ODYSSEY OF A LIBERAL
FRIENDS IN THE VILLAGE –Greenwich Village during World War II
In spite of nagging money worries and separation from Jon, life in the Village seemed wonderful. After I left Baltimore I was back among my own kind – those whom my brother had inelegantly described as the “bloody intelligents” – and meeting a lot of interesting people.
Dora was a genius at providing good meals for very little money, and she was the soul of hospitality like my long-lost sister-in-law in Moscow. Friends were always dropping in for a meal or just to see Dora who radiated a warmth and kindness and understanding unique in my experience of women. Utterly without malice and all too tolerant of the sins and follies and ingratitude of mankind, she is one of the rare people who really believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
How much I owe to Dora can never be told. She sustained me with her encouragement, cheered me, helped me with my mother, fed me for a song, and lent me her best dress to wear when I lectured. I have her my heart to hold, confiding in her more than I have ever done to another human being, because I trusted her completely and unreservedly and knew that it was inconceivable that she would ever want to hurt me.
I was also most fortunate in having Hans as a comrade then as still today, in the true sense of this word which means more than friend.
Despite differences of opinion which have sometimes become so acrimonious as to lead to temporary estrangement, there is an enduring tie of loyalty between us and such mutual respect and trust that we are always eventually reconciled. During our early penurious years in New York, we always helped one another out, even when barely on speaking terms. Today I count him among my dearest and oldest friends in all the world.
So intricate is the web of life that it was thanks to my brother’s chance meeting with an Italian in a pub in Suva that I first met Hans, and came to live with Dora in the Village in New York five years afterTemple’s death on the other side of the world.
Temple had written shortly before his death, “Life has been more amusing lately, owing to an Italian journalist, Dr. Rene Paresce, but he leaves today. He is ½ Italian and ½ Russian and used to be a friend of Trotsky’s – before the Revolution. He is a Doctor of Science-Physics, a painter by choice and earns his living as a journalist; English correspondent of the ‘Stampa’ of Turin.”
On the occasion of their first meeting over drinks at Mac’s Hotel in Suva, Temple and Rene had struck up a friendship during an animated discussion of the relative merits of Bertrand Russell’s philosophy which my brother favored and the Marxist theories to which Rene still adhered.
Not long afterwards during my last visit to England prior to Arcadi’s arrest and the end of my life in Russia, I had met Hans at Paresce’s flat in London. Guenter Reimann, to call him by his right name, was then preparing to risk his life by returning to Nazi Germany, while I was about to return to the prison house which Soviet Russia had become.
Later in England after I had returned to the West, Rene and his wife Ella, whose father had been a friend of Lenin’s, and Hans and I, were continually seeking and enjoying one another’s company.
The difference between the Latin and the Teutonic mind, and my own closer affinity to the former was often illustrated during the many evenings when Hans and I and Rene argued about the failure of socialism in Russia. Rene and I always wanted to ‘escalate’ our discussions by omitting many of the intermediate steps between premiss and conclusion in order to get quickly to the point. But Hans insisted on building up his argument, step by step, omitting nothing, even though we all knew the facts, or beliefs or theories, which could be taken for granted in view of our similar background, knowledge and experience. Many years before in tutoring Indians and other students at King’s College I had been able to spot the ones who had learned Latin because of their ability to express themselves in shorter clearer terms. And today inAmerica I continually endeavor, with little success, to make Hans abandon his Teutonic style.
Rene Paresce might well have been chosen for a Reader’s Digest accolade of “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Son of a Russian mother and Italian father, amazingly versatile in his talents and interests, endowed with a quick intelligence and a compassionate heart, he also had an ironic Latin sense of humor and love of life. Strikingly handsome, with a tall slim and lithe figure, Roman nose, light blue eyes and sensitive generous mouth, fair hair going grey as it receded from his broad high forehead, he was as fearless as unmindful of his life and health and soon to die of a neglected cold which developed into pneumonia. After giving up his Professorship of Mathematics at the University of Florence to paint in France, he had been arrested during the First World War because of his association with Trotsky, with whom he had shared an apartment in Paris. Fortunately the Paris Chief of Police had so admired his paintings that he had been permitted to go and live quietly in the south of France for the duration. Later he had become a journalist, and after Temple and he became friends in Suva, toured the United States and wrote a book called Altera America describing the poverty of Kentucky mountaineers and other “underprivileged” Americans.
