A Stalinist writer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 5 20:49:24 MST 2002


(From Alan Wald's "Exiles From a Future Time")

INTRODUCTION

Strange Communists I Have Known

On 9 July 1945, Guy Endore, a popular novelist and Hollywood screenwriter,
awoke as usual before dawn. Of wiry build with brownish blond hair and blue
eyes, Endore weighed a trim 145 pounds and stood five feet seven-and-a-half
inches tall, looking at least a decade younger than his forty-five years.
As he reached for the pad and pencil that always rested near his bedside to
record his waking thoughts, a characteristically gentle yet enigmatic smile
spread across his face.

Politically, Endore was what historians of the Literary Left would regard
as an orthodox "Stalinist." In 1934, even before formally joining the
Communist Party, he wrote the New Republic to criticize an editorial that
condemned the violent disruption by Communists of a Socialist Party meeting
in Madison Square Garden, which was called to defend the armed struggle of
Social Democrats in Austria against the dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss.
The Communists' thuggish seizure of the Socialists' platform was one of the
manifestations of the disruptive "United Front from Below" strategy of the
Communist International that drove one-time Party sympathizers such as John
Dos Passos (1896-1970), Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), and Lionel Trilling
(1905-1975) to publicly oppose the Party. Endore, however, insisted that
the Socialists, not the Communists, were responsible for creating the
divisive provocation; he accused them of excluding Communists from the
speakers' list, confiscating a Communist banner, and inviting a
conservative to address the rally.1

During the early 1930s, Endore had read everything by Marx and Engels
available in English, French, and German, as well as Werner Sombart's
multivolume history of capitalism. Sometime between 1936 and 1938, at the
height of the infamous Moscow Purge Trials, when philosopher John Dewey
(1859-1952) led a campaign to expose their frame-up character, Endore took
out Communist Party membership after moving from New York to Hollywood. In
the fall of 1939, as the news of the Hitler-Stalin Pact drove a number of
disaffected intellectuals from the League of American Writers and other
Communist-led organizations, Endore extolled the pact as evidence of
Stalin's tactical genius, and he concurred in the Party's disbanding of its
extremely successful Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. A year and a half later,
when the pact was repudiated in the wake of Hitler's attack on the Soviet
Union, Endore wrote his friends: "Everyone is now laughing at the
Communists. Personally, I still think that the Pact was fine: It turned
Hitler's fury in every other direction but Russia for two years."2

In May 1945, official Communist criticism from abroad began, which led to
the expulsion of Communist Party general secretary Earl Browder in February
1946 for "social imperialism"; Endore, however, waxed enthusiastic that the
comrades were once more returning to their principled politics. Thus he
decided, on 9 July 1945, to dash off a letter to New Masses literary editor
Isidor Schneider (1896-15177), praising the public statement by French
Communist Jacques Duclos that signaled the eventual end of Browderism:
"Nothing so hopeful has struck us as this recent French detergent."3

According to recollections of friends, family, and his own private
correspondence, a typical morning in the summer month when Endore sent this
letter might begin with Endore jotting down his waking thoughts, after
which he would return his pad of paper to the table. He would then place it
alongside the Gideon Bible that was always near at hand, although he was
quick to reassure all friends who inquired that, while a Jew by birth (his
father had changed the family name from Goldstein), he was actually a
lifelong mystic sympathetic to theosophy. Next Endore might consult
Genesis, chapter 9, on which he had been meditating the night before. More
than twenty years earlier, that passage had convinced him that he must
convert humankind to vegetarianism or the species would destroy itself.

 From the corner of his eye, Endore might note with satisfaction the
bookshelf that held his masterpiece on the Paris Commune, the 1933
best-selling horror classic The Werewolf of Paris. Next to it was his new
novel, which would create much excitement in the review and letters column
of the Communist weekly New Masses, the psychoanalytical mystery thriller
Methinks the Lady (1945).4 Endore would then bounce energetically to his
feet and walk toward the wall, where he stood on his head for at least half
an hour twice a day. He maintained this practice despite once having been
the subject of a hostile interrogation by local Communist Party leaders
based on the circulation of nasty rumors about his study and practice of
Yoga.5 Next he would enjoy his morning repast of fruit and nuts, which,
together with a special health bread that he carried with him to
restaurants and dinner parties, was virtually the only kind of food he ate
since he had begun the research for his gruesome werewolf novel in the
early 1930s.6

This was reportedly the daily regimen in the mid-1940s of the rare genius,
impish personality, devout Stalinist, and militant antivivisectionist born
Samuel Guy Endore in New York City in 1900. He died in Los Angeles in 1970.
During a career in which he shuttled between New York publishers and the
Hollywood film industry, he wrote best-selling novels including the
Book-of-the-Month-Club selection King of Paris (a 1956 biography of
Alexander Dumas), coauthored influential films such as The Story of G.I.
Joe (1945), and produced a series of pamphlets and books on controversial
causes.7 These ranged from The Crime at Scottsboro (1938), which defended a
group of African American youth framed on rape charges in 1931 in Alabama;
to The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery (1944), which supported a group of Mexican
American young people falsely charged with murder in Los Angeles; and
finally to Synanon (1968), an exposition of the philosophy of the drug
rehabilitation center and Utopian community founded in 1958 in Los Angeles,
of which Endore, by then a former Communist, was the intellectual guru.

