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Books on Trial by Burial

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When the current editor of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel’s father, William vanden Heuvel, tag-teamed with current regular FOX political pundit William Kristol’s father Irving Kristol (who has come to be known as the “father of American neoconservatism”) – when these two figures of the social and political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of his book of criticism about Henry James (“a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving the retrograde interests of the state, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s highly accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (“or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection).

Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the U. S.] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”

This combined liberal and reactionary political literary attack against the increasingly progressive literary stalwart Maxwell Geismar, having occurred on national TV no less, is one of the most significant moments in all of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century – yet it remains virtually unknown. Details may be found in Geismar’s decades-delayed, invaluable memoir, Reluctant Radical (2002).

Along with the trajectory of Maxwell Geismar’s career and vital latter work, similarly shot down the memory hole are several landmark books of progressive literary criticism from the first half of the twentieth century. Sheer scandal is the burial of Upton Sinclair’s studied book of economic literary criticism, Mammonart (1924). Another inexcusable and great loss is the virtual disappearance of two other landmarks of progressive literary criticism – V. F. Calverton’s The Liberation of American Literature (1932) and Bernard Smith’s Forces in American Criticism (1939).

It’s difficult to be ignorant of these three landmark books and yet be able to fully appreciate Kenneth Burke’s tremendous collection of 1930′s essays, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), a book that in a sense consummates the progressive literary tradition, among others, of the 1930s and of the preceding several decades as well.

Ignorance of the three landmark books by Sinclair, Calverton, and Smith makes it similarly difficult to understand the significance and tremendous isolation and direct political persecution of the once prominent (when liberal) accomplished literary critic Maxwell Geismar, as he was marginalized and forgotten through the sixties and seventies and today – especially as he worked increasingly with white and black progressives and revolutionaries, and wrote ever more about progressive and reactionary aspects of American literature and culture.

Overall, it’s difficult to be ignorant of the three early books of criticism (still almost entirely disappeared, despite much renewed interest in the 1930s) and yet be able to make full sense of the especially vital socially engaged critical tradition prior to the 1940s that was forcefully curtailed in the subsequent decades. Despite some progressive accomplishments and gains of recent decades, these crucial books remain buried, no matter their integral nature to the most vital literary strains of their time, and no matter the extreme degree of need for them in our time.

Other, sometimes better known, notable works in a crucial progressive literary tradition date back at least to Frank Norris’ The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903) and extend to Emma Goldman’s rather mild book of theater reviews, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama (1914), then continue on through John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934) and James T. Farrell’s A Note on Literary Criticism (1937) – and are found in progressive criticism by W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke, Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman, and so on – heading into the 1940s with works that include Edmund Wilson’s highly useful overview essay “The Historical Interpretation of Literature” (1940), and Alex Comfort’s Art and Social Responsibility (1946), and on into the 1950s and ’60s with Maxwell Geismar’s incisive line-in-the-sand book, American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (1958), followed by his lucid and controversial critique, Henry James and the Jacobites (1963), the book that led immediately to that nationally televised yet unknown watershed moment.

At a time when the influence of T. S. Eliot’s ostensible critical views continues to hold something akin to preeminent sway in so many poetry workshops, hand in glove with a similar ethos throughout many creative writing programs and other literary institutions, Bernard Smith’s comprehensive study and analysis of literary movements, capped by critical comments on Eliot’s views, could help clarify, and advance, a lot of creative and critical thought. With Eliot (as with the “New Critics,” as Gordon Hutner notes in his anthology of classic American literary criticism American Literature, American Culture), many people would be surprised at how deeply – and in Eliot’s case, utterly – invested in religious (and retrograde) ideology such highly and widely admired “literary” thought is.

In the meantime, some of the most vital books of American literature – if not, interestingly, the time period in which they flourished – have been shoveled under. Some offspring of the progressive literary understandings explored in these landmark books are alive of course, and in fact in ever more diverse ways, but they are disconnected from crucial intellectual roots (not excluding passing mentions in the high quality work by Michael Denning, Barbara Foley, Vincent Leitch, and others) roots that could provide more power, focus, and energy to the somewhat progressive creative and critical efflorescence of today that is ironically and unfortunately often spotty and thin, and, as always, under attack, and subject to quite effective suppression, conscious and otherwise – not least from within the literary establishment itself.

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(As James Petras points out, in this related link: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited)

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About tc

Tony Christini is an author and cofounder of Liberation Lit.

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Literary Criticism -- T. S. Eliot's view, by way of the views of Bernard Smith « A Practical Policy

  2. Pingback: Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer « A Practical Policy

  3. Pingback: On Maxwell Geismar and Norman Mailer « A Practical Policy

  4. Pingback: Art, Literature, and the CIA « A Practical Policy

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