Andrew Ladd reviews two books that remind us how messy even the most celebrated social change can be.
You don’t have to look hard these days to see the rumblings of social change. From liberals at home trying to reform health care and repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (and the conservative backlash trying just as hard to dismantle unions and public services) to the protests sweeping through the Middle East, everyone, it seems, has something they want to fix.
For that reason, two new books detailing similar battles for reform in recent history seem particularly relevant to today’s readers: T.J. English’s The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge
, an entertaining and meticulously researched account of three men whose lives were changed by the New York civil rights movement; and Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, a thematic biography of the famous Indian leader that seeks to explain the roots—and the consequences—of his idiosyncratic political beliefs.
These stories, of four men facing remarkably similar circumstances despite being separated by class, race, nationality, and time, make for more than interesting reading, too. They’re also indispensable as an illustration of how messy even the most celebrated social change can be—and a reassuring reminder, to anybody unnerved by all that’s going on in the world today, that upheaval is not as unusual as it might feel.
The three protagonists of The Savage City are Bill Phillips, a corrupt NYPD cop who turns snitch to save his skin; Dhoruba bin Wahad, a founder of the New York Black Panthers; and George Whitmore, an African-American famous, essentially, for doing nothing—he was framed by the NYPD for three murders, and his 10-year battle to clear his name became a national cause célèbre. (The case against him was based entirely on unwitting remarks made to police, and was one of several cited in the Supreme Court decision that gave us the modern Miranda warning.)
Though all three men followed similar and overlapping orbits in New York in the 1960s, they never actually crossed paths; on the face of things there’s no good reason to connect them. English’s justification is that
they became enmeshed in a similar matrix of forces—political, social, racial—that would alter the direction of the city. Their lives, chronicled closely at the time but largely forgotten today, cast a refracted glow on one another and on an entire generation of contemporaries caught up in the turmoil of the times.
That’s a sophisticated sociological argument, which English makes convincingly. And yet Whitmore is clearly the star of this book, his story the most riveting, and so the rest of it often reads like very elaborate filler. Bin Wahad’s sections veer repeatedly into national Panther politics rather than staying confined to the eponymous Savage City, and Phillips reads more like a small-time hustler who could be transplanted to any street corner in the country. (I’m pretty sure I saw him in a Raymond Chandler novel once.)
None of which is to say that bin Wahad and Phillips aren’t interesting characters, nor that English could have told Whitmore’s story as panoramically as he does without at least mentioning them, but I wonder whether giving them equal billing and calling it a book about New York isn’t a bit misleading.
Then again, I guess The George Whitmore Affair: A Story of Incrementally Shifting Attitudes Toward Race in 1960s America wouldn’t be such a dramatic title—and English is nothing if not dramatic. Each page brims with “wars” and “battles” and “revolutions”—even an “unfathomable tribulation” at one point—and his take-home message is that all of the anger and tension of the 1960s remains, as he puts it, “embedded below the surface of the city like a dormant but smoldering volcano, one that could rumble to life at any time.” Which is probably true, but it sounds less convincing for being consistently delivered in summer-blockbuster-preview voice.
I’m splitting hairs, though. Despite occasionally overdoing it, English’s screenwriting instincts (he’s won awards for his work on NYPD Blue) are what make the book so immensely readable—and whether it does exactly what it says on the cover, it’s still a valuable and informative overview of a gripping chunk of U.S. history.
I suppose it isn’t really fair to criticize Lelyveld’s Pulitzer-winning, academic style in Great Soul for being less engaging than English’s rip-roaring, general-interest crime writing. On the other hand, since English proves it’s possible to build a thriller around otherwise staid historical analysis, I’m left wondering about the merit in doing otherwise.
Because Lelyveld has some interesting things to say about Gandhi, and his overall point—that we ought to remember the Mahatma as a complex human being and not a one-dimensional figurehead—is one I agree with, but gosh: someone put on a pot of coffee!
The stodginess doesn’t come from Lelyveld’s prose, which is as lucid and lilting as any you’ll find. Instead its source is the fanatic attention to detail with which he selects subject matter. I don’t doubt that a 19th-century editorial in some long-defunct South African newspaper was key to Gandhi’s ideological development, but while dwelling on such minutiae can be the sign of a great historian, it’s rarely an advantage for a writer. The soaring narrative arc Lelyveld clearly wants to draw here is hard to appreciate when the text gets gummed up with so much unrestrained, if well-intentioned, research.
Ultimately, though, if there’s a devil in Great Soul it isn’t in the details, which at least I can occasionally appreciate. The careful description of Gandhi’s upper-class lifestyle in his early years, for instance, is striking not only for its contrast with stereotypical images of Gandhi, but as a humbling reminder of how much he gave up for his principles.
No, the book’s larger problem is that Lelyveld’s portrait of Gandhi as a singular, determined reformer doesn’t feel inspirational so much as it does disenfranchising. How can anyone possibly live up to this miracle worker, whose travails spanned two continents and several decades and transformed an entire nation? (I can’t even get my taxes done on time.)
And even if Gandhi’s shortcomings are detailed here as conscientiously as his achievements, as are the other social forces that influenced his success, one inevitably gets the sense that being Gandhi is still what it took to get things done—so it begins to seem like we ordinary working stiffs will never accomplish anything.
In that light, The Savage City, for all its unfathomable tribulations, is the more uplifting of these books. Whitmore, Phillips, and bin Wahad were, for the most part, just regular guys trying to keep their lives together. Yet all around them the most pressing issues of their day—racial inequality, police corruption, urban violence—slowly worked themselves out anyway.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make the world a better place, nor that it will magically become one overnight. But when we’re feeling defeated, when we need a day off, when it seems like there’s too much wrong with too many different things for us to even know where to start, it should be comforting to know that, somehow, as a society, we’re probably still fumbling toward something better.