Notes From a Memoir

by Sam Bluefarb (September 2011)

The 1930s and 40s now seem as remote as the Middle Ages. . .
--Robert McCrum, The Observer, Sunday, February 21, 2010

 

In the Greenwich Village of the mid- and late 1930's Life Cafeteria on Sheridan Square was a popular hangout for artists, writers, bohemians, and a mixed bag of crank sand eccentrics.[1] There were of course the“usual suspects,” ideologues who ran the gamut from socialists, communists, and anarchists to small groups of native Italian Fascisti from nearby Little Italy who fiercely supported Mussolini's Fascist state. Those whom we called “right wingers” rarely showed up in the Village—at least, I have no recollection of them--given its reputation as a haven for “reds,” pranksters, and free love devotees. There was some overlap among the artists and writers, most of whom tended to identify with the Left. But there were many who viewed all politics, especially in its ideological forms, with a cynical eye; their “allegiance”—if that it may be called--was to Art and Gossip. The communists denounced them as “decadent.” At all hours of the day and night, one could soak up (along with endless cups of coffee) table-talk that spanned a variety of topics, from art and literature and politics to the latest psychoanalytic theories of Freud andt he two Wilhelms—Wilhelm Reich and his notorious orgone box and Wilhelm Stekel and his theories of “paraphylias”—sexual perversions.

The education I absorbed in Life (pun unintended!) went beyond anything I'd received in school or as a pre-war apprentice seaman, puffing on my pipe and adding my share of tobacco smoke and talk to the haze that hung in the air—though I mostly listened. I absorbed discussions of the poetry of Ezra Pound, the novels of D.H. Lawrence and the experimental Work-In-Progress, later Finnegans Wake (1939), of James Joyce. The Civil War in Spain was then raging and the Moscow Trials dominated the headlines, both topics of heated debate. But the Moscow Trials proved to be more divisive than the Spanish war whose Popular Front government most of us supported. The show trials, though, proved a challenge to credulity, and we asked ourselves: Were Lenin’s inner circle of Old Bolsheviks--Trotzky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Piatagorski, and Radek--really agents of German Nazism and Japanese imperialism? Did such charges hold water? Incredibly, those “counter-revolutionaries” were the very men who had made the revolution. Yet liberals like Malcolm Cowley, George Soule, and Max Lerner of The Nation-New Republic circuit defended Stalin and his purge trials. Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a masterful depiction of how confessions were extracted. Old Bolshevik Rubashov, a composite of Leon Trotzky and Nikolai Bukharin, undergoes “interrogations” that finally bring about his (forced) “confession.” And execution Soviet style—a bullet in the back of the head. 

The coffee-drinking, the smoking, the talk would drone on into the small hours of morning when the glow of a blue lamp at the entrance to the Sheridan Square subway would begin to fade and merge with an opalescent sky that grew brighter when the genuine proletariat would drop in for early breakfast. It was like a change of shifts in a factory, the day-shift relieving the night—from producers of material wealth, to (we liked to think) "creators" of art and literature.

Occasionally, I shared a table with an Irish friend who was some ten years older than me. He was a writer with the W.P.A. writers project and a mentor by default; he was also a fervent admirer of the work of fellow-Irishman James Joyce. Something of a self-appointed guide to local literary personalities, he took pride in pointing out to me well-known writers who dropped into the cafeteria. One of these was James T. Farrell, the author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy (1935) who occasionally stopped by for dinner with friends. Communist literary critics had recently found Farrell guilty of the unpardonable sin of Trotzkyism, and excommunicated him from the politically correct [2] band of Stalinist comrades. Michael Gold was one of Farrell's most severe communist critics who also occasionally came in for a meal or coffee. His autobiographical novel Jews Without Money (1930) would have the dubious distinction—as fiction goes—of becoming the precursor of the proletarian novel that would follow it: Unfortunately for those successors—who repeated many of its literary sins--its prose was wooden, its sentiment saccharine, and its characters, two-dimensional—the sadistic Hebrew teacher; the noble soap-box orator, etc. Gold's story was more autobiography than fiction, and was held up by the “official left,” i.e. the Communist Party, USA, as the exemplary proletarian novel, a successor in its Jewish “success” story to Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). (Cahan's hero rises from ghetto poverty to successful--but hapless--businessman; Gold's hero finds inspiration and fulfillment in the Socialist revolution.)  However, in spite of its serious flaws, Jews Without Money is an accurate depiction of poor Jews who eked out a bare living in the impoverished ghetto of New York's Lower East Side.

