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Re: Of Mamet And Chicago. Of Obamas And Elections

By       (Page 1 of 4 pages)   3 comments
Message Lawrence Velvel

March 25, 2008


Re:  Of Mamet And Chicago.  Of Obamas And Elections.


            For someone who strongly disliked the place, and who wanted to and did leave it, I spend a lot of time writing about Chicago.  (Even a little may be a lot, considering my dislike of it.)  It is difficult to forget how it came about that I left that city for good. 


            After an undergraduate career that could charitably be described as checkered -- believe me, that is a charitable description -- I had been in the top ten of the class at the Michigan Law School, and had been looking for a job in a private law firm in Chicago, where I grew up.  Looking for a job in Chicago, one supposes, was a triumph of inertia; I did not want to go to the behemoth New York, was not smart enough to understand in 1963, as some friends did, that the west coast would be where it’s at, and so just went with the flow in terms of interviewing with big firms in Chicago.  But, as happened with most of the other Jewish guys who were in or very close to, say, the top five percent of Michigan’s class of 1963, the big firms interviewed us -- in New York, in Chicago, in other big cities -- but did not hire us, because anti-Semitism was alive and well in the legal profession.  There were exceptions, one being a brilliant, blond Nordic looking Jewish guy who was hired by O’Melveny and Myers, a very prominent west coast firm which, perhaps ironically, had had, as one of its moving forces in earlier and mid century, the father of the great writer Paul Fussell.  (If memory serves, the father was quite a conservative guy and the family lived in a very conservative area.  The great writer, of course, whom I interviewed at his home in Philadelphia for two hours a few years ago for the TV program Books Of Our Time, became completely different politically as a result of his experiences in WWII and, subsequently, in higher education.) 


            Although there were exceptions, most of us Jews were getting nyets in profusion, while Christian guys whose academic records were nowhere near as good as ours were practically wallowing in offers from major firms.  One woman -- a rara avis gender in law classes of 1963 -- who I suppose had an okay academic record and who I think was probably a nice enough person, but whom I never heard referred to as being anywhere near the top of the class, as were the Jews I speak of, even was hired by what I believe was then acknowledged to be one of New York City’s top two or three firms (and which still ranks very highly).  While there, she was put in the era’s female ghetto of trusts and estates law, I gather, where she met a truly major New York City banker whose wife had passed away -- let him go unnamed here, but any halfway sophisticated person of perhaps 50 or older would know the name.  She married him and has now served on boards for years and years.  I always say, cynically but not exactly inaccurately, that of all the smart people in Michigan’s class of 1963 -- which, I’ve often been told, was considered by Michigan for years and years to be its best class ever – she nevertheless was the one who did by far the best after law school.


            I’ve written in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam about what happened to the graduating Jews of Michigan’s law class of 1963, and of what I consider the law school’s culpability in telling us that, if we worked hard and did well academically, the law firms would be open to us because their prejudice against Jews was declining.  For the firms to be open to us was at that time a version of the American Dream.  We had worked hard.  We had done well, even very well.  But the law firms were not open to us.  Michigan had simply misled us.  For its own purposes it had inculcated one fictitious version of the American Dream.  To be sure, in part its purposes were laudable:  a belief in oncoming liberalization, a hope of declining prejudice.  And ultimately, in later years, Michigan became right.  Thus it was that, when asked by Attorney General Edward Levi in the early or mid 1970s to find out why the quality of legal work in the Department of Justice had been declining, Bob Bork, after investigating, told Levi the reason was that the law firms were now taking Jews.  It is also my understanding that Levi later jokingly said that the way to restore the quality of the Department’s legal work was to reestablish anti-Semitism.


            To the comments of Bork and Levi, I would add that another factor affecting the quality of the DOJ’s legal work was that somewhat before they began taking Jews, the law firms began taking Catholics -- yes, Catholics, who were fellow Christians, not even supposedly Christ killing Jews -- were likewise kept out of major law firms for decades.  When the firms began taking Catholics somewhat before they began taking Jews, the Department of Justice lost another source of extremely competent lawyers who had come to work for it because they were excluded from private firms.

