Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Essay - Critical Essays

Hentoff, Nat(han Irving)


Nat(han Irving) Hentoff 1925–

American novelist, critic, journalist, and editor.

Hentoff's nonfiction and young adult fiction reflect his passions for jazz, literature, and civil rights. Hentoff is a critic and historian of jazz and often uses jazz-related backgrounds and characters in his fiction. Topical social themes also appear in Hentoff's fiction, noted for representations of teenagers who are more socially and politically aware than traditionally portrayed.

Hentoff's studies of civil rights, both as historical analysis in The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America and as discussion of developments since the civil rights movements of the 1960s in The New Equality, have been praised for their treatment of conflicting viewpoints. They are strongly recommended for young adult readers. Social issues also challenge the young protagonists in Hentoff's fiction. I'm Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down relates the story of seventeen-year-old Jeremy Wolf, who is willing to serve his country but refuses to register for the draft; In the Country of Ourselves analyzes relations between people of different races; and The Day They Came to Arrest the Book explores freedom of expression and the issue of censorship. In addition to the social problems that challenge his young protagonists, Hentoff also examines more personal concerns, such as the relationships between young people and their peers, parents, and authority figures.

Hentoff has been cited for his ability to "get inside" the life and thoughts of modern teenagers. The ardent concern and sympathy with which he writes has earned him respect from readers of all ages.

(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vol. 27.)

Martin B. Duberman

In the current deluge of "civil rights" literature, this excellent book [The New Equality] is unlikely to get the wide reading it deserves. Which is too bad, for it is one of the few to put "the movement" in a broader context, to deal in recommendations as well as jeremiads, and to adopt a radical as opposed to a liberal stance (that is, dealing in essentials rather than palliatives).

The book has faults, largely organizational. Since they are not significant when weighed against the suggestive contents, it is better to list them now and be done. First, the argument does not "build"; it is episodic rather than cumulative. The chapters are more a series of self-contained essays than well-related units of a whole. Second, too much space is given to summarizing and rebutting the views of others. Some of this is necessary and some of it is brilliant (the devastating but not vindictive critique of [Norman] Mailer), but there is too much rehashing of the obvious (the defective arguments of John Fischer).

Against these minor faults, The New Equality has major virtues. The radical approach is what gives the book its special flavor and importance. This is not one more panegyric to the "American genius for compromise," nor yet another bit of self-congratulation on the "slow but sure" progress in this best of all possible countries. Our large failures are writ large and their gruesome human toll bluntly counted.

None of this is shrieked. The defects of tone we sometimes associate with a radical stance are absent. There is no claim here on a monopoly of truth, no attempt to blueprint the One Way to Salvation, no trumpet calls to the righteous for a cleansing and a violent rebirth. Hentoff is dispassionate and detached. He thus makes his hard-nosed analysis the more persuasive, and his message the more urgent.

Actually he has three interrelated messages. The first concerns the widening chasm between the white "moderate" and the Negro "activist."… The argument between moderate and activist represents contrasting attachments to order and justice. The moderate, who already shares in some of the "good things" of life, prefers to believe that social justice can be achieved without "unduly" disturbing social order. The activist, who sees little in that order worth preserving, believes that considerable tension and conflict are concomitants of meaningful change….

Aside from being "too little, too late," the moderate position suffers from the optimistic defect of placing too much faith in man's "conscience." Here is Hentoff's second theme. An appeal to morality, he argues, a reliance on the white man's guilt, is in itself an insufficient guarantee of reform. Conscience has brought some improvement in the Negro's status, but only some. If fundamental change is to come—and nothing less will do—"the movement" must organize and demonstrate its power. The hostile or apathetic white majority will not surrender its privileges unless frightened or forced...

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Edward T. Chase

Mr. Hentoff's book [The New Equality] is the most sophisticated gloss of the [Civil Rights] Movement to date. So keen is his sensibility, so evident his intimacy with what's going on, and, most important, so pertinent are his suggestions for social action that The New Equality, for all its brevity, stands almost alone … among the flood of recent books on the subject. One has confidence that Hentoff really understands what Negroes are feeling.

But a further distinction is that his account traces the intellectual evolution of the Movement's leadership and the concurrent criticism of "outside" observers. Hentoff's style is to counterpunch. He makes his points by scoring off the inadequacies of such commentators as Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz of Commentary and John Fischer of Harper's. Sometimes he misreads Fischer. Yet his pinpointed charges of naïveté and condescension are mostly telling.

Hentoff is not satisfied with mere reportage. The most ambitious aspect of his book is his prescription of where the Movement now must go—namely into a drive for structural changes of the social order, preeminently in education, employment and economic opportunity. Sensitively and logically the reader is led into a confrontation with a rationale for social revolution, the peaceful variety. The revolution he outlines may strike you as mild or not so mild. That will depend on where you stand—and...