Despite his anti-Fascist sympathies which prevented him from returning to Italy, Paresce’s journalistic talents were so outstanding as to enable him to become the London correspondent of La Stampa. When I asked him how this was possible, Rene used to say that Italians never took their politics with such deadly seriousness as Germans and Russians, so that Mussolini’s dictatorship was nearly as total as Hitler’s or Stalin’s. Another reason may have been that Rene’s brother was a diplomat at the Italian embassy in London before the Second World War. Afterwards this younger Senor Paresce became Press Counselor of the Italian Embassy in Washington, affording another example of Italian political tolerance, or refusal to go to extremes in persecuting opponents, which is perhaps the hallmark of a very old civilization.
A decade after Rene Paresce became my dear friend in London I was impressed by the differences in behaviour of the Germans and Italians after the defeat of the Nazi and Fascist regimes. Many Germans were all too anxious to exonerate themselves by denouncing others as Nazi “war criminals.” The Italians, although less courageous in war than the Germans – or too intelligent to fight wholeheartedly for their dictator – refrained for the most part from denunciation of others in order to prove their own democratic virtue after their defeat. There were few, if any “war criminal” trials in Italy with the less guilty or unavowed guilty accusing and concerning their compatriots under the aegis of an alien occupation. Italians seem in general to realize that the good or evil men had done under the Fascist dictatorship was mainly the result of varying pressures. Travelling to Italy from Germany by train in 1952 I happened to share a compartment with two young French-speaking Italians who had been friends at school and amiably kidded one another because you hoped to avoid military service that way,” the other retorted. “All right, true, but weren’t you a member of the Fascist Party because you hoped to get a cushy job absolving you from fighting?” responded the other. And they both laughed in recognition of the truth of each other’s argument.
As Dora used to point out, it was a funny thing that Americans hated the Germans for fighting so well and despised the Italians for not doing so. Dora before I knew her had been a buyer at Macy’s earning a comfortable income. She preferred to become a social worker on a small salary and has never regretted it. During her affluent days she had been unhappily married to a selfish ‘intelligent’ and was, as I saw it, still sponged on by some worthless characters in the literary and artistic world who exploited her generosity and sympathy. The daughter of indigent Jewish immigrants, she had the inordinate regard for learning and the arts which is one of the most endearing characteristics of the best of her people but can also mislead them into too great a reverence for “intellectual,” good or bad. She has had a hard life but is one of the happiest people I know because of her extraordinary lack of concern for her own interests and her perceptive understanding and sympathy for other people’s troubles. Henry Miller once said of her that all the kindness of theOld World was in her face, although why he ascribed kindness to the Old World, I fail to understand. Maybe the pure in heart, even though they will never inherit the earth, are happier even in this world than the self-seekers, the ambitious, and the unscrupulous.
Far from sharing what still remained of my Puritan prejudices, Dora, although faithful to her husbands, saw no sin in “giving herself” without regard to consequences when her heart moved her, or a man badly needed her love and care.
Her second husband was an outwardly hard-boiled American journalist to whom I introdued her one fateful evening in 1941 and whom she married later that year. Wilbur Burton about whom one can read in Vincent Sheean’s Personal History,* had led an adventurous life as a Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent in South America and China. He had at one time been married to the sister of Sheean’s heroine, Rayna Proem. In 1927 he was arrested in Peking for his activities on behalf of the revolutionary Kuomintang together with Milly Mitchell, whom I had known in Moscow before she became famous as the wife of the Communist Commander of the American “Lincoln Brigade” in Spain. In spit of, or because of this experience Milly became as anti-Communist as I long before she died in New York.
Digressing for a moment, I must remark here that Milly, who was far from beautiful – in fact, almost ugly – was also evidently a most attractive or sexually desirable woman. She was not, I think, ever a member of the Communist Party although she worked on the Moscow Daily News. One day meeting her on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow at a time when she was temporarily taking Walter Duranty’s place as Russian correspondent for The New York Times, I had stopped to greet her and she, warmly smiling, had said, “Oh, Freda, how happy I am that you, too, are not cutting me dead like so many of my friends because I have temporarily become a correspondent for the capitalist press.” Soon after, Milly lost her most recent lover, or husband, a Russian actor, who was arrested as a homosexual at a time when the Russian concentration camps had driven so many “politicals” to an early death by forced labor under inhuman conditions that if needed new categories of victims to build the roads and railways, work the mines and otherwise fulfill the manifold economic functions of slave labor in the U.S.S.R.
