The Journey of James Neugass
— Alan Wald
War Is Beautiful:
An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War
By James Neugass, edited by Peter N. Carroll and Peter Glazer
New York: The New Press, 2008, 314 pages,
AT THE AGE of 32, Isidore James Newman Neugass (1905-49), a lesser poet of the Lost Generation crowd who published as “James Neugass,” departed New York City to spend six months mostly on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. In late 1937 and early 1938, Neugass, serving as a volunteer ambulance driver as part of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, was present at Teruel, one of the conflict’s bloodiest battles, claiming over 100,000 casualties.
Back home, Neugass’s contemporaries, especially those from similarly affluent families able to bestow elite educations on their sons at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, were settling down to jobs and raising families. Why did Neugass go to Spain?
This is a famous question. English novelist Virginia Woolf, in a memoir of her nephew, poet Julian Bell, killed at age 29 during the battle of Brunette, inquired over and over again: “What did he feel about Spain? What made him feel it necessary…to go?....What made him do it?”(1)
Neugass, in his unfinished but mostly poignant journal War Is Beautiful, is equally vexed by the issue: “Why did you come to Spain?” asks his friend, Jack. “Tell you after the ‘all clear’ signal blows,” quips Neugass.
Jack, however, barges ahead with a narrative of his own exit from New York, one that entails dodging an unwelcome marriage commitment. At the finish Jack blurts out: “But I came over here for political reasons and I’m staying for political reasons. I didn’t tell you that, did I?” (73-4)
Before long Neugass runs into Commandante Crome (Dr. Leonard Crome, a British Chief Medical Officer), and reflects: “Why has he come to Spain?” (81) Once more, after arriving at Teruel, Neugass asks: “Why did I come to Spain?” (168) The query, posed from the outset of this journal-like chronicle, continues to be tendered. Yet Neugass provides hardly any specifics as to his own motives.
The answer, as Jack indicated, is both political and personal. Writing in the moment of political catastrophe that was the late 1930s, Neugass no doubt felt that the political component was patently obvious. The rise of fascism in Europe demanded action — extreme action — and Leftists throughout the world responded to the calamity with an idealism and bravery commonly acknowledged.
For anti-fascists in the United States, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the supreme manifestation of the internationalist principles animating the radical vision of the 1930s. African-American author Langston Hughes paid tribute to these qualities in “Hero — International Brigade,” a poem first published in the Communist Party’s Daily Worker in November 1937.(2) The essentials of the Brigade’s story ought to be at the fingertips of socialist activists of all generations.
Defense of the Republic
In February 1936, a Popular Front government (Socialists, Communists and Liberals) was narrowly elected in Spain. By the end of June the forces of the Far Right acquired backing from the fascist leaders of Germany and Italy, and in mid-July Spanish army generals launched a military uprising of “Rebels” against the “Loyalist” Republican government. In reply, the Communist International, with headquarters in Moscow, sent out a call for international volunteers purportedly to defend democracy in Spain with arms, while the USSR and Mexico provided weapons.(3)
In the United States, stirred by the Communist Party, an initial thirty-six volunteers sailed from New York City on December 26, 1936, with the number increasing to 450 by 1937. Even though recruitment for and service in Spain became illegal that year, more than 3000 U.S. citizens were to assist. Most felt amiably toward the Soviet Union and U.S. Communism, but some identified themselves with other brands of radicalism.
The U.S. volunteers were assigned primarily to two battalions (the Lincoln Battalion and the Washington Battalion) of the six in the Fifteenth International Brigade, a component of an overall army of 35,000 individual foreigners from 53 nations. A number of individuals also joined the John Brown Artillery, the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion (from Canada, named for two patriots), the Regiment de Tren (a transportation unit), and, like James Neugass, the staff of the field hospital of the American Medical Bureau to Save Spanish Democracy.
Together, all U.S. volunteers became known as “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” albeit such an entity did not officially exist. Recruits came from assorted social classes, but a disproportionate percentage from the United States were Jewish (close to 50%) and, for the first time, Euro-American soldiers served under African-American officers. The Lincolns fought determinedly, but their training, weapons, and numbers were inadequate. Nearly one-third never returned. Confusing the situation was the at times reprehensible role that Soviet Union and its close allies in Spain played in their treatment of rivals on the Left.(4)
The most repellent feature of the political landscape after 1936, nonetheless, was the refusal of the United States, England and other Western democracies to come to the aid of the Republicans. Germany and Italy were left free to test out new weapons and techniques of massacring civilians. No wonder George Orwell declared, two years after the April 1939 victory of Franco, “The outcome of the Spanish war was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin — at any rate, not in Spain.”(5)
Among those who risked life and limb for what has been called “The Last Great Cause” were a striking number of creative writers, artists, journalists, and other cultural figures.(6) They fought (and were wounded and killed) in the battalions, and served in the medical corps. They also entertained and reported from the front lines — Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Dorothy Parker and Josephine Herbst are just a sampling of non-combatant partisans from the United States.
