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About Joseph Freeman (1897-1965)

James Bloom

Joseph Freeman has come to be known primarily, when known at all, as an early proponent of cultural Marxism and as an autobiographer. "Probably the most talented intellectual" in the US Communist Party was historian Joseph Starobin’s assessment of Freeman’s achievement. Freeman’s continuing reputation rests on his influential introduction to Granville Hicks’s ground-breaking 1935 anthology, Proletarian Literature in the United States and on his 1936 account his immigrant coming-of-age and of his becoming a Communist, An American Testament.

After emigrating with his family from Czarist Ukraine as a seven-year-old, Freeman grew up in Brooklyn’s Jewish Williamsburg neighborhood. His father, a real estate speculator and building contractor, became prosperous enough to send Freeman to Columbia College. After graduating in 1919 and serving a brief stateside Army hitch during World War One, Freeman thrust himself into the burgeoning Greenwich Village bohemian milieu so lovingly evoked in Warren Beatty’s 1982 movie, Reds, with its portrayals of such legendary leftists as John Reed and Max Eastman. Wanderlust then led Freeman to become European correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in 1920. This European sojourn stirred Freeman’s antagonism to capitalism and its mainstream media, so that upon his return from Europe he became one of Eastman’s assistant editors at the Liberator. In 1921 Freeman also joined the new Communist (Workers) Party and taught night school for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union. From 1925 to 1929, Freeman served as a New York correspondent for the Soviet news service, TASS. Along with Eastman and Mike Gold, Freeman founded a successor to both the Liberator and the Masses, the New Masses, in 1926. This gung-ho Communist phase of Freeman’s career yielded three books of political journalism: Dollar Diplomacy, a muckraking collaboration with ACLU co-founder Scott Nearing); Voices of October, an account of a trip to the USSR in 1926 written in collaboration with Joshua Kunitz and Louis Lozowick; and a statistical study entitled The Soviet Worker.

On assignment for TASS in Mexico in 1929, Freeman met and married Ione Robinson, an American painter who modeled for and apprenticed herself to muralist Diego Rivera. In her 1946 memoir A Wall to Paint On Robinson recounted that "it is really very difficult being in love with a Communist." When this difficulty ended their marriage three years later, Freeman traveled around the US as a speaker and organizer for the US Communist Party, most notably organizing John Reed Clubs for radical writers. This odyssey ended up in Hollywood where Freeman served as an assistant to the visiting Soviet director Boris Pilnyak at MGM studios. Upon his return to New York in 1934, he married another painter, Charmian von Wiegand, a protégé of the Nederlander abstract "jazz" painter Piet Mondrian. In 1934 Freeman, in partnership with Philip Rahv, helped launch Partisan Review.

During these Depression years Freeman did his most ambitious and influential work as a literary theorist and cultural journalist. His 1929 essay "Literary Theories," a review essay for the New Masses, and his 1938 Partisan Review article, "Mask Image Truth" frame, like book ends, his mid-decade introduction to Hicks’s pioneering anthology. Freeman strains in these essays to honor the Party line and, at the same to resist the ideological crudity, the "vulgar Marxism," that usually resulted from such striving. The latter essay’s Blake-like promotion of the literary critic as anti-priest--as relentless demystifier--attack, like Mike Gold’s The Hollow Men, the decade’s ascendant fascisms-- both the overt and crypto varieties--among interwar literary mandarins. Freeman exposed these mandarins’ magisterial posturing as a cover for bigotry, anticipating much of the tenor of the academic literary criticism that began to emerge soon after Freeman’s death.

Freeman’s adherence to the Communist Party line and organization ended painfully, like Richard Wright’s, in the late 1930s, soon after the publication of his ambitious autobiography--especially massive for a writer still in his thirties--An American Testament. It publication prompted Party stalwarts to denounce Freeman as a "romantic" and an "enemy of the people" because the narrative heaped insufficient praise on Stalin and only perfunctory opprobrium on Trotsky. In 1937 Freeman moved to Mexico to avoid an open break from with Communist Party apparatchiks. His open rupture with the Party came two years later with Freeman’s revulsion from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the USSR and the Third Reich, after which Freeman remained a staunch, vociferous anti-Fascist.

