(used with the permissin of the author ©2008 Alan Filreis)

Alan Filreis

Counter-Revolution of the Word: the Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960 ( North Carolina, 2008)


  • Filries discusses the book on Close Listening: MP3
  • Filreis reads these excerpts at Penn: MP3

[from chapter 7:]  

We have seen that as the anticommunist intellectual movement grew rapidly in the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of its fundamental assumptions was that in the Red Decade—the years of “deception,” “treason” and “betrayal”—communists in the United States exerted an “oblique control of writing.” For conservative anticommunists in particular, this assumption extended to poetry. And if communists and fellow-travelers, or “dupes of Stalinism,” could be said by conservatives to have “controlled” writing just as they had controlled (for example) the executive branch of government during the New Deal years, it was hardly surprising that in the late forties and throughout the fifties when anticommunists sought to invite authorities to speak on the matter of poetry, they turned to a world of people outside poetry. Persuasive indictments of New Deal experimentalism had to come from people beyond the field in question or—using a strategy that had already been perfected in twentieth-century electoral politics—from insiders who could suddenly reinforce the outsider status of their resumés. In any event, insiders were suspect.

Indeed in many local precincts poetic expertise was in receivership. A soldier and prep school headmaster who continually decried modernist effeminacy, Colonel Cullen Jones, was chosen to give the keynote address at the 24 th Annual Poets’ Dinner in Berkeley in 1950. An academic sociologist became the poetry editor of The Humanist, thereupon from this platform pronouncing his hope that “the ultramodern poet,” having wandered into the “dangerous wilderness” of too much freedom, would be “wiped out on the bloody slope of verbal anarchy.” A supertraditionalist who had edited a little-known magazine called Wings for years out of his Mill Valley, California, cottage, and who believed that “the sharpest revolution in the history of literature has overtaken poetry,” “the revolt of a small discontented avant garde,” was given large space in the New York Times Magazine to vent these extreme views. A man who taught in the engineering school at the University of Michigan founded and led the Poetry Society of Michigan. A Dutchman of letters who did not at all circulate among contemporary poets, Jan-Albert Goris (1899-1984), was summoned to speak about the state of the art. Goris had published under the pen name of Marnix Gijsen and was known in New York for Belgium in Bondage (1943) which had been urgently published in English by Louis Fischer during the darkest days of Nazi occupation of the Lowlands. He served during the cold war as Belgium’s Commissioner of Information (in effect that nation’s propaganda minister). He was invited to speak by officials of St. Bonaventure University in New York at a program on the topic, “Tradition and the Controversy in Poetry.”

Since Goris’s knowledge of poetics was limited (and his understanding of American letters admittedly nil), he naturally confessed surprise at having been asked to speak on such a topic. Yet he certainly seemed game. He began his speech by wondering aloud why the Japanese did not like to break with poetic tradition, since surely this was a good thing. Perhaps there was a model here for postwar Americans. When the Japanese had recently held a poetry contest, 18,000 poems were submitted, and the winner was . . . Emperor Hirohito himself. While not entirely discounting “servile flattery” as a factor in the judges’ decision, Goris observed that Hirohito’s poem did after all scrupulously respond to the contest requirement for a specific “mathematical effect [ . . . ] of verse.” The Emperor had produced a perfect waka, the ancient form of five- and seven-syllable lines precisely alternated. It was a form that his grandfather, the unshakably formalistic Emperor Meiji, had made central to the patrilineage. (Meiji had written 100,000 such poems. One of the most often cited has been translated as follows: “In a world of storms / Let there be no wavering / Of our human hearts; / Remain as the pine tree / With root sunk deep in stone.”) For Goris the poetic performance of the current emperor, fallen from Meiji’s godly station in a time of American domination and yet aesthetically stalwart, a former enemy of unbowed tastes, was evidence that our new allies would do well to hold onto traditional poetic artifacts, while being inundated with just about every other cultural form from the West (including political poetry such as that published in a bold new Japanese magazine called The Waste Land). Goris saw that the few Japanese poets who wrote “unconventional verse,” following the Anglo-American trend, were meeting with “little or no success.” Without citation of evidence he proffered the statistic that “90% of [Japanese] readers do not care” for poetry other than strictly traditional.

Rhetoric about poetic form was often unacknowledged cold-war politics. The Belgian minister did not ascribe the poor reception of the experimental poem, nor the very favorable response to Hirohito’s traditional poem, to subject matter. He might have. A modern poem Goris quoted was about the devastation of Hiroshima, while the emperor’s traditional verse was about a cloud drifting over a mountain, partially translated this way:

A white cloud like a sash moves over
Nasu peak, soaring beyond the plateau.

