In Pursuit of Clancy Sigal

A writer’s radical life

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin speaks with with I.F. Stone at a demonstration against nuclear weapons, Washington D.C., 1962.
Todd Gitlin, at right, speaks with the muckraking journalist I. F. Stone at a 1962 demonstration against nuclear weapons in Washington D.C. Courtesy the author.

The golden notebook

i first encountered Clancy Sigal, in a manner of speaking, in 1963, during my last semester in college. That’s when I picked up, and devoured, Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, which featured a character named Saul Green who was widely known to have been based on Sigal. At the time, I was a fervent and brooding left-wing activist with two years of political organizing under my belt (mostly trying to ban the bomb). So I was, unsurprisingly, enthralled by Lessing’s book, which took left-wing politics and writing seriously, as human facts, not “background.” And I was mesmerized by the broken expat Green, a Communist maudit, former union organizer, blacklisted Hollywood agent, and blocked writer, attached to left-wing ideals despite reasons not to be. I was especially moved as he and Lessing’s protagonist Anna Wulf plunge into a transformative folie de deux, “a cocoon of madness.”

Saul can no longer find fellowship with his old comrades, who have settled, “all married or successful and having drunken private conversations with themselves.” He won’t settle. He tosses up in London, sick and insomniac, a political refugee and scrambling neurotic. In Anna—herself a blocked novelist trying to dig out of a rubble of Communist faith, bad relationships, and war terror— he finds a kindred, equally disassembled spirit. She takes him in, impressed by “his jaunty soldier air,” coiled as he is, “his energies… absorbed in simply holding himself together,” “his cool grey eyes on guard.” But he’s also, she will conclude, a “monster,” prone to “cold moment[s] of pure hostility,” “jeering and sneering” at her “middle-class” origins. He lectures her, and she likes being lectured to. “Saul,” she says, “we’re very bad for each other.”

History having abandoned them, they lurch into each other’s arms as lovers, accusers, and confessors. She, having compartmentalized her writing into topical segments, hungers for wholeness; he, stuck in a moment when “some kind of guts have gone out of people,” would “give anything to go back to when I was in the gang of idealist kids on the street corner, believing we could change everything…the only time in my life I’ve been happy.” They circle each other like ravenous carnivores biting chunks out of each other’s flesh, their cruelties spurring understandings that feel like misunderstandings.

I recognized Lessing’s characters as weathered, burned-out forebears of my New Left crowd. “The truth for our time was war, the immanence of war,” writes Anna Wulf. “War was working in us all, towards fruition.” This spoke to us, given that the United States and the Soviet Union had just careened into, and almost not out of, the Cuban Missile Crisis. And my circle devoured The Golden Notebook not least because Lessing took women’s passions and quandaries seriously. Lessing named their disquiet, their longing to be “free women.” I lent my copy to Casey Hayden, who had recently been evicted from her marriage to Tom Hayden, then the president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Politics was not all that drew me to Saul and Anna. Lessing told me what I was missing in my own life, for I often felt as if I had been dropped onto the earth without an instruction manual, lacking even a vocabulary for what human beings felt about, and wanted from, each other. I admired Anna’s courageous struggle to unite her fragments, and saw myself in Saul Green’s lurching helplessness. He was some fifteen years older than I—the right age for an archetype. He embodied both the swagger and the fragility of the masculine mystique I aspired to, à la Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Like Saul, I fancied myself summoned by history with a capital H, wanting my bewilderments and failings to add up to something significant.

going away
six months after reading The Golden Notebook, I picked up a copy of Going Away, Sigal’s second book and his major opus. By then, I had been elected the third president of SDS. I was fired up by the updraft of the civil rights movement and John Kennedy’s moves toward détente. In my bookish way I was seeking a “usable past” while struggling with an uneasy relationship between witnessing history and participating in it. In some way, I intuited that the dilemmas we were facing as young radicals were already built into the situation of being left wing in a country that was not. And I sensed that these were dilemmas about which Clancy Sigal would have something important to say.

