For Local Writer, Literature Leads to Politics

“A sense of humor is fatal in politics,” David R. Slavitt says dryly, in his usual cynical tone. This November, he’d like to prove that maxim wrong.

It’s a dreary day, and Slavitt is en route to Somerville to collect signatures. Poet, author, critic, and translator, Slavitt hopes to tack yet another title onto his resume: politician. After collecting his 150th signature last week, he is now the only Republican challenger to Democratic State Representative Timothy J. Toomey, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville.

But shoe-leather campaigning hasn’t been easy for the 69-year-old member of the Leverett Senior Common Room.

“It’s a humiliating experience,” Slavitt says of the signature-gathering. “I see myself doing stuff that the entire purpose of a Harvard degree is to defend against.”

On a chilly spring day, Slavitt stands in front of the Star Market at Somerville’s Twin Cities Plaza, a slowly sinking strip mall. A closed Mars Music store sits entombed at one end of the lot, its windows revealing a dark and empty interior. Drab storefronts advertise a Fleet Bank, Dunkin’ Donuts and SuperCuts. Shoppers carry grocery bags to their cars.

The writer-cum-candidate, sporting white sneakers, a black leather jacket and a baseball cap, accosts customers. “Excuse me sir, are you registered to vote in Somerville or Cambridge?”

He receives a near-endless parade of nasty looks and blank stares in response. The apathy of the U.S. voter is present in the Plaza this afternoon, and Slavitt is bearing the brunt of it.

Nevertheless, he pursues the passersby, limping after those who ignore his initial pleas. Slavitt is insistent, but not pushy. Many of the women he speaks to seem charmed by his one-liners and flattery. By the end of the afternoon, he has amassed his signature quota for the day.

Slavitt has chutzpah, and he surely needs it. The political task at hand is not a simple one—Slavitt is looking to uproot a six-term incumbent who is also a Cambridge city councillor. It doesn’t help that he’s running as a Republican, in a town that leans so far to the left some have dubbed it “The People’s Republic.”

“The idea of a Republican primary in Cambridge sounds Dadaist,” Slavitt admits. But, he says, in politics one never knows.

“[Toomey] could be hit by a bus,” he says. “An enormous bird could pick him up and take him to a...cliff in the Arabian nights. You don’t know. As God said to the guy who prayed for the lottery, be fair—buy a ticket.”

PORTRAIT OF THE POET

Slavitt is a combination of pomposity and sardonicism, a man who is smart, talented, funny—and knows it. He was raised in the affluent suburbs of Westchester, N.Y., the son of a prominent Manhattan lawyer. In his teens he shipped off to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., matriculating at Yale College in 1952.

As a Jewish student who attended elite Northeastern schools in the heyday of the Protestant Establishment, Slavitt faced prejudice growing up. When he applied for admission to Choate, a school representative calmly informed his parents that the year’s “Hebrew quota” had already been reached. Slavitt, a middle-schooler at the time, was in the room.

He remembers being angry, but now laughs at the irony he has lived to see.

“Are there any Ivies with non-Jewish presidents?” Slavitt jokes.

He excelled as a Bulldog, publishing his poetry in top-notch publications like the Yale Review and the Chicago Review. “I was a phenom,” Slavitt says happily.

After being named a Scholar of the House—a senior-year honors program that allowed the blossoming writer to waive his fourth-year classes—Slavitt graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English.

“There’s a certain kind of self-starting person who doesn’t need courses,” he says. He recalls “hanging around” a lot during his senior year, mostly spending time at Yale’s exclusive literary society, the Elizabethan Club.

After picking up a Master’s degree from Columbia, Slavitt moved into the professional world. In 1958, he was hired as a film critic for Newsweek—or, as he describes it, a “flicker picker.”

“It’s every English major’s dumb idea,” Slavitt says. “I can always go to New York and review books and novels for Time or Newsweek.”

It wasn’t, of course, as simple as that. Slavitt’s father was friends with a top official at the magazine, and helped his son procure an interview.