Commissioner Goris conceded that “in our estimation” Hirohito’s poem was no major contribution, while the modern poem about the atomic bombing was “powerful” and “of significance.” Still there were two lessons to be learned about the consequences of poetic tradition: control of the means of expression; self-determination in free societies. “Each reader deserves the poetry he reads—like every people has the government it deserves.” And “poetry, however cryptic, is a means of communication.” In contending that in this obviously political context “eloquence” is always better than cubistic “stammerings,” however charming or skillful such stammerings may be, here was a prominent cold warrior pressing a social interpretation of modern art: “ Recently a cartoon in the New Yorker showed two puzzled men in front of an abstract painting, one addressing the other and saying: ‘Maybe he doesn’t want to communicate anything at all.’ Many poems of that kind are written now, but it is not probable that this extremely narrow conception of poetry will triumph. If we may compare poetry to painting, I would dare to say that, after all, the language spoken by Velasquez, Rembrandt, Van Eyck or Rubens will always be more moving that that used by Mondriaan or Pollack.” The Belgian concluded for his collegiate audience that the term “pure poetry” does not describe an extreme state, a stance in opposition to political poetry. It suggests, rather, the moderate center in a balance of qualities that include “politics” as just one of them. It is only when one quality dominates others that “poetry becomes impure.” That is why “the world over now, pure poetry is praised and considered above controversy.”

We do well to pause on this ratio: “Each reader deserves the poetry he reads—like every people has the government it deserves.” Such a statement was enough to make one think that linguistic disintegrations and discontinuities entailed dangerously toying with a free way of life. Thus many conservatives believed. In Faith and Force: An Inquiry into the Nature of Authority (1946), Joseph M. Lalley, the Washington Post’s conservative literary critic, wrote that “the decline of authority in the state is very closely analogous to the decline of authority in language,” and his argument in this influential treatise—that traditional forms of authority must be reasserted—was founded on his sense of what happens when the modern imagination “has grown enervated”: “opportunity lies open to the revolutionist.” “A sound national life and a sound literature are almost synonymous,” wrote the author of “Literary Decadence and World Decay” (1947), a piece in which part of the blame is assigned to the verse of Marianne Moore. The founder and director of World Poetry Day spent her time supporting poets who fought modernism, “urg[ing] people to show their allegiance” by pointing out its nonsense—“whenever they see it instead of being afraid of it.” She lauded an Irish antimodernist crusader as a hero of the Cold War, commending him for telling her that the best way for Americans to win the love of the world—“poetry, alas, will not do it”—was to use “a plentiful supply of what you are now manufacturing in Nevada” (strontium, for atomic weapons). One skeptical critic described the logical leaps taken by “conservative art judgment” as follows: “The weird cacaphonies and twisted watches of the modern era harbor God knows what threat to law and order, probably communism itself—almost certainly communism.” Jacob Hauser, the poet and editor of Solo who was a master of this special political logic, called the world imposed by modern verse an “anti-democracy.” Modernism “tolerates no departure from its inflexible requirement of distorted, pathological incoherence.” The “leading warriors and agents of the Revolution . . . founded the court wherein all literary aspirants and offenders are tried and sentenced according to a code in whose making they had no share. . . . The verdict of ‘Literary decapitation!’ will issue inexorably.” Robert Hillyer assailed modernism in the Saturday Review as “an illusion of independent thought”—a “propaganda” machine sponsored by “a group which has a geniune power complex.” He referred to the enemies of traditional poetry as “the powers of darkness” and induced in other antimodernists the feeling that they had “company and moral backing.” In the Bulletin of the Poetry Society of America, Hillyer went further: there he announced that modern verse had introduced “cold conformity of intellectualism,” had eliminated “diversity,” and had instituted “a critical censorship, in its effects like that of the Kremlin.” A Unitarian poet accused readers in 1953 of “the new modernistic tradition” of “utter bigotry.”

