- American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War by Alan M. Wald
At the end of this exhaustive study of American "pro-Communist" writers in the 1940s and 1950s, Alan Wald asserts the rationale for his book almost as a postscript: in his "Note on Methodology," he states his belief that "postwar U.S. literature . . . remains an era in search of a critic" (319). That is, by focusing on major literary trends and writers, literary historians studying the late 1940s and 1950s have overlooked or intentionally downplayed an important segment of literary activity from the still active, pro-Communist American left.1 In both focus and method, American Night redresses this absence, defining itself as a "work of social literary history . . . proposing imaginative literature as a communal autobiography of several generations of writers committed to the 1930s vision of advancing a new society" (xii). Wald's appended "note"—which really belongs in the preface—describes an important aspect of this "collective biography": "A particular effort has been devoted to tracing the networks of associations—friends, lovers, comrades—that ran through the pro-Communists literary milieu" (319). Caveat lector!
Written by a distinguished literary historian of the American left, American Night culminates a trilogy that begins in the early 1930s (Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left) and continues with the popular front (Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade). Befitting its diverse and elusive subject matter, the focus of this volume is more scattered, its chapter organization more uneven,2 and its discussion of these writers' political-literary points of view more abstruse. The signal underlying feature of their diverse stances is apparently a tortuous, psychological, and philosophic displacement, often seen as a kind of protective coloration.
Wald's command of his material is deeply impressive. His cast of characters is voluminous, his knowledge of their writing, politics, and private lives encyclopedic. And he delivers this information with the brio of an enthusiast. In the "Note on Methodology," for example, he [End Page 389] acknowledges his book's "passionate sympathy with the Marxist partisans of social justice" (321).
He successfully conveys the political and philosophical dilemmas of his subjects, trapped between rampant anti-communism, a Soviet god with feet of clay, and their still-fervent anti-capitalist beliefs. Moreover, there is much to be said for Wald's determination to explore the unexamined rather than tread familiar paths.
Yet Wald's egalitarian inclusiveness is uneven and quirky. A few names in this politico-literary galaxy—Richard Wright, Kenneth Fearing, James Baldwin—shine with the brilliance of double stars; others—Ann Petry and Chester Himes, for example—still retain a glow for period specialists. But the overwhelming majority of writers discussed in American Night are virtually dark matter, never having radiated light. Discussing them (as well as their friends and lovers, political and literary associates) is more like exhumation than reclamation.3 For example, the book devotes fourteen pages to Samuel Sillen, literary editor of the Daily Worker and Masses & Mainstream in these years, only to conclude that "Sillen produced no critical analyses that are prominent today" and "there are not many [of his] sentences worth quotation" (74). Then why devote fourteen pages to this ideologically rigid bore? In a book about pro-communists, why analyze Wright's anti-communist novel The Outsider so closely? Why focus on Wright's expatriation, but ignore Irwin Shaw's? Why skip over the novels of James Baldwin, who was certainly more leftist than Wright in this period? And what of Langston Hughes?4
Wald's biographical methodology (quoted above) also raises questions about his priorities and about where literature per se fits into them. Do we really need brief biographies of Richard Wright's wives and lovers, whether or not they impinged on his fiction? Do we need to know Willard Motley's various gay lovers or the particulars of the scandal that plagued Henry...