Shaping Political Bedrock

I didn’t know Jimmy Cooney. He didn’t know me. But I did know of the man who was 20 years older than my father, and felt his strong presence at two or three social gatherings involving mutual West Whately friends.

My most memorable Cooney encounter occurred at an afternoon May Day celebration, probably 1970 or ’71, me soon to be 17. If my memory serves me, he was not tall, had a heavy build with strong shoulders and wore a navy beret or fisherman’s cap, probably the former. Don’t hold me to it, though. The finer details get foggy 50 years and many dead brain cells later.

Those who knew him well described Cooney was irascible, and indeed he was all worked up about something that fine spring day, wildly gesturing in animated conversation with friend, neighbor and fellow radical-traveler Marshall Kitchener Smith, who was hosting the event and offering samples of his homemade apple, pear, plum, rhubarb and/or dandelion wine, some of the finest our western hills had to offer. I’m sure there were hundreds of topics the two pals and political soulmates could have discussed in a peaceful manner but, no, they had traipsed into something sensitive. Maybe the wine had an influence. Or maybe it was Knickerbocker Natural, Marshall’s beer of choice. Then again, maybe it came down to heritage. Marshall was English, Jimmy Irish. Isn’t that more than enough to ignite argument?

Both men owned 200-year-old homes, both were avowed pacifists, and both were card-carrying Sixties peaceniks with a hand in organizing Sunday peace vigils protesting Vietnam, one in Northampton, the other in Amherst. They had also both been members of famous communes – Marshall at Scott and Helen Nearing’s back-to-the-earth settlement in Jamaica, Vt., Cooney at iconoclast Hervey White’s community in Woodstock, N.Y. So, they were cut from the same cloth, so to speak, which didn’t mean they had to agree on everything. Maybe they were discussing something as benign as teenagers, hedgehogs, stray cats or how to roof a henhouse. No clue. I kept my distance. Was young. None of my business.

Smith, who grew up in Turners Falls, was the first organic home farmer I ever observed up close and personal. He was trained well, by the very man (Nearing) who wrote “Living the Good Life,” a Sixties bible for homesteaders fleeing urban life for rural nirvana. Smith raised chickens for eggs and meat, kept a well-maintained compost pile to fertilize his gardens, fruit trees and berry patches, heated and often cooked with wood, and fermented his own wines of various potencies, stored on damp wooden shelves on both sides of steep, open stairs descending to the dirt-floored cellar. He even maintained an outhouse tucked away in back of the barn, just in case it was needed.

I was all eyes and ears around Marshall. Though a tad peculiar, he was bright, well read and interesting. My lasting impression is him seated in an old Windsor chair at his round, wooden reading table in the fireplaced room off the kitchen. An independent carpenter and handyman, he had chosen to live an alternative lifestyle and was an activist in radical politics of the Vietnam era that put the nation on the edge of rebellion, especially after Nixon joined forces with Dixiecrats in the name of law and order to win the 1968 election. He could sense trouble on the horizon and, go figure, now that Dixiecrat voting block backbones the Republican Party.

Smith taught me to be skeptical, a cynic, cautioning that it was unwise to believe what you read in the newspapers and heard on the nightly news. He would often send me home with issues of Ramparts magazine and I.F. Stone’s Bi-Weekly,radical publicationshe had already read. Once in a while I’d sleep over, maybe during a snowstorm, waking to a big, festive country breakfast with delicious home-baked bread, fried or scrambled eggs and bacon prepared either in the oven or atop the cast-iron wood cookstove. To show my gratitude, I’d occasionally stack wood in the shed just outside the kitchen door. He’d come out from time to time to check my progress and slip me a Knick Nat as a thankful gesture. This I never told a soul, even friends, until long after Marshall was dead and buried. It was confidential. Between me and him. If he thought it was wrong, he wouldn’t have done it. Call it autonomy, something else he taught me about. I prefer to call it individual sovereignty, a state of being Kropotkin valued.

Whether he knew it or not, Marshall was helping to shape my worldview with a different strain of bedrock. For that, I am more grateful than the pints of Knick Nat he shared before I had come of age. Had I not been exposed to this way of thinking when young and impressionable, it may have eluded me. Of course, some would say I’d be a better man without it. I disagree.

So, what exactly is it that has led me back a half-century to Poplar Hill, that bucolic place mired deep in the adolescent muck of my consciousness? That’s easy. On a recent winter whim (I honestly can’t recall the precise impetus), I dug into my literature bookcase to revisit James Peter Cooney’s little-known literary magazine The Phoenix, published from 1938-40 in Woodstock, N.Y., then revived from 1970-84 at his West Whately home’s Morning Star Press. To raise start-up cash for what Cooney himself called the 1970 “renewal issue,” he published a hardcover, cloth-bound, two-volume compilation of his seven pre-World War II issues, a book that’s likely tough to come by today. The cost was $55. I bought the hardcovers along with the comeback Winter 1970 magazine from a local dealer 15 or 20 years ago, read through them with interest and worked them into the handy bookcase next to my study’s desk for reference and posterity. Local history.

Well, now I have reread them, a process that spurred the rereading of Blanche Cooney’s acclaimed “In My Own Sweet Time,” a 1993 autobiography that brings the reader into the Cooney family’s inner sanctum, a very private place. The reading refreshed my memory of a Poplar Hill family I didn’t know but had always found interesting. The youngest child, a female, was three years ahead of me in high school. I had many times sat in solitary hunting silence looking across meadows at the Cooney’s stately Federal home, crowned by a windowed widow’s walk more generally associated with the coastal homes of wealthy sea captains and sailing ships.

Cooney was no lightweight. Quite the contrary, in fact. He was a leftist intellectual. Ahead of his time, he was a pre-WWII critic of American corporate farming’s “monoculture” practices, not to mention their use of toxic chemical fertilizers way before whistleblower Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and, more recently, Wendell Berry – the octogenarian Kentucky poet/essayist who’s still beating the same drum. Jimmy Cooney dared to be different, and didn’t hesitate to challenge large corporations, government and cultural norms of capitalistic, war-driven societies.

A literary visionary, Cooney was the first American to publish controversial expatriate Henry Miller and his illicit Paris lover Anais Nin. Still to this day, his segmented Phoenix publishing of French novelist Jean Giono’s Refusal to Obey is the only English translation of the important work. Other luminaries published in Cooney’s magazine included D.H. Lawrence (posthumously), Derek Savage, Hervey White, Robert Bly and many other familiar names from the American literary scene.

No, get this. Mysterious, enigmatic J.D. Salinger may have even made a couple of pseudonymous contributions to The Phoenix after going into Cornish. N.H., seclusion during the mid-1950s. Who knows? It’s distinctly possible. Perhaps even probable. But that’s a tale for another day. A fascinating tale at that. Potentially future column fodder. We’ll see. Let me work the local channels.

Off I go.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top