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8. The Revolutionary Meets the Capitalist: Robert Cantwell's Nonfiction Novel about Boston Magnate E. A. Filene
Writer Robert Cantwell is widely regarded as one of the two or three best novelists to emerge from the proletarian literary movement in the 1930s. He published one fine novel, Laugh and Lie Down (1931), and a second brilliant one, The Land of Plenty (1934), but then disappeared from the literary scene. What happened to this extremely talented young writer? Why was his fiction career cut short? The answer to such questions is always complex and multifaceted, but one strange twist in his situation played a significant role in what became a spiral away from fiction writing for the young writer from the Northwest. In a 1950 letter to Ernest Hemingway, Cantwell wrote that he had finished The Land of Plenty at “forced draft” in order that he might begin work on a new, very different project: the biography of millionaire department store magnate Edward A. Filene. The proposed biography, commissioned by Filene himself and supervised by muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, occupied Cantwell from late 1933 until early 1935. The work was never published and is largely unknown even to those with an interest in Cantwell’s fiction. Extant fragments of his manuscript in his papers at the University of Oregon Knight Library describe a fascinating encounter between the aging progressive capitalist and his extremely hostile biographer, an encounter that the latter transformed into a symbolic struggle between reformism and revolution.
Late in 1933, Filene, who had made his fortune by expanding the idea of the “bargain basement” into a multimillion-dollar merchandising operation in the city of Boston, felt that it was time to have the story of his long career recorded for posterity. As the apostle of enlightened self-interest among American capitalists, he had championed a number of progressive causes unpopular with his robber baron peers but aimed at bettering the lot of the masses upon whose purchasing power he felt the continued success of capitalism depended. The story he putatively wanted to tell was one not only of success but also of the failure to create a more progressive form of capitalism. Claiming to detest the familiar testimonials of other millionaires, Filene hired an old friend but a stern critic, Lincoln Steffens, to oversee the writing of his biography.
Steffens, then in his late sixties and in poor health, set about in November 1933 to find a younger writer to bear the major burden of composing the projected work. He first sought the services of Whittaker Chambers, whose short stories in the New Masses he had admired for being both “proletarian and literary.” But Chambers declined his offer, and Steffens turned next to Cantwell, apparently on Chambers’s recommendation. Cantwell struggled with the decision. Some of his literary colleagues, including John Dos Passos and Meyer Schapiro, advised him to do it. Others, especially his then boss Malcolm Cowley, were set against it (in fact, Cowley later came to believe that it ruined Cantwell as a writer by distracting him from fiction in his prime). Pressed by his ever practical wife Betsy, lured by the offer of a substantially higher salary, and with the assurance that Filene would not interfere in the writing of his biography, Cantwell accepted, quit his job at the New Republic, and made plans to move his family into an apartment next door to Filene’s Boston mansion.
Steffens’s reasons for selecting Cantwell are not clear, but given that Chambers had been his first choice, it is clear that the old muckraker’s choice of a radical to write the millionaire’s life story was an intentionally provocative one likely to lead to something less than harmonious cooperation. In their initial discussion, Steffens had told Cantwell that Filene’s career could illustrate an important point: “in itself [it] proved that American business, that capitalism, could not be reformed or reform itself.” Such was surely not the lesson intended by Filene, who remained a dedicated progressive, and thus from its inception the proposed biography was a battleground of conflicting interests and conceptions.
When Cantwell was offered the role of biographer, his only knowledge of Filene was an exclamation by Vladimir Lenin he remembered from a biography of the Bolshevik revolutionary: “So, Mr. Filene! You believe that all the workers of all the world are fools!” Why should a man who could elicit such an outburst from Lenin, Cantwell mused, wish to hire Steffens and himself, neither of whom, the latter noted with understatement, were “known for a particularly uncritical attitude towards the methods and practices of capitalists,” to write the story of his life? Cantwell made discreet inquiries among friends and acquaintances of the elderly merchant and could elicit little but negative responses to questions about Filene’s character—“pretentious bore,” “self-centered,” and “untrustworthy” being typical. But each description seemed to add complexity and contradiction and the “more Balzacian and cryptic Filene seemed,” the more intrigued the novelist in Cantwell became.
