The horrific, near-fatal stabbing of renowned author Salman Rushdie on a lecture stage in Chautauqua, N.Y., triggered a small but not unrelated memory; I, as someone who has also measured out a life by placing one sentence after another, needed to find some clarity in all that had happened.
Once upon a time, when I was a restless, ambitious 20-year-old with a year of graduate school under my belt, I was disappointed to be stuck at my parents’ Bronx home for several weeks before my real summer could begin.
On a sweltering June afternoon, I sat down at the pale-green Hermes typewriter I had lugged back from Palo Alto in an attempt to break up the monotony of the time between classes and a planned outing with friends. When I was out for a nighttime stroll with my younger sister, I noticed something that made me stop and ponder.
In the north Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale, where I grew up, a weathered stone bell tower served as the geographic anchor, at least in my mind. Dedicated to the memory of those who served in World War I, it was built a long time ago. Everyone referred to it simply as “The Monument.”
My first glimpse of the throng of young people on the stone portico that encircled The Monument came when I accompanied Missy (now known as Marcy, she is arguably the nation’s most sought-after wedding planner) on her way to meet up with her barely-teenage crew. It was as if they had gathered for a “Hair” audition. A sea of free-flowing hair, bell bottoms, and love beads flooded the scene. And of course, the acrid, mischievous odor of pot drifted through the quiet Bronx evening, a siren call, I imagined, to the high school students still awkwardly tethered to their parents’ dinner tables.
To be honest, I was a little shocked by everything I was hearing and seeing. After all, they weren’t at the Washington Square Park fountain but rather in staid, unremarkable Riverdale. Poet or no poet, the poet’s prophecy about the changing times was coming true. There was no denying that the children of the Riverdale burghers were “beyond their command.”
So, I took a particularly hefty and gleeful pen in hand and recorded everything I had witnessed and everything I had a sneaking suspicion was on the horizon. Take my apocalyptic description of the kids’ open psychedelic use as a malicious example: “little girls who had never been kissed had their minds raped.” After putting the pages in a manila envelope and mailing it to “Editor, The Village Voice,” I typed a formal “-30-” at the end of my account, as I had been taught to do on the college newspaper.
For a young man with lofty ambitions, seeing his work published in the Voice was a real thrill (and a pleasant surprise). But once summer hit and I was up on Martha’s Vineyard with a few buddies, we were too busy putting on what we jokingly called “Martha’s Mid-Summer Film Festival” to give it much thought.
My dad finally called me. He asked menacingly, “Do you know what you have done?”
There were a lot of options for me to ponder, and I could only wonder. But this one caught me by surprise: The Riverdale Press, a local weekly, published a furious editorial whose banner headline filled an entire page in response to my Village Voice article, clearly taking it to task. Instead of addressing the many questions raised by the chaotic scene I had described, the editorial attacked me and the Voice, drawing an apoplectic parallel between the north Bronx and the filthy streets of Greenwich Village. It was open warfare between the generations, and I was painted as the mastermind behind a nefarious hippie plot to overrun the area.
For me, it was an eye-opening experience that taught me the high-voltage importance of words. You may be working quietly at your desk, but once those sentences are published, they may have unintended and even shocking effects on readers. Consider the beleaguered case of my own father. His wayward son’s unrestrained pen put him on the defensive and made him the target of some remarkably snide comments. He wasn’t prepared for it, and it jolted him. And I was horribly ashamed of the awkward position I had put my poor, oblivious dad in.
Now, when I say that I’ve been the target of a vicious editorial, I’m not drawing parallels to the 1989 fatwa that called for the death of the writer of “The Satanic Verses” and “all involved in its publication.” Not that I’m putting my writing on the same plane as Rushdie’s masterful, creative, and painstakingly crafted novel; his skill is astounding.
My argument concerns the independence and influence of the press.
The Riverdale Press, the local paper that published an aggressive editorial against me when I was twenty, also commented on Salman Rushdie. Several national bookstore chains caved in to the ayatollahs’ threats and stopped selling “The Satanic Verses,” prompting the Press to call them out and also highlight a local bookstore that was willing to stand its ground and keep the book on its shelves.
How was this editorial received? The newspaper’s headquarters burned down a few days later after a firebomb was thrown at it by an unknown terrorist. The local paper, however, patched itself up and continued publishing; nine years later, a new editor (the son of the man who had torn into me) penned an eloquent editorial condemning Penguin’s decision not to release a paperback edition of Rushdie’s novel. In the next-to-last sentence, Bernard Stein wrote, “The need to defend our fragile civilization remains undiminished.” When Stein was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, this editorial was among those used to support his victory.
The vicious attack on Rushdie has driven this point home to me more than ever before: we need the harmonious disagreement of many viewpoints to keep civilization and an open society thriving. Let the boastful youngsters of today have their say. Authors with a flair for the fantastic can write whatever stories they like. The neighborhood newsstands should feel free to continue calling them what they are. All of these ideas are part of the same unstoppable stream that sustains and propels the culture of our time. In a sense, the din of daily life is what keeps civilization from singing in to silence.
– 30 –
To this day, Howard Blum still contributes to Vanity Fair as an editor and reporter for The New York Times. He has written several best-sellers, the most recent being “The Spy Who Knew Too Much: An Ex-CIA Officer’s Quest Through a Legacy of Betrayal” (HarperCollins). Sony is adapting his nonfiction book, “Night of the Assassins,” into a TV series.
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