Authors: James Cook
For the trinity of my life
To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good.â¦ Ideology is what gives evildoing its long-sought justifications, gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination and makes his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes.
âAleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
I. An American Family
New York, 1922
What I always remember first when I think back on that time so long ago, nearly sixty years now, is the mountains, rising like a wall above the valley. They were capped in snow all year round. The rock underneathâschist, granite, how would I know what it wasânever broke clear. In summer, the snows receded somewhat, shrank like frost on a windowpane, and then spread back again as summer moved into fall and winter. Lower down, the gray rock emerged in sheets and drops and terraces, unbroken by trees or shrubs or anything else. The air was too cold, the cliffs too steep, for anything to flourish other than lichen or an occasional flowering plant caught in a crevice of the rock.
And then came the trees, on the lower slopes, pine trees, stunted and gray, that clung there in the winds off the Arctic. At the bottom, five thousand, six thousand feet maybe more, there was the valley itself, rocky and dry, paved with pebbles, cobbles, and boulders, and covered with dust as fine as talc. In winter, the wind uprooted the brushy plants that grew there and sent them rolling along the valley floor like tumbleweeds in one of those old western movies.
The houses where all of us livedâManny and I, the men who worked in the mine and their women, our women if we wanted themâclung along the side of the creek, veered and leaned in the wind, thrown together out of whatever wood or corrugated iron you could find here at the end of the world. Most of them were barracks-like log cabins, but, their scale aside, they didn't look at all like the ones I remembered from books like
From Log Cabin to White House
(that wasn't Abe Lincoln, as I remember, but Garfield). The logs were slabbed and vertical rather than horizontal, and the cracks were filled with clay. Besides these, there were a number of shelters thrown up by the Mongols in the mine crew, structures called
with broad overhanging roofs strung with animal skins.
A rocky road ran through the valley, burrowed through what we talked about as the town, and linked the railroad terminal ten miles to the south to the mine a half a mile or more up the slopes of the mountain. But you never used the road except when you had to. We stockpiled the output from the mine in spring and summer, and then moved it by sledge over the deep snows to the railroad in winter. The mine was the reason for everything. Without it, none of the 736 people who lived thereâminers, families, ourselvesâwould have had any reason to stay.
It was a forbidding place, freezing in winter, mosquito-infested in summer, hot, intolerable and seductive only in spring when for a few weeks the rains turned the floor of the valley into a carpet of flowers. I didn't recognize any of them. I may have come from a city halfway around the worldâ4,500 miles away, farther than that if you went the wrong wayâbut I had spent five years living in the country, and I knew enough to be able to tell a sore-eye daisy from a devil's paintbrush, a dogtooth violet from a yellow cowslip.
I lived there in that place under the mountain for less than a year, from the late summer of 1922 to the spring of 1923, and if this was supposed to be the great adventure of my life, at the time I would happily have done without it. For eight months there was nothing but miseryâstifling heat, dust, then bone-aching cold, discomfort, and boredomâand I could hardly wait to escape that townâthat country, that world. Now I am no longer sure. Would I have wanted to round out my life without ever having experienced it? I don't think so. I had gone to the end of the earth, I had dwelt in the mountains of the moon, and now after all these years I tingle a little with excitement just thinking about it.
My brother Manny had gone to Russia the year before, the summer after Pop went to jail. The idea was to see the world and collect some money the Soviet government owed us for medical supplies like codeine, camphor, morphine, quinine, and gauze. Manny didn't get the money, but he wound up with a platinum concession instead; a mine, town and workforce beyond the Urals in Siberia. The government wasn't making any money on the venture and couldn't figure out why. Manny and I went there to see if we couldn't get the thing running profitably again. The government had taken over the mine in the early days of the revolution, and it had gone downhill ever since. You didn't have to be a managerial genius to figure what had gone wrong. The price of platinum had collapsed at the end of the war, and if you had any hope of making money at current levels you had to find a way to cut back your costs correspondingly.
We were there on our own. The year before, Pop had exhausted all his legal appeals and gone off to prison. He'd been charged with performing an illegal abortion on a patient of hisâPop claimed the abortion was therapeutic of courseâbut the woman subsequently died, and her husband complained. They charged Pop with manslaughter, found him guilty, and sentenced him to three years in Sing Sing. That was the summer of the Palmer Raids, when the U.S. Attorney General rounded up 3,000 pro-Communist subversives and got two or three hundred deported. We all said he'd been railroaded, and a bungled abortion, if that's what it was, was as good a reason as any to put away a man for three years if you wanted to be rid of him. I have my own ideas of what happened, but nobody ever asked me, and I see no reason to tell anyone now.
