The Comedy of American Communism

‘What use is ruin?’ asks Emily Wilkes, protagonist of I’m Dying Laughing, the posthumous novel by the Australian Marxist author Christina Stead. ‘Communists should not be ruined: they should stay on top.’ Unfortunately for Emily, ruin is the abiding theme of Stead’s impressive and neglected oeuvre. Her last novel, left unfinished and assembled from drafts by her literary trustee after her death in 1983, occupied her for at least the final thirty years of her life. Its incompleteness is a testament to the difficulty of capturing the full ruinous extent of the lives of its characters: mid-century members of the American Communist Party.

Born in 1902, Stead was an Antipodean émigré whose best-known novel, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), thinly fictionalised her own Sydney childhood by transplanting it to Washington DC. In later years she moved between France, Spain, Belgium, England and America, supporting herself as a writer through an equally various list of occupations: banker, Hollywood screenwriter, journalist, tutor in the art of the novel at NYU. Despite the recent resurgence of interest in modernist women writers of the American left – Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser – Stead still lingers in relative obscurity. Her decades-long neglect can be partially explained by the fact that no one has ever quite known where to place her. Though she insisted on her native national identity throughout her life, in 1967 she was given the Britannica Australia Award for literature and then subsequently denied it due to her long absence from the country. Her work is just as resistant to categorisation. Unlike Rukeyser, a totemic figure of lyric communism, Paley, whose work pointed to the potential for a coalition between writers and activists, or Rich, who reflected on the conditions of literary production under patriarchy, Stead’s dozen novels and numerous short stories stubbornly refuse to coalesce into a single political message. This, of course, is one of many reasons to read them.

Prima facie, I’m Dying Laughing is the story of Emily, a young, naïve journalist from rural Pennsylvania, fresh off the bus in Manhattan, who finds fame and unhappy fortune as a comic writer specialising in homespun tales of the ‘Mrs Blueberry Pie’, ‘Arkansas peasant’ and ‘Freckles’ variety. Unlike Letty Fox and Her Luck (1946), another of the quintet of Stead’s American works, the political mêlée of the Lower East Side in the 1930s and 40s is but one location among many in the book. Emily and her disinherited millionaire husband Stephen Howard ricochet first across the continent, then over the Atlantic to exile in post-war Paris. In each new domicile, they stage a carnival of ever-more-conspicuous consumption, funded by cheques from Emily’s writing career, first for the workers’ dailies, then Broadway, then Hollywood, then magazine syndication and the bids of the highest paying publisher.

Between fixtures, fittings, curtains, cocktails, lobsters (thermidored and souffléd), bread rolls, gateaux and expanding garters, the Howards discuss politics, the plight of the worker, the disappointment of the New Deal, the parasitism of the intellectual, the laziness of their servants, the fortunes of their children and their own mounting debts. When will Stephen gain the respect of his peers as a Marxist historian and theoretician, or Emily acquire the focus needed to become the next Theodore Dreiser? After the next bestseller, the next soirée, the next relocation, they declare. On and on they chatter and fret until they are consumed by madness, ultimately reneging and naming Party names. The final act of their bourgeois marriage is the pathetic renunciation of their friends to the CIA in the service of renewing Emily’s American passport.

Emily suffers from acute logorrhoea: in Stephen’s words, ‘this chronic verbal excitement which arises apropos almost of the feeblest immediate cause.’ Her loquaciousness is characteristic of Stead’s approach to dialogue, a tool which replaces plot as much as driving it forward in many of her later books. As the novel progresses, Emily’s reliance on luxury increases in proportion to her inability to produce the work which funds her lifestyle. Emily wants to be everything at once: her adopted son’s mother and his lover, a Hollywood success, a writer of literary Marxist works, a slim gourmand; she wants to speak French fluently but can’t stop speaking American English for long enough to learn. She sees herself as a New Yorker, a hick, a ruined millionairess, a made worker.

