Published Spring/Summer 2008
Guy Endore and the Ironies of Political Repression
by Joseph G. Ramsey | ns 70
In late October 1947, best-selling novelist, biographer, and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Guy Endore was informed that he was no longer officially considered "subversive." His name—along with five others—had been dropped from Jack Warner's initial list of Hollywood "reds" to be dragged before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Although this development would allow Endore to keep working in Hollywood for the next four years, his comments to the New York Times expressed mixed emotions. "I feel I failed to make the grade as a human being and as a writer," the long-time Communist Party member reportedly said, "if I am not known as subversive to everything the investigating committee stands for." The infamous HUAC show-trials would lead to the indictment and later imprisonment of "The Hollywood Ten" for refusal to answer questions and name names related to their political associations. Almost immediately, the major studio heads issued the anticommunist "Waldorf Statement," inaugurating the Hollywood Blacklist and ratcheting up postwar repression within the culture industries. Endore would eventually be blacklisted, but in relative obscurity, along with hundreds of others. He would then take a public role in fighting the Blacklist, as he had fought other types of state repression, from the successful struggle to prevent the legal lynching of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama during the 1930s, to the fight to free the innocent Chicano youth rounded up en masse by Los Angeles Police for the Sleepy Lagoon murder in the 1940s, to the unsuccessful effort to overturn the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s.
Despite his willingness to confront HUAC and "everything it stands for," however, nearly forty years after his death, Endore is little known, as a subversive or otherwise. Ironically, he may have fallen further through the cracks of cultural memory in part because he was not publicly repressed alongside the, in most cases, better-remembered Hollywood Ten. As his comment to the Times suggests, Endore was attuned not only to the dangers but also to the opportunities presented by such vulgar public spectacles of state repression. In fiction and in activism alike, Endore sought to seize hold of moments in history and in contemporary politics when rulers' resort to violence seemed to render visible—if only for a moment—the illegitimate, contested, tenuous, class nature of their domination. Today, in this age of so-called "War on Terror," as US neoliberal hegemony increasingly relies on a doctrine of naked repression to forward ruling-class interests at home and abroad, Guy Endore's unapologetic, in-your-face, "un-American" radicalism, as well as his extended creative reflections on imperialism, terror, and historical repression, remain as relevant—and as subversive—as ever. At the same time, Endore's creative work confronts us with an example of how the actual literary practice of American Communist writers of the mid-twentieth century was not so circumscribed by the "Party-line" as inherited Cold War critical categorizations suggest. Though he himself was inspired by such oft-maligned notions as deploying "art as a weapon" in the class struggle, Endore's work shows how from within the milieu of "orthodox" Communism fresh radical perspectives could yet emerge in experimental forms and unexpected places.
Long before HUAC, Endore himself seems to have grown up with a strong sense of his "un-Americanism," despite his birth in Brooklyn, New York, on the Fourth of July, 1900. His mother driven to suicide by poverty and mental illness, his father virtually abandoning their family on several occasions, Endore himself later testified to his own personal sense of "rootlessness":
I've never been able to discover exactly where I fit in. I do not feel that I belong wholeheartedly to modern times; and, actually I was born...six months before the beginning of the twentieth century....I was born in New York City, and yet I never actually lived there until I was eighteen years old. I was not exactly an orphan but, somehow, I lived in an orphanage....I was a Jew by birth, but this was a Methodist institution. And later, I found myself in the care of a French Catholic woman, not in France, but in Vienna, Austria....Thus, I am really nothing. That is to say, everything sort of cancels out in me. I'm neither European, nor American; neither Jew nor Christian; neither of the country nor the city; neither of this century nor the last; neither rich nor poor; and even in my studies, I was always divided, always torn between the sciences and the arts. ("Reflections of Guy Endore" 66-7)1
Such early traumas and dislocations, which included experiences with poverty and academic anti-Semitism at Columbia, often rendered Endore physically ill, by his own account. They also appear to have spawned in him (in addition to a strict vegetarian diet) a deep sensitivity to human suffering, as well as a skepticism of ideologies based in rigid notions of identity, including racisms and national chauvinisms of all stripes.
