Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Vito Marcantonio Lucky Corner

Marc's Lucky Corner Legions. 
New York City now has its long-overdue “Vito Marcantonio Lucky Corner” and Professor Gerald Meyer has a new job to do.

In his biography of Marc, Meyer concluded with a strong lament: “No plaque commemorates the place of his birth, his political headquarters, his adult residence, or the spot where he fell dead.

“Nevertheless, his story deserves to be known, because it contradicts so many of the platitudes which pass for American history and therefore suggests new ways of thinking about the present.”

Offended by the forgetfulness, driven by his belief in the need for Marc's revival, Meyer convened the Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF)in October of 2011.

Among the goals set forth on that night, as the Occupy movement took root in downtown Manhattan, was the naming of a street after the radical congressman.

On Dec. 17, the goal was realized. The VMF's persistence in making Marcantonio part of the intellectual and cultural conversation, coupled with the commitment of city council president Melissa Mark-Viverito, made it happen.

The outgoing councilwoman's district overlaps much of what was Marc's old 18th, and then 20th, congressional districts. Throughout her term Mark-Viverito's office kept the ends out for ties that bound it to the VMF.

In March of 2017, the group honored her with the Vito Marcantonio Award. 

The fruitful relationship finally resulted in a most- poignant day for Marc and those who have endeavored to keep his flame burning.

“I have remembered,” Mark-Viverito told those gathered on a chilly Saturday afternoon at the corner of Lexington and 116th Street, “those who came before me and guided me as I moved forward representing East Harlem and the South Bronx: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Evelina Lopez Antonetty and Vito Marcantonio – all champions of the working class.”

“The naming of the street could not come at a more appropriate time in the country's history,” said VMF co-chair Maria Lisella in a joint press release with the New York City Council. “As the rights of the immigrants, the poor, and social services are being challenged, we hope the reminder of Congressman Vito Marcantonio will inspire people and politicians to model themselves on his example.”

The event was attended by Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer. Chris Bell recited Gil Fagiani's “Litany of San Vito” in English, Lisella did so in Italian, and community activist Gloria Quinones performed the Spanish rendering.

VMF Co-chair Roberto Ragone reenacted a speech given by Marcantonio on the hallowed spot during his 1949 campaign, as well as passages from others on Puerto Rican independence and the discrimination of Italian immigrants. 

Meyer spoke on the significance of the Lucky Corner and pledged the group's continued effort to erect memorials at other sites of importance to the East Harlemite's career.

"The Lucky Corner," by Ralph Fasanella.
In “La Guardia: A Fighter Against His Times,” author Arthur Mann traces the landmark to “The Little Flower's” 1924 congressional run:

“Fiorello closed his campaign on the night before election with a parade featuring fireworks, torches, and music, which wound up on 116th Street and Lexington Avenue – to be known thereafter as the Lucky Corner. Once again the streets rang to the tune of 'On the Road to Mandalay' as The Major's tenors, sopranos, and bassos sang out: 'Fi-or-el-lo H. La Guar-di-a; Harlem needs a man like you in Congress.'”

Marcantonio assumed La Guardia's mantle in Congress – and at the Lucky Corner – when The Major became The Mayor.

There were adjustments. The song became “The Hymn of Garibaldi,” but the party still ended with an appearance by the man-of-the-hour, Marc.

L-to-R: Frank Marcantonio, Gale Brewer, Melissa Mark-Viverito,
Christopher Bell, LuLu Lolo, Gerald Meyer, Gloria Quinones,
and Roberto Ragone.
In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Meyer writes, “The Lucky Corner, by its very name, evoked the huge reservoir of folk beliefs equality prevalent in Italian Harlem and El Barrio. It also created the sense of the festa, which, organized around an icon, celebrates a community and its deepest, often unarticulated beliefs and longings. Like the festa, this pre-election rally had a major ritualistic, ceremonial function, which among other things stated that the streets and the public places belonged to the community residents, that their narrow, often dead-end lives had a wider meaning.”

Miriam Sanders may have fallen in love with her future husband after being “electrified by his incisive and compelling oratory” during a 1924 speech at the Lucky Corner, according to Meyer. Ralph Fasanella made a Marcantonio rally at the locale the subject of a painting.

