Celebration Man

bv Dan Wakefield

The title of Harvey Swados’ posthumous novel, CELEBRATION (Simon and Schuster. $8.95), could not have been more fitting. Swados was a man who lived not orgiastically, or even indulgently, but he had the capacity for infusing almost any encounter with a spirit of celebration, and his joy was happily communicable.
He was also the author of serious essays on literature for such periodicals as Partisan Review and New World Writing; contributed political articles, as a self-proclaimed socialist, to Anvil, Monthly Review, and The Nation; was a tough-minded intellectual and hard-muscled man who had served as a merchant seaman and an automobile assemblyline worker and who was deeply committed to both life and letters.
He was the first “real writer” I ever met, shortly after I graduated from college, courtesy of his close friend and neighbor C. Wright Mills, who had been my professor in sociology at Columbia and was then my boss on a research project. When I told Mills I did not intend to go into sociology or any academic discipline, but was determined to be “a writer,” of novels and stories and journalism. Mills’s countenance clouded over and he said with resignation, “Well then, you’d better meet one.”
I was thrilled that the writer was Harvey Swados. for I had read an excerpt from his first novel. Out Went the Candle, in a recent issue of New World Writing, and his much acclaimed story. “The Dancer,” in discovery. These were, to me and my recently college-graduated colleagues, the two most prestigious and innovative literary periodicals of the time-this was mid-fifties— and I figured that a writer whose work had been published in them surely “had it made.”
I assumed that after such achievements, and the publication of a novel that Delmore Schwarz had hailed as “one of the most remarkable novels in years,” Mr. Swados had only to sit back in his study and wait for inspiration and fame to strike. Years later, I learned that the high hopes of its publisher for Candle had been shattered by a large return from the bookstores, and that Harvey himself had been deeply hurt and disappointed bv the book’s reception.
I remember how impressed I was the night at Mills’s house when I met Harvey and his wife. Bette, who was, as I discovered, his best and most trusted editor, literary confidante and counselor, sometime agent, staunchest supporter, shrewdest and most articulate defender of the man and his work, finest and most faithful friend.
It was not their style to speak in public of their indignation at some of the snide criticisms, the hostility or faint praise that too often greeted his work. Nor would they have dreamed, on that first meeting, of mentioning the financial problems that sooner or later or sometimes forever plague the life of the serious writer.
It was Mills, in his mood of Germanic pragmatism, who told me the next day that if I was to be a writer, I too would have to make a choice of the kind that Harvey had recently made, “whether to work with your head or your hands—I mean in the work you do to support your writing. You can’t expect your writing to support run.”
Mills explained that Harvey had supported himself by writing copy for Israel bonds, while writing his first novel on weekends and on the commuter train to New York City. But the conflict of trying to write for someone else during the day and, as Mills put it, “do your own stuff” at the beginning and end of it, was a terrible drain. So after the novel was published, Harvey went on the night shift of the Ford plant in Rockland County, but working on an automobile assembly line was so exhausting that it left him with no energy, whether for physical or mental labors. When he quit the Ford plant, though, he was able to turn his experience into a sensitive and insightful book of interrelated stories about automobile factory workers called On the Line.
Being “on the line” was a constant theme of Harvey’s life as well as work: he labored on the assembly line before writing about it, first in fiction, and later in a powerful and influential essay of the era called “The Myth of the Happy Worker" (1957), in which he attacked the comforting new illusion of the Eisenhower Age that union power and prosperity had brought the laboring man into the middle class, with similar goals and acquisitions of split-level homes and tailfinned cars. But Swados insisted that in spite of such outward trappings.
. . . there is one thing that the worker doesn’t do like the middle class: he works like a worker. The steel-mil! puddler does not yet sort memos, the coal miner does not yet sit in conferences, the cotton millhand sloes not yet sip martinis from ho lunchbox. The worker’s attitude toward his work is generally compounded of hatred, shame, and resignation.
Like Orwell, Swados went down into a coal mine, and he was reporting first-hand when he wrote that in the new, mechanized mines.
The dust. too. that used to rise all the hundreds of feet to the surface and rain down on the streets of St. Michael [Pa.] is a thousand times thicker from the slashing machine than it used to be when the men attacked the seam themselves; you can taste the silicosis in the air as the thick particles parch your nasal passages and clog your lungs.
