This review first appeared in The Ethical Culture Review of Books

The Business of Books by André Schiffrin

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

This review first appeared in The Ethical Culture Review of Books


The Business of Books
André Schiffrin
Verso, New York. 2000
175 pp. $23.00
ISBN 1-85984-763-3

Late in this trenchant little book about the publishing industry, André Schiffrin relates the story of how big American bakery monopolies ran small bakeries out of business in the early twentieth century. National brands like Tip Top and Wonder undercut the small bakeries’ prices and offered big discounts to grocery stores to get shelf space for their products. The smaller producers were driven into bankruptcy, and Americans were left with “plastic-wrapped and plastic tasting bread that was more expensive than the locally produced loaves it replaced.” Many years later, Schiffrin points out, specialty bakeries have begun to flourish again in urban centers with delicious but expensive breads, affordable by relatively few.
This, in a nutshell, is also the unfortunate story of publishing according to Schiffrin. Of course there is a lot more in the book, which begins with a survey of publishing in general– how both in Europe and the U.S. publishing has always been a business that prided itself on balancing “the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.” He moves on to the specific stories of his father’s and his own lives in publishing. Schiffrin’s father was a French Jew driven out of the publishing business in France just before the Second World War, eventually relocating to the U.S. The elder Schiffrin joined the newly formed Pantheon Press, which was publishing the work of Europeans like Gide, Camus, Maritain, Hermann Broch, and others. The younger Schiffrin, after some false starts, came to work for Pantheon too, now owned by Random House. He worked there for thirty years, publishing E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, Staughton Lynd, and F.R. Leavis. Many of Pantheon’s authors in the 1950's and 60's were victims of red-baiting; others were at the cutting edge of new ideas in psychology and other fields.
Schiffrin’s story of Pantheon and its projects has great intrinsic interest, but the heart of his book is the comparison between the way the old Pantheon acquired books and the changes that began in earnest in the 1980's. This is the period when diversified corporations (that is, corporations whose business included many products besides books) took over more and more publishing houses, and even relatively benign large houses like Random, owner of Pantheon, began increasingly to act like the large corporations. The rules, says Schiffrin, were changed, “and each book was expected to make a sufficient contribution both to overhead and to profit.” That doesn’t sound unreasonable at first hearing, but Schiffrin reminds us that back lists and popular books have historically been used in part to subsidize books that are less popular, or slower to become popular. He says that the Free Marketplace of Ideas “does not refer to the market value of each idea. On the contrary, what it means is that ideas of all sorts should have a chance to be put to the public, to be expressed and argued fully.” Thus, slow-selling books often, over time, make their mark either directly in slow but growing sales or indirectly, by affecting other ideas in the great agora of human thought.
Under the rule of the giant, diversified corporations, every single book is evaluated strictly for its likely profitability. Every book is supposed to contribute not only to its own editing, production, and publicity, but also to contribute to the furnishings of corporate headquarters and to the bloated salaries of CEO’s. The old publishers had certainly been wealthy men, but they never expected the kind of profits from books that the new masters demanded. Senior people were let go to save money, and the bright and hard working young people who remained did not know that publishing had ever been different. The new head of Random House even expected the different divisions within Random House to compete with each other to acquire profitable books. This, of course, drove up costs, which had to be borne by each division and each book within each division. Random House and most of the other publishers thus began to bring out only books that could be sold to the broadest base of customers.
While the mind set of maximizing profit above all else may be acceptable among manufacturers of toilet tissue, it is extremely frightening in the arena of ideas and expression. One immediate result of the pre-eminence of the huge, diversified corporations has been the loss of political content in books. “Censorship,” says Schiffrin, “used to come from company bosses who were intolerant toward dissenting opinions. Today, while individual owners are still very concerned with imposing their own views, overall corporate interests have become far more important in controlling the circulation of ideas."
When Schiffrin and his colleagues were forced out of Pantheon, they did something extremely unusual, which was to orchestrate a protest against the policies of the parent company. Schiffrin has now formed a small nonprofit publishing company, The New Press. The story of this new venture and the possibility of other small, worthy institutions, is Schiffrin’s hope for the future of books. He is not, however, sanguine about these small presses or about new technologies and media, which he thinks will likely be controlled soon by corporations just as book publishing is.
One can only hope that he is wrong in this final conclusion.

Meredith Sue Willis's trilogy of novels about coming of age in the nineteen sixties includes Higher Ground, Only Great Changes, and Trespassers.