The story of the new sign at the Lucky Corner is as much about the marker as it is about the Vito Marcantonio Forum.

A long time in coming: Gerald Meyer. 
“The VMF,” says Meyer, “is a cross-generational, multi-racial/ethnic, gay-straight group of folks from varying political proclivities united in our conviction that the life and times of Vito Marcantonio must be written into all the phases of American history to show that the Cold War and McCarthyism sent our country down a long, dark path.”

Since its founding, the VMF has elaborated a rigorous program of interventions intellectual, literary, musical, and theatrical, thrusting forth from obscurity the name and work of Vito Marcantonio to those who come to be reminded and those who come to learn.

These have been auto-generated events, symposia in collaboration with like-minded groups, and forums convened by other organizations.

Reenactment, recital, poetry, musical spoken word, street corner speeches, film screenings, videos, guest speakers are all part of the VMF's toolbox.

The group has participated in, or mounted, 40 events since 2011, reviving the name of a man about whom very little was written or uttered.

An assembly of writers-, actor-, poet-, historian-activists, and such, with no official charge, but persistent and skilled at messaging through text, stage and screen, established a metric for success and pursued the matter to its successful fruition.

Roberto Ragone and Frank Marcantonio. 
The Lucky Corner's dedication represents Marcantonio's legacy redounding upon itself, his example of a citizen-based, collective activism being put to use in a way that could not have failed to please him. 

The event was written up in “AM/NY,” the Italian-language “i-italy,” “People's World,” “24 New York,” “Renato Cantore,” and what appears to be a German language publication.

Frank Marcantonio, a descendant of the East Harlem congressman, wrote VMF members saying, "It was a wonderfully exciting day highlighted by the unveiling of the 'Lucky Corner,' a lasting tribute to the life and legacy of Vito Marcantonio and also a legacy to all those who have persevered over the years to keep his name and accomplishments alive.”

Leading up to the sign ceremony was a Dec. 10 reading of Clifford Odet's “Waiting for Lefty” in conjunction with Work of Art Productions. 

After the sign event the VMF held ninth and final session of a reading circle done in conjunction with the neighborhood activist group Chelsea Rising at Penn South.

The cycle, which featured writings and speeches from “I Vote My Conscience,” ended with a special session focusing on Puerto Rico.

In attendance was Alma Concepcion who, aside from the blessing of being Marc's godchild, was the only daughter of Gilberto Concepcion de Gracia, described by Meyer as “a major figure in Puerto Rican history.” 

was, among other things, co-attorney with Marc in defense of Pedro Albizu Campos and other Nationalist Party leaders, and founder of the still-vital Puerto Rican Independence Party.

The hoisting of that green sign over the emblematic East Harlem street corner strengthens the bond between those who dreamed, and then lived, the process of memorializing the Lucky Corner and primes the VMF as it moves beyond its most active year in existence.

"The Italian American Table: Food Family, and Community in New York City," by Simone Cinotto

No, the pasta with tomato sauce and a side of sausage and/or meat in more gravy/sauce you eat on Sunday is not a time-honored recipe of your old country forebears.

In “The Italian American Table,” Simone Cinotto proposes that the food we know as “Italian” has roots in the Old Country, but actually flowered in New York City.

Cinotto's academic study of food culture in New York City's Italian immigrant community peals back the layers of accumulated culture to be found in that construct we know so well as “Italian food.”

The book proposes that, “Italian food was the food that reflected the experiences of Italian New York, as it was reinterpreted, transformed, and perpetuated in different reincarnations of many different Italian cuisines.”

What that means is that Italian food is not born of traditional recipes persistently defended by immigrants against modernity, but a creative response to the challenges of life in the new environment that was the New World. 

A Creative Business Class

Much of the credit goes to dynamic Italian American entrepreneurs whom Cinotto has called, “less cultural conservatives and more creative innovators.”  

This business class, he says, provided the community with a self-sufficiency in terms of goods. The goods themselves nurtured the culture and created a powerful link between being Italian and shopping Italian.

They created a culture and a material world that was important for them,” says Cinotto. “This mostly symbolic cultural construction would not have survived if it were not very important in economical terms.”

Fortuitously coupled to the business acumen of these merchants was a very large market for goods from Italy or “Italian-made” product. The 1930 census revealed one-in-six New Yorkers were Italian.

