“I prefer not preaching to the choir” were his bywords, and Nat Hentoff was his byline. The guru of gadflies died this weekend at 91, a contrarian to the end.
The lifelong lefty, for example, once tore up his ACLU card when the organization came out in favor of speech codes in schools and workplaces. He denounced Richard Nixon and couldn’t abide either of the Bush presidencies, but found no surcease when Bill Clinton took over the White House. The 40th president’s policies on terrorism, wrote Hentoff, amounted to an “all-out assault on the Bill of Rights.” When I spoke to him about Barack Obama, Hentoff’s gorge rose. He said the president deserved impeachment as “the most flagrant violator of the Constitution in our history.” As if that weren’t enough to turn off his progressive readers, Hentoff steadfastly refused to endorse abortion, hardening his position until it became indistinguishable from those of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewry.
In my Greenwich Village days, I thought Hentoff’s narrow face, peering eyes, and full beard gave him the aura of a wonder rabbi. Wrong again. He had been a militant atheist since adolescence, when on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and atonement, he ostentatiously ate a salami sandwich in front of the family home in Boston. His father, a haberdasher, was shocked; the members of the temple were mortified and demanded an apology. They never got it because Hentoff never went back.
He was well educated at Boston Latin and Northeastern; still, the post-graduate seminars were what transformed his character. Those were delivered in bars and jazz joints, where he found himself beguiled by the riffs of such soloists as Duke Ellington, drummer Jo Jones, and bassist Charles Mingus.
Settling in New York City, Hentoff married for the first time—there were to be more wives—and became a columnist for the Village Voice. He remained at that post for the next 50 years. Though he began as a jazz critic, an abiding interest in free speech made him a soloist in his own right, insisting that one Amendment was First among equals, and that no society could be truly open unless its citizens could speak without fear.
As a rebel with two causes, Hentoff wrote for publications across the political spectrum, including the Voice, the New Yorker, and the Weekly Standard. In his spare time he promoted jazz events, aided impoverished musicians, befriended Beltway figures as disparate as Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan and libertarian Kentucky senator Rand Paul, and wrote more than 30 books of nonfiction, novels, and memoirs. Two years ago, over his protestations that he was “hardly a household name,” Hentoff became the subject of a documentary, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, which showed him “basking in the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects.”
In fact, he was too agreeable to be infuriating for long. Even those who called the writer a professional dissident had to admire his passion, his amiability, and his refusal to be in lockstep with any group larger than three. He had barely started at the Voice when Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet appeared. The aging Sammler was to inspire the young Hentoff with a trenchant observation: “The place of honor is outside.” That would become Nat Hentoff’s address for the rest of his long life. It remains his righteous resting place.
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