Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Time - Essay

Time

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 attempt to put a little chest hair on that artificial category of literature known as "young-adult novels." Hentoff injects such themes as Viet Nam, racism, generation gap, civil rights, drugs, black rage, white guilt and, for old times' sake, a touch of anti-Semitism. Sex is still a no-no, although the vocabulary is raunched up with such words as "bastard," "damn it," and "hard-on."

Specifically, [I'm Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down] is about 17-year-old Jeremy Wolf's decision to enter antiwar work. Should he break the law by refusing to register for the draft? Lacking the true instinct for martyrdom, he decides to become a draft counselor and turns his house into "an underground station on the freedom road to Canada." His dad—having feared the worst—is much relieved.

Hentoff, a jazz authority and wide-ranging social critic, is one of the most visible freelance writers in circulation. In this slight assignment he overcomes his modest talents for fiction with competence, concern and sympathy. But to what worthwhile end? Surely today's "young adults" do not need such pallid dramatizations of their problems when Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles do it so much better.

"From Rags to Rages," in Time (copyright 1968 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 92, No. 15, October 11, 1968. p. 109.