Part of Our Time, Too | The Nation


Part of Our Time, Too

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It would, of course, be ridiculous to deny that one is "not very attractive," or "not especially appetizing." But one can, perhaps, cavil at the idea that his "habits were Hollywood's" if he had spent most of his Hollywood years in quiet family life a hundred miles away from the city and twenty miles from a telephone. Or again, one might prefer to read that his prose had descended from a style that won a National Book Award "to the muddier depths of a Nash-Kelvinator ad," if only to understand how precipitous and extreme the decline actually was. And one could even turn a little angry to read that the practice of his profession, so necessary if a growing family is to be sustained, had turned into a "pathetic effort to cling" to what he formerly had.

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There are, of course, other books which touch upon the subject. Paul Blanshard in The Right to Read states that Johnny Got His Gun was "produced during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact." The book was finished six months before the pact in a period when the CP was actively hostile to pacifist tendencies. If my beliefs were as powerful as my hopes that the Blanshard book will go into a second edition, I'd ask for a correction and probably get it, as I'm sure I'd get a correction of fact, as opposed to opinion, from you. I wouldn't, of course, ask [Ralph de] Toledano to retract his statement in Seeds of Treason that Alger Hiss brought me to the San Francisco Conference, for he wouldn't do it. Nor would there be great point in asking Alistair Cooke to reconsider his judgment, in A Generation on Trial, that the committee and its victims were similarly "squalid and rowdy."

The truth is that little by little one grows accustomed to the public picture of oneself. Each newspaper and every book adds something to the portrait. New features emerge from the shadows, the imperfections stand out ever more sharply, the general ugliness acquires perspective and dimension. And there is nothing one can do to stop it except that which one would not do. So one averts his face while the mould cools and the materials harden to their last, irrevocable shape.

One comprehends also that the contemporary records which have fashioned that visage will become source material for future history; that some person yet unborn--perhaps one's own grandchild--searching through dusty library shelves for the minutia of the past's truth, will discover a face looking up at him: the unappetizing and unattractive face of a squalid mediocrity with no streak of goodness in him, having preferred to waste his life with treason and muddy prose for the advancement of wicked causes. It will be my face he sees.

When my children say to me: why does this man call you a traitor, why does that one give a false setting to your book, why does another say your worst work typifies your whole, why does the reporter call you disloyal and the judge confirm you criminal?--I answer, "The man lies." I know, of course, that he really doesn't; that no man can be called a liar for writing what he believes to be the truth. I use the word because it comforts my children and is instantly understood.

What I don't explain to them--but shall later--is that these men and other men and I, caught up in the furies and complexities of an ugly time and searching for the truth of them, have turned cruel and frightened and immensely wicked. We seek so passionately that we strike down all who seem to stand between us and the answer, or even those who assert a different answer. We have been touched with the madness of moral infallibility, and we know it, and we must put the blame from us, so I put it on you, and you on me, and all of us upon everyone else. The vision in the mirror has struck us blind. Some of us, revolving upon our private center and firing steadily, will withstand the fury, and some will fall. The victors will shine forth as heroes--perhaps: the fallen will be forever execrated as villains--possibly.

For myself, I've long since concluded that very few of us are conscious liars, that none of us acts except upon a principle he calls good, and that many of us are closer together than we think. In the meantime, I look forward and backward. I shouldn't like to go through the last fifteen years again; but having got through them I have the most curious feeling they were inevitable. Each month and year has been an experience quite outside of ordinary experience. Having acquired the experience, one would not, of course, wish to move backward in time simply to avoid the principal thing one has gained.

Under the pleasant goad of three children who will require educations, I labor hard but not too uncomfortably in such scraggly vineyards as come to my attention, and accumulate paradoxes only a farceur could imagine. I warn my clients the fee for a second job will be twice that of the first. By emphasizing the hellish peril of having me in their houses, I compel them to drive thirty miles to my back door. I invent assumed names which, spoken to their secretaries, bring them leaping to the telephone like startled hares. I permit them one conference at the beginning of a script and bid them come well prepared. A second conference is granted upon completion, but between conferences not a word nor a page. For the good of their souls I surround myself with legally phony bank accounts, mysterious rituals, and awesome oaths.

Only the boundless courage of cupidity enables them to survive such an ordeal. Once they emerge from it, clutching a script as good or as bad as their taste, I crown them with the accolade Great and Dauntless Enemy of the Blacklist. They stagger off in a glow of moral grandeur, better, sounder-sleeping men for my ministrations.

When good luck with the first job impels them to return for a second at double fee, the game turns a little grimmer, and I can feel in their eyes the soft, phosphorescent lights of resentment when my back is turned. The third time around it's fireworks. Charges of "I kept you alive when you were starving!" Counter-charges of "You came to me a pygmy, and now you tower above your kind!" Some of them remain for the diploma course; others stride angrily off to disaster. I feel no rancor toward the lost, for by that time replacements are confidently moving up the ladder.

The advent of Robert Rich has, of course, been a godsend. I'll tell you about it and others some day. It has kept me happily absorbed in tossing dead cats and false leads into the steamy cesspool that now lies exposed for all to see. It has done a lot of good. People are laughing again, and all the solemn asses of the Academy (who broke the story) have taken shelter behind something strongly resembling the Fifth: refusal to talk "on advice of counsel." Your own article was a delight, and I'm indebted to you for the very pleasant way you dealt with me. I don't give much of a damn whether the blacklist ever ends, but it's bad, and others do care, and with good cause, so I try to keep an oar in.

In the meantime, I work on a play. If I'm as competent as I think I am, it or a second or a third will ultimately deliver me to New York and a different and very difficult medium. If I'm not competent, it'll be an excellent joke. There is nothing funnier than misjudgment of one's own self. The point, of course, is to see it.



Postscript: I'd not reveal so much of myself to you if I didn't admire your work. Even so, and knowing it's not necessary, innate canniness compels me to risk offending you by the addition of that accursed word "personal," which is always a stain upon friendliness.

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