Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen Riverhead, 515 pp., $28.00

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Early in Vladimir Putin’s first presidency I spoke to a Moscow banker, with reason to care on this point, who said he detected no trace of anti-Semitism in Putin personally, but that Putin would encourage popular anti-Semitism in a second if he thought that doing so would serve his interests. So far, Putin has not felt the need to demonize Russia’s Jews. He has instead identified the enemy within as Russia’s homosexuals, whose persecution is one of the main themes of The Future Is History, Masha Gessen’s remarkable group portrait of seven Soviet-born Russians whose changing lives embody the changing fortunes and character of their country as it passed from the end of Communist dictatorship under Mikhail Gorbachev to improvised liberalism under Boris Yeltsin and then back to what Gessen sees as renewed totalitarianism under Putin.

Two of Gessen’s central characters, Masha* and Lyosha, were born into the educated middle class of the 1980s. Two more characters of the same generation have lives touched by great privilege: Seryozha is the grandson of Alexander Yakovlev, who was Gorbachev’s close adviser and a longtime member of the Central Committee; Zhanna is the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, a minister under Yeltsin and a dissident murdered under Putin. All four are encountered first in childhood and referred to throughout by their childhood names. Three characters appear first as adults, with private and public lives. Alexander Dugin is a philosopher who develops an ideology of Russian exceptionalism that wins him fame and favor under Putin. Lev Gudkov is a sociologist who seeks to model the emerging new Russia. Marina Arutyunyan is a psychologist who reestablishes the practice of psychoanalysis in Russia after its disappearance under communism.

Gessen’s deft blending of these stories gives us a fresh view of recent Russian history from within, as it was experienced at the time by its people. It is a welcome perspective. In turbulent periods, anything seems possible. Only with hindsight does causality creep in, and with it the illusion of inevitability. The infinite possibilities of the moment are lost. Through the eyes of her characters, Gessen manages to restore those possibilities, to convey how it felt to imagine that life in the new Russia could go in any direction.


Masha Gessen; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The tension between experience and hindsight is there within Gessen’s writing. She alternately zooms in on the lives of her characters and zooms out to give more general accounts of the major events of the time—the putsch against Gorbachev in 1991, Yeltsin’s shelling of the Russian White House in 1993, the reelection of Yeltsin as president in 1996, the handover of power to Putin in 2000, and so on. How familiar these events appear when Gessen arranges them in their historical order, and how unfamiliar they appear when we see them as fragments of experience. On one side is the historian explaining the rise of Putin as a logical reaction to the failings of Yeltsin. On the other is Masha’s mother, wondering how on earth that dull man she met while selling insurance in St. Petersburg a few years back is now the prime minister.

Gessen was born in Moscow, emigrated to America with her family as a teenager in 1981, and returned to Russia ten years later to pursue a distinguished career as a journalist and LGBT activist. She came back to America in 2013, fearing that if she stayed in Russia, official hostility toward homosexuals could result in her children being seized by the state. Russia’s persecution of homosexuals is the strand of Gessen’s book that shows Putin at his cruelest. She arranges this narrative around Lyosha, who was born near Perm in 1985, and who was fifteen, on holiday in Crimea, when he recognized himself as gay:


When he saw other boys, teenagers like himself or young men, dressed, like he was, in only a pair of small black bathing trunks, he felt heat shoot excruciatingly through his body and a thrilling invisible shiver set in. It happened every day after that first time…. I am a pervert, he thought. I am sick. I am the only person in the world who feels this way.

The early post-Soviet period was not the very worst of times to be gay in Russia. Between 1989 and 1994, according to surveys conducted by the Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, support for “liquidating deviants” fell from 31 percent to 23 percent. It fell again to 15 percent in 1999, shortly before Lyosha had his realization. Homosexuality was no longer illegal. Teachers and doctors could talk about it if they wanted to. Lyosha did not much want to talk, but after a horrible beating from a local thug who was tipped off by a suspicious classmate, he opened up to a school counselor and discovered the liberating power of a sympathetic ear. He returned energized to his studies, graduated with distinction, and came out.

Lyosha built an academic career as a pioneer of gender and LGBT studies at Perm University, but when government-sanctioned hate campaigns made his work impossible and put his life in danger, he left the country. The sadistic murder in 2013 of a young gay man in Volgograd made a deep impression on him, and Gessen’s account of it will make a deep impression on you too. Whatever Putin’s legacy, it includes—among other results of his state-approved homophobia—three bloody beer bottles and one dead boy.

Demonizing homosexuality is, most obviously, a way for Putin to assert Russia’s superiority over the West. The West’s acceptance of homosexuality is given as proof of its moral and social collapse. Putin also sees, correctly, that the equality of all sexual orientations is widely proclaimed in the West but not uniformly accepted, allowing Russia to pose as a beacon of hope for Western reactionaries. To make homosexuality seem truly evil even to Russians who had ceased to think of it as such, Putin conflated it with pedophilia. If, in the age-old anti-Semitic narrative, “they” were conspiring to steal the nation’s money, in Putin’s anti-gay narrative “they” are conspiring to steal the nation’s children.

As Gessen recounts, Putin encountered few obstacles in selling this notion to the public. Politicians competed to imagine new crimes with which LGBT people could be charged and new punishments for them. Even to contest the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia marked the objector as a friend of the pedophile conspiracy. The crudeness and viciousness of views expressed in parliament and the media verged on the medieval. According to Dmitry Kiselev, a host on state-owned television: “If [gays] should die in a car accident, we need to bury their hearts underground or burn them; they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone’s life.”

I suppose it is worth pointing out that just as my banker friend did not think Putin to be personally anti-Semitic, so I doubt that Putin hungers to murder homosexuals with his own bare hands. He might even enjoy the company of a gay grandson. When Oliver Stone asked him a question about gay rights in a recent series of interviews, Putin responded much as a middle-aged Western male might have responded forty years ago, jocularly and gingerly:
Putin: Sometimes I visit events where people publicly declare that they’re homosexuals, these events are attended by such people and we communicate and have good relations.Stone: Is that true in the military as well?Putin: There’s no restriction.Stone: No restriction in the military? I mean, if you’re taking a shower in a submarine and you know he’s gay, do they have a problem with that?Putin: [laughs] Well, I prefer not to go to the shower with him. Why provoke him?

At such moments, thinking of a young man on a park bench in Volgograd with three beer bottles up his rectum, you have to wonder about the mixture in Putin’s character of the stupid, the brilliant, the evil, and the naive.

While Lyosha very wisely gets out of Russia, Seryozha gets by there, Zhanna gets on, and Masha gets involved with the 2011 protest movement organized by Boris Nemtsov—Zhanna’s father—and by Alexei Navalny, a younger dissident. It is an uneasy alliance. Navalny is a nationalist, whereas Nemtsov is the last and best survivor of Yeltsin-era liberalism, perhaps the last true liberal to have held any meaningful political power in Russia. When Nemtsov is murdered within sight of the Kremlin in 2015, apparently for his opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Zhanna blames the killing squarely on Putin. Others report that Putin is both surprised and angered by Nemtsov’s murder, less because he has any affection for Nemtsov than because a high-profile assassination in the center of Moscow is a direct challenge to his own monopoly on violence.

The outlier among Gessen’s seven is Alexander Dugin, the only one to favor repression, to reject freedom, to want more and better Putinism. He is too big and too strange to fit easily into the story, and instead haunts its margins. Dugin has always seemed to me a bogus thinker, a fantasist, an opportunist. But others take him seriously, and he emerges from Gessen’s account as a prodigious consumer and manipulator of philosophy and political science.

Dugin was expelled from college and has been deeply influenced by Heidegger and Hitler. He’s allegedly capable of learning a new European language in two weeks merely from reading books in that language. He appropriates the arguments of the Russian Eurasianists, including the émigré linguist Nikolai Trubetskoy and the Soviet ethnographer Lev Gumilev, to the effect that Russia’s geographical sprawl between Europe and Asia gives the nation a unique, non-Western character. Russia is not a country, but a civilization. The Russian identity belongs not to the Russian Federation but to the “Russian World,” and the West is the natural enemy of the Russian World.

