The Magazine

Mission for Moscow

Better dead than read is the verdict on the literary left.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By RON CAPSHAW
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Trinity of Passion

The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade

by Alan M. Wald

North Carolina, 344 pp., $34.95

During the Cold War there emerged a peculiar type of Communist apologist who, amidst all the admissions of purges, invasions, and gulags, desperately searched for and usually found some type of evolution in the system. Alan Wald undertakes the same quest with American Communist writers of the 1930s and '40s: He desperately wades through all the pseudonyms and minor novels to find chartable growth from knee-jerk Stalinism to mature ambivalence. But the writers he studies experience their most complex moment before they sign the Party card, when they register an uncomfortable premonition that artistic searches for truth might be subordinated to political propaganda. For many, it is their last wise and independent thought.

What strikes you about the writers collected here is their rigidity of thought, and how, even in moments when their artistic conscience from older days reasserts itself in print, their worldview--a cultural lag of Black Belt nationalism, heroic heterosexual Loyalism (as opposed to effeminate fascism) and string-pulling fascism in America--makes it impossible for a return to artistic freedom. Communists like Harry Haywood advocate the Internationale's policy of black nationalism in the 1930s, and return 30 years later with all ideological baggage intact, to approving applause from younger comrades. Alvah Bessie, nicknamed the Errol Flynn of the left because of his military service with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, revealed a lifelong obsession with promoting the theme of the effeminizing nature of capitalism and the restorative sexual power of communism (beefcake on tractors and barricades).

Wald has done solid detective work, however, on uncovering the real writers behind party and pulp pseudonyms. Despite the liberal obituaries, Arthur Miller was (briefly) a committed Communist who wrote theatrical columns under the goyish pseudonym of Matt Wayne. Like one of those Soviet spymasters in Ian Fleming, Wayne was never photographed in or out of the New Masses office. Nevertheless, Wayne/Miller caused a minor cultural blip by anticipating Albert Maltz's controversial article criticizing Marxism as an artistic straitjacket by a year. When the word from Moscow was that such criticisms were politically suspect, Maltz saw the literary error of his ways and Wayne disappeared down the memory hole, replaced by Miller, who appeared in the party press without deviationist tendencies but full of righteous anger at American anti-Semitism.

Ed Lacy, a bestselling mystery writer, was in reality Leonard Zinberg, a Stalinist who abandoned the party press as a publishing outlet for the postwar paperback boom. His one-note rhetoric about American fascism orchestrating racial strife found new life in police melodrama. By the 1960s, the long-standing Communist literary goal of theme predominating over truth-searching could find a readership if layered with enough pulp devices of pistol-whipping cops and doomed black revolutionaries.

Like his subjects, Wald won't go where the evidence leads him. Many of the writers studied here expressed dislike for their fathers. A writer unafraid to embrace the notion that, perhaps, the party served as a substitute parent (socialist motherland, iron father in the Kremlin) could ask important historical questions about why some writers embrace totalitarianism and others, like Orwell, never succumb. But such a conclusion--that maladjusted people gravitated toward the Communist party--veers uncomfortably close to Whittaker Chambers and J.B. Matthews country.

Instead, Wald combs the material for a consistency to progressive ideals that can invalidate the usual trajectory of leftist writers: Depression-era commitment, '40s disillusionment, and '50s apathy. But commitment is one thing; denial is another. And whatever their disappointment in the Soviet Union, most of the writers never let go of the fantasies imbibed during party times. Perhaps they didn't have the strength to rebel against one more parent.

Wald concludes his study on a celebratory note, where writers artistically break out of the sectarian press into the more mainstream pulp audiences. But with the party's simple categorizations of good and evil, and their preference for conspiracy and masculinity, it is fair to say that these authors were always writing pulp.

Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.