The Weave Room by Michael Chitwood

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

This review first appeared in The Ethical Culture Review of Books




The Weave Room
Michael Chitwood
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
1998. ISBN: 0226103986
Paper. 82 pages; $11.00.


The recent growth of poetry readings, performance art, and poetry slam competitions points up the fact that even today the common reader needs poetry. Poetry--like all literary art but even more intensely-- is about deep connections and multi-layered insight. Michael Chitwood writes in The Weave Room about the industrial textile region of his home area, Southern Appalachia. Many poets explore spoken language and love and family in their poems, but Chitwood's poetry is also about work. If we truly value human beings and their activities, then work-- the way most people spend their days-- is an especially appropriate subject for poetry. The book's first section has poems about the generations of a family whose life has centered on a textile mill. The narrator's grandfather is a blue collar, dirty-nailed mill worker, but his father is in management. One of the finest poems in the book is called "Ties." Here a man's necktie becomes a metaphor for the abysses and bridges between generations. Grandfather wears his tie only for church, but Father wears his tie six days a week:


Granddad's hung
on the back of the bedroom door,
knotted all week.
Before services,
he'd cinch it and grin,
proud his boy felt this pinch
every working day.
My back against your chest,
you talked me into the knot,
over, under, down through.
Then you'd snug it
just short of choking
and call me "Mr. Chitwood,"
the name you dressed in
every morning to leave the house. (p. 5)


The middle section of the book, the longest of three, focuses on various characters and events in the mill itself as well as on the language of the mill workers and their bosses. One poem, "Safety Meeting: What Counts," is a quoted conversation between a pretentious safety engineer and challenging workers. Other poems are miniature narratives, like "The Thunderbolts of Zeus" in which a college boy has the job of changing light bulbs in the factory:


My wobbly scaffolding straddled the looms,
and I knelt above weavers and fixers,
pulling out the warm, dusty fluorescent tubes.
Beneath me the warp strings jumped and flinched
like the skin of animals shaking off summer flies. (p. 25)


Several of these poems in the middle section take on the unusual poetic task of exploring the struggle to unionize the Southern Appalachian millworkers. I would wish that the political thread had been colored a little brighter, drawn a little tighter. One excellent and deeply complex piece is called simply "Union." Written in brief prose-shaped passages, it expresses how the narrator doesn't trust the organizers:


"....I told him union was just a word and words don't come by with a dish when someone's mother dies...." (p. 33)

Then, as people begin to sign the little blue union cards, the company makes its own demonstration. To underline the point about what will happen if the workers vote for a union, the bosses call a meeting by shutting off all the looms, something they have always insisted is prohibitively expensive. Then, in the silent factory, the workers are given a free barbeque:


"Mr. Goldman from Greenville had a few words about our good work, lack of lost-time accidents, and we were told to help ourselves, just help ourselves. And we did, but not to praise or pig but to that sound, that quiet of the looms not running, not what was there, but what wasn't." (p.34)


Of course, in the end, the company closes the mill anyway. The final section of the book is contemplative, even nostalgic. Here, the poet is farther from his roots, and indeed has to reconstruct and imagine what he was doing "On the Day the Oldest Textile Mill in the South Closed." The final stanza of the entire book, at the end of a poem called "Threads, End of Another Day," is:

That's it, all that happened, then, there,
and again, here, now, clinging to another day
where I'm working them in.
What you notice becomes your life. (p. 82)

This is thoughtful, colloquial, sad, and lovely. Still, to my mind, Chitwood's strongest poems, the ones that lead me to recommend this book to others, are those written out of the lives, struggles, language, and stories of the people who worked in the mills.




Clay's Quilt by Silas House

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

This review first appeared in The Ethical Culture Review of Books




Clay’s Quilt
Silas House
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. 2001.
304 pages. $22.95
ISBN: 1-56512-307-7

At the heart of this lovely first novel by Kentucky native Silas House are a psychological parent-hunt, a satisfying love story, and a broad swath of violence cutting through the characters’ lives. The violence in Clay’s Quilt, however, is essential to the story line and is never used in the romanticized portentous style of too many American novels and films. Clay Sizemore, the central consciousness, is a young Kentucky miner who lost his mother early and never knew his father. He is given to occasional hell-raising in the form of driving trucks too fast and drinking all night at honky tonks, but he also listens to classical music and has a highly developed appreciation of nature and the culture of his region.

