Failed Friendships
New Title: Triumph Through Adversity

A Memoir of Martin S. Dworkin: His Life and Work

Bernard J. Looks



In the last book he wrote, A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel asks regarding Reb Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, the Hasidic tzaddik, who lived the better part of his life during the first half of the nineteenth century, "Did the Kotzker lack a sense of human worth?" Then, answering his own question, Heschel replies, "He had many ... harsh things to say about self- centeredness and the nature of man. Yet they did not stem from disparagement but, rather from an overestimation of man's capacities if he but exercise his powers of will. The Kotzker set exalted goals for his disciples because he believed in their ability to make the prodigious efforts required to reach them." This was as true of Martin S. Dworkin as it was of the Kotzker. If I were asked to characterize Marty’s life, I would have to say that it was the victory of moral obligation over artistic genius. It was his unwavering moral integrity that was to be the hallmark of his life and work. Marty went against the tide. His cry was one of alarm. In a world that contains so much hypocrisy, so much mendacity, so much smug satisfaction with the way things are, he stands before us as a man aflame with a passion for truth, prepared to bear witness by exposing sham, and knowing full well that the price for his actions would be high. He was convinced, as his life drew to a close, that his friends had failed him, that they had not delivered to their friendship with him what they should have. As a result, he said, too much of his valuable time had been spent helping them, time that could have been spent on his own work. To explain why he had hung in there with them so long, he told me that they were his friends and he kept hoping that they would do the right thing. And yet, it must be said, the fruits of his artistic endeavors are still considerable and remain today to be evaluated. For example, in my judgment many of Marty’s poems, a number of which the reader will find in this memoir, rank with the best around today. And the same can be said of his short stories, his photographs and the huge body of his film criticism–-which cries out for publication to fill the gap that presently exists in the literature. Sadly, however, his creative works never really cought on. Although his work was admired and appreciated by cognoscenti, it never received the wide attention that it truly deserved.

Regarding friendship, Marty once told me that he played the cards he was dealt. Concerning the friends about whom I write, I knew him first, Lawrence Cremin, who became President of Teachers College, Columbia University, was the second, and William Gaddis, the eminent novelist, was the third. Although different in a number of significant ways as this book will bear out, the three of us have at least one thing in common. Each of us wound up being judged by Marty to have failed the test of friendship, and I shall contend that we became central figures in the gradual unfolding of a tragic life. But who would have suspected during the early years (with the possible exception of Marty himself, who was always deeply pessimistic) that things would end so badly?

In the course of one of our many conversations in 1984, the terrible year his wife Miki died, Marty spoke once again of the events that led to his first meetings with Larry and Willie. I am using Larry, Willie and Robbie throughout this memoir when I refer to these friends of Marty, not because I knew them that well, although I was on a first name basis with Larry, but because it is the way Marty always spoke of them to me; it seems fitting to me, therefore, to do so. Over the many years of our friendship, he had made it clear that he himself would never write of these things, but I know he hoped or at least expected someone else would think his life and work interesting and important enough to want to tell his story. But this, he always maintained, was for others to do. It is, therefore, in the hope of helping to break the silence that has descended upon Martin S. Dworkin, the man, and his work, that I have undertaken the writing and publication of this memoir with its generous sampling of his writings and photographic art.




                 Reflections on a Photograph

Taken in 1961 in Washington DC by the writer and

photographer Martin S. Dworkin using a timer. The picture

shows us three couples seated informally and apparently quite

comfortable in one another’s company. The occasion was Marty’s

marriage to Miki, a women’s fashion designer, who is seated to his left

in the center of the photograph. The other two men to the right of

Marty are his close friends: Lawrence Cremin, then professor of

education and chairman of the Department of Social and Philosophical

Foundations of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University,

and the novelist, William Gaddis, author of The Recognitions, who were

present with their wives, Charlotte and Pat, to celebrate the marriage

of their friend.

Let us begin by asking what of importance was going on at this

time in the lives of these three men. First, 1961 was the year Larry

published The Transformation of the School, a highly regarded work of

scholarship and one of the numerous achievements that were to propel

him to the presidency of Teachers College in 1974. Second, 1961 was

the year Marty gave up writing film criticism regularly for the Progressive

and various other journals to throw in his lot with Teachers College, a

move he lived to bitterly regret. Third, Willie, following his poorly

received first novel, which may turn out to be his most highly regarded,

was supporting himself and his family by teaching and various writing

assignments for industry, an activity that was to be mined later for his

more successful second novel, JR., published in 1975.

Here, at this juncture in their lives, these three young men, all in

their thirties, Marty being the oldest at thirty-nine, were already well

along in what might be termed their races for the highest recognition

in their respective fields. As things turned out, two of them, Larry and

Willie, achieved success. Marty, who showed great promise at this

time as an established writer, photographer, editor, and teacher, did

not. Something that Larry said in his acceptance speech, when he

became the seventh president of Teachers College, regarding his own

prescription for success in a field may be relevant: "If a man wants to

be a good general, he must learn to shoot at a target." What Larry

meant by this and how well he shot at his target from his own point of

view will be examined in the light of Marty’s critical reflections on

Larry’s career. We shall also examine whether Marty shot well at the

target he set for himself. Since the careers of the two men at Teachers

College are intertwined, their contrasting points of view are bound to

shed light on these questions.

Regarding Marty and Willie, there are different questions. Both

men were writers and artists. At the outset, if one were keeping score,

as in a competition between them, Marty, I think, would have been the

clear favorite to win. Yet today, any objective observer would have to

say that the laurels have gone to Willie, although the race is far from

over. But what accounts for the present verdict? Is it that Willie shot

better at the target? Marty, in despair at one point, was to virtually

admit that he had. But the story is more complex and involves not

simply the question of who was the greater writer but also the evolving

relationship between a teacher of genius and his student of genius.

At this point, let me lay my cards on the table. I am an old friend

of Marty’s going back to our student days at the City College of New

York in the years just before America’s involvement in World War II.

When I started to think about writing Marty’s story, which was even

before he died in 1996, and for a time afterward, I completely accepted

Marty’s version of the fortunes of his friendships with Larry and Willie.

Marty, I am certain, sensed my interest in writing about him. Although

he made it appear that it was of no matter to him, mainly because he

doubted my ability to do justice to the subject, he did, however, make

it his business to pass on to me a great deal of information as well as

many documents of his writings, which I have faithfully kept and used.

Also, as time has gone by, I came increasingly to realize that what he

told me regarding Larry and Willie, albeit unusually penetrating, was

still partial, his own highly personal view of them and their friendships

with him, and by no means all that could be said on the subject. I,

therefore, concluded that a reconsideration was necessary. Serious

questions had been raised in my mind as a result of conversations with

others regarding Marty’s version of certain events even as I found myself

still in agreement with the essentials of what he had told me. In another

sense, what he told me can be viewed as more than simply apologetics.

It can rather be seen, even though he knew he was the subject under

my consideration, as his challenge to me to write more deeply and to

realize my potential more fully—his pedagogical purpose with all his

friends who were also his students.


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Last modified: June 18, 2009

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