Lives of the Exiles

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Mary Helen Washington

Exiles From a Future Time:
The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left
by Alan Wald
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
412 pages (37 photographs), $19.95 paper.

ANYONE WHO HAS ever talked to Alan Wald about his work on the Literary Left knows that his knowledge of the subject is — I use this word without the slightest bit of hyperbole — encyclopedic. Over the past thirty years, Wald has traveled coast to coast interviewing hundreds of writers and produced, according to my count, six books dealing with the traditions and history of the Left in the United States.

The latest, Exiles From a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left, is the “inaugural volume” in what I imagine will be a three-volume series that will treat the literary left as “an undammed stream” from the 1930s to the 1960s.

If anything distinguishes Wald’s method it is, first of all, the scholarly and personal devotion that is represented in those hundreds of interviews, and secondly his painstaking attention to the nuances, details and contrarieties of a subject so often misinterpreted.

Most of us would be wise to simply admit that we know little or nothing about the subject of Communist influence on literary practice and to use Exiles as our source book, and I predict that scholars in this area will find themselves consulting it as the encyclopedia on the subject.

The Foot Soldiers

Beginning with the life histories of major and minor figures of the Left, rather than with a generalized history of the movement, enables Wald to focus on those who ultimately created the movement, those writers who tried to do double duty as practitioners of a radical politics and as creators of art.

The results, as we learn in Exiles, is as multifarious as the practitioners. Wald’s method is not to concentrate solely on the big figures on the Left (whom radical novelist Josephine Herbst called the head-boys) but also on the foot soldiers of Communist cultural history.

Presenting extended life stories of the writers shaped by the Communist cultural movement in mid-century, Exiles is a kind of collective biography. This life-story method allows Wald to include dozens of writers ordinarily omitted from studies of the literary Left, producing a more expansive, more nuanced, more fragmentary and divisive cultural Left history than we have been led to expect existed.

Wald opens the study with the story of Guy Endore to show how limited our ideas about this history are. I confess that I had never heard of Endore before reading Exiles, and it makes an extraordinary impact to think of a man like Endore as representative of the literary Left but omitted from all its histories.

By all accounts Endore was such a devout Stalinist and Party member that he never wavered from orthodoxy, even registering complete support for the Communist position on the Hitler-Stalin pact, which drove many sincere and committed intellectuals out of the Party, and approving the expulsion of Earl Browder from the Party as a return to “principled politics.”

And yet, as Wald reports, Endore, a Jew by birth, meditated daily on the Bible, particularly on the Book of Genesis, which convinced him to become a militant vegetarian. A Yoga practitioner, he stood on his head twice daily for at least half an hour.

Juggling a career between New York publishers (his biography of Alexander Dumas, King of Paris, was selected for the Book-of-the-Month club in 1956) and the Hollywood film industry (where he coauthored the 1945 film “The Story of G.I. Joe”), Endore did not write proletarian fiction but “a remarkable series of rich, subtle, and elegant — but often violent and erotic — fictionalized biographies of Casanova, Joan of Arc, Rousseau, Voltaire, the Marquis DeSade, and Alexander Dumas.”

Complexities of Communist Writers

With the Endore story as paradigmatic, Wald draws the inevitable conclusion that many distinctions must be made in evaluating Communist influence on this multifarious, heterodox, distinctly different set of people who found themselves within the orbit of the Communist Party.

Wald has written a story of pro-Communist cultural traditions in the United States that make us realize that there is no monolithic, unitary, story of the Left. Here I quote Wald at length as he cautions readers to remember the ways in which this movement was fragmented and divided by individual desire:

“Communist Party institutions were brimming with people who were as much affected by their unique cultural and personal backgrounds as by their miscalculations of all the contrarieties implicated in the Great Promise of the USSR. Writers were energized by their idealized view of this bold regime, and the U.S. Party’s declaration of pro-Soviet ardor, as much as they may have been cowed or blinded by it.

“More personal factors such as one’s self-assurance or the condition of one’s intimate life might have much to do with his or her response to what the Party, its organization and ideology, had to offer. To understand a pro-Communist poet’s relation to literary trends requires an investigation of formative aesthetic experiences, early literary models, network of friends, and traumatic life experiences.