Dugin had his wilderness years in the 1990s, but with the arrival of Putin his influence rocketed. His Eurasian Youth Union marched through Moscow. He was given a teaching job at Moscow State University. When, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin referred on television to “a Russian person, or, to speak more broadly, a person of the Russian World,” Dugin’s happiness was complete. He was putting words into Putin’s mouth that articulated in a suitably lofty manner their common vision of ethnic, cultural, and religious Russian supremacy. Dugin wants his Russian World to be totalitarian, which is to say, a world in which the state polices everybody’s thoughts as well as everybody’s actions. He opposes universal human rights and the rule of law as alien ideas from the hostile West.

Gessen claims in her title that Russia is already totalitarian. I imagine that Dugin would disagree. And from a different perspective, so would I. Take, for example, Gessen’s account of a moment after Masha has been arrested as a political protester in 2012. Under prolonged police investigation, she goes to stay in her mother-in-law’s dacha outside Moscow. The neighboring dacha belongs to a senior police officer called Natalia. The two fall into conversation:

“Hey, you are part of the Bolotnoye case, aren’t you,” she asked when they were having a cigarette Masha’s first night at the dacha. It was cool and quiet and you could see the stars.“Yeah,” said Masha.“Who is your investigator?”“Grachev.”“Ah, Timokha!” Natalia’s voice sang with the joy of recognition. “He is one of mine. I had to send three people. It’s a big case. He doing his job?”“Oh, he is doing his job, all right.”“Good. Say hi to him there.”

That is not my idea of how life proceeds in a totalitarian society. I sense in this brief exchange humanity and sincerity on both sides. I do not want to generalize too much from this. Many horrible things happen in Russian police stations. But totalitarianism ought surely to be total, if only among the police.

The idea of categorizing dictatorships as either authoritarian or totalitarian is a twentieth-century one. Totalitarianism took as its examples Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The distinction was of practical significance during the cold war, when there was a political need in the West to distinguish between cruel regimes that the US supported (Pinochet’s Chile, the Shah’s Iran) and cruel regimes that the US opposed (China, the USSR). The former were deemed authoritarian, the latter totalitarian. Totalitarian regimes were beyond hope of improvement; authoritarian regimes were not.

Vladimir Putin; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

If we accept the distinction between an authoritarian desire to control behavior and a totalitarian desire to control thought, then, as Gessen shows, Russia crossed that line some time ago under Putin. But what if you set Russia alongside North Korea? Putin wants all Russians to think like him, whereas Kim Jong-un would rather his subjects not think at all. That is not a very encouraging distinction, but at the darker end of government, it is surely one worth maintaining.

One problem with trying to understand totalitarianism is that, to the extent it succeeds, it is impenetrable to outsiders. Everything that is said and thought is the product of propaganda. Lev Gudkov, the sociologist in Gessen’s book, has a lucid account of this problem that merits quoting at some length, in Gessen’s paraphrase:

Looking from the outside in, one cannot see, for example, whether people attend a parade because they are forced to do so or because they so desire. Researchers generally assumed one or the other: either that people were passive victims or that they were fervent believers. But on the inside, both assumptions were wrong, for all the people at the parade…and for each one of them individually. They did not feel like helpless victims, but they did not feel like fanatics either. They felt normal. They were members of a society. The parades and various other forms of collective life gave them a sense of belonging that humans generally need…. They would not be lying if they said that they wanted to be part of the parade, or the collective in general—and that if they exerted pressure on others to be a part of a collective too, they did so willingly.

Another problem with trying to arrive at an account of totalitarianism—at least from a Western point of view—is that totalitarian societies are by definition the enemy, so we are not terribly interested in what their better points might be. “After the fall of the Soviet Union made it easier to study the country that had been,” Gessen writes, referring to the work of Sheila Fitzpatrick and others, “academics began noting how much richer private life had been in the USSR than they had once thought, how inconsistent and how widely disregarded the ideology, and how comparatively mild police enforcement became after Stalin’s death.”

This seems to be borne out by the lives of Gessen’s older characters. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, long before Gorbachev cracked open the old certainties, Arutyunyan the psychologist and Gudkov the sociologist were finding that Soviet academia allowed them a fair amount of room to maneuver, as long as this was exercised discreetly and deniably. For example, although you could not study the problems of Soviet society (Soviet society had only solutions), you could still study sociology so long as you pretended to be denouncing Western sociological theories, or if you called it something else. Gudkov’s mentor, Yuri Levada, was allowed to set up a department within the Academy of Sciences called the Institute for Concrete Social Studies. I also admire Gessen’s line that “the Soviet system offered not a vision of the future but the ability to know one’s future, much as tradesmen did in feudal times, and to make very small-scale, manageable decisions about the future.” If this was totalitarianism, you start to see why so many Russians wanted Putin to turn the clock back.

Gudkov argues that, in fact, the clock never moved. It was always striking thirteen. Institutions and systems designed for a totalitarian Soviet Union survived with little or no change into the new Russian state, encouraging totalitarian behavior to return through them. Elections became public displays of support for the regime, just like parades. Public protest was more frequent in Putin’s Russia than it had been in the Soviet Union, but only because the regime had reached a new understanding that street demonstrations changed nothing—on the contrary, they helped to maintain the existing order. Dissidents revealed themselves and were arrested. The rest of society was reassured by the regime’s show of power in shutting the demonstrations down.

Gudkov fears that the Soviet system has reshaped the Russian national character to such an extent that Russians can willingly recreate a totalitarian society among themselves even without compulsion from the state to do so. A corollary of that argument is that Russia can have a totalitarian society even without a totalitarian state—a useful formulation if one takes the view that the ultimate aim of the Putin regime is the accumulation of wealth even more than the accumulation of power. Thus Gessen, when she discusses the ideas of the Hungarian political scientist Bálint Magyar, can speak of Russia as a “mafia state ruling over a totalitarian society.”

With all due respect to Gessen and to Gudkov, the term “totalitarian” is being used loosely here. It may be useful to invoke the prospect of totalitarianism as a rhetorical way of alerting Russians to the fact that their government is a danger to themselves and to others. But to claim that Russia is already totalitarian is to absolve Russians in general from what is done in their name by proposing that they have been indoctrinated into acquiescence. One risks imagining a Russian nation which, freed from thought control, reveals itself to be liberal and freedom-loving. This is exactly the mistake that Westerners made when Soviet communism was on its last legs thirty years ago—and when, as Gessen so poignantly shows, what was revealed was the appetite for a newer and better dictator.

My own view of Putin is that he came to power fully intending to be an authoritarian leader but also to allow some small degree of pluralism in politics and some larger degree of liberalism in private life and business, on the purely pragmatic grounds that he knew from Soviet times the weakness of totalitarianism. He would rather be Lee Kuan Yew than Robert Mugabe. But he found it personally intolerable to be criticized, let alone thwarted, so freedom to oppose him politically soon disappeared. Economics was a closed book to Putin when he took power, but he came to understand that a thriving market economy required a well-functioning rule of law capable of constraining even government—and that was the death knell for the market economy. Freedom in private life lasted rather longer, but was eventually curtailed, most obviously in the sexual domain, when the stagnating regime needed new ways to mobilize popular support.

The theater and film director Andrei Konchalovsky, quoted by Christian Neef in Der Spiegel, sees roughly the same trajectory in Putin’s career, but attributes it to pressure from below:


Putin initially thought like a Westerner, but ultimately realized why every Russian ruler struggles to lead this nation: Because its inhabitants, in accordance with an unshakable tradition, freely delegate all their power to a single person, and then wait for that power to take care of them, without doing anything themselves.

We are close here to the dilemma of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “The Solution,” about the anti-Communist uprising in East Germany in 1953, and a thought that must have struck every observer of Russia at some time or other:


Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Louise Bourgeois Retrospective : Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, September 24, 2017–January 28, 2018 Catalog of the exhibition by Deborah Wye. MoMA, 248 pp., $55.00 Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois by Robert Storr Monacelli, 828 pp., $150.00,Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois Hardcover – March 1, 2016 by Amy Novesky (Author),‎ Isabelle Arsenault (Illustrator) ( Abrams Books for Young Readers);Louise Bourgeois: Life as Art Paperback – July 2, 2003 by Penelope Vinding (Author),‎ Poul Erik Tojner (Author),‎ Louise Bourgeois (Author),‎ Julie Sylvester (Contributor),‎ Anders Kold (Editor),‎ Michael Juul Holm (Editor) (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art)



After we’re done shaking our heads at what they had to endure, we project onto our long-lived women artists a mystique that’s as old as history—that of the sorceress or the good witch. These women have a secret. We want them to tell us everything, but maybe they don’t want to. If we can gain access to their magical workshop, squeezing through a narrow corridor to find the door, we might be privy to some important mysteries. The veils will be unwound, and finally we will look life in the face and weep for all that was lost to get us here.

