Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955)
Reissued by Modern Library in 1998.
In American history books, the terms "Communism" and "socialism" have been demonized as an almost entirely foreign, insidious force. The loaded words have taken on such a personification of their own it is easy to forget that communism and socialism had a very real place within U.S. borders. Journalist Murray Kempton didn't want the origins of communism in the United States to be forgotten. Part of Our Time outlines the lives of ancillary characters in the major communist scandals of the 1930s.
"The thirties were a part of my life like any other," Kempton writes in his author's note. "I am aware that there are things in it for which I must apologize; I am also aware that in the whole of my life there will be many things for which I must apologize, under what have to be compulsions stronger than a Congressional subpoena."
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist James Murray Kempton is known for his independence and high ethical standards as a reporter for Newsday and a columnist for the New York Post. A self-proclaimed student socialist, Kempton had more than a passing interest in the party that shaped his youthful ideals. Kempton assumes that his readers retain a detailed journalistic knowledge of events like the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the House of Un-American Activities Committee, and the rise and fall of Alger Hiss. Building on this assumed memory, Kempton crafts an almost lyrical history of Communism through the eyes of its less-well-known supporters. For example, in the first chapter he tells the story of Alger Hiss and his upbringing of "shabby gentility" through the eyes of his colleague and friend Whittaker Chambers, who remembers Hiss as "a devoted and rather romantic Communist." The subsequent chapters add to the glorified story of American Communists drawing in each character to try and connect an otherwise foundationless group of similar-minded people. The trial and execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti is relayed through the eyes of their trial lawyer who was devastated by their deaths. The Hollywood Communist contingent is told through the eyes of idealistic writers making a statement in New York's fringe theater scene before selling out to Hollywood. Rallying unions to a Communist sensibility is shown through the eyes of an out-of-work, rough-around-the-edges dock hand.
"No matter how well-intentioned or misguided a radical partisan of the 1930s may have been, he or she was at best a stooge and at worst an apologist for totalitarian terror," Chris Lehmann wrote in a Washington Post review. "To extend even the slightest sympathy toward such lost souls now counts as an only slightly less heinous moral weakness. Kempton's account of '30s radicalism ... pivots on a homelier point of departure, one that renders the past much more comprehensible to posterity even as it, if anything, strengthens rather than diminishes the moral culpability of its subjects. While scrupulously tending to the hidden ironies and cruel final verdicts that marked the gradual unfolding of most of the lives that Kempton chronicles, Part of Our Time still achieves the kind of depth of character and tragic-minded compassion we expect from a Chekhov or Henry James."
For students of journalism, Part of Our Time is a revealing mix of reportage techniques, beautiful - if slightly confusing - language, and an iconoclastic view of history. Kempton outlines his informational sources in a short prelude to each chapter before writing a strong narrative, and an almost omniscient story. Although Kempton grounds his writing in history and fact, it borders on too lyrical to be understood as "accessible" historical writing and too biased, as Kempton acknowledges, to be traditional journalistic reporting.
Washington Post review