- Litany of the Left: Alan M. Wald’s American Literary Left Trilogy
At the 2010 meeting of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, poet and activist Sonia Sanchez began a plenary session with a list of names—some familiar, many obscure, all deeply linked to the history of human rights struggles—which she intoned in a steady cadence punctuated by trills, beats, yips, and other non-lexical vocables. The nominal flood continued for several minutes, rolling past politeness in its insistent surging rhythm, reminding the audience that justice is made up of the currents of individual human lives and our memories of them.
From Bernard Abramovsky to Len Zinberg, literary scholar Alan M. Wald has offered his own version of Sanchez’s litany in the form of an important trilogy of books published by the University of North Carolina Press over the last decade and now sold in an omnibus edition as the American Literary Left Trilogy. These books—Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Left; Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade; and American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War—reconstruct what Wald calls, borrowing from Josephine Herbst, “the humanscape” of the literary Left from the 1920s to the early 1960s (Exiles, p. 6). In them Wald strives to: [End Page 702]
return to memory dozens of extraordinarily talented writers of unique and pioneering texts who have “disappeared” from cultural history, while reassessing scores of others who have been appraised out of context (that is, without taking into account the author’s Left commitments) due to the still existing secrecy about activities of the Literary Left during the Cold War.[Exiles, p. 6]
Wald has not been alone in this reconstructive history. In contrast with social, cultural, and political historians’ focus on the rise of mass culture, consumerism, industrial unionism, and the welfare state, for literary scholars recovery of the Left has been the dominant model of scholarship on the American 1930s since Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left (1961) and James Gilbert’s Writers and Partisans (1968). Lost texts and authors of the Left gained even more (and largely celebratory) attention at the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when Wald’s own The New York Intellectuals (1987), Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery (1989), Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor and Desire (1991), Barbara Foley’s Radical Representations (1993), Laura Browder’s Rousing the Nation (1998), and William J. Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left (1999) offered crucial insights into the cultural landscape of the interwar Left. Since that time, a number of scholars have explored this territory.
Wald’s commitment to the humanscape is what sets his trilogy apart from other studies. Combining biographical and psychological reconstruction from archives and interviews, close readings of creative and critical work, and theorization of the role and form of literature, his method is similar in some respects to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological “field of cultural production” analytic, but also more expansive. The sociological method emphasizes authors’ collective affiliation with specific institutions—organizations, journals, religious groups—and the ideas they represent, often generating a snapshot of the human and ideational networks among these institutions. Wald maps these networks, but also details the fluid courses of lives to generate a sense of the contingency and variability within and among them. His analysis of literary texts reveals...