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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Dan Wakefield’s legacy

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Dan Wakefield (Photo provided/ Kara Kavensky) 

Dan Wakefield didn’t swear on Sundays. He hadn’t owned a car since an accident in Miami over fifteen years ago. He enjoyed good company and excellent conversation, and readily expressed aggravation towards technology — his nemesis.

Wakefield was born May 21, 1932, and grew up in Indianapolis on Guilford Avenue, where his backyard bumped up against the track and football field for Broad Ripple High School. He went to IPS #80, then took two buses from his home to attend Shortridge High School, graduating in 1950 with Richard Lugar. The Senator would later honor his friend at the opening of Dan Wakefield Park in Broad Ripple in 2016.

Wakefield went to Columbia University and majored in journalism. He contributed to Dissent, Commonweal, Commentary, New World Writing, Harpers, Esquire, The Atlantic, The Yoga Journal, GQ and TV Guide. Wakefield became a staff writer for The Nation, covering the Emmett Till trial.

Devery Anderson, author of “A Slow, Calculated lynching: The Story of Clyde Kennard” interviewed Dan Wakefield for his book titled, “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled The Civil Rights Movement”. Dan discovered, through Anderson, that he was one of the last living journalists to have covered the trial.

Here is Anderson’s account:

I interviewed Dan Wakefield for my book, “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement” back on November 20, 2006. I sought him out because I wanted to interview everyone who covered the trial for the press.

He was only twenty-three at the time of the trial and this assignment with The Nation was his first real assignment. He took a bus and The Nation magazine paid for his roundtrip fare, which was around $42. He talked to me about how naïve he was when he thought he would be welcome by going door to door in Sumner and asking people what they thought of the trial.

One story he told me was that he learned that some witnesses were being held in a jail several miles out of town and that he wanted to go check it out. He asked some police for directions and they told him they’d take him there themselves. Several miles out of town, they stopped the car and said, “This is where you get out, boy.” They made him get out on a country road, nowhere near where he was going, and he was forced to walk back into town. When he returned, he told Murray Kempton about it, and Kempton told him, “You’re lucky that all they did was let you walk back.”

This scene was dramatized in the ABC miniseries on “Emmett Till, Women of the Movement”, which is based on my book.

He was very kind and generous and told me that when my book came out that he’d probably review it. I had the publisher send him a copy of it, and he reviewed it and reminisced about the trial in an article in The Nation in 2016.

I was impressed by his memory of the events, and he was careful to not exaggerate or embellish anything. If he couldn’t remember, he told me so. For this case to have been his first assignment as a reporter must have been an eye-opener.

In 1959, Wakefield published his first book, “Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem,” based upon six months he spent living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Manhattan. His follow-up book was “Revolt in the South” (1962). In 1968, The Atlantic dedicated an entire issue to his coverage of the Vietnam War. He also interviewed the Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. Dan was friends with James  “Jimmy” Baldwin, Joan Didion and John Dunne, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and John Updike.

When Dan had an idea for his first novel, his agent took him to dinner at a swanky restaurant and was not-so-politely told to “stick to journalism, kid; you are not a novelist.” Dan did not heed this advice and wrote “Going All The Way” late at night and on weekends for the proceeding year.

In the Foreword to “Going All The Way”, (1970) Dan’s first novel, Vonnegut wrote, “Dan Wakefield is a friend of mine. We both went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis — where the students put out a daily paper, by the way. His publisher is my publisher. He has boomed my books. So I would praise his first novel, even it hit were putrid. But I wouldn’t give my Word of Honor that is was good. Word of Honor: Mr. Wakefield has been a careful and deep author of nonfiction for years — Island in the City, Revolt in the South, The Addict…The Atlantic Monthly gave him an issue all his own for Supernation at Peace and War. Word of Honor: he is also an important novelist now.

Going All the Way is about what hell it is to be oversexed in Indianapolis, and why so many oversexed people run away from there. It is also about the narrowness and dimness of many lives out that way. And I guarantee you this: Wakefield himself, having written this book, can never go home again. From  now on, he will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.”

Dan would later write that he was happy that his friend Kurt was wrong on this last point. He did move back to Indianapolis. There were, however, angry feelings when “Going All the Way” was published in 1970 that Dan had gone too far in this novel. Dan wrote, “Some people (mostly ones I barely knew) thought I’d exposed their most intimate secrets, while others felt I had cast aspersions on their community and its values.”

Wakefield wrote several more books, including “Starting Over” (1973), “Home Free” (1977), “Under the Apple Tree” (1982), and “Selling Out” (1985). Wakefield was a screenwriter for “James at 15”, which was canceled by NBC over controversy involving birth control. Wakefield lived most of his life in New York City and Boston, then moved to Miami to teach at Florida International University. When he retired, he relocated back to Indianapolis until last November to spend his final days in Miami, near his goddaughter and her family. He died in hospice on March 13th, 2024.

Wakefield’s mantra is a quote (from an unconfirmed source): “Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Throughout Wakefield’s final fifteen years in Indianapolis, he kept up a website, had a podcast, and contributed articles to multiple publications, including this piece in Indianapolis Monthly, “How An Old White Guy Got Woke” about his friendship with Baldwin.

Wakefield’s last few books were about his friend, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Dan assembled a collection of graduation speeches of Vonnegut’s in “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” and Dan’s last book, which was released at the age of 90, was “Kurt Vonnegut: The Making of a Writer.”

Perhaps Vonnegut predicted that Dan would move back to Indianapolis because one day he said to Dan, “We never had to leave Indianapolis to be writers because there are people there who are just as kind and just as mean, just as smart and just as dumb, as people anywhere else in the world.”

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