these days can make it harder to deal with very depressing novels, even if they’re great. I read “escapist” books only once in a while, but it’s quite a nice relaxing break. 🙂

          VERY evocative, melancholy poem. Thanks for posting it!

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  6. Howdy, Dave!

    — Who are some of your favorite activist authors? —

    In my logical system, some activists are authors, but all authors are activists, Adrienne Rich in her “The Dream of a Common Language” as much as E.B. White in his “Charlotte’s Web,” Antonio Machado in his “Moral Proverbs and Folk Songs” as much as Marshall Saunders in her “Beautiful Joe,” Ken Kesey in his “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as much as Erica Jong in her “Fear of Flying.” So, in a philosophical sense, I have no way of differentiating between my favorite activist authors and my favorite authors, period.

    In the beginning was the Word, with one denotation and many connotations collectively standing for or against that which may be considered the Status Quo, with such standing determined only by the angle of the reader’s vision.

    — do you think author activism is a good, bad, or mixed thing — and why? —

    It depends: Some pieces work better than do other pieces. This phenomenon was well described on a black-and-white poster frequently seen on American campuses during the Vietnam War era that basically read: “When Cicero finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke.’ When Demosthenes finished speaking, the people said, ‘Let us march.’”

    I suspect more-successful pieces are composed when their authors work on comparatively unconscious levels and less-successful pieces are composed when their authors work on comparatively conscious levels, meaning it may be best that a writer’s left hand doesn’t know what his or her right hand is doing.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • I think I see what you mean, J.J. The very act of writing a book is an activist thing. And whether consciously or subconsciously, many authors want their books to change the world in some way. Or at least change a few people’s thoughts in some way — as in reconsidering certain things or at least being entertained.

      Love that Vietnam War-era poster reference of yours that illustrates how some books inspire admiration (or dislike for that matter) while other books inspire action.

      And I hear you about how over-thinking is not necessarily good for writing. It’s amazing what an author can come up with when she or he doesn’t put too much of a filter over what’s flowing from the brain to the keyboarding fingers.

      Thanks for the VERY eloquent thoughts and insights!

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  7. “As an optional question, do you think author activism is a good, bad, or mixed thing — and why?”

    To answer your question, author activism has its good points and bad points. Society will always have its extremists who would stop supporting and possibly lash out publicly against their favourite writers just because he or she is involved in a cause they don’t particularly agree with, but I don’t think an author’s activism will turn away a large swath of readers.

    I put musicians in the same category. Music artists support everything from conservation efforts to literacy. If a musician supports an anti-malaria campaign and debt relief for 3rd world countries (Bono), or HIV/AIDS research and funding (Elton John), fans who may not agree with those causes probably won’t throw up their hands and say “oh my GOD, Bono is going against my personal beliefs…OH NO.” Fans will continue to support their favourite musicians…just like they would continue to support their favourite authors.

    Activism is a good thing. It promotes awareness for a specific problem and gives people a purpose in life. Aside from the fringe elements who want to “punish” an author (or musician) for daring to support an issue they are personally against, I think most people are reasonable and can separate the author/musician from his/her craft if they wanted to.

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    • Thanks, Anonymous, for your elegantly expressed thoughts on author activism! I agree that many (not all) people will read a novel even if they differ from the author ideologically. It helps when it’s an excellent novel. 🙂

      And, yes, this is relevant to music, too — as you convincingly note with U2’s Bono and with Elton John. Another example, as you know, is Bruce Springsteen, who has lots of fans who like him more for his general rock “chops” than for his left-leaning social consciousness and activism. One of those fans is New Jersey’s right-wing governor, Chris Christie, who has attended dozens of Springsteen concerts during his life. (But, not surprisingly, that GOP politician has stated that he prefers Bruce’s “Born to Run”-type songs more than his “Ghost of Tom Joad”-type songs!)

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      • Typical red state politician in a blue state who is trying to play it safe and appeal to both sides. Everyone knows that The Boss’ lyrics generally deal with social issues that are important to liberals and Dems. By publicly acknowledging he’s a fan of Bruce, Christie becomes a champion of Democrats. By distancing himself from Tom Joad, Born in the U.S.A., Death to My Hometown, American Land, etc etc, he’s safe with Republicans.

        Seriously, who bases their votes on a candidate’s literary or musical preferences?! I could never be a politician. Trying to appeal to different camps and defending my music, hobbies, and reading choices to a bunch of childish people is no way to live.

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        • True — Chris Christie is as calculating as they come, right down to his fake “candid tough guy” thing that’s little more than bullying. But Christie, I think, has been a genuine fan of Springsteen since long before the New Jersey guv became a politician (who only cares about the rich). However, he’s of course more a fan of Springsteen’s Jersey roots, stage presence, and music than he’s a fan of Springsteen’s lyrics — which, as you so rightly note, are populist, sympathetic to the working class, and all those good things.

          Like you, I could never be a politician. Even the ones who have some idealism and genuineness amid their ambition usually go downhill after being elected. Might be a few exceptions to that, but not many. The most admirable people are much more likely to be, say, teachers than politicians.

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          • Hmmm. Sounds like Christie is suffering from Hometown Hero and Regional Pride Diseases. He likes the back story, persona, NJ connection, celebrity, and popularity of The Boss, but wants to distance himself from the social influences behind the song lyrics because they are politically unpopular for him.

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            • You nailed it, Anonymous. Perfectly expressed! You should write a critical biography of Christie. 🙂

              One addition: Christie wants to distance himself from Springsteen’s lyrics not only because they’re politically unpopular for a Republican to like, but also because he doesn’t believe in those lyrics. Christie may have a blunt pseudo-“working guy” persona, but he’s for “The One Percent” all the way in his policies.

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              • You guys can borrow Washington state’s governor for a few days, but you’ll have to send him back. Jay Inslee is popular here. We don’t want to share him for too long because NJ might wanna keep him:)

                Time to move on to a more serious question, Dave: do you still have your Born in the USA t-shirt?

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                • Ha ha! Please ship your governor via FedEx. 🙂

                  And (referring to a New Jersey scandal) I’d like to add that your governor has never bogusly closed ANY Washington bridge, much less the George Washington Bridge…

                  Now to the more serious question: No “Born in the USA” T-shirt, but I do have that album on now-retro cassette tape. I also have a copy of my college newspaper (from 1973?) reviewing a concert by the pre-“Born to Run” Springsteen. He had played the commuter lounge, which sat maybe two or three hundred people tops.

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                  • I feel the same way about Springsteen and Christie as you do, Dave. Although I must admit my governor across the river is not much better, he did finally agree to expand Medicaid in my state. I think that as shown by discussions about singer/songwriters in this thread, they are just as likely, if not more so, to bring people to their activist causes than novelists, especially if they are as well known as Springsteen and Pete Seeger. It’s not surprising that the Boss has a whole album and concert DVD of “The Seeger Sessions.” I was listening to Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert on my way home from dinner tonight. I tried to find the YouTube video of them doing “Pastures of Plenty,” but it may have been taken down. Another great duet is “Two Strong Arms,” about Sacco and Vanzetti.

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                    • Yes, Kat Lib, your governor is not great, either, but Christie is a special kind of not great. 🙂 As you say, at least your governor was reasonable on Medicaid, which can be a matter of life and death for many citizens.