Abundance Realized

As for the Italian American diet's progression, he informs that, for the immigrants, pasta, canned tomatoes, olive oil – items now sacrosanct – became part of their diet on this side of the Atlantic. 

“[The immigrants] predilection for fresh food,” Cinotto says, “which they never seemed tired of declaring, may well have been the result of not having much of it in Italy, where, contrary to popular notions, southern peasants rarely ate 'fresh' and 'in season' relying mostly on cereals (bread, soups, pastas or pulses), and poorly preserved cheese fish and sausages.”

Meat in Italy was a sometime thing. Manufactured “dry” pasta was for the upper strata of society.

The immigrants did not consider themselves as coming from Italy, rather as migrants sprung from their piccolo paese, “little country,” or province.

Simone Cinotto. 
Michael Parenti recalled in “Waiting For Yesterday,” his memoir of a youth spent in East Harlem, that when he asked his father if So-and-so was a paesan his father told him 'No, he's Napolitan,' meaning he was not Barese, like the Parenti clan and not of the same paese.

The food they ate represented what their sending region could yield or trade for. They shopped in local stores trafficking in the imported foodstuffs from the same places. 

But their U.S. status was that of Italians and the second and third generation kids came to view themselves in that way. They went to DeWitt Clinton High School where there were Irish kids, African-American kids, Puerto Rican kids, Jewish kids and themselves... the Italian kids.

A Closed Circle of Consumption

The home was a different story. “Living frugally in ethnically bounded enclaves, they maintained highly distinctive foodways,” says Cinotto. “In their homes, Italian immigrant women, barely exposed to mass marketing and advertising, continued to prepare foods purchased in local, independent stores in the neighborhood.”

This, he calls, a “closed circle of consumption,” which endured in immigrant communities up until the Second World War. It meant that mass-produced foods and chain stores made few inroads into the eating habits of Little Italy.

“Even as the U.S. marketplace allowed migrants to enrich their daily fare with foods (such as white bread, pasta, meat, coffee, and sugar) that had long been out reach in Italy, their isolation and poverty shielded them from most of the lure of mass culture, mass consumption, and mass advertising,” according to Cinotto.

Nonetheless, he observes, “their ethnic food production and distribution network allowed immigrants to have much wider access to more varied food than they had in rural Italy. The industry that brought 'Italian' foods to Italian enclaves was just one part of a complex, global trade system.”

American production techniques meant food was getting to the table cheaper than elsewhere in the world, and certainly cheaper than in Italy. “Hard-pressed immigrants saw some of the abundance promised by America in the availability of products beyond their reach back home,” says Cinotto. 

The Importance of Food

Italian American families of that time, Cinotto's research revealed, spent significantly more on the family food budget than other ethnic groups in the U.S.

Food was important, part of southern Italian hospitality. So was tradition, but the immigrants found that keeping their American-born children in line as to the old ways was a losing battle.

Parenti writes, “The immigrant men drank wine made in their own cellars and smoked stogies. We nasty youngsters called the stogies 'guinea stinkers' in reference to the old Italians who smoked them.”

The “nasty youngsters'” immigrant parents turned to food as the glue that would preserve the family from the corrosive effects of modern American culture.

Cinotto notes that, “Immigrants began to employ food and food rituals in the construction of the Italian American famiglia with its emphasis on solidarity, strong gender roles, a commitment to work, suspicion toward abstract ideas, and an appreciation of the effective limits of happiness."

He observes that,"The ideology of La Famiglia met the needs of working class culture -- itself under development -- that prepared individuals to the life of labor most of them were destined to live." 

For Italian Harlem's immigrants, Cinotto says, a woman's ability to prepare the beloved foods was a sign of successfully transmitted tradition across generations.

"In practice,' he adds, "it meant that the new bride was ready to serve her new husband the food his mother used to cook." 

Marc cared about Spaghetti.
Sunday dinner was very important. The foods served were not to be found in the American culinary universe the children encountered at school and in the homes of American friends. It therefore served as a strong symbolic link to the family and to that family's identity as Italian. 

To Be, or Not to Be (Italian)

As Parenti remembered, his grandfather, in the end, expanded his language comprehension of the standard Italian, used in local papers like Il Progresso, until he became less a Barese and something of the Italian he had never been in Italy.

