praise of Rockwell Kent
by DICK DORWORTH
I have only one life, and I’m going to live it as nearly as possible
as I want to live it."
1, 1953, one of America’s best known and respected artists,
illustrators, writers and adventurers, Rockwell Kent, met America’s
Grand Inquisitor, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Kent was subpoenaed by
McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation to answer for his
socialist beliefs. McCarthy systematically destroyed the reputations,
careers and lives of thousands of hapless and innocent American citizens
in order to advance his own political career and agenda, and Kent was on
his list. A book burning censor at heart, the senator wanted to destroy
two of Kent’s best books housed in overseas government libraries,
"Wilderness" and "N by E," because he considered
them subversive. (They are both wonderful books of adventure,
exploration, nature and the spirit of man that only a fool or a fanatic
would find seditious.) McCarthy cautioned Kent against lecturing the
committee, to which the 71-year-old Kent famously replied, "You
won't get any lecture from me: I get paid for my lectures." Because
he refused to answer McCarthy’s questions, did not hide his distaste
for the senator and all he stood for, and did not grovel in fear and
barter principle to preserve profession, as did so many others in the
presence of McCarthy, Kent left the hearings with his personal integrity
intact and his professional reputation in tatters. McCarthy, who had
neither integrity to lose nor principle to barter, soon enough was
revealed by history as a not very bright demagogue whose venom was far
more powerful than his brain or ethics.
suffered grievously at the hands of McCarthy and the State Department.
His right to a passport was rescinded, an action he fought all the way
to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, after a five year battle, restored his
rights in a 5 to 4 decision written by William O. Douglas. It was a
landmark decision that established the right of free travel for U.S.
citizens. Many Americans being punished for their "radical"
thoughts, including the great singer Paul Robeson, gained their
passports back because of Kent’s persistent fight. Kent was rightfully
outraged by his treatment at the hands of his own government. Though
McCarthy and the U.S. government had less to do with his art of dramatic
realism falling out of favor than did the arrival into fashion of
abstract expressionism, Kent was very grateful to the Soviet Union for
giving him a retrospective in 1957, something America had denied him.
Indeed, many institutions withdrew invitations to exhibit his works in
the wake of his encounter with McCarthy. Partly in gratitude to the
Soviet Union and partly to "tweak the choler of the
redbaiters," as Edward Hoagland phrased it, in 1960 he donated more
than 80 of his paintings and 800 watercolors and drawings "to the
people of the Soviet Union."
early opponent of America’s involvement in Viet Nam, Kent tweaked them
again when he was awarded the Lenin Peace in 1967 and donated part of
the prize money to "the suffering women and children of the South
Vietnamese Liberation Front."
Kent was, it seems to me, a uniquely American man who once wrote:
"Do you want my life in a nutshell? It’s this: that I have only
one life, and I’m going to live it as nearly as possible as I want to
live it." And he lived a rich and full life, despite that narrow,
mean, isolated and profoundly ignorant slice of American society
championed in the 1950s by Joseph McCarthy and today by John Ashcroft.
He died in 1971 at the age of 89, having outlived in both quantity and
quality most of his enemies. In addition to having illustrated such
classic books as "Candide," "Moby Dick,"
"Canterbury Tales," "Boccoccio’s Decameron,"
"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" and
"Beowulf," he created the colophon for Random House books and
the logo for both the Modern Library and the ship seen on every Viking
Press book. His illustrated travel books, including
"Voyaging," "Salamina," "Greenland
Journal" and the two mentioned earlier, are among America’s
finest adventure literature. Because he was a socialist and a pacifist,
America’s jingoists viewed him as unpatriotic, but he was not. Kent
simply did not believe in the greed that drives capitalism or the
horrors that accompany war, and he had the courage and integrity to say
buried on his farm in upstate New York. A large slab of Vermont granite
over his grave bears a line from Walter Scott, which is also the title
of Kent’s book about his America: "This is My Own."