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Robert Coles

Jazz Country is a novel directed at young people struggling to realize themselves; it is also a gem of a book that talks rare sense about the ambiguities of race, the difficulties of a child's growth, and the ironies of artistic life.

Tom, son of a New York corporation lawyer, plays the trumpet with near single-minded devotion. He is finishing high school and wondering whether to enter college or make a try at being a professional jazz musician. To do the latter means leaving white, middle-class territory for "jazz country," where creativity lives exceptionally close to tragedy and where racial stereotypes dissolve or harden as a profession now comes to terms with whites rather than Negroes. The boy meets up with himself by learning about lives differently lived. He begins to see that he cannot flee his past, even as he does not wish to be confined by its values. Eventually he will at least start at Amherst instead of working full-time in a band; by the time he makes that decision he (and the reader) have seen arrogance unmasked in many places, doubt and suffering revealed in many forms. No race or class has a corner on either virtue or evil.

The writing is clear and direct. Jazz talk is delicately worked into everyday language. The author will settle for none of the handy postures so fashionable today: racism of one sort or another; foul language as a substitute for art and thought alike; the latest social and cultural snobbery, that turns everything inside out, with each success in our nation considered a measure of our failure, and every accomplishment in a person held either a drawback or evidence of wrongdoing: and finally, that misty sentiment so common to portrayals of growing youth and jazz alike. Indeed, Tom's fight to be his own man is placed alongside the struggle of others whose racial identity has cursed them, yet also set the stage for their music, compelling, stunning, devastating—and enviable.

Mr. Hentoff has chosen not so much to compare or contrast lives as to let them be, separately and together. Such restraint, enabling a touching and real story, deserves our surprised, grateful recognition.

Robert Coles, in his review of "Jazz Country," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1965, The Washington Post), May 9, 1965, p. 5.

Carolyn Heilbrun

["Jazz Country"] is the best of the teen-age books I have read. Not only does it render the experience of jazz with passion, with what strikes an uninformed reader as veracity; it presents its Negro characters with honesty and dignity, capturing well the white boy's longing to partake of the Negro experience in order, as he thinks, to produce great jazz. Yet it is precisely in so far as it is tailored for teen-agers that the book fails. Its teen-age hero is cardboard, its plot an outrageous tissue of coincidences which do not, as coincidences should, mirror inner compulsions of the characters. The setting is New York, but the hero keeps tripping over people he knows as though he were strolling around a town of 500...

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The Times Literary Supplement

By any standard—and surely these days books for the 14-year-old upwards ought to stand up as adult fare—[Jazz Country] is an excellent novel. Not only does Nat Hentoff show with great perception the development of one boy's understanding of other people, but without any strain, without recourse to either hip jargon or learned explanations, he opens for the uninitiated the significance of the world of jazz….

Tom is a nice guy, making good grades at school and with the kind of calm, sympathetic parents every teenager must long to have. The narrative comes clearly and straightforwardly from his lips. "Your life has been too easy for you to be making it as a jazz musician", the Negro bass...

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Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick, Tattered Tom and Ben the Luggage Boy—those brave little ragamuffins of a century ago—have long since petrified into pillars of the community. Sweet were their uses of adversity, as they parlayed pants patches into stock certificates…. [Today, one hundred years after Alger, rags] have become the symbol of riches. Youthful outcries against the system, the Establishment and middle-class consuming have become so persistent and eloquent that moral outrage itself threatens to become a lucrative commodity.

The new triumph over adversity, as Nat Hentoff programs it in I'm Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down, is going from resentment to resistance. The book is an...

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Diane G. Stavn

[I'm Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down is an] episodic story in which believable, sincere, intelligent and philosophically opposed characters discuss their differences, don't resolve them, and are left with nagging frustration and a sense of solitude. High school senior Jeremy Wolf wishes he were sufficiently emancipated to smoke pot, sufficiently courageous and zealous to resist the draft, and enough of a soul brother to be able to get through to a kid in a tutorial program. While despising himself for his inability to live up to his image of the totally committed man, he scorns his father for his materialistic, don't-rock-the-boat concerns. Sam Wolf, contemplating his possibly forthcoming prosperous...

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John Weston

Nat Hentoff's "I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down" treats an important dilemma: how best can a young man serve his country and himself and retain his sense of morality? Jeremy Wolf, 18, and his friends must face the issues of the draft. Refusing to register means a prison sentence, a loss of five years out of life; accepting a draft card, in their view, means accepting a sellout to murder; capitalizing on their opportunity for deferment by attending college means that the dumb and the poor must take their places. Mr. Hentoff attempts to present all sides of the question, concluding with the only unarguable decision—that, through education (in this case, draft counseling) each potential draftee must make his...

