While the country is tearing itself apart with protests like CHOP, a call for racial justice, and outrage over laws requiring face masks, I mark the passing of three writers who, through their publications managed to change the world and did so without provoking violence:
Kenneth Lewes, a clinical psychologist, died of Covid-19 on April 17 at 76. His contribution was a book, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality. It chronicled the failed attempt by some in the field of psychoanalysis to treat the behavior as a curable disease. A number of the accounts are brutal. Others show the unexpected compassion on the part of relatively unheralded thinkers and practitioners whose contributions to psychoanalysis are achievements of the highest order. His review forced members of the profession to approach the subject with fresh eyes. That changed thinking helped alter the nation’s attitude.
Elsa Joubert died due to Covid-19 on June 14 at 97. Her novel The Long Journey of Poppe Nongena is based upon the true story of an African woman living in South Africa under Apartheid. The story documents Poppe’s struggle to keep her family together under white rule during a time of rebellions such as Sharpeville, Soweto, and Cape Town. Joubert’s book, later made into a play and recently a film, won many awards. Critics praise her work for having opened the eyes of many white South Africans to the harsh treatment that the black majority had been enduring largely out of sight.
Charles Webb died of a blood complication on June 16 at age 81. His novel, The Graduate, sold 20,000 copes when it was published in 1963 and was deemed a “fictional failure” by New York Times critic, Orville Prescott. Hollywood picked up the rights for $20,000, however, and turned the novel into a blockbusting film by the same title. It starred Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross. The book skewered the lifestyle of suburban materialism, a milieu in which Webb had been raised. Though the Vietnam war is never mentioned in his book, the author tapped into the rebellion of the age, one that included a rejection of materialism, militarism, and the mindless pursuit of pleasure. The book and the film, most particularly, have become American classics. Instead of walking through the doors Hollywood had opened for him, the author turned away, true to his belief in simplicity as a lifestyle.
When Webb married, he and his wife sold their wedding gifts and choose to live an itinerant life. Later, in an interview, he was pressed to explain why he hadn’t demanded more proceeds from the film once it proved to be a success. He replied he was never interested in money.
After The Graduate, Webb published 8 additional novels, none of them a success by literary or financial standards. What mattered he explained was the writing. “It’s all I have and all I need.” (“Graduate author who ran from success,” The Week, July 17, 2020, pg. 39. )
Two of these writers wrote fiction. One wrote non-fiction. All three touched upon Truth in a way that changed minds without causing bloodshed. The world needs more such artists.