                      Terrific point about how singers perhaps can more easily bring some of their fans to activist causes than novelists can. Perhaps it’s something about the communal nature of going to a concert vs. the more solitary pleasure of reading literature. I still remember going to a Clash concert — in 1981, I think — where all kinds of pamphlets and other political stuff were on lobby tables.

                      It was wonderful the way Springsteen paid tribute to Seeger with that album, especially with Seeger still alive then to enjoy the tribute and perhaps gain new fans interested in his amazing career and music.

                      I wonder, too, if “Pastures of Plenty” was removed, because I couldn’t find it either. But I greatly enjoyed listening to snippets of other music and some conversation by Near and Gilbert.

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                  • Tell you what. We can launch a governor exchange program. You guys can have Gov. Inslee for 6 months; we’ll take Christie. The surviving state wins a cappuccino machine.

                    The fact that you have cassette tapes automatically gives you cool points. You’ll get even more cool points if you still have a bandana. You couldn’t go to a Bruce Springsteen concert without having at least one bandana.

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                    • Anonymous, your funny/generous governor-exchange offer doesn’t seem fair to you and your state!

                      Oops, no bandana. 😦 But I do have a few Springsteen albums on vinyl in addition to cassette. And I once worked for a newspaper in Springsteen country (Monmouth County, N.J. — the county of Asbury Park, etc.).

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                    • oh I like to be in that exchange program…we have an awful one in John Kasich the challenger Ed FitzGerald’s looked promising at the beginning have made several wrong moves . I wish Dennis Kucinich was running, I don`t know where he is now politically. Now it is too late 😦

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                    • Yes, bebe, your governor is also well worth exchanging (permanently)! It’s such a shame that some “swing states” that are about half GOP and about half Democratic, or even lean Democratic, have right-wing governors. (Wisconsin is another example.) Disinformation, voter suppression, huge campaign spending by rich candidates and their rich corporate pals, etc., often give Republicans an unfair edge.

                      Dennis Kucinich definitely was (is?) one of the better politicians.

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    • Excellent post anon…waving back atchha…another name comes to my mind is ” Linda Ronstadt”, because of her outspokenness she was removed from her own show long ago. it deeply saddens me now for her illness her Nightingale voice is silenced now.
      Ted Nugent..I don`t know what he sings but eek..:)

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      • Linda Ronstadt is indeed an admirable person, bebe, and was a wonderful singer. (I saw her in concert a couple of times many years ago.)

        As for Ted Nugent, “eek” indeed! What a racist, sexist, homophobic, far-right-wing lowlife. The only song of his I know is “Cat Scratch Fever” from way back.

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          • Thanks, bebe, for the link and your comment! It’s so disturbing that when a novel shows reality, some people feel it should be banned — even if it’s written by a highly esteemed author.

            Reminds me a little of an article I read in today’s New York Times about a conservative-majority school board in Colorado trying to sanitize the town’s curriculum so it doesn’t say much of anything bad about stuff like U.S. history — which of course had plenty of negative happenings along with the positive ones.

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            • That is awful..didn`t they ban ” To Kill a mockingbird” and also ” Huckleberry Finn” for the N word ?
              The unfortunate problem with that is racism is alive and going strong yet they are trying to abolish the past as if that never happened.
              The children are not allowed to learn from the history but are picking up from home and their surroundings.

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              • “…trying to abolish the past as if that never happened” — so true, bebe, when it comes to racism and other negative things.

                As you known, many great novels — including the two classics you mentioned — have been banned. If people are offended by a book, they can decide not to read it — and leave it available for people who DO want to read it.

                By the way, here’s the link to that NY Times story: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/us/in-colorado-a-student-counterprotest-to-an-anti-protest-curriculum.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A12%22%7D&_r=0

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                • Thanks Dave for this link, I`ll get back to you on that.
                  It was a glorious gentle day today and i allowed myself an hour to sit outside in our back deck with only the sound of birds to read a book which I hardly do. Later i`ll give my 2 cents on the book but i am loving the flow how it was written a book after a long time I am enjoying every bit of it..only read half of it so far… 😉

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                  • You’re welcome, bebe! Glad today’s weather was so nice where you are; same here in New Jersey. Tomorrow, lots of rain expected. Sitting on the deck reading Jhumpa Lahiri to the sound of birds sounds wonderful!

                    I did some writing today, and also went to a friend’s house where we watched “Groundhog Day.” Funny and touching movie that I had never see before. Have you seen it? One of the things I liked was Andie McDowell’s character quoting a Sir Walter Scott poem!

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                    • Yes I have seen the movie long ago liked it, don’t remember much but would like to borrow again.
                      The book..so far..it is like reading a prose of generations of life , she is not trying to over dramatizing it to make it a best seller…but then my opinion might change.

                      I hear we are going to have such weather for several days. Last two days as I walked looking up saw a clear blue sky.

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                    • It can be very compelling when a novel is sort of understated rather than over-dramatic. And Jhumpa Lahiri has a loyal audience that I suspect would read whatever approach she took!

                      More than one day of rain? Not good. But it had been a rather dry late summer. so I guess we’re due for a wet day or two.

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      • Linda Ronstadt is one of the classiest women in the music industry. Her voice just takes you to a special place.

        I always feel the need to shower whenever I see a headline about Nugent. He is such a disgusting individual, inside and out. That’s what I love about being a Democrat….we get the talented, intelligent, cool, and well-rounded musicians:)

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        • Well said, Anonymous! I totally agree about Ronstadt and Nugent (hate to put them in the same sentence).

          Yes, hard to think of too many appealing right-wing musicians. I suppose a number of them are in the country genre, whose radio stations of course shunned the wonderful Dixie Chicks when lead singer Natalie Maines mildly criticized George W. Bush.

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          • It almost doesn’t seem fair. I mean, we have Bon Jovi, Beyonce, Peter Gabriel, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, Jennifer Hudson, Foo Fighters, Rage Against The Machine, Jay-Z, John Mellencamp, Patti Labelle, Willie Nelson, Cher, Melissa Etheridge, Pearl Jam, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, and Jackson Browne. And even though Geddy and the boys are apolitical, they don’t like Republicans using their music either (Rush’s management/legal team in Toronto sent a cease and desist order to Rush Limbaugh because he played one of their songs during his show).

            The other side has Ted Nugent, Meatloaf………um……..er………hmmm…….I think there was this other guy who played guitar and stuff….and the also have…..?????…yeah I’m drawing a blank. LOL.

            Have a good weekend, Dave. You too Bebe.

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            • Great list, Anonymous! And the Clash, 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Don Henley, Dave Matthews Band, etc.

              Also, loved your Ted Nugent paragraph. 🙂

              Have a good weekend, too!

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                    • That’s very true, bebe. Like many other people, I’ve purchased less music since YouTube launched. Not great for musicians’ earnings, but at least a number of them still make good money on the concert circuit.

                      I have Joni Mitchell’s first album and one of her other records in vinyl, and a couple of CDs of hers.

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                    • so true…i could not agree with you more myself being an independent musician. Joni Mitchel has made it but there are so many more hard working musicians trying to make ens meet.

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                    • Absolutely true, jhNY, and I’m especially conscious of that as an author myself (albeit just one book at this point). I do buy books and music here and there, especially since I now have a little more money than before after selling my house.

                      As you know, part of the problem with books is space — my shelves are overflowing and there’s no wall space to put another bookshelf. 😦

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                    • bebe, you’re absolutely right that for every musician who makes it big, there are many talented ones who are struggling. As you know, it’s also the same situation in acting, in literature, and various other creative fields.