It is Cinotto's proposition that much the same progression affected the Italian American diet.

After World War I, the community's wealth, much of which used to be sent to family in Italy, stayed in New York, and provided Italian American businesses with access to new capital.

A new generation of medium- to large-sized Italian American businesses then, “helped reshape the Italian American market by adding their ethnic social and cultural capital to modernized methods of production and marketing; they managed to create an aura of Italianitรก around their products by asserting the Italian identity of their products or inventing one where it did not exist, while at the same time meeting the standards required by modern consumer culture – low price, quality, purity, and ease of preparation.”

Even when the canned tomatoes came from a California company, or the salami from northern New Jersey, branding industrially produced mass products as Italian worked, and these became every day items in the Italian American kitchen, in Cinotto's words, “earning the same trust accorded to 'natural' and 'traditional' non-processed foods." 

Marc frequented Rao's.
You'll never grab a can of whole tomatoes again without reading the label after Cinotto takes you through his survey of U.S.-sourced “Italian” kitchen staples. Just because there's a folkloric drawing of a peasant woman holding a basket in the Italian countryside, doesn't mean the contents comes from the Italian countryside.

A Comprehensive Study

There's much more. The role Italian restaurants served in helping Americans get more comfortable with the people who owned them and vice versa. Mussolini's encouragement of importation to the Italian immigrant community and the move toward Italian-American companies when the trade bonanza ended.

There is a look at the codification of an “Italian cuisine” -- designed more for Americans than Italians -- featuring Neapolitan tomato-based offerings and dishes devised on Mulberry Street or 116th Street, home of Rep. Vito Marcantonio a dedicated marinara man in his own right. 

The progression, or the dialectic, is ongoing.

Mario Batali rooted his haute cuisine in the Old Country proper and would not hire kitchen hands who had not done time in an Italian – as in Italy – restaurant. There was a response, with cookbooks like “We Called It Macaroni” reasserting the virtues of home-cooked New York-style Italian cuisine.

All of which serves to highlight the dramatic levels of out-migration from Italy to the Americas. Cinotto often employs the term “diaspora” to describe the displacement of southern Italians around the world.

The condition was one of uprootedness and the establishment of foodways that drew upon old habits and made concessions to the offerings of a new environment resulted in something newer still: a strong marker of Italian American identity. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Vito Marcantonio Forum Convenes Ninth Reading Circle Session

"The Algonquin Roundtable" by Al Hirschfeld
The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) will continue its successful Reading Circle Cycle Nov. 15, focusing on Marc's seventh, and last, term in Congress as presented in “I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches and Writings.” 

VMF says the East Harlemite's efforts in 1949-50 were characterized by, “an almost one man battle in the vain hope to stem McCarthyism at home and 'Wall Street Imperialism' (as Marc called it) abroad.” 
Professor Gerald Meyer

Among the pearl's rendered by the silver-tongued New Yorker unto the 81st Congress are assaults on the proposed “Taft-Harley Act” to curtail labor rights, a condemnation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, and Marc's discourse as the only vote against the Korean War from which the title, “I Vote My Conscience,” was coined.

Pat Ciccarone, a recent addition to the circle, expected these works of Marcantonio's to be dry and dull. “It is anything but,” says Ciccarone. “His speeches are the biggest surprise of all: well-crafted arguments in simple language, direct and to the point, with the added bonus of being uncannily relevant to the current state of affairs."

Attendees benefit from the insights of Professor Gerald Meyer, dean of all things Marcantonio and storehouse of knowledge on the subject without parallel. 

Says Ciccarone, "I like to think of the forum as entitled, 'Marc and His World,' as Jerry does a superb job, not only in facilitating the discussion, but in bringing his professorial knowledge of the period('His World') that puts into historical context the many issues Marc addresses to his Congressional colleagues."

The Reading Circle gathers at 339 W. 24th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Penn South South Community Room. More information is available on this and other goings on at the VMF's Website

Friday, October 20, 2017

Puerto Rico: Forgotten Family

Marc outside a registration booth in El Barrio.
To be sure, Puerto Rico existed before a recent hurricane blew the island, and its debt, onto the front pages of national publications.

It came as something of a surprise to most citizens of the United States that they count Puerto Ricans among their numbers.

