Monday, November 9, 2009

Red Literature

Also interesting are the various literary allusions Schlesinger makes, notably Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos. He doesn't spend too much time on this but notes the growing disillusionment with big business and the flirting with communism that was occurring in America at the time. Babbit became synonymous with the petty small-minded businessman. Dos Passos went much further, turning his back on socialism, which he compared to drinking "near-beer," and embracing communism. Seems this shift got an even bigger endorsement when Lincoln Steffens concluded in his Autobiography that "All roads in our day lead to Moscow." (pp. 207-209) Schlesinger also notes how the Sacco and Vanzetti case galvanized such diverse writers as Edna St. Vincent Millay and John Dos Passos against the conservative paranoia that was sweeping the country.

Schlesinger notes in a later chapter that for many intellectuals in 1932 "the Communist party alone proposed the real solution -- 'the overthrow of the system which is reponsible for all crises.' Here was an ideal worth fighting for, and a 'practical and realizable ideal, as is being proved in the Soviet Union.' " Among those supporting the Communist Party were novelists Sherword Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Erskine Caldwell, Waldo Frank, John Dos Passos, and critics Edmund Wilson, Granville Hicks, Malcolm Cowley, and journalists Lincoln Steffens, Matthew Josephson and Ella Winter. (pp. 436-37)


  1. The comments in the book about Sacco and Vanzetti were particularly interesting to me. I had no idea it had become such a defining issue for the left and of the scope of the protests. There was one comment -- maybe by Millay? -- that the country would never be the same again.

  2. Millay was one of my mother's favorite poets. Hadn't realized she was to the left on these issues.

  3. He really gives a sense of the loss these people felt. I had no idea of the scope of the intellectual response to the convictions and executions.

    I read these things and wonder what has happened to our intellectual class generally. I know there were a few vocal writers -- like the journalist who wrote in the NYRB about torture -- but it doesn't seem like any of the Bush era atrocities attracted that kind of massive high-level intellectual public response. Maybe there were just too many to collectively respond to.

    It'll be interesting to see what happens as the Afghanistan war drags on (and on and on).

  4. I was sadly disappointed as well. Seems that the more vocal intellectual critics were expats like Gore Vidal, while their American bretheren just slunk into their literary corners and decided to wait Bush out.

  5. There's a new book, Methland,

    which deflates the myth of small town "values," in these modern times.

    Made me think a little of Lewis' Main Street.

  6. I think one of the biggest falacies concocted over the decades has been this myth about small town values, which the Republicans so much love to promote. It is so pervasive that Giuliani and other big city Republicans have stressed their neighborhood origins, trying to draw on such local stories in his failed presidential bid.

    Lewis and Anderson took dead aim at these myths in their novels, showing how crass, superficial and stifling these small towns can be. Nick Reding shows how malicious they can be in his new book. I don't know whether he had a similar political agenda, or just set out to report what he gathered in this Iowa town and let the reader draw his own conclusions.

  7. I have a copy of "Babbitt" and will have time over the Christmas break to read and discuss it.

    Just finishing Faulkner's "The Bear," which was originally published as part of "Go Down, Moses." I picked up "The Bear" because it was recommended as one of the best "environmental" novels in a Time magazine article from some time back in the summer. Not sure about that, but if it gets some people reading Faulkner, I'm okay with that.

    A better "environmental" novel would probably be David James Duncan's "The River Why."