This twenty gun salute to Lawrence Goodwyn—late, great historian of social movements and exemplary democrat—amps up echoes from the memorial celebration that took place at Duke University in Durham. There are texts here of talks given by those who honored him then along with reflections by many other comrades. The contributors are Donnel Baird, Terry Bouton, Elaine Brightwater, Dororthy Burlage, Chris Chafe, William Chafe, Benj DeMott, Thomas Ferguson, Todd Gitin, Wade Goodwyn, Casey Hayden, Jm Hightower, Wesley Hogan, Woody Holton, Max Krochmal, Ralph Nader, Syd Nathans, Paul Ortiz, Tim Tyson & Peter Wood. (F.Y.I.: Larry’s old friends Ronnie Dugger and William Greider have eulogized him in Texas Observer and The Nation.)
Speakers at the Duke tribute underscored Larry’s clarities about how race, class, gender, and money-power constrain democratic possibility. I learned things about his life and times from all of them. And one of the speakers wasn’t done teaching after his official remarks. Dr. Eugene Walker, the first grad student in the oral history program Larry willed into being at Duke, took me aside to say he’d left something important out of his statement. Recalling his sometimes fractious bond with Larry in the late 60s, this African American elder said their relationship taught him racial equality in the South was possible (“and believe me at that time I had NO use for white folks”). Back at the Goodwyn home at the party after the Duke event, I got another lesson from a Brother from Texas who went even further back with Larry than Dr. Robinson. This elder recalled how their friendship helped him keep cool but care in the 60s, even easing him through familial clashes. The Texan’s father—a prideful but stylistically conservative black middle class gentleman—had been put off by his son’s militant persona and Larry (who had a complex tie with his own father) helped Panther and old lion stay tight despite generational hype. My new (elderly) friend seemed to become the young, gifted, and black son he once was as he paused for a hot second (I took a sip of my beer), looking back in his mind on Larry’s 60s firefighting. I picked up the hanging conversation, suggesting Larry must’ve felt good knowing there were black people who trusted him back in the day and that the young blood had surely given his white buddy gifts of the spirit too. The Texan allowed that may have been true but then he pushed the feeling on. The key to his relationship with Larry was: “no quid pro quos.” Which is a pretty fair definition of the kind of love Larry gave so many of us. Thanks to all the folks who have tried to give some somethin’ back below.
Since it’s almost Christmas—and Goodwyns LOVE Christmas—I wanted to pass on a story I heard from Larry’s nephew at the party after the Duke tribute. This relative noted he was a bit of a contrarian so he wasn’t afraid to debate his uncle, which gave him many chances to be wowed by Larry’s brilliant (if sometimes dismissive) argufying. But long before he was struck by his uncle’s candlepower, Larry won him over forever by staying up late one Christmas Eve setting up electric trains that would make his nephew’s day. It’s a story that hints at who lost most when Larry left us. Not that family is everything. Society or, better, union isn’t a shuck. (Forget Maggie Thatcher and a million Confederates in the attic.) Still, I’m reminded of Wade Goodwyn’s quiet but pointed comment after he listened to one of his dad’s former students recall a conversation leading to Larry-satori. “You know that talk you had with him that changed your way of seeing. Well, I had hundreds of those conversations.” Wade and Nell and Lauren were luckier than the rest of us. And that’s why they’re more bereft now. I’d like to think our memories of Larry might become the foundation for a sort of virtual democratic community. But this December, let’s just hope these remembrances comfort Goodwyns missing a husband and dad as well as a salvific radical.
Nell’s Kitchen, Larry’s War Room
By Peter H. Wood
“Do you need a cup of coffee, comrade?” The offer was generous, the home welcoming. “Open up that thermos,” Larry would say to the visitor, tapping his pack of cigarettes on the kitchen table, with its littered ashtray and open books. “Nell just made a fresh pot,” he’d announce, gesturing with a Styrofoam cup. “Clear off that chair. Have a seat.”
Years later, the cigarettes would disappear, a personal victory over the cancerous Southern-based tobacco industry, a win that added decades to his life, before his lungs gave out. It was not his only battle with the insanity of his beloved South—far from it. “We have lots of snakes to kill,” he’d say, ever the Texan, even on Tobacco Road.
Tobacco gone, the coffee cup remained, as did the pile of books, new and old, by friends and foes—underlined, dog-eared, highlighted, marked with coffee stains. “Have you got a minute,” he’d explain. “I need to read you something, if I can find it.” He’d flip through pages, adjusting his thick glasses. “See what you think of this part here.”
Whatever the passage, it would unlock a storehouse of insights and recollections, cross-references and asides, digressions and bulls-eyes, anecdotes and observations, tirades and questions. To read a well-chosen page was to buy a ticket on the Goodwyn roller-coaster. Off you went, strapped in beside Larry and sharing his emotions—the agony and ecstasy.
Some telling statistic or apt quotation would sweep you high up, where you could see beyond the horizon; then a key line or a hidden footnote plunged you both down into a valley of despair. As time passed on this huge circular track, you might pause to hear a ball game or an NPR story, attend to the dog and cat, or admire some new back yard garden project.
When the conversation ended hours later, maybe days, you’d heard three old Texas stories and two new ones, all framed to show how democratic movements grow. You had, in Larry’s military imagery, “stockpiled serious ammunition,” “laid out a battle plan,” “exploded those myths,” “blown that ship out of the water.” You had “seized the cultural high ground.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Larry would end, shutting the book. “Reminds me of a piece I wrote for the Texas Observer. He misses some key points, of course, but we can fix that. He’s young, and he’s never seen a real movement. But this is heavy artillery. Lord knows, we need all the help we can get. I better call Dirk, and Ralph, and Greider too. We’re going to win this battle.”
Starting Out in the 60s
By Elaine Brightwater
I was nineteen when Larry Goodwyn showed up in the dusty office of the Support Committee for the Texas Valley Farm Workers. It was 1967, and my life (and that of colleagues Frances Barton and Ernie Cortes, Jr.) was consumed by the people, events, and personal change launched from that room. That first meeting with Larry is not some searing memory or mental picture for me. But it wasn’t long before the conversations that began in that old room in the YW-YMCA building (or in the beer garden close by) began to lay down layer after layer of “serious” dissection of what the hell was going on in our collective political and cultural experience. For my part, I am grateful that Larry handled those first exchanges with patience; he had quite a head start on the art of the dialectic of give and take.
Some of the scaffolding of Larry’s enduring conversations: the danger to the soul and mind of “sanctioned ideas,” the ultimate place of democracy in relationship, and the joy he found in seeing cracks in almost any hierarchy were among the gifts I most cherish from this man. And it is all the more wonderful that they were gifts to everyone he met. I miss him.
By Jim Hightower
As I flew here to join Nell, Wade, Lauren and all of you for Duke U’s Larry-palooza, I mulled over how to even start a short reflection on a life as big, audacious, imposing, and complex as Larry’s. Then I remembered something Oscar Wilde said that pretty much summed up the Goodwyn I knew for some 40 years: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
He was, after all, an English Major at Texas A&M. Aggies think an English Major is an officer in the British army.
As you probably did, I read the obits, taking in those terms— irascible, provocative, pugnacious, abrasive—that averred Larry was —how shall I say this?—not always easy. Well…YEAH! When you understand what’s really going on in this world—i.e. Plutocratic, Autocratic, Theocratic, KLEPTOCRATIC rule…the only sane response is to be irascible, provocative, pugnacious, and even abrasive.
But in my experience, even in his most contrary moments, Larry also understood a truth today’s progressive groups should underscore more often: battling Bosses, Bankers, Big Shots, Bastards and Bullshitters is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
Like the populist movement that Larry revealed to us in Democratic Promise, our rebellion must aim to be a joyous one.
Like so many other young progressives, I was adopted by Larry (whether I liked it or not). In 1976 I became editor of the Texas Observer, committing it to what I called “undiluted populism.” Larry approved…Regular advice followed. Of course Larry didn’t always approve. A decade ago, he opined I should “use less humor” in my writing and talks. I ignored that advice.
Back to ’76. When Democratic Promise was published, I was moved not just by the book’s content but also by Larry’s style. His writing could be supremely elegant and extremely personal—a vivid expression of his deep understanding and faith in democratic culture and democratic possibilities. His inscription on my copy of the book was marked by his characteristic mix of personal and political…
“To Jim Hightower and Susan Demarco…Gentle people and good friends. You offer us in the new OBSERVER a look at the present and bit of yourselves.
Here I offer a bit of the past and…of myself.
With affection and shared promise, Larry Goodwyn
Austin Texas, April 15th, 1977, in the kitchen.
Speaking of that “bit of himself,” Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise not only rewrote and corrected gross historical errors of previous elitist academic interpreters of the Populist movement, but also (here comes that irascible streak) Goodwyn rubbed their noses in it:
When considered in their own time and by their own standards of hope not our own, the populists not only come to life, they send a very different message than we have possessed the poise to hear. It is difficult to hear people, however, when we are trapped in our cultural need to condescend to them.
Take that Richard Hofstadter.
Larry’s pen was both a torch of enlightenment and a stiletto to the dark hearts of the elite, the pompous and the wrong.
