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Alan Wald demolishes the myth of a cultural commissar forcing radical writers to follow Moscow's artistic line. In its place, he offers a fascinating portrayal of a group of gifted left-wing poets and novelists pursuing their own intensely personal literary and political trajectories. (Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America)
This is a fascinating, perhaps even magisterial record of the complex achievement of those many American writers who gallantly dared to imagine a world free of reckless capitalism and its attendant social plagues. (Arnold Rampersad, author of The Life of Langston Hughes)
Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
Strange Communists I Have Known
On 9 July 1945, Guy Endore, a popular novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, awoke as usual before dawn. Of wiry build with brownish blond hair and blue eyes, Endore weighed a trim 145 pounds and stood five feet seven-and-a-half inches tall, looking at least a decade younger than his forty-five years. As he reached for the pad and pencil that always rested near his bedside to record his waking thoughts, a characteristically gentle yet enigmatic smile spread across his face.
Politically, Endore was what historians of the Literary Left would regard as an orthodox "Stalinist." In 1934, even before formally joining the Communist Party, he wrote the New Republic to criticize an editorial that condemned the violent disruption by Communists of a Socialist Party meeting in Madison Square Garden, which was called to defend the armed struggle of Social Democrats in Austria against the dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss. The Communists' thuggish seizure of the Socialists' platform was one of the manifestations of the disruptive "United Front from Below" strategy of the Communist International that drove one-time Party sympathizers such as John Dos Passos (1896-1970), Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), and Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) to publicly oppose the Party. Endore, however, insisted that the Socialists, not the Communists, were responsible for creating the divisive provocation; he accused them of excluding Communists from the speakers' list, confiscating a Communist banner, and inviting a conservative to address the rally.
During the early 1930s, Endore had read everything by Marx and Engels available in English, French, and German, as well as Werner Sombart's multivolume history of capitalism. Sometime between 1936 and 1938, at the height of the infamous Moscow Purge Trials, when philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) led a campaign to expose their frame-up character, Endore took out Communist Party membership after moving from New York to Hollywood. In the fall of 1939, as the news of the Hitler-Stalin Pact drove a number of disaffected intellectuals from the League of American Writers and other Communist-led organizations, Endore extolled the pact as evidence of Stalin's tactical genius, and he concurred in the Party's disbanding of its extremely successful Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. A year and a half later, when the pact was repudiated in the wake of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, Endore wrote his friends: "Everyone is now laughing at the Communists. Personally, I still think that the Pact was fine: It turned Hitler's fury in every other direction but Russia for two years."
In May 1945, official Communist criticism from abroad began, which led to the expulsion of Communist Party general secretary Earl Browder in February 1946 for "social imperialism"; Endore, however, waxed enthusiastic that the comrades were once more returning to their principled politics. Thus he decided, on 9 July 1945, to dash off a letter to New Masses literary editor Isidor Schneider (1896-1977), praising the public statement by French Communist Jacques Duclos that signaled the eventual end of Browderism: "Nothing so hopeful has struck us as this recent French detergent."
According to recollections of friends, family, and his own private correspondence, a typical morning in the summer month when Endore sent this letter might begin with Endore jotting down his waking thoughts, after which he would return his pad of paper to the table. He would then place it alongside the Gideon Bible that was always near at hand, although he was quick to reassure all friends who inquired that, while a Jew by birth (his father had changed the family name from Goldstein), he was actually a life-long mystic sympathetic to theosophy. Next Endore might consult Genesis, chapter 9, on which he had been meditating the night before. More than twenty years earlier, that passage had convinced him that he must convert humankind to vegetarianism or the species would destroy itself.