Money, the need of it, the failure to keep hold of it, runs like a seam through the Howards’ marriage, as Emily’s talent is wrung for every cent it’s worth and then mortgaged out for more. In her figure we see the comic potential of an idea of socialism based on the fulfilment of personal needs: demand everything at once, then have no idea what to do with it once it’s yours. Reconciliation with meaningful work, a political position, a sense of agency and purpose requires decision-making powers – and these are powers Emily does not possess. What’s more, she lives in an age of impossible decisions. The CPUSA, whose orderly arrangement of human history and direction of its necessary future has structured her and Stephen’s entire adult life, has turned against them after their criticism of the wartime policy of a united front. For a while, the couple tries to maintain their faith outside the institution, but what use is a member without a party? These contradictions catch up with the Howards. Their rejection by the European communists and the growing irreconcilability of their political views with their addiction to finery create a fatal gap between their public personae and their private desires, which Emily tries frantically to fill with more of everything: writing, eating, loving. ‘Well of course,’ as Stead said of the couple, ‘it came to a bad end.’

Observing her topsy-turvy bacchanal of unsatiated impulses, it’s tempting to compare Emily to a Shakespearean fool – more Falstaff than Hal, as protagonists go – but her knack is for the comedy of incongruity. When she bemoans to Stephen the fact that ‘the masterpieces of the world are gloomy – tragedies no less’, he assures her that she’s ‘a funny Hamlet’. But it’s another incongruous fool of Shakespeare’s that makes the best parallel for Emily Wilkes. In Act III Scene I of Titus Andronicus,  after being tricked into cutting off his hand in ransom for his dead son, the titular lead speaks the singular line, ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ Titus’s laughter is neither genuine nor spontaneous; it is a deliberate response to a world he no longer understands. He is laughing no more than Emily is when she declares,

‘I’m dying laughing. That means something to me, not just a joke Stephen. You don’t know what I mean.’

‘Well, what do you mean?’

‘I lay awake enough nights to know what I mean. I lie awake and try to find out what I’m going crazy for: what the struggle is for.’

When Stephen pushes her to clarify the purpose of it all, Emily laughs.

Underlying the wandering plot of I’m Dying Laughing is the Howards’ run from political defeat and inability to comprehend the scale of their loss. After their deviation from the party line, and a summary interrogation disguised as a screenwriters’ dinner party, they flee the USA before their expulsion from the CP is enacted (or is it? I’m Dying Laughing is hazy on such detail, showcasing what Angela Carter called ‘the arbitrary flux of event that characterises Stead’s later novels’). Ostracism from the party, however, offers no protection against the approaching McCarthyite danger – and, caught in a pincer movement between former colleagues and the FBI, Emily begins to regret their decision not to sit this one out. ‘Those about to die salute you,’ Emily tells a steadfast comrade as she contemplates her isolation and entrapment, ‘I never cared for that.’

That Emily and Stephen were based on Stead’s friends (the author Ruth McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten), and that episodes in the book draw clearly on the author’s own time at MGM and her lives in New York and Paris, are notes of minor biographical interest here. Stead’s habit of moving her characters abruptly between metropolis and backwater, in and out of the tightknit social circles so characteristic of any account of mid-century left political life, can be attributed as much to the fragmentary manner of composition as to her peripatetic partnership with the American economist William Blake. Authorial backstory explains some of Stead’s choice of material in I’m Dying Laughing, just as her time in a Paris bank prompted her to write her earlier novel House of All Nations (1938), but it can’t explain Stead’s use of this material. I’m Dying Laughing is the final work of an author who has lost interest in resolution. For all the political talk in the book, its political lessons are thorny and demotivating where they can be said to exist at all. Emily, like many of Stead’s women characters, is neither a hero nor a victim, nor does she feel herself to be either constrained or liberated by her gender and historical position, declaring to a male peer,

‘I can beat any man alive, I bet, in my writing, and children and house and all. I think it makes a woman an artist, it doesn’t hinder her. If she’s hindered it’s her own fault; she or her husband don’t want her to win … I think it’s possible for a woman to be a wife and mother and woman and artist and success and social worker and anything else you please in 1945.’

