Class Acts

Class Acts

The left’s literary canon has neglected the contributions less-celebrated writers have made to the political significance of literature.


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.

Writers like Funaroff, Endore and Zinberg are, in a sense, characters in that novelistic history Murray Kempton called “part of our time.” In the crucible of the Great Depression, as Wald argued in Exiles From a Future Time, shards of literary Modernism fused with a new and dramatic sense of civic emergency. Wald’s first books–including a literary biography of James T. Farrell, a study of the poets John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan and the near-definitive account of literary Trotskyism, The New York Intellectuals–were concerned with varieties of Trotskyist Modernism. With Exiles, he embarked upon what one might assume were for him the more treacherous currents of American Stalinism and the Popular Front–chronicling a literary crew whose allegiance to a social muse he, unlike Kempton, displays an unexpected degree of empathy for.

Exiles‘s major tour de force is the chapter “Inventing Mike Gold,” a startling rehabilitation of the Communist Party’s leading literary hack (and hatchet man), remembered today largely for his contribution to the mythology of the Lower East Side, Jews Without Money (1930), one of the few proletarian novels to earn a spot in the academic canon. Wald downplays Gold’s greatest hit to present him as a lapsed romantic Modernist, linking him to Walt Whitman and even the Beats. (One of the book’s more fascinating secondary narratives recounts the way Whitman, the American poet most admired by leftists, was transformed into a Popular Front icon. In Gold’s 1935 “Ode to Walt Whitman,” Wald notes, the poet “is likened to a reborn Christ, to the spirit of communism, to nature, and to Bolshevism…serv[ing] as the multipurpose icon of Gold’s multiethnic cultural mosaic.”)

Wald by no means ignores Gold’s work. Still, cognizant of (if not necessarily endorsing) Kempton’s contempt for talent sacrificed on the altar of social revolution, he is almost always more interested in the drama of lives than those of literature, mapping a “humanscape” populated by writers committed to political commitment. Thus, Exiles‘s cover features Gold in action, addressing a 1930 May Day rally. The denizens of Waldsville are often quite colorful. Exiles featured such rare birds as the forgotten Woody Guthrie analogue Donald Lee West, as well as Communist poet Joy Davidman, who was married to “radical folksinger” William Lindsay Gresham before she decamped to England to change the life of C.S. Lewis. Trinity, which is more concerned with prose than poetry, devotes half a chapter to Lauren Gilfillan, whose precocious (and once-celebrated) nonfiction novel–a firsthand account of the Great Coal Strike of 1931 called I Went to Pit College–although more straightforward (and ironic), prefigures by several years the art reportage of the James Agee-Walker Evans classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Actually a graduate of Smith College as well as a natural bohemian, the elfin Gilfillan became famous at 25 and suffered a spectacular nervous breakdown a year later–never to write again. (The chapter on her, which also discusses the far better-known Henry Roth, is called “Disappearing Acts.”) Wald finds this lost author fascinating; her life, a battle against the constraints of class, gender and social mores, as well as mental instability, has the richness of literature. Although Wald doesn’t say so, Gilfillan seems as much a creature of the 1960s as the ’30s, not least in her ambiguous relationship to the (old) left: “Clearly, she was sympathetic to the Communists’ aims, but she was also satirically critical of the Party members she depicted.” (I Went to Pit College ends with the author musing that “words are such mockery” and, in deadpan self-parody, pondering a crumpled bit of poetry she’d torn from the Daily Worker.)

For the most part, however, Trinity is devoted to those writers who were defined, and who defined themselves, by their opposition to fascism–mainly African-Americans or American Jews who came of age during the 1930s and, not infrequently, wrote about one another, fellow travelers on the Communist road to twentieth-century Americanism. “In retrospect,” Wald allows, “the literature of the antifascist crusade, intermittent in its quality, recounts many stories pivotal to apprehending the lives of idealistic yet diversely flawed men and women committed to the revolutionary fashioning of a better world in the mid-twentieth century.”

These were writers with a particular set of goals and standards, operating in the orbit of a political entity with its own culture–even its own counterculture and counter-counterculture. They were also writers who had to defend themselves against sternly retrograde Communist literary criticism, including the “steady stream of stern pronouncements against…’difficulty.'” (This was not always monolithic. Somewhat counterintuitively, the Daily Worker dispensed with dogma to hail party member Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep as a masterpiece when it was published in 1934.)

Explicating an unstable amalgam of literary ambition and pro-Communism in the light, as well as against the shifting terrain, of left institutions, American public opinion and the writers’ personal politics, Wald identifies several overlapping narratives, notably the African-American wartime conflict over the “Double V”–victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. Those concerned with the latter include Chester Himes, John Oliver Killens and Ann Petry, whose 1946 novel The Street, a vivid account of an impoverished single mother in wartime Harlem, was based on Petry’s work as a reporter for Adam Clayton Powell’s left-wing newsweekly People’s Voice.

Another narrative concerns the autobiographical Spanish Civil War fictions of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans Alvah Bessie, Milton Wolff and William Herrick; for Wald, these novels constitute “a hitherto neglected segment in Jewish American cultural history.” Grim, grizzled and jaunty, Bessie strikes an appropriately battle-hardened pose on Trinity‘s cover. Wald sees Tough Jews, like those who populate Bessie’s Men in Battle, Herrick’s Hermanos! and Wolff’s Another Hill, as an alternative to the traditional Jewish Menschlichkeit that figures in the work of novelist Albert Maltz and playwright Irwin Shaw, two Popular Front middlebrows who would gain Hollywood contracts and be named as Communists in the course of the November 1947 hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, actually was a Communist; Shaw was only described as such by panicky studio boss Jack Warner.)

