Friday, January 2, 2009

Alex Ross versus Tom Wolfe on Bernstein

In his December 15 New Yorker article, “The Legend of Lenny” (cited and linked in a posting below), Alex Ross criticized Tom Wolfe’s 1973 "Radical Chic" characterization of Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia as socialites patronizingly dabbling in the civil rights movement. (The occasion was a party held by Felicia Bernstein to support the Black Panthers’ defense fund.) Ross goes on to write about the FBI’s criminal Counter Intelligence Program attempt to exploit the issue and destroy Bernstein and his wife Felicia’s reputation. In a letter published in the January 5, 2009 New Yorker, Re: The Legend of Lenny , Wolfe responds to Ross by reiterating his claim that the episode was “hysterically funny.” Ross in reply writes that “A ‘sensitive reassessment’ is needed not least because of the damage that ‘Radical Chic’ did to Bernstein’s image.”

Ross is indeed right: Bernstein was terribly hurt by Wolfe’s mean-spirited attack and the subsequent FBI harassment, and right in calling for a reassessment of Bernstein’s record and beliefs. Such a reassessment will be helped by my forthcoming book, which documents Bernstein’s activities in support of the civil rights of black Americans that were underway back in the 1940s, when such activities could fill one’s FBI dossier – which is exactly what happened in Bernstein’s case. Nor were those activities the end of Bernstein’s engagement with the civil rights movement. In 1965, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to greet those who had marched from Selma to Montgomery, knowing full well that that he could have been in the cross hairs of a Klansman’s rifle telescope sight. Nor were his activities extra-mural: one should pay some attention to Bernstein’s 1977 “Songfest” where he sets music to, among others, Langston Hughes’ “I Too, Sing America” and June Jordon’s “Okay, ‘Negroes” -- both angry statements about racial discrimination. Nor does the record stop there. Bernstein was outspoken in support of civil rights in the 1988 election when, it will be remembered, the Republicans were running their racist "Willy Horton" television ad and attacking American liberalism. Bernstein's defense of the liberal record on civil rights was, and remains, stirring.

In short, Bernstein was no dabbler: he was committed to the protection and advancement of civil rights and civil liberties all his life.

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