Steinbeck’s Synthetic Grapes


Grapes of Wrath movieOne of the major social justice novels of the Depression era, The Grapes of Wrath, just turned 75.

National Public Radio commemorated this milestone.

John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic about the Joad family was based on articles he wrote for the San Francisco News and the Nation on the plight of agricultural workers migrating from drought-ridden Oklahoma to California. It’s a crude monument to the New Deal, a saga heavy with Okie-approximating dialect that is interrupted by “interchapters,” or mini-editorials, on sharecropping, mechanization, and the rapacity of “the great owners” in whose hands massive wealth is concentrated. The landowners’ neglect of the migrants will bring “an upheaval” that takes their land away, unless the government steps in with ameliorating programs.

John Ford’s 1940 Hollywood adaptation, which naturally had to pare away all the sociopolitical apparatus, is widely acknowledged to be superior to the original.

Steinbeck’s novel, and the journalism that preceded it, relied on research reports from a colorful manager of a migrant camp in California, a Farm Security Administration official named Tom Collins. That was the unromantic truth discovered by Jackson J. Benson (writing on Steinbeck in the April 1976 issue of the Journal of Modern Literature). “Contrary to the story which has developed into a myth about the writing of The Grapes of Wrath,” wrote Benson, “Steinbeck never did travel to Oklahoma and then make a trip back to California with a migrant family.” This idea, he said, “came from two sources: first, the confusion of two different trips, and second, a bit of conscious deception by Steinbeck.”

Murray Kempton, in his classic study of communism and culture in the 1930s, mentioned Steinbeck as a practitioner of the “plebian fiction” of that day. But he highlighted the Communist Party’s dissatisfaction with Steinbeck’s work: In Dubious Battle (1936), about a fruit-pickers’ strike, was condemned by CP literati for not adhering to the Party’s formula of the proletarian novel. (The biblical references and Christ imagery in The Grapes of Wrath must have displeased them as well.)

Steinbeck did, though, take the Depression-era affect with him through life, always presenting himself as a writer in close contact with the downtrodden. It was a pose he labored to maintain in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. “Once a bum always a bum,” wrote Steinbeck in that much beloved 1962 travelogue, in which the celebrity author, then 58, supposedly plumbed the depths of the American soul.

He wrote the book after driving from New York to California and back in a camper with a poodle named Charley. The account was largely fictional, the reporter Bill Steigerwald revealed a couple of years ago. Encounters with fascinating people along the way were invented by Steinbeck, and his publisher expunged passages that would have made clear that this was no solitary immersion in America’s gritty reality but a scenic vacation with his third wife.

Agnieszka Holland on the Prague Spring

Burning Bush still --Agnieszka Holland film

From Agnieszka Holland’s latest, Burning Bush

In 1968, over 150,000 Red Army troops entered Czechoslovakia to reverse the political liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Agnieszka Holland’s new movie Burning Bush, about the Soviet invasion and its aftermath, aired originally on HBO in Europe.

The work of Holland, a Pole educated in Prague, is familiar to American audiences. Her long list of directorial credits includes Europa, Europa (1990), The Secret Garden (1993), and Washington Square (1997), as well as episodes of television’s The Wire and Treme.

Her frame for depicting the events of 45 years ago is the libel suit against the Czechoslovak government that was launched by courageous relatives of the young dissident Jan Palach. The government sought to defame Palach, one of several East bloc activists to commit suicide by self-immolation to protest the Soviet domination of their countries.

Flagg Taylor has written about the film here and here. Also a free preview is available. (International trailer here.)

“There Are Intellectuals Who Say Anticommunism Is Somehow Uncool.”


Scott and Taylor, coverA book has just been published by the University Press of Kentucky on The Lives of Others, the landmark drama about the East German secret police. This Oscar-winning movie from 2006, mentioned previously on the site, is examined from just about every angle in Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of “The Lives of Others” edited by Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV.

Your editor has an essay in this multi-author volume. Also included is an interview with the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck. He was a lead investigator of the repressive activities of the Stasi in the now-defunct German Democratic Republic.

Here are some sharp words from Gauck, as translated from the German by Paul Hockenos, who conducted the interview:

“There are European intellectuals who say that anticommunism is somehow uncool, and that it doesn’t belong in democratic political culture. But you can only think this if you’re far enough away from the suffering that Soviet communism inflicted. In fact, the West has to learn that there are two kinds of anti-communism. One stems from conservative arrogance, such as that in the United States and West Germany. This variety is useless. The other variety stems from suffering, the deprivations of rights, and powerlessness. And if you’re not able to feel this, then you lack something as a human being. And, sadly, western Germany and western Europe still have to learn this. The seriousness of the threat of communism to our democracy project has to be respected.”


