[Marxism] Inconvenient Truths

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 7 16:33:26 MST 2009

Inconvenient Truths: The Communist Conundrum in Life and Art
Alan Wald

Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, Steven G. Kellman. W. W. Norton and 
Company, 2005.

An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell, Robert K. 
Landers. Encounter Books, 2004.

The Lives of Agnes Smedley, Ruth Price. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad. Knopf, 2007.

In a contentious lecture following his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 
Literature for 2005, British playwright Harold Printer offered a pointed 
distinction between the quest for truth in politics and dramatic art. In 
the former, truth is unabashedly subordinated to the maintenance of 
power; in the latter, it exhibits an elusive or contradictory quality, 
but the search to depict truth is "compulsive."1 The challenge for 
scholars in documenting the truth of the lives of twentieth-century US 
writers captivated by Communism surely requires an attitude analogous to 
the latter. Yet the difficulty of attaining that standard is apparent in 
the release by two benchmark university presses of incongruous studies 
of one of the most politically committed US literary radicals of the 
past century.

In 1988, the University of California at Berkeley Press published a 
copiously researched 400-page biography, Agnes Smedley: The Life and 
Times of an American Radical. This was the first endeavor to detail the 
intimate experiences and literary-political career of journalist and 
novelist Agnes Smedley (1892–1950) in North America, Europe, and Asia. 
The co-authors were the husband and wife team of Stephen R. MacKinnon, a 
well-published academic specialist in Late Imperial and 
twentieth-century China, and Janice R. MacKinnon, an importer of antique 
Chinese furniture. The MacKinnons described their labor as "basic 
detective work" on several continents over a period of 14 years. Such 
industriousness was required to reconstruct Smedley's dispersed archive 
of publications in multiple venues as well as to "collect her letters, 
track down and interview her old friends and enemies, and scour 
intelligence files." Uncommon thoroughness was demanded because the 
subject's life was fraught with political controversy; the authors 
pledged to "view Smedley from every possible perspective" (MacKinnon and 
MacKinnon ix).

Literary scholars are familiar with Smedley because in 1973 the Feminist 
Press launched a popular new edition of her 1929 proletarian feminist 
literary classic, Daughter of Earth. From the Afterword to this volume, 
as well as from reviews and academic essays, they learned that Smedley's 
publishing and activist career had in point of fact commenced in the era 
of World War I, when she was a determined proponent of birth control and 
the independence of India from Great Britain. After 1920, Smedley lived 
in Europe and Asia until World War II, becoming famous as a sympathetic 
frontline journalist with Mao Zedong's Red Army during the dramatic 
events preceding the Chinese Revolution. These were reported most 
notably in her popular work about the Sino-Japanese war, Battle Hymn of 
China (1943), issued by the Knopf publishing house when Smedley returned 
to the US. Then the Cold War erupted and Smedley faced accusations of 
one-time membership in the "Sorge Spy Ring" in China on behalf of the 
Communist International. She was soon living as a near-pariah in Oxford, 
England, where she died at age 58 following surgery for a duodenal ulcer.


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