Readers of Clay’s Quilt will be forced to reconsider their stereotypes of Appalachian people. One point-of-view character, a religious fundamentalist called Aunt Easter, is not made fun of, but is seen as having a talent at religious expression just as musicians express themselves through their instruments or voices. In this world, families gather at funerals, but they also get together and enjoy one another’s company when the electricity goes off in a storm. Here children grow up sleeping in one uncle’s house but eating across the way at the aunt’s. Cousins share beds even into adulthood as a way of creating connection and human warmth. People have second sight and read Jeremiah in the Bible, but they also read To Kill a Mockingbird. They sing Wayfaring Stranger and listen to the ballads of Jean Ritchie but also enjoy John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan, and old recordings of Paganini. The quilter in Clay’s family is not a woman but a man, and the novel’s tortured artists are two musical sisters, Evangeline, a singer, and Alma, a gifted fiddler. This may be a different social setting from the reader’s, but in Silas House’s able hands, it quickly becomes an alternate home.

In the community of Clay’s Quilt, moral and ethical dilemmas are not worked out in individual angst and isolation, but through the fabric of human relationships. Clay Sizemore’s real project in the novel is not to find out how his mother died or how to get Alma to admit she loves him, but rather, how to create a life where his past, his character, his family, and his community are in harmony. Clay is gifted with a kind of natural goodness that puts him in the tradition of characters like Melville’s Billy Budd and Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, but, happily, in this world, goodness does not carry the necessity of tragedy.

Clay’s charm is that he seeks his answers and fights his fights, but focuses his creative energies on building a good life for himself and those he loves. He is most deeply wounded when he commits an act of violence that goes against what is natural to him. He is a satisfying hero because of his ability to give to the people around him: he is that most desirable of men–one who weaves together the threads of the social fabric. The quest of this hero and this book, then, is to find, continue, create, and recreate family and community– to sustain a spiritual and material homeplace.




The Midwife's Tale by Gretchen Moran Laskas

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

This review first appeared in The Ethical Culture Review of Books
The Midwife’s Tale
Gretchen Moran Laskas
The Dial Press, New York. 2003.
243 pp. $23.95.
ISBN 0-385-33551-2

This first novel by Gretchen Moran Laskas, The Midwife’s Tale, is about love, especially the passion between mother and daughter. The novel centers on women: in particular, it puts child birth and healing at the very heart of its world. Set in the early twentieth century, it is well-researched, with lots of interesting details of rural Appalachian life, especially herbal lore and the folkways of child birth in the mountains.

Laskas’s characters are not, however, quaint granny women: indeed, they are in many ways transgressors against what we at least imagine must have been the mores of their time. They also move back and forth between mountain cabins and town– in particular, the real town of Philippi, West Virginia with its covered bridge, claimed to be the site of the first land battle of the Civil War. It is a strength of this novel that the gap between town and hollow is no uncrossable abyss. Meribeth, for example, mother of the narrator Elizabeth, marries late in life, moves to town, and enjoys long drives in her husband’s Hupmobile.

The social background is sketched in with a sure hand: “Coal was booming, and shanty towns filled the Tygart River Valley. Families who had lived in the mountains for generations were coming down into the towns, taken by the idea of ready cash and a board-and-batten home. People flocked to where there were picture shows, bowling alleys, and fancy clothes sitting in the company store windows, waiting to be bought with the fancy written scrip that coal operators said was as good as money....” (page 130). This background is worn lightly, but creates a fully believable world that brings authenticity to some surprising events in the story.

Front and center in the novel, however, are the struggles and expressions of love. People heal and help one another through difficult passages like childbirth and illness. There are many types of healer in this novel, often in surprising harmony with one another: Meribeth is a skilled and dedicated midwife who is given further training by a local medical doctor. During the great influenza epidemic of 1919, she nurses dozens of her neighbors through the devastating illness, and Elizabeth nurses Meribeth in turn. Elizabeth is herself trained as a midwife, and her god-daughter Lauren turns out to have a supernatural healing gift that is both extraordinary and also limited in its scope, just as the more mundane healing powers of the midwives and medical doctors are limited. In other words, no single person or way of healing can do everything: the folk lore and scientific lore and the touches of supernatural are all connected and even interdependent.

