We welcome to the blog today a post from Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, author of Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights. This first comprehensive biography of Jewish American writer and humorist Harry Golden (1903-1981)—author of the 1958 national best-seller Only in America—illuminates a remarkable life intertwined with the rise of the civil rights movement, Jewish popular culture, and the sometimes precarious position of Jews in the South and across America during the 1950s. During World War II, the cigar-smoking, bourbon-loving raconteur landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, and founded the Carolina Israelite newspaper, which was published into the 1960s. Golden’s writings on race relations and equal rights attracted a huge popular readership. Golden used his celebrity to editorialize for civil rights as the momentous story unfolded.
In today’s post, Hartnett traces some of the technological changes that have transformed the fields of journalism and research, creating both new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia.
I’ve been researching Harry Golden for more than a decade, and in the years we’ve cohabited, the reach of technology has stretched back in some extraordinary ways. I often catch myself wondering what he would have made of it all.
Years ago, it took me months to find all of his family’s records of traveling from what was then Austria-Hungary to New York City in 1907. That Harry’s father and older brother traveled separately from his mother and sisters complicated things, as did the fact that throughout his life, Golden gave various years for his own birth, from 1902 to 1905.
When the passenger manifest of the S.S. Graf Waldersee was first transcribed, it rendered Golden’s original surname, “Goldhirsch,” into something unrecognizable. Yet within a couple of years, the family name was there for all to see on genealogical databases, corrected by some patient soul to its proper spelling.
The musty copies of Life and Time and Saturday Review magazines with articles by and about Golden’s unique fight for civil rights that I found at yard sales and in the jumbled backroom of a Portland, Oregon, junk store have since popped up online like so many digitized mushrooms.
These technological leaps shouldn’t surprise me. Growing up in the newspaper business, I collected the fallen metal letters as the journeymen printers in the back shop set the type for my mother’s small newspaper—fingers flying, somehow managing to set whole pages without errors despite the challenge of doing it all backwards as necessitated by the printing method. (All the more impressive given that more often than not, the printers had enjoyed their liquid dinners at the Legion Hall down the street.)
By the time I became a reporter at age 19, the shift to phototypesetting was solidly in the works and by the time I left the Seattle Times in 2003 to research my book about Golden, the whole journalistic process from note-taking to layout took place on computer screens, and the printing press was miles away.
The online riches still do take me a bit by surprise, though. Just this month another record surfaced in a new database, making public the fruits of my painstaking hunt years ago to find out when and how Golden’s sister Matilda had chosen to estrange herself from her family for a life in Hollywood as a clothing designer.
I’ve been asked several times (usually by people of my vintage and older) if I resent this digitizing of my trade. The answer: Only a tiny bit. While I vastly prefer crawling through used bookstores to searching databases, and I will always love the feeling of hitting reportorial pay dirt in the more old-fashioned ways, I must admit that the ability to see scanned copies of actual ships’ manifests and pages of obscure newspapers in the comfort of my home office is quite wonderful. When I have a Eureka! moment, the dog is always gratifyingly excited, which helps.
As much as Golden romanticized the past—especially his Jewish childhood on the Lower East Side—I think he would have loved having this changing collection of resources at his fingertips. As I have written, Golden was really a blogger, long before blogs existed. His short essays on the likes of “Cato’s Cure for a Hangover,” periodic lists of the best books ever written (Hamlet always made the cut), and his satiric Golden Plans for getting around segregation, were ahead of their time in many ways, including their resemblance to blog posts.
“What I must have every day,” Golden liked to say,” are at least two good meals, the Charlotte Observer, the Charlotte News, the New York Times, ten cigars, half a pint of bourbon, and a few hours of solitude.”
He would have missed the smell of newsprint, as I do, but he would have soldiered on.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She worked as a journalist for more than thirty years in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Her book Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights is now available.