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Edmund Wilson: Letters to John Dos Passos

June 24, 1931
[no address]

Dear Dos:

I found Sherwood Anderson all full of Communism. He doesn’t know much about it, but the idea has given him a powerful afflatus. He has a new girl, a radical Y.W.C.A. secretary, who took him around to the mills. He is writing a novel with a Communist hero and I have never seen him so much aroused.

I spent five days in West Virginia. The situation in the coal fields is probably the most exciting anywhere on the industrial scene. The Communists are raising hell in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and in Harlan County, Kentucky, the operators have brought in the militia and are only holding the lid on by means of a reign of terror. Between the two, in the Kanawha Valley, secessionists from the Lewis organization have organized what seems to be a pretty strong independent union. [A.J.] Muste has sent them some Brookwoodites—the Brookwoodites are quite unlike Communists and superficially rather like Red Cross workers or young radical professors, but, without being particularly militant, they seem to have a lot of backbone—it takes a good deal of courage to go into that country, where shootings frequently occur and where just at present the atmosphere is full of uncertainty and suspicion, what with the authorities, the Communists, and the A.F. of L. Lately, the neighborhood of Charleston has been infested with phony miners who try to get the Musteites to supply them with Communist literature—greatly to the latter’s disgust. This West Virginia Miners’ Union is apparently about to call a strike and it will be worth watching as a 100 percent American non-A.F.of L. radical venture.

The three leaders of the union—the former miners and union organizers, not the Musteites—struck me as very sound types. They are genuine native leaders, were born there and command confidence and enthusiasm—Frank Keeney,1 the president, was the district head at the time of the 1920 armed march—and are old socialists, who got discouraged when Debs was jailed during the war but who still hang on to their fundamental radical convictions. The Lewis organization apparently let the Kentucky miners down, were partly responsible for bringing in the militia and handing the miners over to the operators bound hand and foot. And they are now active in West Virginia, where they have just made an agreement with some of the Northern operators for wages way below non-union rates. I attended a meeting called by the Lewis people at which half the audience were Keeney adherents and at which the different elements were so much preoccupied with watching each other and searching each other for weapons that the speakers hardly got any attention.

My next stop was Chattanooga, what with the niggers and the mills one of the most squalid towns I have ever been in. The Scottsboro case has set the town agog, insofar as Southerners of that kind can be set agog. I was somewhat surprised to find that the Communists, even on the admission of the respect-ability-loving Negroes, have been having a good deal of success. There are lots of Negroes laid off from the mills and Communism presents itself as a new and stimulating kind of revivalism. The Scottsboro case itself is very difficult to unravel, because there is not only a defense and a prosecution but a double defense2 with the two lawyers very hostile to each other—they competed for the attorney-general nomination in the last Democratic primaries. It’s an extremely interesting case, however—on account of the Communist element something new, I suppose, in the South. I confess that if I were a white in a Southern city like Chattanooga, outnumbered six to one by Negroes and with the Negroes enslaved to the mills and making a sea of squalor all around and shooting each other and cutting each other’s throats at the rate of about one death a day, I shouldn’t be very blithe about encouraging Communist propaganda.

…Give my love to everybody…. Tell Katy that I am going hither and yon and quietly sowing the seeds of perversity.

As ever,
EW
February 29, 1932
[no address]

Dear Dos:

What happened in Kentucky was just about what you would expect. The liberal-radicals had a wild time between the Communists on one side and the infuriated Kentuckians on the other. When we first started off on the train, those of us who recognized the vein were made very uneasy when Charley Walker’s mouth opened and a couple of columns of the Daily Worker poured forth, and when we got down there we discovered that they had already been circulated in a handbill announcing that the “Solidarity Delegation” was arriving in Pineville to hold a mass demonstration around the courthouse and demand the release of the political prisoners. As a result, they had the courthouse fortified with machine guns. The delegation were mostly in favor of negotiating in an orderly way with the authorities, but the Communists stuck to their own ideas of the program. We would make them promise to leave the talking to us and refrain from provocative speeches and they would always cheerfully assent but then, as soon as there was an audience, go ahead and make the speeches—while the liberals climbed down from the truck and went to look into conditions in the miners’ homes.

