Nat Hentoff passed away Saturday night at 91 characteristically listening to Billie Holiday. That he didn’t die wearing a sandwich board or writing a letter to his congressman, but instead expired listening to jazz, tells you not only about Hentoff’s loves but about why so many loved him.
No monomaniac, Hentoff harbored varied curiosities in life and pursued diverse interests in print. If you didn’t connect with him as a reader regarding his abhorrence of the death penalty, you might find common ground in his Duke Ellington enthusiasms (or vice versa).
Hentoff began working at the Village Voice in 1958. The publication firing him more than a half century later shows that the drift of liberalism eventually makes liberals uncomfortable in the world they create. “I came here in 1958 because I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about,” Hentoff explained in his last Voice column. “There was no pay at first, but the Voice turned out to be a hell of a resounding forum.”
There was no pay at last, either, and the idea of Hentoff writing as freely for the Village Voice as your normal, abnormal, classifieds correspondent struck as a far more utopian proposition than the numerous propositions found in the resounding forum in the back of the weekly .
Hentoff cited I.F. Stone, identified in the Venona cables as a Soviet asset, and George Seldes, who copped to launching his famous newsletter In Fact with a subsidy from the Soviet Union, as his journalistic idols. But how he wrote differed from who he read. The independent-minded liberal opposed hate-crime laws, speech codes, and abortion.
You didn’t read Nat Hentoff to affirm your beliefs. You read him to challenge them.
Not everybody liked that he smashed templates. People cheering him for championing the right to life of unborn babies booed him for championing the right to life of death-row denizens. In the 1970s, he could blast former JFK-aide Ted Sorensen for belonging to a racially exclusive club and defend Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from censors wishing to bowdlerize the “n” word from its pages in the 1980s. People who didn’t understand his principles, or just principles in general, found him terribly unpredictable.
“Immediately, three women editors at The Village Voice, my New York base, stopped speaking to me,” he confessed after coming out as pro-life. “Not long after, I was invited to speak on this startling heresy at Nazareth College in Rochester (long since a secular institution). Two weeks before the lecture, it was canceled…. For years, American Civil Liberties Union affiliates around the country invited me to speak at their fund-raising Bill of Rights dinners. But once I declared myself a pro-lifer, all such invitations stopped.”
He wrote not without experience when he authored Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee in 1992. “Censorship—throughout this sweet land of liberty—remains the strongest drive in human nature,” he opined therein, “with sex a weak second.”
Some wanted to give the free-speech crusader a megaphone; others, a muzzle. This latter group didn’t get their own irony.