One who didn't need any pointing-out was poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim, who along with Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson was associated with the Chicago Literary Renaissance (1912-1925).  By the time I came to the Village, Bodenheim had already begun to succumb to the alcoholism from which he would never recover, his besotted carcass having outlived the fame he had achieved in the 1920’s. Although "Bogie" was best known for his poetry, his novels were models of sparkling originality and wit. His acrobatic style, his cynicism, come through in their titles—Replenishing Jessica (1925), Naked on Roller Skates (1930),  A Virtuous Girl(1930), King Herring (1931). Arguably, a writer of merit, with the passage of time, Bodenheim's literary stock plunged. He now drifted from table to table, soaked with alcohol, offering to compose poems for tourists for a drink. By the late-1930's he had become a grotesque caricature of his former acerbic self. If his offer of a poem in exchange for the price of a drink were turned down, he would strike out at the horrified tourist with the contempt of his withering sarcasm. The poor out-of-towner had come down to the Village to ogle the "wild bohemians" only to receive more than he—more often she--had bargained for. In 1940, his son and I occasionally dropped in to a writers and artists club that had been transformed from its former revolutionary John Reed Club to its anti-fascist remake to reflect the change in the Stalinist party line. His son never mentioned his father, and I never asked him to. In 1954, at the nadir of his life and reputation, he and his wife were murdered by a mentally unstable drifter who had offered to share his room with them for the night.

H.T. Tsiang, the author of The Hanging on Union Square (1935) and And China Has Many Hands (1937), was another recognizable character who frequented the cafeteria. He would find a table in a far-off corner of the parlor-like space, as far away from the crowd as possible, and go to work revising a manuscript. Tsiang was the prototype of the wild-eyed radical burning with revolutionary zeal. A thatch of black hair threaded with gray hung down over a furrowed brow as he peered through thick-lens glasses at the manuscript he was correcting--in red ink, as I remember, on the one rare occasion I shared a table with him. His satirical novel, The Hanging on Union Square (1935) was popular with many of us at the time, though it is a literary curiosity difficult to take seriously today. There is a touching, almost child-like innocence about it that comes through despite the amateurishness of the effort. Tsiang submitted it to a number of  publishers, with predictable results: “[W]e do not believe we can sell it successfully.”—Little, Brown, and Co.; “. . . an interesting work for which. . .there is a very small public. . ..”—The Vanguard Press; “. . .we do not feel that its sales would justify publication.”—Coward, McAnn, Inc. etc.. In spite of the (probably solicited) faint-praise given the book at the time by Granville Hicks, a founding editor of New Masses, and Carl Van Doren, an early 20thcentury literary critic. The Hanging is a pastiche of mostly self-contained scenes and occasional “Acts.”[3] However unfinished his work was, he managed to draw attention to the plight of Chinese immigrants in those early discriminatory days. He was five when he came to America from China with his immigrant parents.

Like H.T. Tsiang and Maxwell Bodenheim, two other colorful figures showed up at Life at irregular intervals. Like the former, they were familiar personalities in the Village of the 1930s's--Eli Siegel and Joe ("Professor Seagull") Gould. Siegel was the winner of the Nation's 1925 award for his poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana." But a decade later he was more celebrated for his guidance of the Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village which sponsored readings years before they were made popular by the Beat poets in the coffee houses of the 1960's and '70's. In the 1950's, Siegel initiated a movement called "Aesthetic Realism." The movement had all of the earmarks of a cult, with Siegel its infallible guru; it eventually drew not only its true-believing adherents, but its detractors who accused Siegel of brain-washing young minds. The poet died a suicide in 1978.