Puerto Rico, everyone found out, had deep financial problems, all of which were served up as novelties to a largely oblivious American public.

If we had not forgotten Vito Marcantonio, we might have been more aware of Puerto Rico's plight, for as Professor Gerald Meyer has asserted, in his time, he was the unofficial congressman for Borinquen.

Puerto Rico's problems have been long in the brewing and a reading of Vito Marcantonio's extensive remarks in the House of Representatives will provide the curious with all they need to know about the subject.

On May 6, 1936, Marcantonio introduced into Congress the first of many bills aimed at Puerto Rican independence from the U.S.

Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, Mayor of San Juan
Puerto Rico and Nasty Girl.
He outlined the misery wrought in Puerto Rico by U.S. occupation after the Spanish-American War: 

“Only these gentlemen who stand for reaction in America, the American Tories, the banks and sugar corporations, who have kept the Puerto Rican people in hunger and misery, are interested in Puerto Rico as a colony, not only for their profits, but also as a fortified war base.”

Marcantonio's activities in support of the island's independence movement, on behalf of his own constituency and as an advocate in Congress, represent a significant page in the history of Puerto Rico, yet have gone largely unrecorded, according to Meyer.

Meyer's work, “Vito Marcantonio: Congressman for Puerto Rico,” addresses these efforts in detail. 

“In this capacity,” Meyer writes, “Marcantonio introduced bills to meet the island's specific needs, provided services for individuals and, in general, acted as spokesman for Puerto Rico and its people.”

In his piece, Meyer identifies two valuable sources for filling in the portrait of Marc as Puerto Rico's stalwart: “Vito Marcantonio y Puerto Rico: Por Los Trabajadores y Por La Nacion,” and Bernardo Vega's “Memorias.” 

Puerto Rican women participate in 
Mother's Day celebration at Cervantes
Federation, International Workers Order.
Not only was Puerto Rico in the headlines following the tropical tempests that battered it, but Marcantonio was also in the news – “The Daily News” – regarding his strong bonds to the island.

The article, reproduced from an earlier printing, was written by the now-departed Jay Maeder, and observed that European immigration had slowed to a trickle when New York City suddenly found itself awash in a new arrivals.

“They came from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico,” wrote Maeder, “catastrophically overpopulated, desperately impoverished, devastated by decades of sugar company plantations. All at once there were many thousands of them in the city, where it was said a man might earn in a week what he labored for a year to earn at home. Thus did a new people arrive, as had the forlorn others before them.”

The difference between these new immigrants and the earlier European edition, Maeder pointed out, was that the Puerto Ricans had come during hard times, rather than boom times. The other difference, he noted, was that they were citizens of the U.S. and could vote.

The final fact, Maeder said, did not escape Vito Marcantonio's attention: 

Newsman Jay Maeder
“Vito Marcantonio indignantly denied suggestions that he had personally engineered the postwar Puerto Rican migration purely to pad voter rolls in his district. Still, it was a fact that in November 1946, as the new arrivals came and came and came, he was running for mayor.”

Maeder's piece parrots the urban legend that “Marcantonio brought the Puerto Ricans to New York.”

The article touches upon the break between Marcantonio, a backer of Puerto Rican independence and Luis Munoz Marin, the island's first and newly elected governor, and how it played out in Marc's 1950 mayoral bid. 

Those interested in the subject would do best to watch Professor Edgardo Melendez's authoritative discussion of the same.

Marc's commitment was not a trawl for bought votes. His commitment was genuine. He left the continental U.S. just one time in his life. And that was a trip to Puerto Rico. 

As we noted in our inaugural essay, “Where's Marc?”: “Style, philosophy, attitude, and analysis are all lost when Marcantonio's voice is erased from the historical accounting of the times in which he played so vital a role.”

And so is Puerto Rico. 

Literature in the Red Decade: Kempton and Rubinstein Reflect

Marc wrote and was written about.
(portrait by Hugo Gellert)

Literature, oh literature, you are a most useless thing. Only those without power talk about you; no one with real strength bothers to talk, they just murder people.” Lu Xun (revolutionary Chinese writer). (link) 

The 1930s economy was in Depression, the middle- and working-classes ravaged, and talk of revolution commonplace on American streets. This tumult is reflected in the period's literature when now mostly forgotten names challenged the genteel traditions of the book-reading and theater-going worlds.