What impressed me most about Larry was that he never flinched from being a radical…in the original Latin sense of the word: “to the root.” I looked up that word and man does it fit Larry. He had a unique ability to get to the root. Quicker than a gator on a poodle, he could dig out the fundamentals of an event, an issue, a person, a movement.
Now ponder this: In today’s usage, being radical is slang for cool. It’s hard to think of Larry as cool, but there it is!
Everyone agrees Larry’s legacy will flourish through his writing and his students. But Larry was more than an academic. He was a fiery activist. He didn’t just read and write history. He experienced and practiced it. Larry nurtured, informed and transformed activists all over this country. Like Ernie Cortes whose life in struggle has led him to head the Industrial Areas Foundation. Or George Goehl whose National People’s Action network encompasses grassroots groups in 14 states. NPA’s organizers have linked insurgent farmers in rural Iowa and youth in the South Bronx, building support for innovative approaches to wealth redistribution such as the Robin Hood Tax. Goehl told me he re-reads Democratic Promise regularly and finds fresh insights and new inspiration every time.
Even from the Great Beyond, Larry will still prod, provoke, and poke us progressives to do more, reach higher, fight harder. He believed that a populist future really is possible in our country.
I think of his life’s work in terms of an advertising slogan used by a moving company that existed in Austin, Texas, when I first moved down there in 1976. It was just a little outfit—one truck and a couple of burly guys, named something like Skeeter and Booger. But they had a great ad in the Yellow Pages that said: “If we can get it loose… we can move it.”
Larry Goodwyn helped get the historic promise of a Populist movement loose—and now it’s our job to move it.
The Long Slide
By Woody Holton
Like many other commenters here, I’m immensely grateful to Larry for making me a much better scholar and writer. But I want to mention two ways in which he influenced my life outside academia.
I dropped out of grad school in 1985 to work as a community organizer—first for the non-partisan Public Interest Research Groups and then for Clean Up Congress (a PAC I founded to campaign for pro-environment congressional candidates). At every retreat I helped plan, I made sure my fellow organizers read Larry’s introduction to The Populist Moment. In an era when many progressives worried that the reason their fellow Americans stayed out of politics was that they were simply too comfortable and apathetic to care, Larry’s essay made a persuasive case that what looked like apathy was often actually despair. As Luna Kelly, a veteran of the Populist agitation had put it, “I dared not even think of all the hopes we used to have and their bitter ending . . . and so I never vote.” (Populist Moment 339)
From the perspective of 2013, when fewer people than ever think they can fight City Hall, you might question the wisdom of dwelling on despair! But during the Reagan era, Larry’s message seemed absolutely essential. By giving us organizers an alternative explanation for our fellow Americans’ failure to participate in politics, Larry allowed us to not hate the people we were trying to organize.
The other non-academic setting in which Larry influenced me was as a parent. I spent my childless thirties and forties laughing at an easy target: the parents who seemed to overdo the development of their kids’ self-esteem. One alarmed essayist described observing a mother standing at the bottom of the sliding board. Every time her three-year-old slid down, she didn’t just praise him; she thanked him. When, at forty-seven, I somewhat unexpectedly became a father, I vowed not to be that parent.
But then I remembered Larry’s example. He had never once referred to my dissertation, even when it consisted of two sloppily-written chapters, as anything other than “this book.” Even then, I knew it was ridiculous for Professor Goodwyn to treat me as a fellow author. But Larry, who could sometimes be a real cynic, was always a nurturer. He knew that academia was a confidence game (in both senses!), and he kept us pathetic graduate students focused on what we might become. I don’t thank my kids as they reach the bottom of the sliding board, but I don’t stint the praise, either.
It’s too early to say whether Larry changed me for the better, either as an organizer or as a parent. But I’ve been changed for good!
A Millennial Meets An Old Soul
By Donnel Baird
A friend of mine told me about this cool history class my sophomore year at Duke. Lawrence Goodwyn or something or other, so I decided to try it, with fairly low expectations. Our first assignment on Day 1 was to write a paper on “What Democracy Means to Me”. At that point, I was 19, and not really in the habit of completing homework assignments. Amadou Diallo’s 4 NYPD shooters had been exonerated the previous spring, and when I’d heard the verdict, I knew it meant that as a young black men I could be gunned down at any time by cops and they would be exonerated, as long as they cited probable cause. I shut myself in my dorm room for 3 days and cried, and emerged a deeply cynical, depressed, and miserable young man. I didn’t really care about anything. Certainly not school work. Certainly not what democracy meant to me.
I showed up to Goodwyn’s class for the second session, and everyone else had brought typewritten copies of their essays. I borrowed a loose sheet of paper from a classmate and quickly banged out a handwritten one pager on how democracy was like jazz, because there were different players all coming together, improvising, but performing one song. Some nonsense I’d read in a Cornel West book. And I handed in the paper. I have terrible handwriting.
A week later, Goodwyn had handed back everyone’s paper except mine. I approached him after class to ask him whether he’d misplaced my paper. Goodwyn opened up a manila folder he had on his desk; in it was my paper. Without looking up from his folder, he snarled, “Is this YOURS?” Why, yes it was, I answered cheerfully. He slammed the manila folder shut and walked out. The next class, he handed me the paper, with a big D- at the bottom. This was session 3, and it was becoming clear by now that grades were not just about what was on the page, but also in some fashion correlated with Goodwyn’s comprehensive assessment of you as a person, as a human. The D- stuck in my craw. Goodwyn sent word via a classmate I knew that he wanted to meet with me one on one in his office. Because of the D-, I decided to show up.
As was his style, Goodwyn came over from behind his desk to sit across from me. He glared at me. I glared at him. He glared back. After about five solid minutes of silent glowering, Goodwyn finally spoke, “Well, you’re just about the laziest motherfucking student I’ve ever seen.”
The punches kept coming, culminating in the line, “If you don’t figure out way to act politically on your anger and stop being so alienated, you’re going to be dead of a drug overdose before you’re 35.”
That’s where our relationship started. I could tell he had seen my type before and cared enough about me to stage an intervention. It worked. When I showed up for the first day of another Goodwyn class the following spring, he asked each student to talk about why they were taking the class and what they hoped to get out of it. I was fourth or fifth to speak; the first few students said they were in the course b/c they wanted to learn about social movements, or 19th century American history. When it was my turn, I said, “I took a class with Goodwyn last semester, and I thought he was totally full of shit. But I’m back.” Goodwyn took it in stride and moved on to the next student. He was able to use my obnoxious comments to encourage other students to be more open and honest in that course by not reacting.
I learned a ton from Dr. Goodwyn through our relationship over the last ten years of his life. I loved him. He was incredibly patient with me, as he taught me politics. Chief among his lessons is the importance of people coming together to have sustained, serious, candid conversations about politics, and what can be done. In the case of the African American civil rights movement, my touchstone, we spent a great deal of time examining Rev. James Lawson’s 18 months of Nashville non-violence workshops with Diane Nash, Jim Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and other students who would become SNCC. Their colloquies sparked serious thinking about the applicability of tactics of non-violence to dismantling segregation in the Jim Crow South. And Lawson’s workshops also forged relationships that would help SNCC’s stalwarts overcome fear when they began engaging in direct actions such as sit-ins and Freedom Rides.
Dr. Goodwyn was running his own life-long workshop, with all of us, his students. What greater tribute could we pay the man now than to start talking amongst ourselves and coming up with a plan to take our country back.
By Max Krochmal
Larry cut his political teeth in Ralph Yarborough’s several gubernatorial and senate campaigns in the 1950s. Still, it wasn’t until the following decade that his on-the-ground organizing and activist brand of journalism had the greatest impact on the larger struggle for democracy in the South. Larry served as the head PR man and speechwriter for Don Yarborough (no relation to Ralph), who ran for governor in 1962 as the first explicitly integrationist candidate to seek statewide office. Don came agonizingly close to winning, and while others despaired, Larry saw in Don’s defeat a new path forward for liberalism in Texas. In a Texas Observer piece titled “New Shapes in Texas Politics,” he broke down the dramatic shift of conservative Democrats into the Republican Party and outlined a strategy for a liberal victory in the next cycle. The key, he argued, was to recognize that the pace of the black freedom struggle was rapidly quickening and that white liberals needed to catch up to it by committing themselves wholeheartedly to immediate, complete integration.
This conclusion became a central tenet behind the 1963-64 Democratic Coalition, a partnership Larry described as a “deliberately democratic” effort to engage African Americans and Mexican Americans as full rather than junior partners in the liberal movement. Ronnie Dugger commented in the pages of the Observer that this Coalition was unprecedented. The old habit of white liberals emphasizing economic issues for ALL people (with a wink and a nod toward the black folks in the room), that is, the liberals’ tendency to sidestep race, had finally given way to a more aggressive, more democratic platform proudly centered on civil rights.
Larry’s blending of activism and journalism took him to many of the hotspots of the black and brown freedom struggles in Texas in the mid-1960s. At each stop, he dove in to the fray as a participant-observer and then wrote remarkably insightful reports in the Observer. Larry’s seminal piece on the first Crystal City takeover of 1963, “Los Cinco Candidatos,” immediately grasped the enormity of the Mexican American sweep of municipal offices in the small South Texas town. While many other contemporary commentators saw it as anti-white or even illiberal, Larry revealed what it meant to people on the ground and even hinted at the future that La Raza Unida would later make a reality. He understood it as a small-d democratic uprising; scholars today recognize it as the first shot of the Chicano movement. (Parenthetically, this is also the reason why Larry remained a steadfast supporter of Obama—because the president’s election meant so much to so many ordinary African Americans.)
