Poetry, Politics — and Passion

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Patrick M. Quinn

Blackness of a White Night
By Sherry Mangan
edited by Marshall Brooks with an introduction by Alan Wald
Newton, Mass: Arts End Books, 1986. 64 pages, paper $6.50.

INFREQUENT IS IT that poetry and politics mix very well: yet, when they do the results are often extraordinary. Such is the case with this slim posthumous selection from the literary production of Sherry Mangan, a largely forgotten but extremely talented revolutionary socialist, journalist and imaginative writer.

The main facts of Mangan’s life are ably chronicled by Against the Current Cultural Editor Alan Wald in his book The Revolutionary Imagination (University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

Mangan’s fifty-six years were densely packed. New England born (1904), Harvard educated (class of 1925, classics major, cum laude), published novelist (Cinderella Married, 1932) and poet (No Apology for Poetrie, 1934), Mangan spent the latter half of the ’20s and the early part of the ’30s writing productively, and associating with various of the literati of the time.

During the late 1930s, influenced by his long-time Harvard friend John Brooks Wheelwright, Mangan became a Trotskyist. In 1938 he was a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party, and later that year, in Paris, he commenced a close political association with Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International that would last until his death in 1961.

The intervening two decades were filled with excitement, purpose, frustration and disappointment, as Mangan, under the pseudonym Terence Phelan, carried. out numerous important and often dangerous political missions for the Fourth International, while based in Paris, South America, Amsterdam and Rome.

At the same time Mangan became a well-known correspondent for Henry Luce’s stable of publications — Time, Life and Fortune – which offered him a means of earning a living as well as provided a cover for his revolutionary activities. His association with Time lasted from 1938 until 1950 when, as his dual identity became increasingly transparent, he was purged because of his political posture.

From 1950 to 1957, again concentrating on creative writing, Mangan lived for a period in Bolivia while at work on a novel that was never published. Following the death in Bolivia in 1953 of his companion for seventeen years, Marguerite, Mangan returned to New York for a time. In 1955, he moved to Spain; in 1956 to Paris, and then after a brief visit to the United States, he returned to Europe in 1957 and resumed his role as a member of the political staff of the Fourth International. His health, long fragile, began to deteriorate and, overburdened with political assignments and destitute, Mangan died alone in Rome in June 961.

Content and Context

To best appreciate this welcome sampler of Mangan’s work, one should first read the two short stories and the five poems it comprises and then tum to Alan Wald’s excellent introduction, which places the stories and poems in context and analyzes their aesthetic content The first story, “Snow,” is a tour de force: it reveals Mangan’s literary craft at its most powerful It recounts a demanding political assignment on behalf of the Fourth International set in the wintry Austrian mountains during one night in the late 1940s. But Mangan uses the incident as the framework for a series of flashbacks to his narrator and alter ego Mike Farrell’s pre-World War I childhood in Preston (Lynn), Massachusetts. With snow as the controlling device, Mangan skillfully depicts the tensions between creative aspirations and the uncontrollable limitations of life itself.

His masterful engagement of rich imagery is suggestive of John Updike in full flood. Indeed, several of the recalled childhood vignettes in “Snow,” which was written in June 1951, remind one of Updike’s superb story “A Sense of Shelter,” which appeared in the New Yorker some eight years later. Similarly, Mangan’s poem “Thoughts on Approaching Fifty” anticipate Updike’s “Upon the Last Day of his 49th Year.”

What is so remarkable about “Snow” is that it works so well on so many different levels. The reader is at once treated to a glimpse of the life of a revolutionary socialist activist, amidst the uncertainties of post-World War II Europe; to vivid sketches of the culture and natural settings of a middle-class New England family in the days before World War I; and to a video of the rites of passage of a precocious youth from childhood to the bittersweet onset of adolescence.

All of this is richly enhanced by the brilliantly evocative integration of sights, sounds, colors and odors. “Snow” is as good a short story as one can read. The second story, from which the collection’s perhaps ironic title is drawn, “Blackness of a White Night,” is sheer, distilled pathos. Rarely, even in the work of as gifted a writer as Bernard Malamud, is the reader provided such an empathetic window on the no-win war between mind and body called-the “aging process.”

Set between the hours of three and five am. in a nondescript hotel room (the Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street in New York), the highly autobiographical story condenses the physical agony, frustration, introspection, fear and self-pity of one whose body is failing him.

Beset by cardiovascular disease and overwhelmingly worldly travails, besieged by insomnia, the narrator, whose mind oscillates between periods of crystalline lucidity and semi-conscious, dream-like moments, struggles through the blackness of a seemingly endless night, haunted by loneliness, self-doubt, unrealized aspirations and a weary sense that the end is near. By the story’s close, the exhausted reader wants nothing more than for the dawn to come and with it an end to the awful nightmare.

Recovering Meaning

What also makes both the stories and the poetry so very good is that they are almost entirely devoid of the modernist obscurantism and obfuscation that rendered so much of Mangan’s earlier work virtually unapproachable.

Mangan’s later prose and poetry, particularly as evidenced by this collection, come alive to the reader without need of mediation, interpretation, translation, explication, exegesis, and any other apologies for sophistry that divorce emotion from a firm grounding in reality.

By reaffirming the values of realism and naturalism, too long suppressed by a generation of sycophants beholden to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Mangan has wrenched meaning back from the shadowy recesses of Plato’s Cave and reassigned it to its proper place in literature — front and center.

Each of the five poems in the collection is strongly evocative in its own right “Something More About Love” is a poignant, affectionate remembrance of Mangan’s late wife Marguerite; “Materialism Revisited” recalls the physical reality of love-making; “Lesbia,” the title of which was borrowed from an earlier poem that appeared in No Apology for Poetrie, is Mangan’s nostalgic yearning for his first wife Kate, from whom he was divorced; “An Unproductive Day” is at once a lament for writer’s block and for a life’s unfilled promise; “The Activist Miliciano,” perhaps the most powerful of the five, captures the last thoughts of a Republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War about to be shot by the pursuing foe.

The last poem, “Thoughts on Approaching Fifty,” poses the question of what Sherry Mangan’s life and work will come to mean for future generations. Will Mangan’s contributions to the continuity of a revolutionary socialism compensate for what might have been an extraordinarily productive literary output had his time and energy not been preempted by politics at the zenith of his creative powers?

Or, paradoxically, might not Mangan’s finest literary work be the unique product of the tempestuous and unresolved tensions that pervaded the volatile and often contradictory duality of his life as a socialist activist and an imaginative writer? Perhaps Mangan himself best answers these questions:

“Is there then nothing? Well …”

“I should be content if occasionally two lovers, reaching a certain line, raise their eyes from the book and look at each other; or perhaps even put the book down; or if a worker one night reading slaps the page and says: ‘Now there was one that didn’t moan about his soul, one who wouldn’t run with the paid pack, one who saw clear through to us and now.”

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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