Going Away is, in a way, the story of what happened to Saul Green before he met Anna Wulf. Lyrical and intellectually serious at once, it maps the political wasteland left by the death of the Old Left. At twenty-nine, the narrator is the son of union organizers (his mother a socialist, his absent father a Communist). It is October 1956. He drives a big, borrowed red-and-white De Soto convertible from L.A. eastward, looking up old buddies and recalling adventures whose meaning has been drained away by America’s stupor.

Most of the old militancy has expired; most of his pals are in retreat; a few hold fast to Stalinism for dear life. Mostly he finds embers. In Wyoming, a onetime union leader tells him, “It’s not a radical union any more.… All they talk about is sex, baseball, cars and the lousy Company.” Another: “The guys are tired. They’ve a right to be.… They want a rest. They don’t want to strike, they don’t want any trouble. They want to take long uninterrupted fishing trips.” “All the people I talked to felt ‘out of it,’” Sigal writes, “believing that they could exercise no real influence over the important decisions in their lives, they were now busily brewing up a blend of wisecracking apathy.” Drive-by sex substitutes for the revolution.

Stopping off in Reno, Sigal watches people on street corners and motel roofs staring toward the government’s desert test site. “What’s going on?” he asks men in Stetson hats. “Nuclear device,” one of them says. “That was the phrase one of them used, nuclear device. I asked him if he meant an atom bomb, and he looked at me. I was a square.” These men, stunned into euphemism, talk kiloton ranges, weather, altitude. “I asked again what time the atomic bomb would be exploded. They stared at me again. I had done the square thing. I excused myself and called it a nuclear device.” One of the Stetsons “put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Son, there ain’t no call for you getting sarcastic. That’s the only thing that stands between us and the Russians.’”

The bomb, 380 miles away, lights up the dawning sky. “An intake of breath swept the crowds… as the eyes caught the white glare that spread over the whole dawning sky, a sharp, slow splurge of light that brought forth appreciative Ah’s from the crowd. One of the Stetsons said, ‘God, that’s beautiful.’” Later, Sigal wanders “the bleak, blinking streets thinking about Hungary,” where people are thrillingly, if futilely, rising up against the Stalinist regime.

Everywhere, America looks “rapaciously, lifelessly ‘modern.’” As he drives, revolted by billboards, charged up on whiskey and Dexedrine, a Greek chorus of radio bulletins spits out news of Hungary—and soon enough, dreadfully, of the Soviet onslaught that crushes what remains of his old-time religion. He is long gone from the Communist Party, but some residue of nostalgia binds him to the comrades with whom he had shared illusions. “It has been written that one cannot have Socialism. One is a socialist,” he writes. “It is true.” For no apparent reason, he breaks out crying.

For him, communism was insurgency and solidarity—a way of life and a morality, not an economic or political arrangement.

What did I make of this at the time? I loved the narrator’s loyalties, his let-it-all-hang-out grousing, his penchant for theories of what killed America, his uncertainty about those theories, his honesty about his flaws and flops (“I have never been afraid of self-pity”). I loved his belief that writing matters, that genres are cages, that writing is an art of fluidity, not boxes. I loved the long sections he devoted to political sagas—the battle between Communists and socialists over control of the United Auto Workers; running the mimeograph machine for a proletarian poet during a strike in North Carolina—and his lust for solidarity. Above all, I was touched by his urgent need to know if it was “possible to have a small circle of friends, friends of grace and purpose, not incestuously, but on a basis of mutual respect, work, and a kind of humorous, informal dignity in the United States.”

The narrator was like Woody Guthrie with a college degree and a penchant for political argument. As John Leonard would later write, “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” I didn’t mind much that the book was overlong, more than five hundred pages of wound-licking and self-purging. A rough-hewn cautionary tale felt like a fit tombstone for the Fifties’ fraudulent sanities and grave defeats. It comes as no surprise when Clancy writes, “This is the chronicle of how I started to go mad.” The last bulletin he hears, on shipboard, about to depart for Europe, goes, “This is Budapest. Budapest Radio. Budapest Radio. Help us. Help. Help. Help.”

