Abraham Polonsky’s The World Above

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

Leone Sandra Hankey

The World Above
by Abraham Polonsky
(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
1999) 471 pages, $18.95 paperback.

THE FIRST TIME I glimpsed Abe Polonsky, he was regaling an elegant throng of admirers at an L.A. County Museum of Art reception with salty wit and sparkling stories about his life, his workman’s cap planted at a characteristically jaunty angle.

It was early spring 1999, and the occasion was a screening of “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” his brilliant 1969 comeback film after seventeen years of being blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Polonsky was being honored by the L.A. Film Critics Association, in fitting contrast to the motion picture academy’s honoring of HUAC witness and film director Elia Kazan with a lifetime achievement award later that month.

I pulled up a chair, and was treated to the following anecdote: Abe had been interviewed earlier in the day by two journalists from public television about the Kazan award controversy. They asked him how he had felt when he was facing the committee.

“Do you want the romantic version, or do you want the truth?” he asked them. “The truth of course,” they replied. “I thought, What a bunch of dirty, motherfucking cocksuckers!” Abe paused triumphantly. Then he added quietly, “I said it to shock them, you know.” “Did you succeed?” I asked him. He smiled coyly. “Yes, I did,” he said happily.

If on that day in late April 1951, when Polonsky took the Fifth Amendment before HUAC, he did not voice his feelings quite so forthrightly as in the museum café forty-eight years later, his contemptuous view of the committee was fully aired, for his novel The World Above was published almost simultaneously with his HUAC appearance.

The novel, which tells the story of a psychiatrist who defies the attempts of a congressional committee to suppress his controversial radical theories about the relationship between mental illness and social ills, has recently been reissued by University of Illinois Press as part of The Radical Novel Reconsidered Series, edited by Alan Wald.(1)

In this way, Abe Polonsky had both the first word, and in the sum of his art and of his life, the last word, over the gang who suppressed his career and that of so many others through the blacklist.

Polonsky, who was dubbed by the Village Voice “the Anti-Kazan,” was outraged by the Academy’s decision to honor Kazan, and he agreed along with fellow blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon to spearhead a protest against the award.

In the months leading up to the Oscars telecast he participated in a whirlwind of publicity, sometimes giving two interviews a day despite his physical frailty. Reporters and audience were gifted with his views on politics, life, art, the blacklist, and the appropriate fate of people who betray their friends: the only award the “creep” Kazan should receive is the “Benedict Arnold award.”

In a particularly notorious incident, he suggested to a New York reporter that he would be watching the ceremony, hoping someone would shoot Kazan. “It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening,” he explained.

At a packed Beverly Hills press conference, someone shouted out, “What do you want us to do, Abe?” “I don’t want you to do anything!” he replied impatiently, beginning to turn away. Then he turned back and added, “We want you to listen! I haven’t been heard from since World War II!”

And listen they did. This last year was one in which Abe was abundantly seen and heard. Although he sorely missed his beloved wife Sylvia with whom he had spent over fifty years, the end of his life otherwise consisted of reaping the rewards of the integrity, courage, generosity and intelligence with which he had lived the rest of it.

Surrounded by sincere admirers — from his film students at the University of Southern California, to enraptured journalists, to fellow artists and political activists, valued by his old friends and surrounded by three generations of family, his texts being reissued and his biography forthcoming — he had just returned to working on a novel based on his experiences with the French Partisans during World War II, which he had put aside when his wife became ill.

He spent his last May Day at a meeting in a friend’s home to discuss how to revive the Hollywood left. He disrupted it gloriously with reminiscences about his adventures behind Nazi lines and the liberation of Paris.

“You’ve had a great life,” I told him enviously. “Who, me?” he answered in mock indignation. “But I was blacklisted!” In fact, Abe often expressed how much he had enjoyed his life. Of his art, he told an interviewer:

“I always write about the same thing, how people seek to fulfill themselves and what society suppresses in them through convention and force. To keep suppressing what’s powerfully present in your character is to deny your existence as a human being. Not to fulfill yourself is not to live.(2)

It was not in his own character to submit to either convention or force. His life is a testimony to just how fulfilling a life can be when lived true to oneself.

The Test of Character

In Polonsky’s dramas, the main characters are invariably confronted with the test of whether they are willing to risk and sacrifice everything in order to be true to themselves. In the teleplay “The Crisis of Galileo” and in the novel A Season of Fear, the protagonists cave into societal pressure and personal cowardice, and live afterwards in a hell of their own making.

