Nat Hentoff, the “Last Honest Liberal,” Dies at 91

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Nat Hentoff, an author, journalist, jazz critic and civil libertarian who called himself a troublemaker and proved it with a shelf of books and a mountain of essays on free speech, wayward politics, elegant riffs and the sweet harmonies of the Constitution, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

His son Nicholas said he was surrounded by family members and listening to Billie Holiday when he died.

Mr. Hentoff wrote for The Village Voice for 50 years and also contributed to The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Down Beat magazine and dozens of other publications. He wrote more than 35 books — novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects.

The Hentoff bibliotheca reads almost like an anthology: works by a jazz aficionado, a mystery writer, an eyewitness to history, an educational reformer, a political agitator, a foe of censors, a social critic. He was — like the jazz he loved — given to improvisations and permutations, a composer-performer who lived comfortably with his contradictions, although adversaries called him shallow and unscrupulous and even his admirers sometimes found him infuriating, unrealistic and stubborn.

In the 1950s, Mr. Hentoff was a jazz critic in Manhattan, frequenting crowded, smoky nightclubs where musicians played for low pay and audiences ran hot and cold and dreamy. “I knew their flaws as well as their strengths,” he recalled, referring to the jazz artists whose music he loved, many of whom he befriended, “but I continued to admire the honesty and courage of their art.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, he wrote books for young adults, nonfiction works on education, magazine profiles of political and religious leaders and essays on racial conflicts and the Vietnam War. He became an activist, too, befriending Malcolm X and joining peace protests and marches for racial equality.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he produced commentaries and books on censorship and other constitutional issues; murder mysteries; portraits of educators and judges; and an avalanche of articles on abortion, civil liberties and other issues. He also wrote a volume of memoirs, “Speaking Freely” (1997).

His writing was often passionate, even inspirational. Much of it was based on personal observations, and some critics said it was not deeply researched or analytic. His nonfiction took in the sweep of an era of war and social upheaval, while many of his novels caught the turbulence, if not the character, of politically astute young adults.

While his sympathies were usually libertarian, he often infuriated leftist friends with his opposition to abortion, his attacks on political correctness and his criticisms of gay groups, feminists, blacks and others he accused of trying to censor opponents. He relished the role of provocateur, defending the right of people to say and write whatever they wanted, even if it involved racial slurs, apartheid and pornography.

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Source: New York Times