October 13, 1947, p. 11
'Clarkton' Too Hot for Times Critic
Morris U. Schappes
I do not know Mr. C.V. Terry, and I have no desire to meet him. Mr. Terry is a man of no importance at all, and will leave not even a footnote in the chronicles of time. But Mr. C.V. Terry makes a living by writing book reviews for the New York Times, and I am beginning to believe that some people will do anything to make a living, anything. Mr. Terry's latest assignment must have made his heart leap: it was Clarkton, by Howard Fast (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, $2.75).
Not knowing Mr. Terry I can infer what happened only from the internal evidence of his review in the Times, Sept. 28, 1947. I can imagine Mr. Terry taking the book home and thinking: well, what did Fast do this time? Mr. Terry has read the earlier works of Howard Fast, and he remembers them as being full of "burning convictions." Mr. Terry does not like Fast's convictions. He hopes Fast has changed them. After all, in the fifteen months since the publication of Fast's previous book, The American, blows have been launched against Fast from many angles. First there was the unfair attack on the book itself, in which the capitalist critics exaggerated its defects and completely neglected its positive qualities, hoping to kill the sale of the volume and make the publisher hesitate about the next novel Fast presents.
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But there was the more serious attack initiated by the Un-American Thomas - Rankin Committee, which a year ago began to harass the Executive Committee of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, of which Fast is a member. While he was writing the book, he was plagued by subpoenas from Washington, by hearings at the hands of the uncouth gentlemen of that committee, then by an indictment that bore the danger of years in prison, then by a shocking trial, and then by an outrageous conviction and sentence to three months in prison and a fine.
All of that constitutes pressure on a man, if you know what I mean. Not everybody can take it. Of the 16 members of that Executive Committee who were on trial, 11 stood up straight and said they would never turn over to the Un-American Committee any lists of contributors or of European anti-fascists who had been aided by the Committee. But five persons weakened under the pressure, and told the dear judge that, honest, they would be glad to give the Un-American Committee any lists they could, and regretted only that as a minority on the Executive Committee, they did not have the power to surrender the lists to Rankin and Thomas. And so the kind judge suspended their prison sentence and they are now perfectly safe, having purged themselves of contempt and Rankin - and also having purged themselves out of the company of decent fighting progressives.
Mr. Terry knew all that, and of course he knew that Fast was one of those brave eleven who had fought the Un-American Committee. But what about the book? Had not that somehow been affected by the attacks of reactionary critics, fascist Congressmen and a pliant judiciary? Had not Fast perhaps cooled off a bit, even a little bit, enough at least to make it possible for reviewers to say there is some hope that reaction will win over this prominent novelist whose books are read by hundreds of thousands?
So Mr. Terry began to read Clarkton, which is a historical novel about the history that labor was making right after the end of the war, specifically from Dec. 6 to Dec. 9, 1945 in the New England town of Clarkton, population 22,000, with 19 churches and six doctors. Mr. Terry being a skilled reader, caught on very fast, and got pretty mad, so much so that he was unable to read with clear comprehension and therefore pulled several obvious boners in his review. When he had finished, Mr. Terry expressed his utter disappointment both in Fast and in the efforts of reaction to intimidate Fast, and committed his painful judgment to paper in this statement: "the reader observes once again that this young man's burning convictions have hardly cooled with time." There, that's American literary criticism, or New York Times book reviewing, for you.
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Suddenly Mr. Terry realized that he had read the entire book through. That was bad. If only he had been bored with it, and could candidly report to the waiting world that Howard Fast's novel was "unreadable." That would kill the book dead. (Maybe Mr. Terry did not know that The Retail Bookseller, a trade publication, has in its September issue tried to frighten bookstores from stocking the novel by assuring them that it would not "add to ... the bookseller's profits.") But Mr. Terry had to confess that Clarkton "is continuously readable - and, in spots, even engrossing." * * *
What I should give a lot to know is this: what did even Mr. Terry, who writes such a red-baiting review, find engrossing? Was it the scene in which two Communists, Denny Ryan, the Irish-American branch organizer, and Joey Raye, the Negro, are given a taste of that great American police institution, the third degree, and beaten so horribly that Mr. George Clark Lowell, the owner of the factory and the town, has to run to the toilet and vomit? Or was it the passage in which Hamilton Gelb, the smooth intelligent strikebreaker, explains that it is stupid in his business to underestimate the Communists by falling for the old-fashioned line that they are Moscow agents? Or was it the luncheon at which Bill Noska, the union president, is first given a friendly American talking to about the dirty reds and then offered a bribe - which he is too much the American to take? Or was it the scene in which Joey Raye in the dead of night tells the stool-pigeon he has discovered planted in the Party branch why he is not going to kill him on the spot, and orders him out of town?
Or did Mr. Terry find Max Goldstein engrossing? Max Goldstein is a very fat middle aged small-town lawyer, son of a dry-goods merchant, who was some kind of hero in the first World War, settled down to law and a bit of local politics, to checkers and his cronies, and wanted to be let alone. Max Goldstein is the man who, when his friend Elliott Abbott, the doctor, went off to Spain to help the Loyalists by operating a medical unit on wheels, gave him the $8,000 he had saved to pay for the equipment. Max had joined the Communist Party in 1938, but he was still so naive that he did not even hurry to bail out Ryan and Raye, not dreaming that in Clarkton, U.S.A., his home town, two workers would be given a brutal beating while he dawdles getting them out on bail. Maxie joins the mass picket line that is the workers' answer to the arrests and beatings. Maxie does not like to fight, but he is a fighter nevertheless, remembering Bar Kochba as well as the heroes and the necessities of today. And Maxie is killed. No, I guess, Mr. Terry did not find Max Goldstein engrossing, because he dismisses him with a contemptuous remark about "the noble man-mountain lawyer."
Mr. Terry asks himself "why" he read the entire book through, and does not bother to answer his own question. I cannot fathom Mr. Terry's reason, but I can tell you why I read it through in one sitting. I who am a slow reader and almost never stay up merely to finish a book.
I remember those immediate post-war days, and I have recollections of the strikes that took place. I remember reading the dispatches in the Daily Worker that Howard Fast wrote as a special correspondent. I found my problems, my people, my enemies, dealt with in this novel. Fast was saying, here is your liberal capitalist, look at him. Lowell is his name, 44 his age: the culture of Amherst adorns him. Look at his life, his family relations with his wife and daughter, his relation to the production carried on in a plant that brings him two millions a year in profit. See his contradictions: he does not want to break the strike but he does not want to pay the 18½ cents an hour increase the union demands: he does not like to see workers beaten, but he does nothing to stop it. He is an absentee owner, but he has a sense of possession and will hold on at all costs to what is "his." And see the contrast in Elliott Abbott, the doctor who went to Spain, became a Communist, fights and overcomes the human fears that beset him. And then there are the workers out on strike, and the Communist organization trying to function properly, and the problems and confusion and mistakes. Those were the reasons I read right through the book. Are there no weaknesses and faults? Oh yes, there are, and I shall be glad to discuss them with you, after you have read the book.