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  • The Pull of Politics: Steinbeck, Wright, Hemingway, and the Left in the Late 1930s by Milton A. Cohen
  • Susan Shillinglaw (bio)
The Pull of Politics: Steinbeck, Wright, Hemingway, and the Left in the Late 1930s by Milton A. Cohen
University of Missouri Press, 2018. 382 pp. $45.00 cloth

The title of this book is alluring. As we know so very well today, politics pulls us in, even when we struggle against the current. In the late 1930s, the pull was egalitarian—or, to put it another way, the push was against unleashed power—as Milton A. Cohen demonstrates in his detailed study, The Pull of Politics: Steinbeck, Wright, Hemingway, and the Left in the Late 1930s. Cohen makes a convincing case that each writer was drawn to leftist politics in the late 1930s because each recognized how social-political power continued to erode ordinary lives—be that the power of a homegrown "power complex of big landowners, the Associated Farmers, banks and utilities, local government, police, and vigilantes" (California); racism in the U.S.; or international fascism (the Spanish Civil War). Each writer was caught up in the "second wave of leftist appeal," Cohen argues, which attracted many liberals after the Soviets rolled out the Popular Front in 1935 to counter a rising fascist tide in Europe. For each, the urgency of the people's plight called for equally urgent creative responses, groundbreaking works of social engaged fiction: The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. With one foot firmly planted in communist soil, these novelists explored the inherent dignity of what was then called "the common man," workers of the world asking for and fighting for land and home, for freedom, for equality. Neither Steinbeck nor Hemingway was a communist (and Wright dropped his membership twice), but seminal works grew out of their momentary immersion in radical politics. As a 1930s labor organizer told [End Page 96] me once, "you had to be a hunk of protoplasm not to be attracted to communism in the 1930s." Since capitalism seemingly failed so many, as the 1929 crash demonstrated, might another political ideology offer greater hope for ordinary folk? That was a question that engaged all three authors.

Cohen sets down the parameters of his study in a lucid introduction: "I have not tried to discover new facts about the writers, but rather new ways of comparatively understanding the factors that attracted them to and repelled them from the Left, and to trace tensions in their political beliefs and in their great novels." This he does with admirable clarity in a study that touches on the three writers' biographies, their politics, their fine novels that were shaped by leftist ideology, and their gradual withdrawal from radical politics.

Setting up his tightly conceived comparative study, Cohen notes that in the late 1930s, there were several points of contact among the three that justify his selection of Steinbeck, Wright, and Hemingway and ignoring, for example, the seminal leftist writer John Dos Passos, who published his U.S.A. trilogy beginning in 1932, as a whole in 1938. The three novelists who command Cohen's attention were galvanized by what he calls the second wave of communist appeal in America, the Popular Front; all published articles in communist periodicals; all joined the League of American Writers; all three were drawn to documentary film projects—Steinbeck working with Pare Lorentz on Shape of Life and with Herb Kline on The Forgotten Village (1940); all three were investigated by the FBI for possible communist affiliations. And none of the three was a passionate convert to leftist ideals. Each drifted back toward the mainstream after 1940. These novels, in short, captured moments of passionate intensity in each writer's emotional, political, and imaginative life.

Part I of this study surveys each writer's political awakening, in turn. Beginning with a thirty-six-page chapter on Steinbeck, Cohen traces the writer's progression from detached observer—In Dubious Battle—to empathetic, partisan writer. This is a familiar story for many, but Cohen's account, which relies heavily on Jackson Benson's biography of Steinbeck, accurately records the events that led to...


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pp. 96-103
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