There are more parallels between Swados and Orwell than their descent into the coal mines. In Swados’ brilliant and provocative collection of essays, A Radical’s America, published in 1962. he takes on, like Orwell, the social injustices of the day and the petty political squabblers as well, insisting that
. . . there are problems demanding the attention of serious and articulate idealists, people who are not satisfied with the world in which we exist so precariously and who believe that the expression “a better world” is neither sinister nor old hat.
And again like Orwell. Swados lashed out against the professional literary critics, deriding those who hold '‘the crude conception of culture as consisting simply of a chain of triumphant avant-garde masterworks. . . .”
In his Radical’s America, Swados was not only lamenting existing conditions and attacking the guardians of the status quo, he was also outlining courses of possible action for individuals who felt helplessly trapped in the social machinery of the time. I had forgotten that Swados included in this collection an essay which he evidently had been unable to publish elsewhere, no doubt because in 1961 it was ahead of its time. It is called “The Dilemma of the Educated Woman.”and advances the then unheard-of and scarily radical notions that
. . . the current family unit-supermarket complex (personal shopping. cooking, child-raising) is neither divinely ordained nor necessarily ideal in promoting both the general welfare and the individual’s realization of his full potential . . . the pressing problems of living human beings, of unfulfilled and underutilized American women, are at least as urgent public concerns as are the problems of our highways, our food surpluses, and our water shortages.
Aside from his eloquent writing about the world around him in his journalism and fiction, Swados had to continue to find ways of keeping himself and his family financially solvent in that imperfect world, and he finally turned to teaching. He was a natural and inspiring teacher, and I think he resisted it so long because in the fifties, teaching was often condescendingly referred to as “retreating into the academy.”
Far from using the academy as any kind of “retreat,” however, Swados dragged his students kicking and screaming into an awareness of the world around them, forcing them into a confrontation with the art and politics and social issues of the day. When his writing class at Sarah Lawrence in 1959, in response to his goadings of their social consciences, moaned that there wasn’t anything individuals could do anymore to change or improve the world, Swados composed a “letter to the class,” in which he proposed that affluent young people such as themselves might go abroad to underdeveloped countries and devote a year or two of their lives to aiding the people, living as the people themselves lived, learning and respecting the local customs as well as trying to help and teach. The response was so intense, both in enthusiasm and argumentation, that Swados showed the “letter” to an editor of Esquire, who promptly titled it “Why Resign from the Human Race?” and ran it in the magazine. It brought in more mail than any previous article in Esquire, and has been generally credited with providing the basis for the Peace Corps proposal.
I have to admit that Swados’ first three novels, Out Went the Candle, False Coin, and The Will, seemed to me, for all their virtues, to be strained, as if the characters were bowed down beneath the weight of the ideas and themes they were designed to carry. I felt, up to that time, that his most successful fiction was his short story collections, Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn and A Story for Teddy—and Others. The writing in these seemed at once sharper and more relaxed, as if the author, under no constraint to create a masterpiece, was able to be at ease, almost playful, and his prose took on a mellow flavor and charm that was missing in the first three novels.
I cringe to say that this was the sort of judgment that drove Harvey up the wall; but despite the opinions of critics both friendly and snide, despite the praise for his nonfiction, and sometimes his stories, at the expense of his novels, he still thought of himself first and foremost as a novelist, insisted on being a novelist, gloried in being a novelist-and the world be damned.
And so, in spite of evervthing, he sat down in the mid-sixties and started writing his Big Novel. It was a panoramic political novel with many interwoven threads of plot and character, stretching from the Great Depression of the thirties to the freedom rides of the civil rights movement in the early sixties. It was big in scope and achievement; it was slubbornh “old-fashioned” in its Dos Bassos realism: and it carried in it the craft and passion of a lifetime. It was called Standing Fast. But by 1970. the vear the book was published, its subject matter seemed as dated as the Children’s Crusade.
The timing of Swados’ novel was rather like that of Fitzgerald’s story of the hedonistic Americans on the Riviera published at the height of the Depression, and James Agee’s great book about the sharecroppers of Alabama which appeared at the opening of World War II. Those books were eventually appreciated for their intrinsic merits, but the hope of future appreciation is cold comfort to an author.
