Soul on Ice
by Eldridge Cleaver
(McGraw-Hill, $5.95)
The jacket of Eldridge Cleaver’s autobiographical book Soul on Ice contains an ironic and sobering statement: “He was educated in the Negro ghetto of Los Angeles and at the California state prisons of San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad.” We are told other things — that he was born in Little Rock thirty-three years ago, that he is even now on parole, that in the San Francisco area he is Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, that he is a staff writer for Ramparts — but nothing quite so startling and shrewd as the facts of his “educational experience,” to use the twentieth-century expression for schooling.
As a matter of fact, the words we summon to describe a man like Mr. Cleaver tell more about “us” than him. We consider him uneducated, criminal, “culturally deprived,” and “culturally disadvantaged,” and certainly we have to raise our eyebrows when we read that he was educated in a ghetto, in three prisons. Edgar Friedenberg and John Holt may claim that our schools are prisonlike, full of narrow-minded, pedantic tyrants who want to turn every boy and girl into an unquestioning American robot, prepared to trample over any adversary and crush any inconvenient critic or dissenter. But they are romantics, iconoclasts, writers — or if we feel particularly threatened by them, poets. In our hearts we know that right or wrong there is a system, with power, authority, prestige, and money to offer, and every child must learn that, and then learn how to survive, to make it in the system. Schools teach them how. Schools prepare them for college and graduate programs and diplomas and jobs and success. And what precisely do Messrs. Friedenberg and Holt suggest in place of our schools? Schemes that undermine the whole social and economic system? Values that Max Weber would have to comprehend as against his “protestant ethic,” against his “spirit of capitalism”?
So, Eldridge Cleaver needs our “help,” needs to be really educated, needs to be reminded that his book is full of too much (for whom?) anger and outrage and scorn. He also has to realize that prisons do the mind in. The prisoner becomes sullen, taciturn, suspicious, and out of tune with the world — which, of course, offers us all freedom. The prisoner falls prey to apocalyptic thinking. He is dead, or near-dead, while others are alive. He is totally weak and dependent, while others are healthy and able to do more or less what they want — or rather, have come to want as properly loyal and cautious citizens, or as the British put it, subjects.
A good deal of Soul on Ice was written in California’s prisons. (After having been shot in the leg, Mr. Cleaver is, at this writing, back in jail.) All the essays deal with racial hurt, racial struggle, and racial pride. Mr. Cleaver is a black man, and he is not going to let either himself or anyone else forget that fact — in case it is possible for an American of either race to do so. Ralph Ellison and even James Baldwin want above all to be writers, and Cleaver says no, that is impossible, that is foolish, and certainly that is wrong.
I am with Ellison and Baldwin all the way, but the author of a book with the stark, unrelenting title Soul on Ice would expect that of me, a reasonably unharassed white middleclass professional man who, really, in many ways had it made from birth. I don t at all like the nasty, spiteful way Mr. Cleaver writes off Invisible Man or Another Country. I don’t like the arrogant and cruel way he talks about Baldwin’s life and his personality. I don’t like the way he lumps white men, all of them, indiscriminately together, and I’m sick and tired of a rhetoric that takes three hundred years of complicated, tortured American history and throws it in the face of every single white man alive today. Mr. Cleaver rightly wants to be seen for the particular man he is, and I don’t see why he should by the same token confuse the twentieth-century traveling salesman with the seventeenthcentury slave trader. If he wants us to understand American history, and in fact see its economic and political continuities, all well and good; but it is really stupid to tell today’s white people that they caused what in fact gradually and terribly happened. What can anyone do with that kind of historical burden, “do” with it in the sense of coming to any personal or psychological resolution?
