“The child is father of the man": The wisdom of this saying is amply confirmed by Nat Hentoff’s memoir of growing up Jewish in Boston during the Depression. Independence, respect for honest achievement, love of reading, a dedication to exposing sham and defending civil liberties, and a fascination with jazz and its makers--all were part of Hentoff’s life at an early age.
At ten, he heard jazz for the first time and was hooked for life; at twelve, he studied Greek in the Boston Latin School and learned discipline; at fifteen he went to work for Frances Sweeney, a muckraking Catholic journalist; and at nineteen, he was a radio announcer, disc jockey, and sports commentator.
He learned that his was a world of harsh realities: of pervasive anti-Semitism, of social injustice that fueled radicals of all kinds from socialists to anarchists, of machine politicians, of mob influence in sports. More important, however, was jazz: Black musicians such as Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, and many others accepted him and taught him another kind of history.
Along the way, he also learned to write, and this memoir demonstrates his ability to make us see the influences from his early life. It is no simple chronological record of events, but rather a series of images which summarize moods and impressions. The herring man, the Irish bullies, the Savoy cafe where jazz musicians gathered, himself at twelve publicly eating a salami sandwich on Yom Kippur to see “how it felt to be an outcast"-- such touchstones work as do our own memories to bring back a flood of associations and reminders of other scenes, just as variations on a theme in jazz move around it in order to show it more clearly.
For readers unfamiliar with Hentoff, this work will surely stimulate investigation of his other writings. For readers already acquainted with him, this is a welcome look at the intellectual origins of a sensitive, opinionated, interesting writer.