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The Appalling American Eugenics Movement

Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks by J. David Smith and Michael L. Wehmeyer

This is a beautiful book: an apple tree on the front cover, half with red apples and green leaves and half blasted black. It has many wonderful black and white illustrations of life at the School for the Feeble Minded. What caught me, though, was mention of the Kallikaks, the family of putative bad genes famous in the first half of the twentieth century. My father, a high school biology teacher used to tell me stories of the Jukes and the Kallikaks, families who were all retarded and/or criminal–clear examples of heredity in action.

My father wasn’t a eugenicist, but he had been educated in the years when the Kallikaks were presented as scientific evidence of hereditary degeneration. This book debunks the science and even the integrity of the social scientists who wanted so much to prove that people passed down traits, especially intelligence and morality, in the same clearly observable way as Mendel’s peas.

In the foreground of the book is the sad story of Emma Wolverton, called Deborah Kallikak, who spent sixty plus years incarcerated not for anything she did, but because she was the illegitimate child of someone deemed “feeble-minded.” And her feeble-minded mother was labelled feeble-minded because she had illegitimate children.

Emma wasn’t tortured or starved–she was even petted a little and given responsibilities and pleasures within her institution (see the photo above). She was, on the other hand, never given freedom, never made decisions for herself. She was good at music, crafts, writing friendly letters. She did various jobs like waitressing and child care. Was she a mental giant? Who could possibly know? Might she have had bad things happen to her in life had she been free? Why not? Bad things happen to many of us.

So the book first tells her story, and then gives a summary of the history of eugenics in the United States. There was an active movement in the U.S. to connect genes to intelligence to race–and some American publications were praised highly by Hitler himself. I don’t suppose we should really be surprised during the years of lynching of black people and fear of southern European immigrants that we also had a movement to cull out and isolate or sterilize or euthanize those who didn’t make the grade.

Other things of note: there was a failure to grasp that genetically controlled qualities are not one-to-one: that is, skin color, hair texture, and certainly something as complex as intelligence, are combinations of many genes plus the complexities of environment.

Henry Goddard, author of The Kallikak Family (1912)  and the central figure at the Vineland (NJ) Training School where Emma Wolverton was kept (originally “The New Jersey Home for the Education and Care of Feebleminded Children”), made up something vaguely scientific to support his pre-existing beliefs. Goddard’s book on the Kallikaks posited two genetic lines from a single revolutionary war soldier, one set of descendents normal and successful, one degenerate and feeble minded. Goddard’s facts were later discovered to have been misinterpreted– and made up.

Goddard was also deeply involved in intelligence testing, repeatedly “proving” that the majority of immigrants were feeble-minded! The categories my father learned from his biology textbooks were idiots, imbeciles, and morons– the morons a category created by Goddard and some others to cover those just below normal.
A handful of culturally and experientially derived questions, and people, like southern European immigrants and Emma Wolverton were labeled–and incarcerated–for life.

The book has lots more about the development of intelligence testing, and how prostitutes and women with illegitimate children were considered ipso facto feeble-minded. Goddard believed he and his employees could take one quick look and identify morons and other feebleminded.

We are now a hundred years past the height of the American eugenics movement, and I have to remind myself that a hundred years from now, if there is clean air left for us to breathe, we may be looking back at our present selves in horror.

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Jane Lazarre: Interview on Writing Memoir and the Intersection of Politics and Literature

Jane Lazarre was interviewed by Deborah Kalb on”Book Q & A’s with Deboarah Kalb.”  She talks about her latest book, The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter, and discusses how she refuses to separate literature and politics.

The book is really wonderful.  It centers on Lazarre’s father, born in Kishinev, famous for pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth century.  He, Bill, and his immediate family emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager. He learned English with great speed, worked, joined the Communist Party, did a stint in prison, and always read widely, but especially Marx, Lenin, Dostoevsky, Theodore Dreiser and other masterful critics of the status quo.

In fact, Bill Lazarre’s reading list, and what he and his daughters read together and discussed, is one of the threads that binds the book together. For this is a memoir about people who constantly think and discuss, and feel as passionately as they think.

As a young man, Bill went to Spain with the International Brigades to fight fascism, and this remained one of the high points of his life. His life in the Party back in the United States was also rich: he wrote and spoke publicly and taught, but the heroic days were gradually undermined by intra-party struggles as well as rumors that justice was not being meted out in the Soviet Union. He was eventually thrown out of the party for reasons associated with the last days of Stalin when any disagreement was tantamount to betrayal. The ideology he had built his life around for its clear path to a better world no longer seemed to work.