The manuscript of Cantwell’s projected Filene biography actually consists of two separate and quite different works. One is a rather straightforward work originally cast as a biography but later transformed into a ghostwritten autobiography through the substitution of “I” for “he” at appropriate points throughout. But by far the more interesting work is a 250-page manuscript in which Cantwell interweaves the details of Filene’s life with a description of the initial encounters between the capitalist and his “very Desperate Ambrose of a biographer.” (Cantwell refers to himself throughout in the third person as “the biographer” or “the author.”) Over time, both Steffens and Cantwell came to see this second text as an extension of the latter’s literary work, a text in essence anticipating what would later come to be known as the nonfiction novel. Early in the manuscript, “the biographer” notes that his aim, like that of Steffens, is to use Filene’s life to reveal the impossibility of reforming capitalism. But to this he adds a second reason more suited to his skills as a political novelist: to discover how a millionaire’s mind worked and particularly “how [capitalists] justified to themselves the exploitation on which their wealth was based.”
Like James Agee with whom he later worked, Cantwell detested patronizing studies of the poor and dispossessed, “those smug and dehumanized inquiries into the social customs of delinquent women, or slum dwellers, or foreign language groups, or Kentucky miners.” Noting that at the time of “this writing” a monthly magazine was publishing a series of articles by a Smith College graduate who had gone to live among the miners of Pennsylvania, Cantwell suggested that he would prefer that “a striking miner . . . go to live among the girls of Smith College, and report on their practices and beliefs.” In lieu of that study, he hoped that his report on the practices of a millionaire might offer a similar antidote to such “presumptuous social studies.”
But Cantwell’s study of the habits and beliefs of a capitalist almost ended before it had begun. In December 1933, he met Filene for the first time (at the latter’s home on Otis Place, a mansion formerly owned by Filene’s lawyer and friend Louis Brandeis). The first words the millionaire spoke to his would-be biographer informed him that Lincoln Steffens had recently suffered a stroke and that the project would probably be canceled (without Steffens’s oversight, Filene would not approve the book). Upon hearing this, Cantwell grew secretly enraged that no one had bothered to inform him of this turn of events sooner. Had he been notified promptly he would “not have quit his job, or gone into debt, or moved his family to Boston.”
When Filene began asking a series of naive and seemingly unrelated questions, Cantwell’s outrage turned to suspicion and defensiveness. “His [the author’s] distrust of capitalists in general, and of Filene in particular, was so great that he was convinced” that the millionaire’s inquiries were some kind of “test.” As the conversation progressed, Cantwell came to view it as a subtle game, a kind of chess match in which the future of American capitalism seemed somehow at stake: “Again and again the author thought he saw Filene drift into a line of thought, a logical associative sequence of ideas, which if steadily followed would have led to the approach of some invisible contradiction, draw back, or change the subject.”
Cantwell felt as though he had descended into Wonderland as he listened to Filene ramble on almost incoherently “like a Joycean interior monologue,” “his sentences such a jumble of short-hand rhetoric, so full of non-sequiturs,” that at times “his biographer thought him mad.” Filene’s first “false move” was to confirm, amid one of these rambling discourses, Cantwell’s suspicion that the National Recovery Administration, the Massachusetts branch of which Filene headed, had been established “in part to head off and dissipate a nationwide wave of strikes and in order to make possible suspension of anti-trust laws without provoking labor and farmer and progressive hostility.”
Cantwell noticed almost immediately that the old merchant seemed to be at pains to create an air of “busy-ness” about himself, and it soon dawned on the biographer that “the myth of the American business man, the great executive and hard practical organizer . . . had so burrowed into [Filene’s] consciousness” that he felt a need to prove his own worth through manic activity. He wore the businessman’s image, Cantwell writes, “in much the same spirit that some minor poet might wear a black cloak or a Byronic melancholy.” Cantwell thus concluded that “the proper training for success in business is not economics or accounting, but a course in dramatic arts; and the successful executive puts on the appearance of doing something in a haggard endeavor to conceal from himself as well as from others the social uselessness of his life.”