In the screenplay of “Body and Soul” (1947), for which Polonsky received an Oscar nomination, a boxer refuses to throw a fight because he has been doublecrossed by the mob and he rebels against being betrayed, regardless of the price. “What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies,” he tells them in a famous line.

In “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” and in the teleplay “The Tragedy of John Milton,” the heroes choose death over compromise with the persecuting authorities. Polonsky’s own life and that of Carl in The World Above mirror each other; both defy an overreaching congressional committee, and calmly accept the consequences.

Carl’s momentous decision before the House committee is presaged by a passage much earlier in the novel shortly after the breakout of World War II, in which he and his mentor Dr. Erdman agree on an existential philosophy of life.

Erdman says, “You must elect yourself to what you will be or else you will be drafted like those miserable wretches all over the world today. And this goes still further, for even if you are drafted you can elect yourself for what you have been drafted and this makes you free again.” (206)

This language will be repeated by Carl when he tries to convince his associate Dr. Curtin to join him in resisting the committee: “We didn’t choose this fight. We were drafted to it. Well, if we were drafted, let’s elect ourselves to it.” (446)

The Most Dangerous Man

Not long after he wrote these words, Polonsky himself took this election of a fight to which he had been drafted a step further. While living in France with his family, he received the news that government agents were hanging around his house in Hollywood. And so, while dozens of others were fleeing for Europe in hopes of escaping the subpoena, Polonsky, family in tow, crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction, in order to face the committee with his refusal to testify, and his refusal to accept exile for his beliefs.

In addition to taking the Fifth Amendment, Polonsky tangled with the committee when he was asked who had been in the OSS (foreruner of the CIA) with him during the war, and he replied that it was none of their business.

Out of this confrontation, Congressman Harold Velde referred to Polonsky as “the most dangerous man in America.” Abe never ceased being proud of the epithet, and on his eighty-eighth birthday his family presented him with an enormous cake, “to the most dangerous man in America” embroidered in icing on its face.

The World Above

The World Above is a novel of ideas, a character study, and a historical novel that spans the decades of the depression, World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War, a considerable swathe of Polonsky’s ultimately much longer life.

Through a series of crises, the young psychiatrist Carl eventually reaches his full maturity and power both personally and professionally. The tests that are the hardest and most painful for him are those that most contribute to his growth.

Although some of the parallels between Carl Meyer and Abraham Polonsky are intriguing, it would be a mistake to see Carl in simplistic terms as an alter ego for the author. Polonsky imbues other characters in the novel as well with aspects of his own experiences and personality.

In fact, it is not until the conclusion, when Carl is able to merge with the two most important people in his life, his younger brother Bill, a union organizer who dies in the war, and his vivacious sister-in-law Juley, that he achieves complete success as a human being.

The narrative action and Carl’s development move forward through a series of changing triangular relationships. In the love triangle that dominates the first part of the novel, Carl, his best friend David, and his lover Sandy successively betray and are betrayed by each other.

David is a wealthy, privileged young New Dealer whom Sandy marries to escape a life of poverty. But their marriage is a failure, since David’s real love is Carl, not Sandy. In contrast to Carl, neither David nor Sandy have the strength to succeed in life. Sandy drifts unhappily from lover to lover, seeking a relief to her ennui. David eventually goes mad after the war, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, truly the disease of the times.

The key difference between Carl and David is illustrated in the opening scene of the novel, in which Carl is dissecting a white rat, while David looks away in disgust. Carl’s strength is revealed in his steadfast willingness to face reality, no matter how distasteful.

After a period studying Freud in Europe, Carl joins the staff of a mental institution in upstate New York, and in a kind of grotesque parody of a love triangle, advances his scientific exploration through his efforts with his colleague Dr. Curtin to cure a young woman, “Little Emily,” who is so damaged by life that she has retreated to a totally passive state.

Emily’s complete withdrawal from life differs mainly in degree from the malaise that affects Sandy, with whom Carl resumes his intense but directionless love affair. While shock therapy fails to cure Emily permanently, a violent episode in which Carl is almost beaten to death when company goons mistake him for his activist brother succeeds in shocking Carl into moving his own life to a higher level of consciousness.

The heart of the novel is the relationship between Carl and Bill, and ultimately between Carl and Juley. The theme of brotherhood is key in Polonsky’s works, and is at the center of “Force Of Evil,” his 1948 film noir masterpiece and the most celebrated of his productions.