Larry’s piece on white liberals’ support of a student-led integration movement in Huntsville in 1965 was similarly ahead of its time. In it, he exploded his mostly white readers’ inherited notions of a monolithic “black community.” He detailed the class, ideological, and strategic conflicts that divided African Americans in rural East Texas and showed by example how white sympathizers could be useful to the movement while avoiding (or at least minimizing) the paternalism exhibited by many white activists in other locales. He again offered a path forward for the movement.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve, 1965, Larry published a piece in the Observer titled “The Caste System and the Righteousness Barrier.” In it, he reflected critically on the tensions within and imminent collapse of the interracial alliance in Texas—including the Coalition that he had helped build and in which he remained deeply invested. Anticipating many of the insights of Critical Race Theory and Third World feminisms, Larry argued that white liberals carried what has later been called “an invisible knapsack” of power, privilege, and, in perhaps the first use of one of his many trademark phrases, “unconscious white supremacy.” Each of these impeded white liberals’ ability to do political work on an equal basis with African Americans, and, worse still, to even forge democratic social relations across the color line. The problem was not as one of maliciousness but a divide between the “politics of the present” and the “politics of the future.” The first group sought to win the next election, while the latter wanted to destroy the entire caste system. At a more fundamental level, Larry argued, the problem was that black and white activists did not know how to talk to one another and shied away from honest conversations in interracial crowds. Even the writer himself was not safe from Larry’s criticism. “It is not so much that we consciously lie to one another,” he wrote. “We merely utter polite banalities in order to avoid speaking difficult truths.” In short, they were all guilty of lying by omission, just as we often are today.
Larry understood the profound consequences of the breakdown of social relations and the lack of candor among black and white activists. He concluded, “Sooner than most of us think, there may be no possibility of our being able to communicate in ways that have relevancy.” White liberals simply did not understand that African Americans could be the leaders of a new, progressive South. Larry thus suggested that the coming collapse of what Dr. King called the “beloved community” would stem less from black power than from white nationalism.
As these examples suggest, Larry had a unique ability to examine current events, dig to the bottom and locate their origins, and speculate in a remarkably prescient manner about their often vast implications. Of course, this final prediction proved true: across America, all parties did in fact lose the ability to “communicate with relevancy” across the color line. And we are all the poorer for it. Hence Larry’s desire to again dig deeper—to try to understand the successes and shortcomings of the populist movement and find a model for the future in the usable past.
Follow the Money
By Thomas Ferguson
Larry Goodwyn lived a few miles down the road from my parents in North Carolina. So, as a young faculty member at MIT, I would see him when I went home, and we would talk for hours. Many of these conversations are inscribed in my memory but I despair of conveying anything like the richness of his thinking: The wonderful and, really, unique, blend of personal warmth, wide interests, and brilliantly flickering allusions to ideas, books, and events was just too overwhelming.
First and foremost, Larry will be remembered as a great historian of the United States. We all know Larry wrote a remarkable book on the Polish Solidarity uprising. Not for a second would I minimize that achievement. But American history claimed most his research attention and it was there that he inverted a whole generation of historiography that had written Populism off as some kind of irrational aberration.
I have heard all kinds of speculations about what made Larry’s work so brilliant and distinctive. Who would disagree that his vigorous prose, marvelous story-telling skills, and ability to sketch how many characters figured in complex events all play some role in his achievements? But I don’t think these really hit at what was most distinctive about Larry’s work, not just Democratic Promise (The Populist Moment in paperback), but the less well known study of the Texas oil independents, or his many other contributions. I think two features of his work in particular stand out as decisive.
The first is his serious engagement with economic forces in history, even as he brilliantly recreated the cultural and human ecologies that envelope and work with and—often—through them. Back in the Progressive period and then again in the years of the high New Deal, many historians explored economics. But the Cold War put an end to that. Today, economic history is an area of specialization. Virtually no historians try to integrate economics with more general narratives. At best they make gestures; more commonly, just a lot of mistakes, when they do not ridicule the whole idea.
Larry’s work stands out in this dismal swamp in two respects. Firstly, his own narratives organically integrate economic factors into the story. But he does something else that is even rarer. He seriously engaged with formal economic analysis, even when he—quite correctly—suspected that the Neoclassical tools prized by its professional practitioners were themselves deformed and inadequate to their object. Can anyone point to another great historical study that, like Democratic Promise, includes an appendix by an able professional economist spelling out the technical implications of the discussion that runs through the book itself? The enormous response to Larry’s great history of Populism, I am convinced, rests heavily on precisely this integration. Readers respond, because of the shock of recognition.
The other distinctive feature of Larry’s work, of course, is the direct way he confronts questions of political power and, especially, the power of political money. Doubtless he picked up this talent in Texas, where, admittedly, the reality is so brazen that only professionally trained political scientists and historians are able routinely to miss it. I remember how, in the first long conversation I had with him, Larry explained to me the institution of “lay off” money, where someone with an apparent party preference hedges their bet. As obvious as the idea is, I had never heard it developed in detailed institutional terms either at Princeton, where I had received my Ph.D., or at MIT. Larry not only explained it, he cited specific cases from history and recent events.
Larry was larger than life; I almost can’t believe he was really mortal. Not only his friends and family, but everyone concerned with American intellectual life should mourn his passing, though the marvelous work he left behind provides at least some consolation.
By Syd Nathans
As a writer of history, Larry Goodwyn changed our understanding of democracy in America and of the Solidarity Movement in Poland. As a teacher of history, he changed lives. Though I was a Duke colleague rather than one of Larry’s students, he was as generous and brilliant a teacher for me as for any of them.
Almost forty years ago, Larry Goodwyn and Bill Chafe gathered in two dozen graduate students for a summer oral history seminar, one that took on the Civil Rights struggle in Chapel Hill and that in two weeks overturned the “received wisdom” about who made that movement, and by extension, about “local people” who made The Movement everywhere. I sat in. Those two weeks changed my life and transformed my work. Larry inspired for me—author of a first book on Daniel Webster—a different and more fulfilling vision of what I might attempt as an historian. I got into oral history, shifted from the study of Yankee statesmen to “ordinary” southern and then African-American people, and sought somehow to do for “my” 19th century folk what Larry did for his Populists and for movements of the twentieth century.
When my inbred and, I fear, incorrigible search for stories of Triumph crept into what I wrote, Larry sought to infuse me with his more seasoned and sober sensibility. To a proposal for a TV series on Southern history, Larry commented, deadpan: “Well, it’s not burdened by any ideology.” (When years later I repeated that back to him, he said, “Did I say that?”) More importantly, he urged me to open my mind and heart and writing to outcomes that were Tragic, or at least that “fell short.” (“In the end, we all fall short,” he often said.)
In the 1970s, Larry struck up a friendship with Herbert Gutman, a New York scholar and comrade, and brought him to Duke to encourage work on black family history. Larry introduced me to Herb. That meeting led to work that I’ve been at ever since, trying to check out leads that Herb Gutman suggested in footnotes and the text of his book on The Black Family. Larry encouraged me as I proceeded to interview people, become parts of families, do census research, all of which Larry generously characterized as studying the “the atoms of history.”
Larry’s passion, intensity, humanity, and yes, his genius, came through in many ways. In Duke History Department meetings, when Larry got the floor and cleared his throat, to a person we all held our breaths. Whatever he said would likely be challenging, occasionally ironic, but above all, we knew it would be original. When a Richard Nixon Presidential Library was proposed for Duke, what a wonder it was to watch Larry Goodwyn and Bill Chafe and Peter Wood brilliantly deploy their talents and courage to derail that seemingly unavoidable disaster. Larry’s metaphor came from football. After we met to no avail with Nixon Library advocate and Duke president Terry Sanford at the president’s house, we regrouped at a home nearby. It looked bleak. Larry paused, then said, in that gravely voice of his: “Men, they’re on the one-inch line and have four downs. Our first job is just to Hold ‘Em.” We did.
One of the happiest moments of that Victory, and of other moments of joy where Larry was involved, was to see him thrust his fist up into the air in triumph. I wasn’t there to see, but I’m sure others saw the fist go up and heard the shouted-out YES!, when the country—and North Carolina—went for Obama in 2008.
Larry Goodwyn challenged and changed our understanding of history and of who makes history. One on one he also, profoundly, changed lives. I’m grateful that mine was one of them.
By Terry Bouton
Knowing that Larry’s intellectual contributions will be well covered by others, I want to commemorate Larry Goodwyn the teacher. Larry was one of my graduate advisors in the early 90s, along with the amazing Peter Wood. He was extremely influential in shaping how I learned to think and write about history. Larry was the greatest teacher I have known in a life of knowing great teachers. He took me under his wing at and invested countless hours helping me find my voice and develop the skills to have it heard. Those are debts I can never repay. Consider this tribute the smallest of down payments.
