Thursday, October 1, 2015
"Carolina Israelite" by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett (2015)
I was first introduced to the writings of Harry Golden by Leonard Herman when I was 15 years old. He was the father of one of my friends when I was growing up in Brooklyn. Come to think of it, he also was the first person to expose me to Isaac Singer’s wonderful short stories. Years later; something like 40; I went to live in Charlotte, N.C. where Mr. Golden is somewhat of a legend; if only for the fact that he lived through the Civil Rights Movement here while writing about it like a liberal Jew from New York.
His home/office on Elizabeth Avenue was even burnt down in reaction to something he printed in his self-published newspaper the “Carolina Israelite” which is the tile of this book. The authors’ mother actually worked for Mr. Golden for a brief period in the 1940’s and uses the title in the way Mr. Golden meant it. It wasn’t the title of the paper as much as it was a description of Mr. Golden himself; he was the Carolina Israelite; roaming the wilderness of North Carolina espousing his views on racial and social equality, much as the Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years in search of a home.
The author does a wonderful job of chronicling the life of this enigmatic man; including his years in New York where he rose from the Lower East side selling newspapers on the corners, to engaging in some very astute stock market swindles which landed him in jail for a time. It was after his stint in prison that he began to roam, looking for a new start somewhere. For some reason he chose Charlotte, North Carolina as the place to transform himself.
As a spokesman for African-Americans he penned the controversial, and hysterically funny piece of satire called “The Vertical Negro Plan”, in which he solves the whole lunch counter seating problem which was then engulfing North Carolina by simply recommending that all seats be removed from restaurants and schools, as the only time black and white people seemed to have problems concerned seating arrangements; even on buses. Make ‘em all stand.
His friendships’ with some of the most influential men of his time are well chronicled, and the author does a great job of reviewing those relationships and even how some of them came about. His habit was to add a famous person’s name to his subscription list and then mention that they were subscribers, thus enhancing his own stature. Shades of his Wall Street days come to mind here. Surprisingly, most of those he befriended in this way actually did become friends with him. The Kennedy’s, both Bob and Jack; Carl Sandburg, who also lived in North Carolina; Adlai Stevenson; even Billy Graham all were proud to count him among their friends.
As far as Jewish-American relations go, Mr. Golden was not idle in that theater of operation. His most stunning piece of work; at least in my eyes; is his essay “Teaching Shylock”, in which he shows the reader how the “Merchant of Venice” and its portrayal of Shylock were not anti-Semitic at all. In fact Shakespeare has lampooned the Christian aristocracy in such a subtle way that people have been reading that play all wrong for 500 years. This is some accomplishment and I urge you strongly to read that piece. I will include a link to it at the end of this review.
In short, this is a wonderful book, long overdue, about one of the most underrated and unappreciated writers in American literature. It is only in the past 20 years that he has begun to be recognized as such. Lenny Herman was way ahead of the curve when he introduced me to the works of this wonderful man of letters.
Here is a link to the “Teaching Shylock” piece, which I really hope you will take the time to read. If you are a Shakespearean scholar, or just a humble Jew like me, this piece will simply blow you away.
And for a review of “For 2 Cents Plain” use this link;