Communist Writing in Anti-Communist Times

— Judith E. Smith

American Night:
The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War
By Alan Wald
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2012,
412 pages, $45 hardback.

AMERICAN NIGHT is the third volume of Alan Wald’s capacious study of the Communist-led literary left from the 1930s through the 1950s. This trilogy, launched in 2002, follows his earlier books about Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist writers on the left. It makes the case for the significance of Communist writers and their literary production within 20th-century literary history, and as an important part of the cultural history of the Communist left in these important decades.

To this project Wald brings exhaustive knowledge of the history of, and membership in, 20th-century radical movements. The books’ publication makes widely available the fruits of Wald’s indefatigable labors in archives, his extensive interviews over many years, and his sophisticated readings of particular works of fiction and poetry.

For various reasons, anti-Communist political repression chief among them, the internal history of the literary left is not well-known and the cultural contributions of left-wing writers, many of whom made the decision to disguise their political affiliations, not widely recognized. Wald’s work in American Night and the two volumes that preceded it are requisite reading, indeed the starting point, for anyone interested in the carefully hidden history of the literary left.

A Period of Fracture

American Night centers on the period from 1946 to 1956, when the World War II common sense that the United States and the Soviet Union were fighting a common fascist enemy gave way to the Cold War’s explicit enmity between former allies, fracturing political and cultural coalitions and generating ambiguity and uncertainty.

Although several times Wald alludes to the difficulties of fitting the period’s complex dynamics into an overarching argument, he brings a clearly articulated set of political principles to his understanding of the politics of the period.

As a Marxist and as a socialist, he describes his task as neither antiquarian or academic but an effort to round out “the picture of what happened to those hundreds of cultural workers pledged to the internationalist, antiracist, pro-labor vision of the 1930s” and “to further clarify what went wrong, as well as right, and why and how.” (19)

In a prologue and the introduction, Wald lays out his “twofold” political premise: that those in the American Communist party, and those who associated with organizations and colleagues whom he designates as “pro-Communist,” were semi-consciously drawn into defending Stalin’s police state through “the safeguarding of an egregiously idealized Soviet Union.”

Wald sees Party members and the larger circle of  pro-Communist writers as having “perfectly good incentives for  talking oneself into downing a potent cocktail of beliefs while still being wrong.” (xii-xiii) He is committed to finding hard evidence to document and date Communist party membership (explicit or implicit) and disaffiliation, and he works outward from CPUSA membership, to encompass pro-Communists and associates of Party members.

This method of working from the CPUSA outward explains his foregrounding of shifts in Party doctrine and divisive Party literary debates as a central explanatory context to explain writers’ self-deceptions, despair, disillusionment, and declining productivity.

Meanings of “Progressive”

While acknowledging that terminology remains problematic, Wald lays out several key premises. He argues that after 1935, the term “progressive,” as designation and self-designation, defined “Left liberals and socialists who more or less shared the Communists’ pro-labor and anti-fascist outlook and who also downplayed criticisms of the Soviet government.”

He describes the term “progressive” as functioning as a “weasel word.” (8) A Communist identifying himself or herself as a Progressive was telling the truth and lying at the same time, “a state of mind that could become habit forming.” (9)

Wald also questions the moral certainties of pro-Soviet anti-fascism as a unifying sentiment  of  the post 1935 Popular Front, excluding the 18 months (1939-41) of the Hitler-Stalin pact, suggesting that this political conception encouraged unquestioning support for problematic national wartime goals of the United States and USSR, and especially for Stalin’s leadership in the Soviet Union. Wald is especially critical of the postwar “politico cultural posture” he calls “late anti-fascism” as a self-deceiving moral certainty, a dangerous rhetoric that “rarely missed an opportunity to simplify and exaggerate” and encouraged a “self-willed blindness about the Soviet Union.” (7, 13-14, 17)(1)

A Communist Literary Modernism?

Wald’s political commitments, emphasizing Communist moral and political obtuseness to the crimes of Stalinism, and Popular Front anti-fascism as a retreat from “the necessity for socialist transformation from Communist plans and rhetoric” (13), leads him to a special appreciation of a group of literary leftists who produced work that he reads as questioning memory and 1930s certainties.

