What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Malcolm X: Pinckney v. Powers v. Remnick

It’s interesting to compare three reviews of Manning Marable’s recent Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention: David Remnick’s “This American Life” (The New Yorker, April 25, 2011); Thomas Powers’ “Too Fast” (London Review of Books, August 25, 2011); Darryl Pinckney’s “The Two Conversions of Malcolm X” (The New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011). Remnick, in his piece, calls Malcolm “a vivid but secondary figure in his own time.” He says, “Malcolm was an electrifying spokesman for black dignity and selfhood, a radical prod to the mainstream movement, but his role in the civil-rights movement was marginal.” This contrasts with Pinckney’s and Powers’ view. Pinckney says, “Most civil rights histories cast him [Malcolm] as the pivotal voice in a drama of mass transformation, the shift in general black opinion away from believing in the effectiveness of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence to conceding the justice in the militancy of the disaffected blacks in the Northern cities.” Powers writes that Malcolm “gave voice to black anger with a furious clarity rivaled in American history only by Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831.” He says that Malcolm’s face “was soon among the most famous faces in the country.” Reading Pinckney and Powers, it’s hard to accept Remnick’s “secondary figure in his own time” assessment.

Powers, in his review, praises Marable’s FBI research. He says, “It is here that Marable’s meticulous book makes its most significant contribution, quoting liberally from FBI files and the once secret files of New York City’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigation, beginning in June 1950 when Malcolm wrote a letter to Truman on the outbreak of the Korean War.” Neither Pinckney, nor Remnick, mentions this aspect of Marable’s biography. In fact, Pinckney says, “Maybe Marable hasn’t come up with as much that is really as new as he claimed, but his biography gives the satisfying feeling that he has consulted most everything out there about Malcolm X.” At one point, Remnick quotes an FBI informant, but not for the purpose of extolling Marable’s research skills.

Remnick sees Alex Haley as the key figure in Malcolm’s story. He says, “Malcolm clearly made his deepest impression on the American consciousness through his collaboration with Alex Haley.” He again emphasizes this point in the conclusion of his piece: “By choosing to entrust his story to Alex Haley, Malcolm ensured himself a lasting place in American culture.” Whereas, in Powers’ view, the Autobiography was a team effort. He says, “Rarely have two writers contributed so equally to a book. Malcolm provided the edge of social anger, unflinching and unapologetic, while Haley coaxed the personal details from him that Malcolm in his pride thought beside the point.” Pinckney has little to say about Haley. He reviews without comment Marable’s various contentions that Haley meddled with Malcolm’s conception of the book, saying only, “Yet Malcolm’s voice is undeniable and Haley deserves credit for preserving it in this form.”

Regarding Malcolm’s assassination on February 21, 1965, in the Audubon ballroom in Harlem, Powers points out that Marable “thinks the investigation of the murder was botched and that some of those who participated in the killing went free.” Pinckney is even more detailed on this point, describing what happened in the ballroom and quoting Marable’s opinion that, “Although in 1966 three NOI members were convicted of the murder, extensive evidence suggests that two of those men were completely innocent of the crime, that both the FBI and the NYPD had advance knowledge of it, and that the New York County District Attorney’s office may have cared more about protecting the identities of undercover police officers and informants than arresting the real killers.” Clearly, Marable’s conclusion on the murder investigation, based, as he says, on “extensive evidence,” is major news. Curiously, Remnick, in his review, fails to mention it. He briefly describes the murder, then cuts to Haley writing to his agent, “None of us would have had it be this way, but since this book represent’s [sic] Malcolm’s sole financial legacy to his widow and four little daughters … I’m just glad that it’s ready for the press now at a peak of interest for what will be international large sales, and paperback, and all.”

The Marable contention that Remnick seizes on, and repeatedly mentions in his review, is the allegation that parts of the Autobiography are exaggerated. Remnick says:

One of his [Marable’s] goals was to grapple with Malcolm’s autobiography, and although he finds much to admire about Malcolm, he makes it clear that the book’s drama sometimes comes at the expense of fact. Haley wanted to write a “potboiler that would sell,” Marable observes, and Malcolm was accustomed to exaggerating his exploits – “the number of his burglaries, the amount of marijuana he sold to musicians, and the like.” Malcolm, like St. Augustine, embellished his sins in order to heighten the drama of his reform.

In Malcolm’s alleged exaggeration and embellishment, Remnick finds a theme. He says, “The literary urge outran the knowledgeable facts even in the most crucial episode in Malcolm’s childhood.” The “crucial episode” that Remnick refers to is the gruesome death of Malcolm’s father. Remnick says,

The authorities ruled his death an accident, but Malcolm’s mother, Louise, was sure he had been beaten by the Black Legion and laid on the tracks to be run over and killed. Perhaps he had been, but, as Marable notes, nobody knew for sure. The autobiography (and Lee’s film) presents the ostensible murder as established fact, and yet Malcolm himself, in a 1963 speech at Michigan State University, referred to the death as accidental.

Perhaps he had been … nobody knew for sure. That would seem to be sufficient grounds for withholding allegations of exaggeration and embellishment. But not for Remnick. Pinckney, in his review, gives the Autobiography’s version of the father’s death the benefit of the doubt. Pinckney says, “In 1931, his father was killed in a gruesome accident. Black people whispered that the Legion had attacked him and laid his body across the tracks where he was nearly cut in half by a streetcar.”

Powers, in his “Too Fast,” mentions Marable’s allegation of exaggeration, but only in passing. He says,

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention adds much useful detail to the story as Haley told it, especially to Malcolm’s last years, while suggesting only a single modest revision. Perhaps, Marable offers, Haley and Malcolm exaggerated the latter’s sordid life of sin and crime to highlight, as St. Augustine did, the luminous transformation eventually worked by God, or Allah. “An investigation of the NYPD’s arrest record for Malcolm Little,” Marable writes, “failed to turn up any criminal charges or arrests.” Perhaps this only means that Malcolm was one jump ahead of the law. In any event, beyond a few quibbles with the chronology of Malcolm’s Harlem years, Marable contradicts none of the stories in the Autobiography.

Note that last sentence: “In any event, beyond a few quibbles with the chronology of Malcolm’s Harlem years, Marable contradicts none of the stories in the Autobiography.” This contrasts sharply with Remnick’s view that “he [Marable] makes it clear that the book’s drama sometimes comes at the expense of facts.”

Remnick’s review reads like an overzealous prosecutor’s brief. It minimizes Malcolm’s historical role, sources his iconic status in the Autobiography, and then tries to knock that down by shooting holes in its credibility.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as Pinckney and Powers make clear in their excellent pieces. There’s a sentence in Pinckney’s “The Two Conversions of Malcolm X” that, in just fourteen direct, well-chosen words, captures the essence of Malcolm’s greatness: “Malcolm X embodied a blackness that could stand up to the white man’s rules.”

Credit: The above photograph of Malcolm X is by Eve Arnold. It appears in the April 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, as an illustration for David Remnick's "This American Life."

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