                      I’ve heard your music, and it’s superb.

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                    • Thank you Dave for the complement it means a lot to me. My producer in Nashville a well rounder singer and musicians always waiting for new gigs to perform.The writers..don`t get me started on that..because of too many parasitic sites the writers are not getting paid as you say about creative honest work 😦

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                    • You’re very welcome, bebe! What I said about your music is 100% true. 🙂

                      “Parasitic sites” — great and accurate phrase! We certainly had several years’ experience with one of those sites. In music, too, I know there are all kinds of uses of songs that leave the creators/performers of that music with no royalties or tiny royalties.

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            • Meat loaf..another double eek…
              Thank goodness none of these were ever my favorite musicians. I am not even famalier with their voices.
              Kudos to all the lists…so well rounded they are.

              Might mention some actors..the shows I boycott are with actors Tom Sherlock, Patricia Heaton, Angie Harmon and now I hear more these two as well Jim Caviezel, LL Cool J . The last two shows Person of Interest have lost it`s quality and same with NCIS LA.

              Another I have dumped is yesterday`s HP…and welcome today`s Literature blogs of ” Dave Astor.”
              I have lost all contacts with Dr. Cara barker…I miss her blogs so much wish her the best..sigh…

              That gives me more time for Nature in PBS.

              Have a great weekend Anon and Dave…it is warm in OH and loving it.

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              • Thanks, bebe!

                Yes, as is the case with musicians, only a minority of actors/actresses seem to be right wing. You named some prominent examples. Mel Gibson is another member of that list, as is Clint Eastwood — who showed a few liberal tendencies in the past couple of decades but then came out with that over-the-top pro-Romney/anti-Obama stuff back in 2012.

                So glad you’re commenting here, bebe, and that HP is becoming history for many people. I’ve reached the point where I’m barely clicking on that site anymore. Thanks for your kind words about this blog!

                Dr. Cara Barker DID have a very friendly, helpful HP blog that drew tons of comments.

                Have a great weekend, too! As you note, excellent weather today — and more of that expected tomorrow and Sunday.

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                • Triple eek on those two…of empty chairs making foo of themselves.
                  Expecting guests..ahh..here now and cooking starts..for someone so special to me my Son…have a great weekend as well Dave.

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                • Eastwood’s love of jazz got “Bird Lives!” made into a movie, and his love of Japanese samurai movies turned into a few decent Westerns and fewer good ones.

                  Wish his aesthetic side had more influence on his political side.

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                  • “Wish his aesthetic side had more influence on his political side” — that’s it exactly, jhNY! Clint Eastwood’s psyche has that very unusual dichotomy. Reminds me a bit of that discussion in another thread about right-wing Gov. Chris Christie’s love of liberal rocker Bruce Springsteen.

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                    • Perhaps I’m treading on dangerous ground here, given your location. But in my defense, I’m a transplant from somewhere else entirely–Tennessee– who has lived in NYC for over 30 years, and what has been obvious to me since I’ve been up here: New Jersey folk, many of them, have a very large inferiority complex regarding themselves in relation to New York City, and cover it up with abrasive boosterism of themselves. Bruce is a New Jersey guy who identifies with the state and who writes it up in song from time to time. The inhabitants identify with Bruce as one of their own who has enhanced their stature and reputation and helped to define them to the rest of the nation. Makes them feel proud, makes them feel better about themselves, further, through the compliment he has bestowed on them–he has never turned away from his roots unlike so many who left and never looked back. I think this stuff can mostly explain Christie’s affection for the Boss.

                      Maybe it’s like that old Gary Larsen cartoon re Ginger the dog, who in the course of several commands only heard “Ginger”. Perhaps the Joad stuff is just noise to Christie till the next mention of something to do with New Jersey comes along.

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                    • Very true, jhNY, about New Jersey’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis New York City. In many ways, NJ doesn’t measure up to NYC — often resulting in the boosterism you describe.

                      I’ve seen both places from both vantage points, having lived in NYC (various boroughs) for 15-plus years, worked in Manhattan for 30 years, and lived in NJ for 40-plus years. (Those various stints intersected; I’m not 85! 🙂 )

                      Yes, Bruce Springsteen identifies with NJ much more than other famous people from the state do or did: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Frank Sinatra, etc. That could indeed partly explain Chris Christie’s infatuation with “The Boss.” Love your Larson cartoon/Christie comparison. The guv is almost like a cartoon himself!

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          • True, generally– there are and were plenty of right wing types populating the country genre– Lee Greenwood is a most bathetic example.

            In the Nixon era, Roy Acuff, one of the greatest singers of all time in the genre, was a vocal supporter of the beleaguered president (see what I did there?).

            But then there’s the King of Country Music, aka The Daddy of Them All– the late great Ernest Tubb, most famous for “Walking the Floor Over You”. And he was very, very much a Texan too. A lifelong Democrat,he never forgot which party fed the poor in the Depression, and he chided fellow Opry members such as Acuff for having forgotten.

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            • Good for Ernest Tubb! Country music has economic struggling as part of its roots and ethos, so supporting Republican politicians seems rather counter-intuitive. But there’s always the racism thing, the hot-button-social-issues thing, and so on. I guess the Dixie Chicks were, ideologically, in the Ernest Tubb tradition.

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  8. Your mention of Upton Sinclair reminded me of another champion of worker’s rights, Mary Harris Jones, aka Mother Jones. If I’m remembering correctly, Sinclair based a character from his book “The Coal War” on her life as a union organiser.

    Mother Jones certainly did not have an established career as a writer, but her autobiography and “Mother Jones Speaks” were certainly literary gems (IMO). I really admire this woman. She took on captains of industry, bought-and-paid-for politicians, and other entities (real estate offices who owned the dilapidated houses where the workers stayed and charged them exorbitant rent for, high-priced grocery stores in mining towns where workers’ wives shopped, the pro-big business newspapers who refused to publish any article that could be construed as pro-union) that were all under the control of coal mine, manufacturing, steel, gas, and oil tycoons.

    Reading her words, you feel as if you are in the middle of the strikes, walk-outs, and the coal mines/factories/mills with the workers. You can feel the hopelessness of the children, children as young as 5 who worked 10+ hours a day in mills and textile plants rather than attend school and play like the children of the politicians and business leaders. Mother Jones told the stories of the coal miner families from Ohio to Pennsylvania, to Kentucky to West Virginia, along with descriptions of the bloodshed in the miner strikes and walk-outs in the Western states. Very powerful details.

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    • Superb comment, Anonymous!

      I’ve read a biography of Mother Jones, and have occasionally read the magazine named after her, but never read HER. Sounds like she had the writing knack to go along with her fighting spirit and belief in social justice.

      And I can see why Upton Sinclair based a character on her. Other novels — such as the great “Germinal” by Emile Zola and “The Grapes of Wrath” by Steinbeck — also feature characters with some Mother Jones in them.

      Greedy “captains of industry, bought-and-paid-for politicians,” exploitative landowners, biased-toward-big-business media, etc. — all well deserving of being opposed, then and now.

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      • I think what makes her so interesting to me is the way she broke out of the traditional roles of activist women. Women of her era were primarily steered towards religion/morality-based charity work (temperance, food for the poor, etc). The more radical women supported the suffrage movement. Not too many women dared to take on the labour movement.

