Recovering Forgotten Voices

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

Keith Gilyard

Trinity of Passion:
The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade
Alan M. Wald
The University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 319 pages, hardcover, $34.95.

A LOVER OF American literature will come away from reading Alan Wald’s Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade excited about the prospect of investigating a long list of currently unheralded writers who collectively constitute a voice that deserves to be recognized as major.

These writers, mostly Jewish and African American, and mostly members or affiliates of the Communist Party, include Len Zinberg, Milton Wolff, Alvah Bessie, William Herrick, John Oliver Killens, William Attaway, Albert Maltz, Carl Offord, Benjamin Appel, Lauren Gilfillan, Joseph Vogel, Ruth McKenney, Aaron Kramer, John Sanford, Vera Caspary, Martin Abzug, Stefan Heym, Saul Levitt and Louis Falstein.

They are not likely to be included in English classrooms, but along with more familiar authors such as Richard Wright, Arthur Miller, Irwin Shaw, Ralph Ellison, Ann Petry and Howard Fast, who have secure literary reputations, they fashioned a vital and stellar artistic response to sinister political developments of the 1930s and 1940s, especially the fascism that helped to ignite the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Wald deftly traces this formation in this second installment of a proposed trilogy about mid-century left-wing writers. The prior volume, Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left, considers literary developments, largely in poetry, relative to both modernism and Depression-era domestic crises.

Of course, these creative problems and challenges do not disappear during the antifascist crusade. However, Wald shifts his critical gaze in the new book primarily to fiction and to political and aesthetic connections relative to such issues as the redefinition of Jewish masculinity, the masculinization of left culture in general, the turnover among left cultural organs, the experiment involving radical writers and mass market expression, and African-American vexation with regard to the interplay of antiracist and antifascist agendas.

There’s also the general question of left-wing writers persevering as artists as they negotiate shifting terrains in terms of personal experience, culture, psychology, ideology and politics.

Primacy of “Inner Wars”

In opening his analysis with a look at the career of Len Zinberg, a paradigmatic figure who produced early Marxist novels like his 1940 debut Walk Hard, Talk Loud as well as subsequent pulp fiction like the 1967 In Black and Whitey under the name Ed Lacy, Wald acknowledges at the outset that despite whatever organizational influence may occur, the often sprawling and messy nature of artistic inspiration and production cannot logically be squeezed into small and predictable critical boxes.

Wald then attends to the robust response in fiction to the Spanish Civil War, a reaction that largely galvanized around the call issued by Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The predominant view in leftist circles was that Hemingway’s novel comes up short because it promotes an individualist viewpoint and contains an untypical volunteer as the protagonist. In short, Hemingway fails to capture the “reality” of the conflict. Therefore, Wolff, Bessie, and Herrick — all veterans of the war — publish stories in which the political substitutes for the personal.

Yet Wald illustrates that the trio are better artists than merely to have contested Hemingway. In one of the finest critical passages in the book, he indicates how Wolff, Bessie, and Herrick end up more like Hemingway than dissimilar given their psychological illumination through personal experience of politics, gender, and ethnicity

“What is consistent in Hemingway, Wolff, Bessie, and even Herrick,” Wald writes, “is the primacy of their inner wars — against the cowardly father in Hemingway, against the weak Jew alter ego in Wolff, against the opportunism of intellectuals in Bessie, and against the romantic will to power masked as self-sacrificing self-abnegation in Herrick.” (42)

Another threesome, this time African- American novelists, occupy the center of Wald’s next major read. The work of Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes and John Oliver Killens, the representative figures here, are assessed in relationship to Popular Front policy, that is, the position adopted by the Communist Party whereby domestic unity in the face of grave external threat should supercede home concerns about issues such as racism and the undermining of unions.

The author shows how all three writers offer retrospective and compelling critiques of the Popular Front, though the three had markedly different emotional responses with respect to their engagement with Communists.

Next, Wald considers the “peculiarities of Germans.” The phrase does not validate that Germans were, in fact, peculiar as a whole but indicates instead that a significant perception existed among American creative intellectuals that the rank-and-file German was predisposed to fascism. Building upon the premise that fascism was more than the outgrowth of Nazi leadership, some artists concluded that all Germans needed to be punished.

The novelists whose work anchors this segment, Albert Maltz and Irwin Shaw, are not literary representatives of Vansittartism, the extreme anti-German view expressed by British official Baron Robert Gilbert Vansittart (the diametrically opposing Maltz certainly not, though Shaw veers close). The point here for Wald is that their fiction provides a rich context in which to reflect on the German question.

The Rage in Harlem

The activity encompassing and spinning off from The People’s Voice, the radical African-American newspaper founded in 1942 by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. comprises another fruitful template. Central to this concern is the career of reporter-turned-novelist Ann Petry, who published the classic The Street in 1946.

Along with providing a reading of Petry’s work, Wald ponders questions about the “rage in Harlem,” in particular the 1943 riot that is referenced in Petry’s novel. One wishes that Wald had expanded his point about Black anti-Semitism in Harlem, purportedly evident because of the fact that Jewish shopkeepers were primary targets. As observers such as James Baldwin have noted, African Americans in Harlem largely viewed Jews as Whites — in some cases as the Whites that some of those Jews were trying to be.

