In this special issue of READING THE LEFT, I'm pleased to bring you an interview with radical scholar, historian, and literary critic Alan Wald.
Alan, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is the author or co-author of several books and even more (often controversial!) essays on all matter of subjects, but primarily the history of the US left and the history of radical literature. In this essay, we briefly consider a new project he's undertaken, the overall editorial control of the University of Illinois Press' "Radical Novel Reconsidered" series.
This interview may be re-run in any publication interested, however I ask two things: 1) contact me first, 2) no editing of content without prior agreement on my and Alan's part.
Thanks, and enjoy.
1) What led you to this project? What is its *political* significance? How'd the University of Illinois Press get into it?
The proposal for the series was initiated by University of Illinois Press Director Richard Wentworth, who has an excellent record of publishing, and sometimes reprinting paperback editions of, important books on Left history and culture. For some time I had been reviewing proposals for manuscripts of books for the University of Illinois, including several for the series of Left poets ("The American Poetry Recovery Series") that Cary Nelson inaugurated with the COLLECTED POEMS OF EDWIN ROLFE (Rolfe was a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade). I had also been recommending paperback reprints of books on Left culture for Columbia University Press–classic works by Daniel Aaron, James Gilbert, Frank Warren, Walter Rideout, Henry May, James T. Farrell, Sidney Hook, and so on.
My own scholarly research, writing and teaching for the past decade has focused on reconstructing Left (mostly Communist) cultural practice during the 1940s and 1950s. Naturally this work is bonded back to the experiences of the 1930s and looks forward to (and frequently intersects with) the new politico-cultural radicalism of the 1960s. So it's logical that I would favor the republishing of novels (as well as poetry, short stories, criticism, etc.) from this mid-century era.
The political significance of the project is multiple. First, it will enable young activists of today to see that the Left cultural tradition is far broader, more complex and relevant than the earlier studies–and relatively few available texts–would indicate. There were hundreds of significant Left writers in mid-century–not just the canonical Gold, Dos Passos, Wright, Steinbeck, Le Sueur, and so on–and they wrote in many different genres about diverse regions of the US. They tackled all sorts of complex issues in regard to racism, the family, personal life, party commitment, and used every form imaginable–including science fiction, detective fiction, pulp fiction, as well as historical and experimental novels, etc. There is a great deal to be learned from what our predecessors addressed in their work; the Left can become strengthened by understanding its own legacy in all its richness. Needless to say, the same point can be made in regard to the visual arts, poetry, theater, criticism and journalism.
2) What's the political background of the folks who's books are being republished? Are they all CPers? Is there a general time span for them (the thirties, etc.)?
The focus of the series is mid-century–mainly the 1920s through the 1950s. However, I'm trying to give a special emphasis to the 1940s and 1950s because these decades have been so neglected in terms of scholarship about left-wing novelists. Moreover, quite a few of the authors from the 1940s-50s are still alive and I want to see them get some recognition while they can still appreciate it–I'm talking here about Philip Bonosky, Alfred Maund, Alexander Saxton, Abraham Polonsky, John Sanford and Ira Wolfert (who died just as TUCKER'S PEOPLE was being reissued).
Of course, it's no secret that the center of the LEFT in mid-century was the CP, and probably half of the writers we have published so far held membership for a while (Page, Sanford, Saxton, Polonsky, Bonosky) while most others were pretty close (Lumpkin, Herbst). Yzieska considered herself a socialist and Maund took a non-sectarian attitude toward all groups–he had friends in the CP and SWP, and wrote for MONTHLY REVIEW as well as AMERICAN SOCIALIST (edited by Cochran).
3) As you point out, a large percentage of them are women. What role did women play in the left cultural scene at the period described?
Well, there are different theories about Left-wing women writers. The late Constance Coiner, in BETTER RED, argued that there was an "official" and "unofficial" culture produced by Left women writers, the former being in the framework of the masculinist/productivist orientation that she ascribes to the CP. Barbara Foley, Paula Rabinowitz, Nora Ruth Roberts, Laura Hapke and others propose alternative interpretations in their books of criticism. Personally, I find Coiner's approach too schematic; one has to be careful about generalizing about diverse women on the one hand, and "the Party" on the other. In my view, there still remains a massive amount of research and biographical reconstruction to be undertaken about many Left women writers. Only after that has occurred, and a range of opinions are aired, can we move to the level of generalization with any certainty. I hope that the Illinois series will aid that process in terms of getting texts into circulation as well as through some of the new material in the Introductions to the novels, such as Suzanne Sowinska's fine biographical study of Lumpkin.
