Masses & Mainstream
December, 1953, pp 58-60
Legend of Grandeur
Joseph NorthTHE PASSION OF SACCO AND VANZETTI
by Howard Fast.
Blue Heron, Press. $3.
OUR American civilization requires each generation to discover truth for itself, for our official historians, like our gangsters, can rub out the past or any part of it for those who need to straighten the record. Today we see professors like Allan Nevins of Columbia at work replacing the images of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine with those of Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.
Hence, by 1953, most of a generation of Americans had come to manhood deprived of a truth with meaning as profound as that of Valley Forge: the story of two Italians of humble origin who lived their brief lives and died in an electric chair. And so those who kill, killed the Rosenbergs because not enough Americans knew enough about Sacco and Vanzetti.
For these reasons I want to shake the hand of Howard Fast whose book on the two Italian martyrs marks his twentieth anniversary as writer. A toast to this guardian of our historic birthright who has stood sentry with the vigilance of one of his Colonials in the Pennsylvania Line.
The Passion is a fit work to mark this anniversary: it is the creation of a splendid story-teller who is at the same time a lyric poet: combine these qualities in a man of rare compassion and compelling conviction and you have a writer who stands in the foremost rank of our national literature. It is good to know that - despite his powerful detractors - his books have been published here in the millions, and many millions more are being printed abroad where his name has become a symbol of "the other America."
The heroes of his latest book need no introduction here, not in these pages and to these readers. So many of us turned men that midnight of August 22, 1927. Primarily this is a tale, a legend the author says, of the effect their lives, their death, had upon their contemporaries. It traces these effects most particularly upon the minds, the hearts, the consciences of those who came from a social class different from that of the martyrs, upon men like the law professor, the university president, the writer, the students of Harvard, the Chief Executive of the United States, the Dictator of Italy, many others.
The burden of the legend is in Sacco's words. The last hours are ticking away and Sacco is speaking to the young thief who had tried to notify a world that he was guilty of the robbery and murder, he and his associates, and not these two workingmen who were totally and unquestionably innocent. "I meant," Sacco says through the bars to Celestino Madeiros who is to die at midnight, "that every human life in the whole world is connected with every other human life. It is just like there were threads that you can't see from every one of us to every other one of us." This, actually, is the moral of the story.
There is another image of startling beauty: the hour-hand creeps toward midnight and the multitudes are marching in every capital of the world; Fast writes of this moment: "If the sound of weeping had been caught and recorded then it could have been traced out like a faint fabric of noise which enclosed the whole world; and the hard truth of it was that never before in all the time of men's presence on earth, was there a thing like this - so widespread and so common, and so consistent in its inclusion of the human race."
What he wrote of the two Italian martyrs could also have been written of the two Jewish martyrs who came a quarter of a century later. There is a similarity in heroes, in martyrs. They would mount the cross before they could surrender an iota of their conviction that mankind is good and that those who enslave mankind are doomed.
This is in the book. I am grateful too for the portrait of Sacco. Posterity till now did not see him as dearly as it saw Vanzetti. The fish peddler tried desperately to give mankind the measure of the good shoemaker. "I," he says deprecatorily of himself, "can babble, but this man is a heart, a rock, a soul." For the first time I find a satisfying picture of Sacco. He is a profound yet simple man who loved life, its unbought beauties, the blue of the sky, the green of grass, the flowers of the meadow, the qualities of men, women, children - loved all this so passionately that he accepted death rather than betray life. Sacco comes real in these passages depicting his love for his children, his wife: "He picked buttercups and snapdragons and Indian paintbrushes and daisies, like a little boy, twisting all the flowers into a wreath for her hair."
The fateful hours march on: each is charged with the heroic, the tragic, the venal, the shameful. Here walks the renegade from humanity, the Judge who gloated over his triumph: "Did you see what I did to those two anarchist bastards?" Here the Italian Dictator with the big chin and ersatz humanity embraces Vanzetti's townsmen after the American diplomat notified him that this was Vanzetti's last hour on earth and it paid to show sympathy then; and here is the American President, with a mind as dense as a block of Vermont marble in its understanding of this bothersome matter. But overwhelmingly the hours are filled with the heroism of two workingmen, and of others, like the American Negro whose lot is similar to those who die the deaths of martyrs.
The author, perforce, grappled with some knotty problems peculiar to the historical novelist. The tragedy happened in the lifetime of most of us, and many are alive who marched for the two martyrs as later they marched for the Rosenbergs. Katzmann, the prosecutor, died only a few weeks ago. The prototype of the Law Professor, an important figure in this book, is still alive, a member of the United States Supreme Court, a man who later ceded principle to achieve station. Even at that he is no Tom Clark, but certainly he is not the man of 1927, the man who stood his ground and told his class of students the truth. The novelist indicates the basis for the professor's retreat in the final passages of the book when the educator talks to the Communist. If the men are executed, his confidence in man's good sense and good heart dies with them.
The difference between the Communist and the liberal is etched here, briefly. Too briefly perhaps. For we did not until this scene see enough of the workingmen who hold the Communist viewpoint to enable the reader to realize their vital part in the protest movement. The author indicates that the protest movement surpassed by far the boundaries of the Communist world movement, and so it did, but he does not reveal the Communists themselves in their effort to help achieve this. I think this is of moment because what they did here brought truth to so many in the world that when the Scottsboro case broke four years later, the world understood, and prevented the Alabama hangmen from murdering the innocent Negro youngsters as the Massachusetts bluebloods did the innocent Italian workingmen.
It is not solely a matter of the Communist workingmen. The heart and soul of the protest movement in this country was in the working-class, and though the author gives us a picture of the culmination of its effort, the August 22 demonstration in Union Square, (and the meeting of the trade-union leaders that day), this picture does not fully achieve the power and beauty of the rest of the book. Perhaps there was too much to tell in a single chapter, perhaps this is another book; however, the characters singled out of this territory of life were not drawn with the sure, unforgettable strokes you find in the depiction of the college professor, the Italian dictator, the thief, Madeiros, groping for understanding in those last hours.
Here is a work I pray could reach millions. And since the Brownells and McCarthys are planning more Sacco-Vanzetti and Rosenberg cases, not to mention other varieties of frame-up, this book of Fast's must be given to many, many more than have read it so far.
Again, on this twentieth anniversary of Howard Fast as writer: a toast to the rare variety of powers of this novelist who is fighting so ably, so valiantly, to restore our national promise to our people.