HOME     by HF:   Anthologies   Articles   Films   Intros   Juvenile   Mystery   Non-fiction   Novels   Pamphlets   Plays   Poetry   Stories  
  site:   About HF   Texts   Reviews   Chrono Checklist   Bookstore   Bulletin Board   Site Search   Author Index   Title Index  
Blue Heron Press   Citizen Tom Paine   Freedom Road   Last Frontier   My Glorious Brothers   Spartacus   The Children   Peekskill   Unvanquished   Masuto   EVC's Women  

Masses & Mainstream
July 1954, pp 12-23

THE PROTEST

By HOWARD FAST


We are pleased to present the following chapter from Howard Fast's new novel, Silas Timberman, which is scheduled for publication this fall. Silas Timberman is the story of an obscure college professor in a middle-western university caught up in all the sound and fury of the current academic witch-hunt. The novel will be published by the Blue Heron Press.

ON WEDNESDAY night, November 2nd, the day before the scheduled campus protest meeting in defense of Ike Amsterdam, Silas sat up late working on the text of his remarks for the following day. It was with some wonder and not a little humility that he reflected upon the fact that he, whose days were spent in lecturing, had never made a public address; and as he examined the variety of doubts and fears which possessed him, he came to the conclusion that not the least among them was a horror of raising his voice outside of the sheltering walls of a classroom. Shelter had been a deep and important factor in his life - and perhaps a good deal of his life had been a search for such shelter, shelter from all the wild storms that blew in a world that never touched him, shelter from the frightful things that men did to each other, shelter from the ogres of hunger and cold, shelter from the murky and complicated disputes called politics. A classroom was such shelter; a man was a king in his classroom, and the students listened - and always he, Professor Timberman, was someone who knew a little more than the next person.
But in this case, he was far from sure that he knew more than the next person, and floundering and struggling through words to express his anger at what was happening to a man close and dear to him, he seemed to be making no progress at all. In the deepest sense, he was writing against desire; for when all was said and done, his desire still was that he should live in peace, with the hand of no man raised against him. He looked around him at his little study, and thought to himself that this was truly what a man desired, the solid comfort and reassurance of it, the comfortable oak desk at which he worked, the shelves of books from floor to ceiling, the little storehouses of wisdom through the centuries, each of them so solidly encased with threads of origin, culture and tradition, each of them lighting one aspect or another of man's thought and civilization - and to light their light, the old green-shaded lamps, the comfort of chairs, the prints which he and Myra had selected so carefully to decorate the wall, the hooked rug upon the floor, with its pattern of a fine ship in full sail and its quaint old Latin inscription: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. How often he had intended to look that up and discover whether it came from Cicero or elsewhere, and how often he had rolled the words on his tongue, I am a man, and nothing that concerns a man do I consider a matter of indifference to me. Well put, and grandly put, and this was the substance of the close comfort here; but then it came to him that it was not so at all, and all the substance and security here was as hollow as one of those tropical gourds, where the fruit dries up and leaves only hard seeds to rattle in the emptiness. He glanced at the neat pile of manuscript paper which contained the three chapters he had already completed and which he had titled, tentatively, Mark Twain and the Country of His Choice, and realized with a sick feeling of utter despair that it was a fraud, that he knew little of the real Mark Twain, the man who hated and raged and stormed, and even less of the country of his choice.
When he looked again at his books, his many, precious, treasured books, he could only think of those writers of ancient Egypt who, frozen in the still tyranny of their culture, spent whole lifetimes sedulously copying works even more ancient - and deluding themselves that they were practicing the lost creative art of literature.
He was relieved when Myra came in and sat down, and looked at him half-humorously, half-questioningly, in that particular way she had.
The children are sleeping," she said. "Sleeping children are more beautiful than anything in the world, I'm sure - and more relaxing, and what do you think? I brought in wood and made a fire, so we could sit by it and hold hands. Isn't that a nice idea? How does it go?"
"It doesn't go. I've written two paragraphs."
"Read them to me."
"And they're no damn good. Listen to this - 'I've known Ike Amsterdam twenty years. And in those twenty years, he was friend, teacher-' Oh, the hell with it! It's no good. I'm not saying what I want to say."
"What do you want to say?"
