“Telling It Like It Was,” August 1968

This is one of those books I purchased on impulse. It felt old and enticing, with history captured not only within its pages but in the look and feel of the cover.  This first edition paperback published in 1969, Telling It Like It Was: The Chicago Riots, is an anthology of prose about that last week in August 1968 when violence exploded on the Chicago streets during the Democratic Convention. Delegates were deciding between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern for their presidential candidate.  The book’s cover lists the evocative social names Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden and literary giants William Styron, Arthur Miller and Elizabeth Hardwick as some of the book’s contributors.  How could I resist?

Most of what’s written in the book happened between Saturday, August 24, when the majority of demonstrators began arriving, and the following early Friday morning, August 30, when Chicago police invaded the McCarthy headquarters.  In the preface, editor Walter Schneir describes the “period in which we are living” (the late 1960s) as “a period of signs and portents: assassinations, burning cities, a cruel obscene war, a barbed-wire convention. Massive rock strata shift beneath our feet. In such a bewildering time, writers are challenged to fulfill their most difficult function – to give name, shape, and meaning to the apparent social chaos.”

I was 13 that August in 1968, watching the convention on TV at night with my sister, grandmother and grandmother’s best friend. We were vacationing in a house on Chaska Beach in Northern Ohio.  I have a vivid memory of my sister doing imitations of Humphrey, Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson while sitting on top of a staircase ledge near the TV set.  This book preserves that highly charged August week in Chicago on my bookshelf, as well as the week we depended on the wind off the lake to cool us in the house without air-conditioning, and there was nothing to watch on TV except the convention and the riots.

A note on the book’s editor Walter Schneir:  He’s known for his research and writing about the Rosenberg espionage case, principally for his 1965 book, Invitation to an Inquest, arguing that the Rosenbergs had been framed. He later came to believe – after gaining access to Soviet documents — that Julius Rosenberg indeed was a Soviet spy, although not his wife, Ethel. Schneir continued to dig into what happened to the Rosenbergs, and Melville House is publishing next month his last book, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, with additional revelations. Schneir completed Final Verdict before he died in April 2009.