By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer
Published October 23, 2005
Pass your hand idly across the dusty titles on a bookshelf and you'll sometimes find a surprise. It's like a gold nugget revealed when the water moves just so over a stream bed.
This is how I discovered A Free Man's Books, a long-forgotten speech delivered by Archibald MacLeish to the American Booksellers Association on May 6, 1942.
The thin red seam of cloth caught my eye as I stood before my bookshelf, waiting for what I don't know. Hardbound, slimmer than my pinky, it was shimmed between two more familiar books. I had never read it; had no idea I even had it. I can surmise, though, how it came to me.
MacLeish was a relative, somewhat distant to be sure (he was my grandmother's grandmother's half-brother). But his incomparable resume - top-flight lawyer, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and playwriting, Librarian of Congress, World War I veteran, friend of Ernest Hemingway, political ally of Franklin Roosevelt - cast a mighty shadow in a family without much else in the way of vocational achievement.
The speech is 17 pages long. I read it standing up.
"This meeting is almost an anniversary," MacLeish began. "It lacks four days of being the ninth anniversary of the Nazi bonfire of May 10th, 1933 in which 25,000 books were burned."
Both the bonfire and this gathering of booklovers, he said, "were tributes to the power of the book. . . . In a certain and very compelling sense, the bonfire of Berlin was the greater - if unintended - tribute."
I tried to imagine the response of the crowd of several hundred men and women to that remark. Were they yet paying attention? I could hear the clinking of dessert spoons on sorbet bowls, the light rattle of demitasse cups in their saucers.
"These Nazis perpetrated their obscene and spiteful act because they knew, ignorant and disappointed and defeated as they were, that books are weapons and a free man's books - such books as free men with a free man's pride can write - are weapons of such edge and weight and power that those who would destroy the world of freedom must first destroy the books that freedom fights with."
Then he asked a question that I have little doubt made some in his audience uncomfortable, maybe even angry.
"Do we, for all our protestations - do we for all our talk of books and all our labor with books and all our knowledge of books - do we recognize the power of books as truly as the Nazi mob which dumped them on a fire? . . ."
I've heard that MacLeish had a very good speaking voice, "almost hypnotic" is how one biographer described it, but I hear more than a little of the righteous scold in the way he answered his own question:
"A competent devil's advocate could ask us to forget the brutality and ignorance of the Nazis for a moment and think back over our own behavior in the last decade to say whether . . . we thought of books as powerful influences - as instruments by which the lives of men and nations can be shaped - or whether, on the contrary, we thought of books as merchandise - as packages to be sold alongside of rubber toothbrushes and bottles of hair tonic and proprietary pills."
In truth, the several hundred booksellers should not have been surprised by his provocation.
For the better part of the previous decade, MacLeish had been a staunch antifascist and was not shy about saying so. In the journalism he wrote for Fortune magazine in the '30s, he tackled the failures of every "ism" going. He believed his poetry and his plays needed to be just as topical.
Once the war began, his public statements took on even more urgency. He was so unabashed about his opinions that he earned the distinction of a 600-page FBI file, larger, it is said, than any other artist of the time.
In 1940, MacLeish disdainfully chastised "the irresponsibles," those artists he felt lacked the stomach to fight Hitler. Three weeks before the ABA speech, he had clashed publicly with newspaper publishers such as Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, who advocated the United States stay out of the war until it reached U.S. shores.
"The man who attempts through his ownership of a powerful newspaper . . . to undermine the people's confidence during a time of war," MacLeish said, "is the enemy, not of the government of this country, but of its people."
Those publishers gave as good as they got. MacLeish was a Communist sympathizer, they said. In fact, the term "fellow traveler" was coined to describe him.
Who knows why MacLeish was chosen as the keynote speaker for the ABA banquet, but likely it had something to do with his government work. Since October 1941, he had been director of the peculiarly named Office of Facts and Figures, the purpose of which was to disseminate accurate information on the war effort to the media.