I turned the final page and lay in bed thinking, This will never happen to me. My movement was different. Stalin and McCarthy were dead. The New Left was independent, unillusioned, rambunctious, joyful. Lucky me, I had the sixties to look forward to.

abandoned by history
almost a decade later, I reread Going Away, and this time when I was done, I lay in bed thinking, So it did happen to me.

I had spent the years in between as part of the New Left—“the movement.” I had been president of SDS. The movement had been my way of life, the country I lived in. It gave me a calendar of events, reference points, vocabulary, music, jokes, lovers. It made the world cohere, or seem to. But by the early seventies, the Vietnam War was still bleeding on, and Richard Nixon reigned, and the movement had been seized by lunatic fights over who should lead an imaginary revolution. The most acute and ferocious hell wasn’t right-wingers or liberals: it was other left-wing factions. Even as we were being denounced and surveilled by government agencies, those of us who were independent-minded were also under fire from Leninist factions who labeled us “movement creeps” and “revisionists.” Movement solidarity had morphed into a collective hallucination. I was going away, all right—not only from America but from the movement that was going away from America. Or rather, it was going away from me. Going, going, gone.

Marooned, disbelieving, burned out, for a time I contemplated a new political start—a new manifesto, something—with movement buddies equally estranged from the clotted rhetoric and revolutionary fantasies that engulfed the sects of the late, no longer so New Left. But the world had found us indigestible and spat us out. Our intellectual ground had veered from early-sixties participatory democracy and brotherhood ideals to a haze of outrage, indebted to the Herbert Marcuse of the Great Refusal, the Guevarism of Régis Debray, the Maoism of the Little Red Book, and the R. D. Laing of the divided self. We were unstable selves floating free. Even our successes seemed perishable. What was it to be a movement writer without a sensible movement?

To get some distance, I took some time to write a long analytical essay. That’s what a serious left-wing intellectual did. But the more clearly I saw the origins of our maladies, the less avoidable they seemed. I smoked dope and had panic attacks. I wrote an epic poem. I scrambled to figure out what had happened to me.

It occurred to me, then, to write my way through the fog of failed revolution by trying my hand instead at a memoir-cum-fiction. I filled pages for a few days, feeling frightened, wondering if this was what it was like to go crazy. And then, staring at my barely begun book, the thought came that I should reach out to Clancy Sigal.

I figured that if anyone could understand my life-problem as well as my writerly quandary, he could. I was, after all, the age he had been when he shipped out of America. He had known political defeat and extracted honor. So, in anguish, I wrote him a letter introducing myself. I sketched my situation, paid tribute to Going Away, said I was trying to write something similar, and confessed my fear that writing it would make me lose my mind. I asked him what writing his book had done for him, and mailed my letter from San Francisco in care of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, in Boston.

Ten days later, I had back an air-letter from London. Houghton Mifflin had done the least every publisher needs to do—put a reader in touch with a writer. Clancy wrote that he knew of me through Studs Terkel, who had flatteringly blurbed a book I’d coauthored called Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago. He told me that he, too, had found himself blocked from writing his big book until he’d met a third-generation Yorkshire miner, a Communist and a writer to boot, who took him down in the pits and let him hang around. The resulting short, sweet book of reportage, Weekend in Dinlock, was Sigal’s first book, published before Going Away.

He said he finished Going Away and then went crazy. He said this was obviously the subject he was writing about now. He was still making himself up as he went along, confessing, at one point, to a retrograde desire to own a color television. He was avuncular. He said he’d read a review of a just-published volume of Chekhov’s letters, said that they sounded like good advice for a young writer. (I rushed out to buy a copy.) He typed out every square inch of the air letter. I had written to the right guy.

take back the night
sigal wasn’t kidding about going crazy. When I wrote him, he had been suffering from “nameless, numbing panics” and frolicking with fellow-suffering freaks in the London anti-psychiatry world of the Scottish psychoanalyst R. D. Laing. Laing believed that schizophrenia was the goal of psychiatry, and told Sigal to stop “bleatin’ and moanin’ like your standard Jewish neurotic” when “ye’ve the makin’s of a first-class schizophrenic”—a high compliment from the Lenin of the madness movement. A few years later, Sigal would publish a roman à clef about his time with Laing called Zone of the Interior, his first book since Going Away. In the preface, Sigal asks himself, “Why, with so much to politically rethink in the Sixties… did I seek refuge in near-Fascist irrationalism?” A good question that he does not answer, though strong clues will be found in the title and substance of his later roman à clef, The Secret Defector.