“As a generalization, one can only conclude that the Party had a moral authority that should neither be minimized nor exaggerated.” (317)

Perhaps one of the most vexed questions about the influence of Marxism and the Party on writerly practices is whether or not it was possible to be a Communist writer and profess and practice an aesthetics not dominated by political ideology.

Since this is the period in which an American modernism is in the ascendancy, radical leftist writers struggled over whether modernism and left politics were compatible; but the answer to the question — Can a Communist be a modernist? — is not so simple as we have been led to believe.

A Left Modernism?

One of the ways that Left cultural history has been defined and dismissed is by putting the terms modernist/libertarian and socialist/realist in opposition, as though to be committed to Left thought and practice entirely ruled out the possibility of modernist thought and practice.

Wald first poses the possibility that Left writing of the 1930s might itself be considered a kind of modernism. It had, he maintains, a fresh perspective in its conscious choice to respond to and respect the working class. Its utopian visions required new language, new symbols, and a new way of viewing the past.

Though the Left is generally considered anti-modernist because it opposed some of the aristocratic pretensions of modernism and strove for accessibility, Wald says that it might very well be considered a form of modernism, but with its own distinct features.

Despite the possibility of a Marxist modernism, the tensions and the question remained for the serious artist. Could she remain faithful to a Marxist vision and also accommodate the demands of a modernist art when modernism was defined by complexity, difficulty, technical experimentation, and a skeptical questioning?

The example of poet Muriel Rukeyser indicates just how many variations there were on the theme of modernism vs. Marxism, and Wald includes her story as an example of how, at least in one case, a “socially engaged poet” did manage to “fashion a complex poetics.”

Rukeyser insisted on maintaining her own imaginative and aesthetic freedom from orthodoxy, and she did in fact begin to move away from proletarian symbols and themes towards greater complexity and formal experimentation in her poetry. Two acts of omission seem to have provided the keys to her artistic freedom — she never established official ties with the Party, and she remained at “arms length from organizational commitment to the Party.”

Adopting an individualist stance, Rukeyser simply refused to bend to Party policies; she self-defined as a Leftist, and charted her own individualistic path as a poet. Others who stayed to do the hands-on work, like Mike Gold, got hooked on policy.

Mike Gold’s Journey

Born Itzok Granich in New York’s lower East Side in 1893, Gold is Wald’s poster child for the complex and diverse manifestations of Party influence on writers. Gracing the cover of Exiles is a picture of Gold speaking at a May Day rally around 1930, a dark-haired handsome man, obviously charismatic, powerful and intense.

Near the middle of the book are four more photographs of Gold, each one representative of a different stage in his Party life. There is one taken in the mid-1920s on a beach with the writer John Dos Passos, with whom Gold collaborated in the founding of the New Playwrights Theater.

Next to Dos Passos, Gold looks almost diminutive, with a head full of curly dark hair and a lovely smile that makes him look, as radical novelist Lloyd Brown once described him, like a Communist Peter Pan. In later pictures he is sterner, dressed in more formal clothes, betraying, perhaps, his shift to a more rigid Party orthodoxy.

The picture taken with Dos Passos represents an earlier period in Gold’s literary life, when Dos Passos was moving to the left and Gold was publishing “critically superb characterizations” of his work. But by 1938, Wald says, when Dos Passos had openly renounced Soviet policy, Gold reevaluated his work, calling it “a mere reflection of bourgeois decadence.”

The pattern Wald sees in Gold’s life is that at first he would respond personally, out of his own honest sensitivities, but within a short time would “accommodate himself” to the Party’s positions.

These later shifts are the ones we are most likely to associate with writers deeply engaged with Communist politics and policies, but Gold was a man of many parts. His work spans three decades and includes a classic novel, plays, poetry, and hundreds of distinguished critical reviews for The Daily Worker, People’s World, New Masses and other left-wing papers.

“Like a Catholic faithful to Rome,” Wald writes, Gold “organized his emotional life around the Communist Party and the Soviet Union,” a commitment that may have been too faithful to the Party but was nonetheless a faithful and sincere commitment to building a just and decent society.

Cultural Control

Still, as Wald confesses, there is no denying that in the desire to bring about a revolutionary socialism, Party organizations and Party publications subjected writers and artists to a political scrutiny designed to produce political correctness.

