Category Archives: Dreiser and Communism; Dreiser as Communist

“I would not want to do anything that could harm the position of Russia.”

 

 

excerpt

 

 

So said Theodore Dreiser said in 1933, explaining his refusal to intercede for a group of arrested Trotskyists, according an essay/book review on Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon by Maya Zlobina: “Versiya Kestlera: kniga i zhizn” (Koestler’s Version: The book and the life) in the Russian journal, Novy mir (Novy mir, No 2, 1989).

I could not find the source of the Dreiser quote, which — in Zlobina’s article — is in Russian. The passage from the article referenced referring to Dreiser and other supporters from abroad of the Soviet Union under Stalin (in my translation from the Russian) is as follows:

… Rubashov,* who is to be shot before midnight, paces the cell, tallying the final results. The blinding darkness that had darkened his mind has dissipated, melted, and a clear, hitherto unknown stillness descends on the soul. The final chapter is called “The Dumb Interlocutor” — with him, that is, with his true Self, the hero will spend the hours allotted to him before the execution. Free from debts and obligations (or maybe just free?), Rubashov will reconsider and reevaluate his past, questioning everything he believed in. “So why should he die? To that question he had no answer.” He only knew that “I have paid; my account with history is settled.” … The author gave the hero more than an easy death — peace: “A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and travelled sedately on a shrug of eternity.”

On this it would be possible, together with Koestler, to put an end to it, if his book did not give us a key to another historical phenomenon, no less mysterious than the confessions of the accused at the Moscow trials. So mysterious that others are seriously talking about a worldwide conspiracy of the left intelligentsia against Russia, in which A. Barbusse, R. Rolland, L. Aragon, T. Dreiser, B. Shaw, L. Feuchtwanger, F. Joliot-Curie, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Hewlett Johnson and others (and from our own — V. Mayakovsky, M. Gorky, I. Ehrenburg and, of course, M. Koltsov, who told Aragon before leaving for Moscow in anticipation of his arrest: “Remember that Stalin is always right”). I will not discuss this detective story, which looks suspiciously like those anti-Soviet conspiracies that were composed at Lubyanka. But the attitude of the Western intellectual elite to these crudely fabricated forgeries, to mass arrests and to everything that happened in those terrible years in our country, the stubbornness with which eminent, respected writers ignored the crimes of the Stalinist regime and thereby covered them up (and some even glorified the Soviet “camps for the re-education of citizens” as “a remarkable achievement of socialism”), is stunning and requires explanation. What was it? What “blinding darkness” covered their eyes?

All the same: we find here “Rubashov’s syndrome” in its purest form – after all, they were not threatened with torture! … They believed — or wanted to believe — that in the USSR “the foundation of the great happiness of all mankind is being laid,” and for the sake of the dream they cherished protected and supported the myth created by Stalinist propaganda. ” It just so happened, — Bukharin said bitterly to one of his Parisian acquaintances, — that Stalin became, as it were, a symbol of the party. “Or a symbol of socialism, the foreign friends of October might say.” from Rubashov and his comrades, these highbrow humanists enjoyed all the rights and benefits of imaginary freedom, which the country was deprived of, embodying their social ideal! … Hypnotized by the alternative “who is not with us, is against us,” they were asked menacingly:

“Who are you with, masters of culture?” — they chose Stalin.

“Whatever the nature of the current dictatorship in Russia – unfair or whatever you want … until the current strict martial law is eased … and until the question of the Japanese threat is cleared up, I would not want to do anything that could harm the position of Russia. And, with God’s help, I will not do it, “Dreiser said in 1933, explaining his refusal to intercede for a group of arrested” Trotskyists,” with whom, however, “he was very sympathetic.” And Joliot-Curie, who in 1938, at the request of Koestler, wrote a letter to Stalin in defense of the Austrian physicist-communist Weissberg, who was arrested in the USSR (later transferred in accordance with the Soviet-German treaty to the Gestapo), in the late 40s, when “Darkness at Noon’ was being published in France,, and Weissberg, returned from the concentration camp, publicly branded Koestler as a detractor and slanderer! Ten years later, after the official denunciation of the “cult of personality,” the same Joliot-Curie admitted to Ehrenburg that he had seen all the “flaws” for a long time, and added: “Please, in the presence of the children, tell us about the good things that were done for you.” In essence, these intellectuals treated both their people and all of humanity as children who should only be told about the good so that they would not be disappointed in socialism! … Yes, they knew what they were doing, and in the name of a falsely understood duty they betrayed not only ourselves, but us. They betrayed the precepts of European culture and that chief duty that Zola enunciate in his famous “J’Accuse…!” and that impels every true intellectual to take up the pen and sound the alarm at the sight of injustice.