In her long life, Louise Bourgeois experienced both extremes of the female artist story—marginalization, even invisibility early on, and decades later a fierce and passionate following by younger artists and curators. Her status was based on an independence from fashion, and on calling attention to emotions that most people prefer to keep hidden: shame, disgust, fear of abandonment, jealousy, anger. Occasionally, joy or wonder would surface, like a break in the clouds. But Bourgeois was an artist, not a therapist. Her imagination was tied to forms, and how to make them expressive. Her gift was to represent inchoate and hard-to-grasp feelings in ways that seem direct and unfiltered.

Deborah Wye, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator emerita of prints and illustrated books, has put together an elegant and revealing exhibition of Bourgeois’s graphic work, prints, and printed books—some 265 images, made with a wide variety of techniques, all from the museum’s extensive holdings, along with related drawings, early paintings, and a small selection of sculptures that show their reciprocity with the drawn forms. Wye, who organized the first Bourgeois retrospective at MoMA in 1982, as well as a survey of Bourgeois’s drawings in 1994, has devoted much of her professional life to the artist and knew her well, and this show must be something of a victory lap for her.




Museum of Modern Art/© 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY
Louise Bourgeois: Femme, 2006



On first impression, the books and other works on paper seen against the museum’s dove-gray or Venetian red walls are absorbing; they pull you in. But to call it a print show would be a little misleading. Bourgeois was forever altering her work, making additions and adjustments to printing proofs as they occurred to her in the moment, and the majority of the prints in the exhibition exist in several different states, or stages of development. They are often added to, painted, or drawn on—sometimes just a dot of color, other times reimagined completely. What we are really looking at are paintings on paper, which take as their starting point a printed image as a first layer.

Over the course of her marathon career, Bourgeois worked in a wide range of mediums and formats, from engravings just five inches tall to sculptural assemblages sprawling across vast museum spaces. For a long period in the 1950s, she was depressed and creatively blocked, and began long-term psychoanalysis, which seems to have helped. She emerged from her slump as a protean workaholic from whose hand issued warehouses full of materially and emotionally diverse stuff. Even within this focused exhibition we can see the range of Bourgeois’s sensibility, from intimate visual diarist to stage designer manqué, intent on dominating the museum experience with her theatrical mise-en-scènes.

There’s a disarming prelude as you enter the show: a wall of thirty-six smallish images, collectively titled The Fragile (2007), that highlights the playful side of Bourgeois’s graphic art. Most are economical line drawings, one image to a sheet, some augmented with washes of color. There are two motifs: spiders and their webs, and women with greatly enlarged, pendulous breasts. The spiders have human faces, and the heads of the women, all tiny in proportion to their bodies, have a grinning countenance such as a child might draw. One drawing shows the rudimentary profile of a woman’s face, with a high-bridged nose and thin lips, whom we recognize as the artist herself. This head has no eyes, perhaps because they’re no longer needed.

These drawings are like sophisticated cartoons minus the captions; you can imagine some of them printed on cocktail napkins; others would make striking tattoos. In addition to visual humor, the suite shows off Bourgeois’s easy mastery of contour drawing, shape, and placement. She understood the power of white space, how images and marks could be moved around the page for effect, and how sometimes making an image smaller gives it a louder voice. Interestingly, almost all of her images are drawn from a full frontal view, head-on, like specimens pressed onto glass. There are few three-quarter views of anything, perhaps because that would imply a world too local, too real, instead of the symbolic range that is her realm.

Once inside the main galleries, the exhibition begins with several illustrated books and single prints from 1946 to 1949, all of which still look fresh today. Bourgeois was from the start a high-level illustrator and book designer, and the overall tone of these engravings, which feature motifs of buildings—towers or chimneys for the most part—combined with women’s bodies or parts of bodies, is one of earnest modernism; she is already adept at placing her symbolic images in an emotionally suggestive pictorial space. A 1984 variation on her famous Femme Maison series (which originated in 1946) features a nude woman from the waist down, the top half replaced by a multistory building with archways and high windows, with the hand of one thin arm wanly waving to the upper-left corner. Printed on a ground of bright salmon pink, it remains a pungent and incisive logo of feminist art.

The space in these illustrations, together with their small size, gives us a child’s-eye view of life—some of the forms loom above eye level, and the interior spaces are tightly framed and slightly claustrophobic; we see only corners, or rooms crowded with ladders going nowhere. Either there’s no place to stand or one is outside, in a too-open space. The mood is chilly and gray, unsettled and unsettling. In this early phase, the artist whom Bourgeois most closely resembles in terms of tone, touch, and point of view is that other intimate fantasist and chronicler of the doomed family, Edward Gorey. The difference, of course, is that Gorey draws the monster plain, while Bourgeois only implies it.

Dispersed through the first few rooms are examples of Bourgeois’s early carved and painted wood sculptures, and they are all pretty much heartbreaking in the rightness of their forms and colors. Pillar (1949–1950), Figure (1954), and Forêt (Night Garden) (1953) are among her best early works, made some years before she turned to more elaborate and more narrative constructions made with a variety of industrial materials. Had she remained on this earlier path, Bourgeois might have been the three-dimensional equivalent of a deeply inner-directed artist like the painter Forrest Bess. That, however, would have meant renouncing a certain ambition to be heard.

If she wasn’t interested in being that kind of sculptor, Bourgeois continued to elaborate a more intimist sensibility in her drawings. Panic, claustrophobia, frustration, helplessness, and ennui, as well as a strange fatalistic elation, were her subjects, and she went at them with a combination of intuition and design sense.

Bourgeois was a poet of transitions, and of things entering other things. She grasped the malleability of pictorial space—how to shape the warp and woof of it into a visual logic, and how to make that plasticity relate to our bodily and emotional experience. In one untitled watercolor from 2004, swollen tubular or podlike shapes appear to rend the horizontal plane of colored washes, to suggest forms both underwater and in the air. To this graphic sophistication, Bourgeois added an insistence on the specifics—physical, psychological, and social—of female experience.

This aspect of her work is all-pervasive, and manifests itself generally in biomorphism and the attention given to escutcheons and contact points, as well as certain bodily details—nipples, orifices, and other sites of exchange, points of entry and excretion, body cavities, pass-throughs—things that signify “inside-outness” generally. In all of this, Bourgeois is way out in front of the competition. Even Picasso, that cavalier rearranger and morpher of human anatomy, can only really look at the body from the outside. For Bourgeois, the inside, with all its delicacy and power, is the outside. She moves easily from outside to inside and back again.

Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois suffered more than the usual number of grievous blows to the psyche, and her inner life stayed tightly wrapped around their memory. War, illness, sexual jealousy, mental instability were all things she witnessed in her first decade, and she never forgot—or forgave—any of them. As a teenager she learned that the attractive young Englishwoman who lived with the family as a tutor was also her father’s mistress, and this betrayal in particular was something she never got over. In addition, or perhaps in response, her mother was fragile and often ill, and young Louise became her companion at various spas and treatment centers; she was released from her caretaker role by her mother’s death when she was twenty-one.


Museum of Modern Art/© 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY
Louise Bourgeois: Self Portrait, 2007

After the loss of her mother, and encouraged by her charming and tyrannical father, Bourgeois started a small business selling works on paper, prints, and illustrated books out of a corner of the family’s tapestry workshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. To acquire her stock, she scoured the auction houses and book dealers, and she seems to have absorbed, almost overnight, the dominant graphic styles of the day. She had a particular affinity for Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as other artists who used the illustrated book form, which was then in vogue. Something about these livres d’artiste, as they were known—the way they combined text and pictures, and the way the image was printed from engraving or etching plates, the whole satisfying feel in the hand of beautifully made paper embossed with rectangles of finely drawn tones of gray—formed the template for how Bourgeois would think about her own art, on and off, for the rest of her life.

At age twenty-six, she met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, and from then on made her home in New York. It was at the Art Students League that Bourgeois made her first engravings and woodblock prints on small sheets of paper. These early works are modest but graphically sophisticated. She quickly moved on to making her own illustrated books, which combined story with image, in many ways a natural fit for the precocious beginner, who early on recognized that her own personal history was to be her creative wellspring. She also had the ability to see in a glimpse, and later recall, an image that could carry complex feelings, as in her etching Thompson Street (1946), which depicts a Goreyesque gloomy figure standing in a doorway; it was inspired by seeing a young prostitute in her neighborhood.

