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Murray Kempton 

Part of Our Time 










NEW YORK 20, N. Y. 

MEMO, from the Collected Poems of Kenneth 
Fearing, Random House, 1940, copyright, 1938 , by 
Kenneth Fearing and reprinted by his permission. 

First Printing 







A Prelude * 

1 The Sheltered Life ' *3 

(Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers) 

2 The Dry Bones 37 

(Gardner Jackson and Lee Pressman) 

3 "It's Time to Go, I Heard Them Say . . ." 83 

(Joe Curran and His Shipmates) 

4 The Social Muse 105 

5 O'er Moor and Fen 15 1 

(/. B. Matthews and the Multiple Revelation) 

6 The Day of The Locust 181 

( The Workers' Theater Goes to Hollywood ) 

7 The Rebel Girl 

( Mary Heaton Vorse, Elizabeth Sentley, and Anne 
Moos Remington) 


8 George 2 33 

(Paul Robeson and the Pullman Porters) 

9 Father and Sons 261 

(The Reuther Boys) 

10 The Shadow Line 299 

Part of Our Time 

A Prelude 

EACH of us lives with a sword over his head. 

There are those who can ignore its shadow and those who can- 
not. Those who cannot are not necessarily better than those who 
can. But they are the creators of the special myth of their time, 
because any myth is the creation of the very few who cannot bear 

This is a book about the myth of the nineteen thirties. 

Most of all it was a social myth. No man was an island. He 
could not escape history. If Madrid fell, he fell with it. In his own 
time, he would know the night of defeat or the morning of final 
victory. The instruments of his salvation were his to command. 

The language of the myth was abstract and collective. Its key 
words were symbols like 'labor/' "people," "youth," and "his- 
tory." It was a language of exhortation, and it was graceless by 
choice, written on a drumhead, to be read to an impatient army. 
Those who wrote it assumed that, in years to come, their words 
would be read by people who would judge them only as the 
words of the winning side or the losing one. They would be tested 
by victory or defeat, and not by the judgment of neutrals. The 
heart of the myth of the thirties was that there were no neutral^ 

Yet the reality, as we know it now, is that most people afe 
neutral. Only the very few give their lives to the myth of any 
decade; and, in America, only a limited few lived by the myth 
of the thirties. They were the committed and the dedicated, and 
they are the subjects of these studies. 


Time has altered them and their circumstance beyond recogni- 
tion, and yet I wonder now whether their place in our lives is not 
more important today than it was when the myth was fresh in 
their vision. For they are with us still, not as the prophets they 
'thought they were, but as the scapegoats of an aggressive new 
myth which has shoved their own aside. The bearers of the myth 
of every decade seem to carry in their hands the ax and the spade 
to execute and inter the myth of the previous one. 
" As an instance, the bearers of the myth of the thirties did all 
they could to destroy the myth of the twenties. The myth of the 
twenties had involved the search for individual expression, 
whether in beauty, laughter, or defiance of convention; all this 
was judged by the myth of the thirties as selfish and footling and 
egocentric. It did not seem proper at the time to say that the 
twenties were not quite so simple, and that their values were 
mixed, some good and some bad. It is a perilous thing for any 
generation to misjudge its immediate past. The prisoners of the 
myth of the thirties threw away most, I think, when they applied 
their brooms with such impartiality to that which was paste and 
that which was diamond in the myth of the twenties. There are 
signs that a myth is developing in our time; and its panel of 
judges has brought all the thirties to the prisoner's bar. These 
studies are not offered as material for the defense; they are only 
an essay toward a selective understanding of this myth which 
judged once and has now come itself to so terrible a judgment. 
The only thing current in them is the sense that the past we lived 
through is a part of ourselves, and that no part of ourselves is 
without its portion of guilt and its portion of glory, and that any 
summary judgment of our past is a peril to our present. 

My subjects, as I have already said, are a very few people 
whose lives were changed because they were committed to the 
social myth of the thirties. No one of us, of course, can know just 
what his commitment will exact from him. The social revolution- 


ary of the thirties thought that he was prepared to die by violence. 
He thought that he was prepared for an America destroyed by 
war and fascism. His imagination covered, in fact, almost every 
disaster except the one which has now overtaken him. 

For he could not have known that, within twenty years, he 
would live in an America made glorious according to every dream 
of the economic materialist Its wealth, its resources, its almost 
universally exalted living standards would not have seemed to 
him possible except in the triumph of his own revolutionary 

And yet this America had fixed him with a harsh and chilling 
eye. To the extent that it remembered him at all, this America 
sought from him no enlightenment except as to whether he was 
or ever had been a member of the Communist Party or any of 
that cluster of organizations which the Department of Justice has 
found to be under its control. He could communicate only de- 
fiance or penitence. 

If he were still a Communist, he could refuse to answer and be 
left with whatever comfort there might be in the knowledge that 
no triumph was possible for him except as the quisling of a 
Soviet Army of Occupation. If he had been a Trotskyite or some 
other kind of revolutionary, he could generally expect to be left 
alone, assuming he was uninterested in a place in government. 
For him, the price of commitment was to be alone and unat- 

The Trotskyite's own god had at least defined for him the 
enormity of his present disaster. Shortly before he was murdered, 
Leon Trotsky had cast out some three hundred, roughly half, of 
his American followers. He was, said Trotsky, consigning them 
to the dustbin of history. 

The dustbin of history was, to the revolutionary of the thirties, 
what Hell was to the Maine farmer. To fall out of history, to lose 
your grip upon its express train, to be buried in its graveyard 


the conflicting metaphors descriptive of that immolation recurred 
again and again. But who could have believed that it could hap- 
pen to so many so young? 

For all of them are so long gone; the parades for Spain, the 
concerts for the anti-fascists where everyone sang about the Peat 
Bog soldiers, the dinners for the sharecroppers, the college girls 
throwing away their silk stockings to defeat Japanese aggression, 
the lectures on the crimes of Trotsky, and the counter-lectures on 
the crimes of Stalin. 

The author of The Coming Struggle for Power peacefully 
joined and peacefully left a British cabinet. The first chairman of 
the American League against War and Fascism has become 
J. B. Matthews, laboriously assembling the names of all those 
treasonable enough to have followed his call, a Pied Piper en- 
tombing his children. A thousand different pamphlets, written 
at night, approved by the committee, wheedled past the printer 
on the barely believed, barely meant promise of payment, all 
buried now and of interest to no one except the Federal Bureau 
of Investigation and the odd new entrepreneurs to whom the 
letterhead of a dead subversive organization is at once a weapon 
and a commodity. 

/ They were a very few people, but they made a great noise, 
although not so great a one as the noise being made over them 
now. And yet, few though they were, each was in some way dif- 
ferent from any other, and the consequences of their involvement 
with the social myth of the thirties were different for each of 
them. Julius Rosenberg accepted the myth and became a traitor. 
Walter Reuther accepted the myth and became a highly useful 

Any experience deeply felt makes some men better and some 
men worse. When it has ended, they share nothing but the recol- 
lection of a commitment in which each was tested and each to 
some degree found wanting. They were not alike when they 


began, and they were not alike when they finished. T. S. Eliot 
says in one of his Quartets that time is no healer, because the 
patient is no longer here. The consequences of the journey change 
the voyager so much more than the embarking or the arrival. 

It is already very hard to remember that, only a generation 
ago, there were a number of Americans, of significant character 
and talent, who believed that our society was not merely doomed 
but undeserving of survival, and to whom every one of its insti- 
tutions seemed not just unworthy of preservation but crying out 
to be exterminated. 

And it is also hard to re-create that storm which passed over 
America in 1929, which conditioned the real history of the 
thirties, and which provided what the subjects of this inquiry at 
least thought was the impulse of their social myth. The year 1931 
was not a time when the American businessman held his head 
high. All the ancient values he represented seemed to wither 
around him. The early thirties tried bankers and found them 
guilty as steadily as the fifties were to try Communists. The image 
of the American dream was flawed and cracked; its critics had 
never sounded more persuasive. It is especially hard to remember 
how persuasive they were, because so many of them have ceased 
to persuade themselves. Fred J. Schlink, who wrote the most 
widely circulated attack on industry's treatment of the consumer, 
is a Republican now. John T. Flynn, author of Graft in Business, 
lifts his voice over the radio now against all that he helped in- 
spire. But these men were reformers and not revolutionaries; the 
force of their criticism then and the changing of their passion^ 
now reflect a public temper. The great body of Americans did not 
believe that their system was mortally ill. Its decline was far 
more surprising to them than its subsequent recovery. 

But there were a few who sought some revolutionary shelter 
from the storm; and they are the subjects of these studies. They 
believed in Marx and, with a few exceptions, in Lenin. Marx 


had said that history, by its own iron and necessary laws, pro- 
gresses toward the breaking of nations and the destruction of the 
rich and the mighty. The triumph of the wage earner, the most 
abject victim of society's injustice, was to Marx a matter of his- 
toric inevitability. 

And Lenin taught that the destruction of the mighty and the 
elevation of the humble would not be an easy or peaceful process. 
Even the West was ruled by men who wrapped repression in the 
sham of a democratic government; the owners of capital also 
owned the press, the Congress, the army, and every instrument 
of the state. 

"The liberation of the oppressed class," said Lenin, "is impos- 
sible, not only without a violent revolution but without the de- 
struction of the apparatus of state power." 

And Lenin spoke with the authority of success. Only in the 
Soviet Union was the revolution triumphant The Soviets survived 
and America declined; and therefore was it possible to believe 
that, as Lenin had achieved the revolution, Stalin was building 
the new Jerusalem. 

Germany was drifting to the Nazis. The British Labor govern- 
ment had expired, and recriminations still echoed around its 
deathbed. The radicals of Europe had lived for years by the 
dream of a sure and peaceful progress toward the broad, sunny 
uplands of social democracy. Now they were stragglers broken in 
the valley; nowhere did there appear any hope for these gentle 
apostles of the peaceful and the legal. 

The Socialists of Vienna had built themselves an oasis of pen- 
sions and co-operatives and workers* houses in the social desert 
about them. In 1934, the Chancellor of Austria, as if to underscore 
Lenin, turned his guns on all they had put together. The workers 
of Vienna chose to stand and die, half-armed and half-fed, in 
their Karl Marx Hof and their Matteoti Hof, the first named for 
the symbol of socialism's prophecy in the nineteenth century and 


the second for a symbol of its martyrdom in the twentieth. 
The survivors were heroes of sorts. But, for American revolu- 
tionaries, their true epitaph was the bitter legend that they had 
rallied their forces to seize Vienna's City Hall, only to be halted 
in full sweep by a "Keep off the Grass" sign in a public park and 
dispersed by the polizei. 

After their defeat, the leaders of the Viennese Socialists sought 
refuge abroad. Most of those who went to the Soviet Union were 
eventually shot as political unreliables; some of those who went 
to the United States found at first only the freedom to sleep in 
doorways. They, of course, understood the difference; the Ameri- 
can revolutionaries understood only that the Viennese were out 
of fashion wherever power lived. And they were at one with the 
historic American progressives, whose earnest faith in peaceful, 
slow reform seemed now as lost in the storm as poor Herbert^ 

Sitting in America with ten million unemployed and looking 
out at the world, it was possible to read Lenin and believe he was 
right. Not many people read Lenin, but more did read John 
Strachey or Louis Fischer or even Richard Halliburton and 
learned about a magic land where man had eliminated unem- 
ployment and was conquering poverty. 

For diversion, among a great many other things, they could 
listen to a song called "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" They 
had no reason to know that the depression's theme would become 
prosperity's forbidden melody and that its lyricist, Jay Gorney, 
would be brought before the House Un-American Activities Com- 
mittee twenty-three years later as a Communist. 

Carl Sandburg inserted "I built a railroad/now if s run" into a 
poem which can be found in the Oxford Book of American Verse; 
the speech and aspirations of the common man had become the 
stuff of poetry or at least of fashionable verse. 

Archibald MacLeish, after a decade of experimentation with 


the French synibolistes ("A poem should not mean but be"), be- 
gan writing affirmations of the American earth and of those true 
comrades "who have fought the police in the parks of the same 

John Dos Passos, an anarchist then and a Republican now, was 
writing the collective novel. It seemed as though man could never 
be alone again, even in the craft of fiction. 

Some of the poets had caught a mood; but the primary actors 
in these studies were not poets. For the poets admitted of doubt, 
as MacLeish said: 

Preferring life with the sons to death with the fathers 

We also doubt on the record whether the sons 

Will be shouting around with the same huzzas 

Besides, Tovarish, how to embrace an army? 

How to take to one's chamber a million souls? 

How to conceive in the name of a column of marchers? 

Is it just to demand of us also to bear arms? 

But there was a poet named Shaemus O'Sheel who wrote some 
lines that were about persons like the objects of these studies and 
were warmly esteemed by many of them: "He that a dream has 
possessed knoweth no more of doubting." 

O'Sheel abandoned any faith in the Soviets in the late thirties 
and was encountered many years later moving like an uneasy 
ghost about a Yugoslav consulate cocktail party* A stranger was 
introduced to him and observed, for want of something better, 
that he had once been deeply moved by "He that a dream has 

"My God," said O'Sheel, "don't people think I wrote anything 

The persons possessed by a dream are a minority in any time. 
They are the ones who doubt neither that there is a good side and 
a bad one nor that they are ready to die with the good. They are 
moved, not by a mood, but by some inner compulsion. 


It is these committed and these possessed who concern us here. 
They were not the people who read the new MacLeish or Strachey 
or Fischer with the eye of inquiry or mild approval; those were 
the drifters; some, in extreme cases, were fellow travelers of the 
Communist Party, and contributed to the myth of the thirties. 
But the dream was not their lives. 

Most of my subjects were Communists, at one time or another, 
because the Communists were the dominant radicals of the 
thirties. Some were anti-Communists of the left. All were thus, 
by definition, creatures of a lonely impulse, because there have 
never been many convinced Marxists in America. They have 
traveled many different ways and some have ended strangers and 
enemies of the others, because, even if we accept the fact of 
dedication, man's course is dictated by chance and heart far more 
often than Marx's laws of historic necessity would seem to allow. 

But all of them shared at one time or another the conviction 
that the most important thing in life was a remorseless effort to 
throw down the society which had raised and alienated most of 
them. In one form or another, the key and blazing issue of all 
their quarrels with world and self was which road would carry 
them to victory. And at one time, to one degree or another, they 
all spoke with the voice of history, a piece of temerity for which 
history had visited upon most of them its usual peculiar venge- 

Most of them entered into the life of the society they hoped to 
outlive with the view of using as an instrument toward victory 
some special institution like the government, the trade unions, or 
the moving picture, all sunk in darkness, all bright with possible 
light They changed these institutions a very little bit for a very 
little while; but far, far more were they changed by them. 

Given their view of the matter, it might be expected that they" 
would do society some damage. A few of them did. It might also 
be expected that, almost by chance and against their own judg- 


ment of what they were doing, some might do society a measure 
of good. A few of them did; we owe them, to a degree at least, 
the government planning and the strong unions which many 
people think are our best insurance against a repetition of the 
storm of 1932. 

Some of them survive; others are dead in the sense that we are 
dead when our time is past us. The landscape upon which they 
once moved looks to the backward glance now like some bombed 
city in which the visitor passes through gutted streets to come 
upon some great monument still intact among the ruins. When 
they began, they could not have thought that it 'would end like 
this, because their time seemed to them as simple as a flame. We 
know now that it was a very complicated time and that they 
were more complicated people than they knew. 

And it was never even the same time for all of them because 
for each there came that special moment, and not the least im- 
portant one, when he was alone, choosing his own ground upon 
which to stand or surrender, suddenly aware that no law of his- 
tory has been able to dispose of the pilgrim soul of man. We can- 
not then think of them as a whole, nor of their time as a unity, the 
way the myth said it was a unity. All the noise of the thirties 
the march of their feet, the warping of their legends, the words 
they shouted, the songs they sang was surface; what beat be- 
neath, as it has always beaten, was a chorus of the hearts of so 
many different men. And man is a private and not a social animal. 

It was the sense of the author of this book that the anatomy of 
any myth is the anatomy of the men who believed in it and 
suffered by it To understand the thirties it is, of course, necessary 
to understand what the thirties themselves would have called 
their social forces. But it is far, far more important to try to 
understand the people who lived in that long-gone time* What- 
ever is permanent in the lesson of the thirties is permanent from 
these people. 


And so what is to follow might perhaps be best described as a 
series of novellas which happen to be about real persons. Perhaps 
to my peril, I have tried to write about my people in dangerous 
depth; that much is borrowed from the craft of fiction. But they 
are real men and women, and their lives are facts of history. 

I have my own stake in the thirties. I was in high school when 
Roosevelt was inaugurated; I belonged for a little while to the 
Young Communist League, and thereafter to the Socialist Party. 
The thirties were a part of my life like any other; I am aware that 
there are things in it for which I must apologize; I am also aware 
that in the whole of my life, there will be many things for which 
I must apologize, under what have to be compulsions stronger 
than a Congressional subpoena. 

The eye which I bring to this inquiry is neither as cold nor as 
detached as I might wish it to be. I cannot conceal the sense that 
those of my subjects who became Communists were terribly 
flawed by their acceptance of a gospel which had no room in it 
for doubt or pity or mercy, and that, clutching its standard, it 
was inevitable that so many would set out to be redeemers and 
end up either policemen or the targets of policemen. It is my 
hope that mine will not be a crippling bias, and that I and any- 
one who wishes to join me on this backward journey will remem- 
ber that we are passing across a landscape which was blighted 
more than anything else by the absence of pity and mercy. 

For in this study we are walking among the ruins of our own 
city, attempting to reconstruct it from the eye of memory and 
picking up those broken fragments which may be able to tell us 
what it was like better than conflicting myths or memories could. 


ALGER HISS and Whittaker Chambers are two extraordinary 
men; yet it has been their fate, accepted by Chambers and 
forced upon Hiss, to be treated as typical of the decade through 
barely three years of which they were drawn together and so 
inextricably and fatally involved. 

They are better known and the surface of their relationship 
has been more completely detailed for us than that of any two 
men who appear to have been Communists together in the 
thirties. One of them has written 799 pages interpreting their lives 
together; and there are at least three other books, conflicting in 
perspective, about their trial and their judgment. And yet reading 
all these words, the mind can more easily conjure up the Image of 
the typewriter which conditioned society's formal verdict on the 
meaning of their relationship than it can define the faces of these 
two men at once so notorious and so shadowy. 

The layman after all does not sit as judge in a formal court. The 
heart of any mystery for a judge or jury is the evidence before 
the court, which is so often, as it was in the Hiss case, old 
paper. The heart of the mystery for the rest of us is the life of 
man, and discussions of the paper seem to me an evasion of the 
far, far more difficult problem of the meaning, not of what men 
left behind in their past, but of the past itself. 


Thinking about this, I commenced to wonder whether we might 
approach that inner mystery better if for a while we accepted the 
formal verdict of the Hiss jury. I confess tihat this is not so diffi- 
cult for me as for some others; I believed very early that Cham- 
bers and Hiss were Communists together. But acceptance of a 
formal verdict of Hiss's guilt has left me too with a cloud of un- 
resolved questions about the fatal emotional involvement of 
these two men who seemed so different from each other. 

I grew up in a background very like Alger Hiss's. That may 
have drawn me to the idea that this background could tell us 
more than Marx could about the tragic flaw which has brought 
Hiss and Chambers down. A man's childhood can condition him 
more than a law of history or what he conceives as the logic of 
his time. Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers both grew up in 
shabby-genteel families, and each was framed inside the code of 
shabby gentility. That thought brought me back to Ellen Glas- 
gow's The Sheltered Life, a novel about old Virginians gradually 
slipping down the scale. Miss Glasgow's Archbald and Birdsong 
families maintain a social position measurably above that into 
which Hiss and Chambers were born. But they too are declining 
and imperiled by new and alien passions; the middle-aged among 
them are encased in values which time has passed over and left 
either sterile or selfish; the young are imprisoned and longing, as 
Miss Glasgow's subheroine Jenny Blair Archbald says, to escape 
somewhere "out in the world/' 

By adherence to a special set of rules, the child of the shabby- 
genteel can sometimes leap across the time which has passed by 
his family and function in the real world without doing violence 
to the hopes his mother held out for him. But those who cannot 
live within this pattern are the freaks and the poets, and they 
travel a difficult road to peace. 

Reading Miss Glasgow, I began to wonder whether Hiss and 
Chambers were not products of a private rather than a social 


passion. They were men of the thirties to be sure, and, i it had 
not been for their times, their lives might have been very much 
different and it is unlikely that they would ever have met or that 
they ever would have destroyed each other. But what if they were 
not the symbols of universal experience which simple history 
makes them but rather atypical fugitives from a narrow world 
like that of The Sheltered Life? I would like to think it the func- 
tion of maturity to forgive the enemies, real and fancied, of one's 
childhood; and I wondered if it might not be the tragic flaw of 
Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers to have failed to achieve 
that reconciliation and to have been torn apart between love and 
hate for the tight little corners of the sheltered life in which they 
grew up. 

The Sheltered Life 

The Partnership of 
Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers 

" 'The trouble with you, Jenny Blair, is that you do not 
know the -first thing about life. It is only by knowing how 
little life has in store for us that we are able to look on the 
bright side and avoid disappointment*" 

" 'Oh 9 grandfather, I didnt mean anything' she cried, a$ 
she sank down into blackness. 7 didn't mean anything in 
the world' " 

ELLEN GLASGOW, The Sheltered Life 

WORLD of shabby gentility is like no other; its sacrifices 
JL have less logic, its standards are harsher, its relation to reality 
is dimmer than comfortable property or plain poverty can under- 

It is certainly better in the eyes of the world to be born one of 
the shabby-genteel than one of the simply shabby. The product of 
straitened gentility enters a society that flows upward or down- 
ward but at least does not stand still for him. But that society has 
its special rules for him and they leave their mark; he does not 
have either the options or the margins for error other men have. 

In its peculiar way, society is quite tolerant of the young man 
of shabby gentility. It assumes that he comes of good, though not 
fortunate, stock. It knows his father's name recollects it at least 
and it has confidence in his mothers standards. For he is es- 
pecially fortunate if he has a mother with the capacity to be 
society's censor and to tell him with whom he can afford to play; 
to remind him that he has been put into the world to better bis 


family; and that the price of fortune is unrelenting effort, and that 
he cannot be too careful. 

"My impression was that his relations with his mother were af- 
fectionate but not too happy/' Alger Hiss's friend, Whittaker 
Chambers, once said of him. "She was, perhaps, domineering." 
Alger Hiss was the child of shabby gentility, and he and his 
mother made the best use of it they could. The Hisses were not 
a distinguished family run down. In his final tragedy, his friends 
and enemies would join in exaggerating the nobility of his origins. 
When disaster came to him, he was listed in the Washington 
Social Register, but his mother was not in its Baltimore edition. 
Alger Hiss's father was a wholesale grocer; he committed sui- 
cide when Alger was nine. His older brother Bosley was a bohe- 
mian who died young. They lived near Lanvale Street, which is 
the heartland of shabby gentility in Baltimore. As he grew up, 
more substantial families around him were moving out into the 
suburbs. The Hisses stayed there in a neighborhood slowly run- 
ning down. They were not a family of special social prestige, but 
the Baltimore in which Alger Hiss grew up was still enough of a 
Southern city to have its own corner for the sort of family that 
everyone had always known and which rested on that border be- 
tween respectability and assured position. In the circumstances of 
her life, society felt a particular sympathy for Alger Hiss's mother; 
among the shabby-genteel, the women tend to be stronger than 
the men; the average runs alarmingly toward widows with prom- 
ising sons. In a family like this one, as it was in China, it was bet- 
ter to be a boy than a girl, if only because Baltimore needed more 
boys than girls at debutante parties. 

And Alger Hiss appears to have been the sort of boy who made 
a special impression on older people, and for the very good reason 
that he deserved to. Knowing him very young in the summertime 
left a lasting impression on Dean Acheson, a permanent affection 
which later exacerbated the critics of the Secretary of State, even 
though none of them appeared to argue that Hiss had been a 
Comsomol agent assigned to subvert the son of the Episcopal 
Bishop of Connecticut But then, to the possessed cadre of the 
anti-Hiss brigade, good manners, charm, and the capacity for self- 
improvement have always appeared highly sinister qualities, 


except to the extent that they appertain to Vice President Nixon. 
Alger Hiss seemed to join engaging manners with moral worth, 
and his elders were Americans old-fashioned enough to appreci- 
ate the combination. 

Whittaker Chambers once described Alger Hiss as "a man of 
great simplicity and a great gentleness and sweetness of char- 

Whatever he had seemed to come to him very easily, because 
it was a piece of his grace never to show how hard at least some 
of it must have been. His education was substantially at the pub- 
lic schools; he moved on in 1923 to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins 
University, where the authors of Seeds of Treason, the first book 
on the great case, tell us that "Tie was a natural for Alpha Delta 
Phi, a fraternity which pledged only the wealthiest and most 
socially acceptable young men on the campus." 

But it is also a matter of point that Alpha Delta Phi was the 
fraternity for those Baltimore boys at the Hopkins who would far 
rather have gone to Princeton or the University of Virginia and 
that in consequence most of its members had a feeling that the 
Hopkins was a little beneath them. But nothing appeared beneath 
Alger Hiss. He loped without noticeable strain down every visible 
avenue of undergraduate life; he was editor of the college paper, 
president of the Student Council, and Phi Beta Kappa in his 
junior year. No one had drives like his, and no one appeared to 
need them less. 

Almost everyone who remembers him from those days can re- 
call those particular qualities which Whittaker Chambers was 
later to recollect as "an unvarying mildness, a deep considerate- 
ness and gracious patience." But Chambers remembered some- 
thing else which does not appear to have shown itself to those 
who knew him in that first blush of unshadowed promise. 

Chambers said that he found in Hiss a "streak of wholly in- 
congruous cruelty." The Chambers family had moved to Balti- 
more late in their friendship and Chambers was charmed by the 
cool and restful backwater in which they were resting. He was 
shocked once to hear Hiss call Baltimore "a city of dying old men 
and women." 

Chambers commented that they seemed "to be pleasant and 


harmless old people." "Yes/' Hiss said, "the horrible old women 
of Baltimore." 

This unexpected depth in Alger Hiss might better be described 
as morbid rather than cruel. He had the advantage of Chambers. 
He had grown up on this ground and knew its old women, 
sitting in their narrow, high-ceilinged rooms, remembering their 
dead, feeling the pinch of their little incomes, shivering before 
the invasion of Negroes moving eastward toward their shabby- 
genteel fortresses. 

Chambers after all had small opportunity, as a retiring man, to 
press any of these harmless old people on the subject of the Jews. 
Baltimore then was a ghetto-ized city. Mrs. Whittaker Chambers, 
born Esther Shemitz, could hardly have used her maiden name 
and rented a house in Alger Hiss's old neighborhood. 

But the tide of ethnic mongrels was beating against the Lan- 
vale Street enclave with enough sweep to create its political dis- 
enfranchisement. Lanvale Street was in Baltimore's Fourth As- 
sembly District; in one depression Democratic primary, its resi- 
dents were confronted with a ballot bulging with Jewish names. 
In desperation they voted for an alternative candidate whose 
name was unfamiliar but indubitably old Virginia. They awoke 
to find they had helped nominate a Negro. 

The threat of an alien scent against which no window is proof 
is inherent in the shabby-genteel tradition. The characters in The 
Sheltered Life lived on a hill above the Negro section; the invad- 
ing hand of time had brought a chemical plant too near them and 
on the hot nights its odor hung over their gardens. "After living 
here all our lives," said George Birdsong, Miss Glasgow's flawed 
hero, "are we to be driven away at last by a smell?" 

Whittaker Chambers, trembling on the brink of leaving the 
Communist Party, had been at war with Lanvale Street without 
ever knowing its face, and perhaps even then he was commencing 
to embrace it without taking time to look at its face. Alger Hiss 
had been at least superficially at peace with Lanvale Street all of 
his life; the harshness of his comment may indicate how much he 
longed for war. Unkind and extreme it certainly was to long for 
the extermination of these sick, frayed, and decaying old women; 
and "horrible" is a dangerous word to apply to your own kind. 


They were after all harmless because they were so helpless. But a 
man raised by their standards and feeling their hands still upon 
him could not easily think of them as harmless. 

Still, at the Hopkins, these old hands did not noticeably chafe 
Hiss; he seemed more than anxious to do what they were pushing 
him to do. His horizons were wider than theirs in just one, per- 
haps significant, particular. When he was graduated, he looked 
forward to a career in the private practice of law, but his dreams 
were not of Baltimore but of Boston and New York. In The Shel- 
tered Life, Jenny Blair Archbald longed to bloom somewhere "out 
in the world." 

And so he passed to Harvard Law School where what is left of 
Lanvale Street may still grasp at the assumption that Felix Frank- 
furter somehow corrupted him. But it is a measure of this young 
man's extraordinary grace that he seems to have touched Frank- 
furter as much as, and perhaps more than, Frankfurter touched 

One of his classmates was Lee Pressman, a young man up from 
Brooklyn by way of Cornell University. A long time afterward, 
with his own world in ruins, Pressman sat in a bar and talked 
about how Alger Hiss had been in those days. What he said was 
something like this: 

"I remember Alger Hiss best of all for a kind of distinction that 
had to be seen to be believed. If he were standing at the bar with 
the British Ambassador and you were told to give a package to 
the Ambassador's valet, you would give it to the Ambassador be- 
fore you gave it to Alger. 

"He gave you a sense of absolute command and absolute grace 
and I think Felix felt it more than anyone. Ho seemed to have a 
kind of awe of Alger." 

Whether or not he had the capacity for becoming involved 
himself, Alger Hiss very plainly had something at once more 
precious and as dangerous the capacity to make people feel in- 
volved with him. And yet in 1946, a long time after law school 
and just a little while before his disaster, a transient from Boston 
asked Justice Frankfurter who in Washington was worth cultiva- 

He reported afterward that he had mentioned Alger Hiss and 


that the Justice had declared a little sadly that Alger was a very 
nice person but that somehow he had not quite come up to the 
promise of his youth. The visitor was left with the sense that Jus- 
tice Frankfurter felt that Alger Hiss had lost his focus somewhere 
and had become just a model civil servant who had once seemed 
pregnant with so much more. But, in the beginning, it had been 
almost automatic for Frankfurter to recommend him for that 
grand prize of the Harvard Law student, a year's graduate tenure 
as secretary for Mr. Justice Holmes. 

That December, he married Priscilla Hobson, who had been 
Priscilla Pansier of Philadelphia, who had her year in New York 
after Bryn Mawr and then an incongruous three years as the wife 
of Thayer Hobson, a gay and casual embodiment of the myth of 
the twenties. Priscilla Hiss seems to have come to her second 
marriage with all illusions of casual gaiety behind her. She was a 
person of the highest moral seriousness, uneasy and remote with 
acquaintances, intense in a few attachments. 

She must have been a trifle forbidding. One relic of the 
twenties and a friend from her first marriage ran into Alger Hiss 
after the war and was invited to stop by their apartment for a 
drink. It was a dreadfully cold afternoon and he burst into the 
refuge of the Hiss apartment to confront Priscilla alone with the 
observation that he had been freezing all day. 

He swears that her reply was a suggestion that he think of the 
Okies. In these times, that story might be interpreted as evidence 
that Priscilla Hiss was an iron Bolshevik. But it sounds rather like 
a bruised outcry against the footling world of Thayer Hobson 
to be likened in its origins to Alger Hiss's more private savageries 
against the horrible old women of Baltimore. Her guest's second 
most painful memory was that Hiss called very graciously to 
report himself ensnarled at the office and that he never did get 
the drink. 

Every mystery has its posse assigned to pursue skirts; and, 
throughout the Hiss case, a body of private opinion held that 
Priscilla Hiss was responsible for her husband's troubles. Thayer 
Hobson held no such opinion. He observed that, in terms of in- 
dividual character, it would be like expecting a rowboat to pull 
the Queen Mary. Their life together, at its beginning at least, 


showed no signs of departure from normal aspirations for 

They completed their Holmes interlude and went to Boston 
and a law firm with the name Choate in it After a year, they 
moved to New York and Cotton and Franklin, a firm of com- 
parable distinction. And it was in New York, in 1931 and 1932, 
a very little while, that Alger Hiss first hinted at that difference 
from ordinary men which can either be a special distinction or a 
tragic flaw. The wreckage of the twenties lay all about him in 
those years. It was hard for anyone to escape the panhandlers on 
the streets or the uprooted men who choked the public parks. 
But there were very few of them, in spite of Archibald MacLeish, 
with the will to fight the police or anyone else; they were hope- 
less and defeated and each seemed gripped with what appeared 
>to him more often a private than a social failure. And, in face of 
their apathy, it is possible to wonder what the storm in their lives 
had to do with Alger Hiss. 

For most people could look at the wreckage without a com- 
pulsion to do anything about it. Alger Hiss was certainly no fail- 
ure. His permanent emergence from shabby gentility needed no 
more for assurance than continued homage to shabby gentility's 
cardinal principle that it is impossible to be too careful. Most 
men can resist the temptation to lie awake over matters which do 
not immediately concern them. Only special people cannot 

But Priscilla Hiss began giving steady vocal evidence that the 
harsh world outside was all too much with her, and her husband 
began thinking much the same thing. In 1932 Priscilla Hiss voted 
for Norman Thomas and began to gravitate toward the Morning- 
side Heights branch of the Socialist Party, whose membership 
included J. B. Matthews, Donald Henderson, Frederick Vander- 
bilt Field, and a cluster of other people then or subsequently af- 
flicted with pan-Sovietism. 

The Socialist Party was an attractive force for many uncertain 
people then. It was just beginning to be the sort of halfway house 
that it would be all through the thirties, a way station into which 
drifters came and then after a short process of finning their 
temperaments took more definite paths, some to the Com- 
munists, many more to the New Deal. 


The Socialists, in New York at least, were a party proletarian 
at its base and normal and adjusted in its alienation from the 
American scene. Most of its members were children of the East- 
ern European Jewish tradition. Their liveliest intellectual activity 
was in the Yiddish language. They had built themselves a num- 
ber of temples, notably the garment unions, and even though 
the depression had been unkind to them they had the outlook 
of men who were no longer young and combative and whose im- 
pulse was against glory and destruction. The revelation which 
was new and fresh to their 1932 recruits from the middle class 
was so old to them as to be wrinkled with commentaries and foot- 
notes and ancient quarrels. There were anti-Communists among 
them who had distrusted Leon Trotsky when he had been a 
Socialist in Brooklyn before the war. They represented a great 
tradition, but one which seemed alien and hardly a refuge to the 
outsider. They had their passions and their inner conflicts, but it 
was a debate of scribes fingering worn parchment; in a way it 
was a debate between fathers and sons; there was little room in 
it for strangers. 

But the Morningside Heights branch was different. Its mem- 
bers were immigrants of another sort, expatriates from the Amer- 
ican scene. Socialism was fresh to them, and they were impatient 
of old quarrels. Very few of them stayed long and the drift of 
the most conspicuous of them was to the Communists. 

Alger Hiss appears to have had no traffic with the indecisions 
of the Morningside Heights Socialists. By day he read law at 
Cotton and Franklin, at night he pursued interests odd for a 
junior in a safe old firm. He and Lee Pressman met again as mem- 
bers of the International Juridical Association, which Hiss later 
described as "an editorial group specializing in putting out notes 
on labor cases." The IJA has since been described as under Com- 
munist control. It would seem more accurate to think of it as an 
outlet for lawyers dissatisfied with their traditional role; young 
men who believed that the law must be a social instrument, aware 
of the rights and wrongs involved in the sort of thing Hiss thought 
of as a "labor" case. The IJA had a radical impulse; it was no 
place for the complacent. 

On some evenings too, the Hisses studied sporadically at the 


Socialist Party's night-time Rand School, a dusty, teeming heap 
near Union Square. The Rand School faculty mingled sere and 
shabby veterans of the class war with a sprinkling of Talmudic 
young Socialists. Its most crowded attractions were its classes in 
English for immigrants and a course on "The Road to Power * by 
David Berenberg, a now forgotten revolutionary prophet. The 
Rand School took its tone mainly from the Socialist Old Guard; 
even its left instructors were more critical than enthusiastic about 
the Bolsheviks, but they dreamed revolution. 

The Hisses must have been a strange pair for the Rand School, 
so neat, so quiet, so remote, moving past business agents for the 
embroidered union on its stairs, sitting in its classrooms while 
the young Robespierres and Dantons of the East Side fought the 
old debate between reform and revolution. What did all this have 
to do with the graceful young man from Cotton and Franklin? 
He must certainly have been an alien at the Rand School; if he 
had not been an alien even on Lanvale Street, in the days when 
he shone there, what else could have brought him and Priscilla to 
this grimy temple so many leagues out in the world? To think of 
them there is to abandon any thought of these two as typical of 
their time and their condition; the impulse which brought them 
to this foreign colony almost cries out its loneliness and its 

For Alger Hiss was not like the young men who grew up with 
him; if he had done no more than go to the Rand School, that 
errantry in the step which seemed so sure and certain of its up- 
ward course would have marked the difference between him and 
them. For the Hisses must have come to the Rand School search- 
ing for something very far from the sheltered life, carrying within 
themselves, so well-contained, an obscure quarrel with Lanvale 

Whatever they sought, they apparently did not find as strangers 
at the Rand School, It was a brief association; in 1933, there came 
the call to Washington and the new beginning. Alger Hiss went 
down to become a legal assistant in the Agricultural Adjustment 
Administration, then in its yeastiest and most exciting period. And 
there, according to the testimony of Chambers and an anti-cK- 


mactic late-starter named Nathaniel Weyl, Alger Hiss joined a 
Communist cell. 

He departed AAA early in 1934 to become acting counsel of 
the Senate investigation of World War I munitions profits, a great 
war-crimes trial of the merchants of death, in the course of which 
Alger Hiss pan-fried the House of Morgan and other household 
gods of Lanvale Street with a cold savagery to which he was 
never again to give public display. For then he passed to the 
quiet little family of the State Department, there to proceed up- 
ward by routine and hardly spectacular steps until 1947. 

Sometime in 1934, both of them agree, there slouched into his 
life an uneasy, unpressed man named Whittaker Chambers. Even 
the circumstances of their meeting are clouded by their conflict. 
These two men agree only that Alger Hiss did not know he was 
meeting Whittaker Chambers. Chambers says he was introduced 
to Hiss as "Carl" in a Washington restaurant in the company of 
J. Peters, the captain of the Communist underground. Hiss has 
always testified that he could remember only a free-lance writer 
who called himself George Crosley shambling into the Munitions 
Committee office in search of material for a never produced series 
of articles in the American Magazine. 

Out of that meeting grew a relationship that was deeper, by 
Chambers' account, than the relationship customary among Com- 
munists, who are seldom either blessed or cursed with naked 
intimacy, and deeper, even by Hiss's account, than would be ex- 
pected in a young careerist of high social standards with a man 
whom he has variously described as impecunious, a sponger, un- 
productive, and to a fastidious person almost repulsive in taste 
and appearance. 

United States Senator Karl Mundt, a man realistic about the 
extent of sacrifice required for friends, let alone annoying stran- 
gers, summed up Hiss's account of their acquaintanceship this 


"You knew this man ... so well that you even trusted him 
with your apartment; you let him use your furniture; you let him 
use or gave him your automobile. You think you probably took 
him to New York. You bought him lunches in the Senate restau- 


rant You had him staying in your home when it was inconvenient 
for him to stay in the apartment and made him a series of loans. 
There seems no question about that." 

To all this catalogue, Priscilla Hiss could only answer that she 
had found .the Crosleys a distinct trial. Alger Hiss could only 
offer a single, repeated phrase to justify this tolerance of a man 
he otherwise described as a barnacle. The phrase would indicate 
that Hiss was touched by a quality in Crosley-Carl-Chambers 
that was unique in his careful existence except perhaps with 
his brother Bosley the rootless nonconformity, the bohemianism 
that terrified Lanvale Street: 

"He told various stories that I recall of his escapades. He pur- 
ported to be a cross between Jim Tully, the author, and Jack 
London. He had been everywhere." 

There would thus appear, even from his own account, to be a 
pilgrim soul of romance buried in the compulsions of Alger Hiss's 
sheltered life, pushed outside the mold, unsatisfied by conven- 
tion, unappeased by ordinary success. For Whittaker Chambers 
was a figure of romance; even as a Communist, he was plainly 
that special target of later Soviet inquisitions, the total cosmopoli- 

Alger Hiss's family had been a painfully held together rookery; 
Chambers' had been a total ruin. They had both been born into 
the Episcopal Church, that haven of the shabby-genteel. Hiss's 
mother had faithfully met societ/s standards for recovery; Cham- 
bers' mother had lamentably failed at them. Hiss had walked 
the road of custom; Chambers had traveled a wild, swarm- 
haunted route, an itinerant worker, a self -asserted veteran of the 
Industrial Workers of the World. He was unproductive as a 
writer because he had so much else to do. His art had been a 
weapon. His reputation as a writer rested on four short stories in 
the New Masses, which were celebrations of the myth of a Bol- 
shevik, of a type rare in American fiction or reality. They wore 
not so much stories as incantations; not so much fiction as heroic 
poetry. Their characters were Communists ready to die for what 
they believed; it is hardly accident that they did not seem like 
American stories at all, and that one of Chambers' admirers has 


described them as "reading almost like a skillful translation from 
the Russian."* 

Lincoln Steffens read these stories and wrote Chambers that 
from now on "whenever I hear people talk about "proletarian art 
and literature/ I'm going to ask them to shut their minds and 
look at you." 

And these stories, barren though they are of exterior reality, 
do have that inner truth which comes when a man is consumed 
by the myth he is celebrating; Chambers believed in the obscure 
Bolshevik who dies in prison with no memorial but his trium- 
phant defense of the human spirit. These were stories not of how 
it was, but how he wanted it so desperately to be. Then he had 
stopped writing and become an underground Communist, be- 
cause it seems to have been the core of his literary fantasy that 
the actor was more important than the poet; he was a man who 
would rather do than write. 

So Chambers was the image of dedication and adjustment to 
alienation. It seems odd that Hiss should accept him on his own 
terms as a Jim Tully or a Jack London, or that Chambers should 
present himself to the New Masses as a veteran of the Industrial 
Workers of the World, with which he seems to have no connec- 
tion. For Chambers had never been an itinerant, except in his 
own soul; he had had some limited experience at manual labor, 
but he was no veteran of the barricades. He had been to Europe 
only as a tourist. He had suffered certainly and he had been des- 
perately poor, but his experience as a revolutionary was largely 
on paper: he had been a city editor of the Daily Worker, a trans- 
lator of novels, an editor of the New Masses. Alger Hiss's lawyers 
made a laborious effort to search his past for evidence of immoral 
activity, and all they really found was that he had been separated 
from Columbia University under suspicion of stealing books from 
the library; his only attempt at expropriating the capitalists was 
consistent in its literary character. 

But all this does not mean that Chambers' posture was a lie. 
Even the little stories he told do not appear to have been un- 
truths. Hiss mentioned just one example of what a four-flusher 

* Ralph De Toledano in Seeds of Treason. 


Chambers seemed to him: he told how "he had participated in 
laying the rails for the first Washington Street railway" a story 
which appears to have been true. His posture was no less real 
than his short stories even though, like them, it was hardly the 
product of direct experience; he seems to have been, like Scott 
Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, the product of his own Platonic concep- 
tion of himself. 

Most human relationships involve certain misunderstandings; it 
is hard not to believe that Hiss and Chambers, when they met, 
were taken with each other because they misunderstood each 
other. Chambers must have sat in the Hiss apartment with all his 
scars upon him, a lowering symbol of power and experience and 
total revolt. All his life, without knowing it, he had been looking 
for a community. It would appear that Alger Hiss had been trying 
to get out of a community. Could Chambers have seen in Hiss the 
image of absolute security, absolute breeding, and absolute nor- 
mality; could Hiss have seen in Chambers the image of absolute 
revolt and the breaking of the bands? 

For what else could explain an involvement so confessedly pas- 
sionate on Chambers' side, and so difficult to explain on Hiss's? 
To a career man in the State Department, to the rising son of 
Lanvale Street, Whittaker Chambers whatever his guise 
should carry a bell tinkling unsafe, unsafe. The cultural void be- 
tween them was without limit. Chambers, by a steady process of 
alienation, had stopped even seeming like an American; he claims 
that Priscilla Hiss only warmed to him from the conviction that 
he was really a Russian. He could read a dozen languages; he is 
a man so incurably bookish that he can report spending hours 
outside a federal grand jury room reading Dante; you would 
expect almost anyone else to escape to Eric Ambler, 

Fugitive hints of this cultural gap creep in and out of the stories 
both men were to tell later. Once the Un-American Activities 
Committee asked Chambers about the books in the Hiss apart- 
ment where he remembered spending so many days. "Very non- 
descript," Chambers answered. Once Chambers gave Hiss a pres- 
ent which he later asserted was a token of gratitude from the 
Russian secret police. Chambers went outside the Communist 
aesthetic orbit to ask Dr. Meyer Schapiro, a Columbia University 


art historian and an old acquaintance, to buy him four Bokhara 
rugs, one of which he gave to the Hisses. We may assume Scha- 
piro's superior taste; later on, Alger Hiss referred to the rug as 
"that damned thing"; the Hisses put it in the nursery. 

"I had the impression," Whittaker Chambers said once, "that 
the furniture in that house was kind of pulled together from here 
and there, maybe got it from their mother or something like that, 
nothing lavish about it, quite simple. 

"Their food was in the same pattern, and they cared nothing 
about food. It was not a primary interest in their lives." 

The Hisses' talk must have been in the same way free of frills 
and complications; Chambers indicates that he very soon lost any 
disposition to discuss revolutionary theory with Hiss. In his auto- 
biography, he reports only Hiss's admiring comment on the Mos- 
cow trials: "Joe Stalin certainly plays for keeps." That was a view 
of things which could hardly offer much meat to an old Bolshevik 
who grew up in the Communist Party of the twenties when it had 
a less limited range of intellectual interests and a faint trace of 
skepticism about the hero in history. 

Their bond seemed to be something much deeper the strange, 
almost unconscious kinship of similar backgrounds. None of the 
other Communists in Washington, except perhaps Henry Collins, 
had a background like theirs. And Chambers seemed to reach out 
to the Hisses with some of that same passion for the ordinary and 
the normal which runs through his later odes to simple Americans 
who are no worse than the common mortal but hardly divine. 

The best of the talk to him must have been of the small and 
the ordinary. Mrs. Chambers retained a vivid recollection, fifteen 
years later, of the "lovely linen towel" which Priscilla Hiss lent 
her once as an emergency diaper. Chambers pursued the back- 
ground of the Hisses with the loving questions whose answers 
served him so well in court so much later. To read all that de- 
voted detail is to wonder whether these people had ever known 
a real home before. 

For all the apparent sleeping gypsy within him, Alger Hiss re- 
mained a very proper and fastidious person. As one of the less 
appealing consequences of a vagrant revolutionary's life, Cham- 
bers appears by common consent to have been somewhat gone 


in the teeth. He says that Hiss lectured him on the necessity of 
brushing twice a day with what Chambers felt was a barely con- 
cealed shudder. And, at the end, all Hiss said that he could re- 
member was those bad teeth, as if the abyss before him then and 
now was somehow an ill-tended dental cavity. 

But a whole part of Whittaker Chambers must have come flee- 
ing to Alger Hiss, and this apartment, poor in imagination though 
it was, must have been for Chambers as close to peace as this man 
pursued by the furies could ever get. For, if the Hisses had con- 
sciously rejected the sheltered life, they still lived within it. 

Shabby gentility grants its own degrees in the art of keeping 
up appearances. If we accept the notion of Alger Hiss's being a 
Communist, we still cannot disregard his childhood, a piece of 
irritated skin which none of us can tear away. A product of that 
childhood would certainly have felt a certain comfort in the 
party-dictated procedure which allowed him at once to be a pri- 
vate Communist and an entirely respectable public man. 

But Chambers says that another part of Alger Hiss revolted 
against this shelter too. A dedicated man brings to the Com- 
munist movement a burning urgency which will never grant him 
assurance that he is doing well enough. Chambers described Hiss 
as such a dedicated man, who wanted to give his old Ford car, 
an object of sentiment, to some party organizer who could put it 
to more purposeful use. 

"Mr. Hiss was a devoted and at that time rather romantic Com- 
munist," Chambers testified. "According to the organization and 
the underground, there should be no communication between 
the open Communist Party and the underground Communist 
Party, except through people delegated by either of those sec- 
tions. Mr. Hiss, however, insisted that his old car should be given 
to the open Communist Party to be used by some poor Com- 
munist organizer in the West or elsewhere." 

Somewhere "out in the world," as Jennie Blair Archbald wished* 

If the sheltered life had produced an inner Alger Hiss at once 
in need of safety and hating it, he suffered most of all at the end 
from those rare occasions when he sought to break out into the 
world. Chambers* story of Hiss's desire to liberate his car to the 


cause of subversion was at once dubious to the innocent and per- 
suasive to persons who had been unaffirmed Communists in the 
thirties and remembered the urge for self-expression which beat 
within that otherwise comfortable state of being. And, in the end, 
this strange story took on a fatal weight when the Un-American 
Activities Committee discovered that Hiss had transferred his 
car to a man who refused to affirm or deny whether he had ever 
been a Communist. And, for just that moment, it was possible to 
guess at what sort of person Alger Hiss had been in that time 
which had returned to pull him down. 

For both of them remain such shadows, beneath all the paper 
of what they have said and of what has been said about them. 
The face of Alger Hiss, silent, is a mystery; the face of Whittaker 
Chambers, speaking, is hardly less of an enigma. If there was a 
moment in which he showed himself, it was in a New York court- 
room on an August Monday in 1948, when the Un-American Ac- 
tivities Committee summoned him to identify a man called Alex- 
ander Stevens, more familiarly known as J. Peters. 

The very pseudonym J. Peters, with its spare, self-effacing first 
initial, carries us back to the ancient internal bulletins of the un- 
derground Communists of Europe, their M. Ercoles, their P. Max- 
imovs, their D. Manuilskys, and their N. Lenins, the last of whom 
used a single initial that did not stand for anything at all. 

J. Peters had been the American representative of the Com- 
munist International. His manual on organization for the Ameri- 
can party is a compendium of tested revolutionary tactics. Old 
Communists remembered him as the pleasant, self-contained 
tenant of the ninth floor of their New York headquarters, a man 
of indubitable importance but no precisely defined function. If 
any American Communist is a conspirator, he is one; if any is a 
guilty man, it is J. Peters. 

That hot Monday, he stood up in Federal Court and looked at " 
Chambers. His smile was enamel. He would not say whether he 
knew his accuser or not: to answer would tend to incriminate and 
degrade him. Chambers was afterward to remember a special ac- 
cent on "degrade." Then Chambers rose to look at Peters. The 
smile remained enamel, and Chambers looked at the floor. His 


answers came in. a voice lower than usual; they were terribly 
short and dry. Peters' was the face of assured innocence, and 
Chambers' was the face of guilt 

But what was this guilt of his? To answer that Chambers had 
known Peters as a Communist was simple truth; they had worked 
in the same Party office. His testimony against Peters was hardly 
defamation of an uncomplicated New Dealer. This was not Alger 
Hiss; Whittaker Chambers could not really damage the life of 
J. Peters, which after all is a life lived wherever the Party sends 
him; there are no good moments or bad in it; there are only 

Chambers reports in his autobiography that, a little while after 
his break with the Communists, he attended a meeting of the 
CIO Newspaper Guild and "became aware that someone was 
staring at me." He turned to confront "the undisguised hatred" on 
the face of Nathan Witt, an old Washington comrade. We may 
assume, on the basis of the scene with Peters, that Chambers 
turned away from Witt too with something like the same shudder 
of embarrassment 

In Peters, he was looking, for the first time in ten years, straight 
at the open face of the Communist movement to whose service 
he had once offered his life. He was confronting the human em- 
bodiment of a vast company of men all over the world, which he 
had abandoned and fled. And Chambers, armed though he sup- 
poses himself with unseen powers, apparently could not look at 
that face without an infusion of weakness and guilt And it is 
not the guilt of the renegade. It is the guilt of the man repos- 
sessed by the sense of sin looking at the man who is still free 
from it 

Men like Alger Hiss do not have to become Communists, at 
least in the West; it is an act of will. Membership in the Party is 
an inconvenience; its duties are much more material than its re- 
wards. There are a variety of reasons that could impel a man to- 
ward this unattractive discipline. One of them may bo the sense 
of guilt the guilt of inaction in a time of action, the guilt of 
serving oneself first in the face of the knowledge that it is better 
to serve others, the guilt of unexpressed aspirations which are 
different from the aspirations of your own kind. 


The men who became Communists out of that sense of guilt 
are spoiled priests.* 

We have no more repetitive witness than Chambers to Alger 
Hiss's great sweetness and unselfishness of character. The rules of 
conduct for the young man of shabby gentility do not offer much 
public expression for those high qualities. He cannot be too care- 
ful; he is not granted time to waste himself in good works that do 
not bring tangible rewards. It is an endless shabby-genteel re- 
frain that these things are not his business and when is he going 
to stop worrying about other people and start thinking about his 
own family? 

Alger Hiss had never given shabby gentility any cause to ask 
that awful question. But the terrible conflict between his private 
self and his public conduct is the most compelling reason why 
he could have joined the Communist Party, 

For the Communists offer one precious, fatal boon: they take 
away the sense of sin. It may or may not be debatable whether 
a man can live without God; but, if it were possible, we should 
pass a law forbidding a man to live without the sense of sin. 

To be a Communist is to feel the thrill of fascination in recog- 
nizing that Joe Stalin plays for keeps, especially, as George Or- 
well said once, if one lives in an environment to which murder 
is at best a word. It is, and it has been in so many thousand cases, 
to have a very good friend and then cut him from your conscious- 
ness because he has left the Party. It is to give full play to your 
hates because they are necessary hates. 

To be a Communist is to steal secrets from people who to some 
degree trust you. When Chambers describes the process by which 
he says he and Hiss entered into espionage, this man usually so 
obsessed with moral discourse suggests no interior quarrel in 
either case. We may assume that there would be none. 

* This sentence seems to me a fair summary although subject to the peril 
of simplicity. My recollections of my own Communist experience, its be- 
ginning and its end, are not conspicuous for the memory of particular per- 
sonal virtues. Ex-Communists tend to ascribe uncommonly lofty motives 
both to their fall and subsequent reclamation, which sometimes makes it 
faintly depressing to examine die current motives of a few of them. You 
would hope our society would be a little better equipped to preserve the 
moral purity of persons who claim to have kept it so intact from their en- 
trance to their exit from the army of darkness. 



And the conduct of Communists, which is at least as dreadful 
as that of ordinary men, is the conduct of people most of whom 
once had an active conscience and most of whom now feel a par- 
ticular virtue. Until the dark falls upon them, they are immune to 
the insinuations of the sense of sin. 

For Whittaker Chambers at least, his break brought back the 
sense of sin compounded by all the remembered, unatoned guilt 
of his life as a Bolshevik. We have to believe in all the baggage 
of his subsequent flight under what he considered a terror of 
Communist vengeance, if only because there exists a swarm of 
witnesses to the manner of that flight But the fantasy that a 
Florida motel could be owned by a Communist determined to 
kill him, the long vigils with a gun on his lap, the idea that he 
was hiding out when he had his name in the Baltimore telephone 
book these are not the actions of a man fleeing a simply mate- 
rial terror. 

And so Chambers must have been fleeing as well the intangi- 
ble, choking guilt, the overwhelming re-impulsion of that sense 
of sin from which the world was not wide enough to offer him 
shelter. Chambers once told Julian Wadleigh that he had known 
the trouble that keeps you awake all night at the window. A man 
can put a gun across his knees and know that the trouble which 
keeps him awake is not a physical thing. Men at peace in the 
mind can sleep on sentry duty; Whittaker Chambers never could. 

He says that Alger Hiss cried on his doorstep on the night 
Whittaker Chambers told him that he had left the Communist 
Party and walked away. And that must have been not the lightest 
piece of his guilt too, sitting before the window and remember- 
ing this only true friend left behind in the darkness* And, as for 
that pale, lost, drowned friend, no one can say what Alger Hiss 
thought about in all those years. He was a success at the State 
Department, but his greatest achievements had about them a 
faintly ceremonial quality. He ended up, still looking very young, 
as president of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, a po- 
sition which could take him very little farther. 

His few published writings in that period have a hollow, foggy, 
airblown character; they do not read like products of that sharp 
young mind which impressed even Lee Pressman with its ab- 


solute control and absolute decision. Somewhere, it would ap- 
pear, as Justice Frankfurter implied, that Alger Hiss had lost his 
focus. Or it may be that somewhere between 1937 and 1948 he 
had lost the Leninist sense of his place in history. 

But, after that, he fought for his personal life with a coolness 
and decision which some persons saw as the face of innocence 
and in which Chambers found the half -conviction that Hiss must 
still be a Communist, because it is so hard for Chambers to be- 
lieve that man can find within himself alone the strength to 
stand up against catastrophe. 

Hiss maintained that strength, defiant against the evidence, 
long after most men gave up hope that he might be innocent of 
the formal charges and began to debate just what were the 
dimensions of his guilt. The source of that defiance is the last 
and deepest mystery about Alger Hiss. But his friends and ene- 
mies, as well as Whittaker Chambers, who came to the end think- 
ing himself both, might wonder whether this too could be a 
private and not a social strength. They might remember that we 
are all what our background makes us and that the world of 
shabby gentility teaches the best of its sons that, when all else 
goes, empty though it is, they must fight to the death against 
losing the precious little they have won. 


THE SUBJECTS of these studies seem to me to have been special 
sorts of people with peculiar rhythms of their own and with eyes 
that looked upon their time through a lens and with a focus very 
different from those of most of their contemporaries. 

And, to understand them, I believe it is necessary to think of 
their lives as governed by a calendar of events different from the 
ordinary concerns of the American historian. Its red-letter days 
were not so much those of October, 1929, when the twenties 
perished with the stock market, as those of August, 1927, when 
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were waiting for the 
executioner. For so many of these people, the myth of the thirties 
began at Charlestown Prison in Boston with Sacco and Vanzetti 
and not in lower Manhattan with Richard Whitney nor in Wash- 
ington with Herbert Hoover. And for many of them the thirties 
ended, not with Pearl Harbor, but with the 1940 breach between 
Franklin D. Roosevelt and John L. Lewis, those two great, dis- 
parate allies of the revolution of that decade. 

And the key image of their dreams was the working class, dis- 
armed in the twenties and armed in the thirties. I am reminded 
of how deep that image is buried now whenever a young man 


of the fifties comes to me to talk about a future in the labor 
movement. His conversation is about the techniques of labor 
journalism, about training in labor law, about economic research, 
and pension statistics. He dreams, as St. Exupery once complained 
of the young Frenchman, not of building a cathedral but of serv- 
ing as its sexton. To yearn for a place in the labor movement in 
the thirties was to conceive yourself on the barricades. But, even 
; then, it was to think of power; to enter the labor movement in 
jthe twenties was to think largely of protest 

The archetype of the worker of the twenties, by this special 
focus, was Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a conscious revolutionary, articu- 
late in suffering, and doomed to die outnumbered and over- 
powered. The archetype of the worker of the thirties was John 
Llewellyn Lewis, an unconscious revolutionary, articulate in 
vengeance, a promise of power without limit. Vanzetti died af- 
firming his sense of innocence; John Lewis went down unafflicted 
by a sense of sin. The transition from the worship of Vanzctti 
to the worship of Lewis was in its way the story of two genera- 
tions of committed radicals in America. 

I thought that to reach closer to the special time sense of these 
two generations, with their private calendar and particular set of 
saints' days, it might be best to take two men and play their lives 
against the stream of exterior events which were the critical 
moments in the lives of the committed. They would need to be 
men who had lived together in the great world and been close to 
the Vanzettis, the Lewises, the Philip Murrays, and others who 
were at once the icons and the chosen instruments of the com- 
mitted. One of these men would be older than the other, and he 
would conceive of his impulse as an impulse of the heart; he 
would in other words see in his mirror the face of the innocent 
radical of the twenties. The other would conceive of his impulse 
as that of function; he would in other words see in his mirror the 


face of the radical of the thirties, sure of his purpose, impatient 
of pity or weakness. 

Men are nst often what they think they are, and no living 
person is ever an exact reproduction of a literary conception. 
Still I chose as my subjects Gardner Jackson, the secretary of the 
Sacco- Vanzetti Defense Committee, and a younger, sometime 
friend of his, Lee Pressman, who became general counsel of the 
CIO and was for years a symbol of the Communist influence 
within it Jackson seemed the symbol of heart and Pressman the 
symbol of function; each in his way ended a very different man 
from the one he had thought himself. 

Jackson has been a friend of mine for a long time, and it is 
perhaps natural that what he has told me has conditioned so 
much of the pattern of this story. I last saw Pressman some years 
ago, as I have left him here, at the moment of his fall; and it 
seemed only just not to search for him among the shadows, ad- 
justing his rhythms to those of ordinary men. As for the gods in 
whose temples Pressman or Jackson or both moved, I am par- 
ticularly grateful in the case of Vanzetti to The Legacy of Sacco 
and Vanzetti by G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, to 
Upton Sinclair's Boston, to Bernard De Voto's We Accept With 
Pleasure, and to John Dos Passos' The Big Money, all of which 
reflect the terrible crisis in faith which the case's final tragedy 
visited upon the older radicals. The legend of John Lewis is 
best embodied in Lewis himself and in Saul Alinsky's John L. 

The legend of Vanzetti has faded a little, but time has not 
affected its purity. The legend of John Lewis has faded more, 
and has been ravaged in some of its essentials, most of all in its 
aspect of infallibility. In somewhat the same way, Jackson, who 
seemed the weaker, has survived; and Pressman, the stronger, 
has gone under. I suppose that ironies of this sort are not uncom- 


mon for men whose pulses beat with a rhythm unfamiliar to 
their contemporaries and whose eyes have their own special 
focus. And I suppose, too, that time, if not fashion, is kinder to 
the older moralities. 

The Dry Bones 

Gardner Jackson and Lee Pressman 

"I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am 
a radical; 1 have suffered because I am an Italian and in- 
deed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family 
and my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to 
be right that you can only kill me once, but, if you could 
execute me two times and I could be reborn two other 
times, I would live again to do what I have already." 

upon receiving sentence, April 9, 

**What was most in Hyacinth's mind was the idea, of 
which every pulsation of his time was a syllable, that the 
flood . . . was rising all over the world; that it would 
sweep all the traditions of the past before it; that, whatever 
it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a 
magnificent energy and that it might be trusted to look 
after its own. 9 ' 

HENRY JAMES, The Princess Casamis- 

sima, p. 407 

"Beneath the spreading chestnut tree 
I sold you and you sold me . . ." 


NICOLA SACCO and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were brought to 
trial in Dedham, Massachusetts, on May 31, 1921, in a court- 
house across the street from the old Fisher Ames house and on an 
island threatened by the encroaching lower orders of Boston. 
They were held for an ordinary payroll murder; their case took 


on a coloration of excitement because they were anarchists and 
because Boston journalism has always been devout in enlarging 
the routine into the sensational. 

But even so the reports from Dedham sounded muffled in Bos- 
ton, just a few miles away. No one could have believed that Sacco 
and Vanzetti were material to make Boston a name for execration 
in foreign tongues for marching thousands the world over in the 
next six years. 

The Boston Globe sent Frank Palmer Sibley, New England's 
oldest trial reporter, down to Dedham. Sibley was a calm and 
careful man whose only concession to rhetorical adornment was 
his flowing Windsor tie, and he sent back careful, muted ac- 
counts of the proceedings. But shock and distaste must have 
broken through the surface of his reports, because they disturbed 
some citizens of Boston, not many, but enough to create a nui- 
sance and a legend. 

Gardner Jackson, a beginning reporter on the Globe, was too 
occupied with his own new duties to wony about the assign- 
ments of his elders; and at first he paid little attention to Sibley's 
Sacco- Vanzetti reportage. Then, one morning at breakfast, his 
wife Dorothy looked up from her Globe and said, Tat, there's 
something strange about this trial down in Dedham. Why don't 
you see if you can find out something about it?" 

A few days later, Pat Jackson ran into old Mr. Sibley and con- 
quered his sense of the distance between them long enough to 
ask about Sacco and Vanzetti. "My God, I'm glad somebody 
asked me," Sibley replied. Tve never seen anything like it." 

And this old man went on to talk with a sense of shock, which 
he thought he had outgrown, about a judge and a public prosecu- 
tor who conceived as their function the extirpation of the alien 
and the revolutionary, and about the two Italians who were ob- 
jects of their fury. The trial had been an ordeal impelling him to 
break the pattern of years as a spectator and write a letter to the 
Attorney General of Massachusetts. But there had been no an- 
swer, and hardly anyone except young Pat Jackson had bothered 
to ask him about these obscure proceedings in a suburban court- 
room. Sibley had no views on the innocence of Sacco and 
zetti. But he was sure that theirs had not been a fair trial 


Then Sibley passed on to other courtrooms, but Pat Jackson 
could not forget Sacco and Vanzetti. They had been convicted 
and remitted to Charlestown Prison for the process of appeal. 
The agitation in their defense was in largely non-Boston tongues; 
Henry Mencken was the only American writer of distinction to 
give early public expression to disturbance over their case. Aldo 
Felicani, the anarchist who was the core of the Sacco-Vanzetti 
case, was straitened of means and cut off from Boston's main- 
stream when Pat Jackson found him in his printshop. Felicani 
glowed with the most romantic of social creeds. He had once 
been in prison with a young Socialist named Benito Mussolini, 
but his innocence remained unviolated. And in him, Pat Jackson 
discovered a soul unlike any in his experience, a man to follow 
to the farthest reaches. 

Pat Jackson seemed so normal a young man that it was hard 
to understand the change which those two disparate instructors, 
Sibley and Felicani, had worked upon him. Afterward the Globe 
seemed more and more an empty vessel. He gave his evenings to 
Sacco and Vanzetti and, late in 1926, when their case was ap- 
proaching its climax, he quit the Globe and joined Felicani as 
secretary of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. Nicola Sacco 
always thought of Jackson as an ally from another world. Two 
months before his execution, he wrote Jackson to express his 

**We are one heart, but unfortunately we represent two dif- 
ferent class . . . But, whenever the heart of one of the upper 
class join with the exploited workers for the struggle of the right 
in the human feeling is the feel of an spontaneous attraction and 
brotherly love to one another." 

Sacco was fighting to conquer his sense of difference, for after 
all he came from a country where rich and poor seemed to him 
in armed camps. The road which had brought Pat Jackson to 
Charlestown Prison had not turned as sharply as Sacco thought; 
if the voices in his ear were not ancestral, they came at least 
from his family and his childhood. He had been born in the late 
nineties in Colorado Springs, that "City of Eternal Sunshine," 
whose rays shone on many fortunate young men and upon few 
with more kindness than upon Gardner Jackson. William S. Jack- 



son, his father, had been variously a banker, promoter, and rail- 
road owner and was altogether a capitalist of respectable dimen- 
sions even for Colorado Springs. 

Gardner was the son of his father's old age, and he lived a safe 
and cushioned boyhood. Cripple Creek was very near; not long 
before his birth, striking miners were drilling there with guns, 
and Colorado Springs shook with rumors of imminent armed in- 
vasion. In 1904, the miners blew up one of William S. Jackson's 
railroad stations. But the echoes of this war "massacre" is a re- 
curring appellation from even its soberest historians came very 
faintly to the Jackson home. 

The Jackson property was, of course, a substantial segment of 
that challenged in the Cripple Creek skirmishers 7 lines. But the 
Jackson tradition was not one of pure aggrandizement Little 
Gardner was the child of his father's third marriage; the second 
had been with Helen Hunt Jackson, a New England lady whose 
conscience had been an affliction to almost every citizen of 
Colorado except her worshiping husband. 

The second Mrs. William Jackson was a forty-three-year-old 
widow when she came to Colorado Springs. In New England she 
had been a poetess and thus afflicted with turbulent sensibili- 
ties. This late marriage to a man of property might, in anyone 
else, have been taken as a prelude to a quiet and slightly stuffy 
old age. But Helen Hunt Jackson was no sooner settled as a 
queen in Colorado Springs than she was shaken by the condition 
of the American Indian. She prevailed upon the Interior Depart- 
ment to commission her to study the treatment of Indians 
throughout the West; the fruit of these researches was a catalogue 
of horror which she called A Century of Dishonor. In 1884, very 
ill, she wrote Ramona, an immense success as a novel and a close 
competitor to Uncle Tom's Cabin in the employment of fiction 
for inflammatory social comment 

In the West of the eighties, Mrs. Jackson could hardly have 
chosen a less respectable object of compassion than the Indian, 
Her endeavors in his behalf won her hardly a genuine non-Indian 
sympathizer in the state of Colorado. The Sacco-Vanasetti case 
in Boston in 1927 would be a popular enterprise beside this cause 
of Helen Hunt Jackson's. But William S. Jackson, whatever his 


limitations of identification, remained a loyal and devoted hus- 

Helen Hunt Jackson died; her widower married again; and 
Gardner Jackson was born to this marriage. But Helen Hunt Jack- 
son retained in the family the status of an ornament eclipsing the 
bank, the railroad, and the mines. And when he grew up, young 
Gardner was sent East to Amherst College where she had been 
a faculty daughter and had developed her iron New England 
conscience. He arrived there just before the war. Alexander 
Meiklejohn was then Amherst's president and busy shaking the 
dust off its Calvinism; before very long the epithet of anarchist 
would be hurled upon him as bitterly, if less accurately, as upon 
Nicola Sacco. 

Gardner Jackson seemed as gay and careless as any of his fel- 
lows, and Meiklejohn's effect did not seem to sit heavy upon him. 
But, somehow, the real world managed to insinuate itself into 
one of those interior corners in which the sense of it can alter a 
man's life. On Sunday mornings, he would climb onto a trolley 
with nothing on his mind except the Smith girls in Northampton 
at the other end. But, before he had traveled very far, he would 
be involved in intense and ultimately self-subverting conversation 
with the Polish farm hands who alone failed to thrive in the 
flourishing Connecticut Valley. 

The ideas of Alexander Meiklejohn and the mutterings of the 
Poles were alike a yeast to Pat Jackson. But at first they produced 
in him nothing more than the uneasy sense of something in life 
beyond the safety of Colorado Springs. The army took him away 
from Amherst and brought him home with the same unease. He 
tried Columbia; he tried a family enterprise in Denver; he tried 
selling bonds; he tried the Globe. But none of these things filled 
that vague sense of void. Nothing seemed to until he met Felicani. 

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti was at once the glory and the 
tragedy, the triumph and the disaster, of American social pro- 
test in this century. No other cause would seem so pure; no other 
protagonists would glow so much like walking flames. And no 
other end would come so clean and sharp and so utterly an- 
nihilating to the souls of those who cared. To have been in the 
Sacco-Vanzetti death watch was, for one time in a man's life, to 


have walked almost alone among the heights. And that remains 
true, even though there is a Sacco-Vanzetti memorial plaque on 
Boston Common now, very near the spot where the police clubbed 
and chivvied fourteen pickets on an August Sunday in 1927. For 
it is not the least of a martyr's scourges to be canonized by the 
persons who burned him. 

Sacco and Vanzetti live on in poems and plays and novels, and 
most of all in the words of the elder of them, who must certainly 
be the greatest writer of English in our century to learn his craft, 
do his work, and die all in the space of seven years. They are so 
much a piece of legend by now that very few of their enemies 
feel in a position any longer to dispute the major cantos of their 
epic poverty, false witness, testament, and crucifixion. You 
might almost assume that no one in all Massachusetts really 
wanted them dead except one judge, one public prosecutor, 
twelve jurymen, and a governor himself reluctant 

But it did not seem that way in the summer of 1927 when 
Bernard De Voto, then a Harvard instructor, walked about Boston 
and set down what he saw and heard in We Accept With 'Pleas- 
ure, a novel published seven years later. One of his characters is 
a defense lawyer who asks in the last hours: 

"Who is it that is killing the poor wops? I wish I knew. Is it 
City or just the Hill? . . . Taxi drivers, newsboys, washerwomen, 
subway guards. ... I ask them all. It's always Hang the bas- 
tards.' * 

k Another character wanders on execution night up to the police 
barricades near Charlestown Prison as a part of a formless, 
neutral crowd. He watches and reflects: 

'They will couple up the hose and first they will use water. But, 
on the bridge, there are machine guns Brownings to be used on 
people when they rise. Bodies twist screaming and blood min- 
gles with oil in the gutter. Roar of many motorcycles. These have 
riot guns. I will die in the first wave," 

But then the crowd stirs good-naturedly and his vision dis- 
solves. He has learned that the people do not rise, that they do 
not even care; they are out to see the show while Nick and Bart 
die. He struggles alone with a policeman, and runs away sightless 


and in a trance. He passes a group of his friends. One of them 
looks after him and says: 

"It must be painful to love the people and find the mob a 

The persons who died with Sacco and Vanzetti were thus cut 
off and isolated and surrounded by a mob that was hostile when 
it was not indifferent. But they had found, and they held, a 
fortress of the spirit And, for a while, a few seemed utterly 

Edna St. Vincent Millay marched as a picket on the Common; 
when Sacco and Vanzetti died, she wrote that never again would 
a road through the wood or a stretch of shore bring her peace. 
"The beauty of these things can no longer make up to me for all 
the ugliness of man, his cruelty, his greed, his lying face." 