The history of New Masses is a good example of a Party publication that began with an idiosyncratic and erratic political philosophy, which was at first friendly to middle-class writers and intellectuals. As it became perceived as the cultural arm of the Communist Party, however, it began to more rigidly reflect Party policies.

Along with many other issues the matter of the “difficulty” of a poetic work was endlessly debated, and modernist poetry, which was almost by definition difficult, became particularly suspect. Marxists were, of course, obligated to consider the relation between their art and the social world, but the prevailing view of the Party authorities was “against difficulty.”

In this truncated summary of the history of New Masses, I realize that I am hardly doing justice to Wald’s very careful and nuanced examination of that history. Following all the intricate twists and turns of the publication’s history, Wald specifies in illuminating detail and example how policies were formulated, and how the heterodoxy of the earlier period of New Masses was finally overturned by “the demands of revolutionary praxis.”

Writers, of course, rebelled against the pressure to conform to ideological dictates and to Party policies, but the “authorities” in the Party, those who ran the institutions and had institutional power, maintained a resistance to the demands of modernism.

When Joseph Freeman wrote a Daily Worker column defending the work of poets who were “honestly describing the emotional world of those who have developed in bourgeois literature and are moving toward Communism,” A.B. Magil, a future editor of New Masses, wrote back to Freeman that “honesty” and “self-development” were bourgeois tendencies and that the goal of the Marxist critic was not to guide poets toward
“honesty“ but toward Communism.

As Wald concludes, the Party conservatives won out: “Over time Magil’s cultural influence would increase while Freeman would be excommunicated.” (311)

Black Creativity and Tensions

Black poets and writers occupy a unique space in cultural Left history. I was struck as I was reading Exiles by the high degree of compatibility between Black creative practice, especially of the 1930s, and radical political commitment.

The tension that white writers experienced between remaining faithful to radical politics and formal modernist experimentation in art was not an issue for Black writers who, according to Wald, were “left in relative autonomy” and were therefore freer to experiment with modernism.

Those signatures of a modernist sensibility — formal experimentation, ambiguity, skepticism, fragmentation — are all in evidence in Black writing of this period.

The tensions between Black writers and the Left, specifically the Communist Party, were predictably over race. But first, let’s do the history.

Wald takes us back to the three American Writers Congresses of 1935, 1937 and 1939, where the earliest major pronouncements on African-American (then Negro) writers, made by Eugene Holmes, Langston Hughes and Eugene Gordon, set the stage for African-American literary criticism and practice for nearly the rest of the century.

Pro-Communist Black writers at the congresses denounced the Harlem Renaissance as a white capitalist hoax for white entertainment. Writers who demonstrated too much attachment to the middle class were “in error.”

A stellar list of writers — W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen, who would eventually be securely a part of official African-American canons — were written off as “petty bourgeois nationalists.”

The man of the hour was Sterling Brown, poet of the vernacular, celebrating southern roads, southern Black people, and southern Black folkways. Brown was praised for “forsaking English literary forms” and “finding poetry in early down home dialect of black workers.”

For Black left critics, the “solid ground” for Black writing was to be found in “working class interracialism,” in the quest to end inequality, and in emphasizing Black folk culture (mostly southern, rural and male) as the basis for a national, oppositional culture.

Writers on the Communist Party A-list were either Communists (Richard Wright, Frank Marshall Davis, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker) or pro-Communist (Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden); but all of them found their literary direction in reclaiming the folk.

Even Alain Locke, the epitome of talented tenth-ism, was active with pro-Communist and Communist groups including the League of American Writers, New Masses and the Negro National Congress and, during the 1930s, developed what Wald calls a revolutionary consciousness.

Locke praised the work of Frank Marshall Davis, Richard Wright and Sterling Brown for connecting “class consciousness with racial protest, and express[ing] proletarian sentiment in the genuine Negro folk idiom.” But in Locke’s critical opinion, it was Sterling Brown who best represented the “authentic” voice of both blackness and revolution because he combined both a proletarian and a racialist viewpoint.

Though few Black writers were willing to risk being public members of the Party (and Locke himself reversed gears and became an anticommunist in the 1950s), Wald concludes that “African American Literary Communism [was] a major component of mid-twentieth-century culture, one that would grow even stronger during the late 1940s and early 1950s.”

