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On ‘The Unpossessed’

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger is a daring, unique fiction, a wild, crowded comedy set in New York City in the 1930s.* The inchoate, irrational, addictive metropolis, ever clamoring, brawling between its two somehow sluggish rivers, is a challenge to its citizens and to the novelist’s art. In the end, people gather with their own kind, as they do in the towns with the right side to live on and the wrong side, with Baptists and Catholics, girls brought up for the Junior League and others to become plump, nice ladies taking covered dishes to the Oddfellows picnic. Manhattan, ever a proper symbol of an immigrant nation, lives in the daytime by “immigrants” from the boroughs who come in to build the skyscrapers, paint the walls, caulk the leaking pipes, drive the cabs; it is also the dream site of travelers from Alabama, Illinois, or Michigan with the longing of their specialized ambition to go on the stage, master the Steinway grand, paint pictures, or write stories for The New Yorker.

The city is, as it must be, a nest of enclaves in the surrounding smother. The Unpossessed looks with a subversive eye on a disorderly, self-appointed group: intellectuals, critical of society’s arrangements and very critical of each other. It is the 1930s and the reign, you might call it, of the left; of well-to-do Greenwich Village supporters of the workers striking in Detroit and of the woebegone, cotton-picking sharecroppers in the South. Above all, the echoes from the “classless” society in Russia, the proles sending the feckless aristocrats to Paris, aroused in intellectual circles here a sort of conversational communism.

The Unpossessed is a kindly act of intellectual friendship written by a sensibility formed by the period and yet almost helplessly alert to the follies of a programmatic “free love” and the knots and tangles of parlor radicalism. Tess Slesinger, the author, was born in New York, the daughter of a nonpracticing Jewish family. Her father, Hungarian by birth, attended City College but after marriage went into the garment business owned by his wife’s family, the Singers. The garment business seems to be almost fore-ordained in the history of Jews in the city and not more on the dot than the fact of the author’s mother, early education interrupted to work in the family business, ending up, after night classes and a spell with Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, as a lay analyst and along the way taking part in the beginning of the New School for Social Research.

Tess Slesinger attended the progressive school Ethical Culture, Swarthmore College, and the Columbia School of Journalism. She married Herbert Solow, a man about town in intellectual circles, who was on the staff of the Menorah Journal and, much later, like the progression of so many radicals, on the staff of Fortune magazine. By way of the Menorah Journal, it was the world of Elliot Cohen, Clifton Fadiman, and Lionel Trilling that this young woman, at the age of twenty-three more gifted than any in the group except Trilling, inhabited in her fashion. She published short stories, and, in 1934, her only novel, The Unpossessed; was divorced from Solow, and went to Hollywood. There she married Frank Davis, a producer, had two children, a son and a daughter, worked on successful screenplays, and died at the age of thirty-nine. A crowded life indeed and far more than a footnote in American literature.

The Unpossessed is overflowing with “characters”: grocers, cabbies, waiters passing through the landscape briefly, but each there in his own singular skin. And of course the characters of fiction with their wives, their money or lack of it, their careers, their presentation of themselves in battle with the self they fear from knowing it far too well. Miles Flinders, a New Englander surviving the terrible trips to the woodshed for punishment by Uncle Dan and yet masochistically suffering from his own knowledge that his sins were greater than those Uncle Dan was thrashing. His “balmy” wife, Margaret, kind, intelligent, wishing to please, and for that reason somewhat a burden to Miles.

Jeffrey Blake, a second-rate novelist and master fornicator, is first seen expertly mixing cocktails in the kitchen with the help of Margaret Flinders while Miles, from his unhappy childhood a believer in economic determinism, is in the next room with Jeffrey’s wife, Norah, explaining that economic conditions control all, even marriage. Meanwhile, Jeffrey is flinging himself, as if obliged to do so, against Margaret and saying, “…Are you never going to throw away your bourgeois notions, are we always condemned to sin against ourselves and our desire….”

