Was Frank Harris a Racist?

Summary:

Whether Frank Harris was a racist depends on one's interpretation of the term. Harris' attitudes tended to be distorted by racial stereotyping but he was never a believer in the superiority of one 'race' over another.

Harris lived and died before the Second World War - that bleak lesson in the evils of racist theory - when such ideas were much more mainstream than they are today: it was commonly taken for granted that separate races existed, and that there were traits 'in the blood' which one inherited by virtue of ones racial heritage. Since Harris was not an original thinker, although often unusual in the attitudes he adopted, it is not surprising that he shared this view. Here is a revealing passage from A Long Way from Home, the memoirs of the Jamaican poet Claude McKay, which recounts a meeting with Harris:

Suddenly [Harris] said something like this: "I am wondering whether your sensitivity is hereditary or acquired." I said that I didn't know, that perhaps it was just human. He saw that I was ruffled. I really had a sensation of spurs sprouting on my heels.

"Don't misunderstand me," he said. "Your sensitivity is the quality of your work. Your 'The Park in Spring' sonnet is a remarkable achievement. I read it to a very refined woman and she could not hold back her tears. It takes me back to the humanists of the eighteenth century, touching me like Hood or even something of Wordsworth's. What I mean is, the stock from which you stem - your people - are not sensitive. I saw them at close range, you know, in West Africa and the Sudan. They have plenty of the instinct of the senses, much of which we have 1ost. But the attitude toward life is different; they are not sensitive about human life as we are. Life is cheap in Africa. . . "

I kept silent.

Harris was against the treatment of black people as inferiors but he unthinkingly attempted to read McKay's character in terms of his race. This was for him little more than an intellectual exercise, a striving to understand the world; he did not see that race-based classifications are never neutral.

(As an aside, it was not in fact Harris' blunt probings into his origins that most repelled McKay at their meeting, but his tedious wittering about Jesus. McKay was of a strongly atheistic persuasion, having had a bellyful of religion as a boy, and found Harris' Jesus-fixation incomprehensible).

One strong piece of evidence for the view of Harris as racist is the apparent anti-Semitism displayed in stories such as Mr. Jacob's Philosophy. Tobin and Gertz devoted several pages to a discussion of this matter, arriving at the conclusion that Harris had been guilty of a 'fashionable' anti-Semitism before about 1920 or thereabouts, but age had mellowed him. His championing of the (Jewish) anarchist Emma Goldman is held up as proof that he was not an anti-Semite.

While Harris saw himself as a 'defender of the Jews', for example against their treatment in Russia, at the same time he was capable of gross insensitivity, such as when in the November 1917 issue of Pearson's, he repeatedly refers, in a report about the New York Night Court, to a 'Jew lawyer'. As in his interchange with McKay, he did not see the implicit insult in such a reference, which is that the only reason for mentioning it is to lower the status of the man in question.

Strangely, Harris was himself the sometime target of anti-semitism. Such unlikely bedfellows as Horatio Bottomley and the egregious Kate Stephens were amongst those who spread the rumour that Harris was Jewish. Since Harris was dark of complexion and his origins were uncertain, since moreover he habitually dressed like a financier and liked to hobnob with millionaires, he fitted a certain popular stereotype.

By modern standards, many of the things that Harris wrote and said are capable of a racist interpretation. But Harris did not believe that people deserved less consideration because of their origins or ancestors, merely that different races tended to have different character traits. In a passage in My Life and Loves about Cecil Rhodes he writes:-

As an ideal [Rhode's belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority] seemed to me grotesque. The races of the world to me were like flowers in a garden, and I would cherish every variety for its own especial excellence; far from being too numerous, they were not numerous enough, and there was not enough variety.

This is a lesser evil: it is impossible for example to imagine Harris for example asserting that someone must be 'Hebrew' because of the defects of their nature, as Kate Stephens did of him. Anyone who has read much writing from the Victorian and Edwardian eras will have some across passages, in Oscar Wilde, in Kipling, in Wells, which are uncomfortable for the modern reader for the way that they carelessly presume a shared bias against foreigners or Jews. Harris is in this regard no worse than most of his contemporaries, and did at least attempt to behave fairly towards individuals of all races, even if his manner could be so insensitive as to offend those to whom he intended to be kind.

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