Hentoff, Nathan Irving ("Nat")

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HENTOFF, Nathan Irving ("Nat")

(b. 10 June 1925 in Boston, Massachusetts), social critic, civil libertarian, and journalist who wrote about civil rights, education, and First Amendment rights for the Village Voice and New Yorker during the 1960s, and who authored fiction and nonfiction books for adults and children about jazz and social issues.

Hentoff was the oldest son of Simon Hentoff, a haber-dasher, and Lena Katzenburg. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his father operated Hentoff's Men's Shop until the Great Depression forced him out of business. Hentoff lived in a Jewish ghetto in the Roxbury section of Boston, where his experience of anti-Semitism taught him to empathize with other excluded groups. For six years he attended Boston Latin School, a prestigious institution that served as a melting pot for divergent ethnic groups. Hentoff read voraciously, and became interested in how language worked after reading Alice In Wonderland. He also began his long love affair with jazz, often hiding copies of Down Beat inside his geography book.

Hentoff was classified as 4F, or physically unfit, for military service during World War II. He attended Northeastern and wrote for the Northeastern News, the student newspaper. He became the editor of the paper as a junior and served in that position until the college threatened to remove him if he published a story concerning administrative corruption. Hentoff, along with the entire staff, quit. After earning his B.A. in English in 1946, he worked as a disc jockey for WMEX in Boston, where he interviewed several of his jazz heroes, including Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. Hentoff also wrote a review column for Down-beat, and moved to New York City in 1953 to edit the magazine. He lost the position in 1957, however, and believed he was fired because he advocated the employment of an African-American writer. The magazine, he maintained, made its income writing primarily about African-American musicians; therefore, it was only fair to hire an African American.

Hentoff had a difficult time securing other writing jobs. "The years working for Down Beat and the books on jazz I'd written," he noted in Speaking Freely (1997), "had pigeonholed me as a specialist in jazz." In 1958 he began writing for free for the Village Voice on the condition that he could discuss social issues rather than jazz.

In 1960 Hentoff began writing a column a year for the New Yorker, and in 1961 published his first book, The Jazz Life. Although he remained interested in jazz, he began writing a series of books about social justice during the 1960s. "By this point," Hentoff recalled in Speaking Freely, "I had spent several years writing about some of the leading adherents of nonviolence in the United States—especially A. J. Muste, who was an advisor to Martin Luther King." In 1963 Macmillan published his biography of Muste, PeaceAgitator, and in 1964 Viking published The New Equality, a book analyzing civil rights issues. Hentoff believed that white liberal guilt, disconnected from action, would never resolve social inequality, and advocated cooperation between the poor of all colors.

Hentoff soon discovered another outlet for writing about social issues when he was approached by Ursula Nordstrom of Harper and Row and invited to write a children's novel. At first he refused, believing that writing for young adults would limit his style and substance. When Nordstrom convinced him otherwise, he agreed and wrote Jazz Country. Relying on his background in the jazz world, Hentoff's novel tells the story of Tom, an eighteen-year-old white trumpeter who dreams of success in the jazz world, and of the older African-American players he befriends. In 1967 Hentoff followed Jazz Country with I'm Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down, a book about a high school student's response to being drafted during the Vietnam War.

Hentoff also became involved, directly as an activist and indirectly as a writer, in the civil rights and the antiwar movements during the 1960s. He befriended Malcolm X and attended the 1963 March on Washington. In June 1965 he was a member of an anti–Vietnam War delegation that met with U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations and asked him to resign his post in protest of the war. (Stevenson remained in the position.) Hentoff also wrote frequently about the war in the Village Voice. "It was senseless for Americans to kill Vietnamese, children included, and to die themselves in this obscure civil war," he recalled in Speaking Freely. These activities, along with a 1968 Playboy article entitled "The War on Dissent," which offered an unfavorable assessment of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, led to the FBI maintaining a file on Hentoff.

Hentoff wrote two novels for adults, both dealing with issues of race, in the mid-1960s. In Call the Keeper (1966), a white liberal detective searches for the murderer of a black policeman, while Onwards! (1967) relates the story of an intellectual in mid-life crisis, caught between the old and new left. Hentoff also continued to write nonfiction books, including A Doctor Among the Addicts (1967), about a successful methadone clinic in Harlem, and A Political Life (1969), a biography of New York City mayor John V. Lindsay.

Hentoff continued to be a feisty social critic in the decades after the 1960s. Although generally considered a political liberal, his opinions, such as his pro-life position on abortion, occasionally placed him at odds with his traditional allies. Hentoff, however, never backed away from the conflict his opinions have generated. "I've become accustomed to it over the years, and also I enjoy argument," he noted to Contemporary Authors. "I enjoy showing that ideas are for debating." In 1995 he received the National Press Foundation Award for distinguished contributions to journalism, and in 2000 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Editors.

Hentoff's autobiography has been published in two volumes, Boston Boy (1986) and Speaking Freely: A Memoir (1997). For a review of Boston Boy, see Kenneth C. Davis, Publishers Weekly (11 Apr. 1986): 29; and for a review of Speaking Freely: A Memoir, see the New York Times Book Review (19 Oct. 1997).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.