Joe Gould was a diminutive phantom-like figure with a mischievous sparkle in his eye who flitted in and out of Village cafés and bars. Slight and owlish, he was a literary curiosity. Always tucked under a protective arm was a worn leather briefcase which, so word had it, held his massive, handwritten "Oral History of Our Time." The Oral History (scrawled in dime-store notebooks) was said to be an accumulation of hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of manuscript that bore the casual remarks Gould had picked up in the streets, subways, and cafes of New York and recorded over the years. He was a short, bird-like little man, in his middle age at the time who, in fact, looked much older than his years. It was hard to reconcile his appearance—a drab, shabby raincoat hung from his emaciated frame--and his eccentric manner with the young man who had graduated from Harvard magna cum laude, in 1911, and was rumored to be a scion of Robber Baron Jay Gould, grown rich from the shady gains of the railroads. Some suspected his pedigree to be a self-promoted myth. Others swore by it. In any event, he was supposed to have rejected his chance of a life of (inherited) wealth for a hand-to-mouth bum's existence. That he was a Harvard graduate was no myth. Thin, pallid, sickly, a wispy beard coating his chin, two tufts of unkempt hair sprouting from either side of a bald dome, this putative heir to millions had one day apparently decided to desert the world of moneyed aristocracy for the world of literature. (A notable contemporary who did something similar was Sherwood Anderson, who gave up his manager's job at a paint factory and deserted his wife and family to devote his life to literature. Anderson affected American literature as Gould—or for that matter Bodenheim--never did, having been an influence on Hemingway, Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.) But even in his day, Gould was not taken seriously as representative of the world of letters. Among Villagers, there was general consensus that he was a simple and kindly soul who happened to be too eccentric even for a milieu where eccentricity was the norm. The late Stanley Edgar Hyman, in his "Art of Joseph Mitchell," (in The Critic's Credentials, ed. Phoebe Pettingell, 1978), asserted that the nine-million-word "Oral History" Gould allegedly spent a lifetime producing, did not exist.

Once, my Irish friend urged me to read his favorite author James Joyce and Joyce’s magnum-opus Ulysses. The name James Joyce was frequently mentioned, not only in the Village, but in cafes and bars up and down the island of Manhattan; remember, this was only some five or six years since the novel was permitted entry into the United States. But I had never been sufficiently curious to read it. (When I wasn't reading, proletarian novels and poetry, or the works of Maxim Gorki, Leonid Andreyev, and Nikolai ("Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia") Nekrasov, I was deep into the novels of the Victorians—Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, The Way of All Flesh, all in the then new, reprinted inexpensive paperback ("Pocketbook") editions. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a favorite, too. I particularly enjoyed reading—and rereading--“The Mask of Anarchy,”(1819) a poem of passionate indignation directed against the Tory government and its representative Lord Castlereagh [4]--“I met Murder on the way / He had a mask like Castlereagh”--who were responsible for the Peterloo Massacre that occurred in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester on August 16, 1819. On that occasion, mounted militia charged a peaceful demonstration protesting the Corn Laws which caused food shortages because of the high duties imposed on imported wheat. The massacre—eleven dead and hundreds wounded--was due to the over-reaction of the militia. I had virtually memorized the entire poem and was especially carried away by those final, climactic lines:  

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number--

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many--they are few!

 

The passion was well earned, but Shelley’s own life, his relations--especially with young women—were hardly exemplary. [See Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (1990).]

*          *          *

On my return to California after the war, I discovered Circle, published in Berkeley,and greeted it with the elation of a man who had made a novel discovery. (That was many years before I had heard of Ezra Pound's Make it New (1934). I felt that here was a journal free of leftist cant that was experimental, avant-garde,surrealist—even if Surrealism was no longer the vital movement it had been in the Paris of the 1920s—and different. Above all, it was fiercely anti-traditional, which appealed to my relative innocence at the time. Recently, I pulled my three surviving, copies from my bookshelves—numbers 6, 9, and 10--and riffled through them. On first blush, I felt a pang of nostalgia. After so many years, what was once strange and exciting, now seemed self-consciously avant-garde and exhibitionistic. Among its contents: a short story with the odd title "The Man in the Cape," by then-twelve-year old Robert Wozniak; glossy pages of experimental, i.e., "solarized" photography; an essay on "audio-visual music;" a surrealist play, "Flannel Night Shirt," featuring a character named Dwyn who has three[sic] hands. Given the hindsight of decades, I now see that the magazine was as homogeneous in its leftist tilt as The New Masses of yesterday and The Nation of today. If it opposed commercial philistinism—as it certainly did!--in its own way it was as tethered to its own reflexive shibboleths as those of the moneyed culture it scorned. Such attitudes were not touted by the editors as a manifesto, either Surrealist, Dadaist, or Marxist, but came through in its poetry, its stories, and in its essays. On war and the military, Circle shared anti-war, anti-military affinities with its socialist and communist counterparts—except that communists, after the German invasion of Russia, were pro-war. Instead of a political and social revolution, with a proletarian hero, Circle spoke of a need for a revolution in the arts and an artist hero. For under the predatory moneyed culture—so went the writings of the Leite-Porter-axis, Circle’s editors[5]--the artist was a victim.[6] Its anti-militarism impulses were not so much political as pacifist-anarchist.

