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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

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American Writers on the Left  
 
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Rollins began as a pulp detective writer for Black Mask, and his early books include two mystery novels, Midnight Treasure (1929) and Murder at Cyprus Hall (1933), the latter published under the pseudonym O'Connor Stacy. In 1930, he published The Obelisk, a novel of adolescence somewhat influenced by Joyce. In 1938, he sought to blend his politics and talent for producing popular fiction in a novel of the Spanish Civil War, The Wall of Men, issued in paperback by the new Modern Age publishing house.

In a March 8, 1938, review in the New Masses, the African-American Marxist novelist Richard Wright observed that "The Wall of Men may be the beginning of a popular mass pulp fiction in America, a brand which can be read with pleasure by workers, without the danger of their becoming duped or misled." Before his death at age fifty-two, Rollins returned to mystery fiction with The Ring and the Lamp (1947).

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It is likely that many other writers were like bisexual novelist John Cheever (1912-1982). According to the 1988 biography by Scott Donaldson, Cheever sympathized with the Communist-led Left in the 1930s, but, in order to protect his career, refused to sign any manifestos or join organizations.

Several major literary critics were homosexuals and closely associated with the Left. F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950) was an eminent Harvard professor and author of Sarah Orne Jewett (1929), The Achievement of T.S. Eliot (1935), American Renaissance (1941), Henry James: The Major Phase (1944), The James Family (1947), From the Heart of Europe (1948), and Theodore Dreiser (1951).

Although a Christian, Matthiessen frequently supported causes championed by the Communist party and was chosen to second the nomination of Henry Wallace for president on the Progressive party ticket in 1946. Matthiessen's suicide, by jumping off the twelfth-floor ledge of Boston's Hotel Manger, is generally attributed to a combination of despair over the Cold War and the death in 1945 of his long-time lover, the painter Russell Cheney.

Another important scholar of U.S. literature, Newton Arvin (1900-1963), was strongly pro-Communist in the 1930s although he never joined the party. He wrote major books on Hawthorne (1929), Whitman (1938), Herman Melville (1950), and Longfellow (1963). Although Arvin tried to conceal his homosexuality, it was well known to his friends. Arvin was eased out of his job at Smith College in 1960 after the police raided his home and discovered photographs.

In addition to Lorde, Cullen, and Hansberry, many African-American leftists had same-sex relationships. The poet and novelist Claude McKay (1890-1948) was on the editorial board of the revolutionary magazine Liberator, and close to the Communist movement throughout the 1920s. Alain Locke (1886-1954), the first black Rhodes Scholar and a professor of philosophy at Howard University who published The New Negro (1925) heralding the Harlem Renaissance, was a fellow traveler at times.

The poet Robert Hayden (1913-1981), who seemed tormented by his homosexual urges, was a member of the Communist-led John Reed Club of Detroit. The novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a devoted fellow traveler of the Communist party in his high school years. The poet and dramatist Owen Dodson (1914-1983) appeared frequently in left-wing magazines. Novelist Dorothy West (b. 1909) and short story writer Marion Minus (1913-1973) also had left-wing associations in the mid-1930s.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967), a major black poet, playwright, novelist, and autobiographer, collaborated closely with the Communist party throughout the 1930s. He published in the New Masses, wrote a pamphlet praising the Soviet Union's treatment of its darker nationalities, produced a poem to honor the 1934 convention of the Communist party, and was elected president of the Communist-led League of Struggle for Negro Rights.

Hughes served as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and his 1938 collection of poems, A New Song, was published with an introduction by the famous Communist novelist Mike Gold, known for his gay-baiting attack on the closeted gay writer Thornton Wilder in the October 22, 1930, issue of The New Republic.

Although Hughes drifted away from the Communist party in the 1940s, he supported the Progressive party presidential campaign in 1948 and condemned the prosecution of Communist leaders under the Smith Act in 1949. Following a 1953 subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hughes distanced himself from the Left until the 1960s. Although dozens of poems attest to his revolutionary convictions, only a few, such as the enigmatic "Impasse" (in The Panther and the Lash, 1967), seem to reflect on his sexual orientation.

Among the most misunderstood African-American writers is Willard Motley (1912-1965), author of the best-selling Knock on Any Door (1947) and three other novels. According to research I personally conducted among his friends and relatives, Motley studied Marxism and politically collaborated during the 1940s with both Communists and Trotskyists. However, references to his homosexuality and radical associations are absent from extant scholarship, which is also inaccurate about the identities of his parents and other relatives.

In Knock on Any Door, the young, tough-guy Italian-American protagonist Nick Romano is depicted as having sexual relations with men, ostensibly for money. However, one of these men, Owen, falls in love with Romano and, although he is depicted as weak and dependent, Owen turns out to be a loyal friend to the doomed hero.

Another left-wing writer of color was Lynn Riggs (1899-1954), a poet and dramatist who was part Cherokee from Oklahoma. According to the memoir, A Very Good Land to Fall With (1987) by his friend John Sanford, who was a novelist and Communist, Riggs sought admission to the Communist party during World War II but was discouraged by party leaders in Los Angeles because of his homosexuality. Riggs was most famous for Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), but his play about Native-American identity, Cherokee Night (1936), may also indirectly express frustrations he felt in the face of homophobia.

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