Only a few of the progressives dared to speak the truth about “the country of the victorious revolution.” Now we cannot even imagine how much courage these “apostates” needed, how they reviled and cursed these, according to Koestler, “fallen angels who had the tactlessness to divulge that paradise is not found where it is supposed to be.” The case of the purely non-partisan “defector” André Gide is very indicative in this respect. The famous French writer, who from afar saw in the USSR “an example of that new society that we dreamed of, no longer daring to hope,” was deeply disappointed with Soviet reality. In the preface to “Return from the USSR” (1936), he tried to explain that supporting a lie, “would only harm the Soviet Union and, at the same time, the cause that it personifies in our eyes”; that, with sympathy for Russia, he hesitated for a long time before coming to such a decision, for it so happened that “the truth about the USSR is spoken with hatred, and lies — with love.”

Koestler’s book was written in the conviction that salvation is only in truth, and was written with love for a country and people suffocating under the yoke of the Stalinist dictatorship. However, the people, who remained for all intents and purposes beyond the scope of the portrayal, are depicted in the novel as obviously conventional. The schematism of these images, which is particularly obvious and, perhaps, even offensive for the Russian reader, is simply explained by the fact that the author was unable to artistically master the “folk” (and foreign) material. And yet Koestler was able, with a penetration rare for a visiting foreigner, to discern the living soul of the people through official optimism, propaganda varnish and the dumbness of fear. In The Invisible Writing, an autobiographical book written twenty years later, we find striking words about direct, reliable, fearless people, whose civic prowess contradicts the very essence of the regime and on whom, according to Koestler, our country rests. “I have met them on my travels in every part of the Soviet Union. … These men, whether Communists or not, are ‘Soviet Patriots’ in the sense in which that word was first used in the French Revolution. … in a country where everybody fears and evades responsibility; they exercise initiative and independent judgment where blind obedience is the norm; they are loyal and devoted to their fellow-beings in a world where loyalty is only expected towards one’s superiors and devotion only towards the State. They have personal honour and an unconscious dignity of comportment, where these words are objects of ridicule. … To-day I realise that their existence is very nearly a miracle, that they became what they are not because, but in spite of that education — a, triumph of the indestructible human substance over a de-humanising environment.

 

— Maya Zlobina. “Versiya Kestlera: kniga i zhizn” (Koestler’s Version: The book and the life), Noyy mir, No 2 (1989 )

 

 

*Rubashov, a victim of the Moscow show trials during the Stalinist Great Purge, is the main character in Darkness at Noon.

 

 

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The passage from Zlobina’s article, in the original Russian, in which Dreiser is quoted is as follows:

 

“Какова бы ни была природа нынешней диктатуры в России – несправедливая или какая хотите… пока нынешнее напряженное военное положение не смягчится… и пока вопрос о японской опасности не прояснится, я не хотел бы делать ничего такого, что могло бы нанести ущерб положению России. И, с Божьей помощью, не сделаю”, – заявил в 1933 году Драйзер, объясняя свой отказ заступиться за группу арестованных “троцкистов”, коим, впрочем, “очень сочувствовал”.

 

The full text of Zlobina’s article, in the original Russian and my English translation, is posted at

 

Maya Zlobina, “Koestler’s Version: The book and the life”

 

I wish to thank the Russian independent scholar Yuri Doykov for providing me with a copy of this article in the original Russian.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2020

“Theodore Dreiser Joins Communist Party”

 

 

‘Theodore Dreiser Joins Communist Party’

 

 
“Theodore Dreiser Joins Communist Party”

Daily Worker

July 30, 1945

pg. 5

 

Posted here (PDF file above) is a letter of July 20, 1945 from Theodore Dreiser to William Z. Foster, General Secretary of the Communist Party USA, in which Dreiser applied for membership in the party. Dreiser was admitted to membership.