The penchant among avant-garde poets for “expressing rather than describing life” had “gone too far,” Gilbert Malcolm Fess wrote in a 1952 issue of Books Abroad, a magazine which had for years published news and analysis of world literature from the American perspective and which by 1950 featured an anticommunist editorial policy. “Intellectual intolerance, striking at all simplicity of form . . . now rides the world,” Fess continued. Some American publications, he noticed, “especially among the ‘little magazines,’ would today unhesitatingly reject any contribution if it made complete sense, irrespective of its aesthetic value. . . . Poetry must be ‘hard’ (to grasp), relatively unintelligible.” Modernism “has lasted much too long” and behaved “like a totalitarian dictator gone to seed.” Modernists were said to have “stood on the rostrum and shouted themselves hoarse,” like any political zealots. They used precisely the same Big Lie tactics perfected by absolutist governments: “If we tell the people often enough it is poetry; if we keep on saying it is poetry, and get critics to tell them it is poetry, in the end they’ll disregard the testimony of their own sense, and believe it is poetry.” “Under the false flag of friendship” modernists had captured poetry’s “citadel—a little as if the totalitarians, beneath the banner of democracy, had taken the capitals of the free world, and enforced freedom by means of secret police, concentration camps, and execution squads.” Modernists operate “with an intolerance which denies others the right to exist.” The editors of Pinnacle, the magazine of the League for Sanity in Poetry, described modernism as genocide: poets were being exterminated (“The actual mandate, to be precise, prescribes not that all poets be exterminated, but only those who respect the literary traditions of three thousand years”). To this murderous “revolution,” wrote another antimodernist, “there must be a counterrevolution. . . . The world has no . . . use for any kind of bigotry and regimentation.” It was “futile . . . to seek the cause of the rise of our poetic dictators in any agency or factor outside their own little, warped minds and hearts,” a conservative editor wrote, and so, she continued, “the only way to eliminate the trouble is to eliminate them.” By imposing a “tabu against beauty, modern poets . . . have unwittingly signed their own death sentence.”

[from chapter 8]

Coblentz (1896-1982), critic, anthologist, science fiction writer, poet—author of twenty-one books of poems—and for many years (1933-60) editor of Wings, A Quarterly of Verse, was a leader among those who contended that the cold war against modernism was a fight for political as well as poetic liberty. For Coblentz antimodernism was always a “cause”: he sought to locate the traditionalists who had been “crying in our poetic wilderness” and to persuade them that he and they were “working for the same cause, and against the same forces.” In an essay-editorial called “The Walls of Freedom,” Coblentz summarized the successes of the “insurgents” who had begun by exclaiming, “’Free! Free! We want to be free!’” and who then proceeded to “substitute one form of repression for another” and finally instituted “their particular form of control.” That control was “harsher, narrower, and far more restricting than” the traditionalism it replaced.

Coblentz saw this as part of the political history of radicalism. Breakers of chains are bringers of chains. The French people of the 1790s were released, only to be plunged into bloody despotism. Revolutionists later threw off the shackles of the Russian czars and now communism is “still more ruthless.” The analogy to “unrelated field[s] such as poetry” might not seem to follow. But indeed it does follow: “similar psychological forces have been at work” in and among modernists. “Having assaulted the ancient strongholds,” the modernist radicals issued “their declaration of independence”: “anyone may write in any manner, any mood, and from any point of view.” Under the new regime, a poet’s “model may be Spenser, Herrick, or last week’s newspaper columnist.” This is liberty? No. Secretly “free verse was not born in freedom, suckled in freedom, matured in freedom; nor have any of the various [t]ypes of modernism or surrealism [sic] tolerated freedom.” Modernism was an instance of pure dogma; it was as vicious and tenacious as the Russian revolution—and generally very much like it—because “one of the most insistent of modern dogmas is that which [pretends to] oppose the dogmatic.” Modernists clandestinely impose rules “of an ironclad dogmatic quality.” They are, in short, keen political ideologues, brandishing a ruthless hegemony of cultural freedom, “demand[ing] everyone be free in their way” and thus, like the communists, “clamp[ . . . ] down an intolerable tyranny.” They put their opponents in “six-by-eight” isolation cells of “unbounded liberty.” The revolt that got underway in the teens and twenties was consolidated during the Depression, the 1930s having been a time, thus, when many let “our crumbling economic foundations undermine their poetic foundations.” When for the purposes of an editorial Coblentz invented a typical unrelenting modernist Poet (with two figures operating behind the scenes—one named “The Politician” and the other “The Press Agent”), he noted that after four of five years of placing poems in avant-garde magazines these were now picked up by “the editors of left-wing publications” who began to speak of our Poet as ‘one of the most promising of the younger coterie.’” In a series of editorials, books, anthologies, and memoirs, Coblentz repeatedly offered a political history of modernism as follows: the First World War led to “a mood of creative nihilism,” which had aesthetically led to “the feeling of ‘Oh well, what does it all matter anyhow?’” and then to the “abandon[ment of] standards in poetry” and “literature of high aspiration,” which in turn was “powerfully accentuated by the wars and revolutions that made a shambles of a great part of civilization while slaying uncounted millions.”

