The Century’s Midnight
Dissenting European and American Writers in the Era of the Second World War
Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010
Hardcover. xiii + 594 p. ISBN 978-1906165253. £45.00 / €50.00 / $ 77.95
Reviewed by Mark Meigs
A Dark, Turbulent, Dense and Long Season
Clive Bush has written a monumental book with at least a double memorial purpose. First, as indicated by the author’s subtitle and much explanation in the introduction, we are treated to the brave engagement of some important literary figures of the mid-twentieth century as they remained politically and critically active during a period when the ideological foundations of criticism—Marxist, or capitalist, Christian, atheistic or scientific—seem to have been hi-jacked for the use of “confidence men, careerists and profiteers,” in the 1930s and 1940s . Clive Bush wants us to know that these serious American dissenters existed, in spite of what one knows from the mountain of WWII books that celebrate the triumph of the United States without a critical point of view that might give a warning about what the victory of a democracy dedicated to business and profits might mean for the world. For these writers the war was not necessarily The Good War; the people who fought on the side of the Allies were not always A Band of Brothers or The Greatest Generation. Those titles are from three books not mentioned in Bush’s book, but they can stand in here for the vast upbeat World War II literature he opposes. Studs Terkel called his 1984 book of interviews The Good War to be ironic, but even so, the book is full of self-deprecating individuals who recount how they rose to a great occasion, sometimes in spite of themselves, sometimes in spite of a hesitating, incompetent, wrong-headed or obstructionist American wartime government in its military and bureaucratic forms. Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose (2001) and The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (2005) show people rising to the occasion but with less self-deprecation. All three seem in harmony with and in some part, explanations for, the apogee of what Henry Luce famously called “the American Century.” Bush wants us to know that he is writing about people who would not wish to find themselves in the embrace of Luce and Luce’s Time and Luce’s Fortune and who did not see “the American century,” as an unalloyed good. His dissenters, the anarchist writer Victor Serge (1890-1947), the journalist and social critic Dwight MacDonald (1906-1982), the engaged photographer and social activist Dorothy Norman (1905-1997), the urban and cultural historian Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) and the poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) were all thoughtful folk and knew something about the price of war and tried to do something about it at the time and did not accept the optimistic and can-do point view of the official war effort.
Bush goes on to pick a fight with Paul Fussell, author of Wartime (1989). Fussell had gone out on a limb when he wrote Wartime. He pointed out incompetence, racism, inefficiency and inhumanity in the Allied war effort. Fussell who like Bush approaches history through literature, through catch phrases and posters, through the material that accumulates and is shared as memory, could be convincing because he wrote for readers who shared these building blocks of public opinion in their heads. He reminded readers of the sexual frustrations of the war connected to the colossal bureaucracy-induced neurosis that inspired books like Catch 22 or Gravity’s Rainbow, proof that the war was “so serious it was ridiculous” (Fussell, p. 132). Far from being fought for a clear cause, Fussell accumulated evidence that few had any words to express what the war was for and could only manage to say what it was against (Fussell, p. 134). Works of Thomas Pynchon or Joseph Heller might be symptoms of a condition self-inflicted on the winning side of the war Fussell wanted his readers to know. And what was that symptom? Fussell described a world where victory had become a lipstick color at Elizabeth Arden and an occasion to drink more Blue Ribbon beer: a world of boosterism and bad taste that made use of colossal destruction (Fussell, p. 149). Clive Bush wants to go beyond Fussell’s observation and the sardonic and sometimes humorous if bitter description of World War II. Bush’s dissenters are more committed, more systematic, more serious and in the face of evil, could and did act together against the monstrosities of the mid-twentieth century.
The book’s second memorial purpose is to the wide-ranging erudition and literary enthusiasms of the author himself. In the words on the back of the book, provided by Alan Trachtenberg, Emeritus Professor of Yale, “…the work comes across…not as an academic exercise but as a personal experience of reading and thinking.” Bush’s life has included a great deal of reading and thinking. There is no date of birth for the author that I can discover either on the book or on the author’s various internet manifestations, but these same sources do point out a pioneering career in American Studies of 24 years at the University of Warwick starting in 1966, which occupied him till 1990, and a further 14 years, sometimes, at least, as Chairman of the English Department, at King’s College, London. That would take him up to a retirement from full-time employment in 2004, which suggests a birth some sixty-five years earlier, in 1939 or 1940. He has not been idle since that presumed date of retirement. He continues as Emeritus Professor of American Literature at King’s College and as Associate Fellow at the Institute of the Americas, University of London, which, according to his web site, American Studies at Warwick has become. In addition to the present thick volume published in 2010, he has published, also with Peter Lang, but in Bern, Holding the Line : Selected Essays in American Literature and Culture, 2009, 350 pages with bibliography and index.