4) In your view, what's the role of literature in the struggle for revolutionary socialism in the United States and internationally?
Well, I don't think it's useful to talk of one particular "role," since literature performs so many social functions. The important thing is to take a broad and non-sectarian view of the full range of left-wing experiences and "positions," something we can afford to do now that so much of the former Communist, Maoist and Trotskyist movements have opened up and are engaging in regroupment processes. Clearly Trotsky had a point when he argued in LITERATURE AND REVOLUTION that literature always lags behind social reality and is a poor guide to the future. On the other hand, the is a legitimate tradition of Marxists who see literature as prophetic in its peneration to fundamental issues in life, and, of course, literature is often the repository of utopian hopes for a future egalitarian society. As I emphasized in answering the first question, Left literature can also record the powerful as well as painful experiences of our predecessors, enabling revolutionaries of the present to enrich their consciousnesses. I personally believe that there is a tremendous amount of insight into the radical personality to be gleaned by Polonsky's THE WORLD ABOVE and Saxton's THE GREAT MIDLAND–including the matters of romantic and sexual relations. I also have found tremendous inspiration for anti-racist commitment in Maund's THE BIG BOXCAR and Sanford's THE PEOPLE FROM HEAVEN. From Bonosky's BURNING VALLEY I saw for the first time the potential for a Catholic commitment to become the site of revolutionary politics. But one thing of which I am definitely skeptical is the whole tradition of Marxist parties trying to "lead" a cultural movement, especially by encouraging the creation of a "revolutionary" literature. Whatever one's intentions at the outset, this leads too often to judging literature by immediate political line or by interpretations of mainly one feature of the writing (ignoring the ambiguities and contradictions of the reception process). In my view, James T. Farrell's A NOTE ON LITERARY CRITICISM remains a useful beginning guide to the problems in this area, even though Farrell, writing in the heat of the 1930s, is a bit overpolemical (and satirical) in his characterizations of various positions.
5) How's the series going? How many books so far, how many are planned? Is the Press happy with it so far?
The series is off to a solid start, with nearly a dozen books available and several more in preparation, but there are important problems. Many of these stem from the limited resources of a university press. There are limited funds available (I work on a volunteer basis; authors of Introductory essays receive only $250 per essay), which means that we haven't been able to get titles where the copyright holder demands even modest fees, or where we can't inexpensively reproduce the text (from a high quality copy of an earlier edition). So there have been delays and some of our projected titles, particularly by Black authors, have yet to appear.
I would say that the Introductions prepared for the Illinois editions have consistently been of superior quality. In some cases, our Introduction offers of the only serious scholarship available on the book or its author–in regard to Lumpkin, Wolfert, Maund, Bonosky, Polonsky, Sanford, and so on. Even in the case of Herbst, who has been the subject of several books, we managed to get a first-rate reconsideration of PITY IS NOT ENOUGH. The introductions are designed to make the text user-friendly to the general reader and also for classroom use. Despite their use of cointemporary theoretical concerns, the Introductions are relatively jargon free; each contains a comprehensive bibliography of sources and reviews.
The biggest problem is sales, which are not good. Despite many excellent reviews in THE NATION and elsewhere–which pleases the press–only one book, SALOME OF THE TENEMENTS, has surpassed the 2000 sales mark, which is really necessary for the series to survive. TO MAKE MY BREAD has done decently, but many others have sold less than a thousand. Soon the press will be appointing a new Director, which means that various series will be reviewed. If we can't improve sales, there is the risk that it will be discontinued.
READING THE LEFT is a nonsectarian and highly subjective review of material being published in, widely speaking, the left press–magazines, newspapers, books, etc. Interviews with authors and editors, excerpts, musings, and the occasional letter will be included. For more information, please mail Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.