John Dos Passes came home to Harvard to help the Defense 
Committee. In the case's last hours he heard "the old words of 
the haters of oppression made new in sweat and agony." And at 
the end he wrote; 

"Our work is over the scribbled phrases the nights typing re- 
leases the smell of the printshop the sharp reek of newprinted 
leaflets the rush for Western Union stringing words into wires 
the search for stinging words to make you feel who are your op- 
pressors america. 

"America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have 
turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words 
our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul. 

"all right we are two nations." 

Powers Hapgood, Harvard and Hasty Pudding before World 
War I, was arrested as a demonstrator on the Common four 
times, the last of them by the superintendent of police himself. 
As they were carrying him away, he turned his head and shouted: 
"Don't forget, comrades, keep it up save the men!" He would 
marry Mary Dgnovan, a Boston Irish girl who had consumed 
herself in the case, and move on to be an organizer for the miners' 
union and the CIO, sick very soon and dying before his time 
twenty years later. 

Powers Hapgood, dying; Edna Millay withdrawn to her in- 


terior terrors; Dos Passos, losing his powers, alone and embit- 
tered; so many left so much of themselves behind on a small 
green patch of Boston. 

Gardner Jackson had changed too; in the spring of 1927 he 
found himself in the office of the Boston Globe, quarreling with 
his former managing editor and with Frank Sibley, both beings 
who had walked on clouds so far above him just five years be- 
fore. Sibley had agreed to sign an affidavit detailing various ex- 
pressions of prejudice against Sacco and Vanzetti in his presence 
by Judge Webster Thayer, who had presided at the Dedham 
trial. Now both Sibley and his editor argued that a reporter 
should not mix in maneuvers. Jackson found himself facing 
them both down with a toughness that was new to him and at 
last forced Sibley's signature on the affidavit. 

On the day Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, the Globe very 
carefully sent Frank Sibley to cover a flower show. Pat Jackson 
was suffering at the Defense Committee's office on Hanover 
Street. Whatever the end, he could not go back to Boston family 
journalism again. None of them, even if they tried, could ever 
go back to what they had been. There were even a few who 
could almost feel envy for Sacco and Vanzetti, because their 
agony at least was ended. 

In his Boston, Upton Sinclair makes Betty Alvin cry out a few 
minutes after the execution: 

"You don't realize it's all over. Stop and think what it means 
Bart and Nick can't suffer anymore! Nobody can punish them, 
nobody can torture them, ever again! They aren't in jail! They're 

There is, in these accounts of the last days, with their demon- 
strators stuffed into the Joy Street police station chanting their 
revolutionary songs, an illusion that these were glittering hours. 
And some may have thought them so, for there are always peo- 
ple who come to gape and thrill at any swelling pitch of existence. 
But they were not the persons to whom Boston, for the last two 
years, had meant only Bart and Nick and their tomb in Charles- 

For them the stroke of midnight on August 21, 1927, sounded 
the knell of the life they had known and brought them to face a 


new life, unknown and terrible and without faith. They might be 
good citizens in this new life; some might even raise their heads 
and go out to win a new place in the world. But they could never 
have their innocence entire again. 

They were not, even the most radical among them, the sort of 
people who deep down believed that it would come to this. 
Sacco and Vanzetti had assumed that it would, because they 
believed that the ruling class was implacable and that its instru- 
ments would kill them. A few writers, a lawyer or so, some ladies 
of New England, a segment of the Harvard faculty, a Gardner 
Jackson, had come forth to prove that Sacco and Vanzetti were 
wrong about American justice. Now they were failures. 

Upton Sinclair's Betty Alvin, a revolutionary, could exult just 
before the execution: "Don't you see the glory of this case, it 
lolls off the liberals! Before this, it was possible to argue that in- 
justice was an accident, just an oversight in a country that was 
busy making automobiles and bathtubs and books of etiquette. 
But now here's a test we settle the question forever! We take 
our very best not merely cheap politicians but great ones! Our 
biggest business man! Our most cultured university president! 
Our supreme court justices even the liberal ones! We prove 
them all alike they know what flag they serve under, who serves 
out their rations!" 

But that was the exultation of the hard heart of youth and no 
consolation for the sensitive. How many of those who had begun 
the watch years before and had followed it to the cross could 
now write so pat a moral across the tomb? For they were people 

at least Pat Jackson was certainly such a person who believed 

that the most unpromising river flows somewhere to the sea, that 
darkness always breaks, and that the right always survives. 

Vanzetti could say that an anarchist must expect to die like a 
soldier. Betty Alvin could say that every martyr was dynamite 
to the illusions which blocked the path to universal freedom. 
But what was a man to say when everything that God and his 
education made him has proclaimed so long that reason will 
prevail, now that he is confronted with the ultimate unreason of 

Innocence, after all, is compounded, among other things, of the 


absence of shattering experience. In their grief, the Gardner 
Jacksons of the Sacco- Vanzetti Defense Committee had lost the 
innocence which might have protected them in answering those 
who said that, so long as the revolution was postponed, Saccos 
and Vanzettis would have to die, and that their death after all 
did have certain large social advantages. 

The defense of Sacco and Vanzetti had been a cause in which 
the Communists played little part beyond exterior nuisance. Their 
party's chief theme was that, since the defense was in the hands 
of a committee of liberals and anarchists rather than Communists, 
Sacco and Vanzetti were being betrayed from within and Jack- 
son and Felicani were as much their murderers as Judge Thayer 
and prosecutor Katzman. The Party operated its own Sacco- 
Vanzetti defense fund and raised a sum which defied accounta- 
bility and no part of which was relayed to the Defense Commit- 
tee or contributed to the case's towering legal costs.* 

And, when Sacco and Vanzetti were dead, the Communists 
continued to make the treason of the Defense Committee a 
major theme at the Party's memorial meetings. At one early an- 
niversary of the execution, the Defense Committee held a cere- 
mony in Boston's Old South Meeting House. The Communists 
announced a rival assemblage. As Gardner Jackson entered Old 
South that night, he was stopped by Harry Canter, secretary of 
the Communist Party of Boston. "I just wanted you to know," 
said Canter, "that tonight I'm going to call you one of the mur- 
derers of Sacco and Vanzetti. I hope you understand that inside 
I don't really mean it." 

But, after the final defeat, it was very hard for some of these 
violated innocents not to believe that the Communists had been 
right in one thing at least: If liberalism had not betrayed Sacco 
and Vanzetti, liberalism had been blind at least in proclaiming 
that they could hope for justice from peaceful appeal to the 
conscience of established society. 

* This summary of the Communist role in the Sacco- Vanzetti case Is not 
offered as evidence of this author's anxiety to be as patriotic in the flagella- 
tion of dead horses as anyone else these cays, but rather a# background for 
the irony that the Communists, whose chief contribution to the defense was 
harassment of the defenders, were major political beneficiaries of the execu- 
tion of Sacco and Vanzetti. 


In the last days of the case, some two hundred persons of 
conscience, many of them writers, had been drawn to Boston to 
do something, however hopeless, to stand against the inevitable. 
They had picketed the Common and been thrown into jail, and 
they had all been pebbles in the churning tide. Some of them had 
been Communists before that terrible week; more sought the 
Communists afterward. 

John Howard Lawson, no party man before, was to become the 
leader of the Hollywood Communist movement. Robert Benchley 
was to be so shaken that he could never function in politics again. 
Dorothy Parker, out of her own shock, was to drift more and 
more under Communist influence. William Patterson, a young 
Negro, walked from Boston Common into the Communist Party. 
Art Shields, who wrote the first Sacco-Vanzetti defense pamphlet, 
works for the Daily Worker now. Eugene Lyons, who wrote the 
committee's last press releases, went on to the Soviet Union and 
found there only the death of freedom which Vanzetti had recog- 
nized from a distance as early as 1921. 

John Dos Passos, torn from his last illusions about the old 
America, would look for eight years into the faces of Com- 
munists for hope of a new nation and end so embittered that he 
would thereafter seek hope in the faces of anyone who was 
against them. Those who had been Communists would take a 
new, hard assurance from the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti. Most 
of those who had been liberals had only the loss of illusion and a 
sorrow without comfort. 

Aldo Felicani had seen his old cell mate, Benito Mussolini, be- 
come the god of the first Fascist religion. He could hardly have 
been shaken from his moorings by a single disaster of justice. He 
went back to his printshop and the anti-Fascist publication which 
struggled and barely kept afloat against the stream of Boston's 
Italian community. Gardner Jackson carried on for two more 
years, holding the cooling ashes of the case, helping Felicani with 
his paper, keeping an office open, doing what he could to assure 
some stability for Sacco's family. 

All this was a ceremonial of worship for the dead. It could not, 
of course, bring them back; after a while, it was clear to Pat 
Jackson that he must begin to live again. He could not, even if he 


had wanted to, return to the respectable Boston which had slain 
his dead, so, in 1930, he went to Washington. There he became 
once more a newspaperman with correspondent's credentials 
from a Canadian paper. Pat Jackson was not equipped by dispo- 
sition to avoid causes of controversy, and there were a few such 
in those years. But, generally speaking, Herbert Hoover withered 
and passed and Franklin Roosevelt came, without giving Gardner 
Jackson any tug of recognition in the process. 

Then one Sunday afternoon in 1933, while he was sitting on 
his porch in the country, he was visited by two strangers sum- 
moning him once more to commitment and involvement. They 
were young men and earnest ones, and they declared that they 
had come all this way to find Gardner Jackson, because he had 
been the hero of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and thus a figure in 
their dreams. They had themselves been Bostonians, although 
transiently, because they had begun quite poor and, by force of 
will and intelligence, had brought themselves to Harvard Law 
School from which they had both been graduated with honors. 

One of the young visitors introduced himself as Lee Pressman; 
the other, and the more verbal, was Nathan Witt. They had just 
come to Washington from New York law firms because there was 
a great work to be done, and they were calling upon Gardner 
Jackson to join them. They both looked like what they were, the 
best sons and the focus of hopes for immigrant families. What 
they had, they had earned for themselves. Pressman had attended 
Cornell on a scholarship, and Witt had gone to New York Uni- 
versity. They had come together in Felix Frankfurter's Harvard 
Law class of 1929, and they said they had caught from him the 
social gospel. 

They had entered New York law firms above their stations; 
Jerome Frank had introduced Pressman into the secure precincts 
of Chadbourne, Stanchfield, and Levy* Both Pressman and Witt 
could have expected, with patience, to move on to substantial pri- 
vate success. But they had dreams of greater service. And when 
Jerome Frank came to Washington as general counsel for the Ag- 
ricultural Adjustment Administration, it was with excitement 
that they joined the army of his assistants. This was, they said, a 


work that could change the face of America, and it needed Gard- 
ner Jackson. 

Most of these expressions of inward gospel came from Witt, 
who seemed an enthusiast by nature and therefore an especially 
engaging guest for Gardner Jackson, who had a weakness for soft 
and enthusiastic persons. And Nathan Witt seemed soft and gen- 
tle and pouring forth enthusiasm. 

The language of exaltation did not come easy to Lee Pressman, 
and he disdained to counterfeit it. "Sharp" was the word that 
came quickest to the mind in his presence. He had eyes like a 
squirrel's after a nut and a manner which even a friend would 
occasionally find too near arrogance. He was not patient with talk 
which proceeded to no decisive result; Felix Frankfurter, at once 
awed and charmed by Alger Hiss, is said to have always been a 
shade uncomfortable with Lee Pressman. Long after the summer 
day when Jackson met him, Pressman would be described by 
strangers as a smooth operator. But he never attempted the de- 
vices of inconsequential charm; he had a cool courtesy with the 
hostile but he never deferred to them. 

Lee Pressman, there at the beginning, appears to have be- 
lieved that there was a tide of history and that it would someday 
make men free. But his passion was with the journey and not the 
destination; the contemplation of a vision was not his line of 
thought. Much later, Gardner Jackson searched his memory for 
one moment in their years together when he could recall an act 
indicative of soft emotion in Lee Pressman. He could remember 
only that Pressman had sacrificed to send a younger brother to 
Yale Law School, and he decided that Pressman loved his own 
but was otherwise a stranger against the world. 

He seemed like a naked sword. He did not make his way by 
charm and sympathy but because he was an instrument more 
serviceable than any other in the locker. His language was the 
language of operations; he burned not nor blazed about the goal; 
he offered only to tell you how to get there. 

Now, the Sacco-Vanzetti case had terribly tried and almost de- 
stroyed the innocence of its Pat Jacksons. There had died in 
Charlestown Prison much of what had been the core of historic 



American radicalism: the old, simple, undisciplined faith that 
every day was fresh and better than the one before it and that 
salvation was the inevitable end of a succession of good works. 
But this Pressman was a new breed of radical. He seemed blessed 
as though born without innocence; he looked pure function. To 
say that man has been born without innocence is not to say that 
he is wicked but only that he is enormously adaptive to circum- 
stances, and that he cannot be bemused by second-level enthusi- 
asms or diverted by reflective hesitations. And when he sets forth 
upon a wrong road, he will proceed straight to his secular hell 
without taking that wrong fork which leads only to a secular 

Lee Pressman had passions, but he appeared to display them 
only in discussions of tactics. As he went along in the world he 
always demanded the best fee he could get for his unquestion- 
ably valuable services. This bargaining streak, taken with his in- 
capacity for the idle expression of idealism, made many of his 
enemies believe that he was a careerist with no real allegiance 
except to the main chance. And Lee Pressman does appear to 
have talked at least like a man who believed in the tide which 
would sweep all before it and would, above all, take care of its 
own. When he joined the Communist Party in 1934, it might have 
been in response to that tide. 

He felt no other pull like it. Even though he says he left the 
Party a year after he joined it, he responded to its tug at every 
crisis except the very last one in his public life. And all those who 
argued so long that nothing but his career and his function was 
important to Lee Pressman will have to explain why, at the one 
moment in his life when he had to choose between his career 
and his vision of history, he chose to destroy, or at least badly 
wound, his career. So he must have been a believer somewhere 
very deep. When he lost his faith, he did not plunge after an- 
other. He was the kind who is constructed to love only once; 
when his heart was broken, he could not pick it up and pass it on 
to somebody else. 

But none of those shadows was on Lee Pressman's young face 
that summer Sunday afternoon near Georgetown in 1933, And 
his promise did not at once reveal itself to Pat Jackson, who was 


much more fetched by Nathan Witt, glowing with exuberance and 
exhilaration. Jerome Frank and Felix Frankfurter had already 
been at Pat Jackson to assume his appointed place in the New 
Deal. But the sense that Nathan Witt, so much younger, remem- 
bered and revered him meant at least as much as any argument 
Frankfurter or Frank could offer. Jackson went to the Agricultural 
Adjustment Administration very proud and hopeful. 

The Triple A was a great factory; in its early processes, Jackson 
did not see much of Pressman or Witt. He had become the AAA's 
assistant Consumers Counsel, an office which reflected the new 
administration's dim sense that, in rescuing the American farmer, 
certain protections were necessary for the American consumer. 
The Consumers Counsel was assigned to improve farm marketing 
methods and to raise farm labor standards. Fred Howe, an ancient 
reformer, was nominal Consumers Counsel. But it was under- 
stood that Jackson's youth and energy would make him the divi- 
sion's real force. 

He remained with Triple A less than two years and was always 
a source of pain because his concerns had a tendency to stray 
over to the realm of the politically unacceptable. His earliest 
troubles involved Connecticut Valley farm laborers very like the 
ones he used to meet on the streetcars between Amherst and 
Smith. Early in his tenure, the Connecticut Commissioner of La- 
bor came to Jackson's office with a report on the maltreatment of 
their hired hands by Connecticut Valley farmers who were bene- 
ficiaries of the AAA's bounty. Jackson took the problem first to 
Jerome Frank and then to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wal- 
lace himself, with results only of apathy and inattention. 

In the course of these intercessions, he chanced upon Lee 
Pressman, who took the Connecticut Valley report, incorporated 
a few legal touches, and converted it into a functioning instru- 
ment which was transmitted to Frank and Wallace and impressed 
them deeply. The department thereupon moved a little way in 
the direction of Pat Jackson's conscience. Then he began to sense 
Lee Pressman's special value. And, on his side, Pressman had dis- 
covered qualities he could appreciate in Pat Jackson; they were 
qualities he translated as usual into the language of function. 
Pressman thought they complemented one another. 


"You are," he once told Jackson, "flat-faced and blue-eyed and 
blond, and I am sharp-faced and dark. You know everybody and 
you go into everybody's office and they are all your friends. We 
would make a very good team." For Lee Pressman could describe 
his own handicaps with total detachment and leave to his listener 
the appreciation of those fine-honed qualities of intelligence of 
which he was as conscious as anyone and which he did not feel 
it necessary to mention. 

No one who thought as he did had ever talked to Gardner 
Jackson quite that way before. This was a new kind of radical 
ally, cool, assured, and so much the more valuable for freedom 
from the ancient inhibitions. Once Pressman suggested, as an in- 
stance, that Jackson make a habit of reading the Washington 
sofciety pages, because there was no better index of who was im- 
portant and who was not Pat Jackson had been born to the 
society page. No one had ever suggested to him before that it 
could be a useful social instrument. 

The team did not accomplish very much, partly because it was 
broken up in February, 1935, when the AAA resolved the feud 
between its conservatives and those radicals, like Frank, Jackson, 
and Pressman, who wanted to use the agency's conservation ben- 
efits to help tenant fanners. 

The solution of the dispute was a lesson in reality for the com- 
mitted* Henry Wallace himself did not comment on it until Janu- 
ary of 1954; he made it plain that the best interest of the Demo- 
cratic Party was the ultimate dictator of his decision. 4 * 

Wallace defined the two factions struggling over the share- 
croppers as "those of us who had an agricultural background" and 
"those who had a city background." 

"It seemed as though it were largely a question of speed of 
movement and the wisdom of moving rapidly to reform the ag- 
ricultural customs of the South. It had to do with the handling of 
the sharecroppers in the South. , . . I had worked with some of 
the farm leaders of the South and representatives of the South 
on the hill and I knew their habits and customs and was con- 
vinced that, if we followed what I might call the extremist city 
* Interview with the V. S. New and World Report , Jan. a6> 1954, 


group, there would be such a break with the men on the hill that 
the agricultural program might be destroyed." 

"The only thing," Wallace decided, * was to fire the extremist 
leaders." Frank and Jackson and Pressman departed; they were 
committed beyond compromise; and, whenever the politicians 
had a choice, Pressman and Jackson were alien and expendable. 

Pressman, along with Nathan Witt and presumably Alger Hiss, 
was then a member of a Communist Party group in the Agricul- 
tural Adjustment Administration, an allegiance which, according 
to Party custom, he concealed from Jackson and Frank, his two 
most important allies in the agency. But he was not equipped to 
act as an underground man; and, largely as a consequence of his 
manner, the Department of Agriculture's conservative faction was 
already pointing to him as a security risk. 

The first national reference to Pressman as a putative Com- 
munist arose out of the Triple A squabble and can be found in a 
Saturday Evening Post article of May 30, 1936, in which former 
AAA administrator, George Peek, described his disillusion with 
the New Deal. Peek said that, while he was in the AAA, Pressman 
had proposed that the government control milk marketing. Peek 
objected that this would mean either state socialism or com- 
munism and Pressman answered, "Call it what you may; this plan 
is failing, and government operation will have to come." Peek 
may not have known what communism was; but he was certain 
that it was a deplorable state and apt to be represented by un- 
gracious and sharp-eyed young men, so he assumed thereafter 
that Pressman was a Communist. 

Pressman, Hiss, and Witt were the only presumed members of 
the Agriculture Department Communist cell who reached policy 
positions in the government. And Hiss was the only one of those 
who survived long, perhaps because he was the only one who was 
careful in dissembling his views, Witt left the AAA to become 
General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, a posi- 
tion from which he was removed for shamelessly favoring the left- 
wing uni6ns. After his ouster from Agriculture, Pressman worked 
briefly for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the 
Works Progress Administration, and left the government for good 


in less than a year. The New Deal, after all, had its moments of 
advance and retreat, and its radicals, as they had been in AAA, 
were often casualties of the retreat. Witt and Pressman concealed 
their Communist Party membership, but they always acted in 
public as advanced radicals and thus occupied outposts that were 
infrequently comfortable even under Roosevelt. 

His departure from the AAA was the end of Pat Jackson's as- 
sociation with official authority; he had become the first of the 
displaced New Dealers, But he remained in Washington, still oc- 
cupied with the problem of the small farmer. He became chair- 
man of the National Committee for Rural Social Planning, a pri- 
vate organization. And this led him at length to an interest in the 
Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and then to John L. Lewis, who 
was taken with the dream of bringing the agricultural worker 
into his Committee for Industrial Organization. 

Lee Pressman, for the time, was separated from all these for- 
tunes. He had left Washington late in the winter of 1935 and re- 
turned to New York and the private practice of law. But, on 
occasion, he would come down for dinner at the Jacksons*, for 
Pat Jackson, even out of government, was close to the main 
stream and, most important now, he was close to Lewis, who was 
beginning to be an electric magnet for the committed. 

One night, Pressman wondered aloud whether Pat Jackson 
might introduce him to Lewis. He had always, he said, wanted to 
be a lawyer for labor. After a while, at the instance of Pat Jack- 
son and other of his instruments, Lee Pressman came to the CIO, 
first as general counsel for its fledgling Steelworkers Organizing 
Committee and then as counsel for the CIO itself. 

Pressman had never met a man like Lewis; there is only one. 
They understood each other because they understood that the 
price of power and victory is a man's innocence. John Lewis had 
once killed a mad mule in a mine with his bare fist; and, since 
in those days a mule's life was worth more than a miner's, he had 
saved his job by covering his victim's wound with mud and tell- 
ing the superintendent that it died of heart failure. He was the 
two prime Homerie heroes in one mold, at once Achilles and 
Ulysses; he went as far as strength would take him and there- 
after proceeded by guile. He respected force and cunning alike; 


and he expected devotion. He was a worthy object for it, as he 
was a piece of awe and shock. Lee Pressman and Pat Jackson 
were entering a labor movement where men's entire lives would 
focus on John Lewis and where their course would be determined 
as much by hate as by love of him. 

Lewis was marshaling his battalions to assault the great indus- 
tries which had resisted unions throughout the history of America 
the industries which were our national face to the world: steel, 
automobiles, rubber, and textiles. In less than five years, he 
brought them all to their knees, from Chevrolet in the winter of 
1937 through Bethlehem Steel and Ford in the spring of 1941. 
He walked, in his own phrase, through the forest swinging a 
broadax to clear the way. He was not alone, of course; but what 
commander ever deployed his troops with care so infinite or 
went so far against the guns with them? 

When the General Motors strike began in February of 1937, 
he dispatched Lee Pressman as his deputy to Detroit. Pressman 
met this test in a fashion which his commander could appreciate. 
The auto workers had sat down in General Motors' Flint and 
Chevrolet plants, and the company very quickly got an injunc- 
tion to cast them out. It occurred to Pressman that a Michigan 
judge was as likely to own auto stocks as a Boston judge is to 
own textile stocks; and he had a friend in New York check the 
General Motors stockholders' list. The name of the judge who had 
signed the Flint injunction appeared on that roster as the owner 
of $219,000 worth of GM stock, and his injunction expired in the 
consequent public distemper. Lee Pressman had brought the sit- 
down strikers safely through their first peril. 

But other menaces came so thick and fast that John Lewis 
himself left Washington to assume command in the field. He in- 
toned at his departure that there should be no moaning at the 
bar as he put out to sea. For weeks he had played with Cabinet 
officers. He now commenced bending a governor of Michigan. 
And Lee Pressman watched him all the while. Whatever his later 
troubles, he is fortunate in that memory, because this was Lewis' 
great hour. 

The Chevrolet strikers were shivering against the night in their 
fortresses when Lewis debarked in Detroit laughing with an as- 


surance that reached across the police lines to raise their heads. 
And thereafter, he did not storm or bluster; his conduct with the 
officials of General Motors alternated cold arrogance with tower- 
ing wrath. Never, while Pressman was watching, did he ring 
those changes false. 

In those Detroit hotel rooms so far from Flint, there was a 
special majesty in Lewis because he was alone. Governor Frank 
Murphy wavered day after day between sympathy for the CIO 
and concern over the illegality of its conduct. One night he came 
to Lewis' room to announce that he could go no further and was 
calling out the troops to clear the factories. And Lewis answered 
on a swelling note of doom: 

"I shall personally enter General Motors* Chevrolet Plant Num- 
ber Four. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand 
fast. I shall then walk up to the largest window in the plant, open 
it, divest myself of my outer raiment, remove my shirt and bare 
my bosom. Then-n-n, when you order your troops to fire, mine 
will be the first breast that those bullets will strike/* The great 
voice marched down near a hush. "And, as my body falls from 
that window to the ground, you listen to the voice of your grand- 
father as he whispers in your ear, 'Frank, are you sure you are 
doing the right thing?" * 

It was Lewis' recollection that, upon this stroke, Frank Murphy 
went white and, shaking, left the room. The ouster order was 
never issued, because the governor could hardly doubt that this 
terrible giant would do exactly what he said he would and that 
the first shell would probably bounce off in any case. For it was 
the grandeur of John Lewis' posture that he could threaten you 
with a course of conduct heroic and outrageous beyond imagina- 
tion and, looking at him, you could not hear the voice of common 
sense saying that no man could rise or stoop to this. 

After the fall of General Motors, Lewis and Pressman moved 
on to settle the Chrysler sit-down strike. Hour after hour, Lewis 
sat silent while K. T, Keller, Chrysler's operational vice president, 
looked at him with an icecap of disdain which would have seemed 
excessive in the master himself. At last, while every CIO man 
present except Lewis shuddered under his stare, Keller turned to 
Lewis and said, with total contempt, "Mr. Lewis you haven't said 


a word about this situation. Do you happen to have any comment 
or contribution?" 

Lewis arose and fixed his baleful eye and answered very 

**Yes, Mr. Keller, yes, I have. I am ninety-nine per cent of a 
mind to come around this table right now and wipe that damn 
sneer off your face/* 

Both Pressman and Lewis affirm that Keller passed into an im- 
mediate state of shock, from which he emerged to totter over to 
Lewis and plead that he wasn't as bad as all that. This was, said 
Pressman long afterward, the high point of his life: 

**It is impossible to put into words just what everyone felt at 
that moment. Lewis, the man, was not threatening Keller the 
man. Lewis* voice at that moment was in every sense the voice of 
millions of unorganized workers who were exploited by gigantic 
corporations. He was expressing at that instant their resentment, 
their hostility, and their passionate desire to strike back. There 
just was no question that Lewis' threat was not against Mr. Keller 
as a person, but against the Chrysler Corporation and every other 
giant, soulless corporation in the country. It was a moment of real 
greatness because Lewis transcended his own person and was 
speaking out of the deep yearning of millions to force a great, 
sneering, arrogant corporation to bend its knee to organized la- 
bor. I cannot remember when I have been so moved in my life. 
I have never before experienced anything so completely devoid 
of individual personality, for those two voices of Lewis and Keller 
were really the spokesmen of opposing fundamental forces."* 

Lee Pressman never seems to have been voluble about what he 
believed, and this shining moment in his memory may speak vol- 
umes for him. He remembers Lewis bst at a moment in history. 
History for Lee Pressman was not a personal thing and Lewis 
was not a personal figure. History was a war of contending 
classes, and its hero attained his peak when he transcended him- 

* This anecdote, like the other Lewisiana which accompany it, is taken 
from Saul Alinsky's John L. Lewis, a biography which contains so much 
otherwise unpublished Lewis conversation and self -reportage as to amount 
almost to a memoir. Keller has denied that he was worsted in this encounter 
with anything like the finality implied by Lewis and Pressman, who, what- 
ever their other virtues, are not necessarily unimpeachable witnesses. 


self and became the impersonal embodiment of the class for 
which he spoke. It is the face and the imagery of combat between 
armies which give and ask no quarter, a war whose resolution is 
unforgiving violence and in which John Lewis was a great ham- 
mer and Lee Pressman a piece of steel. And its vision is without 
limit; for such a captain and his followers, there are no walls too 
high and frontiers too distant 

Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco were very personal in- 
struments. Their creed was the individual; they were victims and 
not conquerors of institutions. And, when they passed, men wept 
John Lewis and Lee Pressman were the impersonal force of his- 
tory; in them innocence did not die but history triumphed, and 
all material honors accrued to its representatives. As John Lewis 
said once, the strong move forward and the weak fall behind. But 
he who would be history's engine must move ahead without 
slackening or lesser men will tear him clown. And when he goes, 
very few will mourn his fall, for men do not weep for an im- 
personal instrument. 

John Lewis lived upon a mountaintop to which Lee Pressman 
did not often come in his early days with the CIO, He spent much 
more of his time in Pittsburgh with Philip Murray, a very dif- 
ferent man, as counsel for the Steelworkers' Organizing Commit- 
tee. Murray and Lewis had been together a long while; no one 
else in Lewis' panoply called him "Jack/* But Philip Murray was 
not of the great world. He had come from Scotland when he was 
ten years old, and he had mined coal near Hazclkirk, Pennsyl- 
vania, which is hardly two hours from Pittsburgh, but remains a 
country town where cows still graze and where, when Philip 
Murray was a young man, he walked across a brook and through 
green fields to the tipple. 

Organized unions in America began, after all, not in great 
cities in the fog of mill smoke but in little towns like Hazelkirk. 
Its gospel first touched the hearts of craftsmen in square caps 
locomotive engineers, carpenters, and coal miners the sort of 
men who swear and remain true to resounding oaths of obliga- 
tion, who invoke the blessing of God upon their affairs, who call 
themselves Knights of the Footboard or of the T-squarc and are 


altogether representative of virtue sometimes wounded but al- 
ways hopeful. 

Like them, Philip Murray seemed in a state of original in- 
nocence. He had kept the manners of their old lost time; he 
seemed put together by handcraftsmen. The coal operators, to 
whom Lewis was a tiger, always said that Murray was a gentle- 
man. But it was a piece of the guile of Lewis and Murray that 
the first would thunder his enemies into insensibility and that 
the second would approach and gently rub them back to con- 
sciousness and suggest in soft Scots accents that this terrible 
Welshman could be appeased with a little give here and some- 
what more take there. 

Murray hated the great world through which he moved so 
gracefully. He went to Washington only under sufferance; he 
was unhappy a day away from the dirty city he loved. His face 
still had a look of pain and soft patience which Lee Pressman 
could not know was as much a quality of the workingman as 
John Lewis' epic irritation. If Murray could have been happy 
when the miners weren't, his brightest days would have been 
during the mine union's long twilight in the twenties when Pitts- 
burgh stood alone as a center of strength and loyalty to John 
Lewis and when the daily round was so undemanding that the 
union had a box at Forbes Field and there were no compulsions 
of routine to keep its leaders from going to watch the Pirates. 

But when Pressman met him, Murray had forfeited all peace 
and leisure. The drive on steel had begun; and, having made him- 
self a master of the economics of coal, Murray had to begin again 
on the economics of this greater industry. He had taken offices in 
the Grant Building where sat so many of the primates of Pitts- 
burgh's old order. He would bow to them in the elevator with his 
ancient courtesy; and then he would go up to his office and gently 
impel the old miners who were his assistants to greater efforts 
for their destruction. His peace at an end, Murray both loved his 
old friends and longed for young men who walked quickstep. He 
was very glad to see Lee Pressman. 

It was Murray's special quality to touch the love and not the 
fears of men. We do no special discredit to Pressman to say that 


he was only thirty-one and not yet of an age when men count 
that sort of love very high in the scale. John Lewis remained his 
personal icon, and nothing around Pittsburgh could match the 
thunder and lightning over Washington. Murray recognized in 
Pressman a new and valuable machine tooled for a changing la- 
bor movement, but he was otherwise not vastly popular. The men 
around Murray were not Pressman's sort. Pittsburgh was not like 
Washington; it was a divided city across whose barricades men 
did not move easily. Its nights would have been lonelier without 
the presence of a new friend named J, B. S. Hardman. 

Hardman had been loaned by Sidney Hillman's Amalgamated 
Clothing Workers as a publicist in the steel campaign. Hardman, 
like Pressman, came to Murray from another world and one in 
which he was an ornament of social and intellectual history. As a 
teacher in Russia, he had led his students in the 1905 revolution; 
in America he was a labor economist and a prophet of the new 
industrial unionism with a reputation as scholar rare for union 

Pressman attached himself to Hardman very soon and together 
they used to walk and talk for hours in the Pittsburgh night of 
1937. Hardman remembers now that, one of those evenings in a 
drizzle, their conversation passed to the Soviet Union, Hardman 
said that he had often wondered about Lenin, who was a socialist 
and had lived in the West Had there come a time, while he was 
signing the decrees ordering this man's death and that man's im- 
prisonment, when he asked himself if the killing would ever 

At that, Pressman stopped walking; he was near the marquee 
of the Hotel William Penn, and, in the light, Hardman saw real 
shock on his hard young face. 

"Do you mean, J. B,/' he said at last, "that you reject the Ter- 
ror?" Tilings were never the same between them. 

Back in Washington, Pat Jackson sat with John Lewis and 
heard him say that the organization of the agricultural worker 
would be the crown of his life. The salvation of the sharecropper, 
Lewis rumbled, was the charge and duty of the labor move- 
ment In July of 1937, the CIO chartered the United Cannery, 
Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers as the engine of Lewis* 


farm offensive. The miners opened their treasury for a large sub- 
sidy and Pat Jackson was dispatched with John Brophy, the 
CIO's director of organization, to Denver for the christening. 

Jackson arrived to find the Communists his absolute masters, 
and their appointed course so well-determined that all his mail 
had been opened before he arrived there. John Brophy had an- 
nounced his entry with a telegram to Pressman suggesting that 
they meet at the Denver airport for a private strategy conference, 
a message the union's new rulers solicitously opened and failed 
to deliver to its addressee. Jackson and Brophy, once again vic- 
tims of their innocence, thereafter sat helpless and watched the 
convention elect as its president Donald Henderson, a displaced 
Columbia University instructor, and set forth on the road to 
deserts and disasters. 

No word of all this appeared to disturb Lewis especially, so 
Jackson took the story to Pressman, whom, he was beginning to 
sense, he now needed more than Pressman needed him. When 
next they met in Washington, Jackson told the entire story of how 
the Communists had assumed control of the farm union, and his 
mail had been rifled, and Brophy tricked. Pressman heard it out; 
Jackson waited for a reply either of indignation or simple com- 
ment; it was a while before he understood that there was only 

They were no longer the friends they had been, although the 
distance between them went unmentioned. For one thing, the 
farm campaign went badly, and Lewis soon lost interest in it. 
Pat Jackson was not responsible for these failures, but some of 
their shadow fell on him, and he did not see as much of John 
Lewis as he had. By now Lee Pressman had become general 
counsel of the CIO and the old team was out of balance. And so 
there had come upon them one of those interludes between in- 
timacy and estrangement which can last indefinitely among the 
civilized. There were no lasting quarrels in it and few moments of 
real coolness and only one when Lee Pressman revealed a sense 
that Pat Jackson could no longer make the team. 

But there was always, as their friendship died, an underlying 
wedge between them. They did not agree on the surrender of the 
innocence required in their common endeavor, which was a ques- 


tion bound to recur among troops enlisted behind John L. Lewis. 
For Lewis lived somewhere beyond innocence. He could pin the 
class enemy to the wall with a glare that was a banner of the 
avenging oppressed; and afterward he would describe the scene 
as one in which "I summoned up my best frown" like a wizard 
showing his locker of potions. He simply fought without con- 
science. There was stature in his subordination of means, because 
it did not seem malignant for malignancy's sake. Lewis did not 
exalt trickery as a grace; he was believable and even admirable 
in his rascality because it was functional and directed at the 

When Lee Pressman and Pat and Dorothy Jackson had their 
first quarrel in 1938, it did not involve a matter of conscience 
in Lewis* service but something as abstract as the conduct of 
a movie. Warner Brothers had just produced Juarez, a story of 
the Mexican revolution which had as its climax the execution 
of the deposed Emperor Maximilian by Benito Juarez's troops. 

One night, the Jacksons met Pressman coming out of a preview 
of Juarez, They fell to talking about what they had seen, and 
Dorothy Jackson mentioned the unease which she and Pat shared 
over what seemed to them to be Juarez > s unnecessarily cruel 
vengeance upon Maximilian and his family. And then Lee Press- 
man exploded as he had with Hardman in Pittsburgh a year and 
a half before. He read Dorothy Jackson a lecture on the real 
world and the necessities of social law, and then clicked his heels 
together and said he could not reduce himself to her intellectual 
level and got into his big car and drove away. 

There is something almost ghostly about these sub-quarrels 
when one considers the life of Lee Pressman at the time he in- 
dulged them. He has said since that he joined the Communist 
Party in 1934 and left it in 1935. By his own account he was not 
even a Communist in these moments when he was so uncon- 
tained about the regrets and dottbts of Hardman and the Jack- 
sons. There is no evidence that Lee Pressman ever practiced the 
social ferocity he cherished so in his models. Still, these expres- 
sions have a Bolshevik source, and may be taken as evidence, 
not of good or evil in the character, but of an intellectual altera- 
tion of his own pattern to that of the Bolshevik hero who must 


demonstrate strength even when it is cruel and unnecessary. It 
was in this discipline to accept the Terror that Pressman marked 
himself as different from old-fashioned radicals like Hardman 
and Pat Jackson. 

He would thus appear to have accepted Lenin as his model 
with all the verbal consequences of that choice. The model was 
rare in the experience of American social protest, because it was 
an image of Christ inverted. The infant Christ confounded his 
teachers; the boy Lenin received word of his brother's execution 
for conspiracy against the Czar with the no-less-confounding ob- 
servation: "Very well, we shall have to find more efficacious 
means." Christ commanded his followers to love their enemies; 
Lenin commanded his followers to hate their friends if they were 
detected in the sin of being wrong. In peril of defeat, Lenin 
chose, not his own death, but armed repression of his opponents. 
He regarded the lie as a socially necessary weapon. He believed 
that at least one scoundrel was a valuable asset among his 
apostles; and, after all, even Judas was not a scoundrel. Christ 
recruited sinners with the hope of reclaiming them; Lenin hoped 
to turn their intact villainy to more useful pursuits. Both agreed 
that the thought of sin was equivalent to the act of sin itself; 
Christ forgave both and Lenin forgave neither. The disciplines 
of both religions are rigorous for ordinary men, too rigorous per- 
haps for all but ritual celebration and execration by Lee Press- 

But his shock at any dispute with the long-gone decisions of 
foreign revolutionaries and his inclination to the Communist 
line so long after he says he left the Party cannot be explained so 
much by loyalty to the American Communists as by devotion to 
the Soviet Union as the repository of the gospel in its highest 
form. History was enthroned there. Its gravitational tug explains 
better than anything else why Pressman could break with Lewis 
and Murray and anyone else, even against his own best interests, 
when the issue was adherence to them or adherence to the Soviet 
temple of history. Nothing held him but his own religious 

The wedge was not spoken of soon again, and Pressman and 
Jackson lived together civilly enough even though both must 


have been conscious that it lay between them. Jackson had by 
now moved over to Labor's Non-Partisan League, the CIO's po- 
litical arm and John Lewis' foreign office in his relations with 
Congress, the Republicans, and Democrats and other minor prin- 
cipalities. It was a place bound before long to do violence to Jack- 
son's innocence. Lewis, of course, had always regarded the labor 
movement as a solar system in which other men were petty 
planets revolving in an orbit determined by himself as sun, a 
concept which, without being excessively attractive, had at least 
some relation to reality. 

But Lewis thought of the world too in something of the same 
image. And it was not easy to function in politics at the direction 
of a man who pictured Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, and 
John Nance Garner as minor planets to be judged solely accord- 
ing to their degree of gravitation to himself as sun. Lewis had, 
after all, been a Republican as late as the 1932 electoral cam- 
paign. Through 1938 and 1939, he showed increasing outrage at 
the planet Roosevelt's tendency to shy off without regard to its 
appointed sun and was heard to talk more and more of returning 
to the Republicans. But his seemed a solitary tendency in the 
CIO. Its other leaders were warm New Dealers, none appearing 
more devout than the Communists, and they assumed that their 
chief was only bargaining. 

Then, in September, 1939, the war broke out in Europe close 
upon the rapprochement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet 
Union. CIO leaders like Sidney Hillman regarded the war a major 
crisis of freedom; the CIO's Communists, but lately the loudest 
of anti-fascists, now accepted Molotov's new thesis that fascism 
was a matter of taste and that this was a struggle of equally 
perfidious imperialisms. The CIO right shared Roosevelt's obvious 
sympathy with Britain and France; the CIO left called him a war- 

The better half of John L. Lewis was convinced that war was 
wicked, that what he called "this imbroglio" was far away and 
that the uproar about it was a diversion from our domestic social 
miseries. The worse half of John Lewis regarded the war as an 
invention of Franklin Roosevelt to escape his responsibilities to 
the CIO* Both halves of John Lewis were implacably neutralist 


He commenced to thunder against aid to Britain and France in 
terms that seemed almost pro-Nazi to the inflamed sensibilities 
of the CIO right. Still Lee Pressman remained not merely loyal 
but enthusiastic. A CIO lawyer met him returning from the 
West Coast, where he had heard Lewis rake the allies and the 
Democrats with equal impartiality, and commented, "My God, 
what a speech." And Pressman answered, "Yes, wasn't it wonder- 

All these things did not seem especially wonderful to Pat Jack- 
son, a committed anti-Nazi. One day, early in 1940, his doubts 
were increased. The late Laurence Duggan, of the State Depart- 
ment's Office of Latin American Affairs, presented Jackson with 
a document indicating that an international wildcatter named 
William Rhodes Davis had used his friendship with Lewis and 
other CIO men to persuade the Mexican government to sell him 
crude oil subsequently refined for the Nazis in Davis' plant in 
Hamburg, Germany. 

Davis was a peculiar companion for the Samson of American 
labor, and their friendship is an indication of Lewis' fine appreci- 
ation of anyone who appreciates him. Lewis had assisted Davis 
in getting pre-war oil leases from the Mexican government, which 
had some reason to prefer the CIO's advice to that of our own 
State Department. Davis' German holdings gave him a natural 
interest in international concord; after the fall of Poland in 1939, 
he persuaded Lewis to convey to the White House a "peace" 
offer from the Nazis. Subsequently Davis became a heavy con- 
tributor to the isolationist movements of the right and financed 
Lewis' 1940 broadcast for Willkie, the major theme of which was 

Jackson carried the story of Davis' exploitation of Lewis 
straight to a CIO board meeting. Lewis received it without com- 
ment. But afterward Lee Pressman came to Jackson and said 
something like: 

"I never want to see you again. You care only for individuals 
and not for the movement. And you are, besides, too old. The 
movement belongs to the young." 

Gardner Jackson went home, and, for most of that night, he 
could neither move nor speak. Pressman had ended for him as 


Sacco and Vanzetti had ended in death and darkness and viola- 
tion of innocence. He was not long thereafter for the CIO; when 
Lewis declared for Willkie in October, 1940, Pat Jackson had 
already gone, leaving behind him these words: 

"These are critical days when, more than ever, men seem to 
become captives of their personal ambition for wealth, social 
position and influence, and when their adventures in power poli- 
tics and in finance politics, both at home and in the international 
field, also make them captives." 

It was the sad envoi of the old breed of radical to the new one. 
And, having said his farewell, Pat Jackson picked himself up and 
began again as a Washington correspondent for the newspaper 

But Pressman went on in the CIO, endorsing Lewis' support 
of the Republicans and more and more the old man's strong left 
arm. In November, Lewis kept his promise to resign as president 
of the CIO if Roosevelt should be re-elected. By now the mo- 
mentum of his terrible engine had slackened. The CIO could 
report very few gains for the year 1940; it was torn by the hardly 
expressed but obvious rancor between its right and left factions. 
Philip Murray, harassed and shrinking from the great world, took 
Lewis' place as president of the CIO. But the shadows were not 
yet for Lewis; his name was still the symbol of the CIO. For Lee 
Pressman, as he escorted Murray to the great stage, there must 
have been a longing backward glance at Lewis exiting to the 
wings. But, even so, Murray found him useful as ever. 

There was, for example, the occasion in February, 1941, when 
Murray had to testify on President Roosevelt*s Lend-Lease Bill 
and was torn beyond the possibility of communication by the 
cleavage between Lewis, who had offered his daughter to the 
America First Committee, and Hillman, who was a government 
defense administrator, two captains of armed camps from which 
the Communists and their enemies glared across at one another. 
Murray had campaigned for Roosevelt even after Lewis bolted 
to Willkie. He was caught between loyalty to Lewis and his 
natural disposition to help the British. It was a situation that 
cried out for Pressman, who wns a Lewis man at least in shield 
and banner; and be a statemeat on Lend- 


Lease which was sublimely everything to everyone. Pressman by 
now had mastered a language which managed at once to seem 
crystal clear and absolutely opaque, and was therefore equipped 
for that balance of irreconcilable ideas so conspicuous in resolu- 
tions on foreign policy adopted by every CIO convention be- 
tween 1943 and 1947. 

He had commenced that slow slide from his first image of him- 
self which is for so many committed men the price of compromise 
and responsibility. He remained for the next six years as the 
quasi-official representative of the CIO's pro-Communist wing, its 
only figure who moved with equal authority into Philip Murray's 
office and into conferences with Roy Hudson, John Williamson, 
and others of the Party's labor consultants. And yet he was never 
safe, because he was after all only a technician representing no 
force but his own skill. 

The daily routine of this man, who once seemed so dedicated 
to the Bolshevik model that he could not resist lashing out against 
its doubters even in social conversation, became a business of 
balancing forces in the CIO and in himself that were in terrible 
irreconcilable conflict. He became the author of convention reso- 
lutions which said nothing and only deferred the final decision. In 
Murray's office and in discussions with the Communists alike, he 
fought a rear-guard action to preserve that hopeless state of 
things which alone protected him in all his fantasies: in power 
that was no real power, in success that was empty and transient, 
in allegiance to the jade history, who is especially merciless to 
those who think they are her very own. For the next decade, his 
life became a matter of choosing between impossibles, until he 
chose the last, emptiest thing left to him and threw that away 
too. Looking back on that decade, we can only say that he began 
with his faith intact; no one can say, in the mass of his contradic- 
tions, when Lee Pressman began to lose it. 

Lewis went first among Pressman's irreconcilables. He had 
remained Pressman's polestar until June 22, 1941, when the Nazis 
turned on the Soviets. The CIO's left and right were suddenly 
united in support of the war against fascism; before long John 
Lewis was alone, except for his miners. And Lee Pressman was 
not the last to leave. He knew the uses of argument with Lewis. 


And so he went to him in August and told him flatly that he 
could go with him no farther: 

*1 had one conversation with Mr. Lewis and that was in 
August, very shortly after Mr. Lewis had signed a statement 
with Herbert Hoover and some other people demanding that 
this country stay out of war. I went in to see him and said to him, 
'John, I can't go along with you when the logic of the situation 
puts you in the kind of company that you're in when you sign that 
document/ Lewis didn't say anything and I walked out and I 
just never came back."* 

John Lewis and Lee Pressman had this much in common: their 
fires were cold. They neither bled nor winced at the touch of the 
knife. And they had a cold going of it. By now, Lewis had larger 
losses on his mind. For his talent for deception was never as 
large as when he was exercising it upon himself; he had always 
been an original, and he did not function in rhythm with other 
men. In 1934, he had leaped ahead of reality; by 1939, he had 
begun the process of falling behind it. He did not understand that 
the CIO was no longer the thing of passion it had been and that 
nothing flares and sinks so suddenly as the flames in men. The 
time had come when most of his armies would troop behind other 
banners and he who had seemed a little while ago to speak for 
an entire new class of Americans would now appear to speak for 
a private interest 

In that lonely guise, he did not merely lose the CIO and fall 
back to his old fortress in the coal fields, but he lost some of his 
best even there because old miners like Murray, Allan Haywood, 
and Van Bittner chose Roosevelt above him. They, after all, were 

* Pressman offered this version of the end of the affair to Saul Alinsky on 
December 6, 1948 and it is a model of the disingenuous, Since December, 
1940, Lewis' daughter Kathryn, whose notable personal capacities have never 
appeared to impel her to a single deviation from her father's whims, had 
been a member of the America First Committee, in % company hardly more 
savory to Pressman than Herbert Hoover was. Until the Nazi invasion of the 
Soviet Union, Pressman had appeared thoroughly in concert with the 
Lewises. As a prior indication of difference with them, he has cited his part 
in Murray's February, 1941, statement on the Lend-Lcas* Bill, which might 
have been a happier selection if it had been his voice and not Murray's and 
if it had not been emasculated almost beyond communication, presumably 
by Pressman's own practiced hand. The statement was both weaker than 
Murray's real sympathy for aid-to-Britain and stronger than Lee Pressman's. 


his own flesh. Pressman was only a piece of baggage, and this 
defection was one of the least of his losses. Roosevelt had beaten 
him on his own ground. Loyalty is the flag and the Bible of the 
miners' union; its contests of the spirit have always been conflicts 
of loyalties. Haywood, Bittner, and Murray had been loyal to 
Lewis in the twenties, when he was certainly as wrong as he was 
in 1941. But then he had been the symbol of the only union and 
the only community they had. 

Now Lewis had extended his frontiers beyond the safe limit 
for an absolute monarch. The Murray who had been a viceroy 
had become an emperor on his own. His steel union had a stake 
in Roosevelt And what went deeper, Murray had never before 
been faced with a conflict between his devotion to Lewis and his 
devotion to the idea of national self-interest. Even Lewis could 
not expect to hold 'my Philip Murray' ' against the tug of the 

Lewis always had grandeur, and it remains the material of 
tragedy that this blinded Samson could change the face of 
America and unshackle three million families without under- 
standing that independence is a communicable disease and that 
his revolution had overthrown himself along with so many other 
economic despots. As men no longer felt compelled to leap at the 
bark of a foreman, Philip Murray no longer leaped to John Lewis' 
growl in the United Mine Workers' building. Faced with that 
family disaster, Lewis would hardly open his veins at the de- 
parture of an in-law like Pressman. And if, on his side, Pressman 
felt a wound, it came much later when he looked back upon his 
life and wondered where he had taken the wrong step and then 
missed the old man far, far more than he had in the hour of de- 

The months to come were those when Pressman made his value 
plainest to a Murray tearing himself from what was almost a bond 
of flesh and learning to walk without Lewis. Pressman shored 
him up and guided him, giving him confidence and stiffening his 
back against Lewis' cudgels. And when, in 1943, the crisis was 
over and Lewis had expelled "my former friend" from the miners, 
Murray thought that Pressman was an irreplaceable treasure. 

He moved thereafter to an increasingly lonely eminence. By 



his own account, he was still meeting with envoys from the Com- 
munists. But they were envoys in a very real sense, and he dealt 
with them as an independent power. They, like their enemies, 
assumed that Pressman's primary allegiance was to them. But 
he was so far above and beyond the Communists now that some 
of them, left to assume without direct proof that he was theirs, 
called him, with a kind of awe, ''Comrade Big/' 

The right detested him and did its best to reduce Murray's 
trust in him; the unvarying answer came back that Pressman had 
always done exactly what he was asked. He had come to that 
golden time for any man who has given himself as hostage to 
history, those moments when his own self-interest and the dic- 
tates of history seem to be running the same way. Pressman had 
by now smoothed over. His wrestler' s figure slipped easily into 
his tweeds. He had gone far past the Jacksons and the Hard- 
mans. Time appeared to have proved him right and them wrong; 
he seldom had occasion to lose his temper on theoretical issues. 

By 1944, the memory of John Lewis in the CIO was either 
cursed or departed, and Philip Murray held there a power and 
authority greater than Lewis had ever known. Murray's was an 
influence compounded partly of strength and partly of moral sua- 
sion, and Lee Pressman was cloaked in its mantle. He was power- 
ful, but he was not loved. Murray's associates cankered at every 
visible evidence of their new old man's affection for him, and 
Pressman's left allies were now too far beneath him for public 
fraternization. He could be seen at CIO conventions in those 
years, leaving one place and entering another with a sheaf of 
papers under his arm and his pipe in his mouth, sometimes with 
Murray but most often absolutely alone. 

By now, Lee Pressman had achieved an unusually rancorous 
assemblage of detractors. For years they had been proclaiming 
him a Communist Party member assigned to subvert the CIO. 
The language of these assaults, assuming they were unjust, was 
slanderous, if not libelous, for a lawyer in a confidential relation 
with a client like Murray; but Pressman showed no disposition 
to sue his enemies. His silence lifted the pitch of their attacks. 
Still Murray trusted him, and behind this shield he appeared 


But he did not hold that position without some cost to himself. 
It can be one of man's misfortunes to be remembered best for 
the things he did which were furthest from his own estimate of 
his character. And thus Pressman has left nothing behind him 
from his years of power except the resolutions he wrote for CIO 
conventions between the years 1943 and 1947. He managed there 
to contrive a rhetoric containing solace for both the Communists 
and their enemies in the CIO. He reached the apogee of this 
peculiar function in 1947, at his last CIO convention, when he 
constructed a foreign policy resolution which managed at once to 
endorse the Marshall Plan and not mention it by name. Pressman 
was against the Marshall Plan, but the situation had passed be- 
yond his powers; the import of the resolution was unmistakable 
and it was a terrible blow to the Communists, because the Mar- 
shall Plan was their special target at the time. 

These resolutions, the carefully oblique product of a hand once 
so sharp, are Lee Pressman's only monument, and it is a measure 
of his sense of reality that he must have sat up late over them 
and thought the degrees of their expression vastly important. In 
the reality of labor politics, nothing is less important than a 
resolution on national affairs passed by a union convention. At 
one miners' convention, John Lewis accepted the passage of a 
resolution inimical to his notions of the fit and the proper with 
the promise that it would go where all resolutions go. Murray 
regarded them as ritual offerings and was convinced that nobody 
read them. 

We cannot say whether, in all those years, Lee Pressman had 
a vision of himself subtly molding Philip Murray to his designs. 
Certainly many of Pressman's critics thought he was. But there 
is a sense in which power assures its possessor against making 
mistakes; Murray had great power, and Pressman had little. And 
it may be that, in this his zenith, Pressman was more Murray's 
instrument than Murray was Pressman's. This was a period at 
whose beginning the Communists might have destroyed Murray 
by mass secession of the unions they controlled. We have Press- 
man's own word that he counseled frequently with the CIO's 
left-wing leaders from 1943 through 1947. We may assume that 
his advice to the Communists was to contain themselves and 


depend on him to win Murray over. Whatever his intention, 
Pressman's advice was so bad that, in the end, the Communists 
were thrown out of the CIO with only a fraction of their former 

For the happy coincidence between guiding dream and per- 
sonal self-interest is seldom permitted any long life for the truly 
passionate. And, by 1947, Pressman's dream and the realities of 
the CIO were in hopeless conflict. The Soviet Union was chal- 
lenging the United States all over the world. The CIO was moving 
with increasing definition behind its government. Inside the CIO, 
the Communists were dropping back. They had lost all influence 
in the huge auto workers' union. Their smaller bases were either 
fragmenting or casting off their influence. After the 1947 CIO 
convention, only one of the CIO's eight vice presidents could be 
described as susceptible to left influence; the CIO itself was all 
the way over to support of President Truman's foreign policy. 

For just a little while longer Lee Pressman carried on, silent, 
invaluable as always, but invaluable in a function in which he 
had ceased to believe, his image and the reality having come so 
dreadfully in conflict. By now the Communists wore seceding 
from American political reality. They had declared war on the 
Democrats, and they had convinced former Vice President Wal- 
lace the same Wallace who had fired Pressman from the AAA 
to run for President on the Progressive Party ticket. In the spring 
of 1948, Philip Murray chose to make Wallace the test of loyalty 
to the CIO. He told Pressman that he was welcome to stay if he 
would abstain from supporting the Progressives, but that other- 
wise he would have to go. Pressman was ready for that choice; 
he very quickly said good-by to Murray and went forth to join 
the Communists in their last fight to survive as a political force. 
Before he went, he talked to the reporters in Pittsburgh. For 
the first time in his public life, he displayed an emotion besides 
anger or cool confidence; he was crying and it could not have 
been entirely because he had lost his shield, Murray held no press 
conference; those who saw him during the first few days after- 
ward found him unusually detached and inattentive and some- 
how as though what he had lost was important to him too, 
Murray sent Pressman off with the parting gift of a $i5,ooo-a- 


year retainer from the little Marine Engineers Beneficial Associa- 
tion and an assignment to handle the briefs for the CIO's legal 
challenge to one minor clause of the Taft-Hartley Act. It was a 
routine case, but Pressman and his co-counsel sent the CIO a bill 
for $83,000, which Murray paid with pain. In all save the big 
things, Lee Pressman still seemed to know how to take care of 

Pat Jackson was still in Washington. After Sacco-Vanzetti and 
after Lee Pressman, he had a hard time finding the assurance of 
a permanent commitment. He was a journalist; he worked with 
the co-operatives; he spent himself in causes ranging from civil 
liberties to the American Indian. And most of what he did, he 
did for nothing. In the small things Pat Jackson had never known 
how to take care of himself. 

Nat Witt had been in New York since the late thirties, still a 
Communist and practicing labor law. He and Pressman had been 
friends a long time, and theirs seemed a natural partnership. The 
pro-Communist unions appeared to welcome Pressman; he was, 
after all, their "gray eminence," although he was at first too 
occupied with Wallace's fortunes to practice much law. For a 
while, there was the illusion that the new life would be fruitful 
and important. The men around Wallace were less than first-class, 
and Pressman soon became a titan among them, a tennis partner 
for Wallace, and secretary of the resolutions committee of the 
1948 Progressive Party convention, where he performed his old, 
now empty, function of bridging the gap between the Com- 
munists and the remaining innocents who were with them on an 
increasingly lonely plain. He ran for Congress in Brooklyn, a 
wild campaign of hate against America, counterfeiting emotions 
he could hardly have felt, and losing badly. 

When it was over, Wallace had barely a million votes. Truman 
had been re-elected; bleat though it would, the Progressive Party 
could not disguise its end in dank disaster. In November of 1948, 
Lee Pressman awoke to find that he had fallen out of history. He 
had begun the private practice of law a little late; it was a con- 
tracting field for pro-Communist practitioners; his fellow left- 
wing lawyers paid their homage to economic determinism by 
sabotaging his career as best they could. He was not what he had 


been. This was a narrow world at the end of its tether, and no 
rational man could convince himself that it was related to the 

In December of 1948, Saul Alinsky, Lewis' biographer, came to 
see Pressman in his office. Very late in the interview, Pressman 
commenced to talk about how much Lewis had meant in his life 
and how much he would delight in seeing him again. That early 
in his new life, Lee Pressman was throwing lines across the wet 
deck and nobody would catch them. In November of 1949, he 
and Nat Witt dissolved their partnership; absolute silence sur- 
rounded the end of their long friendship, but it was obviously 
not amicable. There were rumors that Pressman had sought rec- 
onciliation with Philip Murray. 

Then the night covered him again until August of 1950, when 
he announced his resignation from the Progressive Party because 
he had discovered that it was under Communist control. This 
announcement had the peculiar cast of many of Lee Pressman's 
public utterances, which had a tendency to sound like Tallulah 
Bankhead essaying Little Eva; and it did not of course prevent 
the House Committee on Un-American Activities from swiftly 
visiting upon him its subpoena. 

One afternoon, just before he went to run his course before the 
committee, Pressman sat and talked about the meaning of his 
life. Who could have believed that it would come to this, he said, 
and that he of all men would guess so wrong? Henry Wallace 
was a former vice president of the United States. Truman was 
on the run. Who could have believed that the Progressives would 
get only a million votes? In hindsight, men have a deplorable 
tendency to excuse their mistakes by resorting to their enemies' 
image of themselves. Pressman's many enemies had always said 
that he served only his own advantage. After the Wallace disaster 
he might have argued that, in leaving the CIO, he had taken the 
chance of destroying his career for a principle- But he preferred 
to say that he had made the choice because he believed that the 
Wallace movement was great and powerful and that he was 
leaving the dying side for the living one. Even at the end, he 
wanted to think of himself as the victim of a bad guess rather 
than of a sacrifice to principle* 


He would stand henceforth, he said, for America and the 
United Nations in Korea. He said it flatly and with all the passion 
of a school child reciting the flag oath. But the tone was no indi- 
cation of unbelief. He was drained. He had lost the great dream 
of his life, and he could bring no passion to the dreams of other 
men. There were mines planted all along this new untraveled 
road of his choice; whatever guideposts there were had to come 
from within himself, where so little remained. And so he knew 
that this was a time, like so many other times, requiring economy 
of emotion. Once he spoke of Whittaker Chambers and he looked 
at the floor as though it were a thousand feet deep and a pit 
gaping for him as it had for so many others. 

Between the abyss of the right and the left, he set forth on the 
course prescribed by the House Committee on Un-American 
Activities, coolly and carefully and with terrible lacerations of 
his pride. There seemed somewhere back in his mind the notion 
that, if he could run it safely, things might be as they were when 
he was young and could tell Pat Jackson that he was too old. He 
had lived, after all, without sense of guilt or innocence; the one 
was not there to rouse, the other was not there to violate. He told 
the committee that he knew little which would assist it. He him- 
self had joined the Communist Party in 1934; there had been 
three other members of his group; they had studied the Marxist 
primers together. And, after a year, he had departed, Lee Press- 
man said, because he wanted freedom from all baggage. 

But he remained a fellow traveler until the Korean War be- 
gan. He had never discussed this lingering Bolshevik bent with 
either Murray or Lewis; he saw no reason why he should have. 
The committee received this story with the visible dissatisfac- 
tion of men who had anticipated prodigies of new material or 
corroboration, and there was about it a certain lack of amplitude 
even for persons not so involved as the committee. It had an 
incomplete sound, as though Pressman knew that respectability 
has its rituals, but that, if he must pay its price, the bones he 
would throw the dogs would be dry as dust. 

Alger Hiss was not one of those bones: Pressman declared that 
he had never known Hiss as a Communist when he himself be- 
longed to the Party cell in the AAA. This was a piece of inf orma- 


tion in which everyone seemed peculiarly uninterested. The Hiss 
case was on appeal, but it might ordinarily seem a trump for 
the defense to cite a witness who was there and hadn't seen Hiss. 
Yet the Hiss defense was silent on Pressman's testimony. Since 
then, another witness besides Chambers has put Pressman and 
Hiss together at Communist meetings in their Triple A period. 
But the committee on its side has made no suggestion that Press- 
man be indicted for perjury. 

No one could gain much pleasure if it had because, if Press- 
man's memory had failed him in this particular, it was not to 
serve his own advantage. For Pressman to have confirmed Cham- 
bers on Hiss might have restored his own fortunes if his fortunes , 
were all he cared about But, whether by chance or not, all the 
faces from that long-dissolved cell about which Pressman pro- 
fessed himself unable to confirm Chambers still had some slight, 
tenuous tie to the outside world. And the three men Pressman 
named as Communists were politically dead beyond any resusci- 
tation except by their own recantation or a world victory of the 

The bones he threw were his own bones. One was Charles 
Kramer, an economist, who had apparently meant little in Press- 
man's life. But another was John Abt, a Communist lawyer who 
had been his friend; and the last was Nathan Witt. They had 
been at Harvard together; Pressman had brought Witt to Wash- 
ington. Most men are capable of just one great friend. If there 
had been any such friend not of his blood in Lee Pressman's life, 
it must have been Nathan Witt. Witt accepted the news of Press- 
man's testimony with the comment that he had no comment at 
all. To him, it seemed as though Lee Pressman no longer existed; 
Pressman had lived by that standard and now he was perishing 
by that standard. There was the thought in some quarters that, 
after these formalities, the outward things might be as they had 
been for Lee Pressman. But if he waited for a call from Philip 
Murray, it never came. 

Not too long afterward, in fact, Philip Murray called Pat Jack- 
son and asked him to come back to work for the CIO. Pat had 
waited eleven years, a little too long for any absolute triumph of 
justice; but it seemed somehow a sign and a symbol, as though the 


old breed of radical must wait outside the door for years on end, 
but, if he waited long enough, it would open to him. 

Lee Pressman went on through what must have been for him 
the unchanging days, practicing law with his customary skill, 
far, far out of the main stream. Rumor still hung around his head; 
but his name came up, if it came up at all, more from old memory 
than from recent association. There were reports that Pressman 
was interested in Israeli real estate; an old enemy commented 
that he was still seeking history and a solid six per cent. 

Pat Jackson was the old breed of radical. It was a breed that 
knew disaster and pain and bereavement. But after all they were 
the disasters of others, and they had passed; and there were new 
endeavors and fresh disasters, because they are the way of life, 
and the art of life is to save enough of yourself from every disas- 
ter to begin again in something like your old image. 

Lee Pressman was, or thought he was, the new breed of radi- 
cal. His image was of the foreign revolutionary: all decision, all 
function, without pity or hesitation. Yet he could not live by that 
image; the reality of his life was a conflict with his dream. He 
was always a man in between. And so his disasters were his own; 
they were total, final, and irredeemable. They cost him not just 
a friend but his only friend, not just a dream but his only dream, 
and not just the sale of something dear but the sale of himself. 
And when the disaster had come to him, he could not even sum- 
mon up the memory of his past and say that, if it were all before 
him, he would live again to do what he had done. 


SHERWOOD ANDERSON wrote once about two mill girls 
whose life was so bare and whose environment so constricted 
that even the characters on a movie screen seemed alien to them. 
One of the girls wished that a Communist union would come to 
her mill. She had heard that Communist unions were the worst 
and she wanted the worst 

Such were the people anointed to inherit the triumphant dream 
of Lee Pressman and Whittaker Chambers. Zola in his Germinal 
thought of them as a black, avenging army which would come 
to overthrow the earth. Most of the persons in this book were 
not like this faceless god they worshiped. They responded as I 
have said to a music different from the rhythms heard by ordi- 
nary men. And still they thought themselves aware of every 
heartbeat of their time, and they read and discussed every in- 
terior short paragraph of the New York Times. 

But the avenging proletarian who was the protagonist of their 
dreams was often a man who knew the Times best in the mo- 
ments when it was most serviceable to clothe his body through a 
cold night on a park bench. His rhythms were not so much differ- 
ent from those of ordinary men as buried almost below his own 
level of consciousness. If he became a Communist, it was by 


coincidence; and less through commitment than from being essen- 
tially unconscious of what the Communist Party was. At the par- 
ticular moment of his contact with the Party he wanted only 
destruction, and that made him a symbol of hope to some and of 
terror to others. But the time came when he had something he 
wanted to preserve and then he became a person neither those 
who hoped nor those who feared could have imagined. For he 
was a fickle god, who wanted something very different from what 
his votaries wanted. 

There were never very many proletarian Communists who 
affected the social history of the thirties, and most of them were 
uneasy allies soon to depart. For they could not wipe out the 
past which they had brought to the Communists, a past to which 
almost any doctrine was alien and whose wounds and memories 
they would carry with them all their lives. 

To tell their story, I have chosen a group of sailors who became 
Communists or near-Communists, and, under that fancied unity 
of impulse, built the CIO National Maritime Union. They were 
largely untutored men, they were wanderers, and they came to 
the Communists as young sailors come to each fresh port with 
the dim hope that it might become home. They took the sea with 
them wherever they went. The sea is treacherous, it is pitiless, 
and it is alien to the land around it. It is not a place for strong 
loyalties and berths of long duration. The word shipmate does 
not mean the same thing as the word comrade. Men cooped up 
at sea begin on occasion to hate each other beyond reason before 
the voyage is over. And they can say good-by without a pang. 

I went to sea briefly in the thirties and was a transient member 
of the Communist fraction of the sailors' union on the East Coast, 
which went under the very perceptive name of the Travelers 
Club. I had joined among other reasons because the Travelers 
Club ran the union and was at the heart of things; I do not think 
I would have joined at any other time or any other place. And I 


was thus, like so many of my shipmates on this brief voyage, a 
Communist partly by coincidence and accident. 

The Communist sailors ended their brief hitch ashore as sea- 
men so often do, fighting with their fists in a little room. For a 
while the Communists ran the National Maritime Union, and 
then they were thrown overboard. The sea has accepted them 
and left very few traces behind. In searching for them and their 
story, I have talked to many remnants of those days and have 
read through the raw material of their national conventions and 
the records of their internal quarrels, a literature in which passion 
cries forth louder than is customary in documents of labor history. 

I am especially grateful to two secondary sources. The first is 
The Dark Ship, by Richard Boyer, a profile of the National Mari- 
time Union in 1945 when the Party still ruled the sailors; its 
author was a Communist, but it is a warm book, and there is a 
relevant irony in Boyer's faith that becoming Communists had 
wrought some moral rebirth in these bitter, rough, and alienated 
men. The other is Emile Zola's Germinal, which has its own 
special, ironic picture of the deep, conflicting passions of the men 
who would lead the working class and of the capricious army 
they hope to command. 

Most of all, this is a story of men who had learned to live with- 
out pity. And its primary figure is Joseph Curran, a boatswain 
and the kind of man who survives wrecks; and how he shipped 
out with the Communists until they changed the sailing orders 
and then said good-by with a curse. 

"It's Time to Go, I Heard 

Them Say . . ." 

Joe Curran and His Shipmates 

with the traitor," repeated a thousand voices, 
while stones began to whistle by. 

"Then he turned pale and despair filled his eyes with 
tears. His whole existence was crumbling down; twenty 
years of ambitious comradeship were freaking down be- 
neath the ingratitude of the crowd. He came down from 
the tree-trunk with no strength to go on, struck to the heart. 

" 'That makes me laugh,' he stammered, addressing the 
triumphant Eticnnc. 'Good! 1 hope your time will come. 
It witt come, I tell you!* * 

EMXLE ZOLA, Germinal 

*7 was not afraid became the membership is going to 
see. When the executive committee of the old ISU expelled 
me> the membership reinstated me; wlwn the Mariners 
Club expelled me, ilte membership reinstated me. Now the 
Communist Party is trying to get me expelled from the 
union, and I will get back the same way, 

"I have been a seaman only. 1 don't know what else to 
do. I witt be back:" 

HABRY ALEXANDER, renuirks at a meeting 
of the National Maritime Union, April 3, 

JOSEPH CURRAN is by nature a creature of habit and so it 
was his custom when shipping was slow- and it was iced over 
in the early thirties to settle down schooner-rigged on the 
streets of lower Manhattan. 


He spent his days around South Street, touring the offices of 
the shipping masters or washing dishes for a dollar a day; and 
his nights, if he had the thirty-five cents, at the Seamen's Church 
Institute or, if he hadn't, on his bench in Battery Park. He be- 
came, especially on the cold nights, a connoisseur of the public 
prints. Men reduced to the custom of sleeping on park benches 
soon learn to stuff newspapers inside their coats as a weather- 
break. For all purposes, even this simple utility, the New York 
Times was well ahead of its competitors. That made Joe Curran a 
Times man. 

But nothing shoreside could have reached his inner self, neither 
the homilies at the Institute nor the leaflets the Communists 
passed out. Any printed word that touched him was in a manual 
on seamanship. At a time when the craft of the sea was worth 
less in America than ever before, Joe Curran was a seaman by 

His father had died before he was born. He was an orphan in 
that word's ultimate sense. By 1936, for fourteen of his thirty 
years, he had been shipping on deck, a world with no room in it 
for woman or child or friend, for the seaman was alone among 
strangers. It was a world whose survivors, if they were soft, be- 
came crying drunks and, if they were hard, were harsh and piti- 
less by necessity, never again with ordinary people's doubts, 
quavers, and regrets. 

4 Joe Curran was not one of the soft ones. He was six feet two 
inches tall and weighed 220 pounds. One of his biographers has 
compared the sound of his voice to the ripping of canvas; his 
craggy head was already bald from a strange Pacific fever. His 
nose was seamed from unfriendly blows; his fingers looked the 
width of hawsers. His back still had its moment of unease from 
one wild and terrible night at sea when a crazed sailor had hit 
him with an ax. 

And he knew the consequences of command; in size and skills 
he was the sort of hand a master would pray for in those days, 
and he sailed most often as boatswain or deck-gang foreman. As 
he remembers himself then, Joe Curran was not an easy straw 
boss and he did not allow a sloppy deck. The crews under his 
command ran abnormally to drifters and floaters, sodden with de- 


feat and contemptuous of their calling. Curran could handle the 
performers among them; far, far more he hated the talkers and 
the sea lawyers. 

In those days, the Industrial Workers of the World still main- 
tained a vocal, if non-functional, influence in the merchant ma- 
rine, and some of Curran's least pleasant recollections of the 
boatswain-seaman relationship arose from the disparity between 
his own and a Wobbly's conception of a fair day's work. 