From the corner of his eye, Endore might note with satisfaction the bookshelf that held his masterpiece on the Paris Commune, the 1933 best-selling horror classic The Werewolf of Paris. Next to it was his new novel, which would create much excitement in the review and letter columns of the Communist weekly New Masses, the psychoanalytical mystery thriller Methinks the Lady (1945). Endore would then bounce energetically to his feet and walk toward the wall, where he stood on his head for at least half an hour twice a day. He maintained this practice despite once having been the subject of a hostile interrogation by local Communist Party leaders based on the circulation of nasty rumors about his study and practice of Yoga. Next he would enjoy his morning repast of fruit and nuts, which, together with a special health bread that he carried with him to restaurants and dinner parties, was virtually the only kind of food he ate since he had begun the research for his gruesome werewolf novel in the early 1930s.
This was reportedly the daily regimen in the mid-1940s of the rare genius, impish personality, devout Stalinist, and militant antivivisectionist born Samuel Guy Endore in New York City in 1900. He died in Los Angeles in 1970. During a career in which he shuttled between New York publishers and the Hollywood film industry, he wrote best-selling novels including the Book-of-the-Month-Club selection King of Paris (a 1956 biography of Alexander Dumas), coauthored influential films such as The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and produced a series of pamphlets and books on controversial causes. These ranged from The Crime at Scottsboro (1938), which defended a group of African American youth framed on rape charges in 1931 in Alabama; to The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery (1944), which supported a group of Mexican American young people falsely charged with murder in Los Angeles; and finally to Synanon (1968), an exposition of the philosophy of the drug rehabilitation center and utopian community founded in 1958 in Los Angeles, of which Endore, by then a former Communist, was the intellectual guru.
By all reasonable criteria Endore was an exceptionally loyal Communist for nearly two decades, yet his personality and literary output bear scant resemblance to the popular conception of canonical Communist writers held by most students and scholars of literature, and others concerned with literary history. This is partly because only a handful of books, aside from a few biographies, treat the personalities and private lives of Left-wing writers; even then, the focus is too often on a few prominent writers who departed from the movement in abject bitterness. Of the dozen representative Euro-American male writers profiled in Daniel Aaron's distinguished study Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (1961), only three held membership in the Communist Party when the Depression began; by 1939, two of them had left the Party on bad terms. As Aaron's subtitle recognizes, the "episodes" convey a pivotal component but scarcely the comprehensive narrative. Endore, for example, is cited only as the author of a "violent story of the Santo Domingo slave insurrection."
It is useful to recall that in the early spring of 1960, Joseph Freeman (1897-1965), a sixty-three-year-old veteran leader of the Literary Left, offered Aaron, a forty-eight-year-old Smith College professor, some words of advice for his book-in-progress:
As the story of the literary Left is told nowadays it involves only Big Shots, men and women of Distinction, award winners. But one important key to the literary Left . . . was that it was trying to develop writers from The Lower Depths, people who would write from a revolutionary viewpoint not out of abstract fantasies or for the sake of a career, but because such was their life and their hope.
When Aaron's Writers on the Left appeared, Freeman was gratified, as he was among the dozen writers featured in the narrative. Yet when novelist Josephine Herbst (1892-1969) saw Aaron's book, she reacted bitterly: "His heroes were the entrepreneurs of writing, the head-boys who have been mostly responsible for the re-hashes. . . . The entrepreneurs whom Dan Aaron wrote about were all stuck in the claustrophobia of New York City." Herbst came from the West and frequently traveled in the 1930s; she is barely mentioned in Aaron's 500-page tome, and her novels are not among those described.
Other writers of the era griped with equal fervor about the limitations of Writers on the Left. In a 1974 interview, novelist Albert Maltz (1908-1985) declared it "A book without a heart" on the grounds that Aaron focused on "polemic," but not "creative work." Maltz asserted that this was due to Aaron's fear of "taking a stand," of saying that "this has merit and this didn't," lest he be tarred with the Communist brush. But it is just as likely that Maltz's criticism was motivated by his awareness that his own record as a polemicist was embarrassing—due to his public recantation of his criticisms of Communist cultural policy in 1946—which is the only time Maltz is discussed in Aaron's study. Likewise, Walter Snow (1905-1973), for many years a pro-Communist writer who strongly identified with William Z. Foster's brand of political leadership, scornfully denounced Aaron's "distortions" in a series of letters in the early 1970s that he sent to his stepson, the historian Maurice Isserman, which Snow attributes to Aaron's "major reliance [for information] on embittered renegades, especially Joseph Freeman." In each of the aforementioned grievances, there is the customary merging of transparent self-promotion with legitimate concern.
