Masses & Mainstream
June, 1955, pp 55-59
A Dramatic Challenge
Howard FastTHE THIRTEENTH JUROR
by Steve Nelson.
Masses & Mainstream.
Cloth $2.50, paper, $1.50.
I HAVE been told that it is difficult to read a book objectively when you know the author; and there is an old saying which asks, "How can he be a genius? I know him." Neither precisely to the case in point, for I know Steve Nelson well and cannot think of him as a genius, but only as a very great and brave man; and I read his new book, not objectively, but with a deeply subjective and highly personal involvement - read it from cover to cover almost in a sitting. And when I had finished it, I knew I had read one of those very rare and wonderful books - a book that changes you in the process of its reading, so that finished with it, I was something more than I had been when I opened it.
I also know that I cannot write of the book without writing of the man; for the book is most profoundly moving in its utter and implacable truth, and this truth is also the man. Both are a part of the same experience. I have never read another book quite like this one, but I have also never known another man quite like Steve Nelson; and the knowledge of both fills me with pride and humility, not only because I have shared something of the struggle that produced both, but because through both I came better to understand people and what people will be someday.
The Thirteenth Juror is the story of Steve Nelson's trial, his trial before a court of law, as law exists in the United States today, and his trial in the court of horror and infamy that is otherwise known as Blawnox Workhouse. The first half of the book is devoted to Blawnox, and as such, it has few equals in the whole history of prison literature. In the same breath, one must note, Blawnox Prison in Pennsylvania is possibly unequaled today, as a place of horror and degradation, in all of these United States and very likely in much of the world outside of our borders.
Into Blawnox came Steve Nelson, political prisoner, Communist, veteran of the International Brigade in Spain - now sentenced to twenty years, sentenced on charges that were no charges, on evidence that was no evidence, on the word of stool pigeons and paid informers - into a dungeon of hell and horror, and told by the guards as he entered that there was no road back, that he could neither survive this place nor ever hope to leave this place; and the story of this dungeon, of how he faced it, fought it as one man, sick and weak, and finally triumphed over it, is the story Nelson tells in the first half of his book. In this, the first half of his book, Steve Nelson reaches his highest point of artistry as a writer - in a breathless and splendidly-told story of man's courage and man's will to survive.
Parts of this section, such as Nelson's experience in the "hole" and his leadership and organization of the other prisoners in the "hole," are of a quality that a reader cannot easily forget, and will, simply as literature, long survive the memory of the men who did this to Steve Nelson; and as a whole, this section comprises a unique and fine literary product. The second half of the book tells the story of Steve Nelson's trial before Judge Montgomery in a Pittsburgh courthouse, of how, unable to find a lawyer, he defended himself, of how a sick and broken body was forced by an indomitable spirit to wage a legal battle and defense that will rank with Dimitrov's famous defense before a Nazi Court. The book concludes with Nelson's eloquent plea to the Jury - his battle against the "thirteenth" juror, who is bigotry, prejudice and fear.
To one degree or another, all of America lived through the content of this book. Some, all too many, knew only the bare facts of Steve Nelson's name and the charges leveled against him. Others, who read the newspaper stories a little more closely, heard Nelson accused as an atom-bomb spy, an agent of a foreign power, a Communist "master-mind." Still others, men in high places, in the Pennsylvania judiciary, in the nests of the steel and aluminum moguls of Pittsburgh, in the offices of the Justice Department in Washington, played parts in the manufacturing of false charges, in the rigging of juries, in the hiring of informers - coldly and deliberately, so that they might destroy this man they feared and hated. Still others worked and testified in the defense of Steve Nelson, as Art Shields and Herbert Aptheker did, and others turned ears deafened by fear and indifference to pleas that they come to the defense of a good and brave man. And all over America, millions of workers, who knew nothing of the case and were indifferent to it to the extent of the lies and slanders fed to them these many years, also lived through the content for out of their struggles, their hopes and needs and ideology, had come the man whom we know as Steve Nelson, and the courage of the man and the splendor of the man as well.
