A seemingly implausible story provides ‘ingenious’ overview of midcentury U.S.




By Gerald W. Haslam with Janice E. Haslam (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2011, $26.95, 472 pp., paperback)

There is a classic debate between historians and novelists. We historians insist that we have a more difficult job than novelists in their writing, because we must stick to facts, whereas novelists are free to make use of fiction. Novelists are prone to respond that in fact they have the most difficult task, because unlike historians, the stories that they tell must be plausible — a much higher standard than real life! In that sense, the novelist Gerald Haslam, who is best known for his narratives of working-class California life, has cheated. His new book, “In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa,” (co-authored with Janice Haslam), which purports to be realistic, recounts the picaresque adventures of a wonderfully colorful Nisei character called Hayakawa, whom they give the unlikely name of Don.

Don’s story, as conjured up by the Haslams, hardly seems credible. First, he is not even American-born: Don grows up in Canada, and after being abandoned by his parents (as if Japanese parents would really leave behind their sons and move back to Japan with their daughters!). Don moves to Montreal and puts himself through school by driving a taxi. He then ends up in Wisconsin, where he gets his doctorate, and finds a white woman, Margedant, whom he marries — not content with finding this curious name, the Haslams then call her Marge for the rest of the book.

Don soon moves to Chicago, writes a best-selling book about general semantics (all about how choice of words shapes reality), becomes a jazz specialist, and spends World War II writing for an African American newspaper. (Perhaps because of the difficulty of evoking the style that such writing would have, the Haslams do not explore his prose in depth).

The story gets more realistic in the sections set in the postwar years, when Don is somehow attracted to teach in San Francisco. Curiously, however, they portray their character as at the same time a devoted family man and a womanizer, and present him as an art collector and an eager student of fencing and even tap dancing (they seem to forget that this is a man who, by their reckoning, is near 60 by the end of the period)! One nice touch comes from Gerald Haslam inserting himself into the narrative, in the persona of a student of Don’s, to present his character.

In a delightful Forrest Gump-style episode, the narrative has Don picked out from nowhere, by Ronald Reagan, to be president of San Francisco State University. Don then invites Mahalia Jackson to perform for students. Bizarrely, though, this admirer of black culture opposes student strikes for ethnic studies programs, and finally loses his fight but becomes nationally famous. In the climax of the work, Don is even elected to the United States Senate, and as a Republican yet. We are then expected to believe that, once in the Senate, Don not only publicly opposes redress for confined Japanese Americans, but advocates mass incarceration of Iranian Americans at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis. No doubt in keeping with the essential absurdity of their premise, the Haslams devote only one shortish chapter to the six years Don spends in the Senate. In any realistic portrait, or course, an entire book would be written just about an American political leader’s term in the Senate.

The Haslams deserve credit for an ingenious portrait of midcentury America through the lens of a Nisei character, though he seems almost accidentally Japanese American. They do manage to transform a truly implausible tale into something of value to historians.

P.S. Just kidding, folks — the book is a pioneering full-length study of the all-too-true biography of scholar and U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, and provides a new and useful picture of the private man and his relations with friends and family.

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