The Odyssey of James Neugass
One of the most gifted and intriguing of the lesser-known literary-minded volunteers in combat circumstances was James Neugass. The Introduction to War Is Beautiful, prepared by Peter Carroll and Peter Glazer, two scholars associated with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, efficiently recapitulates the chief events of his sojourn in Spain. They report that Neugass arrived in mid-November 1937, joining the American Medical Bureau at Villa Paz, and a month later found himself in the thick of battle at Teruel.
Throughout the brutal attacks and counter-attacks, Neugass drove an ambulance back and forth in hazardous combat zones, personally assisted in setting up hospital units, and received a number of shrapnel wounds. During the “Great Retreats,” when Republican lines began to collapse, Neugass found himself engaging in hand-to-hand combat for survival.(7) Following an exhausting escape in which he transported Dr. Edward Barsky, leader of the U.S. Medical volunteers, and other personnel to safety, Neugass was advised to return home with a letter of special commendation (which the editors partially reproduce on page 307).
Neugass’s own portrayal of these experiences comprise 90% of the volume, which is loosely constructed as a diary containing descriptions, lists, dialogues, reports of conversations, whimsical observations, memorials, vignettes, and occasional forays into gallows humor.
But what about the personal motives that drove Neugass to the Spanish front? The Carroll and Glazer Introduction also provides four paragraphs summarizing Neugass’s life and literary activities before and after Spain. These sketch his privileged youth in New Orleans as the grandson of an industrialist and philanthropist, and then his education at a fancy prep school in New Hampshire. Next came a sequence of academic stopovers at Yale, Harvard, Michigan, and Oxford, where he dabbled in everything from mining engineering to archeology to fine arts to history.
Neugass started writing poetry at 17 and labored at literary projects while he spent the 1920s traveling about Europe. Returning to the United States in late 1932, he further pursued his writing while migrating from job to job.
Much of War Is Beautiful was drafted by hand in Spain and typed up upon his return. Neugass published a section of it in Salud! Poems, Stories and Sketches of Spain By American Writers (1938), a collection of mostly literary sympathizers of the Communist Party, but an incomplete version of the manuscript was circulated to publishing houses and then apparently withdrawn before strangely vanishing.
Neugass did finish a long poem about Spain and a few shorter ones, meanwhile marrying Myra Shavell, with whom he had two sons. Working as a cabinet maker and foreman in a machine shop during the 1940s, he began writing short fiction for popular magazines and concluded a novel based on his New Orleans family. This was Rain of Ashes, appearing in 1949, the year he died of a heart attack in Greenwich Village. A half-century later, in 2000, a typed copy of War Is Beautiful unexpectedly turned up in a Vermont used bookshop.
Regrettably, the Carroll and Glazer summary of Neugass’s biography contains some minor errors. Neugass’s marriage date is given as 1939, but Neugass did not meet Myra Shavell until 1940, when they were employed as social workers in the same office; the marriage was later that year.(8)
The correct date brings into question Carroll and Glazer’s speculation that it was Myra who typed up the War Is Beautiful manuscript soon after Neugass’s 1938 return to New York. It seems likely that another friend or professional typist was involved, which could be a source for locating further information on the saga of the manuscript’s disappearance and surprising rescue.