He names this genre of work “Com­munist literary modernism,” which he characterizes as expressing “a dissident Marxism — a chastened, more ‘contingent,’ less ‘positivist’ historical sensibility still attuned to class and racial exploration — with explorations of subjectivity informed by insights echoing psychoanalysis and existentialism.” (xiii)(2)

He argues that particular works by Kenneth Fearing, Ann Petry, Alexander Saxton, Richard Wright, K.B. Gilden, Thomas McGrath, and Carlos Bulosan produce “‘modernist-like’ hidden narratives” that recount Left history via  a “cognitive originality and sweep of consciousness.” (xiii-xiv)

Wald’s careful readings of how works by these writers reveal the traces of this history are penetrating and original.  Despite his efforts to work within a specific time period and well-defined categories, however, Wald’s sprawling canvas covers writers whose works were created and published before and after the 1946-1956 period; writers who came in and out of the Communist Party in these years; writers who specifically criticized Stalinism and those who did not; and a large number of radical writers whose work do not meet the standards that he establishes of  “Communist literary modernism.”

He describes this project as demanding, and in a recent interview refers to the material as “disobedient.”(3) Despite Wald’s effort to group the writers in categories that respond to historically specific social and personal conditions emerging out of foreign affairs (the Cold War) and the postwar economic resurgence he refers to in a shorthand term as the Consumer’s Republic, some of the chapters remain unwieldy and the groupings of writers somewhat arbitrary.

Wald’s framework comfortably accommodates Kenneth Fearing, whose photograph graces the cover of the book and who is the primary subject of the opening chapter. Fearing was a publicly-identified Communist who broke with Communist Party positions in 1939 and then “never again referred to the Soviet Union favorably.” (37) Wald reads his 1946 novel The Big Clock as providing “an imaginative correlative for the coming rout of the precious radical achievements of the 1930s” that anticipated Communist literary modernism. (26-7)

Wald’s framework doesn’t seem as convincing in another chapter, where he groups a set of pro-Communist writers producing urban and regional variations of what Wald labels as “social realist novels” published in the second half of the 1940s. He reads some of these works as displaying a similar “quasi-Marxian new contingency” in their efforts to “remake and reimagine the relations of past, present, and future.” (87)

Gender and “Outsiders”

Wald especially singles out Alexander Saxton’s 1948 novel The Great Midland as akin to Fearing’s The Big Clock. He makes the case that Saxton’s novel prefigures the movement from social realism to the new contingency on the grounds that the major female character questions positivism in the name of existentialist doubt.

When he turns to the women novelists, he argues that most of the successful writers who had produced powerful social realist novels of the 1930s “stumbled and fell” in the postwar climate. (108)

He makes an exception for Vera Caspary’s novel Laura, drafted in 1939 and published in 1943, singling out its interrogation of gender as a social identity. Wald argues that “it was during an interim of crisis about her Party membership that she tried to escape political discussion by writing a mystery play that eventually became Laura.” (111)

But it is worth noting that the writing of Laura took place during years when women came to constitute half the CPUSA membership, and when debates expanded the “woman question” beyond economic oppression to include attention to gendered cultural norms and issues of domestic labor.

Wald credits Laura as a “powerful joining of social vision and formal strategies that expressed the displaced anxieties of the 1930s” (114), but also argues that “a new vision of experience as well as its expression” was “only momentary” and that her next novel Stranger Than Truth (1946) demonstrated that “the clarity of social vision disintegrated.” Whatever the failures of the literary strategies of this next novel by Caspary, he might have noted that debates deepening the analysis of the “woman question” remained very much on the agenda in CP circles in the late 1940s and early 1950s.(4)

Wald clearly meant to create a more inclusive portrait of the literary left with his special attention to women writers and homosexual writers, and American Night creates a much more varied canon of Communist writers than previous efforts. But chapters devoted to “tracking the postwar transit of ‘outsider’ presences within the left — gays and lesbians, African Americans, and Jewish Americans,” are organized around identity categories that many of the writers so designated actively questioned, and often refused, for serious and well-thought out political and intellectual reasons that did not necessarily indicate hiding.

