The Urban Landscape of Marxist Noir
FROM CRIME TIME
(Thanks to Terry Butler for the link)
Professor Alan Wald tells Graham Barnfield about the writers rediscovered after years of forensic detective work
Part of your last book Writing from the Left reads as a pledge to rediscover the lost authors of the 1940s and 1950s. How did you become interested in these writers?
My preoccupation with 'lost' leftwing authors of the 1940s and 1950s is a logical extension of my research on the 'committed' radical writers of the 1930s. Many of the best-known 'left' authors of the Depression era were, in fact, formed as writers and intellectuals in the 1920s - for example, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Josephine Herbst, and Langston Hughes. Even Michael Gold and Jack Conroy served literary apprenticeships in the 1920s. This explains why I was particularly concerned in my first three books with the relationship of Marxism to Modernism, since 'High Modernism' was in full swing in the 1920s. But it wasn't very long before I was asking myself: what was the trajectory of those who were very young in the 1930s, who perhaps did not reach their stride until after World War Two? I was also struck by the fact that so many of the 'canonised' texts of 1930s, such as The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, U.S.A., Native Son, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, Waiting for Lefty, were by writers who later repudiated the particular kind of radicalism to which they adhered at the time when they produced their masterpieces. So I also began to ask myself about the cultural production - and the lives - of those who stayed true to their early convictions through the years of McCarthyite persecution. As a result of further research I began to wonder if it might be an inaccurate representation of US cultural history to focus so much on a '1930s' or 'Great Depression' radical tradition organised around a paradigm of strike novels, conversions-to-Communism novels, and so on. Would it not be more appropriate to think about a radical tradition of larger scope that perhaps expressed itself in distinct forms - and achieved its greatest notoriety - during the 1930s? What if the left tradition were more central to US culture, rather than episodic to 'protest decades' like the 1930s and 1960s? And what if 'writers on the left' were redefined to mean 'writings by leftists', regardless of genre? So I began looking at the names that I did NOT recognise in the book review sections of left publications, or from the membership lists of left cultural organisations. In particular, when I could not locate any references to them in standard literary histories and reference books, I became even more intrigued. I used 'detective' methods of trying to find out the fate of these people - rummaging through phone books in various cities, going to the physical locations of some of their books, writing personal letters to their last known addresses, and looking in the 'miscellaneous' files of the archives of the more important writers and political figures (where materials from unidentified people tends to get lumped and then overlooked). As it turned out, a surprising number of such writers were - or soon became - involved in crime/thriller/pulp/mystery writing, often marked in some fashion by the encounter with Marxism.
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