Golden wrote more than 20 books, and most were collections of essays published in his newspaper, the Carolina Israelite. (There were notable exceptions to this short-essay format, including his biography Carl Sandburg, and the book A Little Girl is Dead, Golden’s account of the trial and lynching of Leo Frank,)
Important note about timing: An essay by Golden could have been written years before the publishing date of the book in which it appeared. The essays would typically run in various forms, e.g., from Carolina Israelite, to a magazine article, to a newspaper column, to a book by Golden.
Richard Goldhurst, Golden’s eldest son and collaborator, generously gave me permission to use these excerpts and to share them with audiences and readers.
If you would like to get a sense of Golden’s actual voice and his amusing affect, check out this great bit of film history. It is generously shared on the website of the University of Georgia Special Collections Libraries, The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, and the Georgia Center Film and Videotape Collection. (The title of the documentary is “The World of Harry Golden” and it is third on the long list of film links.) Browse through that website while you’re at it — it is a treasure trove.
Some of Golden’s most popular pieces were very short – lists, in fact. (He was considerably ahead of this time with these. Today’s “Top 10 Lists” — a staple of late-night TV shows, are direct descendants of these Golden classics.)
They never met a payroll
(From Only in America, his first book, and a bestseller within days of its release in 1958.)
Golden and his friend Carl Sandburg regularly met for long conversations, often with a sort of agenda in hand so they would stay on topic. They liked to create lists, such as their agreed-upon roster of “the five biggest phonies in America,” Here is the passage from my book about this meeting:
“The two men make a memorable tableau: One is a short, stout, middle-aged fellow leaning forward and gesturing with a cigar in one hand and a coffee cup or bourbon glass in the other. Across from him in a rocking chair sits a tall, thin, white-haired man with every one of his seventy-plus years writ on his craggy face, wearing a green printer’s eyeshade against the still-strong afternoon sun. The older man listens intently. A typical conversation is going on: They are putting together a list of the five biggest phonies in America. They settle on the following:
Norman Vincent Peale
Francis Cardinal Spellman
General Douglas MacArthur
Cecil B. DeMille
They ruminate about Peale, the minister who made “positive thinking” into an industry; Baruch, the close friend of presidents; Archbishop Spellman, the equivalent of Roman Catholic royalty; then the war hero; and finally the moviemaker. Now they are finished and can get up, stiff-backed from sitting so long, and head off for a couple hours of sleep before daybreak.
From Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights, page 76-7.
The pencil was a prop
“In the old days, everybody had his picture taken. The immigrant shed his Old World clothes and the first thing he wanted to do was have his picture taken ‘as an American.’ …I remember we had six or seven pictures of various relatives hanging on the wall and each of the subjects wore eyeglasses and a few of them also held a pencil in the right hand. This is very funny, and yet it is so downright sad that it catches you in the throat just thinking about it; you realize how desperate was the drive for education, status, making something of oneself. They had seen doctors, lawyers and teachers with eyeglasses. Each picture gallery has a box of assorted eyeglasses. When they fellow posed you he asked if you would like ‘a pair eyeglasses,’ knowing you would be too shy to suggest it yourself. You acted a bit coy, but you were very grateful to the man, especially when he also put a pencil in your hand.”
(From For 2-cents Plain, published in 1959.)
The status wanderer—the story of my father (excerpt)
“I should start the story of my father by saying that he was a failure.
But his type of failure has not yet been explored in immigrant sociology. We have had stories of the ‘Horatio Alger’ immigrant who went from cloaks operator and peddler to manufacturer and retail merchant. We’ve also had the story of the immigrant in terms of the class war; the fellow who worked all his life in a sweat-shop and got tuberculosis, or was killed on the picket line. But we have not yet had the story of the immigrant who failed because he refused to enter the American milieu on its terms—to start earning status on the basis of money.”
(From Enjoy, Enjoy! Published in 1960.)
“My first impressions of Christianity came in the home, of course. My parents brought with them the burden of the Middle Ages from the blood-soaked continent of Europe. They had come from the villages of Eastern Europe where Christians were feared with legitimate reason.
…It wasn’t until I was in school and was subjected to the influence of Gentile teachers and met Gentile social workers and classmates that I began to question these generalizations…
However, Christianity itself, as a philosophy, did not impress me until I began to watch the Negroes of the South fight for their right to enter the open society as first-class citizens. When Martin Luther King’s house was bombed, he told his congregation to pray for the fellows who did it…
And when I studied this phenomenon, I came to the conclusion that they are using a mighty weapon—their Christian faith.
The Negro is using it for all it is worth. And he is forcing the Southern white into a position where he must make a choice. Either he begins to practice his Christianity – or give it up.”
(From You’re Entitle’ published in 1962.)
Lynching, the American fever (excerpt)
“There were always lynchings along the American frontier. The frontier was raw and dangerous, the people populating it violent and quick. But the number of frontiersmen summarily hanged was not in itself a sign of national weakness any more than the number of frontiersmen who succumbed to dysentery was. What does reveal a temperamental American weakness is the melancholy fact that when the frontier closed, lynching had an independent career.”
(Written in early 1960s, appears in Carolina Israelite and elsewhere.)
Protest in the streets (excerpt)
“…What is different about the Negro revolution is that the Negroes do not want to change any existing institutions; they want no new Constitution, nor do they want to cut off the King’s head, nor storm the Bastille, nor throw the tea overboard…they simply want to participate in the institutions already established. They choose to wage this revolution with the Christian ethic of nonviolence. And it is this ethic, the despair of the segregationist, which won the battle.”
(Written earlier, this appears in Ess, Ess, Mein Kindt, published in 1966.)
Why I am an optimist (excerpt)
“…For one hundred years the white Southerner watched the bus to see that a Negro moved from the front seat to the back seat. Now he has stopped watching the bus and he’s selling insurance and building high-rise office buildings and the money is rolling in. I always knew the big victor in the civil rights movement would be the white Southerner. There has been integration in such cities as Charlotte, Atlanta, Richmond, and Chattanooga, and the streets are paved with gold. The Southerner has not only overthrown a great spiritual burden, but has enhanced the economic greatness of his cities. All of this makes me an optimist about America.”
(Written earlier, this appears in So Long as You’re Healthy, published in 1970.)
When Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater sought the GOP nomination for President, stories appeared that he was raised a Protestant and was downplaying the fact that he had Jewish lineage. In one of his most quoted lines, Golden said, “I always knew the first Jewish President would be an Episcopalian.”
Golden would sometimes drop that one-liner in a speech, then go on to explain, with tongue slightly in cheek, why most Jews supported candidates with social-program platforms:
“By experience, the Jew has learned that when society in which he lives is in trouble—with a devastating war, unemployment, depression, social upheaval—the Jew is always in real trouble…so the Jew likes to see everybody healthy and happy, getting Social Security and old age pensions, medical care and hospital insurance, free eyeglasses, even a guaranteed annual wage, if possible, including complete civil rights and for everybody at least six weeks’ vacation with pay. The prosperity of the nation and its people have been the Jews’ most reliable guarantee of personal security.”
(This material appeared several places from 1960 on, including as Goldwater and a Jewish Secret (excerpt) in Long Live Columbus, published in 1975.)