Wilbur Burton had walked into my life on a winter’s day in 1941 when he visited C.V. Starr’s offices at 101 Fifth Avenue to see Randall Gould, editor of the Shanghai Evening Post until Pearl Harbor caused its demise. Finding me working in the room next to Randall he grinned and said, “How typical of Neil Starr to have a ‘yes man’ and ‘no woman’ working for him side by side.”
Wilbur Burton rarely agreed with me and on the rare occasions when we found ourselves in accord it was usually for different or opposite reasons. But I was fond of him and had a high regard for his sterling integrity, his courage, his scorn for those he called “political whores,” and his wide ranging knowledge of literature, philosophy, and poetry. He came from Indiana, where his forebears had emigrated from the South after the Civil War to become poor farmers, and he was self-educated. Despite his rovings in foreign lands he remained all his life an unreconstructed old-style American radical from the Middle West. He had a natural affinity to “wobblies” and anarchists, and as instinctive a repulsion toward Communist despotism as to kings, princes and all types of authoritarian rule.
Seeing no more good in Chiang Kai-shek than in Stalin, opposed to Hitler but regarding the British “imperialists” as no better, he was firmly convinced that the United States should consistently followWashington’s advice to keep clear of foreign entanglements. Thus he chose to go to prison as a conscientious objector soon after he married Dora. He could easily instead have secured exemption from military service, since he was 40 years old and then on the cable desk of the New York Times. But he did not choose to take this easy way out and ruined his life’s prospects in consequence.
During subsequent years when Dora was endeavoring to get him released from prison in Kentucky, her situation was, to say the least, paradoxical. Burt was kept in prison mainly because he refused to retract the violent diatribe he had written against Roosevelt as a war monger subservient to British and Jewish influences while his wife was working at the Jewish Refugee Relief Center in New York.
Eventually Dora secured Burt’s release from imprisonment but only on condition that he become an indentured male nurse in a Maryland lunatic asylum. Here they were at last together again in a lodging inTowson. But he had to work very hard for a pittance, whereas in prison he had had little to do besides talk and organize study groups and debates among the Kentucky moonshiners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists whose society he had found most congenial. Although a condition for his release from prison was that he should not express his views in print, Burt was able to visit me occasionally in Washington where I had gone to live in 1944, and to pour forth his unreconstructed isolationist views in the letters he wrote me and to his old and loyal friend William Henry Chamberlin. I reproduce one of these letters dated February 18, 1945, because it so well displays Burt’s sarcastically cynical style, his rock-bottom isolationism and his realistic appraisal of the shape of things to come thanks to “Roosevelt’s War.”
17 Alleghany Ave.
Towson 4, Md.
Feb. 18, 1945
Darling Freda: How about la Hahn’s “China to Me?” I’m practically dying to
read it, and so I expect it by next mail!!!! And did you ever locate a copy of
Your Bohemian Brawl was up to the best Utley standard and I enjoyed it
immensely – and my entire stay in your domicile. Don’t know when I will
get to Washington again, but expect me when I do ….My Virginia friend was
heartbroken not to get to the party; only the serious illness of his sister
The general press and radio reaction to the Crime(a) Conference reminds me
that journalists today perform the same function as the augurs in ancient Rome –
but most of our journalists are too naïve to smile when they meet.
Anyway, the Crime(a) should have put us in our proper, humble place:
America is not God, as some of our more bumptious citizens once imagined;
Uncle Joe is God,-but, and our hearts can swell with pride! FDR is his Vicar
for America. And through Lend-Lease, we have surely restored the Trotskyist-
shaken faith of the Russians in Santa Claus. Now what could be sweeter than
for materialistic America’s major role in the 20th Century????