Support and Dissension

Besides a kind of cultural and philosophical compatibility between Communism and African-American literary culture, the Party also offered what Black writers could get no where else in white America, institutional support:

“What is more memorable than formal membership in the Party is that, for Black writers, the publications, clubs, and committees that were at least in part created by Party members, and with Party support, constituted principal venues in which Black writers came together to formulate ideas, share writings, make contacts, and develop perspectives that sustained their future creative work.” (267)

While we can easily see the positive influence of the Party on the work of Black writers in the 1930s, it is just as easy to identify the seeds of dissension.

Arna Bontemps, for example, was closely involved with the Party in a number of ways. He was active in the pro-Communist South Side Writers Club of Chicago, had trusted Communist friends, signed on with activities sponsored by the League of American Writers, and maintained revolutionary convictions and informal links, though not official ties, to the Party.

But in his first novel Black Thunder Bontemps makes a symbolic statement about the need for the oppressed to lead their own revolution. In this novel about Gabriel Prosser’s slave uprising in South Carolina, the French sympathizers, the white radicals of the early nineteenth century, are told that they cannot be the leaders of the revolt. That must be led by the Blacks themselves.

Frank Marshall Davis was closer to the Party than Bontemps, and again, as with Bontemps, his links to the Party were made through membership in organizations like the League of American Writers and American Youth for Democracy (formerly the Young Communist League), and through collaborations with Communists like Ben Davis and Margaret Walker.

During the McCarthy era, his books were considered sufficiently dangerous that they were removed from libraries and schools. Davis moved to Hawaii, where he lived until his death in 1977, still a committed Marxist.

Davis’ Marxist, proletarian outlook is clearly close to the Party in its poetic themes of lynching and global war and in his intention to write poetry on behalf “of all the common people,” and in opposition to “continued domination by the economic rulers of the world.”

But beneath that attempt at an interracial proletarian stance, Davis like Bontemps registers unease with the Party goals. Though he writes on behalf of all the common people, he knows he must retain enough skepticism about the “common people” to acknowledge that some of them “in their confusion consider me the foe.”

The story of writer William Attaway continues to dramatize Black writers’ profound distrust of the possibilities of a Marxist future with Blacks in it. In Attaway’s 1941 novel, Blood on the Forge, Black workers are shown as being subject to greater exploitation because of their race.

In the mills of Pennsylvania where the novel is set, white workers are given the better jobs in the mills, are able to maintain family stability, and are in training to be racists. The novel is a cautionary tale for Marxists, aimed, Wald says, at educating the white labor movement.

Instead of educating the movement, the novel provoked Communist critical resistance because it did not express hope for the final unity of Black and white workers. Ironically, it was Ralph Ellison, later a defector from the Left and even from more liberal politics, who wrote the hard-line critique of Blood on the Forge, sharply condemning Attaway for not hewing to the Communist line of interracial class unity.

Whether Ralph Ellison was a card-carrying member of the Party or not seems irrelevant, though Wald identifies Ellison as “a Communist critic” during the late 1930s and very early 1940s.*

Ellison was active in Communist Party affairs, served on the board of New Masses,and was the managing editor of Negro Quarterly, which “was launched with strong Communist support” and was dominated by pro-Communist writers. Indeed, we might even cite the example of Invisible Man as a text that reflects a deep and intimate knowledge of the organizational workings of the Party.

Like Locke, Ellison moved away from his Communist past, and his “militant Communist convictions” about the importance of the Black working class were, by the end of the 1940s, replaced with an emphasis on high humanist values and racial pride. But in the early 1940s, Ellison was sufficiently familiar with the Party to offer an authoritative critique of it.

An unsigned editorial for the pro-Communist Negro Quarterly in the early 1940s, which Wald says was almost certainly written by Ellison, expressed a view that imagines an African-American Marxism. The editorial insists that fighting fascism means fighting crimes against Negroes, that African-American leadership needs to focus on helping the Black masses to gain technological skills, and it ends by asserting the Ellisonian theme of the importance of “the meaning of the myths and symbols which abound among the Negro masses.”