Misfits is not exactly the right word. Those of us who found our way to Larry while at Duke University in the early 90s were, I think, more alienated than anything else. It was the high tide of postmodernism and the cultural/literary turn. Course readings and classroom discussion were often filled with jargon-laden, pomposity. I turned to Larry around the time I was called an “intellectual luddite” by one professor for questioning her use of readings where no one in the class—including the professor herself—seemed to be able to decode the main point. I felt lost in this world of freshly invented three syllable words and abstractions built on abstractions. In my darkest hours, I questioned my own intelligence and perspective.
Larry offered an island of clarity and sanity. He gave us a safe place to think. He introduced us to graduate students who were doing new and exciting kinds of history, who were creative and who wrote clearly. He opened up worlds of ideas and methodologies we hadn’t touched upon in the official history department methodology class (where I had been labeled a luddite). It was both comforting and thrilling.
It was here that Larry gave me the greatest gift I received at graduate school: he taught me how to write. He was the master of tough love. Larry eviscerated bad writing, but he did so in a way that was so subtle that it left me feeling inspired and ready to tackle the world. Consider the first paper I wrote for him. He started out by highlight two sentences in the middle of a paragraph, in the middle of the paper. We talked about those sentences at length. He told me how they revealed great insights. I felt smart and empowered, like I had something new and important to say. Then we turned to the rest of the paper. The red ink started to flow. Whole paragraphs fell, slashed with a single line. Pages went the same way. He jumped from page four to page nine. By the end of the session, I realize that Larry had completely trashed the paper. There was almost nothing to salvage but those two sentences and a few examples. Without saying it, he had told me to start over from scratch. Never before had my writing been so brutalized. And yet, I felt inspired like no other editing experience. I was eager to get right back at it to get it right the next time.
I remember asking him how he had pulled off that trick. Larry credited a newspaper editor who had done something similar for him when he was a reporter. The man had told Larry the most important part of editing was preserving the ego of his reporters. Harping on what was wrong risked paralyzing reporters and having them miss deadlines. The editor needed to get a paper to press and so he had learned to sugar coat bad news. Larry’s was hardly so mercenary. Instead, he was driven by a genuine compassion for his students and a dedication to good, humane teaching. Every student of Larry’s has a story like this: of a man who took the time to instruct patiently and with great sensitivity and care.
That was the best of Larry as a teacher: a patient, tough, methodical editor, who could impart hard lessons while motivating at the same time. The editing sessions were often epic. I’d show up at Larry’s office. Or his living room. Or the kitchen table. And I’d have a dissertation chapter in hand and we would spend hours poring over each sentence, with Larry chain smoking the whole time. When Larry liked a turn of phrase, he would take a long draw on his cigarette and tilt his head like he was about to talk to the ceiling. He’d let out a long, slow cloud of smoke. And then he’d say in a slow, quiet voice something like, “now, this is interesting.” Or he’d chuckle and put on his devilish little boy face and peer at me over his glasses and say, “they’re going to hate you for this one.” Of course, there was the standard Larry editing lingo: “you can’t top a top,” “this needs a flag,” “the facts do not speak for themselves,” and my personal favorite “this conceals the social reality it purports to describe.” We talked about writing mechanics. We talked about style and tone. We talked about audience. We strategized about how to make a particularly difficult point to a skeptical reader. We discussed what stories to highlight. We debated when to hit the reader over the head, and when to back off and win with subtle irony. By the end of the session, I’d have my rewriting work cut out for me. But I’d always be elated. (I would also always reek of cigarette smoke. So much so, in fact, that my girlfriend at the time insisted that I strip down to my underwear before entering our apartment and leave my clothes on the landing. She would not let me retrieve the clothes until I had fetched a thick plastic bag to deposit them in.) Those sessions are my fondest memories of Larry. To me, they sum up what a great teacher and person Larry was.
Those moments also gave me gifts I carry with me today: Larry trained me to be my own best cheerleader and my own best critic. He showed me how to plan and organize and strategize and craft. Over and over again, Larry said that he took the time to do this so that when I left Duke, I could do it by myself. “I won’t be around forever,” he would say. “You need to learn to develop a voice in your head that can be your own editor.”
Sadly, now I will write my next book without my best critic. I think I will be ok, though. Thanks to Larry, I developed that editorial voice in the back of my head. It’s always with me when I write, speaking in a familiar gravely voice with a quiet Texas drawl.
By William Chafe
I first met Larry when we both came to Duke in 1971 as newly minted Ph.D.’s and assistant professors in the History Department. We had both written about blacks in the Populist movement, both been involved in politics and we both believed oral history might be a pivotal way of changing conceptions of modern American history, particularly civil rights.
Once we met we became lifelong partners and friends. Larry had been brought to Duke by Terry Sanford to start an oral history program. He had already made contact with Peter Wood of the Rockefeller Foundation, raising funds to bring a cohort of black graduate students to Duke to help rewrite Southern history by placing voices of black people at the heart of the story. Soon we became co-directors of the Duke Oral History Program, and subsequently recruited more than two dozen graduate students-the majority of them African American-to do oral history. Many of these graduates published books on civil rights that helped transform understanding of freedom struggles, leading to a new focus on grassroots insurgency in the black community as central to understanding the movement. Instead of top-down studies that emphasized the role of presidents we now have movement history that’s bottom-up, and focused on local community organizing. Not a bad legacy for a couple of assistant professors who had the good luck to come to the right place at the right time.
Not that Larry’s impact was limited to the field of history. In 1981, together with Syd Nathans and Peter Wood, Larry and I spearheaded the fight against the Nixon Library. Duke’s president Terry Sanford had forgotten that we knew something about politics, and we organized a unanimous vote of the faculty against building a monument to Richard Nixon. We were ok with allocating 30,000 square feet for the Nixon papers, but not 150,000 square feet for a museum celebrating Nixon’s life.
In all of this Larry was a central, charismatic figure. There are three thoughts I want to leave you with. First, it is important to recognize what a complicated person Larry was. He believed passionately in standing against the Establishment and devoted his life to teaching the importance of small “d” democracy. Yet he could be autocratic in preaching that message. Second, while he was less than perfectly tactful, he was always compelling. No one who came into his presence could ignore Larry. No matter what, you had to grapple with who he was and what he represented. Third, he was challenging. You had to respond to his insistence that you write your own history, disdain false authority and find your own way in the world.
By Wesley Hogan
Larry lit a fire with his liberated mind in damn near every room he walked into.
When I got to Duke in the early 1990s, the formality shocked me. There seemed to be as much distance between professors and grad students as between high priests and confessants. Larry was the first professor I met to flatten that hierarchy. And in true Goodwyn fashion, he did it through direct action. He walked up to me and stuck out his hand to shake. “C’mon, comrade, I’m just an old cowboy from Texas,” he rumbled, as I stood there scared and raw and new, looking oddly at his outstretched palm.
He then did an impromptu interview, grilling me on why I was in grad school. I didn’t take kindly to the third degree, screwed up my courage, and got a bit sassy. “Is this my second entrance exam?” He told me to come down to 9th street and have a beer.
In this way, over many a Pabst blue ribbon and an endless flow of coffee, Larry served as the formative intellectual presence of my life. He provided a working model of a life of the mind, using his commanding powers of concentration to try for a permanently useful fix on the inheritance of history, on the writing that’d come before him, and all the people he’d met that represented the different stages of that literature and the varied ideologies within it. Where did such a man come from? To me, his corner office in the Carr building seemed as far removed from the planet Earth as Saturn. He was unlike anyone I had ever met.
Larry pointed out things about the tradition of higher education that helped me survive its alienation. “There are hidden affinities of a meritocracy in the academy, habits we acquire as a part of the culture. Sometimes it produces good results. But it is inherently undemocratic.”
Out of that mind came many brilliant and practical observations about the internal workings of popular political movements. Once I complained about somebody in my activist organization being insufficiently committed to the revolution. He gently suggested there might be dangers in being more radical than thou: he warned that “militancy is a device by which people can simply crush their opponents.”
He was the first to admit he, like the rest of us, had habits of hierarchy that needed flattening. Having been tutored by Nell and Lauren to recognize the ways he’d been socialized by the culture as a male supremacist, he then pushed me to march past gender barriers: I remember so vividly the time at the Waffle House where he stared intently into my eyes: “It’s not just male writers who get to pull on their boots and chomp a cigar like an old-time city editor,” He leaned forward. “You’re going to need to write with total authority, complete clarity. Edit your prose with your boots stomping the floor. You have a lot to teach me. Write like you know that to be true.” And other times, when I’d give him grief about him being a little rough on me or someone else, he’d show stunning reflective power: “This bullshit is something we have to deal with in ourselves,” he’d say. “I have on occasion been mean, or carried out personal attacks, and stereotyped. Even when I know better.” He always would tell me a specific story. He never let the general stick out there without a concrete illustration. “Pay attention to people’s pain, and who they lash out at,” he said. “Figure out why.”
When I’d screw up, and be deep down in the shame pit, he’d be encouraging: “Give yourself permission to explore your own errors. If you take that chance, you might improve the situation.”