A few months after the publication of Standing Fast, I visited Harvey in Amherst, where he was writer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts and remained until his sudden death of an aneurysm in December of 1972. He showed me clippings of the few good reviews, including an excellent notice from Josh Greenfeld in the New York Timas Book Review. But for Harvey its luster had been dimmed because it had been “buried" in the back of the section. The other piece was a long, appreciative essay bv a young political writer in the Milage Voice, and Harvey was especially pleased because the reviewer found the book relevant.
That was about all the glory that his Big Novel, the one he had worked on for more than five years and thought about for most of his adult life, had brought him. I felt he would have been entirely jus tified in smashing a couple of windows. Instead, he poured us stiff drinks of bourbon and showed me the outline of a new novel he was planning to write. It was called Celebration.
As originally conceived, the hook was to be the diary of an old man who had been a successful musician: the choice of profession did not seem surprising since Harvey was an accomplished flutist, a man with a deep talent and appreciation for music, and he had cast a number of his fictional characters as musicians. But somewhere between that early concept of the novel and its completion, the aged musician was transformed into an aged man of polities-not in the sense of elective, establishment politics, but as a social innovator, a journalistic muckraker. a pacifist who chose jail over combat in World War I, an educator who founded a famous progressive school, who fought for child labor reform and child welfare laws, and even in his later years was a champion of the causes of youth, both social and political.
It was artistically inevitable that Swados would make this hero a political figure, for it gave him the opportunity to grapple once more and with his most subtle and successful results—with the complexities of politics in the most personal sense, with the ironies of self-aggrandizement through good causes. The old man writes ruefully of his much younger wife’s illusions about him:
Ever since that first day von walked in here. You took me for some kind of unsoiled hero. You were awed by my journeys to Japan. Germain, anyplace where children suffered, you were awed by my very name and my eighty years and my seeming immortality, and my willingness to enlist in the anti-Vietnam war movement. As if I wasn’t eager to be signed up, to be where the young were!
This aged cultural hero, Samuel Lumen, writing down his thoughts and the events he becomes embroiled in during his ninetieth year, is still torn by ambition and earthly immortality as his bones are picked and pulled apart by opposing personal and political factions. But he is able to transcend his habitual arrogance to reflect now:
I used to think that the unique quality of great age lay in its beautiful challenge to refine, to purify, to discover simplicity. Now that suddenly I am terribly old, I have the uneasy feeling that I had been romanticizing, out of ignorance. Because nothing seems simple to me now. Everything is complex, mysterious, impure, starting with my own motives and conduct . . .
But for all his flaws, Lumen is no fraud musing on his past sins. His accomplishments were real, made at what was sometimes painful personal expense and sacrifice. He has come now to the blessing and curse of great age, with its accompanying infirmities and insights, keenly aware of the friends and relatives and hangers-on in his still full life, and of their own separate and often selfish motives. He is also savingly and savagely aware of his own condition as he writes:
Stability? A word without meaning for the young. And justly. As for me, I think I must seem like a big snowman to youths such as Seth and his friends. Imposing, a bit pompous, one hand extended palm upward in the teaching gesture, the other clasping a scroll, an honorary award carved in ice. As the spring sun rises higher. I shall begin to melt here and there, until one day everything will collapse in a puddly heap and nothing will be left but a carrot, some buttons, a few chunks of soft coal. . . .
The hero has been a man of politics and causes, a man whose political worth is still great enough to be fought over by members of the establishment who wish to enshrine him as their own and the counterculture activists who wish to squeeze one last act of rebellion from him, regardless of the risk to his life and his tranquillity. But beyond these machinations, Lumen is looking ahead to his own death, not with fear but with a calm curiosity. Troubled as much by his dreams as by his waking “reality,” he asks himself, “I only wonder if that is to be my only escape. Waking up, I mean. Is death a kind of waking up?”
When he wrote this novel in the vibrant first years of his fifties, Harvey Swados was able to make that leap of imagination to the feelings and perceptions of advanced age. That was the kind of dangerous fictional feat he had often ventured, but he never so successfully achieved it as he did in this, his final Celebration.