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Reviewed by:
Alan M. Wald. Writing from the Left: New Essays on Radical Culture and Politics. London and New York: Verso, 1994. 243 pp.

Writing from the Left provides a set of powerful and persuasive exercises in “learning lessons, finding ancestors, and resurrecting models of cultural practice” from the literary history of the United States left. The material in this volume builds decisively on Alan Wald’s previous work, notably in The New York Intellectuals (1987) and The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1992), but in the eighteen essays here collected from Wald during this first half of the 1990s, the issue of “radical culture and politics” is presented with an urgency that demands not only a critical anticipation of future visions, but a no less critical reexamination of a literary past that US cultural traditions have alternately suppressed and historically misrepresented. From the “Old Left” to the “New Left,” with a view to a “Next Left,” Wald rereads insistently the “centrality of the Communist experience in US cultural history.” That experience, Wald argues, can neither be eradicated by McCarthyite witch hunt anti-Communism nor eviscerated by liberal appropriations, and this “writing from the left” elicits now both a disciplinary inquiry into cultural artefacts and a committed participation in contemporary political work.

Old Left, New Left, Next Left: these categories are periodized in [End Page 219] Writing from the Left according to the paradigmatic decades of the 30s, the 60s, and the 90s. Crucial to Wald’s inquiry, however, is precisely the question of “what constitutes a decade, a period, a movement,” and each of these chronologized divisions is scrutinized according to its own determinations and the influences from before and after on its respective material and ideological consequences. The temporal moves of radical work from the 1930s to the 1960s are traced spatially as well, from the workplace to the unversity, no less than through the reemphases of gender and race given to that work by the women’s movement, the struggle for civil rights, and the antiwar movement in Vietnam history. The material assembled in Writing from the Left is organized to focus these cultural recombinations precisely in order to further establish historical and political continuities and provide grounds for a renewed culture of resistance at the end of the twentieth century.

In its four sections, Writing from the Left builds on a historicist imperative that chronicles the literary-political developments within the radical left from the 1930s to the present. Such an imperative, however, is consistently questioned by its various dialectically charged constructions and reconstructions across the intervening decades. In Part I, “Rethinking the Classics,” Wald reads the literary critical works of Daniel Aaron (Writers on the Left, 1961), Alfred Kazin (On Native Grounds, 1942), and James T. Farrell (A Note on Literary Criticism 1936) in order then to look at their current reassessments within new frameworks, such as that provided by Paula Rabinowitz in her study of “women’s revolutionary fiction in Depression America” (1991). Such reevaluations are crucial to the second section, “New Approaches,” in which Wald elaborates a set of analyses that query importantly many of the received shibboleths that continue to obstruct a reading of the “Communist experience in US cultural history”: the debate, for example, over the relation between artistic autonomy and official Party membership, the question of Stalin and Stalinism, no less than the criterion of “membership” as a literary and/or political marker. Part III, “Cultural Theory,” builds on these issues, from Trotsky’s literary criticism and professional commitments, to the parameters of “modernism,” and the determinations of race within the history of US left radicalism.

The critique of “speaking for the other,” and the renewed pressures [End Page 220] of race and ethnicity within and without the current academic and political arenas, are the focus of the final section, “Anti-Racism.” This collocation of six short reviews and introductions vitally reports the new grounds of radical cultural projects. Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe (1990), for example, is highlighted for its examination of the connections between the CP-USA and black organizing in Alabama in the 1930s, whereas the reprint of Guy Endore’s Babouk (1934) is the occasion...

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