(Ann Arbor, MI: Maize Books, 2015), 406 pp., $37.50.
Few figures on the left have managed to so define a field of study that their absence would seem incomprehensible to anyone looking at research and writing in the area. It is the accomplishment of Alan M. Wald to have positioned himself, after decades of writing encompassing eight books, hundreds of book chapters, journal articles, and essays, and a constant outpouring of reviews, obituaries and reflections, as the undisputed authority on America’s literary left from its unprecedented era of arrival during the Great Depression to its difficult denouement in what the blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo designated the Cold War “time of the toad.”
Wald achieved this authority via a somewhat circuitous, if understandable, political route. It could easily have been scapegoated as sectarian. Instead it consolidated a deserved and undeniable stature. Wald’s first books, ordered by overtly Trotskyist sensibilities and substance, addressed thinkers and doers unmistakably associated with the dissident minority communists of the Left Opposition. His 1978 study of James T. Farrell’s revolutionary socialist years was followed by a pathbreaking 1983 account of the contrasting revolutionary imaginations of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan, graduates of the Harvard Poetry Society and the Socialist Party who became committed Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers Party during the later 1930s. Wald’s brilliant expositions of dissident communist literature were capped by his influential account of Trotskyism’s decisive importance in shaping the iconic cohort responsible for founding Partisan Review, Commentary, Politics, and Dissent. These magazines of critique, commentary, and creative expression were nurtured in the crucible of Jewish internationalism, radical modernism, dissident revolutionary left currents within the Communist Party, and non-partisan labor-political defense campaigns such as the John Dewey-chaired hearings (held in Mexico City in 1937) on the Moscow Trials.
Wald’s The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (1987) utilized interviews and biographical detail to mount a historically informed and politically poised account of a formidable intellectual circle. It included Farrell, Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Irving Kristol, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Podhoretz, Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, Max Eastman, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling and others. But Wald also expanded the boundaries of conventional literary studies by including other figures such as the maverick Harvey Swados, two of the founders of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon and Max Shactman, and the mercurial James Burnham. It was the latter’s political movement from left to right that captured the sad trajectory of the New York intellectuals over their longue durée from the 1930s to the 1980s.
Wald’s literary criticism and his conception of lineages, then, was not much marked by the ‘high theory’ of Marxists like Fredric Jameson, or the postmodern pyrotechnics of 1990s scholarship with its recourse to abstract (often French) authority. Rather it was biographical and historical, scrutinizing and evaluating the aesthetics of specific texts and emerging genres within a contextualization both personal and unashamedly political.
Having spent the first phase of his career challenging literary studies to both include the revolutionary imagination and expand its compass beyond circles recognized within official Communism, Wald shifted the accent of his inquiries in the 1990s. He turned his attention to writers whose affiliations were less dissident than they were congruent with the Stalinized CP milieu, albeit doing so in ways that often addressed writers on the margins of mainstream leftism. Wald’s subjects were now more likely to combine their aesthetic and Marxist commitments with other attachments, among them affinities to collective experiences of ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. The culmination of this project, a wonderfully evocative trilogy, appeared from 2002-2012: Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left; Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade; and American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War.
This rather potted synopsis does anything but justice to Wald’s contribution. But it does suggest his range. That long reach, and his growing stature as the authority on the American literary left, insured that graduate students would flock to Wald. They would find in him an inspiring teacher, a committed mentor, an open-minded and diligent supervisor, an enthusiast whose curiosity and passion proved infectious. Wald’s rise as a scholarly authority also meant that he was routinely sought out by colleagues. He was legendary for the help he provided, and for his encyclopedic knowledge. Small wonder, then, that as Wald prepared for his retirement as the H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor of English Literature and American Culture at the University of Michigan in 2014, where he had taught for almost four decades, former graduate students organized an impressive symposium in his honor. The resulting festschrift, Lineages of the Literary Left, is an appropriately expansive collection, organized in suitably chosen sections addressing poetry, fiction, history, and biography. The book closes with Wald’s autobiographical reminiscences and a comprehensive bibliography of his writings.
The editors, all former students of Wald, introduce the volume with an essay that explores how their mentor’s method of searching out the biographical details of a writer’s life and relating this to political affiliations and involvement in specific movements influenced students and their approach to a wide array of subjects. Of the 21 essays in the volume, many deal with the experiences of blacks and women, a reflection of how important race and gender became in Wald’s excavations of narrative structures and popular culture.