Stanton Coblentz was applying specifically to poetry an assumption generally shared among anticommunists who studied the “psychology” of the ideologist. Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer (1951), through its taxonomic approach to various kinds of radicals and fanatics, began with the assumption that revolutionaries feared liberty more than they feared persecution. The “experience of vast change” offers a “sense of freedom,” but changes are “executed in a frame of strict discipline.” For Coblentz this explained the despotic cult of newness in the New Poetry.


By 1955 E. Merrill Root had completed his study of every issue of a collegiate communist magazine published in the late thirties and discovered, to his consternation, that the young editors chose to print poems that “combined,” within the poem, avant-garde experiment and “Communist ideology.” Thus Root worried that readers of a later time would miss the communism for the modernist linguistic surface. Perhaps such naïve readers will “smile and say, ‘It was long ago—and far away.’” Root wanted readers of this verse to be alert to the dreadful consequences of such tolerance of the thirties in the fifties: Yes, “it was ‘long ago.’ [But] insect eggs are laid long before they waken to devour the living host.” Unless they are vigilant, at any rate, his readers might not realize that the deadly parasite here was political subversion expressing itself as modernism.

[from chapter 13]

And Donald Davidson (1893-1968), Richard Weaver’s teacher at Vanderbilt, observed in the modernist use of the “conjunction and” a “latent” rhetorical betrayal that had dire political consequences. It was but one step from the expression of a pet peeve against parataxis to the conservative’s domino theory of communist succession. When Hemingway’s writing connects an A to a B—“I told it to a doctor and he said I was lying”; “He was an old man who fished alone and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish”; and (of wailing victims of genocide) “We’d run the searchlight up and down over them two or three times and they stopped it”—he failed to create a meaningful relationship between the conjoined elements “other than a simple coupling.” Davidson continued:

“A” and “B” are there. The inescapable act of vision tells him so. But Hemingway rarely ventures, through grammar and rhetoric, to go beyond saying that “A” and “B” are just there, together. Similarly, our diplomats and Far Eastern Experts long had a habit of declaring that there was a Red Russia and a Red China, with the tender implication that such a conjunction was entirely innocent. [Liberal] [p]olitical theorists for nearly two centuries have coordinated liberty and equality, but have too often failed to tell us, as history clearly shows, that liberty and equality are much more hostile than they are mutually friendly.

Rejecting historical sequence and the grammatical hierarchial imperative, parataxis was bad. The paratactic, ironic "and" was just as bad—perhaps worse, for it pretended narrative order.

Davidson saw a treacherous political irresponsibility in the act of eschewing relations of cause and effect while letting the related elements stand in unordered, unsubordinated lists. Although cause and effect is a “less exalted” rhetorical mode, added Weaver, “we all have to use it because we are historical men.” Coblentz was similarly incensed when he ran across verse hailed as “’advanced’” where the syntactical connections had been removed (even the empty “and”), such as these lines, which Coblentz loved to hate, from “the well-known modernist” who had also published the poem “Lenin” (1932) in The Rebel Poet—Kenneth Patchen:

Behind this familiar scenery of words
The fear-stained placenta
The mulchronated cowlknife
The enchorial puddercap
The dissentient conglutination
The dagglesome crassitude
The spool-mouthed gaddement
The ruck-souled concinnity. . .

Never mind that the passage can be said to cohere through the variation of otherwise closely matched grammatical pairs (article/{compound} adjective/noun) and that it is more strictly “grammatical,” despite its neologisms, than some of the verse libre nature lyrics Coblentz lavishly praised in his anthologies. Patchen’s poem, “And a Man Went Out Alone” (1949) seems to me just successful enough to obviate any need to spell out what is fairly obvious to the reader, that the poet collects these fragments to create a sense of sanity and to create, against the backdrop of insanity, a patterned “scenery of words.” Yet to Coblentz this Kenneth Patchen was of the same disruptive ilk as the “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” passage from The Waste Land, where Eliot (“Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe / Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata”) evinced a culture-denying “crassitude” no better. Responding to a mode in which Jose Garcia Villa (whose verse an editor of Poetry called the work of “a pure lunatic”) would insert a comma after every word, Donald Jenks published “Tell Me No More” in The Humanist, bearing this opening line: “Tell me no more the covert significance of this man’s commas.” Jenks’s poem is about the connection between the fragmentation of poetic language, the development in poetics of a focus on “parts,” and the modernist attack on humanism. Jenks’s speaker realizes here that his “divergence” from the new poetics

has now reached such a pitch
that I have dared to peep at the humanist heresy
that life has scope for many arts and skills,
the sum of which is greater than any part.

