A refuge for a grouse or two

Previous Convictions
December 26, 1997

Nora Sayre is an essayist whose light touch masks the formidable weight of her judgements. Her natural province is not so much history as people's consciousness, immediate and retrospective, of the tidal flows and cross-currents in which they swim and sometimes sink. To achieve her penetrating portraits of mid-century Americans, she supplements documentary evidence with personal encounters, sometimes formal interviews (as with Autherine Lucy, the first black student to enroll in the University of Alabama in the face of terrifying racial prejudice), sometimes Sayre's searchlight gaze stretches across the years.

The first section of her new volume is devoted to people of her parents' generation, many of them New York writers, "the still adventurous and quite cynical heirs of H. L. Mencken", among whom "mood swings were almost as punctual as sunset". She then moves on to her own generation, "timid rebels with no channel of dissent". Is it a confession or a little boast when she recalls that "comparative literature and seeing foreign movies and obtaining contraceptives were far more important to us than the Army-McCarthy hearings or rhythm-and-blues"?

Hers is fine writing without adornment; one does not notice the style line by line, until one becomes aware that Sayre's experience as a student of literature at Radcliffe-Harvard in the early 1950s, a time when the new criticism was in local vogue and Dryden, Shelley and Byron were set aside as too "easy", has left an indelible mark on her narratives of history (as on her film criticism). Her fault is sometimes to seek out complications which may not be there - as in her accounts of former Communists who still feel they were right to be wrong - but this flaw is no doubt reinforced by her affection for the individuals she meets and her refusal to accept any aspect of American cold war ideology.

This seminal refusal applies not only to Senator Joseph McCarthy who, in Richard Rovere's phrase, "drilled communism and saw it come up a gusher", but also to the liberal establishment which preached "containment" abroad and launched the purge at home in its polite form, the loyalty-security programme. Post-1950s American liberals like Sayre believe that cold war liberalism was wrong to be right. It was right for the wrong reasons and it looked away as the purging and blacklisting gathered momentum.

Sayre was never a political exile, but marriage carried her into a kind of exile in England, where she got to know the real American emigres like Ella Winter and the screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. Winter loved the Soviet proletariat but the maids she hired never came up to standard. "The English assumed," Sayre recalls, "that the exiles were overjoyed to have left the repulsive country which had abused them." The English were evidently wrong. The fogs, chilly rooms and austerities of postwar Britain were only part of the anomie; equally important, Home Office work permits were grudgingly issued, on a short-term basis, and only when the applicant held a valid US passport. The State Department normally made sure he or she did not. American reds and Fifth Amendment exiles loved America, not only its longshoremen and Lower East Side, but its food, its style and its energies.

Sayre writhed when British actors mangled the accents in plays by Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, "whining through their noses or using imbecilic drawls". She went on to become the New Statesman's correspondent in America; she was happier, although she does not say so, as the American mouth addressing the English ear than the other way round. Her Running Time: Films of the Cold War is essential reading for any student of the period, and her subsequent Sixties Going on Seventies was nominated for a National Book Award. Previous Convictions enhances her reputation as one of the most acute cultural essayists of her time.

David Caute is the author of The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower, The Fellow-Travellers: The Intellectual Friends of Communisim and Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life.

Previous Convictions: A Journey through the 1950s

Author - Nora Sayre
ISBN - 0 8135 2231 5
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 462

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