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G-men lit crits

Over at the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet" blog, there have been several postings made by Mark Nowak about recent scholarship on Claudia Jones, a writer-activist who was hounded as a subversive by the FBI. To get a sense of these blog posts and of the many comments made about them, start here and look for links to the comments.

As I prepared to write a book on the anticommunist attack on modernism, I accumulated (slowly--very slowly--over time) FBI files on a number of writers, especially poets, and read others' that had already been released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I had already written about communists' interactions with modernists in the 1930s and was generally well versed in the impact of the CPUSA and most generally of communist culture (some would say "culture" in scare quotes) on American poetry and poetics. Perhaps foolishly (insofar as use of my time goes) I read thousands of pages of materials compiled during the Smith Act prosecutions of communist leaders (especially the so-called "Foley Square trials" that began in 1949.

I wrote a review-essay on a book about the Smith Act prosecutions and in the course of writing that review realized the crucial role that language and literary interpretation played in the strategy to which the Justice Department resorted in order to prove that communists "meant" something that was (under the Smith Act) illegal and thus could cause judge and/or jury to send these people to jail for acts they did not "yet" commit but which they "meant" when they wrote what they wrote.

Here is a portion of that essay:

...the distance between the subversive language of the depleted postwar [post-WWI] CPUSA and a future violent toppling of the American government was so great, the sign pointing so indirectly toward the signified, as to make the danger extremely unclear, indeed, largely absent. Lacking the external evidence that seemed required by the Schenck interpretation [a World War I-era radical speech case--the famous "fire in a theatre" case], the prosecutors, aides in the executive branch (guided by Truman and his attorney general), the FBI, the lower court, and eventually the high court succeeded in shifting the test from the relation between language and the world to the intention of the language itself--that is, from external evidence of a powerful state imminently endangered by subversive language to internal evidence offered in a text which "meant" future illegal action. The government was ready to devalue clear and present danger in order to place great emphasis on the most impressionistic aspect of Holmes's 1919 writing: the First Amendment, Holmes had written, "does not even protect a man from injunction against uttering words that may have all the effects of force." One easily perceives instability in the relation of utterances to effects of force, let alone the susceptibility of the idea of intentionality to abuse. When Harold Medina instructed the jury that "words may be the instruments by which crimes are committed" as Steinberg quotes him (Steinberg has performed the heroic task of reading the entire million-plus-word transcript of the trial), the judge was making sure the jury understood that it was their duty to interpret intention. He was "instructing" them to read the texts of subversion thus: punishable advocacy was that which would incite illegal action "by language reasonably and ordinarily calculated to do so."

Fun with Nazis


Before Hogan's Heroes started up its run of several years airing weekly on a TV network, a pre-debut radio ad for the show was heard widely - and quoted in Newsweek:

Question: "What are some of the amusing ingredients?" Answer: "German police dogs, machine guns, the Gestapo… shall we say, ‘If you liked World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes’"

The second voice was that of Bob Crane, the actor who played Hogan.

(The Newsweek piece was called "Fun with the Nazis." The show ran for 168 episodes from September 17, 1965, to March 28, 1971, on the CBS network)


carefully written legislation

Below is an excerpt from the texts of the Communist Control Act of 1954. Note that membership in the Communist party could be discerned from the accused person's having knowledge of the purpose of the evil organization. Juries were instructed by this act (it established guidelines as to what was criminal behavior) not to limit themselves to evidence such as a current membership card. Here we go:

"In determining membership or participation in the Communist party of in any other organization defined in this act, or knowledge of the purpose or objective of such party or organization, the jury, under instructions from the court, shall consider evidence, if presented, as to whether the accused person...

... 8. Has written, spoken, or in any other way communicated by signal, semaphore, sign, or in any other form of communication, orders, directives, or plans of the organization...

12. Has indicated by word, action, conduct, writing, or in any other way a willingness to carry out in any manner and to any degree the plans, designs, objectives, or purposes of the organization;

13. Has in any other way participated in the activities, planning, actions, objectives, or purposes of the organization."

no ideas but in bling

Nada Gordon joined a conversation some of us were having yesterday in New York about the spare late poem of Wallace Stevens, "Not Ideas about the Thing But the Thing Itself." Nada, a proud flarfist, feels that poetry should include (rather than exclude) and would seem to love the fecund, richly imaginative Stevens of poems like the florid, overwritten "Comedian as the Letter C." But "Not Ideas" is sparse, thin, scrawny, barely there. In it, nonetheless, Nada finds here a beckoning to the (faded, past, almost gone) richness of the imagination. The poem's call for thing-only objectivity is not (at it were) real. Nada has written about all this on her blog today. She has also rewritten the poem and that seems to express perfectly well her overall response to it:

Not Ideas About the Bling But the Bling Itself

At the earliest antinomian disaster,
On Mars, a prawn-y guy from outside
Seemed like he had blown his mind.

He knew that he blown it,
A dry curd, under a fluorescent light,
In the early harsh of mellow.

The sun wore purple underwear,
No longer a buttered ganache above dandruff...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast vacuum cleaner
Of creepy jaded poetics conferences...
The sun was wearing purple underwear inside out.

That brawny gay--It was
A chorine whose c preceded the bleach.
It was part of the giant lox,

Surrounded by its collar rings,
Still barbarous. It was like
A new knowledge of reality shows.