For Donald Davidson, Stanton Coblentz and Richard Weaver alike, tradition blessed grammar with the means by which all elements in a piece of writing were not created equal. “The forces of modernism conspire to extinguish” the faithful idealism expressed through tradition and eloquent wisdom that characterized the American South prior to 1861—so Weaver contended in 1948—bringing on “fragmentation” which “leads directly to an obsession with isolated parts.” The appeal of antebellum rhetoric, for Southern apologists Weaver and Davidson, was its rejection of the illegible list and the modern nonconjunctive and. Rather than accepting as true the A and B conjoined, the open-form “and” favored by Hemingway and Stein merely confirmed the stark choices between the two, which reminded Davidson of the conservative’s civilized preference for liberty over equality. Eventually this radical-democratic parataxis must give way to subordination, the ranked and ordered list, the proper hierarchical place of rhetoric as a decent public force. Modernist grammar, “the mark of timid evasiveness” that led to the acceptance of successive communist regimes—first Russia, then China, then…?—must finally cause “the prevalance of liberty” and “may very well require some subordination of equality.” Once modernist parataxis mooted subordination, anything and everything could be thrown together. Here avant-garde writing is such a strong conductor for the doubts and fears of the American conservative because it represented a style that refused to subordinate what the conservative felt were inherently unequal elements.

An editorial in Pinnacle, the magazine of the League for Sanity in Poetry, listed “the ordinances of the new authoritarianism”: “Discard clarity! Discard music! Discard consecutiveness of thought…! As a reward [for following these rules] we will acclaim you as a modernist!” “A poem written merely to prove that the contents of an ashcan may provide material for a poem,” J. Donald Adams wrote, “belongs in the place of its origin.”


The standard for linguistic citizenship as Richard Weaver conceived it required no such trick of asserting latency. Weaver despised trickery and went after disjunction directly. In the fervent conclusion to “Aspects of Grammatical Categories” in The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), Weaver argued that “Like the political citizenship defined by Aristotle, language citizenship makes one a potential magistrate, or one empowered to decide.” Here the absolutist actually advocates a writer’s adjustment or acceptance, for it is a gesture of accommodation to an a priori truth about grammar’s rightness. One should not—one cannot—unthinkingly adopt the conventions of one’s language, or approach them with “the attitude of personal defiance,” but should in the end consciously accept them—and accept the notion that to violate them is to give up voluntarily one’s social belonging. While it cannot be proved that “grammar is determined by the ‘best people,’” it was true, Weaver insisted, that strict adherence to canons of grammar “incorporates the people as a whole.” Weaver offers the highest view of the situation: “In the long view a due respect for the canons of grammar seems a part of one’s citizenship. One does not remain uncritical; but one does ‘go along.’”

In the poetry wars of the late forties and fifties the very definition of citizenship was at stake….

[from the preface]

