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Good Summer Reading on the Left

The small press items that slip by but should not, offer a lot of wonderful materials this summer and perhaps for me in particular, perhaps, plucking the chords of memory. More important, they offer a glimpse of leftwing writers hard at work.

Andy Piascik’s deft In Motion (New York: Sunshine Publishers, 298pp, $29.95) had me when a lead character’s sister is writing red hot essays for Radical America, the magazine that I created some fifty years ago for the New Left. The thrill was vicarious and not only because merely literary: this novel takes place in 1976, somewhere in near post-industrial Connecticut, a few years after I left the editorial reins in other, steadier hands.

The younger sister happens to be our lead protagonist, and if it is not entirely rare for a male writer to take on a female lead, then it remains and should remain a daunting task. She and her new boyfriend are in the summer between high school and college—another reason this is a good summer novel—and soon enough drift into an erotic relationship as well.  Raised in the respectable, prosperous classes, she discovers something compelling in the compulsively autodidact lad who is still working at a broken-down factory, just as the summer begins. She has had more sexual experience, and this contrast presents another set of interesting complexities.

Piascik, who blogs on labor and left history that he researches with a passion that reminds us of the novel’s own lad, has a fine eye for the detail and ear for the dialogue between the lovers and also various family members. The talk around the sex action, in particular, seems to hit the right notes (and places), both realistic and sensitive. The two are definitely more mature or worldly than my peers (just a generation older) at their age, and I first imagined them readily overcoming their fears and the personal complications—but of course they do not. There are no easily resolutions here, but the figures are drawn to the life, the story well told. We should not ask for more.

The Whiskey Rebellion, a forty page mini-comic written by Douglas Harvey and drawn by Michael Lee Heron (Parker, Colorado: Outskirts Press, $13.95) falls into the more distant category of colonial history recovered. Few Americans, and that includes historians, actually know much about the uprising that took place in the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania shortly after the Revolutionary War, in 1781. John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed was still a small boy in Massachusetts, decades from wandering the frontier, seeking peaceful means of community life between white settlers and Native Americans, when this struggle was unfolding with tragic consequences. Some of the settlers, religious pacifists among them, battled against the land speculators, whose ranks notoriously included Benjamin Franklin. The tax on whiskey was intended to squeeze the frontier for the sake of investors and the emerging ruling clique for whom the Constitution served to protect (their) property.

The Whiskey Rebellion is only a quarter of the full narrative projected, but is full of details, sometimes a bit overwhelming in the cast of characters and the fast-moving action. The rebellion in question would finally be put down, but the story of whites and their Indian allies fighting against the new national government is stirring, and badly needed. It’s a good beginning for a historical comic.

Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life (PO Box 28022, Philadelphia PA 19131, $6 per issue) offers this reviewer more familiar editorial turf. Noel Ignatiev, the editor, is one more New Left refugee, a dignitary (if that is the word) of such post-1970 journals as Urgent Tasks, published by the largely forgotten Sojourner Truth Organization, and Race Traitor, a more recent entry now also slipping into memory. Grappling with the connections of race and class has been Ignatiev’s calling, and Hard Crackers takes on the job for another round. Actually, this time around is rather more literary, like the lead piece, a writer being jailed in Manhattan during 2014-15, sharing  prison cells with men arrested for such high crimes as selling loose cigarettes. The replacement of one New York City mayor by another and the arrival of announced great police reforms has made scarce impression on the prisoners because…incarceration feels a lot the same. With this exception: Black cops, friendlier than white cops, are less fearful of talking about The System these days, at least out of sight of their supervisors.

The rest of Hard Crackers feels a lot like this. Another contributor notes that miseries in the South are often cushioned by closer extended family relations. But the de-industrialized class, most especially the African-American portion, faces life deteriorating with the economy, life in and out of jail, with drugs and alcohol the sources of psychic relief.  This Spring, 2016, issue closes with the cogent phrase, “American society is a time-bomb” and the still amazing quotation from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (“if god wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years’ unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn from the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”) as talk of revolution.  Hard Crackers was a favorite song of Union soldiers, along with “John Brown’s Body.” Whatever their failings, they seized human property and made it freer, if not free. Reader, my great great grandfather the Abolitionist, marching with Sherman through Georgia and delivering a decisive blow against the slave system, was surely one of the singers. The words “His Truth Is Marching On” still ring with me.

 

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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