to: Modernism from Right to Leftby Alan Filreis
Cambridge University Press, 1994
Go to contents page.
Go directly to endnotes.
Do the drummers in black hoods Rumble anything out of their drums? --Wallace Stevens, "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating," 1934
Endnote numbers are given in square brackets. Endnotes are located (for now) at the bottom of the text.
CHRONICLERS AND CRITICS OF THE 1930s have argued among themselves so unremittingly about the cultural role of radicalism that the newest and most intellectually flexible among them are often hindered rather than liberated by the debate. The bitterness of this fighting has made me somewhat reluctant to present Modernism from Right to Left as a call for similar contentiousness to commence among admirers of modern American poetry. It strikes me nonetheless that the almost total absence of such dispute in discussions of this poetry is one of the reasons why an auspicious direction in the study of modernism's relation to the "clever hopes" of that allegedly "low, dishonest decade." remains largely untried. Another reason, not easily documented, is that those rhetorically trained by American doctoral programs in literature during the past forty years to read poets like Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, and to a somewhat lesser extent William Carlos Williams, have not also been attracted to writing that once called itself "revolutionary" in the political sense. After the thirties--one decade when literary radicals were reading these modernists, as I will show--the exceptions have been only very recent. As a corollary to this unwritten professional rule, it might be further supposed that insofar as critics of depression-era writing have, in Cary Ne lson's words, "treat[ed] the political poetry of the period as a unitary phenomenon and reject[ed] it contemptuously (for "unitary" frowningly read "ideological" or even "Stalinist"), critics of Stevens's depression-era writing have congenially embraced his modernism, judging it elastic and accommodating (for these terms happily read "non- ideological" and "anti-Stalinist"). Obviously, the two groups haven't been talking to each other. Why not? Lively and productive, if often bitter, interaction between noncommunists and communists was a fortunate topic of study as soon as, in the 1960s, historians got out from under the proto-Cold War spell of Eugene Lyons's The Red Decade of 1941. Frank Warren's Liberals and Communism (1966) made its rejoinder to Lyons's thesis of "Stalinist penetration of America" not by claiming to the contrary that communism was "at most a very minor influence" on noncommunist thinking in the thirties, but by carefully describing points of intersection and crossing. In one sense, then, my book presents a similar dialogue between those two positions on the matter of poetry, not for the purpose of finding some safe centrism (perhaps Warren's one flaw) but rather to point up a false distinction that separated modernism and radicalism in the first place.
But even such recent revisions of the modernism-radicalism debate as Wald, Nelson, Harvey Teres, Charlotte Nekola, James D. Bloom, Judy Kutulas, and others have recently managed has for professional and methodological reasons not been very easily achieved. Finding "the density, the generic ambiguity, and the understanding of . . . their own status as mediated and mediating"--in other words, qualities ascribed to modernist writing--in the work of Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman, Bloom has traced the "work[s] of recovery" that made his own possible. For every effort to clear the way made by the likes of Daniel Aaron (Writers on the Left) and Marcus Klein (Foreigners) during the busy twenty-year period bordered by these two books (1961-1981), "chronic obstacles" have been set up by the thirties' many retrospective antagonists. Scholars who get past the interpretations of ex- and anti-communists must still then confront those of "the 'Eliotic-Trotskyist' Partisan Review strain" that would reject out of hand Bloom's audacious notion that Gold and Freeman can be read for modernist features. It is because interpretive infighting of this sort has continued among cultural historians of thirties radicalism that such documentary scholars as those named above have been forced not merely to be extra-rigorous, sure- and even slow-footed, and at times very plainly descriptive in reorienting the literary history of the period; indeed, they have had to be "decidedly old-fashioned" (as Houston Baker suggested provocatively on the dust-jacket of Nelson's book) even while demonstrating faithfulness to the postmodern sense that "we resemanticize what we do recover." Trying to put modernism and radicalism together again, these revisionists have been compelled to cast about for unusual (some would say digressive) historical approaches and literally to search for new resources that will enable such self- reflectively reconstructive acts to take place without merely contributing to a half-century-old argument another, however subtler and more luxuriously theorized position, predetermined by either the same old outright dismissals or outright acceptances of communism as a home-grown cultural force.