In her comprehensive analysis of American literature, “Root and Flower” (1988), Annette Rubinstein posits that, “A cultural period is seldom as precisely delimited as was the 'Red Decade' in the literary history of the United States.”

Disillusionment with American capitalism was widespread and young literati turned to address the vital economic concerns of the time.

“This disillusionment was so widespread,” Rubinstein writes, “that in 1934 the American Labor Party (ALP) representative, Vito Marcantonio, could declare unrebuked on the floor of Congress that it would be impossible for the nation to solve its problems until it had begun production for use and not for profit.”

Rubinstein worked on Marcantonio's staff and ran for office on the ALP ticket. She was a member of the Communist Party from 1938 to 1953.

Influenced by Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukacs, Rubinstein held writers to a standard of engagement with their times. She valued literature that reflected a writer's concern, "with the vital current which moves steadily beneath the innumerable eddies and confusing crosscurrents of life's surface." 

Murray Kempton was a contemporary of Rubinstein's. A columnist for the “New York Post,” his writings suggest an impassioned observer unburdened by any commitment other than to what he called, “the writer's quarrel with himself.”

Kempton was not a member of the Communist Party and never dragged before committees engaged in the red witch hunt of the 1940s and '50s. Instead, he wrote about those who were.

Rubinstein was one such writer and it landed her in the same purgatory of the forgotten to which Marcantonio had been banished. She labored earnestly at the margins into her nineties. Kempton's columns were bound into mainstream book releases and yielded a Pulitzer Prize.

He too, wrote about the Red Decade in “Part of Our Time, Some Ruins and Monuments of the 1930s” (1955).

Kempton and Rubinstein evaluated the experimental and leftist currents that washed over literary culture during those years in significantly different ways.

Annette Rubinstein
Red Letters

“Root and Flower” highlights the Communist Party's fundamental role in developing the revolutionary literature. Hard times heightened the Party's appeal to beleaguered American workers. The resulting jump in resources financed the creation of a cultural infrastructure that both groomed writers and promised a potentially ample audience.

For example, Rubinstein writes: “[T]he John Reed Clubs, initiated in the fall of 1929 to develop radical young writers of working class background, had established branches in 30 cities before they were dissolved in 1934.”

In “American Hunger,” Richard Wright recalls that, “With the exception of the church with its myths and legends, there was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist Party.”

“Many intellectuals,” Rubinstein says, “were attracted to Marxism primarily because of historical materialism. With its concepts of class exploitation, surplus value and the real nature of the state, “it offered the only coherent rational explanation of the economic crisis.”

For Kempton, “They believed that to be a great writer one needed simply to be on the side of the future and substitute outer reconciliation for interior quarrel.”

Rubinstein saw merit in the social and political activity of the new proletarian writers. For her counterpart at “The Post,” this turning away from writer-like isolation represented the fatal flaw.


Kempton writes that the Party's literary recruits were, “plebeians; their Mermaid Tavern was a cafeteria on Fourteenth Street in New York or the John Reed Club in a loft in the Loop in Chicago or the office of the 'New Masses'. All other doors seemed closed to them...”

He says proponents of this “plebeian realism” believed the genre would, “come to dominate American literature and that the proletarian poem and the proletarian novel would outlive James and Joyce and Yeats and Eliot, because history was on its side.”

Lacking in prestige, Kempton writes, “they were young and could believe that they were the future. They did not feel lost or tired or bankrupt. Some of them felt that they were the precursors to a new kind of American realism that would open up subjects and explore a side of life neglected in the literature of their country. They would find their poetry in the world of urban poverty from which so many of them had come and which only the sociologists and the census takers had penetrated before them.

“The most important thing after all was to feel that you were not alone and hunched over your feeble candle in the night. No one owed Richard Wright a living, but somebody owed him a home.”

Only the Communists had an offer, according to Kempton, and the response to that offer was revolutionary.

“Except for [Nelson] Algren and James T. Farrell,” he says, “all were able at one stage in their lives to believe that art is a weapon or it is nothing and that its first test is whether it is on the side of history.”
Murray Kempton

Rubinstein covers the early purveyors of what she labels “proletarian fiction,” defined as any creative writing in which the author identified with the working class and championed its cause.