The Fifties’ Thirties is about conservatives’ attempt to destroy the modernist avant-garde in the anticommunist period after World War Two. The antagonists readers will meet in these pages by no means constitute a monolithic force. They were not ideologically of a kind. But aesthetically? Well, yes, aesthetically they were more or less unified; they knew what they were formally against, and the narrative of that surprising unity is at the center of this study. A few of these people did work together, such as the band of poets and poetry editors—most of them reactionary antimodernists—whom the prolific Stanton Coblentz helped assemble under the banner of the League for Sanity in Poetry. Others among Coblentz’s colleagues, however, would not have recognized themselves as allies; quite aside from their hatred of modern poetry, differences between them—academic, theoretical, personal—would have gotten in the way. In this telling of the story of the attempt to roll back modernism, to finalize “what might be called the divorce of the two avant-gardes” (aesthetic and political), we see bona fide conservatives joined by a variety of liberal anticommunists who shared with them the anticommunist ground. The people whom I dub “antimodernist anticommunists” came to the matter of poetry with the real heterogeneity characteristic of the postwar right and so-called “New Right.” Some of them, like Max Eastman, hardly an unknown—indeed once a major figure—had themselves been both communists and supporters of modernism. Others, like the now-forgotten Read Bain, proudly stood to the left of center on social issues and were willing to tolerate contemporary poets who tended toward the traditional side of the modern idiomatic and metrical scale. Some, like E. Merrill Root, were lifelong radical individualists who were consistent in their beliefs, at least in the abstract, but organizationally made the journey from the communist left to the extreme right—in Root’s case, from editorial posts at the New Masses to the poetry editorship of American Opinion, the magazine of the John Birch Society. Other figures freely conceded that they had moved from left to right, such as the Poetry Society of America’s A. M. Sullivan, who earlier had “wandered a trifle left of center,” voting for socialist Norman Thomas despite registration as a Democrat, but who by 1954 “certainly applaud[ed] [Joseph] McCarthy’s clean-up of the U.S. Printing Office.” Many of them, like Welford Inge, actually feared the modernist conspiracy as a tactical aspect of the world domination of communism; these people—their views strange to us now—are of particular interest. Among this latter sort of conservative is Archer Milton Huntington, a personally modest although immensely wealthy person who saw the demise of the American poetic academy as “symptomatic”: “The source of the trouble is elsewhere,” Huntington wrote, and he meant generally the radical sensibility and specifically the economics of the New Deal and its destruction of traditional arts philanthropy. Virginia Kent Cummins decried William Carlos Williams’s commitment to the principle “that experimentation is necessary to the life of the language” and urged her readers to conclude that “it may all be a part of Communism, trying to undermine our most treasured traditions.” The querulous Battle Creek poet Jessie Wilmore Murton deemed communism in modern verse every bit as harmful as the (alleged) take-over by leftists of a Michigan denominational college or the wrecking of a manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo by a “motorcade of…radicals.” Others, such as Robert Hillyer, a figure known nationally for his role in the controversy stirred when Ezra Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize, probably did not believe any ultimate political conspiracy theory, yet used and admired anticommunism as a means of striking hard at the cultural betrayal modernism seemed generally to represent. Some were consistent, thoroughgoing, true reactionaries—remarkable minds, fine writers, brilliant in their theoretical absolutism, such as Richard Weaver. Still others, a troublesome vocal minority, were inconstant careerist lightweights, such as Ben Lucian Burman, whose salacious red-baiting tropes went logically and literarily awry.

All agreed, however, that modern poetic experimentalism was horrendous in a way that was either a form of communism or was exactly like communism. Modernists’ “attempt to destroy poetry,” one of them wrote, “…their enmity…their hostility…their zest…admit of no interpretation but that which, in another field, would be made of the attitude of an American who constantly applauded Russian actions, attitudes and ways of life while sneering at everything in our own from Washington to Truman.”

Is it right to say that modernism’s detractors were indeed working “in another field”—or in the same? Perhaps that is the larger question raised and answered here. I began this study bearing the general expectation that I would discover and then conclude that antimodernists at midcentury shared the anticommunist field with economic, political and sociological critics and commentators. To be sure, in the course of my research I did discern significant overlaps, and came as well to understand that the logic, analytical tools and theories critics in fields other than my own have used to interpret anticommunism would be helpful. Many poetic traditionalists who had long thought of themselves as apolitical did find, especially in the late 1940s, that they were shifting quickly into politicized vocabularies and borrowing analyses from anticommunist colleagues in disciplines they had felt theretofore were irrelevant to poetry. Finally, though, it is the conclusion of this book that the ultimate aim of the anticommunist antimodernist was to change the aesthetic landscape—and that this was as damaging to the art of poetry as if the campaign against modernism had been waged solely on the political grounds held by anticommunists in the practical fields of public policy, education, and the judiciary.

Anticommunist antimodernists sought to deny the assumption that aesthetic progress required formal experimentation, and they sought to find a way, any way (even a crude, straightforwardly political way) of dubbing the verse of formal experiment “bad poetry”; and finally they sought to enact a permanent “restoration of the language,” an heroic counterrevolutionary act that required suppression of the avant-garde and even the idea of an avant-garde. Restoration meant (somehow) taking poetic language “back” to a (fantasized) moment in literary history just prior to its affiliation with extra-poetic modes, an affiliation modernism’s anticommunist detractors blamed on the way American poets—and intellectuals generally—of the 1930s had allegedly coopted the free, unfettered, individualistic creative geniuses of the 1910s and 1920s. Anticommunism provided the most effective means by which modernism’s enemies could set up a permanent opposition between writing on one hand that “utters the everlasting language of poetry” and, on the other hand, writing that cannot go “beyond experimentation” to poetic tradition and thus invited the reasonable American reader to wonder “if it utters any language at all.” Anticommunism offered an ideological mechanism by which the antimodernist could deny modern poetry its status as language. That is the story told in the second half of this book, and it leads, in the final chapter, to a survey of the resistance against modernism put up by purveyors of the primary fetishism—namely, grammar—that operated by political analogy in reactionary language.

