Reconsidering Literary Blacklisting

by Richard Kostelanetz (February 2016)


Allan H. Ryskind’s Hollywood Traitors (Regnery) reminds me that literary blacklisting is a tricky subject attracting a wealth of insufficient criticism. The most publicized blacklist excluded certain sometime Communist writers prominent in the 1940s from further work in Hollywood movie-making, at least in the following decade. While this exclusion, acceptable to Ryskind, has been frequently portrayed by others as objectionable, let me suggest that focus upon a handful of Hollywood writers scarcely expires the subject of literary blacklisting, let alone contemporary literary blacklisting.

A secondary theme of Ryskind’s Traitors is that his father Morrie R., who’d been a successful and prominent scenarist from the 1920s into the 1940s, was professionally blacklisted in Hollywood as he became more anti-Communist. Probably credible, given the record of Morrie’s non-employment; and if true, objectionable, as Morrie had established himself as a top-drawer comedy writer.

Consider that professional blacklisting reflects not just politics but literary politics, usually with the aim of reducing competition within a competitive biz, such as, in the Hollywood example, writing scripts for feature films. Consider as well that since only strong writers are blacklisted, some of the Hollywood Ten, particularly Dalton Trumbo and Abraham Polonsky, returned, after their time in purgatory expired, to contribute to some memorable Hollywood films.

Blacklisting is scarcely just a literary exercise, as it is often practiced by both corporations and labor unions usually to exclude wayward workers from future employment. Thus does blacklisting, as well as the threat of blacklisting, become a tool for control and revenge.

Consider that blacklisting people who were previously employed differs from the refusal practiced by private clubs, say, ever to accept certain whole classes of possible members. Such historic social exclusions included not just writers but groups of people simply because of race, ethnicity, gender, background etc., all of which most of us would now regard morally (though not politically) as illegitimate reasons for blanket exclusion. Taking a longer historical view, may I note how small it is to think that McCarthyites had a monopoly on professional blacklisting. (Indeed, such featuring also flatters those thugs, unacceptably to me.)

Sometimes individual erasures reflect personal vendettas. The writer Tom Wolfe was long excluded from even a mention in The New Yorker after the publication in 1965 of his extended unflattering portrait of its editor William Shawn. I remember an editor at a conservative weekly telling me a while ago that the name of Thomas Sowell, a strong writer commonly throught “conservative,” could not be mentioned in its pages; but I was too shocked by hearing this admission to ask the obvious question, “Why not?” I remember some four decades ago an editor at Harper’s identifying writers whose names would not be mentioned during a previous editorial regime. They included, Lord knows why, Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, a novel strong enough to remain continuously in print for decades. Sometimes I suspect that a writer personally exiled by a publication simply failed to do what an editor wanted, probably professionally, perhaps personally. My colleague Douglas Puchowski suggests that picking on an individual represents less blacklisting than blackballing. (Curiously, the current New Yorker chief, David Remnick, acknowledged the Tom Wolfe essay in a 1995 review in the New York Review of Books. Apparently, that didn’t disqualify him from occupying Shawn’s chair three years later.)

When and when not is a writer blackballed? Consider this measure: If a writer is excluded from places where his or her work has been, especially for reasons other than quality, then he’s surely been blackballed. Q. E. D. That rule raises the more delicate question noted before about the prominent writer whose name isn’t mentioned where it might be, even if he or she has not appeared in the magazine (e.g., Thomas Sowell, who can be personally truculent). To repeat, no one feels any need to blackball a literary lightweight, who’d fall aside anyway.

Consider then that every strong writer has probably been blackballed by some or another gatekeeping entity, simply because he or she is a strong writer, even if the blackballee doesn’t know or even care about it. By that measure, blackballing is initially flattering, if personally costly to the victim and, don’t forget, diminishing the blackballer. After all, nothing can make a puny gatekeeper feel more important that “rejecting” someone whose name is familiar enough to inflate an editor’s sense of his or her own importance. (To aspiring blackballers, nincompoops don’t count.) Indeed, may I suggest that an investigative historian could write an interesting book about the editorial Schiesskopfen who dropped, say, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner after previous accepting their writings. I’d like to read it.

While I doubt if any laws can prevent literary blacklisting and thus whether litigation will create any results other than more litigation, blacklisting can still be exposed in public forums hopefully embarrassing the blacklisters without shaming those blacklisted. Simply, unless blacklisters held to account, their under-the-printed-page machinations will persist, to the detriment of us all.

No writer should feel uncomfortable about identifying himself as blacked; but more importantly, nor should he or she be disrespected. Don’t forget that blacking is implicitly a sure measure of strength. Though no current magazine or book editor would acknowledge the existence of a blacklist, may I venture that they exist in many publishing venues, even if not entirely conscious?

What I find missing from Traitors as well as the more familiar books about literary blacklisting is any sense of a larger subject. I once asked the author of several books about the blacklisted Hollywood writers, and he couldn’t identify any more comprehensive exposés. None were offered. My own sense is that both literary blackballing and blacklisting occur more often than commonly thought, in part because few object enough, even when evidence is thrown in their eyes, knocking their heads out.

Some historical literary blacklists have had better publicists than others, too often because the historians admire the unfortunate writers and/or their advocacies more than they dislike blacklisting per se. Indeed, my own pet peeve is suspecting that certain writers objecting to the blacklisting of literary Communist may have nonetheless participated in other under-the-table exclusions, shamelessly.

In my considered opinion, unless you’re opposed to all blacklisting, you’re thus pro-blacklists in my judgment, the tolerance of one blacklist rationalizing the acceptance of others. Ultimately to me, all literary blacklisting is objectionable, perhaps equally evil. Keeping once-published writers unpublished finally represents censorship, no matter any gatekeeper’s excuses.

While I approve of Allan Ryskind’s opening the issue of Hollywood blacklisting to include his father, I was hoping to find in his Traitors a more comprehensive and wide-ranging exposé of blacklisting, rather than the recycling of familiar history, clumsily told, along with some special pleadings.

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Richard Kostelanetz’s work has been acknowledged at some length in Ronald S. Berman’s America in the Sixties (1967), Ihab Hassan’s Contemporary American Literature (1973), Robert Spiller’s Literary History of the United States (fourth ed., 1974), The Reader’s Adviser (1969 & 1974), Daniel Hoffman’s Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979), Irving and Anne D. Weiss’s Thesaurus of Book Digests 1950-1980 (1981), George Myers’ Introduction to Modern Times (1982), David Cope’s New Directions in Music (1984), Joan Lyons’ Artists’ Books (1985), Tom Holmes’ Electronic and Experimental Music (1985), Jamake Highwater’s Shadow Show (1986), Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), Eric Salzman’s Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (third edition, 1988), Tom Johnson’s The Voice of the New Music (1989), Robert Siegle’s Suburban Ambush (1989), John Rodden’s The Politics of Literary Reputation (1989), The Reader’s Catalog (1989), Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1992), Ecce Kosti (1996), Bob Grumman’s Of Manywhere-at-Once (1998), Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing (2005), Kyle Gann’s Music Downtown (2006), Sally Banes’s Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing (2007), C. T. Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry (2007), Jacques Donguy’s Poésies experimentales Zone numérique (1953-2007) (2007), and Geza Perneczky’s Assembling Magazines 1969-2000 (2007), among other critical histories of contemporary culture. Otherwise, he is unclassifiable and under-acknowledged.

 

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