Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Parallel lives of determination and vigor (Books - A Saving Remnant by Martin Duberman)

Barbara Deming and David McReynolds are social and political radicals who worked during the tumultuous decades spanning the 1950s - 2000s. Their personal transformation through radical political action is the subject of Martin Duberman's dual biography A Saving Remnant. This sometimes messily organized narrative seemed almost suited to McReynolds and Demings's unusual lives of outward determination and vigor, and their parallel personal journeys which included much internal conflict, however, I was disappointed by the writing, which I found curiously flat and carelessly repetitive. Additionally, in a story whose central characters were active in many political organizations and who published in numerous journals, Duberman gave me too little background to help distinguish the Social Democratic Front from the Students for a Democratic
Society or the Socialist Party from the Independent Socialist League from the War Resisters League, and then to keep them distinct from one another as the narrative progressed. This was not the case in reading Duberman's earlier Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, his inspiring and well-researched book on the Black Mountain artists' colony of the 1930s. Despite writing in A Saving Remnant which lacked directedness or excitement, I ultimately became compelled by Demings and McReynolds's invigorating lives, which were devoted predominantly to pacifist activities and the struggle for equal treatment of black Americans, to see their stories through to the end.
The phrase "a saving remnant" has historically referred to that small number of people neither indoctrinated nor frightened into accepting oppressive social conditions. Unlike the general populace, they openly challenge the reigning powers-that-be and speak out early and passionately against injustice of various kinds....One of my intentions in writing this book is to demonstrate that in the mid-to-late twentieth century in the United States, the "saving remnant" included, in some cases prominently, a number of gay people.
What Duberman is very good at is how McReynolds and Deming's sexuality in the context of the repressive 1950s propelled them into activism. How the fact of their sexuality was formative not only of their relationships but of their whole lives, which were fraught with complexity. He is convincing on the psychological motivations behind his actors and their colleagues, parents, lovers, and friends. He is equally good at immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the turbulent sixties, with Bayard Rustin, Edmund Wilson, Allen Ginsberg, and Alvin Ailey all making appearances in the story. It is striking too, in reading this book in the context of the current Jacobean presidential campaign, that there was a time in recent American history during which people were less jaded about politics and when running for office was not just a function of money.

A Saving Remnant is a story of what medical writer Atul Gawande has referred to as "positive deviants," (I don't write now of McReynolds and Deming's sexuality, but of the singularity of their lives of struggle for the good) people whose divergence from the norm makes a positive and necessary contribution to the advancement of some aspect of our lives. Duberman does us a service in conveying the value of their exceptional lives.

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