Politics in Life
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Politics in Life
Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical
Larry Ceplair & Christopher Trumbo
University of Kentucky Press
www.kentuckypress.com
640 Pages; Print, $40.00

inline graphicOne of the dangers for a biographer, particularly when their subject shares the same ideology, is to display their love for them. This temptation is never truer for the Cold War Left and New Left than with regard to Dalton Trumbo—the author of the anti-war classic, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), and the screenwriter who singlehandedly broke the blacklist.

This is not surprising for an Old Left buffeted by declassified documentation that revealed their cause celebres Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs to be Soviet spies. Since Trumbo was not a spy, they can freely celebrate him without looking over their shoulders for damning revelations. He fulfills their needs in a way Hiss and company never did. For the Left, he was both a victim (of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a Hollywood that blacklisted him) and a hero by breaking the blacklist. Moreover, they have bought into his role as an avatar of free speech. This has required careful editing, for Trumbo was indeed a Communist Party member, whose Stalinism was in need of airbrushing.

Surprisingly, Larry Ceplair, a historian whose biases fall into what was once during the Cold War called an “anti-anti-communist,” avoids airbrushing and qualifiers. Except for a few instances, Ceplair, and amazingly enough, the late Christopher Trumbo, Dalton’s son, present Trumbo with warts and all.

This doesn’t mean that Ceplair doesn’t follow the familiar leftist trick of rigging the game in his subject’s favor. Ceplair makes three easily refutable assertions that (a) one shouldn’t view Trumbo through a political lens; (b) that he never publicly, and certainly not privately, defended the Soviet Union; and (c) that Trumbo applied the same complexity to the Right as he did to the Left.

The first slights Trumbo, for he was very much a political animal. As Trumbo says in one passage in the book, writers should marry their literary efforts to their politics (“politics is life”). A simple look at the historical record—which to his credit Ceplair supplies—shows that Trumbo spent enormous amounts of time as an unpaid political activist. In the 1930s, he helped found the Screen Writers’ Guild, an open shop union, which forced by the animus of studio heads, met in the same kind of secrecy that the Party engaged in. Disturbed by the “growing pro-war fervor” among liberals and leftists, Trumbo wrote the anti-war work, Johnny Got His Gun (1939). In the 1940s, he wrote pamphlets defending labor leader Harry Bridges; the opening of a Second Front in Europe to aid the Soviet Union; a defense of those Mexicans accused of and imprisoned for killing a fellow gang leader, in what was known as the Sleepy Lagoon case; campaigning for FDR during the 1944 election; and defending a particularly vicious strike against the studios in 1945 (ironically the behavior of Trumbo’s side, particularly with the leg-breaking tactics of a pro-Soviet labor leader named Herbert Sorrell pushed the self-described “bleeding heart liberal” Ronald Reagan into the anticommunist camp). He also edited the industry magazine The Screenwriter. While he awaited the decision of the Supreme Court regarding whether he would be imprisoned for refusing to answer political questions from HUAC, Trumbo wrote a pamphlet, The Time of the Toad (1949) defending the right of free speech for his fellow defendants, known as the Hollywood Ten. Even while obsessed by the blacklist, he still managed some political work. He wrote a pamphlet to exonerate eleven members of the American Communist Party who were imprisoned for their supposed support of overthrowing the government. In the 1960s and 1970s, he moved beyond attacking the blacklist to attacking the US effort in Vietnam.

His was quite the political life, and as such, it provides an entry into understanding Trumbo as a complex and contradictory figure.

Ceplair is on equally shaky ground regarding Trumbo’s supposed refusal to defend, publicly or privately, the Soviet Union. The record says otherwise. Trumbo attacked...


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