        The financial interests of too many entities depended on the exploitation of workers, and policy makers were bought and paid for in order to maintain the status quo. Mother Jones not only had the impossible task of convincing workers to fight for their rights, but she had to deal with high-ranking pols and business leaders who didn’t want her “stirring up trouble.”

        It’s been a long time since I’ve been in high school, but I wonder if labour history is even taught in American schools anymore.

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        • Mother Jones was indeed an outlier — in a good way! Stellar description of her, and the daunting tasks she faced.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if labor history is taught less — and less well — in many schools these days. For one thing, the Common Core curriculum forced on countless school districts is pretty much corporate-driven, and corporations of course are no friends of labor.

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          • I’ve been reading about how Koch money is being pumped into public school districts and independent schools. And of course the questionable relationship that the Koch brothers have formed with the UNCF and HBCUs raises eyebrows as well. “Capitalism = good, government and regulations = bad” is the only lesson they want young children and college students to learn.

            I swear…reading Mother Jones makes me check my calendar to make sure I’m not living in the 1900s because a lot of what she stated about business, education, and politics still rings true in 2014.

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            • Yes, history is unfortunately repeating itself in various ways.

              As for the Koch brothers, there are almost no words to describe their greedy, selfish, anti-democratic efforts to manipulate everything to the far right with their billions of dollars.

              It’s so true what you said: “‘Capitalism = good, government and regulations = bad’ is the only lesson they [the Koch brothers and others — including those messing with America’s education system] want young children and college students to learn.”

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  9. They weren’t novelists, but I think Henry David Thoreau who wrote “On Walden Pond” and Rachel Carson who wrote “Silent Spring” were activists devoted to the conservation of our planet. They lived about a century apart, but both are notable activists of their times.

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    • Very true, Mary! Makes me wonder if a higher percentage of nonfiction authors than fiction authors are activists. I have no idea!

      When it comes to influential advocacy authors of nonfiction, one could add people like W.E.B. Du Bois and Betty Friedan to the two giants you mentioned.

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  10. Another activist author, though not often of fiction; John Ruskin, whose thoughts on political economy, borne largely out of his study of Gothic architecture and building methods and his distaste for industrial capitalism, found their most brief and pointed expression in his highly influential book, “Unto This Last”, in which he takes on the leading economic theorists and practices of the day, and finds them wanting and inhuman. He was the inheritor of a large family fortune, and devoted some portion of his wealth to the establishment of a farming community where his ideas might be put into practice: the Guild of St. George.

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    • Thanks, jhNY, for that interesting information about John Ruskin! It’s heartening when (on rare occasions) a wealthy heir tries to use at least a portion of that loot for some social good.

      Your mention of a farming community reminded me that Nathaniel Hawthorne, while not the most activist of authors, did live for a short time on a utopian farm — a not-satisfactory experience that inspired his novel “A Blithedale Romance.” (A good, not great book.)

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      • Ruskin was the heir to a large fortune made in the sherry trade, who not only founded the Guild of St. George, but also supplied incomes to a few of the pre-Raphaelites whose works he championed. Their later success owed itself in no small part to his promotion and support in the press– he was the most influential and widely-read art critic of his day. And he was also a champion of JMW Turner, when his fame was not entirely secure, so much so that Turner made him the executor of his estate.

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          • Had he not become over-agitated at the sight of Whistler’s nocturnes (though why, I can’t imagine, given his love of Turner), had he not called the man ‘a coxcomb who has flung a pot of paint in the public’s face’, or words thereabouts, he would not have been sued for libel by that gifted painter with a genius for self-promotion, and would not have been exposed as a virgin who could not bring himself to consummate his marriage– much to his great and enduring embarrassment. Perhaps now he would be remembered more for the things I have mentioned than for the humiliations he exposed himself to during that very public trial.

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  11. The 1930’s being a decade of alarming dislocation and economic insecurity for so many, grew its share of fixated artists who turned to political economic theory from more literary pursuits, if not always ably, then at least vigorously and with keen interest, but in one famous case with personally disastrous results: Ezra Pound.

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  12. In the sense that their political leanings cost them jobs and in some cases their very livelihoods, many left-leaners of the 30’s might be included, if screenwriting is considered a kind of fiction.

    And some of left-leaning, socialist or even communist types– fewer than we’d like to think today– refused to go along with HUAC and McCarthy et al, publicly and proudly– Hellman and Hammett, if I remember right, are two.

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    • Thanks for those two comments, jhNY! The Depression era certainly tipped a number of authors and other creative people into having more social concerns. I guess a much bigger surprise would be authors whose writing and lives WEREN’T affected in some way by that awful economy of that time — not to mention the continued rise of fascism that led to World War II. Can’t think of any authors offhand who acted like nothing was happening in the ’30s, but I suppose there were some…

      Yes, there were a number of brave writers who kept their integrity during the McCarthy era, including the two you mentioned. Non-writers in “the creative class” who also behaved admirably included Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, among others.

      I should know this, but what happened with Ezra Pound?

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      • Having made several pro-fascist radio broadcasts from his adopted home town of Rapallo (I think), Pound was captured by US forces in Italy in the waning days of WWII, and sent, eventually, to St. Elizabeth’s, a mental facility in or near Washington DC, where he was kept for many years. When he was finally released, he moved back to Italy, Venice this time, and lived out his remaining years in the company of Olga Rudge, a long-time companion– don’t recall if the two ever married.

        Reading Pound, you can see a man who was almost entirely concerned with the stuff of art and aesthetics earlier in life, who became very much affected by the wholesale slaughter and destruction of the First World War, but despaired of the economic and political systems’ capacity to put themselves on another footing, one less liable to cyclical war and cyclical fluctuations of economic activity. From there, as he would, he sought out some sort of way forward by searching the past of world culture for models. The collapse of the world’s financial system in the 30’s only exacerbated his frenzy and determination to determine the best way forward. He was, very much, his own man, who came to his own conclusions– and he sincerely wanted to help the entire world to a better way of going about things.

        Which he thought himself brilliant enough to work out, and toward which aim he wrote and studied and harangued and agitated. He came to be an admirer of Mussolini’s monetary policies for reasons almost entirely esoteric and entirely of his own making, the disastrous result of a kind of confirmation bias in which a monomaniacal crank can see signs of what he wishes to see in the most outrageous and outlandish of places.

        Political unrest, economic uncertainty personal and societal, the gathering clouds of another war, the relentless ahistorical dynamism of commerce and capitalism– all these things unhinged the man, deeply, diverted him from his art, and when it did not, permeated it and directed it to ends and themes he otherwise might not have pursued so vehemently and to his own destruction.

        None of which absolves him from the blistering and derisive impatience he had for those who might challenge his conclusions and obsessions, nor from charges of anti-Semitism, and even treason.

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        • Thanks, jhNY, for that terrific and thorough explanation of what Pound did, and why. Pro-fascist? Not good.

          I wonder if Pound really had mental illness, disgusting politics, or both?

          It’s unfortunate and potentially tragic when bright minds latch on to a simplistic ideology, or some charismatic, despotic leader.

          If I’m remembering right, there were also accusations against P.G. Wodehouse of alleged collaboration with the fascist side during World War II, but I believe he was cleared, or mostly cleared, of that.

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          • Wodehouse, during the fall of France, stood accused of doing far less, and mostly of behaving as a good guest might– full of praise for his hosts, as hosts, but not so far as to include their politics, which went, I believe unmentioned and certainly unpraised.