Wallace Stevens serves extraordinarily well, I contend, in the effort to work through and beyond that old familiar pattern. The choice of Stevens to play such a role, I realize, will strike some as incendiary if not just strange. He will be known to many readers as the author of the ubiquitously anthologized "Sunday Morning" (1915) and perhaps, too, for a series of quintessentially modernist poems-about- poetry in which a spectral second- or third-person pronoun behaves like a depersonalized, meditative I, quietly confessing to an eerily unimportant American life:There is a storm much like the crying of the wind,Readers ask: "Words that come out of us," really, or out of the speaker? And what rankling? And why--and how--so silent? Then, too,
Words that come out of us like words within,
That have rankled for many lives and made no sound. (CP 336)there is a man in black spaceReading such lines, one cannot keep from asking, Is it "we"--really all of us--who "know" this "nothing"? The metrical force and rhetorical straightforwardness of "there is a man" is qualified by this seemingly unearned "we," which seems to draw an equation between, on one hand, some estimable singularity sitting remotely nowhere and, on the other, a powerful collectivity brooding on nothing. In Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (1991), largely a work of literary biography, I characterized Stevens as not so much typically remote as in fact involved, even at times preoccupied, with the world of political events and trends; I described, in short, the extent to which Stevens was capable of meaning more than "oneself" in his lofty-seeming "we." If my choice of the last period of Stevens's life and work, 1939 to 1955, from the beginning of World War II to the middle of the Cold War, was propitious, it was because my purpose could be served by showing Stevens's poetry engaging the issues of an era in which the dominant political culture increasingly featured and officially favored ideological disengagement (the postwar "end of ideology"). The story of American modernism's 1950s--really, its coming of political middle age long after it had come of aesthetic middle age--is also the story of the making of the just-mentioned false distinction, invalidating ways in which radicalism and modernism had interacted in the 1930s in a 1950s-style narrative of the then- outmoded war waged between irreconcilable sides. (And, of course, once the sides were aligned in this way, the winner--nonpolitical modernism--could be declared.) There are many reasons why the thirties present a problem very different from the fifties, but one of them is precisely that what happened to emiment modernists in the earlier period happened before the fifties' invention of the myth of wholly separate radical and modernist spheres. I have already described how in his last years Stevens sensed the revision underway, and how, although his own sense of the thirties could not entirely resist being shaped by the fifties' version, the period was obviously alluring for him. The reaction in the sixties against this fifties version of the thirties, made it hard to trust deconstructions of the myth of separate spheres, such as Stephen Spender's obviously sincere claim that "my own Thirties' generation . . . never became so politicized as to disagree seriously with an older generation of writers who held views often described as 'reactionary.'"
Sits in nothing that we know,
Brooding sounds of river noises. . . . (CP 444)
Any effort to get back to the thirties must spend a good deal of its resources describing the getting back. Participants have tended to return to the period again and again to present their own (revised) views. Their conflicting recollections make the archive fuller but discernment no easier. The old radical lumberman poet, Joe Kalar, predicted in 1970 that "[t]here will never be an end to books about the thirties," and I think he might be right. Similarly, because the myth of separate modernist and communist spheres seems so important to its creators and adherents, there may be no end of speculation as to why "the modernist" Wallace Stevens reacted with such "strange disproportion" to "the communist" Stanley Burnshaw's October 1, 1935, review of Stevens's Ideas of Order in the communist New Masses. Critical debate about the thirties seemed perpetual to Joe Kalar, by 1970 a veteran of many literary wars, because so many of the rhetorical provocations and counterattacks of the period--even the strong and not always fruitless rhetorical tradition of fierce self- criticism--were carrying over into cultural histories dealing with the period. Little or none of this truculence has gotten into Stevens criticism, quite in spite of the fact that a great many full-length studies of Stevens's career, and a number of essays, raise the specter of Burnshaw. Never, for instance, has anyone posed systematically the question of whether Owl's Clover, the poem written largely in response to Burnshaw, discloses anything specific about Stevens's understanding of the issues that gave rhetorical force to the left. Nor, until very recently, have Stevens critics felt prepared to begin with anything but the tired, Cold War-era assumption of "Burnshaw's misdirected Marxism." Nor has it been asked whether the young Burnshaw, with his own special concerns about a moment Stevens's admirers readily assume was wholly his moment, was indeed representative of the cultural communism whose journal he used to evaluate Ideas of Order. In many ways, he was not.
In preparing to write this book, I read extensively in the private papers of communist and noncommunist poets who followed Stevens's efforts poem by poem in the thirties. This study disclosed, among other things, that the question of Burnshaw's representativeness--his having earned the privilege, as it were, to be the one to confront Stevens most forthrightly from the left--was an issue raised at the time. Willard Maas on the communist left and Samuel French Morse on the center-right were among those poets who raised such a doubt. Maas once considered writing about Stevens but soon moved away from modern poetry--toward postmodern film and mixed media--and never did publish on Stevens. Yet that Maas, then a communist, could privately assert, "[i]f I wrote one poem, just one, as good as any in Harmonium  or Ideas of Order , I would be willing to stop writing forever," speaks to the complexity of the situation. And Morse, who in the early fifties befriended Stevens and hatched plans to be his official biographer, told me that he had lost interest in the Burnshaw episode when poets' politics came to seem a less pressing issue than earlier. Perhaps it is only just now possible--with archives, such as Maas's and Burnshaw's, swelling with incoming letters left and right, papers and materials both literary and "ephemeral"--to examine, in ample literary-political context, the noncommunist poet's declarations of interest in communism or the contemporaneous claim for Owl's Clover that it was intended as a "justification of leftism" (L 295), and to speculate in studies of this kind on the degree to which such claims are unreliable.
