Masses & Mainstream
March, 1950, pp 76-79
Writer and Society
Samuel SillenLITERATURE AND REALITY
by Howard Fast.
HOWARD FAST dedicates his new work to the memory of Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell, "who believed that the practice of literature could not be separated from the struggle for man's liberation." This belief is of course at the heart of Fast's own outstanding career as a writer. No walls divide Freedom Road from Peekskill, The American from the Paris Peace Congress, Clarkton from the fight against the Un-American Committee. In Literature and Reality Fast carries forward this integrated struggle in terms of literary criticism.
It is a challenging, vigorously written study - a much needed force for truth in a literary scene marked by so many evidences of cowardice and corruption. As Fast writes, "Never before in the history of capitalism has the literature of capitalism been so bankrupt." He describes the symptoms of this decadence, searches for its causes, and opposes to it the scientific, creative viewpoint of socialism.
The key argument is that "art can flourish only in relationship to the capacity of the artist to discern the truth, or, in other words, the basic objective reality." The basic reality of our time is the fact that "capitalism is moving off the stage of history, to be replaced with a classless society." The function of capitalist literature is to deny, evade and above all falsify this reality, at the core of which is the Soviet Union, and thus to bolster a dying system which grows ever more inhuman and rotten. This literature, which hypocritically asserts its devotion to "pure art," is motivated and perverted by an anti-artistic principle - that is, a repudiation of the real world. Thus, for example, "Red-baiting, anti-Sovietism, anti-Communism, are the mortal enemies of literature, and indeed of any art, not because they are reactionary positions per se, but because they are positions which, of necessity, deny the existence of the central social reality of our times."
Fast properly focuses on the United States, where this anti-artistic principle operates as the dominant literary mode, and where it threatens, if the Un-Americans have their way, to become the only legal mode. Along with the Marshall Plan, Atlantic Pact and H-bomb, we have seen the more and more explicit cultural reflection of imperialist reaction. For the American writer, as Fast shows, "there is no approach to reality today except in terms of a partisan alignment with the anti-fascist forces."
He draws up a devastating indictment of decay in the work of Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, George Orwell and their claque in the Partisan Review and among the "new critics." He relates this so-called higher level of moral rot to the filth of the capitalist press, film, radio, with their cult of brutality and death. He traces the process of capitulation in John Steinbeck and Vincent Sheean.
To the literature of decay, based on a perversion of reality, Fast sharply opposes the moral and esthetic standards of socialism. "Two qualities," he writes, "pervade Soviet literature, hope and life. A fervent hope for the future, a fervent belief in the process of living, and from the two, an unlimited perspective for man's happiness. And for the first time in the history of mankind, this future has shed its cheap mystical and idealistic trappings; for the first time, a scientific and materialistic course into the future has been charted."
His contrast between two such war books as W. L. White's They Were Expendable and Alexander Bek's And Not To Die illuminates the difference of values in two worlds. Fast stresses the distinction between realism and naturalism, noting that the latter is "another side of the formalistic coin," radically opposed to socialist realism. Pointing to great Communist writers like O'Casey, Aragon, Nexo, Neruda, and the many Soviet authors of stature, Fast makes hash of those lackeys of capitalism who dare talk of "artists in uniform."
In sharpening the issue between the literature of death and of life, of obfuscation and reality, and by planting this issue squarely in the class struggle and in the conflict between the camps of peace and war, Fast has done an important service. He has firmly grasped the need at this moment to rip every illusion and fake fascination of decadent bourgeois literature. One wishes that more American writers would so clearly and courageously see the literary issue he poses as a life or death question, an integral part of the struggle against fascism and war.
At the same time the valuable direction of this study is in places hampered by certain errors of theory and fact. In emphasizing correctly the intimate relation between literature and society, Fast falls into an over-simplified, one-to-one equation when he writes:
"As each new historical era appears, the limits of realism are extended; not only does life itself become richer and broader, but literature deepens and �tends itself in every fashion." A comparison of feudal with ancient Greek literature will show this is questionable. Marx noted: "It is well known that certain periods of highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and the skeleton structure of its organization. Witness the example of the Greeks as compared with the modern nations or even Shakespeare."
Similarly the claim that "Literature has always been a most precise reflection of the society which produced it...." is unfounded. Only in its very highest expressions has literature faithfully reflected society. In literature as a whole the degree of imprecision, of distorted reflection, has varied enormously. While decadent bourgeois literature mirrors a fraction of our society - the ruling class and its values - it is by no means a reflection of society as a whole.
The sections on America's literary past are inadequately thought through, and I think the analysis of Mark Twain is particularly debatable. Fast tends to exaggerate the relative freedom of progressive writers fifty years ago and today. It is not true, for example, that Jack London's The Iron Heel had the benefit of "excited and approving reviews." As Philip Foner has pointed out in his essay on London, the book was scorchingly denounced as a "semi-barbaric" threat to what the press called "our civilization." In this connection we should recall the fate of Dreiser.
True, the bourgeoisie has today outdone even its own record of philistinism and brutality. But to understand the real nature of the ruling class and its relation to literature it is necessary to emphasize its long history of persecution, particularly in its half-century long imperialist phase. Related to this is the tendency to describe U.S. imperialism, at least up to the recent past, in terms of "imitating" the British.
The dominating trend of American writing today is reactionary, but the counter-forces, actual and potential, are stronger than Fast suggests in his essay. Despite casualties, a significant number of writers of the Left are carrying on the fight which had to be waged by a small band led by Mike Gold in the 20's. Moreover, there is a large body of anti-fascist writers who, with all kinds of confusions and hesitations no doubt, nevertheless move against the current of reaction. We must resist tendencies to denounce "the American intellectual" or "American culture" without careful differentiation. Patiently, sympathetically, we must seek out and strengthen our allies in this struggle. As a leader in this fight, Fast has again given us in Literature and Reality an example of militancy and passionate conviction. He is pointing a road out of the treacherous fog of reactionary propaganda. And characteristically he concludes on a note of affirmation. "Great songs call for great singers, and this is a time for greatness." Here is a challenge which no progressive writer can ignore.