23 March 2008

Eugene Gordon and the Sunday New York Times

One sentence will suffice to describe modern man: he fornicated and he read newspapers.
Albert Camus*

In 1937, a Black writer from Boston named Eugene Gordon spent a year in Soviet Russia working for the English-language Moscow Daily News. Gordon, drawn to the Communist Party in the late 1920s, had established a reputation for himself as a hard-working, if uninspired, journalist, contributing to a number of the major Black periodicals of the time in addition to founding his own short-lived anti-fascist magazine in New England. His work included short stories intended to dramatize the dilemmas of Black working life, meta-analysis of African American media and short impressionistic articles on politics and culture. This literary and journalistic output is, frankly speaking, unremarkable in terms of its ideas or prose. Yet when I reviewed the entirety of his writings and correspondence last year, I was profoundly struck by his determination to keep at his political work, long after the heyday of the Party in the 1930s and well into his senior years in the 1960s and 1970s.

After his retirement, Gordon spent a good part of his days reading the newspaper and painting delicate watercolor portraits of everyday people. Though he was no longer charged with Party responsibilities, the aging communist still regularly attended political events and recorded his impressions. He also took to writing unsolicited letters of advice to the younger generation of Black activists who continued the struggle for racial equality. Amidst this pile of out-going correspondence, there is a revealing gentle rebuke of Julius Lester, author of
Look Out Whitey, Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama, in which Gordon notes that he didn’t want to bring up his criticisms in public as the media loves the spectacle of Black men fighting all too much. For those familiar with the bitter sectarian battles that Gordon witnessed in his prime, this casual aside is clear evidence of a lesson learned.

In 1967, Eugene's wife June Gordon (executive director of the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs) passed away. Whatever Eugene's writerly failings might be, it should be noted that he never struck a syrupy note, and the eulogy he composed for his wife was no different. He spoke of the hard years of McCarthyism when he lived with the daily fear that June would be deported. She had entered the country illegally from Russia long before and immigration officials under the sway of anticommunism sought any pretext to eliminate foreign-born radicals. Eugene sat up waiting for his wife every night during this dark period. June kept up her work unabated.

As the post-war repression faded and the couple grew older, such anxieties dissipated and the Gordons settled into the little rituals that rule domestic life. Every Sunday, Eugene walked to the corner newsstand and chatted for a minute with the vendor. He would then return home with two copies of the
New York Times, placing them one each on the pair of opposite-facing desks that shared the living room. June brought out coffee and the two of them would work their ways through every page of the edition, clipping out articles that they wanted to comment on or save for a later project. When they finished, they would compare notes, calling attention to pieces they thought the other would consider especially important.

It was this part of their life—their shared political and intellectual commitment—that Eugene said he would miss the most after his wife's death.

I think of this story every once and awhile when I browse through the various articles in the Sunday
Times, wondering what June and Eugene would make of the news. What letters to the editor would they draft? What contours of history would their clippings file reveal today?


My highlights from today’s
NYT reading:
Feel free to share your own.


*I should credit
Bubby MFA who brought this quote to my attention long ago over a cup of coffee in Cambridge.


kg said...

Nothing good in the Sunday Style section, eh?