If we dismiss a nonradical poet's assertion of leftward movement as thoroughly unreliable, should we not then be prepared to explain why a poet as shrewd as Stevens could thus have had such a poor sense of how his poetry situated itself politically? In exposing a poet like Stevens to such a context, I realize that I risk (quite unintentionally) sustaining Irving Howe's chilly 1947 view that Owl's Clover was "rhetoric overrunning thought, a[n] assault upon a subject Stevens was not prepared to confront." My ambition, on the contrary, is to suggest how similar is the risk of reducing Burnshaw to "myopic" and his approach to Stevens as "the coarsest kind of Marxian criticism." Anyone who has read "Notes on Revolutionary Poetry," with its affirmative reference to I. A. Richards, its scolding of reductive communist assumptions about poetic form, its quotation of "revolutionary poems which are plainly precious," would not speak of Burnshaw's unreflective orthodoxy. So, too, those who know of Mary McCarthy's brief grudging praise in 1936 for Burnshaw's grievance against the American Marxist obsession with content--"We have been so much concerned with what the author is saying," Burnshaw had written, "that we have neglected the concomitant question: how does he say it?"--would not assume radicals' dissociation from modernism.
Taking both Stevens and Burnshaw a good deal more seriously, my portrait of the Burnshaw-Stevens episode in Chapters 5 and 6 is meant to be a portrait of American poetry at a crossroads. This stimulating brush with literary radicalism suggests that more eminent modernists than one might have guessed understood how their poems were going to be read by would-be detractors, and that they understood and even adopted a number of basic contemporaneous contentions about poets' standing in American society. In describing this "extraordinary" contact, to use Stevens word for it (L 296), I aim moreover to locate poetic work generally representative of the noncommunist modernist. And I trust that the effort to see thirties poetics through the odd lens of Stevens provides a number of new suggestions about American cultural radicalism itself. One is that the thirties were not a period in which literary value went out of fashion, but rather, to quote Burke looking back from 1952, "a period of stress that forced upon all of us"--he meant the so-called "aesthetes" and communists both--"the need to decide exactly wherein the worth and efficacy of a literary work reside."
Such application of Stevens will seem an annoyance to those who prefer to take their modernism "as if it were written from nowhere" (which is how Marjorie Perloff characterized the common view when commending Peter Brazeau for taking the trouble to interview Stevens's business colleagues). Consider that Stevens, not William Carlos Williams or Kenneth Fearing or George Oppen or Charles Reznikoff, offered the following as a description of a poem he was writing:What I have been trying to do in the thing is to apply my own sort of poetry to such a project.+ Is poetry that is to have a contemporary significance merely to be a collection of contemporary images, or is it actually to deal with the commonplace of the day? I think the latter, but the result seems rather boring.What specifically led me to write a book that describes the convergence of poetic -isms is the postscript here: at the last moment, this American poet remembers that his correspondent might not know that "such a project" could have anything to do with the news. I am similarly compelled by the final misgiving in the quoted passage: poetry collecting "the commonplace" risks tedium. Had Stevens here eschewed his usual rhetoric of qualified assertions, I dare say the comment could be deemed unremarkable and I would be the first to cast it on a large pile of other comparable statements made by poets in the period, in a bin marked more easily said than done.
+ To What one reads in the papers. (L 308)
But the Wallace Stevens whose 1930s Joseph Riddel rightly calls "the most revealing single period in his career" was deadly serious when he spoke of poems responding "To What one reads in the papers." It simply cannot be denied that his comments in the months following the New Masses review suggest his wish to accommodate himself to certain assumptions of the literary left. These comments are too wide-ranging, and extend over too many letters, to be dismissed as whimsical. That he said he very much believed in "leftism," and hoped he was headed left (L 286-87), can perhaps be discounted as ironic or half-hearted, especially since he qualified the point by announcing that his left would not be "the ghastly left of MASSES." But he soon added that such contact as he had just had with the cultural radicals did allow a poet like himself to "circulate"--I use New Historicist pidgin here because Stevens did--and that it was in the last event "an extraordinarily stimulating thing" to find himself moving "in that milieu" (L 296). So, too, he deemed nonsense the notion some conservatives held that socialism and communism would "dirty the world" when carrying out their political transformations; although he admitted that the displeasure of dirtying would be the immediate effect, he significantly added that this would be true of any upheaval (L 292). At one point in this period he even permitted himself a bit of utopian thinking, speculating on what the world would look like if he were given the task of creating "an actuality" from scratch. He decided that it would look a good deal different from "the world about us" in many ways, though he declined to give the details of this vision; the prospect would merely be described in "personal terms," and he disliked people who spoke of such longing in personal terms (L 292). The "extraordinary experience" that contact with radicalism gave him led firmly to the conclusion that "one has to live and think in the actual world, and no other will do" (L 292), a signal shift, at least rhetorically, from his attitude of the Harmonium years. Internal order proceeded from external order, he said, as well as the other way around; he added that "the orderly relations of society as a whole have a poetic value" (L 305). He began to emphasize references to the "normal" in his poetry. He became obsessed with "how to write of the normal in a normal way" (L 287), a process he knew would create the main difficulty if he were to adapt his verse to any of the new poetic realisms.