The letter was published in the Daily Worker, which was published by the Communist Party USA.

 
— posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

Sally Kusell, “Dreiser’s Style”

 

 

Sally Kusell, ‘Dreiser’s Style’ – NYTBR 4-8-1951

 

 

Downloadable Word document above.

 

 

 

This April 1951 letter  to The New York Times Book Review from Sally Kusell is self-explantory.

Sally Kusell (1892-1982) was a lover of Theodore Dreiser and one of his many secretarial/editorial assistants. She played a major role as a typist and editor of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

John Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet and scholar.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

a parody of The Financier

 

 

Donald Ogden Stewart parody – Vanity Fair, April 1921

 

 

 

Posted here (downloadable Word document above) is the following:

 

“Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups: Mr. Thornton Burgess Rewritten by Three Eminent American Novelists”

By Donald Ogden Stewart

Vanity Fair. April 1921, pp. 57. 90

 

I have transcribed Stewart’s parody, which does not seem to have been reprinted.

The books of the children’s author Thornton W. Burgess provide a pretext for the parody, which begins with him. Then, successively, Stewart parodies James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, and Dreiser. The novels parodied are Cabell’s Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, Lewis’s Main Street, * and Dreiser’s The Financier.

Something about Dreiser caught by Stewart in this parody — his writing of the financier’s prowess and wealth, his social standing and that of his wife and friends as if he (Dreiser) himself were an awestruck bystander — in the vein of reverence for these things — seems very on target. Note the following observations made by Thomas Kranidas in his master’s thesis on Dreiser:

Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the “great world.” But he was not familiar with it. And when he wrote about it, he wrote about the surface qualities of it, never once touching the refinement, the sense of superior knowledge and awareness through ease. Dreiser was a snob on one level, a man with exorbitant class yearnings, a man who resented his origins and was scornful of the lower classes. … Dreiser’s vision was clouded many times by this snobbery. It led to certain cruelties and flippancies and certain absurd superficialities. … Whenever class consciousness touches his writing, the effect is false. Whenever he attempts to identity with knowingness or annihilate with scorn, he is unrealistic.

— Thomas Kranidas, The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,” master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953

Another thing about Dreiser’s writing that Stewart catches is the use, for example, of clichés (“all that glitters is not gold”) and weak words such as trig; of adjectives such as sumptuous — in short, his weakness at description.

 

 

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Donald Ogden Stewart (1894-1980) was an American author and screenwriter and a member of the Algonquin Round Table. His literary friends included Ernest Hemingway, who in The Sun Also Rises modeled a character in the book (Bill Gorton) on Stewart. Stewart was known for his parodies of writers and middle-class mores.

 

[After graduating from Yale, Stewart] tried diligently to climb the corporate ladder in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Minneapolis. In 1921, back in New York and temporarily out of a job, he was sent by F. Scott Fitzgerald (whom he had met in Minneapolis) to apply for work the advertising department of Vanity Fair, where Fitzgerald’s classmates Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop were assistant editors. …

There was no work available, but Wilson liked a brief parody of Dreiser that Stewart had cobbled up. … Vanity Fair printed it. … within a matter of weeks, Stewart was a full-time humorist.

— Calvin Tomkins, review of By a Stroke of Luck! An Autobiography, by Donald Ogden Stewart, The New York Times Book Review , December 14, 1975

 

Born in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 30, 1894, Mr. Stewart was schooled at Exeter and Yale. …

”I was in the bond business in Dayton, Ohio, but I was no good at money. I was, though, a good friend of Scott Fitzgerald, who sent me to Vanity Fair, where Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop were the editors.

”For them, I wrote a parody of Scott and Theodore Dreiser, and took it to Wilson, and to my great surprise Bunny said he’d publish it. It was the first time it occurred to me that I could write, and I was scared to death.”

— “Donald O. Stewart, Screenwriter Dies.” The New York Times , August 3, 1980, pg. A32

 

 

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COMMUNISM

 

“As World War II approached, [Stewart] became a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and admitted to being a member of the Communist Party USA at one of its public meetings. During the Second Red Scare, Stewart was blacklisted in 1950 and the following year he and his wife, activist and writer Ella Winter …. emigrated to England.” (Wikipedia).

