Good-bye Union Square, by Albert Halper
Good-bye, Union Square.
by Albert Halper.
Quadrangle Press. 275 pp. $6.95.
Albert Halper’s cool account of his experiences in the literary and radical milieu of the 1930′s should not be judged as a picture of the times. It is a highly personal memoir, and a certain amount of self-centeredness is inevitable and proper in writing of this kind—one man’s viewpoint. However, it is precisely the author’s lack of personal involvement that makes the memoir fall short in its description both of the literary and the radical milieu.
Halper was by nature a loner—“it was a solitary, very satisfactory life,” he writes of himself at a time when all around him storms were raging which he viewed idly, as through a window of his room, secure from the buffeting winds. It was a wordy period, but he took no part in the heated debates, the political and literary feuds, the charges and countercharges—not verbally and not in print. “I soon learned I could live for weeks on end without uttering a word to anyone.” Even the Depression which shook the nation did not touch him, left no mark-he was jobless by choice and besides his writing was at last beginning to sell.
Because he wrote sympathetically and well about the people he knew best—these being, aside from his family, his fellow workers in foundry and factory, his neighbors in the wretched tenements in which he mostly lived, all poor, all beaten—the Communist intelligentsia hailed him as a proletarian writer: when they found out their mistake and turned on him with their usual violence, Halper was not affected by their abuse; suffered none of the wrench of losing a cause for which one has sacrificed one’s time, one’s energy, one’s hope for the future, and indeed one’s truth and personal decency; experienced none of the feeling of emptiness that meant tragedy for some of the victims.
In truth Halper was neither in Union Square nor of it. My strictures may be presumed to be against the title, rather than the book, which is highly readable and may even be said to have the virtues of detachment. I am moved not so much to criticize as to add a chapter of my own. I do not wish to exaggerate my involvement in radical politics, which was more emotional than practical. I never joined the Communist party, though this was probably due to their lack of interest rather than mine. The party had just discovered native America—it was at this time that the left-wing guitar and class-conscious folk music made their appearance on the radical scene.
Busy with frantic efforts to recruit into its ranks a native-born working class—preferably Nordic and Negro—the party had no time to spare for Jews and intellectuals, reasoning with some justice that it already had more of these than it really needed. “I think I can arrange for you to write for the New Masses,” said a Communist friend to me, “but I can’t get you into the John Reed Club” (the party’s literary society). His tone, though he was himself Jewish, was that of a WASP member of an exclusive country club inviting a Jew to whom he was under some obligation to join him as a guest in a round of golf there, but warning him (to save later embarrassment) not to be encouraged to apply for membership.
This inverse snobbery confined my efforts on behalf of “the working class” largely to activities associated with so-called labor defense. I traveled with a Communist cameraman to Decatur, Alabama, there to write the script for a movie documentary of the Scottsboro Trial (involving some black juveniles, the youngest only thirteen years old, accused by two white prostitutes of having raped them). The Scottsboro case is all but forgotten now, but it was an international cause célèbre at the time.
I could wish that all my radical involvements had been as justifiable. Mainly they now appear as excrescences upon my youthful past—inner turmoil emerging in the form of pimples to embarrass me. Was I so insensitive as to swallow the guff (gulping to be sure) that the party was handing out? Did I condone—Halper was wiser—as temporary aberrations, the cruelties and excesses of the so-called Third Period, characterized by the party theoreticians’ call for Instant Revolution? Lunatic directives were being issued for the storming of City Hall—the New York Mayor’s place of business transmogrified into the Czar’s Winter Palace. Dutifully the party faithful obeyed the directive and gathered in Park Place, there to be clubbed by the Cossacks (read “Pigs” today). Dutifully, zealous girl comrades in dirndls covered the waterfront (were covered there, might be a more apt description) . The party did not actually enjoin them to sleep with the longshoremen they were sent to convert, but no sacrifice was too great in the service of the working class.
The Third Period was marked also by an abject but futile wooing of the Negroes (as blacks were known in those benighted days). “We can’t all of us be Negroes,” said Robert Minor, an excellent cartoonist who discarded brush and crayon to become a party functionary, “but we can at least try to be mulattoes.”