Also, the Crime(a) has given us a new definition of “realistic” internationalism
as opposed to “perfectionist” internationalism: The Angle-Americans give
multilateral blessing to Stalin’s unilateral accomplishments. Thus there are
no longer any “spheres of influence brought about in the old-fashioned way
of power politics; instead, the Anglo-Ams simply say “Praise Uncle Joe from
whom all blessings flow.” Of course, Uncle Joe did make one significant
concession to his American Vicar: He had, I think now, established his Free
Germany Committee in Moscow as a hedge just in case American voters
should have proved ungodly enough to not re-elect FDR; now FDR being
re-elected, Uncle Joe is willing to go all out for Unconditional Surrender –
so that the war may be prolonged, in some fashion or another, to 1948, and
thus FDR can again run as Commander-in-Chief and the PAC can again do
its stuff. So the Crime(a) may be viewed as a prelude to the Fifth Term –
just as Teheran was the prelude to a Fourth Term. (And Uncle Joe may even
enter the Pacific war to help his pal in the White House; after all, he has
always got Europe at hand – so why should he not take all “realistic” steps to
keep FDR looting US for him by Lend-Lease as long as possible?) The only
thing I missed at your party was an Englishman to quote my “Epitaph to a GI”
- So I will set it forth to you, without apologies to Kipling:
Walk wide of the Muddler at Windsor, for half of creation he owns.
We’ve bought him the same with the sword and the flame,
And we’ve salted it down with our bones.
(Poor GIs! – It’s blue with our bones!)
Hands off the lands of the Muddler! Hands off the goods in his shop!
For rival kings must bow, and other imperialists cow,
When the Muddler at Windsor says Stop!)
Anyway, I’m not sure that the “poem” is not outdated. Maybe you can compose
one in Russian that is more appropriate!!!!
How about coming up to Towson for a quiet week-end?
At the end of the war in Europe Burt was permitted to go to the 30 acre farm and ramshackle old house he had inherited near Winchester, Indiana. Having no capital he could not work the land, and life there was pretty grim for both of them while he milked cows and looked after chickens and Dora worked four days a week for a Jewish welfare agency in Indianapolis. After several years of this miserable existence, Dora and I persuaded Burt to return to New York, believing that he would eventually be able to re-establish himself as a newspaperman while she took one of the many jobs open to her there. But none of Burt’s former “isolationist” friends would help him to secure employment. When I approached Mary King on the Daily News, with whom I was well acquainted, and tried to enlist her help she was uninterested in such a ghost from the past. Wilbur Burton had gone to prison for proclaiming the same isolationist views that she and her husband Joseph Medil Patterson had subscribed to. Now only younger men were of any value on the paper. My friend Batchelor, the cartoonist, was most sympathetic, but had no power to help him secure a job.
At this and my other vain endeavors to help Burt re-establish himself, I was given a salutory lesson as regards “What’s-wrong-with-the-Right.” It lacks, above all, the comradeship and the loyalty of the “Left” and is generally too heartless, selfish to ungenerous. The only one of Burt’s previous friends or acquaintances who made some effort to help him was Norman Cousins who had never had any sympathy with Burt’s views, but who believed in Voltaire’s axiom that men of integrity should be permitted to speak and to live, however profoundly one disagrees with their views. Cousins failed to secure a job for Dora’s husband but he at least tried, unlike those who had shared his views but themselves sacrificed nothing to uphold them. I did not agree with Burt’s consistent isolationist views which made him oppose any American action risking war with the Communist powers as strenuously as he had been opposed to our intervention in the Second World War. But I admired his courage and integrity, and I loved Dora. It was very difficult to help them on account of Burt’s injured pride which prevented him from making any concessions to conformity and impelled him willfully to outrage people who could have helped him.
The long beard he had grown while he worked his Indiana farm among his similarly hirsute Dukhobor neighbors and refused to shave off, combined with his casual clothes and defiant or positively rude manner, repelled the people Norman Cousins sent him to see who might have employed him. Finding all doors closed to him as a journalist or in any capacity in which his literary talents and diversified knowledge could be used, Burt finally took poorly paid employment as a shop assistant and general handyman at a second hand bookstore on University Place. Embittered and frustrated, he suffered deeply from the affront to his masculine pride at having become partly dependent on his wife, who earned more than he did, who adored him, but to whom he was often mean and nasty because he could not bear his hopeless situation. He reproached Dora for having persuaded him to leave his rural retreat in Indiana where, isolated, hard, and uncomfortable as his life had been, he had been able to earn his own living. Finally, in the fall of 1956, while I was in India, Burt committed suicide. My son cabled me in New Delhi to come home which I failed to do but reached Dora by phone. Rallying to her in my absence Jon said, “How could Burt have done this to you?” Which was as he perceived, young as he was, the heart of the matter.
Burt was the most obstinate and courageous, foolish and uncompromising, old-fashioned radical American I have ever known. He clung to outworn original American concepts long since rendered obsolete by the march of history, while believing that he was in advance of his time. But he was a wonderful guy who deserved a better fate.