Cantwell appreciated the “acting” of the millionaire because he had already come to view Filene less as a living human being than as a character in a novel, Cantwell’s novel. After a second day with the old merchant, Cantwell was in a state of “imaginative excitement”: “The author kept repeating to himself, with a kind of secret enthusiasm and delight, ‘What a character!,’ conscious of the fact that he had tried to imagine, for a work of fiction, a progressive capitalist and enlightened employer, [but] could not, could never, have thought of anyone who so completely fitted the part.” Cantwell adds that “he would have preferred to study a bigger and more important millionaire than Filene; ideally he would have chosen Dupont or Mellon or Rockefeller, for their conspiracies would have thrown more light on the system as a whole. But with Filene he felt he could clearly detect other significant values—particularly the psychological punishment suffered by a millionaire who permitted himself to remain conscious—from the point of view of human welfare—of the weaknesses of the capitalist system.”
During his third visit to the millionaire’s mansion, on New Year’s Day 1934, Cantwell plunged into the thirty bound volumes of Filene’s public speeches that occupied a prominent place on the bookshelves in the study. Most of the speeches, Cantwell quickly discovered, “were dull, and all of them were familiar; and many were hollow and hypocritical with that strained baccalaureate optimism that can only be attained, in times of crisis, by the amputation of great areas of experience.” But as Steffens had remarked, “the man is a bore, but not his life.” Cantwell found in Filene’s speeches a “startling” picture of counterrevolutionary activity on the part of Progressive-era capitalists. Cantwell was surprised and delighted “to find a capitalist theoretician in Boston in 1904 urging two young capitalists to inaugurate reforms for the purpose of aiding socialists ‘and the masses they influence’ to see the folly of their ways; and it was startling to find two budding millionaires [Filene and his brother] so conscious of their counter-revolutionary aims.” “No revolutionist,” Cantwell remarks, “could have asked for a clearer statement of capitalist principle.”
After reading one volume of Filene’s speeches, Cantwell concluded that his “character’s” thought was “hopelessly involved in that social democratic dilemma . . . that inevitable perplexity of all reform. . . . How to discuss profit sharing with workers without ‘leading to the idea’ that all profits belong to the workers? How to strengthen the labor unions and yet be confident in maintaining control?” Cantwell discovered a “vast uneasiness, a sleepless preoccupation, a deep sense of the power of the masses” apparent, “however dimly,” in Filene’s speeches.
On his fourth day in Boston, Cantwell paid a visit to Filene’s store, with its vast company archive, to delve more deeply into his character’s milieu. But upon returning to Filene’s home that evening Cantwell’s plans were quickly and totally demolished:
[H]is character fired him, quietly, mysteriously, politely and finally and without explanation; and the writer, whose characters had never acted this way before, felt himself grow pale. Some of his characters had, in the past, acted queerly—in one novel . . . a leading character had a way of dropping out of the story entirely—but never before had one attempted to dispense with his service as an author.
At first Cantwell was dazed and disbelieving. He had just read a speech in which Filene had spoken of the painful and difficult process of firing employees and he thought the ease with which the old merchant had revoked his commission must indicate that it was all a dream.
But when Filene’s secretary confirmed that Cantwell had indeed been given three weeks’ notice, his astonishment turned to rage and defiance:
Slowly at first, but with gathering momentum and intensity, he began to develop a rich and luxurious hatred of this character whose moods were so unstable. . . . He began to tramp the streets of Boston, going mad . . . ; as he had no money, he did not have anything to eat for three days. . . . At this point all desire to write anything about capitalists left him. . . . He merely wanted—was determined to have—his revenge.
