Thursday, February 16, 2012

What We're Reading: Memoir

Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador by Ambassador James C. Hormel and Erin Martin.

This book is a memoir of the life of James C. Hormel who, if known outside of Democratic fundraising circles and the community of gay activists, is probably best known for the gay and lesbian center that bears his name at the San Francisco Public Library. His surname may sound familiar. He is a scion of the great meatpacking company headquartered in Austin, Minnesota. Hormel Foods is known most famously to a generation of servicemen in World War II as the makers of Spam.

It is difficult to say how any memoir is to be judged or what makes any particular memoir of interest to a given reader. Perhaps most readers don’t require that the subject has led a famous life or a significant life (whatever that is) as much as they require that the subject has led an interesting one, one that causes them to think about their own life in a new way. The best memoirs, ever since Montaigne, seem to be concerned with suggesting how a life should be led. In that sense, Hormel has something to say that will be of interest to a general readership. There are specific values by which he has lived and sought to realize in his private and public actions. He argues for a life of activism and a concern with community. For gay readers, he offers his life as both an example and a source of hope, one in which personal struggles find clarity and resolution in public action, one in which private loneliness and self-doubt find strength in community when one chooses a fight both for oneself and for the sake of others. Hormel was instrumental as a founder of the Human Rights Campaign, and his decision to seek an ambassadorial appointment was a long and deliberate struggle he chose for the sake of breaking down barriers of prejudice and discrimination. His struggle to be appointed and confirmed as a U.S. ambassador was a long, hard fight, one that provides an interesting window into how political appointments come about and how life in Washington works, but it is especially interesting as an exposition of how, in a climate of polarized “social” values, the character of a man can be attacked and smeared with so little regard for the truth. His ultimate triumph was an important victory, one that both catalyzed and reflected change.

For younger readers, Hormel’s account of his life and activism as a gay man will be a lesson in the history of gay rights and the gay experience as it has unfolded over the last 60 years or so. His life is representative of a generation of gay men, a generation that grew up in an era of repression, tried to lead conventional and heterosexual lives, wandered lost, came to some awakening, became politically active, dealt with the terrible losses of friends and activist comrades in the AIDS epidemic, and survived to see growing public support and legal change in the fight for gay equality.

While the story of Hormel the activist is an important and inspirational story, Hormel’s memoir is perhaps most interesting because it gives us a picture of a man who is an activist yet seems in so many ways an essentially conservative and private man. The revelations he makes about his private life might be said to be personal, but they hardly seem intimate and they are certainly not confessional. Some of the more interesting chapters of the book are those in which we learn about what it was like to live a privileged boyhood in the Hormel company town of Austin, Minnesota. It is there in this long-ago very American small town, and in the entrepreneurial and public-minded values of his father and grandfather, that he finds the roots of his social values and current activism. He sounds in many ways like a Teddy Roosevelt Progressive. In Hormel’s story one discovers that there are different streams of American tradition and thought that harbor values we hold in common, and that change seems to occur in American life in those moments when by accident or the concourse of events we come to see that most clearly.

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