To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Richard Wright’s was truly a life defined by struggle, and by his death at age fifty-two in 1962, he had acquired a massive amount of political baggage that was bursting with a contradictory array of statements and actions. Among other things, Wright stands alone among African American authors of fiction, poetry, and drama in his providing a detailed, autobiographical memoir of life in the Communist Party (CP-USA), which lasted about ten years. Moreover, Wright scholars have long been aware that there was always something elliptical if not cryptic about the articulation of Wright’s political views in the years after his departure from that movement and the United States. This essay begins by demonstrating that much of the present-day confusion regarding Wright’s brand of Marxist politics toward the mid-1940s and after can be traced back to interpretations of what he resolved when he wrote the memoir “I Tried to Be a Communist.” It concludes by querying the extent to which his political evolution was representative--or uncharacteristic--of the experience of the dozens of African American imaginative writers with CP-USA affiliations, every last one of whom drew back from the organization at some point.
When John Steinbeck's masterwork The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, the Communist Party's Daily Worker applauded it beneath the headline, “The Grapes of Wrath is a Great Proletarian Novel.” The reviewer's uncritical admiration was effusive:
It is at once a monumental protest against the horrors of a profit system whose high priests oppose the New Deal, unionization, and relief, and an infinitely compassionate portrait of the masses who suffer under the system. But out of their suffering, Steinbeck shows, will grow a great movement to restore the land to the people … It is hard to think of a more satisfying proletarian novel in America.
A few weeks later, the Party-sponsored weekly magazine New Masses put forward a more systematic appraisal by Granville Hicks, a public member of the Party and author of the notable Marxist critical study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933; revised 1935). Hicks's verdict was identical:
Hitherto, whenever anybody asked us what we meant by proletarian literature, we had to say, “Well, it ought to have this quality that you find in so-and-so's work, and that quality so exemplified by the other fellow, and such-and-such found in somebody else” … We shan't have to offer that kind of composite illustration any more. We can now say, “Proletarian literature? Oh, that means a book like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.”
The literary category of US Writers on the Left was initially delimited by Daniel Aaron in his 1961 Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. The genus pertains chiefly to mid-twentieth century authors and literary intellectuals inspired by the ideas of Marxism, most notably through an attraction to the Communist-led cultural movement. During the first two decades, only a modest number of distinguished poets, novelists, critics, and dramatists declared themselves socialists; they fashioned an amorphous, somewhat Bohemian legacy of art in the service of the emancipation of the working class in the pages of publications such as the Masses and the Liberator. This heritage would be revivified in new form as a repercussion of the social crisis of the 1930s when an extraordinary number of the most gifted writers veered precipitously in the direction of the revolutionary Left. During the 1940s, this tradition of “littérature engagée” evolved as a constituent component of the cultural mainstream, but in the 1950s it was ultimately marginalized by the anti-radical political repression of the McCarthy era.
The Bolshevik rendition of Marxism is the conspicuous political feature at the heart of this legacy. Sundry of the most capable writers were passionately enthralled by the ideals of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, which they believed to be embodied in the activities and ideology of the Communist Party. Even Left critics of the Stalin regime often based their condemnation on writings by Lenin and Trotsky. The attraction remained potent through World War II but waned as the Cold War began.
On the morning of June 20, 1951, a hundred FBI agents poured out of the Foley Square Federal Building in Manhattan at dawn, buttoned up their gray trenchcoats, and bounded into a fleet of waiting Buicks. Spreading throughout New York City in a well-orchestrated operation, they surrounded twenty private homes, burst into bedrooms, and dragged sixteen Communist Party leaders off to jail under the Smith Act charge of conspiring to teach the overthrow of the U.S. government. This was the second group of top Party functionaries to be arrested under the Act.
Alan Wald: When we read your memoir that came out in 1990, Being Red, many of us had also read an earlier book called The Naked God in 1957 — and our impression of your experience was represented by The Naked God until we read Being Red. There seems to many of us to be a big difference between the two books and it is also noticed by some of us that in your long list of books in front of Being Red you don't mention The Naked God, and in Being Red you don't talk about The Naked God. So we are wondering whether or not Being Red is sort of a new version of the past that is appropriate for some reason. Is there something inadequate, perhaps, about the earlier version or some political need now to rethink and reform your ideas? What are the differences between the two books? Why did you write the second?
Howard Fast: The chief difference is thirty-five years — which is a big difference. When I wrote The Naked God, I was very angry. I was furious with what I considered a betrayal of people of good will by a large part of the leadership of the Communist Party. You see, I do not look upon the destruction of the Soviet Union and the careers of the men who led the Soviet Union as an attempt to establish a tyranny.
Today's younger generation of intellectuals consists of the late arrivals to the generation that made its appearance as American “Marxists” and which has lived its entire life with Marxism (including, of course, anti-Marxism) as its central theme and interest. Without Marxism this generation is not only dull—it is nothing. It does not exist.—Harold Rosenberg, “Death in the Wilderness”
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.