             All of this seeming digression is relevant to, and will come back in the context of, a point I will make later with regard to Barack and Michelle Obama.  But, for now, let me return to the thread of how it was that I left Chicago.  In addition to interviewing with Chicago firms, I also applied to the Department of Justice honors program in Washington.  Whether this was done before, or because, things were looking dim at the firms, is a matter which escapes memory.  But anyway, later in the game, when the handwriting on the wall was clear, the DOJ called me in Ann Arbor and offered me a job in D.C.  When I hung up the phone, all the dislikes, resentments and rejections of a then young lifetime boiled up, boiled over.  My fist slammed the table -- hard -- and I told my wife that I would never go back to that goddamn city (Chicago); I was going to accept the DOJ offer and go to Washington; and that was that.  I did go to Washington -- which later began to have its own generalized problems, as the whole country has now known for decades -- and never went back to Chicago, not even when once offered a very unusual opportunity there in 1971 (which also is written of in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam). 

            As said, despite a dislike for the city which I’ve never gotten over and which continues to exist even though so many people have now told me for so many years about what a wonderful place it has become, I find myself writing about Chicago more often than one would have thought.  It must be a case of you can take the boy off of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.  Or maybe it’s that, for anybody, one’s youth is ever haunting, the more so when one learns that the customs, styles, language, habits, and ideas of his youth are not widely shared or even shared at all elsewhere, though life has taken him elsewhere.  Thus it is, for example, that I sometimes find myself writing about a certain Chicago style of speech and writing that is not widely shared, or shared at all, elsewhere -- that is positively disliked elsewhere in real life, though so many people like it in the fictional (or fictionalized) work of Saul Bellow (whose work I ironically find unreadable).  This is the style that mixes vast erudition with very bad language, like the word f*ck (which is one of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, isn’t it?).  This sort of mixing doesn’t go down in most places I’ve lived; the use of the bad words stamps one with the mark of Cain.  But in my recollection it is par for the course in Chicago; no one looks askance.  It also represents, to me, a kind of Hofferian dichotomy.  I’ve always admired Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who was also a philosopher.  To me this kind of dichotomy -- call it paradox, if you wish -- is often real life, and, when you’ve grown up, as I did, in an environment that is working class in mentality (albeit sometimes people had begun doing somewhat better financially), the intellectual side of the paradox is something to be sought.  There is a reason, one tied to my own background, why our law school, at one and the same time, is aimed at providing rigorous, practically oriented legal education and consequent social mobility to people from the working class, minorities, immigrants and mid-life folks, while simultaneously producing very intellectual television programs that have won hundreds of awards, putting on high level conferences on crucial intellectual subjects (usually non-legal, but instead historical or political subjects), putting out a high level intellectual journal on the same kind of subjects, and so forth.  The reason I speak of might be called the Hofferian imperative, or maybe, in less high flown words, the Chicago style.  On the one hand be practical, help the small guys of the earth, be real, not elitist.  On the other hand, be intellectual.  That’s what it’s goddamn all about (if you get the joke).


            My latest exposure to the dichotomy has come in reading part of a biography of, and a book of essays by, David Mamet, the famous playwright, who grew up in Chicago.  (One of his most famous works, Glengarry Glen Ross, is set just a short distance from where I grew up on Chicago’s North Side.  Joseph Epstein and Ira Berkow grew up in the same neighborhood at the same time, but have entirely or mainly managed to escape writing the bad words I use.  Ah well, eff it.)  Time and time again in the biography (by Ira Nadel), and occasionally in the book of essays, the dichotomous Chicago combination of high and low culture is discussed.  I shall quote what is said fairly extensively:  this is due to an insecurity born of fear of being said to mislead.  The quotes allow you, the reader, to judge for yourself whether the description of views provided here is right or wrong (and so is, in regard to principle applicable in a different context, quite the opposite of the Harvardian and other plagiarism (and intellectual theft) so often decried in these postings because they inherently mislead as to authorship and are thus implicitly inaccurate).  Sometimes the dichotomy is highly explicit in the quotations.  Sometimes it is implicit but inescapable:


It [Chicago] was also the home of Harriet Monroe’s modernist journal, Poetry (Ezra Pound, foreign editor) and Playboy, edited by Hugh Hefner.  Such incongruities appealed to Mamet, a man who is South Side street-smart and well-read.


Mamet presents himself as an average Joe and an intellectual.  His favorite hat for years was a crumpled baseball cap with “Twelfth Night” written on the front.  He will say “ain’t” in one sentence and quote Tolstoy in the next.  Nadel, David Mamet,  p. 3.


* * * * *


Later in his writings, the street tough style would mix with the bohemian.  Nadel, p. 4.


* * * * *


Later work has alternately been vilified as foul and obscene and praised as profound and honest.  Nadel, p. 8.


* * * * *

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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