Stevens also articulated the terms in which the advantages and disadvantages of "didactic poetry" and "[p]ure poetry" could be argued (L 302-03). While he admitted to his publisher that he clung to a "distinct liking" for pure poetry, his manner of saying so revealed his awareness that this was a position one could put forth only defensively in an era when radicals like Max Eastman were not-so-wildly attacking modernism as "The Tendency toward Pure Poetry" ("In place of a criticism ["of life," in Arnold's sense], these poets are offering us in each poem a moment of life, a rare, perfect or intense moment, and nothing more"). So Stevens, in saying now that he stood by pure poetry, insisted "at the same time" that "life is the essential part of literature" (L 288). Acknowledging "the common opinion" of his verse, that it was essentially decorative, he wished to counteract such a criticism by challenging the very terms decorative and formal (L 288). Asked to look back on his own "Comedian as the Letter C" (1922), he realized that, much as Malcolm Cowley had recently proposed in the last pages of Exile's Return (1934), there was a distinct cultural construction of the recent aesthetic past, a twenties for the thirties. Stevens judged the obsession with the sound of poetry in "Comedian" explainable by the fact that "subject," by which he meant content, had not been as important in the teens and twenties as it was in the thirties (L 294). With hindsight granted by just six months, he glanced back at "Mozart, 1935," and decided that it took up the issue of "the status of the poet in a disturbed society" (L 292).
In each cultural period--high modern, radical, wartime, postwar--Stevens wielded a stock response in part to fend off further queries from correspondents. Before the thirties his response was, I write poems to become more myself. But immediately after the Burnshaw encounter, at the height of the radical moment, this line became: I write poems in order to formulate my ideas about and to discern my relation to the world. (When I asked Stanley Burnshaw if he would comment on my suggestion "that Stevens changed his attitude toward his own poetry because of [Burnshaw's] political response to it," he replied: "[Stevens] did want to prove that he was of the world and that he was responding to what I was referring to as reality. I don't think there can be any doubt about it.") Most important--and I will return in the second half of this book to the precise points of impact--Stevens was speaking for the first time of the poet's link to Burnshaw's sense of reality as interactive. A poet saw poetry as helping to create what it sought in the world of events; this incessant change in language's relation to that world was in itself a reason why he or she could persist poetically "now," in this historically-minded moment, both marking history and being marked by history's traces: a dialogism between foreground and background, between the poem and its sometimes explicitly posited now, devised not in spite of but because of contemporary "complexity" (L 300).
My argument takes its first cue from Stevens's own contingent sense of "complexity": just when it was in the noncommunist writer's special interest to turn toward radicalism, however tentatively and self- servingly, it happened that it was in the special interest of communist writers to involve him or her. Such coincidental shifting, it must first be realized, would have surprised few cultural figures then in the know, much as the convergence might seem astonishing today. One need only confer with any of the many surviving fellow travelers willing to talk about their radicalizations to be reminded, as I was when interviewing Jerre Mangione, that "nearly everyone associated with writing and publishing whom one knew and respected was interested in some form of radicalism--and communism was always at least in the background." The interaction, moreover, between noncommunists like Stevens and the literary-political forces of their time--forces set routinely into motion by journal editors, other poets, and especially reviewers--was remarkably dynamic. The new historicists' vaunted problem of seeing the tree and the woods (rather than one "for" the other), of circulating notions of background and foreground, could not be acuter than in such an instance.
