Drawing on an unsavoury handful of doodles and doggerel about “jungle blacks” and “darkies” Jonny Whiteside informs the world that far from being a champion of the oppressed Woody Guthrie was “a Big Ol’ Racist”. Guthrie’s unpleasant streak is undeniable. The racism was hardly surprising: his father had been a klansman and racial prejudice was very common amongst Oklahoma migrants. What’s stranger was his apparent fondness for Stalin. When Uncle Joe carved up Poland with the Nazi dictator Guthrie penned a song that held that he’d “stepped in [to] give the farm lands back to the farmers” and claimed that, “If I’d been in Poland then I’d been glad Stalin stepped in”. Sure he would. Guthrie’s more unpleasant views weren’t, in the grand scheme of things, as unpleasant as his personal behaviour. He abandoned his first wife and their three children.
At some point, however, once these flaws have been acknowledged, I’m compelled to ask — so what? It’s true that one shouldn’t enshrine Guthrie or, indeed, anyone as a secular saint. It’s clear that his personal and intellectual failings are interesting as well as regrettable. Yet his racial prejudices; Soviet sympathies and marital faithlessness were incidental to the fact that he was an acutely sensitive observer of the struggles of the working classes with an extraordinary talent for distilling their experiences into poetry and evoking them with sound, and these virtues can be recognised and celebrated as we might the plays of Shaw and prose of Koestler. As Theodore Dalrymple muses, it is nice when a great artist has been a splendid person. Yet our potential for corruption ensures that most of us have features that might cause biographers to blanche. One must guage the extent of a person’s corruption, and if they have produced beautiful art it’s a strong indication that theirs wasn’t all-consuming.
Whiteside’s piece is so completely hostile that if he was in his 80s I’d suspect the Dust Bowl Troubadour had slept with his wife. He devotes a line to the fact that Guthrie publically apologised for his racial sentiments and promoted civil rights at length but he finds space for curious, catty asides like this…
His famous “This Machine Kills Fascists” slogan on his guitar? Turns out that was a morale-boosting WWII government slogan printed on stickers that were handed out to defense plant workers — capitalist propaganda, if you will.
Who gives a damn? He’d appropriated the slogan to affirm the power of creative expression. (An optimistic sentiment, yes, but that’s beside the point.)
Challenging excessively indulgent reputations is a valuable pursuit but I dislike the trend for reacting to canonisation with downright demonisation. In a piece that, in my view, fails to substantiate the claim that Christopher Hitchens was George Orwell’s rightful successor Anthony Lock discusses the former’s enthusiasm for “pricking bubbles”. (Apologies for failing to let the poor man rest but considering the nature of Verso’s forthcoming book you’ll have to deal with arguments over his legacy sooner or later.)
Although he criticized many different people in personal demolition jobs, the most significant were figures highly regarded by almost everybody else.
The problem is that one often got the impression with Hitchens that, to him, your failure to be saintly was evidence that you’re practically Satan. He had to defend you as a hero or attack you as a scoundrel and the fact that many are neither completely pure nor perverted was lost. This, I guess, is a peculiarity of the idea that politics and culture are essentially battlegrounds – and that if you’re not a friend you’re an enemy.
It must be also be acknowledged that the role of the assassin of beloved characters is an attractive one. Everybody wants to be the child observing the Emperor’s nakedness; he was, after all, the brightest person in the street. The more loathsome the figure whose reputation they tar the brighter they appear. Well, sometimes the Emperor – while not, perhaps, dressed in the sort of finery that some might claim – is at least wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.