One verbally active but otherwise somnolent syndicalist so 
tortured Curran with his unabashed malingering on one trip that 
Joe finally told him that he couldn't do a sailor's job if he wanted 
to. This touched the Wobbly in some submerged class-conscious 
deep, and he replied that he was a better seaman than Curran 
would ever be. Curran at once challenged him to execute a sim- 
ple splice and had the satisfaction of returning an hour later to 
find his tormenter still struggling with the rope. 

But then, Joe Curran's notion of a simple splice would be less 
minimal than that of most of us. At a time when most sailors 
crammed for the elementary ropcwork required for an able- 
bodied seamen's ticket and let the rest go, he was a tier and 
splicer of such virtuosity that he is still occasionally called upon 
to lecture on the art of knotmaking. Ever since then, the IWW 
has persisted in citing Curran as a buckbreaking straw boss in 
his sailing days, a derogation he blames on that old quarrel. The 
Wobblies hung on Curran the nickname "No-Coffee-Time Joe" to 
indicate that he was a boatswain so disdainful of employee rela- 
tions as to deny the crew even its traditional right to knock off 
fifteen minutes for coffee twice a day.* 

But all this special strength and these special skills were worth 
no more to Joe Curran than at most an infrequent sixty-five dol- 

* The fact that Curran was a boatswain before he became a union leader 
might impel the careless reflection that, in times when management is un- 
inhibited by unions, the finest sons of the working class begin by larruping 
their mates across the back. Actually most labor leaders are drawn from 
superior workers in their craft; unions have a rough merit system. Walter 
Reuther was a diemakcr; Philip Murray was offered a place in management 
before he became a figure in the miners' union; David Dubinsky was a 
skilled garment cutter, Curran made boatswain because he was a man of 
capacity; most persons who achieve anything of substance bring a certain 
pride of performance to the worst calling they fall into. 


lars a month. There were seamen who were half vagrants and 
there were sailors like him. The end, for the fit and the unfit, was 
a bench in Battery Park. He had made all the formations. He was 
a worthy young man. And he had no more to show for his virtues 
than any old piece of salvage grifting in a South Street gin mill. 

The sense of all this came to him, if it came at all, filtered 
dimly through the stiffness of his limbs and the compulsions of 
the meal he had skipped and the meal he had to get. Joe Curran 
stands for every seaman; and, twenty years ago, he was an indi- 
vidual of massive truculence accepting the pattern of a group 
which seemed committed to an habitual, almost hereditary, sub- 
mission. To work on a ship, it was assumed that the sailor ac- 
cepted the shipowner's terms. Those terms included food just 
above the Maritime Commission's minimum standards for the 
avoidance of scurvy; average wages of a little under two dollars 
a day; a corn-cob mattress if it was a good ship; and a twenty- 
eight-man forecastle unless it was a very good one. And, for all 
this, the seaman had to bribe or crawl before the shipping agent 
he called the crimp or stand at the pierheads in all weathers 
trusting some mate to pick him from the herd. 

The sailor had no sense of the community and the community 
had no sense of the sailor. Down in those depths, a different sort 
of man was being created, rootless, kinless, and unforgiving, to 
whom words like mercy and gratitude were from another lan- 
guage, never to be translated because never experienced. He was 
off limits to all save the dedicated, remembered by no one from 
the outside world except the artist and the evangelist, clerical or 
revolutionary. The attitude of ordinary society was nowhere 
better indicated than in the American Federation of Labor's In- 
ternational Seamen's Union (ISU), which had perhaps 800 mem- 
bers and an even smaller perspective of its possibilities. 

The Communists came to the waterfront very early, and, for 
a long while, what they did and what they said seemed to make 
very little difference. When Joe Curran was washing dishes for 
his supper, the Communists held out as his salvation the Marine 
Workers Industrial Union, which said very flatly that he could 
hope for nothing else under capitalism and that his solitary es- 
cape was to follow "the path beaten out by the Russian workers." 


More than anyone else in America, the depression seamen 
might have been expected to accept this unvarnished doctrine, 
but in the mass they paid it no attention. If they listened at all, it 
was to agree with the AFL that the Marine Workers were Com- 
munists and with the Marine Workers that the AFL was larce- 
nous. They stayed away from both. The Communists, by mere 
activity, managed to arouse a little more interest than the AFL 
did, but, between them, these rival unions never before 1934 
attained a membership embracing more than five per cent of the 

Joe Curran, that Everyseaman, does not appear to have main- 
tained any consistent connection with either. But there were a 
precious few who joined the Marine Workers and almost auto- 
matically passed over to the Communist Party, and they were to 
be the fathers of a revolution. The first among them was Thomas 
Ray, a spare, silent, already gray man, who had made his trip to 
Moscow and returned with plenipotentiary powers as American 
seamen's representative to the Red Federation of Trade Unions. 

Ray sat among the infidels, a starveling ambassador of a great, 
faraway presence, failing with the many but succeeding with he 
did not know how important a few. For all his credentials, Mos- 
cow appears to have forgotten Ray very soon; he had to do with 
the little he had. It has been a very long time since Tommy Ray 
believed that he and his few comrades were any vanguard of the 
black army that would overthrow the earth, and the loss of that 
belief is a great one for any man. But he knows something he did 
not know then: who he was and who they were and why they 
became Communists. 

"Nobody," said Tommy Ray a few years ago, "has ever written 
the story of the maritime industry of why they go to sea and 
why they come back to it, of why they drink and the life they 
live in port. You can go to sea with a man for twenty years and 
never know where he comes from. He doesn't tell you. There's 
no place for a sailor to go. Even now, if you go through West 
Street or Soulii Street, you see kids doing what we did, gassed 
up with no place to go. Then along comes somebody and takes 
an interest in you, 

"You find a home, you find other people, your life seems to 


get a purpose, you get a religion. In a sense you are a new man. 
But I suppose you're not really a new man, not really." 

Any insurgent religion, good or bad, makes its first converts 
among people capable of large feelings of love or hate. And 
there were not many sailors, granted the life they lived, who 
could bring to this particular religion the capacity for universal 
love. There were more who understood universal hate. 

Hedley Stone, a scrawny, thirty-eight-year-old able-bodied sea- 
man, already older than most of his shipmates after twenty years 
on and off the decks, came off the North Atlantic run of a luxury 
ship in the winter of 1934 with just $34.75 in his pocket and 
joined the Communist Party. 

"I was alone and I was single and I was full of hate and up to 
my neck with the rottenness of things. No one had to tell me I 
was treated badly or paid too little. All the guy had to say to me 
was, 'Look at what the shipowners made and what you made/ " 

Harry Alexander, engine-room water-tender, became a Com- 
munist too; to this squat man with a mouth like a catfish, there 
was no other place where people even talked about the condi- 
tions of his trade that were his single obsession. Harry Alexander 
was a Communist for nearly thirteen years; there is no evidence 
that he ever read the Party's prophets. His world was bounded by 
the bulkheads of his engine-room; his mind was a cavernous 
receptacle for every detail of what it was to work on a ship. Al- 
ways he was a seaman only; not long ago he quit his union office 
to go back to sea. 

The Marine Workers Union won few and meager victories, but 
Harry Alexander was responsible for the greatest of them. In 
Baltimore, in February of 1934, he called together 700 beached 
seamen and pledged them not to sign aboard any ship except 
through what he called the Centralized Shipping Bureau. For 
that little while, Alexander ran the only union hiring hall on the 
East Coast waterfront. Negroes and Filipinos were admitted as 
equals with no test for shipping berths except the length of their 
waiting time on its roster. Wages were raised fifteen dollars a 
month. Then the shipping companies began boycotting the port 
of Baltimore and starved out Alexander's first experiment with 
the system that is the backbone of the sailors' unions today. 


Alexander and Stone were the apostles of the here and now, 
enlisted by default in the army of the future. There were others 
to whom Lenin was to be eternal sacred writ. Messman Charles 
Keith became for the waterfront Communists a kind of wander- 
ing evangelist, living on roots and bark; he would sign on a ship 
in Baltimore and jump it in New York after one night's prayer 
for the social salvation of his shipmates. He followed his dream 
to be wounded in the Spanish Civil War and came back to the 
ships, and was driven eventually from the Communist Party, 
never, never to be reconciled to his loss. 

They were all different men, but they shared awhile the same 
impulse, every sailor's common search for a harbor he can carry 
with him wherever he goes. And their great strength was neither 
in doctrine nor tactic; it was the fact that they were a very few 
people who knew each other in an industry where every man 
was a stranger to the bunk beneath him. 

"An organization," says Tommy Ray, "is people who know one 
another," presumably in a world of strangers. 

But their time was not yet upon them, and the world of their 
dreams was not a real one. They marched in May Day parades 
and turned out for hunger demonstrations and hurled impreca- 
tions upon the treason of the AFL, but only the very few listened. 
For only the very few, even in the trough of depression, even 
among its worst victims, ever listen to the dream of revolution. 

In triumph, men polish their early defeats into epic conflicts. 
After the ascendancy of the National Maritime Union in 1937, 
the Communists who were writing its history gilded over the 
largely rhetorical struggles of the Marine Workers and presented 
them as a revolutionary precursor of the NMU, with wider in- 
fluence and victories more glorious than they had ever known 
in real life. The veterans of the Marine Workers Union carried 
the scars of heroic old Bolsheviks, a status which did not protect 
most of them from expulsion from the Communist Party in 1945. 

A revolution requires of its leaders a record of unbroken in- 
fallibility; if they do not possess it, they are expected to invent it 
Joe Curran never claimed to be any pillar of the Marine Workers, 
so the Communists claimed it for him* A Communist NMU vice 
president named Joe Stack cited himself on no visible evidence 


as a veteran both of the Marine Workers and of six months in a 
Nazi concentration camp. Ferdinand Smith and Blackie Myers, 
for years the NMU's two highest Communist officials, both pro- 
fessed to have been stalwarts of the Marine Workers. 

"Smith and Myers weren't members of the Marine Workers,'* 
says Ray. "They all claim it. I don't know why. I guess it's a badge 
of honor. So what do you do with a badge of honor?" 

But, in the early thirties it was a badge neither of honor nor of 
power. These lonely shipmates struggled on until first Moscow 
and then Washington permitted them a grasp at the real world. 
By 1934, Hitler had come to power and the Soviet Union was 
searching the West for allies. The Communist International be- 
gan indicating the discovery of certain virtues in democratic 
capitalism, and it was no longer necessary for every good Com- 
munist to begin by asserting that the revolutionary path of the 
Russians was the only one possible. The Roosevelt administration 
had passed the National Recovery Act, with its asserted guaran- 
tee of the right to form unions. The West Coast sailors and long- 
shoremen had already erupted in a violent and successful strike. 
The Marine Workers had stood outside society bombarding it 
with Bolshevik paper; they were now permitted to set aside the 
slogans of revolution and seek unity with the AFL to reform the 
here and now. Tommy Ray invited the AFL International Sea- 
men's Union (ISU) to join with the Marine Workers to rescue 
the East Coast. The response was silence. 

For the ISU was near the end of its career of poverty and neg- 
lect and its leaders felt no need for assistance from inconvenient 
quarters. In December, 1934, the East Coast shipping companies, 
hearing the rumble of the West Coast drums, called in the ISU 
and conferred upon it nominal control of their crews. The ISU's 
leaders set the initiation fee at ten dollars and battened their 
hatches against any destructive effects from the incoming golden 
tide by voting themselves power to expel any disturber of the 
peace. Joe Curran and some 13,000 other seamen came in. 

Their dues entitled them to watch union meetings over which 
Dave Grange, an Oxonian West Indian who was the ISU's de 
facto president, kept order with a .45 pistol as his gavel. Other- 
wise, nothing was changed; an able-bodied seaman still earned 



fifty-five dollars a month and still begged his berth from a ship- 
ping agent Nothing seemed likely to change. 

By now, Tommy Ray seemed forgotten by Moscow and almost 
everyone else. There was no choice for him and his few com- 
rades except to dissolve the Marine Workers and go into the ISU. 
So Ray did the only thing he knew how to do; he left San Pedro, 
cadged a little office on Irving Place in New York, borrowed 
twelve dollars and put out a leaflet. He called it the ISU Pilot; 
it ran to eight mimeographed pages, and it cost a nickel when 
he could sell it. He composed it all by himself, and, across the 
top of its first issue, he wrote: 


The old slogans were gone, and in their place Tommy Ray 
had put an ancient chant rooted in lost time, the sailor's half-sad, 
half-relieved farewell to the harbor just before the heaving of the 
lines. Maybe for the first time, Joe Curran could pick up a piece 
of paper and see himseE For Tommy Ray was writing about 
grievances he did not have to manufacture and he was on his 
way. But he was still moving only the very few. No wall was 
ever thrown down by a piece of mimeograph paper; Ray's Pikt 
began with only 400 readers and it would be almost a year be- 
fore enough people would give him the fifty dollars he needed to 
print it every week. 

Still, the Pikt held the Communists together. They took the 
short runs to the coastwise cities to argue all night in the fore- 
castles. They caucused together before every ISU meeting, and 
they turned those normally soporific sessions into nightmares of 
parliamentary sabotage and resolutions inimical to the public 
safety. But, beyond those few gaudy nights and one short strike 
in Philadelphia, they had nothing of substance to show all 
through 1935. There were only a few rumbles, very far away, 
when Grange went to Washington in February of 1936 to ne- 
gotiate a new contract to fix the wages of able-bodied seamen 
at $57.50 a month. 

Grange was still in Washington when word came that there 
was trouble in San Pedro: the 25o~man crew of the SS California 
had refused to cast off without a five-doUar-a-month raise. For a 


while, Grange couldn't even find these rebels; he finally reached 
them at a telephone in a butcher shop a mile and a half from 
their pier. Grange told the voice so far away and in a state of 
mutiny to go back to work, and it rasped back, "Go to hell; you 
sold us out." It was the voice of boatswain Joe Curran. 

So Dave Grange turned to the White House and induced 
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to come out from a Cabinet 
dinner and reason with the distant voice of the avenging army. 
Joe Curran was having his first experience with the exalted of 
the earth. There is no public record that his truculence was abated 
by the contact. Madame Perkins promised her good offices, and 
Joe Curran let her stand holding the phone in her evening dress 
for thirty minutes while he and his mates argued in the butcher 
shop for half an hour before deciding to accept her pledge and 
take the ship back home. 

They brought the California back to New York, where sixty- 
four of them were fired, and Joe Curran walked off in his black 
stocking cap with no pause except to stammer a few words to 
the movie cameras. They all moved up to Ninth Avenue and 
announced a general seamen's strike. The ISU replied by calling 
them all Communists and expelling Ray, Curran, Alexander, and 
ten others. No more than fifty ships followed Curran's lead; they 
were not enough. The strike was broken. 

Three years later, Joseph P. Ryan, president of the AFL long- 
shoremen, was to provide his own history of that first defeat: 

"We got some money from the shipowners. , . . We said 
'Give us money; we are going to fight them/ We got the money 
and we drove them back with baseball bats where they belonged. 
Then they called the strike off." 

Joe Ryan's bats had driven Curran to the only corner where 
he could find friends. The shoreside Communist Party awoke to 
find that this field it had neglected was burgeoning with fruit; 
it enticed Bob Hope and a cluster of other actors to a Madi- 
son Square Garden strike-fund rally, and its fronts gave all they 
could. In the spring of 1936, Joe Curran marched in the Com- 
munist May Day parade; he was walking with the committed. 

And he was back that October fomenting another East Coast 
shipping strike. The crews began pouring off. Dave Grange 


called them to Cooper Union, near Skid Row, on October 30, for 
the last time to preach to them care and caution and moderation. 
He had lost some of the imperial edge by now; he had been 
caught $144,000 short in his accounts, and it seemed more politic 
to leave the .45 at home. 

They sat there, 1,500 of them, hour after hour and roared at 
him and pitched pennies at him, until at last Grange turned out 
the lights and went home. Then, while the sailors sat hushed in 
the chill and the dark, flashlights began going on all over the 
hall, the doors were opened and Curran and Ray and Alexander 
and the rest of the strike committee came in with their coats 
buttoned to their chins and their faces lit up by those sweeping 
torches. Curran moved the strike; Hedley Stone, leaning against 
a pillar, called out the second and the affirmative voices of their 
army rolled back at them. 

After that, the seamen came up out of the avenging earth for 
a strike that lasted ninety-nine days and killed twenty-seven men 
before it was over. We do not have strikes like that any longer. 
The old soldiers of this one remember their feats in it with ad- 
vantages, stripping their sleeves and showing their scars, half- 
believed and themselves almost unbelieving after all the quiet 
years in between. 

They struggled with policemen on horseback; they scrounged 
for food around the markets; they slept in flophouses and they 
were beaten by AFL professionals who hunted them like rabbits 
around the piers. They hung on through days of cold, hungry 
battle when each was prouder of himself than he could ever be 
again, days he could recall as successive cantos of an epic where 
he and all the others were heroes* Joe Currant head acquired 
another spike wound and was hit once by a billiard cue; but all 
those strokes had the ineffectuality of the intermittent shots from 
a beaten rearguard. At the end the seamen had destroyed the 
ISU and set up the National Maritime Union. 

They joined the CIO at their first convention; Joe Curran was 
chairman and Tommy Ray was secretary* The revolution was 
achieved but still the Communists held together, caucusing be- 
fore every meeting, united on the floor, writing, presenting, and 


passing the resolutions the Party expected from a mass organi- 
zation. And the Party's fraction ran the NMU. 

There was a period, in the early days, when Curran and the 
other seamen swung back and forth between the Communist 
fraction and a right-wing group which called itself the Mariners 
Club. That hesitation ended in 1938 when Curran swung to the 
Communists under the impact of evidence that the Mariners 
were financing their activities with shipowners* money. Most of 
the Mariners had been active in the 1936 strike; they were appar- 
ently accepting assistance from the same companies they had 
fought so desperately just two years before. 

The Communists explained the Mariners* defection with the 
assumption that these first fallen heroes had been in the pay of 
the enemy all along. Curran believed that explanation and the 
sailors agreed with him. But life is never that simple; sailors in a 
bar will take their help wherever they can find it. There is a 
moment in Germinal where Zola discovers two rivals for leader- 
ship of the striking miners suddenly surprised by a chill dislike 
deeper than any disagreement over doctrine: 

"The two men no longer shouted, having become bitter and 
spiteful, conquered by the coldness of their rivalry. It is at bot- 
tom that which always strains systems, making one man revolu- 
tionary in the extreme, pushing the other to an affectation of 
prudence, carrying them in spite of themselves beyond their true 
ideas into those parts men do not choose for themselves/* 

That is so often the fate of the committed, to swirl and hate 
past reason before a host of bystanders. The Mariners were 
stoned out, as Grange had been stoned out. The Communists 
and Curran closed ranks for eight uneasy years and then the 
process began again. 

The years to come were quiet on the surface, but slowly these 
men, Curran and the Communists, were becoming a little differ- 
ent from what they had been. Charlie Keith came back from his 
Spanish hospital to find fresh and unremembered faces filling the 
waterfront section of the Party he had left behind him. Half 
unconsciously, the Party had become the vehicle for the young 
man of conventional ambition. The Communists made the deci- 


sions and assigned the offices. Membership in the waterfront 
section of the Party had become more necessary for the careerist 
in the NMU than the Rotary Club could ever hope to be in more 
ordinary societies. Even in 1937, there were ports whose water- 
front Communist section included every local official of the NMU 
and not a single rank-and-file seaman. 

And these were Communists of a different sort Tommy Ray 
was known all over the coast as a symbol of the Party. For rea- 
sons of discretion, it seemed best for him to avoid high union 
office. He went into the shadows, thin and fading in his shabby 
black suit, unnoticed by the newcomers and kept on for research 
assignments because Curran trusted him above all others. And 
there were other veterans uneasy in peacetime; Harry Alexander 
dropped lower in the hierarchy, turning more and more often 
back to the sea, happier out of headquarters. 

Paddy Whelan, one of the oldest of them, a Communist and 
the son of a Wobbly, built the union in Baltimore almost by him- 
self; and, when it was done, he commenced to drink and growl 
and drifted back to the boiler room to die at length on the 
Murmansk run in World War II and regain a posthumous glory 
from his old comrades* The government named a Liberty Ship 
after Patrick Whelan during the war. It became a staple Com- 
munist legend that he had died of machine-gun wounds snarling 
at the Stukas, TH get those krauts yet/' His friends preferred a 
report that Paddy had gone out riding a piece of driftwood 
shouting "Hi-yo, Silver/* the old unhousebroken Adam to the 

They were not weak men or soft ones, those ground breakers 
for what was now a temple, but they were not conformists either; 
they had no real wish to be sextons; they consumed themselves 
because essentially they were without personal ambition. 

They were fading away, and the shoreside Communist Party 
was very happy to deal with their less complicated successors. 
The NMU had by now become an edifice of heroic proletarian 
myth; with the war, John Howard Lawson, Hollywood's leading 
Communist, wrote a movie about the sailors on the North At- 
lantic. Richard Boyer completed a book on the National Maritime 
Union, its major thesis the idea that being a union leader and a 

"lT ? S TIME TO GO, I HEABD THEM SAY . . ." 99 

Communist can transform an ordinary man into an early Chris- 

By now, there was a new kind of waterfront Communist, home 
from the sea and with no special urge to return. In that way, he 
was unlike the sailors he led; the mass of them never became 
Communists and few of them really cared about running for 
union office, because their wants were either too large or too 
small to be satisfied in any permanent berth. There were only 
500 Communists in the National Maritime Union even when it 
had 90,000 members; most of them held union offices; the Party 
had become the commitment of bureaucrats. 

NMU Secretary-Treasurer Ferdinand Smith became the orna- 
ment of a hundred Communist fronts, a graceful, ineffably su- 
perior West Indian, adorning the boards of dinner after dinner. 
NMU Vice President Blackie Myers, a jaunty veteran of in- 
numerable gallantries in the 1936 strike, was made a member of 
the Communist Party's National Committee; he took to coming 
late to the office with the excuse of meetings of high policy with 
Earl Browder; and his expense accounts got bigger and bigger. 
The NMU was building a $350,000 headquarters on the West 
Side of Manhattan. It was wartime; society needed the seamen 
now. Their pay and their bonuses went onward and upward with 
no semblance of the old harsh combat. And nobody noticed that, 
somewhere at the core, people were going soft and that it was 
harder and harder even to pay men to go out and organize what 
ships remained -outside the union. For there were thiugs you 
could not buy. Blackie Myers spent $170,000 to unionize the 
Isthmian Steamship Line and ended up with nothing. A reformed 
and resurgent AFL sailors' union was shaming the NMU wher- 
ever there was a contest. 

Joe Curran had grown up now. He was married and had a son. 
He moved to Riverside Drive and was off on that road to do- 
mestic stability which would take him from Long Island up to a 
farm in Westchester County. He was becoming part of the com- 
munity. For him, as for all sailors, today had become far better 
than he had ever expected it to be. 

Curran worked at his job as few of the others did. The Com- 
munists still held him up as a stately monument of the proletarian. 


But in those years, he must have felt that his office as president 
of the NMU had about it aspects of reign without rule and that 
it was Myers* union more and more. Hedley Stone was still 
treasurer of the union; the rest of the old Bolsheviks slipped far- 
ther and farther down the scale, Curran could not know how 
much these half-captors of him and all the other seamen had 
come to hate one another. 

But then there came a time, out of the blue, one morning in 
the fall of 1943, when Blackie Myers walked into Curran's office 
and announced that Stone, Alexander, and Tommy Ray were 
fascists and Hitler lovers plotting a strike to sabotage the war and 
destroy the union. The surface of his charge was Stone's conduct 
of a minor quarrel with a shipping line, but its root was much 
deeper. Myers said then that he was a patriot and Stone an 
enemy of national unity, but that was hardly what he meant 
Stone, Ray, and Alexander were the old and he was the new, and 
they were quarreling in the deeps of spiteful rivalry. In other 
times they would caU him a Communist and he would call them 
agents of the shipowners, for the issue was buried far below 

That first morning Stone looked back at Myers and said at last, 
slowly and softly, "You know, Blackie, I would as soon kill you as 
look at you/' Their voyage together had come to this sudden, 
hate-swarming end. They could not even say why; they could 
only look at each other, these two sworn comrades, across an 
infinite distance with nothing between them but the word 

And then, the five top officers of the National Maritime Union, 
all of them Communists but Curran, sat in that locked office and 
fought for six hours* Afterward the thing most of them remem- 
bered best was the long minutes when they sat silent and looked 
at the floor. At the end, Myers began to cry and say that his 
nerves were unstrung and that he wasn't himself. Then they all 
went out to a gin mill, and for a while there was peace without 

They remained nearly two more years, inextricably tied to- 
gether in that embrace of hate, which can be as strong as love 
and which can take longer to resolve* They carried out their 


quarrel away from Curran and the other sailors, inside the water- 
front section of the Communist Party, to the death of all fra- 
ternity. Land-based Communists like William Z. Foster and 
Eugene Dennis came around to mumble irrelevancies about the 
necessity for a new program. But these were sailors fighting in 
the forecastle, and you could not quiet them with a lecture on 
navigation. They had passed to those reaches where a man does 
not know what he is doing, from which no doctrine or appeal to 
brotherhood can call him back. And there they chewed one an- 
other up and spit one another out. At the end, in 1945? NMU 
Vice President Jack Lawrenson, Stone, Keith, Ray, and Alexander 
had all been expelled from the Communist Party; the revolution 
had devoured its parents. 

Stone was to say later that he could never again think of a 
Communist without thinking of a cockroach. He and Alexander 
and Ray turned on the ashes and never looked back with longing 
again. But Keith and Lawrenson, perhaps as long as they lived, 
could not help looking back, because they were the committed 
and they had become Communists because they dreamed of the 

A year after his expulsion, Keith arose at an NMU meeting and 
began to talk about what it had once meant to be a Communist 
in the long-gone shadows of the forecastles, remembering all 
alone and grieving his loss. 

"But these people," he finished, "violate the principles of the 
union and the principles of communism. They are betraying the 
traditions of Communists on the waterfront." Keith paused and 
his eye fell on Howard McKenzie, one of the NMU's Communist 
vice presidents: ". . . and men like McKenzie cannot even come 
to work on time/* 

Keith was longing for a tradition that was alien to Curran and 
to most of the other sailors; this was a quarrel that few of them 
understood. Both the Communists and those they had cast out 
continued to exalt Curran as a symbol; in 1946, the sailors re- 
elected Curran, Stone, Lawrenson, and all the Communists to 
their old union posts. The passion of their quarrel had not yet 
destroyed the habit patterns of the NMU's membership. 

But then Curran threw in with the apostates, and together 


they threw the waterfront section out. For the time had come for 
Joe Curran when he had the world he wanted, and the dreams 
of his old Communist shipmates seemed to him irrelevant when 
they were not destructive of that world. They thought of them- 
selves as his creators, and he became their destroyer. Roaring, 
rasping, and unsleeping, he fought them and beat them in union 
meetings month after month up and down the coast The sailors 
could look uncaring at a brawl between Communists and ex- 
Communists, but they looked at Curran and saw a mirror of 
themselves, and his passion became their passion. And after 
their last long fight there arrived for the Communists in the NMU 
the moment that had come to Grange, to the Mariners, and to so 
many others, when they looked upon the seamen, row on tossing 
row, and saw no pity. 

And none was more pitiless than Joe Curran, who had been 
their symbol and was now their master. By the summer of 1948, 
the National Maritime Union did not have a single officer who 
was a Communist, and only Lawrenson and Keith remained to 
remember the old lost flame with anything except disgust. 

In the end, Keith and Lawrenson had to go too, because they 
were not men comfortable in peace and order. Curran, by now 
implacable, put through an amendment to the union constitution 
ordering the expulsion of all present and future Communists. 
Keith and Lawrenson fought against it and were never recon- 
ciled. On Thanksgiving of 1949, they rallied their followers for 
one more battle in the streets and seized the union headquarters. 
For one more night, Joe Curran came back to stand unmoved 
on a platform while the sailors roared him down too, smoking a 
cigarette and smiling a cold smile with bits and splinters of the 
woodwork flying about his head as they had flown around so 
many others'. 

But Curran did not walk away and, before very long, he beat 
them too. Then Keith went and Lawrenson was defeated and 
with them passed the last organized segments of the army of the 
future. They had been shipmates for a very long time, but there 
is no record that anyone said good-by to anyone else* 

Tliere were never very many Communists in the National 
Maritime Union. Their departure did not leave any special void; 


if you did not know that they had been tihere, there would be no 
way of telling now. Keith was a house painter when last heard 
from; most of the orthodox Communists have been blacklisted out 
of the merchant marine, although a very few still buffet around 
the waterfront for occasional berths with non-union or foreign 
lines, because they do not know what else to do. 

It is very peaceful at the NMU's great hall on Seventeenth 
Street these days. The men in charge of its New York port head- 
quarters seem too young even to lie about their wounds from 
1936. Every now and then one of the old performers has himself a 
ball around headquarters, drunk but orderly, and his juniors treat 
him with a certain deference because he is, after all, an old hulk 
with a glorious history. 

The sailors fall out no more to picket selective enemies of peace 
and progress; they march no longer in May Day parades. By 
night the crowds are thinner than they used to be in the gin mills 
around the hall, because so many have family responsibilities and 
are the normal, uncomplicated people most men prefer to be. 
They can earn a base pay of $250 a month with more for over- 
time; their vacations are paid for; they have linen on their beds 
and fresh milk on their tables and innerspring mattresses in their 
forecastles. There are months when shipping is slow; but if an 
old hand has to sleep in a flophouse, it is likely to be his own 

Joe Curran is a man of moderate substance, a vice president 
of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, an articulate and 
respected figure, almost indeed a statesman in his industry. The 
wild dreams are very far behind him; he is not one to ask for the 
moon either now or in the future; he takes a comparatively small 
salary and he works a long day. 

Joe Curran loves his family; he is very gracious to visitors; he 
left the faculty of pity after all somewhere in the Western Ocean, 
and you cannot ask him to mourn the old shipmates who have 
left him and are overboard. All his wounds and all his voyages 
and all his memories caught up with Joe Curran in the summer 
of 1953, and he had a desperate heart attack. He arose still huge 
and craggy but with a black-gang pallor and the look of a man 
whose wars were past him. But the old hatreds would not leave 



him, and, if they had, his destiny seemed to be new hatreds with 
each new trip. 

Civil war had come to Curran's crew too. NMU Vice President 
Hulbert Warner and Secretary Neal Hanley were fighting to 
oust Joe Curran's old friend Hcdley Stone as treasurer. They 
were all veterans of the 1936 strike and the quarrels of the water- 
front section of the Communist Party. Now the word "psycho- 
path" and the word "liar' ' fell like a stone between them too, as 
it had so often with so many others before. Their wounds were 
once more too great for fraternity, and they were not yet too tired 
for fratricide. And Joe Curran, sick, summoned himself for one 
more quarrel, his final outlet for passion, and went forth to fight 
for Hedley Stone, almost the last of his old shipmates remaining 
to him. He beat those mutineers too, and he and Stone were all 
that remained of the old crew. 

All those shipmates are gone now except Curran, because Cur- 
ran was only a sailor. There had been a time when he was hun- 
gry, and the Communists had fed him when no one else would. 
But it had been enough for him, as for most of the other seamen, 
to be fed and to win for himself a place in the here and now. The 
black, avenging army had not come to overthrow the earth; it 
asked no more than a place in the sun. Curran had come from 
too deep down and he had seen too many men put in a sack and 
thrown overboard. He was almost the sole survivor; he was again 
an orphan. 

Still, Tommy Ray lives on as research director of the National 
Maritime Union, wearing the old bkck suit, girt round by volume 
upon volume of shipping industry data, apparently detached 
from any recollection of that day Moscow appointed him an 
agent of history. One of his abiding interests is in the actuarial 
statistics of a pension plan for old sailors. He could not have 
thought twenty years ago that it would end quite like this, but 
he could not say looking back that it had ended badly. 

The dead were dead; the drowned were drowned. And Harry 
Alexander, NMU book number 12, old voyager, squats in his 
boiler room, scowling at his water gauge, a little harsh with the 
new third engineer. He has survived. He had been a seaman 


OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR., said once that every man 
should take part in the actions and passions of his time or else 
risk being judged not to have lived. A serious writer has less 
choice about that risk than the rest of us. To take responsibility 
for expression is to accept many perils but at least to escape that 
detachment from the passions of one's time which Holmes 
thought was the worst fate in life. 

A serious writer cannot ignore the myths around him, because 
they may be the stuff with which he must work. Perhaps for that 
reason, to search among those caught up in the social myth of 
the thirties is to be confronted with a number of literary men of 
a dimension and stature plainly superior to the average of the 
committed. In no other group did the myth find so many votaries 
approaching the first class as among its writers. 

They were moved by many different impulses. The best of 
them, so far as we can judge them two decades later, found it 
wanting very early and departed. Some of the lesser ones who 
remained behind held to their fantasy until they lost their powers 
and disappeared. Others found the myth a short way station 
along the road to the cheap, the trivial, and the commercial. 

The writers came to the myth in waves, and the first wave was 


different from the last The pioneers included many established 
figures of the twenties who had been alienated from the business 
culture of that decade and were both shaken and grimly satisfied 
by its collapse in 1929. Some of them had sat up too long with 
the gospel of art which was one escape for the committed of the 
twenties and which now seemed cold and broken to them. They 
came to the social myth of the thirties in the best instances be- 
cause it seemed to them to promise the destruction of a botched 
civilization. The word hope recurs in their comments on their 
conversion. For most of them, the myth did not bear close ex- 
amination and they left it quite soon. I have taken Edmund 
Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, and to a lesser extent John Dos 
Passos, as models of their impulse. 

They were succeeded as literary celebrants of the myth by a 
younger and more plastic group. These were beginning writers, 
narrower, with far less sophistication and with different im- 
pukes. The new group tended to be plebeian. In the case of 
most of them, the mere process of becoming writers had been the 
triumph of an alienated spirit, and they were veiy lonely. They 
were no less vain than other writers and no less desirous of 
appreciation, and their hopes were a little more personal than 
those entertained by the first wave. They thought of themselves 
as poets laureate-elect of the emerging proletariat And some of 
the more respected of their elders remained a little while to tell 
them that the revolutionary inspiration of the social myth could 
of itself give them immortality as artists. 

A few of them were glad to pay the stated price of this im- 
mortality, which was allegiance to communism and the practice 
of the proletarian novel Even in the thirties, they were neither 
fashionable nor successful Their work is buried now, and to 
discuss them is to catalogue the names on tombstones. James T. 
Farrell and Richard Wright, who fought against the idea of art 


as a weapon even when they were committed to the social myth, 
are almost their only survivors. 

I think the story of the left-wing writers of the thirties is like 
its subjects: it promises more than it can fulfill. Those literary 
men of the first class who were involved in the myth had a tran- 
sient association with it; the experience for them was imperma- 
nent. And those more intensely involved and finally destroyed by 
the myth were themselves, I am afraid, impermanent people, and 
to discuss their works is more an act of exhumation than of 
rediscovery. It seems to me to have been one of the tragedies of 
the thirties that so many people substituted an exterior for an 
interior passion, and nowhere is this process more damaging 
than to literature. 

The very mortality of so many of its subjects seems to me to 
demand a focus at once wider and less precise than I have at- 
tempted in the rest of these studies. It would be distortion to 
segregate a few persons and treat them as typical of the left 
writers of the thirties; the individual impulses of writers are too 
variegated to make that practical. 

The thirties did not, of course, change the writer's responsi- 
bility, which is at best a lonely one, or his primary concern, 
which is his attitude toward his craft. You cannot play the subjects 
of these chapters against their time, because the writer s problems 
are almost timeless, I think. Some of the writers who supported 
the Communist ticket in 1932 were gentlemen who detested the 
values of a commercial civilization; Edmund Wilson, for example, 
writing in 1931, sounds oddly like Henry Adams describing Wash- 
ington after the Civil War. Many of the authors of proletarian 
novels were plebeians shooting at the genteel tradition, and at 
the latest their ancestors were Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood 
Anderson. These were very old literary quarrels. 

The revolutionary myth of the thirties was part of the passion 


of their time, and very few writers were entirely unaffected by 
it As a group, writers more than most persons believed that it 
was the stream of their time; Robert Penn Warren, Sinclair Lewis, 
and Thomas Wolfe accepted it by writing against it. Dreiser 
solved the problem by intermittently joining the Communist 
Party and by consistently writing as though it did not exist The 
subjects of this chapter were different even from most of their 
colleagues because, for a time at least, they thought of them- 
selves as revolutionaries and made some effort to adjust their 
craft to revolutionary disciplines. 

The transitory impulse of its first-rate subjects and the imper- 
fect talent of its second-rate ones make this the most archeological 
chapter in this book and do violence to my hope that I could 
avoid paper and other dead matter. The faces of many of my 
subjects have disappeared and they have left only paper behind. 
In studying them, I read a great number of the novels consciously 
inspired by the revolutionary concept, many of which are cited 
in what follows. Among veterans of that period, I am most grate- 
ful for the recollections of James T. Farrell and Joseph Freeman, 
who was editor of the communist New Masses in the thirties, I 
have also rested heavily upon two men rather unfashionable in 
the period William Butler Yeats and Gustave Flaubert. Both 
of them, of course, consumed themselves for their craft alone, 
and theirs seemed a cold and inhuman preoccupation to many 
of my subjects. But it was, I think, the preoccupation behind most 
of what has been permanent in literature, and in the disparate 
and cluttered literary wreckage of the thirties, Yeats and Flaubert 
seemed to me to be necessary adjuncts to play the permanent 
against the transient 

There are enough names in this chapter to risk the loss of 
perspective and to invite the conclusion that an entire literary 
generation sacrificed itself to the social muse. It certainly appears 
at short range to have been no golden period in our literature; 


but it is worth remembering that William Faulkner s The Sound 
and the Fury and Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, two 
novels which have best survived the early thirties, were written 
entirely independent of the influences which concern us here. 

Yeats said once that out of the quarrel with others we make 
rhetoric and out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. 
The subjects of this chapter, the buried ones at least, had a dif- 
ferent view; they believed that to be a great writer one needed 
simply to be on the side of the future and to substitute outer 
reconciliation for interior quarrel. The lesson of their failure is 
literary and not moral. For the writer is lonely even in fantasy 
and, try though he will, it is very often his fate to damage no one 

The Social Muse 

"What artists we should be if we had never read, seen 
or loved anything tliat was not beautiful; if from the outset 
some guardian angel of the purity of our pens had kept us 
from all contamination; if we had never known fools or 
read newspapers" 

GXTSTAVE FLAXJBERT, letter to Louise 


To me a strike bulletin or an impassioned leaflet are of 
more moment tlian 300 prettily and falsely turitten pages 
about the private woes of a gigolo or the biological woes 
of a society dame as useful to society as the buck brush 
which infests Missouri cow pastures and takes all the sus- 
tenance out of the soil" 

JACK CONROY, speech to the American 

Writers Congress, 1935 

"Evil comes to us men of imagination wearing as its 
mask aU the virtues?* 


*7 remember a fellow expatriate opening a letter from a 
mutual friend of ours y urging him to come home and be 
revitalized by the liardy, bracing qualities of the native soil. 
It was a strong letter and affected us both deeply until we 
noticed that it was headed from a nerve sanitarium in 

SCOTT Fn^GBKAUD, Echoes of the Jazz 



FOR AMERICA, the year 1931 was one in wlruph it began to 
look as though the center could not hold and the ceremony 
of innocence had been drowned; and Mr. Edmund Wilson turned 
from his vastly admired studies of Yeats, Joyce, and Eliot to watch 
hunger demonstrations and coal strikes. 

He stood as near as he could get to New York's City Hall in 
January of 1931, and heard the Communists shout, "We want 
bread, not horses' hoofs" at the police. Before the afternoon was 
over, he watched a Communist demonstrator snatch the apples 
from an unemployed vendor, cast them all at the police and 
crown the occasion by breaking the empty crate over a bluecoat's 

Wilson set down that scene without allusion to its double 
shades of meaning as symbol for the writer in the next decade. 
In the universities, graduate students were opening up his AxeFs 
Castle like Keats over Chapman's Homer and marveling at Wil- 
son's sense of the symbolic. But he himself cared only for the 
real. His old world had torn loose; he called next year's book The 
American Jitters. 

When Edmund Wilson was at Princeton, his schoolmate Scott 
Fitzgerald called him "the shy little scholar of Holder Court." He 
had been literary editor of the New Republic; now he was tearing 
himself from his library to watch the storm over his country. In 
March of 1931, he went to Washington for a press conference 
conducted by that "great pulpy ectoplasm," Herbert Hoover. 
"One hardly expected to find him a real man." He sat in on a 
conference of progressive politicians at the Hotel Carlton and 
heard old George Norris make the old speech against the House 
of Morgan. Watching Norris, Wilson was at once charmed and 
appalled at a nature "so essentially sweet" and by that "defiant 
look of pride" that was passing more and more into a 'look of 

"Why," he asked himself, "do the American progressives have 
to be so tongue-tied with inhibitions? . . . The surest way to 
shake an American reformer and make him back down has al- 
ways been to accuse him of socialism." Someone at the Carlton 
had seen Lincoln Steffens glowing with satisfaction at the sight 
of the reformers backed to the wall with no idea what to do about 


it. Wilson left the progressives and went to a meeting of the 
Taylor Society to hear the report of an engineer just back from 
the Soviet Union. "He seems to have ended ... in catching the 
fervor of their faith." 

Then he rode back to New York on an airliner, which sounded 
as doomed and as asthmatic as the American system itself. He 
looked down at the black wasteland around Trenton and reflected 
that he could not even see his beloved Princeton. They do not 
care, they do not care, the rachitic engines of his plane kept beat- 
ing in his ear: 

"The trouble is that neither the politicians nor the intellectuals 
have really been hit by the depression the people that ought to 
supply the ideas I've done unusually well myself this winter 
I suppose that nobody at the conference was in anything but 
very comfortable circumstances/* 

The guilt of his own material comfort was with Wilson all that 
terrible year. A week later he was in Brooklyn, piecing together 
the histories of three different persons who had tried to kill them- 
selves in separate dustbins of that borough on March 25, 1931. 
All were unemployed. The widow of one of them told Wilson 
that "the Italians who come to America and go in for racketeer- 
ing have wonderful opportunities, but there is no place for a 
skilled machinist." 

Edmund Wilson spent May Day of 1931 at the opening of the 
new Empire State building. He observed that business was so 
bad that only a quarter of the Empire State's office space was 
rented and that this monument had no function "in the hour 
when the planless competitive society, the dehumanized urban 
community, of which it represents the culmination, was bank- 
rupt/' Death was all about him that yean Wilson counted 
forty-eight corpses, one a suicide, which had gone into the con- 
struction of the Empire State. The next day, he went over to 
Buchanan, New York, to write about a bankrupt storekeeper who 
had shot himself and his three sons. He returned to Washington 
again with a Socialist delegation to see Mr. Hoover, and was 
snubbed even by the President's secretary; he came home to 
write about a man on Second Avenue who had shot his landlord. 
He watched a strike at Kelly's Creek colliery in West Virginia. 


A Vassar girl was teaching the miners the words of "Solidarity 
Forever" by chalking them on a blackboard in a schoolroom. He 
saw in people like her, none of them Communists, "the convic- 
tion, the courage and the will . . . which makes them do thank- 
less work and take chances which few middle-class people care 
to face." And, in the face of this girl's purity of purpose, American 
businessmen seemed to Wilson "such half-baked and half-edu- 
cated people that they are no longer capable of giving any kind 
of leadership." A new generation of radicals was marching to 
capture their power, "convinced and cool-headed revolutionaries, 
with a clear idea of their relation to society and of America's 
relation to the rest of the world." 

For Edmund Wilson saw a terrible beauty struggling to be 
born, the hand of a great cleanser preparing to sweep away the 
rubble and the dross of a dying civilization. The depression's 
consequences touched his pity, but its possibilities raised his 
hopes. He could not avoid a certain satisfaction at the ruined lives 
of so many of the "fatuous" brokers, bankers, and bond sales- 
men. "The money-making period of American history has come 
to an end." 

To Wilson, Herbert Hoover was "stupid and timid"; the Rus- 
sian Communist leaders seemed by distant contrast "men of 
superior brains who have triumphed over the ignorance, the 
stupidity, and the short-sighted selfishness of the mass." For he 
was, after all, primarily a writer, and he felt "a special interest 
in the success of the intellectual kind of brains as opposed to the 
acquisitive kind." And, Edmund Wilson concluded at the end of 
his year with reality, "we shan't know what morals and manners 
or science or art can be till we have seen them in a society of 
sound people run for the common good." 

One reason why the serious writer is apt to be an alien is be- 
cause he thinks he is passionate and so many other people seem 
to him apathetic. That was a problem of Edmund Wilson's in the 
twenties when the rule of commerce appeared invulnerable; it 
remained his problem as he rode the ruins of America at the onset 
of the thirties. He was overwhelmed by the conviction that we 
hung over the abyss and that nobody cared. His was a journey 
into the American brush very different from the joyous forays 


Henry Mencken used to take in search of boobs in the twenties. 
At this moment, Mencken's old enemies were losing even the 
illusion of control; they were jumping out of windows and they 
were postponing the dance at the Country Club; they seemed 
unable to assert even the excuse of capacity for command. Now 
Wilson was journeying in search of hope. He found it in a very 
few places and among a very few people, dedicated and com- 
mitted revolutionaries. 

Mencken did not ask for hope; he needed only amusement. He 
had, as he affirmed with pride, no more social conscience than 
a cat He sat in Baltimore all through Edmund Wilson's rootless, 
desperate voyage into the storm and, in 1932, he went to the 
national political conventions, in Chicago, interested in nothing 
except legal beer the one issue, by the way, which stirred the 
common people in the galleries to any show of passion. And, as 
he sat there heaving beer bottles at the Republican platform 
committee, Mencken was in his twilight as a god to many of 
those who had been his acolytes ten years before. 
/ In the twenties, Mencken had been a great shield to Sherwood 
Anderson, a lost and groping man like the persons in his stories. 
In the summer of 1932, Anderson came to New York looking for 
hope as Wilson had sought it across the country the year before. 
Anderson thought he had found his reward in the faces of the 
young Communists talking on street corners: 

"Among these fighting young Communists,*' he wrote to the 
New Masses, "I found poverty, youth and no gloom. ... If the 
movement to free all men from the rule of money means the sub- 
merging of our class, let us be submerged. Down with us. Lefs 
have no starving workers to save us,* 

Anderson's cry of "Down with us** was in key with Wilson's 
guilty reflection on his own comparative immunity from the 
prevailing chaos. Only a poet could have proclaimed himself so 
consciously ready to be submerged if man could be saved in the 
process. The poet accepts oblivion; his lessers seek survival. 

The hope which Anderson and Wilson found in the faces of 
the Communists was a very fleeting one. Even in 1930, Wilson 
looked at the Communists with an eye less dazzled than Ander- 
son's- That October, he had watched Congressman Hamilton 


Fish questioning William Z. Foster, the Communist leader, and 
was distressed to see creeping into the speech of the militant 
American workingman the "idiom of Russian Communism.'* Fos- 
ter seemed to Wilson then unpleasantly aware "of the awful eye 
of the Third International upon him itself a secular church that 
rivals the sacred ones/' But at the end, matching Foster against 
Ham Fish, Wilson decided: 

"In the presence of the Communists today, the representatives 
of our 'Republican form of government' seem conspicuously lack- 
ing in either moral force or intellectual integrity." 

And so, in the 1932 election, Edmund Wilson could only throw 
his vote to William Z. Foster, now the Communist candidate for 
President. Even at the time Foster was a strange choice for Wil- 
son, who had such close ties with the more gradualist progres- 
sives who had joined the New Republic in supporting the Socialist 
Norman Thomas. But a moment had come when none of the 
elements of the old American order, including its historic progres- 
sive opposition so earnest, so often defeated a part of it 
seemed to Wilson even tolerable. The Socialists, after all, were 
part of the established order; they had elected mayors in such 
cities as Milwaukee, Reading, and Bridgeport, Connecticut; and 
the storm across America blew over these islands as unabated as 
anywhere else. 

In this transient period in Edmund Wilson's life, Foster seems 
to have represented total alienation and revolt against estab- 
lished society. To support him was to accept an onrush of the 
will to subversion more rooted in the will to create than any 
Committee on Un-American Activities could ever understand. 

This impulse to destroy was not a new one to American writers, 
and it had less relation to the depression than Edmund Wilson 
thought. Right near the end of the boom, James T. Farrell, ap- 
prentice novelist, was living in a New York YMCA, ragged by 
choice, raging by alienation, an affliction to his fellow tenants, 
all earnest volunteers in the army of commerce. Even the best of 
these Christian young men were to Farrell only "philistines with 
tolerance." And, one night, before a table full of them, he flung 
out the words of Mikhail Bakunin, the nineteenth century 


"'The urge to destroy is a creative urge." 

The urge to destroy which at once shook Edmund Wilson of 
Princeton and James T. Farrell of De Pauw ran all through the 
twenties. Mencken was, after all, a gloriously destructive force. 
In his assaults upon the booboteie he must be considered as one 
of the prime creators of the New Deal he hated* And the prole- 
tarian novelists of the thirties were his children too, however 
deformed. Their revolt into literary conformity was just one more 
chapter in the writer's response to alienation. And their John 
Eeed Clubs, their immolation into the May Day parades of the 
early thirties, their fugitive creations, seem after twenty years 
like one more version of those fortresses of the spirit of Green- 
wich Village in the twenties, the "art and love warrens," over 
which Mencken laughed so loud and whose occupants he cher- 
ished with a tenderness no later American critic would show. 

As a Foster supporter, Wilson was asked by the New Masses 
to give his reasons for moving left His answer was simply that 
he had always had the same general tendencies. Like many other 
writers who were at once the best and the most fleeting recruits 
to the concept of a Soviet America, Edmund Wilson's revolt had 
been born in the twenties and not in the depression* 

Even before 1929, John Dos Passos was well along into C7.S.A., 
the loving fabrication of legend that ran below the facade of 
die American dream, a kind of substratum of rebellion and de- 
feat, with a major character who carried the red card of the 
Industrial Workers of the World and with intermittent portraits 
of men against the stream, of Big Bill Haywood and Robert M. 
La Follette, of Randolph Bourne and Jack Reed, of their West 
against John Dos Passos* East. The committed of the thirties 
would cherish C7.S.A. as their epic, but the twenties created it. 
Dos Passos' rebellion, like Wilson's, was an aristocratic one. Dos 
Passos, sooner than most of the literary rebels of the twenties, 
had reached out to the working class as an ally against the rulers 
of society. But he had learned enough about the workers to know 
"Stat theirs, by his standard, was an existence as empty of true 
poetry as that of other Americans. He celebrated tibem but he 


was not really fond of them. The only really attractive prole- 
tarians in t/.S.A. are immigrant anarchists. 

t/.S.A. is the hardiest survivor of the social literature published 
in the thirties. In that context, there may be something revealing 
in Dos Passes' choice of the historic heroes whose portraits Ke 
scatters through it. There is a sketch of John Reed, a member of 
the Harvard Club who was buried in the Kremlin, and another 
of Paxton Hibben, Princeton 1903, who laid a wreath on Reed's 
grave and, as a consequence of this and other social outrages, 
was subject to a mock lynching at his twentieth class reunion. 
To the outsider, this may appear a slightly disproportionate 
representation from the Big Three. But Dos Passos was a Har- 
vard man who both hated and loved the old school. He had a 
special sympathy for the aristocratic rebel because he was one 
himself. The aristocratic rebel is, of course, performing an act 
that is no less commendable for having an aesthetic character; 
he is not always comfortable with ill-bred people. U.S.A. is un- 
usual for the thirties, not merely for its depth, but for the expres- 
sion of special feeling for the sort of radical who feels drawn 
back to Old Nassau. 

Dos Passos supported the Communist ticket in 1932. But, just 
before the election, he sat in Madison Square Garden at a rally 
celebrating the October Bolshevik Revolution and felt even in 
this audience "the old sense of loneliness and abandonment." 
There were just a few moments when he could catch "the tre- 
mendous intoxication with history that is the great achievement 
of communist solidarity." Most of the time Dos Passos, like Wil- 
son, longed to believe; but the evidence for belief was somehow 

Never again would the Communists find as many men of real 
creative substance ready to declare themselves for the Party's 
entire program as came forward for Foster in 1932. He got fewer 
than 100,000 votes, but that was no measure of quality. The 
Communists failed with ordinary Americans, but they had suc- 
ceeded for a time with some extraordinary ones. 

"Culture and the Crisis," the manifesto issued by artists and 
writers supporting the Communist ticket in 1932, declared with- 
out equivocation "for the overthrow of the system which is re- 


sponsible for all crises ... the conquest of political power, and 
the establishment of a workers' and farmers' government." The 
Communists, narrow in so many other matters, have always been 
tolerant of the motives of their recruits, and this was a mixed 
bag indeed. It included plebeian writers, new and raw, who hated 
the middle class from below, and it included intellectual aristo- 
crats like Wilson and Dos Passos who hate the middle class from 

Next to those of Sidney Howard, the playwright, Sherwood 
Anderson, and Dos Passos, the names that shone brightest on 
Foster's shield were those of persons who had not before been 
conspicuous for political concern and whose affirmation of revolu- 
tionary impulse might easily have been mistaken for the final 
entombment of the gospel of art of the twenties. 

There were the poets L6onie Adams, Horace Gregory, and 
Alfred Kreymborg. There was Slater Brown, who had gone to 
France in World War I as a volunteer ambulance driver and had 
been interned by the French with e.e. cummings in The Enormous 
Room. There was Waldo Frank, once editor of The Seven Arts, 
who had been occupied with Spain since the middle twenties 
and had emerged into the future in 1931 with Dawn in Rus- 
sia. There was Matthew Josephson, the playboy of the revolu- 
tion of the word in the twenties, who had previously been 
identified with movements with names like secession, transition, 
and Dada, And there was Malcolm Cowley, who had also driven 
an ambulance, and been a friend of Dada in Paris and a model 
in New York for Ernest Boyd's unfriendly composite Portrait of 
an Aesthete in the old American Mercury* 

* Dada was the most extreme of all post-World War I Europe's attacks on 
the conventional in art. Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return contains the best 
summary of Dada a word deliberately without meaning which united a 
group of artists and writers who aimed to "outdo the politicians in lunacy/' 
Ilie Dadaist manifesto declared that "any work of art that can be under- 
stood is the product of a journalist" The Dadaists thought that men have so 
little in common that they cannot even expect to communicate with one an- 
other. The world is round; after Dadaism's collapse, many of its leaders took 
their impulse for total destruction into the Communist movement Louis 
Aragon as a Stalinist and Andr4 Breton as a Trotskyitc, Aragon submitted a 
paper to the 1935 American Writers Congress under the tifle; From Dada 
to Red Front. He described himself then as a factory worker reporting to his 


For Cowley and his friends social rebellion was a new turn and 
the passion they brought to it seems more rhetorical now than 
they knew then. Cowley was the most articulate historian of their 
highly complicated state of mind, and his Exiles Return, pub- 
lished in 1934 and revised in 1951, is their best testament 

That segment of his generation for which Cowley speaks 
tended, by his own account, to have been spectatorial by disposi- 
tion and uninvolved by choice. Their youth had been very unlike 
that of the anarchist generation which fled to Greenwich Village 
before World War I. Cowley and his friends "had never broken 
with our parents, never walked stormily out of church, never 
been expelled from school for writing essays on anarchism. We 
had avoided issues and got what we wanted in a quiet way, 
simply by taking it 

"We had lost all our ideals at a very early age and painlessly. 
. . . We believed that we had fought for an empty cause, that 
the Germans were no worse than the allies, no better, that the 
world consisted of fools and scoundrels ruled by scoundrels and 
fools, that everybody was selfish and could be bought for a price, 
that we were as bad as the others. . . . Either we thought of our 
real home as existing in the insubstantial world of art, or else we 
were simply young men on the make." 

This conscious farewell to banners had brought no special hap- 
piness in the twenties. It was a time when "hardly anyone seemed 
to believe in what he was doing." Cowley tried to place himself 
in the outer spaces reached by Joyce, Eliot, and Paul Val6ry; the 
word "cold" is recurrent in his recollections of his days at their 
worship. His own country was in the hands of persons to whom, 
as a writer, "he felt a professional hostility. . . . The same social 
mechanism that fed and clothed the body was starving the emo- 
tions, was closing every path toward creativeness and self -expres- 

"Some of us had accepted too much from publishers and Wall 
Street plungers too many invitations to parties and week-ends, 
too many commissions for work we really didn't want to do, but it 

comrades. Frank, Cowley, and Josephson, who had been sympathetic specta- 
tors at the Dada circus nad, by 1932, become sympathetic spectators of the 


paid well. . . . We became part of the system we were trying to 
evade and it defeated us from within, not from without; our 
hearts beat to its tempo." 

They had felt no compulsion for an affirmative stand against 
this state of things in the twenties; of all his generation, Cowley 
remembers only John Dos Passos as a political radical then; the 
others had been indifferent to politics. Cowley and Allen Tate 
and Hart Crane used to sit in a Village restaurant matching 
poems while the New Masses board burned and glowed unat- 
tended at another table. 

Now, the early thirties looked to Cowley and some of his 
friends like "a wildly hopeful time." He was writing Exile's Re- 
turn, a literary autobiography embodying his decision that com- 
munism in the thirties was the logical terminus of the wander- 
ing course he had described in the twenties. But, even then, 
Cowley's was a commitment primarily literary. He remained a 
spectator and he confessed in 1934 that, as ' a petty bourgeois 
critic," he was debarred from complete involvement 

But the conversion of Frank, Cowley, and Josephson was no 
less important for being only partial and fleeting. Each of the 
succession of myths which have sometimes comforted and some- 
times afflicted our national life appears to require a ritual burn- 
ing of the myth which preceded it And one of the regular at- 
tendants upon this ceremony is a witness to the cold and empty 
character of the myth to be cremated and the grandeur of the 
myth to be elevated in its place. Whittaker Chambers has been 
such a witness against the thirties to the fifties; and Malcolm 
Cowley, however less intense and however less involved, was a 
witness against the twenties to the thirties. 

Cowley and Josephson represented a cluster of less fortunate 
young men, intellectuals manque, decla#s, and de trap, and torn 
between past and future, These were persons of primarily literary 
disposition; by a defect of quality or a defect of fortune, they had 
not yet made their way as well as Cowley or Josephson, and their 
sense of failure and personal impotence carried a note of despera- 
tion into their conversion. They were advertising men who both 
hated their jobs and feared to lose them, college instructors 
struggling in the second division of academia, and writers who 


had followed the fashion of the casual and the uninvolved and 
now felt the future turning toward the rhetorically intense and 

The interior storm of persons like these, who differed from 
Cowley and Josephson in want of success and degree of hysteria, 
is best preserved in TessLSIesinger/s almost forgotten Tl&JLLae 
novel about a desperate little corner of New York 

culture in 1932. Its three prime male characters are graduates of 
the class of 1921 at a university which sounds like Columbia. One 
teaches English there, another is a starveling copywriter, the 
third is the author of indifferent novels whose indifference has 
been especially marked by the critics of late because they are 
barren of social content. Each in his way is a failure at love. AH 
three are sterile by choice. None are Communist Party members, 
but all feel a compulsion to sympathize. They hope for escape by 
establishing a magazine, that most timeless of exits: this project 
is timely because it will celebrate at once the religion of art and 
the religion of the Soviets. 

As their angel, they fix upon a vacuous doll of a lady of quality, 
who agrees to launch their project with a dance, its guests the 
New York gentry, its purpose to solicit funds both for the maga- 
zine and a Communist hunger march on Washington. The 
witches' Sabbath of this wassail is the grand climax of The Un- 
possessed. At its height, Bruno Leonard, the academician, rises 
to read the manifesto of his magazine to the assembled Philis- 
tines, loses his notes and his self-possession, and is carried away 
into a haunted exposition of the desperation of some intellectuals 
in the year 1932: 

"For too long, we have wandered unorganized, unwitting mem- 
bers of the lost tribe, the missing generation, the forgotten regi- 
ment, outcasts, miscast, professional expatriates ... we are 
scared until the blood in our veins runs thin, and we hop from 
one faith to the next because to believe is too unbearably exactly 
what we want. . . . We have no class; our tastes incline us to 
the left, our habits to the right; the left distrusts, the right de- 
spises us. ... Have you read today's assignment in Pushkin, 
young man? 'Strike me dead, the track is vanished, well, what 
now? We've lost the way . . .'" 


Upon that note, the society orchestra breaks forth; the guests 
commence to dance on uncaring, and Bruno seizes one of his 
Communist students and implores him: 

"Go west, young man, go south, go north go anywhere out of 
our god-damned city. . . . My friends and myself are sick men 
if we are not already dead. . . . Listen you kids, get out of it, 
get out of it while you can, leave us rotting in our blind alley, 
we've lost the way, we've dug ourselves in . . /' 

And so Bruno's acolyte goes off to the healthy air of the hunger 
march; his love whirls off with the newest of her other men; and, 
in a final triumph of the stone over the flower, the wife of his 
comrade, the copywriter, has a stillborn child. 

The Unpossessed is almost our only surviving document on a 
group of intellectuals who were drawn to the Communists early 
in the thirties and left them very soon. Its models are chiefly in- 
teresting because persons like them were in the vanguard of that 
literary counterrevolution which in 1936 saw a number of New 
Masses contributors resolve the dilemma between art and propa- 
ganda by leaping most of the way to art with Partisan Re- 
view. Most of them thought of themselves for a while as left 
socialists, varyingly appreciative of Leon Trotsky, a particularly 
unfashionable position at the time. Since their political views 
were hardly viable, they became by force of circumstance purely 
literary men. From this position, they carried on an offensive 
against various communist debasements of culture in the thirties. 
It was a noble and valuable work, although, now that Howard 
Fast is almost the only surviving exemplar of Communist culture, 
one sometimes wishes they would direct their attention else- 

The characters in The Unpossessed are quite possibly the most 
unattractive specimens in American literature prior to the works 
of Mary McCarthy, who visited her savagery on a group very 
like them sixteen years later in The Oasis. Miss Slesinger was in 
the process of divorcing herself from the set and removing to 
Hollywood. The Unpossessed is accurate enough to be considered 
still a roman & clef; the putative model for one of its major char- 
acters is now an editor of Fortune, another a critic of notable 
powers, and the third the editor of a monthly magazine. All are 


anti-Communists, and it would be surprising if any could recog- 
nize himself in Miss Slesinger's portrait of his storms in 1932. 

But they, rather than Cowley, are typical of a special sort of 
intellectual who thought of dedicating his capacities to com- 
munism in 1932. Cowley was calm and they were hysterical. But 
they represented the mass of that group of the elite which formed 
the first significant American writer-type to move toward the 
Communists. It was an elite not of origin so much as of attitude; 
like Wilson, its members hated the middle class from above. Its 
motives were disgust and alienation; it sounded most rhetorical 
when it spoke of Tiope," and emptiest when it spoke of identifica- 
tion with the working class. It represented an aesthetic rather 
than a social tendency. Its members were valuable as adornment, 
but they had the good fortune to be barred by the Communist 
Party's attitude toward aesthetics from long or total enlistment 
in its cause. Wilson, who had been almost the first of the intel- 
lectual elite to attempt a serious self-conversion, was almost the 
first to leave; after 1932, he returned to his library and began a 
decade-long critical study of the Bolshevik prophets which bore 
important fruit in To the Finland Station. Cowley remained as 
guide and counselor to a number of younger writers more for- 
mally committed to the Communists. But, by 1936, most of the 
aesthetic rebels had gone; what remained behind were social 
rebels practicing aesthetics as a revolutionary weapon. 

For the impulse of Wilson, Cowley, and the less controlled 
spirits of The Unpossessed had very little to do with what was to 
be the largest, and promised to be the most important, segment 
of writers who moved toward the Communists during the depres- 
sion. For the truly involved of the Party's literary recruits were 
not expatriates coining home with luggage empty of Dada; they 
were not teaching in universities or in touch with angels unaware 
of the implications of supporting them. Many had not even been 
to college. They were plebeians; their Mermaid Tavern was a 
cafeteria on Fourteenth Street in New York or the John Reed 
Club in a loft in the Loop in Chicago or the office of the Neiq 
Masses. All other doors seemed closed to them. 



The American literary tradition has never been especially 
tolerant of the plebeian writer; to think of established literary 
figures who fought his battles is to remember William Dean 
Howells and Mencken almost alone. The plebeian has felt other- 
wise condemned to beat his wings against what he considers a 
barrier of Eastern literary snobbery; he feels afflicted alike with 
sparseness of material and harshness of expression; he makes his 
critics uncomfortable. 

Sherwood Anderson, to take one instance, was held by New 
York literary society throughout the twenties in grudging, often 
flagging, esteem. But he was always a god to the plebeian writers 
of the midlands, because his loneliness expressed their own. Even 
Dreiser wrote very often about the great world; his characters 
move through a fluid society. Anderson cannot conceive of any 
such fluidity. His characters are bound by circumstance. Their 
search is for an escape; their world is a large, empty room, its 
walls covered with representations of doors, each labeled "Exit" 
and each false. 

In the early thirties, Anderson, Waldo Frank, and Dos Passos 
were each at work on his own novel of social protest. Each 
thought of his design as at least loosely informed with revolu- 
tionary prophecy; they had all voted for William Z. Foster in 
1932. It is perhaps a measure of the impermanent stamp of any 
exterior influence on the serious writer that the three books they 
wrote each differed so profoundly from the others, Dos Passes' 
U.S.A. was up to his best work; Anderson's Beyond Desire and 
Frank's The Death and Birth of David Markand are generally 
inferior to their standards; yet all three bore a characteristic in- 
dividual impress that was at war with what they intended to do. 
The characters in U.S.A. are in the main humbly born; they 
move into the great world so swiftly that they prefer to forget the 
existence of their parents. The experience of the climber is central 
to Dos Passos; in [7.S.A., his ascent is an act of patricide so un- 
conscious as to be almost peaceful. He is seldom trapped by love 
or hatred for his roots; in a number of cases he is at most 
ashamed of them. U.S .A. accepts the tradition of equality of op- 
portunity in America; it is most savage in Its expression of how 
hollow and mocking are the rewards of opportunity grasped. Dos 


Passes' social conscience is most passionate when he is an aristo- 
crat protesting the rule of commerce. His quarrel with liberals 
and advertising men alike is a poet's quarrel: they have sold 
themselves to convention, comfort, and conformity. 

Waldo Frank published The Death and Birth of David Mar- 
kand in 1934. He dedicated it to "the American worker, who will 
understand" and could hardly have been expected to. David Mar- 
kand is a businessman living before World War I and afflicted 
with an emptiness which drives him to leave his family to search 
for truth. His search lasts four years and carries him all over the 
country; it is largely interior reverie and sexual fog ending with 
an acceptance of revolutionary socialism. David Markand re- 
flects Frank's own search for some promise in the American jun- 
gle. He comes closest to peace teaching the children of factory 
hands and finding in them "a race of buried dreamers/' Waldo 
Frank was in search of a substitute for God. Near the end of his 
pilgrimage, Markand meets John Byrne, a revolutionary, who 
tells him: Tf I did not have faith in men, I'd be a Christian like 
my father. You must . . . while you live . . . have faith in 
something." Frank, like Dos Passos, had remained true to his 
consistent impulse. The Death and Birth of David Markand, 
whatever its original design, was a tract for the wandering, cere- 
bral man; it had nothing to say to the anchored, acting proletarian 
whose search was not for reconciliation with himself but comfort 
for his kind. 

But Anderson's Beyond Desire was rooted in the plebeian tra- 
dition. Its hero, Red Oliver, is typical of Anderson: he does not 
know what he is doing. He is a town boy working as a textile 
hand in Georgia, alienated from town and mill village alike. Dur- 
ing a textile strike, Red joins a riot on the side of the workers; in 
the confusion both sides assume that he is fighting for the com- 
pany. As he sits in the town library and is drawn to the Com- 
munist prophets, Red Oliver wonders: "How do I know that I 
give a damn for people in general . . . for their suffering . . . 
it may be all bunk." 

Beyond Desire, like so much of Anderson, was written at a 
buried level of consciousness. For his characters as for him, com- 
munism could be a new religion, only they do not know just what 


it is. His mill girls wonder about communism with minds to 
whose area of experience even the characters on a movie screen 
seem alien. One of them longs for Communists to come to the mill 
only because she wants the worst. Red reflects that the trouble 
with being a Communist is that even there you get blocked. 

Beyond Desire closes when Red Oliver is killed by the state 
militia in a strikers' camp in North Carolina, to which he has 
wandered a stranger. Just before he dies, he thinks: *Tm a silly 
ass.* And the lieutenant who kills him thinks: Tm a silly ass," and 
pulls the trigger. The doctrine toward which Anderson was grop- 
ing and from which he soon wandered away could not remove 
him even for a little while from those depths of doubt, fear, and 
loneliness in which he worked and which are the habitation of 
the plebeian writer* 

Dos Passes* Richard Ellsworth Savage, a spoiled poet in an 
advertising agency, and Frank's David Markand, a regenerated 
businessman, both played against the great world: the first was 
corrupted by it; the second saved his soul by escaping it. Each 
had a choice. But Anderson's Red Oliver had no real choice; he 
felt blocked whatever he did; his world was almost too narrow 
for decision. Of the established literary figures who essayed the 
revolutionary novel, only Anderson wrote as a plebeian, with the 
plebeian's loneliness and sense of entrapment 

But most of the young novelists who turned to the Communists 
in the depression had an impulse like Anderson's. In 1932, Rich- 
ard Wright, who was not only a plebeian but a Negro and thus 
under a double curse, was living in Chicago with his mother, who 
could not have lived farther from his longings if she had been 
wearing a handkerchief on her head somewhere outside Natchez. 
One day, one of his white friends announced with pride that he 
had sold a story to Anvil, the Communist literary magazine. 
Wright ought to meet the people around Antw7, his friend said; 
they would teach him how to write* Richard Wright answered 
that no one could tell him how or what to write. Still he took 
AnuiZ, Left Front, and a few other little magazines of the left 
home with him, and that night Richard Wright found that he was 
not alone: 


"Out of the magazines I read came a passionate call for the ex- 
periences of the disinherited, and there were none of the lame 
lispings of the missionary in it It did not say: TBe like us and we 
will like you maybe/ It said: If you possess enough courage to 
speak out what you are, you will find that you are not alone/ It 
urged life to believe in life. 

"I read on into the night; then toward dawn, I swung from bed 
and inserted paper into the typewriter. Feeling for the first time 
that I-could speak to listening ears, I wrote a wild, crude poem in 
free verse, coining images of black hands, playing, working, hold- 
ing bayonets, stiffening finally in death. I felt that, in a clumsy 
way, it linked white life with black, merged two streams of com- 
mon experience/* 

The phrases, "call for the experiences of the disinherited," "you 
are not alone," "I could speak to listening ears," all express the 
loneliness inherent in the beginnings of the plebeian writer. The 
most important thing after all was to feel that you were not alone 
and hunched over your feeble candle in the night. No one owed 
Richard Wright a living, but somebody owed him a home. 
Mencken, the great fostering father of so many inglorious Miltons 
in the twenties, had departed. Only the Communists seemed to 
take his place. 

The new plebeian writers were so largely unknown in 1932 that 
few had the prestige to earn listing on the elite roster of writers 
for Foster. But they were young and could believe that they were 
the future. They did not feel lost or tired or bankrupt Some of 
them felt that they were the precursors of a new kind of Ameri- 
can realism that would open up subjects and explore a side of lif e 
neglected in the literature of their country. They would find their 
poetry in the world of urban poverty from which so many of 
them had come and which only the sociologists and the census 
takers had penetrated before them. 

Success at that search alone might have given them an im- 
portant, if moderate, place in American letters. But they dreamed 
of more. The past had been destroyed for Cowley and Josephson; 
these their juniors thought of themselves as legatees of the future. 
Most of them assumed that plebeian realism would in the end 


come to dominate American literature and that the proletarian 
poem and the proletarian novel would outlive James and Joyce 
and Yeats and Eliot, because history was on its side. 

They crossed under that impulse into the Communist move- 
ment. To some of them, this passage did not mean joining the 
Party; but, for all of them, it meant writing for the New Masses, 
marching at May Day parades, and joining the American Writers 
Congress, which was proudly revolutionary in the early thirties. 
All of them thought of themselves as revolutionary writers and 
as Communists, even such of them as did not join the Party. All 
of them, for various periods, felt themselves, if not subject to 
party discipline, at least subject to the Communist aesthetic con- 

They were novelists like James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, 
Nelson Algren, Edward Newhouse, Robert Cantwell, Henry 
Roth, Edwin Seaver, Edward Dahlberg, Edward Rollins, Myra 
Page, Clara Weatherwax, William Cunningham, and Jack Con- 
roy; and poets like Isidor Schneider, Alfred Hayes, and Sol Funa- 
roff. Except for Algren and Farrell, all were able at one stage in 
their lives to believe that art is a weapon or it is nothing and that 
its first test is whether it is on the side of history. 

