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Books: The Fellows Who Traveled

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WRITERS ON THE LEFT (460 pp.)—Daniel Aaron—Harcourt, Brace & World ($7.50).

Less than 25 years ago, as all of their elders remember and some of the young never heard, some of the most eminent of U.S. writers and a great gaggle of lesser literary geese were more than half in love with Communism. It is all over now, but the Fund for the Republic believes that as a matter of history and simple wisdom, it is important that the U.S. should be aware of just how, and to what extent, Communism in the 1920s and ‘305 managed to infiltrate U.S. society from labor unions to universities. Nine volumes have already appeared, covering Communist activities in churches, mass media and government. Six years ago, the fund commissioned Daniel Aaron, a professor of English at Smith College, to write a history of the time when the Communists were the bullies of U.S. literature.

A cool man, Aaron spares his rod, excuses more than he accuses. But the record he has dug from the fast yellowing files of “little magazines,” confessional literature, letters, minutes and manifestoes is a bizarre picture.

“What happened to American intellectual life in the Thirties,” wrote Granville Hicks as early as 1943, “already seems mysterious, even to many who were party members.” In 1949 Howard Fast mourned: “Where are the great ones of the Thirties, the whole school of talented progressive writers who arose out of the unemployed struggles led by the Communist Party?” It was a good question, for by then Fast himself was the only good name left to dress up the Communist Party’s sleazy cultural storefront. (Since then, Fast himself has repented, issued his mea culpa in 1957.)

And the days are long past when the party could exact direct cultural tribute from the U.S. intelligentsia, when anti-Communist writers found it hard to get their books reviewed in the intellectual weeklies. To those much under 45 in the affluent society of today, the Thirties’ preoccupation with class struggle and “social realism” must seem as odd as the 19th century’s fondness for collected sermons or the debates of medieval theologians.

The Boom Time. The Depression, being the low ebb of U.S. capitalism, was naturally enough the boom time of intellectual commerce between the Kremlin and the U.S. Party Leader Earl Browder could declare with a straight face that “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” and half the leading U.S. writers believed him. The aging Lincoln Steffens could return from Russia declaring “I have seen the future, and it works.” It was the time of the fellow traveler, and among the famous fellows who traveled were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser.

Not all traveled the same distance. Hemingway wrote pieces for New Masses (he was praised because his style resembled Lenin’s!), starred at writers’ congresses, where he helped the party put the kibosh on Trotskyites, and called himself a “loyal man of the left.” But he traveled no farther than Spain. No ideologue, he never accepted the Marxist doublethink that enabled so many others to blind themselves to the Communists’ secret-police tactics, and in For Whom the Bell Tolls he conveyed some of his disillusionment, to the anguish of his left-wing admirers. Dos Passos considered joining the party, but was soon disillusioned and paid for it by being denounced as the possessor of a “poisoned ideology and sick soul.” Dreiser became a steadier, more devout believer and platform Marxist, died in the party in 1945.

The WPA theater may not have been as Communist-oriented as some have alleged, but Clifford Odets, an avowed Communist sympathizer, was the dominant voice on Broadway. Even Edmund Wilson lent his gravity of mind and great critical prestige to the Cause and was heard in a somewhat baffling plea to U.S. intellectuals to “take Communism away from the Communists.” He got small thanks from Michael Gold, a man of small talent and great authority who functioned as a sort of U.S. cultural commissar for the party. Wrote Gold (later, of course): “Wilson ascended the ‘proletarian bandwagon’ with the arrogance of a myopic, high-bosomed Beacon Hill matron entering a common streetcar.”

Restless Travelers. There was a good deal of comedy—which Aaron solemnly neglects—in the cultural shenanigans of the period. There was high irony in the complaints by the party about its flighty fellow travelers; it had corralled a mob of high-strung writers and complained because they would not become party hacks. The rebels would not “accept discipline”; they were full of “bourgeois illusions,” “neuroses” and other grave crimes.

“But why,” asks Aaron, “did so many well-intentioned, sensitive and gifted men and women turn to Communism [in reaction to] what they felt to be the stupidity and cruelty of the standing order?” American tradition and messianic Communism have more in common than would be conceded by either party, he argues. Both hold that “made economically secure and comfortable, life will automatically grow blessed” (in the words of distinguished U.S. Sociologist Paul Rosenfeld). Hence, the doublethinkers of the Thirties justified every crime of Stalinism in the name of a perfect future.

“America was promises,” wrote Poet Archibald MacLeish. As the Depression deepened, all the promises seemed to be perjured, giving at least plausibility to the Communist thesis that capitalism was in a state of “ever deepening” crisis. Some preferred to think it was a corpse already. One group called themselves “The Laughing Morticians.” They included Alexander King, since become a TV chatterbox, satirist George Grosz, an exile from Nazi Germany, and Sociologist Gilbert Seldes, all of them eager to say the last rites over capitalism. The U.S.S.R., a distant and unverifiable protoutopia, brandished a blank check drawn on the future.

Aaron’s book doesn’t try to cover the whole troubled literary landscape of the time; it is a largely sympathetic study of a few whose temporary literary power exceeded their permanent influence: Malcolm Cowley, editor of the New Republic, Granville Hicks, editor of the New Masses, Mike Gold and Lincoln Steffens at the hard core, Edmund Wilson and Dos Passos hovering on the periphery. They formed what Gold envisioned in the late ’20s as “Communism’s literary shock troops,” and their motives, Aaron observes, were “by no means reprehensible.” But within these limitations, he has sketched the choreography of a great troupe of American writers when they danced to Moscow’s tune, through the New Deal and the united front (against fascism), the Spanish Civil War (which temporarily resolved liberal doubts about Russia on the simple ground that anyone who fought fascists must somehow be good), the Moscow trials (which rent the united front and so outraged Veteran Revolutionary Max Eastman that the comrades accused him of accepting $25,000 from the British Secret Service to slander Russia), right up to the great awakening —the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. The great love affair was over. Extreme cruelty has been charged by both parties.

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