            As for Pound– there was, in fascism, a largish element of promised and swift re-order within society, which was a most horrifying aspect to put before the bankers. This re-ordering aspect, I think is what attracted Pound. Money lent at interest was at the heart of Pound’s loathing for the international economic order, at the time headed up by the Bank of England. Hitler and Mussolini each worked to wean their respective nations away from dependence on and participation in that system. Hitler, most revolutionarily, reconfigured Germany’s currency so that it was not on the gold standard, but rather, based on the potential of Germany’s capacity for growth. (Ironically, after the 1970’s, the US has valued its own currency via a similar methodology.)

            It is not often enough remembered today just how attractive to so many lost in listless economies the rise of Hitler’s Germany and its new way of going about nearly everything appeared. Of course, this largely was before Hitler had, for internal political reasons brought about by expectations of social re-order which were not quite to occur (he was, after all, in bed politically with the 1% atop German society, whose politicians imagined they could control him) sought to expand his nation’s outlook from its own problems to the possessions, territories and resources of others.

            In short, frenzied exasperation with the old order and outsized and misplaced hope in a spurious new order animated the man, to his ruin. I believe he was driven from his artistic concerns by real alarm over a possible future in which nothing but boom and bust and war could be depended upon to recur. Was Pound crazy? Yes, possibly, as to causes and cures– but not crazy to be alarmed.

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            • Yes, far less — as I should have made clear in my previous comment mentioning Wodehouse. Obviously, a lot of people — authors and otherwise — had to make extraordinarily tough choices to get by during WWII. If I’m remembering correctly, even the great Colette had to “go along to get along” in Vichy France when her Jewish husband was imprisoned (to increase the chances he would be spared death).

              Fascinating information about how the economic changes made and/or promised by fascism attracted Pound. Evil ideologies can certainly be cloaked in some positive or seemingly positive changes. Bankers, and their greed, do get the blood boiling — then and now.

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              • Though there were in most of the West a larger number of enthusiasts for socialism and even communism, we had our own homegrown fascists, as did Great Britain and France. The economic and social calamities of the Depression made a great many people eager for a way out of the status quo, and eager to consider new, even radical proposals of social and economic order as a means of ending the boom and bust cycles of the capitalist economic system, and as a means of avoiding periodic world wars. In some ways, the failure of that system to right itself, and the failure of most governments to do more than prop up the bankers and castigate the jobless as shiftless, spurred the rise of interest in and attraction to extreme politics of many kinds.

                In other words, fascination with communism and fascism in most places undergoing mass unemployment, bank failures, etc., was preceded by the protracted failure of more ordinary politics.

                And this was an era in which most people believed that government could make real and necessary changes for the general welfare of the citizenry. The trouble was– sorting out which sort was up to the task. Many citizens, ordinary as could be, took it upon themselves to try to figure out the best next step. Artists of all stripes also. Some of the steps under consideration proved to mis-steps. And two led to a deep hole, and millions were led there, to a mass grave, by the beneficiaries and idols of personality cults of the sort that only mass media and control of same can produce. Easy to see today; not so easily seen at the time.

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                • Well said, jhNY! Yes, severe economic conditions can push people to the left or right as “mainstream” governments run things badly for the vast majority of their citizens. And, yes, the media — whether controlled by the government or by corporations — is often part of the problem. And, yes number three, bankers always seem to get propped up or bailed out in some way or another (a rare exception was in Iceland after the current “Great Recession” hit).

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      • Even Wodehouse was not immune to expressing his distaste for the politics of that period, as exemplified by his character Reginald Spode, who swans about in uniforms of his own design as head of some sort of legion or other.

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  13. First – the elephant in the room: Has any novelist been more active in promoting a political philosophy through their literature than Ayn Rand? I read “Fountainhead” as a youth and was quite taken with it, but by the time I tried “Atlas Shrugged”, many years later, I couldn’t get past page 100 of this manifesto that has been adopted by so many of today’s right wing libertarians.

    I have read quite a bit of American Literature written between the wars, during the 1920’s and 1930. So many of the great writers of that period were quite activist in promoting their socialist philosophies – even bordering on pro-Soviet communism. In this genre, John Dos Passos (USA Trilogy), Theodore Dreiser (American Tragedy, Sister Carrie), and John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath) are some of the novels espousing these philosophies. Many of these novelists later became jaded with the resulting authoritarian communism, and some (Dos Passos) later reversed their socialist philosophies altogether, but that uncertain and tumultuous period of American history in the 1930’s was filled with literature promoting a fair break for the common man.

    Of course the authoritarian regime of Stalin resulted in many of these idealistic activist writers to denounce the communistic aspects of their activism. One of the best anti-Stalinist books I’ve read is Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” – a riveting account of the madness of the reality of Stalin’s communism.

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    • Elephant indeed! Many a Republican does love Ayn Rand’s philosophy. 🙂

      But seriously, drb19810, you mentioned an important member of the roster of authors who were/are very activist via their writings. I don’t feel qualified to say much about Ayn Rand, because I’ve never read her, but of course I’ve heard a lot about her, her books, her influence, etc. Thanks for relating your experiences with two of Rand’s novels.

      You’re absolutely right that there were a number of left-leaning American authors during those two pre-WWII decades. Some were activists via their books, and some were also activists outside their books. Also, as you allude to, some stayed liberal and some didn’t — with revelations of Stalin’s mass-murdering brutality having something do with that, as you note as well.

      Steinbeck was sort of a hybrid; he basically remained liberal into his older years yet supported the Vietnam War (partly because he had a soldier son in Vietnam and partly because the author was friendly with President Johnson).

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      • drb19810, I just finished E.L. Doctorow’s “World’s Fair,” which you had recommended. An absorbing, sobering, elegiac, and nostalgic coming-of-age novel. I found it interesting to wonder how much was fiction and how much was memoir, because the book seemed very memoir-like. The novel’s boy protagonist and his parents even have the same first names as Doctorow and his real-life parents.

        Thanks again for suggesting “World’s Fair,” which I’ll be mentioning in my next column!

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        • Great – I eagerly look forward to you next column, trying to anticipate the topic. One does wonder how much is fiction and how much is memoir – I remember reading that Doctorow described it as “fictional memory”. Regardless, it is a poignant story. The character sees himself as a “typical American boy”, and I feel certain that that is how Doctorow himself thinks of his boyhood – maybe that’s what makes it, in my opinion, so universal. I, too, think of my childhood as being that of a typical American boy (recognizing that each typical American boy is unique). In fact, one of my favorite parts of the book was reading young Edgar’s essay on that topic – written in the voice of a nine year old – especially compared with the rest of his remembrances being written in the adult voice.
          I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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          • Well said, drb19810 — especially your great line about how “each typical American boy is unique”! And, as you note, “World’s Fair” can make a male reader think of his own boyhood, even though every boy obviously doesn’t have an urban Jewish background.

            Novels often suggest blog-post themes to me, and I thought of one only a few pages into “World’s Fair.” 🙂 Hope to post it this Sunday evening.

            Doctorow’s phrase “fictional memory” is quite evocative. Whether one is writing a novel, a memoir, or some hybrid of the two, memory has to be partly fictionalized because one can’t remember conversations verbatim or exactly how one thought decades before.