By all reasonable criteria Endore was an exceptionally loyal Communist for
nearly two decades, yet his personality and literary output bear scant
resemblance to the popular conception of canonical Communist writers held
by most students and scholars of literature, and others concerned with
literary history. This is partly because only a handful of books, aside
from a few biographies, treat the personalities and private lives of
Left-wing writers; even then, the focus is too often on a few prominent
writers who departed from the movement in abject bitterness. Of the dozen
representative Euro-American male writers profiled in Daniel Aaron's
distinguished study Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary
Communism (1961), only three held membership in the Communist Party when
the Depression began; by 1939, two of them had left the Party on bad terms.
As Aaron's subtitle recognizes, the "episodes" convey a pivotal component
but scarcely the comprehensive narrative. Endore, for example, is cited
only as the author of a "violent story of the Santo Domingo slave
insurrection."8 It is useful to recall that in the early spring of 1960,
Joseph Freeman (1897-), a sixty-three-year-old veteran leader of the
Literary Left, offered Aaron, a forty-eight-year-old Smith College
professor, some words of advice for his book-in-progress:

As the story of the literary Left is told nowadays it involves only Big
Shots, men and women of Distinction, award winners. But one important key
to the literary Left... was that it was trying to develop writers from The
Lower Depths, people who would write from a revolutionary viewpoint not out
of abstract fantasies or for the sake of a career, but because such was
their life and their hope.9 When Aaron's Writers on the Left appeared,
Freeman was gratified, as he was among the dozen writers featured in the
narrative.10 Yet when novelist Josephine Herbst (1892-1969) saw Aaron's
book, she reacted bitterly: "His heroes were the entrepreneurs of writing,
the head-boys who have been mostly responsible for the re-hashes.... The
entrepreneurs whom Dan Aaron wrote about were all stuck in the
claustrophobia of New York City."11 Herbst came from the West and
frequently traveled in the 19305; she is barely mentioned in Aaron's
500-page tome, and her novels are not among those described.

Other writers of the era griped with equal fervor about the limitations of
Writers on the Left. In a 1974 interview, novelist Albert Maltz (1908-1985)
declared it "A book without a heart" on the grounds that Aaron focused on
"polemic," but not "creative work." Maltz asserted that this was due to
Aaron's fear of "taking a stand," of saying that "this has merit and this
didn't," lest he be tarred with the Communist brush.12 But it is just as
likely that Maltz's criticism was motivated by his awareness that his own
record as a polemicist was embarrassing- due to his public recantation of
his criticisms of Communist cultural policy in 1946 which is the only time
Maltz is discussed in Aaron's study.13 Likewise, Walter Snow (1905-1973),
for many years a pro-Communist writer who strongly identified with William
Z. Foster's brand of political leadership, scornfully denounced Aaron's
"distortions" in a series of letters in the early 19705 that he sent to his
stepson, the historian Maurice Isserman, which Snow attributes to Aaron's
"major reliance [for information] on embittered renegades, especially
Joseph Freeman."14 In each of the aforementioned grievances, there is the
customary merging of transparent self-promotion with legitimate concern.

Nonetheless, much as one might belabor Aaron for his limitations,15 it is
no easy task to narrate the story of a cultural movement engaging hundreds
of writers, and influencing thousands more, over several decades. In the
forty years since the publication of Writers on the Left, no other
scholarly book on the Communist cultural movement has brought as many
writers to life.16 Moreover, while various kinds of attractions to Marxism
may bind together several hundred writers in an identifiable tradition,
their lives and work can hardly be adequately explained by such ideological
and organizational loyalties.

In the instance of Guy Endore, with whose idiosyncratic morning routine
this introduction began, one has a writer whose literary value has a
comparatively indirect and elusive correlation with his commitment to the
Communist Party. His most explicitly revolutionary work, Babouk (1934), a
masterful narrative set in the early period of the Haitian slave
revolution, appeared while he was ideologically and emotionally drawn to
the Party but not yet a member.17 After joining and teaching novel writing
at the Party-sponsored People's Educational Center in Los Angeles, he wrote
his psycho-sexual thriller, Methinks the Lady (1945). His most successful
novel, King of Paris (1956], appeared as he was severing from the Party
organization, but it was written while he was still friendly to Communism's
basic principles and active mainly in the anti-blacklisting campaign
although no longer a member of the Hollywood branch. Did Party membership
ever directly curtail the content of his literary output? Endore later
claimed that certain members of the Party discouraged him from completing a
nonfiction "History of Human Skill" that he had planned to publish, due to
doctrinal disagreements. Yet the work he valued most, an autobiographical
work called "The Gordon Family," was suppressed not by the Communist Party
but initially by his own family members and then by publishers who
considered it unsellable.18

