The immediate days before Noel was admitted to a hospital in Tucson at the beginning of November 2019 had been especially pleasant ones for him. He was able to visit with Rachel, his daughter, and Sebastian and their children every day. And, because he was without cable TV or the Internet, and perhaps especially without Facebook, he had been able to come up with an ending to the memoir/novel that he had worked on for years. Many things seemed to be going well. It was long overdue since Noel had had a difficult year dealing with a harsh medical diagnosis.
For most of the years that I knew him, Noel was impatient with people’s lack of knowledge about important things—like literature (especially poetry) and history—and some perhaps less important things—like grammar. His preoccupation with grammar in our conversations had a lot to do with the fact that we spent more than fifteen years working together as editors and occasional co-authors, so there was a good deal of raw material to work on. In spite of years of trying, I thought that I would never convince him that a grammatical error was not quite a felony. I should note that, after all too many efforts on his part, he finally did persuade me that the correct form was “different from” rather than “different than.” You can only imagine my surprise and delight when, on a few occasions, I caught an error that he had missed or, worse still, committed.
He was also often impatient about his students’ reluctance to engage with the work needed to be participants in their own learning. In spite of the perils involved, I sometimes tried to suggest that a different approach to his teaching might yield some different kinds of thinking and effort by his students. He tolerated me but did not appear to be moved. But Noel had moved beyond his somewhat typical stance. On his PM Press blog, he posted an intriguing letter that he had sent to his colleagues at the Massachusetts College of Art about proposed changes in required courses. I quote it here:
I attended Central High School in Philadelphia, the counterpart of Boston Latin, and graduated near the top of my class. I recall being assigned The Iliad in a ninth-grade English class. I did not read it. Nor did I read Beowulf, or Canterbury Tales, or the Greek tragedians, or many of the other works on the syllabus. I would look at each of them as it was assigned, and if it did not grab my attention in the first couple of pages, I would lay it aside, put off reading it until it was too late, and then fake the homework. My refusal was not restricted to ancient texts: I remember being turned off by the long sentences in Intruder in the Dust, and as a consequence did not read Faulkner for thirty years. One book I never finished was Return of the Native, although I remember Hardy’s description of the heroine’s lips “formed less to speak than to quiver, less to quiver than to kiss”—which may provide a clue as to where my mind was when it was supposed to be on English literature. (For some reason, I did read the Shakespeare plays, one each semester, and I read Blake, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth.) I do not know why I acted in the manner I have described. It is not that I did not read, or that I read only second-rate works: I remember liking Balzac, and Red and Black, and Pride and Prejudice, and Dead Souls. I read Dickens’s Hard Times, but nothing could compel me to read David Copperfield or anything else I did not want to. (I later read Martin Chuzzlewit (or rather “Chuzzlebore”) for its value as a depiction of life in antebellum America, when I needed it for my dissertation.)
My experience suggests that trying to force students to read something they do not want to read, even if we think it is good for them, may produce a result opposite of what we intend. I am reminded of Bernard Shaw’s refusal to allow his plays to be included in school anthologies, on the grounds that he did not want generations of British children growing up hating him the way they hated Shakespeare.
Noel went on to recommend a new course syllabus that would include non-traditional works that looked back on and provided a critical perspective on the classical traditions. This subtle change reflected what I think had always been true throughout his years in the classroom. He complained about his students because he liked them and expected much of them. Similarly, he argued with his friends and comrades because he expected so much of them. He was seldom inclined to change his mind because it mostly had served him so well.
I mentioned that he had completed a memoir/novel (excerpted elsewhere in this issue). It’s about his work in a steel mill in Gary, Indiana in the early 1970s. The text includes dozens of stories that capture the bittersweet attitudes of workers who had spent years doing backbreaking and dangerous work and the ways in which they tried to make the best of things—covering for each other, sleeping whenever they could, developing elaborate schemes to call in sick so that a co-worker could get overtime for filling in and to reverse the exchange a couple of weeks later, even setting up food stores within the mill and frying fish in a work shanty—with the fish provided, on a seasonal basis, by the mill’s daily draining of the water of Lake Michigan. I believe that Noel’s enthusiasm for the Hard Crackers project represented a return for him to his years in the mill and the stories they gave him.
From Noel’s account, in those mill years, he was a student—a student of the organization of production, of the profound skills that workers acquired, of workers’ deep-seated convictions and sometimes quite fantastic notions of why things are the way they are, of the foolishness of the supervisors, of the shallowness of corporate propaganda, and of the unexpected friendships that developed across the fault lines of job hierarchies, race and gender. Noel probably knew how to tell a good story before his time in the mill, but his time there allowed him to perfect his talent.
Noel may be done with us, but we are not done with him. We need, I think, to develop a fuller accounting of the depth and breadth of his political thought, of its coherence and of its value for revolutionary action in the years to come. Indeed, I think it’s an obligation that we owe Noel. He mostly wrote for the moment and the movement, and we need to take stock of all his writings and actions. There are plans underway to publish assessments of his political ideas and a collection of his writings, but those should only be first steps.