Like many other dislocated US writers and intellectuals of his time, Endore became radicalized during the Great Depression. As he would recount in his 1962 oral history, his turn to communism from an earlier postwar pacifism was fueled not so much by the 1929 stock market crash itself or by a romanticized view of the socialist Soviet Union but by Endore's growing awareness of US establishment ineptitude, apathy, and complicity in the face of growing racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, and militarism across the globe. This included the Nazis' rise to power in Germany in 1933, the fascist uprising against the Spanish Republic in 1936, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the ongoing oppression of African Americans in the US South under Jim Crow. 2 Endore joined the Communist Party during the late 1930s, he later said, not because he agreed on all issues, but because the Party "represented the most extreme protest against what I saw going on in the world...I was a Communist only in the sense that I felt it would stop war and stop racial feelings, that it would help Jews and Negroes and so on. I wasn't a Communist in wanting the Communist Party to run the world or in wanting the ideas of Karl Marx to govern everything." It deserves mention, however, that Endore did read and study all the Marx and Engels that he could get his hands on, including the entire first two volumes of Das Kapital, which "excited" him about economics ("Reflections" 132). He had been attracted to the CPUSA not strictly out of anti-fascist urgency, but also out of a "feeling that [humanity] could make life so much more rich if we would be prepared to have it all together...instead of some having it alone" (208).
Active in a number of anti-fascist and anti-racist organizations, including the League Against War and Fascism, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the People's Education Center, and the Civil Rights Congress, Endore remained a Party member until the mid-1950s. Exiting the organization, he never repudiated his past involvement, nor publicly excoriated ex-comrades, as did more famous ex-Communists, from Richard Wright to Howard Fast. Endore did recall chafing against instances of bureaucratic ineptitude, how at times it was difficult to get much creative work done with so many "critics" around, and he expressed a number of conflicts with prevailing Party positions. Yet he still maintained that "the truth about the Communist Party was that it was a dedicated group of people who wanted to improve the world. Whether they had the right method or not is another matter, but they were, for the most part, very decent people who gave of their time and of their money and contributed everything they had to this movement, which was not going to benefit them in any way" ("Reflections" 231). And yet, despite twenty years in the organization, Endore recalled at times feeling like an "odd-ball" within the CPUSA, "half in half out" (235).
Much the same could be said of Endore's literary production and reception; he has never quite fit in. A ghost-translator of European literature, a biographer and then novelist under his own name, Endore moved between genres, from mystery to horror, historical fiction, and the hybrid genre of the biographical novel. In fact, besides his political pamphlets, a form in which he had considerable success, little of Endore's literary production fits into the critical confines that Cold War-era criticism has bestowed on us to grasp radical or Communist writing from the early to mid-twentieth century.3 For example, Walter Rideout's influential The Radical Novel in the United States 1900-1954, the first major study to give sustained and often sympathetic attention to a wide array of radical writers, schematized the radical writing of the thirties into four categories: "1) those centered about a strike; 2) those concerned with the development of an individual's class consciousness and his conversion to Communism; 3) those dealing with the 'bottom-dogs,' the lowest layers of society; and 4) those describing the decay of the middle-class" (171). Not surprisingly, not having written such novels, Endore was passed over by Rideout in a single sentence. Subsequent studies of radical US literature have tended to follow suit, confining Endore to the margins of an already marginalized enterprise. If not for the work of Barbara Foley and Alan Wald, Endore would have all but vanished from the scene.
In Wald's Exiles from a Future Time, a book that opens with a discussion of this "strange communist," Endore figures as a kind of synecdoche for a Communist-led cultural movement whose eccentricities and diverse literary practices have long been obscured by its supposed orthodoxy. "Politically," as Wald argues in the introduction to his three-volume study of the US literary left, "Endore was what historians...would regard as an orthodox 'Stalinist,'" yet his "personality and literary output bear scant resemblance to the popular perception of canonical Communist writers held by most students and scholars of literature" (Wald 1, 3). Endore's literary career is certainly a far cry from Max Eastman's notion of Communist "artists in uniform" marching—and writing—in step with official Party orders.
In Hollywood, where he earned his living in the late 1930s and 1940s, the most noteworthy of Endore's numerous screen-credits form an eclectic mix: the horror-fantasies Mark of the Vampire (1935) and Devil Doll (1936), the noir-romance Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), the Academy Award-nominated Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and The Song of Russia (1944), a US-government-sponsored war-era film. Though it was his involvement in the pro-Soviet spectacle Song of Russia that caught the attention of the anticommunist inquisition, Endore's most overtly left-wing writing had come much earlier, during the 1930s. Before turning to Hollywood or even officially joining the Party, Endore had initiated a groundbreaking and formally innovative radical project that, from within the realm of genre fiction, expressed a Marxist standpoint that challenged fundamental "American values," including white supremacy, notions of imperial "innocence," and the sanctity of private property.