"I don't really know, except that I want to cry out at the top of my lungs that something devilish and damnable and hideous is happening here, something like a disease, something that stinks to the heavens with rot and death!"
"And you don't because that wouldn't be considered and cool and objective "
"Sarcasm doesn't help."
"I'm not trying to be sarcastic, Si. I've been thinking about this too. I want to ask you something - it's at the bottom of this business, I think. Why did you sign that petition against the atom bomb?
"Why did you?"
"I'm asking you, Si. Ask me later."
"All right, I'll try. It's not easy to know why you do something. People like ourselves, Myra, we almost never have to explain why we do anything do we?"
"No, not very often."
"It was Alec Brady who came to me with the petition - do you know, Myra, the moment he opened it up, the moment he showed it to me and began to talk about it, I knew what he was."
"What do you mean - you knew what he was?"
"A Communist."
Her eyes turned toward the door of the study, involuntarily, and Silas said, almost shrilly,
"There it is! Why did you do that? By God, is this a word a man can't speak without fear and terror? What kind of a nightmare are we living in - what kind of a genteel, civilized, unholy nightmare do we inhabit? I tell myself that I'm a free-born, independent citizen of the United States of America, and I no more than mention the word communist, and there's danger - and my wife is afraid and looks to see whether anyone can overhear me!"
"So, someone will hear you, if you shout like that."
"This is Indiana, not Germany!"
Myra became very calm, folding her hands in her lap and contemplating Silas with the curious interest one has for a new but intriguing acquaintance. "Very well," she said softly. "You knew Alec Brady was a Communist. Would you mind telling me how you knew?"
"I know how I knew, but it makes no sense. You asked me why I signed that damned petition. Well, I looked at Brady, and asked myself why he was taking it around - and do you know, my dear Myra, my dear, good, sweet wife - we live in a world so empty of principle, so devoid of any interest but self-interest, so cursedly like that damned refrigerator that sits in our kitchen like a protecting household god, that I could find no reason, no reason on earth why Alec Brady should hold out that petition to me except that he must be a member of the Communist Party. And do you know, I asked him."
"What did he say?" Myra wanted to know. "If you want to tell me?"

IT HAD been early in June, the June before, just a few days before classes ended, and he and Brady were sitting on one of the stone benches at the edge of the fine grove of oaks for which the campus of Clemington was so justly renowned. It was about five o'clock, the summer afternoon shadows already long, the slow mantle of evening beginning to settle upon the place; and all of it, Silas remembered, gave him some sense of that inevitable melancholy that always accompanied the end of a school year. Brady had wanted a word with him, and they had walked over here, chatting about one thing and another, himself rather pleased to be with Brady, liking the man better than he understood him, and idly wondering what Brady had on his mind. The truth of it was that Silas liked and admired Brady, and was also a little bit in awe of him; and it was a part of Silas' thinking that the men he knew and liked on the campus were also men he mistrusted to a certain degree, feeling that he fell short of their level, thereby pampering his own reserve and not inviting any rebuff. But Brady had a comfortable quality. His long and rather ugly features made an engaging face, and the fringe of red hair around his bald head made a balance between the sage and the ridiculous - and like many Irishmen, he used his voice well.
His relationship with Silas had not been very close, stemming from the mutual regard for Ike Amsterdam, but it was Silas rather than Brady who held back. The few evenings they had spent together, Silas had enjoyed immensely, fascinated by the big man's dry and merciless treatment of what went on in the world now and what had gone on in the past; but that repelled Silas at the same time. He was uneasy with people whose knowledge was specific and whose judgments were sharp and unrelenting. He would also ask himself, somewhat petulantly, "Why does Brady, whom I prefer to be with, prefer to be with me?"
He asked himself that now and took a certain satisfaction in the fact that Brady wanted something from him. Brady had a petition, which called for the outlawing of the atomic bomb, then and forever; yet it was at odds with a cynical man. After Silas had read it - it was quite short - he sat in silence for a while, his thoughts piling on each other with no particular point of reference; and then he came to the decision that Brady was a Communist. "Of all people, Brady," he said to himself, and just for the moment, he forgot the petition and indulged the fascination of having discovered this amazing fact, which perhaps was not so amazing after all. It was typical of Silas that he asked the question immediately and directly.