An article in The New York Times (“Hammett Elected By Writers League: Resolutions by Group Generally Follow Communist Party Line,” The New York Times, June 9, 1941. pg. 17) noted that Dashiell Hammett was elected unanimously as president of the League of American Writers on June 8, 1941. “The League of American Writers was an association of American novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, and literary critics launched by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in 1935. The group included Communist Party members, and so-called ‘fellow travelers’ who closely followed the Communist Party’s political line.” (Wikipedia)

Hammett’s predecessor as president of the League of American Writers was Donald Ogden Stewart.

Theodore Dreiser was named honorary president of the League at the same meeting.

 

 

* I wonder if Lewis’s references to “Grub Street” were intended to recall George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street by means of humorous association with the title of Main Street.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 2019

 

 

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addendum:

 

Donald Ogden Stuart was the author of A Parody Outline of History (New York: George F. Doran Company, 1921).  The book is not a parody of the H. G. Wells book, but a parody of living American authors supposedly writing about great events in American history — many of the chapters are reprints of individual pieces by Stewart that had first appeared in The Bookman. Among the authors parodied are James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Thornton W. Burgess, Edith Wharton, and Eugene O’Neill. There is no Dreiser parody.

“Dreiser and Editor Exchange Jibes,” Atlanta Constitution, November 7, 1935

 

 

 

The following is a partial transcription of an article in the Atlanta Constitution, November 7, 1931.

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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Dreiser and Editor Exchange Jibes on Income and Service to Society

 

HARLAN, Ky., Nov 6 – (AP) – Theodore Dreiser, who came to Kentucky’s hills to investigate the sanguinary coal field controversy of the Harlan district, was transformed from prosecutor to witness today by a newspaperman who sought to learn if the famous novelist practiced what he advocated.

The newspaperman—Herndon Evans, publisher of the Pineville Sun—learned from the author of “An American Tragedy” that his annual income was approximately $35,000 and that he gave none of it to charity, but supported financially the Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Dreiser and other New York writers were conducting the first session of their inquiry into conditions in the coal fields and were questioning Mr. Evans.

Dreiser questioned the Kentucky editor about his religion, income and other personal matters and asked Evans if he thought it fair to earn between $50 and $75 a week, while miners of the district worked for $30 and $40 a month. He had expressed the opinion the editor’s sympathies were with mine operators.

“May I ask you some questions?” Evans asked, and when Dreiser responded “Certainly,” he asked:

“What is your annual income?”

“Approximately $35,000,” said the author.

 

None for Charity.

“Do you give any of it to charity?”

“No.”

“That’s all,” said the newspaperman.

Dreiser asked him not to stop, but “ask me some more questions.”

Evans then asked: “Do you give to any organization?”

To which Dreiser replied he contributed to the Civil Liberties Union and “other similar organizations.”

Dreiser recounted some personal matters and said there were 13 members of his family “and they were not very shrewd and couldn’t take care of themselves.”

“I am trying to take care of them,” he said, and estimated he spent between $5,000 and $6,000 a year on his family.

“You know,” he said, “I am a radical and interested in equality in government. I’m interested in social organization.”

Dreiser said he did not make any “real money until I wrote the ‘American Tragedy,’ at the age of 55.”

“Averaging my income over my life period,” he said, “I think you will find it to have been very moderate.”

Evans interrupted to say he believed he could show he had done more for charity of his income and along civic lines than Dreiser could on his earnings.

“Does that represent your theory of equality?” asked the Kentucky editor.

During Evans’ questioning, Dreiser denied he was a member of the communist party, but said he was in sympathy with some of its policies.

“I’m not a communist,” Dreiser said. “They wouldn’t take me, but I see an equity there, and that’s what I’m after. I believe we should let every country start on an equity basis and see what we get.”

“I don’t propose to import a Stalin or a Trotzky here, but there should be equity in all things.”

Both Evans and Dreiser were smiling when the session recessed after their exchange, which came at the end of a morning or routine questioning of miners and one miner’s wife.

 

[remainder of article not transcribed]