Bourgeois’s work of the late 1940s and beyond looks very much like a continuation of the Surrealist sensibility. She herself downplayed any connection to the Surrealists; she did not see herself as their legatee, possibly because she knew all the ones who had fled Europe for New York during the war. (Although there is no record of it, as a French speaker it’s possible she experienced firsthand André Breton’s flagrant misogyny, and that would have been reason enough to take some distance.) In the way that sometimes the full flowering of a movement only happens after everyone has gone home, Bourgeois seems, at this remove, the true heir to Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Joan Miró. It’s as though she uncorked the genie in their bottle.

Some of her drawings from the late 1940s look like they could have been made by Magritte, had he been able to get beyond his precious subject matter. The Surrealists’ professed belief in the power of the unconscious to guide the hand seems paltry compared to hers. There is as well a strong undercurrent in her work of the shamanistic and totemic forms of Native American and other tribal art, which also greatly interested the Surrealists. One way to think about Bourgeois’s art is to imagine Surrealism, that most adolescent as well as female-objectifying of art movements, retooled by a grown-up woman.

The MoMA show gives us an artist who channeled her Surrealist inclinations into a direct, improvisational way of working. Should anyone miss the more extroverted or public side of her work, the museum’s atrium is home to one of Bourgeois’s crowd-pleasing spiders. This one has legs of steel (all eight of them), the upper joints of which reach twenty-one feet off the floor. Spider (1997) differs from some of its cousins in that the space formed inside the arachnid legs is taken up by a cylindrical enclosure of steel mesh bolted to a thin steel frame, essentially a wire cage roughly fifteen feet tall and ten feet in diameter that one enters through a narrow opening. On the inside, perfume bottles, bits of bone, pendulous shapes of cast rubber, and sections of tapestry have been tied to the wire mesh, like fruit to a sukkah.

What is a graphic sensibility? It begins with a sensitivity to the material, the paper or canvas, and the point of impact, the place where the tool hits the surface, as something that stays continually alive. Think of Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat, teacher and student, figuratively speaking. The hand that grips a piece of charcoal as it touches down on the paper is like a phonograph needle skipping lightly across a scratchy LP. With all the skips and floats and the intermittent sinking into the record’s grooves, music starts to fill the air.

What are the hallmarks of Bourgeois’s graphic style? She uses mostly short or medium-length lines made by pencil, engraving tool, or brush, and the marks, all moving more or less in one direction, but not rigidly so, are bundled together in loose, overlapping rows—much like a naive artist’s rendering of hair, or like medical drawings of muscle fibers bunched together in long strings. These bundles accumulate to make forms, but have no mass to speak of. They take up space but don’t weigh much. The repetitive, directional lines call up a number of associations, from the art of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans to Outsider Art. Bourgeois is adept at outlining shapes with a thin, skipping line, a cousin to Andy Warhol’s ink-and-blotter-paper line, which is itself derived from the broken-line illustrations of Ben Shahn.

You feel that Bourgeois wants to dig down to the basic fiber of form itself en route to creating an image; it’s what drawing can do, after all. A subset of the marks that she uses, especially those made with a brush and ink, have the length and start-and-stop quality of a stitch of thread or embroidery: graphic stitches, which are bundled together and become in turn the building blocks for many of her images. These include the skein or hank of hair or yarn, as well as nerve and muscle fibers, including flayed skin and tissue, which cluster, bale up, and twist, and can become in some works undulating curtains of hairlike walls, or take the form of river currents and ocean waves. The equivalency that Bourgeois draws between hair or yarn and muscle fibers or tissue is one of her principal inventions.

Hair, women’s hair, is all over Bourgeois’s art. It is the perfect graphic element; like water, it can go anywhere and take virtually any shape. It can flow like a river, pass through keyholes, or twist around another form, strangling it. It can take the form of a flying carpet, or be made to cover, or smother, another surface. Or it can be parted to reveal what’s underneath. Hair is something to hide behind, or a memento left behind. The eroticism of hair was also a Surrealist staple, and Bourgeois makes good use of it.

One drawing—Hair (1948)—lays out the vocabulary that would remain in place for more than sixty years. Using a brush and ink, Bourgeois draws a female figure as two vertical columns of sacks topped by a featureless oval head, the whole figure enveloped in a cascade of hair that flows down both sides of the body, from the top of the head almost down to the feet. The roughly almond shape of the streaming-out mass of hair that frames the pod shapes, all seamed down the middle and topped off with a little button head, give the image another, labial reading. It’s like going inside Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) and coming back out again as a doppelgänger in disguise. The detail contains the whole, like an image out of Nabokov—the world reflected in a soap bubble.

Another of Bourgeois’s recurrent motifs is the protuberance, with its ready associations to bodily forms—breasts, sagging buttocks, scrota, and also tree forms, fungus of all sorts, drops of water; all the swelling, drooping, bagging forms and shapes in nature, anything dangling or hanging, any organic and even inorganic form that is subject to gravity, which is to say just about everything. Sometimes the pendula gather themselves up and reverse direction, rising up from the bottom of the garden or the ocean floor.

I can’t think of anything in the canon by male artists after Leonardo that does much with the body from the inside. The way Bourgeois addressed the basic notion of the body, especially the female body, as having an inside might be her biggest legacy. One modest black-and-white print from a 1989–1990 portfolio simply titled Anatomy has a resonance and a poignancy far bigger than its modest size. It shows what looks like the lower section of a spinal column, with the bladelike lower ribs curving outward from the central core of bone. What makes the image arresting is the slightly up-angled point of view that gives access to a tiny opening within a recess at the bottom in the column’s center, and just above, two rows of three narrow “windows,” similar to those in the Femme Maison drawings. A directional energy leads the eye up, by implication, into and through the interior spaces of the bone, through the core of the core, so to speak, to a new realm of vulnerable body feeling. There’s an intimation of the embalmer’s art to it, the hook with a wad of cotton inserted deep into the body to stop fluids from leaking.

The feeling of “up inside and through the middle” of the body is present in other works such as Torso, Self-Portrait (1963–1964) and Janus Fleurie (1968), as well as some of the large etchings, My Inner Life (2008) and Just Like Me (2007). These depict the body reduced to pods and tubes coiled around a central axis. For once, “gut-wrenching” is not a figure of speech. The artist digs deep within herself, imagines her own anatomy breaking into pieces. She shows us the results of her own autopsy.


Dominique Nabokov
Louise Bourgeois, New York City, June 1997

Aided by a small team of assistants and printers, Bourgeois produced in her last years two separate suites of large soft-ground etchings, both remarkable in their own way. In the first suite, the sixty-inch-tall vertical sheets allow Bourgeois to play out on a much larger scale the reciprocity between plant forms and those of the body. In one print, titled Swelling(2007–2008), in which three different states, one with added color, are represented, Bourgeois manages to create the impression that a stack of forms—part beanstalk, part vertebrae, part uterus or kidneys—has burst upward, clearing the concentric waves of either water or soil or primordial muck at the bottom half of the image. Inside the trunk of the rising, swollen column are smaller pod shapes, like seeds, rock babies, or jellybeans. “Swelling,” a verb seldom associated with museum art, is a wonderful title, and the kinesthetic feeling of an organism thrusting upward is palpable, and also graphically tight.

The last major prints Bourgeois completed are in a horizontal format sixty inches wide and feature a repeated motif of two loosely braided linear or tubular forms that divide the rectangle diagonally from lower left to upper right. Across fourteen separate sheets, she added additional imagery and marks in pencil, watercolor, and gouache (mostly red) that pulse and spread and course across the length of the paper. Free and loose, with great directional energy, the prints, collectively titled à l’Infini (2008), are possibly Bourgeois’s most ebullient works.

Other late works, like the tapestry- and needlepoint-covered life-size heads from 2002, made when Bourgeois was ninety-one, achieve that sweet spot somewhere between the decorative and the disturbing, but leaning toward the latter. They resemble masks worn by Mexican wrestlers or S&M gear, but with patterns borrowed from rugs that look, at that scale, like Rorschach tests. The first time I saw a group of them in a museum vitrine, in that instant before you recognize the familiar inside the new, I let out an audible What the fuck?

