From New International, Vol.4 No.4, April 1938, pp.126-127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Meet Me on the Barricades
by Charles Yale Harrison
206 pp. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00.
P. Herbert Simpson, the unobtrusive little hero of Harrison’s new book, is a much harassed man. Outwardly he is a meek and mild oboe player, living comfortably removed from the barricaded trouble-spots of the world in leafy Mount Vernon. But only outwardly. Actually his mind runs more frequently to social salvation than to Sibelius; he is afire with brotherhood and athirst for the liberation of humanity; in his tortured flights of fancy Mount Vernon is miraculously metamorphosed into the scene of soul-stirring social battles, in which he never fails to play his part – now as Commandante Pedro H. Simpson of the International Brigade, now as the gallant lover of Natasha and the dauntless leader of the Russian revolution (symbols of sex and salvation are curiously intertwined in his reveries), again as the staunch fellow-traveller of the Great Cause, hobnobbing indiscriminately with Browders and Roosevelts.
Suburban, oboe-tooting Herbert Simpson is, in short, the prototype of the Friends of the Soviet Union, of the sort who hail the new Constitution, collect peasant knick-knacks from the Georgian steppes and, inspired by Dostoyevsky and Duranty, meditate on the dark, turbid recesses of the Russian soul. He is the chronic partisan of peace, progress, plenty and prosperity, plus anything else which may appear on the masthead of the Daily Worker. He is the ardent popular-fronting sympathizer. He is the backbone of innumerable Leagues Against This and For That, the inchoate mass which thrills once a week to the editorials of the New Masses, the respectable liberal fringe which contributes regularly, applauds loudly, and salaams dutifully toward the Kremlin at sunset. He is – Stalinism incarnate.
The tragedy of little Simpson – and of the whole social category which he represents; he is an individual only nominally – is that he is sincere. His love for humanity is not simulated; his fervent hopes for the liberation of the oppressed ring true and ingenuous. But, like all the naive fellow-travellers, he is “caught in the coils of the hired publicists”. He wades desperately through a “gluey sea of propaganda, floundering from ideology to ideology”. Simpson is no equal for the cunning distortions and calculating chicanery of the Louis Fischers, Walter Durantys, Anna Louise Strongs and all the other well-oiled gears in the Stalinist lie-machine. His laudatory sentiments are battered into cruel caricatures of themselves by an unceasing barrage of editorial blasts from those who have been called red journalists gone yellow.
Simpson is, to be sure, beset by recurrent doubts and uncertainties. The Moscow trials disturb a fellow’s equanimity; the devastation wrought by the GPU in Spain is hair-raising; the new war-mongering on the left occasions sleepless nights. But that way lie despair and madness. In these grievous times of stress and strain, it is at least reassuring to find that the Daily Worker is vindicated in the columns of the Nation and the New Republic. The boys with supple spines and agile pens provide plausible excuses for every puzzling policy: support of imperialist war, you see, is really defense of the Soviet Union and, by that same token, defense of the ultimate world revolution which in the interim you suppress with machine-guns and firing-squads; the murder of revolutionists in Spain means purging the anti-fascist ranks of the Fifth Column; the counter-revolution of the popular front amounts really to achieving unity against the common enemy. The only way out for congenital believers like Simpson is to follow the leader, scotch “disruption”, and hope for the best.
In Herbert Simpson, playing his scales and leading the world proletariat in absentio, Harrison has created a type: the little man of honorable motives and worthy loyalties who, stunned by the sweep of reaction, becomes the sanction and shield for betrayal. It is the Simpsons who, in the name of unity and progress, try with might and main to gloss over the Moscow trials, who read victory and hope into the grim news from Spain, who express their love for peace by preparing to shoulder their rifles in tomorrow’s crusade to save democracy. Harrison, who got an intimate taste of the last war, has not approached today’s unparalleled corruption among liberal and labor forces with detachment and complacency. The treachery of self-styled progressives and labor leaders sometimes reaches such proportions that it can not always be adequately handled with instruments of cool literary and political analysis, devised in less parlous times. This book is inspired by a hatred for that treachery and a fear that the gullible Simpsons will again swallow the fatal pills of patriotism prepared by the imperialists and sugar-coated by their hired publicists. It is not a political brochure, nor a reasoned treatise, nor a tract of special pleading. It is a satire in the form of a novel, intent on exposure and derision. If the mockery is bitter, if the ridicule is grim and biting, the subject-matter shoulders more of the responsibility than does the author.
The literary vehicle which Harrison has chosen is interesting technically, if uneven in its execution. Fantasy, day-dreaming, untramelled flights of imagination – these are the stuff of the book. They have been conveyed, with varying success, through the stream-of-consciousness technique, with all its abrupt shifts of association, irrele-vancies and discontinuity. The clipped, terse sentences which Harrison used in Generals Die in Bed have been smoothed out and expanded, verging sometimes on the verbose. There is, nevertheless, a certain compression achieved: the book at times takes on the character of a movie-script, and, indeed, the longest chapter, a scene of drunken fantasia in the Joycean tradition, through which parade a host of characters from Sam Johnson to Earl Browder, is written entirely in play form. A directness and economy of expression is attained by the use of bracketed adverbial notes, suggesting stage-directions, and italicized explanations for associational swerves, the author’s asides to his reader. The boldness with which varying forms of presentation are juxtaposed is startling and the transition may sometimes be found difficult, but on the whole the technical devices manage to convey the formlessness and confusion of the mental vagaries which constitute the bulk of the book.
Harrison’s book has met with a mixed reception. The least meritorious of the complaints has been that the author’s own point of view has been overlayed and obscured by his pitiless pillorying. There are foils to Simpson’s infinite faith in the book: Darrell, the cynical newspaperman, who echoes die despair and disillusion of a large wing of the radical movement, and Ascaso, the musician, who, while dismayed by the treachery which pervades the labor movement, nevertheless retains his conviction that the revolution will yet conquer. Those who are impatient with doubters and eager for answers to all questions may be irritated by Harrison’s failure to choose as between the symbols of despair and hope. But the task of the writer, particularly in a work of this sort, hardly involves the necessity for personal commitment. The book is at once more realistic and more provocative for its failure to pass beyond a presentation of the alternatives. Simpsonism, and those who prey upon it, are exposed and condemned for what they are. This is the book’s raison d’être. The uncertainty as to the outcome of the conflict between Ascaso and Darrell, while not satisfying, is a reflection of the period in which the book is written. Harrison seems to be saying that the conflict can be resolved, not by this or that commentator or critic, but by events themselves, and by those who participate in them. He has wisely declined the function of seer. A political satirist in a period of dark reaction has a more negative but no less important task to perform.
And in that connection it may be suggested that Meet Me on the Barricades, despite certain shortcomings, ventures upon new and fruitful literary fields. It indicates, in the opinion of this reviewer, that there may be unplumbed creative possibilities for the revolutionary novelist in the domain of political satire. The straightforward wedding of politics and literature in the satirical novel furnishes a medium peculiarly suited to the times. In a period when politics brutally dominates the whole of life, the social tract can form an integral part of its literature. Harrison’s book suggests that the field is well worth exploring.
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