Like our friend Lawrence Dennis, who married Dora some years later, Burt was incapable of either forgetting or forgiving the past, or adapting himself to the present and trying to make the best of it. They found infinite satisfaction in saying, “I told you so,” in surveying the results of American intervention in both World Wars.
The year of Burt’s despair was far off when I lived with Dora in Greenwich Village in the early forties. I there found myself among my own kind, which was not that of the high-class Baltimore society which had been so kind to me. Ideologically and emotionally I still belonged to the “Liberal intelligentsia,” although finding many of them deluded or drugged by Communist propaganda. Dora had visited Russia and been the guest there of the playwright Alexander Afenogenov and others in the Russian literary world who belonged to the wealthy Communist aristocracy. But being an intelligent woman of acute human sympathies instead of a cold-blooded intellectual, she had not been blind to the misery of the Russian “common man,” and had no more illusions about Communism than myself. She supported me in argument with left-wing friends and her love and loyalty bolstered my courage in sustaining the fight against the ever-increasing strength of the friends of the Soviet Union in America.
When I moved to New York from Baltimore, Huntington Cairns (at this time a high official in the Treasury aspiring to be appointed to the Supreme Court but destined to become Treasurer of the Mellon Art Gallery), asked his friend F.V. Calverton to look after me. George, as his friends called him,* and I “clicked,” as the British would say, at our first meeting which, as I dimly remember was followed by his escorting me from one to another night spot frequented by the New York literary world.
- His real name was George Goetz. He had originally taken the pen name of F.V. Calverton to
Avoid jeopardizing his teaching job in Baltimore Public Schools when, in 1923, he founded his radical socialist magazine, The Modern Quarterly.
Calverton and his “wife” Nina Melville lived close to me in the Village and their apartment was a unique meeting place for writers and poets, philosophers, artists, critics and teachers. There I met the elite of the non-Communist intelligentsia as also some who were already travelling along with Moscow’s friends and dupes, either in order to advance their careers or because they had convinced themselves that destruction of the Nazi regime was all that mattered.
It was at Calverton’s that I first got to know Max Eastman, Norman Thomas, Sidney Hook, Isaac Don Levine, Bertram and Ella Wolfe, Ben Stolberg and Susan LaFollette, Eugene Lyons and other early fighters against Communism who were to remain my friends in the difficult years ahead in spite of differences concerning the war. It may also have been there that I first met Carlo Tresca, the Italian anti-fascist and anti-Communist who was to be assassinated by the Communists without any real effort made by the police to apprehend his murderers.
George Calverton resembled my brother in his aversion to dogma, his wide-ranging interest in such diverse subjects as psychology and sex, anthropology, art, history, science and literature as well as politics, and his tolerance, understanding kindness and sympathy for individual human beings. He was one of the best and dearest friends I have ever had. Thanks to him, I soon felt myself more at home in the Village in New York in the forties than in Bloomsbury in London in the twenties.
As Daniel Aaron has written, ** even the Communists who became his enemies after 1933, when he published Max Eastman’s anti-Stalinist articles, found it hard to hate George. “It was painful to such former friends of his as Mike Gold, Granville Hicks and Joshua Kunitz to have to fight him on the Ideological front because Calverton was kind and considerate and genuinely comradely toward his opponents.”
** Writers on the Left by Daniel Aaron, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1961.
George’s heresies were unconfined by fear or prejudice or attachment to Marxist theories. His inquiring mind, perceptive intelligence and courage in recognizing facts which undermined his original beliefs led him to speak out against “radical sectarians” who ignored American realities. “I am disgusted,” he wrote to Van Wyck Brooks in 1938, “with the run of Marxists who try to fit America into the Marxist pattern. It won’t fit. We need a new terminology, adapted to the American outlook.”
He had continued to identify himself with Marxism for a period after he broke with the Communists because he felt that “originally I owe such a debt to Marx, and that a certain number of his theses hold true today.” This, I also believe. The Marxist theory has validity in explaining one segment or aspect of the complex nature of man and society. If one can take Marxism merely as a tool for the limited purpose of unlocking the door to understanding our baser nature and some phases of economic history, it has its uses.
The autobiography Calverton had begun to write might have been the best history of our liberal or “progressive” generation.