I suppose one thing that can be done is what Maxwell Geismar does in his short and thoroughly unsurprising introduction. Mr. Geismar has abandoned himself without qualification to Mr. Cleaver’s scorn and outrage. The black man cries out, and the white man says yes, yes, no matter what. Eldridge Cleaver is a promising and powerful writer, an intelligent and turbulent and passionate and eloquent man. But Geismar ironically treats him with the ultimate condescension of exaggerated praise, and even worse the cruelty that goes with using a man as an irrelevant foil. Accordingly, Soul on Ice is one of the “discoveries of the 1960’s.” Cleaver’s voice contrasts with the “prevailing mediocrity of talent” — something Cleaver himself didn’t feel in prison, where he desperately and in vain sought out (by his own listing) Hemingway, Mailer, Camus, Sartre, Baldwin, Henry Miller, Terry Southern, Julian Mayfield, Bellow, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Gold, Robert Gover, and J. O. Killens. Then we are told that “Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing.” He has “boldness.” His mind is “heroic.” He has written “the best analysis of James Baldwin’s literary career” that Geismar has read. What is more, “while Cleaver calmly says things that no white critic could really dare to say, there is not a trace of petty artistic jealousy or self-vanity in his discussion.” I am sure that Mr. Cleaver meant to be anything but calm; and it is good to know that Mr. Geismar finds at least one man so untainted, though if I were Eldridge Cleaver I’d watch out. Praise is like power; there is nothing as corrupting (and yes, insulting) as absolute praise, particularly when one’s very humanity is denied. (Which writer is without a “trace” of “self-vanity”?)
Nevertheless, apart from the introduction to this book, and apart from its black nationalism, there are some really lovely and tender and even exquisite moments to be found — when the author becomes a writer, not a pamphleteer and not a propagandist and not a devious, cruel literary critic, but a man who wants to struggle with words and ideas and tame them. There are ostensibly four parts to the relatively slim volume, but actually it is split in two. “Letters from Prison” and “Prelude to Love — Three Letters” show how one inmate of a jail becomes something much more, a literate, sensitive, and intelligent human being. There are white millionaires who have failed where Cleaver has succeeded.
How did he succeed? Why? We ought to ask such questions, even as we do with Malcolm X, Cleaver’s great hero. People like me can tear Cleaver and Malcolm to shreds. We can discover the bad “background” they come from. We can find pathology everywhere — mental illness, physical disorder, social chaos, cultural disintegration. Cleaver’s childhood was no doubt a sad and violent one. He went to bad, crowded schools. He grew up amid alcoholics, addicts, and worse. And ultimately, he went to jail and stayed there, not only behind bars but often enough in solitary confinement as dangerous, wild, unruly, disobedient, troublesome, loudmouthed, uncontrolled, crazy — all the words.
Yet at times he writes vivid, compelling prose. He has a sense of humor. He knows how to be astringent one minute, ironic the next. He can be tolerant and compassionate, far more so in my opinion than the man who wrote the introduction to this book. He is full of Christian care, Christian grief and disappointment, Christian resignation, Christian messianic toughness, and hope. He loves his lawyer, a white woman, and pours out his love to her in three beautiful, incredibly subtle and blunt and unsparing and unforgettable letters. How did he do it — learn to write, learn the really impressive theological subtleties that are addressed to his lawyer? (They remind one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in jail, or Dostoevsky writing from the Underground.)
Of course he also learned the other things, the handy political and sociological clichés that have blinded black and white men everywhere in every century. But above all we must notice what he has done: begun (and only begun) to master the writer’s craft. For that achievement Eldridge Cleaver deserves our unashamed awe, our admiration, and our insistence that like every other writer he work harder, rid himself of unnecessary baggage, and put to word the startling ironies that he knows from real life but sees and comprehends out of his mind’s life. He ought to spare us nothing, but he ought to spare himself very little either. Inside a developing writer there is, there has to be, a kind of ice that somehow uses but also transcends the weather, the scene, the hot and cold of the outside world.
With this issue we launch a new Arts and Letters section, devoted to the best of criticism and to commentaries on books, theater, films, music, the dance, and the fine arts. We intend to present a wide variety of writers and opinions, the work of critics and artists already well established in the world of letters as well as that of promising newcomers. With due genuflection to the obvious centers, such as New York and London, Arts and Letters will take special care to search the cultural scene in many other places at home and abroad and to offer, in addition to reviews and comments, an occasional treasure like the last writing of Henry James, as discussed by Leon Edel in this issue. We promise continuity, too, with regular book reviews by Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams, and in other sections of the Atlantic there will continue to appear the satire and glimpses of human comedy that entered these columns in the more than twenty-five years during which the late Charles W. Morton presided over our Accent on Living section. Major Books and Men essays, an Atlantic trademark, will of course remain a regular feature of the magazine.
Arts and Letters will be edited by Robert Evett, who for fourteen years previously brought distinction to the New Republic as Books and Arts editor and music critic.