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In My Own Sweet Time: An Autobiography.

Blanche Rosenthal and Jimmy Cooney met in Greenwich Village in the 1930s. She was going to the Parsons School of Design and hoped to become an artist; he had finished a novel. She was the daughter of a Jewish gangster who once brought Louis (Lepke) Buchalter home to dinner. He was a lapsed Catholic, the son of a middle-class Irish family from Long Island, who dreamed of forming a commune of unfettered, passionate voices devoted to building a world free of corruption, exploitation and war: He had been kicked out of the Communist Party - "disciplined for insubordination," he said. His fight was against the impersonal forces crushing the individual. Hers, escaping from the shadows of her own family, was more modest. She and her friend Dorothy were enjoying the city - "our city" - the parks, the galleries, the museums, the Fourth Avenue secondhand bookstores, the plays, the jazz and blues, floating on the edges of its "isms."

A year later, Blanche and Jimmy would be married - he was 28, she was barely 18 - although he couldn't see what business the state had in such things. And thus began what she would come to call her "balancing act in life with Jimmy." "You don't know me," he had written her. "You would turn away if you know how stubborn, how moody ... how impatient, rude, short-tempered" he could be. At the time she thought: How could he imagine I would care about imps of temperament? She loved him beyond imagining.

What they shared, besides the books, the music, the art, was a fierce integrity - his stormy and stubborn, hers quiet and supple - that would sustain their lives together for the next half-century: in the artists' colony at Woodstock; in the vain journey to New Mexico to get the talismanic blessings of Frieda Lawrence and her circle of friends for Jimmy's efforts to create the agrarian commune D.H. Lawrence had once envisioned; in the isolated cabin in the scrub woods of Georgia - one of the places where Jimmy thought it might flourish, but where the van Gogh and Bonnard posters that they put on the walls were little mitigation for the rats and snakes that surrounded them and the ticks they had to remove from the children's skin, and where no one ever came; and, for a half-century on a hilltop farm in western Massachusetts, bought with a down payment from Blanche's gangster father, where they struggled to grow tobacco and produce enough milk from a small dairy herd, and later with a succession of other expedients, to pay the mortgage and hold things together.

Sometimes there were literary boarders at the farm; at others there were dead-end jobs for Jimmy (he was willing to take any job or sell anything "as long as it was not respectable"), and for the better part of a generation, a job for Blanche at the Smith College library, which in Jimmy's eyes was "working for an institution ... serving in the world of bourgeois privilege among arid academics" and which he therefore hated. Blanche had found a scrap of paper in Jimmy's pocket: "While there are losers," it said, "I want to be among them."

The driving vision was that purer world - the dream of a writers' colony, seedbed of a new community, perhaps the creation of a great literary document that would move the world and, most of all, the handset journal called The Phoenix that Jimmy edited and published off and on until his death in 1985 - "a medium of communion for those who keep faith in mankind and Creation." The Phoenix was the first journal to publish Henry Miller in America, as well as excerpts of Anais Nin's diaries, Jean Giono, William Everson and Kay Boyle. It spoke, Jimmy said, in the "intransigent voice of D.H. Lawrence. His furious stand against the vileness of conscription and War, his loathing of politicians and generals, his mockery of dictators and their debased masses of followers, his revulsion against private profit and the enslavements of Money and his exposure of the spreading blight of our automated society." Whether or not that was the genuine voice of Lawrence, it was clearly the voice of Jimmy Cooney.

And it was Jimmy's voice that most overtly stamped their lives: as protesters against war and conscription (during the Vietnam era, "standing on the vigil became our Sunday ritual"), as a haven for the wives and children of conscientious objectors imprisoned or interned during World War II; as parents of four children, Deirdre, Michael, Gabriel and Eliza, who have come to live their own lives but have never strayed far from their intrinsic loyalties, "men and women whose skin is thin, whose conscience is keen, who remain vulnerable, and so keep a kind of innocence"; as magnets for writers, artists, students and professors, many of them from the nearby colleges, drawn (and subsequently often driven away) by Jimmy's uncompromising passion. At Woodstock, Blanche writes, "Jimmy's evangelical eloquence embarrassed me, and persuaded me; he was always ready to interrupt small talk, parochial gossip, and demand that burning questions be faced. Voices of ironic reason were overwhelmed by his urgency, pragmatic politics subjected to withering demolition. He had no doubts. He would not conciliate."

