The Dark Day When Writers Faced Prison

So you’re a writer. And you’ve got problems. You’ve knocked out a book, maybe more, and you feel as though you are caught in a riptide of social media that is robbing you of all of your creative time, energy, and juices. There are blogs to write, tweets to tweet, emails to answer, the constant hammering of Triberr in your subconscious. Your fingers are sore, your mind is blank, you’re a hundred pages behind in your next novel, and you keep looking for a break, and the harder you work, the less time you have, the less you accomplish, and you fear that nobody will ever read your next book because you worry it’ll never spill out of your mind.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities interrogates writers as members of the Red Menace.

So you’ve got problems. No. You don’t have problems. You have challenges maybe. You have circumstances running amuck. You have consequences often beyond your control. But, as a writer, you don’t have problems.

Not once do you wake up and see Big Brother looking over your shoulder, shoving you into a dark corner, firing accusations at you, and threatening to send you to jail for something you might or might not have done fifteen or twenty years ago.

The writers in the late 1940s and 1950s had problems. No. They were lined up in front of a government firing squad, headed by a band of wild-eyed, radical, fire-breathing congressman, and ordered to testify, under oath, whether or not they had ever been a member of the Communist Party. And what’s worse, they were ordered to look around at their friends and colleagues, point accusatory fingers, name names, and betray anyone in the Hollywood writing or acting family who had ever even whispered the word Communism aloud or more than once.

It was the beginning of the Red Scare. And the writers were looked upon as the Red Menace. The law be damned. The First Amendment be damned. The Constitution be damned. Senator Joe McCarthy was on his glory-bound soapbox and vowing to rid every distant corner in America of its growing infestation of communists. Worry about the wordsmiths, he said. He feared the pen more than the sword.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart lead a protest against the HUAC hearings.

Then, as now, so many of the writers, especially during the difficult days of the Great Depression, had a distinct leftist view of the world around them. It was not a good world, and a lot of them had joined the Communist Party, which was the primary force in America fighting for the right of poor people, leading campaigns for improvements in welfare, unemployment, and social security benefits.

Those are the kinds of social battles that have long pricked the conscience of America’s writers. Besides, America and Russia weren’t at war. The two countries had even fought side by side as allies during World War II. President Roosevelt, in fact, persuaded Hollywood to produce a film extolling the virtues of Mother Russia, and Hollywood did, releasing Mission to Moscow, as pro-Soviet as possible.

But, alas, the war was over. Power and greed had raised their ugly heads. It was the time of the great land grab for defeated territories. The victors fought over the spoils. America and Russia no longer trusted each other. The Cold War had begun in earnest.

So many writers, especially those in Hollywood, were being called “Red Fascists.” A Mississippi Congressman declared that: “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this Government has its headquarters in Hollywood … the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.” But don’t worry, he said, “We’re on the trail of the tarantula now.”

In Hollywood and behind typewriters all of the country, writers were merely churning out words and telling their stories. In Washington, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) were bent on investigating those words and stories, claiming that Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting Red propaganda in U. S. films.

If they had, it was certainly news to the writers. It didn’t make any difference. One by one, the screenwriters were called to testify. Many admitted they had been a card-carrying communist, fell on their knees, and repented of their sins.

Blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote “Spartacus” and “Exodus” in exile.

The tough ones stood firm. The tough ones told the committee that their lives and their opinions and their words were protected by the First Amendment and what they had done wrong, if anything, was none of the Congressmen’s business. The tough ones fought back. The tough ones went to prison.

In Hollywood, they were blacklisted. Their names were churned around and turned to mud. If they had a regular job, they were fired. If they didn’t, no one would hire them. They and their work simply vanished off the face of the movie screens.

These were people like well-known playwright Lillian Hellman, whose words had been attached to ten motion pictures. She would not be employed again until 1966. Composer Elmer Bernstein said he had never been a member of the Communist Party, refused to name any friend who had, and found himself composing music for such movies as Cat Women of the Moon. Arthur Miller and Eliz Kazan came under attack. Gordon Kahn fled to Mexico, and he had written The African Queen, hardly the stuff of Red propaganda. Charlie Chaplin fled the country. Dashiell Hammett refused to cooperate, and his five months in jail hastened his death. The Committee overlooked the fact that Hammett, who had fought in World War I,  had enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. He was forty-eight years old at the time.

Dalton Trumbo was fired from MGM not long after the hearing. He was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sent to prison. From behind bars, he wrote this poem to his family: “Say then but this of me: Preferring not to crawl on his knee In freedom to a bowl of buttered slop Set out for him by some contemptuous clown, He walked to jail on his feet.” Dalton Trumbo remained defiant.