"Why do you ask?" Brady wanted to know.
That was the point Silas made to Myra five months later. People do not approach other people with such petitions. A vast atomic frying pan had been devised, and in it, each was prepared to fry separately, and it was no concern of Silas' whether his neighbor, his neighbor's wife and children, or a million people in Timbuctu were incinerated. Conditioning had gone into that, and Silas was as well conditioned as the next person. He said to Brady,
"I suppose because I can't think of any other reason why you'd ask me to sign that."
"That's a bitter commentary on us and our lives, isn't it?"
"When you look at it that way."
"What other way is there to look at it, Silas?"
"Well, you know what I mean. If I could feel, as you do, that behind this enigma of Russia there's something good, something else than senseless terror and regimentation-"
"How do you know I feel that way? You mean you've made up your mind that I'm a Communist?"
"I suppose so. Are you?"
"Since you've made up your mind, there's not much point except the satisfaction of your curiosity in my answering," Brady smiled. "Will you sign it?"
"You wouldn't have brought it to me unless you thought I would," Silas replied, rather sadly.
"No, I suppose not."
"It won't do any good. Would that be the difference between you and me, Alec? I don't believe things like this do any good - any at all."
"If enough people say something, they'll be listened to."
"Enough people?" Silas looked beyond him, across the campus.
"It goes a little further than Clemington. The whole world has a common desire to live. They're tired of being used."
"It seems to me that it's a case of who uses them most cleverly. From all I've heard, this is a Russian scheme, isn't it?"
"I won't even argue that, although I would deny it. The point is, it's a plan to stop this damned horror before it starts."
"If I sign it," Silas said, staring at it, reading it through again- "if I sign it, it means trouble, doesn't it? Like everyone else, I'm afraid to sign things. I get things like this sometimes in the mail, and I don't sign them, even when I consider them justified. I live my own little lie, like everyone else. I live in a free land, where I'm afraid to sign a petition and then I justify the fear by telling myself that I'm being used, that it's a trick, a front, a device-" He looked up at Brady. "Those are your arguments, aren't they?"
"Yours," Brady answered.
"All the same, I don't think I'll sign it. Why did you think I would?"
"Because of what you just said, I suppose. This is a pretty bad time, Silas. Talk about Russia from now until August, and it doesn't alter the fact one iota that this is a damned bad time, with a heavy mantle of fear sinking over the whole nation, with people afraid and afraid to admit that they are, confused, disarmed, with teachers being hounded like sheep and scholars being told what they should not think and writers being told what they should not write, and having their books burned if they don't conform - conformity, that's the hallmark of the time. We used to say that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, but now it's the refuge of cowards as well. But you see, this isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened, and this isn't the first place it has happened to. It never really works. You can't take one hundred and sixty million people, and snap the whip, and have them jump through the hoop. There are always people who won't jump - who insist that their right to think, to see the nature of reality, is precisely what makes them human, and who will not surrender their humanness. That's why I think you'll sign that petition - even if you've decided that I'm a Communist and that it's all a Communist trap."
In the end, Silas signed it - as he told Myra.

AND he did not immediately understand why she had asked the question at all; because, as so often happens, the question became lost in the detail of the answer. He, Silas Timberman, was two things, two men, two lives, two parts of special awareness. One life, he lived; the other life was an awareness that existed without action - except where action was forced upon him, as when for a brief moment all of the United States and a good part of the rest of the world read with a mixture of amusement, concern, and perhaps horror, of a college professor in a mid-western university who was forbidden to teach the writing of Mark Twain.
"Let this go now, it's no good," he said to Myra, and they went into the livingroom and sat down on the couch, facing the fire. Myra watched him without making it obvious that she was doing so, sensing the play of mood within him, the stress and counter-stress of his turbulent thoughts. That was her own deduction, and it surprised her that she could couple the word turbulent with Silas, whom she was so used to thinking of as a person in repose. So he sits now, the man she had married and joined so much of her life with, a tall, skinny, thin-faced man, rather timid-
He might have picked up the notion. In his own thoughts, he was still making an assessment of Alec Brady and Ike Amsterdam and himself as well, and he remarked to Myra,
"Do you know, I'm a coward." And then looked at her, almost defiantly.
