American Night: the Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War
by Alan M. Wald
University of North Carolina Press, 2012
Historian Alan Wald brings to a close his three-part study of the literary output of the American left from the 1920s through the 1950s with American Night: the Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War. Wald presents a diverse spectrum of poets and novelists sharing in common a committment to what Wald calls “late antifascism”, the Communist Party line that held that the multi-class alliance of World War II that contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany had been betrayed by the American right and that the supposedly-vanquished fascism had become incorporated into the domestic political structure.
Wald adopts fellow historian Lizabeth Cohen’s thesis of the Consumer’s Republic—her term for the social and political framework of the postwar economic boom—to contrast the writers’ political sympathies with the countervailing winds of the Truman-Eisenhower era.
The fact that the writers Wald selects—among them the obscure novelist Kenneth Fearing, the apostate Communist Richard Wright, and the poet Thomas McGrath—have little in common other than their baseline political postions gives the book a somewhat formless feel. The reader is forced to navigate by the historic signposts of the period, such as Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign, the Smith Act trials and convictions, and Khrushchev’s 1956 semi-repentence speech, to see Wald’s subjects in a coherent relationship to one another.
Perhaps the book’s biggest contribution is Wald’s material on homosexuality in the CP and its milieu, in which he examines the related prejudices of the party line and the society it supposedly stood in opposition to. The chapter on the dire philosophical limitations of social realism is also strong, although the multiple passing references to Adorno’s negative dialectics are not developed enough to warrant inclusion in the argument.
Although almost all of Wald’s subjects have far more historical than literary merit, the thoroughgoing excavation work he has undertaken retrieves a generation of writers all but lost to obscurity. Ultimately, the party’s writer members and sympathizers were doomed by the impossibility of reconciling Stalin and his cultural lieutenant Zhadanov with their own interpretations of the relationship of the artist to the liberatory potential of U.S. society—however committed they were to that very project.
See also: Alan Wald on the literature of the Browder era