Nonetheless, much as one might belabor Aaron for his limitations, it is no easy task to narrate the story of a cultural movement engaging hundreds of writers, and influencing thousands more, over several decades. In the forty years since the publication of Writers on the Left, no other scholarly book on the Communist cultural movement has brought as many writers to life. Moreover, while various kinds of attractions to Marxism may bind together several hundred writers in an identifiable tradition, their lives and work can hardly be explained by such ideological and organizational loyalties.
In the instance of Guy Endore, with whose idiosyncratic morning routine this introduction began, one has a writer whose literary value has a comparatively indirect and elusive correlation with his commitment to the Communist Party. His most explicitly revolutionary work, Babouk (1934), a masterful narrative set in the early period of the Haitian slave revolution, appeared while he was ideologically and emotionally drawn to the Party but not yet a member. After joining and teaching novel writing at the Party-sponsored People's Educational Center in Los Angeles, he wrote his psychosexual thriller, Methinks the Lady (1945). His most successful novel, King of Paris (1956), appeared as he was severing from the Party organization, but it was written while he was still friendly to Communism's basic principles and active mainly in the anti-blacklisting campaign although no longer a member of the Hollywood branch. Did Party membership ever directly curtail the content of his literary output? Endore later claimed that certain members of the Party discouraged him from completing a nonfiction "History of Human Skill" that he had planned to publish, due to doctrinal disagreements. Yet the work he valued most, an autobiographical work called "The Gordon Family," was suppressed not by the Communist Party but initially by his own family members and then by publishers who considered it unsellable.
To what extent is Endore an anomaly in the Communist literary movement, a poor example for understanding its cultural work? A close look at Endore's early life discloses many unique features that might usefully be deployed to assist in explaining assorted aspects of his wide-ranging creative life. Yet there are no serious reasons for declaring Endore altogether atypical, thereby discounting him from consideration as a bona fide example of the Communist Literary Left. His work cannot be set aside, for instance, on the grounds that his status as a Columbia University graduate means that he experienced a more secure or privileged youth than typical Left writers usually identified with the proletarian genre. Like several of the canonical pro-Communist writers whose experiences with colleges were minimal or nonexistent (Mike Gold and Jack Conroy, for example), Endore came from a background of financial and personal instability. His mercurial father had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, although occasionally he sold an invention or made an investment that did extraordinarily well, momentarily precipitating a phase of prosperity that never lasted. His mother, unable to cope with extreme poverty, committed suicide at a young age, after which Endore was shunted to an orphanage.
Unlike Conroy's and Gold's writing, however, the backbone of Endore's literary reputation never rested on a working-class or strike setting, a narrative of "bottom dog" life, or a "socialist conversion" story. Endore's forté was and would remain a remarkable series of rich, subtle, and elegant—but often violent and erotic—fictionalized biographies of Casanova, Joan of Arc, Rousseau, Voltaire, the Marquis De Sade, and Alexander Dumas. "Most Endore" was a phrase coined by Marxist theater and film director Herbert Biberman (1900-1971), one of the "Hollywood Ten," to refer to a style characterized by neat scholarship, fervent devotion to material, and a "respect for a reader's willingness to adventure." The New York critic Alexander Wolcott, struck by the discrepancy between the diminutive Endore's mild personality and the bloody horrifics of The Werewolf of Paris, dubbed Endore "the weremouse."
