Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Holiday Book Bonanza ’09: Harvey J. Kaye

Sarah Russo, Associate Director, Publicity

Several years ago, I had the good fortune of inheriting a book from another publicist. I had no idea at the time what good fortune this was for me, that the author of that book would not only be an amazing partner on the publicity trail but would also become a fast friend.

Harvey J. Kaye is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, published by the Hill & Wang imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and he is currently working on a book for H&W on the Four Freedoms. He very kindly agreed to take time out from writing his book to write about his favorite books for the OUPBlog holiday book round-up. Harvey is Director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and also the author of a young adult book published by OUP called Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution.

Happy Holidays everyone! Enjoy!

My three favorite books of all time are Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958). But I have written elsewhere of those. So, I’m taking the liberty here of talking about my current favorites.

Deeply involved in writing a new book, The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America, I often feel like I am living in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, my wife probably feels that way, too, given the piles of books from and on the Depression, New-Deal, and Second-World-War years that adorn nearly every room in our rather tiny house… Oh, how I love buying secondhand books on-line! And I confess that I have overdone it. But of course I do not relish every volume. Who could find the American Liberty League’s pamphlets or Father Coughlin’s radio rants inspiring or enjoyable (other than maybe someone like Amity Shlaes or Pat Buchanan, respectively)?

Having confessed to my addiction… I should note that it’s all in the cause of cultivating American democratic history, memory, and imagination. And in those terms my favorite books are The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt; Max Lerner’s It is Later than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy (1938); and Norman Corwin’s radio plays, We Hold These Truths (1941) and On A Note of Triumph (1945).

It’s hard taking FDR’s collected speeches to bed. But it’s worth trying. You will find them inspiring… Through them Roosevelt encouraged his fellow citizens not only to fight the Depression and Fascism, but also to challenge his own administration to advance policies and programs that would extend and deepen freedom, equality, and democracy.

To sustain myself in my work – and to remind myself of what it’s all about past and present – I regularly return to Lerner’s and Steinbeck’s books. In It Is Later than You Think, Lerner contended that democracy’s survival required fighting not only “fascist imperialism without,” but also “the anarchy of unplanned capitalism, the concentration of corporate power, the sabotaging effects of reactionary business, [and] the incipient fascist movement within.” And in Once There Was a War, Steinbeck – better than most writers then and since – critically articulated the thoughts and anxieties of America’s GIs. He rightly contended that as much as they believed in the Four Freedoms – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear – and were ready to fight to secure them, they were anxious about what politicians and industrialists back home were committed to doing about it, for it struck those GIs that Congress was doing its damnedest to kill any policy or program that would enable them to realize those freedoms. Do such things sound familiar?

In that spirit I would note that I not only firmly subscribe to Lerner’s progressive observation that “The basic story in the American past, the only story ultimately worth the telling, is the story of the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the American democratic adventure,” I actually put it on all my syllabi.

Admittedly, Norman Corwin’s radio plays – We Hold These Truths (1941) and On A Note of Triumph (1945) – should be heard not read. But once you’ve listened to them the reading becomes all the richer and you’ll want to recite the lines aloud yourself. Corwin wrote We Hold These Truths for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights (December 11, 1941) and On A Note of Triumph for VE Day (May 8, 1945). And tens of millions of Americans tuned in to hear them. I particularly like the opening lines of the latter:

“So they’ve given up.
They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse.
Take a bow, G.I.,
The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.”

There’s nothing I’ve seen on television to compare to that.

OUP kindly asked me to name my favorite children’s books, too. My wife Lorna and I have two now-twenty-something daughters, Rhiannon and Fiona, an architect and a lawyer, respectively. We loved reading to them. I particularly enjoyed bed-time readings of Tan Koide’s May We Sleep Here Tonight? (1983) and – in the Wisconsin spirit of crisp and snowy evenings – Wendy Watson’s Has Winter Come?, both of which are populated by adorable little rodents.

But even more than those, I liked – for days stuck indoors – the works of Mitsumasa Anno, especially his wordless but richly-illustrated books, Anno’s Journey (1978), Anno’s Britain (1982), and Anno’s U.S.A.(1983), each of which takes the reader on a trip filled with wonderful images historical and legendary. The fun is in trying to discover all the cultural references past and present and, in your own words, making all those images and references live in the imaginations of your kids. Now that I think about it, they were visual primers in cultural literacy.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Holiday Book Bonanza ‘09: Harvey J. Kaye […]

Comments are closed.