What is literature? asked Jean-Paul Sartre in 1947. Does a novelist write to make a personal world–or should a novelist write to remake our world? A great generation ago, that was the question. Hopelessly unfashionable, barely remembered, the literature of commitment from the Depression and World War II is less a scandal than an embarrassment–so earnest, so obvious, so hackneyed. As didactic and dogmatic as such “proletarian” or antifascist fiction is, you might wonder if it even deserves to be read, let alone considered to be literature–unless, of course, you believe that literature is something other than literature.
Alan Wald may not subscribe to the Hegelian reasoning of Sartre’s assertion that writing is the means by which a society reflects on its condition. But for him, as for Sartre, literature is primarily a social endeavor–a field of political action. Introducing Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade, Wald maintains that literature is not simply a province governed by the canonical authority of a few acknowledged great authors. Literature is larger than that! The significance of the literature of commitment, he argues, may lie in the “substructure…where half-forgotten writers who variously passed through the Communist experience left ineradicable marks.”
These “cultural workers” (writers of proletarian literature, themselves retroactively branded proletarians by Professor Wald), the “rank and file of the literary Left” (but also a few of the commissars, including the infamous V.J. Jerome, chair of the American Communist Party’s cultural commission), are the subject of Wald’s ongoing reclamation project. Although the territory has been mapped out by two standard texts, Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism and Walter Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954, both of which are still in print, Wald’s enterprise is distinguished by his sympathy for his writers’ existential struggle and his expansive notion of the field.
Trinity of Passion is the middle panel of a triptych initiated in 2002 with Exiles From a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left. Vague sense of an exotic bestiary: The title of Exiles is borrowed from a posthumous collection of poems by the sick, starving and extremely obscure Sol Funaroff, whom Wald dubs the “Apollinaire of the Proletariat.” The book itself begins with a portrait of a “strange communist,” namely, the pulp novelist turned Hollywood screenwriter Guy Endore, who, the script for The Story of GI Joe notwithstanding, will be longest remembered for his 1933 bestselling costume horror novel, The Werewolf of Paris, strategically set against the backdrop of the 1871 Commune. Endore’s most enduring work may be the most extreme and fanciful example of politically conscious paperback writing that Wald discusses, but it is by no means the only one.
Wald similarly opens Trinity of Passion (even more a collection of linked literary case histories, few of which are well-known) with a look at the “strange career” of another obscure toiler in the vineyards of pop culture, Len Zinberg–a Jewish fellow traveler who, writing under the name Ed Lacy, thrived throughout the ’50s and ’60s as the author of mass-market detective novels that featured a black detective and were pervaded by radical politics. As physicist Paul Dirac theorized antimatter, so Wald has discovered the anti-Mickey Spillane.