He was a propagandist.
He preferred to call it "information work," and in private he said he detested it. But he was incontrovertibly an administration mouthpiece, albeit a particularly articulate one. This aspect of his career is somewhat easier to stomach because history has proven he was on the right side of the fight, but there was no hiding his true ambition. He was trying to influence public opinion on a matter of grave national importance, and he wanted the booksellers that night to help him.
To gain their cooperation, he reminded them that the publishing industry had up till then done a lamentable job of educating the public about "the actual world" and a superb job of selling and marketing a lot of tripe.
"If ever the people of a great nation were ignorant of the secret changes of the world in which they lived . . . the people of this country were ignorant and unprepared when the Nazis first struck for power," MacLeish said.
It was at about this point in the speech that I stopped trying to imagine the response of the crowd he was addressing and began to imagine the response of a similar gathering today.
We're at war. We have that much in common, though the roles of interventionists and isolationists have been reversed; the hawks are now the conservatives, the doves the liberals. But the fundamental question MacLeish asked is no less apt today: What role do books play in our understanding of that conflict?
Would MacLeish, who had been so appalled by the diffusion of mediocrity that he blamed on the Book of the Month Club, be as outraged by the corporatization of American bookselling? Would he consider the 375,000 English-language titles published in 2004 to be a sign of false health? Would he think the tell-all books by Washington insiders, the real-time memoirs of combat troops and the collected reportage of war correspondents sufficient to explain "the true nature of a time?"
I had wanted someone from the ABA today to answer that question. After all, the ABA is the organization of independent booksellers, the people MacLeish said had the closest connection to their customers, a connection so intimate that a word from them could influence a purchase and change a viewpoint.
The staff member who fielded my call made it clear her "trade group" did not want to make a "political statement."
MacLeish's reaction to this timidity is fairly easy to conjure: Books are treated like any other commodity. Say nothing that would affect sales.
But MacLeish was an optimist, despite his lamentations. He believed that good and useful books - Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, William Shirer's Berlin Diary - had been published and would continue to be. "The need of such a time as this brings out the books of which this time has a need," MacLeish told the booksellers.
But I suppose I needed some assurance of that. So I called Pat Schroeder. Schroeder, the former 12-term congresswoman from Colorado, has for the past eight years served as president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. She grasped the significance of the issue instantly.
"One of the things that happened in the first and second Iraq wars," she said, "is that books that had hardly sold - about Islam and Iraq, published by university presses and the like - went racing off the shelves. That was a very positive sign that Americans were seeking and getting good information."
But is it timely information, I asked. Shouldn't we be reading about these subjects before the planes hit the building, before the first shot is fired, before the next crisis erupts?
"That would be nice, wouldn't it?" she said. "But it's so hard. There are very few newspapers that focus on anything beyond our shores unless something major happens there. You're beginning to see more books on China. People are waking up to that."
And, like MacLeish, she sees a role for novels in that awakening. The Kite Runner, which describes Afghanistan before and after the war with the Soviet Union, became a bestseller. After the terrorist bombings in London this summer, many readers looked to Brick Lane, a story about life among British Muslims, for clues to the bombers' motivations.
But Schroeder also sees a threat emanating from the government - a threat that MacLeish, the activist Librarian of Congress, would likely have found abhorrent. The USA Patriot Act, she said, with its powers to examine people's library records, "is troubling to us."
"If government can come in and say, "You're reading a book about Islam, are you trying to become a Muslim?' then we've got a problem," she said.
There is a point at which the comparison between MacLeish's day and this one begins to break down.
Death sentences against novelists, sporadic efforts to ban classic literature and even the specter of someone peeking at our library cards do not constitute the same menace that MacLeish correctly identified in the fascist threat. And while there is still an inordinate amount of rubbish published each year, plenty of good books, and the answers they hold, are out there to be read.
The question for us is: How eagerly are we looking for them?