Though it is never a matter confessed in print by the many otherwise perspicacious readers of Stevens's 1930s volumes, Ideas of Order (1935), Owl's Clover (1936), and The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems (1937), it has always seemed, I think, that for the purposes of studying the eminent modernist's defensive rhetoric, and to keep from losing one's way in the tangle of the thirties' literary left, one must steadily restrict oneself as a critic to the modernist's view of these extrapoetic forces. Such a procedure, while sensible if not unassailable, has given us just half the picture of the noncommunist's thirties. And it has reduced to simplicities the relation between on one hand the poet deemed utterly unique or uncommon and, on the other hand, what would seem to be the minor, ephemeral, even grubby, and finally inconsequential, aesthetic tactics used by mostly unremembered men and women. What does it matter, in assessments of figures like Williams, Moore, and Stevens still judged major a half-century later, if that common minority of poetic special interests behaves incorrigibly as a background? I have written Modernism from Right to Left believing that it matters a great deal. It is no less significant, I think, to come at singular poets like Stevens from that incorrigible, messy background, and (to mix and transpose the metaphor in this book's title) advance the analysis from back to front as well as right to left--in short, to find those sundry other poets', editors', and reviewers' arrogations of Stevens and modernism to have served their ends both perceived and unsuspected, even as (or perversely because) these ends seem forgettable in relation to Stevens's achievements, not nearly worth the tremendous effort and time required for documented retrieval. Yet in making literary-political use of him, after all, they constructed the setting in which he was read by still others, and in which he read himself. This is only most famously the case with the New Masses review provoking four-fifths of Stevens's longest poem. The same kind of effects, I will suggest along the way, result from the assaults by Orrick Johns on Moore, Willard Maas on E. E. Cummings, Mike Gold on Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Seaver on Horace Gregory, Eda Lou Walton on Robinson Jeffers, and Burnshaw, Johns, and H. H. Lewis on Harriet Monroe's Poetry.
There are many other such convergences of modernism and radicalism to be described, and this book is organized to do so. To imagine Stevens, the recently promoted, three-piece-besuited vice- president of The Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, reading himself in the Nation in the early autumn of 1936 is, after all, an intriguing act of "recovery" best aided by particulars that tend to show that the editors of that fellow-traveling journal certainly knew what they were doing when they awarded their annual poetry prize to a work that Stevens later said expressed sympathy with the antifascist republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Still later, after the falling out between the party-affiliated New Masses and a revived, freshly anti-Stalinist Partisan Review, the editors of the latter disputatious project knew exactly what cultural waves they were making when they solicited and received five poems from Stevens. One last preliminary example of cultural circulation contemporaneous with the Steven-Burnshaw fracas, was the publication of three poems in the New Republic, whose literary editor, namely Cowley, was suggesting that communism "can offer [the writer] an audience, not trained to appreciate the finer points of style or execution . . . but larger and immeasurably more eager than the capitalist audience." With Cowley's appointment to succeed Edmund Wilson at the New Republic, as was well known in both literary and political circles, the columns of this "weekly became a playground of the proletarian artists and critics." As I will show in Chapter 5, Cowley's timely use of Stevens--Stevens's appearance on just such a "playground"--was strategic in the ordinary but not in the extraordinary sense; that is to say, the red-hot Cowley, busier then than ever, would not have given a second thought to the ideological significance of this otherwise odd-seeming meeting. And this is precisely why such meetings must be given a long second thought here. The relationship between Stevens and the New Republic resulted from just one of innumerable forays of aesthetic left into right. It was a small but signal provision in a fundamental unspoken agreement by which writers, literary journalists, and cultural politicians traded freely on each other's rhetorics. That process, called "historical" in every possible high and low sense, stipulated a good deal more ideological commingling than has ever been credited to it. In an aesthetic era driven by a presumptuous feeling of "history" boldly being made, basically pleasurable in ways often denied, there was a lot of "merely circulating" going on.
NOTES TO PREFACEGo back to top of the text.
Go back to the middle of the text--near note 20.
1. Indeed, "The Long War" is the title Judy Kutulas has given her new book about the entire literary left of the 1930s (forthcoming from Duke Univ. Press); she describes "a paralyzed historiography." This "Long War" has been fought mainly between generations--imprecisely designated "old" and "new" left. "In order for there to be a new history," writes Theodore Draper with bitter irony in his attack on New Left historians, "there must be an old history to be fought and vanquished" ("American Communism Revisited," A Present of Things Past [New York: Hill & Wang, 1990], p. 120). But the battle-lines are crossed. Compiling his cultural history of the League of American Writers, Arthur D. Casciato, like Kutulas, found himself burdened not only by the insistence of older partisans whom he otherwise admired "that the participants' perspective should always be privileged" but also by the fact that when Old Left detractors of New Left scholarship discredit the communist left of the thirties they also sometimes needlessly demoralize young nonparticipant "scholars who would recover [the left's cultural] achievements as well as its embarrassments." Here the young scholar can feel somewhat coerced into dealing primarily with "those disillusioned radicals who have reconciled with the dominant culture"; the results can be counterproductive (Casciato, "Fighting Words: The Third American Writers' Congress and Rereading the History of the 1930s," paper presented at the American Studies Association, 1988). An accessible discussion of the generational significance among historians of what Jesse Lemisch called "history from the bottom up" (Towards a Democratic History, 1966) is provided by Jonathan M. Wiener's mostly descriptive yet nonetheless sharply criticized essay, "Radical Historians and the Crisis in American History, 1959-1980 (Journal of American History 76, 2 [Sept. 1989], 399-434). One of Wiener's antagonists, though describing himself as generally an ally, is Herbert Aptheker of the unrepentant Old Left; his "Welcoming Jonathan Wiener's Paper, with a Few Brief Dissents" (Journal of American History 76, 2 [Sept. 1989], 443-45) submits that "Wiener's essay suffers from an ignorance of . . . the period preceding McCarthyism"--to wit, the thirties (443).