When Filene returned from a business trip, on the fourth day of Cantwell’s “going hungry,” he invited his former biographer to a sumptuous venison dinner. As the old millionaire talked on glibly about his conversation with President Franklin Roosevelt, Cantwell’s desire for vengeance peaked and he became determined to write the biography whether he was to be paid for it or not.
During the remaining three weeks of his contract, Cantwell labored “madly” and intently, managing to complete drafts of three chapters covering the first twenty-six years of Filene’s life. Throughout he must have harbored the hope that the chapters presented as a fait accompli would convince Filene to change his mind. And in his “madness,” he never lost sight of the larger goal that lay behind his vengeance, for during this period, he wrote to friend Newton Arvin that
I’m ghost-writing a biography of Filene for Steffens, who hasn’t enough energy left to do the book himself. It’s . . . a biography of a failure, of a progressive capitalist who tried to reform business practices, tried to turn his store over to his employees, and an analysis, a social analysis, of the reasons for his failure. It is fascinating material, no less, and after my first week of examining the documents I feel that I’ve learned more about the way our society is controlled than I could have learned in any other way.
The first chapters were good enough to convince Filene to retain Cantwell, but relations between the two were far from cordial. In the meantime Steffens, who had hoped to use the Filene project to recoup some recent financial losses, was gradually but shakily recovering from his stroke. When more or less recovered, he proved to be a master diplomat, somehow succeeding in keeping both Cantwell and his old friend Filene happy. As Justin Kaplan expressed it in his biography of Steffens, “Caught between Cantwell’s savagery and Filene’s mercurial interventions, Steffens derived what humor he could from the situation.” “The situation,” after all, was partly his fault for bringing the two unlikely individuals together and he understood Cantwell’s financial plight even if Filene could not. Moreover, Steffens believed in Cantwell as a writer, particularly after The Land of Plenty was published, and he believed in the novel biography. When the young radical biographer wrote complaining that the Filene life was keeping him from his fiction, Steffens replied,
Terrible! What do you think you are doing now? I think you are writing a novel now. You ought to think not only the same but that you are engaged upon the only work you ever have or ever are going to do.
By offering similar reassurance to Filene, Steffens kept the rather dubious project alive.
As Cantwell probed into Filene’s life, he discovered that “all through the [childhood] years that Filene described as poverty-stricken and miserable, the Filenes lived and traveled in a manner that seemed luxurious to a single son of the proletariat.” And as the months of research wore on, Cantwell met a good many more capitalists possessed of a similar need to mythicize their pasts. He also found that like Filene, these wealthy men all strained to create an air of busyness to camouflage “the social uselessness of their lives.”
Alerted by Filene’s distortions, Cantwell began to scrutinize every word and deed of the capitalists he met or read about. Again as a lover of words, he was startled to find himself in a “world dominated by a fearful abuse of words, by a criminal debauchery of their significance; and for the first time he felt that he understood what Lenin meant when he wrote of the ‘shameful gap between bourgeois words and deeds.'” In this, Cantwell himself may have exaggerated in the extent of the naïveté with which he had approached his subject. But he seems to have sincerely found his study of capitalists even more appalling than he had anticipated.
As he examined each of Filene’s many schemes for humanizing the labor system, Cantwell also confirmed his belief that reform of capitalism was impossible. He was especially intrigued by Filene’s advocacy of workers’ credit unions that “the biographer” viewed as an even more insidious scheme for co-opting workers than profit sharing because it condescendingly kept workers from involvement in the unstable but often highly profitable stock market. But Filene’s version of a credit union too proved a failure, and in the history of its failure, Cantwell discovered one of his favorite themes: “The record of credit unions effectively dramatized the differences between the workers’ ability to manage and the hopeless incompetence and vicious deceptions of their employers.”