The proletarian novels, for Rubinstein, “centered about a then-important development – the almost spontaneous self-organization of hard-pressed workers in an individual mill or factory, their confrontation with the employers, and a consequent strike or lockout.”

In Michael Gold's, “Jews Without Money” (1930), and Agnes Smedley's “Daughter of the Earth” (1929), Rubinstein sees, “books of enduring human and literary value.” James T. Farrell's “Studs Lonegan Trilogy,” she deems “savagely effective” in its indictment of the “destructive culture capitalism creates.” 

But the marriage of revolutionary writers and revolutionary party, Kempton suggests, was not a natural fit, their common goal notwithstanding.

The Party Novel

Waldo Frank's “The Death and Birth of David Markand” (1934), is another example of the form. Kempton says it was, “a tract for the wandering cerebral man; it had nothing to say to the anchored, action proletarian whose search was not for reconciliation with himself, but comfort for his kind.”

Under Communist guidance, says Kempton, the proletarian novel became the Party novel, “which is something very different.”

“The story line,” he says, “was basic and always reiterated.” Its necessary elements were a community of workers without class consciousness undergoing an economic education that concluded, “there are no halfway houses, the Party is their only ally, the owning class their enemy, and that they have a world to win.”

They say literature can be used to publicize, promote incite, and advance the revolutionary cause, and thus bring about revolution,” says Lu Xun. “Still it seems to me that this sort of literature has no strength because good literature has never been about following orders and has no regards for its effects. It is something that flows naturally from the heart.”

Richard Wright would not bend his literature to the guidelines required by party discipline.

“It was not courage that made me oppose the Party,” he explains. “I simply did not know better. It was inconceivable to me, though bred in the lap of southern hate, that a man could not have his say.”

One of the more bitter pills Wright swallowed was the closing of the aforementioned John Reed Clubs where he had gotten his chops.

Rubinstein explains how, “The anti-fascist united front policy in the literary world made it important to enlist as many prestigious authors as possible, and the emphasis on developing unknown young worker-writers to create a proletarian literature was therefore somewhat abruptly abandoned.”

Kempton observes that, “A major talent like Richard Wright's could continue to grow, but the truncated careers of many promising young novelists was largely caused by the radical orientation.”

Says Lu Xun,Only when revolutionaries start writing will there be revolutionary literature.”

The writers who came after were largely of middle-class background and education. Rubinstein's highest praise is saved for Josephine Herbst whose “Rope of Gold” trilogy, she said, earned its author a place among those great writers who can, “feel the future in an instant.”

The Communist Party never delivered on making the proletarian artist a popular success, says Kempton. The first-wave plebeians, “did not search; they only sat and waited, those of them who did not go to Hollywood, reciting their litanies; and whether in Hollywood or New York, the sap went out of them.”
Lu Xun

Bending Towards Light

For Rubinstein, although the output of these writers was, “far better than average American fiction, they were all buried in the reactionary Cold War period of politics.” A shared experience with the progressive writers of her time colors Rubinstein's analysis in a way Kempton's dialectic with himself can produce neither empathy or understanding.

“But the most evident impact of the depression on American literature was made, surprisingly, not on the printed page but in the playhouse,” according to Rubinstein. “The rapid formation of unemployed councils, the sudden spurt of radical activity on all sides, greatly increased the pressure from below for a people's theater.”

Rubinstein quotes Hallie Flannagan, who would eventually lead the influential Federal Theater Project: “Unlike any art form existing in American today, the workers' theaters intend to shape the life of the country, socially, politically, and industrially.”

Rubinstein sketches the lives and productions of various workers stage groups, starting with the Theater Guild, which offered John Howard Lawson's “Processional.” The playwright himself called it a “jazz symphony,” and said he was trying to “build something of a definitely American character and rhythm.”

Harold Clurman, one of the founders of the Group Theater said, “...our interest in the life of our times must lead us to the discovery of those methods that would most truly convey this life through the theater.”

Lawson joined The Group Theater along with Clurman, Paul Green and others. Despite some modest successes and long lines waiting to purchase the cheaper balcony seats, the orchestra sections were empty and the company went belly-up.