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Mr. Hentoff's ["In the Country of Ourselves"] focuses on three urban high school activists—Josh, Schwartz and Jane—in course of telling the story of a student uprising that's violently put down by cops. Josh is the head of a Revolutionary High School Collective and bent on major acts of violence—to awaken classmates to the truth that they are in "a state of false consciousness … unfree … channelled into roles in the society that would … make them instruments of everyone else's oppression." Schwartz is briefly a member of the Collective, but rebels at his initiation assignment—to "get into the principal's office, find the senior class records, tear them up, flush them down the toilet"—and is moving...

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Jack Forman

In the Country of Ourselves [like Jazz Country and I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down is] about being in high school today, but it displays even more of an awareness of the complexities of this situation than did the two earlier novels. Here, mutually suspicious black and white radical students, with the aid of a concerned teacher and an apparent New Left sympathizer in the local police force, attempt to disrupt order in the high school they attend. Opposing them is a stubborn, authoritarian, yet concerned and dedicated principal. Unfortunately, some of the episodes are a bit strained, and the responses of the characters are occasionally overdrawn in an attempt to make the philosophies...

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Eleanor Cameron

Nat Hentoff has written two novels for teenagers: one good, Jazz Country …; and one, to my mind, a failure, I'm really dragged but nothing gets me down…. In his essay "Fiction for Teenagers," Hentoff says, "Is it possible, then, to reach these children of McLuhan in that old-time medium, the novel? I believe it is, because their primary concerns are only partially explored in the messages they get from their music and are diverted rather than probed on television. If a book is relevant to those concerns, not didactically but in creating textures of experience which teenagers can recognize as germane to their own, it can merit their attention."

What troubles me is that, in Hentoff's...

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Zena Sutherland

Sam Davidson [the protagonist of This School Is Driving Me Crazy] is a bright, energetic boy with a Big Problem: he doesn't want to attend the school of which his father is headmaster. Father insists. Sam, always in some minor scrape or up to some mischief, is his teachers' despair. When a smaller boy, lying, accuses Sam of being the bully who forced him to steal, matters come to a head; the trio of real bullies is unmasked and expelled, the attitudes of teachers are exposed, and the relationship between Sam and his father improves—with Sam's impending transfer decided on by the end of the story. Sam is an engaging character, and the writing style—in particular the dialogue—is pungent. And a good thing,...

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Roderick Nordell

Two centuries after Shakespeare, not to mention ten times as many after Homer, people still did not know what "poetry is."…

So it is hardly surprising that, after the mere 75 years in the history of jazz, this latter-day art form still tempts the definers. In "Jazz Is" a long-time social critic and heart-on-sleeve jazz specialist throws the latest lifeline to a laity left floundering by such wry semi-truths as the one attributed to jazz's Shakespeare, Louis Armstrong: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."

Nat Hentoff is a kind of prototype of the white kid who hung around the dancehall door and never got over the sounds of the black musicians and their musical...

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Peter Fanning

[Despite] a forthright title This School is Driving Me Crazy proves something of a disappointment. Deep in the heart of the Blackboard Jungle, where protection rackets flourish and honour rides high, Nat Hentoff's anti-hero plays an unpleasant double-act as petulant pupil and headmaster's son. The text makes heavy weather of a fine central theme. Furious bursts of capital letters and italics highlight parental psychology; interest lapses after the villains' cover is blown and the final pages totter into comic strip tedium.

Mr Hentoff makes a believable creation of Sam, the Nogood Boyo, who receives paternal guidance in the form of official memoranda. But otherwise both setting and characters...

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Dorothy M. Broderick

[Nat Hentoff's The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America] is the first truly popular history of the First Amendment, making it accessible to senior high students and non-scholarly minded adults…. [Hentoff provides] the background for understanding why the framers of the Constitution's Bill of Rights felt that it was necessary to spell out the restrictions the Constitution was placing on government. This background information is followed by discussion of numerous events in American history where the First Amendment was at issue. Sometimes free speech carried the day; sometimes it lost. The complexities are here, but there is no question where Hentoff stands—he is a free speech...

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Jack Forman

Fresh from Hentoff's This School Is Driving Me Crazy …, [in Does This School Have Capital Punishment?], Sam Davidson enrolls in Burr Academy, noted for its discipline and fairness, Sam's rebelliousness and carelessness, however, soon get him into trouble—he's caught with the circumstantial evidence after Jeremiah Saddlefield had thrown half-smoked joints at Sam and his friend Rob and run out of the locker room. The headmaster places Sam and Rob on probation until he can get the truth. In the meantime, Sam confides in Major Kelley, an old jazz trumpeter he is interviewing for a class assignment. Kelley travels to Chicago to track down information about Jeremiah's father (a newspaper magnate), whom the...

