New York Times writer Walter Goodman discusses literary criminality.
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GUEST: Walter Goodman
AIR DATE: 9/16/83
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. The greatest of the rewards for doing this program week after week is, of course, the privilege and pleasure I have of picking subjects and guests I delightedly encounter, read about, become aware of the course of a rather miscellaneous and active life in the world outside. Recently, for instance, I read several particularly intriguing pieces about people and ideas in the book review section of the Sunday New York Times. One had to do with public opinion as the right court for writers, rather than our courts of law. Another examined the charge made long ago, of course, by John Chamberlain and others that the business of writers in America has often seemed to be the pillorying of business in America, for as our business presumably is business. And the third dealt with the tendency among some writers – abroad too, of course, but more importantly, here at home, for we are at home – then tendency among some writers to elevate particularly left-minded criminals who are writers into symbols of social repression, and therefore, into strangely heroic figures who ought to be forgiven their crimes against society and set free to pursue their writers trade, though unhappily sometimes their criminal tendencies too. Well, the man who wrote these pieces for The New York Times is Walter Goodman, and I’ve invited him here to be my guest today.
Thanks for joining me.
GOODMAN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: You know, I was particularly intrigued with this piece on literary criminals, the last sentence, “These cases call into question the pretensions of at least one contingent of our intelligentsia to instruct the rest of us about anything beyond a well-made sentence”. And that, I thought, was quite rapierish, and do you really feel quite so strongly about the incapacity of writers to advise us about anything other than the well-made sentence?
GOODMAN: I wouldn’t put it that way. I think we shouldn’t leap from a man’s work to making assumptions about his judgment in other areas. That is, a writer can be brilliant and contain brilliant truths in his novels, and yet, when he comes into the public and begins to instruct us about economics or politics or who should be free on the streets and who should be in jail, there’s no particular reason to listen to him.
HEFFNER: And yet, we’ve assumed always, it seems to me, that writers plumbed deep into the wisdom of mankind and present that wisdom to us. Is it not appropriate, then, to assume that they can comment as intelligently upon current events?
GOODMAN: Apparently not, from what they’re delivering to us. No, I think that’s a misunderstanding. I think writers work in very special ways within contained areas. When they write their books, they are doing what they do well. And they can take or give us whatever wisdom can be compressed in that book. But that doesn’t follow from that, that they go out and know men’s hearts, that they sit down and talk to you, they know what’s in your heart, and so they’re not in like that. They know other things.
HEFFNER: Well, what do you mean “other things”? What else is there to know? Seriously. Just their craft to perfection?
GOODMAN: I think that’s important. The writing is important. It’s very important, yes. It can’t be divorced. But I think a novel, for example, is just not written out of reality that way. I think it comes out of many other experiences. And it’s not directly transmutable into life on the outside. Anybody that tries to live by what he learns from novels is not going to get along very well in the world.
HEFFNER: Then you make novels all sound as though they were merely, at best, a presentation of excellent craftsmanship.
GOODMAN: No. I’m sorry if I did that. I don’t believe that. I think they’re very important. They teach us many things. They teach us many things about the world. But in a large way, or sometimes a very small way. What they don’t teach us is how to go out and make a living, make a business deal, have a romance, decide who is honest and who is not honest, what kind of economic system will work and what will not work. They don’t teach us these things.
HEFFNER: You mean when Ayn Rand writes, as she did, we needn’t take as prescriptions the world she creates for Gary Cooper or for some other great architect?
GOODMAN: I wouldn’t, no. Would you? (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Well, it seems to me that, in the occasional classes that I teach, if we read “The Red Badge of Courage”, or if we turn to a Platonic dialogue, we’re looking for some guidance for our own lives. Is that unfair, untrue?
GOODMAN: Maybe we should be more specific. Now suppose one reads a great antiwar novel. And you’re appalled at war and the blood and the loss and the waste, devastation. And then you must be a citizen in a world in which there are tremendous antagonisms among nations. Well, I’m not sure how the novel helps you in that way. We don’t want war. You’re against war. What does that mean, really, in dealing with Russia now, for example? I don’t think it helps, directly.