To what extent is Endore an anomaly in the Communist literary movement, a
poor example for understanding its cultural work? A close look at Endore's
early life discloses many unique features that might usefully be deployed
to assist in explaining assorted aspects of his wide-ranging creative life.
Yet there are no serious reasons for declaring Endore altogether atypical,
thereby discounting him from consideration as a bona fide example of the
Communist Literary Left. His work cannot be set aside, for instance, on the
grounds that his status as a Columbia University graduate means that he
experienced a more secure or privileged youth than typical Left writers
usually identified with the proletarian genre. Like several of the
canonical pro-Communist writers whose experiences with colleges were
minimal or nonexistent (Mike Gold and Jack Conroy, for example), Endore
came from a background of financial and personal instability. His mercurial
father had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, although occasionally he
sold an invention or made an investment that did extraordinarily well,
momentarily precipitating a phase of prosperity that never lasted. His
mother, unable to cope with extreme poverty, committed suicide at a young
age, after which Endore was shunted to an orphanage.

Unlike Conroy's and Gold's writing, however, the backbone of Endore's
literary reputation never rested on a working-class or strike setting, a
narrative of "bottom dog" life, or a "socialist conversion" story. Endore's
forte was and would remain a remarkable series of rich, subtle, and
elegant-but often violent and erotic- fictionalized biographies of
Casanova, Joan of Arc, Rousseau, Voltaire, the Marquis De Sade, and
Alexander Dumas.19 "Most Endore" was a phrase coined by Marxist theater and
film director Herbert Biberman (1900-1971), one of the "Hollywood Ten," to
refer to a style char-acterized by neat scholarship, fervent devotion to
material, and a "respect for a reader's willingness to adventure."20 The
New York critic Alexander Wolcott, struck by the discrepancy between the
diminutive Endore's mild personality and the bloody horrifies of The
Werewolf of Paris, dubbed Endore "the weremouse."21

I contend that Endore's career as a novelist, which continued long after
the Depression, is as legitimate a part of the Communist Literary Left as
were the careers of Gold and Conroy. Yet nowhere are achievements such as
Endore's featured in studies of Left-wing fiction. To reestablish the full
scope and trajectory of the Communist Cultural Left, I have embarked on a
project that will return to memory dozens of extraordinarily talented
writers of unique and pioneering texts who have "disappeared" from cultural
history, while reassessing scores of others who have been appraised out of
context (that is, without taking into account the author's Left
commitments) due to the still existing secrecy about activities of the
Literary Left during the Cold War.

As the example of Endore dramatizes, I have also found that a project such
as this cannot be merely a literary study but needs to be partly a
collective biography. In some cases I have been able to ascertain a density
of detail about a writer's background; in others, selective anecdotes that
may give the reader a feeling of the lived complexity of radical
commitment. Although I have tried to remain factually grounded in
verifiable claims, this project is somewhat akin to the writing of
narrative poetry or prose fiction; I mean this in the sense of the
distinction between poetry and criticism that one-time Marxist Kenneth
Burke (1897-1993) noted at the 1937 American Writers' Congress: "the poet's
way is necessarily more cumbersome. It is the longer way round. It has not
got there until it has humanized, personalized."22 Veteran radical poet
Norman MacLeod (1906-1985) put it in like fashion in a letter to novelist
Jack Conroy in which he contemplated the early 19305 from the vantage point
of the late 19605: "The older I get the more I see that it was and is the
human stuff that gives or gave flesh and blood and meaning to the ideas and
the spirit of the times."23 Josephine Herbst, in particular, resisted the
notion of interpellating writers into a construct of "The Thirties";
rather, the era was a "humanscape - the setting of my loves and discoveries."24

Fashioning a "humanscape," of course, means going beyond the official
published record to more intimate sources. As Freeman observed in a
communication to Herbst, "The letters of writers are the only way we have
to know how writers lived in any given time and place."23 Oral history is a
precious tool as well, although a small quantity may be hazardous if it
lacks the controls of historical context and a breadth of other accounts.26
Yet the pitfalls of oral history need to be poised against the considerable
perspicuity of journalist Murray Kemptom's 1957 apology to blacklisted
screenwriter and former Communist Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), acknowledging
that a personal interview might have mitigated the unfair portrait of
Trumbo that appeared in Part of Our lime Some Ruins and Monuments of the
Thirties (1955): "I can only plead, pompous as it sounds, that I have come
to believe it is the greatest of crimes to write about a man whose face you
have never seen."27 Although face-to-face meetings with elderly, and
sometimes ornery, writers can be emotionally grueling and physically
exhausting, they have been indispensable to the historically contextualized
humanscape I have endeavored to sculpt in this narrative. How else other
than by humanizing and personalizing can one tell the important story of
"engaged" or "committed" writers in a way that acknowledges their
sacrifices as well as their very human mistakes?

Their mistakes, of course, are so infamous that one historian justifiably
remarked, "For most Americans, intellectuals included, few tasks are easier
than deriding Communists."28 But for those seeking to more fairly explore
this United States version of Litterature Engagé, more needs to be said
about the writers' sacrifices, their loss of jobs, relocation under duress
to other countries, serving of prison terms, risking of their own lives in
violent confrontations with right-wing mobs, and, in some cases, dying on
the battlefields in Spain and in World War II-fighting for a new world that
they would never see.


Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org


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