In Robert Storr’s Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois, scholarship, biography, partisan argument, and subjective interpretation are all intertwined. The book was more than twenty years in the writing, and Storr’s involvement with Bourgeois goes back even further. He was deeply attracted to her as a visionary: as difficult as she could sometimes be, she embodied his ideal of an authentic artist.

A painter himself, as well as a former senior curator in MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, Storr is well grounded in the physical realities of how works of art are actually made. His descriptions of Bourgeois’s drawing tropes—what they are, how they look, and what they mean—are far and away the best writing on her work that I’ve seen. The book is a major achievement, not just of scholarship, but also as a record of the intersection of two sensibilities, artist and writer, and of personhood as the lens through which all art must inevitably be viewed. It also supports my belief that it takes a very long time to really know anything about an artist, to internalize her ideas and sensibility.

The hundreds of drawings reproduced in Storr’s book flesh out the picture of Bourgeois as a graphic genius that the MoMA show initiates. Storr quotes a line that she wrote in a 1948 diary: “My drawings are an arsenal of forms that I love.” Her choice of words is revealing. Certainly “forms” is the word that points us in the right direction; whatever else she was or has come to stand for, Bourgeois was primarily engaged in finding and inventing forms, and it’s that search, about which she was remarkably clear-eyed and objective, that makes her work so potent. The word “arsenal” is pure Bourgeois. There is no mistaking her intention to lay siege to something.

Bourgeois’s work found common cause with the art world of the 1970s, as attention began to be paid to women artists. It was a seismic shift, and it’s still going on. Although she did not identify with Feminist Art as such, Bourgeois was very active in the movement, and its triumphal tide raised the boat of her career. She was a ready-made example of an artist whose imagery and way of working were seen as specific to her gender. Female experience and identity, especially the parts centered on biological processes like sex, childbirth, and lactation, as well as so-called domestic crafts like rubbings, weaving, embroidery, and sewing: it was no longer necessary to leave them at the door in order to be taken seriously as an artist. Many other artists have also worked with female imagery; in art it’s a matter of what you make out of it. Bourgeois’s art came to prominence more as a result of her singularity than her team spirit.

Opportunities for women denied, an institutional bias toward male artists—it is a familiar narrative. It still goes on, but one hopes less so. Henry Geldzahler, the Metropolitan Museum’s first curator of modern and contemporary art, used to tell a story on himself that illustrates the bias against women artists at midcentury. In 1969, as he was finalizing what would become an epoch-defining exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970,” Geldzahler ran into Alice Neel at a party. They were friends; Neel had painted Geldzahler’s portrait, and everyone knew she was a serious artist, albeit somewhat out of the stylistic mainstream. Neel matter-of-factly asked Geldzahler what of hers he wanted for his show. He replied, “Oh Alice, when did you turn pro?” That’s how friends were treated; imagine the condescension if you weren’t known at all.

Louise Bourgeois had to overcome many of the same prejudices. Neel was often on the dole, and made great paintings for decades before fame found her in the mid-1970s, when she had only another ten years to work. Bourgeois, eleven years younger than Neel, was married to an art historian, lived in a townhouse in the West 20s, and knew just about everyone in the art world of the 1940s and 1950s, including her early champion Alfred Barr. Fame finally found her in the early 1980s, when she was nearly seventy, with a long way yet to go. She ran out the clock at age ninety-eight, experimenting with new materials and modes of presentation almost to the end.

The MoMA exhibition gives us an opportunity to find both the young woman and the modernist inventor underneath the slyly imperious grande dame we see on the cover of Storr’s book in the famous Robert Mapplethorpe photograph from 1982. Now that we have some distance, Bourgeois’s art, left to speak for itself, is potent, formally bold, and mysterious. It is sometimes alarming, and often beautiful. Its beauty is the result of a controlled collision of forms that are finely tuned to one another; its effects seem perpetually positioned between a major and a minor key. With apologies to Samuel Beckett, her work might be called pricks and kicks in about equal measure.

Ku Klux Klan in Ameria. The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon Liveright, 272 pp., $27.95 Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s by Felix Harcourt University of Chicago Press, 272 pp., $45.00



Ball State University Archives & Special Collections
Ku Klux Klan paraders, Muncie, Indiana, 1922

Most of us who grow up in the United States learn a reassuring narrative of ever-expanding tolerance. Yes, the country’s birth was tainted with the original sin of slavery, but Lincoln freed the slaves, the Supreme Court desegregated schools, and we finally elected a black president. The Founding Fathers may have all been men, but in their wisdom they created a constitution that would later allow women to gain the vote. And now the legal definition of marriage has broadened to include gays and lesbians. We are, it appears, an increasingly inclusive nation.

But a parallel, much darker river runs through American history. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850s viciously attacked Catholics and immigrants. Eugenics enthusiasts of the early twentieth century warned about the nation’s gene pool being polluted by ex-slaves, the feeble minded, and newcomers of inferior races. In the 1930s, 16 million Americans regularly listened to the anti-Semitic radio rants of Father Charles E. Coughlin.

The most notorious of all the currents in this dark river has been the Ku Klux Klan. It flourished first in the South after the Civil War, lynching and terrorizing African-Americans who tried to vote, and then gradually disbanded in the early 1870s under pressure from the federal government. After a long spell of quiescence, it reemerged into national prominence in the 1920s, reaching an all-time peak membership in 1924—a year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of various Confederate memorials, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose planned removal was the pretext for the “Unite the Right” rally there in August. After another eclipse, the Klan roared back to life a third time in protest against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Among other acts of violence, Klansmen took part in the murder of three voter registration workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.

All along, of course, even while sticking to rhetoric of tolerance and inclusion, politicians have made winks and nods toward that dark river of which the Klan is a part. Richard Nixon had his Southern Strategy. Running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan sent an unmistakable message by giving a speech about states’ rights near Philadelphia, Mississippi. George H.W. Bush used the notorious Willie Horton campaign commercial. And now suddenly, it’s no longer just winks and nods. Only when pressed by a reporter did Donald Trump in early 2016 reluctantly disavow the support of Klan leader David Duke. “David Duke endorsed me? O.K., all right. I disavow, O.K.?” Then as president he outraged people around the world by equating antiracist protesters with the unsavory brew of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klan members who gathered at Charlottesville, declaring that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” One of the least fine among the right-wingers rammed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring many others. Once again, it seems, the Klan is elbowing its way back into American public life.

The first and third incarnations of the Klan—the cross-burning lynch mobs and the vigilantes who beat up and murdered civil rights workers in the 1960s—seem beyond the pale of today’s politics, at least for the moment. But the second Klan, the Klan of the 1920s, less violent but far more widespread, is a different story, and one that offers some chilling comparisons to the present day. It embodied the same racism at its core but served it up beneath a deceptively benign façade, in all-American patriotic colors.

In other ways as well, the Klan of the 1920s strongly echoes the world of Donald Trump. This Klan was a movement, but also a profit-making business. On economic issues, it took a few mildly populist stands. It was heavily supported by evangelicals. It was deeply hostile to science and trafficked in false assertions. And it was masterfully guided by a team of public relations advisers as skillful as any political consultants today.

Two new books give us a fresh look at this second period of the Klan. Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK is the wiser and deeper; Felix Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture offers some useful background information but then, reflecting its origin as a Ph.D. thesis, becomes an exhaustive survey of Klansmen’s appearances, variously as heroes or villains, in the era’s novels, movies, songs, plays, musicals, and more.

The KKK’s rebirth was spurred by D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. The most expensive and widely seen motion picture that had yet been made, it featured rampaging mobs of newly freed slaves in the post–Civil War South colluding with rapacious northern carpetbaggers. To the rescue comes the Ku Klux Klan, whose armed and mounted heroes lynch a black villain, save the honor of southern womanhood, and prevent the ominous prospect of blacks at the ballot box. “It is like teaching history with lightning,” said an admiring President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, who saw the film in the White House. Wilson’s comment underlines a point both Gordon and Harcourt make: the Klan of this era was no fringe group, for tens of millions of nonmembers agreed with its politics.

The founder of the reincarnated Klan in 1915 was an Atlanta physician named William Joseph Simmons, who five years later fell into the hands of two skilled public relations professionals, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. They convinced him that for the Klan to gain members in other parts of the country, it had to add Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and big-city elites to its list of villains. Tyler and Clarke in effect ran the KKK for the next several years, a pair of Bannons to Simmons’s Trump.