Whenever I felt in need of good cheer and companionship I walked over to visit George and Nina. Somehow he managed to keep open house for his friends while writing a great many books, giving lectures and editing the Modern Quarterly (which had been the Modern Monthly before it lost circulation and subsidies and contributors following Calverton’s denunciation of the Communists). George maintained another wife and establishment in Baltimore and the strain eventually broke him. Debts piled up and his opposition to U.S. intervention in the Second World War rendered it increasingly difficult for him to make enough money to provide for two wives, and for the entertainment of the friends who enjoyed h is unlimited hospitality. One afternoon Nina phoned me to come over at once because George had been stricken. By the time I got there he was already dead.
I went to his funeral with Norman Cousins, who had also loved George and was to remain my friend in subsequent years in spite of our increasingly divergent views on the answers to the problems of our age. Together we wept at George’s passing – that of a man who might today be recognized as great had he not dissipated his energies in the writing of too many books on too many different subjects, and spent so much time and effort in helping many people while also expending himself in stimulating talk in convivial company fortified by alcohol.
As he lay dead I felt that we were mourning as much for the doom of what he and the best of our generation had believed in as for the passing of a beloved friend. We belonged to a liberal and hopeful age which believed that it was possible to emancipate mankind from want and injustice, class or race exploitation, war and depressions, but lived to see our best aspirations perverted to become the basis for totalitarian tyranny.
George and I were attuned because we were old style liberals nurtured in the faith of the Age of Reason. To us it seemed obvious that the radical doctrines of our time needed a thorough re-examination in the light of the experience of our era. In contrast, the attitude of the dominant majority of liberals and socialists in America at the time George died, recalled the famous three stone monkeys of Lincoln Cathedral who shut their eyes, ears and mouth in order not to see, or hear, or speak any evil of the “first Socialist State.”
The sad fact was that most “progressives” were denying the basis of their rationalist philosophy by refusing to face facts. They clung to their old faith that socialism per se must be good and progressive despite the evidence to the contrary. Their attitude toward the Soviet Union was not unlike that of well meaning Catholics in the Middle Ages who, although horrified by the tortures inflicted by the Inquisition on heretics and dissenters, convinced themselves that these atrocities were necessary for the preservation of the true faith.
We had believed that socialism would mean the emancipation of mankind not its regimentation, brutalization and the denial of individual rights and liberties together with contempt for the power of human reason. We had too late foreseen that the dynamic of revolution might serve the cause of tyranny and that the greatest miseries were to be inflicted in the name of Socialism. George Calverton was one of the few socialists who had the wisdom to perceive and the mental courage to admit that “public ownership of the means of production and distribution” in practice entailed the imposition of a more cruel and soul destroying despotism than any before known to mankind. In my tribute to F.V. Calverton published together with those written by others of his friends in the last issue of the Modern Quarterly I wrote:
We who survive him can only hope that we shall preserve our
balance, our values and our integrity as he did, and refuse to accept
the easy maxims and doubt-resolving faiths which now sway the
world. George never could believe that the end justifies the means,
that socialism is only a question of economic forms, that democracy
can be preserved by abandoning it, or that Satan can be cast out by
There is perhaps no solution to the dilemma which confronts us.
The dilemma consists in the fact that by combating evil with evil we
produce only more evil and become like that which we oppose; and
yet that if we refuse to meet fire with fire we appear to condone what
we abhor. It is an old, old problem, but to us it seems new because for
a generation or more we have believed that capitalism was the root of
all evil, and that socialism would put an end to inequality, injustice,
poverty, hatred, envy and war. Now we know that the end of the
profit system may mean production not for use but for war – may
mean tyranny, concentration camps, terror and oppression of the
weak at home and abroad, whether such “Socialism” still covers
itself with the tattered remnants of nineteenth century humanism as
in Russia, or naked and unashamed, proclaims its reversion to
primitive values and standards and myths as in Germany.
The hope of a democratic form of socialism fades with each
month the war is prolonged, with each rise in the tide of hysteria
and hate and unreason and fear. Perhaps there is no hope now of
avoiding the Dark Ages upon which we seem to be entering. But
it is possible to hope that mankind’s need of liberty and beauty and
love will prove strong enough in the long run to start once again the
age-old struggle for social justice and liberty under new conditions
and by new methods. We know now that the society we dreamed
of requires more for its establishment than the abolition of the
capitalist system. The capitalist system is already dead or dying
but the world is worse, not better off.
