- Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
In Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights, Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett traces the life of Jewish writer and humorist Harry Golden from his humble beginnings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to his position as one of America’s foremost commentators on civil rights and Jewish life. Along the way, Golden’s life intersected with some of the most important events of the twentieth century. He was jailed for a stock fraud scheme following the market crash of 1929. In 1941 he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and witnessed the civil rights movement unfold from his new home. He received passing mention in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and mourned the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Golden chronicled his own life and the rapidly changing world around him with great insight and humor in multiple books, including the 1958 best seller Only in America (Cleveland, 1958), in the pages of his one-man Charlotte-based newspaper, the Carolina Israelite, and in television appearances and speeches delivered to audiences throughout the country.
Golden’s charmed life brought him into contact with many of the era’s important cultural and political figures, and he maintained friendships with such influential men as Robert F. Kennedy, Carl Sandburg, and Adlai E. Stevenson. Tragically, most of Golden’s personal and business papers from the days before he was a celebrity were lost when a fire destroyed his house in 1957. “Golden’s letters and the carbons of responses that survive in some of his correspondents’ archives show how much was lost that night,” Hartnett writes ruefully (p. 139). Despite this loss, Hartnett does an excellent job of tracking down Golden’s correspondence at archives throughout the country and in piecing together his life beyond of the pages of his published works.
Though contemporary historians have mostly ignored Golden and his work, Hartnett argues for his importance in shaping the postwar American [End Page 734] understanding of Jews and civil rights. “[H]e proved to be a master at marketing a version of Lower East Side Yiddishkeit—cultural Jewishness—in ways that appealed to a very large range of readers,” she argues, and his version of Jewishness still looms large in the popular imagination (p. 5). Leveraging his position as a commentator who was in, but not necessarily of, the South, Golden also served as a “cultural translator for middle-class white America,” who could speak to “both liberals and states’ rights segregationists” (p. 182). He spoke and wrote about civil rights constantly and was a key fund-raiser for the movement. To Hartnett, Golden’s reach was so large that “the particles of his civil rights campaign got into the water and the air breathed by millions of Americans of all stripes” (p. 264). Yet Golden did not seem to have the ear of any of the movement’s leaders. During a period in which Jews, journalists, and celebrities were often on the front lines of the struggle, Golden was notably removed from the action. It is unclear what impact he really had on the movement or on the attitudes of his audiences.
Golden is a fascinating subject for academic study, and Hartnett writes about him with humor and clarity. Civil rights historians, as well as Jewish historians and U.S. historians more generally, should find Carolina Israelite a useful addition to their fields. Media historians might find Hartnett’s claims about Golden being a pioneer of New Media—“a blogger, even if the term had yet to exist”—compelling as well (pp. 261–62).