Simmons signed a contract giving the two an amazing 80 percent of dues and other revenue gleaned from new recruits. They are believed to have reaped $850,000—worth more than $11 million today—in their first fifteen months on the job. The whole enterprise was organized on a commission basis: everyone from the recruiters, or Kleagles, up through higher officers (King Kleagles, Grand Goblins, and more) kept a percentage of the initiation fee ($10, the equivalent of $122 today) and monthly dues. The movement was a highly lucrative brand.

Tyler and Clarke polished Simmons’s speaking style and set up newspaper interviews for him, gave free Klan memberships to Protestant ministers, and assured prominent placement of their blizzard of press releases by buying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of newspaper advertising. To appear respectable, they made these purchases through two well-known ad agencies, one of which had a Jewish CEO. Simmons, however, spent much of his share of the take on horse races, prizefights, and drink. Several rivals who lusted after the KKK’s lucrative income stream maneuvered him out of office with the help of Tyler and Clarke.

A plump, diminutive Texas dentist, Hiram Evans, became the new Imperial Wizard in 1922. He, in turn, his eye on Tyler and Clarke’s 80 percent of revenues, was able to force them out because of a scandal—the two were sexually involved but each was married to someone else. Linda Gordon gives Tyler major credit for the Klan’s success: “The organization might well have grown without this driven, bold, corrupt, and precociously entrepreneurial woman, but it would likely have been smaller.” About other women in the Klan, such as one group called Ladies of the Invisible Empire, Gordon dryly notes, “Readers…must rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s.”

Significantly, the new Wizard moved the Klan’s headquarters to Washington, D.C. Membership skyrocketed, reaching an estimated four million by 1924. The revenue remained enormous: beyond dues, there were sales of Klan insurance, knives, trinkets, and garb. Those robes and pointed hoods were made to an exacting pattern, sold at a big markup, and, until his ouster, could only be purchased from a company owned by Clarke. The temptations of this fountain of money led to further rivalries and embezzlement, compounded by the conviction of several Klan leaders for various sordid offenses, most spectacularly the Indiana Grand Dragon for the rape and murder of a young woman who worked for him—a crime that left his bite marks all over her body. All of this made the Klan largely collapse by the end of the decade—but not before it had helped win an enormous legislative victory, and not before there occurred a curious episode involving the Trump family.

Before we get to that, however, there’s another odd parallel between the Klan of the 1920s and the present day, which has to do with the sheer value of getting attention in the media. Many newspapers campaigned against the KKK, and no less than five such exposés won Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for an excoriating series of stories in the New York World in 1921 that revealed secret Klan rituals and code words, gave the names of more than two hundred officials, and listed violent crimes committed by Klansmen. The heavily promoted articles ran for three weeks, were reprinted by seventeen newspapers throughout the country, and provoked a congressional investigation. But instead of crushing the organization, the exposé did the opposite; one historian estimates that the series increased Klan membership by more than a million. Some people even tried to join by filling out the blank membership application form the World had used to illustrate one story.

Being denounced by a liberal New York newspaper, it turned out, gave the Klan just the political imprimatur it needed, and spread the news of its rebirth across the nation. Imperial Wizard Evans exulted that the exposés had provided “fifty million dollars’ worth of free advertising.” People loved the idea of joining a fraternal organization with secret rites and extravagant titles that included judges, congressmen, and other prominent citizens, and that legitimized combat against the forces that seemed to be undermining traditional American life.

What were those forces? Movements heavy on ethnic hatred and imagined conspiracies flourish when rapid changes upset the social order and people feel their income or status threatened. In the heyday of European fascism, the threat came from the enormous job losses of the Great Depression, which in Germany followed the humiliating Versailles Treaty and ruinous inflation that wiped out savings. Among many of Trump’s supporters today, the threat comes from stagnating or declining wages and the rapid automation and globalization that makes people feel their jobs are ever less secure.

We don’t normally think of the heady, expanding American economy of the 1920s as a period of threat, but Gordon offers a broader cultural and feminist analysis. “The Klan supplied a way for members to confirm manliness,” she writes, in an era when many traditional male roles were disappearing. “As more men became white-collar workers, as more small businesses lost out to chains, as the political supremacy of Anglo-Saxons became contested, as more women reached for economic and political rights,” the Klan “organized the performances of masculinity and male bonding through uniforms, parades, rituals, secrecy, and hierarchical military ranks and titles.” She quotes an admonition from one Oregon chapter: “Remember when you come to lodge that this is not an old maid’s convention.” A man who by day might be an accountant or stationery salesman or have a wife who earned more than he did could, in his Klan robes, be a Kleagle or Klaliff or Exalted Cyclops by night.

Not all Klan members were men, of course, and the Klan was not the only organization that offered ceremonial dress and fancy titles: it’s telling that the first place Klan recruiters usually sought members was among Masons. But Gordon’s is a thoughtful explanation of the Klan’s appeal in the fast-urbanizing America of the 1920s, which was leaving behind an earlier nation based, in imagined memory, on self-sufficient yeoman farmers, proud blue-collar workers, and virtuous small-town businessmen, all of them going to the same white-steepled church on Sunday. It was a world in which men did traditionally manly work and women’s place was in the kitchen and bedroom. Even city-dwellers—perhaps especially city-dwellers—could feel this nostalgia. (Although, as with many idealized pasts, the reality was less ideal: many late-nineteenth-century farmers and small businessmen went bankrupt or deep into debt, casualties of a string of recessions and declining world commodity prices.)

All these feelings, of course, came on top of centuries of racism. And that hostility was surely exacerbated during the 1920s when the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South was well underway, making black faces visible to millions who had seldom or never seen them before.

Demagogic movements prey on such anxieties by identifying scapegoats. One of the revived Klan’s targets is familiar to us from today’s demagogues: immigrants. By 1890, the ships streaming past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island were bringing people from new places, mainly southern and eastern Europe: Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, especially in the Russian Empire, Polish and Italian Catholics, and a continuing flow of immigrants from Catholic Ireland. The Klan wanted these new arrivals cut off and such immigrants already here to be deported.

This paranoia toward immigrants blended easily with the hostility to Catholics and Jews that many Americans already shared. Henry Ford circulated the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Klan officials, early experts in fake news, concocted similar forgeries about Catholic plots to take bloody vengeance on all Protestants. To WASP Klan members, Catholics seemed threatening because Irish political machines had taken control of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The pope was suspect because his was an international empire, based outside the United States. To make things even more un-American, mass was conducted in Latin, and many Catholics and Jews spoke foreign languages at home. In an apparently populist gesture, the Klan advocated more spending on public schools and libraries, but this was interwoven with demands to ban parochial schools

.

Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, Alabama, 1992

Jews, of course, had been convenient scapegoats for centuries, and their prominence in banking, in the eyes of the Klan and many others, meant that they surely had had a sinister hand in causing the financial panics that affected millions of Americans so painfully between 1890 and 1914. Furthermore, Jews were undermining American morals through their control of Hollywood, tempting people out of Protestant church pews and into movie theaters. The Klan was particularly enraged by a 1923 silent film, The Pilgrim, in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as a hypocritical minister. A stream of manufactured stories in Klan publications also accused Jews of masterminding the white slave trade. And if you should want proof that Jews could never be assimilated in America, it was right there in the Bible: Jonah emerged from his ordeal whole, indigestible even by the whale.

From Jewish bankers and movie moguls it was a short step to another set of Klan villains: big-city “elites” who tried to dictate to salt-of-the-earth true Americans how they should live. These elites were, according to one Klansman quoted by Gordon, “a cosmopolitan intelligentsia devoted to foreign creeds and ethnic identities…without moral standards.” Another wrote, “The Nordic American today is a stranger in…the land his fathers gave him.” And of course, every condemnation of the Klan by a big-city intellectual merely confirmed this feeling. The Klan also hated professional boxing (in the 1920s dominated by Jews and Catholics), jazz (blacks), and Broadway show tunes (Jews); Klan members attacked dance halls and were suspects in the burning down of a Maryland boxing arena. Another point of controversy, inflamed by the 1925 Scopes trial, was evolution, seen as a Jewish and highbrow conspiracy to undermine Christian doctrine; the Klan pushed for state laws against teaching it. On this issue, and on many others, evangelical churches were important KKK allies.

