The New Masses: “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”

by Rebeca on June 11, 2009

As part of the June tribute to Alvah Bessie, I’ve been posting a few of his book reviews, and for the remaining part of the month, I’ll be posting my own reviews of his books. However, I’m feeling a little mischievous and I thought I would mix things up a bit and even stir up some controversy by including a piece  that the late Albert Maltz (screenwriter and Hollywood Ten associate) wrote in February 1946 in The New Masses, “What Shall We Ask of Writers” and follow it up with Bessie’s response.

Below is a summary that was borrowed (okay, taken) from the 1946 Communist Review via Reason in Revolt. This will give readers some context when they read Bessie’s article that appeared later in March 1946. Below is essentially an annotated version of Maltz’s position

SUMMARY OF THE “NEW MASSES”

CONTROVERSY ON ‘”WHAT SHALL WE ASK OF WRITERS?”

MAX BROWN

Maltz commences his argument by defining its limits. He says, “the left wing has also offered a number of vital intellectual assets to the writer . . . Schneider enumerated these assets and 1 take them here for granted.” Within such limits Maltz states a case which abbreviate by the following selections:

1. “To the degree that works of art reflect or attack these values (i.e., class values), it is broadly -not always specifically-true to say that works of art have been and can be weapons in men’s thinking and therefore in the struggle of social classes.”

2. ‘ . . . . as interpreted in practice for the last fifteen years of the left wing in America, it (i.e., the concept ‘art is a weapon’) has become a hard rock of narrow thinking . . . . the nature of art-how art may best be a weapon …. has been slurred over. 1 have come to believe that the accepted understanding of art as a weapon is not a useful guide but a straitjacket . . . . Finally in practice it has been understood to mean that unless art is a weapon like a leaflet, serving immediate political ends, necessi-ties and programmes, it is worthless or escapist or vicious.”

3. “… under the domination of this vulgarised approach, creative works are judged primarily by the formal ideology.”

4. ‘… from this type of thinking comes the approach which demands of each written work that it contain ‘the whole truth….. This …. demand rests upon the psychological assumption that readers coma to each book with an empty head.”

5. “A creative writer … works intellectually in an atmosphere in which the critics. the audience, the friends he respects-while revering art-actu-ally judge works on the basis of their immediate political end. If the end is good, it would be absurd to say that this may not be socially useful … but he is led by his goal into idealistic conceptions of character, into wearing rose-colored glasses which will permit him to see in life that which he wishes to find in order to prove his thesis.”

6. “I am convinced that the work-in-progress of an artist who is deeply, truly, honestly recreating a sector of human experience, need not be affected by a change in the political weather.”

7. “In his appreciation of Balzac Engels understood two facts about art: First, the writer qua citizen making an election speech, and the writer qua artist, writing a novel, is performing two very different acts. Second, Engels understood that a writer may be confused or even stupid or reactionary in his thinking – and yet it is possible for him to do good, oven great work as an artist – work that serves even ends he despises. This point is critical for the understanding of art and artists I”

8. “Writers must be judged by their work, and not by the committees they join.”

9. “The political convictions of a writer or his lack of political convictions may have something to do with his growth or creative decline. Writing is a complex process . . . . There are many, many reasons why writers grow and sometimes retrogress.”

10. “The great humanistic tradition of culture has always been on the side of progress. The writer who works within this tradition-is writing a political work in the broadest meaning of the term.”

Such is Maltz’ main thesis. In the same issue Isidore Schneider, New Masses Literary Editor, takes no exception to any of the above statements, but does stress the positive achievement of left criticism in establishing the analysis of the social relationships of a work of art as a standard critical procedure, against the bitter opposition of the American ruling class.

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