"I suppose most men are, most of the time," she nodded.
"I don't want to talk tomorrow. I can't. I can't get up in front of those students and talk. I can't, Myra"
"I guess not."
"What do I do about it?"
"They're putting Fulcrum together now. You can drive over there and make a statement and explain how you were used all along, and since you're practically convinced that Alec Brady is a Communist, you have the best out in the world, and you might just as well denounce the student meeting as a communist plot-"
"That's very helpful."
"What do you expect me to say, Silas? I keep wondering whether we are unlike the rest of this country or very like them. Our precious enlightenment is a sort of darkness, isn't it? You're a coward and so am I. I was pretending to be facetious before, but another part of me meant what I said. I'm afraid, and I don't know how I became afraid. It didn't all happen in the past few weeks. It couldn't have."
"And when you turn to me, there's nothing to lean on, is there, Myra?"
"I don't know."
"What is it?" he asked helplessly. "I'm forty years old, and I'm empty. I used to sleep like a baby, and now I lie in bed thinking that only a little while is left, and then I'll die, and I get sick with the simple fact of mortality. I'm afraid."
Myra said nothing, but sat there watching the fire with the fire-light playing upon her face and features, a handsome, full-bodied woman, as ripe as he was dry.
"Are you ever sorry you married me?" he asked her.
"Sometimes." She wanted desperately for him to be angry, emotional, violent - and knew he would not be.
"I never measured up, did I? No riches, no poverty. No villain, no hero-"
"So, let's go to bed!" she said suddenly, bitterly.

THE TIMES had said: "Tall, loose-limbed, myopic, almost an old-fashioned crayon drawing of what a pedagogue should be, it is difficult to think of subversive intent in connection with Professor Silas Timberman."
It was raining when he awoke in the morning, a thin, cold, nasty rain that would be intermittently driven by sudden and fierce gusts of wind, and he said to himself, "Thank God, there'll be no meeting." But by the time he had left the house, the rain had stopped; the cold, gray, windy sky remained.
The Tribune was alarmed but not too alarmed: "It is comforting to recall that this sort of nonsense is not new to America. Laughter is an excellent antidote. And one must remember that this is no service to the real and necessary campaign against subversives."
He met Susan Allen. "Isn't this weather wonderful!" she cried. "And doesn't your spirit just soar with that wild wind! I do love a day like this. I think I'd want to be a sea-gull on a day like this more than anything else."
"Are you and Bob coming to the meeting?" he asked her.
"Of course. No matter how much I hate communism, Silas, when you think of poor Professor Amsterdam, after all these years - you do get angry, and you do want to protest."
The St. Louis Post, nearer to the scene, took a more somber point of view: "For ourselves, we feel that the reports of Mark Twain's politics are greatly exaggerated; but whether one agrees or disagrees with the literary judgments of the authorities at Clemington, it is hard to support the removal of Alvin Morse, student editor of Fulcrum. Fulcrum has an honorable history among college newspapers, and many a respected journalist broke ice on its pages. At the most, Morse was guilty of a lack of editorial judgment, but freedom of the college press demands that student editors be allowed to make errors and suffer with their errors."
Lawrence Kaplin was already in the office when Silas arrived, and he observed that Silas did not look particularly happy.
"A fight with Myra more than anything else, I guess," Silas said, disturbed to a point where he violated a long-standing rule never to discuss such matters with anyone. "I seem to be less and less able to understand her."
"We are all of us less and less able to understand the women we are married to - and they us. That's not simply a platitude, Silas. As in other areas, we reap what we sow. I look forward to listening to you this afternoon. I hope the meeting is large - large enough to take the curse off."
"And how large would that have to be?"
"A lot larger than I expect," Kaplin smiled, rather sadly.
The major regional paper in Chicago found reason for rejoicing: "It is rewarding to note how promptly Anthony C. Cabot, president of Clemington, reacted to what otherwise would have been a most unpleasant situation. His statement in the first edition of Fulcrum, under the new editor, that he would welcome a loyalty oath for the faculty of Clemington, helps to clear the air. We have long been advocates of loyalty oaths for all teachers in all institutions of public education - and in all tax-exempt institutions, such as Clemington. It is slanderous to assert that the taking of loyalty oaths is incompatible with free education. A person who refuses to take a simple oath of loyalty to his country and sworn denial of membership in any organization classed as subversive, is not fit to teach the children of our nation."