When Carl is brought back from the brink of death, in fact almost reborn, this begins his slow transformation into not only a scientist but also a socially conscious and committed human being, as he begins to take on some of his brother’s attributes.

After Bill’s death in the war, Carl goes through a period of mourning and survivor’s guilt, but eventually he will take Bill’s place as a fighter for social change, and even as husband to Bill’s widow, Juley. This transformation becomes complete when Carl takes on the House Committee that pressures him to recant his beliefs about the causal relationship between society and mental illness.

The climax of The World Above, in which Carl is attacked by the Congressional committee, is a symbolic reenactment of the earlier brutal assault. As the opportunistic bully Congressman Vaughan bangs his gavel with “flaming violence,” Carl relives the beating he experienced when he was mistaken for Bill, and recognizes that the same forces of repression are at work.

Just as he went down fighting in Bill’s room, he refuses to capitulate to the forces beating him down:

“Did you hear the question?” I hear my brother’s enemies, his soul cried, I hear their feet slipping across the floor…. I feel the blows, the blows on Bill’s dead flesh…” (463)

“You are in contempt,” Vaughan yelled, and he shook with fury and banged the rostrum.

“I would indeed be contemptible,” Carl told him, “if I did not assert my rights against the gavel and the miseries of the time.” (464)

The psychological theories that Carl voices are radical and experimental, and show Polonsky’s own depth and inventiveness as a thinker. Carl tells a hostile and conservative audience of his peers:

“We were forced to assert the hypothesis that no science of psychology can be founded on what man is, but only on what man is becoming, the general rule being that he is never becoming anything but what society itself is becoming. (354)

Carl asserts to his resistant audience that rather than seek to “readapt our patient to the society that made him ill,” it would be better to design an empowering course of treatment that involves the patient in understanding and working to change the damaging social conditions. (355)

He concludes, “The task of science is to help undo the misery of history. Science is one of the social forces that must liberate the human spirit from its social prisons.” (361).

It is a testament to the extraordinary hypocrisy of the political conservative forces attacking Carl’s theory, that they seek to deny a relationship between social causes and the thousands of mentally ill, considering that the hospital’s patients are veterans who broke down due to the horrors of war — a hypocrisy in which Carl will refuse to collude.

As they confer on how they should answer the Congressional Inquisition, Carl and his partner Curtin debate the example of Galileo. Curtin argues that if recanting was good enough for Galileo, they should expect no more of themselves. But Carl refuses to sacrifice the truth for his career, countering, “the lie is the other side of the bribe.” (444)

The role of Galileo is also examined by Polonsky in one of his “You Are There” teleplays, in which scientist William Harvey judges Galileo harshly as “a fool and a coward,” adding “I tell you, there can be no progress in the world and no advance in science without freedom of the mind, freedom of thought, and of work.”(3)

Once Curtin and Meyers have chosen the opposite paths of submission and defiance, their long relationship is dead forever – “a leap in history had separated them,” as a leap in history would separate Polonsky forever from colleagues who named names. (470)

It is Carl’s refusal to bow his head to “senseless authority” that makes him finally worthy of Juley. He is no longer “just a smug self-satisfied selfish middle class fool” as she labeled him angrily in one of their first encounters, when he was bent on escaping his background of poverty at any cost. (190)

In his hand-to-hand mental combat with Vaughan, Carl imagines his dead brother demanding to be remembered: “In the new barbarism who will be so wise as to be able to remember it all?” (422) Carl picks up the heavy legacy of his father and brother, and carries it forward.

The novel ends quietly with his union with Juley. It seems a testament to how much joy and solace Abe found in his own marriage that the end of the novel is focused on the happiness and fulfillment Carl finds in this relationship, not at all on the committee and its political fallout.

Polonsky has been highly praised by critics for his treatment of women characters and themes, and nowhere is this clearer in his portrayal of Juley, into whom he pours his own warmth, generosity and vivacity.

The scenes between Juley and Carl are full of intensity and life, and she is continually described in terms of sensation, spontaneity, movement, richness and passion. She is as engaged in life and genuine feeling as Sandy was removed.

“I used to live in paradise,” Abe told me of his own marriage, which lasted almost sixty years.

Abraham Polonsky didn’t just write about commitment and heroism; he also epitomized them in the way he chose to live. He made no concessions to false modesty with regard to his accomplishments and this offended some people, but he won countless hearts with his directness as well.

