June 24, 1931
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.
February 29, 1932
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….
May 11, 1933
314 East 53rd Street, N.Y.
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.
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….
February 26, 1935
314 East 53rd Street, N.Y.
…I picked up an English edition of your Orient Express the other day and was going to read it to take my mind off Marx and Engels before going to sleep at night, as I’ve been inventing German irregular verbs in my sleep lately, but became so fascinated with your caravan trip that I sat up till the milkman came around. I suppose it was the English publisher who presented you with those petrol-tins and goods-waggons.
I came to realize recently that Rosalind, who goes to Sunday school for social reasons, had learned nothing about the Bible there, so I have set out to read the New Testament to her. I’ve explained to her that there were inconsistencies in it and that the miracles are probably not true, but she has subjected me to such a searching cross-examination about it, pointed out so many serious discrepancies, that I’ve been almost forced to conclude that Dr. Smith was right about J.C. In any case, I don’t see how it was possible to put the New Testament over on children for so many generations. The most serious thing is not the mere variations in the different Gospel accounts, but the contradictory feelings and ideas ascribed to Christ within a few verses. I began by trying to put her on her guard against the obvious impossibilities and then began to be afraid that the central ideas of Christianity wouldn’t come through for her at all.
The growth of Christianity looks very strange when you read the New Testament again and look back on it today. But I’ve also been impressed, in reading about socialism from its beginnings, by the instinct to create religions which survived even after Christianity had fallen into discredit among the enlightened. Saint-Simon, after the French Revolution, agreed with writers like Joseph de Maistre that what people needed was religion; but he rejected Maistre’s Catholic Church. But then, when Saint-Simon himself was dead, his followers based a cult on him, making use of a hierarchical machinery he had indicated. I have just been looking at a picture of one of them with a sign on his chest which says “Le Père.” The same kind of thing really happened to Marx. He was against religion, but had the prophet’s vocation; and unconsciously he played the role to perfection. That his beard was not grown for nothing is shown by his extreme sadness at being obliged to cut it off in his old age and his having a last photograph taken first. And reading Marx and reading about him, after one has heard a good deal of the doctrine and the legend, is almost as queer as reading the New Testament. Of course we have never really yet had a world without religion—or any part of the world. It’s something, however, that ought to be aimed at.
By the way, it is being rumored that you are “rubbing your belly” and saying that “the good old Republican Party is good enough for you.” Maybe you ought to make a statement of your present position.
Well, it seems to be snowing or hailing again outside. This has been a pretty dull winter on the whole and you have missed nothing by being away….
July 16, 1939
The University of Chicago
To begin with, I don’t think your account of what you are doing in your books is accurate. You don’t merely “generate the insides of your characters by external description.” Actually, you do tell a good deal about what they think and feel. “Behavioristic” only applies properly to the behavior of rats in mazes, etc.—that is, to animals whose minds. we can’t enter into, so that we can only take account of their actions. Maupassant, in the preface to Pierre et Jean, announced his intention of abolishing “psychology” and using something like this method for human beings; but even he, as I remember, cheated; and in any case, how much or how little (in point of quantity) a writer chooses to tell you about his characters, or how directly or indirectly, is purely a technical matter.
What has to be gotten over is what life was like for the characters (unless you’re trying to give the effect of their being flies). You yourself in your books themselves make no pretense of not going inside your people whenever it suits you to do so. As for Defoe, he is so close to his people that you can’t always tell whether he isn’t merely ghostwriting them (since they tell their stories in the first person, he, too, gives you what they think and feel)—certainly, there isn’t much criticism of them, in reference to moral standards, let alone social ideals, implied; whereas what you are doing is intensely critical and much closer to Stendhal-Flaubert-Tolstoy than to Defoe and the eighteenth-century novelists.