"How long is it now?" Silas asked himself, as he lectured by rote, went through his classes by rote. "Is it two weeks and only two weeks?"
Then, in the corridor, he met Ed Lundfest, and the two halted for a moment and looked at each other in silence before there was any greeting. There had to be a greeting. Man lived in a structure of civilization.
"Hello, Ed," Silas said finally.
Lundfest nodded and passed by.
"Well, I'll be damned," Silas said, and he smiled for the first time that day.
The Mirror in the East was blunt and expressive: "We never held a brief for commies anywhere, and we like them less in the schools. There is nothing a child can learn from the commies that's worth learning, and the sooner they're booted out of our school system, the better off we'll be - even if a few sensitive souls are hurt in the process. As for Mark Twain, we venture to predict he'll survive the process."
Myra, quite unexpectedly, was waiting for Silas as he came out of Whittier Hall at two o'clock. She smiled at him, and he grinned back, and for a moment it was being young again and in love and filled with the sight and sound of the person you loved.
"I thought you'd want company," she said.
"Did you?"
"Uh-huh. How's the speech? Did you get anything written?"
"No. I'll manage. I'll say a few words and it'll be all right. I'm glad you came."
They linked arms. There was no rain now, but it was cold and windy, with a gray sky overhead. The paths and the lawns were full of dead leaves, sodden leaves and new-fallen leaves dancing over the wet carpet. Even from where they were at Whittier Hall, across the whole length of the campus, they could see the eddy of students beginning to gather around the Civil War monument in Union Plaza, but hundreds of others criss-crossed the campus in apparent unconcern; and Silas realized that the events of such deep moment in his life left many others in this place indifferent or apathetic. Was it that way all over, across the whole land, each alone in his own petty agony?
"They look not and care not to see for whom the bell tolls," he thought to himself, and then remembered that a few weeks ago he had cared as little as they - I hoe my own row you hoe yours.
With a sense of shock, Myra saw the grief on his face.
"Silas! "
"It's nothing," he said, and when he smiled, the smile was true. There was a time with him when one mood was long-lasting and even; but of late, he had been shaken by many things, and the moods came and went.
"How do you feel?" Myra asked him.
"Do you know how I feel - I feel like we've just met, and I'm in love with you, and I'm afraid because the love won't be returned. That's how I feel."
"That's the nicest thing you've said in a long, long time, Si." Still she regarded him anxiously. "I'm sorry about last night. Don't be afraid about me, Si. Don't you think I'll stick with you? I will." They walked across the campus, arm in arm, the wind growing colder and more violent. "This will make it bad for the meeting, won't it?"
"I don't know," he answered, and the truth of it was that he knew little or nothing about such things, or what could possibly be expected from an outdoor meeting of protest - yet there was a world where nothing came easily or gently, where all things were fought for, and where men put their shoulders together again and again, because they had no other strength than their numbers, their bare hands multiplied, their angry voices. As they approached the crowd of students and faculty gathering for the demonstration, Myra's heart was unexpectedly lifted, and the wild, savage abandon of sky and wind caught her up, filled her with a feeling of youth and strength and pride-and made her strangely happy, so that her arm tightened around Silas's and her body pressed closer to his. He, on the other hand, was drawn back in fleeting passages of memory to his own youth, the small, badly-weathered house, within walking distance of the saw mill where his father had worked, and then other houses as one mill and another closed, the land stripped bare of trees, exhausted, dried up, bent and broken with work and left with no other pride and possession than his son, who would live by the wealth of his knowledge and not by the toil of his hands....

WHEN he stood up to speak, on the broad granite base of the Civil War monument, the bearded man of stone behind him, compassionate and large and unadorned with sophistry, each arm supporting a wounded boy - surprising in its remainder that wars are fought by boys - when he stood up to speak there Silas knew what he would say, even though he had not known in any conscious way a few moments before. He stood there, facing the microphone, looking at almost a thousand upturned faces; and in the beginning, he was very nervous, his hands in his pockets and the palms of his hands wet and his collar wet too; but then the nervousness went away, and he was completely calm. It was apparent to Myra and to many others listening and watching that this tall, mild-looking man, framed by the old stone monument and the wild, wind-tossed sky, was a dramatic figure indeed, a memorable figure - even before he began to speak - in himself a plea for logic and reason in a dying age of logic and reason; but to Silas, there was only his own inner concentration on a resolution of conflicting and confused thoughts - and thereby, as he spoke, he let the past die; even knowing that the future was highly speculative and still unmade.
