Foibles of Reds who didn't run from God

Exiles from a Future Time
June 6, 2003

Exiles From a Future Time is part of a sustained effort by Alan Wald to rediscover and rehabilitate the US poets, novelists and critics drawn to Communism. Hence its main focus is on those who stayed Red, not those who broke with the "God that failed".

Wald attracted attention in 1987 with The New York Intellectuals , a group biography demonstrating the semi-Trotskyist origins of a key clique within the postwar cultural elite. Now we have the first of a projected trilogy mapping the lives of those against whom the New York "family" cut their teeth. Unlike the protagonists of Wald's earlier book, his current subjects ended up on the losing team. Despite their predictions, history was not on their side.

Cold war-era narratives of literary politics frequently praise the writers grouped around Partisan Review for resisting the totalitarianism and mediocrity of the US Communist Party at a time when stereotypical images of cultural commissars and tenth-rate hacks paid in "Moscow gold" were commonplace. An alternative viewpoint arises from examining this lost generation of literary radicals. Using interviews and archival sources, Wald establishes a daring reappraisal. Exiles from a Future Time notes the tragic illusions and monumental errors of pro-Soviet cultural workers, but its main concern is to address their broader literary and cultural contributions.

His dozens of in-depth biographical treatments create a "humanscape": rather than the abstractions pilloried in cold-war historiography, we see the individuals themselves (and their faces in 25 pages of photographs). For instance, a charming opening section introduces Guy Endore - Hollywood leftist, slave rebellion novelist and unrepentant supporter of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. So far, so Stalinist. Yet Endore's eccentricities - his interest in vegetarianism, yoga, meditation and mysticism - all suggest he was no party automaton. In the same spirit, subsequent chapters draw on similar, almost forensic details to reconstruct the lives of US literary leftists, sharing their foibles and their fortitude in equal measure. Whatever we may make of their politics today, Exiles from a Future Time sets such figures in context, usually with an enviable clarity of style and a wealth of information.

Rather than being straightforwardly chronological, Wald's reconstruction is organised around specific themes. Poetry becomes more important than the protest novel. The magazines and formal and informal networks surrounding writers are shown as helping to generate a "force field" in which collectively inspired creative work could take place. Women and African-Americans each receive substantial consideration, noting their major contribution to the cultural left. Whenever his accumulated minutiae might provoke the question "so what?", Wald makes a case for his subjects.

Failing that, he prompts younger scholars to develop the empirical understanding he argues is the basis for any sustained theory or generalisation. Ruth Lechlitner, William Attaway, Joseph Kalar and Alfred Hayes - out of print and long forgotten - would surely all have been grateful for this most thorough attempt at restoring their reputations.

Graham Barnfield lectures in journalism and print media at the University of East London.

Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left

Author - Alan M. Wald
ISBN - 0 8078 2683 9 and 5349 6
Publisher - University of North Carolina Press
Price - £38.50 and £15.50
Pages - 412

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