Wald’s approach  to “outsider” writers presumes a kind of parallelism of each form of exclusion that generalizes their motivations and expression, rather than interrogating the complex dynamics of their actual experiences. To many, Communist cosmopolitanism was a meaningful alternative social conception. The writers Katya and Bert Gilden, for example, who neither publicly identified themselves as Jewish or created Jewish characters, seem especially oddly situated in a chapter about on Jewish writers, even one called “Jews without Judaism.”  (Their novel that Wald admires for its complex and nuanced account of working-class radicalism between 1946 and 1956, Between the Hills and the Seas, was not published until 1971, a very different historical moment.)

Wald’s project of “social literary history” depends on a “conceptual frame” proposing imaginative literature as a communal autobiography of several generations of writers committed to the 1930s vision of advancing a new society. (xii) He is especially critical of Howard Fast’s short story “An Epitaph for Sidney,” published in the pro-Communist Jewish Life magazine in 1947, for offering a fictionalized generational prototype of a 1930s Popular Front Communist that could substitute mythologizing for historical complexity.

In contrast, Wald promises to provide a “fact checked version of the Communist literary experience following WWII” (21), and to “consider the emotional, moral, social and psychological aspects of pro-Communist writers” and reveal the “inner life of people too often treated as if they had none.” (48)

Toward this end, American Night includes  an extensive selection of photographs which Wald uses to enhance this communal biography, and orient readers to the breadth of the study. (320) While these photographs make an important contribution, they are neither transparent nor necessarily illuminating of particular points in Wald’s account.

Knowing when and why the photos were taken (publicity for book jackets, by family and friends, at work) or the basis of Wald’s selection would enhance their legibility, and help make sense of some of the more striking departures from conventional portraits — for example, why Anne Petry and Abraham Polonsky are the only writers pictured with children, or why Willard Motley is pictured “Carousing in a bar.”

Wald has an unparalleled knowledge about the lives of the literary left, and his mapping of left-wing networks is an extraordinary accomplishment. But the kinds of sources he has for different writers vary widely, with the result that claims based on such different kinds of sources carry unequal weight.

Sometimes, as with Fearing, Sillen and Petry, Wald uses evidence from letter collections and writing notebooks that provide clear documentation about a writer’s personal, literary and political decision-making. In other cases, he is relying on the memories of interviewees and second-hand speculation. His decisions about what to include and what to leave out in the attempt to document private life are much more subjective.

He uses physical description as if these were self-evident categories rather than speculative and sexually normative judgments, for example describing Fearing’s hair, lisp, and messy personal habits as “accent[ing] Fearing’s little boy appeal, which had a surefire aphrodisiacal effect on beautiful young women.” (31) He includes what might be considered irrelevant intimate details, for example referring to Samuel Sillen’s urostomy bag, (74) and Lillian Apotheker’s “weight problem.” (178)

Private Life and Literary Production

In an epilogue, Wald describes his method as exploring the writer’s “emotional architecture” by tracing networks of friends, lovers and comrades, alcoholism and infidelities, not to “censure or scandalize” but to “gain insight into the actual culture of the day ” and to carefully explore how private life might serve as “a matrix of the literary imagination.” (310-20)

He himself acknowledges the pitfalls of reducing “an author’s ideas to his or her idiosyncratic psychology.” However, the organizational scheme Wald uses to deploy the life story materials in order to illuminate individual literary production in the different chapters actually makes it harder to get a sense of broad patterns of cosmopolitan left-wing social life as these took shape in different cities, for different generations, and to meet varying social needs of homosexual and heterosexual comrades, men and women, families and single people.

Many African Americans, women and homosexuals who were attracted to something about the positions and practice of the CPUSA found the fit between the kinds of radical institutional analyses the party offered and important issues in their lives imperfect and conflicted. Wald’s work on Black and women Communist writers participates in an ongoing scholarly conversation about these conflicts, cited in his footnotes.

