May 31, 2013

Did you know that leftist intellectual Angela Davis and conservative policy hand Elliott Abrams went to the same high school? I didn’t, until I read “Little Red,” by journalist Dina Hampton. That’s the hook for Hampton’s book, which is a triple biography of Davis, Abrams and their much-less-famous fellow graduate, Tom Hurwitz.

All three attended Elisabeth Irwin High School and, before that, the Little Red School House, intensely progressive private schools in Manhattan and filled with the progeny of what remained of the American left in the aftermath of 1950s McCarthyism. Hampton, herself a graduate of Little Red, suggests that her triptych tells the story of the baby-boom generation’s political maturation in microcosm. The book is generally well-written and never boring, even if her larger ambition goes unrealized.

Hampton is most sympathetic to Davis, whose Birmingham, Ala., parents sent her north for the kind of education she could not get at home. Davis became a radical icon in 1969 when the University of California fired her from her faculty appointment for being a communist. (Davis had the last laugh on this score: Years later she became a tenured professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.) In 1970 she became a wanted woman because she allegedly provided weapons to Jonathan Jackson, brother of imprisoned radical George Jackson, which Jonathan used in a courtroom hostage-taking scheme that ended bloodily.

After months on the lam and in jail, Davis was acquitted of all charges in 1972. Hampton exonerates Davis in fact as well as in law, as far as the record allows. Davis had indeed bought weapons that Jonathan Jackson used, but no one could prove she had given them to him. This was all a big deal at one time. But these stories have been neglected for years, and Hampton allows a new generation of readers to learn about them.

Davis is something of a cardboard heroine here. Near the book’s close, Hampton relates that in 1993Davis came out (sort of) as a lesbian, but Hampton does not reflect on the meaning of this revelation for Davis’s earlier life. Davis had become smitten with George Jackson (who was killed in another terrible scene in 1971) while he was a prisoner, before they ever met. She wrote letters to him that she often signed “your wife.” On first seeing Jackson, she described him in mythic terms: “His shoulders were broad and muscular, his tremendous arms sculptures of an ancient strength.” Hampton attributes this attraction to Davis’s sense of cultural deracination and her feeling that Jackson embodied “the genuine black experience.” This is plausible. But Hampton does not consider whether Davis’s construction of a make-believe romance also represented an effort to play a gendered role defined by the expectations of her time, a role she fit only awkwardly.

The sketch of Abrams’s life also lacks psychological depth. And Hampton appears less conversant with the center-right territory on which Abrams’s story played out than she is with the left. A New Deal liberal in his youth, Abrams believed more firmly than ever by the time he graduated from Elisabeth Irwin in 1965 that liberals should shun communists. As Hampton writes, “Cold War liberals, Elliott had come to believe, were more dangerous than conservatives.” Readers may not understand from Hampton’s rendition that Abrams, in his severe anti-communism, was being a Cold War liberal, not opposing Cold War liberalism. The familiar links between Cold War liberalism and later neoconservative circles are verified here, as Hampton follows Abrams from apprenticeships with Sens. Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to his service as an assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. Abrams eventually pleaded guilty to charges of withholding information from Congress to conceal Reagan’s illegal orchestration of aid to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Abrams maintains that he did nothing wrong. Hampton is unimpressed by his justifications (as am I), in contrast to her credulous handling of Davis’s defense.

Hampton follows Hurwitz, the son of a blacklisted Hollywood filmmaker, through the Columbia University upheaval of 1968 and later embroilments. He comes across as a somewhat, but perhaps not atypically, selfish young man. Not for him the lionization to which Davis is treated. However, his ambivalent, complex emotional entanglement with his suffocating, narcissistic father earns the reader’s sympathy. Reflecting on an effort to collaborate with his father on a film later in life, Hurwitz says: “My ego began to disappear. I began to lose track of who I was.”

Hampton forgoes any real effort to use her study to chart the influence of left-wing educational institutions on American life. The schooling that Davis, Abrams and Hurwitz shared serves primarily as a narrative device. However, while “Little Red” does not offer clear conclusions about the significance of these unusual schools, it does provide a set of absorbing stories that captures a good deal of political drama from recent decades in our nation’s history.

Doug Rossinow , a professor of history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., has written extensively about the social movements of the 1960s and is the author of a forthcoming history of America in the 1980s.

LITTLE RED

Three Passionate Lives Through
the Sixties and Beyond

By Dina Hampton

PublicAffairs. 308 pp. $25.99