2. W. H. Auden, "September: 1939" (later "September 1, 1939"), NR, October 18, 1939, 297; Auden finally referred to this work as "the most dishonest poem I have ever written" (qtd. in Edward Mendelson, The Early Auden [New York: Viking, 1981], p. 330).
3. Among WS's critics, cogent, knowledgeable observations about the modernist engagement of radicalism are emerging from Harvey Teres ("Notes Toward the Supreme Soviet: Stevens and Doctrinaire Marxism," WSJ, 13, 2 [Fall 1989], 150-67) and Andrew Lakritz ("Stevens's Statue and the Rancor of History," an unpublished chapter in a book manuscript on WS, MM and Frost). See also Robert Emmett Monroe's "Figuration and Society in 'Owl's Clover,'" WSJ 13, 2 (Fall 1989), 127-149; for Monroe, "Stevens is a lucid political thinker" (147) and no less than "the most promising major poet of his generation for a cultural analysis" (127). The reassessment of WS's thirties may be said to have been initiated by Milton A. Bates's Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985); see esp. pp. 155-94. SB has re-entered the fray, adding his "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," WSJ 13, 2 (Fall 1989), 122-126, and a published interview conducted by AF and Teres ("An Interview with Stanley Burnshaw," WSJ 13, 2 [Fall 1989], 109- 21).
4. Cary Nelson, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 171. Such contempt has a long critical tradition, beginning immediately as the decade closed: even Halford Luccock, whose American Mirror: Social, Ethical and Religious Aspects of American Literature 1930-1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1940; first published, 1940) boldly praised the work of Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Fearing, and HG, was sure to warn his readers that the "Depression found constant expression in . . . verse which need not be dignified by the august term of poetry" (p. 140), staying clear of the likes of H. H. Lewis, and apologizing constantly ("It might seem fantastic to claim for Fearing's metrical extravaganzas the qualities of serious ethical criticism" [p. 227]).
5. Frank A. Warren, Liberals and Communism: The 'Red Decade' Revisited (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press), p. 3.
6. KB, Attitudes toward History (1937; rpt. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984), pp. 229-32.
7. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 85.
8. See Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism: A Study in the History of American Literary Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1939), pp. 376-77n1.
9. Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1970-1939 (New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1931), pp. 297-98. Lest there be doubt about Wilson's radicalism in 1931: see "An Appeal to Progressivism," NR (Jan. 14, 1931), 234-38, a bitter attack on liberals for "betting on capitalism" (237). Later Wilson recalled that for him "these years were not depressing but stimulating. One couldn't help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud [Big Business]" (The Shores of Light [New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1952], p. 498).
10. Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney, More Power to Poets! (New York: Henry Harrison, 1934), pp. 107, 108.
11. Wald, in turn, has credited Paul Buhle for "tell[ing] the story 'whole'"--for "putting Marxism and Communism in a larger setting, and . . . showing the diversity and interconnections of the Left experience" (Labour/Le Travail 24 [Fall 1989], 294-95). Nelson's aim has been to reject "[t]he myth" that political poetry "was always formally conservative, thematically monochromatic, and rhetorically wooden. . . . [On] the contrary, this diverse and highly interactive period of political poetry is one of the real treasures of our literary heritage" (Repression and Recovery, p. 102).
12. Harvey Teres, Banners and Wings: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals, 1930-1970 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, [forthcoming].)
13. See Charlotte Nekola, "Words Moving: Women, Poetry, and the Literary Politics of the 1930s," in Writing Red: An Anthology of Women Writers, 1930-40 (New York: Feminist Press, 1987), pp. 127-34.
14. James D. Bloom, Left Letters: The Culture Wars of Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1992).
15. A portion of Kutulus' The Long War: The Literary People's Front and Anti-Stalinism, 1930-1940 has been published as "Becoming 'More Liberal': The League of American Writers, the Communist Party, and the Literary People's Front," Journal of American Culture 13, 1 (Spring 1990), 71-80.
