anti-fascist poet, priest and warrior
Kenneth Leslie was born at midnight on October 31, 1892, in Pictou, Nova Scotia into a well-to do family. His father, Robert Jamieson Leslie, controlled large fishing interests and was a partner in a growing steamship operation. In 1905 he was elected as the Liberal member for the County of Gaspe, but only sat in the Quebec legislature for one session before being drowned in the sinking of his company’s 113 ton steamship “Lunenburg” on December 4, 1905, when the ship went down off Amherst Island.
Leslie’s mother, Bertha (Starratt) Leslie has been described as a graceful and sophisticated woman who took a purposeful interest in her son’s intellectual, religious and artistic development. She sent him to a one room private school in Halifax known as the Arnold School, where he studied Latin “at an early age” and played rugby and cricket. When he was entering grade eight, his mother made extensive inquiries to identify the most highly regarded teacher in the Halifax public school system. Convinced at length that this was G.K. Butler, principal of Alexandra School, she made her son walk the three miles each day from their residence in the affluent south end of the city to Butler’s school in the working class north end.
By the time Leslie entered Dalhousie University at the age of 14, socialism, mysticism and poetry were his foundations for understanding the world. He would later state his socialism was “learned At the First Baptist Church in Halifax.” Where, apparently, he came to appreciate the social gospel and the value of an unhierarchical church.
Two undergraduate essays now preserved among the Leslie papers in the Dalhousie University Archives reveal his early and intensive interest in mysticism. He had begun writing poetry as a boy, his first effort being remembered as an ode to Bonny Prince Charlie. He gradated in 1912 with a Bachelor in Arts for Literature.
Leslie entered Colgate Theological Seminary where his maternal uncle Frank Starratt was a teacher of divinity. He helped form the Socialist Club at the seminary, but left after a year to take an M.A. at the University of Nebraska. His dissertation was entitled A Modern View of Mysticism (1914). He went on to study philosophy at Harvard under the prominent idealist Josiah Royce but failed the lingual test for the Ph.D.
Leslie’s first wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of wealthy Halifax candy manufacturer, James Moir.
Moir bankrolled Leslie through a number of improbable occupations including bull ranching and vegetable farming and some questionable investments in the American stock market of the late 1920s.
Kenneth Leslie was born into a class that had access to large comfortable cars and boats. They enjoyed extended spontaneous excursions and vacations with time for long conversations that allowed them to exercise their educations.
Leslie himself was apparently sensitive towards his own wardrobe, but he felt the acquisition of material goods for their own sake was a dead end. An important friend during this time was Robert Norwood, a native of New Ross, N.S. who published eight books of poetry and became, as rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, one of the most renowned preachers in North America. Norwood was almost a generation older than Leslie and described as a brilliant conversationalist and student of mysticism.
Scholar and poet Burris Devanney wrote in Canadian Poetry Volume 5, 1979 that Norwood “had a considerable influence upon Leslie’s thinking and was the inspiration for one of his longest and most mystical poems, “The Shanachie Man,” a poem written in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s which provides a valuable key to the interpretation of a great deal of Leslie’s work.”
“Norwood’s deep conviction that as a preacher and as a poet he “was merely an instrument trained to give voice to a message that was not necessarily his” is the thematic basis of Leslie’s poem. In Irish folklore a shanachie man is a teller of tales and legends and an instrument for the transmission of wisdom and cultural values from generation to generation. Leslie’s shanachie man, modeled upon Norwood, is identified with the evolution of human consciousness and is presented both as a representative man and a poet-interpretor of the human condition. He embodies the most ancient and fundamental of human aspirations, which “sleeps in the seed” and governs the course of human evolution like a divine law; there burn in his eyes the “dream and [the] dream undone” which, “like a low insistent sun,” have inspired man’s “slippery evolutionary climb / Out of the swamp, clear of the slime.” The shanachie man tells of how God, a powerful, proud and passionate lover, “tumbles creation up out of its lair” and lavishes beauty upon it with “feverish art” and almost savage fury, and pursues or drives men inexorably through “blood-lit ages,” harrying them constantly in and through their own dreams, their own deeds and their own art. He is:
Troubler of Iknaton’s dream,
Sword of Agamemnon’s woe,
Brush of Fra Angelico,
Pulse of Robert Burns’ pen.