So antimodernism in the 1950s was really, at bottom, a fight against “liberals [who] tend to assume…that only the left in politics, only the avant-garde in literature, are against conformity.” The job of the anticommunist in the poetry world was to undo this alleged association between the radical left and poetic avant-gardism. The project entailed—I am tempted to say required—an aggressive reinterpretation of the 1930s. Here cold-war antimodernists were able to borrow amply from the larger political-cultural critique; that critique is the topic of the first half of The Fifties’ Thirties.

The version of the “thirties” constructed in the “fifties” (actually, 1945-1960) made it possible for liberals to be able to claim that one could be “against conformity” while still hating avant-gardism. And hate it they did, with new reason.

To my knowledge, this is the first time a book has been written about the overall effects of actual anticommunism on modernist American poetry and poetics. Such a blank in our understanding of American art and artists has its specific causes. A main cause is the apparent disappearance of the evidence for links between (and among) disparate, truculent McCarthyite elements in the poetry world and their “communist poet” enemies and the modernist experimenters who have not been known to have connections to the communist movement. Other historians of the twentieth-century American literary left have perhaps beheld this evidence more systematically at the start, with keener initial intent, than I. My own story of starting out is more that of the accidental archival traveler, although permitting myself all veerings and branchings off such that I could literally afford has led to thinking self-consciously and more confidently than ever about the importance of the archive in the context of American intellectuals’ politics, especially the politics of communism and anticommunism. An otherwise brilliant work about the 1950s such as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)—the second half of which is really, I would say, a study of philistine antimodernism—is vulnerable to counterargument because Richard Hofstadter disdained what historians call “primary research.” The same problem besets Hofstadter’s essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt—1954,” which is nonetheless an influence on the present study, as is The Authoritarian Personality (1950), a theoretically but also experimentally magnificent survey of American political attitudes conducted by a team of researchers led by Theodore Adorno. But for these writings Hofstadter adamantly eschewed the archive, and he went still further: he called such research the purview of “archive rats.”

The source of this disdain is not entirely clear, but the effect is to have left the case for intellectualism incomplete, and, at worst, methodologically ironic. Hofstadter, influenced by Adorno, concluded that what we call “McCarthyism” has been a cultural phenomenon—rightly, I think. Yet the culture the historian had in mind was made and embodied in part by those who at the time remained unpublished or diverted into producing expressions not available (then or even now) on library or bookstore shelves. I do not claim that the materials rediscovered by archival work are “primary,” but surely they can be just as suggestive and persuasive as materials that are readily available and require no such effort.

Almost two decades ago, I was in Austin to visit an uncle and decided to spend a few afternoons reading around in the unpublished papers of modern American poets at the Ransom Center of the University of Texas. To the archivist on duty at the reading room desk I described my interest in modernists who had had actual affiliations with the political left—in particular, with American communism. We agreed that I should begin with Louis Zukofsky, an obvious starting point: I was as fascinated by the problem of reading Zukofsky politically as I was of doing the same with Wallace Stevens, whose political life, such as it could be construed, was my project at the time. Moreover, the Ransom Center has a treasure trove of Zukofsky’s manuscripts. I read some edifying Zukofsky materials during that visit, but because my mind characteristically wandered “past Z,” as it might be put, I began to move my research (and my archival methodology) in a new direction, and started then to put together pieces of a puzzle that has occupied me on and off in all the years since. The method has taken me pretty much everywhere, and this book is the result.

What is literally past Z in the typical repository card catalogue? Miscellaneous, unidentified, anonymous, uncatalogued, misindexed. Even in the great archive, what is uncatalogued is often merely that which has been quickly deemed “less important,” not sufficiently a priority to merit the weeks and months—and real money—it takes to ascertain the identity of writers and recipients of personal correspondence, of pseudonymous authors of unpublished or unfinished manuscripts, of writers who neglected (or declined) to affix their name to or to date what they wrote. Now if you add communism to the mix of motives for anonymity, you get perhaps the ultimate reason why so much “ephemera” from the communist 1930s and the anticommunist 1950s awaits the scholar venturing past Z. Some communist and fellow-traveling writers used pseudonyms that, while not per se secret, are hard to identify now by anyone who has not developed a mental rolodex of the disappeared leftist network and its traditionalist antagonists, or without careful cross-referencing other correspondences in other uncatalogued materials in other archives—or indeed without permitting the digressions from left to right and back again that are sometimes partially mapped in those unique materials. (Walter Lowenfels mentioned just once, in a personal letter to Granville Hicks, that he had published verse in The Daily Worker under the name “Arthur Coyle.” Since Lowenfels never published a poem in the United States over his own name until his 1938 book, Steel 1937, the verse of Arthur Coyle is meaningful if one wants to learn about Lowenfels’s transition from his expatriate, experimentalist 1920s to the “eleg[ies] for idealism” he wrote as a self-conscious communist.) Of many twentieth-century American poets who wrote through a series of discrete aesthetic and ideological phases, who evolved through several literary identities, we often insistently but inaccurately describe a whole career, trace with critical hindsight a single creative and critical intelligence developing, without crediting or even realizing the degree to which such identification is a convenience enabled by the fact that they identified themselves consistently by name and were always thus bibliographically and archivally indexable.

