Thursday, April 2, 2015

Un-American Activities: A Review

Benjamin Hollander, In the House Un-American, (Clockroot Books, 2013), pp.150, $15.

Carlos ben Carlos Rossman, Benjamin Hollander’s alter ego in his account of discovering what it is to be, or not to be, an American, describes his father, “a Jew hiding in plain sight,” as living “between false options: as a worker among workers speaking outside his class, or as the quiet American hiding the languages he knew they distrusted, since they insinuated, in phrase or condition, heard or unheard, ‘the un-American,’ the un-welcomed.”

            I spoke Greek before I spoke English.  It was the language of our home, the one I absorbed from the cradle, spoke with my parents and my grandmother, who never learned English.  But when I went to school, one day in second grade (this was during the early years of WWII), our teacher Miss Parks asked each one of us to tell where our parents were born.  When I offered that my father came from Sparta, Greece, a girl piped up—Marie Byrnes: how can I ever forget her name?  “Sounds like a can of grease,” she said.  From then on my brother and I were called “Grease Balls” or “Greasy Greeks.”

            I went home crying.  As soon as my father returned from work at the corner store he owned, I explained to him what had happened.

            “You tell those kids you’re proud to be Greek,” he said. “Tell them that the Greeks invented the democracy they live in!” 

            Of course, my father was right to comfort me, giving me an argument for my defense.  But my brother and I knew that such a response would only lead to more derision, if not physical retaliation.  For in those xenophobic war years in Gloucester, Massachusetts it was the Greeks and Jews against the Italians, Portuguese and Irish, who had arrived in America before our grandparents and staked out their claims earlier as Americans.  As a consequence, my brother and I never spoke Greek again.  We literally expunged our mother tongue from our consciousness for the rest of our lives.

            No wonder I can relate to Hollander’s harrowing account of his own, his family’s, his friends’ and immigrants like them as they attempted not just to live in this country but to become Americans.

            Cut to a 1947 hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, before which Bertolt Brecht is questioned about his possible ties to the Communist Party, by definition believed to be un-American: 
            “Now Mr. Brecht, what is your occupation?”
            “I am a poet and a playwright.”
            “A poet and a playwright?”
            “Where are you presently employed?”
            “I am not employed.”

            About poetry Hollander writes:

“[It] comes like this kind of underwater English to one who speaks like this, because poetry is already the sounding of a second language within an American culture that does not count it among its facts, its culture of evidence.” 

            Equating poetry and alienation, exclusion—poetry and anti-intellectualism, Hollander continues:

            “This is what the un-American feels, his condition, if you care, is that he appears to others like a poem, quizzical, without much use, just standing around.”

            But Hollander, to his credit, does not stop with “the role of the Un-American Committee in determining political alliances or questioning who among the native-born or naturalized among us was or was not a patriot.”  He brings us immediately to the present: “Just as today FBI counter-terrorism media consultant Brad Garrett can warn us about the thoughts of a Muslim citizen of America, who, himself, may not be capable of being a threat to the country, but. . .may be drawn to the ‘bad guys’ who are not citizens but bomb-capable, which is why we have to be in a state of vigilance towards the un-American American’s ‘bad thoughts.’”

            So not only in America do we police what we fear may be potential actions of the putatively “un-American,” we also strive to monitor their thoughts or what we think may be their thoughts from their ethnic and cultural origins, or from those of the individuals or groups they may be associating with.

            It’s an old story for anyone who grew up during the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, or who knew people whose phone calls were monitored, mail read, and movements recorded; yes, and whose family members lost their teaching jobs, as Vincent Ferrini’s Radcliffe honors graduate wife Peg did (a brilliant teacher, incidentally, who had a school building named for her after she was “allowed” to return to teaching).  And it hasn’t ended but only continues with our phone calls and emails collected and stored today, potentially to be used against us, for communicating with each other.

            Hollander’s narrative—part memoir, part fiction, part history and part documentary—is so utterly relevant as to have been written tomorrow.   For In the House Un-American is not only an account of an immigrant’s voyage of self-discovery as he uncovers the very nature of belonging “in an exceptional country that makes no exceptions,” Hollander writes.  There is also sharp social criticism here, much of it as biting as it is humorous, as Hollander skewers the sentimentality that papers over every national excess: “When in America did this start, this ritually honored public sentimentalism as a form of redemption for your violence?”

            I want to conclude with language because language is at the heart of Hollander’s inquiry (or should I say inquest?)— the languages our families arrived speaking, the languages they adopted or abandoned.

            The Dartmouth-educated son of a Jewish immigrant of my father’s generation once accused my father of “murdering the English language” as he claimed his own father did.

            “I’d like to know what you would do,” my father retorted, “alone in a strange country, with no one to understand you and not a soul to turn to.”

            That pretty much encapsulates the condition Hollander opens his account by describing.  I know it well from growing up caught between two languages.  I saw how my father struggled to make himself understood in his second language, and how my mother and her siblings, all well-educated, tried to transcend their own embarrassment at their parents’ imperfect and accented English.  My brother and I joked about how our father called the World Series “the World Serious,” but beneath our laughter was our own fear that we too, even though we could speak the native tongue, did not belong.  To this day I do not feel that I belong.  And yet I wonder, as Hollander calls into question, do any of us belong in a culture that is more fable than reality?

(This review appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of House Organ, edited by Kenneth Warren)

1 comment:

Lois A. McNulty said...

Peter- Thank you for describing your experience, which is to some extent the same for every person who moves to a new place, with or without the language barrier. No matter how warmly we embrace our adopted home, how carefully we study its history and show respect for its people and their ways, there are always days when we wonder, "Do I really belong here?" If that kind of doubt had kept your family, and other "blow-ins" such as Charles Olson, Howard Blackburn, many generations of fishermen and countless writers, artists and musicians from choosing to become part of this treasured place, where would Gloucester be today without their gifts?