The single common thread that Cantwell discovered running through Filene’s life was failure, and as Cantwell became more and more aware of this, his hatred turned toward (a highly qualified) pity. For Cantwell, a certain pathos emerged from the quixotic nature of Filene’s efforts. He had tried to give his store to his workers, only to have it stolen from him by his own brother; he had helped to found the national and international Chambers of Commerce as citadels of enlightened capitalism, only to watch them turn thoroughly reactionary; he had even lost control of his own philanthropic endowment fund. And now Filene had lost control of his biography and just before his manuscript breaks off, Cantwell completed, or at least made explicit, the transformation of his “character’s” life into a revolutionist’s symbol:
The biographer began to see [Filene], after a time, not merely as a capitalist, a millionaire, but as a kind of personification of American capitalism, not merely as a representative of his class, but an embodiment of it. Well-meaning, tasteless, awkward, shrewd, limited—he seemed to sum up a thousand capitalists whose personalities emerged dimly from behind the concealments of popular journalism. But most of all, he was old, and he concealed his age; he was weak and like capitalism itself he denied and concealed his weakness. The heart had gone out of him; and there was nothing left but the front.
While fueling Cantwell’s radicalism, his association with Filene also made it more difficult for him to function openly as a literary radical. Soon after Steffens hired him, Cantwell wrote to Newton Arvin about the problems that being in the employ of E. A. Filene were already causing him:
I cannot work on the N[ew] M[asses] as a regular contributor without imperiling most of my income, the public announcement of my purpose would only make it more difficult for me to make a living. Yet I can contribute from time to time under my own name, and am submitting a short story under my own name for one of the first issues if the editors want it. I can do this under the limitations imposed on me by the people for whom I work. At the same time I am actively cooperating as a staff member under another name [Robert Simmons].
In this letter, Cantwell seemed to have absorbed some of the passion for “secret” maneuvers he often attributed to his friend Whittaker Chambers, the rather paranoid, sometime member of the Communist underground who later became the most famous anticommunist of the 1950s. And Cantwell’s duplicitous dealings with Filene encourage the speculation that Cantwell may have restrained public profession of the extent of his radicalism on other occasions for the same reason—to protect his job security.
Cantwell’s work with Steffens on the Filene project was soon swept up into a series of larger political events that also came to play a role in his abandonment of fiction. There was a new urgency and stridency in Cantwell’s public and private writings throughout 1934. In part this may have resulted from his intimate glimpse into the world of capitalist machinations, but the larger reason undoubtedly had to do with the course of political events during this year. Violent strikes led by radicals rocked New York City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities and, coupled with the popularity of economic panaceas championed by such figures as Father Coughlin, Dr. Townsend, Huey Long, and Upton Sinclair, seemed to place Roosevelt’s piecemeal reformism in jeopardy. At the same time, the reorganization of the New Masses in January 1934 and then two months later the first appearance of Partisan Review suggested that a more subtle, sophisticated approach to Marxian aesthetics, one more closely matching Cantwell’s position, was emerging. Cantwell had long argued that there was no conflict between literary quality and “propaganda” (as he increasingly called his fiction efforts), that the best radical fiction would use all the tools of “bourgeois” aesthetics to get at the complexities of social life and class struggle. He was therefore encouraged to sense more flexible critical standards and richer literary work developing in critiques of certain reductive approaches found among some leftist critics and writers in the early 1930s.
Amid these conditions Cantwell expressed understandable regret at being marooned in Boston, away from the action. But he remained active despite his distance from New York and despite whatever “limitations” were “imposed” upon him by Filene and Steffens. In a letter to Newton Arvin, Cantwell made clear that he felt an urgent need to bring unity to the Literary Left and initiated an effort to do so:
I have been corresponding with [Granville] Hicks, and the thought has kept coming up that a chance to discuss things might clarify critical and other problems a lot. Would you be interested in a quiet little conference sometime in the spring? We might be able to get [Malcolm] Cowley, [John] Chamberlain, perhaps [Edmund] Wilson, if it seemed advisable—or others who are thinking along common lines? I am thinking of a day or so of discussion of the actual cultural scene, of the people whose work is or promises to be important, of potential allies and how they can be won, of present and future enemies and how they can be disarmed. [N]o one of us can doubt that the next few years are going to bring terrible and violent changes, that the threats to everything we live for have never been so fearful. How are we going to act?
