Reading memoirs with an eye to technique and wordplay is almost always counterproductive. Such personal views of life and history are written to place the writer’s presence and activities into context with the grander social drama about them. With Rudd, both his presence and the grander social drama surrounding him are the stuff of some of modern history's more pivotal moments.
To synopsize this history: SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, was founded in the early ‘sixties and based on a moralizing student position paper called the Port Huron Statement, which was largely concerned with racism and the Vietnam War, both seen as manifestations of embedded social inequality.
With the war dragging on and becoming more visible via the media each day, students began to link up organizationally with outside antiwar groups. Sit-ins and demonstrations sprang up at university campuses, including Rudd’s at Columbia.
These groups had remarkable success in drawing worldwide attention to various racial policies, research practices, and look-the-other way attitudes of university boards in the U.S. As a result, students began to shut down universities worldwide in protest of a host of economic practices coalesced about the Vietnam War.
Then things began to unwind for SDS. It broke into feuding factions, all seemingly trying to one-up the others in their devotion to radicalized New Left politics and an equally radicalized world order. Many turned to symbolic displays of violence, then went underground to avoid jail and to perpetuate their self-styled revolution.
This, then, is Rudd’s canvas. He cast his lot with a radical group, The Weathermen, which sought to spark a nationwide political revolt against what they saw as institutionalized social inequality enforced by governmental violence. Rudd, by admission, was not of such a combative mind. As a result, he quickly disappeared underground, married, had children, and finally—after seven underground years—resurfaced in order to live in the open.
Rudd’s account depicts his fellow student activists (organizers, as he terms them) as highly idealistic with effective organizing skills. Their postures, however, seemed more nearly trained on what they were against than on what should replace the world’s ills.
In Rudd's view, SDS and its offshoots became too caught up in individualistic expressions, these ultimately fracturing the unified front the New Left put up in opposition to the Vietnam war and social injustice.
From my own forty-years-later viewpoint, Rudd and his compatriots, despite their radical ideas, were too emotionally tied to the U.S.’s tendency to “rugged individualism,” preventing them from maintaining the unified front necessary to push such social change to fruition.
This personal/social schizophrenia showed up in many ways: One radical, who robbed banks and killed police to finance a revolutionary agenda, subsequently helped fellow prisoners obtain GEDs and provided them with AIDS counseling. After surfacing, Rudd taught in a western community college, where he led a successful revamping of curricula and teaching methods to facilitate learning. During this time, he successfully organized and founded a helpful teacher’s union, even as he urged students to voice critical views of U.S. society.
But a word about the writing: As I wrote at the beginning of this post, evaluating such memoirs technically is foolish; still, Rudd’s displays better wordcraft than most, especially with regard to temporality. I’m fascinated in my own writing, as well as with books such as Rudd’s, at the manner in which temporality occurs, i.e., in how time is orchestrated.
In Underground, time seems almost to stand still during the SDS siege of Columbia University. Rudd dwells on events in great detail at this point, pushing the reader along moment by moment. This reader wanted to stride across events, but Rudd insists on restraining the reader in each moment, forcing one to look around, to live it as he did. Later, during his years underground, and particularly as he sums up his post-resurfacing era, time races along, taking months and years in great bounds. It’s impossible to tell whether Rudd consciously orchestrated things in this way, but it’s been done to great effect.
What might one take from this book in a historical sense? The 'sixties have been written to death – some of the best writing by Todd Gitlin, Jules Witcover, and Paul Berman. The unique thing about Rudd's book is that it focuses on the personal – Rudd's own idealism, his conflicts with the U.S.'s often glaring imperfections, how one might change them – wholesale or piecemeal – or how one might live within a society of such blemishes while its evolution moves slowly, inexorably forward.