The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten
By Gerald Horne
University of California Press: 360 pp.; $24.95 paper
Sometimes biographers inadvertently provide readers with history in action. By what they focus on, and most revealingly, what they omit, biographers give readers a deeper understanding of the subject.
With John Howard Lawson, the head of the Hollywood Communist Party during its heyday, the 1930s and 1940s, a fearless biographer—fearless in the sense of following the evidence regardless of the ideological consequences—could write a compelling cautionary tale of the artistic damage that occurs with writers in thrall to an ideology.
But Gerald Horne has opted for a history lesson of a different sort. Rather than warn, Horne instead emulates his subject by careful omissions, a joyless ideological tone, and a black and white view of history.
Comrades and renegades alike characterized Lawson as remote and chilly. The best Horne can muster from this personality is committed, and this is certainly borne out by Lawson’s feverish work in organizing the Screen Writers Guild, in slipping joyless agitprop into such World War II chest-thumpers as Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic, in presiding over recantations from Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz (whose 1946 New Masses article arguing that a writers adherence to a party line damaged their literary efforts brought the heavy lumber from New York and most importantly, from Hollywood) and in defending every twist and turn of Stalin’s policy.
Lawson was infamous for his omissions from his own record (he offered no mention during his HUAC testimony advocating freedom of speech for all of his closed session comment to Party lawyers that only communists were eligible for free speech protections) and that of the Soviet Union (no Erlich and Alter or Gulags—only a shining workers’ state).
Horne meets his subject’s quota for forgetfulness—no mention of Lawson’s crackdown on Edward Dymtryk, whose biggest crime was daring to read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and his criticism of a party screenwriter for artistic deficiencies; no closed session comments about selective free speech or embarrassing about-faces when Stalin signed a military agreement with Hitler. Horne forgets to include all of Lawson’s snarling testimony before HUAC and instead leaves the reader with one patriotic line.
Horne even exhibits his subject’s lack of warmth when he matter-of-factly recounts Lawson’s childhood. His prose hardly evokes violins, or to be more appropriate, a Ehrich Von Korngold soundtrack. Like his subject, he has clear disdain for the Albert Maltz pre-recantation model. A motherless childhood and stern upbringing by a chilly father offers enormous potential for a writer in thrall to no one; in the hands of anyone else, such a childhood could lead logically and inexorably to the Party (i.e., a substitute mother is found in Mother Russian and a remote father continues in the form of Stalin). Horne refuses to follow the evidence, and the reader is left with the impression that ideological considerations won over literary ones; arguing that the Party attracted maladjusted individuals veers uncomfortably close to explanations for Communism’s appeal offered by red-baiters, and worse, Whittaker Chambers.
Even though Horne carefully avoids quoting from Lawson’s simplistic scripts, he has, by example, offered one of his own. Fearless New Dealers-in-a-hurry like Lawson are herded to the witness stand by evil red-baiters. And if Lewisburg Penitentiary isn’t qualifiable as the concentration camp Dalton Trumbo warned of in his HUAC testimony, then at least a symbolic “gassing” of Hollywood’s talent can be offered—provided readers forget their black market work.
But in one respect, Horne has not emulated his subject: Lawson’s chief literary effort throughout the pre- and post-blacklist eras was a history of America, which was revised several times to fit the changing direction from Moscow. No such hasty revisions are apparent in Horne’s work, and that is chiefly because the direction from Hollywood regarding the blacklist has never changed. Since the late 1960s, tinseltown has portrayed the blacklisted as innocent liberals, and in this matter there can be no revision.