Farrell, as one of their survivors, is perhaps the most articulate 
witness to the impulse which had made them writers and revolu- 
tionaries. Farrell had been rooted in a world harsher even than 
Anderson's; the process by which he had broken with his family 
had not been the forgetting and moving on so characteristic of 
Dos Passos' plebeians, but rather a savage tearing of the manacles 
and consequent wounds that took a long while to heal. 

The poverty of the plebeian writer's environment follows him 
wherever he goes. Farrell once said that a writer's style is his 
childhood; in middle age, he chose to put on the title page of his 
Bernard Cair, a terrible reflection of Anton Chekhov's: 

"What writers belonging to the upper class have received from 
nature for nothing, plebeians acquire at the cost of their youth." 

When Farrell went to the University of Chicago, he had seri- 
ously described his entrance as a confrontation of the Torch of 
Learning. There were ways in which he was the best-educated 
young writer of his time, He had read philosophers well outside 


the realm of discourse of conventional critics; he was a deep, 
though perhaps narrow, student of history; he had great resources 
in the European tradition. He was a perceptive enough critic to 
argue for William Faulkner in the early thirties, when Faulkner 
was at his peak of creation and his nadir of reputation. He was 
certainly better educated than Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who 
in many areas were not educated at all. 

Yet he was, and always would be, received as a barbarian in 
the genteel world of the literary supplements, just as Theodore 
Dreiser had been, because poverty had blunted his fingertips and 
left his work heavy with passion and deficient of charm. A dis- 
tinguished journalist once heard Farrell speak at a literary forum 
and came to him afterward in honest wonderment that he could 
speak English. 

The plebeian's survival was an act of the will almost from the 
nursery. When Dreiser died, Farrell wrota him a farewell that 
would have seemed bathos from anyone else; in Farrell, it had 
some of the majesty of Dreiser's own mastery of the cumulative 
cliche: "We have lost a man who made the way easier for many 
of us. ... His work encourages us to struggle. . . .1 Farewell, 
Theodore Dreiser, you, creator of titans, were a greater titan your- 
self."}FarrelTs world, like Dreiser's, was one whose inhabitants 
understood the price the artist pays. They looked at the New 
York literary world and thought it commercial, supercilious, log- 
rolling, and absolutely alien. 

The plebeian writer had to talk about the world in which he 
grew up; he had to write about a drab and barren existence; he 
did not after all feel qualified to write about any other kind. He 
could not write romance, because there was so little romance in 
his life; he could not write with easy grace because there was so 
little grace in his life. 

All that circumstance and environment qualified the plebeian 
to write, in his apprenticeship at least, was what Edward Dahl- 
berg called "bottom dog" literature. Dahlberg, a close friend of 
Farrell's and like him a short-time friend of the Communists, 
was the author of Bottom Dogs, a depression novel written be- 
fore the depression and a kind of vanguard stab into the new 
naturalism. Its protagonist was a vagabond and its last line was: 


"Something had to happen; and he knew nothing would. . . .* 
Dahlberg had been himself "a vagabond everywhere"; he had 
been horn in a charity ward, been weaned in two orphanages, 
spent his adolescence in the slums of the labor market, and, by a 
kind of miracle, escaped to Columbia University. 

D. H. Lawrence wrote an introduction to Bottom Dogs that 
was at once a salute and a warning to the plebeian writer. Dahl- 
berg's style, said Lawrence, was "the bottom-dog mind expressing 
itself direct, almost as if it barked. . . . This is a genuine, if ob- 
jectionable book. ... I don't want to read any more books like 
this. But I am glad I read this one, just to know what is the last 
word in repulsive consciousness." 

But the Marxist critics were less guarded, Michael Gold, a 
Communist and a plebeian writer of the twenties, hailed the first 
novel of Jack Conroy, one of the new naturalists of the thirties, 
as "a significant class portent ... a victory over capitalism. Out' 
of the despair, mindlessness, and violence of the proletarian life, 
thinkers and leaders arise." Gold was celebrating the struggle out 
of which a plebeian comes; it was an understanding which 
seemed to his juniors unique among critics, and it kept many 
plebeians with the Communists long after the association brought 
them any assistance as writers or rewards of the spirit. 

Among all the enemies of the plebeian writer's promise, none 
lasts longer than self-pity* In 1934, Dashicll Hammctt brushed off 
Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing with the observation that the arts 
had little to hope for in a man still weeping because he did not 
have a bicycle when he was twelve years old. 

Farrell was of different clay, and his recollections of his col- 
leagues in the first days of the new naturalism are always recol- 
lections of self-pity and forced emotion. In 1932, he came back 
from Paris deep in debt and stopped around at the Nctv Masses 
to tell Whittaker Chambers that Ins child had been stillborn. 
Farrell remembers best of all from that conversation Chambers' 
brooding impassivity. Eighteen years later, Farrell again met 
Chambers, who said ho had never forgotten that day because 
FarreU's story seemed to him the essence of tragedy- *And what 
was tragic about it?" said Farrell* **I was young; it was life.** 
When the thirties began, there was a flowering of low-bom 


realists and their work did not go entirely without appreciation 
in established literary society. Mencken opened the American 
Mercury to Jack Conroy, Michael Gold, Albert Halper, and Far- 
rell. Hound and Horn bought Ben Field's Cow, a still-vivid por- 
trait of a Communist farmhand, and Story published Nelson 
Algren's So Help Me, which was about hobos. But the new and 
the subtalented had no home except in the little magazines of tHe 
left Blast, Dynamo, and Anvil- those now still, and always 
small, voices of revolution, which held out the same shelter to the 
incompetent socialist realist that the fleeting flimsies of the avant- 
garde had offered the incompetent imagist of the twenties. 

The Communists offered a man a place in print; they would 
help him write, or help him not to write, a form of assistance 
cherished by some sorts of writers. They offered the plebeians a 
community. The standards of a calling are somewhat the same in 
all classes; and so, Alexander Trachtenberg, of International Pub- 
lishers, the Communist imprint, was an enormous figure with the 
young left writers of the early thirties. After all, he controlled a 
printing press. 

By 1934, Edmund Wilson's jitters were over, and he had gone. 
His successors were young and raw; they felt something like 
surety that the future was on the side of the forces of revolution. 
The so-called depression novel appeared to be flourishing. A 
congeries of John Reed clubs was issuing little magazines where 
young writers sang the stirrings and movings of the toilers. The 
new literature had attained a volume, if not a quality, to justify 
the issuance of an anthology of Proletarian Literature in the 
United States. Joseph Freeman, who had carried on through the 
lonely twenties at the New Masses, could exult in its introduc- 
tion, "Revolutionary literature is no longer a sect but a leaven in 
American culture." 

After the depression, Freeman wrote, 'Writers and artists, like 
other members of the educated classes, began to read revolu- 
tionary books, pamphlets and newspapers; they came to workers* 
meetings; they discovered a new America, the land of the masses 
whose existence they had ignored. They saw these masses as the 
motive power of modern history, as the hope for a superior social 
system, for a revival and extension of culture." 


Freeman thought he was describing an experience universal to 
his craft. But, even in 1934, the interest of the elite he was de- 
scribing was ebbing, as it had ebbed for Wilson. With the excep- 
tion of a few of their elders, most of the writers who remained 
as the hope of socialist art were themselves from the masses of 
which Freeman spoke. They were plebeian in origin; they had 
started as naturalists by disposition. Now they had become revo- 
lutionaries, and had turned to the practice of that "socialist real- 
ism" which was the Communist critic's name for his own special 
brand of romantic fiction. 

The Communists believed and sometimes said frankly that 
agitation was the writer's main function. When a writer came to 
them, he was expected to recognize that his craft was secondary 
to a number of more compelling considerations. It could be 
argued, as an instance, that Whittaker Chambers, who is remem- 
bered for something much different, was the purest Bolshevik 
writer ever to function in the United States. Chambers was the 
author of a few short stories, formalist invocations of revolu- 
tionary epic, which had been hailed in the Soviet Union as mod- 
els of Communist literature. He had then put off his mantle of 
high priest to become an underground Party activist in 1933. 
Chambers was one of the most public underground recruits in 
history. The revolutionary poets around the New Masses office 
debated his choice; it appears to have been their consensus that 
he had taken a path more important than literature. 

Chambers* commitment was already imminent when he had 
his talk with James Farrell in the New Masses office that after- 
noon in 1932. They talked about art as a weapon, and Farrell said 
that it was his intention to write and think about writing in other 
terms. Chambers replied that waters like Farrell would be for- 
gotten in ten years. Farrell said that he was not afraid of oblivion 
and went home to his basement apartment in the Village, leav- 
ing history behind him. 

The Communist view that the writer was a recruit into the 
army of history carried with it the traditional Communist faith in 
empty celebration and rhetorical posture. By its rules, the writer 
must be a member of a community of the orthodox; he must be- 

1 tn <m rvrflrornrAafi/Mft f\f turrit-Are wrwl tf mrttit** 1 virifitipl VK* rnrnart! liL-A 


those of the army's other regiments. This special barracks was the 
American Writers Congress, which began in 1935 as the annual 
convention of the League of American Writers and which ex- 
pired in 1941 after wriggling through the Nazi-Soviet pact. 

When the Writers Congress convened in 1935, there remained 
a few men of standing in the old world of letters who could arise 
and tell the plebeians that they were the new world of letters; it 
appears to be a function of middle age to tell youth that the 
water is fine even though middle age hangs back from jumping in 

Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson were not Commu- 
nists, but they believed that the young writer was wise to be one 
and could give him better reasons than he could give himself. 
Josephson told what it meant to create in the Soviet Union: 

"Writers address a colossal public; cheap editions are circu- 
lated by the State Publishing House in amounts of six or more 
millions, at literally a few pennies a copy; and, as a consequence, 
writers, being paid on a royalty basis, enjoy a peculiarly favorable 
position. The security, the prosperity that I noted in Russian 
writers offered a striking contrast to the condition of writers in 
my own country, where a very few may succeed in earning some- 
what meager livings, establishing them among the lower-paid 
workers in the community, while the majority starve in garrets 

"It seems,' 7 Josephson ended, "that there is only one way out, 
that, before we can raise the status of workers in tihe field of lit- 
erature, there must be a social revolution." 

This must have been a glowing dream to all the madly hopeful 
young men there present, because, even in the presumed height 
of the proletarian fashion, very few of them were selling their 
stuff. Very few indeed were even writing it The delegates to the 
first American Writers Congress included a high quotient of Party 
and left-wing union professionals, whose major works were even 
then preserved, if at all, on mimeograph stencils. At one session 
of the Congress, Merle Colby, a transient visitor, deplored the 
low rate of production of his colleagues. "There are,- he said, 
"about 300 writers here, and perhaps we produce jan average of 
ten or twelve books a year. Let us stick to our lasts.** 

But then their prime function was service to the revolution; 



the best-selling live author in the Soviet Union, as Josephson did 
not have to say, was a politician named Joseph Stalin. And the 
revolution was, as Cowley said, a "new source of strength" for 
a writer. To join its army was to enter a movement which "allies 
'the interest of writers with a class that is rising, (instead of the 
interests of a confused, futile and decayed class.*** 

And Cowley turned and surveyed the vast history of man's 
creation and fetched up the bones of writers who had blazed 
when they were radicals and been gutted when they lost that 
faith. Arthur Rimbaud was a major poet "when he caught the 
energy of the French working class'* and nothing when he lost it 
Wordsworth's decline is traceable to disenchantment with the 
French revolution. Blake was immortal when he called himself a 
Jacobin; then he "too became disillusioned, he decided that the 
first revolution must be in 'the soul of man* and he wrote those 
prophetic books which nobody reads precisely because they are 
not worth reading." 

The revolution could give a man, Cowley indicated, the gift of 
prophecy. "It gives the sense of human life, not as a medley of 
accidents, but as a connected and continuing process . . * it 
gives the values, the unified interpretation, without which one 
can neither write good history nor good tragedy *** 

Cowley was not one of the committed and he was there mainly 
as ornament He confessed himself unable by condition and 
vestiges of class heritage to contest for the glories of this vision; 
they belonged to the young and the plebeian. And it was a vision 
whose canons required of a serious writer actions and passions 
unusual in literature. Its ideal was the writer at once conformist 
and activist; its heroes were Alexei Tolstoy, so attuned to the 
Soviet temper as to pass the test of sweeping success with the 
builders of socialism in factory and farm, and Andr6 Malraux, 

* The notion that tho Marxists-Leninists alone knew what they were do- 
ing exercised a special temporary fascination for a number of persons like 
Cowley who otherwise described themsdws in his words as "highly class- 
conscious petty bourgeois critics." In September, 1933, Clifton Fadiman 
wrote the New Masses that he had turned left because he had found his "old 
point of view inadequate for the interpretation of events, particularly cul- 
tural events/' The deadline was the beast in the Jungle of Fadiman's critical 
existence; this was a brief clutch at certitude by a man professionally re- 
quired to display a measure of assurance in a time of total doubt. 


an intimate o history whose works were composed in the inter- 
vals allowed him between Shanghai and Madrid and the other 
frontiers o revolution. 

And, when we think what the image of the revolutionary writer 
was, we may understand why so many of the young expected too 
much for themselves or even why some of tiiem felt a kind of 
contempt for their craft. There were very minor protests among 
the delegates to the American Writers Congress of 1935, when 
Jack Conroy, author of The Disinherited, stated his aesthetic 

"To me a strike bulletin or an impassioned leaflet are of more 
moment than 300 prettily and falsely written pages about the 
private woes of a gigolo or the biological woes of a society dame 
about as useful to society as the buck brush which infests Mis- 
souri cow pastures and takes all the sustenance out of the soil/^ 

Jack Conroy had begun, like so many of the other plebeians, 
writing the depression novel. It was an unvarnished kind of lit- 
erature and one without much grace; but it had certainly not 
been uncompelling in FarrelTs Studs Lonigan, Dahlberg's Bottom 
Dogs, Nelson Algren's So Help Me, or Henry Roth's Call It Sleeky. 
At its best, plebeian naturalism held the hope of a fiction describ- 
ing life in those buried portions of society which American litera- 
ture had generally neglected in the past. This was a respectable 
and even exciting concept. But now hope had come to these 
younger naturalists as the Communist Party a sort of overlay of 
fantasy upon reality and the shift of fashion for them was to the 
Party novel. 

In essence, their new source of inspiration was the Party of 
Struggle and Liberation introduced into the life of bottom dog as 
an element containing within itself absolutes of art and truth 
above the limitations of the literature of the past. That impas- 
sioned leaflet which Jack Conroy found of such transcendent mo- 
ment was a Party handbill. A politician does not violate the mean- 
ing of his life by declaring that a handbill is more important than 
*a novel, but a writer has larger problems. If he makes history 
the judge of his work, it is enough for him that his interior quar- 
rels be set aside and the correct analysis of an historical situation 
put in their place. Literature is after all the product of doubt and 


self-quarrel; when Cowley spoke of the overriding inspiration 
of the revolutionary temper of the working class, he could not be 
blamed if some in his audience heard his words only as an argu- 
ment for Conroy's scorn of careful writing and Chambers' deser- 
tion of literature for the career of a professional Bolshevik. 

By 1935 and for just a little while thereafter, the prescribed 
form of revolutionary expression was the novel of Communist 
Party struggle to free the working class. The Communist Party 
habitually generalized from the particular, and its new art form 
was called the proletarian novel It was, of course, the Party 
novel, which is something very different. 

One of the myths of the fifties is that the proletarian novel 
dominated the literature of the early thirties. It did have some 
fashion as a notion; there was a sense that, after all, this might be 
the future. William Faulkner, then in his greatest period, was dis- 
missed with more assurance than many nonpolitical critics could 
bring to Jack Conroy. 

r But, in point of fact, even while the proletarian novel was 
being discussed with most intensity, very few writers were pro- 
ducing it. Its canons were as sharp, rigid, and enclosed as any 
prescribed by older traditions; a disenchanted Cowley once com- 
pared it in structure to a Petrarchan sonnet. The story line was 
basic and always reiterated. The novel began with a community 
of workers, on factory and farm, at first divided and unaware, 
then opening their eyes, hesitant and afraid, being broken and at 
last regrouping for final combat, having learned from defeat that 
there are no halfway houses, that the Party is their only ally, the 
owning class their only enemy, and that they have a world to win. 

The proletarian novel was thus rooted in the American tradi- 
tion of bad literature. Its formula was: boy sees vision of exploita- 
tion, boy goes on strike, boy finds vision of freedom. It stood the 
popular short story on its head, but, like that story, it preached 
that success is material and that its rewards are to the strong and 
the assured, not the weak and the doubtful The proletarian 
^iovel j s hero was an Alger boy who had learned that the road up- 
ward is blocked and that the future is with him who looks to his 
own class. On occasion, he has his chance to live with the daugh- 
ter of the bourgeoisie and chooses to die with the daughter of the 


The standards of the proletarian novel were so demanding as 
to amount almost to a conspiracy against the writer. That may be 
why the sum of its product in pure form is so much smaller than 
the accepted recollection might believe. It attained its full flower, 
indeed, near the moment of its death in Clara Weatherwax's 
Marching-Marching, winner of the New Masses prize in 1935, an 
award never to be repeated, because there were no further or- 
thodox adventures into "the novel on a proletarian theme." 

Marching-Marching met the canons with a fidelity approaching 
parody. Its working-class characters are . unexceptionably de- 
veloped and intelligent Communists. One, a crippled old lady, is 
a Bolshevik bibliophile: she collects Party pamphlets. The non- 
working-class characters are all fascists; the vigilante band signs 
its warning notes with the swastika. 

One young hero is the putative illegitimate son of the mill 
owner and a wage slave; his proletarian blood turns out to be 
pure. He is a bastard, but a working-class bastard; his mother's 
last words were: "Live poor and fight." He became a Communist 
in college after picketing a fascist banquet in Seattle with 1,500 
workers under the red flag and hearing them shout "Free Thael- 

The girls in Marching-Marching are uniformly uninterested in 
such distractions from the struggle as personal adornment; one 
of them reads in a fashion column: "Styles this year will be sol- 
dierly," and thinks, "Making people war-minded." They under- 
stand: "Capitalist society makes suicides"; "Whatever happens to 
us, the movement will go right on; no matter what they do to us 
beat us, kill us, jail us they can't stop the working class"; "only 
the workers stand by the workers." The lumber workers' union 
unanimously boos down its AFL "mis-leader" and deliriously ap- 
plauds a speaker who addresses the audience as "comrades" and 
bawls out, "You've got to know who you can trust: the Commu- 
nist Party . . ." 

Marching-Marching offers in sequence: the accidental death of 
a lumberman; the slugging of Pete, the boss's putative bastard by 
a group of workers who think he is a spy; Pete's affirmation of his 
class by assaulting his supposed father; the kidnaping and beat- 
ing of Mario, a Mexican Communist; the suicide of a displaced 
old peddler; a successful gang-up on Filipino strikers by Filipino 


scabs (the use of Caucasians on this mission would be "bad from 
the racial split angle" ) ; a raid on workers' homes by the Vigilantes 
who beat their occupants and destroy "pianos, books, literature 
and household furniture"; and a final march on the militia by an 
unarmed body of strikers which closes the book upon a note of 
imminent massacre. Such was the proletarian novel's prescribed 
quota of violence* 

Miss Weatherwax, an amateur, had attained a perfection never 
reached by professionals who essayed the proletarian form. Pro- 
letarian novels almost as faithful to the canons as Marching- 
Marching and thus of interest as curios include Jack Conroy's The 
Disinherited and A World to Win, Grace Lumpkin's To Make My 
Bread, Fielding Burke's Call Home tJie Heart, and Leane Zug- 
smith's A Time to Remember. Edwin Seaver's Between the Ham- 
mer and flic Anvil offered characters so deliberately faceless that 
they were even named Mr, and Mrs- John Doe. 

But all in all, the sum total of proletarian fiction was very small 
and very fleeting; the entire movement was conceived in 1932 
and interred with Miss Weathcrwax in 1935; and, by any stand- 
ards of orthodoxy, it cannot be said to have produced as many as 
ten published works. Certain widely admired novels of the pe- 
riod, which arc sometimes described as being in the form, did in 
fact such violence to its canons as to be not proletarian novels at 
all when we consider the degree of fantasy required in the genu- 
ine article. Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle was, for example, so 
detached in its treatment of a Communist as to bring upon its 
author's head the Party's curse for anarcho-syndicalist deviations. 
Kobert CantwelTs The Land of Plenty was most effective in its 
closely observed account of the process of labor; it is an echo 
of Zola's Germinal without an identifiable Communist character. 
James Faircll, Richard Wright, and Nelson Algren, three still- 
functioning social realists who were close to the Communists in 
the early thirties, never even essayed the proletarian novel. For 
the Party, after all, asked too much of its young plebeians, who 
of all people may have been least qualified to bring conviction to 
the celebration of the myth inherent in a novel like Marching- 
Marching. The writer's impulse is one which develops with some 
degree af alienation and isolation. Most of the Party's writers had 


been bottom dogs themselves. They knew the working class too 
well to expect any miracles from it; they might think of them- 
selves as Marxist-Leninists and still remain disqualified from in- 
ner conviction that the people with whom they grew up were 
capable of that seizure of light which would transform them into 
the creatures of revolutionary epic. 

No writer can carry on very long until he has assimilated his 
own environment. The myth of the moral superiority of the 
proletarian was a barrier to that assimilation by any plebeian. 
Later on, when the canons of Communist art became more flexi- 
ble, a number of apprentices to the proletarian form were able 
to move easily into radio or Hollywood and the presentation of an 
image of the common man so one-dimensional, so hyperbolic, and 
so contrived as to be totally removed from reality. The proletarian' 
novel was a training school in the manipulation of stiff cardboard 

If the proletarian movement was never really a writer's revolu- 
tion, it was even less of one for readers. Even in 1935, Henry 
Hart wailed to the American Writers Congress that very few 
proletarian novels made any money. The problem was some- 
thing more than the "conscious and unconscious fascism of book 
and magazine publishers." There was no detectable audience for 
the new fiction. 

"It requires a sale of 2000 copies for a publisher to get back 
what he has invested before he can make anything," said Hart. 
"CantwelTs Land of Plenty had the largest sale 3000 copies. 
Jack Conroy s The Disinherited sold 2700, but of these, 1000 were 
sold at a considerably reduced discount. William Rollins* fine 
novel, The Shadow Before, has not sold anything. Novels which 
you all know and have read and admired have sold less than 
1000 copies. 

"Sales such as these mean that the bourgeois publishers are 
going to refuse to publish our novels. At the moment it is still 
possible for a publisher to say, as one of them said recently, It's 
smart to be a Communist.' But, and I have heard it already said, 
proletarian novels don't sell." 



The wait for the revolutionary future was no great problem 
for Cowley or Josephson or Dos Passos, who were established 
literary men. But the plebeians had no place to go. The Party 
continued to hold out the promise that it would open some broad 
channel to make the proletarian artist a popular success, but it 
never found one. They did not search; they only sat and waited, 
those of them who did not go to Hollywood, reciting their litanies; 
and, whether in Hollywood or New York, the sap went out of 

They sat in a school where the instructors were cheer leaders 
and where the students could expect exemption from classes any 
time they agreed to join the band or scrimmage with the varsity. 
It was not their fault that the faculty was so inadequate; Cowley 
was a guest lecturer on infrequent occasions; Wilson came not at 
all; Dos Passos was on a perpetual sabbatical; and those who re- 
mained were either academic hacks or men so torn within them- 
selves that they had no strength to help others. 

These young men had taken fire originally from the promise 
that the literature of a new class could convey a special strength 
and feeling impossible in the literature of a dying society. They 
had felt outside society and blocked by what they considered the 
snobisme of literary gentility. They had thought they were en- 
tering a world where log-rolling, back-scratching, and politics 
would give way to Bolshevik self-criticism, and that, with such 
inspiration, there wore no limits for them. And they had come to 
a narrow little corner whose canons were tight, whoso prescrip- 
tions were harsh, and whose orthodoxy had hardened to a degree 
unapproached by the literary society it promised to displace. 

When James Farrell began his association with the revolu- 
tionary writers, almost the first thing Edwin Rolfc told him was 
that it was wise to be careful and mind his business and never 
mention Leon Trotsky* Farrell was a hot rod; he picketed Ohr- 
bach's; he got drunk in public to the chagrin of his new comrades, 
who kept trying to remind him that a revolutionary writer was a 
public figure with a responsibility for his dignity. It was Farrell 
who suggested that the 1935 session of the American Writers 
Congress be closed with the singing of The International.'* 
Afterward, Alexander Trachtenberg, the Communist publisher, 


came up and remonstrated that this was the kind of childish ges- 
ture sure to arouse the sprites of the capitalist press. 

They were all very conventional young men and more than 
anything else they feared the taint of bohemia. They were at 
once devoid of education and the smallest desire for it. Edwin 
Rolfe treated Farrell as an object of awe because he had read 
Alfred North Whitehead and could thus move on a plateau of the 
intellect beyond all the rest of them. But, as a group, they were 
scornful of knowledge without direct revolutionary function; Sol 
Funaroff, the Communist poet, complained that Pavlov had 
wasted his time with those salivating dogs. Funaroffs hero was 
the Soviet poet Mayakovsky who had turned his notable talents! 
to tie composition of advertising slogans for the Government 
Universal Store ("There is no place for doubt and thought/ 
GUM sells all a woman needs"), and was assumed to have at- 
tained universal truths sealed to Yeats and Eliot. 

They read each other's books, and Gorki's and maybe Martin 
Andersen Nexo's, and the literary section of the New Masses, 
which, as Farrell said, was a pogrom, with every review reading, 
"The crisis is sharpening, the proletariat is rising and this book 
is no good." And they found that to be orthodox was the only 
test, except for the established and the assured, who could be 
forgiven aesthetic deviation so long as they kept a segment of the 
political faith.* 

* The New Masses reviewers scratched backs with a fervor that should 
shame any commercial publisher. The Novemher 24, 1936, issue contained 
reviews that at once described Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom as "dull read- 
ing" and' Westbrook Pegler as "an honest, courageous and observant jour- 
nalist." Pegler earned his citation for sending greetings to that year's Com- 
munist Party convention. Steinbeck and William Saroyan were kindly treated 
for a few weeks after they signed a call to a Western Writers Congress in 
1937. But Steinbeck and Saroyan did not bother to show up, an antisocial 
display which the New Masses proceeded to punish by declaring Of Mice 
and Men a "mess of sentimentality and insidious innocence" and by deciding 
that the only positive aspect of Saroyan's work was "the pathos of his in- 
tellectual predicament." Saroyan replied that he assumed that "inasmuch as 
I have no use for Communists, Communists have no use for me." Farrell 
threw dead cats at the Marxist critics throughout the early thirties; he was 
forgiven for the sake of his prestige. Not until 1936 did Morris U. Schappes, 
a Torquemada from City College, cry out in the pages of the New Masses, 
"How long, oh Farrell, how long . . ." 



By 1936, they had almost lost the power to believe in them- 
selves. That was only five years after Edmund Wilson's voyage 
after hope, and already the dream of a revolutionary literature 
was lost. Many of the early converts were gone by now; those 
who remained had accepted the rule that the future belonged to 
the trustworthy; a writer's responsibility was celebration and not 
contemplation. They could not even argue the value of what they 
were doing; Robert Forsythe, the New Masses critic, faced up to 
the dead end of the proletarian novel by arguing blithely that 
the novel was an outdated form and that the revolution needed 
some other means of expression. 

More and more of those who remained turned to simple malig- 
nity, making bad rhetoric of the quarrel with others because they 
were forbidden to make poetry of the quarrel with themselves. 
One New Masses critic expressed in print his wish that a rock 
would fall upon Farrcll and kill him. After the Austrian Socialists 
were destroyed, Alfred Hayes composed a poem about Otto 
Bauer, their leader, who was even then hiding from the police: 
"All honor to them, Bauer 1 For you/ History prepares a shameful 
grave/ A nameless spot buried under weed and stone/ Where 
creeping jackals shall come to howl/ Stirred by ancient kinship 
with those bonesl" To read that poem and to think that its author 
once gave his mother the pangs of birth is to understand why, if 
the Old Testament God and all his vengeance did not exist, man 
would have had to invent them, 

Wilson and Anderson had articulated the mood with which the 
left began the thirties. It had been a mood of search and ac- 
ceptance of submersion. In five years, they were gone and their 
places had been taken by young men whose search was over, 
whose instinct was survival and who had traded rebellion for 

They had, of course, no one to lead them and no Mencken to 
defend them. Farrcll did what he could; he kept telling them 
that a book was not a good book merely because it was on their 
side and about poor people, and that the proletarian novel was 
fatally weak because its characters had no souls* But, by 1936, 
Farrell could stand no more; they were even forbidden to read 
him; the lesser ones understood, as Cowley had of Yeats and 


Joyce, that Farrell's was a lonely road. Ten years later, Albert 
Maltz, facing expulsion from the Communist Party, would de- 
clare that he did not wish to face Farrell's fate. Farrell's fate, the 
unspeakable, was to walk alone. 

Dos Passos could have helped them, but he was so far away. 
He sent a message to the American Writers Congress of 1935 that 
warned them: 

"No matter from how narrow a set of convictions you start, you 
will find yourself in your effort to probe deeper and deeper in 
men and events as you find them, less and less able to work with 
the minute prescriptions of doctrine; and you will find, more and 
more . . . that you are on the side, not with phrases and opinions, 
but really and truly, of liberty, fraternity and equality." 

Dos Passes' message arrived too late to be read; they might not 
have listened to it anyway. A writer can blame, not party nor 
friend, but only himself. 

They became one-novel men. Edward Dahlberg and Henry 
Roth, who for all their revulsion had held out the promise of a 
revived concern with a subterranean slum world, wrote nothing 
communicable after Bottom Dogs and Call It Sleep. The promise 
that they could assimilate their youth and then move on to the 
far more difficult task of assimilating their present died some- 
where; the proletarian writer's present was not permissible mat- 
ter for discussion; there was nothing between his past and his 
future. y 

By now, the prescriptions of doctrine had begun to shift. The 
proletarian novel had dried up and been replaced by something 
very different. In 1937, two years after Marching-Marching, 
Edward Newhouse defined the difference in his This Is Your Day, 
the last flurry of the proletarian manner. John Chamberlain de- 
scribed Newhouse as "the proletarian Hemingway," but This Is 
Your Day was almost purely a Party novel. Its locale was a 
farmers' strike in upstate New York, but its Communist hero's 
heart is always with the unit meeting he left behind in New York 
and he has no larger problem than the reconciliation of his wife, 
a casual young Communist in college, to the realities of the 

With Newhouse, the proletarian novelist abandoned any effort 


to reach the workers and aimed at a public of young Communists 
torn between a career with the bourgeoisie or with the Party. 
This Is Jour Day is choking with overtones of which Marching- 
Marching was totally unconscious: the hostility of Communists 
to workers, the perils of reflection and cloubt, the necessity for 
deceit, and the sense of clinging to a sect all those things which 
turned the Communist Party into a conspiracy, and were at work 
upon it long before the Nazi-Soviet pact which drove Newhouse 

For, by 1937, the Party had laid aside the tocsins of revolution; 
anti-fascism was a cause demanding peace with all classes; in 
that cause, the movies were judged a medium more important to 
the future of man than the novel and the radio more important 
than the poem. 

The bias of both these triumphant media was toward normality. 
This Is "Your Day's Communist hero is designed to be just like 
the rest of us: he goes to taverns; he is an initiate in the Yankee 
dugout; he sleeps with other girls when his wife is out of town. 
From the same perspective, tine proletarian poets turned to the 
composition of unrhymed and flatulent periods celebrating the 
promise of America; in no other time in our literary history were 
so many vast burlesques of Walt Whitman presented so seriously. 

When the American Writers Congress met again in 1937, 
Waldo Frank* having protested the Moscow trials, had disap- 
peared as chairman. He was replaced without ceremony by 
Donald Ogden Stewart, whose current literary reputation rested 
on his facility with light dialogue for actresses whose haute 
couture would have seemed the ultimate in fascist symbolism to 
the girls in Marching-Marching. There was between Frank and 
Stewart a terrible void in approach to the artist's responsibility; 
with Frank, almost the last of the serious and intense departed, 
and the trivial and the purchasable took its place. The poets were 
gone, and the journalists remained.* 

* Ernest Hemingway and Archibald MacLeish were among those attend- 
ing the 1937 Writers Congress; they ccmld hardly be placed any lower in 
the scale than Frank and Dos Passos. But Hemingway and MacLeish repre- 
sented an anti-fascist rather than a revolutionary approach; socialism was 
not central in their lives as it had been in those of Dos Passos and Frank. 


The shift from rebellion to fashion was the only favor the Party 
could have done for some of its plebeians; with it, their flesh sur- 
vived their spirit. Popular culture replaced proletarian culture; 
the New Masses offered unregarded pleasantries to Fannie Hurst; 
such of its contributors as Albert Maltz went to Hollywood; and 
others went into radio. The Henry Roths, the Edward Dahlbergs, 
and the Robert Cantwells, who left the Party's orbit, and the Jack 
Conroys, who remained, abandoned the craft of creation entirely; 
a whole literary movement had been born, cried up, and was now 
entombed after barely five years. We cannot say that its younger 
members would have been great novelists; but some of them 
might have been respectable ones, and now they had per- 

The fifties are a graveyard for young writers whose art was 
molded by the myth of the thirties. The author of one of the most 
admired proletarian novels of the period is now a magazine critic. 
Numbers of his contemporaries buried themselves in Hollywood 
to be disinterred and cast to the winds by the House Committee 
on Un-American Activities. Another once young proletarian 
novelist is a hopeless soak in Chicago; a former revolutionary poet 
writes empty novels of derivative passion. 

There were 300 delegates to the first convention of the League* 
of American Writers; of the younger ones, only Richard Wright, 
James FarreU, and Nelson Algren can be described as engaged 
any longer in the craft of the novel as against the pursuit of a 
living down its byways. No segment of a literary generation can 
be said to equal this one for self-destruction: just one per cent 
appears to have survived twenty years. 

It was, for all its noise, a small and narrow world and with an 
impact remarkably superficial. Writers are a peculiarly vulnerable 
group. The college short story which dealt with the strike against 
war and fascism has been succeeded in our time by the college 
short story which deals with the search for God in some far-off 
country; the authors of each genre share an imminence of mor- 
tality, poetasting being an impulse common to every generation 
and changing only in form and fashion. It is very hard to find 
many of the young men who were inspired to write a novel by 
reading the Communist Manifesto; would it be any easier to trace 


the young men who were inspired to write a novel after reading 
This Side of Paradise? 

And yet there is a difference: it could be argued that those 
writers who were young and touched by the myth of the thirties 
and still survive as functioning novelists were men whose real 
character and will to survive was formed by the twenties. Farrell 
can stand for all of them; in the twenties he went to church one 
day and refused to kneel. It was a youthful gesture, but of the 
twenties; the refusal to kneel was not characteristic of the com- 
mitted of the thirties. 

Man always hates his last blind alley; the more typical social 
realists of the thirties were sure that they were guillotining the 
candle-burners before the altar of art of the twenties. They did 
not realize that the revolution which they had rejected was both 
more fundamental than the one they were now accepting and 
better for the character. It could well be that for the committed 
at least, whether as artist or politician, the twenties were really 
the revolutionary era in America and that the thirties were a kind 
of folding of banners, a surrender to formation, the process by 
which a guerrilla army introduces the epaulet and starts calling 
the comrade commander the Comrade General. 

Yeats said ouce that "Evil conies to us men of the imagination 
wearing as its mask all the virtues, I have certainly known more 
men destroyed by the desire to Ixuve wife and child and to keep 
them in comfort than I have seen destroyed by drink and harlots." 
The idea of the social revolution came to the writers we remem- 
ber here dressed as the noblest of enterprises and wearing the 
mask of inspiration* It did not tempt them to dangerous or evil 
acts. After all, only Whittaker Chambers among them became a 
spy, and he escaped* It only destroyed them as writers, because it 
caused them to abandon the quarrel with self. 

The storm which beat around Edmund Wilson's head in 1929 
also tossed the proletarian writer to its surface. But it was an 
exterior storm; the tumult which beats inside every writer as long 
as he lives as a writer could not lx* abated by any cloak against 
the winds outside him. And so each of them, in his way, lost his 
cloak, and each of the best of them carried on in his way after 


his loss. Edmund Wilson was the first to lose his cloak, and he 
departed to quarrel with himself in his library. 

John Dos Passes lost his cloak very soon thereafter. Still in 
December, 1936, he sent the New Masses a letter wishing that 
someone would return to "what we used to call the Movement, 
that upsurge of revolt" that had been a buried glory of American 
history. He cried out one more time for "the old, romantic, 
libertarian creed," and then he ceased to travel and went back 
to his library to quarrel with others. He thought that the Com- 
munists had destroyed his movement; Dos Passes hated the mur- 
derer so much that he forgot the victim. The romance of the 
Movement had, after all, been only one of its glories; the impulse 
against human suffering had been another. 

Dos Passos was conditioned to dislike Roosevelt, because he 
thought of Roosevelt as the heir of Woodrow Wilson, the arch 
enemy of the radicals of the twenties, and as a temporizer and a 
confidence man. He disliked the Communists for making Roose- 
velt their temporary idol, and he disliked Roosevelt almost as 
much for becoming an idol. And, at the end, Dos Passos came to 
sum up the thirties as a conspiracy against the liberties of man- 
kind, and to believe that the CIO had been organized by Com- 
munists, that the New Deal had been created by charlatans and 
cretins, and that honesty and devotion had somehow passed from 
the land. He could write about the Washington of the thirties 
only in the language of caricature; he had quarreled with the 
Communists so long that, by 1954, in Most Likely to Succeed, he 
could no longer describe them as people. 

The thirties had been many things, some good and some bad;' 
but it had been most of all a great economic revolution at whose 
end children no longer worked in factories and assembly hands 
spoke unafraid to their foremen. It had not changed the souls 
of men no economic revolution could but nothing entirely evil 
could have produced the healthiest generation of children that 
America had raised in a century. 

In A Handful of Blackberries, Ignazio Silone, a social realist 
who also survived a Communist experience, makes Rocco, his 
ex-Communist hero, say to an Italian policeman: 


"Leave the ignominies of distant countries out o it if you 
please. Look at this countryside, this landscape spread before 
your eyes, this land, this poverty that is so immemorial, so fla- 
grant. The protagonists of the iniquity you see in the landscape 
are certainly not those unfortunate wretches of the party." 

Communists and confidence men are not the entire landscape 
of the thirties. The party was never central for Dos Passes. He 
was not even quarreling with his old self when he quarreled 
with it. He had been wounded, and he could not walk his way 
any longer, and he was almost a ghost clanking chains he had 
never worn. 

Still James T. Farrell carried on as he always had. He did not 
write easily and smoothly; he remained the plebeian writer pain- 
fully setting down the record of childhood and youth, his sub- 
jects buried people, his enemy time; and money and success 
meant to him only the stuff to go on. He had written twenty-seven 
books; some of the critics had given up on him long ago because 
his style did not please and his subjects seemed to them flat and 
literal. But those were questions of the limit of his capacity; they 
had nothing to do with FarreU's real triumph, which was in being 
true to himself and his calling. 

Twenty-two years ago, he had argued it all with Whittaker 
Chambers and said at die end: 

"Neither man nor God is going to tell me what to write/' 

In that narrow corner of self-surrender, those words had a 
wild, free ring; they have it still, even though time has not al- 
ways been good to James Farrell, as it is seldom good to any of 
us. For he was the figure of an heroic idea; just to become a writer 
had been for him a fierce act of the will; just to continue as one, 
alone, meant the remorseless exercise of that will until it became 
a matter of wonder whether it had a bottom. He feared not de- 
feat or disaster but only that time .to come when he must cease 
to try. 

All of this had nothing to do with FarrelTs permanence. If he 
must pass, he would pass as a figure of tragedy and there would 
be a passion to his going that there had never been in the genera- 
tion of his lost Communist friends who grew up with him and al- 
lowed themselves to smoke out so long before him. For he had felt 


no impulse to the warmth of an exterior flame; he almost alone 
could accept the prospect of oblivion and he almost alone would 
blame no one else for his fall. 

So many of the other plebeians were gone, their graves un- 
marked; but he had remained a poet, awkward perhaps, doomed 
perhaps, but a poet still possessed by the passion which gave him 


DYING DREAMS sometimes last longest in hearts they have 
broken; hate, after all, can be the strongest of memories. That 
may be why so much of whatever pain and passion is left to the 
myth of the thirties is carried by its lost lovers, its apostates, and 
its armed disenchanted. 

The most conspicuous, although not the most typical, ex-Com- 
munist of the fifties is a witness against the thirties, violent, 
vengeful, and insistent, as he was in the thirties, that he alone 
understands and that all save him are soft and apathetic. In this 
manifestation he remains, as he was then, the committed soldier 
in a society of noncombatants. 

The roots of the apostate seem to me very complex ones and 
not to be described by words like renegade and turncoat, which 
are, after all, no more enlightening than words like Trotskyite 
and fascist were on his lips in that first phase of his commitment. 
For the thirties have bequeathed us a very mixed company of men 
still spiteful and cankered by their memories. 

Andre Malraux once explained his departure from the revolu- 
tionary left by saying: "Communism changed; I didn't." It is 
difficult now, looking at the history of communism since the 
death of Lenin, to see where it has changed or been untrue to 
itself. But Malraux is right in his implication that men very 


seldom change; try though we will, beneath all the shifts of 
exterior doctrine, our hearts so often remain what they were. 

And the committed apostates in their passion at least repre- 
sent an almost intact image of those who burned with the myth 
of the thirties. To stand for them, I have chosen Dr. J. B. Mat- 
thews, who was never a Communist but a convinced revolu- 
tionary Marxist who describes himself as the most fervid fellow 
traveler of his time. 

' Matthews has become the grand archivist of the thirties and 
the guardian of their dead file. He is our leading collector of 
letterheads of the many deceased and few surviving Communist 
fronts, a former research director of the House Committee on 
Un-American Activities, and, very briefly, staff director of Senator 
Joseph R. McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investiga- 

He makes his living now as a private consultant on the Com- 
munist problem, chiefly for the Hearst Corporation. He has be- 
come almost a rich man as a consequence of his commitment, 
his disillusion, and his long struggle against those who he says 
are still clinging to the lost vision of his youth. He lives well in 
the society of persons who are, like him, successful in the ma- 
terial sense. The rewards of apostasy as a profession are, I think, 
exaggerated; but, if anyone has been blessed with them, it must 
be J. B. Matthews. 

J. B. Matthews came to consciousness first as a believer in the 
Methodist God. That belief carried him through successive stages 
of pacifism, commitment to the class struggle, and disenchant- 
ment. He is best known today for his public insistence that a 
significant number of Protestant ministers are under Communist 
influence. It has been the irony of his later years to be condemned 
to despoil the graveyard of his youth. However you judge the 
merit of that destiny, it has, I think, its quotient of tragedy. 

In writing about J. B. Matthews and his circle, I have found 


his own Odyssey of a 'Fellow Traveler an especially valuable 
source. But most of all, I have to thank Matthews himself because 
he consented to talk for some hours last winter about his memo- 
ries, a very generous act in a man who had no reason to expect 
generosity from me. 

He has come so far from his commitments of only twenty years 
ago that he would like to believe that he has very few commit- 
ments today. He said again and again that he was simply a pro- 
fessional and that he enjoys his work and brings very little pas- 
sion to it. But going through his life, I was struck over and over 
by how much the same J. B. Matthews has remained through 
what seems on the surface so wandering a history. Under that 
impulse, I have perhaps flawed my narrative through inability to 
resist anticipatory comparisons between the J. B. Matthews of 
1934 and the J. B. Matthews of 1954. For it seemed to me that 
his passion was the same all along. 

This is a book about believers and what the consequences of 
belief were for them. One of those consequences can be apostasy. 
I have chosen J. B. Matthews among so many other apostates 
because I think that he is and always has been a believer. He 
has come, after so much, to explain himself away as a pure 
professional, just as his enemies do. But money as an explanation 
for apostasy seems to me like lechery as an explanation for in- 
fidelity; it is a substitute for a lost, earlier passion and it is dross 
to the truly committed. It is what men take when the salt has lost 
its savor. 

O'er Moor and Fen 

/. B. Matthews and the Multiple Revelation 

"Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, 

Lead ihou me on! 
The night is dark, and I am -far from home 9 

Lead thou me on! 

Keep thou my -feet! I do not ask to see 
The distant scene; one step enough -for me. 
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou 

Shouldst lead me on; 
I loved to choose and see my path; but now 

Lead thou me on! 

I loved the garish day; and, spite of fears, 
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years. 
So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still 

Will lead me on 
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent till 

The night is gone; 

And with the morn those angel faces smile, 
Which I have loved long since, and lost 
awhile. Amen. 

JOSEPH HENRY NEWMAN, 1833; translated into 
the Malay by Joseph Brown Matthews in Java, 

"Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost its 
savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good 
for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under 
the -foot of men" Matthew, 5:13 

JB. MATTHEWS remembers his father as a big man with a 
mustache stained by tobacco and other substances and with 
a very worldly view of life. He served in the Kentucky legisla- 
ture and was so practical a statesman that he was generally re- 


garded as the lobbyist for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. 
J. B. Matthews' father put his son to work for a summer, when 
the boy was only six, carrying water to quarry laborers. He beat 
him severely for laughing in Sunday School at a Methodist circuit 
rider in white flannels. J. B. Matthews' father had founded the 
Sunday School; he was also a man who enjoyed his whisky, and 
J. B. describes him now as having had the look of an old pirate. 
He appears to have been a citizen typical of Hopkinsville, Ken- 
tucky, where his son, Joseph Brown, was born in 1894. 

In Hopkinsville, God and Satan wrestled to a draw in almost 
every man; it was a town mixing public sin with public re- 
pentance; men shot at one another in feuds and shouted together 
in Methodist meeting halls. J. B. Matthews saw his first murder 
when he was six; he must have seen his first revival when he was 
much younger. There is every sign that, when he was young and 
reedy, the old Adam in his father appalled him. For the younger 
Matthews loved most the noise of the lower Protestants at their 

Hopkinsville, after its "Saturday saturnalias, was the Sunday 
seat of shouting Methodists. On those Sundays, he remembered 
long afterward, "everything dark was as simple as sin, and men 
needed only to repent and be saved in order to set everything 

He does not appear to have cherished Hopkinsville except in 
its interludes of prostration before the dark, vengeful Old Testa- 
ment God. When he went to college in 1910, he remembered 
best those moments and he envisioned "the whole world's be- 
coming something very much like a Kentucky Methodist meeting 
house, with its resounding hallelujahs." He does not appear to 
have remembered any other aspects of Hopkinsville, including 
his mixed and ambivalent father, with any such enchantment. 
For, when he finished college in Kentucky in 1914, he com- 
menced the wanderings that lasted him a full generation and he 
never betrayed an inclination to come home until 1938. 

The Kentucky meeting house must enchant the child it does 
not repel. The intoxication of its climaxes beat on little Joe Mat- 
thews then with a rhythm he would seek all his life, for it was his 
singular quality always to know in a flash without ever having 


learned, to burn with one absolute faith and to lose it for another, 
to catch the new revelation as though from the electric air, and 
always to believe with absolute assurance and to cry out for 
others to believe with him. 

When he finished college, he went almost at once to Java to 
bring Jesus to the Malays. His hope then was for the evangeliza- 
tion of the world. The Bolsheviks swirled through St. Petersburg, 
Lenin proclaimed the seizure of power, the Soviets were en- 
throned, and J. B. Matthews was translating 102 Protestant hymns 
into the Malay language. 

He came home in 1920 to teach at Scarritt College for Chris- 
tian Workers in Tennessee. By now, he had been reborn to a faith 
less comfortable. He had become a pacifist and an advocate of 
equality for Negroes. In this new revelation, he was, as he later 
apologized, "terribly in earnest about the Christian social doc- 
trine." No one in all Tennessee could claim such arduous labor 
for Robert M. La Toilette's 1924 Presidential campaign. J. B. Mat- 
thews would speak anywhere without fee, for he had learned 
that the only thing more pleasant than attending a revival is 
speaking to one. 

Scarritt was not an especially broad-gauged institution, and 
Matthews' tireless tongue quite soon began to afflict its trustees. 
After he had spoken for La Follete one Sunday night in Memphis, 
the local Methodist conference officially censured him, first for 
desecrating the Sabbath with a political utterance, then for shar- 
ing the platform with a Unitarian, and last for speaking in a 

But even after this public citation as hall boy to the Woman of 
Babylon, J. B. Matthews lingered on in Tennessee as an unending 
source of discomfort to the unenlightened. He delivered pacifist 
speeches to the American Federation of Labor; he appealed with- 
out success to the legislature to enact the child-labor amendment; 
he and the more earnest of his pupils defied the statutes enjoin- 
ing the separation of the races. 

Tennessee, along with much of the Middle South in the twen- 
ties, was a sort of social Sahara intermittently irrigated by oases 
of Christian social doctrine. Those oases knew the traveler Mat- 
thews and extravagantly admired him. A long time afterward, in 


disenchantment, he still held on to the flaking newsprint of the 
Southern church periodicals and was proud of adjectives like 
"classical in thought, powerful in delivery, tender in appeal" and 
of nouns like "deep spirituality, the exaltation of Jesus in his own 


He carried on, a flickering candle in the night, until 1927, when, 
by mutual consent, Scarritt College suffered him to be snuffed 
out. His letter of resignation, the more welcome for being un- 
forced, was a calm statement that he had only taken the Christian 
position in advocating freedom and justice for the Negro. 

He was out of work, with a wife and two children to worry him, 
but he was proud of his choice and regretted nothing of it. Not 
until twenty-two years later did he wonder aloud why he was 
worshiped by so many people while he was breaking traditions 
and scourged by so many when he turned to upholding them. At 
the time, his consolations did not seem small. There was, for 
example, the round-robin letter from Scarritt graduate students 
all grateful for "that Christian ideal you so perfectly manifest/' 
The Negroes, who do not forget even if they are not rich, pro- 
vided some part-time teaching at two of their colleges. Matthews 
was still welcome as an unpaid speaker on his old platforms. But 
there was no permanent place for him in the South. 

Most of all, there was no place for him in Hopkinsville, and if 
there had been, there was no impulse to return. And so, in 1929, 
he went to New York, like so many exiles before him, uprooted 
and displaced, a minister of the gospel without a church. 

He had suffered as a pacifist; he was renowned for his touch 
with unformed youth; and the Fellowship of Reconciliation was 
very glad to acquire him as its executive secretary. The F.O.R. 
was the largest pacifist organization in America; even so, it had 
fewer than 8,000 members, and these represented a special kind 
of Christian conscience in the twenties. A majority of them had 
voted for Norman Thomas in 1928, a year of general social apathy. 
They were, of course, socialists of the ethic; J. B. Matthews was 
only following their temper when he joined the Socialist Party on 
November 6, 1929, having concluded that end of capitalism 
would mean the end of war. 
The day after he accepted his commitment to the F.O.R V Mat- 


thews was invited to take the chair of Hebrew at an Eastern 
university. Afterward, with ashes in his mouth, he would wonder 
how different it might have been if he had taken that earlier 
chance to withdraw from the challenge of his time. 

Chance is a force measureless in human affairs, but it seems 
hard to believe that the J. B. Matthews of 1929 could have been 
tempted by safe harbors. He was thirty-five years old, lean, 
ascetic, and believing in what he had done. The whole meaning 
of his life, since Java, pointed to this terminus as an ill-paid, 
itinerant apostle of universal peace; and, at thirty-five at least, 
men are jealous of the meaning of their lives. 

For J. B. Matthews had a maw rapacious enough for any over- 
riding nostrum; first the vision of Methodism bestriding the 
world, then the vision of pacifism without borders or frontiers, 
and after a while the vision of Marxism universal. For him, each 
new dose of the truth beyond argument carried its own antidote 
to its displaced, competing truth. All his successive potations 
neither damaged the larynx nor affected the speech. The revela- 
tion which sat now upon his right shoulder may have but lately 
elbowed off some equal, previous revelation, but no sense that 
tenants were fleeting or leases short-termed ever showed upon 
Matthews' face. 

The Fellowship of Reconciliation had never known as ener- 
getic an administrator. Matthews has always been appreciative of 
praise from any quarter, and he still preserves letters of gratifica- 
tion from his colleagues there, all full of awe that any man could 
be in so many places at once. He remained four years with the 
F.O.R. As at Scarritt, he was uncomfortable well before his de- 
parture. The gentle tones of pacifism already sounded a little 
thin in the pyrotechnics of New York. Matthews had discovered 
Karl Marx and the tossing foam of a Madison Square Garden 
meeting dedicated to his gospel. 

It no longer seemed so clear to him that peace was to be cher- 
ished above all else. He had become a revolutionary Marxist 
The F.O.R/s inhibitions about means seemed less important to 
him than Marx's overmastering passion for ends. 

The present director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation is 
A J. Muste, an old radical who has returned to pacifism after a 


long journey in pursuit of strange gods. He knew Matthews well 
in the early thirties, when Matthews was a pacifist and Muste 
thought of himself as an independent Marxist-Leninist. 

"Pacifism," Muste says, "is a matter both of resistance and 
reconciliation. Every pacifist is both reconciler and resister; and 
some are stronger in the one than the other. J. B. was always a 
little strong on the resistance side/* 

Few men like to confess that their emotions sit higher with 
them than their intellect, and J. B. Matthews has always asserted 
that reason and study changed him from pacifist to revolu- 
tionary Marxist in the early thirties. He aimed, he said, "at the 
complete mastery of Marx, and, for this mastery I acquired all 
the books." We may wonder whether he read them. He appears 
to have become a Marxist without reading more than the tiniest 
fragments of Marx, and we may surmise, without injustice, that 
he did not read Marx until he had become an anti-Marxist, which 
is a piece of intellectual history common to his period. 

For, in the days of his commitment, there was hardly time to 
read anything. The good Lord, in any case, had blessed J. B. 
Matthews with more powers of speech than of reflection, fust as 
He had stuffed him so full of faith and hope as to leave small 
room for charity. But these were times when he and his votaries 
felt more compulsion to be enchanted with his qualities than per- 
turbed by his defects. 

Matthews saw what he wished to see, and he had no need of 
books for knowledge. He visited the Soviet Union five times be- 
tween 1927 and 1932. On his last trip, he took a group through 
the Ukraine. One of his sheep pointed to the existing famine, and 
he as her shepherd insisted that there was no such thing, and, 
anyway, look at India. He knew how to protect himself against 
shocks of recognition. 

In 1935, Harry Lang, an old Socialist, wrote a detailed account 
of this same famine for the Hearst papers. Without reading 
Lang, Matthews faithfully denounced him for the Daily Worker. 
The state of mind he describes as "my Marxism" was an inocula- 
tion against scrutiny. Matthews says himself that, in all his years 
as a revolutionary, he very seldom read the Daily Worker. 
The depth, the symmetry, the sense, and the syntax of J. B. 


Matthews in those days may best be summarized in an excerpt 
from a speech he made to a Communist Party rally in Madison 
Square Garden on April 5, 1933: 

"Essentially fascism is capitalism turned nudist. Bourgeois 
democracy is a fig leaf to hide the naked realities of the capitalist 
system. But just as soon as revolutionary action is threatened 
from the working class, the fig leaf is tihrown aside." 

Matthews remembers this flight of imagery as a piece of mad 
music to his audience. 

"The band played its loudest There were cheers, handclapping, 
singing of the International* and marching. It lasted almost ten 
minutes. I liked it It was, in fact, thrilling." 

Next day's Daily Worker described Matthews' debut at the 
Garden as "a trenchant attack upon the illusions of bourgeois 
democracy prevalent among the intelligentsia." 

More people listened to J. B. Matthews that night than had 
ever heard him before in one place. It was the apogee of his life 
as a revolutionary. He has moved to other great stages since then, 
and all the passion which he brings to them is to the mutilation 
of that self of twenty-one years ago. And yet, the key idea sum- 
marized by the Daily Worker after that first night in Madison 
Square Garden remains today a core of Matthews' thought. He 
cannot speak or write without crying forth against "the illusions 
. . prevailing among the intelligentsia." 

He stirred the Garden in 1933, when he believed in the dicta- 
torship of the proletariat, by denouncing those intellectuals who 
frittered and dallied while the guns of fascism beat outside their 
doors. In 1953, he declared that "if all the colleges in the United 
States had been closed during the last thirty-five years, our na- 
tional situation could not be any worse so far as the understand- 
ing of Communism is concerned." 

Hopkinsville, where he first saw the vision of the world as a 
meeting house, had been a focus of noise and action and faith 
beyond reason. J. B. Matthews would always be one who be- 
lieved more than one who doubted; his view of the intellectual 
all along has always been the believer's revulsion from the 
doubter, and the recruiting sergeant's discontent with the im- 


mobilized. Only last year, lie said, "I don t like the fellow who 
never got his feet wet." He has always preferred the enemy to the 

In the Garden, that April of 1933, Matthews had taken his first 
sip of a heady brew. He appears to have no memories from the 
ensuing two years so electric as those nights at the Garden and 
its banks of ecstasy. On February 27, 1935, the Daily Workers 
Simon Gerson discovered new dimensions of hyperbole to de- 
scribe the effect of a Matthews speech. "It seemed," he throbbed, 
"that the very steel girders that arched across the roof would 
bend from the ear-splitting cheers that went up." 

Those nights at Madison Square Garden, now outlawed by a 
timorous management, were not occasions for the contemplative. 
They did not require that the speaker be very deep or very pene- 
trating; he was less orator than cheer leader. Once again, J. B. 
Matthews stood before his old vision of the world become Ken- 
tucky meeting house. No other stage seemed to mean quite so 
much to him. The pacifists around the F.O.R. office were pallid 
beside it. The salt had lost its savor. 

Matthews began growing more secular. He took a drink every 
now and then; he would never qualify as a tosspot, but he would 
always talk like one, glorying in this smallest of sins like any 
man who discovers the pleasures of faint immorality late in life. 
He was moving with entire conviction and complete sincerity to- 
ward divorcing the wife who had been a missionary with him in 
Java and replacing her with a trimmer model along revolutionary 
socialist lines. 

There appears to have been something in the air of those times 
which made it necessary for so many of the very few who felt 
their impact most to stride from home to home, always slamming 
the door behind them. Not eight years before, J. B. Matthews had 
departed Scarritt College with grace and dignity; now, in 1933, 
he had worn out his welcome with the Fellowship of Reconcilia- 
tion, but he fought to stay with it. The attractions of salary did 
not hold him; the F.O.R. paid him just four thousand dollars a 
year. Between 1933 and 1935, his entire tangible reward for the 
torrent of words he poured forth after working hours at every 


drop of a handbill amounted to just three hundred dollars in 
traveling expenses and one ten-dollar honorarium. Money is the 
least of needs to a man sure he is bearing the light. 

By 1933, Matthews no longer believed in the F.O.R.; pacifism 
had become one more piece of dead skin for him. He was frank 
to admit that the Fellowship was of interest to him only as a 
base from which to preach a harsher doctrine, for, whatever they 
say of him, J. B. Matthews was not born to be an underground 
man. But, as a revolutionary Marxist, he knew that he should not 
leave a strategic position without a principled, programmatic 
fight. The F.O.R. was a respectable organization; the slogans of 
combat had a special weight on the lips of a man who could 
speak as its executive secretary. 

By now, the older F.O.R. leaders were almost as depressed as 
they were exhausted by the unremitting manifestations of their 
executive secretary's energy. The Fellowship's national chairman, 
who had formerly wondered with delighted surprise "how you 
have been able to get so much into twelve months," was com- 
mencing to wish Matthews would slow down. 

In November, 1933, Matthews challenged the F.O.R. to dis- 
avow absolute pacifism enough to permit its members to scrim- 
mage on the barricades. Violence in the class struggle is de- 
plorable, conceded Matthews, who six months before at Madison 
Square Garden had seemed to find it delightful. But the class 
war was also inevitable, he declared, and a pacifist should be al- 
lowed to plunge into its violence to a degree impermissible in an 
international war. 

Even in the thirties, there were not many Americans who held 
a basic faith and felt it challenged by H Marxism at some funda- 
mental point who did not choose the faith and reject the chal- 
lenge. To Matthews* surprise, his suggested adulteration of the 
doctrine of nonviolence was overwhelmingly rejected by the Fel- 
lowship's members and he was asked to resign as executive secre- 
tary. The wisdom of total pacifism may be subject to dispute, but 
nowhere does it look more fair than in its low rate of producing 
backsliders. The few who accept its cloak do not lightly put it 
aside; they are trained to stand their ground, moved no more by 
the winds of passing passion than by the sound of trumpets. 


So small a segment of the F.O.R.'s membership followed him 
out that Matthews soon abandoned his original notion of form- 
ing a sort of FeUowship-of-ReconciHation-With-AU-Save-the- 
Class-Enemy. The beauty of a strong, lasting commitment is often 
best understood by a man incapable of it; and Matthews has al- 
ways been generous in his assessment of the F.O.R.'s judgment in 
losing faith in him. 

Early in 1934, Matthews was established at a new base Con- 
sumers' Research, where he worked with his friend, Fred J. 
Schlink, co-author of 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, a splashy account 
of the depredations inflicted upon the consumer under free en- 
terprise. Consumers' Research was an agency both to^emancipate 
the consumer from the hypnosis of the advertiser and to advise 
him of the relative value of various products contesting for his 
dollar. Matthews became vice president of Consumers' Research 
and joined Schlink in writing Partners In Plunder, a sequel to 
100,000,000 Guinea Pigs. He helped edit its publications and 
made lecture tours in support of his new call. 

But it remained a subsidiary call; the liberation of the con- 
sumer was never to be the panacea that universal Methodism, 
then pacifism, and now Marxism was for him. His heart was still 
with verbalization of the revolutionary impulse. For a few months 
in 1934, he was national chairman of the new American League 
against War and Fascism, which Communist Party chairman 
Earl Browder described as "led by our party quite openly." He 
remained a Socialist, although frequently under suspension for 
his on-again, off-again tendency to forgather with Communists. 
He left the American League in 1934, but for the next eighteen 
months, he could not resist the intoxicants of the Communists 
and kept sinking back toward their embrace. 

"There was never anyone more confused than J. B. Matthews 
in those days," he says now. "Perhaps I'm still confused." But no 
sense of inner conflict appears ever to have caught his tongue. 

There was an irresistible sense of immolation in the struggle of 
his time when the Communist Anti-Imperialist League invited 
him to address a dockside demonstration against an incoming 
Japanese diplomat, and the New York police knocked him from 
his chair. 


j n 1935, it was still exciting to be invited to Toronto to speak 
to a rally of the Canadian League against War and Fascism "built 
around your world-wide reputation" (the world was a meeting 
house, and its hallelujahs were all for him) and to be tendered 
the facetious pledge of "a polite deportation for you." 

Try as Matthews would to swear off, the Daily Worker could 
report as late as May of 1935 that, at one Party-sponsored rally, 
"J. B. Matthews, a leading revolutionary socialist, was greeted 
with thunderous cheers." The Workers correspondent reported 
him warping the girders of the Garden as late as February, 1935. 
He retained his special touch with the unformed; the National 
Student League, a Communist group, used him whenever it 
could; he cannot remember how many times he spoke to the NSL 
at City College of New York. 

He wrote at various times for publications called Revolutionary 
Age, Labor Action, Revolt, Fight, and the New Masses, which 
shared a common rhetorical impulse and a rancorous dislike for 
each other. He preached wherever he could find a flock, and 
spread his favors with so fine an impartiality among such ir- 
reconcilables as Communists, Lovestoneite Communists, Musteite 
Leninists, Christian Socialists, and revolutionary Socialists that he 
seemed to many of his brothers in the struggle an odd fish, a 
visionary, a fool, or an untrustworthy fellow. 

Our only surviving literary portrait of the J. B. Matthews of 
that period comes from Benjamin Gitibw, a particularly ravaged 
bit of wreckage from various Communist storms who met Mat- 
thews in 1934 and has traveled a long way with him since. By 
the time he met Matthews, Gitiow had been reduced by circum- 
stance to an habitual tone of peevish lament. 

He had been one of the first American Communists, and had 
gone to prison in 1919 for preparing a soggy translation of the 
new gospel of Lenin. It was his notion afterward that his com- 
rades had turned him in to escape punishment themselves. He 
came out of prison a Bolshevik hero and was rewarded by being 
made secretary of the American Communist Party. In 1930, he 
was called to Moscow and expelled after a dispute with Stalin. 
He had left his other suit in a trunk in the New York office; he 
came home to find that his former admirers had stolen it. Ben 


Gitlow's life was a history of peculiar experiences in degrada- 
tion. After some vicissitudes, in 1934 lie had sought shelter in 
the Socialist Party and was distressed to find it drifting under 
Communist influence. Matthews was at the time the Party's most 
conspicuous advocate of collaboration with the Communists and 
chairman of the Revolutionary Policy Committee, a Socialist fac- 
tion highly susceptible to the Leninist, if not the Stalinist, pull- 
That summer, Gitlow tried to reason with him. 

Matthews, Gitlow reported later, showed a "surprising lack of 
knowledge" and was lackadaisical" about "matters in which he 
should have been vitally interested." Still he gave Gitlow assur- 
ance that he would do his uttermost for the welfare of the work- 
ers. Gitlow wrote afterward, in his inevitable tone of grievance, 
that Matthews' uttermost had little availed the common good. 

"He seemed to me," he commented, "essentially a weak char- 
acter, one who would not stand up in a crisis." 

But Matthews ran his course for the next year, and no inner 
doubt or weakness of purpose was audible in his ringing voice- 
In February, 1935, the night he bent the girders of the Garden, he 
shouted to a largely Communist audience: "We can build a party 
of the working class and this party must include the Com- 
munist Party." 

His last recorded appearance before an audience of Com- 
munist persuasion was on March 10, 1935, at a meeting in Detroit 
called by the Friends of the Soviet Union "to protest the cam- 
paign of the Hearst press against Soviet Russia and the American 
kbor movement." "The best way to answer Hearst," said Mat- 
thews then, "is to elect Maurice Sugar," the Friends of the Soviet 
Union's candidate for judge of the Detroit Recorders Court. He 
was saying good-by to his past with a final insult to what was to 
be his future. 

Just a few months later, J. B. Matthews met what he and his 
enemies agree was the crisis of his life. He had to make a choice 
between his allies of the united front and his friend Fred Schlink. 

As the founder and president of Consumers' Research, Schlink 
was a man enormously exercised over a comparatively circum- 
scribed area of injustice. His philosophy may be summarized as 
indignation at what he conceived to be the common, practice in 


American industry of bottling up seven cents' worth of mud and 
chemicals, giving it an exotic name, and selling it for five dollars 
to ladies in search of a new and infinitely lovelier countenance. 
He was, in brief, that glory of American radicalism, the man who 
is cracked on a single subject. 

But most of Schlink's associates at Consumers' Research were, 
like Matthews, persons of more extended vision; some of them at 
least were intimate Communist fellow travelers. Matthews was 
a link between them and Schlink. In August of 1935, the link 
was broken. Schlink's employees organized a union; and, upon 
presentation and rejection of its demands, there was a strike. 
Matthews, as vice president of Consumers' Research, sided with 
Schlink and denounced the uprising as "a Communist conspiracy." 

There followed a vigorous demonstration of Matthews' view 
that violence was an inevitable and even commendable aspect of 
the class struggle. One day in September, he looked out of the 
window of his office to see a full-scale tear-gas riot between the 
police and his old friends on the picket line. 

That summer's tumult was dreadfully destructive to Matthews 
as symbol of the united front of the revolutionary left. The 
strikers denounced him in the New Masses. They hired Town 
Hall for a public trial of Schlink and Matthews, with Vito 
Marcantonio as prosecutor and Matthews' old friend, Heywood 
Broun, as hanging judge. Matthews cried out all summer that the 
strike was the result of a Communist plot to destroy Matthews 
and Schlink. The strikers were certainly under Communist in- 
fluence, but it was not a defense calculated to have much impact 
among Matthews' old associates. 

There were efforts on the left to resolve the issue by appoint- 
ing an impartial commission to investigate the strike. Matthews 
refused to accept any such suggestion. He himself had served 
on an impartial commission to investigate a furriers' strike, and 
he knew enough about the rules of evidence prevailing in those 
inquiries to refuse to subject himself to this one. 

In the end, the strike petered out and the pickets, led by Arthur 
Kallet, one of Schlink's oldest collaborators, departed Consumers' 
Research to set up the rival Consumers' Union, which flourished 
so well since then that it sells its reports on such matters as the 


comparative merits of the Buick and the Chrysler to a largely 
middle-class audience in the hundreds of thousands. In 1952, 
Kallet proved that he too was no longer a leftist by subjecting 
himself to a lengthy strike by the CIO American Newspaper 

But Kallet and others of the enraged committed made the fall 
of 1935 a season of slings and arrows for Matthews. He felt his 
revolutionary soul untouched by them. He sent his resignation to 
the American League against War and Fascism to spare it em- 
barrassment, but he left with the fraternal hope that the League 
"may grow in effectiveness day by day." 

He retained membership on the Board of Directors of the 
League for Industrial Democracy, a group oriented toward the 
Socialists. In the very depths of the Consumers* Research strike, 
he sat at an LID board meeting and voted for the merger of 
Socialist and Communist student groups which resulted in the 
American Student Union. 

"Though he slay me," Norman Thomas remarked on that oc- 
casion, "yet will I trust him." Thomas had attacked Matthews 
during the Consumers' Research strike. Matthews accepted that 
observation as an oblique acknowledgment that even though the 
Communists were harassing him at Consumers' Research, he was 
clinging manfully to his illusions. He seems to have felt then 
that no temporary misunderstanding with a union could shake 
his devotion to the revolutionary mass. 

We can suppose that he would have gone on speaking for the 
LID or even for the Communists at the Garden if either would 
have let him. But, for reasons that may now appear unjust, there 
was a certain resistance to a spokesman for united working-class 
action who was on the unfair list of a labor union. 

Matthews was thereafter the victim of a general boycott, his 
final achievement at unifying the forces of the left, which shut 
him off from almost all the platforms he had adorned so tirelessly 
so long. He had become, as the tenants of Red Channels were to 
be later, a controversial figure, and there was no court of appeals 
for him. By January of 1936, in enforced farewell to all his ban- 
ners, he had retreated to his Consumers' Research office at Wash- 
ington, N. J. 


Consumerism, pure and simple, could never have conjured up 
in J. B. Matthews' mind that key image of a room shaking with 
the shouts of men. Still he gave it his routine best. By mere 
process of competition with Consumers' Union, he and Schlink 
were beginning to find undetected virtues in free enterprise; pre- 
sumably anything so distasteful to Kallet was good enough for 
them. But this was, after all, a private drama on a small stage. 
J. B. Matthews was not a man by nature happy to replace action 
with contemplation. His past religions had been more public than 
private. As a missionary, he was not mystic but song leader; as a 
Marxist, he was not so much student as shouter of rags and tags 
from the tail end of the Communist Manifesto. For him ideas 
were of no use except as weapons, He was conscientious but 
perfunctory in the assemblage of facts which was Consumers' 
Research's business. He was a poet condemned to a typewriter 

In the fall of 1936, he voted for Alfred M. Landon, the Re- 
publican candidate, for President. He does not appear during that 
interlude of peace to have performed any other conspicuous po- 
litical act, and this one was out of character. For it was a gesture, 
by his standards, of normality; it put him in step with great num- 
bers of the American people, and it is J. B. Matthews' usual com- 
pulsion to be alone and special. The Landon vote reflected the 
pastoral period of his life; in 1940, when he had returned to com- 
bat, he refused to vote for Wendell Willkie and later for Tom 
Dewey, because he considered them both concealed agents of 
the New Deal. He voted for President Eisenhower in 1952, under 
pressure from his friends, and there are signs now that he regrets 
that deviation exceedingly. 

Then, in August of 1938, he emerged once more upon the great 
stage, this time as guest of the House Committee on Un-American 
Activities, with voice a little softer, with body not so lean, blink- 
ing at the spotlight but with confidence in self and assurance of 
rectitude once more restored. 

Matthews testified before the House Committee on Un-Ameri- 
can Activities for two full days. His old friend Heywood Broun, 
who was not in his most attractive phase then himself, described 
the scene this way: 


"J. B. Matthews exorcised demons for a House committee. His 
voice became shrill and fervent as he attacked the Youth Con- 
gress. And then upon a note of almost sheer hysteria he thrust 
out a thin arm and screamed that Shirley Temple was a 'stooge' 
of the 'reds/ The chairman of the House committee leaned for- 
ward eagerly and said: 'Go on, professor/" 

Ever since then, his enemies have described him as an in- 
former. But the material then was after all a matter of public 
record; and if an informer is a man offering facts otherwise 
buried in some secret cache, J. B. Matthews was unqualified to 
be one. He had never been a Communist; he had been simply 
an ornament on that illusory fagade of broad mass influence 
which the Communist Party jerrybuilt in the early thirties. And 
so he came to Martin Dies and the Un-American Activities Com- 
mittee, not as informer, but as bearer of the gospel that the f aade 
was four-square granite; this had not been illusion but terrible, 
dangerous fact. 