Bruno Leonard, of German Jewish origin, had been in college with Jeffrey Blake and Miles Flinders, and now in New York they are planning, somewhat murkily, to put out a magazine. Throughout the drunken pages, the floating ship of private life sails in the waters of the historical moment: the Depression, apple sellers in the street, the Scottsboro boys on trial, Walter Damrosch concerts, the plays of Eugene O’Neill, about which Miles says, “My Uncle Daniel would have sneered at ‘Beyond the Horizon’; even my father would have walked out on it—staggered out, to the nearest saloon.”

The Magazine, instrument of arcane propaganda and personal identity for the little band of pinkos, figures in the hopes like a valuable visitor one hasn’t the money to entertain with a suitable feast. Jeffrey has somehow learned of a certain Comrade Fisher who might have his hand in the pocket of the Party. Comrade Fisher turns out to be a bulky woman, whose name is Ruthie. Ruthie is a sloganeering geyser who, nevertheless, has some poignant items on her résumé. She has actually spent a night in jail, has been the lover of one Comrade Turner, a mill worker who led a famous strike. Jeffrey, seeking his own claim as a revolutionary fit for international celebrity, will end up in bed with Comrade Ruthie, homely as she is, and through her tired flesh experience a sort of mystical transformation:

He lay and listened peacefully to the revolutionary bed-time story, his hands at rest on her head as though her story, her former loves, the spirit of Comrade Turner, the spirit of the strike itself, passed through her and into his fingers…. He was Comrade Turner lying with Comrade Fisher in his arms. …He was the raw-boned mill worker who led the strike. He was the many mill-hands singing the International…. Gratitude toward Comrade Fisher overwhelmed him like love. He threw off the hot counterpane and made love to Comrade Fisher, Comrade Turner’s Comrade Fisher, under Comrade Lenin’s sightless eyes.

There is indeed no financial advantage to Ruthie, who has after an uncomfortable trip to the Soviet Union become a Trotskyite. But there is money, big money, elsewhere in the Middleton family, parents of one of Bruno’s students at the university where he teaches in a lackadaisical manner that enchants the young with their own revolt against the unholy powers of the school administration and the capitalist tyranny of the society they live in.

Mrs. Middleton, along the way seduced by the importunate Jeffrey, will give an evening party, a fund-raiser for the Hunger March gathering in Washington and for the Magazine. It’s a profligate celebration: radicals, rich friends, antiques mostly of “old New York” society, the butler, the band, the buffet table laden with ham, turkey, sturgeon, caviar, and from a celestial bakery a pastry in the shape of the Capitol in Washington. Conversation is picked up, lost, returned to once more; syllables of comment, private matters between old acquaintances resurrected and cast into the party din.

The band leader is a melancholy, failed classical composer doomed to ballads and fox trots and oldies for a tone-deaf audience. The poor man, remembering his ambitious days, chooses to play the Allegro (Spring) from his rejected “Symphony of the Seasons.”

Beethoven, isn’t it?” said a Miss Hobson. Around her, there is talk of horses, one named Minerva. “You liked that blind-in-one-eye, spavined, consumptive creature with a rotten gallop like a Ford, wh-why!” Mrs. Stanhope whinnied in her horror. “You know it’s possible it’s Brahms,” said Mr. Terrill suddenly. The bandleader is requested to leave off and play “After the Ball Was Over.” “Thank God for that,” Mr. Terrill whispered. “I never really cared for Debussy anyhow.” The bits of musical and horse appreciation are scattered over many pages, drifting in and out in the crowded rooms.

There is comment in a similar cacophony about a modest Negro gentleman, Graham Hatcher, invited in a period of one for every party to liven things up. It is felt he must “represent” something: “in musical comedy perhaps.” “I wonder,” said Ruthie Fisher, “if he might not be the communist candidate for vice-president; he must be somebody.” Mr. Hatcher wearily smiles and says he doesn’t represent anything, but a guest will be heard saying he might be the house detective. The host, Mr. Middleton, name of Al, makes club-man, Wall Street jokes throughout the evening and decides that the courteous black gentleman might have “some pullman porter blood.” Or, from another part of the room: “Ooooh, I wonder could he be Paul Robeson.” At last, Mr. Hatcher, standing about dressed in his singular complexion: “I am not the entertainment,” he exploded. “God damn it, I am Vice President of the CFSUS—The Colored Folks’ Social Uplift Society.” To a Mr. Ballister who could hear and to Miss Ballister who couldn’t it is explained that must be some little magazine the colored folks are starting.