Stead’s commitment to writing women characters who vocalise their ideas on everything except their own gendered oppression is remarkable. Especially so when one considers that her only sustained period of public attention came about because of her inclusion in the Virago Modern Classics series in the late 1970s. Indeed, Emily’s arch observations regarding the light burden of her womanly plight could be read as a sly dig at some of the authors who would become Stead’s list-mates: ‘I grant it’s terrible to be a success in literature and the movie trade along with being a wife and mother, but it’s not so terrible I can’t stand it.’

Today, however, on the Wikipedia list of ‘notable’ Virago authors, Stead doesn’t warrant a mention, nor is she referenced on the Virago page paying tribute to its Modern Classics series. The point here is not that Stead has been nefariously erased from the grand history of the most successful feminist publishing project of the last century, but rather that she didn’t belong in it to begin with. This paperback packaging of her as a maligned woman novelist was an ill fit for someone who saw herself, instead, as a maligned communist writer.

Despite this division in views between author and press, Stead has been the subject of serious critical treatment by two of her Virago peers. Angela Carter profiled her in the London Review of Books in 1986, observing that ‘to read Stead, now, is to be reminded of how little, recently, we have come to expect from fiction … She is a kind of witness and a kind of judge, merciless, cruel and magnificently unforgiving.’ A decade later, Vivian Gornick would write of the depiction of party meetings in I’m Dying Laughing that ‘there is no more accurate imitation in American literature of the sound and feel (and length!) of that kind of talk.’

Gornick, whose octogenarian revival has transformed her from cult writer to literary star, is a generation younger than Stead, but a figure straight out of the world she captures, as The Romance of American Communism makes clear. In her introduction to the new edition of Romance, Gornick is caustic about her earlier choice of genre, identifying the root of the book’s ‘problem’ as her own over-attachment to the memories of her youth. ‘To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was, I thought and still think, legitimate; to write about it romantically was not.’ Romance-as-form, in Gornick’s retrospective analysis, flattens the detail of historical character necessary for a complete psychological account of the phenomenon of the CPUSA. ‘As a writer, I knew full well that the reader’s sympathy could be engaged only by laying out as honestly as possible all the contradictions of character or behaviour that a situation exposed, but I routinely forgot what I knew.’

Despite this and many other notes of caution from the author, the book was widely acclaimed among a core readership of millennial leftists last summer. Its republication in April 2020 could not have been timelier, coinciding as it did with Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the nomination race and the election of Keir Starmer to the position of Labour leader. Despair and disillusionment spanned the hyphenated gap between the youthful Anglo-American socialist movements. Among those whose lives had, for some months if not longer, revolved around voluntaristic party activism, a desperate search was underway for confirmation that faith in theory could survive defeat in practice. Gornick’s Romance offered an account which not only showed the new(er) left how to lose but reassured it that losing was in itself a form of moral victory, an inheritance from our historic forebears, the birth right of an honest cause.

Emily, of course, would disagree. Romantic ruin is not the goal, and communists should stay on top. Gornick’s youthfully naïve experience of communist organisation ended with the epoch shift of 1956 and the demise of the Party, events quickly canonised in left-American history as tragic but necessary disillusionments which laid the groundwork for the next generation’s activism. But for Stead, three decades Gornick’s senior and a CPUSA veteran at the time of its fall, the absurdities of its many missteps were integral to the shape of the struggle. Whether the demise of American communism was a romantic denouement or a preposterous farce ultimately depended on how many times you’d lived through it before.

After Emily declares her aversion to ruin, the Howards’ friend, a staunch Party member, chides her,

 ‘Yes, it’s hard. No one accepts that willingly. We should win, not lose. We should fight to win. But we have not fought very much yet in the United States.’

‘We will fight and we will lose,’ said Stephen.

Ha Ha Ha.

Read on: Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, NLR 1/154.