He spoke slowly and quietly, rather amazed and pleased at the way the amplifying system the students had rigged up projected his voice, and then as he went on, his voice grew sharper and harder; but at first, he said quietly,
"Until today, I felt fairly alone. A few friends were always near, but not enough to keep me from feeling that sense of being alone. I will not be alone anymore. I do not know what the outcome of this shameful affair will be, and even if there is never again a meeting on campus as large and heartwarming as this, I will know that hundreds of our students have hearts to feel with and voices to make their feelings articulate.
"I thought last night that I would speak about my friend, Professor Amsterdam, whom I cherish and love and honor, and who has honored me with his friendship; but it would ill-become me to defend him. He needs no defense; honorable men have never needed character witnesses. Instead, I want to speak of that thing behind the action which has been taken against him - that murky and deadening cloud of fear and terror that has been spreading all over the land.
"It is a strange tyranny, indeed, a tyranny which most of us will not admit - and thereby will not face. It is a tyranny easy to live with, for the only price it asks is the surrender of honor and of reason - and it seems that we are rapidly coming to a point where we have only contempt for reason and a very primitive understanding of honor. I say this humbly, for until a few weeks ago, I was one of those who sternly denied that any tyranny existed, and a part of the process of my own education, you all know - indeed, the whole world knows by now, to our own shame.
"Now, an old and venerated faculty member has been suspended. I know that the human race is proficient in the means of cruelty toward men, so perhaps the public removal and disgrace of a teacher is not among the worst punishments that can be visited upon a man. But think of what it means. It is the death of a part of a man, the highest part of him, perhaps, the part which he can give to others, so that his life will have meaning and usefulness; and of course, it is naive to think that a teacher so suspended, and with a so-called political-moral cloud hanging over him, could find work in any other school. He could not. He could go then and pretend to write his memoirs or to translate Horace anew, if he were well fixed financially; but if not - and what teacher has wealth? - he can start the rounds of job-hunting, if anyone will have him.
"This is no ancient knowledge on my part. This is what I learned in two agonizing weeks - but learned upon a base that existed, and I tell you it exists for every teacher in America. We live in fear and we work in fear, and most of us scream louder and louder that we are not afraid. There is our mighty shield, which is a paper shield and nothing more. All that we saw in Hitler's Germany-"
He was interrupted here. At this point, a voice cried out, shrilly and clearly, "And what about Soviet Russia?"
Silas stopped, his train of thought broken, his body held with a rigidity that resembled paralysis, that relaxed itself only slowly and painfully. All else that he had intended to say had disappeared; there were only these few words left,
"I know nothing about Soviet Russia - and so little about America, so terribly little...."
Myra told him it was a good talk, a very good talk, clear and straightforward and to the point, and short, as the best speeches are. But that could not put aside his own deep conviction that he had failed. He had said too little and he had not said it well. He had made no plea for the reinstatement of Ike Amsterdam, even though he had intended to do so ultimately, and he had said not one word about Alvin Morse. As if the thought had conjured up, Morse pushed through the crowd, Hartman Spencer and two other students with him.
"I want to thank you," Morse began, his face open and serious. "That took guts." Silas had not realized how small Morse was, how wizened and pinched, a boy out of Dickens, the head tilted and straining, precisely like one of the old Cruikshank illustrations. He was not prepossessing, and you had to think twice about him until you saw how his eyes burned, how tense and eager his body was - and then you wanted him to like you and admire you. First Lennox and then Morse; and it came to Silas that in all his years at Clemington, he had never known students before, not in this way, not man to man, with no podium between them. He began to explain to Morse why he had said nothing about his removal from Fulcrum, but Morse shook his head.
"No - that's not to the point, sir. What you said was to the point. I am in no danger, but you are."


RETURN