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The Man Who Was Over the Rainbow

Albert Ruben is the author of The People’s Lawyer: The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Fight for Social Justice from Civil Rights to Guantánamo (Monthly Review Press, 2012). He is a writer of screenplays for film and television.

Harriet Hyman Alonso, Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 332 pages, $28.95, hardback.

When I was a lad
I wrote amorous ditties,
To Judy, Aleine, Edelina, and Sue,
But now that I’m gray
I’ve abandoned those pretties,
I’m singing my songs to the
MONTHLY REVIEW.
[Listent to the entire song here.]

So sang E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, to the tune of “The Streets of Laredo,” at Monthly Review’s fifteenth anniversary party. Accompanying him on piano was my late wife, the Judy to whom Yip wrote ditties. You will not find her or Aleine Mufson mentioned in the pages of this biography. Nor will you find cited any who, because they rubbed elbows or other body parts with Harburg, could lead the reader to the fullest possible understanding of who he was. Not inconsiderable insight into who he was, for instance, comes from knowing he was good friends with Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, Monthly Review’s founding editors (and with its later editor Harry Magdoff and press director Harry Braverman).

I followed her madly
From Vietnam to China
To Cuba, to Ghana, New Guinea, Peru,
I may have been faithless
To my Edelina,
But not to that siren, the
Monthly Review.
That wise and effectively
Spoken objectively
Let’s love collectively
Monthly Review.

If Alonso knows about those friendships and what they meant to her subject, she plainly considers them inappropriate for inclusion in this biography. Does she know that Harburg and Huberman had summer homes up island on Martha’s Vineyard? That they and Gertrude Huberman and Monthly Review stalwart Sibyl May and the journalist James Aronson and his artist wife Grambs gathered summer nights at the Hubermans’ on what they were pleased to call Socialist Hill to decide what was to be done about the state of the world? It is fair to assume that, in the course of those exchanges, Harburg deepened his theoretical understanding of the social theory he had been almost instinctively living by all his life. A determined biographer should be able to run that assumption to the ground. But may Yip Harburg even properly be called a biography? To take an instance, Harburg’s daughter Marjorie is not here (except by way of a childhood photograph) to tell us about her father. She was not, she says, asked for an interview. By way of comparison, Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro tracks down anyone who might cast a light, never mind how dim, into the long shadow he labors to illuminate in four volumes and counting. Admittedly, the comparison is not fair; few biographers go about their business with Caro’s tenacity. The point, nonetheless, is that Caro is not inhibited by the canons of the academy. Alonso teaches history at The City College of New York and in Yip Harburg confines her research to archival material, published and recorded. Perhaps it would be more accurate to style her book a compendium, a directory of Harburg’s work complete with a generous sampling of his lyrics, his interviews and public speaking about his work, and a chronicle of his participation in the struggle for “freedom, equality, and peace in the broadest sense.” Harburg the man remains unexamined.

That said, Alonso is a meticulous researcher and lays out her results in serviceable prose uncompromised either by grace or humor. There is, however, a problem with her methodology: repeatedly, we are presented with intimate testimony, most of it from Harburg himself. All well and good. Except are we really to take everything Harburg relates at face value? Did he have no skin in the game? No tint of rose to his glasses? No memory gap to be creatively and entertainingly filled? By failing to corroborate testimony, the author tacitly asks the reader to infer the testimony to be true. An example: Alonso extensively quotes Harburg about his role in the making of the venerable motion picture The Wizard of Oz. He says that when he and composer Harold Arlen were brought in to work on the project, they did not simply write songs, but they “put aside the six or seven existing scripts and started from scratch.” Noel Langley’s screen credit as the film’s writer should at least have raised a red flag for Alonso. If the events are indeed as Harburg describes them, he and Arlen should at minimum have shared Langley’s credit. What, one wonders, would the Writers Guild of America, which must approve writing credits, have to say about all this? Elsewhere, Alonso states that Harburg’s “greatest input,” clearly a determination she arrives at by way of his own account, “was in the selection of Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Buddy Ebsen, and then Jack Haley for the roles of the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man.” It is but one of many instances that, like a pinball machine’s intrusive “TILT,” rings up in the reader’s mind a, “Really?” They may all be exactly as reported, but they beg confirmation from independent sources. Surely the strictures of academic writing cannot be blamed for such lapses.

Alonso is on the firmest ground in her exploration of the credo Harburg lived by and how it informed his work. He was not a joiner. He carried no party cards. It was not a characteristic calculated to hide his left identity. In fact, he pushed his politics at every opportunity, often to the annoyance of his collaborators. Alonso writes that Harold Arlen told him the stage “was not a pulpit, not a place for ‘propaganda.’” He said while Arlen called it propaganda, he called it “education.” His outspokenness about social issues resulted in 1950 in his being fired from the film Huckleberry Finn and in having his name added to the list of “Reds” who were no longer employable in Hollywood. It was ten years before he was “cleared” to work on a movie. During the decade he continued to work in the theater. And even on Broadway he had become something of a pariah: rounding up backers was from that time harder for him.

The small band of troubadours, as Harburg liked to style himself—the likes of Johnny Mercer, Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, et. al.—has disappeared. Popular songs today, words and music, are written and performed by singers. Will their songs have the staying power of Harburg’s “Paper Moon” or “Over The Rainbow”? Of “Last Night When We Were Young” or “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Who is to say? But even in the heyday of The Great American Songbook, the troubadours were hardly household names. The big bands were playing the hit songs. Everybody could sing along without giving a thought to who composed that lilting melody or had the chops to rhyme chance with Ile de France. Alonso has thus done a service by delivering from obscurity one of the best of that select band. If after reading Yip Harburg, we do not know the man in anything approaching depth, we have nonetheless been rewarded by this exposure to his remarkable body of work, as well as to a commendable appreciation of his commitment to social change.

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