Alan Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
forthcoming in Left History
University of Pennsylvania
Some of the brilliance here shines on the University of North Carolina Press, for what university publisher these days has the nerve and the finances to promise a trilogy? For one thing, it evinces a rare confidence in a literary scholar who will really stay the course. Such academic multi-volume projects that have been permitted are typically reserved for the biographer (think Arnold Rampersad’s Langston Hughes or Robert Lucid’s prospective Norman Mailer). Perhaps Alan Wald’s volumes are in a sense a biography: a generation, compelled to write inventively about its discomposed world, that looked and leaned leftward. Wald is the now surely the preeminent chronicler of that literary generation. Trinity of Passion is the second of three linked books that track a generation of left-wing American writers from the 1920s through the early 1960s. The earlier study, Exiles from a Future Time, took us from the concurrent emergence of aesthetic modernism and of post-1917 forms of radical politics to the first months and years of the Depression. (The story of that concurrence takes Wald and us to the brink of understanding how and when modernism and communism could and could not converge—a big, important topic that Wald himself has played a major role in raising in other books and essays over the years.) The new work, focusing more on novelists (poets were the emphasis of Exiles), takes us through the Popular Front period. The third book, already researched and in states of draft, is to be called The American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War. Wald is right to claim that each of the three “stands alone as a self-contained book” (xiii) but, when taken together, the three will have coherently introduced dozens of fascinating heretical writers most readers will not have known before, and will have reworked—sometimes with the addition of stunning new information about their political views and affiliations—a number of writers we thought we knew.
One we thought we knew is Arthur Miller. About a book I so much admire I am hesitant to urge readers to skip to the end. But those seeking the sort of thrill that will then induce them to go back and carefully read the whole may want to turn first to chapter 7, “Arthur Miller’s Missing Chapter.” Characteristic of Wald, this blockbuster of a revelation is written in patient, understated tones. Wald never parades his original research, yet it abounds here. In short: Arthur Miller was Matt Wayne, pro-communist critic and activist. There are as many reasons why this background has been suppressed as there are reasons why centrist and even conservative American theater-goers have come to accept what Miller is saying through his plays. Get thee to the chapter and find out more. Miller was and is eminent, but Leonard S. Zinberg, a Jewish communist, is alas forgotten. Wald reveals that Zinberg bespoke his radicalism through the multimillion copy-selling, tough-guy mystery writer Ed Lacy, whose protagonists are typified by the black cop Lee Hayes, who, with his Jewish partner Albert Kahn (named for the blacklisted communist, father of Tony Kahn whom many know today through WGBH’s Morning Stories), is assigned to cool off a hot political situation in Harlem circa 1967.
We are entertained by hearing of Zinberg. Many readers, utterly fascinated by Wald’s summary, will lay his book temporarily down and click on their online bookseller to buy a used Ed Lacy paperback or two. Yet serious, compelling questions are raised by this writer’s identities, and indeed they are the issues opened by the book as a whole, a study of dozens of Zinberg/Lacys. If Ed Lacy was “a mass-market phenomenon through the entire Cold War era” who sold 28 million copies (4), why did the fact of Zinberg’s politics become so thoroughly obscured? First off, Zinberg went literarily underground and emerged as Lacy to evade blacklisters and subpoena-wielding court officers. Second, for all the recent academic interest in race, identity and narration—and simultaneously in the literary history of the rise and then demise of the Jewish/African American cultural alliance—Zinberg, the Jewish writer who wrote for the mass market from a black subject position, remains forgotten because we have lost or have neglected to teach the basic methods and tools of research. The Zinberg-Lacy connection is only discoverable through the sort of time-consuming and financially draining work in far-flung archives and interviews with political survivors that Alan Wald has mastered.
Judging only from the many books in which Wald is thanked—typically for sharing his personal archive, providing leads, and teaching his method—we know that he is among those who believe that the survival of such research has a political and ethical efficacy. And if he has conveyed the sense of this style to a few young scholars, he is also aware of his debt to predecessors: Walter Rideout for his 1956 book on the radical U.S. novel (daring for its time), Daniel Aaron for Writers on the Left of 1961, and James Gilbert for Writers and Partisans of 1968. Wald’s work stands in a literary-historical tradition. But his trilogy is already better and more coherent than the three just named. Why? Because the archives are open wider than they were during the cold war, and because veterans of American literary communism were ready to talk at least somewhat honestly by the time Wald (especially in the 1980s and 1990s) traveled to them with his tape recorder.
After the Miller revelations, the most exciting portion of Trinity of Passion for this reviewer is in the acknowledgments and list of sources. Where hasn’t Wald been in the past twenty years, and to whom hasn’t he spoken, in his massive effort to get this story right? The energy implicit there flows background into main body of the work, a description of the antifascist imagination in its almost infinite individualized forms. Only the most recalcitrant generalizer about radicalism can read this book and then go on dubbing all U.S. communists uncritical dupes. Some were—to be sure—and Wald doesn’t hesitate to say so. But when one goes this deeply into a narrative that has been too often told without fine-grained knowledge, one learns that there were as many different literary responses to fascism, racism, and economic crisis in this period as there were people with the urge to write about them.