*          *          *

I met the couple sometime in the fall of 1938. He was a young (22-year old) man whose name was Richard--Dick to all of us—and a student at Columbia; his wife Felice, a handsome, brilliant woman, worked as a researcher and writer for Time magazine’s medical section. She later authored a novel, House of Fury (1941), but died early, cutting short a promising career.

As I grew to know them, I began to feel a fondness that I could not seem to muster for our fellow leftists, dour, humorless individuals for the most part; Dick and Felice were somehow more “human;” both had a sense of humor filled with mischief and irony, missing in the others. Occasionally, I would join them for coffee in a cafeteria across the street from the meeting place where we met once a week to discuss theory and practice. Other than my troubling doubts about the Moscow Trials, rumors—unconfirmed--of Stalin’s cynical sales of oil to Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, oil that would later end up in Italian war-planes bombing Barcelona, Madrid, and--the most destructive of all--Guernica--my tender faith in the Soviet Union overrode such inconvenient stories. So that on that evening after I joined the two, I found that they seemed to undergo a personality change; from dedicated comrades of earlier to now-transfigured, impish youngsters playing hooky from the roles prescribed for them by true-believing comrades. Over coffee, they shed their communist personas, and their mood, almost adolescent in its mischief, took on a lighter manner. Instead of the serious table-talk centered on the issues of the day, the zigs and zags of the party line, to my surprise--and slight discomfort--they turned from sober comrades to cynical and satirical bomb throwers, their targets the Stalinists and the current, but always mercurial, party line. Dick’s not-so-gentle remarks were laced with flashes of irony; Felice’s irreverence matched his. Indeed, after my first surprise had worn off, I too began to see the funny side of our sanctimonious comrades. Each mention of some robotic quirk in a functionary’s defense of Moscow’s current behavior--e.g. , the rationale for the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact--brought on smiles and chuckles. Their humor at the expense of comrades and the party were signs of a nascent and growing disillusionment. I now see all that through the blur of decades past.

Some time in 1978 or 1979, while deep into Alfred Kazin’s then-recently published autobiography New York Jew (1978),[7] something clicked, and recognition slid home like a bolt thrust through a door latch. The names Felice Swados and Dick Hofstadter jumped out from the page. Those names--Swados and Hofstadter--so casually dropped, slid back a curtain on memory. Hofstadter? That was the name of a distinguished historian of liberal persuasion, a celebrated, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, AKA Richard Hofstadter, whose Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) I had been reading at the time; it had no connection to the Dick I had once known. So that when Kazin, in his autobiography, spoke of the couple—he was a good friend of theirs—and joined the name Hofstadter to Dick, a gestalt opened up. The Dick of that distant time and Richard, the distinguished historian--Hofstadter--were one and the same.[8]

As a young seaman, I had small formal education beyond high school. By contrast, Dick had completed his M.A. by 1936, and by 1939 his Ph.D. (He was probably well on his way to the Ph.D., or had earned it, by the time I came to meet the two.) I was still unpolished, rootless, but a voracious reader of romantic poets and Victorian and “proletarian” novels, with no academic laurels. If I nursed any ambitions, they were to move up the ladder of seamanship and eventually sit for my Third Officer’s exams. College, the academic life—these were hopeful paths to careers, except that there were few jobs open to anyone at the time, much less college graduates. Certainly not for youngsters lacking skills or experience. And then the war proved to be a re-ordering of priorities.