The editors should also have included the information that Neugass had an earlier marriage, perhaps not unrelated to his Spanish adventures and other issues in his life. In 1928 he wedded Helen Larkin Wiesman who, with her second husband, famous radical journalist George Seldes, covered the Spanish Civil War in 1937 for the New York Post.(9)
Another error, mainly of significance to scholars, is the statement that Neugass died on September 17, 1949; it was actually Wednesday, September 7, and a New York Times obituary can be found on September 10. Moreover, Carroll and Glazer state that Rain of Ashes was published “posthumously” (xvi), which means that Neugass never beheld the fruits of his last labor. But the novel appeared in June of 1949, allowing Neugass the satisfaction of reading a large number of reviews in papers from around the country (including the New York Times and Daily Worker in July 1949). He even gave a newspaper interview where he was referred to as a “best-selling author.”(10)
Finally, the editors state that they were told that the Neugass manuscript was likely found among papers of Max Eastman (1883-1969), once a famous revolutionary writer. They then quote hand-written comments on the manuscript that raise questions about the political utility of Neugass’s book for the anti-fascist political cause, and speculate that these “ideologically inflected” doubts about Neugass’s work emanate from Eastman: “The main question to decide is: Is this a book that will help the fight, and the building up of the people’s movement against fascism.” (xvii)
But this attribution doesn’t make sense in the history of U.S. radicalism; Eastman had abandoned the Left by the time of the Spanish Civil War and in the 1940s morphed to the Far Right. Eastman’s biographer observes of Spain: “Max was uninterested in this struggle and could not understand or sympathize with those who were.”(11)
What is more, a simple match of these written queries with Eastman’s handwriting is not difficult to accomplish, given that samples of Eastman’s script are on-line and in his archives. Although I am not a graphologist, I have made such a comparison and find the likelihood that they were written by the same hand to be zero.
I then compared the handwritten queries on Neugass’s manuscript to handwriting by Maxim Lieber (1897-1993), the primary literary agent for pro-Communist writers of the time, including those with connections to the Spanish Civil War such as Langston Hughes and Alvah Bessie. The resemblance is about 90%.
The Communist Connection
To fully answer the “personal” part of the question as to why Neugass went to Spain — why he responded so dramatically to the call so many others disregarded — is a near-impossible task 50 years later. But a starting point would be to acknowledge, as this volume does not, that Neugass was closely connected to the Communist Party for most of the 1930s and 1940s — an affiliation that might be criticized today but nothing of which to be ashamed in the context of the anti-fascist era!
A November 1938 interview in the Daily Worker provides clues to Neugass’s thinking. The headline is: “Poet James Neugass, M.A., Teruel.” Neugass’s opening remarks recall novelist Herman Melville’s Moby Dick where the wandering Ishmael famously announces that “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Neugass says: “I attended many schools here and abroad, including Yale and Oxford. But I got my B.A. in Gimbel’s basement, my B.S. in the 13th Street Police Precinct, and my Master’s degree at Teruel.”
Although 1938 was the era of the Popular Front, and Left writers were by then calling for a “People’s Culture,” the upper-class Neugass is depicted in the interview as a “proletarian poet.” He places his youth of writing “surrealist poetry” decidedly in the past, and points to his experiences working at Gimbel’s department store as transformative for his art.
During this time, Neugass reports, he served as editor of a union paper published by the Office Workers Union (a Communist-led organization originally affiliated with the Trade Union Unity League) and soon he was jailed for activities in support of the Ohrbach workers’ strike — an event wonderfully recreated in Leane Zugsmith’s 1936 radical novel, A Time to Remember, and Reginald Marsh’s 1936 eminent painting “End of the Fourteenth Street Crosstown Line.” Neugass then helped to form the State, County and Municipal Workers of America.
When asked by the Daily Worker specifically about his reasons for joining the Lincoln Brigade, Neugass humorously responds: “First of all, I was spending too much money each day buying newspapers to read about the Spanish situation. Secondly, I went there to get some sleep…New York City is such a noisy place.”
More noteworthy, perhaps, is Neugass’s remark that Spain resolved his earlier concerns about “contact” between workers and intellectuals because “ideals here become realities there.” He reports that, since his homecoming, he had written “hundreds of leaflets and trade union papers,” which further convinced him to change his view of the poet from a private to a public figure.(12)
If one traces back Neugass’s writing through pro-Communist books and journals of the mid-Depression — for example, Proletarian Writers in the United States (1935), Partisan Review & Anvil (1936), and Get Organized: Stories and Poems About Trade Union People (1939) — one can see how the times pressed Neugass to reorganize his literary sensibility around the Communist program.
One example is his poem “To the Trade,” from the Communist magazine Dynamo in May 1935, which addresses “the function of the intellectual” and contains a reference to writings of Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), the pro-Bolshevik Russian writer who is associated with socialist realism. Neugass calls for a new role for poets as “the book-keepers of the international agony,” one that requires dramatic action.(13)
Whether this aspiration to a new integration of art and communism was ever personally fulfilled is subject to debate. Rain of Ashes begins with a quotation from the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1920 narrative “Lancelot”: “God, what a rain of ashes falls on him/Who sees the new and cannot leave the old.” Is the reference to the characters based on Neugass’s family in the years of World War I, or is it actually to himself? Rain of Ashes was projected as the first of three autobiographical volumes that would have recreated much of his life, but no sections of the latter parts have survived.