The first purpose of the book, to explain the work and thought of certain dissenters in the 1930s and 1940s, is best served when Bush’s archival efforts come to the fore. It is at such moments that his claim that this disparate group of intellectuals were engaged in some coherent struggle, were engaged together, and with some luck, might have made a difference to the grinding horror of totalitarian regimes and the war machinery put in place to stop them, a horror that starts with Hitler’s election, Stalin’s repressions and the Spanish Civil War but ends with horrors ordered by democratic regimes: the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities, the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an early chapter, for example, we are treated to the letters of Victor Serge’s wife Laurette Séjourné to Dwight and Nancy MacDonald as Laurette attempted to get a visa to the United States. The letters are both desperate and charming. Bush took the time to describe their flimsy paper and the exhausted typewriter ribbon that left more impression than ink. He also described reading this evidence of a nerve-wracking bureaucratic struggle while himself in the secure and privileged institutional fastness of Yale University’s Sterling Library. The story of Varian Fry and the visas he obtained gets a new angle. The maddening and shifting animosity of American consular officials—is it anti-Semitism, is it a bias towards serving business men?—takes on a new meaning or urgency, and best of all, we meet Séjourné and her highly sophisticated approach to letter writing where she takes care to charm influential people (the MacDonalds) who might help her, even while revealing a poverty of resources that might put them off. How many refugees suffered or perished because unable to manage this literary economy? And just how often did charm do its job? Clive Bush shows us just how perfect Séjourné’s letters are and lets us worry about the significances.
There is a problem here however. The book is not really interested in Séjourné. She is only the wife of Victor Serge, one of the book’s five central figures. Her thought and style only stand in for his in this case. His thoughts on refugees are important because in a letter to the MacDonalds he proposed including in an autobiographical work which would be the “faithful mirror of our struggles,” , and that work, not written, or at least not cited here, would show “the fragility of the hard-won but precarious social democracies of the more favoured countries of Europe and the United States...Serge’s attempt to obtain a visa condensed, in a single graspable and infinitely human moment, all the larger forces at work” [Bush’s words, p. 27]. All this might be true, but the larger issues involving the gathering and invisible coercive powers of modern states might best be approached in some other more direct way. Again and again, Bush leads us through a labyrinth of names and details to show that his central figures were engaged in important intellectual activity even in their unpublished and uncollected work that Bush has taken the trouble to uncover. But why not tell us about the importance of their published and known work? Bush must assume that we know about that already, but without reminders of how the well-known and public relates to the emotional and private world Bush has explored with so much energy, the reader is sometimes mystified by choices of inclusion and omission.
In the section on Lewis Mumford, for example, Bush goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Mumford was very much politically engaged, but he does not show us how that political engagement was reflected in The City in History, or some other work of Mumford’s that he could assume his readers know of. We learn that Mumford, along with his friends Waldo Frank and Reinhold Niebuhr were concerned with the New Republic’s isolationist position and that Mumford and Frank resigned as contributing editors, in June of 1940. This dispute with The New Republic included the expansion of Mumford’s article, Men Must Act, into a book of the same title published in 1939. In it he condemned “the High Tory and English aristocratic Hitler sympathizers, the French bankers, the Comité des Forges, and the Lavals and Daladiers, quite as much as he condemned the New Masses.” The New Masses is important here because its editors attacked Mumford in articles in 1941, but we do not learn about that except in passing, and so we do not know how important it was for Mumford or his work. Instead we launch into Mumford’s attempts, in his home district in upstate New York, to dislodge the conservative and isolationist Hamilton Fish, sometimes a US Senator sometimes a US Representative in this book, from office (he was a Representative). Meetings are recounted. Letters to influential friends are quoted. The isolationist Fish remains in Congress, astonishingly, for an isolationist, until 1944. Mumford meanwhile writes a stinging attack against the fascists and appeasers and gets it signed by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Van Wyck Brooks. So he was politically engaged locally and thought internationally. The New Masses and The New Republic were wrong. But aside from the reconstruction of a circle of influential friends and aside from settling some scores, what has been accomplished?
Clive Bush seems to want to make use of every bit of the vast archival work he has done, and so we are led into some obscure corners and some dead ends of the lives of his subjects. It is good to know how rich and varied those lives were, but this impatient reader thought it would have been better if Bush had found a way to use his research to illuminate what was important about these important people. Bush, however, has a third memorial purpose in mind: a memorial to time and our conceptions of time’s uses and our ability to take time. His dissenters took time to think and act and exchange even in the press of a world crisis. If we can take the time to follow them through the archives they left, our sense of the time past will be enriched even if our sense of cause and effect history is kept waiting.
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