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Lessons learned from the struggle

Adam Hochschild studies the 18th century anti-slavery movement.

January 29, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Author and historian Adam Hochschild has been party to more than his share of social agitation.

While a student at Harvard, Hochschild spent the 1962 summer break working for an anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa, then came home to enlist in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Those fights drew him to journalism and, in 1974, led him to join some like-minded friends in launching Mother Jones, an investigative magazine for political progressives.

So Hochschild, 62, has been around the protest block. Still, it came as a surprise to him a few years ago to find the roots of modern political action in the ornately penned minutes of 18th century British anti-slavery meetings. It was all there. Grass-roots organizing. Political posters. Campaign pins. Speakers bureaus and hired poets trumpeting the cause from street corners, pubs and coffee shops -- the ancestral op-ed piece, he says.

Darwinian rules applied -- only the fittest ideas survived.

"Reading the minutes, it's not as though they sat down and brainstormed, 'What are the new techniques we can do?' " Hochschild says, sitting in a sun-dappled kitchen window alcove of his home overlooking the Castro District. "But they were very alert to when someone had stumbled onto one of these techniques and it worked; they saw it."

Hochschild's new book, "Bury the Chains," offers a history of the British abolitionists, a commendable crew of zealots who over a half-century persuaded the world's then-dominant superpower to sacrifice economic self-interest for the freedom of people halfway around the world.

At least that's the way conventional history treats the story -- the reality, as Hochschild writes, was much more convoluted, and with more shadows.

But his book also argues -- as did Hochschild during a Los Angeles Public Library talk this week -- that the British abolitionists launched the world's first mass social protest movement. It was, Hochschild believes, a watershed moment in civil progress.

"It was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights," Hochschild writes. "And most startling of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent."

"Bury the Chains" is Hochschild's sixth book, and each has touched at least obliquely on human rights issues, from his 1986 "Half the Way Home: A Memoir of a Father and Son," about his own awakening to the world, to 1994's "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin," to his award-winning "King Leopold's Ghost" in 1998, which detailed the brutal roots of Belgian Congo and the millions who died there beginning in the 1880s.

The books also reveal the core of Hochschild's interests. History is defined by big events like wars and cataclysms, colonial expansions and such broad conditions as slavery. Hochschild tries to block out the glare from those supernovas to find smaller flashes of the human experience -- the ambitions of Belgium's King Leopold, the Russian people surviving a murderous government, individual morality.

"I like writing about these things for the same reasons that writers for a very long time have liked writing about good and evil," Hochschild says. "I find so much human drama in the stories like this one about the anti-slavery movement. To me, it's much more exciting than writing about World War II or the American Civil War, where you can also have a sense of there are good guys and bad guys and the good guys win. But it's a story that's been told so many times."

A native New Yorker, Hochschild landed in San Francisco in 1964 "in pursuit of my then-fiancee, now wife," Berkeley sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild, "for what we thought would be just a year or two until we moved back to the East Coast, which of course was the center of the world."

They decided to stick around.

A Harvard grad and former Fulbright scholar, Adam Hochschild has the look and tone of an East Coast academic, with a shock of white hair over a medium build, a slightly craggy face and a penchant for comfortable small-plaid shirts. He speaks evenly, in conversant paragraphs, with an engaging tone that would seem at home across the bay at Berkeley, where Hochschild is a part-time lecturer in the graduate school of journalism.

The arrangement feeds several of Hochschild's interests -- talking about the creative process of writing, discussing journalism and delving into Berkeley's extensive library, one of the largest collections in the world. Access to the library, which has extensive holdings from Georgian England, allowed Hochschild to research his book on British history while making only two overseas trips.

He intended to write a biography of British evangelist John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who was reputed to have written the hymn "Amazing Grace" after having a mid-ocean epiphany, turning his slave-laden ship back to Africa and leaving the trade.

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