Matthews must have spent his seclusion going over the mean- 
ing of his life all the way back to Java. A man can look upon his 
life and accept it as good or evil; it is far, far harder for him to 
confess that it has been unimportant in the sum of things. All 
those long, turbid nights of shouts and mutterings that were the 
compound of his life as a radical had been a sequence of swindles 
in which he had been at once shill and dupe. The Communist 
fronts he had served had been structures of enormous pretension 
and pathetic foundation. He had dressed himself in a dozen cos- 
tumes the beloved and burning brand from the Anti-Imperialist 
League, the friend of the Friends of the Soviet Union, the am- 
bassador extraordinary from the American League against War 
and Fascism and all the while he had been thundering in the 
same little room to the same few people. 

Matthews could not say that this had been a good work. But 
he dared not say that it had been an unimportant one. There may 
be some comfort in confessing yourself a sinner if you can con- 
fess yourself a substantial sinner. For J. B. Matthews had de- 
ceived himself for three years that he was talking to multitudes. 
That was the one illusion that he could not surrender. 

In a certain sense, time was kind to J. B. Matthews. When he 


struck the trail of repentance in 1938, the thirties, at the heart of 
their myth at least, were already over. The literature of disillusion 
was already selling as well as the literature of illusion, although 
it would still be two years before Darkness at Noon would finally 
displace The Coming Struggle for Power in the libraries of the 
advanced. When a faith is dying, the best go first and lesser 
spirits trail behind. That qualitative apostasy which precedes any 
quantitative defection had set in before Matthews completed his 
final turn. The revolutionary spirit of 1932 had been devoted to 
the composition of the proletarian novel, a poor thing but its 
own; the survivors of that spirit in 1938 were reduced to col- 
lecting folk songs. In 1932, the revolutionary impulse had at- 
tracted such spirits as John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson; by 
1938, both were occupied with labors of disenchantment; and 
they had no successors. The creators of the myth had either de- 
fected or ceased to create. 

And then J. B. Matthews emerged as the legatee of the thirties, 
the custodian of their archives, the patcher and pumper of all 
their deflated balloons. The historian of that time's surface could 
have no source so full as the files of J. B. Matthews, who was at 
once its great enemy and a soul dependent upon its preserva- 
tion, the sleepless researcher into its dark corners, the one man 
whose life would be without meaning if he could not believe 
that it had all been terribly important, not as the tragedy of the 
few but the guilt of the many. 

Looking back now, after twenty years, a detached observer 
might say that it had been a very little thing to which very 
few people came. But J. B. Matthews had to say, no, no, can't 
you see that everybody was there, that all America was listening 
to me in Madison Square Garden? 

He could hardly say, of course, that many Americans had be- 
lieved that fascism was capitalism gone nudist even in 1933. But 
most Americans had been against child labor. And it could only 
have been a compulsion to declare the guilt universal which 
impelled Matthews to apologize for his speeches against child 
labor with the public reflection that he had been water boy to a 
labor gang when he was six years old and that it hadn't hurt 



He sat before the House Committee on Un-American Activities 
reading the long roll of his misdeeds, putting into the record the 
names of his old collaborators. He listed a total of twenty-eight 
Communist-directed enterprises, a modest count by later stand- 
ards. He himself had held office in fifteen of them and had spoken 
for nineteen on a grand total of 106 occasions. 

Matthews described a vast assemblage of "dupes, stooges, and 
decoys" lured into these fronts by the Communists. It seemed a 
little strange that he, as just one among so many gulls, should 
have been employed as protective coloration for more than half 
those deadfalls. With so many available suckers, the Communists 
appear to have inflicted abnormal exploitation upon just this 

Among his cloud of sinners, Matthews included a number of 
old Socialist comrades, who had lost faith in co-operation with 
the Communists either before he had or during the period of his 
withdrawal. One of those targets was at the moment a highly 
vocal opponent of Communist influence in the National Labor 
Relations Board, and was a trifle surprised to be picked out by 
Matthews as the most dangerous man in the NLRB. His crime 
was not communism but collectivism, a sin more amorphous, 
which had revealed itself to Matthews while he was wrestling 
with the devil in Washington, N. J. 

After his testimony, Matthews boarded a train with an old 
Socialist comrade, who refused to speak to him. Matthews was 
terribly shaken. 

"Look," he said, "I know what you think. But, believe me, I 
have never exposed any Socialist who was not co-operating with 
me while I was co-operating with the Communists." That was a 
remark akin to the respect Matthews retained for the Fellow- 
ship of Reconciliation because it lost faith in him. The only un- 
forgivable sin was to have trusted and followed J. B. Matthews 
up through 1935. He cried mercy for himself as shepherd and 
slaughter for the sheep. 

In their revulsion, his old comrades and a great many people 
who had never been his comrades, preferred to say that Matthews 
was lying in detail, and to let the substance of his fantasy pass 
without comment. But, with a few exceptions, the details of Mat- 


thews* testimony were generally unassailable. Just one year later, 
almost all the organizations he cited as Communist fronts either 
disappeared or altered their policies beyond recognition in re- 
sponse to the Nazi-Soviet pact 

The fantasy which went unmentioned by Matthews* enemies 
and has now become the core of the myth of the fifties was in his 
description of the awesome power and influence of the Com- 
munists in the life of the thirties. As an instance, Matthews with 
perfect justice asserted that the American League for Peace and 
Democracy was a Communist front The American League 
claimed to represent four million members, a species of inflation 
which Matthews passed on to Martin Dies and the House Com- 
mittee on Un-American Activities as though it were fact. At the 
time of its dissolution in October, 1939, it had just twenty thou- 
sand members. 

We might all have been better off today if the honest op- 
ponents of J. B. Matthews had conceded that the American 
League for Peace and Democracy was a Communist front and 
challenged the assumption that it had four million members. That 
way, we might have been rescued from the myth, shared equally 
by those who love and many who hate J. B. Matthews, that this 
was an era when "everyone" was influenced by the Communists. 

The House Committee on Un-American Activities had pro- 
duced a number of witnesses against communism; so far, there 
had been none like Matthews, an "insider" asserting himself stiH 
damp from the sewer and blessed with the obsession that he had 
left behind him countless hosts of the fallen. Committee Chair- 
man Martin Dies had the reaction of stout Cortez upon the peak 
at the endless vista which Matthews spread before him. He hired 
this new prophet as soon as he was able and anointed him with 
the nickname "Doc," an honorary degree reflecting the semi- 
literate's awe of the scholar. 

Doc Matthews was a new kind of apostate from communism. 
When Ben Gitlow was cast into the night in 1930, he regarded 
himself as a revolutionary socialist for the next six years, sham- 
bling from one splinter group to another, still hoping to find the 
true light somewhere in their weak phosphorescence. Ben Gitlow 
walked a long way to discover the world was round. 
J. B. Matthews had made his homeward iournev in half that 


time. After him, in some special cases, the pace was to become as 
of Mercury. A young Southwesterner named Howard Rushmore 
had come to New York in the early thirties to join the staff of the 
Communist Young Worker, where his rangy frame and his gaunt, 
embattled head made him especially attractive as a photographic 
subject. Rushmore had grown up to the Daily Worker, where, as 
a junior reporter, he was assigned to film criticism. In the fall of 
1938, he was dispatched to the assassination of Gone With The 
Wind, enjoyed it thoroughly, and, touched by ancestral aspira- 
tions toward the Articles of Secession, refused to accept the 
Marxist analysis of Vivien Leigh as Serpent of White Supremacy. 

This was an extraordinary rock upon which to break a Bolshe- 
vik, but Rushmore crashed against it. Two days later, still drip- 
ping wet, he was describing the dark night of his soul to a Hearst 
editor. Within a week, he had become the Hearst papers* expert 
on communism and labor, touring his beat girt round with the 
Confederate Army belt of some departed ancestor, a premature 
anti-fascist become premature Dixiecrat 

Ben Gitlow's total repudiation of his thirties, his twenties, and 
his teens came a little later; in 1940, he went before the Dies 
Committee and repudiated collectivism too. Matthews, Rush- 
more, and even Gitlow had accepted Marx without reading much 
of him; and that may have been why they were conditioned for 
the ultimate acceptance of the anti-collectivism of other economic 
absolutists like Ludwig Von Mises almost without ever having 
heard of them. 

The ultimate seemed Matthews' absolute necessity. In 1935, 
he had been telling Detroit how to defeat William Randolph 
Hearst. Three years later, he wrote of Hearst as the first among 
the captains against communism and the victim of a "classic" 
smear campaign. In 1940, a group of his old Revolutionary Pol- 
icy Committee fellows entered into the Union for Democratic 
Action to support aid to Britain in direct dispute with the current 
Communist line. Matthews' response to this evidence of regenera- 
tion was to disinter the moldering associations of UDA's directors 
with long-gone Communists fronts and to denounce them as still 
collectivists. He was saying, as he had said in the Garden, that 
there was no middle way. 

The early nineteen forties were not a period with much interest 


in the crimes of the thirties and they shunted the Un-American 
Activities Committee off on a sidetrack of the railroad of history. 
Martin Dies was sick and tired; J. B. Matthews was diverted to a 
languid hunt for native fascists, but his heart remained in the 
highlands hunting for the crypto-Bolsheviks about whom so few 
people were worried at the moment. Dies, scared of defeat, quit 
Congress without an election campaign. 

And so he said his sad "So long, Doc," and went back to Texas. 
By now Matthews also had retreated into the shadows to await 
his time to come. By good chance, William Randolph Hearst 
still cared. J. B. Matthews transferred his files to the office of 
Hearst's International Corporation. And there he and they fat- 
tened and grew heavy with portent. 

By 1948, history had come his way again. There were almost 
as many anti-Communist fronts abounding as there had been 
Communists fronts in the early tihirties. The professional revolu- 
tionary had been replaced by the professional counterrevolu- 
tionary. J. B. Matthews was once again a dean. 

His files had become by now a repository of truth as immutable 
as Marxism had been. They bulged with 500,000 names of per- 
sons who had been affiliated with left-wing groups, a separate 
card for each of 7,000 clergymen, carefully listing his pro-Com- 
munist affiliations, a separate card for each of 3,000 educators, 
likewise errant. 

For Matthews was custodian of the tomb of the thirties. They 

lay embalmed in his cabinets, because no one cared about them 

any longer except as a sin requiring purgation; and J. B. Mat- 

thews held the roster of the fallen and the tempted. For compila- 

tions of this kind, largely from public documents of the Com- 

munist Party and its fringes, are essential to the extirpation of sin 

because the recollections of repentant Communists are them- 

selves too limited to be totally satisfactory. In 1939, a year after 

he left the party, one professional ex-Communist found his stock 

of memories so depleted that he began canvassing more recent 

apostates for new material He offered one such backslider a split 

in the profits from his reminiscence, explaining that his own cup- 

board was bare and needed new matter. J. B. Matthews' stature 

as an authority rests more on the 500,000 names in his great file 

than upon any special experience. 


The possession of those jewels made Matthews the grand 
master of the new cadre of the disenchanted. He seemed to have 
mellowed a great deal by now, sybaritic, and wearing his glasses 
only to read, invoking his Maker only in moments of disturbance, 
as liberated from the shackles of John Wesley as from the fetters 
of Karl Marx. 

He had new friends of every description; the ones he cherished 
most were, like himself, of the committed. The more fortunate 
among them could expect invitations to his penthouse apartment 
in Chelsea to eat shrimp prepared in the high Javanese fashion 
and indulge themselves in elephantine banter about King 
Charles's head. There is an organ in the apartment, and in his 
moments of peace Matthews' fingers from ancient habit may 
stray and his now thick voice may rise to "Lead, Kindly Light" 
as it was in Malaya so long ago. 

But piety is not his pose, and he would be very happy to be- 
lieve that, like his guests, he is a man successful in the worldly 
sense and that, unlike many of them, he is past his commitments. 

"I have been misunderstood as a crusader," he said a year or 
so ago. "I don't consider myself a crusader. I am engaged in a 
very interesting field of investigation." His eye gleamed and his 
fingers met in the old gesture of the connoisseur. "To me the 
letterhead of a Communist front is a nugget. And I make a good 
living at it." 

And yet, try though he would, he still believed; J. B. Matthews 
had to serve stranger gods than Mammon. The cards in his files 
were now his law and his prophets. When Anna Rosenberg was 
appointed assistant Secretary of Defense, Matthews fished out a 
card showing that an Anna Rosenberg had belonged to five Com- 
munist fronts in the thirties. This had to be the Anna Rosenberg, 
he insisted; there was no other Anna Rosenberg of her stature. 
The FBI was almost immediately to find another Anna Rosen- 
berg, who freely affirmed that she had been the one listed by 
Matthews as a member of the John Reed Club. 

The cards in the file were the records of the avenging Angel; 
and this angel, true to the God of HopkinsviUe, had no time to 
judge the intentions of those who walked the road to hell. In- 
nocence was not a word in his vocabulary. In 1938, after his re- 
generation, Matthews had been surprised to find that the Drily 


Worker had listed him, in 1933, among five American representa- 
tives to the International Commission to Aid the Victims of 
German Fascism, a front of which he had never even heard. 

He reflected then that "there is nothing extraordinary about a 
Communist using the names of persons without their permis- 
sion/* There was no room for that reflection in his files; the names 
of the ignorant and the innocent were impartially mixed there 
with the aware and the guilty. 

Try though they will to be normal, J. B. Matthews and those 
of the afrned disenchanted he serves as supply sergeant cannot 
escape a destiny of passions which affront or frighten ordinary 
men. In the spring of 1953, Matthews was appointed staff direc- 
tor for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's Subcommittee on Investi- 
gations. Within a few weeks he was in trouble; the Senate was 
aroused over his charge that the Communists were nowhere 
stronger than in the Protestant churches. He clung to that posi- 
tion against all the clamor; and at length he was driven out by 
outraged Southern Democrats, who had been conservatives when 
he was a revolutionary but to whom any reflection on the purity 
of the Baptist and Methodist churches was a personal affront. 

Joe McCarthy's picture still hangs on his wall, but J. B. Mat- 
thews is too controversial ever to serve McCarthy in any official 
sense. For the armed disenchanted, try though they will for 
normality, must always feel like an oppressed and dedicated 
minority. The totality of their disillusion is too much for the 
great majority who never knew even illusion. Ralph de Toledano, 
who is sometimes a guest at J. B. Matthews' evenings and who 
was a radical long ago, once asked me: "Can't you understand 
that the only place for an anarchist today is the Republican 
Party?" a thesis that would certainly have pained Governor 
Fuller of Massachusetts as much as it could Bartolomeo Van- 

And Matthews is unusual among the armed disenchanted be- 
cause he is professionally successful where most of them exist on 
short rations. Their type is not Matthews but Ben Gitlow, for 
whom free enterprise has found very little comfort. Gitlow has 
wandered, an uneasy, hungry ghost before various committees 
and government boards, and he has written a book that did not 


sell. I last heard his voice in May of 1952, in lamentation before 
the New York Volunteers for Taft He was especially exercised 
by the waste of our substance on loans to Europe. "We must," he 
declared, "act like ordinary businessmen; if we give a dollar's 
value, we ought to get a dollar back for it." The judge who sent 
Ben Gitlow to prison in the twenties expressed shock because he 
is "able-bodied, full of intellect [and] confesses he owns no 

J. B. Matthews is fortunate, by contrast at least, in the material 
sense. But there are signs even for him that no man can be alto- 
gether happy when so much of his past lies buried with a lost 

Last year, his old associate, A. J. Muste, now once more a 
pacifist and director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, wrote 
Hearst columnist George Sokolsky to correct an imputation that 
the F.O.R. had been under Communist influence in the days 
Matthews was sojourning there. Sokolsky submitted Muste's letter 
to the guardian of the files. Matthews wrote back that the F.O.R. 
had indeed been free of Communist taint most of the time. But 
he regretted to inform Sokolsky that Muste had requested clem- 
ency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atom spies, and must 
thus be included among the 7,000 Communist-serving clergy- 
men whom Matthews intended to cite to the House Committee 
on Un-American Activities. "In doing so," said Matthews, "I have 
no malice." 

Sokolsky, as mediator with the foul fiend, sent Matthews' letter 
on to Muste, who responded with a long answer direct to Mat- 
thews. He enclosed in it the exact text of his appeal for clemency 
for the Rosenbergs; it had expressed the conviction that they had 
beerf fairly tried and had urged clemency only as proof of how 
much more humane democrats could be than totalitarians. Muste 
raised a mild question as to whether even the great file in J. B. 
Matthews* office was quite adequate to catalogue the heart of a 

And, at the close, he said he would like to see Matthews again 
some time, because, after all, "I have never thought that the fact 
that people stand on different political platforms ought to mean 
the severance of human relationships ." Matthews did not reply. 


There were no eyes from all his past into which A. J. Muste was 
not glad to look. But there was at least one pair that was too 
much for J. B. Matthews. 

But his was a lif e not without its moment of reward. The night 
before the feast of St. Valentine, 1953, his friends tendered J. B. 
Matthews a dinner in the Sert Room of the Hotel Waldorf- 
Astoria. They came in black ties and paid $12.50 a plate, men of 
all sorts and conditions, gathered in their twilight to honor the 
archivist of this last of so many of their faiths. There came Ben 
Mandel, former business manager of the Daily Worker; Max East- 
man of the old Masses; George Sokolsky, flame of the anarchist 
segment of the Columbia University student body before World 
War I; Eugene Lyons, rapt biographer first of Sacco and Van- 
zetti and then of Herbert Hoover; Harvey Matusow, former social 
activities director at the Communist Camp Unity; Fred J. Schlink, 
co-author of Partners in Plunder, and a dozen others who had 
lost the way and found it again. 

Howard Rushmore, who learned about entertainment at the 
Daily Worker, handled the arrangements; it is to be hoped that 
he found a free ticket for Ben Gitlow, who sat very far from the 
dais, in his shabby dinner jacket, somehow alone, aggrieved and 
trapped to the last. And there came too men who had never 
changed their faith: Harry Jung, former editor of the American 
Gentile, and Merwyn K. Hart and Joseph Kamp, foes since boy- 
hood of all collectivisms except those of Benito Mussolini and 
Francisco Franco. 

And there came, as chief among them, bearing the libations of 
his new and special salt, United States Senator Joseph R. Mc- 
Carthy, a star brighter than Martin Dies had ever been; and 
J. B. Matthews was very glad to share their applause with*him. 
They gave him and Mrs. Matthews a silver service and they 
unveiled a portrait of solid substance. 

He arose, and so many rewards for his long watch beside the 
deathbed of the thirties were almost too much for him. He looked 
at George Sokolsky and said that, every time he heard that voice 
on the radio, he was reminded of the prophet Amos. There had 
been many faiths between Hopkinsville and the Waldorf; but 
always he had clutched at one, forsaking all others for the time 


being; and always there had been someone to remind him of 
the prophet Amos. 

He stood there, no longer lean but still dedicated, with three 
chins now and white hair and a mustache and the weight fighting 
against his double-breasted dinner jacket. There was the sense 
that, in moments less scrubbed and polished, the mustache would 
droop and show stains of tobacco. He had about him the look 
of an old pirate, the look in short of the father he had fled and 
left behind in Hopkinsville forty years before. 


OF ALL the prisoners of the myth of the thirties, none seemed 
more fortunate for a little while than the Hollywood Communists 
and none have suffered such extremes of punishment for their 

While they were Communists, the reality of their environment 
was Hollywood, which is a theater and very little of a reality at 
all. When the very rich are very foolish, literary convention is 
likely to treat them as comic figures. Eugene Lyons once de- 
scribed a film colony banquet in the thirties with its sated guests 
creaking up after the dessert to sing "Arise, ye prisoners of starva- 
tion," a satire dependent for its effect on the idea that starvation 
is a problem entirely of the flesh. But incongruity ceases to be 
comedy's essence when it becomes the incongruity which de- 
stroys men's lives. 

The conflict between the Hollywood Communist's idea of 
self and the reality of his life was always incongruous and his 
punishment was even more so. His sins of commission were 
very sinall ones; they were punished as capital crimes. He be- 
came the protagonist of most of the post-war dramas of the House 
Committee on Un-American Activities. Except for the Hiss- 
Chambers interlude, the committee devoted the years 1Q47-5 1 


almost entirely to subversion in Hollywood, and departed only 
when there were no actors left on the set. 

When its ordeal was over, Hollywood remained almost as it 
had been, less some 300 inhabitants. They were people for whom 
most of Hollywood felt a certain sympathy, but whom it regarded 
as victims of one of those plagues which occasionally carry off 
one's friends and which in Hollywood are familiar misfortunes 
of nature. 

Hollywood itself has always seemed to me more a conception 
than a reality. And when I had finished thinking about its lost 
Communists, I found myself unable to consider them and their 
character apart from the very nature of Hollywood itself. They 
seemed to me persons who had lived and died not so much true 
to Bolshevik notions of conduct as according to the ctistoms of 
this institution which they had hoped to divert to the service of 
their ideas and which had ended up, as institutions will, by di- 
verting them for itself. 

The most conspicuous of the Hollywood Communists did not 
find the roots of their conversion there. They were men who had 
their start with the revolutionary theater movement in New York 
in the early thirties and who came to Hollywood with very mixed 
impulses. The medium which had given them impetus as play- 
wrights had burned out very quickly. Hollywood was an escape 
from its ruins. It offered comfort and success; if they thought of 
it as an instrument for the propagation of their ideas, that notion 
did not survive their initiation. Their function thenceforth became 
that of fat cats and decorations. When the Un-American Activi- 
ties Committee came to root them out, the one thing none of 
their worst enemies could say against them was that they had 
left any permanent impress upon the screen. 

Their story is a failure of promise: first, of the promise in 
themselves, and last, of the promise of the Hollywood which 
was so kind to them until they became an embarrassment and 


then turned them out. The promise at the beginnings of most of 
them appears now to have been largely smoke and thunder; the 
promise which vanished at their end appears to have been tinsel, 
as Hollywood is tinsel. They were entombed, most of them, not 
for being true to themselves but for sitting up too long with their 
own press releases. 

It seemed best to me to begin their story when they were 
young and hungry back in New York. I have concluded it in the 
endless records of Un-American Activities Committee hearings 
which are their tomb. The heart of this chapter is a piecing to- 
gether of the stories told the committee by the repentant and the 
frightened among them, stories which, however valueless they 
seem to me for the salvation of the republic, are terrible docu- 
ments of the effect upon the human spirit of living ten years be- 
tween two fantasies. 

I confess that Hollywood is not a piece of my direct experience 
and that, to a degree, I may have imagined it, which might be a 
dangerous practice even for a community which has after all so 
largely created itself from its own imagination. This is a study 
conditioned less by the convictions of the committed than by the 
customs of Hollywood. According to those customs, it is peopled 
by those who, after their first flush at least, did not believe very 
much and felt a professional compulsion to simulate belief and 
were burned as finally as if they had been believers. 

The Day of the Locust 

The Workers 9 Theater Goes to Hollywood 

"[Hollywood] is such a slack, soft place . . . that with- 
drawal is practically a condition of safety . . . all gold 
rushes are essentially negative. . . . Everywhere there is, 
after a moment, either corruption or indifference'" 

SCOTT FITZGEBALD, letter to Gerald 
Murphy, September i, 1940 

*7 forgot my working class mother. . . . Last week I 
watched the May Day. I hid in the crowd. I watched how 
the comrades marched with red flags and music. You see 
where I bit my hand. I went down in the subway so I 
couldnt hear the music" 

CLIFFORD ODETS, I Can't Sleep, a mono- 
logue written for performance at a benefit 
for the Marine Workers Industrial Union, 
some time in 1935 

JOHN HOWARD LAWSON, displaced journeyman screen 
writer, has so long ceased to interest anyone except grave 
robbers and the House Committee on Un-American Activities 
that it seems hard to believe that there were once persons of 
taste who thought of him as an important American playwright 
That would have been more than thirty years ago when he 
wrote Processional, the expressionist sort of thing the Germans 
were doing in the twenties, with jerky speech rhythms, flat sets 
and flat vaudeville characters and a band playing on stage much 
of the time "making the jazz today for the glory of the working 
class." One of Lawson's stage directions explained: "They (the 
bandsmen) do not keep time very well, but the effect is lively.'' 


The effect was lively enough to be exciting a mixture, as it was, 
of Henry Mencken with Bert Brecht and Marx with Minsky. 
John Howard Lawson won with it a reputation for freshness and 

And having the reputation, he relaxed upon it, because Law- 
son appears to have been a rather conventional person at bottom. 
Processional retains some of its life force; his later plays were 
too pedestrian to inspire vivid recollection even as curiosities. 
John Howard Lawson's was always a consciously revolutionary 
voice; and Processional was a class-war piece. But, he did not 
become a Party man until rather late in the game when his prom- 
ise in the theater was duller than it had been. 

He always had a knack for the topical. Most of his close friends 
were Communists; and, late in the twenties, he wrote a play 
about foreign revolutionaries called The International Perhaps, 
even then, the clatter and thunder of the Comintern myth pro- 
vided those sound effects which can seem like a kinetic substitute 
for flagging resource. But John Howard Lawson did not join the 
Communist Party until 1934, during that brief period when it 
was giving America a workers* theater. The Party was highly 
flattered; he was still a young man; but, even so, he was the dean 
of revolutionary playwrights; and he assumed at once the aspect 
of an elder statesman. 

Lawson wasn't producing very much at the moment. Still he 
was working on the proletarian play and the study of the play- 
wright's art. In the meantime, he was very generous with his 
wisdom to his juniors in the left-wing New Theatre League. 

His juniors were young men burning their own juice. One of 
them, Clifford Odets, said kter that when he wrote his first play 
he was living on ten cents a day. The truth was harsh enough to 
require no such dramatic license. Odets' mother had worked in 
a stocking factory in Philadelphia when she was eleven and had 
died an old woman at forty-nine. When Clifford Odets' time came 
before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he told 
its counsel: "I did not learn my hatred of poverty, sir, out of 

He was twenty-eight when his first play was produced, hungry 
and wild of hair, and he was famous before he was thirty. Awake 


and Sing/ and Waiting for Lefty were produced within a few 
months of each other. Till the Day I Die took five days to write; 
Odets offered it as his version of life in Nazi Germany; its source 
was a letter to the New Masses. 

Till the Day I Die was seriously produced and remains today 
in print. What survives now are low comedy Nazis never seen 
on land or sea, a Communist underground girl who reproaches 
her Communist underground boy for male chauvinism, and a final 
affirmation that this will pass and brothers will live in the Soviets 
of the world. Till the Day I Die seemed to burn then, and it 
gives off a faint glow still. A bad play celebrating a myth may 
always seem better than a bad play regretting a myth. 

Questions of Odets' limitations were not fashionable on the 
left, or even in some sections of the middle, twenty years ago. It 
seemed so probable that this was the first genius of the revolu- 
tionary theater. Odets has come closer to the earth since, and it 
is easier to recognize that his talents were of the ear rather than 
the vision and that he was more Chekhov than Gorki. Yet it was 
for his message that he was worshiped by his candle-bearers in 
those days. It was a message which they knew so well that they 
were always two steps ahead of its delivery. They were not people 
who would ask whether even Odets could accomplish the defini- 
tive delineation of Nazi Germany in six days on no experience 
deeper than a letter in the New Masses. 

For the new social realism was concerned with more than 
reality. The hunger was enough. Waiting for Lefty was Odets' 
great triumph; he has always described it as "a light machine 
gun." Lefty is an one-act play about the prelude to a taxi strike; 
it is set in the framework of a union meeting and the audience 
serves as a hesitant, increasingly aroused rank and file. At its 
end, when the insurgents have beaten down the officials who had 
betrayed them, Agate (for agitator), their Communist spokes- 
man, shouts across the footlights: 

"Hello, America, hello. We're stormbirds of the working class. 
. . . And, when we die, they'll know what we did to make a new 
world! Christ cut us up into little pieces! We'll die for what is 
right! Put fruit trees where our ashes are!" 


And back at him from the audience came the shout, unre- 
hearsed but assured and inevitable: 


Odets wrote Waiting for Lefty without, he said, "having been 
near a strike in my life/* Direct experience was not required. 
Elia Kazan, a young actor trying his hand at composition, wrote 
Dimitrov for the United Workers Organization; he had, of course, 
never seen the Reichstag or the Brown House. This seemed no 
handicap because these were not documentaries; they were the 
stuff of heroic myth. 

They were all angry young apprentices. They began, most of 
them, during the Hoover administration, close to Union Square 
with the Workers Laboratory Theatre, whose offerings carried 
spare, didactic labels like The Klein-Ohrbach Strike. By 1934, 
many of them were with the Theatre Union, still downtown but 
apparently more substantial, and their productions conveyed an 
impression of foundation. George Sklar and Paul Peters wrote 
Stevedore (the waterfront); John Wexley contributed Steel and 
They Shall Not Die (the Scottsboro Boys); Albert Maltz, a little 
older than the others and the author of a commercial success, 
went to the West Virginia coal fields and came back with Black 
Pit, which had a depth and documentation and shadow of defeat 
uncommon to the new tradition. 

By 1936, Odets at least was enough of a force to sustain the 
new Group Theatre in a move uptown; and Kazan and J. Edward 
Bromberg, the Agate of Waiting for Lefty, went with him. 
Archibald MacLeish, back from France, looked upon the works 
of the new playwrights and found that they "made everything 
else seem irrelevant" and that America now <c had a workers 
theatre reflecting its time/' By the mid-thirties, the revolutionary 
drama had moved from Union Square to the Theatre Guild itself. 
Sklar and Peters wrote Parade, a Bolshevik revue, and the Guild 
bought and produced it. 

Odets and some of the others had been actors before they be- 
came playwrights; they wrote theater and not drama. Loyal as 
they were to the revolution, they were just as loyal to the tradi- 
tions of the theater. When they had their pictures taken for their 


programs, they took off their glasses and combed their hair and 
had themselves photographed soft focus. That may have been a 
sign, undetected by subjects as by beholder, that they were 
really rather conventional young men. 

Odets, who was the most famous of them, learned in 1935 
just how conventional he was. That was the year Colonel Batista's 
junta captured control of Cuba with numerous reported infamies 
against the workers. As one of the ornaments of Communist cul- 
ture, Odets was invited to be chairman of a Commission to In- 
vestigate Labor and Social Conditions in Cuba. In his own 
words, he accepted the invitation expecting "a beautiful trip 
across the water." The night before the commission arrived in 
Cuba, his idyllic anticipations were detonated when a more 
sophisticated traveler informed him that they could all expect 
arrest and immediate deportation upon landing. 

The Cuban police did, in fact, toss Odets into jail and shoved 
him aboard the swiftest available return boat. As soon as he 
returned to New York, Odets rushed down to find the anti-fascist 
who had seduced him into this horrible excursion. Seventeen 
years later, the creator of Till the Day I Die told the House Com- 
mittee on Un-American Activities: 

"[I] was rather aroused by this idea that we had been man- 
handled because we were, and I was indignant because no one 
seemed to make a fight about that. During that time, I also said 
it was very dangerous, which it was, because there were dozens 
of secret police there with machine guns, some of them dressed 
as dock workers in overalls. I said it was a very dangerous matter 
and they said: *Yes, it was so dangerous that we had originally 
intended to send Mother Bloor down as head of the delegation, 
but it was so dangerous we didn't send her/ She was an old 

It would appear, perhaps to his own surprise, to have been 
Clifford Odets' view that somebody else's ashes should fertilize 
those fruit trees. He wanted peace and comfort and safety of a 
sort foreign to the plays he wrote. And he does not appear to have 
been alone among the revolutionary dramatists in that withheld 

For, just when its flower seemed most passionate, there was no 


more revolutionary school of the theater; everyone had heen 
graduated. In 1934, when the tide was highest, the Communists 
organized the New Theatre League to propagate the workers' 
drama and to make available its plays without charge to little 
theatre groups of class-conscious timbre. By 1935 there were no 
revolutionary plays available. The League reported apologetically 
that its young comets had spurted off for the moment to other 
commitments; it was careful to avoid the word commerce. 

But commerce had come to the workers' theater and destroyed 
it. The Theatre Guild had paid Sklar and Peters more for fa- 
rode than the Theatre Union had ever dreamt of. The conserva- 
tive critics found Jimmy Savo its most memorable feature; the 
New Theatre League confessed that Parade had been adulterated 
to its detriment by "concessions to the Theatre Guild." By the 
mid-thirties Odets* company, the Group Theatre, was a com- 
mercial success; its members had no time for revolutionary 
drama. And there were no new voices. The New Theatre League 
announced a contest in 1935 for the best script about Angelo 
Herndon, a young Negro Communist condemned to a Georgia 
chain gang. There was no satisfactory entry. 

At last, in 1937, a little behind the trend, John Howard Law- 
son came up with Marching Song, a play about a Michigan 
automobile strike. It was a flower on what was now the grave of 
the revolutionary drama. The flavor of Marching Song may be 
summarized at the moment in the second act when Bill, the 
organizer, sends a girl named Rose with a message to the union s 
underground printing plant: 

"Rose: 'Don't worry about me/ " 

"Bill: Tm not worried about you. What bothers me is the 
printing press. If they follow you an' find it, they'll bust it into 
a million pieces.' " 

Even 1937 audiences were difficult to convince that the printed 
word meant quite so much more than life or even sex, and 
Marching Song, strenuous though the left critics were in their 
kindness, was a failure. Lawson had also completed his Theory 
and Practice of Playwriting; his votaries were a little surprised 
to find that the dean of the Bolshevik drama esteemed most of 
all among postwar plays the commercial successes of Robert 



Emmet Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, and Noel Coward. He 
was, by now, more of a politician than a playwright; his experi- 
ments were behind him. 

But he could perform one more vanguard act Early in 1936, 
he departed for Hollywood, to be followed by the heart of the 
revolutionary theater Albert Malta, John Wexley, and George 
Sklar plus such workers' theater actors as J. Edward Brom- 
berg, Hester Sondegaard, Phoebe Brand, and John Garfield, the 
last, the aching, unrealized juvenile of Odets' Awake and Sing, 
living by the liberating myth without ever joining its Party. 

Odets had been there before these prospectors; he went to 
Hollywood at intervals between 1935 and 1950, whenever, as 
he said, he needed money. His first trip was in 1935 when he 
wrote The General Died at Dawn, a script so typical of Holly- 
wood melodrama that one of Odets* bourgeois admirers was 
moved to cry out: "Odets, where is thy sting?" The left critics, 
who still had a commitment to him, scoured the General for 
hidden class meanings with some of the same intensity and just 
about as much reason as the Un-American Activities Committee 
brought to its search for subversion in film scripts twelve years 

When Odets came back in 1937 he found that his old friends 
were by now accepted Hollywood citizens unimperiled by de- 
portation. The Workers Laboratory Theatre appeared to have 
moved, spiritually if not physically, over to the Warner Brothers 
lot. And, to a degree at least, Odets' old friends set the tone of 
the community, which was pro-Roosevelt and anti-fascist. 

John Howard Lawson wrote a few scripts, none inflammatory, 
and made many more speeches. He occupied himself with a 
history of American freedom, a project subject to frequent new 
visions and revisions, as various Communist censors corrected 
his deviations on the Whisky Rebellion. Lawson, his kind, sheep- 
like face much less passionate than it had been, deferred to these 
custodians of truth with such grace that there was reason to 
doubt that he could ever finish his project. He had to go to 
prison twelve years later to be free to complete it. 

But political men were rare enough in Hollywood when John 
Howard Lawson got there to make him seem almost a Plato. 


There was a tide of fashion for liberalism there in the late 
thirties. Hollywood had an Anti-Nazi League and a Hollywood 
Democratic Committee and a Hollywood League for Democracy, 
and a number of auxiliary vehicles for anti-fascists who were 
not necessarily anti-totalitarian. But, even then, the Commu- 
nists as Communists were not really fashionable. 

For John Howard Lawson and his flock lived according to the 
special customs of Hollywood. Once, as an instance, Miss Ginger 
Rogers threw open her home to a tea for the Joint Anti-Fascist 
Refugee Committee, but she very firmly warned her guests to 
be careful of her new white rugs. In 1937, Joseph Freeman, then 
editor of the Communist New Masses, made the westward 
voyage in search of funds; he was told, when he arrived in 
Hollywood, that he must present himself as an anti-Nazi editor 
rather than as a Communist. On these terms, a reception was 
arranged for him at the home of a substantial Hollywood figure. 

J. Edward Bromberg, an old friend from the workers* theater, 
drove Freeman to the scene and, when they arrived, said 

"I haven't been invited," Bromberg explained, "I only make 
a thousand dollars a week. There won't be anyone there who 
makes less than fifteen hundred dollars. They'd resent it if I 
came in." 

Freeman was then making thirty-five dollars a week. He 
thought this excuse so ridiculous that he fairly dragged poor 
Bromberg through the door. Once inside, he was shocked to see 
this twenty-five-dollar-an-hour pariah slink into the shadows, 
since none of the higher-bracket anti-fascists present dared to 
speak to him. Freeman's ancient notions of class and caste were 
so outraged by Bromberg's treatment that when he began his 
appeal he could not look his audience in the mascara. So he 
turned his back upon it and began speaking about the evils of 
fascism directly to his host's servants, two Negroes and two 
German refugees. In the middle of his speech, the refugees be- 
gan to cry. The crowd was moved to contribute twenty thousand 
dollars on the spot; when he came home, Freeman's Hollywood 
comrades congratulated him on a brilliant stroke of stage busi- 


For Hollywood, and for its Communists too, life was a piece 
of stage business. To professionals like Freeman, whose stops 
there were a glittering interlude in an otherwise short-rationed 
existence, Hollywood seemed unreal and impossible to take 
seriously. There was a certain awe about so much gold; the 
Daily Worker once reported an eight-thousand-dollar-average re- 
turn from Hollywood cocktail parties for Loyalist Spain: "Think 
of that, you provincials!" 

But beneath this wonder there was a slight contempt. Earl 
Browder is supposed to have said that the Hollywood Com- 
munists were valuable for nothing but cash. The professionals 
always treated their film flock as children are treated. Special 
concessions to innocence and romance were required; and so 
the first outside organizer assigned to supervise the Hollywood 
Communists was introduced to them as a scarred veteran of the 
European underground. He was a breezy young man named 
Stanley Lawrence who had, in point of fact, been a Los Angeles 
taxi driver. He departed after a public gaucherie to the effect 
that his sheep were only "fat cows to be milked." He was suc- 
ceeded by V. J. Jerome, a certified intellect from New York, who 
in turn gave way to John Howard Lawson, one of their own and 
their leader to the end. 

Still there was one special group disposed to take the Holly- 
wood Communists seriously. The Hollywood writer was a highly 
paid domestic, the butt of producers who seemed to him mon- 
strous illiterates, the well-fed prisoner of a medium which he 
felt was beneath his capacities. He was that most unfortunate of 
craftsmen, the man of talent who once hoped to be a genius and 
is treated like a lackey. 

In 1941, Leo C. Rosten polled a group of Hollywood profes- 
sionals on their attitude toward the medium. He found that 133 
out of 165 scriptwriters thought the movies were terrible. No 
other group registered so total a revulsion to the boss's product 
and no other group turned up so many persons susceptible to the 
Communist pull. 

"I got a fifteen-hundred-dollar writer," said Monroe Stahr in 
Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, "that every time he walks through 
the commissary keeps saying Tink' behind 1 other writers' chairs. 


If he didn't scare hell out of them, it'd be funny." The sense of 
class is not just an economic sense. 

In a society of caste, it was very warming to associate as an equal 
with your economic superiors, even privately, and to have John 
Howard Lawson, a real playwright and an A scriptwriter, help 
you with your craft. The pioneers began to conduct evening 
lectures at the vegetarian Hollywood Health Cafeteria. Their 
program mixed Marxism and movie techniques, the gospel of 
the Soviets with the formulae of success. Their audience was 
largely of the unrooted and the insecure young screen writers 
longing for credits, young actors longing for parts, cutters long- 
ing to be directors. And, of that drifting throng, a few were held 
and enchained. 

The words in the Health Cafeteria had, of course, very little N 
to do with the language of their calling. It was the experience of 
many who thought themselves most committed in the thirties to 
spend their nights in direct conflict with their days. They moved 
from one watertight compartment which encased what they 
thought to another which encased what they did. Fantasy is a 
staple in Hollywood, and its Communists lived their fantasy at 
once more acutely and more comfortably than any group of their 
comrades anywhere else in America. 

The crest of Communist influence in Hollywood is generally 
placed somewhere in the period between 1936 and 1939. There 
are two ways of measuring that influence. One is in terms of so 
many parties for Spain or so many dinners for V. J. Jerome. That 
is the backdrop. The other measure is what the Communists did 
in the industry which was their function. That is the heart of their 

There follows a representative list of films written by script- 
writers who appear to have been Communists in the thirties. 
(The intermittent critical comments are from contemporary re- 
views by the Daughters of the American Revolution): 

John Howard Lawson wrote They Shall Have Music ("De- 
lightful" DAR) and Algiers, with Charles Boyer and Hedy 

Lamarr. Lawson thus coined Pepe Le Moko's line: "Come with 
me to the Casbah," which, next to Odets' "We could make beauti- 
ful music together" (The General Died at Dawn), may be con- 



sidered the most permanent cultural contribution by a left-wing, 
scriptwriter during the entire period. 

Lester Cole had screen credits on Winter Carnival, Secrets of 
a Nazi Spy, and I Stole a Million. 
John Wexley wrote Confessions of a Nazi Spy ("Excellent 

... no sentimentalized patriotism" DAR) and Angels with 

Dirty Faces ("Good" DAR). 

Mortimer Offner wrote Radio City Revels, Little Tough Guys 
in Society, and The Saint in New Yorfc. 

Samuel Ornitz was responsible for Little Orphan Annie and 
Army Girl, "Dedicated to the Men and Mounts of the United 
States Cavalry." 

Dalton Trumbo had a hand in The Kid from Kokomo (prize 
fighting); The Flying Irishman (Wrong-Way Corrigan); Sorority 
House ("Wholesome"); A Man to Remember (tone unfriendly 

to the American Medical Association, but "Good" DAR); and 

Fugitive for a Night (pro-labor). 

Gordon Kahn listed seven screenplays, whose character is best 
indicated by their titles: Mickey the Kid; S.O.S. Tidal Wave; I 
Stand Accused; Mama Runs Wild; The Tenth Avenue Kid; 
Newsboys' Home; and Ex-Champ. 

Jerome Chodorov wrote a Communist part for Lew Ayres in 

Rich Girl, Poor Girl ("Good" DAR). The critics considered 

his treatment unsympathetic. 

This was a period when Dorothy Parker contributed to the 
New Masses. "There is no longer %' there is "WE.* The day of 
the individual is dead." Scott Fitzgerald observed, "Dotty has 
embraced the church and reads her office faithfully every day, 
[but it] does not affect her indifference." Between offices Miss 
Parker wrote the scripts for: Sweethearts, with Jeannette Mac- 
Donald ("Excellent" DAR), and Trade Winds. 

Hollywood was not totally deaf to the movement of the thir- 
ties, and there were a few examples of social realism in the pe- 
riod. But, by himself, Dudley Nichols (Grapes of Wrath)., who 
was never a Communist, contributed a larger number of socially 
conscious scripts than all John Howard Lawson's revolutionary 
cadre together. 
The Communists, of course, appear to have engaged in some 


talk, dutiful and half-hopeless, about exploiting their access to 
production to alert the great audience to the struggle against 
fascism. A director once told a left-wing actor to -improvise some 
business to fill a dead spot in a scene where he was waiting for 
an elevator; he clutched at that free moment to whistle a few 
bars of the "International." Lester Cole produced a movie about 
life in a boys' school, and was proud that he could make the 
football coach tell the players that it is better to die on their 
feet than live on their knees, a slogan borrowed from La Pasio- 
naria, the Spanish Communist. 

John Howard Lawson had one great chance to subvert the 
screen. In 1936, after Ethiopia, Walter Wanger took the picture 
of Benito Mussolini off his wall and commissioned Lawson to 
write Blockade, a film about the Spanish Civil War. 

Wanger was so proud of the result that he invited Lillian 
Hellman, a woman of the left, to a special screening. Miss Hell- 
man told him that it was an exciting show but that she wasn't 
quite sure what side it was on. The Daughters of the American 
Revolution agreed with her. Blockade, said the DAR, "may not 
be labeled partisan propaganda." Fifteen years later, the Un- 
American Activities Committee treated Lawson s pale effort as 
though it had been Ten Days That Shook the World. 

A few bars from the "International," a slogan of La Pasionaria: 
these, of course, are only the rags and tags of what these people 
are supposed to have believed. It is hard to understand why ges- 
tures so empty of meaning seemed important to men whose daily 
lives were spent consuming the comforts of commerce. To say 
that they were vagrant twinges of conscience does not seem 
quite adequate. They are more like gauges of culture. For most 
of the younger Hollywood Communists appear to have been 
persons whose knowledge of the Communist International was 
limited to a snatch of its anthem. Their vision of the Spanish 
War was confined to La Pasionaria's phrase about refusing to 
die on her knees, which does not sit uncomfortably on the lips 
of a football coach. 

Life was a scenario to most of them: the Comintern was a 
musical and Spain the Rose Bowl. We are told now that this was 
a time when the Communists influenced Hollywood's most pas- 


sionate creative minds; if that is true, we may wonder why so 
few of them felt any impulse to take time off and form inde- 
pendent companies to produce films of deeper social content and 
involvement than the stuff they were fabricating for the big 
studios. The answer must be that they did not really care and 
were not fundamentally ashamed of what they were doing. 

Their cultural pattern was Hollywood's, and they fit easily 
into the demands of the B picture. Few of them indeed showed 
enough capacity at major film output to be crashing successes 
at it; of seventeen scriptwriters listed by Leo Rosten as Holly- 
wood's highest paid in 1938, only one has since been identified as 
a Communist. 

It is one of the myths of the fifties that communism in the 
thirties had a special attraction for the best talents. But whatever 
magnetism the Party had was transient for the first-rate and 
permanent only for some of the third-rate. In an essay on "Marx- 
ian Socialism in the United States," Daniel Bell offers this sum- 
mary of Communist intellectual influence in the thirties: 

"The earliest converts were the literary individuals concerned 
with problems of self-expression and integrity Dos Passos, * 
James Farrell, Richard Wright, Sherwood Anderson, and Ed- 
mund Wilson. As these became aware of the dishonesty of Com- 
munist tactics, a new group appeared, the slick writers, the ac- 
tors, the stage people in short 'Hollywood' for whom causes 
brought excitement, purpose, and, equally important, answers 
to the world's problems." 

The vanguard departed very soon, and the hinder-middle- 
guard took its place. In 1937, when the Communists made Holly- 
wood's Donald Ogden Stewart chairman of the American Writers 
Congress, they were not so much recognizing his special merit 
as confessing that there were no more serious artisans available 
for the office. The Hollywood scriptwriter was not really a 
spoiled poet; in most cases, it did not take long for his complaints 
to become merely formal and for him to be happy and comfort- 
able, almost proud of his medium, and seldom longing for any 
higher one. 
The aesthetics of Hollywood were, after all, very much like 


the aesthetics of Josef Stalin. Richard H. Rovere remembers 
those aesthetics in these terms: 

"The American intellectuals who fell hardest for Communism 
were men, not of aristocratic tastes in art but of tastes at once 
conventional and execrable. Many of them, of course, had no 
literary tastes of any sort. The reading matter of Communists 
was the dreariest kind of journalism. If they read poetry at all, 
it was likely to be Whittier and Sandburg, not Rimbaud and 
Ezra Pound ... the cultural tone they set in the thirties was 
. . . deplorable because it was metallic and strident. Commtinist 
culture was not aristocratic; it was cheap and vulgar and corny."*. 

The Hollywood Communists had not so much violated their 
essence as found their proper level. The slogans, the sweeping 
formulae, the superficial clangor of Communist culture had a 
certain fashion in Hollywood precisely because they were two- 
dimensional appeals to a two-dimensional community. To say 
that an idea is fashionable is to say, I think, that it has been 
adulterated to a point where it is hardly an idea at all. And the 
first element to depart is the sense of personal responsibility to 
the idea. The founders of the Hollywood Communist Party 
sounded passionate in their protest against Hitler or Franco or 
Tom Girdler and countless other distant devils. But they ceased 
very soon to be passionate in their protest against Hollywood. 

Back in New York, in the beginning, they had been entirely 
conscious of the motion picture's debasement to the idols of the 
market place. Now Hollywood's improvement was far less spec- 
tacular than their own adjustment to life there. There is always 
a certain friction between the young and the middle-aged; and 
John Howard Lawson seems to have been least happy with his 
apprentices at those moments when they were bitterest about 
Hollywood. He was anxious for them to write serious social 
criticism; he encouraged them to write proletarian novels. But 
less and less did the Hollywood society which lay festering at 
their feet seem to him suitable material for the novel of protest. 
Budd Wilson Schulberg, then a Communist, made that dis- 
covery when he wrote his Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy 

* Confluence, December, 1952. 


Run?. Lawson took an early avuncular interest in Sammy, but its 
sour, savage treatment of the industry's mores shocked him very 
soon. He and V. J. Jerome did so much to discourage Schulberg 
from this unfortunate experiment that they ended by chasing him 
from the Party. Sammy turned out to be a thundering success 
with almost everyone but the movie producers and the Com- 
munists. Schulberg had described Hollywood as a moral slum 
and most of its residents as nonsalvageable vultures. This treat- 
ment was greeted by the Communists as an affront to a great 
folk art and as a mass of "dirt and filth." Schulberg had sinned 
not by surrender to the status quo but by over-intense revulsion 
against it. 

For the Party had a stake in Hollywood by now. A young man 
of proper tendencies and acquisitive talent could even make a 
career there. George Wilner, former host at a Catskills summer 
hotel, persuaded the New Masses in 1937 that a Hollywood office 
could be a mother lode. He came there, ran the New Masses for 
a year, and quit to become a successful literary agent. The 
Communists, having made every other adjustment to custom, 
now had their own ten-percenter. 

Some of the bloom passed with the Nazi-Soviet pact. The anti- 
fascist fronts bumped and ground uneasily into antiwar fronts, 
with heavy losses in short-haul passengers. Hollywood never 
again became what it was as a financial resource for Communist 
causes. The House Un-American Activities Committee estimated 
in 1950 that the film industry had contributed $926,568.36 to 
eight Hollywood groups which the committee cited as Com- 
munist fronts. The most substantial of them deceased in 1939.* 

* The figure is far less impressive than it sounds. Fund-raising is espe- 
cially expensive for movie people, whose concept of a front is much more in 
Thorstein Veblen's terms than in Harold Velde's. And one of the most im- 
portant of the Un-American-Activities-Committee-designated fronts was the 
Hollywood Democratic Committee, which spent most of its funds electing 
good Democrats to public office. Granted that much leakage, the Party would 
have been fortunate to net as much as half a million dollars out of its Holly- 
wood fronts in fifteen years. 

The dues of Party members were, of course, a resource harder to calculate. 
Robert Rossen, once one of the most successful Party members, estimates that 
he contributed forty thousand dollars to various Party enterprises in ten 
years. But Edward Dmytryk, another successful director, turned his earnings 
over to a business manager who limited him to a twenty-five-dollar-a-week 


But there were minimal defections among the true believers; 
in accordance with Hollywood's tradition of cultural lag, the 
pact's shock had hardly penetrated when Germany invaded the 
Soviets in the summer of 1941, and things seemed once more as 
they had been. For the next three years, there was a false and 
fevered glow. John Howard Lawson was revising his history of 
freedom in America for the fourth time and making loud the 
night with speeches on the unity of all elements to win the war. 
Albert Maltz, who had come to Hollywood as a Communist in 
the mid-thirties and gone down a little since, underwent an al- 
most Stakhanovite resurgence with such recruiting films as 
Destination Tokyo, Pride of the Marines, and Cloak and Dagger. 
They seemed once again back in fashion. But the older ones 
among them were not by now what they had been; by 1945, they 
were ten years away from the revolutionary theater. As Scott 
Fitzgerald's Dick Diver once said, "The change came a long way 
back but at first it didn't show. The manner remains intact for 
some time after the morale cracks." 

The face they presented to Hollywood was very much as of 
old. Their devotion to the long night meetings remained intact. 
Their banners still carried the old wild cries. But inside they 
were different men; they did not feel for each other as they had; 
they lived according to Hollywood habit, and it was not unusual 
for them to step upon one another's faces. 

By now, some of the founders had commenced to fade a little, 
and their juniors were more important to Hollywood than they 
were. Robert Rossen had grown to such substance as scriptwriter 
that by 1945 he was a producer. Edward Dmytryk and Adrian 
Scott were directors and producers. And Hollywood is a place 
where there is no definition of your worth earlier than your last 

John Wexley had been a jewel of the workers* theater; by 
1945, he was nothing more than an unsatisfactory employee to 
Scott and Dmytryk. They hired him to write Cornered, an anti- 

personal allowance and permitted no sizable contribution to the Party. Holly- 
wood Party dues averaged five per cent of income. But this figure is decep- 
tive too, it we accept the testimony of Leopold Adas, a screen writer, who 
reported that members of his Communist unit habitually bleated for an 
amelioration of dues and that many "were constantly in arrears." 


Nazi film. His script was so soggy that Dmytryk dropped him 
for another writer. Wexley went at once to Lawson to say that 
Scott and Dmytryk had produced a pro-Nazi film. They were 
subjected to a Party trial and severely censured. When they 
protested, Lawson observed with a cold smile that they had 
much to learn about discipline. Dmytryk left the Party and Scott 
became increasingly less active. 

Leopold Atlas, another of the newcomers, rewrote The Story 
of GI Joe from a draft submitted by Philip Stevenson, a veteran 
of the Party and of the revolutionary theater. When Atlas was 
finished, there was barely a trace of Stevenson left in the script. 
Stevenson, desperate for a screen credit, appealed to Lawson to 
help him get equal billing with Atlas as author of GI Joe. Lawson 
managed to wangle a full credit for Stevenson from the Screen 
Writers Guild. He had rescued one of the old at tie expense of 
one of the new. That crisis is a measure of the Hollywood Com- 
munists: one Bolshevik was fighting another for the empty merit 
badge of a commercial enterprise. 

There were deeper crises, and one of them taught even Law- 
son that age and authority are no defense when your time comes. 
He had enjoyed the war very much, and no Hollywood Com- 
munist could claim to be closer to Earl Browder, that symbol of 
the Party's complete dedication to victory over the Nazis and 
lasting friendship between the United States and the Soviet 
Union. Then, in June of 1945, Browder was cast out as a counter- 
revolutionary. It looked then as if Lawson must go too; for a few 
hours he was deprived of all his Party honors. But, somehow, he 
scrambled back; and in the long watches of nights spent ex- 
plaining the difficulties which certain comrades may have with 
the explanation of the new situation by the comrade chairman 
last night, John Howard Lawson's voice was heard, longer and 
longer and longer, reciting the crimes of his fallen friend. 

If they felt the change in themselves and looked back and 
wondered what had happened to them, only Albert Maltz ever 
expressed any public hint of regret; and he was very soon sorry 
for it. In 1946, Maltz surveyed the impermanence of his screen 
work, his two novels, and his few short stories and wrote a sad 
little essay in the New Masses wondering whether he might not 


have been a better writer for being less of a Party man over the 
last decade. 

It was not enough, said Maltz, to think of art as social weapon. 
The demands of orthodox communism upon the writer were, he 
had decided, "not a useful guide but a straitjacket" He had done 
his own best work when he was least conscious of tihe Party 
looking over his shoulder. A great writer did not have to be a 
Marxist. For a very little while, Maltz was a bit of a hero in 
Hollywood, and his younger comrades came around to squeeze 
his hand in congratulation. 

And then the wolves fell upon him too. Samuel Sillen, editor 
of the New Masses, flew out to Hollywood and called a special 
Party meeting to flay Maltz for heresy. The Communists have 
always been tolerant of deviations in content and harsh with 
deviations in form. Their Hollywood comrades had written 
musical comedies, and jokes for Abbott and Costello, and empty 
banalities about the American system without ever hearing a 
word of censure from the New Masses. No one in the Hollywood 
Party had written as a Marxist for ten years. The Communists 
had never complained, for this was an acceptance of the Holly- 
wood code. But now Maltz had implied that honesty was so 
important for a writer that Marxism must be sacrificed to it. And 
heresy is a crime of thought, not of action. 

There was hardly a scriptwriter among the Communists who 
came to witness the trial of Albert Maltz who had not sold him- 
self and betrayed the revolution with his typewriter to make a 
living every day he had worked in Hollywood. But he had kept 
his thoughts pure; and, as the Party's voice, Sillen was saying to 
him that there were no sins of the deed if the faith were held 
sacred. Leopold Atlas, who sat and watched it, remembered that, 
when Maltz rose to defend himself, all his friends shouted him 
down. He remembered Maltz's oldest comrades most of all as 
either silent or ravening for his destruction. Lawson for once 
sat quiet; but Atlas recalled Alvah Bessie's "bitter vituperation 
and venom," and Herbert Biberman, Tais every accent dripping 
with hatred." Maltz, Biberman, and Bessie had been together as 
Communists since the thirties; three years later, the Un-Ameri- 
can Activities Committee sent them to prison together. 


George Beck, one of the younger ones, remembered that the 
burning of Albert Maltz had lasted through the night, and that, 
when he left, he stumbled over somebody who was asleep. A 
week later they were summoned to the assault again until Maltz, 
with the howls of triumph ringing about him, broke and re- 
canted. The face of the Party had hardened and never again 
would the innocent and the uncommitted feel comfortable before 
it. The recollections of that period for repentant Hollywood Com- 
munists are of repetitive plunges into a cesspool. They have for- 
gotten the abstractions of doctrine; they remember only Alvah 
Bessie "'morosely clawing" at Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo "rip- 
ping at" Cole, and Cole "tearing at" Lawson. They were walking 
toward a common grave, hating one another. 

Rossen had gone by now; Dmytryk and Scott were inactive. 
Dozens of lesser people had stopped coming around. Perhaps a 
quarter of the Party's membership in Hollywood dropped away 
in the two years between Browder's fall and the onset of the 
House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

The Un-American Activities Committee began spreading its 
subpoenas around Hollywood in September of 1947. For a little 
while the Communists were all together again, and their industry 
seemed to stand with them. Martin Dies had come to Los Angeles 
in 1940 and had been almost hooted out of town. The tide of 
fashion did not appear to run much stronger for Committee 
Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, and he had the additional social 
liability of carrying John Rankin of Mississippi in his stable. 

The committee had summoned nineteen Hollywood personali- 
ties suspected of subversive affiliations. Their names were known 
very soon and they had the illusory status of popular heroes. 
Senator Claude Pepper was in Hollywood at the time; he was 
happy to meet all the subpoenees at Edward G. Robinson's house 
and advise them of their rights. The community tone was any- 
thing but hostile; the industry's leaders were uneasy, but affirmed 
their devotion to free thought. 

On October 18, 1947, the night before the inquiry began, 
Bartley Crum and other attorneys for its nineteen individual 
targets met with Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture 
Association of America, at Washington's Shoreham Hotel. Crum 


reported an amiable, united session, in the course of which 
Johnston agreed that the House Committee was bent on censur- 
ing the movies and promised that there would never be a Holly- 
wood blacklist against Communists. 

The early scenes of J. Parnell Thomas* script were hardly 
calculated to shake Johnston. The most newsworthy witnesses 
were at once more personable than informative and true to that 
Hollywood tradition which dictates a maximum of language and 
a minimum of life force. Mrs. Leik Rogers, mother of Ginger, 
told of her daughter's refusal to accept a role tainted with one 
subversive speech: "Share and share alike that's democracy!" 
Gary Cooper reported that he had "turned down quite a few 
scripts because they were tinged with Communistic ideas," but 
he could not recall the names of their authors. He had also heard 
statements at cocktail parties which struck him as "pinko mouth- 

But even these enemies of communism in Hollywood betrayed 
a sense that the Communists were after all members of the 
family. Adolph Menjou, who had wailed against collectivism for 
fifteen years, had no suggestion for controlling them beyond close 
supervision. 'We have," he said, with obvious pride, "many 
Communist writers who are splendid writers." Jack L. Warner, of 
Warner Brothers, reported that some of his left-wing stable had 
been excessively pertinacious in slipping improper material into 
their scripts. But nothing serious had ever got by him, said 
Warner. He had found it necessary to get rid of a few habitual 
offenders, John Howard Lawson not among them. 

But a general ban on Communists in Hollywood seemed to 
Warner almost unthinkable. "I can't for the life of me figure 
where men could get together ... to deprive a man of bis liveli- 
hood . . . because of his political beliefs." DoreSchary of R.K.O.- 
Radio, the most aggressive liberal among the producers, told the 
committee that he was not ready to purge his studio of Com- 
munists. "I would," he declared, "still maintain the right of any 
man to think as he pleases." 

Even J. Parnell Thomas did not then appear to be committed to 
the proposition that Communists should be blacklisted without 
some proof of overt act. He began with an examination of various 


pictures for evidence of subversive ideas; the results were sparse. 
That was to be expected; whatever their ideas, the Hollywood 
Communists had written for Hollywood and not for Moscow. 

By the time Thomas had wound up the case for the prosecu- 
tion, those portions of the film industry which were not outraged 
at him were laughing at him. On the fifth day, John Howard 
Lawson was called as the first unfriendly witness. He faced the 
committee full of the illusion that lie spoke for most of Holly- 
wood and with entire faith in the promises of its princes. 

Poor John Lawson had crawled a long time. He had used up 
or abused his talents, and he was almost a back number. Just this 
once he could enjoy a fling at freedom. "I am an American," said 
Lawson, "and I am not at all easy to intimidate, and don't think 
I am." He had forgotten in the splendor of this hour all those 
shabby nights in 1945, when he had allowed the bravoes from 
the Party headquarters to pummel him at their pleasure. Parnell 
Thomas asked him whether he was a Communist and he stood 
on the Bill of Rights. Thomas summoned the Capitol police to 
lift him off the stand, and announced that here was an obvious 
case of contempt of Congress. 

Nine more of Lawson's hostile brotherhood went before 
Thomas over the next five days: Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, Al- 
bert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Ring 
Lardner, Jr., Edward Dmytryk, and Adrian Scott. Dmytryk was 
no longer a Communist; Scott was almost certainly not one; there 
may have been one or two other backsliders among the rest. But 
for the moment they were all together and defiant. They were 
not very attractive witnesses; their habits were Hollywood's, and 
long training had reduced their prose to the muddier depths of a 
Nash-Kelvinator ad. In all their contrived and mechanical out- 
cries, there was only one glimpse of humanity. J. Parnell Thomas 
asked Ring Lardner, Jr., if he were a Communist, and Lardner 

"I could answer that question, but I would hate myself in the 
morning/* He was rejected with all the rest. 

They were not especially appetizing, of course, but very few 
people in Hollywood appeared at that point to think they de- 


served to go to prison on no greater proof of sin. In 1947, the 
myth of the fifties was not yet so powerful a weapon against the 
fringes of the thirties. The November 29, 1947, Gallup Poll found 
that 39 per cent of the public felt that the unfriendly ten wit- 
nesses should not be punished for their performance and that 
another 14 per cent were unconvinced that they should. 

In Hollywood itself, the proportions of sympathy were much 
larger. A Hollywood defense committee sponsored a nationwide 
broadcast for the recalcitrant ten on November 2, 1947. The 
contributing artists included Judy Garland, Margaret Sullavan, 
Van Heflin, Myrna Loy, Robert Young, and Joseph Gotten, none 
of whom could be considered afflicted with left-wing associations. 

After the program, Frank Sinatra said: "If this committee gets 
a green light from the American people, will it be possible to 
make a broadcast like this a year from today?" A year later, it 
was not possible, and no more because of J. Parnell Thomas than 
because of Hollywood. If there had been another such demon- 
stration, Frank Sinatra would hardly have associated himself 
with it. For, just three weeks after this show of resistance, Holly- 
wood collapsed before the Un-American Activities Committee. 

Congress met on November 2761, and with near unanimity 
cited the hostile ten for contempt. They started the long trek 
which led them to federal prison. And they were almost alone 
when they began it. A committee of motion picture producers 
gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria. As they watched Congress, they 
felt more and more impelled to cleanse themselves of Lawson 
and his little band. Two days after the contempt citations, the 
producers announced that the Ten would be suspended until 
they had either been acquitted or had purged themselves of 

The producers repeated their contention that "nothing sub- 
versive had ever appeared on the screen." But all the same they 
promised that they would never again knowingly employ a Com- 
munist in their industry. They had acquitted the defendants, and 
now they proceeded to punish their notions. It was a decision 
which surprised almost everyone, even J. Parnell Thomas. Robert 
Stripling, chief investigator of the Un-American Activities Com- 


mittee, said later that the uproar against his Hollywood produc- 
tion had so befuddled Thomas that he might have called off his 
troops if the industry had not rescued him by capitulation. 

As a former screen writer, Dore Schary, now of M-G-M, was 
deputized to explain the new, clean-sweep policy to a Screen 
Writers Guild controlled by men whose anti-communism did not 
prevent them from being highly distrustful of it. The choice of 
Schary was a piece of symbolism; he himself had been a Holly- 
wood liberal when the tide of fashion was highest; without ever 
being a Communist, he had belonged to some of the organiza- 
tions upon which Thomas' committee was now visiting its 
disfavor. He very plainly did not enjoy his assignment. **We do 
not ask you to condone this,'* he said very sadly; and then he 
departed, pausing a moment, according to the testimony of an 
unfriendly observer, to put his hand on Dalton Trumbo's shoul- 
der and say a kind word. A little later Trumbo went to prison 
and Dore Schary went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as executive 

The screen writers voted overwhelming displeasure at the new 
policy. But there was very little they could do about it. Soft, slack 
Hollywood had accepted the political purge which so few really 
wanted. The protestants ceased their clamoring. Lawson and the 
rest of the Hollywood Ten went to prison, and everywhere there 
was indifference. The studios began the process of clearance for 
the innocent and the clouded. The Un-American Activities Com- 
mittee, whom weariness never afflicts and tedium never deters, 
continued its search for the guilty, who by now seemed all to 
have fled. 

By 1948, the Hollywood Communists had almost ceased to 
function as a group. George Beck, long since a backslider, was 
writing at home one day when Mortimer Offner, an old comrade, 
came around to ask him to rejoin the Party. "I said, 'No thanks.* 
He didn't press me particularly. He did, however, rather sadly 
comment, 'Gee, its getting tough, everybody is leaving/ " 

They made pathetic efforts to cling to what had once been 
theirs. Dalton Trumbo and Lester Cole appear to have slipped 
through a script or so under pseudonyms. Then the House Com- 
mittee called George Wilner, their literary agent, and asked him 


about this underground traffic. Wilner stood on his privilege 
against self-incrimination on this and all other questions. There 
was no show of dangerous notions in anything Trumbo or Cole 
had submitted; there did not need to be. 

By now, conscious of the results of brash speech to their 
pioneers, the Communists were standing on the Fifth Amend- 
ment. Each went before the committee, ran through his little 
formula, and disappeared. But now even the innocents were in 
too much danger to worry about the guilty. It was no longer 
enough to be able to swear that you were not a Communist You 
had, in the delicate language of professionals in these matters, 
to get off the hook as a fellow traveler. 

Edward G. Robinson, suddenly unassigned after lush years as 
an actor, told an unsympathetic committee that he had a clearance 
from William Randolph Hearst, Sr. There was no evidence that 
Robinson had been a Communist; he had simply given money to 
dubious causes. It took him two years to restore himself. John 
Garfield was unemployed too; he swore that, even during his 
days in the revolutionary theater, he had never been a Com- 
munist. But he remained displaced from Hollywood, wandering 
in New York, seeking the key to absolution, to die one night of a 
heart attack with Clifford Odets weeping at his grave. 

The day of the locust had its ironies. For Hollywood intended, 
if it could, to go on as it had. Human sacrifices were necessary, 
but they should, if possible, be limited. In this spirit, Dore Schary 
went through his sad duty of supervising the loyalty check at 

One of those interviewed, according to legend, was a well- 
known comedian who searched a somewhat barren political past 
and finally remembered that he had once attended a meeting of 
the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. His interrogator said that it 
was always a demonstration of good faith to give names, and 
would he please try to recall who had gone with him. 

The comedian protested that it had all been so long ago. Then, 
under further prodding, a ray broke through and he said, "Gee, 
now I remember: Dore Schary went with me." There was a 
pause. "Okay," said the interrogator. "If you can't think of any 
names, you can't think of any names." 


The names, the names, can't you give us the names, was the 
unchanging buzz of the wings of the locust The House com- 
mittee had by now lost its bite. It was very gentle with the re- 
calcitrant and the repentant alike. The repentant were coming in 
streams, the duped, the floaters, the briefly committed, each with 
his sad little story of the dream and the gray dawn. The stories 
were very much the same; their testators all agreed that the 
Party had not done very much nor been very compelling. They 
all gave the same names now. The ritual of absolution was more 
important than any fresh revelation. 

Edward Dmytryk, almost ruined, finished his prison term and, 
his duty done, told the committee about his life in the Party. 
Robert Rossen would say at first only that he had broken and 
would name no names, a piece of reticence which cost him one 
hundred thousand dollars in contracts. And then he too, now as- 
sured that no one could say he did it for money, came in and told 
his story. 

And Clifford Odets, the release of his Clash By Night at stake, 
came down to say that it had all been so very long ago. The glow 
had passed from him; he had begun selling his Paul Klees. He 
told an old acquaintance from his days of glory that it was per- 
haps unfortunate to be considered a genius so young. 

No one could say when it was all over what it had all meant 
The House committee's long search through the ruins was 
hardly impressive by any rule of numbers. In December, 1952, 
the committee released a list of persons who had been identified 
to it as having been at one time or another members of the 
Hollywood Communist Party. The list totaled 222 employees or 
wives of employees of the film industry. It was presumably in- 
complete, although there have been few additions since. By no 
means all of them were Communists at the same time. Taken all 
together, they represented a little over one half of one per cent 
of the industry. 

And there were signs that the committee had hardened them 
and given them, in their twilight, a brief, last fling at a moment 
like their dreams. The Communists themselves would seem to 
have been much more successful than the Un-American Activities 


Committee in disillusioning Communists. Of the repentant Party 
members whose testimony before the committee was most 
thorough, Martin Berkley had broken in 1943; Budd Schulberg 
had left in 1939; Edward Dmytryk, Frank Tutde, Leopold Atlas, 
and Robert Rossen were all out by 1946. Only Richard Collins 
appears to have been a Communist in September, 1947, when the 
committee began its investigation. 

Almost every 1947 Party member would seem to have stood 
fast throughout the day of the locust. There is strong evidence 
that Dmytryk, Collins, Rossen, and Tuttie actually postponed a 
public breach with the Party out of loyalty to their friends in 
time of trouble. 

As time went on, the Un-American Activities Committee's 
Hollywood investigation was less a search for the guilty than a 
confessional for the repentant. The committee was especially 
proud of its record of conversion and regeneration. But it was 
regeneration by force of arms. No one could say that the com- 
mittee had not damaged the Communists. It had forced the in- 
dustry to choose between its empty affirmations about freedom 
and the commercial code by which it lived. The choice was in- 
evitable: it meant a blacklist of suspected Communists and a 
parade of unhappy sinners seeking clearance from the committee 
in order to return to the golden city from which they had been 
displaced. Persons who enjoy that sort of thing are welcome to 
their pleasures, but they should not ascribe to them the virtues 
of religious conversion. 

William Faulkner, who is an old-fashioned man, sat by and 
watched the Hollywood jitters and found them a mystery. One 
of his friends wailed that he had been tapped by the Un-Ameri- 
can Activities Committee, and that this could be his ruin. After 

the victim had departed, Faulkner observed, " don't have to 

worry none, so long as he writes good." It was an idea of art 
unfamiliar to Hollywood and its Communists, recalcitrant and 
repentant alike. 

Dusty and almost forgotten, the Hollywood Ten came out of 
prison and wandered away. They had been of movies, the magic 
land of movies, and were fit for very little else. Maltz was in 


Mexico, trying once more to be a writer, unhampered at last by 
compulsions about art as a weapon, unfettered in fact by any- 
thing but the loss of powers. 

John Howard Lawson finished his history of American freedom 
and passed it for the last time through its political sieve. It had 
dried up on him; and when it was published it broke almost like 
dust in the hand. 

He was free of commerce now and could be a political man. In 
1951, he stood on a Union Square platform in New York and 
watched the comrades march on May Day. A young man was 
braying into a microphone over a straggly crowd that here come 
the youth, here come the anti-fascist forces of peace over and 
over sterile, mechanical noise past all meaning. 