The scope of the collection is wide. In the poetry section Sarah Ehlers’ exploration of the significance of New Masses poet Genevieve Taggard and Rachel Rubin’s discussion of how two radical poets of the 1940s, one an African American (Langston Hughes) and the other a white southerner (Don West), used their classrooms in Atlanta universities to conduct a dialogue around an activist poetics, is particularly noteworthy. Dayo F. Gore looks at the unexamined 1950s poetic and CP activist life of Beulah Richardson, who would later, under the name Beah Richards, go on to a celebrated career as a stage and television actress, an early milestone being her 1967 Oscar-nominated role as Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Charlotta Bass, editor of the venerable voice of west coast blacks, the California Eagle, is the centerpiece of Robbie Lieberman’s study of the peace movement and the African American left in the early years of the Cold War. If iconic novels such as Ellison’s Invisible Man receive treatment by one of Wald’s students, Nathaniel Mills, so too does the pulp fiction of the more obscure Len Zinberg (Ed Lacy), whose boxing novel, Walk Hard – Talk Loud (1950) appears briefly in Wald’s Trinity of Passion and is addressed usefully and deeply as a class-inflected Popular Front production by Joseph G. Ramsey. Heather Bowen-Struyk addresses the reprinting of an eighty-year-old proletarian novella, Kobayashi Takiji’s The Crab Cannery Ship (1929), and how it resonates today with Japan’s youthful precariat, while Howard Brick offers a discussion of Eric Wolf, Immanuel Wallerstein and visions of global capitalism.
No short review could possibly summarize and comment substantively on all the essays and issues on offer in this collection. This in itself is a reflection of Wald’s reach, and how he translated that to young scholars. What is perhaps surprising, however, is how little most of the essays seem to have been affected by the political stance which figured forcefully in Wald’s initial scholarly project, anti-Stalinism. The editors note in their introduction that many of the essays in the volume “raise the vexed question of Stalinism” (xix). A few essays, to be sure, address Stalinism, among them Julia L. Mickenberg’s “Dancing for Stalin: Pauline Koner’s ‘Russian Days’ and the Question of Stalinism,” and Bill Mullen’s “Wrestling with the Legacy of Stalinism: Recent Scholarship on W.E.B. Du Bois and the Left.” Nonetheless, the analytics and politics of this interrogation of “the revolution betrayed” are underdeveloped at best. Wald’s evolving perspective on Stalinism, insisting that the term, if utilized as a shibboleth, can oversimplify, reducing the artistic imagination of those associated with a political organization to stereotypical caricature, is nuanced and sophisticated. In the writings collected in this volume, however, Stalinism often appears as little more than unfortunate background noise.
This is also the case with respect to Stalinism’s Left Opposition, Trotskyism. Indeed, in Cary Nelson’s “Marx, Stalin, and Derrida: The Continuing Tension among Marxist Theory, Soviet Communism, and the Poststructuralist Revolution,” Trotskyism is represented as having passed “into the abyss of historical marginality.” Nelson declares that both he and Wald have had to “confront this recognition,” with Nelson concluding that Trotskyism, while it may once have had a place in the pantheon of the American left, is now “largely an antiquarian interest” (322).
This is a confident denigration, and one that sits uncomfortably, in my view, with Nelson’s ultimate conclusion that the Red decade of the 1930s has lessons that still resonate today, a pedagogy of the oppressed and the dissident that – in both chastening and inspiring ways – we dismiss at our peril. Whether Wald himself shares Nelson’s view of Trotskyism’s present-day irrelevance is open to question. Wald’s closing statement, an elegant evocation of his development as a political being and scholar, is sufficiently reflective to insist that a central issue on the left remains “how to prevent power from being abused” (364). This is not separable from the issue of Stalinism and the actuality of Trotskyism as an alternative. It can also be posed against Trotskyism itself, although not necessarily in ways that relegate it entirely to Nelson’s postmodern dustbin. To be sure, Wald sees the signs in the streets defiantly pointed against traditions associated with the Left Opposition. He states, plaintively I think, that if the populist anarchism of our times manages to displace socialism in the parlance of the future American left, then his recent work, encapsulated in his trilogy addressing communism and modernism from the 1930s into the 1960s, would be little more than an “archaeological treatise” (375). It follows that an even earlier body of work, in which Wald addressed anti-Stalinism, would be even more arcane.
But history, fortunately, does not work this way. What is seemingly buried is never really dead. It can always be resurrected. Ideas and recovered experiences are more than relics, to be carefully dredged up and placed in museums. Revolutionary traditions and perspectives ebb and flow with changing circumstances. What today seems lost and abandoned can, tomorrow, be revived and used. Socialism and its many wellsprings, including the lineages of the literary left that Wald has done so much to reclaim for those of us who believe that a better world is always possibly in birth, are available to us as critical resources in our futures, uncertain as these may be.
Reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada