In the last several weeks I’ve had the chance to read two recently published memoirs. The first was Ted Kennedy’s True Compass. Though Robert Kennedy was a hero of mine in my high school years and though I’d grown up on stories that my mother told of her years employed by JFK and Joseph Kennedy Sr., my interest over the years in Ted Kennedy had remained fairly minimal. I’d campaigned for him when he was running for president, campaigning door to door in New Hampshire and then putting up fliers and stuffing brochures other places, but Ted’s speeches and political actions have never really grabbed me by the heart. When his memoir was due to come out, though, I wanted to read it, if only to see what new things it might say about RFK. I’m very glad that I did. True Compass presented me with a whole new side of Ted Kennedy. It’s honest, it’s insightful, and it’s moving. We meet the Teddy who grew up enjoying being in his brothers’ shadows, the Teddy who continually struggled with mistakes he was making, the Ted who loved the water and who found solace during times of grief in a combination of sailing and faith, the Ted Kennedy who had little respect for Jimmy Carter but was able to see some positive things about many of those who opposed his political bills and positions, and the father (and later grandfather) who sought to emulate the role his own father played in the family with his own children, as well as his many nieces and nephews. I was pleasantly surprised by how willing he was to share his humanity through all the ups and downs of his life in such a forthright manner.
The other memoir I read was Cornel West’s Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Cornel is, I think, the brightest, best read person I’ve ever had a chance to meet. His range of knowledge and his ability to make connections across all kinds of traditional disciplines never ceases to amaze me. He can, for example, easily connect themes in Anton Chekhov, John Coltrane, and Plato in ways I could never begin to imagine but that make sense once I’ve heard them. In recent years, though, I’ve found myself frustrated while listening to West. Too often, rather than addressing whatever topic he’s supposed to be discussing, he’s gone off on rambles (or he’d prefer to say ‘riffs’) that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand and seem to serve up the same set “Westian” phrases that I’ve heard earlier. It’s been disappointing. This memoir, however, seems to largely step beyond that. After an introductory chapter that explains how West answers the question “…what does it mean to be a bluesman in the life of the mind? Like my fellow musicians, I’ve got to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love. That means following the quest wherever it leads and bearing whatever cost is required. I must break through isolated academic frameworks while, at the same time, I must build on the best of academic knowledge. I must fuel the fire of my soul so my intellectual blues can set others on fire. And most importantly, I must be a free spirit. I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.” (page 5), the chapters move chronologically through West’s life with its ups and down—academic and otherwise. He discusses how those he encounters—in classrooms, dance halls, political gatherings of all kinds, and most especially in books—influence him and change the way he thinks. And he talks – though I don’t find such speeches or classes with West as powerful as those he planned out--about how he learned in the early 80s to “speak without notes in an academic context. I’ve been freestyling ever since.” ( page 103). He seems to take on his repeatedly failed love life with honesty (though I think he takes a bit too much enjoyment pointing out how his various divorces and child support payments have strapped him financially). He explains why he’s chosen to dress in the way that he has (something I’ve always respected about him). He talks about his time at Union Seminary and his strong relationship with Jim Washington, though he barely mentions Jim Cone. (The difference in West’s relationship with these two was very apparent to Union students but it’s interesting to hear him describe that time and why some of his relationships mattered so much.) At times, West trots out accomplishments—as when he’s answering then Harvard President Larry Summers—but overall the book moves beyond what some perceive (I think incorrectly) as Cornel’s large ego to an interesting personal assessment of how Cornel West became the intellectual giant that he is.