“Had he lived,” I concluded, “George Calverton would have found life more and more painful and increasingly harder to exist, both materially and spiritually, in an age of unreason, hatred and fear.”
Today, a quarter of a century after his death, I imagine that George, could he return from the shades, would, even as I, rejoice that our worst fears concerning the shape of things to come have not been realized. Despite the follies and some crimes of the Western Powers who demanded the unconditional surrender of their enemies at the cost of an unconditional alliance with Stalin, the world today by and large seems to be a better place with greater hope for the emancipation of all mankind from the chains of poverty and fear than when George Calverton was alive.
After his death, life in the Village would never be the same although many of his friends continued to be mine. His spirit hovered over us long after he had passed into nothingness.
Other dear friends of mine have recently in increasing numbers passed into the valley of the shadow of death. Among them “star spangled on the grass” George Calverton is the one who I would enjoy most talking with once again – even if it were in purgatory.
In the Village in the early 40’s I also belonged to the circle of Dwight and Nancy Macdonald, her brother Seldon Rodman, and their friends and collaborators grouped around Partisan Review and Common Sense.
Dwight Macdonald then still called himself a Trotskyist but was too independent a thinker and too kind a human being to tie himself down to any dogma. His friends included various types and kinds of disillusioned ex-Communists or anti-Stalinists, liberal socialists, anarchists, pacifists and such unidentifiable characters as James Farrell who was also a friend of Dora’s. As also such uncommitted intellectuals as Mary McCarthy who, although she had been a member of the Trotsky Defense Committee had become an anti-Stalinist, as she herself relates, not out of conviction, but in reaction to the threats of the Stalinists then so powerful in the literary world.
The guests at the Macdonald’s parties were less diversified than at George Calverton’s but there was great argument “about it and about” within the confines of their Socialist ideology, with all of us, to quote the Persian poet once again, “coming out by the same door” as in we went.
Dwight Macdonald himself was a lover of life and good cheer but, unlike George, abstemious. He had already made himself a reputation as a brilliant and witty writer on the New Yorker, but was far too interested in politics to spend his time amusing the ‘bourgeoisie’ and making good money on that smart magazine. He was soon to split with his collaborators on Partisan Review and start his own magazine calledPolitics, in which he wrote brilliantly for a season, its contents being mainly his own contributions. Eventually, tiring of subsidizing his own magazine, or realizing that he would be more effective in expressing his views by accepting the many opportunities offered him to write in publications of wide circulation, he jettisoned Politics. He rejoined the New Yorker and, as its movie critic, helped make Esquire into a magazine worthy to be read by “intellectuals.”
Not long ago, meeting William L. White again in New York after many years, he embraced me so affectionately that I asked him why. He replied by saying that so many of his old friends who had fought the good fight against Communism are dead, that he loved me and the few others who are still alive. So also today, I retain an affectionate regard for Dwight Macdonald who is not only still very much alive but also more successful in this our world today than anyone else I knew in the Village in the early 1940’s, thanks to his wit and style, or perhaps because he has been able to retain his original faith in pacifism, socialism and all that by ignoring the realities of our day and age.
The second Bohemia I lived in, in the Village in New York in the early Forties, was far more congenial to me than the one I had known in London after the 1914 War. It soon became impossible for me to associate with such former friends of mine as Leo Huberman who was moving ever closer to the Communists in spite of his knowledge concerning the realities of life in Soviet Russia. Like other good men among my friends his passionate hatred of Nazi Germany’s racist state blinded him to the equally horrible tyranny of Stalin’s Russia. But there was not as y et any insuperable barrier between me and those who later came to be designated as the ‘totalitarian liberals’ on account of their unconditional support and whitewash of the Stalin dictatorship.
It was already unpopular to express dislike, or doubts, concerning the ‘Workers Paradise’ in Russia in the pseudo liberal circles which were soon to become an entrenched ‘Establishment’ which a writer defied at the cost of being ostracized. But in 1940-41 one was not yet altogether outside the pale by reason of anti-Communist views. Nor was it until many years later that on account of my testimony against Owen Lattimore before the Tydings Committee, and my book called The China Story, that I was consigned to limbo.
Today, neither New York nor London nor any Western city seems to afford any such stimulus or forum for the discussion of divergent liberal or conservative views as “the Village” provided two decades ago. Where, indeed, are not only “the snows of yesteryear” but also the flowers which bloomed so abundantly in the intellectual climate of those days? I wish I were still there, or that it still existed.