The final result of this dual policy was that Harold Hickerson and one of the Communist girls got arrested for making inflammatory speeches while Waldo, Malcolm [Cowley], and I were trying to get permission to speak from the authorities. In the evening, we went over and called on the people in jail. This, coming on top of the handbill, caused a rumor that we were preparing a jail break, and a guard of deputies was put on the jail. This may have been the reason they ran us out—though they may have been planning to, anyway. At any rate, that night they came to the hotel and got us and took us in cars to the state line. There they turned off all the lights and slugged Waldo Frank and Allen Taub, the I.L.D. lawyer, in the head—evidently with the butts of guns. Waldo, who was chairman of the committee, played his role with great sangfroid and tact.

The whole thing was very interesting for us—though I don’t know that it did much for the miners. One of the organizers was shot that day—the governor called out troops to keep people from attending his funeral—and another was badly beaten up. I came back convinced that if the literati want to engage in radical activities, they ought to organize or something independently—so that they can back other people beside the comrades and so that the comrades can’t play them for suckers….

As ever,
EW
May 11, 1933
314 East 53rd Street, N.Y.

Dear Dos:

I am sorry the Proustian fumigations haven’t done all that I had hoped of them, but have sent you another slightly different prescription from the same pharmacopoeia. (I also had [Nathanael] West send you Miss Lonelyhearts—did you get it?)

Griffin [Barry] and I are quietly working along here toward a better understanding between classes and nations, but with results increasingly disappointing. We are expecting to have all our children here presently and think seriously of turning the place into a home for unmarried fathers—one of the most pathetic and helpless types produced by our modern civilization and one for whom society has as yet done nothing to provide….

I heard Eliot read his poems the other night. He did them extremely well—contrary to my expectation. He is an actor and really put on a better show than Shaw. I suppose that a kind of dramatic resonance he has is one of the things that have made his stuff carry so. He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or rather, self-invented character—speaking English with a most careful English accent as if it were a foreign language which he had learned extremely well—but he has done such a perfect job with himself that you end by admiring him.

I saw Mary [Heaton] Vorse on her way through en route to Germany and she gave me to understand that the people in Provincetown were in such a state that Hitler seemed a relaxation…. About the Rockefellers and [Diego] Rivera: I saw the mural just before they pulled it and he was just painting in portraits of [Jay] Lovestone and his chief lieutenant, who were to figure as the Communist heroes. This pleased nobody except Lovestone.

…Our backyard is getting quite inviting. Some little yellow flowers have come out and Tom has painted the iron furniture green. Muriel Draper is doing some landscape-gardening which I don’t understand and doubt whether she does either. Do come on and let us entertain you in the back yard.

As ever,
Bunny W.
January 31, 1935
314 East 53rd Street, N.Y.

Don’t agitate me, comrade, I’m with you—at least on what I take to be your main contentions. Though it does seem to me that in your present state of mind you tend to talk as if you were ready to throw the baby out with the bath. Surely it’s entirely unnecessary to worry about the possibility of a Stalin regime in America. I can’t imagine an American Stalin. You talk as if there were a real choice between Henry Ford on the one hand and Browder, Bob Minor and Company on the other; but who outside the Communists themselves has ever seriously entertained the idea that these individuals would ever lead a national movement? At the same time, you ought to give the Communists, with all their shortcomings, credit for playing a valuable role as agitators. It seems to me that during these recent years their influence has been felt through the whole length of American politics. They have put fundamental questions up to the rest of the world and have worried people into trying to find answers. You speak disapprovingly of intellectuals, theories, etc.; but aren’t you giving evidence, in your present disillusion about the Communists and Russia, of having cherished a typical intellectual illusion? I don’t think you ought to be so shocked at discovering that political movements are failing in practice to live up to their pretensions. They never have, and when the whole world is socialist, will continue to fail to do so. I don’t think you ought to let yourself be driven into Marxophobia by the present literary popularity of Marxism—which I suspect is what has been taking place with you.

I saw the Walkers the other night for the first time in a year. At first I was rather relieved to discover that their Communist orthodoxy had abated; but presently it appeared that they had gone in for the Trotsky-Muste party in the same spirit, swallowing Trotsky hook, line, and sinker. They refer to him affectionately as “the old man” and, if you express any doubts about his political future, behave very much as they used to behave about the regular comrades. They are even more outraged than you are about the Russian executions and Adelaide has sent me clippings (which I pass on to you) to demonstrate the idiocy of the Daily Worker….

  1. 1

    Frank Keeney’s independent union stands between the Communists on the one hand, and the corrupt A.F. of L. on the other, as a spontaneous native labor movement….”—The American Earthquake

  2. 2

    The defense was split between the NAACP and the Communist organization, the International Labor Defense.

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