To be sure, I had voiced reservations, which hardly made me a true candidate for party membership. I was attached to and identified as a member of the so-called Menorah Journal group, composed of writers, editors of the magazine, and their friends, who had become radicalized by the Depression, but who were nevertheless viewed with some suspicion by the party, though it accepted their services. We had our own brand of snobbishness—we had read Karl Marx and Engels, not to mention the collected works of Lenin. We stilled our doubts, however, as to the sanity of American Communist leadership with the reflection that the Soviet Union did not appear to be taking the American movement seriously either, and we aligned ourselves with the so-called “healthies” in the party, who did not, however, remain healthy for long.
I sometimes wonder if the ridiculosities of the Communist movement in this country did not turn us against it as much as its cruelties, its betrayals, its hypocritical twists and turns. We were bound to laugh at it and laughter was heresy. In any event, amusement soon turned to anger. We could not stomach the Moscow Trials, the betrayals of the Lincoln Brigade in Spain, the brutal disregard of even elementary democratic procedure, not only in party meetings to which we were privy, but even in Communist-front organizations. We made public our objection to the attempts of the Communists to break up a meeting held by Socialists in commemoration of their own martyrs in the fight against fascism in Austria, and of course were forthwith consigned, as the fashion was, “to the dust heap of history.”
Mike Gold, whose book, Jews Without Money, I had reviewed favorably for the Menorah Journal and who had heretofore greeted me with enthusiasm, now glared at me in the manner reserved for deviationists, Trotskyists, traitors, and the like. “We accept your help now,” he said, “but that won’t keep us from lining you up against the wall when the time comes.”
Other minor absurdities, straws in the wind, come to mind. I was playing a silly game, “Categories,” with an Irish comrade (called Kevin O’Malley in Halper’s book) and his fanatically dedicated Stalinist girl friend. Not altogether innocently I listed Stalin under “Dictators” and was immediately challenged by the girl. “O’Malley” made the mistake of half-heartedly defending my listing—he was getting shaky himself. It marked the end of the romance. I never saw the girl again; neither did my Irish friend. When war broke out, he enlisted in the Canadian Air Force in defiance of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and was killed, poor fellow, in combat.
To return to Halper’s book, some of his portraits of the personages of the period are excellent—notably his strangely moving description of Maxim Lieber, his agent, a mysterious character who discovered many a writer and ruined many, all apparently in the service of the party. Halper is less fortunate in his description of the late Elliot E. Cohen, then de facto editor of the Menorah Journal, and later editor until his death in 1958 of COMMENTARY, which he founded. Here, for the first time, I must really quarrel with Halper’s account. I knew Elliot Cohen perhaps better than Halper did and loved him dearly, but it does no justice to the memory of this complex and tormented man to present him as a saint. Patron, mentor, the truest of friends he was indeed to Halper and to many another young writer. Like most dedicated people, however, he could be ice-cold to those who seemed to stand in the way of his goals. No man had warmer friends, but at the same time no man ever earned bitterer enemies.
Cohen had been an infant prodigy. In his early twenties, he was tutoring at Yale, and editing a magazine which H.L. Mencken (no mean editor himself) called the best-edited magazine in the country. For all his wit, knowledge of literature, skill as an editor amounting to genius, composition was agony for him. His thesis might be, and usually was, bold, original, and sound, but it became in the writing so overloaded with parenthetical thoughts and superfluous argument as to vitiate its force. He was aware of these faults but could not correct them, blue-pencil as he might; indeed, his constant revisions may have butchered his style. We once agreed to prepare an article jointly for V.F. Calverton’s magazine on the subject of the workers’ May Day. I was to do the first draft, upon which he was to impose his editorial judgment and his own ideas. Weeks passed before I was called in to read his version. His study floor was lined with neat piles of paper marked Version A, Version B, and so on, literally through the alphabet, and all bearing the mark of paste and shears. It was frightening.
Halper refers to Elliot Cohen’s wit without giving us a sample of it. I am in a position to remedy the lack. At a meeting, which dragged, on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, Elliot stretched himself and yawned. “The Scottsboro Boys,” he said, “must be pretty tired of this case by now.” Such levity was not to be tolerated. “Easy to sit there and make jokes,” snapped a comrade. “It is?” said Elliot. “Let’s hear you make one.”
Good-bye, Union Square, in sum, is readable, even-tempered, and eminently sane, even if it does less than perfect justice to the period and to some of the personalities with which it deals.