He admired, above all, people who could ask a question that pierced to the heart of the matter. “Let’s take a look at this interview by Greider,” he’d growl, and we’d plop in front of the TV. We must have looked at twenty interviews in that first year I met him. He’d pour over my interview transcripts, pointing out questions I could have asked, or phrasing I could have sharpened. When it came time to interview his friends from the civil rights movement, he wrote the single best piece I’ve yet come across by anyone on how to interview.
“You do not let go of the intimate ones,” he wrote. By this he meant the people who were able to tell difficult truths without the varnish of propriety. “Stay overnight. Spend money you don’t have. Make a note that you have to rob a bank next week, but wring them out before you leave town. You must do this to get the essential evidence. You are very well equipped to do this. You need only give yourself the assignment to do it.” He pushed me to be better than I ever thought I was.
I miss the person Larry brought out in me. His heart seemed big enough to take in all of humanity, and he gently prodded me to open mine as wide. And of course, this drew some wondrous people toward him. Among the many comrades I met through Larry, I count dearest friends as well as the love of my life, a man Larry plucked out of Berlin in the mid-1980s, and who, were it not for that single Goodwynesque act, would likely still be in that fine city today, blissfully unaware of me pining for a soulmate on the other side of the Atlantic.
At one point Larry told me he had only had about 11 or 12 democratic social relations in his life. (Of course, the people in the room testify that that number was a little low.) He said he failed in some of them. This was the vital part for a young person: he said he let himself fail. He gave himself permission to get stuck in the mud, to jump without a parachute. If you don’t hang yourself out there, he’d say, nothing good ever happens. You’re left with platitudes of conventional wisdom.
Nell and he would then laugh, tell a pithy story on themselves, allow how they’d failed plenty of times, but always found a way back to the center: one another. By welcoming me into their home, and hearing their stories, I was honored to witness the way they worked together. He’d write. She’d edit. They’d debate. And the point was always made more clear. It was a vital working model for how to have a commitment to your writing, but to make sure you put your family and home at the center of the work.
Larry aimed to capture social relations that were moving, he wanted to develop a language where nobody threw any crockery, he strove for relationship to others where both parties were accountable to one another. He was macho—he took chances, then he balanced it with feminine intuition when he went too far. When I’d arch my eyebrow at a particular doozy, he’d always ask with a mischievous grin, “Should I have said that differently?”
He loved a finely laid out story. I would hear Wade on the radio, and think “I know who’s beaming in pride and bursting with love down on Welcome Drive tonight.”
In striving to create democratic social relations, he believed the only dead-end act was to think you were in control. “If you’re connected to other people in any significant way, you are not going to be ‘in control’ of your own life.” Take a risk, he’d say. “Connecting on a real level to others is always worth the risk.”
Those of us here in the room today risked a lot, trying to be as real with him as he was with us. When I look at all of us gathered in his honor, I want to draw strength from the group, and hope that I can keep this moment inside of me—and stay resilient enough to continue in that loving spirit: his risk-taking, question-asking, truth-seeking legacy.
Letter to a Young Feminist
By Casey Hayden
I tried to write for the audience at Larry’s memorial and failed. My relationship with Larry was actually more intimate, in a peculiar way, than I could examine in such a format. By this I mean I felt we were joined at the heart in our ideology, our view of how to make the common good become the common will, our understanding of the trust and community at the core of the beginnings of those uprisings we’ve come to call social movements. Maybe it’s because he was from Texas, and our roots go back to the Texas Observer there; or just because Texas liberals, especially those of us from poor families, understand power and rebellion in special way. Whatever. When I read his book on populism, and when he sent you to interview me for your dissertation and then when we met, I knew he was a companero and would be so, loyally, as long as he lived. And he was, staying in touch in familiar ways, knowing how much we all need support, when we see clearly, from buddies who are like ourselves, to not go blind again. I miss him so much. Please pass on the love.
The Organizing Tradition
By Chris Chafe
I never had Larry Goodwyn as a professor, but as a lifelong family friend and mentor he certainly taught me much about life and how to live it. Larry had a special way of letting someone know he cared—which was to push and challenge you to get to the heart of the matter. That was a key element of his ethos—to be brutally honest and not waste time with anything that wasn’t essential. Despite his reputation for having a hard edge Larry was in fact very committed to a countercultural focus on love and being directly, personally relational. Like any good house caller/organizer he knew intimate engagement was the only dynamic that could inspire movement, risk-taking, candor, and growth. Any student or colleague who Larry invested time in shares a special experience and bond—if he ever suggested you meet someone that was always an encounter to pursue, and his validation was a badge of honor to carry into any community he steered you to.
When I was 22 years old and just out of college Larry sat me down and gave me a set of guidelines which I now gladly share with younger colleagues. 1) Don’t take yourself too seriously in anything but a quest for learning and experiencing as much as you can until you are 30. If you keep your eyes open, listen and reflect on what you learn from taking many paths in work and life, you will figure out what you care about and what feeds you. Once you know that, you can spend your 30s and beyond getting better at whatever you choose to do. 2) Look for people you respect and if you are lucky enough to get them to invest any time in you, take heed because there is nothing as valuable as a mentor, and don’t forget to give back to others as you grow older. 3) Look for life partners and friends who you can be honest with and from whom you can hear truth, to cut down on bullshit and petty politics. 4) (This one came later in life.) Meet people where they’re at and don’t judge them for acting on their intentions as best they can. If you are an organizer you’re offering people a chance to choose the good, but you must remember it is their choice, not yours.
Larry believed in people and he trusted people to make good choices for themselves and he understood the deep commitment of time, will and trust required to create power and progress.
By Dorothy Burlage
Larry was a great man. He was one of those rare souls who remained true to his principles to the end. Larry transcended race and class. He helped those who came a few years behind him, saying that he respected what we in the civil rights movement were doing, but the truth is that we stood on his shoulders. He was a great historian and transformed the way history can be written. Larry should be in the history books.
As the Years Went Passing By
By Todd Gitlin
I first met Larry Goodwyn at an SDS conference in central Illinois, sometime in 1964 or ’65. He came highly recommended by my Texas friends Robb and Dorothy Burlage, who had put me onto the Texas Observer (I might have been the only subscriber in Ann Arbor, Michigan) and the remarkable circl e of writers and politicos clustered around Ronnie Dugger. I knew that Larry was working for the Texas Coalition, an impressive effort to lasso together the AFL-CIO, NAACP, Latino and white liberal-radical Austin types to take over the state Democratic Party. This seemed an exemplary sort of left-liberal coalition politics in a place that, astoundingly to today’s eyes, seemed open to that sort of thing. To my eyes, he was the real deal—a political intellectual who got his hands dirty.
Larry had rented a big white car. We drove off down the highway, perhaps to get some beers. I remember that he drove like a demon but with considerable skill, although somewhere in the back of my mind is the fuzzy memory of a screeching stop in front of a fence. I was charmed more than scared.
The second time was probably in the summer of 1966. He and Nell took my then-wife Nanci and me to a lake near Austin. We ate barbeque and argued about politics. Larry was a devoted reader of Dissent and a big fan of Irving Howe. I thought that Irving, while a wonderful critic, was too tough on the New Left. Larry thought SDS insufficiently anti-Communist. He didn’t convince me but he impressed me, not least for his vigor and rigor.
The next time was one March around 1985. I went to Duke to give a talk. He picked me up at the airport, took me to his house, and along with a bunch of students introduced me to the splendors of a North Carolina basketball game with (again) a lot of beer. Over the next few days, we talked a lot more. We talked about my effort to convey New Left spirit in my book on the Sixties, which I think I was halfway through writing. He agreed that being true to the spirit of a movement was the writerly challenge. He had published Democratic Promise to great, deserved acclaim, and was now a roaring proponent of extra-party radicalism. The Populists he heralded were trans-party and counter-institutional. I had come to think that coalition politics were indispensable, and was now on the editorial board of Dissent. We raked back through that Austin conversation (at a time when a two-decade hiatus seemed a lifetime!) and agreed, affectionately, that we’d switched sides in the coalition-vs.-outsider-politics debate.
He was thinking through the role of the KOR intellectuals vis-à-vis Solidarity, the subject of his next book. He’d come to think that there was little for left-wing intellectuals to do but dream up ideas that workers’ movements (like Poland’s Solidarnosc) might latch onto in a moment of promising crisis. In the interim, intellectuals could come to their aid. I shared his enthusiasm for the workers’ movement of Poland but was somewhat dismayed, also challenged, by his certainty that intellectuals could do little by ourselves until the moment of truth arrived. I don’t know who was right.
In any case, we could agree that the academic Left was not much help, and that the Reagan era was a stone on our hearts.
He was a warm man, a stout heart, and an exemplary citizen.
By Ralph Nader
Larry Goodwyn for sure a probing author of historical realities, ignored, minimized or glossed over by others, but his lasting contribution is that of a multiplier. He searched for talented students and young scholars and activists and in all kinds of ways assisted,advanced and elevated their talents, their missions and their positions.
His books and articles are visible to shape his educational and motivating legacy. Although less visible, his networking, support and instruction provided to a whole generation of seekers for historical and contemporary truth will continue to have a lasting impact.
Many authors would send manuscripts to Larry because they knew he would not reject their request for his criticism. He was as generous with his time as he was with sharing his insights. Not many scholars are so sharing and so acutely aware of the connection between valid knowledge and long-deferred justice.
