MAXWELL:  Potential enemies can share a shelf

8/13/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A few days ago, I brought home a review copy of Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King, Jack Newfield’s biography of the controversial boxing promoter who controls former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

Intending to read the book before Iron Mike’s Aug. 19 bout against Peter McNeely, I stashed it with my other biographies and autobiographies, collected letters, diaries and journals of famous people. Coincidentally, King, Tyson and McNeely appeared on network news that evening, enticing me to read Newfield’s book right away. Grabbing it from the shelf, I noticed its place between The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt and Edmund White’s Genet: A Biography.

The very thought of having Mrs. Roosevelt, King and Genet as guests at the same time was new to me. But, there they were _ these icons whose world views are galaxies apart _ standing dust jacket-to-dust jacket in front of me.

On one front cover is a photograph of one of America’s most beloved first ladies. Smiling proudly, she embraces her first great-grandson, Nicholas Delano Seagraves. On the next is the image of King, the “ghetto Machiavelli,” who served prison time for stomping a man to death on a Cleveland street. His electrified coiffure is framed on one side by a cloud of blue-gray smoke rising from the cigar clamped between his teeth. On White’s book is a picture of Genet, the convict, the male prostitute, the existential writer, as always, looking like an inmate one breath away from the death chamber.

As I studied the haphazard arrangement of the several hundred volumes in my “personal lives” collection, I discerned a kind of unwitting design to the chaos, and I was glad that I had not used a real system _ like alphabetizing or classifying by subject.

Over the years, I have simply placed books where I found room, not realizing that these disparate human types represented models of diversity, their ideas commingling in time, their debates living forever in readers’ minds.

On the middle shelf, Emory M. Thomas’ Robert E. Lee stands next to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. Imagine the conversation between these two legendary warriors, one a symbol of human bondage, the other a champion of freedom. Poet May Sarton’s diary, Journal of a Solitude, is next to black journalist Nathan McCall’s autobiography, Makes Me Wanna Holler; Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life shares space with Jerry Hopkins’ Elvis and Renate Stendhal’s Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures.

As artists, could Stein and Elvis find some professional common ground? Could they at least find some common ground as human beings? They do _ if only as participants in my enduring colloquy.

On the bottom shelf, Cesar Chavez’s autobiography is stacked against Stephen Gaukroger’s Descartes: an intellectual biography. Would Chavez, the farm worker, whose fate lay in the hands of greedy farmers, accept the French philosopher’s formula Cogito, ergo sum? Could Chavez think beyond the callouses on his hands?

To my left, on the second shelf from the top, Henry David Thoreau’s journal, The Maine Woods, keeps company with Conrad Hilton’s autobiography, Be My Guest. I can hear the furor as Thoreau, the transcendentalist, tries to convince Hilton, the hotel mogul, that a giant brick-and-mortar structure may not be part of the divine.

Satchmo, Louis Armstrong’s autobiography, and Dan B. Miller’s Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road rest together beside Michael S. Berliner’s Letters of Ayn Rand. What would Rand, the founder of the philosophy of Objectivism, say to Caldwell, a Southern profligate?

Studying my shelves, I realize again that potential enemies can coexist harmoniously in books. I realize, too, that by themselves ideas are intangibles; by themselves, ideas are neither good nor bad. They are not things in themselves. They become palpable only through the deeds and misdeeds of the people who believe in them.

Without human action, the words of Russian communist leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin expressed in Louis Fischer’s The Life of Lenin are mere linguistic characters on a page. Likewise, without human intervention, the thoughts expressed in John Keane’s Tom Paine: A Political Life, are inert. Such intervention does not have to be actual. It can be virtual. For the book lover, virtual intervention _ forcing ideas into dramatic conflict _ gives life itself significance.

On the third shelf from the bottom, M. Cranston’s Jean-Paul Sartre is squeezed in with The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, H.W. Carless Davis’ Charlemagne, Harry Golden’s Carl Sandburg, Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, Maynard Solomon’s Mozart: A Life, and Lech Walesa: A Way of life, the Polish labor leader’s autobiography.

I suspect that Disney and Walesa would resort to blows if they spent too much time together. Moreover, Sandburg would reject Sartre’s obsession with the concept of being and nothingness, a concept that undercuts Sandburg’s earthy, Midwestern optimism.

On the top shelf, Sara Harris’ Father Divine: Holy Husband rests against Arthur Weigall’s The Life and Times of Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt. Would Father Divine, the black religious cultist and womanizer, proposition the beautiful and wealthy Cleopatra?

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is next to No Disrespect, Sister Souljah’s autobiography. Franklin and Souljah, the rap artist who made Bill Clinton relevant in 1992, share similar notions on self-reliance. In fact, the Souljah who speaks in No Disrespect would impress old Ben with her common sense and dedication to helping African-Americans.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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