Noel was a scholar, but he didn’t want to be much of an academic. Indeed, he was determined not to let his university experiences get too much in his head or, worse still, ruin his writing. His book How the Irish Became White became well enough known in the last half of the 1990s and still sells, but Noel did not devote the next two decades of his life to simply remaining an expert on the topic. He had bigger fish to fry. Yes, that too—Noel loved to fish. As he used to say, “God does not charge time spent fishing against a man’s allotted life span.”
He was almost always ahead of the rest of us. In the case of Race Traitor, he often said that it needed both of us (meaning me and him), but the Race Traitor project needed Noel before there were the two of us. Not long ago, Noel was put in touch with some people in Chicago who were planning to publish a Rust Belt Reader. He was surprised to learn that they had read Race Traitor and had been informed and influenced by it. Noel told me that Race Traitor was the gift that kept on giving.
Separate and apart from becoming ill, Noel had grown older and often spoke about what he felt he could no longer do. In that instance, I don’t think he was as perceptive as he thought. Perhaps he did spend more time watching old movies, not such great TV shows and tennis matches, but he remained productive and sharp until the end. The December 2019-January 2020 issue of The Brooklyn Rail contained one of his last substantive articles, a critique of the politics of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. As was often the case, Noel made subtle distinctions about matters of history and politics that few others were capable of.
Noel was influenced and shaped by a number of outstanding thinkers, writers and activists born in the 19th century, including John Brown, Wendell Phillips, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, and W.E.B. DuBois. He was also shaped by others born in the first decades of the 20th century—C.L.R. James, Ted Allen, Marty Glaberman, Herbert Hill and George Rawick. Noel became an embodiment of several grand traditions, and he was a creative interpreter and synthesizer of them. We have an obligation to continue in that work. As Paul Mattick wrote, “A lifetime of effort made to figure out a way out of the manufactured blindness of “race” remains—to be taken up now by others.”
Noel had a profound influence on several generations of political activists—the student radicals of 1968, the anti-fascist Anti-Racist Action activists of the 1980s, the anti-globalization protesters of the turn of the century, the Occupiers during the last decade, and anti-police insurgents of today.
We often differed about what I would characterize as a “needless” provocation in something that he had said or written. He steadfastly refused to accept the criticism. For him, no provocation was needless; it could only be effective or not, and there was no way to know in advance. He may have bent that stick too far, but there was wisdom in his position.
Twenty years ago, I spoke at my father’s funeral and said that the only good thing about that day was that I would not have to hear my father complain about how strong my coffee was. Of course, I wanted nothing more than to hear him complain about my coffee. So, even a year after his passing, I can say that the only thing that’s worse than looking forward to an argument with Noel early in the morning is not being able to look forward to an argument with Noel early in the morning. It barely took minutes before we went from his hearty “HELLO” to “I want to take up something with you again.” And we’d be off to the races. I will not bore you with the list of the arguments we had. I’d guess that some readers would find the topics of the greatest importance and many more would simply shake their heads. I take no side in that matter today. I was hardly the only one who was on one end of those conversations. Indeed, Kingsley Clarke, a friend of Noel for more years than I, may have had more of them than all the rest of us combined.
Noel loved to eat and loved to cook.There was something especially cruel about the way in which his illness over the last year of his life made him unable to eat or drink. In spite of the loss, he seldom complained about it. Just before he travelled out to Arizona, he and his partner, Pekah, had dinner with John Henry, his son, and Carly. Although he ate nothing, he told me that the meal had been “delightful.”
Let me end with fiction. Earlier, I mentioned Noel’s essay in The Brooklyn Rail. Paul Mattick, the editor of the journal’s Field Notes section, asked me to write an introduction to Noel’s life and work to accompany Noel’s essay. I ended what I wrote with a passage from Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, a great novel of slave and sailor revolt, and I want to end what I write here with the same words. On board the slave ship, the young artist Delblanc embarks on a campaign to persuade the miserable sailors that they could change the miserable world they inhabited:
Anyone at all—the weasel-faced Tapley, swabbing down the decks, a disgruntled Billy Blair coming up from scraping the slaves’ quarters, Morgan in his galley trying to find some new disguise for the rotten beef—might find himself addressed by Delblanc and asked whether he did not agree that the state of society was artificial and the power of one man over another merely derived from convention. Delblanc’s manner was the same with all, friendly and open. At first, tactics lagging behind conviction, he made no concessions to any imperfections of understanding in his audience. “By nature, we are equal,” he said on one occasion to a vacantly smiling Calley. “Does it not therefore follow that government must always depend on the consent of the governed?” He even spoke to McGann, asking him whether he did not think it true that the character of man originated in external circumstances and could be changed as these were changed.
The men listened, or appeared to listen, out of deference, because he was a gentleman, because he was paying for his passage. Delblanc saw soon enough that he was using the wrong language with them and was beginning to try out a different one until warned by Thurso [the captain] that if he persisted in distracting the crew, he would be confined to his quarters for the rest of the voyage. … One look at the captain’s face was enough to convince Delblanc. It was in his reaction to this threat that he showed the quick grasp of realities that later came to distinguish him. A man can do no good locked up in his cabin. He went more circumspectly thereafter.
For me, Unsworth’s portrait of Delblanc has always seemed to capture something of the essential revolutionary passion and determination of my friend of over 40 years, Noel Ignatiev.
John Garvey is a member of the editorial board of Hard Crackers.
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