The promising texts Endore completed in this moment defy summary or easy categorization. Werewolf of Paris (1933) is a complicated multi-layered horror-thriller that turns polemical when the historical "context" of the Paris Commune comes to interrupt the werewolf story and turn our eyes to contemplation of the "werewolfism" at work in our contemporary world. A #1 New York Times best-seller in 1933—unfortunately during the depth of the Depression, when relatively few books were selling—Werewolf has been hailed as a "classic" and even "the Dracula" of the werewolf subgenre.
Babouk (1934), Endore's "forgotten masterpiece," is an ironic, rigorously researched, and experimental meta-historical novel about Atlantic slavery, the emergence of subaltern political consciousness, and the early stirrings of the Haitian Revolution. Originally commissioned as a Caribbean adventure-romance setting white protagonists against the backdrop of black "voodoo" and tom-toms, after Endore's year of intense, bilingual research at the New York Public Library and a trip to Haiti (then under US military occupation), Babouk became a very different kind of book. Historians and anthropologists of the eighteenth-century Caribbean, David Gaspar and Michel-Rolph Trouillot have lauded the text for historical accuracy and imagination far beyond mainstream US historians of the time. The highpoint of Endore's experimental literary radicalism, the novel follows the title character (based loosely on the actual historical figure of Boukman Dutty, as well as Herman Melville's character Babo) from capture in Africa, through the Middle Passage, and into life-long labor on an eighteenth-century Saint Domingue plantation. Here Babouk emerges as an influential story-teller and agitator-organizer, chiefly by appropriating African trickster tales and subverting white-imposed Old Testament stories in ways that creatively prepare his listeners to throw off their oppressors. The uprising he leads at book's end fails, but helps to incite a second rebellion, whose appearance on the horizon prefigures the Haitian (and symbolically the world) revolution to come.
Not surprisingly, Endore's original publisher (Century) refused to publish the text—despite the previous success of Werewolf of Paris—as did Simon and Schuster, whose editor-in-chief Charles "Kip" Fadiman nonetheless wrote Endore privately that "Babouk is a powerful, moving piece of work. It won't sell because it's just too horrible. The reviews would warn people away from it. We would be afraid to handle it."4 Such fear is not hard to gauge. At a moment when US capitalism remained dependent upon bonded nonwhite labor at home and abroad, Babouk turns prevalent tropes of primitivism, savagery, and civilization on their heads, depicting in horrific tones the economically "rational" ritual violence and injustice of slavery, against which it juxtaposes the racism of western philosophical "Enlightenment." Further, while exploring the complexity and variety of life among the enslaved, the novel neither evades nor disavows the concerted revolutionary violence ultimately necessary to overthrow the slave system. At the same time, the book's ironic, interventionist narrator provides—through discursive interruptions and tangents—a complex analysis of the ideologies, economic forces, and imperial rivalries at work behind the story's events. This narrator further draws connections between the eighteenth century and the current day, exhorting readers to take notice and to take action against contemporary injustices, like lynching and labor exploitation. As Endore later admitted of the novel, "My intention was to make the reader feel and smell and taste the crime of slavery, until he abominated it; and not only historical slavery, but all those too-numerous characteristics of it that have survived into our own day" (283).
In our own day, colonialist discourse survives, rendering invisible the violence of western imperialism while representing the resistance of nonwhite subalterns as the terror of savages infected by misguided beliefs. Babouk directly assaults such colonial ideology, in a style anticipating C. L. R. James' Black Jacobins (1938) and Jean Paul Sartre's 1960 preface to Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth. At the climax of the novel, for example, as the slaves revolt, beheading their overseers and even impaling a white infant on a pike, Endore's narrator interrupts to reflect on how:
Our historians, who always shout reign of terror when a few rich people are being killed and see nothing much worthy of comment when poor are slaughtered by the thousands in the miseries of peace, cry out unanimously: The pen cannot describe the cruelty of these savages! My pen is not so delicate; it can say and it will never cease to say: not over a thousand or so whites were killed in this reign of terror, while the legal and protected slave trade killed over a hundred thousand Negroes a year. Buried its victims in Africa, and America, and strewed them over the Atlantic Ocean. // One must be exact: the slaves revolted and the reign of terror that had lasted hundreds of years in Saint Domingue stopped! Yes, Candy heated his corkscrew to pull out the eyes of former white masters, and Jeannot got ready his planks between which he tied his victims to saw them in half, and that was peace compared to the long reign of terror under the whites, from Columbus down (168).