Was Joseph Schumpeter a Communist?


Most unlikely. But having just read the Communist Manifesto of 1848, I was struck by this highly Schumpeterian passage:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . . Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air . . . ”

Sure sounds like creative destruction to me.




Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 11.37.54 PM

And the Winner Is . . . 

Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, two movies that turn 75 this year, are being celebrated all over the place. We give the laurels instead to Ninotchka as the best film made in the great filmmaking year of 1939. Ernst Lubitsch directed Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas (whom we’ve discussed before) in this brilliant MGM comedy created from an original story by Melchior Lengyel.

Lengyel (born Menyhert Lebovics) and Lubitsch were Europeans, and knew the most subtly clever ways of making fun of the Russian Revolution. Stalin is perpetually short of cash, so he dispatches three Soviet officials to Paris to hock some jewels that the regime confiscated from a grand duchess. The trio is waylaid in Paris by the duchess’ charming aide, Melvyn Douglas, who is trying to get the jewels back. When Moscow sends a stern comrade (Garbo) after the delegation to put the mission back on track, Douglas wears her ideological commitment down, too.

Reviewing the movie for Time magazine was none other than Whittaker Chambers who wrote: “Unlike most pictures about Russian Reds, this one is neither crude clowning nor crude prejudice, but a literate and knowingly directed satire.” Garbo, he said, “succeeds in the difficult task of making her tight-lipped fanaticism funny without making it ridiculous. Even her change of heart is winning and plausible.” But, Chambers added, “why she should change under the impact of Melvyn Douglas is one of those things even the genius of Karl Marx could not explain.”

That Lubitsch and Lengyel were anti-communist and anti-fascist in equal measure became clear during the war. Their weird but daring and interesting 1942 movie, To Be or Not to Be, was set in Nazi-occupied Poland. It starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Polish actors whose troupe pretends to be a pack of Nazis, in an effort to expose a fellow Pole who is spying for the Germans.

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 11.45.56 PM

Painting the Culture Black


Paul de ManAs in, The Black Notebooks. This site, as you know, is dedicated to mapping left-totalitarianism’s attractions for artists and intellectuals. We would be remiss if we did not do the same for right-totalitarianism. The influence that enthusiasts of the Third Reich have had on philosophy and literary theory has long been known. However, new details have emerged about the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the literary theorist Paul de Man.

Heidegger’s 1931-1941 “black notebooks”—his philosophical diaries, written in volumes with covers made of black oil-cloth—have just been published in Germany. They show that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was part and parcel of his philosophical musings. What his defenders had always maintained—that his joining the Nazi Party was pro forma, done for reasons of career advancement only—no longer holds water.

As for de Man, the first full-length biography of the Belgian deconstructionist has just appeared. Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man fills out our picture of the Yale professor who hid his pro-Nazi past. It came out a few years after his death in 1983 that de Man had been a collaborationist journalist and publisher in Nazi-occupied Belgium. The Barish account shows that he was also a swindler and bigamist whose Harvard degree was granted without his having fulfilled all the requirements, and that he was constantly on the run from people trying to collect the rent as well as from officers of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Reviewing the biography in the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes:

The record showed that, for all intents and purposes, the young de Man was a fascist. His eyes were open; he did not write in the shadows. The paper he did most of his journalism for, Le Soir, was the biggest daily in Belgium. The Germans took it over almost immediately after occupying the country, in May, 1940, and staffed it with collaborationists. Anti-Semitic articles were sometimes a front-page feature . . . [De Man’s] articles—he eventually had a weekly column, called ‘Our Literary Chronicle’—largely followed the Nazi line, as did the pieces he contributed to a smaller German-controlled paper, Het Vlaamsche Land (The Flemish Land). He championed a Germanic aesthetic, denigrated French culture as effete, associated Jews with cultural degeneracy, praised pro-Nazi writers and intellectuals, and assured Le Soir’s readers that the New Order had come to Europe.

Menand marvels, as do we, at the illustrious heights to which a sociopath can rise once he arrives in the New World. Paul de Man makes people like Vladimir Nabokov and Jerzy Kosinski—two other morally questionable Europeans who became stars of postwar American arts and letters—look like a choir boys.