HEFFNER: You know, I, in thinking about this program the other night, I happened upon in television a fictional program, one that I like very much, a series I like very much. And then into reruns, one of the programs was about a federal grand jury. And it was a, in its own way, if not a diatribe against the institution of some of the unfair aspects of a federal grand jury, it came close to that. I was moved. I was touched. And I think I was educated by that bit of fiction. Should I have been on my guard, perhaps, because it was fiction?
GOODMAN: Always be on your guard, but not necessarily because it’s fiction. I think you should be on your guard against journalism also. But if you’re asking whether you can’t find anything in any work that applies to the real world, of course you can, yes. But you have to choose these things. And it doesn’t…All I’m saying is really not very complicated, is that it does not follow that because a work moves you or is just a fine piece of writing or – I hate to put it that way because it sounds less than I mean – but is a brilliant novel and gives all the things we want from a novel, all the understanding, wisdom, and so forth, it does not mean that the writer of that novel can then instruct us in how to live our lives.
HEFFNER: Well, of course, this all began with this essay on literary criminals. Not that it all began there, but I was particularly fascinated by the fact that the French had found themselves in somewhat the same situation that we have found ourselves in in terms of a literary criminal who had been freed because of this literary abilities and went out again and committed another crime, very much like an incident in our own country where a man committed a capital crime, having been freed, to some extent, on the urging of those who felt that he was too fine a talent to be kept incarcerated. Why do you think we’ve reached the point at which we pay quite so much attention to literary figures, that we accept their judgment in other matters?
GOODMAN: They’re the writers. We’re the writers. That is, we have the powers that – I don’t mean the power in ourselves – but the power in the places we work. I work for The Times. That’s a big institution. If you write a piece in The Times, you read it, and then you call me on television, and here we are on television. Well, that’s a certain kind of power. If others were writing, they would have that kind of power too, but it’s a small group, a relatively small group. And we have a power that I think is not always exercised responsibly, and probably is out of proportion to anything we can offer to anyone. We just do our best. And I hope that we do something, but that no one takes it…
HEFFNER: Too seriously?
GOODMAN: I was trying to avoid that word, yes. (Laughter) No one takes it as the holy writ, yes.
HEFFNER: Tell me more about that, if I may press you on that. You seem to be saying we scribblers have a great deal of power because we reach the people out there, and they, perhaps, are more impressed that they should be by what we write.
GOODMAN: I think that we’re more impressed. We’re too impressed.
HEFFNER: The writers, themselves?
GOODMAN: Yes. We’re too impressed with ourselves. In the cases you refer to, what happened was that two men were in jail in France and in America. They both committed serious crimes. They both were able to write. And what you didn’t mention was they were both on the political left, that they were both anti-capitalist, which is part of the intellectual tradition in this country. So that they were very, one wanted to like them. That is, the intellectuals wanted to like them, wanted to do something for them, and certainly not keep such men in jail. What is a writer who agrees with you politically doing in jail? Shouldn’t be there. So they got them out, and they committed crimes, because they were also criminals. I think they did them no favor by letting them out. They should have kept them in jail. Give them the writing paper, let them write…
HEFFNER: Tell me about this business of the left. Is this only a function of the left? Have we had this experience, too, with the right?
GOODMAN: Well, William Buckley had a problem with criminal, a similar problem. But I guess it wasn’t…I guess nobody called it a problem. But he did a similar thing a couple of years ago. But, I mean, it’s a question on the left because the intellectual tradition in our society is on the left. And it’s been that way for many years. Certainly since at least, the Depression. It seems to me the Depression was the intellectual watershed politically. That is, at that moment, because of the Depression here and fascism abroad, the lines between the left and the right were cut very severely. And you couldn’t be on the right, after all; you couldn’t be on Hitler’s side. You had to be on the left. And the left, at least, at that time, seemed to promise some improvement of capitalism, some beneficial revolution. All the terrible lessons that came later had not quite been learned. So that there is that tradition in America. And it goes beyond that. There’s a tradition of bohemianism, which is really antibourgeois. You know, middle-class society is boring. The intellectual wants more imaginative possibilities. And I think that there’s an anti-capitalist tradition probably that comes from the beginning of industrialization in the Nineteenth Century: terribly harsh working conditions, people being moved into dark places. Dickens is the prime example of writing about it. And sensitive people were repelled by it. And I think that tradition too works into all of this. And when it all comes together, you do get a strong element of what Truman called “The adversary culture in America”. The rough against the business culture in America.
