Kingsolver on Anti-Communist Hysteria

HUAC members (including Nixon) look for communists

HUAC members (including Nixon) look for communists

Listening to a novel on CD is different than reading it and, in some ways, the experience is more intense. I was recently aurally immersed in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent Lacuna (2009) and found myself spending days in a nightmarish section of the book where the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is persecuting the protagonist as a communist.

The reason I spent days is because I was undertaking brief ten minute errands for my parents and so just heard the novel in snatches. I suppose I could have sat in the car and listened to the entire HUAC section, but I appreciated how this fragmented engagement with the book accentuated a feeling of helplessness. My parents have often talked about feeling this way in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

After World War II the forces of rightwing reaction, on the defense during the Roosevelt years, got the upper hand. In the novel we watch HUAC, including Richard Nixon, badger Harrison Shepherd, who is an introverted and gay novelist who just wants to be left alone. Shepherd writes historical fiction about ancient Mexico, and perhaps he would be left alone if he weren’t a bestselling author. HUAC wants celebrity victims.

As it probes Shepherd, the committee finds plenty of grist for its mill. When he is a young man growing up in Mexico, Shepherd works for the revolutionary artists Diego Rivera and Frido Kahlo and also serves as secretary to Trotsky, who is in the country fleeing from Stalin. But Shepherd has no interest in “overthrowing the government of the United States.” In fact, he loves America—or does until it breaks him.

Reading the book through a modern lens, it is as though the Tea Party of 2010 has seized control of the country and Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been given carte blanche to use information collected by the FBI to ruin and even imprison anyone he disagrees with.

My own parents felt the effects of HUAC and Joseph McCarthy in 1954 when my father was looking for his first teaching job. The University of California at Riverside offered him a position but, to take it, my father would have had to sign a loyalty oath. He turned it down and braved uncertainty, ultimately accepting a one-year position at the University of the South at Sewanee. After reading Lacuna, I am now particularly impressed with his decision not to have anything to do with the witch hunts. His family, all Illinois Republicans, criticized him for turning down the Riverside position.

Fortunately for him, college teachers work within an environment that supports open inquiry, and what cost him a job in California functioned as a positive recommendation for Sewanee. Those in the entertainment industry were less fortunate. My good friend Maurine Holbert Hogaboom, a successful New York actor in the 1930s and 1940s, was accused of being a communist by HUAC because of her support of the Negro Theater Project. This didn’t affect her acting career in New York since she was involved in Off Broadway productions, but it prevented her from what could have been a brilliant career in television. Given her charismatic personality, she might have become someone whose name we all recognize. Instead, on her second day in Hollywood she learned that her name was on a blacklist.  She cried the entire train ride back to New York.

She even changed her name for a short while, which is an option offered Harrison Shepherd in Kingsolver’s novel. But in the end, Maureen reclaimed her name and chose to fashion a new career (she counseled artists through a process she called psychosynthesis). It’s inspiring how she overcame adversity, but that doesn’t undo the ugliness of America’s unfounded hysteria over communism infiltration.

A couple of weeks ago, probably because I was so filled with Kingsolver’s book, I came down fairly hard on Obama for the NSA’s data mining (I invoked  Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). It now appears that Obama’s faults are not as egregious as I originally thought as he has sought to rein in some of the Bush-era excesses, even though he has continued on with these programs.

Nevertheless, Kingsolver reminds us that we still need to be on the watch as she shows us J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI misusing information to ruin lives. My father informs me that this is just how the FBI behaved towards the Civil Rights Movement, finding communism in every nook and cranny and finally helping the State of Tennessee close down Highlander Folk School, an important center of the Movement, and confiscate all its property.  So as much as we would like to think that those are the bad old days, Lacuna dramatically shows us what people in the grip of fear are capable of doing, especially when they get their hands on personal information.

While there is much about the HUAC section that is chilling, I found especially dark a scene where an FBI agent is interrogating Shepherd. At one point, he ceases to sound human and comes across as an automaton:

“The mental world of the Communist is secretive,” he said. “The Soviet Fatherland has to be preserved at any cost, and its enemies confounded.” He seemed to be quoting a handbook, speaking in the general direction of the bookcase. Maybe he was trying to read titles: Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, the suspect will alphabetize his books at any cost. . .

He shifted himself around to face me. “The thinking of the Communist is that no one who opposes him can possibly have any merit whatsoever. It’s a psychological illness. The Communist cannot adjust himself to logic.”

“That’s a point of view. But I was thinking of what you said about confronting my accuser. I thought the Constitution gave me the right to know the charges against me. And who was bringing them.”

Myers drained his coffee cup and leaned forward with a little grunt to set the cup on the table. We were nearly finished, I could tell.

“Whenever I hear this kind of thing,” he said, “ a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, “How can he be such  a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’ A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.”

There are people on the GOP fringe and in the rightwing media who talk this way today. Pray they don’t come back into power.

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  • I read “The Lacuna” when it was first published a few years ago. It’s a very poignant and timely book, as you point out above. It seems particularly relevant this year given the hype over spying and the Justice Department’s witch hunt against Aaron Swartz and now Snowden. I’m watching to see if a few years down the road the media paints a different picture of Snowden than it is now composing.

    Two smart YA novels that have helped clarify my thinking about issues of privacy and national security are “Little Brother” and “Homeland,” both by Cory Doctorow.

    Barbara Kingsolver is one of our most important writers, and I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves. Her nonfiction essays about Arizona’s mining strike are also excellent.


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