The “threat” perceived here is incipient American fascism, and Cantwell’s desire to unite these major figures of the Literary Left is clearly a deadly earnest response to a sense of deepening national crisis.
When the biographer’s doubts grew severe amid the seemingly more important events unfolding all around the country, Steffens wrote to remind his young colleague that “the Thing you are writing is the great, modern American novel.” And when he had read the publisher’s proofs of The Land of Plenty in late April, Steffens sent similar word to Filene, calling Cantwell’s novel “an event in literature” and assuring his old friend that his biographer “is, in his line, what you are in yours: a leader.” Thus the project staggered on.
Throughout the spring, Steffens urged Cantwell to join him at his home in Carmel, California, and in the summer Cantwell accepted the invitation. The trip might in another time have been a vacation, for Steffens’s home was situated in a lovely seaside resort setting, but both the difficult biography and turbulent events in nearby San Francisco and in Carmel itself made the visit far from a respite from the politics of the East Coast. In July, Cantwell was unexpectedly granted the opportunity to broaden the canvas of his counterpropaganda work when violence erupted in San Francisco and he was given the assignment of covering the events for the New Republic. A strike among Pacific coast stevedores led to a bloody clash on July 5, 1934, that quickly escalated into one of the great labor battles of the era, the San Francisco General Strike.
The New Republic articles that Cantwell wrote about the strike stem from his deepest, most complex encounters with labor struggles in the age of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Aptly, his reading matter while there included The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of Marx’s most novelistic writings and a subtle analysis of the complex interactions of classes and class fractions during a political crisis. Cantwell met with all the major figures in the strike, including Harry Bridges, head of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and Sam Darcy, head of the Communist-led Marine Workers’ Union. Some of the important information that Cantwell drew upon for his New Republic articles had come from a clandestine meeting with Darcy arranged by Steffens’s Communist Party-activist wife, Ella Winter. The meeting was held in secret because Darcy was in hiding after Communist Party and union offices in the city had been hit by a series of vicious raids by vigilantes (paid by the Shipowners’ Association) and the San Francisco police.
Meanwhile in peaceful Carmel, a meeting of the local John Reed Club featuring Langston Hughes was attacked by the American Legion. The legion’s attack must have brought up terrifying memories for Cantwell of the Wobblies beaten, castrated, and hanged by American Legion members in his home state of Washington during his youth. The events in San Francisco and Carmel deeply stirred Cantwell’s literary imagination, and before the year was out he had begun to plan a new novel based on the general strike. In a letter written to friend T. S. Mathews, Cantwell hinted at some themes that his new novel would assay:
The general strike in San Francisco was great and heartbreaking. They came so close to winning and were betrayed so shamelessly. The longshoremen and seamen could defeat the efforts of the employers to break the strike, the efforts of the government arbitrators, the city officials and police; they could, counting on help from other unions, have beaten the National Guard. But they hadn’t clearly realized that they have got to beat the A.F. of L. officials just as much as the employers; there isn’t any real distinction between them, but it wasn’t so clear before. Meanwhile the patriots are busy driving the god damned reds into their holes….[But the radicals] have built up an organization that will be ready next time.
In a letter to Dos Passos about that summer, Cantwell wrote that the planned new novel would imagine future struggles and help the masses see a clear path to change. Armed with his now intimate knowledge of the capitalist mind, he imagined a panoramic work that would be a microcosm of America in class struggle. But events were moving faster than any young novelist could hope to absorb, and both his new strike novel and the biography of Filene were soon jeopardized by changing conditions in this country and abroad. The rise of Popular Front–era policies presented Cantwell with numerous difficulties, the first major one being doubts they cast on the fate of the Filene biography. The attack on Filene that Cantwell had begun at the height of his revolutionary enthusiasm was precisely the kind of effort being discouraged under the new Communist strategy of alliance with liberals. To assault verbally a leading progressive capitalist, one of the few prominent businesspersons to support Roosevelt’s New Deal, was to run directly against the new spirit on the Left and might weaken the type of fragile coalition that Cantwell saw growing in California. It is therefore small wonder that the nonfiction novel was abandoned before reaching completion.