A year earlier, near the climax of Werewolf of Paris, Endore made a similar point with respect to the repression of the Paris Commune of 1871: "The whole famous Reign of Terror [of the 1790s] in fifteen months guillotined 2,596 aristos." Yet far less famously, he noted, "The Versaillists [the anti-Communards of 1871] executed 20,000 before the firing squads in one week. Do these figures represent the comparative efficiency of guillotine and modern rifle or the comparative cruelty of upper and lower class mobs?" (287). Endore goes to the very emotional investment of his readers in the werewolf-monster genre itself, writing that, "Bertrand [the werewolf], it now seemed to Aymar [Bertrand's uncle, who has been pursuing him] was but a mild case. What was a werewolf who had killed a couple of prostitutes, who had dug up a few corpses, compared with these bands of tigers slashing at each other with daily increasing ferocity!?...Hurrah for the race of werewolves!" (288). Such strategic tangents repeatedly draw attention to the limitations of the very discourses in which Endore is working—"half in half out"—provoking readers to think beyond the story at hand, as well as across historical periods and national boundaries.
Waxing utopian in one such tangent in Babouk, the narrator envisions an international "net" of cultural and political solidarity, to be "woven" from the voices of the oppressed. One day, he prophecies, this collective net will pull the "deaf master" down out of his "garden" and "into the muddy stinking field" (97). While privileging the voices of the colonized, this figure transcends race or national lines. Thus, as Wald has pointed out with respect to other left-wing Jews of the period, Endore channeled his opposition to anti-Semitism and fascism "not [into] Jewish nationalism, nor a reliance on powerful Western protectors," but rather into "a cry for unified armed resistance among all the oppressed, and a sense of sympathy and solidarity with other, non-Jewish, groups suffering analogous persecution, especially through colonialism and white supremacy" (Wald, "Jewish American Writers" 170).
In 1935, on the heels of Babouk, Endore publicly called for "a new school of Marxian historical fiction," to be based in "a study of original sources" so as "to furnish reliable and powerful revolutionary weapons." The task at hand was the "revelation of the hidden but unending class struggle of the ages," from ancient Rome to colonial expansion. "History," Endore wrote, "is replete with magnificent untouched material that the old novelist bent on portraying love triumphant, picturesque adventures or some trivial plot, could not use." Unfortunately, Endore would hardly begin work on this epic program.
Brought out as it was by small Vanguard Press at the depth of the Depression, Babouk sold a mere four hundred copies. New Republic reviewer Martha Gruening complained that the novel amounted to little but a "chamber of horrors," while (in a particularly hostile misreading) the New York Times essentially accused Endore of cheerleading for race riot. Newly married and a young father, without anticipated sales and facing the Depression, Endore moved out to Hollywood, to find the steady paycheck that writing Marxist genre-fiction could not provide.
Yet in many quarters his work had been welcomed. Not only did the pro-Communist New Masses and the Trotskyist New International alike have high praise for the book (coupled in the first case with some serious criticisms of the book's alleged black nationalist tendencies), but a reviewer for The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, went so far as to write, "Here is a book that should be in the bookcase of every Negro family." The review is notable especially for its celebration of the way Babouk successfully operated "as a weapon" "puncturing" the illusions of racists with "deadly rapier thrusts" (374). As the reviewer saw it, the text provided readers both with a compelling narrative and with a kind of textual tool kit for seeing and cutting through not white people, but the racial ideology that produced them. Such a glowing black endorsement of this white-authored Communist novel opens a small window into a suppressed "black-red" contact-zone that is only recently becoming a subject of mainstream scholarship.
