Monday, May 04, 2009

Book Report: "Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician" by Gerald Meyer

Emerson said an institution is the shadow of a single man, a lesson Gerald Meyer learned during research on the history of the American Labor Party (ALP).

In his "Acknowledgements" to the book under consideration here, Meyer confesses, "In the process of accomplishing this formidable task, I fell in love with Vito Marcantonio. The ALP was an important institution, but Marcantonio loomed over it."

"Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954"represents the skillful and thorough response to a series of questions posed by Herbert Gutman, the sponsor of Meyer's proposed doctoral dissertation: "Who voted for him? Why did they vote for him? What was East Harlem like? What did people do for a living? Who owned the stores?"

Meyer's work succeeded two earlier efforts, "Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress," by Alan Schaffer and "Vito Marcantonio, The People's Politician," by Salvatore John LaGumina.

Schaffer's effort placed Marcantonio in the national firmament of the times, 1902 to 1952, and LaGumina added some anecdotal history and a slightly different angle than that of his predecessor.

But it is Meyer's book that places Marcantonio in the New York of his day and, specifically, the East Harlem neighborhood that produced him.

Here is Marcantonio diving off a truck into the street mob during a speech, arms flailing. There the Congressman confessing unconditional trust in his grandmother who attends rallies with an umbrella under her coat in the event of fisticuffs.

And here is the "retail" congressman delivering coal and Christmas baskets to troubled neighbors, a guy who empties his pockets to the hard luck cases that pock his district.

Meyer's work goes where the other two did not in regards to the Marcantonio Papers archived at the New York Public Library on 42 St. and Fifth Avenue.

In these 85 boxes can be found dusty, flaky records of "Marc's" public life and work, but more importantly, the voices of his constituency, which Meyer has culled for insightful passages from letters both handwritten and typed.

Yes, Meyer meticulously details the complicated nature of New York City's "fusion" politics and the skill with which Marcantonio navigated them to unique projection as a national leader of far left-wing forces.

But the author also renders the radical politician's story an organic whole.

Rather than the narrative of some anomalous oddity out of time, we have in this book a man fleshed out and brought to life by the environment that produced him and to which he gave so much form, through his leadership.

In his conclusion, Meyer laments Marcantonio's slow fade into anonymity and argues that, "his story deserves to be known, because it contradicts so many of the platitudes which pass for American history and therefore suggests new ways of thinking about the present."

"Radical Politician" takes the first, bold steps in this effort, loyally transcribing the voices of desperate constituents seeking assistance of every kind and often beyond the natural purview of the congressional representative.

Meyer began his project just in time to provide his work with an important layer of oral history extracted from residents of East Harlem, now mostly departed.

Through these voices we gain the story of progressive and communist movements during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and begin affixing them to real faces; faces worn with lines wrought by terrible struggles.

And through these same voices, we hear Marcantonio's, because they were one and the same.

Thanks to Meyer's rendering of the fighting congressman and his world, we realize that, beneath the Jazz Age's glamorous narration, people were being crushed by the inequities in American life.

We witness how the annihilation accelerated with the next decade's economic miseries so that these movements appear not so much as insidious viruses inexplicably invading the body politic, rather as natural responses to a clamor for redemption.

And through Marcantonio's story, we can see how the ensuing repression was not the result of some lightning-strike catharsis which brought Americans to their senses, but the product of a brutal rollback to darkness fueled by American capital's resurgence after the healthy profit-making venture that was World War II.

"Radical Politician" renders a multifaceted talent: a lawyer, political street fighter, parliamentarian, neighborhood Don, leftist commissar. A man who had affairs, yet was sainted by those who knew and were affected by his labors, a man who switched tacks to accommodate the shifting sands of mid-century politics, and committed enough mistakes to make him more human and beautiful than so many that populate our historical memory.

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