One of his elders leaned over and said that John Howard 
Lawson was on the platform and should be introduced. The 
voice paused a moment in its clangor. "And now," it rose again, 
1 want to introduce a great anti-fascist, a great fighter for peace, 
a man you all know." The young man stopped and turned to his 
mentor and, without bothering to put his hand over the micro- 
phone, asked for all to hear: 

"What did you say his name was?" 


THE LANGUAGE of love was seldom on the public lips of most 
of the persons in these studies. Their rhetoric held Httle room for 
its lights and shadows. They at least talked as though the passions 
of love and hate were not important to them. The passions are 
particular and their superficial concerns were for the general. 

Theirs was a movement which offered a new place to woman. 
It was the place of partner and equal, and the surface of its 
image was sexless. The thirties promised a final triumph of 
feminism. And they buried or thought they buried forever the 
woman of the genteel tradition. 

The tradition's image of woman had, of course, sickened and 
withered in the twenties. Ellen Glasgow, a detached if sympa- 
thetic observer at woman's bedside, once summed up her decay 
in the years after World War I: 

"It is at least open to question whether women would ever have 
rebelled against their confining attitude had they not observed a 
diminishing humility in the novels written by men. At all events, 
after the War, male disillusionment with virtue, which had thick- 
ened like dust, invaded the whole flattened area of modern prose 
fiction. By some ironic reversal of the situation, woman, for so 
long the ideal of man, became, in a literary sense, the obstacle to 


all his higher activities. In a large majority of postwar novels, a 
woman or two women or even three women thrust themselves 
between almost every male character and some bright particular 
moon for which he is crying." 

The new image of woman as impediment of which Miss Glas- 
gow speaks was rather an old one in the American radical tradi- 
tion. McCreary, the Wobbly in Dos Passes' The 42nd Parallel, was 
in Miss Glasgow's terms, a model of "man, the poet and dreamer, 
in perpetual flight from woman, the devourer of dreams and 
poets." McCreary's life is spent in intermixed flight from and 
entrapment by Maisie, the wife with whom he had nothing in 

"When he was away from her he felt somehow sore at Maisie 
most of the time, but when he was with her he melted absolutely. 
He tried to get her to read pamphlets on socialism, but she 
laughed and looked at him with her big intimate blue eyes and 
said it was too deep for her. She liked to go to the theatre and 
eat in restaurants where the linen was starched and there were 
waiters in dress suits." 

And yet, though they feared and fled woman in general, the 
Wobblies had their feminine ideal too. It was intensely feminine, 
almost indeed a banal replica of the tradition. The woman of 
their dreams was pure as Joan of Arc was pure; she traveled with 
the troops and was untouched by them. She did not aim to rule 
man but to inspire him. She was not a member of his General 
Executive Board, but the flame outside his prison cell. The ordi- 
nary woman was an enemy; she, the special woman, was the 

The revolutionaries of the thirties widened that image and 
flattened it and made it general. They appeared to believe that 
every housewife could be a Joan of Arc. They gloried in the 
entombment of the ideal of the feminine as a special repository 
of love and inspiration. And they raised above the tomb the 


image of the Comrade Woman, the partner in the struggle. 

The thirties appear in recollection to have swarmed with the 
Comrade Woman. She seemed constructed of whalebone, and 
often stronger than the male. Few of us who were not as strong 
as we should have been in those days can forget a moment's con- 
frontation by some avenging female angel from the movement 
calling us back to our duties like a maiden elder sister calling us 
to supper. 

They went to meetings and they marched in parades and they 
were incessant in that round of inanities which was so much of 
the routine of their commitment. They were the housekeepers of 
their movement. That may indicate that they were more con- 
formist than they knew. Certainly they dressed with a care that 
was new among women of the left, and some of them were self- 
righteous to a degree hardly fitting their own image of them- 
selves as rebels. There are incalculable risks in the ambition to 
be a member of the Central Committee. Not the least of those 
risks is the temptation to hold back part of oneself. 

I think that in the end more of them found the movement 
empty than had been the experience of the rebel girls of the first 
two decades of this century. But that experience was never the 
same for all of them. Many found love in the movement, just as 
others found only the imitation of love as they had found only the 
imitation of rebellion. But in thinking about them all, I was more 
and more oppressed by those who spoiled their lives. 

These were hardly typical of the women caught up in this lost 
time of our concern. But they were the most notorious, and their 
very notoriety seemed to me a clue to the difference between so 
many radical women of the thirties and the rebel girl of tradition. 
They were at least what the fifties chose to remember of the left 
woman of the thirties. 

I thought of Elizabeth Bentiey, who joined the Communist 
Party because she was lonely and who found love there, and 


became a spy because that was her lover's business. And I 
thought of Anne Moos, who, by her own account, married Wil- 
liam Remington, not because she loved him but because she 
thought he held promise of leadership in the movement. Eliza- 
beth Bentiey's life was a dreadful, painful parody of marital 
fidelity; Anne Moos's was a caricature of the marriage of con- 

Much of what I have written about Elizabeth Bendey comes 
from her own autobiographical Out of Bondage. My account of 
those strange young lovers, Anne and William Remington, comes 
in the main from their testimony before the various tribunals 
which ultimately found Remington guilty of perjury. And, against 
the three of them, I could not resist the memory of Mary Heaton 
Vorse, a surviving rebel girl at seventy-six, who has lived all her 
life in the same house. 

They are none of them typical women of any time, but I am not 
sure that there are not some universals in their story. For Eliza- 
beth Bentley and Anne Moos, at least, seem to me persons whose 
lives were warped and broken through a failure of love. The 
failures of the thirties were very often failures of that love which 
was so seldom a conscious concern to them; the punishment we 
receive in the end is so very often for the crime we committed 
with the least consideration. 

The Rebel Girl 

"Why should I blame her that she filled my days 
With misery, that she would of late 
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways 
Or hurled the little streets upon the great 
Had they but courage equal to desire? 9 ' 


"Women were thus endlessly absorbent, and to deal with 
them was to walk on water." 

HENRY JAMES, The Ambassadors 

N ALL her life, Mary Heaton Vorse has had no involvements 
which did not lie upon the outermost extremities of love. 

She cannot leave behind her many monuments of substance. 
That is her own choice; even very late, she felt little disposi- 
tion to write her autobiography or set her papers in order or 
perform any of the other rituals prescribed for persons with a 
sense of history. 

For she brought to her old age no need for survival. She had 
been not in history but of history. The chronicles which cover her 
life span had small room for her name. But there was always an 
easy rule for locating her in time and space: whenever you read 
across forty years about an event in which men stood in that 
single, desperate moment which brings all past, all present, and 
all future to one sharp point for them, you could assume that 
Mary Vorse had been there. 

In 1950, when she was seventy-six, she came to Morristown, 
Tennessee, to watch and write about a textile strike. She could 
not sit in its old hotel lobby without remembering that she had 
been there before, twenty years ago, on the same mission to coal 
miners. Then, as always, she set down the conversation of per- 



sons in trouble, because, then as always, Mary Vorse had no 
feeling for the abstract. Before she abandoned all sense of profit, 
she had written popular fiction for the magazines. At moments 
through her journey, she would stop and hole up in some hotel to 
dictate the easy flow of soft, popular language that paid her 
enough to return to the hard road of her choice. 

She had known so many people so long ago, and she had buried 
most of them. Big Bill Haywood and the urban Wobblies 
were in and out of her Greenwich Village apartment forty years 
ago. She was married awhile to Robert Minor, then a distin- 
guished cartoonist and afterward a Communist functionary. For 
a little while she was close to the Communists herself in the 
twenties, but never in any easy, comfortable, ceremonial sense. 
Her chief labor for them had been publicity for their Passaic, 
New Jersey, textile strike in 1926. But that had just been one of 
so many others, Wobbly strikes, independent uprisings, AFL and 
CIO strikes, the quiet ones and the noisy ones. 

The coal and iron police rode her down at Braddocfc, Pennsyl- 
vania, in the 1919 steel strike. Eighteen years later, when she was 
in her sixties, she was clubbed by a policeman's billy in a 
Youngstown, Ohio, steel strike. And, in 1952, she was still in the 
game, talking to the longshoremen the other reporters neglected 
for a series on the New York waterfront. 

There was very little about herself in all that she wrote about 
those battles ancient and modern; most of them were, in fact, 
records of the ordinary talk of strikers and their wives, spare and 
low-key language, all of it exactly as spoken, because Mary Vorse 
knew that the one thing most dangerous to falsify is the speech 
of men. And there will be nothing bitter in her so long as she 
lives. As Yeats said of another dedicated old lady, she needed 
upon her difficult road no spur of hate. 

Mary Vorse, as early as the thirties, was a relict of a great 
tradition. But it was a tradition which, even for most of its 
children, was writ on water. The revolutionaries of the thirties 
were self-consciously in the line of an American history of social 
rebellion. They do not appear, however, to have known very 
much about that history. Their concern was not for the past. 
Their rhythms were not rhythms of memory. They seemed to 


feel they had sprung full-blown; if they had models, they were 
European. They sang a folk song about Joe Hill, the IWW poet; 
but very few of them could have told you who Joe Hill was or 
how he lived and died, except that the copper bosses got him. 

Mary Vorse was a living figure from Joe Hill's tradition. The 
scorned and ragged rebels of the first three decades of the cen- 
tury might logically have considered the thirties a time of re- 
demption in which their survivors would be treated as triumphant 
saints. It does not appear to have been that way for Mary Vorse, 
who in any case would hardly have asked so much. She traveled 
her road, and it is safe to assume that most of the girl comrades 
who might have been considered her daughters or at least her 
nieces had never even heard of her. 

Her life certainly had very little meaning for Elizabeth Bentley 
and Anne Moos, who was to become Mrs. William Remington, 
even though both for a time accepted or thought they accepted 
a commitment very much like hers. Their lives, like Mary Vorse's, 
were controlled by love. For Elizabeth Bentley, love did not 
flow clear and constant as it had for Mary Vorse; it was absent 
more often than present, long withheld and briefly granted, and 
then taken away forever. Anne Moos's life was controlled by the 
absence of love; she built it upon a substitution of convenience 
for passion. 

They died inside, these two women of the thirties, because 
their lovers came too late or not at all. Mary Vorse lived on 
because she found her love young and neither forsook nor was 
forsaken. For Mary Vorse had joined the avenging army in 1913, 
because men and women were suffering for its triumph. Eliza- 
beth Bentley became a Communist twenty-two years later, be- 
cause she was alone and suffering. 

Elizabeth Bentley remembers very well the terrible evening in 
March of 1935 when she joined the Communist Party. She had 
been in New York less than a year, after Vassar and after some 
studies in Italy. Her family all were dead. In her whole life there 
was no one, and she had searched all day for a job. That after- 
noon, looking over Riverside Drive where the lovers walk, she 
thought of one woman friend, a purposeful friend, who could 
bear being alone, who was a Communist and held a harsh con- 


tempt for Elizabeth Bentle/s New England inhibitions. And so 
she arose, in that first dreadful advance of the shadows of the end 
of the day, and went to the apartment of her friend and asked 
how she could become a Communist. 

This woman of purpose was sitting by the stove, "curled up," 
in the image of Elizabeth Bentley's always domestic memory, 
with the Daily Worker. She melted when Elizabeth told of her 
decision. There were, she said, certain tests, but Elizabeth could 
be reasonably assured of acceptance. Somewhere at last she had 
been accepted. 

Her new comrades had so intelligent a grasp of world affairs 
that poor Elizabeth wondered how she could ever develop such 
a keen brain. And they all had so much energy, sitting as they 
did in cafeterias long after the unit meeting, so animated, so in- 
tense, so absolutely exempt from the demands of slumber. But, 
even so, after barely a month's membership, these epigoni made 
her educational director of her party unit, and she felt more 
inadequate than ever. 

There was now no more time to be lonely. She found a job 
with the New York City home-relief bureau and was naturally 
active with the union there. Along with her new intellectual re- 
sponsibilities, there were the unit bureau meeting, the union 
meeting, and the meeting of the Communist fraction inside her 
union local. 

All these consortia left, of course, very little time for the active 
liberation of mankind. Miss Bentley is able to recall one mass 
demonstration for the unemployed, during which she struck a 
policeman, presumably with her pocketbook, and found herself 
borne exhausted upon a tide of men hoarsely raising the first lines 
of the "International." Her novitiate seems otherwise to have 
been entirely concerned with housekeeping in narrow little 

But these exercises so wore down Elizabeth Bentley that be- 
fore long the doctor advised her to leave her home-relief job and 
find something easier. There were so few openings of that sort 
in those days that, for a while, she went on relief herself before 
finding a mixture of part-time typing, translating, and tutoring 
which barely sustained her. 


By now her whole life was the Party lunches at the Columbia 
cafeteria with three of the girls; evenings at sea with Marxism- 
Leninism at the Workers School (it was all too much for her, 
but the teachers were so friendly); and the meetings, always the 
meetings, the unit, the unit bureau, and the special section for 
agit-prop (agitation and propaganda) directors like herself, and, 
of course, the weekly parties for fund-raising and recruitment. 

Eugene Lyons has left us one reminder of the unforced fra- 
ternity of those latter revels. In The Red Decade, Lyons fished 
up a Communist pamphlet titled: Give a Party for the Party. Its 
cover was a cartoon of dancing dice, a swing band, and the youth 
doing the Big Apple. Its text included these detailed directions: 

"Have a guest book to register names and addresses. This 
makes a mailing list afterwards. For entertainment, call the Party 
Entertainment Committee. . . . Add refreshments, dancing, 
mix well and dish out! . . . For beer parties, comrades, remem- 
ber that pouring beer in the middle gives more foam and less 
liquid stretches each barrel further." 

Elizabeth Bentiey was thus permitted to relax only at those 
intervals when she was not presiding over the guest roster and 
then drink what was not even an honest glass of beer. Otherwise 
she was one of those desperate women who are the soul of the 
Communist movement in New York City, flurrying through her 
round of idiocies, accomplishing nothing with the absolute as- 
surance of accomplishment. 

She was the sort of Communist who understood that it was 
her duty to report any lapses from purity. If Comrade X got 
drunk in public, she was expected to turn him in. When she 
heard of an opening in the Italian Library of Information, she 
trotted down to Thirteenth Street and asked the comrades if this 
wouldn't be a strategic underground position. When they said it 
would, she took the job and listened at keyholes and searched 
among scrap baskets like some old biddy. Elizabeth Bentiey 
sounds like a rather nice little person, but she was unquestionably 
turning into an old maid. 

The Comrade Woman of her incessant sort seems to follow a 
rather definite pattern. Miss Bentley recurs constantly in her auto- 
biography to the lack of love in her life. She is frank to describe 


the whirl of Communist activity as a diversion from very real 
personal problems. She indicates that she maintained an un- 
sullied ignorance about real affairs throughout the experience. 
And she appears unconscious of the total absence of social utility 
in all her efforts.* 

Miss Bendey might have paddled in her shallow, turbulent 
pool without serious mischief had she not, in her own expression, 
"found the man I loved." Jacob Gobs was introduced to her as 
a comrade from the Comintern interested in her reports on the 
Italian Library of Information, reports which, he patiently ex- 
plained, were useless for being amateurish. Jacob Golos was no 
amateur. He had been a pioneer American Communist and was, 
even now, one of his Party's three chief disciplinarians. Miss 
Bentiey is still almost proud to report that he attended all the 
more important Party meetings and sat behind a curtain so he 
would not be recognized. 

He was also a representative of the Soviet secret police, a voca- 
tion somewhat at variance with Miss Bentiey's description of 
his shy kindness and gentle ways and his mouth that was so much 
like her own dear, dead mother's. He was also a dog-tired man 
looking for a haven in his twilight. Elizabeth Bentiey was Joan to 
his Darby. 

She nagged at him to buy a new hat. Night after night, she 
held him in her arms trying to soothe him into relaxation. Noth- 
ing could have more enchanted a man borne down by experience 
than the innocence which might otherwise have seemed simple 
stupidity. One evening, while they were burning documents in 
domestic ecstasy, she came upon his old GPU card. The initials 

* Elizabeth Bentley has no clinical psychiatric history; but, for some in- 
sight into her type, we might consider the findings of Dr. Herbert Krugman, 
who studied the case histories of a number of Communists under psycho- 
analysis. Krugman says that four out of five male Communists were de- 
scribed by their analysts as persons of real talent, while only two of five 
women subjects could be said to possess any talent at all. The average 
neurotic male Communist would thus appear to be a person who has talent 
without genius. The average neurotic female Communist would seem to be 
unafflicted with either. The women subjects of his study, said Krugman, had 
irrational Me goals and were obsessed with the search for guilt-free outlets. 
The special frustrations of modern women, he concluded, made them alto- 
gether better haters than men. 


seemed familiar, and she asked him what they meant. He told 
her the card was a Moscow streetcar pass. 

He told her too how much he loved her and that he could even 
be very happy if it were not for the shadow that lay before 
them. Elizabeth Bentley was, of course, roughly as well equipped 
to understand this piece of total wisdom as Louisa May Alcott 
would have been in some similar involvement with Feodor Do- 
stoevski. On her side, she was absolutely happy. She called him 
Yasha, and he called her golubushka, a Russian endearment de- 
rived from the word for "dove," which Elizabeth Bentley is ap- 
parently still unable to spell. 

Life with Yasha meant divorcement from unit meetings and 
other pestilential aspects of open Party activity. But Elizabeth 
Bentley was glad to efface herself as Yasha's helpmeet in all his 
activities. He found a place for her with his United Shipping and 
Service Corporation, a holding company aimed at controlling all 
passenger and freight traffic to the Soviet Union. And after hours, 
she helped him gather documents from various underground 
contacts, chief among them a chemical engineer who stole blue- 
prints, and Walter Lippmann's secretary, who sat with her on 
hot Saturday afternoons and filched documents from the boss's 

In 1941, the FBI appears to have developed a certain interest 
in Yasha's business, and poor golubushka developed the art of 
dodging its agents. This was a fresh source of worry about Yasha. 
She knew that his heart was weak enough to kill him soon, and 
this new harassment terrified her as a burden possibly fatal to 


Then the Nazis invaded Russia, and poor Yasha was so be- 
mused by this new turn that he came home and forgot to kiss 
her. His new orders had made him absent-minded. The Soviet 
Union was fighting for its life and had to know all there was to 
know about the situation behind the scenes in Washington. 
Elizabeth must go there and assist in the development of a new 
information center. She said of course she would. Yasha kissed 
her very gently and said he had known he could depend on his 

And thenceforth, until Yasha died in her arms the night after 


Thanksgiving, 1943, and for an empty ten months alone there- 
after, Elizabeth Bentley was a courier between the Soviet secret 
police and a group of Washington families who were feeding it 
information. The friends she made then are almost all shadows 
now. They do not seem to us persons of special interest, except 
perhaps for William and Anne Moos Remington, who did not 
know what they wanted and who were destroyed by the absence 
of love. 

The Remingtons, Miss Bentley testified later, had been brought 
to the firm's attention by Joseph North, editor of the Communist 
New Masses, and a friend of Anne's and her mother's in Croton, 
New York. The Remingtons, according to Miss Bentiey's version 
of North's report, were young Communists who felt very isolated 
in Washington and wished somebody would take an interest in 
them. Remington had been assigned to a war agency in 1942; 
there was reason to hope that he could pass on all sorts of delica- 
cies sooner than the Soviets could get them through more con- 
ventional channels. 

Yasha had described Remington as both reliable and brilliant, 
but Miss Bentley found him almost useless as a source. Typical, 
clean-cut American type, she decided, with her special feeling 
for the trite. But nervous, elusive, generally a small boy trying to 
avoid mowing the lawn. She complained to Yasha that the firm 
would be better off without Remington entirely, but Yasha 
couldn't bring himself to abandon promise so glittering. 

William Remington told a tale so different that it brought him 
to his death in Lewisburg Penitentiary. Anne Mops Remington 
told several stories; her final one fitted Miss Bentley's version 
more closely than that of the father of her children. But both Miss 
Bentley and Remington agree on one thing: William Remington 
thought her a nuisance and wished he had never committed him- 
self to association with her. 

But it was Bill Remington's undoing that he could never resist 
the fascination of being something he was not constructed to be. 
And Anne Moos, who is much less clear, seems always to have 
searched for the thing that can be a substitute for feeling. It 
was a search not uncommon in the thirties, and it was her disas- 


They had been brought together, these two young lovers, by 
the American Student Union at an anti-fascist meeting at Dart- 
mouth College early in 1938, when he was a student there and 
she was at Bennington. That spring he drove her to Cambridge 
and a Harvard peace meeting; and, by her account, on the way 
home, he wooed her with tales of revolutionary conflict. 

She remembers that he had leaned toward her in the car that 
night and said in the voice of Othello to Desdemona, "I am of 
course a member of the Young Communist League at Dart- 
mouth, but the boys do not know that I am also a member of the 
Party ." But when this Othello spoke in this wise of moving acci- 
dents by flood and field, there is no indication that his Desde- 
mona loved him for the dangers he had passed, although he 
seems to have loved her under the illusion that she did pity them. 
For Anne Moos was a young lady who contained herself. 

The core of the crime for which William Remington went to 
prison and death was fantasy fantasy about himself and his 
world, but most of all fantasy about all the words he had said so 
long ago and had thought so fleeting and found so irrevocable. 
For just a little while before he met Anne he had tried to live 
according to the stuff of his conversation, and the experiment had 
not been a success. 

For nine months in 1936, he had worked as a messenger boy 
for the Tennessee Valley Authority at Knoxville, Tennessee. Dur- 
ing just that brief period, Remington acted like a boy playing 
truant. He had been a model pupil at Dartmouth, the holder of 
scholarships, the leader in student activities, altogether the 
"hard-driving kid" he described himself later in Washington. 

But, at Knoxville, he ceased to cut his blond hair and ranged 
the Tennessee hills on an old motorcycle. His civil-service rating 
was unimpressive or worse. It described him as "bright but not 
adapted to minor routine work" and as "slow and . . . physically 
lazy, which was probably due to his activities after working 
hours/* Those after hours seem to have been for Bill Remington 
a phantom of delight. He was very young and asked more of his 
days and nights than the transmission of pieces of government 
paper. He lived with Communists; he was serious about the local 
AFL federal workers union; he discoursed for its Workers Edu- 



cation Committee. Once he and his friends passed out leaflets 
for the CIO textile workers and were mildly pushed about by 
plant foremen. That last experience was the high point of his 
Knoxville experience. Upon his return to Dartmouth, Bill Rem- 
ington seems to have described it in mounting crescendos of 
heroic meter until this puny jostling had become a beating by 
fifteen company thugs, who left him, as is their custom, for dead.* 

There are at least two witnesses who claim to have attended 
Communist Party meetings with William Remington at Knox- 
ville in 1937; we have no reason to consider them any less truth- 
ful than he is. But their own testimony indicates that the Knox- 
ville Communists regarded Remington as something of a brat 
given to "demeanor and behavior uncommunistic." 

Kenneth McConnell, then the Party's Knoxville organizer, had 
testified that he was especially disturbed by "the rough manner 
in which [Remington] dressed," Communists being no more 
bohemian, of course, than most other souls unfree. This quality 
of the juvenile and the unstable in William Remington is com- 
mon to the recollections of all the ex-Communists who can sum- 
mon up his memory. Elizabeth Bentley, who knew him last, 
declared that, "of the two, his wife was much the better Com- 

We may then surmise that the Communists allowed him to 
attend their meetings without ever considering him adult enough 
to be a trusted hand. That technicality may not alter the fact of 
his intentions, but it can explain the enthusiasm with which his 
purported comrades in Knoxville say they set about convincing 
him to go back to Dartmouth. 

When he returned to Hanover, Bill Remington combed his 
hair and shaved and adopted toward Dartmouth's pin-feathered 
leftists an attitude of worldly experience which must have dis- 
tressed them as much as similar manifestations among his Knox- 
ville seniors had pained Remington himself. In 1938, an officer 

* Remington was about nineteen at the time of this incident. At that age, 
I was equally addicted to exaggeration of my own revolutionary exploits, 
which, unadorned, were tepid stuff indeed. For that reason, I found these 
reports of Bill Remington's embroideries somewhat appealing if only as 
indication of a spirit of glory he does not appear to have demonstrated as an 
adult in peace or war. 


of the American Student Union visited Dartmouth; one o his 
guides pointed out the distant, elegant figure of Bill Remington 
and identified it in cankered tones as that of a man who consid- 
ered himself the embodiment of Marxist-Leninist theory on the 
campus. The tone implied that Remington did not often stoop to 
the petty concerns of Dartmouth's apprentice anti-fascists and 
was altogether condescending about them. 

Besides Anne Moos, whose judgments drop like cold and 
rounded pebbles, we have one detailed witness on William Rem- 
ington as a Dartmouth Senior. Robbins W. Barstow, who was 
then a Freshman, sought out Remington one night in January, 
1938, talked about life, and carefully entered a summary of their 
talk in his journal. Barstow quoted Remington as saying that he 
was working for communism in the future "and for the CIO now 
for ultimate ends of workers' welfare." Communism, Remington 
explained, is a system of balanced consumption and production, 
"all one together." 

He himself could say that he had known the barricades; one 
employer had hired fifteen thugs to kill him; and he had been 
"attacked and left for dead." "Russian communism a success,'* 
Remington was quoted in Barstow's summary. "Russia gone 
further in twenty years than any other country. New constitu- 
tion, etc. The men executed were really very dangerous to the 
government and put there in a definite attempt to wreck the 
system." Barstow kept his record of that searching analysis for 
ten years and then submitted it to the Senate Internal Security 
Subcommittee as evidence against Remington. 

William Remington could only answer that this summary of 
his lost words was "nonsense" and that Barstow had been a 
nuisance. But there is no reason to doubt their accuracy; a num- 
ber of college Juniors talked about communism to Freshmen 
that way in 1937; it was not so much more unfashionable at the 
time as a vantage point for preachments of superior wisdom than 
T. S. Eliot is today. And the casual schoolboys* talk of William 
Remington became especially crucial to his fate because, even 
by Elizabeth Bentley's account, he could be said to have done 
very little about what he thought he believed. 

The image of himself which William Remington offered to 


Barstow was the image he is supposed to have offered to Anne 
Moos as a token of his love. There are no public witnesses of 
what Anne Moos was like in that spring of 1938 or since; Miss 
Bentley says only that Remington called Anne "Bing" and that 
she had the look of a solid, steady person, which by all indica- 
tions she wasn't 

There is no way of knowing just what made Anne Moos a 
Communist. She managed to commit some human damage in the 
process; and, reading her own words, it is a little sad to see what 
meager passions we can sometimes bring to the destruction of 
souls. Elizabeth Moos, her mother, had been director of a 
progressive school near Croton, New York. Anne grew up in the 
liberated atmosphere of a time when her mother had complete 
faith in the triumph of the free intellect. Elizabeth Moos disa- 
greed with her Communist friends in those days; her creed was 
the individual. 

After Anne joined the Party, her mother trailed after her. "She 
used to imitate things I did/' said Anne. "Her interest came after 
mine, I guess." The imitation of Anne survived long after Anne 
herself ceased to care. Elizabeth Moos has become an intense 
Communist, living for nothing else, her old age shadowed by 
public imbecility. 

Anne Moos became involved with the Young Communist 
League at Bennington late in her stay there; she was a Senior 
when she met William Remington and she reports that her in- 
terest in these matters Spain, unions, and the rest was 
fairly new for her then. She could place upon the grave of her 
youth just a single rose: **We were pretty crazy in those days." 
She liked him, of course, even though their courtship was a 
little odd for Hanover, where romance generally runs to puppy 
romps in the bright, white snowdrifts. She recalls that he took 
her to what he said was a meeting of the Dartmouth Young 
Communist League, the first such plenum she had ever attended. 
She did not love him, she would never love him, but he was a 
good match. They were married near the end of 1938; just before 
file ceremony she had an onset of doubt and she says she made 

swear to well and truly try. 
"It was in New York City. I asked him whether he was sure 


that he would stffl be a member of the Communist Party and 
believe in the principles of communism and he assured me that 
he would. I need have no fear on that score. That was important 

to me then." , 

And so they were married. They asked her a long time later 
why she had married him if she did not love him, and she an- 
swered, "I often wondered. It was flattering to be pursued, and 
it seemed that he would amount to something. He was very 
smart" In all of this, there was nowhere the face of the father 
of her children. 

He went back to Dartmouth and she to New York and a course 
at Columbia, where she joined the Party. In the intervals they 
were together, they "took some sort of course" at the Workers 
School and went to Madison Square Garden, and tried to help 
the Browder campaign. In 1940 He got his job in Washington. 
It was a very lonely place, she says. They didn't know any Com- 
munists in government; everybody was too cagey. "We felt we 
were losing touch with the Party." She asked her mother s friend, 
Joseph North, if he could establish some contact for them. He 
found her Elizabeth Bentiey, who called herself Helen Johnson. 

The first time Helen came, Anne Remington went down to 
Bill's office and together they drove up to Pennsylvania Avenue 
and Fourteenth Street to pick her up. Anne reached into her pock- 
etbook, pulled out $20.10, and passed it to Bill, who gave it to 
Helen and said, 'This is our dues." 

'I asked her about literature. She didn't bring any literature. I 
was surprised." In the middle of December, 1942, Helen came 
back to their bleak, apart lives bearing two packages and saying 
either "This is Merry Christmas" or "Christmas greetings from 
the Party " Her present for Bill was a wool knit tie and for Anne 
a brown wool scarf; ten years later, Anne laid these tokens as evi- 
dence before a federal grand jury. 

Before long the Remingtons began to change, both toward 
each other and toward the Party and the Soviet Union. Anne said 

* This like the three paragraphs which Mow, is Anne Moos's story. Wil- 

much like one that he dropped her. 


that she commenced to lose interest after 1945, and "by and by, 
I ceased to consider myself a Communist." Her mother had 
grown harder and more fanatic with the years; Anne, who had 
set her on the road, after a while even stopped visiting her at 
Croton. She could no longer talk to Elizabeth Moos. They asked 
her in court whether she hated her mother, and she answered, 
"I wouldn't say that. I don t like her. When she couldn't boss me 
around, she lost interest." After 1947, William and Anne Reming- 
ton separated and were divorced. She had long since ceased to 
call him to his wedding-eve pledge, and he was trying to forget it. 
The Elizabeth Bentiey they had known as Helen Johnson had 
been herself divorced from the Party long before. Yasha had died 
in her apartment on Thanksgiving night, 1943. The International 
Workers Order had carried him out in a canvas basket; she had 
sat at his chill Red Funeral and heard an American Communist 
leader whom Yasha had never liked preach the Party's farewell 
to him. The night of his death, she had 'Tossed his cold forehead" 
and pronounced her own farewell. 

" 'Good-by, golubchik," I said. 'Rest peacefully now that your 
labor is over. With you goes most of me, for without you I am 
nothing. My memorial to you will be to carry on your work the 
best I can in the spirit in which you yourself would have 
done it'" 

She spent the first ten loveless months df her widowhood at- 
tempting the fulfillment of that vow. The men who succeeded 
Yasha as representatives of the Soviet secret police bullied and 
drove her through "an endless procession of dreary days." She 
could not escape Yasha's memory. 

"I would catch myself thinking I must go home and tell Yasha 
about this, and then the realization would come that he was gone 
forever." And so she went at last to the FBI she and Yasha had 
dodged so long before. She was a private information source for 
the government for two years. Then in 1948, Elizabeth Bentiey 
became a public source and came to Washington again to set be- 
fore the Congressional committees the names of her old associates, 
including truant William Remington. 
But Bill Remington was no longer even what he and she had 


once thought he was. Anne Moos was gone from him now; the 
memory of Helen Johnson was dim; he held an important posi- 
tion in the Department of Commerce. He talked to the com- 
mittees as though he could barely recall those days when, as 
Anne said, "we were pretty crazy" and when he had believed in 
the Spanish Loyalists and the guilt of Leon Trotsky and all that 
mass of hopes, some of them false, some still true, all musty. 

"I no longer believe," he swore, "in the type of government 
initiative on the scale that I believed it at that particular time." 
He had even left the President's Council of Economic Advisers 
because it was too New Dealish for his taste. But, Anne, gentle- 
men, Anne's was another case. Her mother had made her a Com- 
munist; and "I have to stand aside and see those children brought 
up in a creed that I hate more than anything else in the world." 

The government sought out Anne Moos. Its agents were very 
solicitous in trying not to breach the ancient rule that a wife can- 
not testify against her husband. But couldn't Mrs. Remington 
think of anything that might have happened before they were 
married? She was very reluctant She was sure that Bill was 
violently anti-Communist now. And, after all, she said once, 
Remington was still contributing to the children s support; and if 
he should be convicted, she would be left without support. But, 
the government answered, her children could hardly be proud of 
their father; this would give them a chance to be proud of their 

Her surrender came only with some gentle pressure. She com- 
plained later that the grand jury kept her in chambers through 
the lunch hour and she broke because she was tired and hungry. 
Then she told of her courtship and of Bill's giving Helen the in- 
formation about making rubber, or was it explosives, out of gar- 
bage, and the Christmas presents and the dues. It had all been 
so inexpensive for Anne Remington; as a housewife, the Party 
had charged her just ten cents a month dues. 

Presumably, when she became a Communist and William 
Remington said come with me and picket by the mill gates, there 
had been an image of total challenge to come. She might have 
thought that she would be tested with branding irons, if not for 



him, for something bigger than them both. That challenge had 
come down to a lunch skipped in a grand jury room, and even that 
had, been too much for her. 

Elizabeth Bentley served her time in the bright lights, pushing 
a pencil at her scraggly hair and saying, yes, that was the man. 
After awhile she found repose in religion; but part of her must 
still lie with Yasha in the cemetery of the International Workers 
Order. She does not yet seem able to tell herself that her time 
with him had not been the best years of her life. 

William Remington went to prison for perjury and was mur- 
dered in a quarrel where he was only a bystander. Anne Moos 
Remington works for a Washington lawyer. Her mother, true to 
the worst to the last, flits between New York and Boston, bleating 
for the Communists. 

A long time ago, the Communist Party ruled out all discussion 
of woman as woman; sex distinction was a crime it catalogued 
under the heading of male chauvinism. But, forty years ago, the 
Industrial Workers of the World had a special vision of the 
woman; Joe Hill put it down in a song called "The Rebel Girl." 

She was, said Joe Hill, the only and the thoroughbred lady, 
with a heart in her bosom that was true to her class and her kind: 

Oh, the rebel girl, the rebel girl 

To the working class she's a precious pearl, 

She brings courage, pride, and joy to her fighting rebel boy: 

We've had girls before, but we need some more 

In the Industrial Workers of the World, 

For it's great to fight for freedom 

With the fighting rebel girl. 

It is by now a faintly comic song, because the Wobblies are by 
now a faintly comic organization. They have left very little be- 
hind them besides a few songs and the memory of great banks of 
roses at the funeral of the Lawrence strikers. They had a heroine 
in those days who delighted to call herself Boxcar Betty. There 
was another heroine named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who came in 
her middle age into the Communist Party and could be seen, 
while she awaited her time in prison, on the platforms of its cere- 


monials, the layers of flesh overcropping her shoetops, automati- 
cally intoning the grand, debased, old songs. 

The rebel girl consumed herself and destroyed herself; she 
went down to the shadows of a racking old age, coughing alone, 
and she was glad to do it. But now Boxcar Betty is gone, if she 
ever lived; she would not have recognized Anne Moos Reming- 
ton and Elizabeth Bentley. For the taunting core of the lives of 
those women of the thirties was how empty they were. Elizabeth 
Bentley, shuttling through the inconsequent round of meetings 
without purpose, the life of no person the better for anything she 
did, and ending in the cheap and terrible sort of treason which 
Boxcar Betty would have thought the evasion of cowards. And 
'Anne Moos, pledging her husband to struggle without end, and 
then f ollowing him to Washington and a career where you were 
*a hard-driving kid," and you and everyone else were so cagey, 
and, "goodness," nobody would be caught reading the Daily 


You can argue how to judge a life spent in search ot a good 
thing that was never found. But there can be no argument about 
a life destroyed in a pursuit where the pursuer knew not what 
she sought and to which love never came or, if it came, left too 


Mary Vorse has gone on far past her time for going on. bne 
will go on until she dies. We can leave her best at a CIO conven- 
tion in 1949. It was during a coal strike; Mary Vorse could have 
walked into that convention with Bob Minor on her arm, and 
Philip Murray, the CIO's president, would have been glad to 
shake his hand. 

For Mary Vorse is a woman who cannot look upon her past and 
find evil entire in any part of it. To have given the hostage of love 
once is to have surrendered a little part of it forever. She knew 
that to forgive is the first commandment of love, and she and 
Philip Murray knew that no price is too high for it. She bore up 
under all the attentions for three days. Then the things of state 
were too much for her, and she went back to the coal mines, say- 
ing as the last apology of the mother who knows her children are 
not worth all this care: 
"There's an old fellow in Charleroi I knew long ago in the 


Wobblies. He always tells me what's going on. Ill have to tell 
Phil; he'll remember him. One of the old fellows, one of the very 
old ones/' 

And she was gone to the bus station, her legs a little stiff, her 
eyes a little rheumy, because she was, after all, seventy-five years 
old. To have pledged yourself and to have forsaken all others 
for forty years, to have understood that to love is to abandon 
sleep and comfort and the ease of age, and to follow, always to 
follow, the desperate road love sets out for you, such was the 
limit of the rebel girl's commitment. Mary Vorse sat in her bus as 
upon a burnished throne. 


MOST OF the persons in these studies came to their commitment 
by choice. They could never escape a certain envy for those they 
thought must reach the same commitment by automatic neces- 
sity. Their textbooks taught them, after all, that the purest revolu- 
tionaries are created by objective conditions o environment. By 
that standard, the Negro in America made the most perfect 
revolutionary material. 

And yet the Communists, who may deserve a chapter in some 
histories of special corners of our society, can never be more than 
a footnote in any true history of the American Negro. He was a 
major object of their passion; they felt, or thought they felt, a 
special concern for his freedom. Still, the history of the relations 
of Negroes to the Communist Party is one of rejection. The mass 
of Negroes rejected the Communists and never joined the Party 
to any degree reflecting their own proportion to the population 
of the United States as a whole; no more than eight per cent of 
the Party's members at any time have been Negroes. 

The few Negroes who came young. to the Communists experi- 
enced a rejection of their own which drove the best of them 
from the Party. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and the autobio- 
graphical writings of Richard Wright, among the most notable 


products of Negro creation in the last two decades, contain recol- 
lections of experience as Communists that only complete the pat- 
tern of rejection and alienation from white institutions which 
Wright and Ellison reflect. Their life as Communists was only a 
renewed experience with exploitation. Both were as much out- 
siders there as they were everywhere else. The Communists were 
especially empty for Ellison. His association with them appears to 
have been the least creatively stimulating of his life; as an in- 
stance, Invisible Man indicates a combined immersion in Herman 
Melville, an acquisition from Western culture, and with Negro 
blues forms, an acquisition from his roots. The Communists were 
a part of Ellison's life between the blues and Melville; he took 
nothing from them except a fortified sense of rejection. If Ellison's 
experience is representative, the most important effect of Com- 
munist work among Negroes has been the most positive sort of 

So far I have been describing persons whose lives were con- 
ditioned by their affirmation of revolutionary fantasy. There 
seems to me little margin for myth in the life of the American 
Negro, and to discuss that life entirely in terms of the few Negroes 
who accepted the myth would be a serious distortion of an im- 
portant piece of our history. We have seen in the past few years, 
I think, the beginning of a revolution in the position of the Negro 
in America. It has been carried out by Negroes whose first deci- 
sive act was their rejection of the revolutionary myth. The thirties 
talked much about the Negro and did comparatively little for 
him; their great revolutions were labor uprisings in whose course 
the Negro was swept along, on occasion against his own will. 
There is always a certain cultural lag for depressed ethnic groups 
in these matters; the Negro's own revolution did not manifest 
itself until the decades after the thirties. It is now, of course, only 
in its beginnings. 

This is the revolution which concerns us here. Professed revolu- 


tionaries played only the smallest part in it, and Communists 
seem to have played almost no part at all. Its roots were, I be- 
lieve, in the Negro's alienation from our own society and in his 
sense of his identification as a Negro, a sense forced upon him 
every day by the rest of us and the sense which has become his 
own best weapon. In the twenties, I think the Negro expressed 
his own identification best in the songs of Bessie Smith, which 
offered only resignation and endurance, and in Marcus Garvey's 
Back-to-Africa movement, which offered only Utopia. Beginning 
in the thirties and mounting to the present time, the Negro has 
asked something more than endurance, and has reached for it 
with his own hands. It was a grasp for reality, and has very little 
to do with the fantasies with which we have been here most 
largely involved. 

To measure this reality, I have chosen, among many others, 
two men. One is Paul Robeson, who was a success and became a 
Communist; the other is Thomas Patterson, who could not be a 
success and became a Pullman porter, and who did not have time 
to be a Communist and became instead one of America's uncon- 
scious true revolutionaries. 


*7 doan mind bein in jail, but I got to stay there so long. 9 ' 
BESSIE SMITH, "The Jailhouse Blues" 

T can see you're tired, son, and disappointed" said 
Guiditta to Rocco. <f Jou have the sadness of one who set 
out to go very far and ends up by finding himself where he 
began. Didn't they teach you at school that the world is 

IGNAZIO SILONE, A Handful of Black- 


"Now, what are you going to get in this country? As I 
see it, the colored brother is going to get what he can take. 
Jou are not going to be able to take it unless you are going 
to be able to pay the price to take it. Nobody else in this 
country got anything unless they took it. They died and 
suffered and sacrificed. They cut up the trees, lived and 
suffered in the cold, and they took a country and built it 
up. They brought us over here in chains, as some of our 
speakers told us in this convention. We know that. We are 
still in chains, to a large extent, light chains. The only way 
those chains are going to be broken is we have to break 
them. That is all. There isn't anybody else going to do it 
for us." 

MILTON WEBSTER, Speech to the Brother- 
hood of Sleeping Car Porters, Sept. 13, 

NEGRO has had his moments of patronage, but Bessie 
JL Smith never knew many of them. Late in the twenties, there 
was a rush of white tourists up to Harlem, where the Cotton Club 
offered the music of Duke Ellington, the sight of a sleek yellow 


chorus, and the assurance that no Negroes would be admitted 
except as entertainers. 

Bessie Smith never sang at the Cotton Club. As she said her- 
self, "I ain't no high yaller just a deep, deep yaller brown." She 
was never fashionable. All her life, she could be found most often 
in the colored theaters and the colored dance halls the Vendome 
in Chicago, the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, or 
those other halls of fugitive joy in the Southern cities. Her first 
record began: "Thirty days in jail and my face turn' to the wall/ 9 
Her last one, nearly twenty years later, ended: "I need a whole 
lot of lovin', 'cause I'm down in the dumps." 

She hung her great body in white sequins. Her voice was 
contemptuous of microphones, rolling its layers of pain, loss, and 
longing laid upon pain, loss, and longing over the black faces to 
the farthest reaches of the great barns in which she sang. Over 
and over she told the story of the Negro transplanted to the great 
cities. Her devils were the landlord, the policeman, and the hoo- 
doo; her ambiguous heroes were the easy riders going and com- 
ing back. The command of her ceremonies was to endure and 
straighten up at the very last, because every road had an end, 
every sin would be redeemed, every devil exorcised, every wan- 
derer brought home. 

Her records were packaged as ''race** songs. She crossed the 
wall around the Negro only for the very few white inhabitants 
of the frontiers of jazz, most of them Europeans and not enough 
of them to grant her one of those Continental tours where the 
American Negro was treated like a potentate and allowed to for- 
get what he was back home. 

Even during the jazz revival of the thirties, Bessie Smith never 
sang in Carnegie Hall. There was one Sunday afternoon at the 
Famous Door on West Fifty-second Street where she stood in her 
furs and sang for a white audience goggling at her from camp 
chairs. After that, she went back to her race theaters and her tent 
shows. One afternoon in 1936, just outside Memphis, she was 
badly broken up in an automobile accident. 

Memphis was her home. Its Negro hospital was on the other 
side of town. She could not get into the white hospital and the 
legend was that she bled to death on her way to a Negro doctor, 


dying as she had lived on the race label. There was a song about 
Memphis* Ed Crump on Beale Street. "I don't care what Boss 
Crump don't low/ I'm goin' to beat my git-tar anyhow/* But, in 
the end, if you were a Negro, Bessie Smith assumed that the Boss 
Crumps of Memphis would get you anyhow. 

Still, Paul Robeson is a Negro, and the Boss Crumps seemed to 
have nothing to do with him. He appeared, with ease and grace, 
to have escaped them. Life was certainly never as easy for him 
as it appeared, but it was easy enough. His father was a New 
Jersey minister with a small parish, an old man when Paul was 
born; his mother died when her dress caught fire at the kitchen 
stove. They were not substantial Negroes, but they had a status 
superior to the average. Paul Robeson's father had been a slave 
and his life was a triumph of self-help. He drove and drilled his 
son to be perfect in all things. 

Young Paul was close enough to perfection to be a wonder to 
his contemporaries. At Rutgers he attained Phi Beta Kappa with- 
out demonstrable effort and was its football team's main force. 
Walter Camp chose him as an All-American end; for Camp to 
select a Rutgers man was hardly less thinkable than for him to 
choose a Negro. 

He was not, of course, entirely free of the knowledge that he 
was of a particular breed; and rival football players were ac- 
customed to remind him that he was a Negro with concentrated 
violence. But his conduct on these occasions was a model for any 
sportsman. It was generally agreed that he knew his place. Only 
in 1950, so much later, would Paul Robeson remember his foot- 
ball days and report with dreadful satisfaction that there had 
been moments when he used his fist in the pile-ups. 

In 1918, when Paul Robeson was graduated from Rutgers and 
entered Columbia Law School, there could exist the illusion that 
his place had no limit. Eugene O'Neill and the Provincetown 
Players were in their glory then. O'Neill wrote The Emperor 
Jones for Robeson, and he was wafted over the barriers of ap- 
prenticeship to become an established star of the theater. 

O'Neill put him in All Gotfs Chillun Got Wings and he had a 
firmer success. But outside the theater his margins were already 
narrowing. He finished law school with the distinction that was 


his custom and took his clerkship in a downtown firm. His admit- 
tance was not easy and his presence not always accepted. After a 
while he went away very courteously. There were, it appeared, 
more limits than he had thought. 

But he remained a figure glowing with light in the Greenwich 
Village of the Edna Millays, the Heywood Brouns, and the Theo- 
dore Dreisers. Still there were only a few parts for Negro actors. 
Then nature laid upon him one more blessing; without training 
he became a singer and a fresh overnight triumph. He had been 
admired. Now he was worshiped. He himself used to complain 
that his was the miracle of the dog walking on his hind legs and 
that he had never been the football player they said he was, or 
the actor, or even the singer. Even so, the audience at his first 
concert collapsed into ecstasy when he began and into exhaustion 
when he finished, after imploring him through encore after en- 
core into the morning. 

Granting certain extraordinary attainments, it is not hard for a 
Negro to be worshiped by white persons. But there is always a 
measure of condescension in that worship, which may be why so 
many of Robeson's white friends from those first days weep for 
him now in the tones of those who remember how virtuous they 
were and how ungrateful God has been. O'Neill's The Emperor 
Jones presented a Negro who did no great violence to popular 
illusion. Robeson was especially appealing because he could act 
this Negro of theater tradition and appear thereafter at a Village 
party as a guest of intellectual distinction. He looked like a tribal 
deity, and he could swagger for his audience as an Ethiop clown 
and then talk after the show with engaging cultivation. He had 
some of the charm of a superbly tamed savage. There was a 
superior morality in bowing down before him as though to an 
African god with a Phi Beta Kappa key. 

This moral elevation did not, of course, alter a situation in 
which the theater had no parts for Paul Robeson that were not 
Negro parts, and Negro parts tended to be either low or empty. 
The critics who adored him had no suggestion more daring than 
a production of Othello; it was hardly practical to observe that 
he would make a Macbeth of force and fire. 

Even the O'Neill parts, try as O'Neill did, were either low or 



crude or ambiguous at best. Some sensitive Negroes thought The 
Emperor Jones was no service to them at all Brutus Jones being 
a murderer, a thief, and, at his end, a reversion to the jungle of 
formless fears and voodoo drums. Brutus Jones was a Pullman 
porter who committed a murder over a crap game and then killed 
a white guard on the chain gang and escaped to a Caribbean Is- 
land and made himself its emperor, because he had learned one 
great lesson on the Pullman cars: 

"For de little stealin's dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de 
big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o* 
Fame when you croaks. If dey's one thing I learns on de Pullman 
ca's listenin' to de white quality talk, it's dat same fact. And 
when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor . . ." 

O'Neill was saying that Brutus Jones was the consequence of 
three hundred years of white mastery of the Negro. He aped the 
whites at their worst; he was contemptuous of the "bush nigger" 
and lived and died with his hand against every man. O'Neill's 
heroes were Negroes whose disaster was that they wanted to be 
white men. But they were not like ordinary Negroes and Brutus 
Jones was not an ordinary Pullman porter. 

The Pullman porter rode his car, silent with all the chaff 
around him, always most agreeable when he was of the old 
school, accepting the generic designation of "George" as though 
it were a balm instead of an affront, a domestic apparently un- 
altered by the passage of time or the Emancipation Proclamation. 
A sensitive white man might look at him, at once deferential and 
removed, and wonder what he was really like. There was a cer- 
tain thrill to the notion that he might be a Communist or a mur- 
derer or even an emperor a doomed emperor of course if his 
chance came and the constituency were inferior enough. 

But he was, after all, only a man beneath his station, as every 
servant is a man beneath what should be his station. The re- 
sources of any of us being what they are, he might very well 
dream other dreams than those of the sort of man who sits up 
late drinking in a Pullman lounge. He might be less like Brutus 
Jones than, say, Thomas T. Patterson. Thomas Patterson was a 
functioning Pullman porter when Paul Robeson was acting the 
part of one. Patterson had ended up with the Pullman Company 


against his hopes and because he had tried all the other places. 
He had come to New York from the British West Indies and es- 
sayed first Wall Street, where they had made him an office porter, 
and then the subway system, where they had set him to cleaning 
their washrooms. 

He had brought no special education with him from Jamaica. 
But he was bronzed and long-legged and courteous and alto- 
gether so obvious a piece of fine workmanship that everyone who 
employed him marked him as a person notably superior and was 
always apologetic when the time came to explain that there were 
no openings except for porters. The world which had seemed to 
open so wide for Paul Robeson was for Thomas Patterson just a 
long, narrow hall with a broom provided by the management and 
so much to be picked up. 

Just after World War I, when he was working out of the 
old Weehawken Station of the New York Cental, various pas- 
sengers began sending in reports on his manner, character, and 
extraordinary attentions. A Pullman porter is by definition non- 
promotable, and no commendation can serve him much. But after 
a while, Thomas Patterson's citations attained a tide where the 
superintendent of traffic called him to find out what it was that 
cut so deep into the consciousness of his passengers. Patterson 
could not help him very far toward an answer; he could only re- 
port that he did his best. They talked a long while, and then the 
superintendent said that Patterson ought to understand that he 
had no place as a Pullman porter. He was too good for the Job. 
The company really did not want men of his special texture 
around. He should look for some place worthy of him. Thomas 
Patterson smiled and said that he had already looked everywhere. 
He was a Pullman porter because there was nothing else for him 
to be. 

The pleasures of fantasy were not open to Thomas Patterson. 
He could not afford, as an instance, to nurse the hope that he of 
all Negroes might ever be treated as though he were white. Any 
white man who spoke to him spoke consciously to a Negro, which 
is a terrible barrier even for the best of men. Thomas Patterson's 
life was a process of enforcing recognition of his personality from 
a world which treated him as possessed of color without feature. 


It was always mixing him up with the porter in the car ahead and 
asking him in simple bewilderment if he was its porter, because he 
was, after all, only a piece of furniture set out for the convenience 
of persons who saw no need to be connoisseurs of this sort of 

The Pullman porter in those days had a certain stature among 
Negroes as a cosmopolite, because he lived so much of his life 
among white persons of substance, a fortunate auxiliary to a great 
world so far from the lives of most Negroes. The Pullman porter's 
presumed superiority was one compensation for the $27.50 a 
month wage at which Thomas Patterson began in the system. But 
it was the smallest of compensations. To respond automatically 
to the call for "George" was after all a confession that you had no 
identity as an individual. 

Man of mark that he may have been among his own kind, 
Thomas Patterson had no white friends. At best he could have 
only-white acquaintances, a conductor who enjoyed his company 
on the run, the superintendent who had recognized that he de- 
served something better, a passenger impressed by his demeanor. 
To assert one's personality in this narrow world was a never- 
ceasing labor because, whatever his achievements, Thomas Pat- 
terson woke up every morning a Negro in a menial station and 
began all over again. Even the superintendent who was almost 
his admirer once dispatched him to pick up an assignment, charg- 
ing him, as was normal, gawdam it, to be quick about it. Patter- 
son moved to his Pullman car without answering, neither insolent 
nor accelerated. The superintendent came up and asked if he 
had heard all right. Patterson replied that he had heard perfectly 
well; the superintendent never again addressed him in those 
terms. His victories were no less cherished for being so small. 

There had always been talk of a Pullman porters' union, wist- 
ful from its friends, scornful from its enemies. The established 
railway brotherhoods were not merely negative about the re- 
cruitment of Negroes; they were positive about eliminating them 
from any place on the railroads. 

What small position the Negro held in industry had been 
achieved in many cases against the objections of the white labor 
unions; many Negroes got their first industrial jobs as strike- 


breakers. On the record, the Pullman Company seemed a better 
friend than the American Federation of Labor. The introduction 
of Negro porters into the Pullman system was considered an act 
of grace and a tender of opportunity. Robert Todd Lincoln, the 
Emancipator's son, was one of Pullman's directors and a symbol 
of its special tolerance of Negroes. 

And so if the Pullman porters were to organise a union, they 
must expect to go it alone with little sympathy either from white 
labor or from large elements of their own community. They be>- 
gan with no special aspiration beyond raising their own wages. 
Circumstance forced them to make their fight as Negroes, be- 
cause there was no one besides themselves to help them and be- 
cause there was a revolutionary implication in the picture of a 
Negro sitting down to bargain with his white employer. 

The porters made a few motions during World War I to the 
general inattention of the Railway Labor Board and the Pullman 
Company. Their leaders were untrained; theirs was not a course 
to make them popular with the corporation; before long many of 
them were encouraged to take their passions elsewhere. Milton 
Webster, the brashest and loudest of them, was fired and became 
a heeler for the Chicago Republicans. Thomas Patterson, who 
was a firm union man but very polite about it, clung to his berth 
and turned over a burdensome proportion of his wages to the 

The world which was looking so delusively free for Paul Robe- 
son could not offer even illusion to Negroes like Patterson and 
Webster. They were grown men without formal education, with 
no obvious talent, and with no access upward. Robeson could be 
the idol of a white cult, at once enraptured and a little conde- 
scending. Patterson and Webster were ordinary Negroes and the 
best they could expect was condescension. 

In the year 1925, Patterson, Webster, and a few others began 
another effort to build a porters' union and Paul Robeson sailed 
for Europe to remain there, with only a few intervals of return, 
until the fall of 1939. Their roads were very different. 

Ashley L. Totten, a founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car 
Porters, was fired a few days after he announced its formation. 
No vocal union porter could thereafter hope to keep his job, and 



it was plain that outsiders must be drafted as organizers. Webster 
was out of the system, so it was safe for him to take over the 
union's Midwest office. Then the Brotherhood's leaders went to 
A. Philip Randolph, one of Harlem's throng of agitational voices, 
and asked him to become their president and public spokesman. 

Randolph had never been a Pullman porter. He was a maverick 
and a street-corner orator, a Socialist who had been a pacifist in 
World War I and had once been called the most dangerous Ne- 
gro in America. His father had been an itinerant Florida Meth- 
odist preacher; he himself had rejected God and the middle class. 
He had been an elevator operator, a janitor, and a ship's waiter. 
He was now the editor of a Negro magazine; his education had 
ended with a few courses at the City College of New York. But he 
had absorbed Shakespeare and the Bible and his bass voice 
rumbled in periods which mixed the cadences of the King James 
Version with the accent of massive cultivation. 

The Negro was longing and moving and changing his magnetic 
impulse all through the twenties, and Randolph was by 1925 
only one among a cluster of conflicting ideologues and not one of 
the more fashionable. At thirty-six, his time in fact appeared to 
have passed him by. 

Eight years before, the Socialists had run him for Secretary of 
State of New York, An estimated one quarter of the Negroes of 
New York City had voted for him. But after the war they turned 
to wilder creeds. Marcus Garvey, a West Indian Messiah, had 
shaken Harlem as no one else had with his Back-to-Africa move- 
ment, a vision of an African Negro empire ruled by a pure and 
mighty race. 

In 1920, Garvey turned fifty thousand of his congregation loose 
to parade through Harlem's streets behind their Black Nobility, 
their African Legion, and their Black Cross nurses, all purple and 
black and green and gold. For a while all the other Salvationists 
paled beside Garvey s rich and ruddy glow; there was talk that 
he had ten million followers all over the world. Randolph went on 
saying that the Negroes were Americans and must solve their 
problems as Americans, but fewer and fewer people listened. It 
must have seemed to the Negro intellectual then that Garvey had 
driven an imperial chariot between him and his audience and left 


him isolated while his people strayed off to worship the crocodile 
in the sun beside the waters of the Congo. 

Marcus Garvey went at last to Atlanta Penitentiary for mis- 
managing the affairs of his Court of Ethiopia, his Universal Ne- 
gro Improvement Association and the other appurtenances of his 
glory. He passed thereafter into that special limbo tenanted by so 
many prior saviors of his people. The vision of Black Empire 
never again gripped Harlem as it had under Garvey's star. When 
the Back-to-Africa movement revived in the thirties, very few 
Negroes paid it any attention. The enabling act which would 
have shipped them back to the home they no longer felt was 
home was sponsored in the Senate by their ravening enemy, 
Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. 

But Marcus Garvey's mark never left his flock. He had made 
the ordinary Negro conscious of his color and he had articulated 
a knowledge of self that had been buried before. Always after 
Garvey, any white man who came to Harlem selling the elixir of 
freedom would be an alien. His barrier was the color line. Many 
white people, the Communists among them, came to the Negro 
thereafter, and offered him so very much. In his heart the Negro 
believed that, whatever its intentions, this was a tender of con- 
descension and that, as Garvey had said, he himself was his own 
best friend. 

The reasons why Garvey, disgraced and dead, would always 
deserve a chapter in the history of the American Negro were the 
reasons why the Communists could never be more than a foot- 
note in that history. They labored very long to bring the Negro 
into the army of revolution; at no time have there been more than 
5,000 American Negro Communists and they have always been 
strangers to their brothers. For the Communists, whatever their 
affirmations, were white men offering a potion, and most Negroes 
expected them after a while to exact a white man's fee. 

Even Philip Randolph, with his faintly exotic associations, was 
held at arm's length by some leaders of the porters in the early 
days: He was their ambassador to foreign parts; but they were 
not sure in the beginning that he was really their man. He was 
removed and austere and of no common day. The Pullman Com- 
pany and those Negroes who held it in awe called him a Com- 


munist, which he had never been, and he had to make his obei- 
sance to the community by joining the Negro Elks. 

He was something between a high priest and an alien to the 
porters in the beginning. But he remained with them through the 
long years in the desert, when the very few who believed pawned 
their watches to pay the union's rent, and he himself met their 
highest test when he refused an offer from some friend of the es- 
tablished order to take ten thousand dollars and desert them and 
spend a year in Europe. The Garland Fund gave the porters ten 
thousand dollars to begin, and William Green tendered what as- 
sistance the American Federation of Labor permitted him to give. 
But they were really all by themselves. 

There were only ten thousand porters to organize, but it took 
their Brotherhood almost ten years to win recognition from the 
Pullman Company and a little longer still to be admitted into the 
AFL as a union in good standing. They would always have a 
small union, but they managed their own affairs, and they quad- 
rupled the wages of the porters. It is a measure of the Negro's 
circumstance that, in America, the smallest things usually take 
him so very long, and that, by the time he wins them, they are 
no longer little things: they are miracles. 

Twelve years after the porters came to Randolph, Milton Web- 
ster, a cigar in his mouth and no rein on his tongue, was growling 
into the faces of lawyers for the railroads of the Middle West, 
and Thomas T. Patterson, grave and courtly but just as hard in 
his way, was standing up to the lawyers for the railroads of the 
East. The Pullman porters were a little army unafraid. Randolph 
had begun to rise at AFL conventions and suggest that it was 
time for the big unions to give the Negro equal treatment and to 
offer his futile motion for the expulsion of any affiliate which 
insisted on the color barrier. He was a nuisance of enormous 
presence, impelling one afflicted delegate from the carpenters to 
complain that it wasn't fair for this Harvard man to come in and 
outtalk them. 

But Paul Robeson appeared to need no such small and terribly 
difficult victories. He was lionized in England and moved grace- 
fully among its gentry. He lived awhile in the south of France 
and journeyed to the Soviet Union, where selected little children 


called him Pablo and he found a country where the Negro was 
not exploited, perhaps because the Negro did not exist.* 

He came back to the United States at rare intervals, going to 
Hollywood for Show Boat in the late thirties, lounging and grin- 
ning about the screen as the shabby, shiny, lazy but truly loyal 
Cuffy of Southern tradition. This was the height of the decade 
when it has been seriously asserted that the Communist myth 
dominated the movies. But Hollywood's conception of the Negro 
offended no traditions except those of the Negro's dignity. Robe- 
son was the Negro of the future, but they would not let him 
portray anyone but the Negro of the legendary past 

He took Hollywood's money and swore that he would never 
go back until they gave him a part worthy of a first-class citizen. 
He returned to England, and J. Arthur Rank put him in Sanders 
of the River, where he was the shiny, shabby, careless, but truly 
loyal, Number One boy of imperial tradition. In all these defeats 
there was the guilt of the white to the Negro, ancient beyond 
memory and always renewed. There was also the guilt to himself. 
There is no way of knowing even now which guilt made Paul 
Robeson a Communist. 

When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Robeson came home, 
but not to Harlem. He bought himself a pre-Revolutionary house 
in Connecticut; his friends reported the break-through of a cer- 
tain interior irony when he spoke of his new home as the old 
plantation. He toured to the old, enchanted audiences; his rec- 
ords sold in the hundreds of thousands; he remained a great, re- 
moved symbol of individual success. 

He came to Harlem only upon special occasions, almost always 
for assemblages honoring the Negro's putative identification with 
the Soviet Union. He would arrive on the platform just before he 
was to sing; he would rumble his words about this land and our 

* Even the British seem to have as hard a time as many white Americans 
believing that a Negro can drink tea without spilling it. Robeson's success in 
England? s higher social quarters drove Evelyn Waugh to draw an envenomed 
portrait of him in Decline and Fall a Robeson formal of dress, languorous 
and supercilious of manner, dripping Regency patois from thick purple lips. 
Waugh's American readers found this picture highly amusing, perhaps un- 
conscious that its targets were, after all, not just the Negro but such revered 
national institutions as higher learning, the society of Phi Beta Kappa, the 
Bar Association, and the judgment of Walter Camp. 


people, making his great entrance and his great exit, on stage 
only when the spotlight was upon him; and then he would go 
back to Connecticut. 

But Philip Randolph was anchored to Harlem. By 1941, the 
Brotherhood which he and Patterson and the rest had built, had 
become a kind of cathedral. Randolph might have been nothing 
without it except a voice insistent and off the beat. But, as presi- 
dent of his union, he was a paladin of the Negro community. The 
Brotherhood had a reputation out of balance with its size; it was 
regarded as a pilot model of what the ordinary Negro could do if 
he tried. Randolph was the friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and 
Fiorello LaGuardia. He was the only Negro in America who was 
well known because he was a Negro radical and a labor leader. 

Even so, by 1940 all the Brotherhood's notable history ap- 
peared to be behind it. There were few Pullman porters left to 
organize. The mass of Negroes were domestics or common la- 
borers or WPA workers. They went into the Navy as messboys 
and into the Army as truckdrivers and into the Marines not at all. 
The Brotherhood was only a very small island. 

As president of an AFL union, Randolph was a symbol and at 
times a source of pain to his white brethren. But his protests were 
after all matters doomed to interment in the record, because they 
were appeals to conscience where so faint a conscience existed. 
It appeared that he could not alter the state of things; with every 
Negro, he remained in prison. 

His first move into the broad stream had brought Randolph 
nothing but regret. In 1937, he joined with the Communists to 
establish the National Negro Congress and became its presi- 
dent In 1939, with the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Communists 
captured the Congress, and made it an amplifier for the proposi- 
tion that no American Negro would fight against the Soviets. In 
April of 1940, Randolph resigned as president. His parting blast 
was that the Congress was not merely a Communist front but not 
even a true Negro organization. A third of the delegates to its last 
convention had been white and much of its funds had come from 
non-Negro sources. 

That last was a new note for the Randolph who had stood up 


all over Harlem against Marcus Garvey's call for Negro secession. 
But lie was not the Randolph he had been. He had worked, after 
all, for fifteen years with Milton Webster, who was brusque 
where Randolph was gentle, cynical where Randolph was trust- 
ing, stripped of illusion where Randolph was a perambulatory 
dream. And, if Randolph had won Webster and changed him a 
little, Webster had seen Randolph change too. Together they had 
come to agree that the Negro's best hope was his own effort 

Webster, who thinks of himself as an ordinary Negro, never 
forgot the difference between them. He always remembered the 
time in those first terrible days when Randolph was invited to 
represent the Brotherhood at an interracial seminar in Cincin- 
nati. Then word had gone about that he was a godless radical, 
and the Brotherhood was asked to provide another speaker. Ran- 
dolph sent Webster. 

"Of course," Webster says, "having heard Brother Randolph 
speak many times, I thought that, since I was representing him, 
I ought to prepare something pretty good. I spent a couple of 
weeks getting stuff together, including some of his poetry .* 

Webster arrived thus girt about with a reasonably accurate 
coloration of the master's manner and found a speakers* platform 
loaded with friends of the Pullman Company. 

"A high-powered lawyer from Cincinnati, who is still down 
there, got up and made a speech about the Constitution, and then 
he read a written draft in which he said, *Experience teaches us 
that the company form of organization is best for the Negro/ 
Then I took that speech I had prepared for two weeks and tore 
it up. I said this doesn't call for a speech. It calls for the same old 
rough stuff. So I have never attempted to prepare a speech since 
that time." 

In January of 1941, these so different men were leaving Wash- 
ington to tour the South. The defense boom had begun, but it 
appeared to hold no place for the Negro. The new war plants 
would not hire him. Just 240 of the 107,000 persons employed in 
the aircraft industry, the lustiest of the war babies, were Negroes. 
Vultee of Nashville had limited itself to the hope that it could 
take on a few porters when things got moving. North American 


Aviation said frankly that no Negro, whatever his training, could 
expect employment as a mechanic; applications would be enter- 
tained only from janitors. 

Randolph, as a representative Negro, had just been to see Presi- 
dent Roosevelt to file one of the customary memorials against 
the immutable state of things. The President had been very 
gracious, but there was no indication that he felt capable of any 
particular performance. 

Randolph and Webster sat on their southbound train and 
talked about this, the latest of so many feckless interviews. Ran- 
dolph said that he did not think further conferences with the 
President could help much in placing Negroes in the defense in- 
dustries. Webster agreed with him; there was a silence for fifteen 
minutes while Randolph observed the Virginia hills. At last he 
said in his soft and distant accents: 

"I think we ought to do something about it. I think we ought to 
get ten thousand Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue 
and protest against the discriminatory practices in this rapidly 
expanding defense economy." 

"And where," asked Webster, "are you going to get the ten 
thousand Negroes?" 

Randolph listened awhile to his inner voice and observed at 
last that he believed they could get them. So they continued south, 
offering the idea of a Negro March on Washington wherever they 
could find an audience. 

"I think the first place we talked March on Washington was 
Savannah," says Milton Webster. "It scared everybody to death. 
The head colored man in Savannah opened up the meeting and 
introduced me, and ran off the platform to the last seat in the last 

"So we talked March on Washington all through the South and 
then we came on back to the real God's country, and I went back 
to Chicago and he went on to New York, and, within the next 
thirty days, it had caught fire, particularly in the East, and every- 
body was talking March on Washington." 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peo- 
ple, the Urban League, and a dozen other organizations repre- 
sentative of the Negro community joined the porters to announce 


that ten thousand Negroes would inarch on Washington on 
July ist to shout their demand for defense jobs. The Negro is a 
buried segment of American life, and for two or three months 
Randolph's fire burned beneath its surface. In May, the Roose- 
velt administration began to get reports of the blaze: Negroes 
were hiring trains for the trip from Chicago, from Memphis, and 
from Cleveland. There was every sign that not just ten thousand 
but twenty-five thousand Negroes would pour into Washington 
crying for their rights, to the boundless embarrassment not 
merely of politicians but of the arsenal of democracy which had 
forgotten them. 

President Roosevelt's first response to Randolph's threat was a 
June, 1941, letter to his defense subordinates urging industry to 
"take the initiative to open the door of employment to all loyal 
and qualified workers regardless of race, creed, and color." This 
appeal was offered to Randolph and his allies as proof of good 
faith. He answered that it was only a hope and a prayer and that 
he would launch his battalions against Washington on the ap- 
pointed date. 

Then he was called to New York's City Hall to be begged off 
by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor LaGuardia, two old 
friends of the Brotherhood whose intentions he could not ques- 
tion. "They, as all good white people, told us that the March on 
Washington was too drastic," Webster says now, "and you ought 
to depend on the people that are friendly to get the desired re- 

Mrs. Roosevelt explained that the march was impractical: 
where would twenty-five thousand Negroes eat in Washington 
and where would they stay? Randolph answered, after due re- 
flection, that they would go to the hotels and the restaurants and 
register and order dinner. Then his two good friends began to 
understand the dimensions of the challenge. Randolph was un- 
changeable in his dire intentions. And so at last President Roose- 
velt invited him and the other Negro leaders back to the White 

Randolph told Mr. Roosevelt that his price for peace was an 
executive order barring discrimination for reasons of religion and 
color in the war industries. The President replied that he was 


reluctant to issue the order with a gun at his head. He looked at 
Randolph, and Randolph held the gun. On June 20, 1941, the 
President issued Executive Order 8803, banning discrimination on 
defense projects and setting up the Fair Employment Practices 

Still Randolph would not take his gun away. He would only 
defer the March; and at every crisis in the FEPCs affairs, he was 
back with his hand on the trigger. His March on Washington 
touched the ordinary Negro as nothing had since Garvey. In 
March of 1942, he brought twenty-five thousand Negroes to 
Madison Square Garden; that evening Harlem's merchants cut 
off the lights in their stores for fifteen minutes to demonstrate 
their support. Milton Webster, the porters' representative on the 
FEPC, flew from the Garden to Birmingham, where the commit- 
tee was holding its hearings on discrimination in the Deep South. 

There were shouts and murmurs in Congress. Eugene Tal- 
madge plastered Georgia with photographs of Webster sitting in 
judgment upon the white South. The administration backed and 
filled and doubted and fumbled. At every crisis in the FEPC 
there was the threat that Randolph would invade Washington; 
and the committee remained alive throughout the war. 

The Negro did not come out of the war as a free worker in an 
open economy. But the FEPC had given him a place in the basic 
industries which he had never held before. In the future, whites 
and Negroes would work together in factories where the Negro 
had never existed as a skilled worker. There were many factors 
in this revolution, but none were more important than Philip 
Randolph and his Pullman Porters and their March on Wash- 

The Communists, on the other hand, were hardly a factor at 
all. On the May afternoon of 1941, when Randolph and his 
friends visited President Roosevelt with their gun cocked, they 
had to cross a White House picket line of Communists agitating 
against the defense program and aid to Britain. During the Nazi- 
Soviet pact, the Communists were reluctant to press for the 
Negro's integration into the defense industries, for fear that his 
consequent prosperity would make the Negro pro-war. 

After Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, the Communists 


felt that Randolph's uproar against discrimination was inimical 
to their desire to bury all personal aspirations in order to aid the 
Soviets in their desperate hour. The Party's position was an ab- 
solute contradiction between one summer month of 1941 and the 
month which followed it, but in neither phase were the Com- 
munists enthusiastic for an uninhibited FEPC campaign. The 
ordinary Negro had little concern for the dialectical subtleties of 
the Communists' position; he tended to consider it in both cases 
an expression of the needs of white people. 

The Communists neglected the FEPC for the same set of 
reasons which have always kept them from being any real factor 
in the Negro's progress and agitation in America. Their failure 
began with the Scottsboro case, which had for them the super- 
ficial clatter of triumph. The Scottsboro Boys were nine itinerant 
Negroes who were sentenced to death in April of 1931 for the sup- 
posed rape of two white women on a Chattanooga freight train. 
The Communists financed their early defense. Within two months 
after their case began, the International Labor Defense sent to 
Europe the mother of two of the prisoners; as "Mother" Wright 
she toured twenty-eight countries and heard shouts that "The 
Scottsboro boys shall not die" in a score of foreign tongues. She 
was so successful a missionary that there were indications that 
the ILD had at least eight Mother Wrights appearing at once in 
different parts of the world. 