Love between men and women often proves to be more problematic in the novel. Some women are beaten by drunken husbands; other men simply disappear, like Elizabeth’s father. Elizabeth’s romantic love for her neighbor Alvin sets the course of the novel, creates its plot, but the love is ultimately unsatisfying. Indeed, its most enriching aspect for Elizabeth is that it gives her the friendship of Alvin’s wife and a long-term relationship with his daughter.

If Elizabeth’s relationship with Alvin gives the novel its story line, it is Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother that gives the novel its emotional arc. Elizabeth and Meribeth have various conflicts large and small, and one actually comes close to separating them, turning Elizabeth away from midwifery. This conflict is about a midwife’s role when a newborn’s interests clash with those of the mother. What if the newborn is clearly deformed or facing a short life? What if the birth of one more baby is likely to tip the scales and destroy the mother’s health or the family’s economic future? Is the midwife’s mission always to do what is best for the woman? Meribeth stands solidly on the side of the over-burdened and sometimes abused women she attends. Elizabeth is more drawn to the infinite possibility and hope embodied in the just-born. She recoils from part of what her mother and grandmother consider to be a midwife’s duty.

Deciding between different kinds of helping, however, is not this novel’s business. In the end, what matters is the continuing bond between Meribeth and Elizabeth and between Elizabeth and the young healer Lauren. Elizabeth and Meribeth are reconciled, and the novel offers each of them a sort of prize in the form of a relationship with a good man. Meribeth’s late marriage to Doc Woodley is a great gift, and Elizabeth’s not-quite-so-late relationship with the patient and supportive carnival man David may require more suspension of disbelief than the miracle child Lauren’s supernatural gift of healing.

But by the this point in the novel, the reader cares so much for Elizabeth that we can only cheer when Gretchen Laskas gives her the hope of a satisfying future.




The Bix Boxcar by Alfred Maund

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

This review first appeared in The Ethical Culture Review of Books

The Big Boxcar
Alfred Maund
University of Illinois Press , Chicago 1999.
Paper. (The Radical Novel Reconsidered, Series Editor, Alan Wald)
178 pages. $14.95 ISBN 0-252-06754-1

The University of Illinois Press is doing a great service to readers with ethical and social concerns by reissuing a series of American radical novels of the mid-twentieth century. The Big Boxcar by Alfred Maund, originally published in 1957, is the ninth in the series. Maund, a Southern white man, has written three novels. This was his first, but at the time of writing, he was already an experienced labor journalist and editor as well as an active supporter of the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott and the Cuban Revolution. These facts are significant not only because McCarthyism and red-baiting had a deleterious effect on his career, but also because his activist, anti-racist values underlie The Big Boxcar.

The novel is made up of linked stories told by a group of black characters heading north in a boxcar. Mutually distrustful and showing signs of potential violence, the group is bored. They decide that each traveler will tell a story about white people, ostensibly to pass the time, but actually to delineate the shape of racism in post-World War II United States. The stories range from humorous tall tales like one about a talking dog-organizer to the only woman traveler's story, which is a complete novella in itself. The main point-of-view character, Sam, tells a sad and shocking story in which the hated white man of his childhood proves to be his own father.

In the boxcar, notes the introduction, "a foundation exists for a new kind of egalitarian utopian order." (one) Indeed it is the lone woman of the group, Marie, not one of the men, who provides leadership. She both organizes the story telling and instructs the men in how to avoid the authorities in Birmingham. This is a novel that could easily have ended with the cliché of a general bloodbath, but under Marie's guidance, the boxcar riders develop a plan that demands some personal sacrifice but results in safe passage for the majority of the group.

Before the final action, when the outcome is still unknown, Sam articulates what the boxcar travelers have learned: "By all rights, a person could have expected rough trouble, but the most that had happened was big talk, a little drinking and some swapping of stories. Despite the lack of law, they stuck together, keeping each other in line....It took a lot of the fear out of what was coming up ahead to think how people don't need a sheriff to make them people. " (Two)


Alan Wald, "A Southern Rebel in Cold War America," introduction to Alfred Maund, The Big Boxcar (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999) p. xx.

Alfred Maund, The Big Boxcar (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999) pp 146 - 147.


The Cluetrain Manifesto by Levine, Lock, Searls, & Weinberger

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

The Cluetrain Manifesto
Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger
Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 1999.
190 pages. $23.00
ISBN 0-7382-0244-4

The Cluetrain Manifesto, which purports to be about improving business practices by using the World Wide Web, is selling briskly in business circles. Its writers have impeccable credentials: Levine, Locke, Searls, and Weinberger have founded technological companies, created important software, worked in advertising, and written for publications ranging from Forbes and The New York Times to PC Magazine and Wired. The book is, however, in fact less a manual for corporations and more a polemic on how the Web can liberate human creativity from the chains of business culture.