In the moil, a Mrs. Fancher enters to be identified for the unknowing outsiders by the knowing Al: “Lady entering in pearls is our first prison-widow. Husband embezzled. Got five years. Damn shame. Best card player I ever knew.” The staccato brilliance of the party scene in which more than two dozen voices and human shapes appear in a raucous mingling; they are not anonymous names on a list but creations distinct and placed in the social order. Miss Bee Powell, a Daughter of the Confederacy with “violet eyes framed in Junior League eyelashes”; Mrs. Stanhope, the horsewoman who never leaves the paddock; Mr. Crawford, “who fell short of being an English lord only by birth and a monocle,” will say “jolly, jolly” at every turn; the butler, of uncertain lineage, has by his station transmogrified into a Republican who would “feed beggars at the backdoor and throw away the rag with which he wiped their crumbs.” The pages have the reckless exuberance of the open bar, the dance floor, the plentiful harvest of the buffet table, the tribal company, each in its vanity, language, armor, and folly.

Bruno will be called upon to give a fund-raising speech for the Magazine and, dead-drunk, will fall into a long, self-destructive rant of misplaced irony that only an intellectual could excavate from his rattled brain:

Are we as intellectuals going to remain sitting on the fence, watching Christian Science fight with Freud? are we going to twiddle our thumbs and stew in our juices while the world is on the breadlines, the redlines, the deadlines? …” He tottered, swayed…. He recovered and straightened, bowed with a homosexual Tammany smile…. “The answer is: ‘WE ARE.’” The laugh broke out, relieved, the merry cocktail laugh, the self-indulgent, self-effulgent upper-class champagne laugh….

But comrades! need I tell you…we must have competent defeatist leadership…in short we are bastards, foundlings, phonys, the unpossessed and unpossessing of the world, the real minority….”

The final chapter shifts to Margaret and Miles Flinders and to the Greenway Maternity Home where Margaret has gone for an abortion or for treatment after having had one. Miles, when the time came, could not face the diapers drying on the radiator, the convulsive change a baby would make in their lives, although he phrased the drastic moment as fear of going “soft” and “bourgeois.” It’s a downward slide, this last chapter, a haunting return to private life. And again composed in a tornado of broken dialogue among the women having babies, one born dead and another having her fifth, a girl, when what was wanted was a boy after four girls.

The composition will center on a huge basket of fruit, now scarcely touched, which Margaret will forlornly offer to her ward companions and to the cab driver taking her home. Missis Butter, won’t you? No, Missis Butter has plenty of fruit of her own. Missis Wiggam, wouldn’t you? No, can’t hold acids after a baby. To the cab driver: You must have a peach; but Mr. Strite never cared for peaches; the skin got in his teeth. And no, he wouldn’t have an apple, must be getting on uptown. Mr. Strite at last accepts a pear, “‘For luck,’ he said, managing an excellent American smile.” In an unexpected, deftly managed change of tone, the rejected basket of fruit becomes the rejected baby—a symbol, if you like.

The Unpossessed, noticeable indeed, was widely noticed when it appeared. The reviews were more benign in the traditional press than in The New Masses and especially in The Daily Worker. Subversives are ever alert to traitors in the own ranks; traitors by way of style are a subtle threat to content, as even the uncultivated Stalin understood. It has been suggested that Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield may have been models for Tess Slesinger. Perhaps, but their art is more serene and controlled than the fractured eloquence of the polyphonic pages of The Unpossessed, interestingly dedicated: to my contemporaries.

  1. *

    This essay appears as the introduction to a new edition of The Unpossessed, to be published by New York Review Books this month.

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