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Annie Gottlieb

["Does This School Have Capital Punishment?" is] a sentimental fantasy, complete with good guys who need to learn compassion, bad guys who turn out to have soft hearts and a fairy godfather in the form of a great old black jazz musician.

It is improbable, to say the least, that a renowned trumpeter named Major Kelley would travel from New York to Chicago to help a bright, smart-alecky white kid beat an unfair accusation of marijuana possession—and then buy a cake inscribed "INNOCENT" to celebrate the victory for the boy…. But then almost everything in this book is a little unreal. Both kids and teachers at tough, exclusive Burr Academy are impossibly clever; Major Kelley is often impossibly...

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Holly Willett

Without using an over-abundance of slang [in Does This School Have Capital Punishment?, Nat Hentoff] creates believable teenage dialogue. Sam is both funny and earnest in his ironic observations; conversation reveals the character of the adults, too. The contemptuous school director and Jeremiah's callous father are antagonists, and—realistically—neither of them is completely vanquished at the conclusion. The relationships between the fathers and the sons are central to the plot, yet none are explored to a satisfying depth. Most of the personalities are vivid and distinctive, but they need more room in which to interact. Jazz is described so lyrically the reader regrets that Major Kelley is merely a...

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John A. Nelson

Hentoff's ability to speak both passionately and objectively makes The First Freedom a success. Readers are left with two valuable insights, each essential to a healthy tolerance for the role of free expression in our society. The first is that the First Amendment has never been static. The wording seems simple enough ("Congress shall make no law …") but the interpretation and application of those words to changing circumstances has been one of the great challenges to our society. It follows, then, that there will never be a time when answers to questions involving the First Amendment are easy. It is, rather, as Thomas Paine suggested over two hundred years ago, "… those who expect to reap the blessings of...

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Geoff Fox

The American boys' private school has had a bad press in recent times. John Knowles's A Separate Peace and Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War uncovered tensions and animosities of peculiar cruelty. Nat Hentoff's Alcott School [in This School Is Driving Me Crazy] is seen from a more comic standpoint, but the plot still turns upon bullying and extortion in the corridors and cloakrooms.

Sam Davidson is amusingly scatter-brained, highly articulate, given to thoughtless horsing around and basically a good kid; as is the way of many post-[Paul] Zindel heroes in American novels….

Nat Hentoff's dialogue is particularly lively and the scenes between [Sam and his...

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Publishers Weekly

"Fiction can be more real than fact, can tell you more about what ordinary people were like," according to a student at the high school where Hentoff sets ["The Day They Came to Arrest the Book"]. The statement implies the reason for the fictional treatment of real and widely aired demands for book censorship. The format works well, thanks to the author's striking use of dialogue, individualizing a large cast of opposing characters…. Adding fuel to incendiary debates [about whether or not Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is racist] are Kate, a feminist student who damns the Twain classic's portrayal of women, along with an avowed champion of the right to ban all writing that he and his advocates...

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Stephanie Zvirin

[The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is an] undisguised but timely and articulate issue book with a number of artfully developed stereotypes…. New librarian Dierdre Fitzgerald finds herself smack in the middle of [a censorship] controversy when a student, objecting to Twain's portrayal of blacks and his use of the word "nigger" in [Huckleberry Finn] …, complains to his father, who petitions the principal (the most odious character in the book) for the novel's withdrawal from classroom use and from the high school library. Using a number of staged debates, among them a volatile book-review-committee meeting, Hentoff makes his own views clear while he presents principal arguments involved in book censorship...

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Kirkus Reviews

[The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is a] fictionalized airing of the book censorship issue, set in a high school with a weak, oily principal, a strong and principled English teacher, and a new librarian…. Hentoff avoids the predictable alliances by making the complainant a black parent who objects to the use of "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn. Before the book issue emerges, Hentoff sets the stage with a guest debate, for an American history class, between an articulate conservative and an equally articulate if less smooth young ACLU lawyer. Later the conservative sides with the black father, as does Kate, an aggressive feminist student who objects to Mark Twain's treatment of women. They are joined by...

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Saul Maloff

[At the end of "The Day They Came to Arrest the Book"], George Mason High School and the community have just emerged from bloody struggle between the forces of darkness seeking to censor "Huckleberry Finn" and the forces of light. By a dramatic last-minute shift the latter have won a precarious victory, and Moore [the high school principal] is already plotting to unleash another assault when the balance on the school board is tipped.

The new members include a black "activist" for whom the great novel comes down to that single unspeakable six-letter epithet, a right-wing zealot and moralizer who wants God established and sin cast out and others of his persuasion gathered together in such organizations...

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