This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
W.E.B. Du Bois
October 20, 1956
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April 11, 1959
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Blacklist = Black Market
Excerpted from the May 4, 1957 Issue
As the year 1957 lurches toward its mid-point, Hollywood finds itself celebrating, willingly or unwillingly, the tenth anniversary of a blacklist which began in 1947. Despite assurances that ten heads would appease the gods, the guillotine has since claimed some 250 artists and technicians.
A blacklist is an illegal instrument of terror which can exist only by sufferance of and connivance with the federal government. The Hollywood blacklist is but part of an immensely greater official blacklist—barring its victims from work at home and denying them passage abroad—which mocks our government in all its relations with civilized powers that neither tolerate nor understand such repression. The shock of the blacklist produces psychic disorders among sensitive persons, from which result broken homes, desolate children, premature deaths and sometimes suicide.
It is not alone the loss of income or of property that hurts: the more terrible wound is the loss of a profession to which one’s entire life has been dedicated. A director must have the facilities of a studio: denied them, he sells real estate. A violinist must appear in person for the concert: barred from admittance, he becomes a milkman and practices six hours a day against the unrevealed time when his music once more may be heard. The actor’s physical personality, which is his greatest asset, becomes his supreme curse under the blacklist; he must be seen, and when the sight of him is prohibited he becomes a carpenter, an insurance salesman, a barber.
A writer is more fortunate. Give him nothing more than paper, a pencil and a nice clean cell, and he’s in business. Dante, Cervantes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Ben Jonson, Milton, Defoe, Bunyan, Hugo, Zola and a score of others have long since proved that in jail or out, writing under their own names or someone else’s or a pseudonym or anonymously, writers will write; and that having written, they will find an audience. Only fools with no knowledge of history and bureaucrats with no knowledge of literature are stupid enough to think otherwise.
And so it chanced in Hollywood that each blacklisted writer, after swiftly describing that long parabola from the heart of the motion-picture industry to a small house in a low-rent district, picked himself up, dusted his trousers, anointed his abrasions, looked around for a ream of clean white paper and something to deface it with, and began to write. Through secret channels, and by means so cunning they may never be revealed, what he wrote was passed along until finally it appeared on a producer’s desk, and the producer looked upon it and found it good, and monies were paid, and the writer’s children began contentedly to eat. Thus the black market.
There may come a time in this country when blacklists turn popular, and inquisitors are invited to dinner, and mothers at bedtime read to their children the story of the good informer. But just now the current runs in an opposite direction.
All things, as the man said, change.
Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976) was among the Hollywood Ten who refused to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political beliefs or associations. In 1965, he wrote a short memoir about the blacklist for The Nation’s 100th-anniversary issue.
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Finishing School for Pickets
August 6, 1960
Paula J. Giddings
April 6, 2015
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Excerpted from the October 12, 1964 Issue
After seeing Fiddler on the Roof numerous members of the audience confessed (or proclaimed) that they shed tears of compassion and gratitude; others have asserted that their hearts swelled in elation, while still others were convulsed with laughter. My own reception of the show was cool.
I too found it endearing. Yet the text lacked the full savor of its sources; the music simply followed a pattern of suitable folk melodies without adding, or being equal, to them. Then, too, were not those critics right, in the press and the public, who maintained there was a Broadway taint in the mixture?
Yet the longer I reflected, the greater grew my regard for the show! The steadier my effort to arrive at a true appraisal of my feelings, the more clearly I realized that the general audience reaction was justified. By a too meticulous weighing and sifting of each of the performance’s components one loses sight of the whole.
The heart of the show’s significance must be sought in its effect on the audience. That effect comes close, within the facile laughter, the snug appreciation of an anticipated showmanship, to something religious. To understand this one must turn to the play’s original material. The essence of Sholom Aleichem’s work is in a very special sense moral. It is the distillation of a humane sweetness from a context of sorrow. It represents the unforced emergence of a real joy and a true sanctification from the soil of life’s workaday worries and pleasures. Although this blessed acceptance of the most commonplace facts of living appears casual and unconscious in Sholom Aleichem, it is based on what, in the first and indeed the best of the play’s numbers, is called “Tradition.”
This tradition, which might superficially be taken to comprise little more than a set of obsolete habits, customs and pietistic prescriptions, is in fact the embodiment of profound culture. A people is not cultured primarily through the acquisition or even the making of works of art; it is cultured when values rooted in biologically and spiritually sound human impulses, having been codified, become the apparently instinctive and inevitable mode of its daily and hourly conduct. Sholom Aleichem’s characters are a concentrate of man’s belief in living which does not exclude inevitable bewilderment and questioning of life’s hardship and brutal confusion.
Is it any wonder, then, that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people? In Fiddler on the Roof this audience finds a sense of what “togetherness” might signify. Without the cold breath of any dogma or didactics, it gets a whiff of fellow feeling for the unfortunate and the persecuted. It is a sentiment that acts as a kind of purification.
Is there too much “show biz” in Fiddler on the Roof? Undoubtedly. The makers and players of Fiddler on the Roof are not of Kiev, 1905, nor do they live (even in memory) a life remotely akin to that of Tevye the Dairyman, his family and his friends, or of the author who begat them. The producers of Fiddler on the Roof are Broadway—as is the audience—and, in this instance, perhaps the best of it.
Harold Clurman (1901–1980) was The Nation’s theater critic from 1953 to 1980.
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Cuba’s Invasion Jitters
Excerpted from the November 12, 1960 Issue
Castro’s revolutionary government knows that Washington has declared implacable economic warfare on Cuba, that its goal is the overthrow of Fidel Castro whatever the cost. Some months ago, Castro’s officials got hold of copies of placards secretly printed by U.S. Ambassador Philip Bonsal. This is the house of an American citizen, the placards read, and the text went on to ask that both citizens and property be respected not by the government of Cuba, but by whoever might have authority. Now Washington has suggested that Americans get out of Cuba. In Cuba, this was taken to be the first step in an armed intervention scheme. It was also so interpreted by every ex-Batista assassin and exiled plotter.
Even if an attack occurred, the Cubans may be wrong in believing that immediate armed intervention would follow. A state of quasi-belligerency would permit the United States to blockade the island and starve the Cuban people into submission. There are indications that a clique in Washington wishes to set up such a blockade and seize all shipments from iron curtain countries. Such a course could bring about armed clashes with the Soviets, who might attempt to protect their shipping with warships and submarines.
Besides threatening world conflict, our Cuban policy has broken the New World front. Each hour that our punitive blows hit Cuba, we lose support from the people of Latin America; and even the support of “loyal” governments grows shaky.
Latin American ill-feeling toward the United States has been building up steadily, especially since the Washington-engineered overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala. The resentment flaring today at our Cuban policy needs no Castro propaganda to feed it.
The Presidential candidates quibble about prestige. Prestige with whom? Franco’s Spain? Duvalier’s Haiti? Somoza’s Nicaragua? Our cold war against Castro is losing us the battle for all the neutral and independent new countries of the world. Cuba may be our last chance to prove that we intend something better than a Hungary, a Cyprus, an Algeria; Cuba could be our last chance to save face, and also prestige, with the people of Latin America. Unhappily, the signs are that we intend to proceed on our present path of folly.
Carleton Beals (1893–1979) reported for The Nation on international affairs, from the rise of fascism in postwar Italy to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. In 1928, he made headlines around the world for his five-part series “With Sandino in Nicaragua”; he was the first foreign journalist to interview the guerrilla leader.
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May 27, 1961