I wrote Clancy again after Zone came out. (It was published only in America, because British libel law, which favors the accuser, meant it would have been legally perilous to publish the book in London while Laing was alive.) “Sometimes,” I wrote, “I felt the book could be more interior.” In truth, it was more than sometimes. Zone was Fellini shot from a balloon—a bumpy burlesque, sometimes funny but undeveloped and anticlimactic. Going Away had its longueurs, but they all circled back to the unmistakable center of the novel, the brooding, broken adventurer-narrator who stumbles from dizzy spell to hectic sex as he tries to get down deep with his onetime comrades. Sigal’s Zone alter ego, by contrast, rarely makes solid connections with his would-be transcendent mates. His ironic distance flattens his prose. About his own forays into ecstatic LSD-boosted effusions, laughing for hours, suddenly aware of “the pointlessness of all human activity,” he sounds more sardonic than transcendent. “Interior” was not Clancy’s strong zone.

Later that year, I made my first trip to Britain, and my wife and I spent an evening with Clancy and his wife, Margaret Walters, a feminist art historian. Their walk-up on Wigmore Street was diminutive and unprepossessing. A gas heater hung over the kitchen sink. They had spent the day at the Notting Hill Carnival, where Margaret’s purse had been stolen. I was impressed by her aplomb and Clancy’s inquisitive but warm manner, which was not the aggressive style of Saul Green. He had hooded eyes and a strong chin. He was pleasant, cocky, impassioned, and wary all at once. He studied me, and my wife, closely. We talked about the general rottenness of politics. We hit it off. He graciously didn’t ask about my unwritten book.

We stayed in touch from then on. In 1978, he visited me in San Francisco, and we strolled around in exuberance during the first “Take Back the Night” march, chanting through the streets of North Beach, “Women, unite! Take back the night!” Nothing ironic about it—we were, both of us, fervent feminists. He would write in his later memoir The London Lover how impressed he was with the new women, “basking in their new power…tough, difficult, and like my mum, sassy.…Such is the moth’s flame that I’m enchanted—in the original sense—by their vivacity and sheer joie de vivre.” “Take Back the Night” was sheer exultation. At one point we shouted “Join us” to two women watching us from an upstairs apartment window. “Join us,” they shouted back, grinning and beckoning. Those were the days.

action as tranquilizer
during the years that followed, Sigal wrote fiercely—no more writer’s block that I could see. He wrote literally thousands of articles: journalism, book and movie reviews, BBC scripts. He wrote about political and sociological travels, à la George Orwell; about stolid Tories and innocent campaigners for nuclear disarmament. He interviewed Samuel Beckett. In 1984 he covered the Los Angeles Olympics, of all things, for The Observer, and not long after that he decided it was time to come back home. He applied for a professorship in the Department of Journalism at the University of Southern California. His cause there was taken up vigorously by A. J. Langguth, the fine former New York Times Saigon bureau chief. I was flattered to be asked to write a recommendation for Clancy, and evidently it did not torpedo his prospects, for he got the job and proceeded—devotedly—to teach long-form journalism there for fifteen years.

In the fifties, even as some of his college friends headed to graduate school, Clancy had steered clear of the academy. The intellectual’s first role, he wrote, was “to stand and shout bloody murder.” The second was “not to break into any kind of Establishment.” Playing at word games or concept refinement was not his idea of intellectual life. “I have a big mouth but a torpid mind,” he wrote. So it would have amazed the young Clancy to think that he would end up as a tenured professor, and a dedicated teacher to boot.