Although most of War Is Beautiful seems to be a Hemingway-like description of daily events, the need for a new and long-term vision underlies its sensibility. One afternoon in February 1938, Neugass reflects: “…no officer’s pistol can fire fast enough to make men stay in their trenches unless they are given something better to fight for than ‘making the world safe for democracy,’ ‘for race, for blood and honor,’ or ‘for God and Country,’ or ‘for the fatherland.’” As an alternative standpoint, Neugass declares himself “For a New World”:
“We will not run from the trenches if we know we are making a new world. We will hold our ground, to share in the wealth with which the world is ever more overflowing. That poverty amidst plenty should cease, we will bear against the full weight of mechanical death-machines bought by men who think that poverty amidst plenty is the natural and immortal principle of life laid down by the essential foulness of what they call ‘human nature.’” (191)
Behind “War is Beautiful”
This passage also suggests why Neugass gave his book the title War Is Beautiful. The phrase itself comes from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), the Italian poet and Futurist, who combined nationalism (later, fascism) with a worship of technology.
War was “beautiful” to Marinetti because he saw its violence as a subjugation of machines to a human will that would produce a new literature and art. But one sees in the above-quoted sentences that Neugass clearly believes that “mechanical death-machines” are actually at the service of the ruling elite and that the mass of humanity must fight back through a collectivist vision.
Such a preoccupation with countering Italian Futurism was not Neugass’s alone; three years earlier, in 1935, German Marxist Walter Benjamin also took up the challenge of Marinetti’s “aesthetics of war” in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
War Is Beautiful shows that yet another facet of Neugass’s personal motivation in taking the extreme action of volunteering was to uproot ugly vestiges of his family history. In a memorable passage, after a long day of driving in December 1937, Neugass finds himself sharing a bed in a bathless hotel with an African American, Lieutenant D. (probably the Trinidad-born Dr. Arnold Donowa, a dental surgeon):
“This was the first time I had shared a room, much less a bed, with a negro. My grandfather had been a slaveholder. Two ancestors had fought with the Confederates. The eyes of three generations of New Orleans private bankers and their women were on me as I stood in the room with D. He sensed this but made no comment. Both of us knew that I had an opportunity of permanently putting to sleep a hundred years of prejudice. This I did. For a century my family has had its laundry done by negroes, and its cooking. Negro women have taken care of the men’s overflow sexual desires and the children they had with their wives.” (47)
One wonders if, as in Ishmael’s “wedding night” with Queequeg in Moby Dick, the two men awoke with their bodies ambiguously intertwined.
Marching with Blinkers
In War Is Beautiful, Neugass says that he felt “ashamed” that his extreme nearsightedness forced him to serve in the medical corps instead of the infantry, and he distances himself from the conventional picture of the writer going to war in search of adventures: “I don’t like the literary, intellectual, here-to-be-revolted-by-the-horror-of-war, later-to-write-a-book.” But he proudly separates himself out by insisting that those others were “non-political.” (23)
In contrast, Neugass of course was unabashedly quite “political.” So I find it disingenuous to see War Is Beautiful marketed on the book-jacket as “free of ideological blinkers”: “Unlike some other memoirists, he [Neugass] has no political or personal axe to grind.” To be sure, War Is Beautiful is far from a political tract but it is unquestionably a view of the war situation refracted through the famous “blinkers” of those who served under the leadership of the Communist movement or were otherwise allied to the Popular Front.
Faith in the Popular Front policy leads Neugass to be sadly incurious about the various arrests, executions, labeling of other radicals as infantile Leftists, and the contradictions of what he describes as the “First Win the War” theory. Indeed, some of the fascination of reading this journal may come from observing how those blinkers worked, even on the most intelligent and sensitive of men.
One can certainly see this in Neugass’s Spanish Civil War poetry. “Give Us this Day,” often reprinted but appearing initially in Story (November-December 1938), begins with a quote from Dolores Ibárruri, an orthodox Stalinist, but is replete with haunting images of olive trees as headstones and the shoes of dead men marching on the feet of others.
In War Is Beautiful we find Neugass negotiating his congenital opposition to international war with the demand created by fascist aggression to participate in armed resistance. This is a work rooted not only stylistically but somewhat attitudinally in the anti-militaristic disenchantment of the post-World War I Lost Generation — Hemingway, John Dos Passos and e. e. Cummings; these veterans (often having served as ambulance drivers) were disillusioned with moral heroics and wrote mainly of survival. In sections of War Is Beautiful, such as his narrative of “Heliodoro, the Heroic Kitchen-Boy” (195-96), Neugass assumes a spectatorial position as he stoically depicts self-sacrifice by a very ordinary person.
