letters to a young activist

by Todd Gitlin

(Basic Books, 192 pages, $22.50)

Following the success of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and Media Unlimited, Todd Gitlin's most recent book fails to deliver. As a part of Basic Books' "Art of Mentoring" series, Gitlin invokes the pose of a veteran activist with a collection of essays (or "letters") written in the style of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.

Throughout the sometimes overly sentimental "letters" of Gitlin's runs a single, rather hardnosed theme: "So much the worse for me, and no excuse for you," "we" are responsible for what "we" do. Gitlin writes as an imaginary activist-cum-skeptic to impart the dreadfully important message that even activists aren't perfect, and that even though we need them, activists must remember to behave humanely and intelligently.

One primary difference between Gitlin's book and Rilke's is that the poet's work is a collection of letters to an actual person, and so the focus is consistent. Gitlin's letters often speak directly to the reading audience, forgetting the premise entirely, only to return intermittently to the device of personally addressing the made-up callow rebel. Considering that the "activist" is a work of imaginative fiction, it is somewhat less than startling that Gitlin is able to produce abundant "insight" into his character's psyche. But far too much of this thin book seems preoccupied in describing the "activist."

This aspect of the work has little value, save that it may, in the eyes of the publisher, have been necessary to include it in the series, which also boasts of Letters to a Young Chef and Letters to a Young Golfer. I had hoped for more from Gitlin.
James Walling

Gitlin will read at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1668. 7:30 pm Monday, May 19.