Celebration and Fresh Inquiry

Against the Current, No. 180, January/February 2016

Paul Buhle

Lineages of the Literary Left:
Essays in Honor of Alan M. Wald
Edited by Howard Brick, Robbie Lieberman and Paula Rabinowitz
Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing/Maize Books, 2014, 377 pages, $37.50 paperback.

THE “FESTSCHRIFT” SEEMS to belong to a vanishing scholarly past, as distant in the twenty-first century, at least in U.S. intellectual culture, as the manual typewriter and library card-catalogue. It was a tradition where scholars grown ancient in the classroom and their musty offices, earning the gratitude of former students and colleagues, basked in the essays around subjects connected or not quite connected to the work of the Master.

If there is a future for the festschrift, it must be very different from the ones of the past. Stereotypes unconfirmed: There’s no stuffiness in the pages of this book. If the occasion seems familiar (the core essays originated in a 2013 conference on the occasion of the retirement of Against the Current editor Alan Wald from the University of Michigan), the result is anything but.

The 22 contributors are serious scholars of cultural radicalism of several generations whose essays sometimes seem to escape the framework of the volume, yet make sense as part of a whole, Whole Wald, that is. Although a committed Marxist with a long activist record — SDS, Socialist Workers Party, Solidarity — he has collaborated with politically diverse scholars who research the Left and is also an editor of Science & Society (founded by supporters of the Communist Party in 1936).

Six of the authors and editors of Lineages received their doctorates under Wald’s personal direction at Michigan, while all of the others have had a personal association with him over the past 50 years, including a few long-term political comrades such as the Pakistani-born Tariq Ali and the Brazilian-born Michael Löwy.

Wald himself held the position of the H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor of English Literature and American Culture, a chair he named in honor of an eminent mathematician fired from the University of Michigan in 1954, then blacklisted and sentenced to prison for refusing to co-operate in “naming names” during the Red Scare. The 87-year-old Davis was present at the event (he eventually found work at the University of Toronto), and a photograph of the two of them ends the book.

The Lyrical Left

No review will be comprehensive, so I will focus here on those essays that stand out for me. The second of them, by Sarah Ehlers, “What’s Left of Lyric: Genevieve Taggard and the Redefinition of Song,” describes and analyzes at length a poet so well known in the interwar years (for millennials, that’s 1920-40) but very largely forgotten today.

Taggard was also a keen literary critic for the magazine New Masses, and she co-edited an anthology of poetry published originally in its predecessors, the Masses and the Liberator. Being a certain, non-academic kind of poet, and close to the Communist Party, were two large strikes against her reputation after 1940, from those who made the reputations during the Cold War years.

Ehlers brings something new and fascinating into the discussion. Taggard’s definition of poetry as “song,” returning in effect to historic and prehistorical uses of the lyric as a common chant rather than an individual creation, connected or sought to connect poetry with working class life.

Taggard would not have known the world of Leftwing Yiddish, where such phenomenon still existed, at least into the 1940s. But she had the right idea.

Julia Mickenberg offers up a forgotten modern dancer, Pauline Koner, reputed to be the very first American dancer invited to the Soviet Union since the then-famed visit of Isadora Duncan back in 1921.

For good reasons, we think of the Russian 1934 as a grim scene, but for the 22-year-old Koner it was one triumph after another, including some very weird moments like the seventy-thousand strong physical culture performance, choreographed personally by herself and viewed by no less than Stalin. This was Proletarian Realism with a vengeance.

After a disappointing love affair with a leading Russian choreographer, and denied re-entry after departure, Koner drifted away from Left sentiments. But the essay suggests a moment when so much remained, to a surprising degree, in flux — just what so many others, obviously not including Trotskyists, experienced only a few years before the Purges began in earnest.

I am not so happy with an essay by Cary Nelson, “Marx, Stalin and Derrida.” A scholar of note in the poetry of the Spanish Civil War, Nelson has drifted in recent years toward an open anxiety at any criticism of Israeli behavior and, in the recent flap over professor Steven Salaita first hired then fired at the University of Illinois, planted himself decisively on the wrong side.

This piece is, at least in part, an essay in personal disillusionment, identifying Marxism with Stalinism or something else distasteful — and then proposing a need for a massive rethink along lines that leave the effects of “historical developments” mysterious, at least to this reader.