A Democrat for the Ages
By Benj DeMott
The Times‘ respectful obituary covered Larry’s “authoritative” work on American populism, his role in the Civil Rights movement and Texas politics (where he once served as an advance man for Senator Ralph—“Put the jam on the lower shelf where the little man can reach it”—Yarborough) as well as his career in the Academy, where he mentored a generation of young historians who have deepened our understanding of the American experience, from the republic’s founding to the 60s. I was struck, though, by the obit’s next to last graph, which invoked Breaking the Barrier—Larry’s gripping study of the rise of Solidarity in Poland—and then left readers hanging.
It had a one-off quality that hinted the book was a sort of outlier. Since much of Larry’s life-work had roots in the American South—what’s Poland got to do with it? I’m probably projecting—the Timesman may just have been squeezing in one more fact before he faded out. Still the obit left me ruefully thinking about how I’d failed to pick up on Breaking the Barrier when it first came out in 1991 even though my mind had been blown when I’d read The Populist Moment—the abridged version of the seven hundred page Democratic Promise—at the University of Rochester in the 70s. (The Populist Moment was assigned by Christopher Lasch who once told Larry he considered him his Engels—a notion that amused Larry though he thought it a bit rich for Lasch to equate himself with Marx.) Larry’s work on populism not only revived a disappeared American democratic tradition—it offered a fresh approach to political economy that sublated no-future antimonies between corporate capitalism and state socialism.
Breaking the Barrier was another great refusal of dry, quiescent political discourse. Goodwyn not only caught the heated rush of the Polish August but broke it down, telling the truly revolutionary story of how Solidarity happened. My failure to follow up and read Larry’s thrilling “Polish book” back in the day was my bad. But me and other potential readers didn’t get much help from New York intellectuals; Breaking the Barrier was reviewed dismissively in NYRB by Timothy Garton Ash who failed to mention Larry had repeatedly (if gently) cited Ash’s own book, The Polish Revolution, “as an urbane example of the simplistic conventional interpretation of Solidarity, i.e. the presumed causal role played by Warsaw intellectuals in its origins and development.” Larry nailed Ash in NYRB’s letter pages, pointing out the review amounted to “damage control.” [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1991/oct/24/solidaritys-sources/]
But that unfair deal went down. NYRB reviews have weight and Larry’s work on Solidarity never got its due. An outcome that didn’t shock him. His book, after all, upheld the idea a people’s politics may hustle and flow beneath the noses of urban intellectuals (who presume to know better whether in New York or Warsaw).
I’m reminded, on that score, of a story he once told about meeting C.L.R. James—another radical thinker at home with folks who lived below (what a genteel voice once termed) “the men who make up your mind.” Larry encountered James in the early 70s at a university conference on the theme “The Year 2000.” The meeting hall was filled with academic stars who sat up front in a sort of inner circle. Larry was placed in the back and his sense of distance increased as he listened to the certified “geniuses.” He wasn’t all alone, though, as he found out when James scribbled a note to him suggesting the only thing the assembled mandarins knew about 2000 was that each hoped to be president of Harvard by then. James kept quiet for the first day or two of the conference. When he finally opened up in public, he began by recalling modern instances when striking steelworkers destroyed machines in British factories and farm workers in Trinidad fired cane fields that provided their livelihood. He pondered aloud if such heavy expressions of alienation might be worth a thought or two as conference panelists tried to project what life might be like in the next millennium. There was a pause—the silence resonated promisingly until…the discourse picked up where it had left off before James posed his question. Larry caught James’s eye and they walked right out of the room to the nearest bar.
Larry told that story when he was having a beer with First’s crew whom he was meeting for the first time. He’d just given a short talk (at a post-2000 election City College conference on Third Parties) where he’d tried to flip scripts of leftist politicos by passing on the key lesson he’d learnt from studying American populists’ methods of recruitment:
There wasn’t anything in my culture that taught me that to build a movement one has to create social relations among people that would cause them to be in a room where politics is the center of discussion. I’d been taught that what mattered is what people said in the room. But the key question is how to get people into the room to hear—and respond—to whatever is being said there.
Larry was out to connect with would-be political organizers, not editors. But his talk had collateral benefits for First. It gave me the democratic logic to back up my once inchoate faith our writers’ collective must let argument breathe. I came to lean on Larry to help explain our rejection of consensual wisdom: “First provides one answer to a question posed by (one of our most important mentors and contributors) Lawrence Goodwyn: ‘Is there a graceful and constructive device by which we can come together and, in ways that enhance all parties, disagree?’ (When Greil Marcus, responding to our new annual volume, affirms: “I love the complete absence of a line,” he’s endorsing a principle that’s long been foundational for First, thanks in part to Larry Goodwyn.)
Larry got a little too fragile to enjoy the frisson of disagreeing with a friend in his last years. So I’ll allow I’m glad we were almost always on the same page in the Age of Obama. He understood Obama’s elections as large democratic achievements—triumphs of the organizing tradition he’d traced in his work on populism and the Civil Rights movement. As a white Southern liberal, he’d seen enough to know (what “every card-carrying white supremacist in the Republican Party knows”): “those are not softballs Obama is throwing.” Yet Larry never forgot economic relationships have a “causative bearing on democratic possibilities” in America (as in all societies around the world). And he realized as long as bankers rule, the party of hope is living on the creative margins. I think he got Obama time’s mix of forward motion and stasis exactly right in an interview he did with Jan Frel for Alternet in 2010. That interview comes close to being his final testament.
Larry didn’t have energy to compose anything new for this year’s annual First volume. (He’d been a regular contributor to First since we reprinted excerpts from Breaking the Barrier in our earliest issues.) But his prophetic side is represented in That Floating Bridge, which includes an out-of-left-field First piece he wrote in 2004 (before Obama’s epic Convention speech) that called attention to the Democrats’ rising star in Illinois and to the passing of another exemplary democrat, Poland’s Jacek Kuron.
Larry dug the young Obama because the candidate broke rules of spin: “he does not see political recruitment as requiring the fabrication of constant agreement.” Obama’s liberal-minded readiness to hear and respond outside the box linked him to Kuron in Larry’s head since the Pole’s “enduring democratic legacy is his commitment to candor as an instrument of politics and his belief one worked with anyone who was willing to help one deal with a persisting social malfunction inherited from the past.” Ten years on, it seems Obama is still in Kuron’s tradition.
Larry extolled Kuron for being willing, unlike most intellectuals, to cop to what he couldn’t comprehend. Kuron famously said about Solidarity’s rise: “I thought it was impossible. It was impossible. I still think it was impossible.” Goodwyn noted this “unsolicited burst of Kuronesque candor” distanced Kuron from more vainglorious Polish intellectuals who imagined themselves as Solidarity’s vanguard (though they were just as clueless as Kuron when it came to understanding the movement’s self-organization). Kuron’s comment endeared him to Solidarity’s working class heroes like Lech Walesa who “thereafter relied on Kuron, among others, to interpret the utility of Warsaw types…”
Indeed, upon hearing of Kuron’s death, Walesa used Kuronesque language for repayment. Kuron was indispensable, he said. Solidarity was “impossible” to imagine without him. Polish speak.
Let us now praise famous Poles!? Larry’s realized Solidarity’s “Polish speak” wasn’t that far gone from southern accents of down home folk in America’s provinces. His faith in democratic conversations was founded on a feeling for the dignity of everyday people everywhere. He credited his father, a military man and New Deal fan, with nurturing respect for self and others. Along with advice on First, Larry passed on parenting tips he got from his pop. I valued, in particular, a lesson he’d been taught after he’d screwed up one time as an adolescent. Larry had come home with his buddies in a trashed car that he hadn’t been supposed to drive in the first place. He expected his pop would chew him out. But it didn’t happen. When Larry asked his pop why he’d kept cool, his pop said: “Never embarrass your son in public.” Good counsel I’ve tried to live by with my son.
I’m reminded just now of my own dad’s responsiveness to Larry’s example. Back in the 80s, Larry’s work on populism informed my dad’s review of Ronald Steele’s fine biography of Walter Lippman, enabling him to zero in on the anti-democratic nature of Lippman’s template for mainline political commentary. About 20 years later, I told my dad to check Breaking the Barrier’s “Critical Essay on Authorities”—a brilliant summative appendix analyzing how/why intellectuals have misinterpreted social movements—since it was relevant to what he was writing on at the time. My dad read that appendix and immediately went back and read the entire volume (though he was dead-lining himself). When he was done, he mused to me in a voice that took in the wackness of it all—how could there have been no prizes for that book?
I told him the tale of Ash. But—let that go—prizes are ashes.
Larry Goodwyn’s work is alive and burning.
How Lawrence Goodwyn Gave Me My Life
By Tim Tyson
Larry Goodwyn, author of the pathbreaking Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, gave me the life that I love. Like any number of people I could name, without him I would never have been accepted into the graduate program in History at Duke University nor survived to earn the three letters occasionally found after my name.