I contend that Endore's career as a novelist, which continued long after the Depression, is as legitimate a part of the Communist Literary Left as were the careers of Gold and Conroy. Yet nowhere are achievements such as Endore's featured in studies of Left-wing fiction. To reestablish the full scope and trajectory of the Communist Cultural Left, I have embarked on a project that will return to memory dozens of extraordinarily talented writers of unique and pioneering texts who have "disappeared" from cultural history, while reassessing scores of others who have been appraised out of context (that is, without taking into account the author's Left commitments) due to the still existing secrecy about activities of the Literary Left during the Cold War.
As the example of Endore dramatizes, I have also found that a project such as this cannot be merely a literary study but needs to be partly a collective biography. In some cases I have been able to ascertain a density of detail about a writer's background; in others, selective anecdotes that may give the reader a feeling of the lived complexity of radical commitment. Although I have tried to remain factually grounded in verifiable claims, this experience is somewhat akin to the writing of narrative poetry or prose fiction; I mean this in the sense of the distinction between poetry and criticism that one-time Marxist Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) noted at the 1937 American Writers' Congress: "the poet's way is necessarily more cumbersome. It is the longer way round. It has not got there until it has humanized, personalized." Veteran radical poet Norman MacLeod (1906-1985) put it in like fashion in a letter to novelist Jack Conroy in which he contemplated the early 1930s from the vantage point of the late 1960s: "The older I get the more I see that it was and is the human stuff that gives or gave flesh and blood and meaning to the ideas and the spirit of the times." Josephine Herbst, in particular, resisted the notion of interpellating writers into a construct of "The Thirties"; rather, the era was a "humanscape—the setting of my loves and discoveries."
Fashioning a "humanscape," of course, means going beyond the official published record to more intimate sources. As Freeman observed in a communication to Herbst, "The letters of writers are the only way we have to know how writers lived in any given time and place." Oral history is a precious tool as well, although a small quantity may be hazardous if it lacks the controls of historical context and a breadth of other accounts. Yet the pitfalls of oral history need to be poised against the considerable perspicuity of journalist Murray Kemptom's 1957 apology to blacklisted screenwriter and former Communist Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), acknowledging that a personal interview might have mitigated the unfair portrait of Trumbo that appeared in Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955): "I can only plead, pompous as it sounds, that I have come to believe it is the greatest of crimes to write about a man whose face you have never seen." Although face-to-face meetings with elderly, and sometimes ornery, writers can be emotionally grueling and physically exhausting, they have been indispensable to the historically contextualized humanscape I have endeavored to sculpt in this narrative. How else other than by humanizing and personalizing can one tell the important story of "engaged" or "committed" writers that acknowledges their sacrifices as well as their very human mistakes?
Their mistakes, of course, are so infamous that one historian justifiably remarked, "For most Americans, intellectuals included, few tasks are easier than deriding Communists." But for those seeking to more fairly explore this United States version of "Littérature Engagée," more needs to be said about the writers' sacrifices, their loss of jobs, relocation under duress to other countries, serving of prison terms, risking of their own lives in violent confrontations with right-wing mobs, and, in some cases, dying on the battlefields in Spain and in World War II—fighting for a new world that they would never see.
In the narrative that follows I will acquaint the reader with a range of cultural workers who both shaped, and were shaped by, the Communist cultural movement in mid-century. Some names may be well known from earlier studies—Mike Gold, Joseph Freeman, Meridel Le Sueur, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright—but many more have been brought up only in passing, if at all. The heart of this inaugural volume, Exiles from a Future Time, lies in the formation of the tradition and organization of the cultural Left, especially in association with the antinomies affecting its avant-garde poets, the fashioning of a Black radical literary movement, the unease between feminist concerns and class identity, and the role of dissimilar personalities in the force field of Party-led publications and institutions. Some of the same cultural workers will reappear in later volumes where I address more fully the production of fiction, drama, film, and criticism, as well as gay Left writers, Jewish American writers, and writers of color in addition to African Americans. Moreover, the volume's leitmotif of an aura of a melancholic romanticism—stalking the very utopian longings birthed by the spirit of revolutionary romanticism discussed in Chapter 1—shall return as well in new forms as the tradition wends its way to a kind of tragic "reconciliation with reality" after 1956.