While in Hollywood, Endore appears to have poured most of his considerable political energies into extra-literary forms: petitions, speeches, political pamphlets, and night-school lessons. Following his blacklisting from film work in 1951, Endore's later books would include a number of biographical novels, the subjects of which included Rousseau, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Alexander Dumas, to go along with earlier such books on Casanova and Joan of Arc. But despite a continued interest in historical fiction with progressive touches, his orientation had shifted markedly. In 1941, Endore had declared that "the writer's task is to entertain, interpret, and exhort. It is my aim to do all three together, whenever possible." As he then saw it, "The predicament of the writer is that the average person wishes to be amused and not instructed in his short leisure; he does not wish to be made aware of his misfortunes; he wants something to help him forget; while the upper classes threaten to tear the social structure down with them, if, by interpretation or exhortation, their privileges are attacked." Even so, Endore publicly maintained, "I tend toward communism and the establishment of the classless society" ("About" 324-5). In contrast, in 1962 he would report telling his publisher that due to "life-long insecurity...I am a hack writer, and I make no bones about it; I write for money. I write to support myself and my family, and that's it" ("Reflections" 60). The lack of financial and institutional support for radical fiction, compounded by the twin pressures of Hollywood and HUAC, had driven Endore away from his once proudly subversive political-literary stance. Thus, ironically, what anticommunists would later construe as a "subversive infiltration" of the culture industries appears in fact to mark the ebb tide of Endore's overt literary radicalism. In what figures as a sad emblem for this turn, and for the patriotic anti-fascist shift in American Communism away from militant anti-racism and anti-capitalism during the mid-1940s, Babouk's proof plates were melted down and donated to the war effort.
At the time of his death in 1970, virtually all of Endore's literary work was out of print. Almost forty years later things do not stand much improved, with the single exception of a reprint of Babouk by Monthly Review Press. Endore's voice is for the most part "lost in the past," not unlike Babouk's. Of course, the latter comes to a much more "savage" end at the hands of his oppressors, "his head exhibited upon a pike" and displayed for all to see, "and a placard was placed at the foot of it, and it read: 'Babouk, chief of the rebels!'"(174). Yet as Endore grasps the historical dialectic of repression and revolt: "History tells us that...'[Babouk's] eyes were still open and sparkling and seemed to be encouraging his men on to the massacre.'" Endore thus saw how the state's resort to the spectacle of brute repression could—contrary to its intentions—fan the flames of revolt. Hence rulers require official "historians" to render the horror of the rulers' violence invisible, justified, palatable. To be sure, Endore was spared Babouk's violent, spectacularly public end; indeed he was spared from even the symbolic public flaying of the televised HUAC hearing. Yet ironically, in part because of that fact, the state has been spared the menace of his martyr's gaze; he has been largely forgotten, even on the left. So if Endore is ever to "make the grade as a writer"—which to him meant being "known as subversive" to all those representatives of repression and reaction—it remains for us to meet his radical eyes, to reclaim his lost voice, and to weave of it something new.
1. Even Endore's French-sounding name was a fiction, having been invented by his father, Isadore Goldstein, in an attempt to conjure social status and avoid anti-Semitism. [Return to essay.]
2. Earlier still, Endore had been deeply affected by the horrors of World War I, which he personally escaped narrowly not once but twice: in Vienna in 1913 and when the war ended in 1918, just prior to his conscription. [Return to essay.]
3. His pamphlet The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery, for instance, sold 50,000 copies and has been credited with persuading the presiding judge to overturn the conviction of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants. Indeed, Endore later referred to it as the most successful "proletarian literature" that he ever wrote. [Return to essay.]
4. Charles Fadiman to Endore. Letter. 31 March 1934. Guy Endore Papers, UCLA. [Return to essay.]
Works Cited and Consulted
Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in Literary Communism. New York: Oxford UP, 1961.
Ball, Jerry. "Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris: The Definitive Werewolf Novel?" Studies in Weird Fiction (Fall 1993).
Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1997.
Endore, Guy. "About the Author." The Werewolf of Paris. New York: Pocketbooks, 1941.
---. Babouk. 1934. New York: Monthly Review P, 1991.
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---. King of Paris. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.
---. "Letters." New Republic (28 November 1934): 283.
---. The Man from Limbo. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1930.
---. Methinks the Lady. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945.
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---. Satan's Saint: A Novel about the Marquis de Sade. New York: Crown, 1965.
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---. The Sword of God: Jeanne d'Arc. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1931.
---. Voltaire! Voltaire! New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.
---. The Werewolf of Paris. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1933.
Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
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Gruening, Martha. Book Review. New Republic (17 October 1934).
"Guy Endore, 69, Novelist, is Dead." New York Times (21 February 1970).
James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1963.
Niemi, Robert. "Guy Endore." American Writers. Vol. 16. New York: Scribners, 2006.
Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954: Some Relations of Literature and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.
R. W. "Babouk." The Crisis (1935).
Wald, Alan. Exiles from a Future Time: the Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.
---. "The Subaltern Speaks." Monthly Review (1992).