Within this context, The Thirteenth Juror must be seen and understood; for this book is a symbol of the America we have known and lived in and worked in this decade past; and in so being, it contains the worst and the best that is America. The book will live, because it is a truthful and profound human document, and it will still be read when the situation which produced it has long since come to an end. At that time, it will be judged anew as literature, and without question parts of it will be reprinted innumerable times as literature; but an objective literary judgment is almost impossible today - just as it would have been both impossible and insufferable to have judged Julius Fuchik's Notes From the Gallows as literature while Czechoslovakia still lay under the Nazi heel. Then, as now, we were concerned with the man; and perhaps so long as our literature comes out of an agony, we will continue to be concerned with the man before we are concerned with the book.
Thus, it is important to dwell for a moment on the man - the manner of a man who wrote this book. The book is a tense, well-written and extremely moving document, but above all these things, it is an exceedingly simple document. Here I use simple in the best sense, in terms of a proletarian clarity which evokes the best from the language. In the same manner, one must see the author - as one does see him through this book - as a simple man, a virtuous man, and above all things, a good man. In the process of an ethical decay in our society during this past decade, we have retained the meaning of certain words used to describe people, but we have wholly lost the meaning of others. This too is a question of values. We still comprehend what one means when one calls a person brilliant, clever, witty, dogged, stubborn, etc. Our understanding clouds a little when such words as sincere and forthright are used; and in a society which maintains only one criterion for values - did he get away with it? - we are becoming at a loss to comprehend the meaning of good and honorable.
Yet the essence of Steve Nelson is that he is an honorable and a good man. His nature is neither brilliant nor derived from fanaticism; his wisdom, a deep and wonderfully profound wisdom, is the wisdom of the good man who understands evil, and therefore must set his face against evil and venture his life in the struggle against evil - and his understanding is the understanding of a member of the working class who has become a Marxist and a Communist. This combination of values is not new on this earth, but it is rare in America. On the other hand, it is America that has produced Steve Nelson.
And not alone Steve Nelson, for one of the hallmarks of the decade we have lived through are the men and women of quality and stature who have emerged as figures and symbols of American resistance. In other times of the past and in times still to come, the quality of America was and will be symbolized by mass motion and mass courage; but when the situation is such as not to produce these mass currents, the responsibility for patriotism - a very high and historic responsibility - falls upon the shoulders of a few. Thus, in time to come, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg will be a part of the living and honored tradition of America, not the mean and craven Judge Irving Kaufman who acted as their executioner. If there was only here and there a lonely example of such courage and nobility as the Rosenbergs displayed, then one could have little hope and less respect for the American people; but there have been literally thousands who displayed, to one degree or another, the superb courage of the Rosenbergs, and out of these thousands came the giants like Nelson - even as the thousands came out of the body-whole of the population.
The Thirteenth Juror tells the story of the contest between Steve Nelson and Judge Montgomery of Pittsburgh, between those gathered around Nelson for his defense, Art Shields, Herbert Aptheker, Pat Cush, Ben Careathers, Margaret Nelson and those who gathered around Montgomery for the prosecution, Musmanno, Cercone, Cvetic, Crouch. On the one hand, Nelson, anti-fascist soldier and Communist, stands with a great journalist, a noted historian and scholar, an old labor leader, a Communist trade-unionist and organizer, and a brave mother and companion; on the other hand, Montgomery, political hack and traducer of justice, stands with a notorious fascist and former admirer of Mussolini, the nephew of this fascist, a craven and stupid political appointee, with a psychopathic liar and professional informer, and lastly Crouch, professional informer. Thus, the contest, and thus, symbolically, the two Americas that exist within this body whole known as the United States.
The contest is also a battle between honor, courage and integrity on the one hand and dishonor, cowardice and perversion of all decency on the other hand. As to which of these will win, there can be little doubt. All of life and all of the future stands with the Steve Nelsons, and in good time, millions of Americans will come to know this and take their place by his side. And as for Montgomery, Musmanno, Cercone they too will be remembered, but only as the shameful and craven creatures who obeyed the orders of the iron and munition lords of Pittsburgh and framed and convicted a great man.
One more word must be said of the fine job Steve Nelson does of exposing another part of the shameful and rotten prison system that exists in the United States - a system which in the land of plenty reduces men to starvation, denies them medical care, and - being an integral part of the "free world" - subjects them to such mental and physical torture as would shame the keeper of a medieval dungeon. If you have been puzzled about the rash of prison riots breaking out everywhere in the country, this book will provide your answer. I also profoundly hope that it will provide a death blow to that unspeakable cancer on the body of the State of Pennsylvania - Blawnox Workhouse.