The “Cluetrain” of the title refers to an image of business executives who don't have a clue to what the new technologies mean while the future roars past them like the Twentieth Century Limited. Hierarchical organizations with elaborate flow charts showing information and control moving from top to bottom are not only outmoded, say the authors, but dead in the water.

The Cluetrain writers are partial to phrases like “dead in the water” and “gonzo.” Their writing style is jokey, energetic, playful, intentionally outrageous, and occasionally sophomoric. But their voices keep the argument moving— and make a case in point for their claim that one of the Web's chief virtues is the high value it places on the individual human speaker. While I'm not sure that the ideas in this book needed to be showcased in a twenty-three dollar hardback volume, I am very glad that they are available.

The essential points are as follows: hierarchal organizations (corporations but by extension other bureaucracies as well) are being reformed as multi-dimensional sharing among equals who speak in their true human voices, worker to worker, at enormous speed. People are ignoring organization charts, sales meetings, and their superannuated managers. They are communicating directly with each other through email, Internet bulletin boards and discussion groups, and instant messages— all the many web-based modes of communication. They are at once creating connections among human beings and solutions to practical problems. They are doing all this cooperatively, communally, and without bosses.

In the end, The Cluetrain Manifesto is not really about business at all, but about tools that give us new ways of thinking together, making decisions, and creating new institutions. The writers offer a vague but thrilling vision of a world run from the bottom up: a technological near-anarchy with lots of room for having fun— a world Emma Goldman might have viewed favorably. There is an off-hand, casual suggestion that businesses who get on the Cluetrain will ride it to financial glory, but the writers don't really spend much time on profit making. They seem much more interested in the accumulating capital of human wisdom and democratic consensus building.

Are the Cluetrain boys, as some of their detractors insist, really just resurrected anarchists and Yippies? Is there any solid basis to their idea that the Web can liberate us, and that this liberation has already begun from within the corporations? I don't know the answer to those questions, but for those of us yearning for a world order better than the present one, the book is tremendously stimulating, and gives some small hope from which to take heart.



No Lonesome Road: Selected Prose and Poems of Don West

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

No Lonesome Road: Selected Prose and Poems
Don West, edited by Jeff Biggers and George Brosi
University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago. 2004
227 pages. $25.00 Paper
ISBN: 0-252-07157-3

No Lonesome Road is a collection of some wonderful poems and prose pieces by Don West, social and political activist of the 1930's and after. Born in the red clay mountains of Georgia, he connected the Christian gospel to the political and economic struggles of poor people. West was a proud Southerner, and thus took as one large part of his life’s work insisting on an alternative narrative to the conventional story of Southern aristocracy and oppressed slaves. He wrote and spoke about a tradition of poor white anti-slavery attitudes in the South. His writings are given an excellent context in this book with a biographical introduction by Jeff Biggers and an appreciation by George Brosi.

Perhaps the most immediately familiar of West’s accomplishments to an audience today would be that he was co-founder of the Highlander Folk School, the inter-racial institution in Monteagle, Tennesse that originally focused on justice for workers in the South and gave training to many leaders of the civil rights era including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael. West founded other institutions as well, including a folk life center in West Virginia late in his life. He was also at various times a lineman for a telephone company, a farmer, a textile worker organizer, and an ordained minister. He called himself a poet, and he lived his whole life steadfastly by his beliefs–in spite of being beaten, jailed and even burnt-out by the Ku Klux Klan.

Another of West’s lifelong characteristics was that he was a determined coalition builder with more interest in justice than in a correct party line. George Brosi writes that West “refused to disassociate himself from any individual or group working on an issue he cared about.” (p. 197). He worked with Communists and with fundamentalist Christians, and he had many friends and associates, ranging from sharecroppers of his early days to Appalachian literary figures like James Still and Jesse Stuart, and in his later life, student activists and mountain musicians and crafts people. His daughter, Hedy West, became a folk singer and muscian who put some of his verses to music.

