Jumping the Line: the Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical : by William Herrick, 279 pages. By Megan Pants

Apr 13, 2011

I was really interested in this book before actually starting to read it. Then I started and it took me forever to get into it. It’s a memoir, a genre I always have a hard time getting into. I kept reading since I’d promised to review it and then WHAM! I was hooked. Not only was I reading it all of the time, but if I didn’t happen to have it in my hands at that moment, I was usually talking about it. What it comes down to is that William Herrick just has a pretty amazing story to tell.

He was born a Jewish communist in Trenton, New Jersey in 1915. He was versed in Party politics from infancy, so much that he was handing out leaflets at Trenton’s largest factory, yelling, “Long live the Revolution!” by age eight. Herrick’s family moved into the Communist Coop in New York after his father’s death, where he went to meetings, jumped into picket lines (not always even knowing the reason for the picket) and befriended Natie, who strongly influenced his views for most of Herrick’s life.

Together, Natie and Herrick see tensions between the Party and other groups in the neighborhood: the Lovestoneites, Yiddishists, and Socialists for starts. Natie’s parents were Lovestoneists, along with the rest of the party, but when Stalin demanded that Browder be seen as the new leader, Lovestone’s followers were ostracized. Natie should’ve become William’s nemesis, but they remained close friends and were constantly arguing over the other’s position on various political topics. William held the “Because the Party says so” attitude whereas Natie used events and outcomes to prove that the Party wasn’t always right or doing what they promised. Here began William’s doubt in the Party.

He continues his life following the Party line, but also pursuing his own path. Spending time with his father’s anarchist sister, Tante Golda, and her family led to him moving to Michigan at the height of the Great Depression to live and work on Sunrise Farm, a commune founded by anarchists. Spending time with them also led to him fondly remembering sitting on Emma Goldman’s lap in New Jersey, during the time when she was supposedly in Canada, not being allowed back in the States after her deportation.

It doesn’t take long to see that Sunrise Farm is a far cry from Utopia. Many families from varying social beliefs moved to the farm as a last hope after businesses were closing around them at home due to the Depression. Everyone has different opinions on how the farm should be run, who is doing the most work, or who is sleeping with whom. Tensions flare and William decides to leave the farm and hops trains across the county before returning to the farm for the next harvest

Eventually, he settles back in New York, which leads him back to the Party and to his involvement in the Spanish Civil War as part of the Lincoln Battalion. In Spain he finds more fallacies between Party policy and promise and actual actions taken and enforced. He becomes aware of blatant Party lies against other members of the rebellion against the fascists. He becomes interested in how other parties, predominantly the POUM (the Workers Party of Marxist Unification), view the war. He becomes increasingly uneasy with the Party as his battalion is constantly compared to the American forces of 1917 who saved Spain from the “Huns.” (Lenin had been extremely vocal in his opposition of the imperialist war.)

He returns to America with a bullet still lodged in his neck against his spinal cord and lots of unanswered questions. The Party is covering his medical costs and he has a job with the Fur Traders Union. He becomes a posterboy of dedication until he loses his job when his anti-Stalin views are brought to light. In response, he falls into the same form of protest he aided the Party in for most of his life. He “jumps the line” and pickets.

Herrick doesn’t leave many details out in the interest of maintaing the truth rather than upholding an image – his or otherwise. He writes of the fondness he had for sitting on certain women’s laps. One of those laps belonged to Emma Goldman, who was supposedly no longer allowed in the U.S. since her deportation. Herrick shows a side of Cole Porter that I’d never heard of. (That of a pectoral-pinching old man.) Herrick works with black share croppers in the South, attempting to get them to unionize. The FBI call on him three times to testify during the McCarthy-driven Red Scare. He works for a man who he considers to be both a four-year old and a genius, Orson Welles.

On the whole, this is an extremely well-written and engaging book. What saves this from being solely a book about someone searching for his own beliefs in life is the stories that he has to tell along the way. It’s always interesting to see history as it only can been seen, through one person’s eyes at a time. His commitment to detail in his storytelling has left me with the desire to seek out his novels for more of the same. –Megan Pants (AK Press, 674 A 23rd St., Oakland, CA94612-1163)

Thankful Bits

Razorcake.org is supported and made possible, in part, by grants from the following organizations.
Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of our grantors.