RIP Nat Hentoff, 1925-2017

by / Jan. 10, 2017 10pm EST

For a very long time, I have owed Nat Hentoff—the great journalist, cultural analyst, political and jazz critic, and independent thinker, who died last week at the age of 91—a book review. 

We lived in a shared world of letters and published articles and books. We had many friends in common and we wrote one another on occasion. At the Village Voice, Nat worked with my oldest writer friend, Jack Newfield, who lived a door down from me on Vernon Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn when we were little kids. As grownups, all three of us wrote for The Nation

In 1968, Karl Menninger (of the Menninger Clinic) published a book titled The Crime of Punishment. At the time, I was writing for The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, and other places, about dysfunction in the American criminal justice system.

Nat, who was then one of the editors of Village Voice, asked me if I’d review the Menninger book. I said I’d be happy to review it. He sent it. I thought it was sappy, sentimental, good-intentioned, but, like Freud on Moses, soft on data leading up to a theoretical conclusion that was there before the writing started.

I wrote the review. It was, as I remember (no hard-copy survives), killer prose. I shredded the book. The kind of thing some young academics do to make their bones. 

Then, just before I mailed Nat my review, I received in the mail a copy of the book from Karl Menninger. It had an inscription referring to a recent book of mine that said we were both trying to do the same thing, which was to help people outside the criminal justice system understand the evils the system manufactured. He said he was old and I was young but we were working toward the same goal. He thanked me for understanding.

I read it and thought, “There is no way I am going to say ‘fuck you’ to this guy.” So I tossed my review into the waste basket and thought no more of it. 

Except when I came upon a copy of the Village Voice. Or when I saw one of Nat’s articles or books. Or read about him arguing someone else’s politics. He was a hugely ethical and principled man. Even when I disagreed with him, he was one of my markers because I knew he got to his positions by thought, and his thinking was rarely simple. 

After maybe a decade, I wrote him and told him that I’d written a killer review of The Crime of Punishment, but that before I’d mailed it, I’d received that book with that inscription from Karl Menninger, and I’d been personally seduced by it. I also said, it had gotten me thinking that what we were up to was not in the least as simple and obvious as it seemed when we were typing things we knew would go into a newspaper in a few days. (Who, then, could have imagined, having one’s thoughts online in microseconds?) I said that, once I’d read Menninger’s inscription, I wasn’t tough enough to publish the review the book deserved because I decided that what the book was about was really right. Its point was that our criminal justice system didn’t serve us; that it sucked. It doesn’t serve us; it sucks.

Nat wrote back that he would have done exactly the same thing, that hardly anything is ever simple or monochromatic. We all know that, he said. 

I know that now. I don’t think I’d known that then.

You can find, online, obits for Nat Hentoff. He wrote things with which everyone who respected and loved him disagreed vigorously. He had positions that many of us rejected totally. What matter? He was a man of principle, ideas, and facts. When he wrote about his position, he said why he’d taken it, so you could argue, if you wished. He engaged the streets, politics, music, our world. He was a good guy and we’re better off for having had him writing to us all those years.

Bruce Jackson is the James Agee Professor of American Culture at UB and a SUNY Distinguished Professor. He is also Affiliate Professor in the UB Law School.