As for the ghostwritten “autobiography” version, Cantwell rushed to finish that manuscript in March 1935 so that he might begin a new, more lucrative job with Time magazine, but the results apparently did not meet with Filene’s approval, for it too was never published. Despite periodic attempts over the next several years to write his novel about the San Francisco general strike, Cantwell was never able to complete it (or any other work of fiction). He was pulled into the Henry Luce empire, and his fiction-writing career dissolved. As the decade ended, Cantwell was to find himself politically at sea, and 1942 found him in the midst of a severe psychological breakdown requiring months of hospitalization. His sojourn with the capitalist had proven in almost all ways a disaster for him and it not only provides insight into Cantwell’s ideological whirlwinds but also reminds us of the quickly shifting winds that shaped and reshaped much of radical culture of the 1930s Left.
Cantwell has sometimes been portrayed as a writer of great potential destroyed by his association with the 1930s Left. Yet he produced one good novel, Laugh and Lie Down (1931), before his involvement with the Left and one great novel, Land of Plenty (1934), after his immersion in the Literary Left. The forces that undid him as a fiction writer were many, and not least of these was poverty. Many of his better-off colleagues sought to dissuade him from taking on the Filene project and later many more warned him against entering the Henry Luce publishing empire. But virtually all those urging him away from these more lucrative pursuits were far better off financially. Cantwell teetered on the edge of poverty throughout most of the 1930s, with not only a growing family of his own to provide for (including three children) but also a dependent set of relatives out West who often needed his financial assistance. Carving a space to write fiction under those circumstances proved immensely difficult. His heroic effort to turn the Filene project into what we would now call a nonfiction novel was an admirable effort to shape the documentary impulse that so fascinated the decade’s cultural workers into something fitting his literary skills.
For Cantwell as for so many other leftists, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact proved to be something like the last straw of disillusionment with the Communist Party USA, especially given that he had already come to share Luce’s prointerventionist views (a decidedly minority view at Time). Cantwell began a slow drift to the right, reinforced by a deepening Anglican religiosity and association with an anticommunist clique at Time led by his longtime friend Whittaker Chamber. An inherently oversensitive nature, overwork, ideological stresses, and marital troubles all contributed to Cantwell’s breakdown in 1942, an event from which he never fully recovered. After a harrowing time of insulin and electroshock, he never again succeeded in writing fiction or in engaging any direct form of political action. Instead, he contented himself with a safer route as a journalist writing about natural history and sports (he was an editor at Sports Illustrated for the last years of his career). But at the time of his death in 1978, Cantwell had again turned his mind to a nonfiction novel. This time it would be the story, informed in part by the thousands of pages of his Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) file obtained through the then new Freedom of Information Act, of the crazy arc of his 1930s career. That culminated, as Cantwell saw it, with the treachery of being dragged by implication into the Red witch-hunting whirlwind in the 1950s courtesy of his former friend turned anticommunist-in-chief, Whittaker Chambers. Whether or not Cantwell “named names” is unclear, but his closeness to Chambers meant that it was assumed by Cantwell’s comrades that he had. He came to feel isolated from both his friends who remained on the Left and those who became anticommunist zealots.
The first version, given the working title Privacy, was imagined, à la the Filene manuscript, as a kind of nonfiction novel. As Cantwell outlined it, it would begin in the reading room of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., where he had in fact gone to look at those putative twenty thousand pages of files devoted to him. He apparently never got beyond this opening scene, but he intended it to be at once factually based in the documentary evidence and complex enough to show the inadequacy of such evidence and the treachery of memory.