He could be quite reserved and downright insulting when he felt like it, but if he decided he liked you, he was very generous with his affection. He was a person who knew how to love and to give of himself unreservedly, and he knew how to share moments of extraordinary emotional intimacy, even in a room full of strangers.

At the discussion following the L.A. County Museum showing of “Tell Them Willie Boy Here,” he suddenly left off mercilessly belittling the intelligence of the interviewer, turned to the mostly college-age audience and told us the story of his last few moments with his wife before she died.

Sitting at her bedside, he asked her, “Is there anything you want to say to me?” “Don’t ever try to balance your check book yourself,” she answered, “You’ll never be able to do it.”

“When will I see you again?” he asked her. “Someday,” she answered, “I will be stardust, and you will be stardust, and then we’ll be together again.” He smiled sadly, holding his hands out in a poignant gesture to the breathless audience.

With all their errors and setbacks, Abe Polonsky belongs to a generation of activists who can teach us a lot about struggle, commitment, and courage. What’s more, with his passionate commitment to freedom and to the authenticity of individual expression, he transcended the worst of these historical errors. Polonsky maintained that:

The role of the artist is not to worry about political sensitivities of people, but to stimulate them into new areas of experiment and expression …. There is no idea, no theory, no way of life that cannot be reshaped, illuminated and made more human by being subject to the imagination and criticism of the artist. (You Are There, 28)

He was a member of the Communist Party from the late 1930s until the mid-1950s, but his radical vision was never conformist at the service of pragmatic ends or to please party bureaucrats, Rather, as he put it himself, “I don’t try to get Marxist ideas into pictures, I write the way I do because I am a Marxist.”(4) His view of socialism was innovative and organic:

“(S)omething new was needed. It had to come. We needed to learn not from economics, which repeats the past, but from biology, from the biological innovations in nature which go in new directions and never repeat. Socialism had to be a biological invention, in that sense. Otherwise, everything, all history, became just the story of a bunch of crooks — as we’ve learned from all the defeats and disappointments since” (Tender Comrades, 491)

Here, Polonsky anticipates the perspective of social ecology that informs many of today’s progressive movements.

Despite the lengthy suppression of his brilliant directing career, Polonsky produced much of his best and most politically intriguing work after he was blacklisted, often with the help of fronts. In addition to The World Above, read the “You Are There” teleplays about the role of the individual in history, and A Season of Fear, a richly symbolic and unified novel about the moral decline of a man who signs a loyalty oath.

See “Odds Against Tomorrow,” a magnificent film noir about racism, on which he collaborated with director Robert Wise and leading man Harry Belafonte, who chose him to write the screenplay. And finally, read Zenia’s Way, his tender 1980 memoir of growing up in New York’s socialist East Side, and a glowing testimony to all the different forms that love takes.

Polonsky kept the truth remembered and alive during “the new barbarism” through his refusal to compromise. He removed his name from the screenplay of “Guilty By Suspicion” (1991) when producer/director Irwin Winkler changed the political main character into an “innocent” victim of the blacklist.

At a frail 88 years old he picketed in front of the Academy Awards ceremony on March 21st 1999, along with hundreds of supporters, sandwiched between hostile police and counter-demonstrators and eager reporters, holding tightly onto friends for physical and emotional ballast.

On the morning of October 26, 1999, he died of a heart attack while going through his morning routine before leaving for the university. Union organizer, lawyer, director, writer, anti-Nazi agent, professor, husband — in all his roles he showed what a long life well lived can be worth — a life that was almost a work of art in itself — in which he was unswervingly true to his loved ones, his friends, his politics, and his art, in which he never lost his salty sense of humor, his sense of the magic and infinite possibilities of life, and a tempered sense of hope.


  1. True to the sustained high scholarly and historical value of the series, the reissue features an excellent introduction by Paul Buhle and David Wagner. This series is in danger of being discontinued. If you feel strongly about the importance of the series, give your reasons in a friendly letter to the press (c/o Richard Wentworth, University of Illinois, 1325 S. Oak Street., Champaign, IL 61820).
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  2. John Schultheiss, “Force of Evil: Existential Marx and Freud,” Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil: The Critical Edition (Northridge, CA: The Center for Telecommunications Studies (California State University, Northridge, 1996), 170.
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  3. Abraham Polonsky, “The Crisis of Galileo,” Abraham Polonsky’s You Are There teleplays: The Critical Edition (Northridge, CA: The Center for Telecommunications Studies, California State University, Northridge, 1997), 84.
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  4. Quoted by his friend John Weber in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1997), 689.
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ATC 87, July-August 2000