A hu­morist se­ri­ous about racial in­jus­tice

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - book­world@wash­post.com Robert B. Stepto teaches at Yale Univer­sity and is the au­thor of “A Home Else­where: Read­ing African Amer­i­can Clas­sics in the Age of Obama.” RE­VIEW BY ROBERT B. STEPTO

Harry Golden came to the United States in 1907 as a Jewish im­mi­grant boy from what is now Ukraine. He was prob­a­bly 4 years old at the time. His fam­ily set­tled in New York’s Lower East Side, an area that be­came a fa­bled Jewish neigh­bor­hood in great part be­cause of Golden’s en­ter­tain­ing and in­form­ing tales of him­self and his neigh­bors there. He worked as a news­pa­per boy in the neigh­bor­hood and re­mem­bered for the rest of his life the day in 1915 when a Jewish fac­tory su­per­in­ten­dent in At­lanta named Leo Frank was mur­dered by a mob. Golden had to sell news­pa­pers with the head­line “FRANK LYNCHED!” How do you sell pa­pers scream­ing that “dis­tinctly Amer­i­can word” to im­mi­grants? How do you learn — and live with — that word?

In “Carolina Is­raelite,” Kim­berly Mar­lowe Hart­nett rightly sug­gests that Golden’s keen aware­ness of Amer­ica’s rit­u­als of prej­u­dice and vi­o­lence be­gan with the Frank case and that his feel­ings sharp­ened all the more when he be­came a South­erner in 1940. Golden’s 10th book, “A Lit­tle Girl Is Dead,” pub­lished in 1965, is a care­fully re­searched ac­count of the Frank lynch­ing. It gave a spe­cial shape to his ca­reer as a writer and ad­vo­cate for jus­tice, as Hart­nett un­der­stands.

“Carolina Is­raelite” takes its name from Golden’s witty, cranky one-man news­pa­per, be­gun in Char­lotte in 1944. But Hart­nett’s bi­og­ra­phy is not just about the years of the news­pa­per. It presents the en­tirety of Golden’s life dur­ing “the most fas­ci­nat­ing and telling events in Amer­ica’s mod­ern history,” in­clud­ing the waves of immigration, the stock mar­ket crash of 1929, the wars, the elec­tion of a Ro­man Catholic pres­i­dent, Viet­nam and the civil rights move­ment. As a bi­og­ra­pher, Hart­nett chal­lenges her­self to “place the past in con­text [by] min­ing the news­pa­pers and books that reg­u­lar folks were read­ing.” Reg­u­lar folks were read­ing Harry Golden. His news­pa­per at times had more than 20,000 sub­scribers; many of his books ap­peared on best­seller lists. Hart­nett’s great point is that to re­visit Golden’s books and ar­ti­cles to­day “is to see quite clearly what many peo­ple did not know about race is­sues and re­li­gious and class dif­fer­ences.”

She sug­gests that Golden’s at­trac­tion to jour­nal­ism may have be­gun in the early 1930s, when he closely fol­lowed the story of the ar­rest and end­less tri­als of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama. He first read about these young black boys, ac­cused of rap­ing two white women, while he was in prison af­ter be­ing se­duced by “the Siren’s call of easy money” and con­victed at age 26 of fraud on Wall Street. This was the sad out­come of Golden start­ing a Wall Street “bucket shop” in 1926 af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to the bro­ker­age busi­ness by his sis­ter, Clara, “Wall Street’s first mod­ern-day fe­male stock­bro­ker.” Sit­ting in prison, he un­der­stood in the case of the Scottsboro Boys that “life sen­tences and death row were real things. . . . Thiswas not a ‘civil rights’ story to him then; that term was not even in com­mon use yet. . . . It was a story about jour­nal­ism, the good jour­nal­ism that made peo­ple rally for the un­der­dog.” A decade later, Golden him­self started pro­duc­ing such jour­nal­ism.

It was in North Carolina in the 1940s that Golden be­came friends with the poet Carl Sand­burg. “Golden’s writ­ing abil­i­ties grew within this friend­ship,” Hart­nett writes; “his style owes some­thing to Sand­burg’s lov­ing treat­ment of so­ci­ety’s in­vis­i­ble work­ers and wan­der­ers. The men shared a cer­tain abil­ity to use wicked hu­mor as in­dict­ment.” Years later, Golden and Sand­burg cam­paigned to­gether for John F. Kennedy. Golden com­pleted a book about Sand­burg dur­ing that 1960 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

In a chap­ter ti­tled “Brown, Flames, and Fame,” Hart­nett writes about the Supreme Court’s mo­men­tous 1954 de­ci­sion against “sep­a­rate but equal” school­ing and about its af­ter­math in Golden’s life. There are doubt­less many ways to por­tray that mo­ment for Golden; Hart­nett chooses a story that he told in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “The Right Time” (1969). On the day of the de­ci­sion, he went out af­ter lunch to pay a visit to Ken Whit­sett, a lo­cal artist who was ar­tic­u­late and charm­ing but also a “diehard seg­re­ga­tion­ist.” Golden hadn’t heard the news, but Whit­sett had, and when Golden ar­rived, Whit­sett flew at him and shouted: “You did it! You did it! You came down from the North and put the n-----s up to it.” With that, Whit­sett slapped him.

Not long af­ter­ward, in Fe­bru­ary 1957, fire de­stroyed Golden’s house, books, records and cor­re­spon­dence. Cov­er­age of the tragedy oc­curred in “just about ev­ery ma­jor news­pa­per and news mag­a­zine, the Con­gres­sional Record, late-night TV, and the church cir­cuit. . . . Con­tri­bu­tions came from ac­tors, housewives, ho­tel clerks, Repub­li­cans, Democrats, So­cial­ists, whites, blacks, racists, and paci­fists,” all of which Hart­nett care­fully doc­u­ments. Five months later, “Only in Amer­ica,” a col­lec­tion of Golden’s es­says for his news­pa­per, was pub­lished, and with it came a new level of fame. Hart­nett notes the many pos­i­tive re­views and in­cludes this as­sess­ment of her own: “The book was gen­uinely funny; it ex­alted the lit­tle guy and the work­ing stiff. It cap­tured a cer­tain Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence in Amer­ica — the ver­sion that most peo­ple wanted to re­mem­ber, as it turned out.” “Only in Amer­ica” was a best­seller for 66 weeks.

Hart­nett is forth­right in her in­tro­duc­tion about her per­sonal rea­sons for writ­ing Golden’s life. Her mother, Mon­trose Buchanan, briefly worked for Golden as a sec­re­tary in the 1940s and decades later pro­duced “clever writ­ing” for news­pa­pers that was “heav­ily in­flu­enced by Golden.” Hart­nett un­der­took “Carolina Is­raelite” for her mother but also for her­self: She is a su­perb writer who knows what can be pro­duced when you re­search the past and learn what “reg­u­lar peo­ple” are read­ing.


Harry Golden, right, with Robert Kennedy dur­ing Kennedy’s 1964 Se­nate bid. The in­scrip­tion reads: “For Harry — And af­ter­wards I put on my coat, did what you told me and won the elec­tion. My thanks — Bob Kennedy.”

By Kim­berly Mar­lowe Hart­nett Univ. of North Carolina. 359 pp. $35 CAROLINA IS­RAELITE How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights

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