The November forecast looks gloomy.
Ten to watch in 2002.
Paul Wellstone's toughest race yet.
Q and A with the former labor secretary.
Hell No, They Won't Go
Israel's "refuseniks" Plus: Charmaine Seitz on West Bank "Bantustans."
Rotten to the Core.
Political theater of the absurd.
Above the Law
The military seeks exemptions from green regulations.
Ecuador's plantation workers fight back.
Thanks to federal funding anti-choice "pregnancy centers" are on the rise.
A new Russian law shuts down Kremlin opposition.
In Person: Greg Palast
BOOKS: Writers in exile from a future time.
All the Rage
BOOKS: Bernard Lewis vs. the Islamic world.
MUSIC: Meet Nigeria's Stephen Osita Osadebe.
The Games People Play
July 19, 2002
he 1961 publication of Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left marked a scholarly watershed. One of the first academics to treat left-wing writing as a distinct strand of American literature, Aaron has said his work “helped to loosen the social and political constraints that for 20 years had inhibited the writing of a frank and objective history of ... literary communism.” Much of the previous work on radical writing was hopelessly partisan; but as the torrid ideological passions of the ’30s waned, it had become possible to write that “frank and objective history.” A judicious scholar, Aaron was just the man for the job.
Writers on the Left endures as a classic, but it is a book not without flaws. For one, it largely centers on a New York boys club. The fellow-traveling novelist Josephine Herbst, who only merited a brief mention in Aaron’s account, harrumphed, “[Aaron’s] heroes were the entrepreneurs of writing, the head boys who have been mostly responsible for the re-hashes, [who] were all stuck in the claustrophobia of New York City.” (Then again, in the ’30s, “New York became the most interesting part of the Soviet Union,” said Lionel Abel.) Aaron paid little attention to regional figures, nor did he much consider the achievements of black artists or women.
For some years now, Alan Wald—in many ways Aaron’s heir but unlike his precursor, a man of the left—has been reconsidering the tradition Aaron sketched, to think anew notions of art and Marxist belief. From his deep immersion in the lost word of radical writers of Depression-era America comes Wald’s absorbing new chronicle, Exiles from a Future Time, the first volume of a projected trilogy on literary radicalism.
he sheer range of Wald’s research is often astonishing. He opens a vista onto a motley collection of now forgotten writers, some party men and women, some not, who wrestled with the oft-conflicting impulses of artistic freedom and political commitment. Though Wald often falls prey to the cant of contemporary academia (he can be a dreadful stylist), and despite the somewhat baffling organization of the book—it is more a collection of linked essays than a narrative—the color and zip of the figures he writes about more than compensate for Wald’s failings as a writer.
The chief delight of Exiles from a Future Time is the abundance of characters—a few of them downright wacky—who people Wald’s pages. There is Guy Endore, novelist and screenwriter, a “lifelong mystic sympathetic to theosophy”; the “Apollinaire of the proletariat,” Sol Funaroff, a poet and radical who penned the lines that give the book its title (“I am that exile / from a future time, / from shores of freedom / I may never know”); and his poetic contemporary, Alfred Hayes, “the Byron of the Poolhalls” who was “addicted to pinball machines” and preferred the company of cabbies to intellectuals.
But no book on American literary radicalism would be complete without a chapter on Mike Gold, a “kind of cheeky Crazy Kat bouncing off the crania of his adversaries,” as one friend described him. Gold wrote one of the most famous works of the time, Jews without Money (1930), a seminal “proletarian” novel, set in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side, a work later championed by Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Gold was a prolific contributor to the Daily Worker and editor of New Masses (which Wald writes about at length) in the late ’20s, and quite a waggish poetaster: “Poetry is the cruelest bunk, / A trade union is better than all your dreams.”
