Boy! How’s this for symbolic timing? The great journalist Nat Hentoff has passed away at age 91. We need as many men and women like him as we can get at the present moment; and yet I can well understand him, after a 70+ year career, looking at the result of the last election and the challenges ahead, despairing at the impact of his life’s work and refusing to go another step.
When I moved to this city 30 years ago, he was the Great Lion of the Village Voice. I read him weekly there, and pored over a few of his many non-fiction books. His influence on me ended up being enormous. There is no doubt, NO DOUBT in my mind, that my strong reverence for the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular, is a result of Hentoff’s hammering that message home in his writing, week after week after week, for decades. It’s central to who I am. Though I never met him, he imparted that wisdom to me, to such an extent that I find myself bewildered that everyone doesn’t possess the same understanding of the document’s frailty and preciousness. It is our only bulwark against tyranny; it has always been under assault even in the best of times; and given the rhetoric of our President-elect, one can only imagine that it about to be gutted and trampled with unprecedented fury. I’m glad to know Nat Hentoff won’t be around to see what’s going to happen to his beloved Constitution.
Hand in hand with his near-worship of our Founding Document was Hentoff’s deep, profound appreciation for America’s national music, jazz. He was of the generation that went for bebop and musicians like Coltrane, Mingus and Roach. In fact, Hentoff may have been our best known jazz critic, and I have always been fascinated by the pairing, the relationship between his music writing and his political writing. Among its myriad and assorted pleasures, jazz was for Hentoff a metaphor for America’s political ideals. Jazz and related improvisational forms (blues, soul, gospel, rock, hip hop) is based on an aesthetic of freedom, but freedom with rules. The musicians need to play together; the solos can be quite far out, but the players always return to the theme and give their bandmates a chance to take their own solos. Anarchy isn’t the point; freedom is. Musical anarchy sounds terrible. (It’s safe to say my making a political metaphor of vaudeville in No Applause was ultimately inspired by Hentoff doing the same thing with jazz.)
The other great theme of Hentoff’s life was education, and he was always very vocal about how he himself was a product of his teachers and mentors. Though he was an atheist himself, it is instructive to me the extent to which he was influenced by two great world religions, Judaism and Catholicism. A Jew himself, he was educated at Boston Latin, where many of his teachers were Catholic. One of his heroes was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The area in American politics where Jews have made the biggest impact has been in the courts, which Hentoff believed to be an extension of the great tradition of Talmudic interpretation and disputation. In our system, we argue it out and come to consensus. We don’t give and follow orders from a single individual at the top. At least, that’s the way it has always been.
Some of my readers will find the Catholic influence less fortunate, but to my mind it makes Hentoff even more interesting and valuable and unique and worth emulating, not for the beliefs themselves but because he could not be put in a box. From the Catholics came his absolute reverence for human life, which for him meant 100% opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, war, torture, and, yes, abortion. I’m not here to defend or argue the latter stance (with which I happen to disagree), but it does make him among the most anomalous abortion opponents ever, an atheist Jew from the Northeast, a strange bedfellow indeed amongst all the Bible thumpers.
This combination made Hentoff among our foremost libertarians, and one equally at home (and not at home) among the left and right. This is the kind of independent thinker I cherish a great deal; there are so bloody few of them.
Another take away from Boston Latin — that excellent classical education made Hentoff a terrific writer. There is so much to be said for this. Unlike many of my favorite critics, I’m not sure I would ever call Hentoff a “talent” or a “wit”. He wasn’t, for example, funny, which makes him one of the few writers I love about whom that can be said. I would call him a “thinker”, someone whose thoughts and ideas were unique and logical and original and passionate. He was less about the words themselves than about expressing his thoughts as clearly as he could. His education allowed him to do that. This meant that, despite the fact that he wasn’t a flashy, poetic, memorable wordsmith, that I still read him all the time for the sake of what he had to say alone. And this meant that I was introduced to tons of subjects I might never have otherwise encountered. The greatest example I can think of is the life and work of independent journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone. Stone died in 1989; Hentoff eulogized him at the time, and wrote about his example on many other occasions. Stone was an American hero, a guy with a mission to uncover and communicate the truth, whatever the cost to himself, all day, every day, until the day he died. Hentoff’s admiration for such characters was always infectious.
Someone else I associate with Hentoff is Lenny Bruce. They had so much in common: Jews born in the twenties, verbal guys, whose work embodied the twin themes of jazz and the First Amendment. They knew each other of course. I just found this great clip of the two of them in conservation shortly before Bruce died in 1966, framed with later commentary, circa 1972. Watch it here. Nat Hentoff interviewing Lenny Bruce; that’s pretty much everything. Neither of them believed in heaven, but I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both there anyway.