16. To some extent Terry A. Cooney, The Rise of the New York Intellectuals (Madison: Univ of Wiscon Press, 1986), should be counted among these. "[M]odernism had appealed to . . . many writers of the twenties . . . in part for its aura of radicalism in culture, and nothing was more characteristic of the intellectual life of the decade than the attack on business culture by literary intellectuals. For some the move toward Marxism in the thirties would clearly be little more than a continuation of this pattern" (p. 32). The problem with Cooney and to a lesser degree Teres is that they ascribe such a synthesis mostly to the PR group, led by Rahv and Phillips; my purpose, like Nelson's in particular, is to include many kinds of political radicals, not restricted to the anti-Stalinists who became leading anticommunists.
17. Bloom, Left Letters, pp. 7-8, 3.
18. Nelson, Repression and Recovery, p. 52.
19. See AF, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), p. 242-77.
20. Stephen Spender, The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People (1933-1975) (London: MacMillan, 1978), p. 9.
21. Joe Kalar to Warren Huddlestone, July 24, 1970 (qtd. in Poet of Protest, Joseph A. Kalar: An Anthology, ed. Richard G. Kalar [Blaine, MN: RGK Publications, 1985], p. 318).
22. James Baird, The Dome and the Rock: Structure in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1968), p. 254.
23. See, for example, the furious exchange provoked by Draper's "American Communism Revisited" when that essay was first published in the New York Review of Books. Responses appeared as "Revisiting American Communism: An Exchange" (New York Review of Books 32, 13 [Aug. 15, 1985], 40-44). See also Michael Goldfield, "Recent Historiography of the Communist Party U.S.A.," The Year Left 1 (1985), 315-56; Paul Buhle, "Historians and American Communism: An Agenda," International Labor and Working Class History 20 (Fall 1981), 38-45; Kenneth Waltzer, "The New History of American Communism," RAH 11 (June 1983), 259-67. Self-criticism is nearly as important a factor among historians of American communism as attacks from detractors: even a leftist scholar of the American left as established as Buhle can apologize with surprising readiness for his Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990) when challenged from his allied left (see "An Encyclopedist's Lot," N 250, 14 [Apr. 9, 1990], 498-501). For a classic instance of self- criticism in the thirties, see Louis Aragon's "From Dada to Red Front," a confession of the earlier "error" of having been attracted to dadaism (NM 15, 7 [May 14, 1935], 23-24).
24. Most recently: John Timberman Newcomb, Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons (Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1992), pp. 100- 14; and James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 131-32m 137-38, 141- 47. Among the others are Bates, Mythology of Self, pp. 172-76, 183-86, 193; Lucy Beckett, Wallace Stevens (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), p. 113; Frank Doggett, Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), p. 121; Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1960), pp. 63-66; George Lensing, Wallace Stevens: A Poet's Growth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 126-27, 148; Frank Lentricchia, Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 214- 15; A. Walton Litz, Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 204-06; Louis Martz, "Wallace Stevens: The World as Meditation," The Yale Review, n.s. 47 (Summer 1958), 517-36; Monroe, "Figuration and Society in 'Owl's Clover'"; Samuel French Morse, Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life (New York: Pegasus, 1970), pp. 148-151; Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens, A Biography: The Later Years, 1923- 1955 (New York: William Morrow, 1988), pp. 109, 129, 202; Joseph N. Riddel, The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 114, 120-134, 289-90; Riddel, "The Contours of Stevens Criticism," in The Act of the Mind: Essays on the Poetry of Wallace Stevens, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce and J. Hillis Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 252-54; Riddel, "'Poets' Politics'--Wallace Stevens's Owl's Clover," Modern Philology 56, 2 (Nov. 1958), 118-32; Herbert J. Stern, Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 13-15, 165-66; and Donald Sheehan, "Wallace Stevens in the 30s: Gaudy Bosh and the Gesture's Whim" in The Thirties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, ed. Warren French (Deland, Florida: Everett Edwards, 1967), pp. 149-57.
25. Abbie F. Willard, Wallace Stevens: The Poet and His Critics (Chicago: American Library Association, 1978), p. 23. It has been more than a decade since Willard wrote that "The impact of this review on budding Stevens criticism cannot be overemphasized, not because of any cogency or acuity in the critic's comments, but because of the profound effect these comments had on the poet himself and on those who then and now study Stevens" (p. 35). Lisa M. Steinman (Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987]) has concluded that "Burnshaw, a poet in his own right, was far more sympathetic to Stevens than Stevens admits" (p. 209n.52).