Even so, he was suspicious of corrals, even comfortable ones, and his style was never dented by the academy. When I confessed my own resolve to hold on to my writerly missions even as I climbed the ladder of tenure, he was quick with advice: “Write one for them and one for yourself.” (I liked the sound of it, though after I got tenure, I stopped writing the one for them.) He never wrote the one for them. Novel-memoirs, commercial screenplays (in collaboration with his second wife, Janice Tidwell), and journalism were his métiers. Professional intellectuals were not high on his admiration list.

To get some distance, I took some time to write a long analytical essay. That’s what a serious left-wing intellectual did.

In part, that was because Clancy loved action. In his 1992 roman à clef about his time in London, The Secret Defector (his first book after Zone of the Interior), the Doris Lessing character, Rose O’Malley, charges the narrator with “never knowing if you’re Vladimir Ilyich Lenin or Errol Flynn.” “Hold on,” Clancy’s character responds. “I knew who I was. Vladimir Flynn.”

Clancy was not the only radical or would-be revolutionary to wonder whether he was in a movie. Still, he did not posture. During the civil rights movement, he went back to the United States to hang out with the radicals of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and help register Black voters in the South. And during the Vietnam War he was a stationmaster in a network smuggling American AWOLs and deserters to Sweden, taking plenty of chances.

His character in The Secret Defector goes on to tell Rose that “who I didn’t want to be, what I was in danger of becoming, was that most terrifying caricature, a political adventurer… living on air, terribly magnetized by seriousness in others while compulsively inconstant themselves.” If that is who Clancy was, he came by it honestly. He spent his childhood traveling around the country with his turbulent union-organizer mother, Jennie Persily, whom he described lovingly in his next, best-made memoir, A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom), by Her Bastard Son. Given that Jennie brought Clancy to union rallies, picket lines, and battles with strikebreaking cops, action was, you might say, his mother’s milk.

“Fear is my tranquilizer,” he would write later. “Being at the centre of the action is the only thing that helps to reduce my state of perpetual terror.” During risky exploits he remembers becoming “euphoric with fear.” “Why,” he asked himself, “do I feel so at ease in an out-of-control crowd?” Perhaps for the same reason he felt at ease, for a while, in an out-of-control love affair.

a vexatious angel
over the years, I suppressed the occasional impulse to broach with Clancy the subject of Saul Green. I didn’t want to pry, but I wondered, What did it mean to Clancy to be outed, so to speak, by his onetime lover? I assumed that he resented what Lessing did with him. But it seems to have been more complicated than that. In a fascinating monograph, Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef, Roberta Rubenstein reports that Clancy recorded in his diary in July 1959 how he felt on learning that Lessing had begun writing a play about their affair: “I was, at first, unconcerned, and then, as I understood, furious. I issued a veiled threat that to continue to write such a play might cleave us inseparably, but I knew she would write it. She would never, for some very good reasons, sacrifice her personal life to art.” He must have meant the opposite.

The diary entry he wrote about discovering that Lessing was lifting his words verbatim is electric. He has just found out that his mother has died. When the call comes from the States, he is up north with “some of the best friends I’d made in England…having one of those intense political meetings charting the future of the known universe. I said, ‘My ma just died.’ No one got up to put an arm around me or to say how sorry they were. Mostly they looked acutely embarrassed as if I’d farted in public or mistranslated Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.”

“Armored against emotion,” he returns to London. Lessing isn’t home. He prowls around and stumbles upon her play manuscript. “I let my eye idle over a few lines,” he records in his diary. “It hit me between the eyes. The play she was writing, in fact had completed, was about our relationship. But those lines of dialogue! They were exactly what I had said to her, in my worst, most intimate moments of a severe nervous breakdown in the year previous.… Never, I felt, had I been so profoundly betrayed.… I wrote a letter to the woman, an angry letter, [to] which she replied in like mind, reminding me how much she had done for me. She was perfectly correct in this.” Lessing has commandeered him, hexed him, body-snatched him.

Lessing went on to draw on Clancy’s diaries for The Golden Notebook. He knew she was doing it because he had taken to tying a thin black thread between his bureau drawers so as to tell whether she had peeked, and he half-boasted, half-chortled about having written passages into his diary to nudge her novel this way or that. He would discreetly check her manuscript for signs of her piracy.