The editors have done a brilliant job in portraying the dedication of this man’s life through the scope of his work. No single poem or essay (and in some cases, the prose works are just paragraphs from longer pieces) would have the impact standing alone that it does in this book. Without the scholarly apparatus and stories of West’s life from Biggers and Brosi, West’s work could have seemed limited to its historical interest. West’s poor Southern Appalachians, for example, have pinched cheeks and empty bellies, whereas the poor people in the South today tend to have the obesity of poverty rather than skinniness. A reader of only one poem or essay might say, Oh, that’s interesting–there used to be Southern mountaineers who supported labor unions and civil rights. But knowing that West himself was a worker as well as an organizer, and a man whose own relatives lost their health in the fields and mills makes a poem like “The Song of the Saw” especially meaningful and moving.

In this narrative poem, John McCarty, a pine board sawyer, asks his boss to have the big saw’s belt fixed, and the boss puts off the repair till Monday, not wanting to waste time and money, and, predictably, a life is wasted instead:

Saturday the belt slipped.
John’s belly struck the saw.
Ripped him open
Like a yellow pine log... (p. 125)

The workers are angry, but tend to the human requirements of the situation: the narrator pulls the short straw and has to go tell McCarty’s wife:

Nancy didn’t cry
Or scream.
Just hung her head
Down low
And stroked the hair
Of John’s baby.
She looked out through the trees
And it didn’t seem like
She looked at anything... (p. 127)

Poems like this are so stark and uncompromising that we almost turn from them, as if simplicity somehow had to be less true than ambiguity. West, of course, knew better. Much of his poetry was performed aloud in public readings, and he thought of himself as speaking to and for people who don’t regularly buy books, let alone books of poetry. His 1946 collection, Clods of Southern Earth, published just before the red-baiting anti-communist McCarthy era, sold well over 100,000 copies. The direct engagement with working lives gave it a popularity that surprised the book sellers and publishers.

West’s poems call for civil rights and integration as well as for recognition of the lives, accomplishments, and sufferings of poor mountain people of all colors. Unfortunately, his popular book came at the end of a time of some general support for union organizing and social justice, often spearheaded by the Communist Party. Unlike many of the liberal fellow travelers, however, Don West never moved away from a life lived to right social wrongs. He continued for another forty years to make common cause with the oppressed, to celebrate mountain culture, and to live by his principles regardless of whether they were popular in the mass culture.

Nor did he hesitate to attack what he saw as elitist theories of literature, especially if he perceived them as having a bad social effect. In one of his poems, he takes on the Agrarian movement of academic poets who came out of Vanderbilt University and included John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davison.


In Dixie Land they stake their stand,
Turning the wheels of history back
For murder, lynch and iron hand
To drive the Negro from his shack (130)


This was not an attack on literature or even on high culture. Rather, it was an attack on what he saw as a retrograde ruling class who glorified the days of planters and slaves. West himself had done graduate study at Vanderbilt University, and it was his choice to use his learning in service of his principles and of justice, to see himself as a teacher and sometimes even a prophet.

He also wrote some beautiful lyric poems like “Hungry Old River” in which a community is sitting on the banks of a river in the night waiting for a drowned man to be discovered:


The little ripples of the River
Purred gentle and smooth,
Like a house cat,
Or the soft feet of a jungle beast
Stalking the forest edge.
Summer’s moon glittered
From the waters
Like little diamonds
Speckled out
Across a velvet bosom.... (124)

Most of his writing was published in relatively ephemeral media like chapbooks, pamphlets, and periodicals that ranged from New Masses and the Daily Worker to Christian Century and Mountain Life and Work. The beauty of this book is that it does not attempt to make the case that West was something simpler than his entirety–a man who was at once an artist and an activist, a teacher and a preacher and an organizer. The book demonstrates the breadth and quality of his writing and thinking.

The essays and scraps of essays cover the whole span of his career and have titles like “Thoughts of a Kentucky Miner” and “Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls.” Perhaps my favorite prose piece is “Robert Tharin: Biography of a Mountain Abolitionist,” which is part of an academic treatment of the antislavery traditions in the mountain south that he never finished. The title of this book, too, comes from another work, also, sadly, unfinished.

In the Afterword, George Brosi describes West as “a symbol of the power of a purposeful life”(195). I think that is an instructive way to approach this book and the work it chronicles: not as an exhibit of an interesting extinct species of proletarian activist, but rather as an introduction to a man we wish we could have known, who inspires us to see our own lives whole and as part of a continuum of change-makers. Don West’s “purposeful life” makes me proud to be a member of the human race–not a small thing these days.







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