Review: Inquisition in Eden, by Alvah Bessie

by Rebeca on June 19, 2009

Inquisition in Eden
By Alvah Bessie
Seven Seas Books, 1967
308 pages

Part screenplay and parrt narrative, Inquisition in Eden opens with a Cast of Characters, The book’s leading man, the narrator is, of course, Alvah Bessie; his leading lady is his second wife, Helen Clare. Supporting characters are the other nine blacklisted writers, producers and directors, Mr. McDonald, the warden of U.S. Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Texas; a slew of cameos by actors including Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Lee J. Cobb; and bit players from inmates to guards, FBI agents, Ayn Rand, Richard M. Nixon, Jack Warner, Ernest Hemingway and “various varieties of ass kissers”.

Fade in. The reader is placed right at Texarkana. It’s July 1950. And Bessie writes in a straightforward manner with enough detail to put the reader right into the scene. We learn that Bessie is in prison to serve a year’s sentence “for a misdemeanor called contempt of Congress,” and is sitting with his parole official’s office. The conversation is as follows:

Huber: This where I get your side of the story; why you think you’re here.

Huber pauses, lights a cigarette, nods when the inmate gestures toward the pocket of his blue-denim shirt. Inmate, seated in a chair across from Huber, lights his own cigarette.

Huber (continuing): But before you start, let me tell you that in twenty years of custodial work, I have yet to meet an inmates who wasn’t here on a bum rap.

Narrator (all officers are “sir”): Sir, in my opinion, I’m a political prisoner.

Huber (deadpan): Bessie, we don’t have any political prisoners in the United States.

(glances at dossier on his desk, points with finger)

You’re here for violation of Section 192, Title 2, U.S. Code, which means refusal to testify before a duly constituted committee of Congress . . .

The likelihood that these sections of dialogue are remembered verbatim almost 20 years after the fact really doesn’t matter because Bessie has a natural ear for dialogue and he’s written several scenes that are very funny and biting,  but Inquisition is not entirely a prison memoir.  Bessie writes about his early acting ambitions as a young man on the New York stage, life in during the Depression in Vermont, struggling to survive with his first wife Mary Burnett and their children Dan and David, his first novel Dwell in the Wilderness and Spain.

It’s after his return from Spain that he writes (and which was endorsed by Hemingway) Men in Battle. Well-reviewed in Time, Bessie writes, “…it never sold. For it appeared the week that Hitler invaded Poland, and people had other things to read—the newspapers.” But his luck changed when he was offered the drama critic position at the New Masses, where he remained for four years as the drama, book, film critic and feature writer until Hollywood beckoned.

Gossip-mongers of old Hollywood will be disappointed because Bessie doesn’t dish any dirt. He writes of the studio politics, the haggling with producers and studio executives over stories and scripts. He cuts these scenes with life in prison and his friendships with some of the inmates. Yet it’s the road to HUAC, that Bessie documents so well. And when the pink subpeona comes and the jobs peter out, Bessie writes of his financial problems. Determined to not borrow money to survive and feed his family, writes of how he pitched a modern-day version of Don Quixote to Charlie Chaplin with no success. After his meeting with Chaplin, Bessie leaves with no job offer, but with a handshake and a $100 bill slipped in his hand.

As for the charges agaisnt the Hollywood ten Bessie provides a reader-friendly legal explanation of why the Hollywood Ten chose to plead the first amendment rather than the fifth. Although the book’s pace slows down at this juncture, it immediately picks up after his release from prison and life as a blacklisted writer.

Of all the books and articles written on the Hollywood Blacklist, Inquisition in Eden is one of the most honest accounts of a terrible time in this country’s history, and Bessie tells his story with wry wit of his life before, during, and after the blacklist.

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