“The shanachie man interprets all that is bloody and fearful in human history and the natural world as but the design of nature partially seen. The poet is an instrument of “the will of the world” by which knowledge is born, a means by which the creative principle of the universe becomes intelligible not only to man but to itself. The poet and man in general constitute the means (or a means) by which God speaks to himself, knows himself: “I have felt the soul of this other / Who talks to himself in his shanachie brother.” “
To a modern reader, this might sound pretty Gnostic in nature but i think it’s actually Monism, which is a philosophical term, sometimes applied to religious systems of thought and there have been Christian-Monists, including the theologian Paul Tillich, who Leslie was later close friends with. He was also close to and worked with Martin Buber and Reinhold Niebuhr, prominent theologians and intellectuals of his time and was the first white member of Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. As a mystic, it was at this intersection, between flesh and spirit, which is where i think Kenneth Leslie wanted to live; with the shanachie man. Small, human and fragile. Lost in a choiceless, revolutionary moment, but always keeping a sense of love and a history that heals.
Devanney writes further: “Though he did not believe in an after-life, he was a thorough-going optimist in his religious convictions and in his belief in the value of poetry. He believed in the God-inspired evolution of the universe. But “God cannot make his kingdom on Earth without man’s cooperation,” he wrote. “Mere waiting is not enough. Someone must be up and doing. God’s will only permeates history through men, through what the Communists call the masses and the Christians call the body of man which God claimed and claims as His Body.” Leslie accepted the divine imperative in his own life to be “up and doing,” but pursued his political objectives with a profound mystical (though far from naive) belief in love as the ultimate determinative force in the universe.”
Leslie moved his family to New York City and became involved in another series of businesses or adventures that included acting lessons for himself, his kids performing in a Broadway play, and a radio show on WOR Newark NJ, offering Gaelic songs, poetry and violin. He was lay preacher in two churches. He had a dance band, a self produced musical that almost got to stage and no luck at all storming tin-pan alley with his brother and sister as songwriting partners, though his ‘Cape Breton Lullaby’ is still popular, though often sung to an older folk tune. And he kept writing poetry.
Leslie felt a deep sense of loss when Norwood died unexpectedly in 1932 at age 60, and again when Elizabeth divorced him. He could understand the divorce; “My wife had the habit of taking all the children away to stay with relatives for months at a time, leaving me alone. I stepped out on her and she divorced me” is the comment we’re left with, but Elizabeth responded angrily, separating him from his children and changing his son’s name. He thought that was unnecessarily cruel.
He married for a second time to Marjorie Finlay Hewitt, a divorcé, and his first volume of poetry Windward Rock / POEMS (Macmillan, NYC, 1934) contains poems for both his wives. The book got good reviews, both here and in England. Leslie kept writing and publishing, and regularly, but often with local publishers, so his work didn’t get much notice, and even when he won the Governor-General’s award with the publication in Toronto of By Stubborn Stars and Other Poems in 1938 he spoke of it to few people.