In 1988, Larry shared his office in the basement of West Duke with me. He was working on his masterful Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland. Perhaps he was inspired to this generosity by my tireless capacity to drink with the stream of Polish intellectuals and organizers who visited in those days, accompanied by their weary, indifferent Communist handlers. We’d crowd and sometimes pound the tables at Val’s Upstairs, talking about movements and democracy. My boxes of papers are still littered with ink-stained cocktail napkins, blotted upon them phrases like “democracy unsanctioned idea everywhere” and “thoughts about lack of power themselves silenced as inadmissible” and “popular skepticism recoups dignity but remains largely a terminology of resignation.”
More often we drank coffee at our desks. As he honed his sentences, Larry might read me a passage that he thought worked pretty well. His yardstick was a radical historian twenty years his senior, C. Vann Woodward, with whom he shared a distinctly Southern and steely irony and a Faulknerian sense of tragedy, whether Larry was writing about East Texas or eastern Europe.
Perhaps my favorite passage, however, is about a hillside in Pennsylvania where Robert E. Lee decided, defying fundamental logic, to launch Picket’s Charge. It is a passage, I think, that achieves its clarity by Larry’s love for his father, who told him, as he told me many times, “Southerners do what they do because they don’t know any better.”
Larry wrote: “The army of the South, and the society it represented, impaled itself on the guns of Cemetery Ridge, on a present it could not understand, on a future it could not contemplate, because it had renounced the… capacity for critical reflection. It was one of those tragic junctures in history when people died because they could not think… A fearful dynamic was set loose on the younger generation and on the unborn generations… From this moment, the South was to be defended, not appraised… [Henceforth] the cause required the defense of hierarchy itself… One defended one’s captains.”
On rare occasions when he thought he’d hit one that well, Larry would say, almost to himself, “the old man would have liked that.” He meant Woodward. But I believe he meant his father, too.
Of Larry’s scholarly and political accomplishments others have told and will tell. But I will give you one tale few remember. Our crew in the doctoral program survived by an acute sense of community that Larry understood instinctively and admired unreservedly. He was perhaps the only one who saw no contradiction that Col. Dave Johnson, one of the most accomplished soldiers of his generation, and I, an inveterate antiwar protestor, became such close friends. Community itself was an act of resistance to being diminished by the thoughtless hierarchies and many-sided idiocies of the academy.
To that end, and perhaps others, we had parties. Yes, we did. Quite possibly they were at my house. Occasionally, Larry dropped by and talked politics at the kitchen table for hours.
But Larry happened to have never witnessed one of our group rituals, an almost tribal dance performed to songs like Grace Jones’s “Bullshit.” At some point in the evening, we would crank up the music and move into a circle, clapping in polyrhythmic defiance, chanting, “I ‘m sick and tired of all this bullshit.” We all danced together and then, in turn, each of us would shuffle into the center, perform our own unique step, and then yield to the next member of the circle. This ritual seemed a little like the ring shout in the early black church. And I know now that we were, in fact, a church of sorts.
Larry arrived one night just as this wholly unfamiliar dance ritual began. He stepped right into our circle. Dancing was clearly not his habit, but he refused to be the one to break community. Shifting from one foot to the next awkwardly, he made himself as comfortable as he could. But then we started our dancing one by one into the center and I saw Larry’s face struck by mild terror. He hadn’t expected a public solo.
But when his turn came, Larry strode to the center. And there he performed what I can only call an interpretive dance. It was not, strictly speaking, dancing in any conventional sense. But Larry used his hands, feet, and face, acting out in jazz rhythm his uneasy age, his awkward professional position, his fear of making a fool of himself, his adoration for our community, and his decision to dive into its dance with all of his being. The astonishing performance art of Larry’s dance-drama could not have been exceeded by an artiste with a grant from the National Humanities Council and an off-Broadway stage.
Larry saw the best in us and he rose to meet it. One day, as we sat quietly in the office, he looked up at me and smiled, “You know the problem with you, Tyson?” He gave me a moment to be bewildered. “You want to lead the Revolution. And then you want to get a nice thank-you note from the king.”
He went back to his work, muttering, “Damned if you might not pull it off.” To which as-yet-to-arrive note I still aspire and for which I thank the brilliant, paradoxical, and profoundly artful life of Lawrence Goodwyn.
The Rebel Imagination
By Paul Ortiz
What follows is a slightly compacted swatch of an interview Paul Ortiz conducted with Larry Goodwyn about Larry’s experiences reporting on an episode in the modern Civil Rights Movement—the campaign against Jim Crow and white rage in St. Augustine, Florida. (The full interview is available at the website of the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History program—http://oral.history.ufl.edu/2013/11/06/lawrence-goodwyn-historian-journalist-and-civil-rights-activist-life-work/—along with a PDF copy of Goodwyn’s 1965 article in Harper’s Magazine, “Anarchy in St. Augustine,” which still has snap to its punch.) Goodwyn arrived in St. Augustine in 1964 straight from a stretch in Mississippi where he’d hung tight with SNCC’s James Bevel (and the Movement’s “local people”). In this section of his Q&A with Ortiz they zero in on a moment when St. Augustine police enabled members of the Ku Klux Klan—operating as the “Ancient City Gun Club”—to attack Civil Rights marchers. Goodwyn, prompted by Ortiz, then jumps off to discuss the burden of Southern history in our time.
O: Now you have described, in an earlier conversation that we had, a particular moment where the movement organizes a march and there are different protagonists. There are the marchers, the movement in the street, there are the police that come out—ostensibly, one would think, to keep order, whatever that means in 1964—and then members of this Ancient City Gun Club that are there, obviously against what’s happening, against the movement. And you describe hearing something that breaks out when people attack the march. Can you talk about that?
G:…So on this day, toward twilight of this evening, here comes the Civil Rights Movement. I was in a group of people waiting near the square where the slave auction site was, it is a green square—it’s oblong, actually. And there’s a street leading to it from the ghetto, here comes the Civil Rights Movement down the street. I was with a group of people…There was some other white people waiting there, and I heard this woman say, oh look, the colored people are marching again. And it was not hostile, she was a sympathizer. It was a young woman, I would say age thirty, and she had two of her own children there, about seven or nine, something like that. Her husband was there, and there were other people besides that little family that I remember who said, oh, the colored people are marching again. And sho’ enough—as we say in Texas—sho’ enough, she was right; here they came. I hurried over to the square. I observed that they were spaced on the side of the street—uniformed police and sheriff’s deputies. But they were widely separated by three or four yards between each one. They were on both sides of the street, but it was not a line of protection, it was a line that was leaky and in between these uniformed officers there came non-uniformed members of the Ancient City Gun Club. And it was obvious that they had been doing some planning, neither was surprised by the presence of the other. It was almost a positioning of troops.
The Klan was located between the officers, it would be: officer, two or three Klansmen, officer, two or three Klansmen, officer, two or three Klansmen; all the way down the block. Many officers, many more Klansmen, all the way around this block that this movement was channeling…And here they came. They had banners. These were, now, in the summer of 1964, veteran civil rights organizers. They’re strong, they have been there before, they have an entirely internalized non-violent philosophy, which they’ve learned from Dr. King. Now, he is not there that day; this march is led by Abernathy—I believe it was Abernathy, it could’ve been C.T. Vivian. The article will be clear about that, the written article. [Editor’s Note: according to Goodwyn’s Harpers piece, the march was actually led by another 60s hero, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.] Here they came, and it was evident that all mayhem, all hell, was gonna break loose sometime during this evening. The tension was palpable. And about the time they got in front of me about halfway down that block—maybe a little more than half way—apparently it became evident to the Klansmen that if they didn’t move now, these people were getting too far past them and all of a sudden they just rushed the marchers.
The scene disintegrated in mayhem and people began running. There were young men and young women, the Movement was young, but there were some older people, thirty, thirty-five, forty…They were chased by the Klan and I don’t remember, nor does my story indicate, if there were officers running or not running after the demonstrators. I didn’t notice, I just saw fleeing demonstrators and chasing Klansmen.
Then I heard this eerie yell, a loud yell. I became conscious of it and then after I became conscious of it, it seemed to grow. I don’t know whether it was my consciousness of it that was growing or whether it actually grew. But all of a sudden I heard this huge roar…it just struck me that, my god, I think this is the rebel yell. Now, that’s a whole different set of circumstances. My father was in the United States army; I myself was born on an army post, a cavalry post in Arizona, Fort Huachuca. He had been stationed in Schofield Barracks in Honolulu and at the war department in Washington and he was a regular army instructor of the Texas National Guard when I was a boy in Austin, Texas. So I had grown up as an Army brat in a military environment. I read about the Civil War. I knew about the Army of Northern Virginia. I knew about Robert E. Lee. And all the brothers and so forth, I knew about Frederick Douglass, and I had read many accounts of battles written by historians years after the Civil War was over. Northern historians, Southern historians, it was a cottage industry. There have been more books written about the American Civil War than any other subject in our history, North and South. We’re going through another wave of that now and we’re coming up on, what is it the… fiftieth?
O: The 150th anniversary of the—
G: Of everything!
O: Yeah, yeah. I was just gonna—
G: And eventually of Gettysburg and Appomattox and so forth, right?