            “World’s Fair” definitely offers a poignant story, and, like you, I loved seeing the honorable-mention-winning essay written in Edgar’s boyhood voice — an essay, of course, that won him that free (second) visit to the World’s Fair.

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      • I have read “The Fountainhead”, “Atlas Shrugged”, and “We The Living” by Ayn Rand. She is an extraordinary writer, and I must say that I enjoyed her works. However, I failed to adopt her conservative philosophy, if that is what you would call her philosophy. What I absorbed from her books that I’ve read is that we must stand up for our principles, no matter what the cost. But above all else, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” were extraordinary love stories to me. Call me shallow if you must. I loved the romance between Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden much more than the romance she had with the high-minded John Galt. The same is true for “The Fountainhead”. The relationship between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon was much more compelling than Howard Roark’s principles. 🙂

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        • Mary, thanks for your eloquent and insightful comment! As I mentioned to drb19810 earlier in this thread, I haven’t tried Ayn Rand’s work. But I can see how novels a reader might not agree with can still have compelling elements for a reader.

          I’d be interested in seeing what drb19810 might have to say in reply to your comment!

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          • I was a freshman in college when I read “The Fountainhead”- that was almost 40 years ago, so my recollection is a bit fuzzy. I knew nothing about Ayn Rand or her “Objectivist” philosophy when I read it – it was recommended by a friend (a girlfriend, in fact). You are correct that the romantic aspect of the novel was compelling, but I was more taken with the heroic architect Howard Roark and his refusal to compromise his artistic integrity. I assumed at the time that Roark was based on Frank Lloyd Wright, but in retrospect, I think Ludwig Meis van der Rohe was the more fitting model, stressing function above unnecessary aesthetic frills.

            It wasn’t until later that I learned more about Ayn Rand as a philosophic activist. I recall viewing and reading about Objectivism, and seeing some Rand interviews on TV and thinking “Wow, she’s a real jerk”. More recently, in the last 10 years, her name started coming up more and more from right wing politicians. Paul Ryan has often referenced her philosophy, and Rand Paul was named after her, for goodness sake. At that point I thought I should really read “Atlas Shrugged” to get a better understanding of Objectivism. I started reading it – from the beginning, I found it repetitive and plodding. The book is long – longer than “War and Peace” I believe, and I frankly just didn’t have the patience to continue. I do not often abandon a book I’ve begun – in fact; this is the only one I can remember in the last five years that I’ve put down (although there are others that I probably should have abandoned). Maybe it was just my mood at the time, or my understanding of Objectivism as a bunch of hooey, so I can’t say I gave the novel a fair reading.

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              • I appreciate your observation, and to quote J.J. McGrath, who posted above, “I suspect more-successful pieces are composed when their authors work on comparatively unconscious levels and less-successful pieces are composed when their authors work on comparatively conscious levels, meaning it may be best that a writer’s left hand doesn’t know what his or her right hand is doing.”

                I think, perhaps, the novel didn’t work for me because she seemed less interested in constructing a novel than in espousing a philosophy – and that came through. I think the earlier written “Fountainhead” was a better novel due to the fact that Rand’s right hand was less dependent on her left hand in that work. In my original post, I referred to “Atlas Shrugged” as a manifesto. But again, I approached the novel with a bias. I didn’t finish it, so I don’t feel qualified to evaluate it as a piece of literature. Clearly it worked on that level for Mary Harris. Kudos to her for sticking with a very long tome. I feel like I should make another attempt, but that will have to wait until I retire.

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                • drb19810, thanks for your further interesting thoughts on Ayn Rand!

                  Yes, certain novels can seem more polemic to some people than to others. For instance, Emile Zola has been accused of taking a theme he wants to expound on (art, alcoholism, mining/labor, retailing, etc.) and then constructing novels around those themes. But I still found the novels quite absorbing. 🙂

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                  • Dave read fountainhead when freshman in college or even earlier in my teens and that was the only one i have read of Rand. Now knowing what she symbolizes to Paul Ryan I am not inclined to read another.

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                    • I hear you, bebe. While most literature lovers read at least some novels by authors they ideologically disagree with, we don’t have time to read everything. So I can understand avoiding an author who is really vile, or has inspired others (such as Paul Ryan) to act really vile. I’ve avoided such authors myself at times.

                      One thing that really gets me about Paul Ryan is that, after his father died young, he used government funding (Social Security?) to help pay for college. Now, he wants to slash socially helpful government funding of all kinds for the people who came later. It’s the Clarence Thomas syndrome; Thomas benefited from affirmative action and now opposes it. Selfish hypocrites.

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                  • Well, first of all, with this post, I’ve now said as much about Ayn Rand as I ever want to say, but I still contend that the decision not to read a certain work of literature (or non-fiction), should not be based on the author’s politics and beliefs per se, in fact – perhaps. for me, the opposite is true. I absolutely understand what jhNY is saying in his sixteen word review – that “Atlas Shrugged” is an inferior piece of literature, and my limited exposure to that work confirms his review. Perhaps if this book was more eloquently written, I would have stuck with it. But my eagerness to tackle this novel was precisely based upon that fact that I find her philosophy disagreeable. which therefore made it all the more desirable to attempt to read it. I don’t agree with Marxism, but I do hope to read “Das Kapital” some day. I certainly believe that Adolf Hitler was a monster, but that makes me all the more curious to read “Mein Kampf.” All of these works have had a very influential effect on history and humanity. In other words, I want to experience that gamut of human thought and experience – even if it is just to better “know thine enemy”. Of course, as I’ve previously posted, there are limits – I do not have any desire to read Glenn Beck – but even there, if I came across one of his books, I might pick it up just to get an insight into his twisted take – which has so influenced modern day politics

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                    • VERY eloquent comment, drb19810, and what you say makes a lot of sense.

                      I see-saw on this issue. Since there is only time to read “X” number of novels, sometimes the “tiebreaker” for me is avoid certain authors whose views I strongly disagree with. But I also read many books/authors that/who are not my ideological cup of tea if they still have merit — and I do this for the reasons you state: to experience other points of view, see what an influential work is all about, and so on. That means I’ve read and somewhat or very much enjoyed a number of books by right-wing authors, and books with racist, sexist, or homophobic elements. (For instance, I’m currently reading a Graham Greene short-story collection in which one of the tales has several excruciating uses of the “N” word, but overall the collection is great.)

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                    • In theory, I agree with your reading intentions. Were there world enough and time– mostly time. It would be a marvelous thing, to have read the books which have influenced so many, however wrongheaded, sometimes, they might be. So as to see things from the other fellow’s point of view, etc.

                      My problem: real literature by great authors whose works to date are unfamiliar to me. If I read as fast as I can, and live another 30 years with all my wits, or most of them intact, I will have less than enough time to read everything I know I’m missing, to say nothing of literature that I know nothing about. I’d have to be a double-Methuselah to find ten minutes for Glen Beck.

                      I have read several books whose authors and I would not see eye to eye on many issues. And I will do so.

                      What I won’t, in all likelihood, do: read a badly written book filled with characters spouting opinions I despise. Or read a badly written book filled with characters saying stupidly agreeable things.

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                    • Well said jhNY – I I agree with you with respect to litererature. I think my comments got a bit off topic – and apply more to non-fiction quest for knowledge as opposed to appreciation of literature, which is what this site is all about.

