The Essential Ellen Willis

EllenWillisThe Essential Ellen Willis
by Ellen Willis (Nona Willis Aronowitz, Editor)
University of Minnesota Press (May 1, 2014), 536 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon paperback $19.54

Ellen Willis was a prolific commentator on both social issues and pop culture. Her most well-known work was her music criticism. I reviewed, well sort of,  the anthology of her work as a music critic, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, back in 2013.

The Essential Ellen Willis covers much different territory. While there is a very long opening essay about Bob Dylan, the book is largely made up of her essays on political and social issues. She is an unabashed feminist and unashamedly quite far to the left in her political leanings. The essays are grouped by decade: the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and the first half of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

This is how Willis describes herself in one essay. I believe that this is worth quoting at length because how she sees herself informs almost all of her writing:

quoteI’m an unmarried mother, one of those miscreants recently denounced in these pages by former education secretary William Bennett and Peter Wehner of Empower America. I am not and have never been on welfare; rather, I’m the sort of affluent Murphy Brown type Dan Quayle thinks sets a bad example for the lower classes. Nor am I functionally a single parent: I live with my daughter’s father, my companion of 14 years. I’ve always hoped we would join or start a communal household, but it hasn’t happened. As far as I can tell, our domestic routine is indistinguishable from that of married couples in our socioeconomic milieu—at least those couples who are making a self-conscious effort to share child-rearing. Our finances are equally intertwined, our problems no doubt equally banal.

Her quest for the communal household never succeeded. She wrote a cogent essay on the difficulties of obtaining quality childcare in which she expresses a similar yearning. She was clear-eyed and practical, however. She notes that in a hippie commune the women would take care of the children and the men would go off and do their own thing. Not at all the model she sought. (Willis did, by the way, eventually marry her partner, sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, near the end of her life.)

While the quote above was obviously from an essay written in the 1980’s (Murphy Brown, Dan Quayle), I was most engaged by her essays from the sixties and seventies. They are a real time capsule into those two eras. (They were two different eras in my personal experience.) I found her work from the nineties less engaging, though she has plenty to say about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and other goings on of the decade.

The final piece was a reproduction of an unfinished work entitled “Why We Need a Freudian Left.” Makes no sense to me, but she was intent on it in her last days her husband tells us.

Willis died in 2006. Like Molly Ivins, we lost her far to soon. Though Willis was a much deeper thinker than Ivins, both were progressive voices of reason. We don’t have enough of those.

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