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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

April 30, 2024: Communist Culture: Dos Passos and Wright

[In honor of May Day/International Workers’ Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity. Leading up to a special weekend post on contemporary communist culture!]

On two strikingly parallel yet also importantly distinct 1930s to ‘50s American arcs.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, despite our longstanding collective national antagonism toward communism there have been both moments and communities in which the political philosophy has had substantially broader and deeper appeal. In the 1930s, two such factors came together to help produce a sizeable and vocal cohort of writers and intellectuals who embraced communism: the Great Depression’s heightening of wealth inequalities and social stratification seemed to highlight the limitations and even destructive capabilities of unchecked capitalism, leading a number of American writers and artists to imagine and depict alternative social and communal ways of living; and those economic woes, coupled with the continued destructive forces of segregation, lynching, and other communal ills and threats, led many African Americans similarly to seek an alternative to the dominant American systems.

Those responses happened (and thus differed) within multiple communities, but they can be succinctly illustrated by two individuals, writers whose most significant novels bookend the 1930s in American literature and culture. John Dos Passos had been publishing fiction since the mid-1920s, but it was the trilogy that came to be collected as U.S.A. (1938)—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—that exemplified both his stylistic experimentation and his socialistic philosophies. Richard Wright launched his career with the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) but truly entered the literary stratosphere two years later with Native Son (1940), the best-selling and hugely controversial novel that features both one of American literature’s most eloquent defenders of communism (in the lawyer Max) and a character (protagonist Bigger Thomas) whose tragic and brutal arc makes numerous, purposefully ineloquent but nonetheless compelling arguments for the philosophy.

In the 1940s to 50s, both writers famously broke with those philosophies and with the Communist Party: Wright in one pivotal moment, the essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944); and Dos Passos more gradually, in a series of public statements and positions that culminated in his qualified support for Joseph McCarthy (among other turning points). Yet I would also argue that their shifts represent two quite distinct personal and national narratives: Dos Passos genuinely seemed, in response to World War II, the Cold War, and other factors, to change in his political and social perspectives; whereas to my mind Wright’s perspectives remained largely unchanged, and he came instead to see, as does for example Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Communist Party as an imperfect and indeed failed vehicle through which to seek such political and social change. Such a distinction would of course become even more important in the 1960s, when a new generation of African American activists found anew a compelling alternative in American socialism.

Next cultural communism tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

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