I first came to Morning Star Farm in 1944, when I was 13; my father was one of the emigre writer-boarders who spent time there then - and I have been coming as a friend, off and on, ever since. Some of those people were candidates for the commune that Jimmy wanted to build, but most of us were more timid and ordinary souls, reluctant pilgrims, who came for Jimmy's heat and Blanche's warmth, but who also knew, on the one hand, that the world was more complicated, and, on the other, that we were not up to the risks and moral demands that Jimmy wanted to impose on us. He was, like Ahab, prepared to strike the sun if it insulted him. It was Blanche and the children who maintained serenity and balance for the visitors at Jimmy's kitchen table, and the bridges to the world. Because of that, the ultimate voice - then, and now with this incomparable memoir - is Blanche's.

This is therefore not an objective review but rather an appreciation, written in the face of all scrupulously observed ethical constraints against reviewing the work of friends, about a book that many of us who came there felt had to be written - the same impulse that led us to bring our friends, lovers, spouses, children to meet these amazing people. And while Blanche Cooney's book is called an autobiography, it is like no autobiography I know. Its main features are (as Emily Dickinson said of herself) "too intrinsic for renown." At the edges, Frieda Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Mabel Dodge play their bit parts; there is correspondence from Henry and Anais; there are walk-ons for Chester Kallman and W.H. Auden. And there is The Phoenix, lovingly handset and beautifully printed by Jimmy and Blanche, and later by Elizabeth Bzura, who was to become Gabriel Cooney's wife - suspended for lack of support during World War II, resurrected again a generation later, and now, with Jimmy's death, almost certainly gone for good, leaving barely a footnote in literary history.

But you don't read this book for that, or for any of the other things described by the labels in the Library of Congress catalogue - not even for the intensely honest and personal light it sheds on the roots of American radicalism through the past sixty years. Rather, you read it for the voice of Blanche Cooney herself, a voice as clean and sparse, and as free of self-pity and apart from our currently fashionable confessional mode as it's possible to be (as uncompromising, in other words), and thus both lovingly respectful and unsparingly revealing about these two extraordinary lives.

Blanche Cooney leaves no doubt that she knows what the price was, or the rewards, though she would never use such shabby words. The form is a series of essays, which permit her to keep things under control - to move from situation to situation and place to place without mush or superfluity. After Jimmy's wild hopes, the hoped-for literary epiphany, the dreamy schemes - vegetable seeds attached to a tape with the proper spacing so the rows won't need thinning as the plants come up, the log-of-the-month, firewood from the country delivered to New York apartment dwellers - there comes the inevitable deflation: The goal of living and farming in community never really comes to pass. Sometimes a likely person appears, but after "the courtship, the seduction ... there is disillusion ... Jimmy fights finally with everyone, no one can measure up, his demands are total." The cows are sold and hauled off as 3-year-old Gabriel sadly asks why. Pieces of land are sold; ultimately only a few acres are left, for the house and the garden that Jimmy, and later Gabriel, lovingly tend. In the last years, there is the "monster" of Jimmy's paranoia - the cruelties of his suspicion, the pain of two loves trying to understand - and finally the terrible struggle with the effects of the stroke that leaves him partially paralyzed and strangely speechless.

"Count your blessings, my friends say," she writes,

and I do, I do. I count even the privilege of seeing Jimmy through this time, here in this house, on this hill, where all the strength of his life was spent; where all the scenes of his manhood were played. It is getting harder, I keep losing the ritual and the grace it confers. The days are endless, featureless, gray; I am despondent; I fight depression.... When I leave my bed in the morning there is no one to reach for me, to pull me back; no one to show coldness, no one with whom I am at war.... What's going on, as he sits in his silence, gazing out of the window in the mornings...? How is he doing it? Because he is doing it. Relinquishing life - he so tenacious, so stubborn - leaving the world he fought to change, leaving his loves he sought to possess. Opening his hand, clenched for so long, letting it spill away.

Blanche Cooney does not allow it to spill away. She clenches, preserves, confronts - an age, a special kind of idealism, an extraordinary pair of lives - with rare grace and intensity. Because her memoir is so unique and so easily defies classification it may too easily be overlooked. It must not be. This book is about the best that's in us.
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Author:Schrag, Peter
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 26, 1993
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