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The “Albert Maltz Affair” and the Debate over Para-Marxist Formalism in New Masses, 1945–1946

  • COLIN BURNETT

Abstract

This article reexamines the “Albert Maltz affair” in light of debates about art and literature in the journal New Masses (1926–48), as well as in international Marxist aesthetics. I argue for a reexamination of the “para-Marxist” theory of art he developed to clarify the role of leftist criticism and the “citizen writer.” The controversy stirred by the publication of Maltz's “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” (New Masses, 12 February 1946) is only fully appreciated through the aesthetic implications that many historians of the Hollywood Ten have overlooked. The immediate attacks on Maltz by critics like Mike Gold were motivated primarily by the view that a properly Marxist aesthetics must follow the Leninist–Zhdanovite theory of “art as a weapon.” More importantly, the support that Maltz and like-minded authors earned from New Masses readers for expressing the “Engelian” thesis that left-wing critics should evaluate art for dialectical tensions of form (and not solely for proletarian messages) suggests that this episode might be read as a beacon of salutary developments in international Marxist aesthetics rather than as an omen of American communist repression caused by the HUAC trials.

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1 Maltz, Albert, “The Happiest Man on Earth,” in Filler, Louis, ed., American Anxieties: A Collective Portrait of the 1930s (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993), 106–15; Maltz, , The Cross and the Arrow (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1944).

2 Simon, Art, “The House I Live In: Albert Maltz and the Fight against Anti-Semitism,” in Krutnick, Frank, Neale, Steve, Neve, Brian and Stanfield, Peter, eds., Un-American Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 170; Maltz, Albert, The Citizen Writer (New York: International Publishers, 1950).

3 Simon, 171.

4 Maltz, Albert, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”, New Masses, 12 Feb. 1946, 19–22, 19.

5 Maltz, Albert, “Moving Forward,” New Masses, 9 April 1946, 8–10, 21–22, 8, 8.

6 Horne, Gerald, The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 213.

7 Gold, Mike, “Maltz Is on the Road to Retreat,” Daily Worker, 11 Feb. 1946, 6.

8 Maltz, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”, 19.

9 Ibid., emphasis in source.

10 Ibid., 22, emphasis in source.

11 Ibid., 20.

12 John Prigher, letter to Albert Maltz, 28 Feb. 1946, Albert Maltz Papers, US Mss 17AN, Series: Correspondence, Box 15 (Folders 1936–1945 and 1946), Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

15 Duclos, Jacques, “La dissolution du parti communiste américain,” Cahiers du communisme, 6 (April 1945), 2138; Duclos, On the Dissolution of the Communist Party in the United States,” Daily Worker, 24 May 1945. Earl Browder was the leader and public face of the CPUSA throughout the 1930s and 1940s until he was relieved of his position as figurehead in June 1945. He had, among other things, overseen the party's implementation of the effective Popular Front policy. But for much of his piece, Duclos decries what blacklist historians Ceplair and Englund call Browder's wartime “extreme of ecumenism,” in which Browder, seemingly inspired by US–Soviet relations during World War II, arrived at the belief that capitalism and socialism could coexist in the US, and thus called for the dissolution of the CPUSA in 1944. See Ceplair, Larry and Englund, Steven, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–60 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 232.

16 Ibid., 231–2.

17 Ibid., 253.

18 See the title of Chapter 7 of Ceplair and Englund.

19 Schrecker, Ellen, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 105.

20 Ibid., 184–5.

21 Cited in Steiner, George, Marxism and the Literary Critic,” in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 305–24, 306.

22 Steiner derives this term from the French critic Michel Crouzet; see Steiner, 307.

23 Buhle, Paul and Wagner, David, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story behind America's Favorite Movies (New York: The New Press, 2002), 264.

24 Ibid., 265.

25 Navasky, Victor, Naming Names (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 300.

27 Ibid., 301. See also Ceplair and Englund, 233; and Ceplair, Larry, “Maltz, Albert, Stevenson, Philip, and ‘Art as a Weapon,’” Minnesota Review, 69 (Fall–Winter 2007), available at www.theminnesotareview.org/journal/ns69/ ceplair.shtml.

28 Maltz, letter to Mike Gold, 18 Feb. 1946, Albert Maltz Papers, US Mss 17AN, Series: Correspondence, Box 15 (Folders 1936–1945 and 1946), Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, emphasis in source.

29 Maltz, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”, 19, 21.

30 Sholokhov, Mikhail, And Quiet Flows the Don: A Novel, translated by Stephen Garry (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, n.d.).

31 Cited in Maltz, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”, 22.

32 Ibid., 22, emphases in source.

33 Ibid., 22.

34 Charles Arnault, letter to Maltz, 2 March 1946, Albert Maltz Papers, US Mss 17AN, Series: Correspondence, Box 15 (Folders 1936–1945 and 1946), Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

35 Ibid., emphasis in source.

37 Maltz, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”, 20.

38 Arnault, Charles, “Painting and Dialectics,” New Masses, 14 Aug. 1945, 28–32.

40 Ibid., emphasis in source.

42 Ibid., 29.

43 Ibid., 30.

44 Kruckman, Herb, letter to the editor, New Masses, 28 Aug. 1945, 21.

45 Carver, Michael, letter to the editor, New Masses, 11 Sept. 1945, 22.

48 Rahtz, Robert, letter to the editor, New Masses, 21 Aug. 1945, 24.

49 Robert Rahtz, letter to the New Masses editor, unpublished manuscript, 18 March 1946. I wish to thank the Rahtz family for making these and other documents by Robert Rahtz available for study.