In the South, the revived Klan stuck to its traditional vigilantism: lynchings of black Americans continued, sometimes several dozen a year. And on occasion violence spread to the North: in 1925, for example, Klan members on horseback attacked the Omaha home of Reverend Earl Little, an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Little wasn’t home, but his pregnant wife and three children were. The Klansmen galloped around the house with flaming torches and shattered all the windows. In Michigan, where the family moved after the baby was born, vigilantes burned their house to the ground. The baby grew up to become Malcolm X.

Most of the time, however, in the northern states where the 1920s Klan thrived—its highest per capita membership was in Indiana and Oregon—it presented a less violent face. In 1925 forty-six chartered trains brought some 30,000 Klansmen to the nation’s capital, where they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue (robes and hoods, but no masks) and held a rally at the Washington Monument. The next day they laid wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on the grave of William Jennings Bryan, who had argued against evolution at the Scopes trial. You can see film of the march on YouTube, with the Capitol building in the background.

Following in the public relations tradition inaugurated by Tyler and Clarke, the Klan mixed its arcane midnight rituals with everything from Klambakes to a Klan summer resort to the Klan Haven orphanage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It sponsored sports tournaments for all ages, Bible study groups, gun clubs, and children’s camps, and had its own auto-racing stadium in Denver. Baseball, the ultimate American small-town game, was the most popular Klan sport, and in Wichita in 1925, Klan players even took on, and lost to, a local semipro all-black team. One year later, in Washington, D.C., another Klan team played the Hebrew All-Stars. It was masterful PR: who could accuse such an organization of being prejudiced?

All of these activities ensured plentiful newspaper coverage: Klan parades, beauty contests, minstrel shows, picnics, and even midnight Klonklaves (to enhance the aura of mystery, photographers were kept at a distance). Like it or hate it, readers were hungry for such news, and the result, writes Harcourt, was that an “odd kind of legitimacy” was “tacitly bestowed on the Klan.” The newly launched Time put Imperial Wizard Evans on its cover in 1924. The Klan also had an extensive press of its own: the weekly Kourier published sixteen state editions and claimed a readership of 1.5 million—although such numbers were usually inflated. Sympathizers controlled two radio stations, both, incidentally, in New York City. Klan members were a significant enough demographic that businesses found it worthwhile to come up with names like Kountry Kitchen or Kwik Kar Wash or to merely advertise themselves as “100% American.”

The Klan of the 1920s went to great lengths to polish its image because its real mission, aside from lining the pockets of its leaders, was in electoral politics. And here it was highly influential. In 1924 the organization mobilized hundreds of Protestant clergymen across the country whose sermons helped deny the Democratic presidential nomination to New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and vocal Klan opponent. Twenty thousand people attended an anti-Smith cross-burning in New Jersey two weeks before the Democratic convention. And in 1928, when Smith did get nominated, Klan opposition doubtless added to the margin by which he lost the general election to Herbert Hoover.

In alliance with other groups, the Klan won major victories on the state level. One of its causes, for instance, was eugenics laws, which allowed the forcible sterilization of those of “defective stock”—who all too often turned out to be nonwhite. Some thirty states adopted such legislation. In Oregon, KKK member Kaspar K. Kubli (the Klan was so delighted by his initials that it exempted him from dues) was speaker of the house. “For ten years, 1922 to 1932,” writes Gordon, “the majority of all Oregon’s elected officials were Klansmen, and opposition was so weak that Klansmen ran against one another.” In the mid-1920s, the majority of representatives elected to Congress from Texas, Colorado, and Indiana were Klan members, as were two justices of the US Supreme Court. Texas Congressman Hatton Sumners, a member, used his position as chair of the House Judiciary Committee to try to block an anti-lynching law. Sixteen senators and eleven governors in all were Klansmen, divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. From Wilson through Hoover, no president disavowed the Klan.

In 1924 came the great triumph of the Klan and its allies: harsh new immigration limits that virtually excluded Asians from moving to the United States, sharply reduced the number of immigrants admitted, and set national quotas ensuring that the great majority of them would come from the British Isles or Germany. (The quotas were cleverly based on what the ethnic origins of the American population had been in 1890—before the height of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.) This law, the Johnson-Reed Act, was sponsored by Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington State, whom Gordon calls a Klansman. Others are less certain of his actual membership, but in any event he was ardently supported by the Klan, and the law bearing his name helped shape the country for forty years to come.)

Sometimes what doesn’t happen is revealing. If upheavals that threaten people’s jobs and status provide the classic fuel for movements like the KKK, then in the 1930s, when the Depression threw a quarter of the American labor force out of work and left hundreds of thousands living in shacks of scrap wood and tarpaper, why didn’t the Klan come back to life stronger than ever? One answer is that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite its shortcomings, was a far-reaching and impassioned attempt to address the nation’s economic woes and injustices head-on, with a boldness we’ve not seen since then. It gave people hope. Another answer is that although FDR made many compromises with southern Democrats to get his programs through Congress, he was no racist. The more outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt was a fervent proponent of anti-lynching laws and of full rights for black Americans. The tone set by the White House matters; it creates moral space for others to speak and act. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these were years when the Klan lay low.

In all three of its historical incarnations, the KKK had many allies, not all of whom wanted to dress up in pointed hoods and hold ceremonies at night. But such public actions always have an echo. “The Klan did not invent bigotry,” Linda Gordon writes, “…[but] making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact.” Those burning crosses legitimated the expression of hatred, and exactly the same can be said of presidential tweets today.

She ends her book by writing, “The Klannish spirit—fearful, angry, gullible to sensationalist falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success in business if they only try—lives on.” One intriguing episode links the Klan of ninety years ago to us now. On Memorial Day 1927, a march of some one thousand Klansmen through the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, turned into a brawl with the police. Several people wearing Klan hoods, either marching in the parade or sympathizers cheering from the sidelines, were charged with disorderly conduct, and one with “refusing to disperse.” Although the charge against the latter was later dropped, his name was mentioned in several newspaper accounts of the fracas. Beneath the hood was Fred Trump, the father of Donald.*

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Animal-Loving Children for Children....Song of the Wild: A First Book of Animals By Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Petr Horacek.108 pp. Candlewick. $19.99. (Picture book; ages 3 to 7),;Inky’s Great Escape: The Incredible (and Mostly True) Story of an Octopus Escape By Casey Lyall. Illustrated by Sebastià Serra.32 pp. Sterling. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8); Inky’s Great Escape: The Incredible (and Mostly True) Story of an Octopus Escape By Casey Lyall. Illustrated by Sebastià Serra.32 pp. Sterling. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8);Feather By Cao Wenxuan. Illustrated by Roger Mello.48 pp. Elsewhere Editions. $18. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8); How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy. 48 pp. Roaring Brook. $18.99. (Picture book; ages 7 to 11) (IBRChildrensBooks)





Song of the Wild: A First Book of Animals By Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Petr Horacek.108 pp. Candlewick. $19.99. (Picture book; ages 3 to 7)

Jellyfish, flamingoes, butterflies; pandas, zebras, vipers. This beautifully illustrated oversize compendium will be a treat for anyone who likes to look at and think about the staggering variety of animals on this planet. Davies (“King of the Sky”) has a degree in zoology and a clear passion for animal life. A brief verse on each spread is both awed and intimate — “The panda walks alone,” she writes, “and the reason for its color / we may never really know” — leaving ample space for Horacek’s vividly colored, painterly art.
 

From "Inky's Great Escape"Credit

Inky’s Great Escape: The Incredible (and Mostly True) Story of an Octopus Escape By Casey Lyall. Illustrated by Sebastià Serra.32 pp. Sterling. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Few stories of animal escapades rival octopus escapes for mind-boggling fun. Lyall embellishes wildly on the story of Inky, who broke out of a New Zealand aquarium in 2016. This Inky is a raconteur and a patient opportunist who escapes on a dare from his tankmate, Blotchy. Inky’s physical feats are, of course, incredible: He makes himself “flat as a piece of seaweed,” then coils his body into a rope, slipping down the drain and out to the ocean. With Technicolor flair, Serra’s madcap cartoony illustrations rev up the story even more.




Inky’s Great Escape: The Incredible (and Mostly True) Story of an Octopus Escape By Casey Lyall. Illustrated by Sebastià Serra.32 pp. Sterling. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Red and Lulu, a devoted pair of cardinals, live year-round in a giant pine tree overlooking the snug house of a family of humans. But the tree is chopped down and strapped to a truck, with Lulu in its branches. Red’s journey to find his mate makes for gorgeous sweeping vistas and heightened emotion, especially when he finds her in the illuminated branches of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Tavares (“Crossing Niagara”) lets the holiday note waft lightly, bringing equal cheer to the celebration of pair-bonding and New York City.