HEFFNER: When Truman called it “The adversary culture”, couldn’t this have been reference to any creative group at just about any time? That it by and large sets itself against the prevailing intellectual currents?
GOODMAN: I’m not sure. You know, I don’t think it was true of the Greeks. I’m not sure it was true of the Elizabethans. I don’t think it would be, by the way.
HEFFNER: You think it’s a function of modern man?
GOODMAN: Some attribute the beginnings of it to Rousseau and the romantic tradition, sort of when society began to be more middle class, when the middle class began to rise. The middle class is boring. It’s a workaday, decent (I think) business, but it’s not interesting. And those who want to write and think and paint and do other things are somewhat put off by it. And that tradition, I think, plays into all of this, too.
HEFFNER: Well, in the piece you wrote, “Giving Business the Business”, and this is an old pattern in this country.
GOODMAN: Yes, it is.
HEFFNER: I think you find very few instances of man and women of fiction doing anything other than that.
GOODMAN: Very few indeed. I attended a meeting some time ago. We were trying to find some. And there were a couple. But the whole, just particularly since the Twenties, has been very anti-business. Ayn Rand you mentioned. She’s the single, probably the single popular writer who has been pro-business, really pro-business in our time.
HEFFNER: You know, I’ve wondered at times whether that contributes to a kind of national schizophrenia. The business of America presumably is business. To teach us through literary works, and in part through out schooling, that business is bad – not big business, but business is bad – presents us with a people who go into business and a people who are geared against business. That must leave us with a problem.
GOODMAN: It’s strange. It’s strange. I’m not sure what effect it has, though. You’re right. The schools have…And those of us who have gone through your schools, at least, know that there is a tendency to put down business, at least in my generation. And I do share it now. I wouldn’t want to go into business, particularly. It’s not a life that would interest me. There’s too much greed, too much money. The goals don’t seem to be higher than the bottom line, and all that. And I think I share feelings that many writers do. However, it’s also the part of the culture, our culture, which gives tremendous energy to the culture. I think we don’t appreciate that very often.
HEFFNER: But it seems to be, in terms of what you say, a negative energy, or an energy that’s derived from negative feelings.
GOODMAN: Yeah, people doing this for the wrong reasons. Maybe they are. Maybe they are. I think they do it for a lot of different reasons. People get a lot of excitement out of it. Businessmen get the same kind of excitement – if you can talk that you, you know, psychologically – the same kind of excitement from doing their deals as writers get from writing something, I think. It’s the same kind of energy, or the same kind of high. The same kind the gamblers get sometimes at their tables.
HEFFNER: What about the literature of other countries? Do we find the same kind of creative personality becoming colliding into a negative middle-class-society personality?
GOODMAN: Certainly in Western Europe, it seems to me. The French are notorious for it. There’s also a strong anti-American feeling that goes into that in Western Europe. Very strong, particularly in France.
HEFFNER: And of course, the French incident that you wrote about and we’re talking about was purely French.
GOODMAN: Yes, but he was an anti-American too. I mean, that would go without saying. (Laughter) He’s on the right.
HEFFNER: You mean, pardon him because he’s anti-American?
GOODMAN: He’s a good guy. He’s on our side. Yeah, that’s right.
HEFFNER: And you’re sort of saying that in this country the same thing is true. Free him so he can be even more critical of our decrepit culture?
GOODMAN: Yes, because…It was Jack Abbott who was the case here. And what he represented, I think, to those who celebrated him, wanted to free him, was the true anti-capitalist spirit. That is, it’s all very well to be anti-capitalist, and write about it and be comfortable and get royalties from capitalism; but somebody who’s actually committed a crime, finds himself in jail, has done something against capitalism – and then can write (not to many of them can write) – he’s a hero.
HEFFNER: What an awfully dangerous combination.
GOODMAN: Well, it was.
HEFFNER: It proved to be.
GOODMAN: It was dangerous for the man he killed, and dangerous for himself, too, of course.