Wider Historical Views

I am somewhat more satisfied with Bill V. Mullen’s “Wrestling with the Legacy of Stalinism: Recent Scholarship on W.E.B. DuBois and the Left.” Mullen grounds anti-Stalinism (I prefer “independent Left,” because otherwise “Stalinism” becomes an idee fixe) in the world of C.L.R. James, Feruccio Gambino and George Rawick, a world of non-Communist revolutionaries untouched by temptations of “joining the other side” in Cold War adventures.

For them and so many of us in the New Left, the fresh scholarship opening up on Marxist intellectuals or focusing attention upon Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World, was exciting because history would now be written from another side, the side with which we identified, knowing only a small portion of what we would learn in generations of reading and solidarity movement activism.

As the prestige of the Soviet Union continued to fall, the past activities of Communists became, to our eyes, much more sympathetic. They were part of our extended political family, a notion uncomfortable to many Trotskyists but not so much to Alan Wald, or to myself.

Chris Vials’ “Red Feminists and Methodist Missionaries: Dorothy McConnell and the Other Afterlife of the Popular Front,” wonderfully recalls the life of a Christian idealist finding a place in the vicinity of the 1930s CP and then departing, bent but unbroken. All that I can find missing is the context of The World Tomorrow (1920-34) a militantly leftwing, anti-imperialist magazine of Christian Socialists that drew its last breath just as the Popular Front was about to emerge.

Was that timing a coincidence? I have never been able to find out, and apart from the study of individuals such as A.J. Muste or Dorothy Day, the whole religious side of the Left remains understudied.

Joseph G. Ramsey offers another gem through the study of forgotten detective pulp writer Len Zinberg aka Ed Lacy, one of those figures forgotten but for Wald’s own detective work in his Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade (2007).

The saga of the boxer as proletarian pug reminds us of some great 1940s films (like “Body and Soul,” written by Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, later “the last Hollywood Marxist”) and the real-life Joe Louis, intimately close to Daily Worker sportswriter Lester Rodney. Hard-boiled fiction offered few if any happy endings, but powerful lessons — as Ramsey reminds us.

Radicalism Then and Now

I would like to like Michael Löwy’s “Jewish Radical Intellectuals in Europe and the United States” more than I do, because of my admiration for Löwy. Further, I blame myself for knowing too much about the subject on the American side, mainly from field work among old timers thirty years ago, and by virtue of using Yiddish printed sources.

The first half of the essay — on Western, Eastern, and Central Europe — is rich and subtle; but the generalizations in the second half are too large, and in a word, too non-generational. Thus, and contrary to the essay’s assumptions, the assimilation-mindedness of the Jewish-American Leftwingers arriving before 1900 stood in stark contrast to the determinedness of the immigrants of the following generation, something that found the Communist newspaper Morgn Frayhayt with the best YIDDISH, literary quality, within the Yiddish press.

Frayhaytniks did not look upon Yiddish as mainly functional, and they won (at least apart from interpretations of Russia) a serious battle against the Communist Party apparatus, in the 1920s, for an important degree of literary freedom. The newspaper’s readers, severely proletarian for the most party, were hyper-active in their unions and cultural associations, perhaps “grounded” in their European backgrounds but perfectly adapted to carry on political work in the United States.

The substantially assimilated, English-speaking (that is, as a first language) radical literary types that Löwy describes for later generations, were no more “at home” in their activities, in some ways less so because of their departure from working-class life.

The Afterword of sorts, by Alan Wald, is a welcome self-exploration that situates his scholarship in experiences and commitments that predate and transcend academe with many details about his family, adventures at Antioch College, and exciting years at U.C. Berkeley. It is followed by a substantial bibliography of his publications that should serve as a handy reference for anyone working on the Literary Left.

Inasmuch as I prompted Wald in 2008 into helping myself, Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm with a comic art book about SDS, which included the story of Wald’s (brief) days as a community theater actor in a Cleveland organizing project (published by Hill & Wang as Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History), I have a special interest in his bohemianism and its lasting impact upon his political/intellectual choices.

How Wald managed to research so many hundreds of individual writers with a dogged determination to find out things about their lives that no one else could….that part remains for now a happy mystery that I hope he will address in a future memoir.

January-February 2016, ATC 180