My idea about Adventures of a Young Man was that you hadn’t conveyed—it doesn’t matter by what means—the insides of Glen Spottwood. The sour picture of his experiences in New York is like Manhattan Transfer but off the track, it seemed to me, because the object of M.T. was to give a special kind of impression of New York, whereas in Y.M. you are concerned with the youthful years of an idealistic young man. You make all the ideas seem phony, all the women obvious bitches, etc.—you don’t make the reader understand what people could ever have gotten out of those ideas and women—or even what they expected to get out of them. (In general, I’ve never understood why you give so grim a picture of life as it seems in the living—aside from the ultimate destinies of people. You yourself seem to enjoy life more than most people and are by way of being a brilliant talker; but you tend to make your characters talk clichés, and they always get a bad egg for breakfast. I sometimes think you consider this a duty of some kind.) And it seems to me that you have substituted for the hopes, loves, wounds, exhilarations, and depressions of Glen a great load of reporting of externals which have no organic connection with your subject.
I never know what you are trying to do with such descriptions as those of the New Hampshire lake, of the New York streets, of Glen’s arrival in Spain, etc. I feel that you ought to be showing these things in some particular way which would reveal his personality and state of mind or which would at least imply some criticism on your part of the whole situation. (You have sometimes done this admirably elsewhere—as when the Harvard boy in U.S.A sees the façade of Notre-Dame in the twilight looking—I think—as if it were made of crumbly cigarette ashes.) Do you mean, for example, to suggest a contrast between the grandeur and beauty of the lake and the ignoble behavior of the man who runs the camp, to which the boys are subjected? I can’t tell, because it seems to me that the descriptions are written exactly as you yourself might have written them in your notebook. And as for New York—though this may partly be due to my own rather moony tendencies—I believe that people get used to this kind of surroundings, so that they don’t notice them but, as they are going from place to place, see their own thoughts instead. You don’t spare Glen a single delicatessen store.
I must say, though, that the more I have thought about the book, the better it has seemed from the point of view of the idea itself, which, as one looks back on it, disengages itself and takes on life….
We’ve been having an awfully good time out here. The situation at the university is something fantastic—I can’t do justice to it in a letter; but the faculty are much more lively and up-to-date and the students much more serious-minded than they’ve seemed to me in general in the East. The professors at least have the feeling that education has new possibilities and that they’re really trying to do something in their work. At Princeton, they’re resigned to stagnation, and make a point of being old fogies. It’s ironical that at a time when at Princeton, which has always had so much to say about humanistic studies, the study of Greek is totally dead, they should be teaching the language here to quite a large number of students, who start in as beginners in college and are reading the Symposium at the end of the first year. I have students in my courses of all races, religions, nationalities, and colors—including a German Catholic nun. Some of them are very bright.
We’ve seen a great variety of people—including Gerry Allard and his colleagues, who have really made me feel a little that what the intellectuals write in New York has importance for the labor movement. Robert Morss Lovett got off to the Virgin Islands yesterday, looking very debonair and cheerful in a new Panama hat.3
I don’t suppose there’s any chance of your getting out here? I may stay on till the first of October, as I like it and am paying a rent for our apartment that covers the whole season. The Midway and the lake front up here beat anything in the way of a park in New York. The people are better-looking, too. It is a great sight to see them, over the weekends, in the water and on the grass… Mary sends love. She has written about your book for Partisan Review, so that if you don’t know how to write the next one, it won’t be our fault…
Love to Katy—and all the Province-town incumbents.
September 26, 1956
Your postcard reached me in Germany—was glad to hear you had visited Frijoles. I got back last week and find—with a certain surprise—that I am rather out of tune with the U.S. It has suddenly come over me that, whatever you are doing, functioning in America is a terrible struggle—in the long run, it wears you out. In spite of a lifetime of patriotism, I am almost ready to yield to the charms of the older and more gracious civilization of Europe. Not that I have any illusions about what is going on there now, but for a mellow old American of literary tastes and well enough off for a comfortable hotel, Paris offers strong attractions, and even Munich, while partly in ruins, is a more attractive city than such horrors as New York and Boston. So don’t be surprised if you hear of me filling in for Henry Miller—while he is busy with his yogi role in Carmel—sitting in a good café and watching the Seine flow by while I sip an apéritif and leisurely slice the pages of the latest pornographic novel.