HEFFNER: Why do you think we…Are we that masochistic that we embrace those who have no credential other than that of being a distinguished writer, a popular writer?
GOODMAN: I’d hate to describe it as masochism. But it certainly has to do with a feeling about the society, really a strong detestation of American society. And one can understand why. The values of the society are not terrific. The politics is not run on a very high level. There’s corruption on every level of society. And you can understand people who are not directly part of the corruption being repelled by it. And sensitive and intelligent people being repelled by it and wanting something better. The problem comes when the real choices in the world come up. If it’s not this kind of a system, what kind of a system will it be? Where is the idyllic system? Where is the one that’s really going to help us, and who are the people who are really going to lead us there? I think that’s led the left, particularly, into a lot of craziness. That is, they found heroes in Stalin’s Russian, largely because of their anti-American feelings, I think. And they find them in any kind of adventurer in Latin America also. Castro. They find it in Nicaragua now. They find it wherever the left makes the right speeches and the right noises. They found it in North Vietnam for a while. And then when it turns out that the people that had been heroes are suddenly just the military apparatchiks or totalitarians, they find another hero.
HEFFNER: But this isn’t only a left-versus-right matter. It has to do with our susceptibility to the statements, the proclamations (other than how to write a good English sentence) on the part of those who scribble. And I was interested to note before that you said, “Not only is the general public susceptible to notions of the authority of the writers, o the wisdom of the writers; but the writers are, themselves, too”. This seems to be a kind of closed circle here.
GOODMAN: A friend of mine, a writer named Dan Wakefield, once wrote a very amusing piece. He was asked to sign his name to a petition, one of these petitions that are constantly coming around, to free somebody or do something. And he sat down, and he thought to himself, “Ah, if I put my name on this petition, and Brezhnev gets it, Brezhnev will really be knocked out because I have signed my name to it”. Well, Wakefield understood something of his power. But I think we do overstate it. But I don’t wish anyone not to do these things. After all, most of the petitions are for very good reasons. They’re to get people out of jail, by and large, and to get fellow writers out of jails in all parts of the world. So we must try it.
HEFFNER: But that’s proved, in at least the two instances to which you addressed yourself in that piece in The Times, not to be a very positive result.
GOODMAN: Raises a different question. I don’t believe – and this is an argument – I don’t believe these people are political prisoners. They were criminals. They committed crimes. There are some who believe that practically every criminal in America is, in a sense, a political criminal. And the argument is that, having been shaped by the society and forced by the society into criminal ways, he is a product of the society and therefore the society has made him a criminal, and therefore he’s a political criminal in that sense. I don’t buy it. It sounds wacky to me, in fact, but it’s an argument. Now, if, as these people were, they are, in fact, politicals, well then it’s easy to think they’re political criminals. But they aren’t; they’re just criminals.
HEFFNER: You know, you talked about the impact of the writer who addresses himself to a subject other than his writing, in these instances, and says, “Free this one. Free that one. Sign this petition. Do something else”. What about books? I referred, before we went on the air, to an old book that I dug up that had impressed me when I was still a fairly young man, “Books That Change Our Minds”. There was Malcolm Calrey’s edition of a series of essays by such people as Louis Mumford and Max Lerner and Bernard Smith and others about classic books, The Decline of the West, be it an economic interpretation of the Constitution, et cetera. Writers seem to have an impact upon us. Do you think that books today, by and large, are capable, in this age of television, this age of the visual media, of having the kind of impact that they did in the past?
GOODMAN: I think so. They have the same impact on me. I’m just reading “Modern Times” by Paul Johnson. It’s an eccentric book, and is quite right-wing. But it’s a brilliant book. And I know that, when I’m done with it, it will remain with me. These ideas will remain with me. And I can’t tell you how they’ll change my mind, I really don’t even know. But I can’t believe they won’t have great influence.
HEFFNER: Yes, but I guess what I really want to address myself to and see how you react to this notion, the notion that books can change society’s minds, that books can have the kind of impact…Well, the apocryphal story: Abraham Lincoln meets Harriet Beecher Stowe and says, “So you’re the little lady that wrote the book that made this great war”. Probably apocryphal, but had some meaning to it anyway. Do you feel that today we have that kind of experience? Books that do change the nation’s mind?