A poignant or perhaps pitiful figure, Maltz was at once greatly esteemed and irreparably damaged by the Communist movement–a career trajectory that he seemed to anticipate in a pair of well-received early novels sketching out a particular gospel of social sacrifice. The Underground Stream (1940), lugubriously subtitled An Historical Novel of a Moment in the American Winter, celebrated the organization of automobile workers in the mid ’30s, complete with the martyrdom of a Communist labor organizer at the hands of American fascists; Maltz’s wartime follow-up, The Cross and the Arrow (1944), was a cinematically structured account of a German worker’s individual and fatal act of defiance against the Nazi regime. More widely known than any of his books is Maltz’s personal passion–namely the literary “affair” he triggered in mid-February 1946, some months after Earl Browder’s ouster from the Communist leadership, which was full-blown by the time of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech.

Published in the largely Communist weekly New Masses, Maltz’s essay “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” attacked the doctrinaire notion of art as a weapon and, among other things, defended Richard Wright and James T. Farrell (anathema as a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party): “Writers must be judged by their work, and not by the committees they join,” Maltz insisted. For this, he was immediately denounced by Mike Gold in the Daily Worker; Sam Sillen piled on with a six-part rebuttal, “Art and Politics.” (Wald notes that Sillen cited The Street as exemplifying the danger inherent in Maltz’s line. For all its undeniable literary qualities, Petry’s novel was insufficiently positive; it neglected to indicate any “genuinely affirmative pressures in the Negro community,” namely the CP.)

After six weeks and a surprisingly lively debate in the pages of New Masses, Maltz retracted his essay with a piece that appeared simultaneously in the Daily Worker and New Masses and was timed to a public apology at a Communist-sponsored meeting of Hollywood types, unambiguously titled “Art As a Weapon.” Maltz’s reputation never recovered–although Petry’s deserves to be further burnished. Her notion of the people proved prophetic: The Street is still in print and, according to its publisher, has sold more than a million copies.

What, then, is Wald’s project? Stretching things a bit, one could use his work to assemble a respectable mid-twentieth-century canon of pop Modernist and social realist left literature, including such former Communists and onetime fellow-traveling progressives as John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Ann Petry, Henry Roth, Richard Wright and even Ernest Hemingway (although for Wald, For Whom the Bell Tolls is “one of those recurrent instances where it is nearly impossible to disentangle judgments of literary quality from the political questions”). The second and third tiers would be even more extensive.

But the formation of such an alternative canon isn’t Wald’s goal. He makes clear his admiration for Andrew Hemingway’s analogous 2002 illustrated history Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956, which, illuminating as it is, only manages to find two near first-rate American artists–Jacob Lawrence and Alice Neel–who lived and painted as Communists. What matters in Wald’s book, as in Hemingway’s, has less to do with the significance of an artist’s oeuvre than with his or her attempt to bridge the gap between the work and the life.

What Wald calls the substructure is something of an alternate universe. In the early ’50s, he writes, “amidst the onerous Cold War years of the McCarthyite anti-radical witch hunt, two mammoth first novels by African Americans, each nearly 600 pages, were published to acclaim in the popular press.” The authors were near-exact contemporaries. Both had a long intimacy with Communist politics and were greatly influenced by Richard Wright (although they responded quite differently to the challenge of Native Son). Their novels dealt not only with the migration from the rural South to the urban North but also with African-American radical politics during the 1930s. Upending conventional wisdom regarding the singularity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Wald sets this Modernist (and anti-Communist) masterpiece against John Oliver Killens’s social-realist epic Youngblood. Leading with his chin, he further proposes Killens’s 1963 And Then We Heard the Thunder as a “major contender” for the finest US novel of World War II.

Similarly, a hitherto ignored Dos Passosian tradition in American literature culminates in the curiosity that is the multivolume collage autobiography Scenes From the Life of an American Jew, written in the 1980s by novelist John Sanford. (Sanford was a childhood friend of Nathanael West, who had suggested he change his family name from Shapiro to Starbuck.) And in something of a coup, Trinity teases out a “missing chapter” of Arthur Miller’s political past, hiding in plain sight or, rather, in the microfilmed pages of New Masses, where, from the spring of 1945 through the spring of 1946, Miller wrote on theater under the name Matt Wayne. (Needless to say, mention of this episode is nowhere to be found in Miller’s 1987 autobiography, Timebends.)

Typically generous to the Stalinoid foibles of his subjects, Wald notes without disapproval that “Miller felt politically at home with the left turn of the post-Browder Communist Party,” and although he privately sympathized with Maltz, he did nothing, at least publicly, to support him. Timebends makes clear that Miller’s major issue during this period was anti-Semitism and the danger of an indigenous American fascism. And yet Arthur Miller, Communist theater critic–haven’t we always suspected it might be so?

Since the choir no longer exists, Wald can hardly be accused of preaching to it. Much of the fiction he explicates may be of interest only to specialists. But it’s just this complicating of the received canon and deepening of individual political conflicts that makes one look forward to the final panel of his triptych, to be called The American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War.

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