Now it is certainly possible that Baldwin could have overstated the case. It is also possible that Eugene Clay Holmes made accurate observations about Black anti- Semitism at Howard University — a claim that Wald records and immediately accepts in Exiles from a Future Time. But because Wald is good at providing surround sound for nearly all of the political and cultural developments that he surveys, it is easy to imagine that he could have come up with a more complex take on the matter.

One almost forgets this shortcoming, however, as Wald recounts the laughable line about Black riots promulgated by the Communist Party, that is, that Hitler sponsored them as a means to weaken the United States. Abraham Lincoln knew that a house divided could not stand, and he didn’t need Hitler to know that.

Wald proceeds to look more expansively at the involvement of writers with the Communist Party, in this case several notable ones who vanished from the Left cultural scene. The most spectacular examples are Henry Roth and Lauren Gilfillan; the latter, a short-lived literary sensation, spent decades in a mental hospital.

Wald also considers the prevalence of Jewish creative intellectuals among Communists. During the period in question, half of the writers published in Party venues and active in Party arts organizations were Jewish, while Jews were at most three percent of the nation’s population.

The Jewish enrollment, however, was not magically or mysteriously disproportionate. As Wald explains, “The most compelling explanation for the high proportion of Jews is simply that the Communist movement in the United States had a solid foundation in Eastern European Jewish immigrant families; they brought to their new country not only an abhorrence of czarist autocracy but also working-class and socialist loyalties. Moreover, the Communist movement exhorted its members to adhere to a cultural pluralist and internationalist universalism, a stance that was attractive to young Jews emerging from families still shaped by the experience of shtetl and ghetto isolation.” (180)

There is nothing to quarrel with in this instance. And even more satisfying is Wald’s ensuing narrative about the rise of Jews as a cultural force on the left, one that supplanted Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Floyd Dell, John Reed and Max Eastman. Marvelously insightful in addition are the author’s remarks about the fact that Jewish fiction writers often used African-American characters as “mirrors” to confront indirectly their own psyches as part of a struggle to claim or reclaim some form of Jewish identity in the face of virulent anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism.

Matt Wayne to Arthur Miller

Finally Wald turns to a figure, Arthur Miller, whose story may be the era’s most compelling, and a tale that Wald masterfully narrates. Miller, using the pseudonym Matt Wayne, wrote articles for New Masses in 1945 and 1946. This period bridged his early career up until his first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, which in November 1944 closed after only four performances. The man may have had the luck, but the playwright did not.

Nonetheless, by the end of 1946, Miller was back on track toward a major career. Wald contends convincingly that writing as Matt Wayne allowed Miller time and space to grapple productively with seminal ideological and aesthetic questions. In this way, he cleared the path to independent radicalism and reconciled Marxism with a conception of successful American popular theater.

Such specific mental preparation enabled the creation of a work like Death of a Salesman. Wald concludes, “Although one might expect a pseudonymous column in a Communist publication to serve as an instrument for venting political dogma, Matt Wayne’s column was primarily a vehicle for fending off the pressure of Communist politics on Miller’s creative artistic process.” (234)

In the end, Wald proves to be as creative as his subjects. An outstanding bio-critical researcher, he handles both lives and artifacts skillfully. In general, he avoids the doctrinaire and, never afraid of flexibility or even contradiction, follows artistic trails to the end. Also, because he does his archival homework, he avoids reading an excess of biography into fiction.

The result is a plethora of plausible, deeply nuanced portraits and interpretations. Although the Communist Party is a big sponsor and deserves much credit for this undeniable fact, this is no tale of an omnipresent Big Left beating artists into submission with art-as-weapon dictates. The artists are too much artists for that.
But neither are the artists always shiningly heroic. They are too human for that. If I grasp this project essentially, the gist is that it speaks to an admixture of compelling theoretical and aesthetic imperfections that yielded important, dynamic, and prophetic art during a critical American era that we should study more. Trinity of Passion is a worthy successor to Wald’s prior work.

Of course, given the majestic sweep of this effort, some minor historical details are out of place such as the misplacing of Roosevelt’s inauguration by a couple of months. However, if there is a lingering criticism, it is simply that in this volume one wants more of the story, even more episodes of writers, their personal contacts, and instances of literary cross-pollination.

One thinks of Wald’s combined treatment of Chester Himes, Dan Levin, and Jo Sinclair, all of whom were featured in Crossroad when the literary quarterly was launched in Cleveland in April 1939. Subsequently, as a result of the writers’ friendships, Himes soon shows up as a character in Levin’s unpublished novel “The Education of a True Believer” and Sinclair’s unpublished volume “They Gave Us a Job,” and traces of Levin and Sinclair can later be identified in Himes’ The Lonely Crusade.

But the bottom line is that Alan Wald has turned in an exhaustive, almost impeccable performance and admirably passed another milepost, two-thirds of the way home. One eagerly awaits the final book in the trilogy. That book, though, has to be warned. It must be first rate to measure up.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)