Nat Hentoff's Greatest Hits

Excerpts from his first 50 years at the Voice

There has been another marked change in the Voice's appearance—the now obligatory primal cover story, with a looming photograph keyed to it, beckoning you inside. This stratagem is supposed to be good for circulation but it can sure lead to shoddy journalism. There are weeks when authentic cover stories just don't exist. What then? If you're bound to that assembly line, you make the best of second choices or you invent a cover idea and have a hapless writer conjure up sufficiently intensified prose to try to justify all the front page fuss. . . .

Symbolically and actually, the totem of the Macho Cover signifies how fundamentally apart the new Voice is from the old. The cover—and by now, much of the inside too—is designed to sell hard and fast. From the front page on, a great deal is promised the reader—in each story's head, in the teaser (lines extracted from the piece), and in the photographs. But often, in the reading, not much is delivered. The same is frequently true, not unsurprisingly, of New York magazine. This is flash journalism. The sensation, not the content, is to be remembered—as in "What an exciting magazine!" "Like what was in it?" "Oh, that was a whole week ago, who remembers?"


Voice journalism—with exceptions every issue—is becoming increasingly formularized to fit the overall circus barker tone of the paper. As this happens, there is inevitably more input, from gestation on, by editors, since only certain kinds of pieces will fit into this staccato format. And the editors know which kind. Experienced writers can more or less handle these constant windstorms, but I would no longer advise a young writer that the Voice is a desirable place to break in. You could burn out fast.


[ September 24, 1979]

I have resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper. Much of it has come from fervent souls who, in another life, might have fitted hungrily into Robespierre's court. But some—notably Dorothy Samuels's Press of Freedom piece in the August 27 Voice—got to the free-expression core of the debate. Now, with the film troupe gone, there would be nothing fresh left to say had Cruising not left an ominous legacy in my neighborhood, the Village, and by easy extension, in the city as a whole.

image
Hentoff used the controversy over Cruising (1979) to examine the evolution of the Village itself.
photo: Warner Bros/Photofest
Those who strove so mightily to shut down the filming—by mayoral intervention or just plain disruption—have won more than they may realize. And libertarians, including homosexual libertarians, have suffered more of a loss than they may yet recognize. There are homosexual libertarians who wanted Cruising left alone. In conversation, they ask that their names not be used because the tyranny of majoritarianism is not limited to yahoos. Indeed, the majority of an outside group that justly feels beleaguered can be roughest of all on internal dissent. (See the collected works of Stanley Crouch on this phenomenon in another sphere.)

Before examining the first stage in the new orthodoxy that the Village Independent Democrats and Community Board No. 2 have imposed on my neighborhood in response to the pressure from the sworn enemies of Cruising, a prologue on my stake in these streets, including Christopher Street:

When I came to New York from Boston in 1953, I already knew where I was going to live. It had to be the Village because from what I'd read and heard, it was the most open neighborhood in the city. Open to ideas and to diversely idiosyncratic behavior. Not that I'd been all that constrained in Boston as a resident of the seedier bohemian part of the Back Bay where my neighbors were musicians, students, non-tenured professors, bouncers, writers with ingenious skills at self-distraction, and waitresses. But it was Boston, and so even where we were, some magazines did not get sold and some movies were pulled. Furthermore, Boston was the provinces; and as hip as we felt we were, we knew that Coleman Hawkins was right: "You don't know if you're saying anything worth saying until you say it in New York."

So I moved into a building on Christopher Street, and while the Village did have some provincial fastnesses, including a few mean streets, it largely lived up to its billing. In places like the White Horse Tavern and the early coffee houses, no idea, whomever it offended, was out of bounds, although none was taken on faith either. And it was very much out of this ambience of openness that The Village Voice was created. Conceivably this paper could have taken root somewhere else in the city, but the Village was its natural turf. And indeed, the discussions in co-founder Dan Wolf's office on Sheridan Square were extensions of what was being talked about, without limits, in the streets and bars.

I am not saying the Village was a libertarian Elysium, entirely innocent of bigotries; but by and large, there was not the pall of orthodoxy that characterized many other neighborhoods in their distinctively smothering ways. Over the years, the Village became more expensive and many—though not all—of the bohemians were displaced by quite different achievers. Yet, in terms of range of expression and choice of life style, the Village has stayed fairly loose. It is still the last place in the city I would have expected any community drive for censorship, however euphemistically phrased.

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