The editorial stresses that Black autonomy and Black leadership are necessary for Blacks to achieve real independence and self-determination, all of which suggests once again a wariness about white leadership, and a potent insistence on Black self-determination.

Antinomies of Black Marxism

Wald ends this chapter on Black Marxists with a summary of the issues that made Black Marxism in the United States a difficult terrain to negotiate.

One, of course, was that the model of the Soviet Union as a model for justice for minorities was repudiated with the Khrushchev revelations in 1956. The other is probably more salient for Black writers who saw their work for a just and decent and non-racial America dependent on the eradication of white racism.

This, says Wald, was a far more potent arena for disillusionment: “The experience of national and racial oppression was vivid and real and overwhelming for Black writers.” Class solidarity was, by comparison, almost “a leap forward to a quixotic chimera. The dream of unity could not be represented in literature because it was not there in everyday lived experience.”

The impossibility of that dream is shown most dramatically and ironically in Richard Wright’s most famous novel Native Son, where the idea of interracial unity seems almost ludicrous. If Bigger Thomas represents 12,000,000 Blacks, what kind of future could there possibly be for Black Marxism?

As Wald sees it, Bigger Thomas, created by the premier Black Marxist/ Communist writer in the United States, was a rather shocking harbinger of the possibilities of the future of Black Marxism.

Again, I want to stress the point that the work of all of these Black Left writers offered a corrective to the Party’s position on class by insisting on race consciousness as compatible with, and perhaps even more important than, class consciousness, and that, as Wald concludes, “expresses the standpoint and mid-century cultural practice of Black Marxism.”

Marxism may have been the lens through which Black writers began to examine racial oppression; but because of the tendency of Marxists to assert class politics over race, a tendency that runs through the history of Blacks and the Party, it ended up as the object of Black critique.

The list of Black writers who came into contact with the Party, who were influenced by and became active Marxists or loyal Party members is a long and distinguished one, including William Attaway (“a committed Communist”); Gwendolyn Bennett (an administrator at two Communist-led institutions, the Jefferson School for Democracy in Manhattan and the George Washington Carver School in Harlem); Jessie Fauset (member of the League of American Writers); Margaret Walker (member of both the Young Communist League and the Communist Party); Robert Hayden (pro-Communist); Arna Bontemps (independent black revolutionary); Langston Hughes (fellow traveler); Dorothy West (Communist sympathizer); Ralph Ellison (“among the most productive Black Communist critics”).

By the end of this thoroughly documented section on Black Marxists, Wald’s conclusion is incontestable: “Scarcely a major African American writer of the interwar years, and especially the poet, was unaffected by Marxism.”

Return of the Disappeared

I want to end with this section on the Black literary Left because it suggests so well the method and achievement of Exiles. Writers who have disappeared from Left history are returned to it.

Wald documents that writers on the Left, like these Black writers, pushed and fought so that the shaping of the Left was always in process. Wald has disabused us of the notion that there is such a phenomenon as a “typical” Left writer or even a “typical” Left publication.

Some activists maintained official ties with the Party, and some less active members never worked collectively or helped advance an organization. They are all a part of Left history.

However we judge the commitment of these writers to revolutionary politics, Wald insists that their debates and their anguish over the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves ought to be seen as crucially important to the making of art. The fact that these artists were forced to grapple with issues of politics as well as with issues of aesthetics is part of their legacy.

As Left writers confronted the ever-widening, deepening Depression, many on the Left, including writers, thought that the most important question for writers was, not the degree to which they achieved modernist status, but “how and in what manner should a poet speak in the face of mass suffering?”

Langston Hughes put it this way in the poem that Wald uses as one of the epigraphs to this book:

In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000 natives working.
What kind of poem
Would you make out of that?
240,000 natives working
In the Johannesburg mines.

Struggling with such questions that some might dismiss as merely political did not make these people less good poets and writers; in many ways it enriched them as writers, made them hungry for deeper answers, made them examine their craft, and gave them an important subject to write about.

Exiles is one excellent and inspiring answer to how one might evaluate Communist influence on this multifarious, heterodox, unorganized, distinctly different, diffuse and scattered group of people who found themselves influenced by, in the orbit of, and in some cases deeply committed to the radical Left.

ATC 100, September-October 2002