One of the things that I most enjoyed was giving moral support to the secular scholars who have been working on the scrolls.4 They are now under constant attack from the Catholic Church, and the conflict has become exciting. I am the only outsider who knows anything about the subject, and am coming to play, in connection with the scrolls, a role not unlike that of Hemingway with bullfighting. As Hemingway used to go around with Sidney Franklin and coach him, so I try to coach young John Allegro, who has stirred up a hornet’s nest by drawing upsetting conclusions from the documents that had been given him to decipher….
January 18, 1964
I haven’t seen your offensive article. Why don’t you send it to me? It’s so long now since I’ve seen you that I don’t know what line you’re taking. The last I heard, you were receiving a citation from Goldwater, who is surely one of the biggest asses in our asinine country. How can he be all out for cleaning up on Russia and at the same time want to get rid of the income tax?…
Paris is extremely dreary—the French themselves complain of it. Elena, who knows it better than I do, gets the same impression as I—that de Gaulle is way up in the empyrean with la gloire, la France, and Louis XIV, with Malraux performing prodigies of cleaning up the old buildings, which turn out to be yellow Palladian affairs, and reforming the opera, which believe it or not, now puts on brilliant productions—while the ordinary people, on Montmartre on a Sunday, seem as drab, though not as driven, merely glum, as in Moscow, and really have no connection with de Gaulle’s “image” of France.
Have just been reading Scott’s letters—which are desolating, but I am perhaps easily desolated nowadays.
February 1, 1964
…I have never regarded myself as a liberal, because the word does not mean anything definite. If you don’t have any fundamental political philosophy, there are a number of practical ways of dealing with the various problems. If you do have a political philosophy, you have principles that you try to stick to. But the “liberal” takes up neither position.
You’ve been railing against “the liberals” all your life, and my impression is that your conception of them is a projection of some suppressed alter ego that you perpetually feel you have to discredit. You used to assail this myth from the radical side, and now you assail it from the conservative.
…Your talk about “dissecting the generalized commonplaces that obscure realities, sorting out truth from falsehood, extolling the good and decrying the evil” sounds like the meaningless banalities of an old-fashioned pastoral exhortation. You ought to dissect your own generalized commonplaces, which seem to me from here identical with the shibboleths of the Goldwater camp.
…I am half buried in Canadian literature tant français qu’anglais, which I have to get through for an article on Canada (very interesting now for the first time in history). What with the tax situation, I am “overextended” in my New Yorker engagements. When I get done with Canada, which I had hoped to do before I left, I’ll have to go after the Dead Sea scrolls in order to bring my book up to date. Then I’m going for a long stay in Hungary, on which I’ve also engaged to report. I’ve become interested in the Hungarians since I discovered that Hungary was the only country where I was chiefly known as a dramatist. Also, I seem nowadays to be obsessed with minorities—French Canadians, Iroquois—feeling that I belong to one myself. From what I hear about Hungary and what Reuel tells me about Poland, I gather that, in spite of their Communists, the getting rid of the antiquated feudal regimes has had a stimulating effect on the young people in those countries such as there is nothing to give the French young people under de Gaulle except incantatory rock ‘n’ roll and allied activities. The Hungarians will get rid of the Russians, too. A Hungarian who had been there recently told me that there really was no such thing as a Hungarian Communist. The Communist leaders themselves, another Hungarian told me, are disguised old-fashioned nationalists.
March 18, 1964
Hotel Victoria, Rome
Your letter addressed to Wellfleet only reached me after our last exchange. Your lucubration in Rome seems to me an appalling production. I never expected to see you develop into such a hot-air artist. After the usual denunciation of the American writers for not being in contact with the real world, you proceed to a lot of vague pronouncements and liberal pious hopes that make Dr. Frank Crane look like Socrates: management and labor harmonized by the realistic intervention of a “social engineer” and Negro rights won without “racial warfare.” And what do you mean by saying that “the plain men and women who do the work of the world and cope with the realities of life”—these phrases are hollow clichés in a class with the Communist “toiling masses”—“respond almost automatically to these values”? What values? Different societies have different values. (The plain men and women in America are suffering from the monstrous taxation and the other impositions of the government without having the intelligence or the gumption to do anything effective about it.)
Then, later on, you talk about the “firm belief that good is good and evil is evil” and the indispensable “conviction of right and wrong.” Well, what is your conception of these moral abstractions? There is no general agreement about them even on the part of people from the same society. I believe, for example, that nuclear and biological weapons are entirely evil. You evidently approve of them as the noble achievements of “Army, Navy and Air Force officers who are conscientiously trying to do their duty by experiments with new methods of warfare”—which impractical literary ninnies have no right to complain about. I note that you are having nowadays some difficulty in reconciling your early resentment against our government for vilifying Germany with your later complete acceptance of its behaving in the same way about Russia.
As for the piece about gas warfare: when in an article recommending these weapons I find the author talking about the free world, I immediately stop reading.
I really don’t think you are well equipped for this moral political editorializing (I don’t think I am at my best in it either). There is all the difference in the world between what you gave them in Rome and the descriptions and “constatations” of your book about Brazil.5 And what are you doing at those literary congresses, anyway? Nothing could drag me to one….
We have come down to Rome from Paris—very glad to get away. There is sunlight and good air here, which is not the case in la ville lumière. But the city is very much changed since I last saw it at the end of the war. For the first time, the impression I get is not of being in a very old city that incorporates the whole history of civilization. The Forum and the Colosseum and all the rest are still here, but the past doesn’t dominate the present. Rome and Paris both are getting more and more like everywhere else—that is, more like the U.S. One very striking thing is that the characteristic smell of these places is gone. I first came to Italy in 1908 and still remember how everything smelled: horses and spaghetti and I don’t know what else—poverty, I suppose. Now one hardly smells anything at all.
Helen is coming from her school and Rosalind from Boston this week. We are here on Helen’s account, having still the old-fashioned idea that it is a part of the young person’s education to have seen a little something of Italy…
May 18, 1964
Your letter reached me in Hungary, but since mail is likely to be read there, I am only answering it now that I’m back in Wellfleet.
You seem to mistake my point of view. I am not “between for and against Marxism.” The Marxism of the so-called Communist countries is today mostly mere cant to cover their exploitation by the Russians. But the problem in these countries as well as here at home is to prevent the apparently inevitable tendency toward centralization and nationalization from crushing individual initiative and any leeway for minority groups. (The old vocabulary of “socialism” and “capitalism” seems to me completely out of date.) The Soviet imposition on Hungary and their alien and mechanical system is detestable and frankly detested by all Hungarians except those—not many—who have to pretend to go along with it. If they could get the Russians off their necks, they would undoubtedly make their own adjustment without all the repression and regimentation which even after the explosion of 1956 they are still obliged to endure; but economically they are tied to the Russans, having accepted from them loans and supplies, and with 40 percent of their trade with Russia. They yearn constantly toward the West and especially toward the United States, which they—disturbingly, to me—idealize; but we have stupidly refused to recognize the Kádár government, and our legation in Budapest, with Mindszenty on the top floor, is always guarded and subject to restrictions as representing a semi-hostile power. It is a spooky and uncomfortable place. But Hungary was the most interesting country I visited—not, except in certain imported features, like Russia, but like a partly and queerly metamorphosed Central Europe. Yet everywhere in the West is getting more and more alike. The people in the Budapest street do not really seem so very different from the people in Paris and Boston.
I hope that we can soon get together and talk about all this…
(This is the second part of a three-part series of Edmund Wilson’s letters.)
Thanks and acknowledgments are given to Elizabeth Dos Passos and the University of Virginia.
March 3, 1977
“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 ↩
The defense was split between the NAACP and the Communist organization, the International Labor Defense. ↩
Robert Morss Lovett was government secretary of the Virgin Islands from 1939 to 1943. ↩
The Scrolls from the Dead Sea was published in 1955. ↩
Brazil on the Move, 1963. ↩