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The Human Touch

He is that curious phenomenon that vaudeville jokes used to be made about, when there were vaudeville theatres to make vaudeville jokes in,—a Scotch-Jew. He is quite well known too. I am talking about MacKinlay Kantor. He comes rightly by both those names. You have seen that combination of names on novels and at the heading of short stories in Liberty, Red Book and elsewhere. You have seen it in newspapers east and west of Des Moines, Iowa, where he used to be a newspaperman himself. He was the first man to write a novel about the Chicago gangster. The book was called “Diversey”. His second book was also about life in Chicago and was called “El Goes South” and the third, in an entirely different vein, “The Jay Bird”. He is working on a fourth novel which promises to surpass every one of these predecessors.

He is young and ardent and can carry jauntily a knapsack of trouble that would bend, if not break, the back of many a Jew. He can take and he can give; he is as resilient as he is supple and strong. He has the face of a Jew on the body of a long, rangy pioneer American of the West. His reactions are typically American. His wife is a Gentile; his children are therefore one-quarter Jews. Until recently he had no consciousness of being a Jew; Hitler emphasized that consciousness, without flooding, out of sight, his consciousness as a non-Jew.

When the first stories of the Nazi persecutions were coming out of Germany Kantor was as indignant as any Jew might have been, and was; since then, however, he has come to the conclusion that the sense of indignity emerged out of a love of fair-play and tolerance and justice, which Hitlerism was violating, and not from a sense that people of his own blood were being persecuted. In making this change of interpretation, he refers to the fact that the indignation of his non-Jewish friends has risen to as warm a temperature as his own semi-Jewish indignation. “Is there really no difference in degree between their indignation and yours, not even the slightest?” I asked him. He is assured there is not. Gifted writer and able observer that he is, he ought to know. I take his word for it.

Because, you see, his earliest influences and surroundings have been, predominantly, American. In no derogatory sense, he has been his mother’s son, not his father’s, the Jew’s. His parents met at Drake University, where the elder Kantor, presumably a convert from Judaism, was studying for ordination in the Campbellite ministry. He brought to that college community the breath of romance, of adventure. He was sufficiently different to fascinate; he was sufficiently alike to be acceptable. He was regarded as quite a catch, without respect either to his race, or the fact, that he was going to be a clergyman—which he never did become. John Kantor—I quote his son—became a politician, one of the most proficient of Thompson’s vote-getters.

But while the father was building a political career in Chicago, the son was growing up with the MacKinlays in Iowa. His mother named him Benjamin MacKinlay Kantor, but “Mac”, as his friends call him, early in life dropped the Benjamin because he disliked, not its Jewishness, but the sound of it. In the veins of his mother’s folk ran the blood of English, Irish, Scotch and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors. A maternal grandmother had been a Western pioneer and had fought in the Civil War. Those were the memories on which he was reared.

Mac grew up in this community without any sense of being other wise than the typical son of typical Western Americans. His boyhood memories of his father are vague—there had been a parting between parents—but one day when he was fourteen the fact of his being different was brought home to him. Some of the parents of his chums remembered Mac’s father as a man whose skin was somewhat darker than that of the average American. One of his chums, in one of those childish revengeful spurts of spite which is supposed to cap an argument, spat out something about Mac’s father being partly Negroid. Mac gave him a beating and forgot about it. He insists that he, and everyone else, forgot about it; that the remark did not create in him any sense of being “different”.

He worked on papers in Iowa and in Chicago and none of his books or magazine stories reflects any concern with Jewishness. When the first despatches of the Hitler upsurge of hate reached America he felt extremely bitter about the business and he thought then that he felt bitter as a Jew; but today he is persuaded that he felt as he felt because he has been steeped in the American tradition of fair-play and tolerance. Even today he lives in a community of non-Jews, in a New Jersey village, most of the residents of which are non-Jewish German-Americans. They, he says, feel no less enraged at Hitler than he did and does; therefore, why should his feeling of resentment be traced to Jewishness if it so closely resembles—as he insists it does—the indignation of the Social Democrats among the German-Americans who are his neighbors? Curiously enough, he was not identified as a Jew until several weeks ago when the postmaster gave him the copy of the Jewish Daily Bulletin I had sent to him. “Why, Mr. Kantor, you ain’t Jewish, are you? You’re name ain’t Cohen!”

ABOUT MEYER LEVIN

If it isn’t too late to call attention to a good book which an {SPAN}##different{/SPAN} public has unjustly neglected, then allow me to call attention to Meyer Levin’s “The New Bridge,” a New York novel which tells the story of a suburban family of the lower strata caught in the web of the depression and trapped no less inexorably than the economic villain, builder of the “development”.

The Joraceks and the Feingolds are the tenants; Simon Marks is the landlord. The bridge, which unites the city to the suburbs is the symbol of the economic division of tenants and landlord, but it is also the symbol of their union, for it is on the bridge that a spiritual balance is struck between Simon Marks and the bereaved hunky.

This isn’t the place for a book review. This is the place for the so called human touch. I haven’t yet applied the most generally applied human touch to Levin, because his books haven’t yet made him rich enough to justify it. But if you want a sketch of him, in words, here it is: he is mild, gentle, apparently self-effacing, but probably quietly conceited (I am not sure); a hard worker, sometimes indifferent to detail.

He is probably more widely known for the puppets he designs and the plays he writes for them than for his books—which is a pity, good as the puppets and their dialogues are.

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