“Class Acts”

This is a fascinating article and we should all probably read the book it discusses. My random excerpts from J. Hoberman’s piece:

What is literature? asked Jean-Paul Sartre in 1947. Does a novelist write to make a personal world–or should a novelist write to remake our world?

These “cultural workers” (writers of proletarian literature, themselves retroactively branded proletarians by Professor Wald), the “rank and file of the literary Left” (but also a few of the commissars, including the infamous V.J. Jerome, chair of the American Communist Party’s cultural commission), are the subject of Wald’s ongoing reclamation project.

Vague sense of an exotic bestiary: The title of Exiles is borrowed from a posthumous collection of poems by the sick, starving and extremely obscure Sol Funaroff, whom Wald dubs the “Apollinaire of the Proletariat.” The book itself begins with a portrait of a “strange communist,” namely, the pulp novelist turned Hollywood screenwriter Guy Endore, who, the script for The Story of GI Joe notwithstanding, will be longest remembered for his 1933 bestselling costume horror novel, The Werewolf of Paris, strategically set against the backdrop of the 1871 Commune.

In the crucible of the Great Depression, as Wald argued in Exiles From a Future Time, shards of literary Modernism fused with a new and dramatic sense of civic emergency. Wald’s first books–including a literary biography of James T. Farrell, a study of the poets John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan and the near-definitive account of literary Trotskyism, The New York Intellectuals–were concerned with varieties of Trotskyist Modernism. With Exiles, he embarked upon what one might assume were for him the more treacherous currents of American Stalinism and the Popular Front–chronicling a literary crew whose allegiance to a social muse he, unlike Kempton, displays an unexpected degree of empathy for.

One of the book’s more fascinating secondary narratives recounts the way Whitman, the American poet most admired by leftists, was transformed into a Popular Front icon. In Gold’s 1935 “Ode to Walt Whitman,” Wald notes, the poet “is likened to a reborn Christ, to the spirit of communism, to nature, and to Bolshevism…serv[ing] as the multipurpose icon of Gold’s multiethnic cultural mosaic.”

They were also writers who had to defend themselves against sternly retrograde Communist literary criticism, including the “steady stream of stern pronouncements against…’difficulty.'” (This was not always monolithic. Somewhat counterintuitively, the Daily Worker dispensed with dogma to hail party member Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep as a masterpiece when it was published in 1934.)

Another narrative concerns the autobiographical Spanish Civil War fictions of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans Alvah Bessie, Milton Wolff and William Herrick; for Wald, these novels constitute “a hitherto neglected segment in Jewish American cultural history.”


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