                      Liked by 1 person

  14. Surprised, though it is early, to see no mention of Henry David Thoreau, whose opposition to slavery was lifelong. He was, perhaps less famously, one of the most vocal protesters against “Polk’s War”, the Mexican-American War, which he saw, rightly, among other things, as an aggression to vouchsafe and extend the territorial range of slavery. He was jailed overnight for his refusal to pay taxes because of that war, and because of the US government’s slavery policies in general.

    There are some accounts of this event that have Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher, author, friend and mentor, coming to visit him in jail. The story may be apocryphal, but it is delightful:

    Emerson asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?”

    Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent addition to this discussion, jhNY! I think of the admirable Thoreau more as a nonfiction writer (along with being an abolitionist and early environmentalist). But of course he was also a poet — and may have written a novel or three for all I know.

      What a circle Thoreau moved in! Emerson, the Alcotts (daughter and father), Hawthorne, etc. And I LOVE that exchange, mythical or otherwise, you recount between Thoreau and Emerson. The latter of course, was more a thinker than an activist, though he did do some public anti-slavery work.

      Like

      • See the problems alliteration can cause? Alliteration allures alarmingly always.

        The headline sez “Activist Authors”, and I fell hard, neglecting, as I should not have done, the permanent sub-head “novels and other fictional works”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Admirable alliteration yourself!

          My columns tend to focus on fiction partly because that gives me some parameters/limits to the topics I write about. But I’m always happy to discuss nonfiction authors and nonfiction books. Heck, I partly focused on nonfiction in my previous column. 🙂

          Like

  15. Here in Manhattan, the road entry to Central Park at 59th Street and the Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave,) hosts an equestrian statue of the Cuban revolutionary martyr Jose Marti, which upon closer inspection seems more than a bit odd. Seems the rider, Marti, is frozen in the act of being fatally shot off his horse by Spanish troops, against whom he led an ill-advised and ill-fated two man cavalry charge– he being one of the two. It was his first and only appearance on a battlefield, and at least according to some accounts, also the first time he ever rode a horse.

    A political activist for decades in and out of Cuba, Marti was a playwright, polemicist and translator (to and from English),but most famous, insofar as his literary activities are concerned, as an early exemplar of the modernist movement in Spanish language poetry.

    ps It was many years of occasionally happening by that statue returning from band rehearsal at night by cab before I noticed it as anything beyond another man on horseback…and New York City has quite a few. But once I did, finding out why the man was posed as he was took little effort. Sort of amazing.

    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a great description of that fascinating statue, jhNY! Thanks! I’ve passed that intersection countless times, but never really focused on the statue. Also, I’ve always thought of Jose Marti more as a revolutionary than a literary writer, but obviously he was both. I suppose he’s in that rare category also inhabited by people like Czech dissident writer (and later Czech Republic president) Vaclav Havel.

      Of course, a number of revolutionaries have been NONfiction writers — Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Emma Goldman, and others.

      Like

  16. Thoughts on a couple of 19th century writers and activism:

    Dickens wrote:
    “I have a great faith in the poor. To the best of my ability I always endeavor to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition, in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming.”

    Works (that I have read) like Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Bleak House uphold this as well as others.

    Dickens has influenced writers like Orwell (who I think can be portrayed as a sort of activist) and the late historian, Howard Zinn.

    Backing up chronologically, there is William Blake, ususally associated with “mysticism,” which implies a detachment from social causes. However, his poem, “London,” reveals a kind of social conscience.

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infants cry of fear,
    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    How the Chimney-sweepers cry
    Every blackning Church appalls,
    And the hapless Soldiers sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls

    But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlots curse
    Blasts the new-born Infants tear
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

    This seems a more general lament for humankind than a call to action. Still, it is recognition.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thoughts on a couple of 19th century writers and activism:
    Dickens wrote:

    “I have a great faith in the poor. To the best of my ability I always endeavor to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition, in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming.”

    Works (that I have read) like Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Bleak House uphold this as well as others.
    Dickens has influenced writers like Orwell (who I think can be portrayed as a sort of activist) and the late historian, Howard Zinn.

    Backing up chronologically, there is William Blake, usually associated with “mysticism,” which implies a detachment from social causes. However, his poem, “London,” reveals a kind of social conscience:
    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infants cry of fear,
    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    How the Chimney-sweepers cry
    Every blackning Church appalls,
    And the hapless Soldiers sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls

    But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlots curse
    Blasts the new-born Infants tear
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

    This seems a more general lament for humankind than a call to action. Still, it is recognition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe, thanks for the very interesting comment, which somehow got duplicated. When it comes to technical issues, blogs can be strange places on occasion. 🙂

      Charles Dickens definitely had a strong social conscience, in and out of his writing. I wish today’s Republicans would all read the Dickens quote you posted, though of course they would ignore it and perhaps even claim that the English author was born in Kenya…

      I agree that George Orwell was also an activist — like Dickens, in and out of his writing. Orwell leaned toward socialism for a while and then became anti-authoritarian. But I don’t think he ever became a conservative, as some conservatives like to think. He was an equal-opportunity critic of despotism on the left and the right.

      Last but not least, thanks for those powerful, humanitarian, melancholy verses from William Blake. Great reading.

      Like

  18. Hi Dave, I know I have a tendency to keep bringing up certain authors many times, but I’d like to mention Barbara Kingsolver again, who I believe to be an activist for many issues, including social change and the environment. I’m currently reading “Prodigal Summer” and am loving it. There are so many different issues she brings up, such as animal rights, humans and our place in different ecosystems, organic faming and the use of pesticides, predators, the ethics of growing tobacco, etc. Just her descriptions of nature are beautifully written. I’m really enjoying the battle between Garnett and Nannie, as it adds an element of humor to the book. I can’t wait to find out how it all comes together at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kat Lib! I definitely should have included Barbara Kingsolver. 🙂 “Prodigal Summer” is indeed a fantastic book with great characters and all the environmental themes you so aptly mentioned. I was very satisfied — kind of awed, actually — with how well Kingsolver pulled everything together at the end of that novel.

      Having “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Prodigal Summer” published within three years — talk about an author being at a creative peak!

      As you know, Kingsolver’s most recent novel — “Flight Behavior” — is a compelling book that addresses the horrible affects of climate change, in addition to its absorbing story about a frustrated wife.

      I will be mentioning two Kingsolver novels in my next column, which I wrote a draft of yesterday.

      Like

      • I’m planning to pick up “Flight Behavior” the next time I get to the library, along with some of her earlier novels and collections of essays.

        I also meant to include Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a writer who suffered much over many years for his criticism of Stalin, Soviet totalitarianism, and the forced-labor camps in the Gulag. I only read a couple of his books, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “Cancer Ward,” many years ago, but I just thought he should be mentioned.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Kat Lib, for the follow-up comment! As we discussed, “Flight Behavior” isn’t as good as “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Prodigal Summer” (few books from the past few decades are), but it’s still excellent.

          As is the case with many authors, Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novels (“The Bean Trees,” “Animal Dreams,” and “Pigs in Heaven”) are not as multilayered as her later ones. I still enjoyed them a lot, though; I’ve never read anything of Kingsolver’s I didn’t like!

          Yes, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is very much worth mentioning. I still have my copy of “The Gulag Archipelago” I read in college; that book is devastating.

          Like

          • Dave. I just finished “Prodigal Summer” and I admit to being blown away by it. I was reading the final chapters so quickly that I’ll have to go back and savor them more fully. What an amazing writer!