By 1939, both Dick and Felice had cut their ties to the communists; and although Dick came to spurn them, he never quite moved away from his residual, left-of-center philosophy. In their growing disillusionment with the “official left,” he and Felice were ahead of me, ahead of their time, since my feelings were still beset by ambiguity and self-doubt. So the Dick of those early days turned out to be a kind of Jamesean “figure in the carpet,” a name familiar to me in my memory, yet having no connection to Richard Hofstadter, the distinguished historian and author of Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), The American Political Tradition (1948), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), two times recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, and a much respected, much loved, and much admired figure among colleagues and students.

While Felice died young, Hofstadter did not have a long life either: he died at the age of 54. During the 1960’s, at the height of the student riots at Columbia, along with his colleague, literary critic Lionel Trilling, he attempted to act as a moderating influence between the administration and the radical students. But, ironically, much in Hofstadter’s own writings—as a member of the school of “Progressive Historians”—played no small part in fueling those student disorders. According to Louis Filler, “Hofstadter [in The Paranoid Style in American Politics(1965), Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), and like works] had already…designated the American tradition as ranging from inadequate to disastrous. What Hofstadter. . .did not anticipate was that his own major tenets would affect students with an anti-American bias. . . . The [student] uprisings on campuses in the 1960’s attacked not only the established sequence of scholarship in historical studies, but Hofstadter’s work as well.”[9] Although the influence of Dick and Felice was not crucial in my move away from the left, they certainly played an early, if subliminal, part in it.



[1] http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2008/10/10/the-life-cafeteria/   A painting of  Life Cafeteria  by Vimcent di Gambina. The accompanying note below it, hardly does justice to a convivial meeting place comparable to the Café Dome in Paris, though not as famous of course. Maxwell Bodenheim’s play on the word “arrest”—as in “Life [Cafeteria] was an arrestaurant”--was a cheap shot. If anyone was arrested, it was people like himself who created drunken scenes wherever they went. “Downtrodden”? “male prostitutes?”—there may have been; but this was not the legacy LIFE deserved. It was more than just “an eaterie on Sheridan Square.”

The block capitals of its neon sign above the cafeteria was a replica of the font style of LIFE magazine, which glowed pale blue against the night above Sheridan Square.

 [2] What was once a staple of the Stalinist party line, which, straight-faced, applied that expression to describe its own “smelly little orthodoxy,” has since become, as we now ruefully know, a systemic part of Western culture. Consequently, the Orwellian trend has grown into a flood of “speech codes,” imagined slights and “insensitivities.”

[3] In his later years, Tsiang went out to Hollywood where he hired himself out as a bit player in B-rated films. He often played villainous Orientals, among other parts. Once, back in the late fifties or early sixties, I caught sight of him while driving by Pershing Square, Los Angeles free speech park. He was wearing what looked like a papier mache “hat” and waving what appeared be a magazine while, haranguing passers-by at the top of his voice. At about this time, he hired a small off Hollywood-Boulevard theater where he put on dramatizations of scenes from his novels, And China Has Many Hands. and China RedA young, attractive blond lady co-starred in his play.

 [4] Castlereagh (Robert Stewart) committed suicide by cutting his throat with a penknife, his former popularity having plummeted—perhaps because of guilt for the ferocious attack on unarmed reformers and workers.

[5] George Leite and Berne Porter were Circle's editors from its inception in 1944 until its demise in 1948.

[6] See Henry Miller's "The Plight of the Creative Artist in the United States of America." Pamphlet, Bern Porter, Berkeley, 1944.

[7] Kazin’s On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of American Prose literature, 1890-1940 (1942, 1956) is a seminal and influential study of American literature. Kazin was twenty-seven when it was published, having done most of his research—five years of it!--in the reading room of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street where he spent twelve hours a day of a six-day week.

[8] We all knew Felice as Felice Swados; but for some reason, Dick’s surname never came up—or I don’t seem to recall if it ever did. Other than aliases, surnames were usually avoided in the conspiratorial atmospherics of the communist movement, whereas for years, I thought of him as Dick Swados! assuming Swados to be their married name. Or, another impression I had at the time: they were not married but “living together,” out of wedlock, once a comradely practice of defiance to “bourgeois values,” now commonplace of course. Felice was the sister of the literary journalist Harvey Swados.

[9] Louis Filler, A`Dictionary of American Conservatism, Pref. Russell Kirk (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1988), 260

Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.



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