Some years ago, I received an invitation from a mid-western university to teach a special course in literature. I had no sooner accepted then I went on trial in a Federal Court – a trial which fortunately concluded in time for me to fulfill my obligation to the university. However, as I later learned, the attendant publicity threw my sponsors at the university into a tizzy and brought down upon their heads some bitter recriminations from the powers that be.
It was finally resolved around the key question of whether or not I was a communist – action to be taken once that question was answered; but then arose the dilemma of how to propound the question. The cold war had matured sufficiently for polite people to realize that a direct approach was both indelicate and unreliable, for already a Broadway comic of some reputation had answered the same question, put to him by a colleague, with a wistful, "We're not supposed to tell," and had thereby made the national syndicated columns. For all of that, a way had to be found, and after the top men of the English Department had put their heads together, one of them came up with the solution.
* * *
Of this, I knew nothing, and in all my innocence I plunged cheerfully into the unfolding drama. The English Department held a party for me the evening of my arrival; step number one. As the party progressed, I was maneuvered into a conversation with the architect of the plan, a professor of poetry, whose long career as a "socialist," redbaiter, and anti-communist had made him a specialist in these matters; step number two.
Now the moment was ripe for the climactic step number three, which would either clear me and restore my good name to the roster of the blessed, or expose me and subject me to whatever steps had been decided upon. I could not help but notice the tension as the professor of poetry skillfully led the conversation into the agreed-upon channels. We talked of American literature, of Mark Twain and his tradition, of the early American socialist writers, and then finally of the literary movement of the "thirties." And then he said:
"And what, Mr. Fast, do you think of Farrell's trilogy on Studs Lonigan."
I said that it was an important work, a serious if naturalistic work on the effect of modern American urban life on a particular immigrant group, in essence a profound and pertinent tragedy and one of the unique products of American literature. I said a good deal more than that, but this was the core of it, and without hesitancy, I paid full tribute to the great skill, insight and discipline of a man who could produce such a literary creation. I said it was a book I had read with excitement and profit – and that there were all too few such books.
There was a moment of silence when I finished speaking; then the professor of poetry clapped his hands; others joined him; the tension broke; and our host suggested drinks all around. I had passed with flying colors and I was of the blessed, but how or why, I had no idea – and I asked what it all meant.
* * *
They told me it meant they now knew I was not a communist, and this was not only relaxing, but would save all concerned a good deal of bother and pain. Still I saw no light, except perhaps a tiny ray of improbably infantilism, and I asked the professor of poetry what on earth I had said that could possibly be de facto proof that I was not a communist.
"Your praise of James T. Farrell and Studs Lonigan."
Still I wanted to know what that had to do with me being or not being a communist; and then he patiently explained to the assembled company that I, Fast, knew far less about the Communist Party than he did, additional proof of my innocence. For if I had been a communist, I would not have dared to praise Farrell or any of his work. Not under duress, not behind closed door, nowhere and never.
I shook my head dumbfoundedly. "Do you mean," I asked him, "that I would be afraid to?"
He smiled sadly, indicating to me that such were the facts of a bitter area of life that I knew all too little of. "Yes – unless you were ready to break with the party. What you said tonight constitutes grounds for expulsion. The party line of Farrell is absolute. No communist publicly breaks the party line or defies it. Disagreement is not a virtue of communism."
I was accepted; I was now only another liberal, headstrong perhaps, misled, but sound; yet I could not let the matter go, and I pressed the question modestly. Was it possible, I demanded, that there was any organization with a claim to progress that would be so insane as to expel a member because he liked an author's book? Could such insanity endure? Could it win the allegiance of decent people? Wasn't it perhaps imaginative to suggest that this was communist dogma?
He sighed over my small knowledge of communism, and then elaborated on some of the facts underlying this devilish organization. Happy was the man who was spared a first hand taste of his knowledge.
"But suppose I told you I am a communist?" I said.
Now many of the other folk in the room joined his patient smile; for they too were knowledgeable. "It would be sheer bravado," the professor of poetry said, "and understandable too, since we had to resort to this device to find you out. But we simply would not believe you."
"You mean even if I stated it flatly, you would not believe me?"
"No. You see, you could not be a communist. That's worth thinking about, isn't it. Evidently you had some illusions about the party. I'm glad they're shattered.
Now the above is true – absolutely true. I withheld place and names, because it would be to no purpose to print them now, years later. I do not know whether it truly pleads a moral in the current whirlwind, but I think it does – even if a small one.