So he would pass through literary life preceded by her depiction of him as Saul Green, as if the far more famous Lessing was always making rabbit ears with her fingers behind his head. And not only his literary life. He suspects that when people meet him they wonder if the Clancy Sigal they meet masks the fictional character. But notoriety works in complicated ways. Beyond feeling diminished, perhaps he is also weirdly proud to have been “immortalized,” even perversely, in a literary classic. Over the years, Clancy slams Lessing for invading his diaries. “I thought of slugging my ex-girlfriend (or at least killing her),” he writes. But then he adds the following sentences, “She had immortalized me as a neurotic schmegege—and who wants to be remembered like that? But living well, not suing for libel, is the best revenge. Second best is answering back in kind.”

They were fiercely coupled, twisted together in mutual aid and resentment. Lessing’s love merged with her jealousy. Clancy’s shock at her literary appropriations merged with his rivalry. (Before The Golden Notebook, she was already a published and well-regarded author; he, seven years younger, was not.) She would say he tormented her, and she gave as good as she got. In a 1992 article, Clancy tells this story:

R. D. Laing, a great fan of Mrs. Lessing’s, and I used to get roaring drunk together and, when totally blotto, exchange profundities about the schizophrenic implications of a divided self being further split by the act of being written about. “That woman stealing your soul was the luckiest thing that ever happened to you,” he would insist. “She’s emptied you for the Great Task ahead.” Which was, more or less, the “schizoid voyage” that was our politics then. Sometimes Mrs. Lessing seemed to agree. Once, at a party… she put her arms around me and boasted to the guests, “I invented Clancy.” “No, you didn’t,” I said stubbornly, “my mother, Jennie, did that by giving birth to me.” “She had,” Mrs. Lessing said, dismissing my protest, “the easy part.”

Clancy and Doris stayed in touch over the years. He was like that with his most serious lovers—playing a long game. Love, respect, and companionship were points on the same curve. After she died in 2013, I wrote him about how reading The Golden Notebook at age twenty “had some huge & eerie effect on me…told me that the sort of life I was embarking on might not have consequence but it had gravity and honor, and not only honor but a kind of density.… Unlike the grander ideological novels I’d been reading, The Golden Notebook was full of the dirt & mess & craziness of everyday life, the back-&-forth of working out politics & lostness & honor on the run, so to speak; & the possibility of scrambling toward a way of writing that would convey the mess & yet the stakes of the struggle & its worth.” And I asked whether, even if he resented her “portrait” of him, he realized it had made him “an inspirational figure not only for me but for my crowd, & could you see how she had honored you? You were her vexatious angel.”

keep the flame lit
clancy never stopped writing,
churning out a succession of romans à clef and, more vividly, memoirs of chunks of his life (Black Sunset about Hollywood, and the aforementioned The London Lover and A Woman of Uncertain Character), as well as screenplays—In Love and War, based on wartime reminiscences of his beloved Ernest Hemingway, and (in collaboration with Janice) Frida, with the redoubtable Kahlo played by Salma Hayek and featuring Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky and Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros. (I asked him why the movie was lacking what would surely have been a bang-up true-life scene in which Siqueiros, the down-the-line Stalinist and brilliant muralist, did his damnedest to shoot the exiled Trotsky, leaving holes in the wall of Trotsky’s house but none in Trotsky himself. Clancy told me that he and Janice did write that scene but it didn’t make it into the movie.)

His and Janice’s screenplay about the Sartre-Beauvoir-Nelson Algren triangle (Clancy and Algren were Chicago buddies) never got produced, though Annette Bening had signed on. All the while, he kept scribbling for the British press and wrote political op-eds, many of them published on the far-left Counterpunch website, as well as longer pieces of reportage that didn’t always find venues. One that saw the light of day only in a much truncated version was a remarkable account of his visit to Nixon henchman H. R. Haldeman in the federal prison in Lompoc, California, where Haldeman was serving a shortened sentence of eighteen months for Watergate crimes. Haldeman and his partner-in-crime John Ehrlichman had been UCLA contemporaries of Clancy’s in the early fifties. The future Nixon co-conspirators were already right-wingers when Sigal was the Big Commie on Campus and the editor of the school paper; they tried to get the student government to take the paper away from him. “It was never personal,” Haldeman told him at Lompoc.

