The What Shall We Ask of Writers Can of Worms

by RS on January 2, 2013

I’ve written often that my research is complete, but I confess that there have been a number of times that I think perhaps if I run yet another Google search, I’ll find something new that would help me with Julius.

In November, I was looking for any recollections that any fellow traveler might have had on Alvah Bessie. So in goes Alvah’s name along with Men in Battle and Google comes up with 104,000 results. Because I had nothing better to do, I scanned the pages, I discovered an article I had been searching for written by Alvah for the New Masses was now online.

I clicked on the link, and lo and behold, right in front of my eyes was an archive of the New Masses, which amounted to 16 years worth of issues, or 638 issues, totaling to 11,940 articles. Huzzah!

From 1939 until 1943, Alvah was the drama and literary critic at the magazine before he headed to Hollywood and the Warner Brothers’ concentration camp (nicknamed thus by the screenwriters at WB).  However, even while he wrote screenplays, Alvah contributed to the New Masses.

So why was I so excited by this discovery? I have a copy of “What is Freedom for Writers,” Alvah’s strident retort to Albert Maltz’s “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” I didn’t understand the context of the essay and wanted to read a copy of Maltz’s essay. Unfortunately, the only way I could access it was to go to NYUs Tamiment Center and read it on microfilm. But now, with these archives in hand, I could print them out, read the Maltz piece and understand the wrath of Alvah.

It appeared there was a previous article that started this all. In the fall of 1945, Isidore Schneider, a reviewer at the New Masses, published, “Probing Writers’ Problems,” which opened the discussion on three matters: The State of Marxist Criticism; Contributions of the Left to American Criticism; and The Relation of the Socially Conscious Writer to the Labor Movement.

Schneider’s article essentially opened a can worms among writers of the literary left, even more so after Albert Maltz wrote in response during the winter of 1946, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” Maltz opened his essay with the following:

It has been my conclusion for some time that much of the left-wing artistic activity—both creative and critical—has been restricted, narrowed, turned away from life, sometimes made sterile—because the atmosphere and thinking of the literary left wing has been based upon a shallow approach. Let me add that the left wing has also offered a number of vital intellectual assets to the writer—such as its insistence that important writing cannot be socially idle—that it must be humane in content, etc. Schneider enumerated these assets and I take them here for granted. But right now it is essential to discuss where things have gone wrong—why and how.

The concept of using art as a weapon was something that Maltz struggled and felt conflicted by the entire premise. He added:

The total concept, ‘art as weapon,’ has been viewed as though it consisted of only one word: ‘weapon.” The nature of art—how art may best be a weapon, and how it may not be, has been slurred over. I have come to believe that the accepted understanding of art as a weapon is not a useful guide, but a straight jacket. I have felt this in my own work and viewed it in the works of others. In order to write at all, it has long since become necessary for me to repudiate it and abandon it.

Well, now, those are fighting words. Of course, the essay rose the ire of other contributors, mainly Mr. Bessie who counterattacked with his essay, “What is Freedom for Writers?” and went on to say:

 Let us first examine his overlying thesis, a cliché with which anyone can readily agree: that left-wing criticism in America for too long a time tended to be too narrow, doctrinaire and paralyzing in its effects on both writers and critics. As a former critic for NM who suffered acutely under its sectarian approach to books, plays, and motion pictures, I can utter a fervent Amen to Maltz’s attack.

At the same time it is possible to contend that Maltz is beating a dying horse, for there is more than ample evidence that the Left has been building—slowly and painfully as must be—a sounder Marxist approach to the arts. (The sounder the party of Marxism becomes, the sounder will be its approach to the arts, as well as its approach to the people.)

What is more important, however, is the fact that the approach Maltz castigates, narrow as it was, was never erected into a principle. We have had good Marxists who were bad critics and vice versa (and we still have both), but I cannot remember anyone ever insisting, in the name of Marxism, that art works of any category were automatically to be praised because they said the “right” thing or damned because they said the “wrong” –irrespective of their attributes.

What is so astonishing Maltz’s article, however, after he has disposed of this moth-eaten straw man, is the fact that his basic contentions are not only in-Marxist, but actually anti-Marxist. Perhaps I do Maltz a disservice in this associating him with Marxism, for he nowhere identifies himself in his article as anything more than “a working writer,” whatever that may be. He nowhere states his frame of reference or identifies the point of departure from which he launches what is, objectively, not only an attack on Marxism but a defense of practically every renegade writer of recent years who ever flirted with the working class movement: Farrell, Wright, Fearing. (And why not John Dos Passos?)

I hyperlinked the titles of the articles and urge those of you who are interested in literary matters of the left to read them, and then you can decide for yourselves whether Alvah went overboard with his thoughts (as an FYI for historical context, Maltz after getting verbally beat up backed down from his stance. Years later, Alvah confessed that he had been too hard on his colleague).

 

 

 

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