Leslie had been conscious of the rise of fascism and anti-Semitic activity in the United States during the early 1930s. He spent the year of 1928 traveling ‘in France’ and probably would have noted the rise of European fascism, but i have no specific reference for that. Biographer Burris Devanney writes “he had become increasingly disturbed by the growth of fascist and anti-semitic attitudes in the United States throughout the ’thirties and the concomitant influence of isolationist sentiments on American foreign policy. He was particularly dismayed by the tacit and sometimes overt support given to such ideas by prominent churchmen, of whom the most popular and possibly the most extreme was the charismatic Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin, whose Sunday afternoon broadcasts attacking international Jewish bankers and alleging the existence of a Marxist-Zionist conspiracy to rule the world attracted audiences of up to forty million. Ultra-conservative and blatantly anti-semitic organizations had begun to come out into the open all over the United States, groups such as the German-American Bund, the Protestant War Veterans Association, the Christian Mobilizers, the Christian Front, and William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts — and Coughlinism was galvanizing these elements into something like a movement. The largest and most effective, if not the most militant, of these organizations was the Christian Front, which had been spawned in Brooklyn with the encouragement of the Tablet, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn, edited by Coughlin’s friend and supporter Patrick Scanlan. Chapters of the Christian Front sprang up all over the United States espousing Nazi ideals and using Nazi methods. “They organized ‘buy Christian only’ movements and in 1938, 1939, and 1940 made the streets, subways and movie theatres of many cities in the United States unsafe for Jews.” Leslie believed that anti-semitism was but a smoke-screen for Fascism and that it was urgent that liberal-minded persons of all faiths confront the Fascist movement head on, in the churches, in the schools, in the media, and in the political arena. He recognized the mass influence and the political ‘clout’ that could be exercised by hundreds of liberal-minded clergymen if they could be brought together to form a common front of their own.”
In 1938, with the financial support of his wife, Kenneth Leslie created the Protestant Digest, a monthly journal of religion and politics, the first number of which was issued in December of that year. The magazine would reach a circulation of 50,000 and become a major voice speaking out against fascist, racist and anti-semitic organizations and activity.
Leslie chose three Nova Scotian men to assist him. Ralph ‘Kelly’ Morton became associate editor of the magazine and Sanford Archibald became Leslie’s personal assistant. Both had extensive experience in Canadian and international newspaper production and distribution. Gerald Richardson came from the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia, where he studied and worked under Moses Coady, co- founder of the movement and a friend and inspiration to Leslie. He seems to have been the go-to guy and edited the comic book The Challenger. “They were experienced journalists who also knew how to raise money, sell magazines and organize mass meetings” (Devanney). Leslie was pretty energetic himself. He was used to performing his, and traditional poetry and music and had developed a sense of stage presence through acting lessons. His class – his ability to be educated in poetry and philosophy and his free time to engage in lengthly correspondence – allowed him social intercourse with some of the most prominent personalities of the day. Devanney writes ” Leslie was in constant demand as a speaker at important functions. A cursory examination of his available correspondence reveals that between March 1939 and February 1943, for instance, he had about sixty major speaking engagements”. In addition to his editorial responsibilities and public speaking, between 1939 and 1947 Leslie and his assistant Archibald produced more political dinners, benefits and theater previews than i can casually describe.
In 1943 The Chicago church of Rev. Paul J. Filino, most active of the Regional Action Groups of the Textbook Commission, was burned down because of his civil rights activities on behalf of Jews. The Chicago group was also responsible for the defeat of an anti-semitic candidate for Congress and the legal prohibition of the Gentile Cooperative Association, which had been organizing a city-wide boycott of Jewish businesses.
The title of the magazine was changed to The Protestant in 1940 and the Interfaith Committee included Catholics and Jews. In 1943 Leslie released a list of 33 school textbooks that taught racial intolerance, which got good notice in the progressive community, but Catholics took offense to the number of Catholic texts and conflated that with the attacks on Fr. Coughlin and Leslie was criticized as being anti-catholic. There were, however, Priests on the Interfaith Committee, the Antigonish Movement was begun by Catholic Priests and in 1942 the Catholic Church itself restricted Fr Coughlin from political activity.
In 1944 Leslie launched his biggest project outside of The Protestant; The Challenger, a full sized four color comic designed to teach democracy and brotherhood.
Devanney writes simply: “Another brainchild of Leslie’s was The Challenger, an anti-fascist comic book which appeared sporadically in 1944 and once in 1945, this last time in a 64 page “deluxe” edition which had a press run of 400,000 and sold at 10 cents. The cover of the 1945 edition shows youths of the white, yellow and black races battling green demons of fear, hate and greed. Gerald Richardson, the editor, made use of nationally known cartoonists in this attempt to counter the mass production of fascist propaganda aimed at the young.“
Indeed, little more is known about this book. The first of four issues is undated and has no price. It is 36 pages including covers and published from 1 E 43 Street, NY 17, NY. The second and following issues were published at 521 Fifth Avenue NYC with a quarterly publishing schedule. Number Two, dated Winter 1945 – 46 carries a ten cent cover price for 66 pages. Number Three is dated July August September 1946 and is ten cents for 64 pages. Number Four is October November December 1946 and a dime for 64 pages. Numbers Two and Three contain typical comic book ads for pimple cream and plastic microscopes. The books contain art by EC Stoner, an early black comic book artist, who I believe had ties to the American communist party and some outstanding early work by Joe Kubert, I think Fran Mattera is in some, and some of the other artists are familiar to me.
The stories in The Challenger concern themselves with themes of racial superiority and patriotism, and the book doesn’t equate them.
The Only Contemporary Mention I Can Find Of The Challenger Comic Book Is Below
Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six was a problematic year for Kenneth Leslie. He was continuing to get a reputation as more anti-Catholic than anti-fascist, especially as his criticism was extending toward New York’s Cardinal Spellman, an out-spoken anti-commnist who had become close to President Franklin Roosevelt and served as an unofficial agent for him during an international trip in 1943. Leslie had characterized the trip as “the devious flittings of the dainty servant of Vatican intrigue” a remark which cost him the invaluable endorsement of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. (Spellman later denounced Eleanor Roosevelt as anti-catholic and her writing as unfit, but that’s a whole nother story). He had also begun receiving criticism from conservative Jewish groups that wanted a less militant approach than The Protestant’s unremitting war against anti-semitism.
Problems within the magazine came to the fore when the editorial board quit en masse citing Leslie’s dictatorial work style and lack of ability to compromise, but according to Sanford Archibald, “Leslie was simply trying to keep editorial policy out of the hands of certain supporters of the Communist Party on the executive staff”, which I assume to mean hard-line communists.
So the magazine was already a high profile but hand-to-mouth enterprise when the outside money decreased, and when Leslie was caught having an ongoing affair with his personal secretary, Cathy, he found himself quickly divorced with no cash, as he’d never actually established a salary at the magazine.
He’d vainly tried to maintain the Fifth Avenue offices, but in the Fall of 1948 Archibald had to take on other work while Kenneth and Cathy carried on from a house on the Upper East Side. Leslie spoke occasionally, but the movement he had championed for more than a decade had fragmented.
On top of the other personal attacks he was experiencing, Leslie was now being accused of being a communist. Life magazine, the great monopolizer of public opinion had listed Leslie in its picture gallery of fifty eminent “fellow travellers” and “innocent dupes,” along with Arthur Miller, Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann, Langston Hughes and other notables who, as Life put it, “accomplish quite as much for the Kremlin in their glamorous way as a card holder does in his drab way.”
The sub-plot as i see it here is this: in 1946 World War Two was over. The worst aspects of fascism, nazism and Japanese imperialism had surrendered to Western democracy, but the peace had been fabricated out of a lot of new borders and treaties that left a lot of people pissed off. All across Europe, whole towns and territories had been comfortable with the nazi presence. There were fascist areas in Italy and Spain. Somehow the peace in Europe was going to have to be maintained
The whole of the American south was a jim crow fascist state, and the rest of the country had jim crow embedded in state and federal laws , regulations and attitudes. It’s easy to research newspapers and public opinion polls of the times to see what kind of public support existed in the United States for entering the war to begin with.
It’s clear from government documents released about wartime corporate cooperation (and monetary profit) between major American Businesses and banks with the nazi government of Germany, and Operation Paperclip which incorporated nazi scientists and intelligence agents into the American military industrial complex that the American capitalist system does indeed have more in common with European fascism than any kind of socialism.
Fascism is about stratification of culture and economy, so is capitalism. Socialism is about equality and freedom. Not all people are equal, and no rapturous miracle will make everybody free tomorrow, but no child should go hungry or have a crappy education because their parents are stupid and exploited themselves. In a technological age we should be discussing and planning how to provide all citizens with broadband internet, not threatening librarians with guns for having gay friendly books for gay teenagers. And that’s what i think is American, and most other people do, too.
