The 1968 Exhibit: Eldridge Cleaver, "Soul on Ice," published 1968

soulonicecover An inflammatory book of black rage Eldridge Cleaver (1935-98) made one of the 20th century's more unusual journeys through public life--youthful criminality and prison, radical politics, literary celebrity, presidential political campaigning, exile, born-again Christianity, conversion to Mormonism and then to conservative Republican politics, embarrassingly provocative clothing design.   American popular culture has seen its share its share of "one-book wonders," and Cleaver fits the description.  Soul on Ice, some of which had been excerpted in Ramparts magazine (where the masses presumably had not seen it) was an extraordinary, inflammatory book of black rage, poured like gasoline on the fire of white anxiety and fear in the summer of 1968. "A formidable analytical mind." White people, especially white intellectuals of the New Left, were looking for avatars to guide them through the dense thicket of black anger, for ways of knowing and thinking about black "demands" and expectations.  Here, suddenly, was the eloquent guide they were looking for.  The blurbs excerpted on the back of the book are, with one exception, by "literary" white people:  Geoffrey Wolff (praising Cleaver's "moral energy"); Thomas Lask ("an exceptional volume"); Robert Coles ("He is full of Christian care, Christian grief and disappointment . . ."); and radical critic Maxwell Geismar, whose introduction to the book is quoted on the back:  "Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing. . . ."    The sole black critic is Julian Mayfield, writing in The Nation:  "Beautifully written by a man with a formidable analytical mind." "What does the Negro want?" "Cultural critic."  "Formidable mind."  "Moral energy."  Unexpected praise for someone who writes (dated October 1965, in Folsom Prison):  "I'm perfectly aware that I'm in prison, that I'm a Negro, that I've been a rapist, that I have a Higher Uneducation."   But Soul on Ice, with its short, punchy chapters and outrageous pronouncements that somehow also ring true ("That growing numbers of white youth are repudiating their heritage of blood and taking people of color as their heroes and models is a tribute not only to their insight but to the resilience of the human spirit") was absolutely riveting to hordes of readers, both black and white.  For blacks, here was a new literary hero--articulate and learned, but speaking in a voice that "sounded like 'right now.'"  For whites, Cleaver was a hip, edgy answer to that desperate Sixties question:  "What does the Negro want?"   In some ways, especially in retrospect, Soul on Ice looks like the kitchen sink.  As perhaps befits the man who became the "Minister of Information" for the Black Panthers, Cleaver has something to say about everyone and everything: Baldwin and homosexuality (he's against it), King, Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones, the United Nations, Elijah Muhammed, LBJ, FDR, JFK, Vietnam ("The black man's interest lies in seeing a strong Vietnam which is not the puppet of white supremacy"), Norman Mailer, Castro, Muhammed Ali, Stepin Fetchit, the New Left, beatniks and Ginsberg, World War II, colonialism, Frederick Douglass and the Civil War.  There's even a strikingly astute riff on Ian Fleming's James Bond, who is "offering the whites a triumphant image of themselves."  The book ends in a couple of chapters--I'm guessing most readers skipped these--that offer meandering and deeply misogynistic rantings about white women and black women. A summertime 1968 bestseller Soul on Ice was a sensational publishing phenomenon.  It showed up--in hardback--in the top ten of the New York Times Best Seller List (10th, to be exact) twice in late summer 1968--not a gigantic blockbuster, but still remarkable given its fellow occupants on the list (diet books, books about rich people and money, The Naked Ape).  It was in paperback--the version depicted here-- that the book's influence was most strongly felt.  Here, indeed, is a true icon of 1968:  the Black Man with Afro and furrowed brow, liberated from prison (in the background), posed with a clutch of white lilies, symbolizing . . . well, who knows?