GOODMAN: I suppose, the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe is special. That was a very successful, popular book. I think it works probably in a more subtle way now. Ideas filter down. They start with books which aren’t terribly well read. People like us read them. We talk about them. You talk to people on the show about the. Newspapers pick them up. And they begin to circulate, in a certain way. Of course, as they circulate, they’re diluted. That causes a problem sometimes. But, yes, I do believe an influence is there. I cannot believe it’s not there. How it works, I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
HEFFNER: Sometime back there was a piece in the book review section of The Times – and I’ll be doggoned if I can remember who it was who wrote it – but it was talking about Ralph Nader’s first book and the impact that it had. And then it went to “It Can’t Happen Here” and to several of the older novels.
GOODMAN: Well, you can put in Rachael Carson as a great effect, of course.
HEFFNER: But it’s interesting, with two contemporary books, or more rather than less contemporary, are nonfiction. And when one looks back at an Arrowsmith or an Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a Babbit, we’re talking about fiction. And I wonder if it’s just coincidence.
GOODMAN: Well, I mean, there was Das Kapital too, which was nonfiction. Of course, there’s the case of a book that nobody ever reads that had a great effect. So it’s a miraculous thing that occurs.
HEFFNER: If you had to identify, as a bookish man who writes about reading and writing, what books would you identify as over the past generation as having been of particular importance, influence?
GOODMAN: It depends on what you mean by…If you mean direct social influence on laws that get passed and so forth…
HEFFNER: Dealer’s choice. You’re the dealer. So you say it as you see it.
GOODMAN: Well, I will. But I have a caveat. The books that have influenced me most have not been really the directly influential ones. That is, I read Proust and find that something is happening to me when I read that book that doesn’t happen when I read Ralph Nader. It doesn’t come close. But for books that have had an effect on the society, Nader certainly has. There are a number of books. Malcolm X’s biography had a remarkable effect. I remember reading it and everybody reading it at the time. And I think it changed a whole understanding of blacks in America, of whites towards blacks, in terms of blacks for instance, in America. One of those astounding books. I’m sure there are others.
HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you whether you think that, as a man identified for a while with Burt Gasting and now once again with the world of print, do you think that broadcasting has anything like the influence that print does? Increasingly? Decreasingly? In whichever way?
GOODMAN: I would say an obvious thing. It has a broader influence and a shallower one. As you get enormous audiences and you’re able to get certain kinds of messages to them. Whether there’s a very deep impact of those messages, I don’t know. I know there’s not a lot of intellectual content in them, just from seeing the shows. Your show, I must say, is an exception. People talking about ideas. But that isn’t common.
HEFFNER: But ideas are dressed up in different forms. In fact, we began by talking about fiction. And ideas in the form of fiction, no matter writing about business or writing about crime, there are ideas embedded in fiction.
GOODMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But not so many in television fiction. Not from my staring at them.
HEFFNER: Really? You don’t think the stereotypes of television are ideaful and influential?
GOODMAN: The good cop or the bad cop? It’s just hard for me to see how it works its way into society. You look at “Dallas”, and you see a very busy (???) portrayed, and so forth. I don’t think it matters. I don’t think it matters at all.
HEFFNER: Is that the decision of a bookish man?
GOODMAN: Probably. Yeah. I have a deep prejudice against television, of course. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: I wonder if sometime we couldn’t talk about, not so much the deep prejudice against television, but our capacity to see what it does do – not in terms of violence or this or that or the specific thing, the way it changes our children, does this bad thing or that bad thing – but it seems to me that you writers are the lost tribe of broadcasting. The intellectuals who never paid enough attention to it. Is that a fair…
GOODMAN: I think attention has been paid to it. Maybe we value it differently.
HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you say you’ve dismissed it?
GOODMAN: Probably in my own life I’ve dismissed it, by and large, yes. But I recognize…I still watch some of it. And I recognize there are useful things on it. But if you’re talking about comparing it to the influence of books, on myself, on people I know, no, there’s no comparison.
HEFFNER: Walter Goodman, thanks for joining me today on television.
GOODMAN: (Laughter) Thank you.
HEFFNER: …on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old broadcasting friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.