Since dates of publication, and dates of life spans, are indispensable to this cultural history, my general practice has been to date a pertinent author, event, or book in parentheses at first mention, unless the dates themselves are part of the narrative. However, this is violated on certain occasions, such as when there are lists of individuals contributing to a publication, or when the date seems relatively inconsequential. Often dates will be repeated when the publication or individual is considered in dissimilar contexts, or at distant points in the narrative. For individuals still alive as the book goes to press, I furnish only a birthdate. In a few cases I provide a question mark where I have been unable to definitively determine the date of birth or death of an individual, or else I indicate "dates unknown" where I have been incapable of discovering them.
There are many cultural workers who appear in cameo, or as part of lists of names, in this volume; they will be more fully fleshed out in subsequent ones, and their cultural legacies will likewise be appraised at that time. Still, I recognize that of the hundreds of individuals named throughout the narrative, some will be quite familiar to specialists of various kinds, while many more will be entirely unknown to the general reader. Therefore, at first mention of a person, I have provided brief biographical "tags" to help bring the name to life in some significant way (usually by identifying a person's field of work but also by sometimes indicating nationality, color, sexual orientation, political background, and so forth), and I have also provided an insert with photographs to reinforce the sense of the writers' individualities. Still, the use of tags can be hazardous if the reader employs them narrowly, and, of course, readers may wonder why certain tags are employed in some cases and not in others. The explanation for decisions as to whom to tag, and how, partly flows from the author's surmise that, at this point in the recovery of literary history, a general reader is likely to assume a writer to be Euro-American and heterosexual unless otherwise identified; Jewish only if the name is identifiably such; and so forth. I regret any poor judgment calls that I have made in the use of both tags and dates.
Excerpted from Exiles from a Future Time by Alan M. Wald. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Note on the Terminology and Illustrations|
|Introduction: Strange Communists I Have Known||1|
|Ch. 1||American Jeremiad||9|
|Shakespeare in Overalls||15|
|Poems for Workers||18|
|"Write It Plain"||28|
|Ch. 2||Inventing Mike Gold||39|
|"A Kind of Cheeky Krazy Kat"||39|
|"By Street Life and Thunder"||42|
|Poverty Is a Trap||45|
|Meyerhold in Harlem||50|
|The Van Gogh of a Darker Time||55|
|The Gold Standard||61|
|Ch. 3||The Great Promise||71|
|Living in a "State of Emergency"||71|
|"Waiting for Trachty"||76|
|The Black Cultural Front||80|
|African Americans and the John Reed Clubs||84|
|Gender and Party Commitment||95|
|Ch. 4||The New Masses and the Social Muse||103|
|Becoming a Weekly||108|
|Portrait of a New Masses Literary Editor||112|
|Poetry and the Popular Front||119|
|The Last Refuge||127|
|Ch. 5||Yogis and Commissars||163|
|Love and Revolution||163|
|A Pen Dripped in Vitriol||166|
|The St. Augustine of Communism||171|
|The Red Valentino||178|
|A Divided Life||185|
|The Dream with the Changing Name||190|
|Ch. 6||Three Moderns in Search of an Answer||193|
|The Modernist Temptation||193|
|Bastard in the Ragged Suit||198|
|Apollinaire of the Proletariat||204|
|Byron of the Poolhalls||214|
|Ch. 7||Sappho in Red||229|
|The Rational Ecologist||234|
|And God Came In||244|
|The Premature Socialist-Feminists||252|
|Ch. 8||Black Marxists in White America||263|
|Transcending Narrow Nationalisms||263|
|"New" and "Newer" Negroes||276|
|Between Class and Nationality||279|
|From Banjo to Melody||291|
|Conclusion: The Antinomies of a Proletarian Avant-grade||299|
|Flights and Moorings||299|
|A Social Poet's Progress||306|
|Poets and Criminals||316|
|Chronology of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Cultural Left||327|
|Acknowledgments and Sources||393|