The great pacifist activist David McReynolds died on Friday August 17 (this past Friday), aged 88, following a fall he sustained at his New York City home. We deeply mourn his passing.
His obituary in The Washington Post, by Harrison Smith (“David McReynolds, gay socialist pacifist, who twice ran for president, dies at 88”), can be accessed here. The informative New York Times obituary (by Jacey Fortin) may be found – here (and Ellen Moynihan’s notice in the New York Daily News, drawing from the AP wire account, and published on the day of his death, can be read here)
Louis Proyect – “David McReynolds in the context of American Radicalism” is a must-read personal assessment and can be read – here
When Bill Morgan was looking to begin his biography, I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (2006), it was with an anecdote provided by David McReynolds that he chose to lead off the volume, (McReynolds, in the following story, is the unspecified “friend”):
“One evening while out buying the New York Times , Allen Ginsberg stopped to talk to a friend on the street while Peter Orlovsky went into a store. As they were chatting a bizarre scene began to unfold on the sidewalk a few feet away. A woman, either drunk or on bad drugs, was stretched out on the pavement, one arm being yanked by her boyfriend, who was shouting, “Come on you god damn bitch, get the fuck up!” The woman was ignoring him but with her free hand she was reaching toward a ferocious-looking dog, but not quite, within her reach. The dog’s owner was struggling to hold the canine back with the leash and yelled, “Keep your hand away, he’ll bite”. Instead of pulling away from the sharp fangs of the beast, the woman began calling to it with a raspy voice. “Here, doggie, doggie”. The animal snarled and strained at the leash, trying to snap at the woman who continued calling drunkenly to it. Meanwhile, the woman’s partner was struggling to get the woman onto her feet, so frustrated that he was on the verge of punching her. All this made the dog strain harder on the leash to the point where his owner could barely control him. By now everybody was screaming and there was nasty violence in the air. At that moment, while others on the sidewalk were beginning to move away to avoid the obvious conflict that was about to erupt, Allen walked over to the woman and held out a bag of cookies. “Would you like a Fig Newton?” he asked calmly. In an instant the tension of the situation disappeared as everyone stared at this new lunatic. The dog owner was able to yank the beast away and walked off down the street. The drunken woman looked in bewilderment at Ginsberg, who continued”, “Oh, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Allen and this is my friend David”, gesturing towards the man he had been talking to. By that time, the woman’s friend had dragged her to her feet, muttering something about Allen being crazy, and the two staggered away arm in arm. “Well”, Allen said to his friend, would you like a cookie?”. Peter came out of the newstand with the paper and the incident was all but forgotten, but once again Allen had proved himself a fearless and spontaneous peacemaker.”
McReynolds elsewhere recalls Allen’s actions as truly bodhisattva-like – “a bit of spiritual magic. Fearless, compassionate, spontaneous, and more deeply imprinted on my mind than any line from “Howl“!
The Ginsberg-McReynolds relationship went way back. Significantly, it was McReynolds who was responsible for jump-starting Allen from poet (he had always been that) to poet-as-social-activist. Martin Duberman in A Saving Remnant, The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds. his immensely-readable dual biography, wrote:
“Several years before (sic) he (McReynolds)’d met Allen.. while personally delivering his copies of (the magazine), Liberation (sic). Allen and his lover Peter Orlovsky were sitting around drinking cough syrup and David boldly asked Allen why he hadn’t been participating in various demonstrations. Allen undefensively replied that he should have been.”
And from then on, he did so. Fellow participants in the struggle, contemporaries and heroes, leading figures in the anti-war movement, figureheads of sanity and resistance.
Allen, in a letter to his father, circa 1970 – “I didn’t read Dave McReynolds’ circular (but). Generally his judgment is good. He was among the first to protest A-bomb drills, and in the1960’s was early organizer with (David) Dellinger and others of anti-war movement. He then took a pacifist position on war buttressed with reasonable arguments against the Vietnam War, which arguments are now considered universal – we have no right fighting their war, we shd hold elections as per Geneva Convention, it’s wrong war, wrong place, etc. He also gave 10 years working against that war while others including myself had not yet had our consciences roused..”
His We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century (with an introduction by Paul Goodman), published way back in 1970, collects a number of the articles that he wrote, first for the Village Voice and later, for Liberation magazine and WIN magazine, from the late 1950s through the 1960s.
Here’s an interview, recorded for the New York Public Library Community Oral History Project by Frank Collerius in October of 2016 (well worth a listen!)
Alongside his social activist work, McReynolds was, it latterly turned out, an accomplished photographer, This is one aspect of his legacy that is still to be explored (and will be, significantly, in the years ahead. For a sampling of his extensive documentary work (“more than 50,000 black and white and color negatives, slides and prints”) – see here