“You’re the third most important reviewer in the world just because of your position,” Slavitt says, recalling his experience as a critic.

But it was never his intention to make a career of thumbs-up, thumbs-down. Slavitt said he commuted to film screenings on the same train as Bosley Crowther, The New York Times’ now-legendary longtime critic and also a Westchester resident.

“I thought, how humiliating,” Slavitt said. “This man is a living joke and doesn’t understand it.” He recalls attending Frankie Avalon movies and being disgusted by the profession.

“I also found I could get [a film] a terrible review in the Times if I could sit in [Crowther’s] favorite chair” at the theater, he laughs.

Slavitt left Newsweek in 1965, set on a career as a writer. He has since produced a prolific collection of over 80 works, ranging from poetry to novels to Latin translations.

“MY LIFE IS MY HOBBY”

In 2002, Slavitt’s son Evan launched an unsuccessful bid for Massachusetts attorney general. The younger Slavitt was unable to attain the 10,000 signatures needed to earn a spot on the ballot, but he encouraged his father to take a stab at the political process.

“Why don’t you run for state rep?” Slavitt remembers his son asking him. “You only need 150 signatures.”

At times, Slavitt sounds like he is pursuing political office on a whim.

“My life is my hobby,” he says. “I’ve never [run for office] before. I’m 69 years old. The chances of my taking up snowboarding are remote. But this is an interesting new thing I can do.”

Later on, he waxes patriotic.

“It seems to me to be the unselfish thing to do,” he says. “I owe it to a country that’s been very good to me.”

A socially liberal conservative, Slavitt is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage. He stands by his Republican affiliation, however.

“Santa Claus is a Democrat, God is a Republican,” he quips. The Democrats “make people dependent on the government. The system works best when it’s left to itself.”

There are literary concerns, too.

“The best writers are really quite conservative,” Slavitt says. “Hemingway, Faulkner.... The lefty crazies in college manage to teach these books without ever letting you know that they’re right-wing.”

Indeed, Slavitt is not happy with the current state of American academia.

“They want diversity, they want everybody to be represented,” he says. “They’ve thrown out Dryden and put in Morrison.”

And to Slavitt, the faculty assignments at these institutions are just as flawed as the curricula.

“You can’t have a non-Asian-American teaching Asian Studies; you can’t have a non-black teaching black studies. You can hardly have a straight guy teaching Auden, Whitman, or James Merrill,” he says, lamenting what he believes are current university hiring practices.

DON’T TALK TOOMEY

Slavitt’s dislike of the opposition is anything but equivocal.

He accuses his opponent (“Tinny Tiny Timmy Toomey, as I try not to call him”) of taking orders from Thomas M. Finneran, the Democratic speaker of the house.

“There is so much animus against Toomey,” he says. “He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

“Tim Toomey is sort of like a Robin Hood guy. He wants to steal from the rich and give to the poor,” Slavitt says. “He is not in favor of PILOT [Payment In Lieu Of Taxes] and he wants Harvard to take in vastly more money than it does and he wants to give it to his constituency. Without Harvard or MIT, Cambridge basically is Everett or Somerville. It’s a great national ornament and it should be protected.”

Toomey is also being challenged by a fellow Democrat, Avi Green, a local political consultant who, like Slavitt, is launching his first campaign.

“Mr. Slavitt is running as he says—to bring a two-party system to the district,” says Josh Sugarman, Green’s campaign manager. “The Green campaign supports that completely and respects his desire to do so.”

Slavitt himself says it is too early to gauge Green’s chances in the election.

It is questionable, however, whether Slavitt’s own political career will be taking off anytime soon.

Slavitt is well-respected, says local political pundit Robert Winters, who edits the Cambridge Civic Journal. “Not that he stands a chance in hell of winning in a place like Cambridge,” Winters adds.

Toomey himself expressed ambivalence towards his challenger.

“I haven’t had the fortune to meet him yet,” Toomey says. But, he adds, “every election is a challenge.”

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu