Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the Fifties 
by Nora Sayre.
Rutgers, 464 pp., £27.95, April 1997, 0 8135 2231 5
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Nora Sayre’s account of American intellectual life in the Fifties, part memoir, part documentary record, begins with her writer parents and the people she met in their living room in New York: Edmund Wilson, James Thurber, Walker Evans, James M. Cain, Nunnally Johnson, S.J. Perelman, Dawn Powell, Joseph Mitchell and John O’Hara. Many of these celebrated figures, artists and authors approaching fifty at the start of the decade or only lately past it, grew up in small provincial towns, emigrated to New York in the Jazz Age and worked together in the city rooms of the Herald Tribune and the New York World. Unlike their successors, writers who came of age in the Depression, or World War Two, or, like Sayre herself, in the Eisenhower years, her parents and their friends still lived ‘as though something wonderful would happen in the next twenty minutes’. Elegant, exuberant, unsnobbish (with the memorable exception of O’Hara, her godfather, who never again spoke to her after she admitted a preference for Harvard over Vassar: ‘His arm flew up and his wife Belle moved swiftly to restrain him’), Sayre’s parents and their circle made their children feel ‘colourless in comparison’.

The writers who came of age in the Twenties – certainly those Sayre knew – drank like fish and rutted like goats. Once, at the New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell came across Katharine White and Sayre’s mother, Gertrude Lynahan Sayre, snickering over a passage from Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) in which the narrator referred to his penis as a ‘club’. ‘His club!’ one of them exclaimed. ‘Bunny’s club,’ said the other. This exchange, according to Mitchell, was ‘not unkind’; the women were amused because ‘they knew how unreliable a club could be.’ Adulterous affairs were commonplace well into the middle age of Sayre’s parents’ generation and ‘were supposed to be inconsequential’. Those who kept getting divorced and remarried were called ‘big marriers’. Though prim in print, privately they were often wittily indecorous. When, on a fishing trip with Nathanael West and S.J. Perelman, the writer Edward Paramore, a popular ladies’ man, hooked what Sayre’s father, Joel, described to her in a letter as an ‘eerie Will-Beebish object’, purplish and fronded. Perelman identified it as ‘a marine vulva’. As for the ‘athletic, activist’ drinking that went on in such circles (with its concomitant scorn for ‘thimble bellies’), Sayre recalls it as celebratory: ‘of the self and of friendship’. She quotes A.J. Liebling: ‘People whose youth did not coincide with the Twenties never had our reverence for strong drink ... It was the only period during which a fellow could be smug and slopped concurrently.’

As long as he wrote. Sayre’s parents and their friends took writing seriously, though not solemnly: it was earning they scorned. To Sayre, they ‘always expected to be paid to do exactly what they wished, and many were’. Though they made exceptions (for Harold Ross, H.L. Mencken, Maxwell Perkins), most of them held editors in contempt, so that the turn to Hollywood (taken, among others, by Sayre’s father, whose credits include Annie Oakley, Gunga Din and, with William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson, The Road to Glory) merely intensified an already entrenched aversion to collaboration, censorship, interference. Only Johnson, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, among the New York circle, flourished as screenwriters; almost everyone else took the money (to write fiction or plays, to pay medical bills) and ran, deriding their employers’ philistinism and ineptitude. Though many ‘lived very comfortably’, luxury was often perceived as a threat. Hence the relative indifference of her parents’ generation to possessions, surroundings, furnishings; even those who were rich ‘retained the outlook of wage-earners’.

Such generalisations emerge from a handful of richly detailed cameos – of Mencken (who gave Sayre’s mother her start in journalism), Edmund Wilson, Walker Evans, James Thurber. Mencken is depicted as the presiding influence over the group, especially over its politics. Like many writers from the Twenties, he thought all politicians fools or worse and derided the idea of social progress; yet, as Sayre and others have shown, Mencken’s views were oddly inconsistent. For the writers he influenced, most of whom fit Alfred Kazin’s label ‘liberals by acquiescence’, what stuck was a generalised cynicism about human motives. Hence the absence of political ardency in the Sayre living room; so strong had been the reaction to postwar ‘normalcy’ (including the corruptions of Warren Harding and Teapot Dome) that all authority seemed, in Walker Evans’s words, ‘almost insulting to a sensitive citizen’. Even in the Thirties, politics were peripheral: ‘with the exception of Edmund Wilson, almost none of my parents’ friends had been radicalised by the Depression.’

Sayre got to know Wilson in the early Fifties when he had largely retreated from politics. They first met, though, when she was 11, and the normally gruff and bullying Wilson was drawn to her by a shared interest in botany. Sayre was also struck by the ‘rapturous attention’ he devoted to her childish collections of insects, mice, birds and reptiles, a ‘total concentration’ she later identified as ‘a component of his talent: pursuing a topic until it was driven into a corner’. The photographer Walker Evans, who befriended her later in the decade, had a comparable intensity: he could ‘gaze at a single picture in silence for half an hour’. Evans took Sayre on long, unhurried walks through the city, wheeling her around to focus on unexpected views and details: ‘the texture of old stone, a batch of secondhand bathtubs for sale on a sidewalk, the juxtaposition of several buildings’. Though often thought of as a social critic (because of his collaboration with James Agee in 1941 on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), Evans, too, distrusted political activism. Sayre recalls him as a consummate aesthete, dapper, waspish, reserved, a sworn enemy of sentiment and romanticism. Hence the refusal to allow any of his photographs in the colossal Family of Man exhibition of 1955 or his insistence on what photography is not: ‘cute cats, nor touchdowns, nor nudes; motherhood ... Under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach.’

The aestheticism of the New York circle had its complement among literary academics of a similar age and eminence (even though the two sets of luminaries mostly patronised each other). When Sayre entered Harvard in the Fifties to study English, the New Criticism was in the ascendancy. ‘For us the arts were severed from society,’ she writes of her generation, ‘and I would have been astounded if I’d been asked to see a kinship between them.’ In English classes, ‘context was trivia’, and one of her tutors compared ‘the removal of history from literature to deboning a chicken’. She was taught to echo Henry James in The Tragic Muse: ‘The subject doesn’t matter, it’s the treatment, the treatment!’ This treatment was valued if it was ‘mature’, a word always on the lips of tutors and graduate assistants: mature art ‘rose above the passions of faction’; mature people ‘accepted society as it was and didn’t seek to alter it’ (in a spirit of Christian or Eliot-like resignation); mature judgment was ‘objective’ or ‘impersonal’ – that is, uncompromised by passion or ideology.

Which put the young of the Fifties at a disadvantage, especially as they were so small a generation. ‘There were so few of you,’ one of Sayre’s professors recalled nostalgically in 1969, the year of the Harvard strike, ‘it was easy to push you around.’ No wonder Sayre and her fellow English majors ‘longed to be over thirty and tried to behave as if we’d skipped a generation’ (hers was a generation in which ‘very young persons’ used ‘the word “barbarous”’). Literary study attracted the young because it exposed immaturities: ‘mistaking a part for a whole’, like Isabel Archer or Milly Theale; ‘overreaching’, like Achilles. This ‘education in what to avoid’ held out the promise or ‘task’ (the phrase is Jamesian) of personal transformation, expansion, salvation even. Hence the belief among Sayre and her peers ‘that a few lines of Chaucer or a page of Joyce were more substantial than Dulles’s latest pronouncement or whatever occurred on Wall Street’. Sayre remembers only one evening in the whole of her four years at Harvard ‘that touched on political matters’ (it took place after Adlai Stevenson’s defeat by Eisenhower in 1952). The Korean War, which began in 1950, ‘was too intangible to be alarming’ (except if you were male and got poor grades). The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 elicited only the most tepid of demonstrations at Harvard. Sayre claims that she and her fellow students were only ‘groggily aware’ that the House Committee on Un-American Activities posed a danger to civil liberties.

An inverted pride was taken in Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against what he called the ‘smelly mess’ at Harvard, but the university was careful, at the same time, to weed out a handful of radical graduate students and untenured faculty ‘because they had been Communists’. Sayre and her friends knew nothing of this; nor did they know of the pressure on tenured ex-Communists to name names (applied by McGeorge Bundy, who was Dean at the time), or of Henry Kissinger’s spying on students while director of the Harvard International Seminar (opening their mail, passing along names and ‘subversive’ material to the FBI in 1953). Sayre discovered such abuses after the fact, along with almost everything else she tells us about the Red Scare. As a consequence, her account of left politics in the Fifties, which dominates the second half of the book, importantly alters its character: personal reminiscence gives way to historical exposition; the pace slows as assertions, no longer merely her own impressions, are carefully qualified and documented. The book draws extensively on interviews with Thirties and Forties radicals – the chief victims of the Fifties witch hunts – but their recollections are frequently interspersed with passages of potted historical summary (of the sort that begin: ‘In 1946 Winston Churchill had delivered his momentous Iron Curtain speech’). Sayre’s own life and career recede into the background, and we only incidentally learn that, after Harvard, she lived in England for a period, married an Englishman, got involved in film (eventually becoming a film critic at the New York Times) and worked for a while at the New Statesman.

Yet personal experiences and recollections reappear in the later chapters and serve an important structural function. After sections on the 1949 Loyalty Oath at Berkeley (which blighted the careers of signers and non-signers alike), on the Autherine Lucy case of 1956 (an abortive attempt to integrate the University of Alabama), on the paid informer Harvey Matusow (who named 244 persons as Communists ‘and later said he had “probably” testified falsely about “every one” of them’), Sayre moves on to the Hollywood blacklist. Here she draws on the reminiscences of a group of expatriate Americans she met in London in the late Fifties and Sixties. This group, including ‘independent radicals, ex-Communists, and genuine liberals’, would gather on Sunday afternoons in a vast Georgian house in Hampstead, 109 Frognal, the home of the blacklisted screenwriter and playwright Donald Ogden Stewart and his journalist wife, Ella Winter. In Frognal, Sayre met Charlie Chaplin (depicted as arrogant, politically obtuse and unfunny), Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois, the left-wing filmmakers Joseph Losey, Carl Foreman and Abraham Polonsky, the screenwriters Richard Collins, Ring Lardner Jr and Waldo Salt, the critics Harold Clurman and Ken Tynan, the musicians Larry Adler and Yip Harburg, as well as Ingrid Bergman, Constance Cummings and Katharine Hepburn.

Most of the expatriate film people Sayre met in Frognal had settled in England in the Fifties because they couldn’t earn a living in Hollywood, were immediately deprived of their passports by the State Department and found employment in British studios, though only anonymously (to ensure that the films they worked on received American distribution). They were the first political radicals Sayre had come across (‘no one in the Fifties told me that he or she had been a Communist’). Each Sunday in Hampstead – amid the Picasso sketches, the paintings by Lissitzky, Klee and Chagall, the ancient African carvings, pre-Columbian sculptures, Asante gold weights – they would recount their experiences with the FBI, the Committee and the American legion, ‘still sorting out the accusations levelled against them, still amazed at the notion of their alleged guilt’.

The guilt in question is presented as nugatory. ‘Even writers who were Communist knew it was impossible to make left-wing films,’ writes Sayre of the Hollywood exiles, ‘the aims of the Left were usually modest: to portray an intelligent black character or the erosions of unemployment, or even (although rarely) a woman who earned her own living.’ The most radical American films of the Forties, such as Body and Soul (1947), written by Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen, or Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), exposed the corrosive effects of a culture devoted to money. The most overtly pro-Soviet films produced in Hollywood, Mission to Moscow (1943), written by Howard Koch, and Song of Russia (1944), written by Richard Collins and Paul Jarrico (who died last year in an automobile accident in California, after attending a ceremony honouring victims of the blacklist), ‘were considered patriotic during the war and branded as subversive a few years afterward’.

Sayre has no illusions about the quality of these films (with their ‘tuneful’ account of life under Stalin and convenient silence about the Nazi-Soviet Pact), but sees the motives of their authors as admirable, a product of their hatred of Hitler or the Soviet Union’s perceived friendship towards Jews. ‘I became a Communist because I am a Jew’ was a sentence she heard ‘more than once’ in Frognal; when Jerome Robbins named names before the Committee in 1953, he claimed to have been attracted to Communism because ‘Fascism and anti-semitism were synonymous to me.’ It is not true that the overwhelming majority of American Communists were Jews (though ‘some historians have estimated that during the Thirties and Forties about half the membership was Jewish’), but almost all Hollywood Communists were – and so were their anti-Communist bosses, the studio heads. To the Committee, however, ‘Jews and Communists were barely distinguishable.’ ‘Communism is older than Christianity,’ declared Congressman John Rankin: ‘It hounded and persecuted the Saviour during his earthly ministry, inspired his crucifixion, denied him in his dying agony, and then gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross ... Listen to their lying broadcasts in broken English and you can almost smell them.’

Many of the ex-Communists she met in Frognal had been quick to distance themselves from the Party after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, but few would repudiate their past. Stewart quit the Party after the Pact, but when blacklisted ten years later and ordered by MGM to ‘clear’ himself, admit he’d been ‘duped’, and name names, he refused without hesitation: ‘I was terribly proud of everything I had done.’ ‘Some of what we believed wasn’t true,’ admitted Winter, ‘but that doesn’t matter, because we worked for what we believed in.’ Sayre also encountered residual loyalty to Russia. ‘It’s my mother,’ she quotes an elderly trade unionist as declaring: ‘She may be a whore, she may be a thief, she may be a junkie. But she’s my mother. I’m not going to throw her out or leave her on the streets.’ Few in Frognal had much time for turncoats.

Sayre scrupulously records Soviet crimes, as well as the bewildering and dishonourable tactics of the American Communist Party: the rigged meetings; the invective and rigidity; the secrecy (which made the Party ‘a caricature of the conspiracy that the Hearst papers had always accused us of being’, according to Dorothy Healey, president of the Southern California branch); the opposition to the war; the opposition to the Marshall Plan (on specific instructions from the Comintern); the opposition to Helen Gahagan Douglas in the 1950 Senate race against Nixon (because of her support for the Korean War, though in all other respects, according to Nixon, she was ‘pink to her very underwear’). When Khrushchev’s 1956 report to the Twentieth Congress was released to party members in America, its detailed account of Stalin’s crimes produced ‘even more pain than the blacklist’. To Healey and her comrades in Southern California, it alone turned the Fifties into ‘a decade of great tragedy’.

Only in the Seventies did Sayre feel comfortable enough to ask her Hampstead friends about these ‘self-made wounds’ (as opposed to those inflicted by the Right). Some responded by recalling the discredited party line: the Moscow Trials of 1936-38 were ‘unavoidable’; the Trotskyists were conspiring with Germany and Japan to topple the Soviet regime; the invasion of Finland in 1939 bought Russia time to prepare for war with Hitler; Stalin only embraced Hitler after being rejected by England and France. As for newspaper accounts of mass murder and terrorism, the press, in Malcolm Cowley’s words, ‘had already told so many lies about Russia in the past that we didn’t believe it when it told the truth’. Others simply found the truth inconceivable. ‘The Soviet Union was the last place where you would look for contradictions or deceit,’ the screenwriter Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, recalled: ‘as for Bolsheviks framing and torturing other Bolsheviks – that was ... incomprehensible.’ ‘In the Thirties,’ Arthur Miller told the Paris Review, ‘it was, to me, inconceivable that a socialist government could be really anti-semitic. It just could not happen.’

Donald Ogden Stewart stood out for Sayre among the Hampstead blacklistees in part because he came from her parents’ world. Like her father and James Thurber, he grew up in Columbus, Ohio; he was educated at Exeter and Yale and began writing parodies for Vanity Fair at the suggestion of Edmund Wilson. In the Twenties, he was thought the life and soul of the party (‘It was a profession in those days’) and a budding Mark Twain. Hemingway depicted him in The Sun Also Rises (1926) as the successful writer Bill Gorton. Philip Barry, a Yale classmate, wrote the part of Nick Potter, the socialite hero of his hit comedy, Holiday (1929), with Stewart in mind – and Stewart played the part on Broadway. Between 1930 and 1949 he worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood on 28 movies, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street, That Uncertain Feeling, The Philadelphia Story, The Women, Kitty Foyle (co-written with Dalton Trumbo) and Red Dust. He also became a prominent figure on the left: president of both the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the League of American Writers, a Communist front Blacklisted in 1959, Stewart left Hollywood for good the following year. Though he hated the Government and the studios for their treatment of him, he never lost the easy good humour Sayre sees as characteristic of his generation; he ‘insisted upon his felicity’:

My story is about a kid from Columbus, Ohio, who has the American Dream dumped in his lap, who has it all come true. He has the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, the Racquet Club, big salaries, success on the stage – and that guy becomes Marxist. Give a man in America everything, and he’ll turn out to fight for socialism. Now I think that’s a happy story.

Sayre feels a comparable loyalty and affection for Stewart’s wife, Ella Winter (whose first husband was the muck-raking journalist, Lincoln Steffens), but she’s clear-sighted about Winter’s flaws. Winter was a tireless activist, but also bullying and intolerant. When Sayre told her in the late Seventies that the Los Angeles Times had improved, she replied, ‘I spit on the LA Times!’ – because, Sayre recalls, of its anti-union policies of 1910. When Winter’s pet lemur proved poor company by sleeping all day (lemurs are nocturnal animals), ‘she banged on its cage and kept it next to a bellowing television set to keep it awake.’ When she and Stewart were both at work on their separate memoirs and she noticed a pause in his typing in the upstairs room, ‘she pounded on the ceiling with a broom handle.’ Plenty of people couldn’t stand her. ‘Why is it that I like you so much and you don’t like me?’ she once asked Joseph Losey. ‘Maybe that’s the reason,’ he replied. To the Marxist critic and poet Max Eastman she was ‘a zealot’, ‘unmellowed by experience’; he also held her responsible for converting Lincoln Steffens ‘from a sentimental rebel ... to a hard-cut propagandist of the party line’. Yet both Steffens and Stewart adored her. Stewart thought her tombstone should read: ‘She was awful but she was worth it.’ Why, exactly, is never made clear.

The book ends with a chapter on the city where Sayre’s father, Stewart and Thurber were raised – a not wholly successful attempt to gather together its several sections or generations. In the Eighties, long after returning home from London to New York, Sayre got a post teaching writing for a semester at Ohio State. She was put up in an attic room of the house Thurber and his family lived in from 1913 to 1917, which is now a national landmark. In Columbus she sought out the roots of Stewart’s ‘felicity’, the easy optimism of her parents’ generation; she also encountered something of the narrowness from which they fled, the ‘homespun’ anti-semitism, racism, jingoism. Life in Columbus ‘seemed to suggest that respectable citizens had the right to expect comfort and stability’. Growing up there ‘made everything look much simpler than it was’. Sayre quotes the novelist and critic Ludwig Lewisohn, who taught German at Ohio State in the Twenties, on the character of the natives: ‘Well-fed, well-groomed, they sat in their impenetrable stolidity, taking liberties with everything but their minds.’ Caricatures like these don’t amount to much of an explanation.

The roots of Sayre’s attraction to left politics are only revealed late in the book and are connected with her mother, a shadowy figure in earlier chapters, who suffered from depression throughout her life and in her final years spent extended periods in New York’s notorious Bellevue Hospital. ‘Bellevue became my university as much as Harvard,’ Sayre claims, ‘a large part of my education took place there.’ What it taught her was ‘the contempt with which the poor were treated’ – and how middle-income families like her own ‘became poor when medical costs devoured all their earnings and savings’. It was only in England that she discovered that medical care ‘could be considered a right, not a privilege’. This discovery ‘released all my stored anger at the American medical system’. The contrast between her mother’s treatment at Bellevue and her own under the National Health Service ‘showed me that an aesthete could not dwell apart from polities’. The furious precision with which Sayre details this contrast helps explain her attraction to the Thirties radicals and the dominant place she gives their trials and travails in the Fifties.

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