Perhaps the saddest part of James Neugass’s own story is that, on the book-jacket of Rain of Ashes and in publicity statements for the novel, he omitted entirely references to service in Spain and even his experiences as a union activist. The anti-radical witch-hunt was under way and in 1947 Dr. Barsky, for whom Neugass had served as a personal driver in Spain, was cited for Contempt of Congress.
Barsky had refused to turn over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities the records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, which primarily aided Spanish refugees and lobbied Congress on behalf of the deposed Spanish Republican government. Barsky subsequently served six months in prison.
The New Press edition of this long-lost memoir should serve as part of a tribute to a generation of freedom fighters like Barsky and Neugass, far from perfect in their comprehension of a turbulent world but consummate in their personal commitment to their vision of socialist ideals.
- Bell also served as an ambulance driver for the Spanish Republicans. Virginia Woolf, “Remembering Julian,” in Valentine Cunningham, Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 231-234.
back to text
- Reprinted in Cary Nelson, ed., The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002). Nelson’s collection also reprints four poems by Neugass.
back to text
- The orthodox Trotskyist view is that Stalinism crushed an authentic revolution in progress that could have defeated fascism. Much scholarship confirms the existence of a massive social movement that held the Spanish Right in check prior to the arrival of Soviet aid. But it is impossible to judge whether this indigenous revolt was sufficient to beat back the international Fascist forces ultimately lined up against the Republic. Recently published documents from the former Soviet Union reinforce the view that the pro-Soviet elements were out to establish a dictatorship of their own, although there is no way to know how that perspective would have ultimately fared if there had been substantial military and financial support to the Republic from the West. George Orwell describes some of the controversies of the era in his 1943 essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” available on-line at: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1: “As to the Russians, their motives in the Spanish war are completely inscrutable. Did they, as the pinks believed, intervene in Spain in order to defend Democracy and thwart the Nazis? Then why did they intervene on such a niggardly scale and finally leave Spain in the lurch? Or did they, as the Catholics maintained, intervene in order to foster revolution in Spain? Then why did they do all in their power to crush the Spanish revolutionary movements, defend private property and hand power to the middle class as against the working class? Or did they, as the Trotskyists suggested, intervene simply in order to prevent a Spanish revolution? Then why not have backed Franco? Indeed, their actions are most easily explained if one assumes that they were acting on several contradictory motives. I believe that in the future we shall come to feel that Stalin’s foreign policy, instead of being so diabolically clever as it is claimed to be, has been merely opportunistic and stupid.”
back to text
- The problem of addressing the relationship of the Lincoln Brigade to Stalinist repression in Spain is more fully discussed in my essay “Humanizing the Lincolns,” The Volunteer, Winter 1998-99, 5-7.
back to text
- This statement can be found in Orwell, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War”: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1.
back to text
- See Stanley Weintraub’s The Last Great Cause: The Intellectuals and the Spanish Civil War (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968).
back to text
- See the chapter “The Great Retreats” in Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abrahm Lincoln Brigade (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 191-198.
back to text
- Wald interview with Myra Neugass, 1991, and James (Jed) Neugass, July 21, 2009.
back to text
- According to documents in the recent volume Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, Seldes was through the 1930s, and perhaps later, a secret member of Communist Party viewed by a Soviet agent as a potential recruit for aiding espionage. See Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2009), by John Earl Hayes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 169. The accusation is not far-fetched, but the evidence is hardly conclusive. Wiesman and Neugass were intimate friends of the pro-Communist poet Genevieve Taggard, whose second husband headed the U.S. office of the Soviet news agency, TASS.
back to text
- “Author of Best seller,” an interview with Neugass at his home in Woodside, New York, appeared in the Long Island Sunday Press on August 14, 1949.
back to text
- William L. O’Neill, The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 187.
back to text
- Anita Tilkin, “Poet James Neugass,” Daily Worker, November 15, 1938, 7. The interview gives further details about the manuscript that was to become War Is Beautiful, although this title is never used. He states that he completed only 35,000 words focused on the Teruel campaign, and in the United States he added 100,000 more. The plan was to publish the whole along with photographs taken by doctors who had cameras with them.
back to text
- The poem is reprinted in Jack Salzman and Leo Zander, Social Poetry of the 1930s: A Selection (New York: Burt Franklin and Co., 1978), 175.
back to text
ATC 143, November-December 2009