Personal versus Public

Rubinstein saw Lawson as a leading cultural spokesman for the Communist Party as well as an important film critic and a distinguished script writer. He stood fast as one of the Hollywood Ten and Marcantonio stood with him.

Kempton found these facts closer to flaws than virtues. Lawson, for Kempton, is a writer who took the wrong path, became more of a politician than scribe, and lost his way, winding up as neither thing.

Before it dissolved, Rubinstein insists, the Theater Group made theater history “in a number of ways,” including the development of an important young playwright by the name of Clifford Odets.

His “Waiting for Lefty,” she notes, generated an extraordinary response beyond the cultural left.

Kempton's assessment of Odets, and other Communist writers is, as in the case of Lawson, personal.

This new theatrical bent is, for Rubinstein, an imperative from the streets. Kempton sees writers aping a “fashion” or “social myth” of the time, rather than responding to its prompts.

“They were all angry young apprentices,” he writes of the new school playwrights. “They began, most of them, during the Hoover administration, close to Union Square with the Workers Laboratory Theater, whose offerings carried spare, didactic labels like 'The Klein-Ohrbach Strike.' By 1934, many of them were with the Theater Union, still downtown but apparently more substantial, and their productions conveyed an impression of foundation.”

An examination of their lives, their habits, leads Kempton to conclude that, “They were really rather conventional young men.”

The celebrated Odets, he says, “wanted comfort and safety of a sort foreign to the plays he wrote. And he does not appear to have been alone among the revolutionary dramatists in withheld commitment.”


For some years, Odets toggled between lucrative Hollywood stints and work with The Group, until the latter dissolved and the writer settled on the West Coast.
Clifford Odets

Kempton says that, “When Odets returned to Hollywood in 1937, he found that The Workers Laboratory Theater appeared to have moved, spiritually if not physically, over to the Warner Brothers lot. And to a degree Odet's old friends set the tone for the community, which was pro-Roosevelt and anti-fascist.”

This concession aside, he contends that being inside the Hollywood Golden Circle was more important to the Party's writer/members than any revolution.

After the witch hunt, which had cast writers as a vanguard that, Kempton suggests, had an infinitesimal impact on film output, “Their banners still carried the old wild cries. But inside they were different men; they did not feel for each other as they had; they lived according to Hollywood habit, and it was not unusual for them to step upon one another's faces.”

The Communist Party habitually generalized from the particular, says Kempton, but it is he whom extends the writers' personal foibles to a decade's-worth of theatrical literature. Although Rubinstein agrees with his flogging of Odets as a Hollywood sell-out, she finds much that was worthy of note and analysis in theater's Red Decade.

And that analysis entertains the question of why the 1930s were the only time since Elizabethan England that the English-speaking stage occupied the center of a national culture.

She posits that, “Unlike the twenties, when the essential choices seemed to be individual ones and the conflicts largely generational, when politics seemed irrelevant to daily life, every hotly contested government decision in the thirties was fateful. Struggles on the floor of Congress about money to be appropriated for home relief or WPA jobs, about a moratorium in foreclosing family farms, about the legality of strikes and picket lines, affected one's daily life.”

Economic circumstances, says Rubinstein, forced collective action, and those that participated were encouraged to see it could prompt change. This sense of possibility, she says, coupled with the need for collective struggle informed an exciting literature in a depressing age.

Drama, which requires struggle to be drama, “had a naturally important part to play in that literature,” says Rubinstein.

A labor action could represent “vital contemporary forces” or “signal a momentous shift in power,” although the example chosen, Rubinstein asserts, “must be rooted in the significant conflicts of its own time, even though the action may take place in another place, or the past, or future.”

The art form's popularity in the 1930s, she said, might also be attributed to the “necessarily collective nature of theater, the collective nature not only of its creation but also of its reception. A play is and must be a shared experience, appealing to a common emotional denominator in its audience.”

As Antonio Gramsci might have told us, the surviving ideology from the 20th century battles dictates the kind of writer and writing western societies sustain and consume. Rubinstein notes that the end of the Federal Theater Project, “marked the end of the first period of a people's theater in the United States. There has, as yet, been no second.”

Lu Xun, a contemporary of both Rubinstein and Kempton says, “When there is revolution, the contours of literature itself change. However, only real revolution can change literature; a small revolution won't because it doesn't revolutionize anything, so neither can it change literature.”