            I also wanted to say that I was reading one of your comments above about those who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and you mentioned the great Pete Seeger, one of my personal heroes. Not too long ago, there was a memorial concert for Pete and Toshi that was live-streamed from Lincoln Center in the Park. There were so many artists I loved, such as Judy Collins and Holly Near, but many more that I wasn’t aware of (although I’ve always tried to keep up with the folkie scene). I love listening to good music, and I’m just as eclectic in my music tastes as I am in the books I love to read. At any rate, Pete Seeger knew how to write a great song, and he was an activist for more causes than I can possibly mention.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Kat Lib, great that you enjoyed the great “Prodigal Summer” so much! Bringing together seemingly separate threads at the end was quite a literary feat by Kingsolver. I know what you mean about racing toward and through a terrific novel’s conclusion and then wanting to go back to enjoy things more slowly.

              I agree with you about Pete Seeger — what a great songwriter and person, with more integrity than 100 politicians combined. (Well, there are a tiny number of politicians I admire. 🙂 ) As I might have mentioned to you before, I saw Seeger in concert three times, and got to meet him briefly after one of those performances. So friendly, with no egotism.

              Holly Near is admirable, too, and, as you probably know, one of her “degrees of separation” from Seeger is her having performed with Ronnie Gilbert, who was with Seeger in The Weavers.

              Like

              • I’d seen a PBS documentary about Woody Guthrie years ago on PBS, and one of the songs that was sung was “Pastures of Plenty” sung by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert. I loved it and immediately pledged money to buy the album that this song was on. Flash forward a few years ago, I was lamenting no longer having that album, and lo and behold, I found a youtube clip of it. This led me to find out that Holly and Ronnie had recorded a live album together that I was able to buy as a CD. It’s been on rotation on my car CD player many times. I’ve also read that there was a live concert done called H.A.R.P, (Holly, Arlo, Ronnie, Pete) that I have yet to find, but Arlo is another favorite of mine (he reminds me very much of my brother). I can’t go through a Thanksgiving Day without listening to “Alice’s Restaurant.”

                Liked by 1 person

                • Kat Lib, your comment has made me want watch that YouTube clip of Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert, which I’ll do after posting this reply! Wonderful that you have a CD of those two performing together. I have one LP by Near — “Fire in the Rain,” which I’m guessing dates back to the early ’80s. (My aged albums are still unpacked from my June move.)

                  That live H.A.R.P. concert must be amazing! Hope you find it. I saw Arlo Guthrie once — I think at one of Pete Seeger’s Clearwater festivals.

                  Like

                  • Their voices are so wonderful together. There was a documentary about The
                    Weathers called, I think, “Wasn’t That a Time” and they (Holly and Ronnie) sung their first song together on air about missing women in South America, and it was breathtaking. Sorry to go on so long but I don’t have many friends these days who understand my love for this music

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Yes, the voices of Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near do mesh wonderfully, and I love the intergenerational nature of their musical partnership — with Gilbert being 23 years older.

                      I remember that excellent Weavers documentary, which was so poignant because of the camaraderie among the group, because of member Lee Hays being in ill health, and because of the thought of how McCarthyism doomed the group when it was so popular in the early ’50s. Of course, Seeger was a bit uncomfortable with that (brief) mainstream popularity!

                      Like

                    • Dave, I was reading through these comments today, and I’m laughing about the way I said The Weathers” as opposed to “The Weavers. My only defense is that I’m fascinated by weather and climate change and watch “The Weather Channel” quite often. :}

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Not a problem, Kat Lib! We all do stuff like that, and it’s nice to chuckle when it happens. Also, the reason why it happened makes sense to me!

                      Reminds me that Bob Dylan sort of sang, “You don’t need a Weaverman to know which way the wind blows.” 🙂

                      Like

              • Pete Seeger also wrote new lyrics and was instrumental in popularizing “We Shall Overcome”, the song that embodied so much of the hope of the civil rights movement.

                His banjo, with its added frets, was an invention of his– made to facilitate easier vocal accompaniment on the instrument.

                And the Weavers, with the success of ‘Goodnight Irene’ (a huge hit in the early 50’s) made Leadbelly’s last days a little easier, money-wise.

                A true American original, and a national treasure all his long life.

                Somewhere among the shelves of lp’s, I’ve got an early Seeger, on the fabulous Stinson label.

                Liked by 1 person

                • All true, jhNY! Glad you’re a Pete Seeger fan, too! There are few Americans (if any) who are more admirable figures in the history of music. And, as your examples show, Seeger had much more impact on popular culture than many people realize or that right-wingers would acknowledge. He’s a link back to Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie (who he performed with), and many others, and of course influenced so many musicians who followed — folk singers, The Byrds, Springsteen, etc. Not to mention his civil rights contributions — the version of “We Shall Overcome,” as you noted, and his personal activism in that movement. And his environmentalism relating to the Hudson River. And…

                  Like

  19. Nice essay Dave ,I especially like the inclusion of the great Dorothy Parker who I think is better remembered for her scathing wit than her genuine left wing bona fides. Interesting also trying to determine where the demarcation is between the literary and the activism . I’d like to submit a great writer whom I think has been unfairly regulated to the annals of history but is not read nearly as widely as deserved . Voltaire it could be argued was the first to use his pen to espouse various causes from the undue power exercised by the alliance of church and state ,torture , superstition, capitol punishment and war. His long life, he lived till 84, could be said to embody the French Enlightenment and it could be argued that many of the positive changes in the civic body of Europe were in no small part the result of his tireless advocacy. While he took up a variety of specific causes in the larger scheme of things it was his opposition to ignorance as it was exploited by church and State that most stands out, his battle cry with which he ended many of his missives later in life Ecrasez L’ infame translates as destroy the infamous thing. The historian and philosopher Will Durant has made the case for the sage of Fernery as being the greatest wit and one of the most well eclectic personalities to have ever breathed, any of the many first rate biographies available pretty much confirms that judgment . It should also be pointed out that his advocacy often but his personal liberty at risk, I imagine that will be the theme of a few comments you get here dealing with those who wrote for justice in Eastern Europe and the old USSR .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donny!

      I myself knew little about Dorothy Parker’s political activism when I first read her funny poems and interesting short stories.

      Great mention of Voltaire, whose “Candide” is incredibly readable for an 18th-century work. I believe his activism even got him a year in the Bastille at one point. Your thoughts on Voltaire were superb, and very informative.

      As for activist authors behind the old “Iron Curtain” — absolutely! Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is certainly one example.

      Like

  20. Dave, it’s been awhile since I’ve contributed anything so I’m glad I can finally think of something – “Heart and Science” by my old favorite, Wilkie Collins. You’ve mentioned some authors I admire for writing about certain causes I believe strongly in, but as an animal lover, if I weren’t already a Collins fan I would be one just for his writing a book that takes on vivisection, and in 1883 no less!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Lily! Very glad to hear from you again! I’m realizing to my chagrin that my post was lacking in animal-rights-activist authors — so I especially appreciate your terrific comment. (In my newspaper column, I’ve been addressing problems with my town’s animal shelter, so animal rights should have been at the top of my mind!)

      I had no idea that the great Wilkie Collins wrote a book like “Heart and Science,” and, as you say, it’s amazing that he did that in 1883. It’s like finding a 19th-century vegetarian; they existed, but not in great numbers.

      I haven’t read it, but I believe Richard Adams’ “The Plague Dogs” is a 20th-century example of an animal-rights novel.

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