The second version that Cantwell outlined was to be narrated in the voice of his first wife, Betsy Cantwell, noting that to do so would put the book in the voice of a “woman not interested in politics,” one “who’d offer a clear-eyed view of highly literate people sometimes deluded by self-importance.” Writing in his wife’s voice, he speculated, bolstered by documentary footnotes, would perhaps allow a perspective different from the overly knowing, often treacherously self-justifying views he found in memoirs filled with what he called the “genuine peril involved in retractions” of writers’ former leftist views (he mentioned the autobiographical writings of Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, Erskine Caldwell, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and Alger Hiss). “The book,” he noted, “is not long. It is condensed and intense, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence, quiet in tone, deceptively cool and unemotional, evolving slowly into melodrama before one is aware of the violence latent from the beginning.” The story would start amid the narrator’s southern girlhood, then introduce her cousin, Lyle Saxon, a homosexual bohemian writer whose New York literary connections eventually led her to her future husband, Robert Cantwell. By chapter 3, the narrator and her husband would be thrown into the whirlwind of literary politics, with Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, Matthew Josephson, Lincoln Steffens, and E. A. Filene making their appearances. But soon it becomes clear that “the center of the book is [the] recollection of Whittaker Chambers.” That portrait would show Chambers as a character “whose need for being exceptional in a curious and self-impressed way leads to persistence and ruin,” a man whose “conviction of his own rightness leaves wreckage all around him.” Among that wreckage, apparently, was to be the sanity of the narrator’s husband, Robert Cantwell, and the “conclusion would necessarily it seems to me [be] in the [mental] hospital.” A mental hospital is a sad place indeed to leave one of the most talented fiction writers of the proletarian literary movement, but from the moment of the revolutionist’s encounter with the merchant capitalist, that was the telos of Cantwell’s career in the 1930s. In circling back to the 1930s at the end of his life and in imagining a new nonfiction novel, Robert Cantwell seemed to at least tacitly realize that the encounter between his young revolutionary self and the self-important “merchant of Boston” had begun a profound transformation of trajectory that led him away from a potentially far richer literary legacy.
1. Cantwell to Ernest Hemingway, October 21, 1950, Robert Cantwell Papers, Coll 020, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon (hereafter Robert Cantwell Papers). This essay is excerpted in part from T. V. Reed, Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left: A Northwest Writer Reworks American Fiction (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014). My book is a biocritical study focusing primarily on Cantwell's time as a literary leftist. For a more traditional biography of Cantwell, see Per Seyersted, Robert Cantwell: An American Thirties Radical Writer and His Apostasy (Oslo: Novus, 2004), an exhaustively researched and richly detailed book from which I have occasionally drawn (though most of my book was written before the publication of Seyersted's). While the detailed coverage is admirable, the book is theoretically and interpretively thin, neither sympathetic to nor comprehending of Cantwell's complicated aesthetic and political positions in the 1930s.
3. Filene's role in the history of retailing and worker management is a significant one, as brilliantly contextualized in Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).
4. Steffens met Filene in 1908 when the latter hired the journalist to rake the muck of Boston on behalf of the city's Good Government Association. As the two reformers summered together at Marblehead and floated about on Filene's yacht, they formed a lifelong friendship that even weathered Steffens's move to the Far Left in the 1930s. See Justin Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 166–67, 171, 174–75, 314, 316.
10. All previous and subsequent citations refer to the second of the named versions of the manuscript. I have corrected obvious typographical errors in his manuscript. In drawing from Cantwell's unpublished archive, I share the attitude and goals expressed by Wald in these terms: "To reintroduce the individualized [context] of the writer's singular being and consciousness is not to become a biographer but to restore the self-activity of Left cultural workers as well as supply some neglected mediations in the creative act—especially the mentality of the artist and the force field of the institutions within which he or she worked." Alan Wald, Exiles from a Future Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), xvi.
36. Cantwell to Newton Arvin, November 15, 1933, Robert Cantwell Papers. Evidence from other letters makes it clear that "N.M." refers to the New Masses. The short story he alludes to was probably "Hills around Centralia," his story about the Centralia "massacre" of Industrial Workers of the World members, later published in Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935), edited by Hicks, Joseph Freeman, and other members of the New Masses staff.
42. See Irving Bernstein's classic account, The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), and Charles P. Larrowe, Harry Bridges (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1977).