Throughout his New Yorker article, Menand is careful to argue that de Man’s personal failings, no matter how grievous, do not reflect on his galvanizing teaching or insightful textual analyses, or on the integrity of those in the literary world who embraced his deconstructionist methods. This division gives way in the end, though. The article winds up with a quote from a de Man partisan, the literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman:

“He is a connoisseur of nothingness,” Hartman wrote of de Man the critic. De Man took the train to the end of the line. It may be that he was able to write what he did, both the chillingly deplorable things and the chillingly inspiring ones, because he believed in nothing.

The scrupulous Menand cannot avoid acknowledging that the theory is tainted by the theorist.

Last Word on “Llewyn”


O Brother! Why Bother? The latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books has a masterful essay by the critic Martha Bayles. It’s framed by discussion of the Coen Brothers movie so often mentioned on this site. But this is more than a movie review. Bayles covers allied subjects—1930s folk music, 1960s folk music, figures like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger, folk’s relation to the blues, the perennial debate about authenticity—and places them in the context of commerce and entertainment in America.

Bayles Excerpts

On the Communist Party then—

The party in 1935 “made it once again permissible to use any music that might further a Popular Front against Nazi Germany. Unintentionally, the Popular Front turned out to have a salutary effect on American music, including several strains of commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine.”

On the singer-songwriters now—mostly drek! finally someone has said it!

“The folk revival nurtured the rise of the singer-songwriter, to be sure. But people like Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, and Bob Dylan were so steeped in the tradition, their best work sounds as though it has been around forever. This is less true today, when most ‘folk songs’ are just as melodically and lyrically impoverished as most pop songs.”

The Liberals, II — Jean-Paul Sartre versus Albert Camus



In his 1982 memoir The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, William Barrett contrasted Sartre and Camus—and noted how the Nazi occupation of Paris brought out their dissimilarities:

The break between them is usually attributed to their differences over the Soviet Union . . . . Sartre at this time had begun to be an ardent Fellow Traveler, enamored of the idea that Soviet Communism, whatever its imperfections, still represented a progressive and revolutionary force in the world. Camus had been a member of the Communist Party in North Africa in his earlier years; he knew the treacherous shifts and duplicity of the Party from the inside, and he was now an intransigent foe of the Soviet Union. It was typical of Sartre, by the way, that though he was the most celebrated Fellow Traveler in France, he never became a member of the Party. To join would be to diminish his Freedom—that absolute and somewhat vacuous freedom which his philosophy celebrates—and in this he was consistent with his own system. But the friendship survived even these political differences for a while. The break, when it came, was over more deeply personal and at the same time universal values.

The difference between the two men seems to me wonderfully revealed in a little incident related by the Dominican priest Father [Raymond Léopold] Bruckberger, who was active in the French Resistance and was close to both at the time. Bruckberger used to run into Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the café, the two of them huddled over books and notes and discussing points in philosophy. They struck him, he remarks, like two permanent graduate students. . . . They were joined one day by Camus, who was coming away from his labors on Combat, the clandestine paper of the Resistance that he edited. Sartre was then in the process of completing his big book Being and Nothingness, and he was in the midst of expounding to his hearers the view of absolute liberty which he develops in that tome. This liberty is a possibility we carry around with us like a terrorist’s bomb, which at any moment we could detonate in any direction. “Nothing prevents us . . . ” —this is Sartre’s recurring phrase to indicate that at any moment we can step off into a new direction out of the rut that we have hitherto traveled in life. At that moment a German officer in full regalia walked past on the sidewalk, and Camus, who had been listening in silence, remarked: “Even granted that liberty, there are some things we wouldn’t do. For example, you wouldn’t denounce me to the Germans even though you had the pure possibility of doing so.” The remark, Bruckberger tells us, seemed to disturb Sartre, as if he had never thought of the question so concretely and personally before, and he was at a loss for a reply.

This little episode seems to me to sum up the two men: Sartre the rampant ideologue, and Camus the advocate of what he came to call “ordinary values”—those elementary feelings of decency without which the human race could not survive.

–William Barrett

Feature on Politics and Folk Music


New Left, Old Left, Left-Over Left. Our guest essayist this month is Bob Cohen, a veteran of the 1960s folk group the New World Singers. He discusses the Hollywood movie about folkies—and how things really were.

Read “Strumming Along with Dylan and Seeger” by returning to top left, the Pages list.