After losing his Party positions, he had trouble finding work that would support him and his two daughters. Harassed by the FBI and eventually taken before the HUAC committee, he stood firm and revealed nothing to implicate his old comrades, in spite of a real danger of deportation, even though he was an American citizen.

In his final years, he found some satisfaction in a quiet life, a worker hired by former comrades, reading all the papers, finding a second love. He also had a little time with his first grand-child, Jane’s oldest son whose heritage is half Eastern European Jewish radicalism and half southern African-American. This becomes part of Bill Lazarre’s hope for the future–for a time when international union will be the human race.

The author, meanwhile, as she grew up–and this is almost as much her story as his–turned to psychoanalysis and literature as a language for finding meaning in the complexities of life.

Telling these things about this book, of course, give no hint of its texture: it attempts and largely succeeds in creating a nuanced view of Bill Lazarre’s emotional and political experience and the world he lived and suffered in, which was also the world the author grew up in. He has his heroic days recruiting workers for the righteous cause, and he has personal catastrophes when both his adored wife and then a second love die of virulent breast cancer. The author creates his life using his letters and notes, stories told and books written by his old comrades, and she also imagines scenes of him as a boy in Kishinev and alone in his apartment at the end of his life.

She also writes about what it was like to be a Communist Child, when the families gathered in living rooms over food and discussion, with the children loved by all the adults– a hint, perhaps of the yearned for Utopia of equality and camaraderie.

The book is organized in generally chronological sections, but within those sections, it works by association, by retelling dreams, by including transcripts of and commentary on court proceedings. It is a collection of materials, insights, incidents, and imagery formed into a brilliant whole by Jane Lazarre’s skill and patience.

It ought to be a classic of twentieth century American life.

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Answering Fire

Answering Fire by John Wheat croft is a small book consisting of a short story and a novella, centering on the World War II experiences of a young sailor. The short story “Kamikaze,” is wonderfully dark: we experience with the teen-aged protagonist some of the daily life of a big air craft carrier that is under constant threat from the Japanese suicide planes. The tension and horror of that are bad enough, but there is a possibly hallucinatory story line about another sailor, repeated described as silent, animal-like, and unintelligent, who hates their noncommissioned officer and gradually draws the protagonist into a mutual crime that is a deep look at the secret dark side of the human soul. It’s an intense little piece, and a perfect mood-setter for the longer story.

“Answering Fire” is about an aging, highly civilized and thoughtful protagonist, who may be the young man from the first story fifty years later, on holiday in England with his wife. He is thrown back in memory by an encounter with another vacationer, a teacher from Japan. He begins to remember his experiences when the American naval forces, who had been told like the rest of America, that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had saved the U.S. forces from a devastating resistance if they invaded Japan. Instead, the sailors, even far away from the nuclear devastation, find flattened cities and people living in holes, trading any saved valuables for cigarettes. This is an unusual and excellent book about what even that so-called righteous war did to combatants and victors as well as to victims.

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Don’t Forget Shelley Ettinger’s Read Red Book blog…

Recent suggestions for reading about the Russian Revolution as well as her take on Elsa Ferrante’s books and a lot more.

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Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth is usually described as a roman à clef about Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom, but I pretty much missed all of that, and just read it as a Roth novel. I love many of the characters, especially the ones Roth loves (one of whom is not Nathan Zuckerman the protagonist). It’s hard not to feel for the spectacularly flawed “Iron Zinn,” and even more the older brother, Nathan’s teacher, who as a ninety year old narrates most of the story. The background is wonderfully detailed, especially the romance of communism for a brainy Jewish kid growing up in Newark, NJ at the end of the thirties and during WWII. We get a lot of the black list and McCarthyism of course, and it goes on too long in places. I like how Roth gets excited about various crafts (glove making in American Pastoral, taxidermy and rock collecting here), but he probably uses more of his research than the novel requires.

I don’t know if this is prime Roth, but second rate Roth is better than nine tenths of the books you read. Read and enjoy, Iron Inn and Murray the Teach and even tremulously manly Nathan Z., as they try to figure out America..

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Anti-Keystone Pipeline poems by Karl Patten

Here’s a link to a series of anti-Keystone pipeline poems by one of my favorite professors, Karl Patten.  The poems are introduced by Cynthia Hogue.

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Grace Paley Would Have Been 94….

… and here’s a lovely piece about her by Emily Temple:

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