Even our successes seemed perishable. What was it to be a movement writer without a sensible movement?

Clancy’s late style is jagged, suited to delicate evasion, full of meaningful pauses, his writing stripped down, sometimes to aphorism. Cinematic, in fact. This was not strictly or even primarily an aesthetic choice. (It was largely, according to his widow, because during his later years he was in tremendous pain from an agitated sciatic nerve, and so had to write standing up.) Quoting Elmore Leonard (“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”), in his late books he has traded in the longueurs of Going Away and Zone of the Interior for staccato suggestions and hints toward what need not be dwelt upon or cannot even be hazarded—or perhaps is best left to dangle in ambiguity.

Clancy’s radicalism was more consistent than his novelistic ambition. Through it all, until he died at ninety in 2017, he tried to keep the eternal flame lit. Stay in fighting trim. Choose sides. Make the most of defeat. He had no illusions about Stalinism. (In The Secret Defector, he spoke of “my dream of a non-Communist independent left.”) Nor did he have any love for “armed struggle” terrorism. In 1982 he had attended “a Sunday concert in Regents Park when the military band was blown to pieces by IRA shrapnel, and a few weeks later a flying chunk of iron from a Piccadilly postbox with an IRA letter bomb inside had almost decapitated me.” But when I told him once that I was not just non-Communist but anti-Communist, he was genuinely shocked. It wasn’t that he disagreed with me on the merits. It was a matter of primal identity. For him, communism was insurgency and solidarity—a way of life and a morality, not an economic or political arrangement. “It was the essence of what we believed that Communism was men standing up on their own two feet and, for the first time in history, ordering their lives in imperfect consultation but in perfect awareness.”

To him, anticommunism was once and for all desertion. It was McCarthy, John Foster Dulles, the domino theory. It was the stupidities of the Cold War. It was the Bomb. I argued that anticommunism was more general but also simpler than that—it was the conviction that communism was a rotten political system, even if scoundrels thought so too. I thought it morally necessary as well as tactically wise to clarify that there was more than one kind of monstrosity in the world. We agreed to disagree.

We also agreed to disagree about Democratic presidents. Clancy was ever on the lookout for signs of submission. In the fifties, he found the speeches of Adlai Stevenson “mealymouthed and disingenuous in the extreme, even cowardly.” He thought liberals as guilty as Communists of “the abdication of thought to prayer.” During his later years, he grew, if anything, more vehement, riveted to a single metaphor: bad marriage. In 2006, he emailed me: “More and more I think we should get a divorce from the Dems so we can fall in love all over again.” In 2010, he accused “the American left (what there is of it)…[of ] trail[ing] poodle-like after Barack Obama… and isn’t it nice for a change to have a president who can parse a complicated sentence?… One scary look at Obama’s yowling enemies—racist and crazy about Palin—… was enough to send us whimpering back to our kennels.”

His dogma was not mine. I tried to convince him that given America’s two-party presidential system and first-past-the-post elections, supporting the best available Democrats was not marriage, bad or otherwise, but hygiene, like brushing your teeth. “We live in the country we live in, not the one we wish we lived in,” I preached. He was not swayed. I had read Clancy rightly when, decades earlier, I asked his advice about how to make sense of the overpowering experience of thinking big and falling short. I had grasped his feeling for the defeated, the sobriety of his intelligent grief, his loyalty to the proles of his youth, his understanding that self-pity was shallow and that recovery was more than a matter of will—his insistence on being earnest. He had no time for the left-wing glitterati who soaked up much more attention. He knew that to move humanity toward wholeness, to respect the effort wrapped in the tragedy, and the tragedy in the effort, you had to have been immersed. To be indefatigable, you had to have lost everything but your honor. You could only burn out if you had burned.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books.
Originally published:
September 20, 2021


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Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
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The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work
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