As a narrative of Marxist self-fashioning, An American Testament melds such diverse precursors as Augustine, Henry Adams, and Abraham Cahan, as well as the Lost Generation sensibility of Freeman’s contemporaries. The bourgeois individualist contradiction in the very concept of Marxist self-fashioning, limned in An American Testament, preoccupied Freeman for the rest of his writing life, especially in his two post-Party novels, Never Call Retreat (1943) and The Long Pursuit (1947). These tensions also surfaced in two magazine pieces he produced in the early forties, a story entitled "God Sees the Truth" for Harpers and an essay on Hollywood biopics for Theater Arts Monthly.

A dense, intermittently eloquent and erratically penetrating Tolstoyan odyssey framed as a New York psychoanalyst’s session transcripts, Never Recall Retreat recounts the tribulations of a young and reluctant Viennese socialist in the years leading up to World War Two. Also a historian specializing in the late Roman empire and the French Revolution, this fictional analysand emerges painfully as Freeman’s alter-ego: the scholar and aesthete as hesitant revolutionary. This mix of prophecy, scholarship, melodrama, cri de coeur, March of Time style "history," and even iambic pentameter poetry baffled many contemporary reviewers and sold only 4000 copies. Never Call Retreat offers, however, a mother lode to students of the period and of American cultural politics.

As an expose’ of mass media crassness and meretriciousness, The Long Pursuit--as terse and acid as Never Call Retreat was prolix and earnest--draws on Freeman’s work as researcher for Information Please--a popular stump-the-panel radio quiz show. Its setting is the series’ European USO tour the summer after V-E Day. The novel savages the show’s star and his Hollywood entourage. While on this European trip, Freeman also reported for Life magazine on the prospects for sustaining a US-Soviet alliance.

During his last two decades Freeman worked for public relations pioneer Edward Bernays These years also include stints at the Newberry Library and the MacDowell Colony for writers in New Hampshire as well as testimony in 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Freeman’s identified himself to the committee as a "man out of politics." A lecture that Freeman delivered at Smith College in 1958 illustrates nevertheless the degree to which Freeman’s politics survived his rupture with party Communism and gainsays his HUAC testimony. This lecture weighs the history that Freeman had witnessed, "the Age of Assassins" that Stalin instituted and the McCarthyist "Terror," against the egalitarian aspirations and impact of Soviet Communism.

Throughout his post-Party career, Freeman kept drafting and retitling a never-published autobiographical narrative, usually cast as a novel. Unpublished efforts during this period also include screenplays and poems in traditional forms--especially sonnets. Though Freeman made his reputation as a writer of narratives, manifestoes and cultural theory, the tensions between aesthetic responsiveness and revolutionary engagement, between Romantic reflectiveness and analytic political rigor, that Freeman’s career incarnates surface most vividly in his occasional work as a poet. In addition to reflecting these tensions, this poetry displays a remarkable continuity. For example, a sonnet that appeared in The Nation in 1921 shows the poet "seeking wisdom in a pretty rime" while an edgier unpublished formal lyric from the late twenties pictures poets "sweating at their Remingtons" [typewriters] over "Bolvia’s exports" while "news releases snow like confetti" and "mimeographs roll ever like the sea" (as in Byron’s Childe Harold). The sonnet, entitled "Song of the Cable Desk," opens by announcing:

No longer are the lyric poets able
To sing of love beneath the yellow moon
....Sonnets that haunt the memory willy nilly.

Then echoing--at once honoring and mocking--the sonnet-crafting Wordsworth, inventor of modern poetry as the language of "a man speaking to men," Freeman laments:

Milton, America needs the in this hour,
Thy organ voice could bellow through the phone,
‘Wheat is one sixty, there’s a drop in flour.’

A sonnet composed twenty years later fortifies these tensions by wedding Joyce, Yeats, and Aristotle with Superman comics, Counterspy magazine and a best-selling romance novel about Restoration England adapted by Otto Preminger into the popular Hollywood costume drama Forever Amber.

Freeman’s obscure career as what used to be called "a man of letters" vividly demonstrates what is to be a poet in milieus that oblige literary aspirants to engage in politics and to identify themselves with the pursuit of justice.

Further Reading

Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left (1969).
Kent Beck, "The Odyssey of Joseph Freeman," The Historian 38:1 (November 1974): 101-120.
James D. Bloom, Left Letters (1992).
James Gilbert, Writers and Partisans (1968).
Ione Robinson, A Wall to Paint On (1946).
Gary Scott McConnell Joseph Freeman: A Personal Odyssey from Romance to Revolution (Dissertation, UNC/Chapel Hill 1985).
_____________. Joseph Freeman: Artist in Uniform. Modern Age. 41:1(Winter 1999):40-7.

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