And like many of his friends in Hollywood, he continued to write, sometimes using an alias, sometimes using a front man who allowed his name to be placed on the silver screen with writing credits. It would be more than a decade later before Dalton Trumbo was finally given credit for two films he wrote in exile: SpartacusExodus, Roman Holiday, and The Brave One. Michael Wilson had written Friendly Persuasion and Lawrence of Arabia, working with Carl Foreman on The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Some endured and made it back. Some were lost in the whirlwind of public opinion. They and their work were cast aside and forgotten. They were the victims. Lionel Stander stood before HUAC and said boldly: “I know of a group of fanatics … they are ex-Fascists and America firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody, including Negroes, minority groups, and most likely themselves … These people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists.”

Members of the Committee might have nodded in agreement. But if they thought long and hard, they would have realized that Lionel Stander was talking about the sins of the Committee.

So you’re a writer and think you have problems. Think again. Right or wrong, good or bad, long or short, you have the freedom to sit down every day of your life and write whatever story is battling to crawl its way out of your brain.

You worry about a bad book review? Don’t. It could be Big Brother. He didn’t give a one-star. He gave jail.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of the new Christian suspense thriller: Golgotha Connection.

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  • Love your post, Caleb. It’s an important reminder of how lucky we are not to live in such times, not to have to fight the authorities to retain our freedom. Though waves of “politically correct” opinions can sometimes feel like a straightjacket…

    All this brings to mind another point, admittedly somewhat bizarre: have you noticed how the writers that had to stand up to withhold their opinions against big political forces were in fact better writers for it? It’s as if the challenge brought out the best in them. For example, Soghenytsin wrote his best work when he was jailed in the Goulag…And many of the great contemporary Russian writers (say someone like Bulgakov) created their masterpieces under the menace of a totalitarian sword!

    I’m not saying that we need to have a totalitarian state to obtain a master class of writers, but it’s odd all the same. Let’s hope that the marketing pressure of our present day will spur some writers to go beyond and produce masterpieces…Because for now, it would seem that the most popular book on hand is 50 Shades of Grey…No further comments needed!

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Claude: That is a great point your make. I sometimes think those writers who stood strong simply wrote as though this book or this screenplay might well be their last. It could well be their final chance to be remembered, and they filled their work every emotion they had.

  • There was one writer (of sorts) who took on “Machine Gun” Joe and his vigilantes: Walt Kelly. Even at a young age, I understood his satire and in later life have often wondered why the targets of his barbs never caught on. Your posting reminded me of him and I’m always thankful for the warm glow of remembering. However, there is one small correction that I must make. We were at war with Russia. We really were.

  • Kathy Lynn Hall

    This is GREAT post, Caleb. It is so easy to forget the troubles that went before. I just watched a DVD on the WPA and the Federal Writers Project in which I learned for the first time that the persecution extended beyond Hollywood. Thanks for reminding us that we now have the freedom to express ourselves without fear.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Kathy: You are absolutely right. The freedom to express ourselves without fear is the greatest freedom of all.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Jack: Walt Kelly and Pogo were two of the great editorial cartoonist of all time, although most thought that Pogo simply starred in an odd little comic strip.

  • Caleb, this is a really important post on a lot of levels. The word that always comes to mind when I think about this period in American history is courage. Freedom of speech is a trifling thing if we hide behind it to write trash and produce pablum. It becomes precious when we stand up and speak out against a tidal wave of popular sentiment. It is an easy thing to write words that tickle the ears of the powerful, a hard thing to do as the prophet Nathan did when he stood toe to toe with King David and called him out for treachery.
    And I don’t believe for a minute that these days are behind us, that we have entered a time when people can challenge the status quo and walk away unscathed. The power of writing stems from its ability to cut to the very heart of the human situation, to describe tyranny, to question militarism, to point out the hypocrisy of the haves as they attempt to shape policy for the have nots. At this very moment, in countries around the world, people who have championed human rights for their neighbors sit in prison cells composing, if only in their minds, the literary works of future Dalton Trumbos. I suspect it is that handful of courageous men and women whose work will stand the test of time.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Stephen: Their works will be remembered long after their names are forgotten. And the words are all that matters. There is no Red Scare or Cold War or McCarthyism these days, but the social pressures are great on writers. And that’s why we need to write our best regardless of what society tries to dictate. We need to tell our stories the way we want them told. Somebody out there cares.

  • Christina Carson

    Bert once said of war, “It doesn’t change you. It simply makes you more of what you are.” That same sentiment would apply to writers. If what you are is a writer of great integrity (meaning true to yourself), you stay in touch with your creative core. If you are that same writer persecuted by the powers to be, you will dig even deeper and find even more of yourself and your talent. Your greatest works will be those to come, for you’re even more impervious to the fear that limits greatness.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Christina: Some writers stay true to their convictions. Some don’t. Some have courage. Some don’t. Writers are like everyone else. We are everyone else.

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