G: So, I’d always wondered about the authenticity of these accounts about the rebel yell. I thought it was inherently self-serving for Southern rebels to focus on it. But Northern historians would also mention how the high pitched rebel yell sounded. Not particularly embellished, but just there as an acknowledged component of the American Civil War struggle…
It would be many years, you see, before we mainstream American people—that is, not historians themselves, not researchers, but just readers—could learn about the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry: black soldiers. Many years after that, I learned that one of every eight soldiers in front of Richmond on the Richmond-Petersburg line in 1864 and the spring of 1865 when the Confederate line finally broke and resulted in the abandonment of Richmond and the abandonment of St. Petersburg and the march to the west that ended at Appomattox courthouse—that one out of every eight persons in the Union army at that moment was black…At the time of the war itself, the South recruited in the name of states’ rights, not in the name of preserving slavery, although every now and then it was in the name of preserving slavery. The education of the culture itself precedes apace.
So, I cannot testify to you that I ever had any particular interest in the rebel yell until I thought at a brief moment I just might have heard it myself. And then wondered what I’d heard, and wondered was it in fact the rebel yell? And what does it mean that I don’t know and that I’m asking these questions of it later? The validity of the oral source that I’d heard, that I am as I speak to you at this moment—forty-six years after the moment I wrote the article. Interesting, isn’t it?
O: Yeah. It reminds me—this is probably way off, way, way off. Years ago I read Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner, and I recently reread the book and I love this book. In the book there is a moment where the narrator talks about the fact that by the time a white child—boy in particular—is aged thirteen he has thought about, and not just thought but experienced, that moment before Pickett’s Charge. What’s interesting—
G: But it hasn’t happened yet—
O: But it hasn’t happened, yeah. The interplay between Longstreet and Pickett, Armistead, Garnett, Kemper and it hasn’t happened yet. To me that passage just strikes me.
O: It’s amazing.
G: See, that’s a revolutionary passage—an insight that only comes to you when you’re probing the deepest interior of your own mind, trying to write the next paragraph of a document you’re creating yourself, and it pushes you to the limits of human imagination. Look what Abraham Lincoln discovered when he faced the need to say a few words, appropriate words, significant words, politically necessary words one day in October in 1863 on a train going to Gettysburg. And he writes on an envelope the Gettysburg address, which he could say in four or five minutes…These are words he did not discover he had in him until that moment, amazing words. That’s like William Faulkner at his best.
There’s much evidence in Faulkner that his black characters make more sense than his white ones do, although only five percent of his work is about black people. But they tried to survive, and he tried to imagine what they would think of situations and he’s not confined by anything except his own imagination. Now, he’s a very dependable Southerner in certain kinds of ways, but he’s also an even greater novelist. So, he imagines what it’s like when it hadn’t happened yet…He has a short story about a bunch of boys coming home from the war; it’s titled “The Unvanquished.”…They’re trying to figure out where they are in history and where they are in this war and where they are inside their own skin and where they are in the South and what’s gonna happen to them. And he’s writing about that, it’s an amazing short story. He’s a great American writer; he and Herman Melville are my favorite American novelists. They are the greatest ones in my opinion.
O: Mm-hm. So, you heard this yell; at the time did you stop and think, what is this? Was there an instant recognition? Was there a reflection?
G: It was a question and I said, “My god, listen to this. Is this the rebel yell?” It just hit me. Three seconds before that happened I was watching impending doom about to occur. The Civil Society in St. Augustine, Florida coming down the road; I was anxiety-ridden, worried, intense, attentive, but not thinking about the Civil War. I was watching the most vivid political conflict that I’d ever seen in my entire life. But I was not thinking about the rebel yell. And all of a sudden the scene breaks up, the scene disintegrates, people go in all directions. I hear this sound and it occurs to me, “My god, is that the rebel yell? That’s the rebel yell, isn’t it?” I’m saying this to myself as I’m running across the square. I had a little reporter’s notebook in my back pocket and I pulled it out and took a few notes…”rebel yell.” Question mark.
O: What did it mean?
G: Yeah. And what it meant to me was, I had a new way to think about the American Civil War, that’s what it meant. That’s why it’s a long war. America is just discovering itself. One hundred and fifty years later we’re still discovering who we are. We’re learning that people who took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: “Well, they’ll call it a post-racial society now.” But there’re also some innocents—Democrats, I think, that thought maybe we’d made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all…
O: Was the rebel yell, was that about white supremacy?
G: Not consciously, but I think the energy behind it was white supremacist…It’s a white man’s country and we are proving that to the world as we charge across this field. It’s a speculation on my part. My father told me something when I was fourteen years old and he caught me reading a book by a famous Southern historian named Douglas Southall Freeman who wrote a four volume biography of Robert E. Lee called R.E. Lee. You can’t call yourself a Southern historian if you haven’t read that book. It’s full of romance and insight and lyricism and error. Then he wrote three volumes, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study In Command. It’s about the Army of Northern Virginia. And that’s when you discover what an incredible army this was. So my father, a colonel in the army, was watching me read this book. And it’s not the first one, it’s seven books. I’d been reading about the Army of Northern Virginia all summer long. And he knew a few things, he’s Georgian himself. His uncle, Pound, in Forsyth County, Georgia ran a military school; later became Gordon Military Institute, named after John B. Gordon, corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, etcetera, etcetera.
And my father, he called me over to the table where he sat:
“You’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, what are you reading?”
“I’m reading about the Army of Northern Virginia.”
“Oh, what do you think about that army?”
I said, “It was a hell of an army, I’ll tell you that.”
He said, “Oh, tell me about it.”
He had that manner. And so I told him about how Lee divided his forces in the presence of the Union army at Chancellorsville, thus violating one of Napoleon’s maxims of war, and descended on extreme flank of the Union Army and rolled it back up onto the United States Ford of the Rappahannock River and so forth and so on. And he saw the enthusiasm and God knows what else that was embedded in that recitation from Douglas Southall Freeman’s imagination and he said: “Let me tell you something, boy. Southerners do the things they do because they don’t know any better. You understand that?” And the only answer to that question in my father’s presence was “Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I understand.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. He knew I had no idea and he wanted to fix me in error, so that when I grew up a little bit and knew more than I knew at the age of fourteen, I might remember this conversation, which I did subsequently, of course. I can repeat it to you nuance by nuance…
Father and Son (Or, Cosmic Blues)
By Wade Goodwyn
Here I am in the OKC Airport Courtyard by Marriott where they tell me they’re going to redo all the rooms next year. I’ve spent the day interviewing victims of the F5 tornado in Moore. It’s the 6th month anniversary and what we reporters do. God knows why. It seems too soon to me but my editors told me to go do it so I guess it’s not too soon. For them.
I’m supposed to write something fantastic about my wonderful father and he truly was wonderful but I’m sitting at what once must have been considered an acceptable substitute for a desk in a chair that was clearly made for an era when humans were at least a foot shorter. I can rest my elbows on my knees. (And yes I’ve reached under the seat for the pneumatic lever I prayed would lift me into some semblance of dignity but no dice, this is as high as the chair goes.)
Benj DeMott has pressed me to get this in. 20 people have written up their memories of my father and gotten them to him on time. Now it’s just me and Ralph Nader left, which fills me with shame.
The truth is I’ve been avoiding this. It’s too painful, like I’m saying goodbye to my father once and for all. I encourage others to think of me as a profile in courage but the truth is just the opposite. I’m a profile in weenie.
For most of my life I’ve been known as Larry Goodwyn’s son. Which was always a good thing to be. Before the Populist book it was because nearly everyone liked Dad. After the Populist book, respect was added to the affection since he’d written this great history nobody had really known about before.
I never much worried about living up to my father because it seemed completely out of the realm of possibility. It was like being the son of Dwight Eisenhower or Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Let’s face it, you just aren’t in the same league. So the pressure was off.
The other thing that was nice was that Dad was always in my corner. Though even before he became an absent minded professor he was an absent minded professor. Mom did all the disciplining and ran the house and took care of the money and pretty much everything and Dad would forget to pick me up after basketball practice. He was always so sorry it was hard to be mad at him, but this was in the days before cell phones so there were times I spent hours in the dark lobby of my junior high and high school. 7:45pm, anybody missing me yet? Yeah…Where’s Wade? Jesus.
He was never Johnny on the Spot yet he was always on your side. He was very good at advice. When I was in that miserable phase of being 13 years old Dad said: “The only advice I can give you is to try to look at it like a writer would look at it, like a reporter would.” “It” being my shitty life of course. It was completely pointless wisdom because it’s impossible for an adolescent to observe his misery from afar. Who am I, J.D. Salinger? Dad knew that. But that was all he had—you’re just going to feel like crap when you’re 13. I appreciated him trying anyway.
In some ways my adult life seems like a sad if noble attempt at imitating the old man. Dad was a reporter so I’m a reporter. Dad was an organizer so I was an organizer. Dad wrote this incredible book so…well never mind.
Once I became an NPR reporter there was nobody on the planet prouder than my Dad. He would constantly say to me, “Wade, that’s the best story you’ve ever done.” Nothing pleased him more than when one of the professors or students at Duke would waylay him on the quad and say they’d heard some story I’d done and liked it. Dad would call me and say he was getting to be known as “Wade Goodwyn’s father” and he’d laugh, delighted. Then he’d say, “That really was a good story. In fact that may have been the best story you’ve ever done.” I never contradicted him. It was one of the best things about being Larry Goodwyn’s son.
From December, 2013