Wald does not have the advantage of an already existing scholarship on homosexuality and the left; the first few works on homosexuality are just beginning to appear. Normative sexuality has demanded strategies of reticence and often complete silence on the subject of non-normative desires and practices.

The readings in American Night locate the presence of same sex desire and evaluate representations of homosexuality as either positive or negative. But it is necessary to probe deeper to examine the many different narrative and literary strategies writers who wanted to explore non-normative sexuality used to challenge assumptions about family, domesticity, private life and selfhood.

I have written about how some writers questioned the policing of sexual and gender norms by depicting interracial love as “desires of the heart” (Lillian Smith’s term) that did not respect legal or social prohibition, and tried to imagine new forms of social and kin-like connection outside the heterosexual family.(5)

Other writers focused on exposing the lies and hypocrisy required to protect public heterosexual norms, class and male privilege. In an essay on Chinese American H. T. Tsiang’s 1935 novel, The Hanging on Union Square, Aaron Lecklider identifies the distinctive features of a literary strategy he names as “proletarian burlesque”: an emphasis on performance and performativity; an interest in the ‘low other;’ a critique of capitalism; a vicious use of vulgar humor; and a reliance on pornographic realism…”(6)

This concept helps to explain the presence of the sexual explicitness that is a hallmark of much left-wing fiction at the same time as it reveals the potential of performing sexuality as a kind of insubordination associated with liberation.

Wald’s “fact-checked version of the Communist literary experience after WWII” has produced a powerful political and literary account centered around what literary critic Mary Helen Washington applauds as a “tough critique of previous concepts of literary Communism.”(7)

Wald’s Party-centered approach has unquestionably mapped new territory and uncovered unknown terrain. Focusing more broadly, on people who were willing to work alongside Communists, often in the pro-Communist groups, and in film, drama and music as well as literature, leads in other productive directions.

The findings from my research suggest that from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the language of anti-fascism and Progressivism continued  to serve as meaningful touchstones for those trying to articulate and organize radical alternatives to white supremacy, Cold War conservatism, mainstream politics and corporate liberalism, and to imagine and act on solidarity beyond neighborhood and nation.

Notes

  1. Wald buttresses his critique of moral certainties with a reference to a “much cited” study by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. But Haidt’s work is contested, for example, by Darcia Narvaez, “Moral Complexity: the Fatal Attraction of Truthiness and the Importance of Mature Moral Functioning,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5 (2): 163-181.
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  2. Wald defines his usage of “Communist literary modernism” narrowly as a self-created and “intentionally ironic category” (xiii), as a critique of positivist rationality through multiple perspectives.” (298) He writes that it is “not a development within modernism, a ‘late modernism,’ but an evolution of the social realism already in commerce with a modernism that emerges into a third tradition through a strategy of psychological intensities.” (303) Wald’s choice of terminology needs further clarification in view of other scholarly analysis of Communist literary modernism identifying earlier literary uses of modernist aesthetic strategies for revolutionary purposes, such as Michael Denning The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth century (London: Verso, 1996); James Smethurst, The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Rachel Rubin, Jewish Gangsters in Modern Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
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  3. “Outlaws, Rebels, and the Revolutionary Imagination,” Part I, http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/17/post/2013/06/outlaws-rebels-and-the-revolutionary-imagination-pt-1.html, accessed 6/13/2013.
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  4. Kate Weigand, Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,2002), 30-37, 46-135.
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  5. Smith, Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 109-139.
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  6. Lecklider, “H.T. Tsiang’s Proletarian Burlesque: Performance and Perversion in The Hanging on Union Square,” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Special issue on Asian American Performance Art, 36:4 (2011): 91. Lecklider riffs here on Denning’s concept of the “proletarian grotesque” which appears in his discussion of the modernist techniques utilized in communist writing of the 1930s; The Cultural Front, 123.
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  7. Washington’s own analysis of this period, The Other Black List: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s is forthcoming from Columbia Univesity Press in 2014.
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September/October 2013, ATC 166

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