Leslie was told he was under FBI surveillance for possible “un-American” activities and that should he leave the country he would probably not be allowed to return. Joe McCarthy found the diminished Protestant to be an easy target, and it seems Leslie’s right to work in the United States was revoked in 1949, and he and Cathy, now married, relocated to Nova Scotia.
Leslie was dealing with working class life, apparently for the first time, working as a cab driver and occasional substitute teacher but he and Cathy drifted apart and she developed feelings for a younger nephew of his and they came to an understanding that their time together was over.
Now in his 60s Leslie continued to live quietly in rural Nova Scotia working as a substitute teacher and lay preacher, but because it was the Cold War and his supposed communist history he was always under RCMP scrutiny and that always leaks out in small rural communities and his life was complicated by suspicions and notoriety.
Leslie continued to write poetry and politics. Simply publishing what are described as ‘modest periodicals’ with titles like One, New Christian, Man, and New Man, which needed to be mailed to subscribers would be enough to call attention to oneself, and Leslie’s mail was indeed being monitored. And once the Authorities saw the poems “Moscow’s Measure,” “Remember Lumumba!” and “Praise the Viet Cong” that would be all they needed to know to investigate further.
In 1960 Leslie drove from Nova Scotia to California to console, and eventually marry Nora Steenerson Totten after the death of his old friend the mysterious Judge Totten, whom history hath forgotten. They lived a happy and productive life together, collaborating on New Man until 1972 when ill-health necessitated their moving into a nursing home in Halifax.
Kenneth Leslie died 6 Oct 1974, and Nora died the next Spring.
Burris Devanney is quoted here again: “A comparative examination of Leslie’s poetry and his life, particularly with respect to his intensive political activities of the 1940’s, reveals a remarkable consistency between word and deed. Time and again in his poetry Leslie stresses the need for commitment, for passionate and wholehearted involvement in the world, and for actively trusting our intuitions and feelings. Christ’s public life was, for him, the epitome of such commitment”.
“He never feared Communism, as so many of his contemporaries did, because he was always able to interpret the Russian Revolution as a religious event and as a striving, however fledgling, after brotherhood and democracy. As an activist, he had always sought immediate redress for injustices in society. As a philosopher and a theologian, he took a long view of human history in the firm belief that the will of God would not be thwarted.”
Notes and References
Most of this article has been adapted from the articles Kenneth Leslie A Biographical Introduction by Burris Devanney and Kenneth Leslie a Preliminary Bibliography Compiled by Burris Devanney, Sandra Campbell and Domenico Di Nardo. Both pieces were originally published in Canadian Poetry Number Five, Fall-Winter 1979
Mr. Leslie, as Mr Devanney notes, is obscure, even in his home of Nova Scotia. Mr Devanney (who has had an interesting political life also, if you check him out online) has done all the real work, and i have tried to stay close my source. Mr Devanney, writing for an audience of poets has tied together the various drives in Mr Leslie’s life and how they focused in the structured thought of his philosophy, poetry and politics but also how that intellectual focus was made flesh through his political activity. I highly recommend the whole piece, because subtleties have been lost from the original. All references are in the original article.
Comic Book + website has The Challenger 3 and 4 online:
The Challenger #1 – 4 was reprinted by Item Comics about 2015. i got my copy on ebay where the publisher was selling other comics. There is unfortunately no publishing information in the book, other than the Item Comics logo and this bar-code. These books are hard to find
Dorothy Thompson was born in 1893 and graduated Syracuse University in 1914 with a degree after studying economics and politics. She worked for the women’s suffrage movement until 1920 when she went abroad to further herself as a journalist. She was successful and became influential. She was an early supporter of the Zionist movement, but after a 1945 trip to Palestine, she grew more concerned with the movement’s right wing and its escalating terrorism against the British. She eventually concluded that Zionism was a recipe for perpetual war. As Thompson’s distance from the Zionist movement grew, she became an advocate for Palestinian refugees. After traveling to the Middle East in 1950, Thompson was involved in the founding of the American Friends of the Middle East, which was secretly funded by the CIA.(edited from wikipedia) Her criticism of The Protestant is from 1946.