While Wald gives Gold due attention, he goes far beyond Aaron in scope, especially in the range of journals and magazines he covers, from The Anvil to Dynamo. Though New York looms large in the book—how could it not?—Wald is strong on regional figures, especially writers from the south. Perhaps most interesting is Donald Lee West, who in his long varied career served, among other things, as a minister and footloose labor organizer, and generally “lived a rough tumble life, sporadically fleeing from vigilantes in the middle of the night, occasionally carrying a pistol for self protection, and losing almost every job he managed to secure.”
Wald devotes a section to black writers, a chapter illuminating in its exploration of the tensions between race and class ideology. Women also occupy a central place in Wald’s book, particularly the writers Meridel Le Sueur, Joy Davidman and Muriel Rukeyser. Indeed, Wald is so intent on mentioning as many writers as possible, at times Exiles from a Future Time can read like an annotated phone book.
ne of the pleasures of Wald’s foray into the world of radical writing is the attention given to the explosion of poetry, a favored form of left writers. To his credit, he is reluctant to identify a single unifying motif; the output of radical poets was simply too various, their poetry “a melange, a bubbling cauldron, reverberating with sundry aspirations and levels of talent.” Wald has an eye for the humorous bits of doggerel which featured in the anti-bourgeois harangues of the era. Take “To a Fat Bourgeois” by one Henry George Weiss, published in the The Rebel Poet:
O you are hog-fat and your clothing is fine.
Amusing stuff, but Wald doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that much working-class literature “embodied a temptation to indulge in anti-intellectual, subjective and partisan simplicities.” The best work from the ’30s was poignant and vivid, “political” without being overbearing. Consider the austere imagism of “Picket Lines on a Coal Mine” by W.S. Stacy:
Gaunt faces and tense bodies
Wald’s explication of the poems is insightful. He remarks keenly on the fraught relation between modernist aesthetics, whose two exponents, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, were men of the right, but whose verse exerted a profound influence on the left. Still, he has a maddening tendency to state the plainly obvious: “Poetic symbols and allusions are difficult to translate into precise political strategies.” You don’t say?
But in Wald’s perceptive studies of the tensions between the Communist Party and left-leaning writers, he largely excels. There is a stereotype of the radical writer as just a party hack on orders from Moscow, but Wald convincingly insists that we hesitate before we dismiss left writers of the ’30s as mere megaphones of apparatchiks. To be sure, more than a few were more concerned with cheap propaganda than art, but Wald’s examples largely refute this. Mike Gold, for example, was nobody’s man, though he has been caricatured as a cultural bureaucrat.
his is not to say the party did not have power over left writers. But it is a matter of degree: “The impact of the Soviet Union on cultural work, although vivid and multifarious, was far from all-encompassing.” Of the maligned culture commissars, men like Alexander Trachtenberg and V.J. Jerome, Wald writes, “such men had power ... only in certain contexts or at particular moments; they were merely elements, albeit influential ones, of a vital and fractious cultural movement. Their authority was due primarily to their connections with the Party apparatus, but they were never the movers and shakers of practical literary activity at the movement’s base.”
Still, Wald doesn’t much consider the impact of the Moscow show trials, or the seismic shifts on the left in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet pact of the late ’30s. Nor does he have much to say on the diktats of socialist realism, afflatus for so many unfortunate products. Wald’s main concern is to plumb the wellsprings of an indigenous, homegrown, American literary radicalism, influenced as much by Jack London and Upton Sinclair as Maxim Gorky.
But no matter how independent it may have been (and there are some who argue stridently it wasn’t at all), there is much truth in a comment once made by bohemian radical Floyd Dell: “What happened to American literature was the Russian Revolution.” Indeed, the Russian Revolution provided direction, a highly idealized goal for radical writers. Still, one wonders if they might have arrived at their conclusions all by themselves. After all, as Daniel Aaron reminds us, “American literature, for all its affirmative spirit, is the most searching and unabashed criticism of our national limitations that exists.”
Matthew Price often writes on intellectual history for In These Times.
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