It has been estimated that the Communists collected nearly a 
million dollars for the Scottsboro Boys; the legitimate expendi- 
tures for their defense can hardly have exceeded sixty thousand 
dollars. During the course of their appeals, the Scottsboro Boys 
became the most famous Negroes in America; when their last ap- 
peal was lost, the ILD settled back and waited for injustice to 
triumph. The prisoners, after a long and painful effort, were 
finally rescued and set free by a committee of liberals led by the 
Rev. Allan Knight Chalmers, Morris Ernst, Walter White, and 
the late Grover Hall, of Montgomery, Alabama. 

"I think," Chalmers has written, "that the Communists would 
have been content to lose the case if only they could publicize 
their part in it and point out the weakness of American legal 


There was something peculiarly hard about the Communists 
which especially showed itself to every Negro who fell into as- 
sociation with them. They offered only an initial kindness; in the 
end they were exploiters and without even that small, saving 
sense of sin which some other white men had. 

But Negroes as a group have been so little subject to the Com- 
munist infection as to be very hard to excite against the few 
Negroes who are afflicted by it. It is difficult for a Negro to be- 
lieve, so long as James Eastiand sits in the United States Senate 
and Herman Talmadge is governor of Georgia, that the American 
Communist is the main author of his sufferings. Harlem sent 
Benjamin Davis, a Negro Communist, to the New York City 
Council during the war. It turned him out in 1949 for a number 
of reasons, by no means the least of these the fact that so many 
of his canvassers were whites that many Negroes began to wonder 
just what there was in his election for them. Randolph is a pas- 
sionate Communist-baiter by Negro standards, but even he 
barred only white Communists from his March on Washington. 

The typical Negro, through the thirties and today, has been 
bored by the Communist, whether he is presented as saint or 
devil. Those Negro Communists who were the most conspicuous 
and stayed the longest were, in an unusual number of cases, per- 
sons who thought they had escaped the Negro problem for a 
while and then had that sudden shock of recognition which is a 
daily experience for most Negroes. 

Paul Robeson was such a person. Benjamin Davis was born in 
Atlanta; but, as the son of Georgia's Republican National Com- 
mitteeman, he was able to attend Amherst and Harvard and do 
well as a lawyer in the North. In the thirties he made a fleeting 
return to Georgia to assist in the defense of Angelo Herndon, a 
Negro Communist organizer who had been indicted under that 
state's criminal syndicalism law. Davis was unsure about Georgia 
court procedure; as he arose, hesitant, the presiding judge said to 
him, 'Well, nigger, go ahead and say what you have to say/* 
Davis claims that this single, sudden moment of degradation 
made him a Communist. 

Davis, an extraordinary Negro, remains a Communist leader; 
Herndon, an ordinary Negro, left the Communists quite soon 


after his release from prison. One element in his defection was the 
experience of meeting Anna Damon, the Communist lady in 
charge of his defense campaign, and having her look at him sadly 
and comment, "It's too bad you aren't blacker." The Communists 
were in the end no less unconscious than so many other white 
people of the Negro's existence as a human being. 

But, then, perhaps Angelo Herndon was fortunate; it can be 
an advantage to discover, when you are young enough, that the 
world is round. The Pullman porter had made that discovery 
very early, and he had accepted it with resignation. When the 
war was over, no one had done more than the Pullman porter to 
achieve for the Negro a place in society which he himself had 
never known and was unlikely to know in his own lifetime. 

His Brotherhood had contributed fifty thousand dollars to the 
March on Washington movement. As an individual he offered 
dollar upon dollar to campaigns which could bring him no per- 
.sonal profit, because he understood, from his own life, what 
Randolph meant when he said that "the Negro must supply the 
money and pay the price, make the sacrifices aiid endure the 
suffering to break down his barriers." 

Thomas T. Patterson was only one Pullman porter. By day, as 
a union official, courteous and resolute, he argued with the rail- 
roads. After hours, as a Negro, just as politely he sued them. In 
1945, Patterson was traveling to Atlanta with a reserved seat on 
a coach which the Southern Railroad had predestined for whites 
only. The conductor did his utmost to shoo him into the Negro 
coach all the way from Washington to Charlottesville, Virginia, 
and at kst called the police of the native city of Thomas Jeffer- 
son. Patterson was taken off the train and put into jail as a 
disturber of the peace. The next morning, the police judge gave 
him the smallest fine possible and set him loose, almost with an 
apology, for it is the terrible strength of Thomas Patterson that 
it is so difficult for a white man to talk to him and not feel the 
shame of the Negro's 334 dark years of life in America. 

Patterson sued the Southern Railroad for damages and col- 
lected three thousand dollars as an out-of-court settlement. He 
gave it to the March-on-Washington Committee. Three years 
later, he went to dinner in an Atlantic Coast Line dining car and 


refused to sit in its section reserved for Negroes. Once again, 
Thomas Patterson was ejected. He spent the next morning in 
friendly disputation with an Atlantic Coast Line lawyer over a 
subject of moment to the Brotherhood; that afternoon he sued 
the railroad for his "humiliation" in its diner. The Coast Line set- 
tled out of court; the partitions which screened Negroes from 
whites in its diner went down; and Patterson gave his profits to 
the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. 

It is odd to think of a Pullman porter consciously practicing in 
the United States that doctrine of nonviolent resistance which is 
the root of the canonization of Mahatma Gandhi, but it is odder 
still that it works so well. By grace of litigation like Patterson's, 
American Negroes now ride through the South on nonsegregated 
trains and travel as guests on those Southern Pullmans on which 
they were once confined to acts of service; and no fires blaze 
and no shots whine. 

Patterson is by now a proud tradition in the Brotherhood; and 
the Pullman porter, unobtrusive as always, often acts with the 
sense that he represents a long struggle for human freedom. 

Just after the war, Ralph Bunche of the United Nations took 
a train to Atlanta and entered its diner to be escorted with cere- 
mony behind the partition separating the white from the Negro. 
That was before Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize, but we may 
assume that nothing could have altered his status at that table. 
He told the steward that he would prefer not to eat and went 
hungry back to his room. 

Half an hour later, the buzzer rang at his door and he opened 
it to confront two Pullman porters and a dining-car waiter carry- 
ing a tray. 

"They told me," said Bunche, who was a stranger to them, 
"that they had decided to bring me this food because no Negro, 
in their view, who refused to sit at that Jim Crow table should or 
would ever go hungry on a train on which they served. They 
didn't mention it, but I took it that the food was also at the com- 
pliments of the company. I got breakfast the next morning the 
same way." 

In 1948, Philip Randolph went down to see Harry Truman, 
another President and one much harried at the flanks, to demand 


an end to segregation of Negroes in the armed forces. It was a 
polite conversation at first; but then Randolph said that, in his 
view, Negroes would before long refuse to join a peacetime army 
in which they could not hope for equal chance of advancement 
Mr. Truman blew up and began talking about loyalty and pa- 
triotism. One of Randolph's companions expressed the hope that 
the President wanted facts and not compliments. And Harry 
Truman said, yes, he would prefer the facts. Randolph went away; 
and, before long, for this and other reasons, the armed services 
began the slow process of eliminating their color bars, and whites 
and Negroes fought together in Korea. 

These things went on, very slow but very deep. It was as though 
Paul Robeson did not know that they were happening, because he 
was neither a white man nor a Negro and he did not see them. 
He had become by now almost an open Communist, no longer 
suitable for exploitation by patriotic concert managers, a subject 
of pain and blame to his lost friends from the great world, who 
knew that he had failed them but did not often think, as all men 
must, that somehow they had failed him too. 

Paul Robeson, of course, did not know die Negro. He could 
not have been expected to; he had gone far away and he had 
taken a return road along which very few American Negroes 
traveled. He had, in fact, almost ceased to be an American Negro 
at all. In the winter of 1949, speaking from Paris, a measure of 
the distance between him and them, he promised that the fifteen 
million Negroes of the United States would never fight against 
the Soviet Union. 

The mind of the Negro remains so subterranean to white eyes 
that the American newspapers suffered a tremor at Robeson's 
threat, because it is their custom to think of the Negro as un- 
satisfied, which he is, and as disaffected, which he is not 

Philip Randolph, who had articulated all the rumblings in all 
the Harlems of America, answered Robeson again and again: 

"On every battlefield, from the war of 1776, Negroes have 
proudly and gallantly fought and died to defend and protect the 
flag and honor of our country. This is not a white man's country. 
It is the country of the people who helped to take it, worked to 
make it, and fought to save it. The United States is our home. 


Our children are here. We have no other country. We have no 
other home. 

"If there are wrongs in America, Negroes as Americans must 
help work and fight to correct them. If the problems of race and 
color are hard in the United States, so be it; let us not lose heart 
and run away from them, but gird to solve them." 

Philip Randolph, for whom it has always been hard and who 
had begun disaffected and revolutionary, was opening his mouth 
for Thomas Patterson and all the other Pullman porters, who had 
never had room to invite an illusion inside and who had begun 
to take with their hands a portion of what had come so early and 
with such delusive ease to Paul Robeson. Robeson had traveled 
a long way to find that his world was surrounded by spikes and 
brick. The Pullman porters had known those spikes from the first. 
Their lives had been a process of beating at a succession of walls 
with their bare hands and, as each wall went down, of rallying 
their strength to assault the next one. The highest walls were still 
before them. But they had left too much of themselves in the 
wreckage behind them not to understand that the ground which 
you have taken yourself is your own particular ground and espe- 
cially to be cherished and defended. 

That lesson seemed to them so fundamental as to be an as- 
sumption. They did not think of what they had done as some 
alternative to the Communists, because for them the Com- 
munists did not really exist. If some of them wondered why 
Randolph felt compelled to reply to Robeson so often, it was 
only because Robeson seemed so far from where they lived. 

There must be a great portion of every Negro which no one 
who is not a Negro can ever understand or reach. The white man 
of good will sits at night and argues with some passion that the 
Negro must be treated as an equal and arises the next morning 
to call a cleaning woman twenty years his senior by her first 
name and be called mister in return and never think that this 
pattern of the ages has anything to do with what he was saying 
the night before. He will talk on and on about what the white 
should do for the Negro and be all the time unaware of what the 
Negro has done for himself. He will use a word like tolerance and 
never reflect that tolerance might be at least as difficult for a 
Negro as for him. 


But what is the hardest thing on earth for him to understand 
is that, for the Negro, he is at once omnipresent and nonexistent. 
His words, his advances, his tenders of friendship are only words 
thrown out to men who have been given very little in their lives 
and who have gained nothing which has not come hard to them. 
And to them, the Communist was only another white man, less 
offensive than many, no more to be trusted than most. His failures 
with the Negro were not failures of tactics; they were failures of 
heart and love and trust, white men's failures. And so Paul 
Robeson wandered, an African god without votaries, an emperor 
without subjects. There was an absolute nothing between him 
and the people for whom he affected to speak. For they were 
not his children but Bessie Smith's, who had lived with them and 
died with them and sung to them of that long, lonesome road 
that they must walk all by themselves and who had promised: 
"You know, it's gotta en ." And yet they were children different 
from their mother; they endured on hope and not on resignation; 
they could not accept her lesson that to be born black meant to 
be scorned and cheated this side of the grave; their dreams of 
freedom were of this earth. 

One summer evening in 1950, a Southern Railroad Pullman 
porter named William Mills was standing beside his sleeping car 
in the Atlanta station when a company of soldiers came trooping 
in. They were very young, most of them; they had their barracks 
bags on their shoulders; and they were moving loosely and 
casually, talking in accents that mingled the North and the South. 
They were a mixed company of whites and Negroes; 

A stiff -backed regular army sergeant shepherded them aboard 
their cars and, once they were all inside, stood on the platform 
checking his roster. A white soldier leaned out the door and 
asked in Georgian accents how long, sergeant, are we gonna be 
travelin'. The sergeant returned the usual noncommittal non- 
com's answer and went on with his paper work. 

Pullman Porter William Mills watched a while and then went 
over to him. The sergeant looked up. He did not wait for Mills 
to speak. 

"I know what you're going to ask me," he said, "Yes, it's true. 

It's true." -- 

Tt was true. The sergeant was a Neero and these were white 


troops under his command. William Mills, Pullman porter and 
menial, had a sudden sense that out of all those years and all 
those meetings and all that money bet on a thin dream, a child 
had been born to him. He did not need to be told what America 
had done to him, or that it was not yet an easy place for a Negro 
to live in. But he did not need to be told either which was his 
country and whose monument stood before him. 


The heart of the myth was not always interior storm. There 
were a very few to whom it was normal and in no way a creed of 
alienation, and who came to it by copying their fathers and not 
by defying them. They were the sons of old radicals. The thirties 
was a time of opportunity for them. Its storms were only exterior 
challenges, and they moved through it to the sort of stability 
which is the passion of normal young men. 

They accepted the myth of the thirties at moments in their 
lives. But they were not fantasists by nature, and they carried the 
image of self with which they began almost intact through a time 
which broke so many other men. The best examples of their ex- 
perience are Walter, Roy, and Victor Reuther, the sons of a 
German Socialist, who came to an untamed Detroit in the early 
thirties, were leaders of its revolution, and have become stewards 
of its tidy new order. 

The story of the Reuthers is a strange one in our context. We 
have been here largely concerned with persons who would ap- 
pear to have known very faintly what they wanted. The Reuthers 
seem always to have known exactly what they wanted. We have 
told stories largely of failure. Against these stories, the lives of the 
Reuthers lives unconventional only at the surf ace seem like an 


ordered progression along the road of that American legend 
which dictates the triumph of the young man who listens to his 
father, is exemplary of habit, and works harder than his com- 

At bottom the Reuthers are neither spectacular nor notorious 
and the excitement of their youth is largely an excitement of 
peculiar circumstance. It is as though history had played its final 
joke on the myth of the thirties by handing its garlands to these 
worthy, uncomplicated Reuthers, the very models of the kind of 
young man who was the appointed beneficiary of the earlier, 
simpler legend of the American dream. 

The story of the Reuthers is the story of Detroit, the city to 
which they seemed such aliens, and the auto workers who ap- 
peared so unlike them. Two books by persons quite different , 
from the Reuthers have seemed to me especially valuable as 
guides to that background. One is Union Guy, the autobiogra- 
phy of Clayton Fountain, who entered the auto industry as a 
rootless, drifting boy and who has ended as an international rep- 
resentative of the CIO Auto Workers Union. The other is We 
Never Called Him Henry, the autobiography of Harry Bennett, 
who ruled Detroit as Henry Ford's deputy with fist and gun when 
the Reuthers came there. For their memories of Detroit's 1937 
storm, I have most to thank Roy Reuther, Emil Mazey, secretary- 
treasurer of the Auto Workers, and Myra Wolfgang, vice presi- 
dent of the AFL Hotel and Restaurant Workers, whose members 
conducted some of Detroit's most piquant sit-down strikes. 

Almost everyone in these pages has experienced an end very 
different from his beginning. The Reuthers have not ended pre- 
cisely as they began either. But their end has been with reality, 
as their lives have been with reality; the challenge they accepted 
in their youth was no less real for being peculiar. The myth of 
the thirties did not touch only persons afflicted with the need for 
fantasy. Its heritage is not only ruins; it left its monuments too. 

Father and Sons 

The Reuther Boys 

"I'll be back, you sons of bitches; ffl be back and or- 
ganize this plant" 

EMU, MAZEY, upon ejection from the 
Briggs Motor Corporation, December i, 

"The trouble with you, Reuther, is that you re stitt young 
and full of piss and vinegar." 

ABNOLD LENZ, plant manager, Flint 
Chevrolet, to Roy Reuther, March, 

"Mr. Ford, in his neu> benign mood, said, 'Oh, weU 9 
Harry, live and let live' 

"Still so angry I spoke without thinking, I snapped back 9 
'It's kind of late to say that, isn't it?' 

"The minute it was out I could have bitten my tongue. 
'I'm sorry I said that, Mr. Ford,' I apologized, 'I was sore 
and 1 just wasn't thinking.' 

"'Oh, 9 Mr. Ford said, 'that's all right. I WAS JUST 

HABRY BENNETT, We Never Called Him 

VALENTINE REUTHER'S father brought him from Im- 
perial Germany when he was nine years old out of that 
variety of impulses which were at the bottom of the historic quar- 
rel of one Germany with the other distaste for the army, dis- 
taste for the empire, distaste for Bismarck. 


They settled in Wheeling, West Virginia, late in the eighties. 
Almost before Valentine had grown up, he went to work in the 
breweries, almost as determined an occupational terminus for 
the immigrant German as the dress shop for the immigrant Jew, 
the trolley car for the Irish, the open ditch for the Italian. 

In the beginning, he earned $1.50 a day driving a brewery 
wagon. He spent some of it on courses from the International 
Correspondence Schools. After awhile this devotion to self-help 
qualified Valentine Reuther to be secretary of his AFL brewery 
workers' local. He earned a wage large enough for marriage for 
a man of moderate appetites. Valentine Reuther's four sons came 
close together first Ted, then Walter in 1907, then Roy in 1909, 
and last of all Victor. At the time Roy was born, Valentine 
Reuther had climbed off his brewery wagon to become an or- 
ganizer for his union and the rest of the AFL in the Ohio Valley. 
But this elevation brought no marked change in social status; his 
was a routine of close rations and prolonged trips from home. 

When Roy was a little boy, he used to cry in the night because 
of his father's long absences; and Valentine Reuther was then 
quietly and easily reconciled to abandoning the road and confin- 
ing his efforts for the world he wanted to Wheeling. But it was 
an entirely geographical compromise. Valentine Reuther never 
had to struggle with his natural impulses. He was a German work- 
ing man; and so he had at once a sense of family and helped his 
union and voted Socialist and was happy and uncomplicated in 
all these processes. 

He ran for Congress as a Socialist; he was president of the 
Ohio Valley AFL and he hoped for greater things from his sons. 
But Valentine Reuther inhabited a quiet pond of the American 
dream. He distrusted glittering success and glaring failure alike; 
vagabondage was as distasteful to him as any other kind of con- 
spicuous consumption. And so he wanted his sons to be more 
successful than he had been, but in a fashion in no wise pre- 
tentious. The Germany of the last century had conditioned even 
its rebels to order and social stratification and to the idea that 
there are levels of achievement and that the good artisan should 
have pride of place. 
Valentine Reuther taught his boys that each must have a trade. 


Walter would be a machinist, and Roy an electrician, and Victor 
seemed to hold promise as a plumber. Ted alone among them 
could expect to wear a white collar; he went into an office after 
he left high school. There was in their adolescence no rebellion, 
no slamming of doors, no apparent alienation* Their mother felt 
very deep the impress of German Protestantism; they were so 
faithful at Sunday School that each of their chests was heavy with 
the attendance pin and its ladder of bars certifying seven years 
without a Sunday missed. 

In high school, the Reuther boys accepted with no sign of 
dissatisfaction the course in self-improvement their father pre- 
scribed for them. He would send them to the town library after 
school. On Sunday afternoons in winter, they would go to their 
bedroom and split into two-man teams to debate pacifism, capital 
punishment, or women in industry what Valentine Reuther 
called "social questions" while their father sat in a corner and 
graded them on how well they had organized and presented their 

On Sunday afternoons in summer, this uncomplained-of regi- 
men eased, and the Reuther boys would polish the family car and 
drive their parents to the public picnic grounds. They were 
adolescents of the twenties, a decade when by popular recollec- 
tion the family was turning upon itself; it was a civil war which 
passed them by. Improvement of oneself and one's world was a 
basic goal in the home where the Reuthers grew up, but they 
appear to have shown little sense that their parents were old- 
fashioned or that there was an outside world with newer, easier 
standards than those by which Valentine Reuther ordered his 


Roy is the only one of them who can recollect any temptation 
to live by the dictates of simple enjoyment. He was talented 
enough at track and basketball to consider a career as an athletic 
instructor; but his father told him that this was "rah-rah" stuff 
and brought him easily back to the family pattern. Roy and 
Victor finished high school in Wheeling. Walter had dropped 
out when he was sixteen to become an apprentice toolmaker. 
After three years he was a master mechanic and unemployed, 
having lost his last job for agitating against Sunday work. 


And so he went, as all good unattached toolmakers seemed to 
go, to Detroit. For Detroit was the golden city of the twenties, 
a haven of promise for factory workers dreaming of a hundred- 
dollar-a-week pay check. It was a city of native immigrants^ 
wandering prospectors, floaters, all drawn by Henry Ford's five- 
dollar-a-day base rate, which the imagination of ordinary men 
could so easily multiply through repetition to ten dollars or even 
fifteen dollars a day. The workers came there like pretty girls to 
Hollywood, clustering outside the works gates on rumors that 
so-and-so was hiring, husbanding themselves with odd jobs, and 
always waiting for the great chance that would open to them 
when they were taken on the assembly line. The old toolmakers 
had come early; the tide of migrants into Detroit in the twenties 
was of the untrained, drawn by Ford's promise to pay five dollars 
a day for skills that were minimal if they could be called skills 
at all. 

Walter Reuther was not like most of these men, who had come 
to Detroit as though to Canaan and found it very much like the 
homes they had left behind, only noisier and less open and so 
much more cruel. The world is especially round to the unskilled. 
The dollar came only a little faster and a lot more painfully in 
Detroit than in most other places. But its workers did not study 
their failure and their loss and draw any large social judgments 
from them. They would sum up this latest piece of deception 
\vdth some bit of pith about life in the harsher plants ("If poison 
fails, try Briggs") and wash it down with a boilermaker and go 
home to sleep off their exhaustion. Detroit was after all the last 
Klondike; no other delusive promise seemed to shimmer with a 
sheen making it worthwhile to move along. 

They were all sorts of men, but to find their archetype we 
should look less to Walter Reuther than to Clayton Fountain, 
who grew up to become an international representative of the 
CIO Auto Workers Union. Fountain had been born in a Great 
Lakes fishing village and had drifted into Detroit with only two 
dollars left in his pocket. He was just eighteen when he was 
hired on at Packard in 1927; that night he went to sleep to dreams 
"full of new suits and Saturday nights with a pocketful of dough 
to spend in speakeasies.** 


At Packard, Clayton Fountain worked a twelve-hour shift and 
learned to sleep in ten-minute snatches in the washroom; he 
never made more than forty-five dollars a week and turned to 
fresh dreams of commercial aviation. Then he was fired and 
caught on at Briggs, which gave him a stake to get married. "We 
celebrated the event with two quarts of prohibition gin in a little 
wooden house owned by her father." Three months later Clayton 
Fountain decided that Detroit was a blind alley and went bum- 
ming about the country in search of new scenery. 

He was broke when he got to Kansas City, so he took a job 
running a punch press and counted himself lucky because the 
machine clipped off a finger joint and his employer gave him 
one hundred and fifty dollars accident compensation. Some of 
that profit he spent on a hotel suite and much on apricot brandy. 
He split what was left with his friends and took the southbound 
freight to Texas, where he had hopes of shipping out to sea. That 
prospect, like so many others before it, evaporated, and then he 
tried New Orleans and lived on bananas snitched off its docks 
until he decided to catch the Illinois Central boxcars back to 

But something impelled him to drop off in Memphis and hob- 
ble over to the Salvation Army for breakfast. He found a job as 
a trucker's helper and stayed there until the police picked him up 
drunk in January, 1930, and sent him to Shelby County work- 
house for ten days. When he came out, he went back to the 
Salvation Army to pick up his clothes and fell into a place as a 
tractor driver on a Tennessee plantation. He was there all winter 
and spring and then came back to Detroit in the summer of 1930 
by bus. 

Clayton Fountain came home, if you could call it that, to find 
the depression, an act of nature unsuspected in the Tennessee 
back country, where booms and crashes alike sounded faint and 
where their tremors came late. His father-in-law found him a job 
digging ditches for the city the auto plants were already mori- 
bundand it lasted him until February, 1931. After that, "two 
and a half years were to pass before I got my hands on a regular 
pay check." 
No man is typical of a quarter million others, and Clayton 


Fountain was a little more casual and a little less fettered than 
most of his shopmates. But he was like them, lifted by boom, 
brought to earth by bust, with no fundamental sense of what 
was happening to him. Detroit, for all the substance of its majesty, 
was raw as gold-rush cities are raw. There were aspects of the 
frontier in the rootless, now fat, now lean, existence of its ordinary 
tenants and in the rough justice of its landlords. 

Detroit's patron was Henry Ford, a man of strange terrors with 
a little boy's awe and affection for the tough and the violent. He 
did not want his hands to smoke or drink or skip church, but he 
hired gangsters to supervise them and keep them docile and 
pure of heart. He was the Don Quixote of an heraldic legend of 
self-interest; his Sancho Panza was an old navy saloon fighter 
named Harry Bennett, hired by Ford with the simple, direct 
question: "Can you shoot?" and master of his plant police and 
the police of Detroit and the state of Michigan as well. 

Ford believed, in all matters except faith and morals, that if 
a man did not take care of himself, no one else should take care 
of him. All over America men read of his banner wage and 
trooped to Detroit. Once there, the fortunate among them worked 
the twelve-hour shift in his River Rouge plant eight months a 
year and were laid off four months for the model changeover, 
year after year, in the best of times. But that was their problem 
and not his. 

Henry Ford delighted in visiting Bennett's office at the Rouge 
to take target practice; together they inhabited a swarm-haunted 
fortress from the Middle Ages where the show of violence was 
never hidden and where Bennett used his fists freely on his fel- 
low executives and where they passed the compliment on to 
their inferiors. They ruled by whim and iron. In the spring of 
1927, Ford discontinued the Model T and closed his works to 
retool for the Model A. For most of that year, 60,000 unemployed 
Detroit auto workers awaited the reopening of the golden door. 
They came back to be rehired according to custom as new em- 
ployees, the young and the old each taking his place again at 
five dollars a day. 
The executives had gotten rich too fast, and the production 


hands were broke too often. There was no ease and peace and 
quiet in Detroit; the classes hated one another, but in a way 
they were quite alike. They were at once careless and uncertain 
of the morrow; they were alike violent, brawling, and unconscious 
of any meaning in their lives. Communication in the city of the 
puritan Henry Ford was habitually conducted in language barely 
printable. Its typical citizens drank too much and wasted their 
substance and lost their jobs and went hungry and got them 
back and ate fairly well up on the hog and wondered all the 
while why it was so different from what they had expected. 

If they were executives at Ford, they did things they were 
ashamed to do; but, as Bennett says, "they knew what side their 
bread was buttered on and did as they were told." Since they 
could not consciously hate themselves, they hated Henry Ford 
and one another. If they were only production hands at Ford, 
they spent their blood on the lines and too much of their wages 
in gin mills and made up bitter saws and longed for home. When 
the depression came and the jobs were gone, nearly a third of 
them went back to Mississippi or Missouri or Pennsylvania or 
took to the road that might lead them to some new, though no 
more promising, home. 

Walter Reuther does not appear to have wondered; he was like 
neither the executives nor the men with whom he worked. From 
the very beginning, his life in Detroit was unusual for its stability 
and for what was even a moderate success. He began on the 
night shift at Briggs. Before very long, his skill told, and he was 
able to transfer to Ford with a higher rating, and after a while he 
was a foreman. He went to Dearborn High School, and there- 
after to Wayne University, where, instead of engineering, he 
studied the social sciences. 

The difference between him and the others is framed best in 
one of Reuther's own favorite memories of those days. Every 
afternoon when he came on, his predecessor on shift would ask 
him how the ball game was going. Reuther never knew and al- 
ways forgot to find out. At last his shopmate suspended his in- 
quiries with the. final judgment: "Reuther, you're the dumbest 
bastard I ever knew." Reuther replied by asking, "Do you know 



the name of your Congressman?" His mate answered that of 
course he didn't, and Reuther returned a triumphant "Then 
you're the dumbest bastard I've ever known." 

Walter Reuther has a special affection for making a point, and 
his zeal in this pursuit occasionally takes him into areas of plat- 
form reminiscence which sound suspiciously like apocrypha. He 
has of late been accustomed to cap this anecdote with a sequel. 
Fourteen years after their last argument, he says he was inspect- 
ing a CIO picket line and encountered his old detractor on gloomy 

"How re you doing?" Reuther chirped. "Not so good, Reuther," 
the picket replied and took off his cap to display a lump the size 
of an egg, the consequence of conflict with the police. Reuther 
observed it without comment. At last his old shopmate asked, 
"Aren't you going to say you're sorry for me?" And Reuther says 
he answered, "No, I'm not sorry for you. If you'd known who 
your Congressman was back then, you wouldn't have a lump on 
your head now." Reuther and the ordinary auto worker have 
happily reconciled their differences. But, even so, when Reuther 
tells that story, his audience must have a hard time escaping a 
faint chill at the back and a sense that to accept Walter Reuther 
is to expect a comfort sometimes frigid. 

Back in the twenties, when so few men were reputed to be 
like their fathers, Walter Reuther had no ideals of which his 
father could not entirely approve. Henry Ford's ban on smoking 
in or about Highland Park was no deprivation to him. He saved 
his money; he was a model workman; and he was a Socialist ac- 
cepting his father's assurance that Detroit's chills and fevers were 
the ordained results of private enterprise. If the union had never 
come, no one can be sure that this revolutionary would not today 
be a foreman at River Rouge, living as he does now and earning 
not too much less than he makes as president of the United Auto 
Workers and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Even his tire- 
less talking about the union did not cost him his job at Ford until 
very late in 1932; unlike so many of the others, he was able to 
work right into the trough of the depression and even save money. 
The Reuther boys were very normal except for their socialist 


bug. And there is something excessively normal about sons who 
acquire the parental bug. 

Victor Reuther had taken Walter's path to Detroit late in the 
twenties. They went to Wayne together and worked in the auto 
plants and tried to build a fire there. But their efforts made little 
early mark. For Detroit was as quiet inside as it was noisy on 
the surface. Its residents managed at once to seem heavy with 
social portent and to make few social motions. There was a 
general assumption that if the revolution came at all, it would 
come to Detroit first. Yet, rough, disinherited, and ready for 
violence though Detroit's workers seemed, there had not been a 
union in its factories since they were carriage works before 
World War I. 

In this context, Walter Reuther seemed clearly out of step in 
all he said and did. He was a Socialist when many of his shop- 
mates voted for Herbert Hoover. He was talking about a union 
through the boom and into the bust, when few of them would 
listen. He was working in the depression, when few of them 
could find jobs. In 1932, he campaigned for Norman Thomas and 
Detroit's auto workers voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

His passion for the 1932 Socialist campaign cost him his job at 
Ford. The politics which was one of his differences from ordinary 
men had thus put an end to the job security which was another 
difference and left Walter Reuther for once like so many of the 
rest out of work in a crash town. 

Ford's 1927 shift to the Model A had given Detroit a taste of 
depression. The 1929 bust laid it lower than any city of compara- 
ble size in the United States. It was beggared by the collapse of 
the auto industry which had made it rich. In 1929, there were 
nearly half a million persons employed in Michigan car factories; 
two years later there were barely 250,000. By 1932 Ford was pro- 
ducing almost alone among Detroit's giants, and the bulk of its 
orders were coming from the Soviet Union. The machine was 
coughing everywhere else; in Detroit, it was almost silent. 

There were whole city blocks without light or artificial heat 
Families missed their rent or mortgage payments. But no bank 
or landlord dared evict them; to leave a house vacant was to 


risk its being stripped of its wires, its plumbing, and even its 
woodwork for fuel. At the onset of spring in 1932, Detroit's Wel- 
fare Department was the entire support of an estimated 250,000 
persons. So many families had their water turned off that the 
schools instituted compulsory weekly showers for their pupils; in 
some neighborhoods, there were no graduation exercises because 
the graduates had no proper clothes for them. 

The old values were melting and property laws breaking up. 
At one moment that spring, the city administration was so sunk 
in debt that grocers refused to accept nine million dollars of its 
welfare scrip. Mayor Frank Murphy called their representatives 
in to report that five stores had been entered and stripped the 
night before. The police had kept that fact out of the papers; 
but, once it became known, he could not guarantee an unrifled 
stock of groceries in Detroit. The storekeepers capitulated, and 
some time later Frank Murphy found the bank credit to honor 
his scrip. 

Clayton Fountain and his friends rode past the comfortable 
residences of Rosedale Park snitching milk off their doorsteps. 
Emil Mazey, a Hungarian violinist, came out of high school in 
1932, when he was nineteen. For want of a job he attached him- 
self to the Citizens' Unemployed League, an alliance of Detroit's 
non-Communist radicals. One day a week, Emil Mazey found 
work in a bakery; he was paid off in bread and took it back to 
the League's food pool. 

"We had a squad of men who were experts on the light meters. 
We'd go around to the houses of people who'd had their lights 
turned off and we'd jump the meter and turn them on again. 
People used to keep the shades down all day, in case the light 
might show outside and some stoolie tell the company. We could 
do it with the gas too, but that was a little harder, and after 
a while the company fixed us by pulling the pipes out. We didn't 
think we were breaking any law." 

Detroit had always been flexible about theories of legality; 
now it appeared ready to dispense with law entirely. The city was 
a stewpot of conflicting economic yeasayers Father Charles E. 
CoughHn's funny-money Social Justice movement; the Techno- 
crats; the Proletarian Party, a pro-Soviet, anti-official-Communist 


revolutionary movement with which Emil Mazey briefly flirted; 
the orthodox Communists; the traditional Socialists; even the Ku 
Klux Klan. Each offered its personal and drastic purgative. To be 
drastic seemed normal in a city where a Knight of Columbus was 
secretary o the Citizens* Unemployed League with its program 
which mixed co-operation with expropriation. 

But the revolution did not come and there was only one damp 
run of it. One February day in 1932, ten thousand persons, led 
by Communists, marched on River Rouge and were beaten back 
by the Dearborn police, first with fire hoses and then with bullets. 
When they had gone, Harry Bennett was stretched unconscious 
from a shower of rocks, and four demonstrators were dead. It 
was the disparity in casualties to be expected on the barricades in 
Detroit, and there were no further trials of physical strength. 

Herbert Hoover came to Detroit that fall struggling for re- 
election. A hundred thousand people came out to see him. He 
drove past them through block after block of total, ghastly 
silence. The Secret Service speeded up his cortege; Detroit was 
as usual assumed to be the rim of violence, and no one was sure 
that even the President of the United States was immune from 
its buried passions. 

Walter Reuther had his father's answer to all these terrors. Roy 
Reuther remembers Walter coining back to Wheeling in the sum- 
mer of 1932 in a car covered with Thomas stickers and organiz- 
ing a Socialist campaign meeting. A purpose was, as always, 
Walter R.euther's greatest pleasure. The Thomas campaign was 
as much his concept of a proper vacation pursuit as the family 
debate had been his idea of the best of possible Sunday after- 

He was not yet, of course, in step with history; in Wheeling, 
he had no trouble persuading Roy to vote for Thomas. All 
his arts could not persuade even Roy, then and there, to join the 
Socialist Party. But Roy came back to Detroit with his brothers; 
and before very long he had joined the Party too. Except for 
Ted, who was now in business in Wheeling, the Reuthers had all 
followed their father. 

The year 1932 was one when the Socialists could believe that 
they were conducting their last campaign as a minority party. 



They had no illusions about Thomas winning the 1932 election. 
But they assumed his defeat was only the first battle with Roose- 
velt. It seemed to them impossible, especially from Detroit, that 
the old system could be put in order again, and they took it for 
granted that, within four years, the Democrats would be no less 
discredited than the Republicans and that 1936 would be the 
Socialist Party's time. 

And this assumption of quick Socialist conquest seemed hardly 
less plausible than any idea that organized labor could assume a 
place in Detroit's industries at any early time organized labor 
being then constituted as the American Federation of Labor with 
only two million members, none of them in the auto plants, and 
with leaders undisposed to fill any breach with their own bodies. 

The Reuther boys had an hereditary faith in unions as instru- 
ments for social revolt. But the icons of their father's home were 
not labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and William Green but 
political figures like Eugene V. Debs and Robert M. La Follette. 
Debs might have known ease as president of one of those steam- 
driven, low-pressure railroad unions; he had chosen instead a 
course which made him a Socialist and destroyed him at last in 
prison for opposing World War I. Valentine Reuther approved 
every step along this, his personal saint's, path. Even as an AFL 
organizer, he had believed, with Debs, that Samuel Gompers was 
dissipating the large to grasp at the small. 

The AFL national leadership had seemed to him narrow and 
petty and unconscious of its historic function, and Debs had 
seemed a knight with no dross on his shield and no dust on his 
plumes and no less glorious because his reward was of the future. 
Valentine Reuther was a German trade unionist of the nineties; 
to a German trade unionist, no little victory of his union was as 
anything set next to the vision of ultimate victory for all the 
workers. If the Reuther boys took from his house any vision of 
themselves grown up, it was an image of Debs renewed, not of 
Gompers repeated. 

In November of 1932, Detroit inflicted impartial neglect upon 
Herbert Hoover and Norman Thomas alike. The auto workers, in 
bad times as in good, had shown no disposition to indulge the 
revolutionary politics which so many men hoped or feared was 


their potential. But very soon there were fresh alarms: the auto 
workers went on strike at Briggs, the place they had described 
so often in their bars as at once more certain and less comfortable 
than poison. Reporters came in from all around the country to 
watch what could be the onset of revolution. 

But Detroit did not blow up. The Briggs strikers discovered in 
mid-passage that their leaders were Communists and threw them 
out. Briggs, of course, rewarded this demonstration of loyalty to 
American institutions by freezing and finally breaking their strike. 
But Walter and Victor were not around for the death of the 
Briggs strike. They had become infected with the auto worker's 
old impulse to wander, 

Walter Reuther could not find a new job. He and Victor were 
so certain that this was no Paris Commune upon which they were 
trembling that they decided to go to Europe. Walter had a bank 
account large enough to pay their passage and, with his cus- 
tomary knack for the act of good fortune, withdrew it the day 
before the beginning of the runs which were to make Detroit the 
cradle of the 1933 banking crisis. 

He and Victor were still asleep on their departure day when 
Roy arose for his duties at the Briggs strike kitchen. He shook 
hands with them both and said good-by; he would not see them 
again for almost three years. They were already at sea when the 
police broke up the Briggs picket line, pushed Roy into an iron 
fence, and gave Tn'm the scar he still carries on his ankle. 

With Roosevelt and the National Recovery Act, the auto fac- 
tories lifted up their heads again, but there were no Reuthers in 
their industry. Roy Reuther was the last one left; when the Briggs 
strike reached its ordained disaster, he went off to the University 
of Wisconsin and thereafter to Brookwood Labor College on the 
Hudson River, where the Rev. A. J. Muste was patiently training 
radical missionaries to a labor movement which appeared to have 
no use for them. Roy Reuther went to Massachusetts in 1934 to 
teach a workers' education project for the AFL; he moved from 
there to Flint, Michigan, a General Motors city. There he was 
city supervisor of adult education, a term which to him meant 
classes in unionism. 

Walter and Victor Reuther went wandering through Europe. 


They had started in England on their bicycles. Once Walter fell 
and broke his arm; he completed the British tour wearing a sling; 
every morning he and Victor would walk to the top of a hill 
and Victor would help him on his bicycle and push him to give 
him the start which was all Walter Reuther ever needed. 

They tarried longest in Western Europe to visit their German 
cousins. The Nazis were absorbing the Germany of Valentine 
Reuther; the Reuther boys walked the streets of their mother's 
home town and watched the storm troopers pulling in persons so 
like their parents. After that, they moved across Europe to the 
Soviet Union and a new kind of Ford plant, the Ford autastroy 
at Gorki. There Walter Reuther was a Stakhanovite leading a 
shock brigade, winning medals as a Hero of Production, and 
sharpening his didactic style with letters to the Moscow Daily 
News on the improvement of industrial techniques. 

He and Victor lived with other American workers, and they 
had very little off-hours association with Russians. Henry Ford 
was Josef Stalin's image of what was right witib. America, and 
the Ford works at Gorki were thus a model by Russian standards. 
Gorki itself was Nizhni Novgorod made over; it was a purpose- 
ful city, whose managers believed themselves pioneers and lived 
at a reasonable distance from the noisome quarrels that were 
festering in Moscow and would soon infect the entire Soviet state. 
Walter and Victor Reuther spent sixteen months seeing the Soviet 
Union at its deceptive best. 

Given these conditions, it might seem odd that the Reuthers 
did not there and then become Communists. They had left 
Detroit prostrate; they had passed through a Germany sinking 
under blood and steel; and they had settled in a Soviet Union 
which seemed to them busy, peaceful, rational, and altogether a 
fair prospect between the terror of their ancestral and the chaos 
of their adopted home. But the enthusiasm of the Reuther boys 
for socialist construction in the Soviet Union was the enthusiasm 
of the conscious outsider, and there was detachment in their 
sympathy. Walter appears to have felt that the Russians had a 
lot to learn; his medals for skill might have been worth more to 
him if he had not suspected that any American artisan would be 
a prodigy to the Soviets. 


That was a major difference between Walter and Victor 
Reuther and most American pilgrims to Russia in the thirties. 
The others came as acolytes seeking light from the highest o 
priests; the leaders of the Soviets were master workmen at revolu- 
tion and all foreign radicals were apprentices to them. But at 
Gorki, Walter Reuther was a master workman, and his Russian 
colleagues were apprentices beside him. He could hardly be- 
lieve that a people with so much to learn about toolmaking had 
quite so much to teach him about social tactics. 

Many of us find it difficult to recognize that a man can pass 
through a consequential social event without any special change 
of mind, and the Reuthers and their enemies have alike tended 
to exaggerate the effect of their Soviet experience upon them. A 
few years ago, Walter Reuther asserted in a broadcast for the 
Voice of America that he had been shocked by the terror and 
repression he saw at first hand in the Soviet Union. In contra- 
distinction to this recollection, his detractors have made inces- 
sant use of a letter sent by Victor from Gorki, signed with both 
their names and studded with juvenile enthusiasm for the Soviet 

The real impression left by their Soviet experience would seem 
to lie somewhere between enthrallment and revulsion. Gorki 
touched neither of them to the soul. The Communist Party of 
Detroit probably did more to turn the Reuthers against the 
Soviets than anything they saw in Russia. Any deceptive glimpse 
of communism's constructive future they brought home from 
Gorki would hardly survive the ceaseless manifestations of com- 
munism's destructive present they found in the Detroit Party. 

It is hard to believe that there is anything so very remarkable 
about the final capacity of the Reuthers to resist the enticements 
of the Communists, who do not after all offer such an irresistible 
brew to man in a state of reason. Reuther says, as an instance, 
that Louis Budenz took him on a mountaintop in 1938 and of- 
fered him "the moon" if he would go along with the Communists. 
In a man of Reuther s abilities it seems no special achievement 
to recognize that, if there are men wandering the earth with 
pieces of the moon in their pockets, Louis Budenz is hardly one 
of them. 


But, from their haven in Gorki in 1934, Walter and Victor sent 
back reports of moderate glow to Detroit, and those who read 
them might be forgiven the onset of envy. For the Reuthers were 
in the bosom of a revolution which, whatever its failures, looked 
at least hopeful and partly successful. In Detroit hope and suc- 
cess seemed farther and farther away. 

The NRA came and passed. At its outset, the AFL had re- 
cruited 100,000 auto workers, all assuming, in John L. Lewis' 
phrase, that Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted them to join a union. 
By 1936, the AFL lost 90 per cent of these newcomers. There had 
been a successful strike in 1934 at the Autolite Company in 
Toledo, Ohio; there was another, less successful, at Chevrolet in 
Cleveland in 1935; but these were at the industry's fringe; its 
major bastions remained untroubled. 

In Roosevelt's third year, Detroit appeared, if anything, less 
vulnerable to the unions than it had on the day of his inaugura- 
tion. The industry was functioning again, and its fearsome, low- 
ering army of unemployed had begun to diminish. Emil Mazey, 
a volunteer union organizer, was enduring the life the Reuthers 
might have known if they had been in Detroit 

"I couldn't exist with the violin," Mazey says now, "so I went 
to Gulf Refining in nineteen thirty-four. They had a strike in 
Cleveland. I watched it. We were making eighty-one dollars a 
month; after the strike, we made a few motions at the company 
and they gave us twenty to forty-five dollars a month more. 

"I thought after that I could get the men to go AFL, but they 
sort of let me down and I got fired. After that I hung around the 
Y awhile and read on the bulletin board that Rotary Steel wanted 
people, so a bunch of us from the Y went up there and hired on. 
After a little while I got the boys from the Y to form an inde- 
pendent union and we went up to the AFL office to see if they d 
take us in. The AFL didn't care much, and nothing happened, 
and after a while, I got fired there too. 

"That didn't leave much but Briggs, so I ended up there in 
April of nineteen thirty-six. We did a little organizing and in the 
month of November, we had fifty-one sit-down strikes. They 
must have figured it was me giving them the trouble, because on 


December the first, nineteen thirty-six, a couple of plant guards 
took me off the line and threw me out in the street. 

"They roughed me up pretty good and I got up and said: 'All 
right, you sons of bitches, I'll be back; I'll be back and organize 
this plant* 

"The next day, they fired my father and my brother for being 
related to me; they even tried to fire another fellow whose name 
was spelt like mine until he convinced them he wasn't a relative. 
But, after that, my brother and the old man joined the union, so 
I at least organized my own family. 9 * 

Emil Mazey's was the course of the unpaid labor agitator in 
Detroit in the early thirties, first let down by his own, then 
thrown down by the AFL, then thrown out by the company. 
Walter and Victor Reuther returned to that life from the Soviet 
Union by .way of India, Japan, and a Pacific freighter, late in 

Waltep- caught on at General Motors Ternstedt on Detroit s 

West Side. By now he was blacklisted and had to assume a new 
name to get his job. Even under this disguise, he made enough, 
of a nuisance of himself to be fired before long, and thereafter 
settled down in the cold to supervise the six AFL auto locals on 
the West Side. When he showed up for the auto union conven- 
tion in South Bend, Indiana, all six aggregated fewer than eighty 

Even that close to solitude he was impressive enough to win 
election to his union's first national executive board. In those days 
any Detroit delegate to an auto workers' convention was a 
candle in the night. The capital city of the industry was otherwise 
so sunk in darkness that the convention voted unanimously 
against holding its 1937 session in Detroit because a thirsty visitor 
could not find a union bar there, or an unshaven one a union 

At South Bend, in 1936, the United Auto Workers, AFL for the 
moment, elected Homer Martin, a St. Louis minister, as their 
president; George Addes, a Toledo Autolite strike leader, as their 
secretary treasurer; and a Milwaukee production hand named 
Ed Hall and an old Pennsylvania coal miner named Wyndham 


Mortimer as vice presidents. Detroit offered no representative 
with enough followers to qualify him for national office; only a 
thousand workers in the industry's center belonged to the union. 
Walter Reuther, a delegate who had trouble even being seated, 
was elected to the national board for want of anyone else from 
Detroit. Today he alone, among those early leaders, still survives 
as a UAW official. 

Almost at once, the auto union moved over into John L. Lewis' 
Committee for Industrial Organization and was expelled from the 
AFL, which made little immediate difference in its fortunes. It 
had no treasury; John Lewis sent in one hundred thousand dol- 
lars, just twenty-five cents for every potential member in Detroit 
alone. It seemed a massive sum to delegates who had hitchhiked 
to South Bend and slept six in a hotel room. 

There was room in Lewis' donation to put one Reuther on the 
UAW payroll. Roy Reuther had been a teacher in Flint, which 
was the heart of General Motors, so he was hired as an organizer 
there. He was the only member of the family earning a regular 
salary from the union. Walter and Victor continued their search 
for water in the dry sands of the West Side. The summer of 1936 
was not encouraging; no sensible prophet suggested that Detroit 
was any longer on the edge of revolution. The union might pick 
off a few stragglers, but the enemy seemed safe in its castle with 
the invaders doomed to bed down outside the moat. 

Roosevelt was campaigning for re-election. There were few 
arguments in the auto plants. He could expect to sweep Detroit, 
even though the Reuther boys and a few out-of-step persons 
argued that the New Deal had given the auto worker nothing 
and did what they could to get votes for Norman Thomas. But 
even their focus was shifting; they were too busy with the union 
to give as much time to Thomas as they had in 1932. 

On the surface at least, the worst recollections of the depres- 
sion had been buried. There was little talk of boom, but there 
appeared to be a growing sense that before long things might 
be as they were when people thought they had been so much 
happier than they really had been. Yet all that summer things 
were happening to foreshadow the flame which burst upon 
Detroit in the summer of 1937. First of all, the UAW was be- 


ginning to win recruits. There were not many of them, but they 
were the ordinary auto workers from whom the Reuthers had 
until then seemed so different 

The most important new arrival was the Chrysler independent 
union, which came into the UAW led by Richard Frankensteen, 
a raucous, fleshy giant who had been a tackle for the University 
of Dayton and had come to Chrysler to start at the bottom and 
had been anchored there by the depression. Frankensteen and 
the other Chrysler leaders had no ideological eccentricities and 
no spiritual ties except with Father Coughlin, the witch doctor 
from the Shrine of the Little Flower. Frankensteen was glad to 
use Coughlin; Frankensteen would have used Mephistopheles if 
the imps would pay union dues. 

The qualities of sin and virtue were mixed in Richard Franken- 
steen as they are in most men, and far more evenly than they are 
ever likely to be in Walter Reuther. Labor spying was one of 
Detroit's staple industries in those days; General Motors alone 
was spending for private detectives a sum more than twice as 
large as its president's salary. The way a Chrysler spy once de- 
ceived Richard Frankensteen was a gauge of his difference from 
Walter Reuther. 

The Chrysler local was always shorthanded, and in 1936 Frank- 
ensteen was rejoiced by the tireless assistance of a young man 
named John Andrews. Andrews was valuable for more than his 
devotion to the union. He was a delightful companion with a 
millionaire uncle of abiding benevolence; and Andrews and 
Frankensteen were accustomed to relax together on week ends 
in the company of Andrews' uncle, never stinting a desire and 
never paying a check. Then, in 1937, Frankensteen learned from 
a Senate committee that John Andrews and his rich uncle had 
both been private detectives for Chrysler. The company had been 
buying the drinks, and his companions had been taking down his 
unguarded observations on union business for transmittal to 

Dick Frankensteen had been hooked, but he had been hooked 
in the auto worker s fashion with a few drinks and the image of 
a rich uncle, one of those successful men he wanted so much to 
be like. And so his followers could not blame him for being taken 


that way; they had but to assess the lure and their own incapacity 
to resist it, Calvinism being a minor element in the auto worker's 

Walter Reuther could hardly have been captured, even tem- 
porarily, with a tender of good fellowship from a private de- 
tective posing as a capitalist. The only feasible distraction for 
him would have been the loan of a home power lathe, a subtlety 
beyond the imagination of the corporations. They were different 
men. But Dick Frankensteen had his uses, for he was like the 
men in the plants, capable of violent activity between long 
periods of sloth, roaring in the short and slumbrous in the long, 
never mad at anyone for more than a little while. 

Frankensteen brought along enough followers to make him the 
UAW's Detroit organizer. His time came very soon and blazed 
fleetingly, and after that he was hammering a cold anvil until, 
bored and empty, he left for good a life that seemed routine 
thereafter. For, unlike Walter Reuther, he was a man only for the 
sudden shock and the reeling crisis; but, together, for a little 
while they made the Detroit revolution. 

The revolution began in the fall of 1936 in little, undisciplined 
strikes, which annoyed the industry more than they scared it. 
Briggs was the worst; but its wave of sit-down strikes ebbed, and 
on December ist, Emil Mazey was out in the street and the 
season of peace, if not good will, was presumed to be at hand. 

And then suddenly Walter Reuther won a big plant. His West 
Side local struck the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company in Decem- 
ber. The strikers did a thing Detroit labor had never done before: 
they seized the administration offices, fortified the plant, and sat 
there, an army of occupation, for nine days, until the company 
gave in and accepted the union. Detroit's now quiet, now fitful 
quarrel had passed to a military phase. The Kelsey-Hayes strikers 
were captained by a young man named George Edwards, lately 
out of the Harvard Business School, and he fought like a line 
officer. The reports on the capture of Kelsey-Hayes were in 
the language of war: 

"That morning we barricaded the Kelsey gates. The main 
gates were blocked by a solid, three-foot-high wall of steel, 
formed from a dozen carefully placed steel containers. We 


loaded each container with a couple of tons of hub-castings, and 
behind the barricade we set a dolly-load of eighteen-inch T 

They sat thus impregnable while Walter Reuther haggled with 
their company's displaced officers. Victor Reuther made hideous 
the noon outside with his sound truck; and one of the union dele- 
gates observed that this was the voice of Walter's brother. Some- 
one brought in a Detroit paper with its picture of Roy Reuther 
stirring up Flint. 

"Jesus Christ," said a Kelsey-Hayes official, the first of his 
breed to feel the sense of encirclement, "how many of you bas- 
tards are there?" The Reuther boys, in whom profanity does not 
spring naturally and who husband it for great occasions, are a 
bottomless inspiration for it in others. 

But Kelsey-Hayes was not a major salient. The auto union's 
fate rested with Roy Reuther and the others who sat on the main 
line at Flint, the capital of General Motors and the company town 
of 150,000 persons where Chevrolets were made. There the un- 
ion's organizers moved delicately among a very few who could 
be trusted, a few more who belonged to the enemy, and a great 
many who only stood and watched. 

Every social war is a battle between the very few on both 
sides who care and who fire their shots across a crowd of spec- 
tators. The ordinary Flint auto worker might well have voted for 
the union, granted the chance for the peaceful proceedings of a 
National Labor Relations Board election, but he would not risk 
his job for it Peaceful proceedings were very far from Flint. The 
men who worked in Chevrolet were completely conscious of the 
dangers of public affirmation. In the beginning most of them 
stayed outside the union. 

Wyndham Mortimer, the first UAW organizer in Flint, found 
a union local there with twenty-four dollars in its treasury and 
a heavy proportion of its active members employees of the 
Pinkerton Agency with a professional interest in keeping the 
union alive but not kicking. Flint's General Motors delegate to 
the 1936 UAW convention was a Pinkerton agent And, for most 
of their stay there, Roy Reuther and his associates had no 
reason to assume that, whenever two or three were gathered to- 


gether in the union's name, the Pinkertons would not be repre- 

A combat officer on such a field must depend not on the mass 
but on a small, mobile, and itself dubious force of the dedicated. 
He must live by crisis and choose the moments when he is bold 
and his enemies indecisive and the army of neutrals can be moved 
his way by tidal shock. The sit-down strike was a military action, 
and Roy Reuther was a battalion commander. 

The ground upon which he fought was clustered all about 
Flint the two Fisher Body plants, the ramparts of Chevrolet 
where 14,000 people worked, the Buick and Cadillac enclaves. 
Chevrolet held the key to the citadel, but at first it seemed be- 
yond assault. Whatever strength the union had was in Fisher 
Number One, where the bodies were made for Cadillacs, Buicks, 
and Oldsmobiles. The first battle was there. Late in December, 
Cleveland Fisher, the Chevrolet center, went on strike. If the 
UAW could stop Flint Fisher One, it could tie up 80 per cent of 
GM's production. 

The war for Flint began on December 30, 1936, when 3,000 
men sat down in Fisher Number One. They started in a carnival 
mood. On New Year's Eve, a foreman brought in liquor; two 
prostitutes came across the lines; the casual and the neutral be- 
gan drifting out; by dawn fewer than a hundred men remained. 
The dedicated thereafter threw out their guests, sent for rein- 
forcements, banned all whisky, and settled down to the sit-down 
strike's unaccustomed discipline for the next six weeks. 

They slept in unfinished bodies or made their beds of car- 
cushion wadding and labeled them "Hotel Astor" or "Hotel 
Sloan," the latter for the chairman of the board of General 
Motors. A group of them took a vow not to shave until the strike 
was over; but they were required to take a shower every day. 
Each afternoon they swept up their garbage and saw it carried 
away by GM's disposal crew. They ran a daily inspection of 
quarters for cleanliness. Hour after hour, in groups, they prac- 
ticed throwing car hinges at a piece of beaverboard to train 
themselves to repel invaders. But when they walked out, they 
left the company's property otherwise intact, except for the 
gougings of someone's file on a few car bodies, an act which Bud 


Simons, a Communist activist inside the plant, described in terms 
of the outraged morality of these incendiaries: "Only a stoolie 
would have done such a disgusting thing/' 

Every night they braced for a counterattack that never came. 
GM was trying the courts and the governor and the state police 
and every device but an invasion in force. None of their rulers 
could quite muster the decision to challenge the auto workers 
with the heavy battalions which might have broken them. But 
they were under siege. Outside their gates Flint was angry and 
restive; four-fifths of its workers were jobless, a majority not by 
choice. Late in January, GM announced a back-to-work move- 
ment Governor Murphy was a bending reed; an unfavorable 
court decision could be deferred no longer; its certain conse- 
quence would be an injunction ordering Fisher Number One 
purged of its trespassers. The strike was not going well; it could 
be saved only by some stroke of strength and passion. The only 
worthwhile target was Chevrolet. 

But Flint was quiet when GM reopened its unstruck plants on 
January 24, 1937, The company had redoubled its guards in and 
about the Chevrolet works. This ground, unhealthy in December, 
seemed deadly in January. 

The union's leaders huddled in their headquarters the night of 
January 27th and surveyed their unpromising situation. Chevrolet 
Plant Number Four, where the engines were made, was the only 
operation worth stopping; the UAW's resources there were ter- 
ribly small; there were, in fact, only fifty trustworthy men in all 
Flint Chevrolet Roy Reuther had a fresh shirt sitting on his 
desk. He reached over and drew out its cardboard backing and, 
with a blue pencil, commenced to sketch a diagram of their ob- 
jective: Chewy Number Four, the main target, and Chevrolet 
Number Nine to its right, and Chevrolets Six and Eight, where 
the few sure believers were, just above that. 

It was a diagram of battle undreamed of at the University of 
Wisconsin, unthought of even at Brookwood Labor College. 
Their only chance, said Roy Reuther, was in a diversion. The 
union would call in its noncoms and announce a plan to capture 
Chevrolet Number Nine, just across the way from Number Four. 
The Pinkertons could be expected to inform the company of this 


schedule and GM would strip its other plants of guards to pro- 
tect the threatened point. And, while the battle was on and the 
UAW's partisans were diverting the enemy in Number Nine, 
twenty-five of the union's most trusted bravoes would attempt the 
seizure of Chevrolet Number Four. 

On January 2Qth, Chevrolet Works Manager Arnold Lenz, 
alerted as expected, showed up with all his guards to meet the 
decoy invasion as it came. They fought in clouds of gas, the 
guards with blackjacks, the strikers with oil pumps, for the forty 
minutes which Roy Reuther thought his auxiliaries would need 
to raid and subdue Chevrolet Four. 

Roy Reuther had sent a call for fireworks outside Chevrolet 
Nine. Victor was on the street with his sound truck and Walter 
with his Kelsey-Hayes shock troops to lend color to Roy's diver- 
sion. The windows of Number Nine were clouded; the crowd 
outside could see only the shadows of struggling men. Once 
someone broke a window and they could see the tear-gas smoke 
seeping out and they knew the battle was going badly. A few 
members of Walter Reuther's legion set up a clamor to charge 
the gates. He grabbed the loudest of them and knocked him out 
to quiet him. Walter Reuther knew, in the hot moments as in 
the cold, the sacrifices required of men assigned to serve as a 

But, by now, a skeleton crew of foremen was all that was left 
to fight for General Motors inside Chevrolet Four. There was no 
one else there except neutrals and UAW partisans. Roy Reuther's 
squad subdued it quickly, marching through with their wrenches, 
calHng out their friends, cowing the undecided. As the battle for 
Chevrolet Nine swirled toward its predestined end, there was a 
sudden silence from Chevrolet Four; and the pickets outside 
understood that GM's main engine plant had been halted. 

The battalion in Chevrolet Nine executed an orderly with- 
drawal. The new garrison in Number Four was throwing up its 
barricade gondolas loaded with 8,000 pounds of stock and piled 
one on top of the other against the great doors. Joe Sayen, a 
Chevrolet Four worker thereafter unheard upon any great stage 
again, climbed the spiked fence outside Chevrolet and told the 
pickets that the bastions had fallen: 


<c We want the whole world to know what we are fighting for. 
We are fighting for freedom and life and liberty. This is our great 
opportunity. What if we should be defeated? What if we should 
be killed? We have only one life. That is all we can lose and we 
might as well die like heroes than like slaves." 

For his little while, the auto worker was speaking a language 
beyond the dreams of the Reuther boys, his words like those 
Shakespeare put into the mouth of the tailor called to the wars: 
"By my troth I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a 
death; . . . and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year 
is quit for the next." 

The seizure of Chevrolet Four meant the end of the GM strike; 
the company recognized that it had lost the ascendancy; John 
Lewis came in to invest the men in its plants with his own heroic 
effrontery, to strut and fret and wangle a settlement. The union 
had won very little on paper. Outsiders wondered if it had won 
anything at all. But the men in the plants knew that this was a 
victory; it was summed up for them in the words of a striker who 
announced that he would slug the first foreman who looked cock- 
eyed at him, 

On February 11, 1937, they marched out in the twilight, down 
Chevrolet Avenue, the beards still on so many of their faces, the 
cigars in their mouths, the confetti sifting down from the gates 
of Chevrole Four, on into the center of Flint, and no one who 
watched them could doubt who the winners were. 

The fire they had set would blaze through Detroit for two more 
months. Briggs had its sit-down in February. Emil Mazey settled 
it in the early hours of the morning. *I came out of the personnel 
office at four A.M. and climbed on a barrel and made a soapbox 
speech and told the boys we'd won/* 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 192,000 Americans 
sat down on strike in the month of March and they all seemed to 
be sitting in Detroit. The sit-down strike was a civic epidemic 
there. Myra Wolfgang, just out of Carnegie Tech and the fifteen- 
dollar-a-week business agent of the AFL Hotel and Restaurant 
Employees, had been fretting for months over the low tempera- 
ture of her flock; now, of a sudden, it was swept by high fever. 

"You'd be sitting in the office my March day of 1937," she says 


now, "and the phone would ring and the voice at the other end 
would say, 'My name is Mary Jones; I'm a soda clerk at Liggett's; 
we've thrown the manager out and weVe got the keys. What do 
we do now? 3 And you'd hurry over to the company to negotiate 
and over there they'd say, 1 think it's the height of irresponsi- 
bility to call a strike before youVe even asked us for a contract/ 
and all you could answer was TTou're so right/ * 

Myra Wolfgang tried to act like a lady. One afternoon she 
walked into the Crowley-Milner Department Store with her 
intentions limited to striking its coffee shop at the least incon- 
venient moment for business. She gave the signal and the entire 
store sat down. 

"You think that was simple? What do you do to protect prop- 
erty in cases like that? There was eleven million dollars' worth of 
merchandise in that store. Suppose somebody walked out with a 
mink coat. We had to guard those doors twenty-four hours a 

Their banners bore the strangest devices: waitresses in Stouf- 
fer's sat down because their employer lined them up just before 
duty to inspect their fingernails for the prescribed shade and 
brand of polish; Negro wet-nurses in Chicago, who did not even 
have a union, sat down for a higher rate per ounce of milk. Myra 
Wolfgang herself was on the twenty-third floor of the Book- 
Cadillac negotiating a contract when she heard the voice outside 
calling, "All chambermaids down to the eighteenth floor; all bell- 
boys up to the twenty-fourth floor," and could only wail, "I've 
been caught too." 

Lily Pons, in Detroit for a concert, sat in the lobby of the Book- 
Cadillac and wept because she had come all this distance in 
pursuit of her art and was trapped in a "seet-on." When the hotel 
workers struck the Statier, Dick Frankensteen swarmed in with 
5,000 Chrysler pickets. The Statier's manager, William Klare, a 
backslid member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society at Ann 
Arbor, looked out at them, remembered his forsworn vision of 
the advancing proletariat on the day of justice, and clutched at 
an old comrade from the hotel union: "Tell me, Al, tell me, is 


But this was, of course, not it. The sit-down strikes defied 
all the laws of property. Still theirs was only a fundamental and 
unconscious challenge. In all matters of the conscious and the 
superficial, they were fully aware of what was theirs and what 
was the company's. Detroit's Woolworth strikers sang: "Barbara 
Button's got the dough, parlez-vous/ Where she gets it, sure we 
know, parlez-vous" But they faithfully fed the canaries at Miss 
Button's birdseed counter; and, whenever they needed an item 
from the stock, they were careful to leave a dime in exchange. 

The sit-down strike was the most orderly of armed insurrec- 
tions. Its general use as a technique explains better than any other 
factor why Detroit's great change was so free of blood. Once a 
union seized a plant, the risk of property damage from evicting 
the strikers so inhibited the employer and the authorities that 
their tenure was apt to be peaceful. By this challenge to total war, 
the unions seem to have avoided the risks of limited conflict; the 
bloodiest labor struggle of 1937 was the CIO Little Steel strike, 
where the union abstained from the sit-down and relied on the 
traditional walkout. 

Industry deserves some credit for all this order in disorder, if 
only because it never thought of any general technique for meet- 
ing the challenge of the sit-downs. The solitary contribution of 
American productive genius to defense against the sit-down 
strike was the invention of Howard Keele, a vice president of the 
Fansteel Corporation. Keele devised a platform upon which 
Chicago police could be wheeled into action and from which 
they could pour tear-gas bombs into the second barricade of 
Fansteel's sit-downers. Keele had begun as an instructor in Eng- 
lish at the University of Illinois, a fact which may serve as some 
counter to the theory that in the thirties all scholars in the hu- 
manities chose the improper side of the barricades. 

During the March fires of 1937, Dick Frankensteen, age 32, 
roared through Detroit like a great bellows; Walter Reuther, 30, 
hurled his implacable voice at employers bruised in pride and 
helpless to avenge themselves. Victor Reuther, 26, moved his 
sound truck from command post to command post. Emil Mazey, 
23, was president of a local union with 22,000 members. Roy 


Reuther, 28, could never go to sleep in his Flint Hotel without 
expecting to awake to a telephone ringing its summons to go to 
some GM plant at once; the line had been struck again. 

GM's Arnold Lenz spoke for all the Detroit that was passing 
when he growled at Roy Reuther one afternoon, "The trouble 
with you, Reuther, and all you fellows, is that you are young and 
full of piss and vinegar/* Arnold Lenz had a dim sense that he 
was fighting youth and the future. Even to him it must have 
seemed, as it did to the Reuthers then, a future without the limits 
of compromise. 

General Motors fought with the same desperate sense even after 
the Flint strike was settled, as though every inch given was so 
much more surrendered from the last ditch. It was hard to be- 
lieve that men who would seize your property and fight you 
like soldiers dug in on the high ground had any intention but 
your total destruction. 

The most articulate citizens of Detroit thought then that the 
United Auto Workers was something more than a union, that it 
was in fact a revolutionary army whose final destination was the 
conquest of all power for labor. Through the next thirteen years, 
every action of the union and every counteraction of its industry 
reflected the illusion of fundamental revolution which had in- 
fected Detroit in March of 1937. Until 1950, every strike had its 
mood of basic crisis; the union and the company alike talked as 
though very life hung on its decision. 

But there was only one March of 1937. When it had passed, the 
passion lifted from Detroit as suddenly as it had come. The city 
would never be exactly as it had been; but it would be settled 
and normal in its fashion. The men who had barricaded them- 
selves in the fortresses of their proprietors had wanted something 
badly enough to face death for it. But they had not wanted to be 
masters. They had asked only to be equals. 

The striker who had affirmed his resolve to slug any foreman 
who looked cross-eyed at him in the future had not been offended 
by the fact of the foreman's existence as an institution. He had 
accepted the system and was demanding only a measure of 
amenity in its confines. 

Through the spring of 1937 there was a cooling and a settling 


in Detroit and the limits of its great insurrection began to ap- 
pear. They were limits detectable mostly to the vision of hind- 
sight. Walter Reuther was only the most articulate of a number 
of UAW leaders who remained certain for a while longer that 
the politics, the economics, the culture, the whole future of De- 
troit and ultimately of this country belonged to these emanci- 
pated auto workers, whose vision had no bounds, and whose 
passions would not slack. 

That summer of 1937, the UAW entered its own candidate for 
mayor of Detroit; Walter Reuther, Dick Frankensteen, and four 
others ran for the City Council under the unashamed label of a 
labor slate. The politicians beat them with unexpected ease. And 
that same summer, Henry Ford braced to resistance. He alone 
remained unbeaten and almost undamaged among the rulers of 
Detroit. He fought the union as he always had, with spies and 
blackjacks and blacklists, and he stopped its revolution cold. 

One day near early summer, Walter Reuther, Dick Franken- 
steen, and a group of other UAW organizers walked near the 
overpass at Ford's River Rouge works to distribute union leaflets. 
Harry Bennett met them in force; Frankensteen later testified that 
fully fifty Ford service men assaulted him and Reuther. Franken- 
steen, with the ill-considered vanity of an old football player, 
made an effort to defend himself. Reuther only covered his face 
with his hands and let them take him; false pride was not one of 
Walter Reuther s problems. Afterward he described it all to the 
National Labor Relations Board in cold, sparse, exact terms: 

"Seven times they raised me off the concrete and threw me 
down on it. They pinned my arms and shot short jabs to my face. 
I was punched and dragged by my feet to the stairway. I grabbed 
the railing and they wrenched me loose. I was thrown down the 
first flight of iron steps. Then they kicked me down the other 
flight of steps until I found myself on the ground where I was 
beaten and kicked. ... At that time girls and women who came 
from Detroit with circulars tried to get off the streetcars, and so 
the men seemed to lose interest in me." 

It all sounded so terribly matter of fact, as though circumstance 
were a minor condition beside Walter Reuther's need to func- 
tion. He had worked fifteen months in a Soviet factory; Rouge 


was only the hottest o the plant gates at which he was pummeled; 
in 1948, when he seemed to have reached a stable plane, he was 
shot by some still unknown fugitive from Detroit's days of wrath. 
All that has happened has made no more change in him than if 
it had never happened. The Soviet experience did not exalt him 
beyond reason; the Rouge beating did not reduce him to the 
rhetoric of self-pity; even the shotgun did not alter his will to 

The 1948 shooting almost tore his right arm off; it was only 
saved by an intricate operation on the radial nerves. A little 
while after he left the hospital .bed, a visitor found him pacing 
the floor, talking as always, but with pain in the set of his mouth 
and sweat on his forehead. It was a sight so discomforting that 
his visitor begged Reuther to sit down and be quiet. 

"Don t you see," said Walter Reuther, "that Tve got to live 
with this thing?" 

Every new circumstance was a thing that he would live with, 
and that must not damage, divert, or alter him. Edward Levin- 
son, then publicity director of the UAW, drove him from Detroit 
to New York for a union board meeting on December 7, 1941. 
Reuther was then chairman of the UAW's housing committee, and 
a report on its work was his chief assignment at the meeting. 
There was no radio in the car; they arrived at their hotel to find 
the newsboys holding up the extras reporting Japan's attack on 
Pearl Harbor. 

It was a moment in history. Levinson's first instinct was to 
rush from the car up to Times Square and see how New York 
was taking it. The flat voice of Walter Reuther came up from the 
back seat: 

"Well, Eddie, this means well have to rewrite the report. We'd 
better go and wash up and I'll see you in the room in twenty 

For Walter Reuther never felt the impulse to lose himself in 
any tide of history; every exterior crash seemed to break upon 
the rock of his will to independent function. Yet this was a will 
detached from circumstance but not blind to it If his world 
changed, he would live with the change. 

And back in that summer of 1937, he recognized that circum- 


stances were not what they had seemed only last March, and that 
he must live with a new state of things. The men for whom he 
had bled at the Rouge looked at his scars without interest; the 
politicians had beaten him for the City Council. March had been 
only a flash fire. The revolution would move no longer at the 
double-quick. He and Roy and Victor could not again be captains 
in a war of movement; what stretched ahead was a stewardship 
that would seem routine more often than it seemed electric. 

Once, not very long ago, Walter Reuther had wanted much 
more; he had thought of the union as an instrument to reshape 
America sharp and fast. Now the surge of that promise was over, 
and he was left with the ebb. For the auto worker had now won 
most of what had seemed to him worth the chance of disaster: 
security on his job, higher wages, shorter hours, and the sense 
that he was no less human than his foreman. The union was 
important in his life, but it was not the only thing. All the diver- 
sions which turn men away from further assault upon the heights 
were at work now. There was nothing on the heights which 
seemed to the auto worker worth an immediate, desperate, dan- 
gerous grasp. 

His institution would not change for Walter Reuther, and so 
Walter Reuther changed for it. He began by leaving the Socialist 
Party in the late thirties, quietly and without pain; he was on his 
way to becoming a rock of stability. It was a change not easy for 
many of the UAW's founding field commanders, and they lost 
their offices or wandered away for want of the will or the ca- 
pacity to deal with the new condition. 

Homer Martin, a preacher and a flame in time of war, became 
just a man who talked too much in time of truce and lost his 
union presidency in 1940 for dealings with Henry Ford and 
Harry Bennett that may have been devious or may have been 
guileless but were fatal to him in either case. Ford's caprices 
could be marked on occasion by kindness as by brutality, and he 
eased Martin's exile by buying him a farm. 

