Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Remembering George Leonard

My father remembers a good friend and colleague, who, like him, identified strongly with the Southern liberal tradition:
George Leonard -- 1923-2010

Just after New Year's last month, Esalen lost one of the giants of our first 50 years as a catalyst for transformation in American and world culture. George Leonard first met Michael Murphy in 1965, an encounter he often said “changed his life.”...

That change came at the exact midpoint of George's long life: he was 43 in 1965; 86 when he died last month, surrounded by a whole pilgrimage of family and friends... Naturally much of the focus has been on the second half of George's eventful life -- “our” half. But the first half, what we might call the “pre-Esalen days,” is very much worth attention too. As a fellow Southerner, I've always been attuned to George's roots and core influences, which I share, deep in what we might call the “Southern dissident tradition” -- a rich if lesser-known legacy of liberal progressive humanism which was always there, running under and alongside the dominant strains of White Southern culture, at times bursting into the light and sending many key transformational leaders, Black and White, into the larger cultural stream.

George and I often spoke of this shared legacy, which ranged from some of the founders of the nation down through the Southern Abolitionists, into the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century and on to today. George Washington was an ambivalent figure in this tradition, selling property toward the end of his life in order to fund the terms of a last, secret will, under which all his slaves were to be emancipated. Jefferson's discomfort and contradictions and open family entanglements with slavery are now well-known. Andrew Johnson was another -- Lincoln's hapless Southern Vice-President who struggled to carry out Lincoln's intended legacy of both healing and Reconstruction (and was rewarded for his efforts with the nation's first impeachment trial of a sitting President, which he survived by one vote). Moving to the 20th Century, we spoke of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, both of them white Southern farm boys, with roots in the great economically disenfranchised class -- black and white -- that they grew up seeing all around them, and never lost sight of as the united beneficiaries of progressive reform. Together they then led the most sweeping Civil Rights legislation since Emancipation.

As one of the pioneering journalists of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60's, George was very mindful of the reach and influence of Southern progressives through journalism into the hearts and consciousness of Americans. Hodding Carter and his opposition to Japanese internment in WWII as well as the outrageous racial injustice all around him, Ralph McGill and the Atlanta Constitution, Ronnie Dugger and the Texas Observer, Willie Morris and others, right down to one of our personal favorites, the late lamented Molly Ivins, who we agreed made “bush-whacking” into an art form. George was a proud player on this Southern team, with his early feature coverage of the renascent Civil Rights Movement for Look (the largest of the photojournalism magazines, in an era when the rich documentary text and imagery on current events affected the national consciousness, often in a deeper, more thoughtful way than some of today's fleeting bombardment of web and tv coverage). And of course along the way he was also the first to take an early pulse of the 60's generation and find that it was very different indeed from “PTSD” trance of the post-War, Eisenhower, red-menace years. Which is what led him to Esalen, where, as they say, the rest is history.
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A treasured memory of mine is a conversation with him about the figure of Atticus Finch, anti-racist hero of Harper Lee's (and Truman Capote's) To Kill a Mockingbird, and George's interest in my Texas small-town liberal lawyer grandfather and the crusade against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the South of the 1920's, which George remembered from his own childhood.

If you grew up in the apartheid South of the Jim Crow era, as George and I both did, 20 years apart, then you grew up in a world of separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms (if there were any restrooms for “Colored”), a world where your relations with Black people were intimate, if stratified by a feudal class system. A world where as a child you could see a man you knew well personally, knew to be kind and honorable and intelligent, be humiliated (or worse) publicly with impugnity by any White citizen who happened to be a bad man, or even just in a bad mood. A world where a woman you knew personally to be the absolute backbone of several extended families, Black and White, could be worked into her 70's or 80's and then simply left to fend for herself, in illness or poverty. A world where your Sunday School teacher might go out of his way to impress racist doctrine on you; and yet some other family, not notably politically conscious or activist, might reach out across and against all this, to act like -- well, like real Christians, in the best, truest sense.

And you couldn't -- at least some of us couldn't -- then forget this, any of it. Not the amazing human capacity for blindness, injustice, dissociation of one part of ourselves from another, and cruelty based on greed and fear; and not the equally amazing human capacity for love, for new beginnings, for creative invention and progress.
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This was an after-dinner wedding toast, the lead toast since he'd “given away the bride” -- but George delivered it in what first mocked, then played off, and then was an all-fire southern sermon (a form that crosses the Black-White cultural divide in the South). Soon other guests, especially the Southerners, were calling out “A-men, brother,” to great applause, and the toasts were off to a rousing start. So fervid did the praises of love and marriage grow after that that Jungian writer James Hillman felt impelled to rise, with mock severity, and start by chiding, to great laughter, “As an elderly psychoanalyst, I feel that a voice must be raised here for the Reality Principle…” and went on to detail what marriage really means (commitment -- as in “one person stays with the luggage at the airport, so the other person can go to the toilet.” Or “One person unloads the dishwasher, and the other person loads it -- and they always do it wrong…” and more in that deadpan vein. It was a great evening, and as I remember it now, and remember George's vivid, one-of-a-kind presence and spirit, the screen goes blurry, and I have to take off my glasses and wipe my eyes.
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Rest in Peace, George. Or rather, relax into that special creative restlessness that characterized your whole life, and keep sending us the fruits and sparks of your transformational vision, from wherever you roam. As the Bard put in the mouth of his fullest, most self-identified character: “We shall not see his like again.”
I second all of this -- George had the rare ability to remind everyone around him of what was important in life.

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