Kendall Hale. Radical Passions: A Memoir of Revolution and Healing. Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2007. 225pp. $18.95 (pbk).
Radical memoirs of 1960s veterans seem to be coming out in considerable numbers now, and that’s no surprise. The veterans are getting old and summing up their lives’ experiences, just at the moment when the Iraq war and the economic crisis are shaking up the empire as we have not seen in decades. People are opening their eyes (the Obama campaign may open them further whatever happens on election day). So, it’s high time to look back. My own slightly jaundiced view is that the once-famous generally have greater difficulty doing so candidly, as they need to deal with the eclipse of their fame. The less famous, when not pumping up (or sexing up) their mostly unknown efforts, want to tell the story as straight as they can.
Here comes Kendall Hale, an extremely, almost achingly sincere tale-teller. And a good writer, to boot. Her father was a kindly liberal academic who could share a lot of her values, although by no means all. Her cloistered youth, suddenly opening to revolutionary thoughts, LSD visions, and radical organizing when she went off to college, is the story of many of us.
This one happens in Madison, Wisconsin, and Kendall lived only a mile or so from me, a graduate student publishing Radical America. What a difference a mile made! She was in the youth culture ghetto of Basset-Mifflin, more political than Haight-Ashbury but resembling it in many ways, sans the warm winters. Here, in 1969, things were happening fast and furious. Actually, some of the major events on campus were over by that time, and there was a grim moment shortly ahead: the bombing of the Army Math Research Center by four activists (including a student of mine), with the death of a researcher. The antiwar movement slowed, and the Feds and Red Squad prepared themselves to move in for the kill (though they failed). The cultural change pushing forward the political change was already happening. If Kendall had stayed around a few years, she would have seen a former student radical elected mayor, marijuana smoked pretty openly on the streets, gays and lesbians relocate themselves in large numbers to the city, and a pretty mellow mood descend.
She went another way. In fact it was a way that a lot of us went, seeing the limitations of the campus Left. We sought out working-class life, sooner or later hit the wall, and bounced back rather bloodied: industries were shutting down, the labor bureaucracy was unyielding, and older white (especially male) workers mainly looked to retirement benefits. Those who stayed were the ones who found special ways to explain their tenacity to themselves. One way was the familiar (for the US Left) connection to the international movement, in the case of this generation, first of all China and Maoism. Several thousands of the most determined new leftists, led in most cases by the worst possible individuals, moved into factories and blue-collar communities, determined to stick it out. Hale did so in the Boston area (actually, a popular site for former Madisonians), as factory worker, welfare case worker, all-around activist, and so on.
Then the moment passed, psychological depression set in (something familiar to most of us, as we look back: the normal response was more likely self-medication, beer, and dope, rather than therapy), and Hale like others tried to figure out what in the world to do with her life now. As a creative type with talent, she had already helped form the New Harmony Band, and I can vaguely remember hearing them in New England. She also married, had children, supported the Sandinistas (actually spending some dangerous time in Nicaragua, as the Contras tightened their American-made noose), went through some more rough times, and emerged with her realized self in a society that hadn’t wished to listen but still may have learned some things along the way.
The last chapters of this affecting book reveal the writer-activist recreating, from a critical retrospect, the story of the personal tension inherent in trying to be a revolutionary in a decidedly non-revolutionary society. To seek to “serve the people” in deepest self-sacrifice and to also care for the needs of oneself, a mate, and children — that is a dilemma not unique to Hale by any means. But her story of it is accented with not only candor but also frequently a light touch, as when we find her amidst crystals and massage treatments, participating but also viewing her own experience as if from a detached outside. This writing is a testament to personal courage, to which her gendered reflection gives special emphasis. This is, in other words, the opposite of a self-serving memoir: Kendall Hale has served all of us with her pursuit of life, love, and radical purpose.
Paul Buhle, currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association’s Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95), the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.