Past Z that day in Texas I retrieved and read with fascination a never-yet-read thick folder of unordered handwritten materials, mostly undated, that turned out to be a regular correspondence between a man named “Leippert” and another person then identified on the file only as “W.M.” “Leippert” caught my eye because I had recently been visiting Chicago, where at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago I read letters the apparently conservative poet Wallace Stevens had written to “J. Ronald Lane Latimer.” “Latimer” was the founder and publisher of Alcestis Press, which published two of Stevens’s books of poems in the 1930s. I had learned there that the given name of this odd “Latimer” was George Leippert, born and raised in Albany, New York; and he had at least five other pseudonyms. I had already been to Albany to talk with contemporary residents named Leippert and had luckily found Melissa Leippert, sister of the pseudonymous publisher. I knew from the Latimer-Stevens connection that Willard Maas (my “W.M.” at the Ransom Center) had been Latimer’s associate editor and close friend, and I learned from Melissa that a half-century earlier her brother had “run off with Maas,” although until I read the unprocessed folder of letters in Austin I did not fully know what that meant.

It meant communism, among other things. The poet Maas had joined the Communist Party of the United States ( cpusa) and then had assiduously drawn Latimer in. And the letters I now studied, traded back and forth between the two excitable young Red editors of modernist poets in the mid-1930s, taught me a good deal of the fecund modernist-communist relationship—and also, specifically, the extent to which Stevens, a poet seemingly remote from politics, would have known about this context.

Latimer’s semisecret modernist-communist nexus, almost entirely hidden outside the archive, and mostly obscured even inside it, became a model for dozens of similar explorations I undertook in the years following. Typical of the exchanges I then sought and found in various archives, the “W.M.”-“Leippert” letters also mentioned a myriad other names, most of them indeed at first just names to me, people who turn out to be what we deem minor literary characters—writers who, as I came to learn, were either part of a network that by the mid-forties and 1950s was entirely scattered or, especially if by then they had renounced radicalism and had deradicalized their version of modernism, were oddly now in charge of the reputations of their opposite numbers.

Bearing a list of everyone these two young radicals mentioned, and accumulating deeper lists as I went along, in Syracuse, Los Angeles, New Haven, Seattle, again Chicago, Durham, Boston, New York, Wilmington, Baltimore, Detroit, Truchas (in New Mexico—where I met Alvaro Cardona-Hine entirely by accident), Charlottesville, Palo Alto, La Jolla, St. Louis, Chapel Hill, Atlanta, Washington, and elsewhere, I followed leads and accrued a home-made cross-index. I wanted to write a book that described but also conveyed—and even embodied—the form of the scattering. I sought analysis of its effect on modern American poetry generally, and I began to identify the agents of an intra-American poetic diaspora—the agents themselves now shadowy figures no less, forgotten, discoverable mainly through the archive.

These radical and conservative networks largely did not overlap, especially as the thirties gave way to years of anxious Cold War, yet the writings of and exchanges among members of each group plentifully referred to their detractors, and so, reading both, I began to shape this book’s unusual dramatis personae. In the time it has taken to research and write the book, I have come to comprehend, through its materiality, the very basis of what has been called a cycle of “repression and recovery.”

Poetry is hardly immune to such political phasing. On the contrary, as I contend, poetry and poetics are especially sensitive indicators—although, I should now point out, not because the verse that ultimately interests me is particularly strong and indicative, rather indeed because it is difficult, disrupted, open to counterargument. Through The Fifties’ Thirties, a detailed exploration of ideological antimodernism, I hope to offer a persuasive response to a fascinating and seemingly unanswerable question: Why has avant-garde writing been such a strong conductor for the doubts and fears of the American conservative?