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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of October 16 - 22, 2002

Opinion Columns

Integrity: in praise of Rockwell Kent

Commentary 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."

ROCKWELL KENT, American author-artist

On July 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.

Kent 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 His right to a passport was rescinded, an action he fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, after a five year battle, restored his rights in a 5 to 4 decision written by William O.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."

As an 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."

Rockwell 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 so.

Kent is 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."



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