Dick Frankensteen had been a great captain of light cavalry, 
but he was a poor and neglectful administrator of a conquered 
province. He hung on until 1946 and then departed for private 
business, in one case representing a company in negotiations 

294 PART OF oxm TIM:E 

with his old union. George Addes, the UAW's first secretary- 
treasurer, lost his office in 1947. He had begun as leader of 
the Toledo local whose strike at Autolite had been the UAW's 
first real victory; after his ouster, he became a West Coast dis- 
tributor for the same company he had rocked just thirteen years 

Martin, Frankensteen, and Addes will always be described by 
their old associates, with diminishing passion, as renegades. But 
each, in his way, was doing what the average auto worker would 
have done. For each was expressing that dream of conventional 
success which, in the twenties, had brought so many of the men 
to Detroit who had been turned, once cheated, to the great up- 
risings of the middle thirties. Walter Reuther was, after all, a 
toolmaker; in defeat, he could have gone back to the shop. But 
these others were production hands; and not many men would 
choose to work on an assembly line if anything else offered. 

The change in Walter Reuther, if it can be called a change, 
must have begun very soon after the sit-downs, but it did not 
show itself to the clouded eye. Detroit had been very briefly a 
pillar of flame, but its vision would not soon leave the minds of 
those who had so long believed the labor movement could be the 
cleansing agent of the social revolution and who had clutched 
that belief through numberless discouragements from the man- 
ners, the barnacled social vision, and the soggy prose of the 
leaders of the American Federation of Labor. 

They had watched the flames of Detroit for the emergence of 
a new sort of labor leader a walking sword conscious of the 
mission of which his profession had been by tradition but semi- 
conscious and ready to thrust through to an America whose old 
rulers would be overthrown and whose old oppressed would be 
finally triumphant. With the cooling of the fires of 1937, every 
UAW figure except those of the Reuthers appeared to their 
anxious eyes disappointingly like the old-fashioned labor profes- 

The Reuthers alone in Detroit seemed to speak with a confi- 
dent voice of labor s wider destiny. They spoke of co-operatives 
and labor parties and labor control of industry and the revolu- 
tionary aspirations of the workers of Asia. And they were figures 


of history with a growing army behind them. If figures of history 
could speak with the tongue of the scorned and lonely left of 
Valentine Reuther, there was cause to hope that history might be 
going Valentine Reuther's way. 

In the very late thirties, none of the Reuthers was a national 
officer of the auto workers' union, which was itself just a fragment 
of the labor movement. Yet even then, except for John Lewis, 
Philip Murray, and Harry Bridges, Walter Reuther was better 
known to the public at large than anyone in the CIO. All over 
America, there were people who thought of him, young, purpose- 
ful, and sure of his destiny, as a symbol of a unionism that prom- 
ised everything. 

To them Walter Reuther appeared like some Archangel Mi- 
chael; but there were others of his acquaintance to whom he 
appeared, as Michael had to Lucifer, as an abhorrent shape and 
who wished he would be hence. The burning of incense and the 
singing of hosannas around Walter Reuther was a natural source 
of discomfort to his colleagues in the UAW who ranked him in 
office but trailed so far behind him in public excitement 

And the old rulers of Detroit, dislocated and sore in bones and 
pride, heard the rattle of the tumbrels in his speeches and 
thought they detected a young man after the jugular. There 
must be men of property who fairly long for the knife at their 
throats; there are certainly men without security who seek always 
for someone to thrust the knife for them; and it took both groups 
a long while to be disappointed in Walter Reuther. 

They watched with fear and fascination his rise in the auto 
union, feeling each beat of its conventions turning now for 
him and now against him as though the balance of all life hung 
on those delegates hoarsely shouting their votes and their locals' 
numbers. And yet, when Walter Reuther had become president 
of the auto workers, none of his upward steps seemed as periled 
and as faltering as they had at the time he took them. With hind- 
sight his progress seemed assured from the beginning, as though 
nature had intended him to succeed Henry Ford as the first 
citizen of a Detroit which, however unchecked its own passions, 
must always have a household god who neither smokes nor 


And all of it had been so little the result of the primary quali- 
ties which the public assigned to Walter Reuther. It had been so 
little a progress of rhetoric; Reuther remained, as always, avail- 
able for discourse to the laity on elevating social subjects as 
other men are available for poker or drinks around the corner. 
But rhetoric was only his pleasure. Reality of function was his 
pursuit and his true passion. 

Those made timid and those exalted by his image could wake 
together in the fifties to find that Walter Reuther was not a barn- 
burner after all. Valentine Reuther did not bring his boys up to 
burn barns. Walter Reuther was, in fact, rather conservative and 
unexpectedly normal in his lack of the impulse to destruction. The 
auto workers, for all their flash of fundamental challenge, were 
with time more conservative and more normal than anyone 
could have believed seventeen years ago. For even in Detroit, 
men do not march long under wild flags. And if Walter Reuther 
had summoned his troops to any wild flag, . they would have 
been his troops no longer. 

There had been a few desperate hours after 1937. Ford had 
hung on until 1941, and had surrendered only to the last of the 
sit-down strikes. When it was over, he gave the union a little 
more than it asked with the expectation that these incursors 
would commence to fight among themselves for the spoils and 
after a while go away. But it was Henry Ford who went away at 
last. After his death, the service men departed and were replaced, 
to a degree at least, by college boys who put away the Anglo- 
Saxon diction of the middle thirties and fought their skirmishes 
with Walter Reuther through the soft fog which is the uniform 
of the labor relations man's language. And Harry Bennett, an 
obsolete model, retired to his residence near Lake Michigan. 

General Motors cherished the hope that the new order would 
pass and carried that hope through a one-hundred-and-seven-day 
strike in 1946, a quiet affair but no less passionate for its lack of 
violence. That strike ended with the assumption that Detroit's 
two great powers would glare at one another for the predictable 
future through an armed truce broken biennially by a marathon 

But then Charles E. Wilson, president of General Motors, and 


Walter Reuther suddenly shook hands across Detroit's wall. In 
1950, GM agreed to give the auto union a five-year contract, 
keying its wages to the cost of living, guaranteeing its members 
a yearly increase reflecting their company's technological prog- 
ress. The other companies trooped to follow; there has not been 
a major auto strike in Detroit since that spring. 

When Walter Reuther came to Detroit, he entered an indus- 
trial dictatorship. Each auto worker was alone and fragmented; 
his future did not extend beyond the spring layoff, and the 
foreman was his master in fact In 1937, the Reuther boys were 
commanders at war with the whole order of society in Detroit; 
it did not seem possible that their war could end with quarter. 
But today Detroit is quiet; it moves not, nor shakes, nor seems 
pregnant with violence as it once did. There has come upon it 
the peace o understanding. An auto worker earns a minimum 
of $84 a week; he has a pension and a paid vacation and the 
automatic assurance that his wages will move up and up; he is 
in short the unexpected inhabitant of an industrial democracy*. 

This miracle accomplished by the rabble captained by Roy, 
exhorted by Victor, and maneuvered by Walter Reuther is no 
less a miracle for being not quite the sort expected of them. 
Walter Reuther and the auto makers of Detroit, who seemed so 
irreconcilable, have ended by sharing a common response to the 
moments of passion in their lives. They alike understand the 
necessity of living with things as they are. 

The auto union is very rich; a few years ago it sold its old 
headquarters to General Motors and built a new office building 
on the lake front estate that once belonged to Edsel Ford. Last 
fall, Emil Mazey, now secretary-treasurer of the auto workers, 
left the picture window and the rich dark wood of his office and 
went over to the Briggs Motor Corporation to talk to a vice 
president. On his way in, Mazey met the superintendent of plant 
guards, who looked at him a moment and said, "Christ, now I 
romcmber you; I threw you out of the plant maybe twenty years 
ago " They both decided that it seemed a long way back. 

Walter Reuther is forty-six. He remains brash and undiplo- 
matic and apt on all occasions to return to the tireless periods of 
the schoolboy debater whom Valentine Reuther trained on those 


Sunday afternoons in Wheeling. The office of sexton in a ca- 
thedral does not sit on the Reuther boys with entire comfort; 
Detroit's horizons have already become a little narrow for Roy 
Reuther, who devotes his time to the UAW's national political 
campaigns, and for Victor Reuther, who is the CIO's expert on 
international affairs. 

And there are signs that Walter Reuther sometimes feels that 
he has done almost too well and that his once restless, alienated 
throng is now too satisfied with the present to fight hard for the 
future. Those are times when he prods them to walk a little faster. 
But he will go at their pace, because he recognizes that it is not 
his function to walk alone. 

So much has happened to the Reuther boys some of it heroic, 
some of it almost tragic, all of it rather fantastic that it is sur- 
prising how little it has done to them. They have had adventures, 
but they were not raised to be adventurers. They were raised to 
follow a trade and be a credit to their home. Of all the heritage 
their father passed on to them from the Eugene Debs who was his 
hero, he passed on most the notion that it is better to rise with 
your class than from it. 

There are limitations to that portion of Valentine Reuthers 
estate. A man ingrained with its vision is not apt to be exalted, 
to dare everything for great and distant passions, or to enjoy 
tumult for its own sake, for the class from which Walter Reuther 
came is not long committed to any of these diversions. But those 
are also its virtues; in spite of Deb's own tragedy, his heritage 
encompasses the normal and the unalienated. 

The Reuther boys saw life in the ideal image of their father's 
house and their father's aspirations; they did not seek their revo- 
lution on their father s grave. And so, through all the tombstones 
of the thirties, they have walked unchanged and unafflicted, 
because they were very normal young men caught in a wild cir- 
cumstance and glad to pass through it to normality again. 


The Shadow Line 

"Is there still any shadow there, on the rainwet window of 

the coffeepot, 

Between the haberdasher's and the pinball arcade 
There, where we stood one night in the warm, fine rain, 
and smoked and laughed and talked. . . . 

(There must be, there has to be, no heart could beat if 

this were not so, 
That was an hour, a glittering hour, an important hour 

in a tremendous year) 

Where we talked for a while of life and love, of logic and 
the senses, of you and of me, character and fate, pain, 
revolution, victory and death 

Is there tonight any shadow, at all, 

Other than the shadows that stop for a moment and then 

hurry past the windows blurred by the same warm, 

slow still rain?" 


"We were convinced that though we were living on the 
edge of catastrophe, we had been uniquely blessed with 
a 'knowledge of what was happening to us" 



"Suddenly she heard a little noise like that of a mouse in 
the straw and, looking up, she saw a tiny man no Tpigher 
than her spinning wheel. Dressed all in brown, he had a 
long beard. 

Sf Why do you weep, miller's daughter?" he asked. 

"I weep," she answered, "because for my very life I 
cannot spin gold from straw" 



DR. J. B. MATTHEWS, who has at once gained and lost so 
much from his past, was talking one afternoon about the 
autobiographies of ex-radicals. A visitor wondered aloud why 
so many ex-Communists recount the events of their youth in 
terms repeating a common experience and then draw from it 
conclusions which seem so contradictory. 

"Who," said J. B. Matthews, "can explain his own past?'* 

The time of being very young and madly hopeful comes to 
many men and deserts them all, and the lessons they take from 
its loss are very different. I was very young in the thirties; hard 
though it is to rouse that memory, I must have been madly hope- 
ful. But the very young are spectators; the heart of youth, as 
Ellen Glasgow has said, is a hard heart. However intense the 
image, its feelings are detached from almost everything except 
itself. I have counted upon the devotion of my own children and 
lost it to a passing freight train too many times to believe again 
that it is possible to commit the very young. 

And those of us who were young and fetched by the myth of 
the thirties were mostly spectators. Except for the very few who 
passed through the tragedy of the war in Spain, the fact of 
experience was not in us. And, hard as I try, I cannot muster up 
the reality of experience now out of the memory of our card- 
board heads bobbing to an oath never to bear arms for the gov- 
ernment of the United States or never to bend our cardboard 
knees to fascism or never to slow our paper-doll progress along 
the road to all power for the working class. 

What the thirties used to describe as its youth movement was 
most of whatever part I knew of the thirties. I cannot think of it 
without thinking of myself. If I remember its characters as pos- 
turing in the main, it is because I remember myself as posturing. 
If I think of them as having conceived themselves as instruments 
of history without ever being a part of history, it is because I 
think of myself that way. In this excursion to a lost time, I have 
reached a lost self. The eye of the beholder has chanced upon its 
own skeleton in the graveyard. There is a warning in that ob- 
servation which seems to me only fair to record: as J. B. Mat- 
thews has said, it is very hard for any of us to explain his own 


The youth movement of the thirties began as it ended in 
lamentation. Dr. Harold J. Laski opened the decade in August 
o 1931 by inquiring in Harper's Magazine: "Why Don't Your 
Young People Care?" It was a question that might be asked about 
the young in any moment of history, but Laski did not mean it 
that way. He had just finished a lecture tour of American col- 
leges. In the second year of the depression, he had found only 
detachment from the social crisis and boredom about politics. 
It was plain, said Laski, that if the revolution comes to America, 
"there will be no Harvard or Columbia students on the barri- 

Over the next ten years, there would be many occasions when 
Laski could strike a happier key because, if he had a fault as an 
observer, it was in taking the word as the fact and accepting 
what people said as what they meant. The time came when even 
his question, '"Why don't your young men care?" would seem 
cast in terms too individual and insufficiently impersonal, for it 
had begun to sound as though there were no "young men" sing- 
ing solo, but only "youth" in chorale. The young in America 
seemed to have aroused themselves to crescendos of involvement. 
These reached their pitch by 1937, when an estimated 500,000 
students took part in the student strike against war and were re- 
ported united in a pledge never to support any war declared by 
the United States government. 

That was a statistic which no one could measure, since it was 
a compendium of the claims of the American Student Union, 
which sponsored the strike, and the estimates of college editors, 
who are suspect accountants because they tended more than the 
general to rouse themselves about the social question, perhaps 
because it made better copy than did press releases for college 
dances. In any case, the total included unaccountable hosts of 
the neutral and even the hostile. No one at the rear of the crowd 
could hear the oath, and no one on the platform could hear most 
of the testators because, even in those cases where partisans of 
the Reserve Officers Training Corps were not clustering at the 
fringe hurling eggs and engaging themselves to the detriment of 
communication, a failure of the public-address system seemed 
inevitably concurrent with the climax of the strike. 


But there do exist statistics to indicate that, even at this pre- 
sumed fever pitch, Harold Laski's question was not materially 
less valid than it had been in 1931. The American Student Union 
was the official mass expression of student revolt. At the height of 
its uproar, the ASU had only twelve thousand members and 
claimed another eight thousand who hadn't paid their dues but 
were otherwise totally committed. The Young Communist League 
had fewer than five thousand student members at any one time. 
As the thirties wore on, the Young People's Socialist League, the 
heroic and historic Yipsels, fell below one thousand members 
and the Young Trotskyites below five hundred. 

Yet the few persons in those last three organizations made 
most of the history of student rebellion in tie thirties. In 1937, 
as an instance, young Communists, young Socialists, and one 
young Trotskyite constituted eighteen of the thirty members of 
the National Executive Committee of the American Student 
Union; and all its national officers were either Socialists or Com- 
munists. There were close to four million high school and college 
students in the United States in 1937; the myth of their radical 
impulse was created, at the very most, by fifteen thousand per- 
sons. It has been said that these fifteen thousand set the tone for 
the American campus in the thirties, in which case they did it by 
default. A tone set by three-tenths of one per cent of a com- 
munity can hardly, after all, be described as a tone. 

What history there is asserts that in 1937 half a million Ameri- 
can college students took an oath never to support this govern- 
ment in any war. The Selective Service Act came three and a 
half years later; fewer than one hundred men refused to register 
under it as a matter of principle. By 1943, just 1,400 young men 
of all sorts had gone to prison for ideological or ethical defiance 
of the draft law. And half of those were Jehovah's Witnesses, 
whose impulse hardly arose out of any movement of students. 

It was that small and burned out that soon, leaving so few 
ashes behind. And even with its opening strains, its themes were 
set: the imitation of its elders, and the search ending in a revela- 
tion that quickly fled or twisted at its end to comedy. 

The revolt of the students in the thirties appears to have begun 
with a group of sixty students, most of titxem from Columbia and 



the other New York colleges, who embarked in March of 1932 
to investigate the conditions of coal miners in Kentucky's dark 
and bloody Harlan County. Most of them had been recruited by 
Donald Henderson, a Columbia economist. They were trailing 
four months behind Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and 
others of their elders, who had traveled to Harlan to study the 
left-wing National Miners Union strike there and had come 
home under the shadow of indictments for criminal syndicalism. 
Dreiser had charged that miners in Harlan were being paid as 
little as eighty cents a day, that eight of their children a week 
were dying of undernourishment, that twelve strikers had been 
killed by deputy sheriffs, and that the miners lived with terror, 
starvation, and official violence. 

Dreiser had left Harlan County pursued by all its furies, but 
he at least had a chance to look around. Donald Henderson's 
flock was stopped at the Cumberland Gap by the high sheriff's 
party, driven to the Pineville, Kentucky, courthouse and there 
subjected to an inquisition by District Attorney Fred Smith 
before some two hundred deputies who mixed their representa- 
tion of legal majesty with suggestions that the visitors be hanged 
without delay. The district attorney had apparently benefited 
from the research of some New York purveyor of dossiers on the 
Bolshevik conspiracy, and he subjected each tourist to extensive 
and detailed questioning on the subversive affiliations of self and 

It must have been a scene destructive of neutrality. Arnold 
Beichman, of the Columbia University Spectator, who had come 
with the expedition as a detached observer, turned to the man 
from the New Yorfc Herald Tribune and announced: 

"I must take my stand." 

And Beichman marched over to join the prisoners in their 
enclave and demanded that the district attorney question him 
too. Smith's memorandum from his premature J. B. Matthews 
was, of course, barren of reference to this interloper, but Smith 
manfully improvised the suggestion that Beichman's father was 
a member of the national committee of the Communist Party. 
"Oh, heavens," said Beichman, *my poor simple father." 

The politics of commitment has its rewards at first. Beichman 


returned to Columbia to find a letter from the district attorney's 
daughter describing Pineville as a cultural desert and requesting 
suggestions on ways to escape to New York. 

Their brain-washing at an end, Henderson's chicks were thrust 
aboard their buses and driven back to Tennessee under the es- 
cort of deputies ostentatiously fumbling their dumdum bullets. 
The party fled to Nashville, where not one of them felt safe from 
the terror. In his new involvement, Beichman was sitting at the 
typewriter in his hotel room when Joseph P. Lash, a young 
Socialist who was captain of the retreat, put in his head to 

"We're not out of this yet. Remember nobody sleeps alone 

And so Beichman began his report to the Spectator on the 
day's horror with a stark entry along these lines: 

"Knoxville, Tenn. Joseph P. Lash has just come to my room 
and said 'Nobody sleeps alone tonight/ " 

The Spectator printed his lead with the utmost relish, and 
Beichman returned to the campus to find that his scars had 
earned him nothing so lasting as the nickname: "Nobody-Sleeps- 
Alone-Beichman." Men still fought for the meaning of their lives 
in Harlan County. But the student movement had begun, as it 
would almost always live, to the murmur of mocking laughter 
from the side lines. 

Beichman was a pioneer among college journalists who could 
not keep their seats in the press box. The whole history of the 
student movement of the thirties could have been covered in the 
pages of an undergraduate Editor and Publisher, because its 
moments of high drama regularly played themselves out with 
college editors hurling manifestoes at college administrators, in 
a free play on the last chance most of them had for full expres- 
sion with someone else paying the printer. 

Columbia, under Nicholas Murray Butler, was habitually 
treated by its undergraduate editors almost as an extension of 
the University of Heidelberg under the Third Reich. The uni- 
versity appears to have shown notable tolerance to the pricks of 
a succession of alienated Spectator editors, among them Beich- 
man and James A, Wechsler. Beichman is now in the service of 


the new aristocracy as public relations director for several AFL 
unions; Wechsler is editor of the New York Post. 

Both went unpunished for their crimes against the university; 
the only Columbia student permanently expelled for radical 
excesses was an athlete named Robert Burke, who was separated 
because of an inflammatory speech supposedly written for him 
by a Spectator staff writer. Burke became a bravo for a CIO 
union; the reputed author of his downfall is now a foreign cor- 
respondent of moderately conservative views. As a former col- 
lege editor, I am of course flattered by any suggestion that as a 
group we were more conscious of social evil than our fellows; 
but there remains the fact that, if we did not build the barricades 
ourselves, they would not have been built at all, and there would 
be no clatter and thunder to write about. 

So much of the tumult was manufactured then, as detached 
from commitment in its way as the laughter was. The stage itself 
held very few people and most of those are gone. The tumult is 
gone, too, and the laughter, because no one seems to exercise the 
detachment of laughter about such matters any longer. Most 
persons who are articulate about that lost time treat it as seriously 
as only a very few of us did when we thought it had reality so 
very long ago. 

So many of us are gone now, gone without trace, this bright 
young legion of the elect who were supposed to be the leaders 
of their generation and the beacon for its future. The American 
Student Union was at its zenith in 1937. Its pronouncements were 
taken seriously by adults, even the sort of adults whose custom 
it is not to bear fools gladly. It was discussed as a serious menace 
by the Hearst papers; and it set the tone of antimilitarist, anti- 
fascist fervor which many of its friends and enemies alike uni- 
versalized as the mood of the college undergraduate in the mid- 

The ASU's leaders believed, and some of their elders agreed 
with them, that they would play a great part, perhaps even the 
greatest, in America's future history. In 1937, the American 
Student Union picked thirty-two members of what must have 
been its executive-committee-elect of the advancing future. Four 
of them are now professional Communists; two are hired hands 


for conservative unions quite unlike the vision which took them 
into the labor movement; one was killed in Spain; three are 
journalists; the rest are gone, not dead but simply obliterated; 
they are housewives or businessmen perhaps. It would take all 
the resources of all the Congressional committees working for six 
months to find them and bring them together for a reunion, and 
much more than that to put them at ease with one another when 
they got there- 

To approach them is to dive into a well of oblivion. A friend 
of mine once said that no history of the youth movement of the 
thirties could be complete without mention of the girl to whom 
he had once suggested that she take more pains with her appear- 
ance. "Millions are dying in Spain and China," she rasped, "and 
you ask me to wear lipstick." He thought about her a while, but 
he could not even recall her face; she has been gone so long now, 
married and settled somewhere, and doubtless blaming her ap- 
pearance on the children. 

There was Agnes Reynolds of Vassar, who lasted longer than 
most of them, and was seen last in the spring of 1941, dressed in 
colonial costume and preparing to ride a white horse to Wash- 
ington and warn the country against imperialist war. Miss Reyn- 
olds called herself a modern Paul Revere; but then the Nazis 
invaded the Soviet Union and she did not ride. And she has not 
been seen since either, disparue like so many Charlotte Cordays 
or Rosa Luxembourgs of our childhood. 

And they went, it is possible to think in many cases, without 
even having heard the name of the Rosa Luxembourg, who was 
the great revolutionary figure of the German Social Democracy, 
and thus the precursor of those buried young ladies of our youth 
movement. For this was a dismally ignorant radical generation, 
especially its Communist segment. My wife came up not long 
ago with a sheaf of letters from her friends in the thirties. One of 
them from 1936 ended, "As a last resort, I think I'll become a 
follower of Gandi (if that is the way to spell it)" Another, from 
the summer of 1940, ended: *Td have loved to visit you, but I'm 
afraid it'll have to be put off another year. Maybe we'll get 
around to it in the dismal future when all our men will be dead 
in the war arid well have to take to Lesbienism," 


And those two documents, neither of them from young Com- 
munists, seem to me typical of the period because the writers 
were incapable of spelling the names either of one alternative to 
Marxism (Gandhi) or of one dread consequence of its failure to 
come to power (Lesbianism). Not long ago, an apostate Young 
Communist told the House Committee on Un-American Ac- 
tivities that once, when he was in trouble with the Party, a sym- 
pathetic girl comrade explained to him that the revolution is 
occasionally cruel to its children and that a problem like his had 
once confronted a revered leader whose name, if he recalled it 
correctly, was "Rosie Luckenburg." 

But still we assumed that we knew the course of history; what 
is often more important, we thought we alone knew the precise 
dimensions of the catastrophe that would engulf us and our 
generation. Death was a word frequently upon our lips. But the 
word oblivion came very seldom. Yet oblivion was the youth 
movement's catastrophe, although oblivion could hardly have 
been the catastrophe we thought it then, since I recollect no 
suicides from this roster of obliterated student leaders; and most 
of them must be living happily in limbo. Not long ago, I had 
word of one former editor of the ASU Student Advocate. He was 
living in the Deep South and had a newspaper job and some local 
esteem as a jazz clarinetist He was quite proud of having resisted 
the temptation to vote Republican in 1952. 

Of course, survival of itself is no special merit, especially in 
days like these; but failure to survive does require a few words of 
explanation from the departed. 

That explanation might be more important if I could say with 
assurance that here was something which had life and is now 
dead before its time. The ASU had a certain reality when people 
talked about it, when a newspaper editorial decried its menace 
or watched its progress with serious, adult interest, when the 
President of the United States sent his greetings, when it was 
attacked or defended or anywhere treated as important on the 
outside. But it had no inner life; you had only to sit through one 
of its meetings to hear the interior voice saying that this had no 
reality of itself. The ASU would always wonder why so many 
professed to love it and so few paid it dues. 


The student movement's leaders and followers were together 
victims and propagators of a legend. We can see their illusion 
nowhere more clearly than in the requirement that the myth of 
a great student anti-fascist movement be sustained by the coun- 
ter-myth of a serious student fascist conspiracy in opposition to 
it. The signal to arms requires an enemy; where none exists, he 
must be invented. The ASU Student Advocate was always choked 
with accounts of fascist hordes arising on various campuses. As 
one instance, its December, 1936, issue contained an extensive 
assault on a Johns Hopkins student named Gordon Grahame 
Duce, who had formed what he called the Hopkins Americanistic 
League against Communism, with Italian fascism as its model 
and anti-Semitism as one of its tenets. At the moment, the ASU's 
correspondent reported, the Hopkins was resisting; its students 
appeared "aggressively opposed to fascist-terrorism." 

Coming on this now, I can only remember poor Duce from the 
Hopkins as the creator of a crude and certainly tasteless joke. 

Perhaps the saddest moment in his short life was his discharge 
from the Army Reserves because of a bad heart, which killed 
him a few years ago. The author of this portrait of him as fascist 
terrorist is practicing medicine in Baltimore and shows no recog- 
nizable trace of the passions which stirred him then. It is pitiful 
and somehow terrible to think that Duce left so little behind him, 
except a card in the War Department's dead file and this account 
of him as commandant of a storm troop that never existed, a 
shadow invented by a shadow and not only dead but in death 

Reading and remembering things like that, it is hard to believe 
that we here discuss the passing of anything very deep and 
serious. For there is in these papers, as iu the recollection of the 
time when they were written, somehow a continuing assault on 
reality, as though everything seemed to be happening and so 
much less was. These are the memorabilia of the very young; and 
first love may be sweet or bitter but it is seldom consequential. 
Conrad wrote once that there is a shadow line in all our lives 
which divides the young from the mature. It is a division be- 
tween those who are setting forth and those who are coming back 
and it is the line between the idea and the reality. We were very 


young then, and properly speaking, the young have no experi- 
ences; experience is the price of their youth.* 

The student movement spoke as though for legions but it was 
important only to companies of us. And fewer still carried it 
across the shadow line. To think of those few is first of all to 
think of those who went to Spain to fight Franco and of what 
they must have discovered there about the difference between 
what men think they can do and what is required of them, and of 
how some were killed there and others came home, strangers to 
what they had left behind, and terribly changed by reality. 

What documents are available indicate that 2,800 Americans 
fought in the Spanish Civil War and only 1,200 returned. They 
learned, if nothing else, the certain lesson of the infantry soldier 
that, if he stays at his trade long enough, he is more than likely 
to be killed, wounded, or captured. 

Some lost their faith and deserted, and others became police- 
men and shot deserters; those are equal consequences of being 
a soldier. Some died facing the enemy; some surrendered and 
were shot by the enemy, because of the inconvenience of taking 
prisoners or from simple malignity. Some died because they were 
careless or did not know their trade; some died as heroes shouting 
for liberty and the republic, meeting a tank with a Molotov 
cocktail, which was only a bottle filled with gasoline and a 
pitiable implement for grown men in a modern war. Those who 
were enlisted men sometimes hated the officers they had once 
called comrades. Many of them must have looked upon the dis- 
tinguished revolutionaries come to bring them greetings from 
home, at those fresh clothes and those tailor-made cigarettes, 
through eyes that were alien. 

* Morris L. Ernst and David Loth, in their Report on the American Com- 
munist, estimate that there are 700,000 ex-Communists in the United States 
and that a majority of themjoined and left the Party between the ages of 
eighteen and twenty-three. The Communist was the dominant radical tvpe 
of the thirties, in the sense that the anarchist was the dominant radical of 
the nineties and the Socialist the dominant radical of the period before 
World War I. If Ernst and Loth are correct in their estimate that the average 
Communist joined and left the Party before he was twenty-three, my judg- 
ment that the youth movement of the thirties was in the main ephemeral 
and its experiences largely trivial carries the implication that the experience 
of the average ex-Communist was ephemeral and. trivial. And I think it was. 


To almost every one of them there came with defeat that 
moment of being the hunted pursued by the hunter. When they 
returned to the rear, they named the scene of one of their few 
victories not Browder Ridge but Dead Men's Point For they 
had the experience as common to the soldier of freedom as it is 
to the soldier of oppression, which is the experience of humilia- 
tion and acceptance of death. Late in their war, the bulletins of 
their International Brigade left off the language of political ex- 
hortation and became more and more a compendium of obitu- 
aries for the fallen and the most elementary suggestions for the 
soldier's art, suggestions especially pathetic to the eyes of a 
monumentally equipped, firepower-rich soldier of World War II. 

There was the recommendation that, in firing their bolt-action 
rifles, soldiers of the Brigade remember to hold the breath and 
maintain a slow trigger-squeeze and be careful to keep the piece 
on the shoulder and not let it slip down the arm. There was the 
warning that these rifles are badly zeroed and tend to shoot high 
and wide. There were suggested patterns for a cone of rifle fire 
against planes. There was discussion of the black-tipped anti- 
tank rifle bullet. Behind all these words lies the barely concealed 
fact that so many young men went into battle untrained and 
ill equipped, and that they died at the end because they were 
outgunned. No one had suggested back in the States that, how- 
ever glorious his cause or grand his spirit, the outgunned, out- 
numbered soldier must expect more defeats than victories. 

The helmets that were issued to them seldom fit and were so 
much worse than useless that most of them took to wearing caps 
even against artillery and aerial bombardment. Robert Raven, 
who was blinded early in the war and became a hero of so many 
Spanish Aid rallies back home, was not wounded by the enemy 
but because a Canadian comrade, out of mere ineptitude, pulled 
the pin on a grenade and handed it to him and it exploded before 
he could throw it at Franco's trenches. The last words he heard 
from a man he could see were "No Pasar&n! 9 That was the 
Spanish for 'They Shall Not Pass," and the crowds in Madison 
Square Garden shouted it together when he arose eyeless to 
speak tp them. 
The journalists came and wrote about their lives as an epic 



among the olive trees but it could not have been quite that 
People far away said they were losing and dying because the 
democracies did not understand their cause. It would be a long 
time before the world learned that even the Soviets had given 
them nothing and sold them precious little for gold on the line, 
and that if Stalin had done as much for the Spanish Republic as 
Hitler and Mussolini did for Franco, their deaths might have 
been more useful. But that is what governments have done to 
soldiers through all history. We did it to our troops on Bataan and 
the British to theirs in Norway. It is the history of wars that 
aggressors fight with iron and their victims with bare flesh. 

It was a canon of the myth of the thirties that these were all 
heroes who died with their faces to the enemy. It is becoming a 
canon of the myth of the fifties that most of them fought, and 
most came to know they fought, only for a cause betrayed by the 
Soviets; before long we may be told that more were killed by 
Communist police squads than by Franco's troops. No safe evi- 
dence exists to support either canon. 

We do not even know how so many of these men died. It seems 
enough to say that he who was at home when a soldier died 
degrades himself when he speaks of that death in terms of blame, 
rumor, or gossip or with anything but that certainty which is 
denied us here. If a soldier dies badly on the field because of a 
failure of nerve, or humiliated behind the lines because he had 
been betrayed, we cannot judge him or even his executioners 
entirely. The father of John Cookson, a young scientist killed in 
Spain, wrote him just before he died that **a man might better 
die young for a purpose than live a whole life without one/* If 
Cookson died still sure of his purpose, we cannot say that his 
death was useless. The object of any purpose is always uncer- 
tain, and he who has pledged his soul to one may be lucky to die 

It must have been so unlike what they thought it would be, but 
for those who bore the difference that lay across the shadow line, 
it was certainly no less glorious. And those Americans who joined 
the International Brigade and deserted and were shot as a con- 
sequence cannot be exactly described either as traitors or as men 
given a sudden vision of betrayal. It seems much more to the 


point to say that they had crossed the shadow line between the 
idea and the reality and that they could not bear the reality. We 
may someday be forced for our own protection to shoot those 
who became not deserters but the sort of policemen who shoot 
deserters. But they too in their way had crossed the shadow line, 
and how are we to judge them? 

There was, as an instance, the student leader who had been the 
inspiration of all his comrades in the Young Communist League 
at his university, who went to Spain as their surrogate, and was 
wounded there. He wrote them later from the hospital that he 
had been offered a place as an undercover agent inside the 
"Trotskyite Fifth Column" in Barcelona. He could choose be- 
tween that and the fighting and he chose Barcelona. He had 
gone forth to defend freedom; now he would go to a rear area 
as an instrument of repression. He too had crossed the shadow 
line; and the boys back home, even such of them as were capable 
of detecting the difference, had no real right to judge him. 

It has been estimated that two-thirds of the Americans who 
fought in Spain were Communists. The other third included 
Socialists and the sort of adventurers who follow wars. The 
proportion of Communists hardly reflects the response of young 
Americans of all political descriptions to the Spanish War. Cer- 
tainly ten times as many as ever got there wrote the Spanish 
Embassy asking to enlist; nothing was done to encourage them; 
the road to Spain was difficult and illegal and a long trip from 
the inclination. The Communists got through in disproportionate 
numbers largely because their Party had an efficient apparatus 
for smuggling them along, 

Most of those who went to Spain were young, although some 
were as old as forty-five or fifty. Some were sent by the Com- 
munist Party because they were tested leaders and political- 
commissar material; and some were just young men who had 
gotten into trouble with the Party and were dispatched to Spain 
for reasons of atonement and expandability. But both these 
groups were a handful of the whole. 

The great majority appear to have gone by their own choice 
and out of somewhat the same lonely impulse that had made 
them Communists or radicals in the first place, which was a 


combination of alienation and the search for adventure. That 
impulse may have told some that to be a Communist was not 
merely to be one who conquered but one who suffered and that 
the great end of life is to die for something greater than life. So 
many of them were seamen, those ceaseless wanderers, and so 
many others were the young who had never found themselves in 
what they called the movement. 

David Cook, a Columbia graduate, wrote from Madrid just 
before his first battle: 

"If I'm to be among those who don't get back, I'll have con- 
centrated so much into the last short space that it will be as good 
as having lasted a normal span. I have no military experience, of 
course, and this would have kept me home if I had found a place 
in the movement back there. But I never managed to get func- 
tioning properly, partly through having no steady job." 

Philip Detro, a Texan, went to sea and tried to settle down in 
New York and be a writer, but it did not work and he fell in with 
the Communists. First he felt the need to learn so much and then 
he began to feel the emptiness of what he had learned. When 
Spain came, he rushed to volunteer; he had to wait a long time 
and was bursting with the impatience of the long nights in Green- 
wich Village. At last he was accepted on one day's notice and 
he did not sleep before the boat left. In Spain he became a cap- 

There was Sam, a runner for an infantry command post, whom 
Alvah Bessie asked why he came to Spain. 

"Hell," said Sam, "I wanted to. I didn't like the way things were 
going back home. My folks didn't approve of me." 
"Didn't approve of you, why?" 

"Well I was only making ten a week in the curtain factory, an* 
I was taking up a lot of time organizing the workers." 

They came, these three men now buried in time, looking for a 
home. Part of what took them may have been an impulse for 
glory, which is certainly no worse in a man than the impulse to 
refuse to accept experience. The youth movement they had left 
behind had its full quota of those who sought fulfillment in the 
domination of others, which is a sort of definition of glory for 
civilians; it could be said indeed that the impulse which led some 


of us to play at revolution carried an image of each of us with a 
marshal's baton in his knapsack. 

Spain had that concept too; a 1938 decree of its Ministry of 
Defense declared: "It is necessary and just that each soldier of 
the new army should carry in his knapsack the baton of a Field 
Marshal." But that image is somewhat different from what ours 
was. Its beau id4al was Napoleon's Marshal Ney, who fought his 
last battle waving a saber in the front lines and crying "Come, 
see how a Marshal of France dies." 

The difference must be that a soldier's dream of a marshal's 
baton is tied, not merely to the dream of dominating others, 
but to the acceptance of his own death somewhere at the end. 
That is the difference between the few who died in Spain and 
the many more back home who thought they were identifying 
themselves with Spain. It is the difference between those who 
sacrifice and those who only talk of sacrifice, between the soldier 
or the soldier's wife and the untouched civilian. 

And yet it seems easier to think about those who fought in 
Spain at the moment of death, because so many came home 
terribly flawed and different from those they had left behind. A 
good many left the Communists and drifted away. Some have 
become simply soaks; I remember one who became a labor spy; 
another is a union leader of very flexible principles, I can think 
of very few who survive as they were and are not somehow 
aliens in their own country. Most of those who function politi- 
cally, and they are a minority, are professional Communists, 
which in these days is an expression of alienation. They are 
Party functionaries more often than followers. Theirs is not a 
comfortable life, certainly, and some of them have gone to prison 
for it But it is the life of policemen and not of prophets; it is 
hard to believe that the realists among them must not know that 
if they come to glory, it will be, not as leaders of any American 
revolution, but as proconsuls of a Soviet army. 

The time when they were touched with fire has left so little 
trace upon their faces that it can be summoned up, as with so 
many soldiers, only by remembering those who died before 
they had time to grow old and wither. 

Sam Levinger, who was only twenty when he died, can stand 


3 l6 

for the best of them. His family was not poor; his life as a child 
was a comfortable one. But he seems to have been unable to resist 
the temptation to run away or throw himself away. He was eight 
years old the first time he tried to run away; after his family had 
moved from Wilmington, Delaware, to the Middle West, he tried 
to sail down the Mississippi on a raft as Huck Finn did and it 
sank three yards off shore. I confess that I would like to think of 
the men in Spain as having been carried there by Huck Finn and 
not by Lenin and as having mainly gone innocent to their graves. 

Sam Levinger always went to school with a huge lunch and 
always gave it away and kept nothing for himself. His family 
took him to Europe in 1931, when he was fourteen. He went to 
visit Hitler's Brown House wearing a Boy Scout uniform. He 
followed the British troops fighting a native rebellion in Port 
Said. He came home, still a high school boy, to go down to 
Cambridge, Ohio, with some Ohio State students to watch a coal 
strike. He was the only one of them to be put in jail, because he 
was the only one who talked back to the sheriff. 

He had become a Young Socialist by then, and he spent his 
first year at Ohio State almost as often as not away from the 
campus on some picket line. The strikers he helped used to call 
him "the kid who sings." He seems to have enjoyed life very 
much, and he did not posture about going to Spain. He died 
there after nine months of combat as a machine gunner in Bel- 
chite in Aragon. 

He left behind him a poem; so many of them wanted to be 

Comrades, the battle is bloody and the war is long; 
Still let us climb the gray hill and charge the guns, 
Pressing with lean bayonets towards the slope beyond. 
Soon those who are still living will see green grass, 
A free bright country shining with a star; 
And those who charge the guns will be remembered, 
And from red blood white pinnacles will tower. 

It is not a poem to be judged separate from the man who wrote 
it; and, after all, it is not entirely accurate, because the men who 
charge the guns are seldom remembered. But it is a very tired 


poem with no more hope of a marshal's baton in it. Sam Levinger 
had come to know what it is to be simply a target, and his was 
very different from the sort of poem which anyone who stayed 
home would have written about the Spanish War. 

Spain was the passion of that small segment of my generation 
which felt a personal commitment to the revolution. For most of 
its members the greater war whose prelude Spain was came 
almost as anticlimax. Much of their attitude toward experience 
was conditioned by their attitude toward personal involvement 
in the Spanish War. If they had avoided that one, it was no 
wrench, so far as it was possible, to avoid World War II; and, if 
they entered it, a majority appear to have felt no compulsion to 
suffer by their entry. 

I can find only one former student radical who won the Dis- 
tinguished Service Cross in World War II; he was Robert Thomp- 
son, a veteran of the war in Spain. Thompson went to Spain 
from California, became a captain, and was invalided home with 
a wound and malaria. After he returned to the States, Thompson 
did Young Communist League work until the war; he does not 
appear to have been especially apt at it, and he went in the army 
as soon as he could. His 32nd Division was in New Guinea before 
anyone else; Thompson went in with them at Buna; after he had 
wiped out four Japanese pillboxes all alone, he was promoted to 
sergeant and given the DSC for Butter disregard of his personal 


A United Press correspondent who met him at Buna asked 
Thompson what his peacetime job was and reported that he 
answered, "Maybe you won't believe me, but I'm a Young Com- 
munist League organizer for Ohio." 

Robert Thompson returned as a hero to the Communists and, 
mainly as a piece of adornment, was established as their New 
York State chairman and member of their National Board. For 
this distinction, he was sentenced to three years in prison in 
1950 as one of eleven Communist leaders convicted of conspiring 
to overthrow the government of the United States. The court 
gave him three years instead of five for what he had done at 
Buna. He jumped bail and it took the government three years to 
find him. He was held in New York's West Street jail after he 


was caught; one evening in the chow line, a Yugoslav held for 
deportation struck him with a hammer and wounded him seri- 
ously. The Yugoslav did not know Thompson; he seems to have 
thought of this as the sort of affirmative anti-Communist gesture 
which might stay his deportation. 

Today Robert Thompson is an enemy alien in his own country. 
But no one can say that he has not taken the chances of his time 
or that he ever turned his back on its fires or refused the full 
force of their flames. Somehow words of pity, contempt, or ad- 
miration have no meaning for Thompson's life, as though, when 
a man cannot act without being wounded by his act, he passes 
to a place beyond judgment by the rest of us. 

For Thompson never lived in a world of words whether in 
the great lights of Madison Square Garden or in the narrow 
warrens of his Party's headquarters on Thirteenth Street in New 
York. The words seem only empty spaces between those moments 
when he pulled the pin on a grenade and crawled alone up to 
somebody else's rampart and the moment when he was struck 
on a chow line. 

These are, to be sure, extreme experiences in a man's life. They 
are given to or taken by very few of us in any degree as intense 
as Thompson's. But there are in almost every life moments of a 
special kind which are its moments of reality. Spain was a reality; 
no one who went there and was shot at could ever be the same 
again. But the student strike against war was a show, almost 
indeed a carnival. The young could take its Oxford Oath never to 
support a war and be just the same thereafter. A man was alone 
in Spain and in the company of hundreds at the student strike; 
but the first was real and the second was verbal. The fates have 
a way of demanding of a man that he suffer his greatest moments 
all by himself; being alone seems as often attendant upon reality 
as being in company is attendant upon the flight from reality. 

Here at the end, I cannot think of those of us whose vision 
was bound by what we called the youth movement in the thirties 
as having been good or evil or of having damaged our time very 
much or having elevated it to any special degree. I can only 
think of most of us as having shared a malnutrition of reality. 

The Young Communists set the tone for most of us after a 


while, even when we turned against them, for we tended to live 
our dream lives in response to or reaction against the Soviet 
Union. The Soviet Union was not, of course, a major factor in our 
real lives, so that we reacted not so much to this distant drum 
as to its human embodiment in the form of a Young Communist 
League organizer. 

I remember the first YCL organizer I ever met. He had been 
speaking at a meeting of a few students, into which I had drifted; 
when it was over, a friend introduced me to him. We had no 
conversation; I can recall now only his first name, which was 
Mike, and a mouth which was slack at the center and taut and 
determined only at the edges. My friend said afterward, "God, 
isn't Mike strong?" Looking back, I think this was as character- 
istic as anything one of my comrades ever said to me while I was 
a comrade. For most of them were weakness leaning upon 
fancied strength. An appalling number came into the movement 
and stayed in because they could be bullied by someone who 
could muster the illusion of decision, as Mike had mustered it 
to my friend's satisfaction if not to history's. Most of the people 
who testify against the Communists before the committees and 
in the courts have faces very like Mike's; and I am very sure 
tibat I saw his picture in the papers above an account of some 
such service a year or so ago. 

Even our masters seem to have recognized this weakness in 
so many of their followers, and that recognition must have been 
the basis for the concern with heretical infection which I remem- 
ber most from the Young Communist League meetings I at- 
tended. Our section organizer seldom let an occasion pass with- 
out reminding us that some fallen brother, in defiance of all 
incantations, was still alive and healthy and that any contact 
with him would bring inevitable corruption and hell fire. And 
there was some basis for these warnings; a single heretic accom- 
plished the downfall of almost my entire YCL chapter, because 
so many of us evaded the admonitions of our leaders and con- 
tinued to associate with him on the sly and were consequently 
corrupted. Most ex-Communists can remember similar Party 
efforts to establish the social untouchability of deviationists; most 
of them think it enough to assert that they as individuals never 


stooped to any such thing. Their pride on this score has always 
seemed to me odd, since they must have sat at meetings and 
listened without protest to speeches by persons who, if they 
could not realistically be described as lynching the innocent, 
plainly wished they could. All I know is that I listened to such 
speeches and did not at once arise and express my revulsion, a 
show of weakness hardly to be effaced by those occasions when 
I sneaked off to adopt the posture of common decency to the 
victim. We tend, I am afraid, to be by custom too harsh toward 
those who have done that which they ought not to have done, 
and too lenient with those who have left undone that which they 
ought to have done. 

The element of mush in these young Bolsheviks was not uni- 
versal, I am sure, but it seems to me insufficiently regarded in 
most discussions of them. I can remember one particularly dedi- 
cated Communist girl who held off joining the YCL until after 
the 1936 election because she was convinced that Alfred M. 
Landon was a fascist and would throw all Communists in jail if 
he won. There was a measure of cowardice in the student move- 
ment, as there is in any movement which suggests that victory 
is both imminent and a guarantee of absolute peace and security. 
The leaders of the student strike against war understood that 
theirs was a bold challenge against the odds. But their literature 
was such a succession of images of approaching mutilation and 
death that there had to be converts to whom it was most potent 
as an appeal to self-pity. My least pleasant recollection of the 
Communist experience was that so many people whimpered so 
often. And ex-Communists remind me most often of those days, 
not when they are wicked, which they are no more than most, 
but when they are abject. 

The Communists set the tone for the student movement of the 
thirties what there was of it because they had the advantage 
of numbers, because they offered the weak the impression of 
strength, and because they had a church which no one else could 
match. They offered in short an available escape from reality. 
Most students, of course, managed to bear reality quite well 
enough to be apathetic about any avenues for escaping it The 
Communists were a tiny fragment of the whole, but they were a 


majority of the committed. To reject them meant to surrender 
even the illusion of strength and condemn yourself anew to that 
alienation which had moved you to commitment in the first 
place. The Young Socialists and the Young Trotskyites, who 
were the competitors of the Communists, became thus more and 
more a minority of the minority and were a little warped by that 

Of even the few students who struck against war or talked 
into the night about the why of it all or went home and told their 
parents that they were dedicated revolutionaries, only a fraction 
accepted even the minimal commitment of joining the Young 
Communists, the Young Socialists, or the Trotskyites. They were 
the special persons who felt that words were not quite enough 
and who had chosen, or thought they had chosen, an involve- 
ment more than verbal. But only a minority, even of them, car- 
ried that decision over the shadow line to maturity and lived 
any part of their lives still committed to that tender of their first 
youth. They were the few who may be said to have grown up as 

Most of them, as I have said, became Communists. But a few 
were members of the Young People's Socialist League and were 
thus the children of Norman Thomas. They began almost with 
the sense that history had passed them by. They had an outraged 
conviction that Franklin D. Roosevelt had stolen Thomas' clothes 
after 1932 and was still masquerading in them after 1936. And 
so they thought of Roosevelt as something of a confidence man, 
of themselves as the only true faithful, and of all who had aban- 
doned the Socialist doctrine as fallen angels. 

By 1938, too, the Young Communists, under the impulse of the 
Popular Front tactic, were talking more and more like New 
Dealers. And, perhaps because the reality of their lives was a 
quarrel with the Communists, the Young Socialists reacted more 
and more in the language of revolutionary activism. 

If one was young in the middle thirties and felt compelled to 
dream revolution, there was no temple for it long except with 
the Yipsels, as the Young Socialists were called, or with the Young 
Trotskyites. The idea of force and violence may have, stuck 
in the back of the heads of the Young Communists (very oc- 


casionally they read Lenin); but in practice they were so busy 
dressing themselves up as George Washington that any concept 
of irreconcilable class differences to be decided only upon the 
barricades was hardly a common subject for their fantasies. 
Their fantasies, as I remember them, had an even more romantic 
cast. They enjoyed the sense of being in the stream of great 
events, and some of them toyed with unfounded theories that 
Mrs. Roosevelt or Harold Ickes must be "one of us." This tendency 
of younger Communists to imagine and older ones not to deny 
that personages of substance were secret Communists was part 
of my own experience, although I cannot guess how general it 
may have been. There remains the grisly chance, of course, that 
extravagances of this type, borne by backsliders, have found 
their way into the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Association with the great and the triumphant was, I think, a 
staple of Communist day dreams. The Young Socialists tied 
themselves to the pure and the defeated to the Karl Marx Hof in 
Vienna, the Spartacists of Rosa Luxembourg, and the revolu- 
tionary Jews of Poland, heroes whose moments of glory ended 
in the grave. True romance can be all the truer for ending in the 
defeat of everything but its purity. But a revolutionary's chance 
to die on the barricades is fairly limited in America; and these 
Young Socialists tended to die, at least as dreamers, sitting at 
meetings or framing resolutions that moved with iron logic 
through a world of fantasies. 

Those in the grip of this species of unreality tended more than 
the Communists to recognize the peril of taint by the outside 
world. Revolutionary purity was no special problem for the 
Communists; they always assumed that, if they relaxed their 
day-to-day function as Bolsheviks for Hollywood, Washington, 
or the conservative labor movement, they could still go to Party 
meetings and pay dues and be part of their fantasy. But the 
Young Socialists understood that their dedication was not safe 
in lush grasses and that the eventual consequence of adjustment 
to capitalist society was abandonment of their party. They could 
not permit themselves to put the main purpose of their lives into 
a special compartment; but to bring it into contact with reality 
was to destroy it Many Communists did not become renegades 


until the day they offered themselves to the FBI. But every So- 
cialist was a renegade of sorts if he worked for a union, and, for 
practical considerations, endorsed a Democrat for public office. 
The process of defection was almost continual; the Yipsels formed 
people and then watched them drift off to the service of their 
enemies. But, in most cases, theirs was a farewell of sorrow more 
than anger, for they had a fellow feeling stronger than the Com- 
munists would ever know. They understood, if only by instinct, 
that they were losing their own flesh. 

Looking back upon them, it is possible to say that unreality is 
not a bad thing, so long as there is no malice in it. I suppose 
more old Yipsels remain from the youth movement of the thir- 
ties, functioning in a fashion doing least violence to their image 
of themselves in those days, than survive from any other political 
group. The labor movement is full of them: not merely the 
Reuther boys, but a host of local union presidents, educational 
directors, and organizers. By contrast, I can think of none who 
could be described as making a personal profit out of red-baiting. 
Their numbers are too small and their achievements too modest 
to be offered as a compelling argument for the things we said in 
the thirties; but they are at least not better off forgotten. 

They were, as I have said, Norman Thomas' children. He gave 
them much more than he took. In a sense, Thomas may have 
killed his own political party by visiting the fantasies of youth 
upon a movement which to live had to appeal to grownups. 
William Gomberg, of the International Ladies' Garment Workers 
Union, said once that, when he was eighteen and a Yipsel, he was 
flattered to have Thomas take his advice so seriously, but that, 
when he was twenty-one, he was simply appalled. And yet 
Thomas was a rare man for the thirties. 

I remember once as a young Communist being taken to meet 
Earl Browder at Party headquarters in Baltimore. It was the 
most particular of occasions; each of Browders callers was 
chosen for what passed for special promise and granted a fifteen- 
minute audience. I can recall now only a bare loft and a sodden 
man sitting lumpily in a chair at its center with his overcoat 
buttoned to his chin. I cannot remember anything he said; what 
words there were between us fell like lead. It is impossible to 


recreate exhilaration or disillusion or any other defined reaction; 
this was a moment absolutely without content, forgotten until by 
chance I rescued it from some dustbin of the memory. I have 
come to know Browder slightly since his fall; he has turned out 
to be an unexpectedly engaging man who dearly loves his wife 
and children and possesses unusual depths of passion and 
strength. And it may be that, while I struggled to communicate 
with him that afternoon, poor Browder was only alone and cold 
and longing for home and unable, because of his presumed place 
in history, to express so human a sentiment. 

But what Thomas conveyed was no sense of critical place in 
history (when I knew him any such hope was fading) but rather 
a feeling that there is something glorious about being forever 
engaged. He seemed always just back from the side of the share- 
croppers or from being egged by the friends of Frank Hague. In 
that guise, he represented the only available piece of that buried 
tradition of the American radical about which John Dos Passes 
wrote. The old libertarian dream of spending one's life in lonely 
combat against every form of enslavement, to the extent that it 
was not a Communist confusion, appeared to us to have no vessel 
but Norman Thomas. There were times when he seemed to be- 
come shrill and bitter, just as there were times when he took the 
wrong road out of an inner need to take some road rather than 
not to be involved. 

But I can remember him at his best sitting in the press room at 
the 1952 Democratic convention reading the platform of this 
party which had all but destroyed him as a politician. It was a 
platform fitted with planks from the Socialist program of twenty 
years earlier, full of promises of more social security, unemploy- 
ment insurance, and special safeguards for labor and the farmer. 
Thomas said that night that he could feel a certain pride of 
authorship now: these things, now taken for granted, had seemed 
so wild when he began. America was, he decided, an extraordi- 
nary country, if it could change like this and remain so much the 
same. He seemed then to understand that his life had not been a 

The hardest experience for the doctrinaire radical is to have 
someone else create the things which he demands and to have 


history write its credit lines across someone else's tombstone. The 
resolution of that agony was Norman Thomas' triumph. 

And the hardest thing to do with your youth is not to justify 
or apologize for it but simply to accept it. The thirties in their 
way were the youth of almost every protagonist in these studies; 
some grew up in them and others thought they were reborn in 
them. They are my youth too, and I think I share with most of 
these persons the memory of a common illusion, from which 
some are freed, by which some were destroyed, and which others 
still clutch to their disaster. 

We were, most of us, fleeing the reality that man is alone upon 
this earth. We ran from a fact of solitude to a myth of com- 
munity. That myth failed us because the moments of test come 
most often when we are alone and far from home and even the 
illusion of community is not there to sustain us. Elizabeth Bent- 
ley was alone when she went into the Communist Party; and 
she was alone when Jacob Golos died, and twice she stood her 
life on its head because she was alone. It is a notion of these 
studies that not politics nor religion was the mainspring of Eliza- 
beth Bentley's life, but the fact of being alone. It is also their 
notion that in the relationship of Whittaker Chambers and Alger 
Hiss a political bond was less crucial than the fact that Whit- 
taker Chambers was trying to get into the middle class and Alger 
Hiss to get out of it, and that each saw in the other his model of 
character. And it is their notion that Whittaker Chambers cried 
out that he had left the winning side for the losing one, not as 
an expression of historical prophecy, but because he believed, in 
his Communist phase, that he was part of a great company; and 
he knew, in his apostasy, that he was all alone. 

Some of the men who died in Spain went to their graves 
recognizing that they were alone at the moment of death; many 
others did not I would not argue that the fortunate are those 
who die young; but when a man tenders all of himself for a 
myth of community, his choice is very often between early death 
and later disillusion. 

Part of our flight from reality was at the simplest level. It does 
not seem an accident that the calendar of events which shook 
the persons in this book to what they thought were their depths 


was so different from the calendar of events which shook most 
Americans. In forming the committed, for good or ill, the Sacco- 
Vanzetti case seems, as I have said, more important than the 
great depression; a hunger march on Washington more memora- 
ble than a four-billion-dollar public relief program; and John L. 
Lewis' endorsement of Wendell Willkie in 1940 more profound 
than the election itself. 

For most of the real history of the thirties went on outside 
while the committed were legislating an historical myth. The 
thirties met their problems, or at least beat them back a little 
while and held the door open. Hitler, unemployment, the crisis 
of capitalism all the things the revolutionaries said could only 
be solved on their terms the America of the thirties met and 
dealt with, to a degree at least, and with very little help from 
most of us. 

The failure of the ideas which obsessed so many of the radicals 
of the thirties did not lie in that part of them which was against 
the stream of our national history, for there is a not-inglorious 
record of an American radicalism which swam against the stream. 
The part that failed was the part which rode with a stream that 
was outside America. Most of our subjects were not rebels; they 
were rather persons desperate to conform or to enforce con- 

The concept of a revolutionary dictatorship is old in many 
histories, but it remains an alien idea in America. The best in- 
stance of that from the thirties is not communism but fascism, 
which was the dominant revolutionary impulse in their world. 
The American fascist movement might as well not have existed 
so far as its effect on history is concerned. The totalitarianism 
which threatened America in the thirties was never internal de- 
spite all efforts to make it appear so; it was embodied in the 
armies of Germany, Italy, and Japan. In the same way, the threat 
to us today is the Soviet Union's possession of nuclear weapons. 
It is a measure of the domestic peril of Communist ideas that, if 
Julius Rosenberg was responsible for the Soviets having the atom 
bomb, this man, apparently unequipped to organize the shabbiest 
Marxist study group, did more to advance the cause of revolution 
in America than the whole Communist National Board. 


For the life of the American revolutionary who was not en- 
gaged in espionage was lived without even ultimate effect on 
the consciousness of the people around him. It was dedicated to 
the degree that it was alienated. And, at those moments when 
it touched real events, it was changed beyond recognition. 

The history of European communism is a history of death, 
terror, suffering, and hard courage. These people, say what you 
will of them, are in history. When Ignazio Silone predicts that 
the final conflict will be between Communists and ex-Commu- 
nists, he speaks from a nation which feels the Communist prob- 
lem as a piece of its very soul. But to say that in America, in 
peacetime, the ultimate struggle will be between Communists 
and ex-Communists is to make yourself ridiculous. 

Yet the imagery of the European experience clutters the recol- 

lection of those ex-Communists who are presented to us as the 

great teachers on the struggle of our time. For these are men 

who used up their lives in the dream of Europe's barricades and 

in the reality of isolation. That isolation is the hardest memory 

of all for them to bear; they must say that it was terribly serious 

and apocalyptic; they must describe the little indignities which 

drove them out as horrors on the grand scale; and they must 

cling to the European image of the Bolshevik as a piece of iron, 

as immune to mercy as to torture, incorruptible, implacable, and 

infinitely superior to the soft and careless ordinary citizen. Their 

model remains the Communist in Mans Fate, who knew that to 

lose was to die and carried his cyanide pill with him for that end. 

But where are the American Bolsheviks? Even Whittaker 

Chambers is reported to have said once that he and Alger Hiss 

were the only true Bolsheviks he ever met in the United States. 

Robert Thompson is the only instance of the pure breed I can 

think of who had been at large in the United States, and he 

appears to have been lost here. If we are to believe her story 

and J. Edgar Hoover appears to believe it implicitly Elizabeth 

Bentley must have been one of the most effective Communists in 

the Party's history; and Miss Bentley, by her own account, was a 

silly little woman with as much relation to the iron Bolshevik as 

tea to wood alcohol. 

Even so, the European image distracted those who thought of 


themselves as revolutionaries in the thirties. It distracts a good 
many persons still. I remember one former Communist who had 
gone on to success in Hollywood and, long after he had left the 
Party, was summoned in the fifties before the House Committee 
on Un-American Activities. He had no fresh information; he was 
being ordered to a ritual of absolution. He had no wish to lie or 
seek the Fifth Amendment, both being courses which he recog- 
nized as being degrading and impractical. His first impulse was 
to defy the committee and accept the chance of disgrace. Then 
he had a long talk with a famous refugee, an ex-Communist still 
carrying the dust of a dozen fascist prisons, where he had been 
tortured and had occasionally cracked under torture. This ghost 
of the Old World explained that there are degrees of pain which 
even the most principled man cannot be expected to stand. His 
conscience thus cleared, the beleaguered went before the Un- 
American Activities Committee and told what little he knew. It 
seemed to him irrelevant that the racks of Europe were miles 
away from the gentle, weary inquisitions of Committee Counsel 
Frank Tavenner and Europe's perils much more ultimate than 
the ouster from a confiscatory tax bracket which is so often the 
most extreme sacrifice required of the radical brought before the 
bar of counterrevolution. He was free of the fringes of the myth 
of the thirties; he remained locked in its center. 

I cannot escape a certain sympathy for Whittaker Chambers, 
because he seems so plainly to have believed and suffered. But, 
when Chambers suffered, he suffered in vacuo; that dark night of 
the soul of which he speaks was a personal and not a political 
affliction; he hardly escaped it by leaving the Communists. The 
strongest feature in the careers of Elizabeth Bentiey and Cham- 
bers, who lived as Communists more intensely than most in the 
thirties, is that their experiences were so empty. These are the 
dullest spy stories in history, and spying is a dull business: Eliza- 
beth Bentiey on a park bench in dragging conversation with Bill 
Remington; Chambers sitting all day in the Hiss apartment 
without so much as a respectable book to read, or riding the day 
coach to New York to be chivvied by a Russian. I have heard it 
argued that the Bendey story is so terrible because she is such a 


drab. But that is an argument using exterior reality to cover the 
absence of inner passion, because Elizabeth Bentiey was only 
passionate when she was a woman wailing for her demon lover 
or holding back her tears at Yasha's chill funeral; she is just 
an office wife when she discusses the housekeeping details o 
Yasha's business, which happened to be espionage. 

There were Communists who bore the loneliness of their life 
in America by reminding themselves of the early Christians, 
although Chambers is the only person in this book who appears 
to have seriously connected himself with that image. And yet 
their kinship with the early Christians was most often a kinship 
with the Augustine who prayed unto the Lord to make him pure 
but not yet, or with Spintho, the backslider of Androcles and the 
Lion, who said at the supreme test of his faith: 

*T11 repent afterwards. I fully mean to die in the arena: 111 die 
a martyr and go to heaven; but not this time, not now, not until 
my nerves are better. Besides I'm too young; I want to have just 
one more good time/' 

Very few of them understood that safety and security are 
themselves sinful. It is strange how many of the Communists, 
those dominant radicals of the thirties, had characters shaped by 
the conditions under which the daily lives of most were a matter 
of deferring their test and concealing their aims. There were 
cases when this concealment suited the Party's convenience; but 
there were far more cases where it suited the individual's con- 
venience. There were, as an instance, many more covert than 
open Communists in the student movement, where being an open 
Communist could hardly have been fatal. My first public act as a 
member of the Young Communist League was to resign and pro- 
claim my allegiance to the Young Socialists. There have never 
been many places in America where it was more pleasant to be an 
open Communist than an open anti-Communist And yet I think 
we would have helped ourselves as human beings if we had been 
public Communists; concealment is not good for a man, especially 
when it is concealment for his own advantage. The guilt of 
disguising ourselves was the worst guilt most Communists ac- 
quired in the thirties; for whenever they deceived anyone about 


their true allegiance, they had told a lie and were adding that 
much more to the burden of solitude which had made so many 
of them Communists in the first place. 

In most cases where a Communist was asked to function in the 
real world, the adoption of disguise and the need to function as 
something he was not did the most terrible violence to his nature. 
If Hollywood was a reality, the life of the Communists there can 
be taken as the pattern of the life of Communists everywhere 
they joined the service of the enemy: they subverted the enemy's 
castle far less than the comforts of the enemy's castle subverted 
them. The Hollywood Communists, whatever their conscious in- 
tent, were unable to corrupt the movies with their ideas; the 
movies corrupted them and they got rich fabricating empty ba- 
nalities to fit Hollywood's idea of life in America. It has been 
argued that their heavy financial contributions to the Communist 
movement were a menace to our safety. But a Leninist would 
answer that movies of the sort they wrote corrupted the working 
class to an extent which inhibited the successful propagation of 
revolutionary ideas far more than their tithes advanced it. Some 
of them, now that Hollywood is barred, have turned to the manu- 
facture of open Communist propaganda; it is a measure of com- 
munism's hold on the American soul that none of them would 
write as revolutionaries if they could make a living at anything 

There were, of course, two groups in these studies who were 
open Communists. Most of the Communist sailors who built the 
National Maritime Union were quite frank about their affiliation; 
they inhabited one of the few areas in America whose inmates 
were alienated by the fact of their condition and not by interior 
quarrel, and where it was possible to proclaim yourself a Com- 
munist. They joined the Party out of a hunger close to physical, 
the oldest of them at least; when that hunger was appeased 
and they were no longer alienated, they departed without a back- 
ward glance. 

The writers of the proletarian novels were, more often than not, 
open Communists too. Theirs was an interior quarrel; alienation 
is the brood mare of writers. And they were drawn from their 
own inner struggle to seek the company of men like themselves 


and the flame of exterior inspiration from a revolutionary work- 
ing class. They must have had the sense that if an exterior inspira- 
tion would make them better writers, it was worth the price of 
political neutrality. For they at least understood that, to test the 
idea that to be a Communist meant to be a better writer, it was 
necessary to write as a Communist. After a while most of them 
learned, as every writer has to learn, that they were alone and 
that there were no crutches. When they made that discovery, 
their fires were out; they were hammering the cold iron and they 
had lost their chance. 

The sailors pursued reality and the writers pursued fantasy; 
and, if one group survived and the other went under, it was per- 
haps because one group pursued its function and the other 
sought to escape it But most of the other Communists in these 
studies pursued their function in disguise. Their inner and their 
outer selves were alike a mask. Lee Pressman could not have 
functioned as an open Communist; he was forced to a disguise 
which oppressed him so much that he all but threw it away at 
moments of private discourse. He was unhappy concealing his 
aims; when he had to choose between his own beliefs and those 
of his employer, he made the choice voluntarily. And yet, when 
he had made it, the habit of fiction was hardest for him to sur- 
render; harsh, solitary existence with the Communists in America 
was an unbearable reality; he found himself alone, and departed* 

This lie this double level of existence was the only crime 
committed by most Communists in the thirties, but it was not a 
small crime. The Communists are the only political party in our 
history with a great body of members consistently embarrassed 
to admit their allegiance. They tried at once to possess their 
dream and live outside it When men follow that course for 
twenty years and are finally brought to crisis under it, they tend 
to act badly; and I do not think anyone could argue that the Com- 
munists of the thirties have acted well in the fifties. And, when 
the young adopt such a course, it does not long sustain itself in 
the face of maturity, which is the primary reason, I think, why 
so many of the young Communists of the thirties have simply 
gone away. 

The guilt of those enchained by the myth of the thirties was not 


the Moscow trials or a slave labor camp in Kamchatka or an as- 
sault upon Finland, because none of those things was a reality 
in their lives. It was not even the pursuit of fantasy, because 
fantasy is not serious so long as it is not malignant. Their guilt 
was lying to and about themselves, and all the mean, uncounted 
little tricks which so many of the repentant now blame on a 
doctrine but which they were quite capable of thinking up and 
executing all by themselves, I do not think it entirely my jaundice 
which has left these studies so barren of remembered acts of 
mercy or kindness or fraternity; I think that void exists because 
there was less kindness, justice, and brotherhood in the radicals 
of the thirties than in any other group of radicals in our history. 

For Lee Pressman, telling Gardner Jackson that he is too old 
and of no future use, was not a man who required instructions 
from Josef Stalin. Anne Moos Remington, arguing in the last 
ditch that, if she testified against her husband, he would have to 
go to prison and she to work, had nothing to learn from the wives 
of Lenin and Karl Marx. And Joseph Curran, not even a Com- 
munist, turning a face of stone to men with whom he had worked 
for so many years, was no product of Bolshevik education. As 
George Orwell has said, it is a waste of time to be angry, but the 
stupid malignity of this kind of thing does try one's patience. But 
it is the malignity of individuals; it is a malignity common to us 
all, and I certainly, and you perhaps, cannot escape it by blaming 
it upon a political doctrine. 

I tend, coming back from them, to think of the thirties as a 
time when we represented an island of guilt surrounded by a 
sea of innocence. America went on about us, largely unconscious 
of us. And that was in some ways the best of times. It was a time 
when men in factories raised their heads and fought for a con- 
ception of their freedom and took a great part of it It was a time 
when the Negro began to fight for all his rights as a citizen. It was 
a time when this nation decided that man has a duty to the lowest 
of his brothers. Whether I am proud of myself in that period has 
nothing to do with the fact that I am proud of my country, 
prouder than I am now. For America then was not afraid of the 
persons in these studies because it was not afraid of itself. It knew 
then that the very many were too healthy to worry about inf ec- 


tion from the very few. We were only a part of our time; it was 
our illusion that we were the most important part, but most 
Americans knew that we were not, and they were right. There re- 
main some today who would tell us that we were the most im- 
portant part of our time. If a nation of the healthy chooses to be- 
lieve that its history was made by a little group of the sick, then 
it is in peril of the mistake only a few made in the thirties, trad- 
ing the real for the malignant unreal. 

We have not been here studying persons who were so very 
good or so very evil. I do not believe that the worst enemy of 
Lee Pressman or Alger Hiss or J. B. Matthews or Whittaker 
Chambers could really think that any crime any of them com- 
mitted is matched by the totality of his destruction. If ever four 
men have gone to hell on earth, it is these four one in disgrace, 
one in prison, and two in the world's eyes quite successful. They 
were very different men; they appear to have been together at 
one point in the thirties and now they are all alone. 

And the fall of each was a fall of singularity, for each had a 
weakness from which no creed or call could summon him. Alger 
Hiss could not be a Communist organizer; he gave his car to one 
as surrogate for him. Lee Pressman could bring himself to leave 
comfort and safety for the lonely affirmation of what he thought 
he believed; but he had to temper the wind with the largest fee 
he could get on the way out. J. B. Matthews cried out for every 
strike except the one against himself. Whittaker Chambers was 
the great hope of revolutionary letters; and he left them at 
his own request to be an underground man. And the last thing 
any of them expected was to be defeated and alone. 

But there has been a radical in America whose tradition was 
defeat and whose end was community. His was a voice almost 
stilled among the radicals of the thirties; and now, at a time when 
the radicals of the thirties have been driven to cover or recanta- 
tion or dreadful isolation, we listen for his voice again. He was the 
radical who dared to stand alone, to whom no man called out in 
vain, to whom the lie was dishonorable and the crawl degrading. 
He would, I think, have found it in himself to pity Matthews, 
Chambers, Pressman, and Hiss alike because there would have 
been a part of each of them in him. I think of him as perhaps like 


Sam Levinger, who is dead in a grave which is either unmarked or 
desecrated in Franco's Spain and who wrote before he died: 

Comrades, the battle is bloody and the war is long, 
Still let us climb the gray hills and charge the guns. 

Those are tired words, and they have absorbed all the agony 
which is the truth of life. They are resigned, but they are unde- 
feated. They do not suggest that somebody else charge the guns. 
They know the worst, but they will make the charge themselves. 
I miss them very much and I wish we had them back. 


*7 have my own stake in the thirties. I was in high school when 
Roosevelt was inaugurated; I belonged for a little while to the 
Young Communist League, and thereafter to the Socialist Party. 
The thirties were a part of my life like any other; I am aware that 
there are things in it for which I must apologize; I am also aware 
that in the whole of my life there will be many things for which I 
must apologize, under what have to be compulsions stronger than 
a Congressional subpoena." 

This self-introduction by the author, in the Prelude to his book, 
leaves out some of his qualifications to be not a judge but an en- 
gaged spectator of what has happened to his generation. 

MUBBAY KEMFTON was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1917. 
His great-great-grandfather was James Murray Mason, author of 
the Fugiti'oe Slave Act of 1850 and later Confederate Ambassador 
to Great Britain. But two generations farther back, Masons grand- 
father, George Mason, was the author of the Virginia Bill of 

After Mr. Kempton's graduation from the Johns Hopkins Uni- 
versity, the u>ar took him to the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific with 
the grade of corporal. Since the end of the war he has been a 
newspaperman,, specializing for some time in labor news. At pres- 
ent he is a columnist for the New Jork Post.