Doris Marquit, my aunt, died Thursday evening after a short illness. Doris was married to my mother’s brother. That marriage did not end happily. In 1967 she visited us at our new house in Larchmont for the last time. It was my first experience of divorce. I did not see her again until 25 or 30 years later at my cousin Oskar’s house in Providence. She was exactly as I remembered her visually, but I had no sense of who she was beyond the many, many stories I had heard over the years. One of us was standing in the sunny, open kitchen when the other arrived. We were introduced, and noted the decades that had passed since our last meeting. Doris was a professor of Women’s Studies and English Literature. I don’t know if that was her exact job title, but I know she was passionate about both. She was also a member of the Communist Party of America. We immediately began discussing literature. I was reading Toni Morrison at the time, and she had much to say about her books. That lit the fuse to a long conversation that continued every summer in Frontenac, Minnesota, where she attended her deceased, ex-husband’s family’s July 4th Reunion, Providence, and then New York City, where Oskar moved.
Doris was an intense intellectual, and navigated the world with verbal prowess and the kind of analytical thinking that cuts fingers if wielded by an amateur. This might appear cold and intimidating to some, but not me. She knew and loved, and I mean LOVED, literature, especially the Romantics, Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle. She seemed to have read everything in history, sociology, Marxism, literary criticism. She and her husband Erwin edited a journal, Nature, Society and Thought. She was also deeply Midwestern, deeply American. I don’t see a contradiction here, and I feel the loss more keenly knowing that not only did my cousins Lili and Oskar lose their mother, Erwin his wife, and I a friend I loved talking to, but that America is losing another person who helped keep it honest. I’m not a Communist, not even really (well maybe a little) a Marxist, but this tradition of Communist action and thinking in America is a vital part of our heritage, and it is caricatured and abused today by people who have no idea what they are talking about, who wouldn’t know a Trotskyite from a Stalinist from a Maoist! Yes, Doris was a revolutionary. She also made wild rice salad, dressed nicely in summer clothes, drank Cosmopolitans and put a Barak Obama sign on her lawn. Because Marxists have no problem living with the inevitable, indelible contradictions of our time. And they keep us honest by reminding us of 3 things: that all people are radically equal; that wealth is produced by everyone, not just the rich; and that we can CHANGE the history we MAKE.
Conversations with Doris often led, later, to a book arriving in the mail. Once I was talking to Oskar about reading Christopher Hill, one of the great Marxist English historians. I noted that I loved EP Thompson and Raymond Williams, and was excited to discover Hill’s biography of Milton. Oskar called out to Doris, who was nearby, “Mom, Jon’s reading Chris Hill!”
“Oh, isn’t he marvelous. Have you read Eric Hobsbawm?”
“I’ve always meant to….” I said. Well, a month later Hobsbawm’s Essays on History arrived in the mail, which I devoured.
Another time I quoted Shelley’s England in 1819, which starts:
An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king;
Doris said that I should pronounce the ‘ed’ in ‘despised’ to make the poem scan correctly. She then recited it. We discussed Shelley for a bit. She believed that had he lived Shelley would have been a revolutionary, which I suppose means had he lived into the 1860s he would have been a Marxist revolutionary, unlike Byron whom she accused of being a political dilettante. But Shelley was the real thing. At this point Erwin weighed in: “But he had no ideology.” Case closed! I love this entire exchange, it says so much about them. Two weeks after that she sent a copy of Shelley’s Men of England:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat — nay, drink your blood?
Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.
Sow seed, — but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, — let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, — let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear.
Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells;
In halls ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.
With plough and spade and hoe and loom,
Trace your grave, and build your tomb,
And weave your winding-sheet, till fair
England be your sepulchre!
When my mother died Doris sent condolences and photographs she had from the 1950s. She certainly did not have to do that, though she and my mother had made their peace. She was a powerful intellect, a fierce political partisan, who loved and cared deeply about her family and people as much as ideas. I will miss her.