Second Read: Rick Perlstein on Paul Cowan

Second Read“Paul Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that?”—Rick Perlstein

As the title suggests, Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage, includes a series of essays by prominent journalists on how other journalists influenced and inspired them. In the opening essay, Rick Perlstein looks at the work of former Village Voice writer Paul Cowan and specifically his book The Tribes of America. Here are some excerpts from Rick Perlstein’s essay:

In the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, Christian fundamentalists enraged at the imposition of “blasphemous” textbooks in the public schools demolished a wing of a school board building with fifteen sticks of dynamite. When the board insisted on keeping the books in the curriculum, homes were bombed and school buses shot at. “Jesus Wouldn’t Have Read Them,” read one of the slogans of a movement whose leader, a preacher, would soon face charges of conspiracy to bomb two elementary schools.

Into this whirlwind stepped Paul Cowan, a shaggy-haired, bespectacled, left-wing New York Jew, trying to make sense of why he felt sympathy for the side that was laying the dynamite.

For people like Cowan, a thirty-four-year-old staff writer at The Village Voice, it was a boom time for existential drift. In 1970 he published The Making of an Un-American, the memoir of a raw and arrogant new-left punk who had taken a one-year leave from the Voice in 1966 for a stint in the Peace Corps that was supposed to be broadening, but ended up being wildly disillusioning. “When I read that the Viet Cong had attacked the American embassy in Saigon during the Tet offensive,” Cowan concluded in Un-American, “I was almost able to imagine that I was a member of the raiding party.” But by the time Cowan began his next project, in 1971, life inside the new left had become an emotional burden for him: diminishing returns, dashed certitudes, “intellectual claustrophobia.” That was how, “gradually, half-consciously, without any theory or any plan, I decided to cross the sound barrier of dogma and test my beliefs against the realities of American life.” The twelve chapters of The Tribes of America (1979) were the felicitous result.

A person of Cowan’s inclinations and background was supposed to know exactly what to think about a howling mob gathered around a crucifix-emblazoned flag and expectorating demands to burn books of the sort the reporter would want his kids to study, books with chapters by Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and test questions asking students to interpret rather than parrot what they had read. It would have been easy to record the scenes of bonfires and leave it at that; certainly that would have satisfied Cowan’s readers back in Greenwich Village. Instead, Cowan took the riskier step: wondering whether these criminals didn’t also have a point…..

Paul Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that? In the deeply humanizing portrait of illegal aliens, he notes how “I’d always included braceros”—Mexicans who traveled back and forth on legally sanctioned work contracts—“in my private litany of the oppressed.” Instead, he found “they talked nostalgically, not bitterly, about their adventures” north of the border. He calls the chapter “Still the Promised Land”—a self-reproach to someone who once proudly called himself an “un-American.” In a profile of Jesse Jackson, he encounters a man on the verge of apostasy from the left: Jackson, who was then deeply opposed to abortion, was the keynoter at the 1978 meeting of the Republican National Committee. Cowan sat and listened, relegating his own voice to the background. That quiet and reflective voice may account for a mystery regarding Cowan, whom I had never heard of at all when I encountered this book by accident last year. Flashier contemporaries went on to greater fame. Cowan’s willingness to play down his own ego—indeed, to mock his own ego—accounts for some of his obscurity…..

Rick Perlstein concludes the essay by comparing Cowan’s intellectual trajectory to that of Norman Podhoretz, who blamed the left for abandoning him and became increasingly dogmatic in his views:

Paul Cowan took a different course, and that is the meaning of his work. He looked inside himself. He found sins—his own sins, not the sins of some abstraction called “the left,” to be rejected as such—and he reckoned with them. Which is hard work. He tested his prejudices against reality, about as deeply as anyone could test them; he embraced new principles, cleaving to the ones worth keeping. He saw virtues in bourgeois virtue. But that didn’t paralyze his conscience. He saw that America had tribes, and that the left-leaning Ivy League professionalism he inhabited was one of them, with its own characteristic inanities. That wasn’t the end of the story for Cowan, but rather a new, richer beginning.

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