The picture on the cover of A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York is of a young boy standing, legs spread wide, right arm raised to his visored cap in a salute. He is straddling his toys—model airplanes and little figures lined up on the hardwood floor.
The image recalls patriotism, the making of a true American. And it suggests what was happening to the very young André Schiffrin, who was born in Paris but had immigrated to New York with his Jewish parents in 1941 after the Nazis occupied France.
He was 6 when he arrived in America, too young to cling long to his French roots, young enough to be assimilated quickly into American culture. Despite the playground anti-Semitism of the early years in his new country, he grew up thinking of himself as a typical American.
It isn’t so now. At age 71, Schiffrin, the founder and director of The New Press, is acutely aware of his French heritage, of his parents’ European tilt and the liberal ideas that shaped him.
He recounts his transformation and growth in A Political Education, a political coming-of-age memoir that the young, independent publisher Melville House brought out recently.
“It’s a mixed thing,” Schiffrin said recently from his home in New York. “I felt completely American when I was a kid but (much later) I began to realize that a lot of my ideas and characteristics were European. I grew up speaking French. ... My wife and I, both of us, felt completely at home the first time we were in Paris. It made me realize there was a connection.”
Schiffrin said he decided to write this short memoir after he spent 2003 in Paris helping publish the letters of his father, Jacques Schiffrin, to writer Andre Gide. His father was the publisher of BibliothIeque de la Pleiade editions in France before he fled. After arriving in New York, he started Pantheon Books, where the younger Schiffrin later was publisher for 30 years until 1990, when he resigned.
Reading his father’s letters, Schiffrin said, he was shocked to realize that “there were a lot of things about my own past that I had not known.
“I had felt I was becoming completely American. But my parents hadn’t felt like Americans. It was very hard on them. I also was discovering how they had kept things from me.”
Schiffrin further realized that when he wrote his earlier book, the nonfiction The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, he had completely left out his personal life as well as explanations that were relevant to that story.
A Political Education provides the missing links, spotlighting the post-McCarthy years in the process.
“Part of what was great about New York City was it was possible to be very poor and still enjoy the city,” Schiffrin remembered about his youth. “You could go sit in the top balcony at the opera. ... It was also an intellectually vivid and stimulating place. I was very interested in politics. And I became a socialist Democrat.”
Schiffrin believes the McCarthy era’s motivation was not just to attack communists and the socialist left but also to undo the New Deal. Before the McCarthy period, he said, the debates of the day were issues such as whether the unemployment rate should be 3 percent or 2 percent. But during the McCarthy years there was a climate of fear and people stopped discussing. He later learned that the FBI even had an office at Yale, where he was a student.
At Yale in the 1950s, Schiffrin founded an organization that was to become famous as Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, attracting numbers of students over the years.
“In a funny way, we were also against the hippies’ politics,” he said. “Non-conformist hippies were opting out. In fact, the last thing I did as president of SDS was to do an attack on Kerouac’s `On the Road.’
“My feeling was that this is the establishment co-opting dissent, seeing that it will be made into something decorative. We were certainly nonconformist, but we wanted political change. We didn’t want to let our hair grow and drink coffee.”
During this time, Schiffrin also kept an eye on Wisconsin, following Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler to check how a socialist politician could govern. Zeidler, a socialist, was mayor from 1948 to 1960.
At age 26, Schiffrin joined Pantheon Books as an editor. Later, as publisher, he brought out the works of such leading and liberal writers as Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Art Spiegelman, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault and Marguerite Duras. After he left Pantheon, he quickly founded The New Press as a nonprofit house so that he could continue to publish political and socially thoughtful books, which generally do not sell in large quantities.
Schiffrin believes his brand of socialism is compatible with capitalism and democracies, and he pushes selective nationalization of companies—in the health care area, for example. He praised the French national health insurance system, which charged him just $24 for a doctor’s visit.
“I would make the old argument of public ownership of the pharmaceutical companies,” he said. “We pay for their research anyhow. Socialized medicine and socialization of pharmaceutical companies are the answer.
“My book is meant as a political memoir. I look at the ideas we have lost in America, ideas that we all wanted to do, ideas that have disappeared. But a lot of those ideas are very relevant today. We shouldn’t accept the unemployment rate we have now, the health insurance ...
“The book is very much a question of looking to the past to see what ideas we’ve lost and what values we’ve lost as a result, and what possibly we may do about it.”