Non-Fiction Writings

Between 1963 and 1966 much of Elman’s income was derived from writing freelance pieces for magazines, including Cavalier, Commonweal, The Nation, and the The New Republic, to name a few. He also reviewed books for The New York Times. Reproduced here are a haphazard selection of some of those essays and reviews which were found among his papers.

In 1965, Elman worked as a research associate for the School of Social Work Research Center at Columbia University. His book, The Poorhouse State: The American Way of Life On Public Assistance evolved from those experiences where he spent two years interviewing people on relief in New York’s Lower East Side. You may listen to an interview by Dale Minor of Elman about the book on a broadcast from WBAI, April 1, 1963. (Stream link)

In 1967, Elman published another book of reportage, Ill-at-Ease in Compton about the mechanisms of discrimination at work in Compton, California a city with a large lower middle-class population. Richard’s first visit to Compton (a population of 75,000 at the time), was during the 1964 election when he had been sent there to prepare a script about the community for an educational TV station. Compton had been picked as a typical Democratic town which was to be compared to a typically Republican town in program about voting patterns. When Elman reported that the population of Compton was nearly half Negro, the producer was aghast. “I asked for Main Street, U.S.A. and you’ve given me Harlem.” Elman was told to “shoot around” the Negroes. When this was done and the program appeared, it was “Just another piece of skullduggery in that long, squalid chronicle known as broadcasting history.”

In 1972 Elman travelled on the U.S. portion of The Rolling Stones’ 1972 ‘Exile on Main St’ tour for Esquire Magazine, and the essay was expanded for a book, Uptight With The Stones: A Novelist’s Report. “Sharp, witty and sometimes un-PC (by today’s standards), …Elman’s prose borders on poetry in places and takes an unbiased look at the band.”

In 1979 Elman worked as a journalist in Central America, covering the war in Nicaragua against the Somoza regime. He travelled on assignment for GEO magazine and his text accompanied the images of photojournalist Susan Meiselas for the essay, Nicaragua: A People Aflame, GEO I (1979) pp. 32-60, first published in December 1978 of the German edition of GEO, as “Das Drama von Managua.” Elman’s account of that trip and succeeding visits to Nicaragua are told in his book, Cocktails At Somoza’s: A Reporter’s Sketchbook of Revolutionary Nicaragua.

1979 (approximate date) “The Aesthetics of the CIA” is an unpublished essay Elman wrote for a magazine that went under after it had commissioned the work.

“The danger to writing,” Elman wrote, “is when spies act like writers, as instruments of governmental policy. In recent years this has happened so very often that a whole new genre of literature has emerged in our world in which High Culture has been made to serve low ends, and even imaginative writers have invented cover stories to perform treasonable acts against the civilized world of letters.”

Segments of this essay is quoted in, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders (New Press, 1999).

In 1985 Elman taught in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he also attended the trial of clergy providing sanctuary for political refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. These clergy, who were part of a larger Sanctuary movement, were accused by the American Government and the INS of smuggling aliens into this country. The government’s case prevailed. Elman’s account of the trial in his unpublished manuscript, Showdown At Tucson: The Great Sanctuary ‘Alien-Smuggling’ Trial available here, places the issues within the context of those who are critical of U.S. immigration policies, and of the foreign policies of our government in Central America. That these problems persist into our present lives is a testament to the continued relevance of Elman’s work.

1997- Before Elman died, he read the galley-proofs of his memoir, Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs. “What sets this work apart from other recent memoirs is that Elman (Tar Beach) is finally less revealing of himself than of his cultural milieu. Through brief essays, Elman records his encounters with a range of important and interesting public figures, mostly other writers but also musicians, actors and politicians. As a poetry student of Yvor Winters, Elman was housemates with Alexander Kerensky and classmates with Tillie Olsen and the British poet Thom Gunn, while in New York as a freelancer Elman cultivated a relationship with his hero Isaac Bashevis Singer and crossed paths with the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Lowell and Faye Dunaway. …One thing Elman provides, if apparently inadvertently, is a fascinating history of the "listener-sponsored" Pacifica Radio Foundation, for which Elman produced pieces on James Agee and Hart Crane.” Publisher’s Weekly: Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information.

All of Elman’s broadcasts for WBAI are available here with links to the Pacifica Foundation archives, and can be found on the Recordings section of the website.