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Paul Robeson: A Biography (Lives of the Left) Paperback – June 21, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-1565849419 ISBN-10: 1565849418 Edition: annotated edition
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From Publishers Weekly

For millions of white Americans in the 1930s and early '40s, Paul = Robeson's success was a symbol that the American system worked. If this son of an ex-slave, this All-American football hero and concert singer could become a stage and screen starfamous as Othello and the Emperor Jonesthen couldn't any black person rise to the highest echelons through hard work? But when Robeson turned politically active, combining black militancy with support for the Stalinist Soviet Union and his own socialist vision, white Americaand many blacks tooturned their backs on him. The FBI kept him under close surveillance; the State Department restricted his right to travel. By 1960, he was branded as a public enemy, a Soviet apologist, and forced to the sidelines in civil-rights battles. His health and spirit broken, Robeson died in 1976, his reputation in eclipse. This big, engrossing, empathetic biography by distinguished historian-playwright Duberman is a major act of cultural restoration, forcing a fresh confrontation with Robeson's often highly independent political stances as well as his artistic creativity. Relying almost entirely on letters, diaries, interviews, FBI files and other primary sources, Duberman writes about Robeson's sexual affairs with white actresses, his shaky marriage, his deliberate cultivation of the image of "natural" actor and his fear that the U.S. would inherit the colonialist systems of Great Britain and France while its leaders pursued Cold War politics with the U.S.S.R. Photographs. 50,000 first printing.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Award-winning historian Duberman here offers a monumental life-and-times biography of scholar, sportsman, singer, actor, and political activist Robeson. This splendid workthe result of seven years' careful research in dozens of public and private manuscript collections, plus interviews with more than 130 peopletells more about Robeson's place in the world than about his interior life, for he left behind few letters or diaries. Yet there is much to observe, from Robeson's family life and love affairs through his encounters with bigotry and some enlightened support to the growth of his international musical/theatrical career and its decline due to his steadfast devotion to left-wing politics. A thoroughly documented work that is required reading for anyone seeking to understand 20th-century social history in America. Bonnie Jo Dopp, District of Columbia P.L.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Lives of the Left
  • Paperback: 804 pages
  • Publisher: The New Press; annotated edition edition (June 21, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565849418
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565849419
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,382,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Christopher A. Smith on December 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
Duberman's biography of Robeson is excellently researched and well written. A balanced handling of the subject was not a straightforward task; Robeson rarely committed his thoughts to writing and aside from periods of depression in later life he wrote few letters. Duberman relies largely on the writing of his wife Essie, who was a meticulously diarist. As the author points out this is a dangerous strategy; Robeson and his wife had personalities which couldn't have been more different, therefore rely on her descriptions of Paul's thoughts and feelings would be suspect at best. Duberman tackles this challenge by conducting a wide range of interviews with those who knew Paul, thereby presenting a more balanced account of his emotions and motivations.
As far as the factual/chronological points are concerned, Robeson's FBI files, ironically, provides a detailed record to which Duberman refers frequently.
It is a testimony to the ruthless effectiveness of the McCarthy Communist witch hunt that a man like Robeson is not better know to recent generations in America. A linguist, actor, athlete, singer, intellectual, and humanist there are few figures in 20th century America who are his equal. The ironies of his life are striking. Robeson was valedictorian of his Rutgers class, and All-American actor, played Carnegie hall, and toured Europe in an age in which Blacks in America were denied the most basic civil rights. Had his affinity for Soviet culture and socialism not put him at odds with the America's post WWII anti-Red hysteria, Robeson would likely have been one of the giants of the Civil Rights movement. Robeson truly was a man ahead of his time - a radical in a time in which the Black elite was promoting patience and working "within the system".
Was Robeson a Communist?
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By William E. Adams on January 18, 2002
Format: Paperback
Martin Duberman presents an exhaustive, objective examination of the awesomely talented, psychologically complex, and perhaps politically naive Robeson. I am white, and grew up in a racist family, but from the moment I heard Paul Robeson's recording of "Get On Board, Little Children" I was hooked. I was only 14, but that song, less than 90 seconds long, launched me on a journey away from bigotry that is still proceding, 43 years later. I fell in thrall to the voice, ended up owning 11 vinyl albums and reading everything by and about him I could. His defense of Stalin-era Communism is stubborn and troubling, but there is no disputing his importance as a fighter for civil rights before it was fashionable. I am not sure how those of us who were not yet adults in the '40's and '50's can fairly judge the politics of the man...especially those of us who are not Afro-American. I prefer to let his controversial politics take a backseat to his pioneer acting and singing. This was a real MAN, who could hold a stage with only his voice and his charisma and his talent, making white, affluent audiences listen to negro spirituals, union songs, Chinese and Russian and German songs, and like it. Robeson was glorious and tragic, brilliant and flawed, courageous but sometimes selfish, furious often and yet capable of the most tender lullabies. One of the most fascinating American lives of the 20th Century. Professor Duberman has done great work with this book. If Robeson interests you, buy it and read it. I'm glad I did.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 1, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book truly changed my life, forget about Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson Jesse Owens. All are great but compared to Paul Robeson, I don't think so. Mr. Robeson should be as familiar to the youth of today as the above mentioned sport heroes; however history has shunned him. Unlike the modern day super stars Mr. Robeson believed in making social changes albeit at his own demise. What an unselfish and social conscience individual who influenced social change i.e. "Jim Crow " laws and segregation in general. Mr. Robeson excelled in so many different arenas it is mind boggling by todays standards.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Tony Thomas on August 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
Robeson is a difficult subject for a book. He was a person whose image was a symbol for both people who idolized him as a plaster saint and for people who pilloried him as a communist, a decadent fraud, and an enemy of Black people. Everyone around Robeson seemed to have an ax to grind about him, or over him, or define their lives and livelihood based on their association or opposition to him.

To top that off, Robeson was a reserved person who tried to keep his emotions and opinions to himself. He was not a writer or a diarist. He led a public life that hid his real personal life and sometimes did nothing to disavow false public perceptions of him that benefited his wife, his political comrades, his artistic career, and his financial needs.

With all that, Duberman has a tough task to carry out. He does it well here with an enormous amount of documentation, particularly on issues that protectors of this or that image of Robeson would like not to appear in public. At the same time Duberman is honest enough to indicate the gaps in his knowledge, things that will never be known because Robeson's mind was often very much his own.

For those expecting a plaster saint who rises out of the toil of the slaving black masses and seeks only to advance the struggle, this book is a disappointment. The real Robeson came out of the middle class, was an outstanding student and an all American athlete at Rutgers (then a private university), who went on to Columbia law school. His milieu was arts, actors, writers, socialities. He prefered to live in England, not the USA, and did so from his first opportunity until WWII brought him home.
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