26. Typical of SB's private descriptions of intellectual and editorial life at NM is a letter to AK confessing as early as 1934 that "I shall not be able to continue at the New Masses," where literature was becoming "an excrescent act rather than a compulsion"-- sentiments "strictly entre nous" at the time (SB to AK, July 9, 1934 [Virginia, AK Papers, #6561, b1]).
27. WM to Sara Bard Field, Aug. 14, 1937 (HL, C. E. S. Wood Papers, WD166).
28. WM had just read for RLL's Alcestis Press the manuscript of Owl's Clover--or, alternatively, Aphorisms on Society, which WM thought "a lousy title"--when he informed RLL of his view that "it is unfortunate" that "Granville Hicks, Burnshaw, et al . . . have been the mouthpieces for Communism in the literary field" (WM to George Marion O'Donnell, May 26, 1936 [WUL, O'Donnell Papers]). Samuel French Morse followed the Owl's Clover controversy and by 1937 expressed to Morton D. Zabel at P his hope that WS's poetic course would not be too much perturbed by SB; Morse hoped SB would see, and be sufficiently refuted by, MM's latest review as by WS's then-recent poems (Morse to Zabel, Feb. 11, 1937 [RLC, Zabel Papers]). In Morse's review of Owl's Clover and The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems in Twentieth Century Verse (8 [Jan.-Feb. 1938]), he concluded that WS had "picked the wrong man to represent the Marxist imagination" (167).
Despite his important decision as editor of WS's uncollected writings in 1957 (OP) to reprint the first and longer version of Owl's Clover, giving a fuller sense of the initial reaction to SB, Morse later predicted, after speaking with WS about the issue, that WS's critics would overestimate the importance of the episode (interview with AF, Milton, Massachusetts, Jan. 7, 1983). The only thing that saved Owl's Clover "from the worst excesses of the social and political poetry of the period" was WS's "refusal to take the attitude of an artist on 'bad terms with society,'" wrote Morse in 1970 (Poetry as Life, p. 155). Morse had evidently pondered, or drafted, an essay on WS in 1939 (Morse to George Marion O'Donnell, June 23, 1939 [WUL]). As a student of Theodore Morrison six months earlier, Morse had written an essay that attempted a Freudian reading of Owl's Clover (Morse to O'Donnell, Dec. 30, 1938 [WUL]).
29. Irving Howe, "Another Way of Looking at a Blackbird," NR 137 (Nov. 4, 1947), 16-17.
30. Riddel, "Poet's Politics," p. 118.
31. SB, "Notes on Revolutionary Poetry," NM 10, 8 (Feb. 20, 1934), 20-22.
32. Mary McCarthy and Margaret Marshall, "Our Critics, Right or Wrong, [Part] IV: The Proletarians," Nation 141, 3674 (Dec. 4, 1935), 654. They wrote of "the pent-up traditional aestheticism within the Marxist critic" (654).
33. KB, "Preface to the Second Edition," Counter-Statement (1931; rpt. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), p. xvi.
34. Riddel, Clairvoyant Eye, p. 105.
35. Max Eastman, The Literary Mind: Its Place in an Age of Science (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935), p. 84.
36. See, e.g., L 306.
37. AF and Teres, "An Interview with Stanley Burnshaw," 110.
38. Interview with AF, Feb. 23, 1990 (Philadelphia). "[A]lmost all writers," Kenneth Rexroth remembered in 1971, "to a greater or lesser degree moved to the Left" (American Poetry in the Twentieth Century [New York: Herder and Herder, 1971], p. 107. The perception, strongly felt more than a half-century later, was even more strongly felt then. In Jan. 1938, Dorothy Van Ghent wrote: "[M]ost contemporary poets are Marxists" ("When Poets Stood Alone," NM 26 [Jan. 11, 1938], sec. 2, p. 44).
39. For an introduction to the problem of background and foreground in New Historicist writing, see Jean E. Howard, "The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies," English Literary Renaissance 16, 1 (Winter 1986), 13-43; Jerome J. McGann, "The Scandal of Referentiality" in Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 115-131; and H. Aram Veeser's introduction to The New Historicism, ed. Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. ix-xvi.
40. This was part of the original epilogue to Cowley's Exile's Return (New York: W. W. Norton, 1934), and published in NR 79, 1016 (May 23, 1934), 34-36; emph. added. It was omitted by a somewhat embarrassed Cowley from later editions, and finally reprinted in Think Back on Us: A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930's, ed. Henry Dan Piper (Cardondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 56-62. For Cowley's explanation, see The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s (New York: Viking, 1980), pp. 222-23.
41. Lillian Symes, "Our Liberal Weeklies," Modern Monthly 10 (Oct. 1936), 8.
FILREIS HOME | HOT | STEVENS HOME | POETRY | FIFTIES
Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/right-to-left-preface.html
Last modified: Sunday, 04-Apr-1999 22:21:14 EDT