From "Feather"Credit

Feather By Cao Wenxuan. Illustrated by Roger Mello.48 pp. Elsewhere Editions. $18. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

“I believe a good picture book comes close to philosophy,”the great Chinese children’s author Caowritesin the introduction to this lovely and, yes, profound tale of a feather searching for the bird it belongs to. As Feather is rebuffed by a heron, a peacock, a wild goose and more, we glimpse each bird’s personality and sense of purpose, and we feel Feather’s longing for self-knowledge and a home. Mello’s striking art makes each page a bright color, each avian portrait an evocative surprise. The book’sbox like design looks special, too.



From "How to Be an Elephant" Credit

How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy.
48 pp. Roaring Brook. $18.99. (Picture book; ages 7 to 11)


From Babar to Little Elliot, fictional elephants have charmed generations of kid readers. But make room for this account of real-life elephants that follows a baby through her first two years, explaining elephant society and biology and how the young learn. The energetic illustrations are whimsical on one page, scientifically precise on the next. As in her wonderful “Neighborhood Sharks,” Roy reels you in with startling facts, then shows how a dominant species is really vulnerable, dependent on humans to choose to practice conservation.




Fairy Tales with more depth and substance ..... BRAVE RED, SMART FROG A New Book of Old Tales By Emily Jenkins Illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason 94 pp. Candlewick Press. $17.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12) SNOW AND ROSE Written and illustrated by Emily Winfield Martin $17.99 205 pp. Random House Children’s Books (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)





Since the beginning of “once upon a time,” adults have spent so many hours analyzing and worrying over fairy tales, it’s a wonder most aren’t worn down to a few frazzled golden threads. But before we can get to the meaning of a fairy tale, it must delight us, or scare us, or perhaps both. Two books for young readers — Emily Jenkins’s “Brave Red, Smart Frog,” illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason, and “Snow & Rose,” by Emily Winfield Martin — reimagine Brothers Grimm fairy tales, treating delight, with a few grisly bits folded in, as its own reward. The deeper meanings of these stories do emerge, but the pleasure they give is paramount.

“Brave Red, Smart Frog” is subtitled “A New Book of Old Tales,” and the stories in it include riffs on “Snow White” and “Red Riding Hood.” But Jenkins adds welcome layers of texture to parables we think we know well. She’s particularly interested in flawed heroines, like Crystal, the princess in her version of “The Frog Prince,” a girl with too many pretty dresses, too many pairs of shoes and “too many ladies-in-waiting instead of friends.” Crystal is spoiled, but it isn’t wholly her fault. She has “too few occupations and too few real conversations” — in a way she’s like today’s superbusy, superachieving kids, who barely have time to imagine what it might be like to kiss a frog. Eason’s finely detailed illustrations balance the natural world with a fantastical one: A witch’s candy cottage looks as realistic and believable as the elaborately etched bark of a tree.

In “Snow & Rose,” a reimagining of the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” the lives of two sisters — practical, considerate Rose and petulant, anxious Snow — are changed forever when their father disappears in the woods. They’re forced to leave their comfortable house filled with pretty things and, with their grief-stricken, somewhat checked-out mother , make a new home in the very forest that swallowed up their father. Rose attempts cheerfulness; Snow, ever wistful, can’t stop thinking about all that the family has lost. As the two try to make the best of this terrible change in circumstances, they open their eyes to the new people and creatures around them. There’s an ancient librarian with a wooden leg, whose shelves contain not books but strange, useful treasures; a crabby little elf-man out to stir up trouble; and a boy who specializes in growing polychrome mushrooms. He’s given them fanciful names like Ruby Toadstools, Flea’s Parasols, and, my personal favorite, Butterscotch Tinies.

Martin, ties up the story with a graceful, satisfying flourish. Her illustrations — a bear caught in a trap, his face a world of confused, hurt feelings, or Snow, Rose and their mother heading out on Christmas Day in cozy cloaks with pointed hoods — have a gentle folkloric naïveté, reminiscent of Tasha Tudor’s work. They’re very pretty but also suitably mysterious.

As with all fairy tales, there are lessons in these books: Cultivate inner beauty. Be kind, especially to any creature or fellow human who is suffering. And because young heroines figure so prominently, one notion emerges with particular clarity: Girls have the interior resources to do anything they want, and while a little magic helps, it’s hardly necessary. Jenkins and Martin also understand that while it’s important to build confidence, humility and a sense of humor about oneself are essential. In other words, that stuff about being open to kissing the frog still rings true. Now please pass the Butterscotch Tinies.

The Wonderling Mira Bartók 450 pp. Candlewick Press. $21.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)




One of the chief pleasures of children’s books is the central role friendship so often plays — a lonely character moves from isolation and misunderstanding toward the warmth and security of true kinship with others. It’s immensely satisfying to watch young people take control of their own fates, navigating outer peril and inner struggle in order to find connection, as do the protagonists of two enchanting new middle grade books.

The hero of “The Wonderling,” Mira Bartók’s debut children’s novel, is a groundling, a human and animal hybrid, known only by the number stamped on the tag that hangs around his neck. This sensitive soul, part boy, part fox, has only known the grim confines of Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, a joyless place where music is forbidden and the only greenery is the moss growing on the stone wall that surrounds it. He doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from, and — most poignantly — wonders why he has been born at all.

After he is befriended and rechristened Arthur by a plucky fellow groundling, Trinket, the friends manage to break out of their miserably cosseted world and plunge into the great unknown, the world that’s so vast he “had to close his eyes from time to time in order to adjust to its size.” He arrives in the shining city of Lumentown and then, in the most opulently strange and inventive passages of the book, descends to the underworld beneath the city, where the clanging from mines and factories echoes through fog “thick as soup and brown as umber,” slugs leave glowing silver trails in the darkness, and hundreds of crows’ eyes glitter like stars at the top of a chamber.

Too often the bullies in the story speak in stale clichés rehashed from the movies, and chance or magic can sweep in too conveniently to save the day. But these weaknesses don’t diminish the power of the grand set pieces and exhilarating twists, or the pleasure of humble, exquisite moments. A home inside a tree smells like “pine wreaths, cedar chests, rosemary and mushrooms from deep within the woods.” Soon after their escape, Arthur and Trinket settle in a mossy spot between tree roots and gaze up at the night sky: “A cool wind blew, and the two friends pulled the blanket tight around them.” Momentum builds toward a thrilling crescendo and, rarest of all, a wholly satisfying ending that still whets the appetite for a sequel.



Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley 390 pp. Dial. $17.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12) (IBRChildrensBooks)




The delicious villain of “Tumble & Blue” is a mystical golden alligator who lurks in the swamp outside town and delivers asides to the reader in a velvety, malign purr. His dark menace is foil to the pure hearts of Blue Montgomery and Tumble Wilson, the winning duo of Cassie Beasley’s charming, warm-hearted and richly imagined tale.

Blue and Tumble have each been brought by their parents against their will to the poky town of Murky Branch, Ga., a town so small that Tumble thinks it could “bore the heroism right out of her.” But Tumble is an eternal optimist: “Her parents had taken her life and given it a good hard shake, but that didn’t mean Tumble was going to fall to pieces.” Dead set on being a hero and inspired by the incantatory slogans of the infomercial celebrity Maximal Star, Tumble is undeterred even when every rescue she attempts ends in disaster. “I prefer,” she says upon meeting Blue, “to think of myself as potentially extraordinary.”

Blue, on the other hand, is usually blue. The victim of a generations-old family curse, he just can’t win at anything — spelling bees, video games, sports, fights — and is gloomy after being recently dumped at his grandmother’s house by his constitutionally impatient racecar-driver father. Then Tumble catapults in, a breath of fresh air, zealously intent on saving Blue.

As droves of eccentric, meddlesome relatives turn up to wait for a red moon to rise, when all will be called into the swamp to fulfill or contest fates handed down long ago, only the courage to face truths about themselves — truths as dark as the swamp itself — will save Blue and Tumble. In places the story staggers under the weight of unwieldy plot mechanics and gratuitous emotional explication. But these are flaws of exuberance, and it’s hard to dwell on them while you’re rooting for characters as disarming as these two.