51 Arnault, Painting and Dialectics, 30.

52 Blair, Fred, “Poetry and the People,” New Masses, 31 July 1946, 1920.

53 Amy Ribodeau Silvers, “Obituary: Communist Blair Held Fast to His Ideals,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 29 May 2005.

54 Hunt, George, letter to the editor, New Masses, 18 Sept. 1945, 21.

55 Cited in ibid., 21.

56 Ibid., 21.

58 Adrean, Tony H., letter to the editor, New Masses, 16 Oct. 1945, 22.

59 It is unclear whether Zhdanov's “art-as-a-weapon” speech delivered in Leningrad in 1946 had been translated for American communists prior to 1950. Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition in Hollywood, 474 n. 46, cite a document from 1950 that contains portions of the speech. Despite this, the language wielded by Maltz's critics reveals that Zhdanovism had seeped into American communist thought well before 1950.

60 Schneider, Isidor, “Probing Writers’ Problems,” New Masses, 23 Oct. 1945, 22–25, 22.

62 Schneider. This point comes in Schneider's piece after a discussion of developments in Marxist criticism on the international scene. He cites the British Marxist critic Christopher Caudwell, whose Illusion and Reality (1937) is held as an exemplar of materialist criticism. One month later, this same text is praised in Harap, Louis, “Christopher Caudwell, Critic,” New Masses, 20 Nov. 1945, 2223. Like Maltz, Harap, at 22, opens with a negative diagnosis of the contemporary situation: “It is a sad commentary on the state of Marxist criticism and aesthetics that the most profound historical materialist study on art in English has never been discussed in any American Marxist publication.” Although Harap and Schneider do not mention it, they and Caudwell advocate the Leninist–Zhdanovite approach.

66 Ibid., 25.

68 Schneider, Isidor, “Background to Error,” New Masses, 12 Feb. 1946, 2324; Sillen, Samuel, “Which Way Left-Wing Literature? 1. Mischarting the Course,” Daily Worker, 11 Feb. 1946, 6; Sillen, “Which Way Left-Wing Literature? 2. Art and Politics,” Daily Worker, 12 Feb. 1946, 6, 8; Sillen, “Which Way Left-Wing Literature? 3. Art as a Weapon,” Daily Worker, 13 Feb. 1946, 6, 8; Sillen, “Which Way Left-Wing Literature? 4. Ideology and Art, Daily Worker, 14 Feb. 1946, 6, 9; Sillen, “Which Way Left-Wing Literature? 5. The Path before Us,” Daily Worker, 15 Feb. 1946, 6; Sillen, “Which Way Left-Wing Literature? 6. Spectators or Creators?”, Daily Worker, 16 Feb. 1946, 8; Gold, Mike, “Change the World: Albert Maltz and Plain Speaking,” Daily Worker, 23 Feb. 1946, 6; Fast, Howard, “Art and Politics,” New Masses, 26 Feb. 1946, 68; North, Joseph, “No Retreat for the Writer,” New Masses, 26 Feb. 1946, 89; Bessie, Alvah, “What Is Freedom for Writers?”, New Masses, 12 March 1946, 810; and Lawson, John Howard, “Art Is a Weapon,” New Masses, 19 March 1946, 1820.

69 Schneider, “Background to Error,” 22–23. Schneider mentions the “direct ways” in which “the Dies and the other un-American committees” and “Hearst and Roy Howard,” affected the jobs leftist critics and writers could find at the time.

70 Ibid., emphases in source.

71 Gold, “Albert Maltz and Plain Speaking,” 6.

72 Fast, “Art and Politics,” 6–7.

73 Ibid., 8.

74 Sillen, “Art and Politics,” 6.

75 Sillen, “Art as a Weapon,” 6.

76 North, “No Retreat for the Writer,” 10.

77 A personal letter to Maltz from a certain “Shep” argues that he was targeted because of his success as a novelist, that he had garnered criticism from writers like Fast, Gold and others who had been forced, due to the New Masses controversy, to confront their own mediocrity. See Shep, letter to Maltz, 23 Feb. 1946, Albert Maltz Papers, US Mss 17AN, Series: Correspondence, Box 15 (Folders 1936–1945 and 1946), Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

78 Cited in Steiner, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” 305.

79 Cited in ibid., 305–6.

80 Cited in ibid., 306.

81 Ibid., 306.

82 Ibid., 307.

83 Ibid., 306.

84 Cited in ibid., 307.

85 Ibid., 308.

86 Ibid., 309.

87 Ibid., 310–11.

88 Cited in Martin, John R., “Marxism and the History of Art,” College Art Journal, 11, 1 (Autumn 1951), 3–9, 4.

89 Finkelstein, Sydney, Art and Society (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 62.

90 Steiner, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” 316.

91 Cited in Martin, “Marxism and the History of Art,” 5.

94 Steiner, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” 319.

96 Ibid., 320.

98 Macherey, Pierre, Pour une théorie de le production littéraire (Paris: Maspero, 1966); Jameson, Fredric, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectic Theories of Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971); Eagleton, Terry, “Marxism and Form,” Poetry Nation, 1 (1973), 5961; and Eagleton, , Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975).

99 Bordwell, David, The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981); and Thompson, Kristin, Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible: A Neoformalist Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

100 Bennett, Tony, Formalism and Marxism (New York: Routledge, 2003), 22.

101 Simon, The House I Live In, 174.

102 Ibid.

103 Ibid., 170.

This article was first written as a paper for Jeff Smith's “Hollywood Blacklist” course held in the spring of 2007 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I thank Jeff for his comments on that version of the piece, as well as Heather Heckman and Mark Minett for their insights throughout the course, and the two anonymous Journal of American Studies readers for their suggestions.

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