The district attorney described Pop as one of the country's most dangerous radicals. At the time, the U.S. and much of the world seemed on the verge of revolution, so that in itself was enough to prejudice any jury. We saw the whole thing as a
but looking back on it now, I realize that nobody paid much attention except us and a few of Pop's friends, patients, and supporters. Pop was there during Richard E. Lawes'
20,000 Years in Sing Sing
, but he never made enough of an impression to make even a footnote in the book.
Pop went to jail the spring before Manny graduated from ColumbiaâColumbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, that isâalmost twenty years to the day after Pop had gotten his own medical degree. Manny was supposed to start his internship at Bellevue the following January, but he didn't like being at loose ends, so instead of hanging around New York he went to Russia. We never talked about why, but I think he was so ashamed and humiliated that they had put Pop in jail that he couldn't bear to stay in New York and face the people he knew. Not just his fellow students, but everyone else. I sometimes thought he knew anybody who was anybody in New York, especially if they were young and adventurous and ready to give life a whirl.
I had enrolled at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, the previous fall, with the idea of majoring in fine arts. I don't think I ever wanted to be a museum curator or an art dealer, but the visual artsâpainting and sculpture and what notâhad always intrigued me, and when other kids were off raising hell in Hell's Kitchen or the Five Points, I was finding my way into New York's art scene. I was too young for earthshaking events like the 1912 Armory Show (and probably wouldn't have liked it if I had), but I went to the Steiglitz gallery a few times before it closed, and I began hanging around the new theatres that were springing up in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in the city.
In the circumstances maybe a fine arts major made sense. But there may have been more to it than that. Maybe I wanted to dissociate myself completely from Pop and from politics, from the Left Wing Socialists and what people were beginning to call the Communist Party, and a fine arts major was as decisive a break as I could think of at the time.
Pop was not one of your garden-variety radicals. His hair wasn't long, or his eyes fiery; he didn't throw bombs or start riots in the street. He was as subdued and sedate as a university professor. He looked like one and even sounded like one. And yet he was one of the principal organizers of the Socialist Labor Party. I grew up with all the cant of the movement ringing in my earsâworker exploitation, class warfare, worker solidarity, capitalist greed, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but none of it much interested me. To this day I don't know much more than any educated reader could have learned from reading Walter Duranty in
The New York Times
. Duranty was one of my brother Manny's dearest friends and as close to being a communist sympathizer as you could get without actually joining the party and carrying a card.
In those days, the socialist movement was far less homogeneous than it later became. It encompassed not only Marxists and Russian revolutionaries, but anarchists, Quakers, pacifists, and god knows what else. But the whole world had its eyes on what was happening in Russia those days. Lenin had usurped the leadership of the revolution, taken Russia out of the war with Germany and the Central Powers, and begun rebuilding the country from top to bottom.
The people who moved in my father's circles in those days were not necessarily radicals. They were political activists like Norman Thomas and Bert Wolfe and Bill Foster, intellectuals like Scott Nearing and Jane Addams, or bureaucrats like Boris Reinstein, a socialist party organizer who later became one of Lenin's principal advisers. More often than not, they were the movers and shakers of New York society, people with intellectual aspirations who were caught up in the antiwar movement that gave the socialist movement its momentum.
I was just out of high school when Madame Onegin died on my father's examining table, and though I certainly knew that manslaughter was a more serious charge than disturbing the peace or illegal assembly, I must have decided Pop's problems were his business, not mine, and proceeded to ignore them. Once they indicted him, Pop folded his practice in the Bronx, and we all moved into a huge eighth floor apartment in the Ansonia Hotel on upper Broadway in Manhattan, and for a year or so, whenever I came home from school, that was my base for exploring the cityâwith my old high school friends initially and more and more with the new friends I began making down in the Village.
I was away at Lafayette during Pop's trial, and I had no inclination to come sit in some dingy courtroom downtown in a show of family solidarity the way Manny did. It's not that I didn't care. I just never believed they would ever convict him. Pop knew everybody who mattered in New York, in everything from the medical association to the Chamber of Commerce, and he had never hesitated to use his influence to get what he wanted.
And then, when they found him guilty, I didn't waste much emotional energy on what was happening to him. I had never seen that much of him anyway, and they said he'd be out in less than three years; that was nowhere near as long as the five years I had spent farmed out in Westchester County when I was a kid.
At Lafayette, nobody had ever heard of the notorious John Faust, murderer, abortionist, flaming-eyed revolutionary and probably wouldn't have cared much if they had. So I focused my attention on college and what I was going to do with my life. I never even gave a thought to the economic repercussions of his going to jail, how we were going to live, who was going to keep the family going, and I was right not to worry. Somehow the money was there.