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On Rolfe's Poems about McCarthyism


Walter Kalaidjian

n his last uncollected and unpublished poems, Rolfe's dramatic monologue and epistolary forms parody the mad masquerade of political passing in the McCarthy era. Poems such as "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," "Letter," and "A Letter to the Denouncers" dwell on the destinies of those who cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in "recanting" their former lives and naming onetime comrades. In portraying the social casualties of the Red Scare, the poet reveals the ill fate of moral collapse, ethical compromise, and spiritual defeat that went hand-in-hand with the loss of the core social commitments forged two decades earlier in the Depression era. "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been' ironically reverses the discursive conventions and civic rituals of committee inquisition. The poem takes its title, of course, from the key question put to all those who were subpoenaed to appear before HUAC. In the early days of the Martin Dies Committee, the question was simply "Are you a member of the Communist Party of the United States?" To undermine this line of interrogation, the Party launched the countermeasure of automatically canceling one's membership upon having to respond so that one could truthfully answer "No" without risk of perjury. Making the line of questioning retroactive allowed HUAC, in turn, to circumvent this Ploy (Dmytryk 59, n.3). The famous nickname of this query, the so-called "Sixty-four-dollar question," reflects the Committee's theatrical politics borrowed from the spectacle of game shows that came into their heyday with the advent of TV. In Rolfe's poetic drama, the accused confesses to the crime of succumbing to "a moment of pity/ a vulnerable second of sympathy" (Collected 254). "My defenses were down," the speaker pleads to the charges of having supported clemency for six black defendants, made a modest donation for refugee relief, and demonstrated for rent control. Rolfe's poem stages how in the 1950s simple altruism, human empathy, and social solidarity, put one supremely at risk, framed as they are here as grounds for state sedition.

Tellingly, this defendant's plea for leniency internalizes the Cold War cultural logic that placed communal ethics and social commitment at odds with domestic conformity, self-reliance, possessive individualism, and traditional, family values:

 but please believe me
everything I did was done through weakness if you will
but it's strange how weakness of this kind snowballs
multiplies
before they approached me with that innocent petition
I was may it please the court exactly
like you like every other man
I lived my own life solely suffered
only my own sorrows and enjoyed my own triumphs
small ones I grant you
asked nothing from
gave nothing to
any man
except myself my wife my children (Collected 254)

 The ideological clash between the privatized, nuclear family and the democratic polis persisted throughout the postwar era and could be heard, for example, in the 1996 Republican Presidential Convention when nominee Bob Dole insisted that "It takes a family" to raise a child, thereby signifying his party's contempt for the rhetorical figure of community featured in Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1996 book It Takes a Village: and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.

In a similar dramatization of the Red Scare's shaping of everyday life in the 1950s, "Letter" blurs the boundary between the public and domestic confessional in a husband's note to his spouse explaining the circumstances of his own impending committee summons. Employing the epistolary conventions of intimacy, privacy, and sincerity, Rolfe draws the reader into sympathy with the father's ethical concern for his family's well-being, faced with the impending fiscal hardships and civic scandal of committee interrogation. Here he advises his wife to "send the children up to Jim's in the country" so as to avoid "the cruelty of their classmates, possibly even their teachers" (Collected 256). Such familial care is ironically undercut, however, in the letter's final instructions that are telling in their social and self betrayals:

And third--and this is most important--
find out who those people were--
the people who asked me to sign that letter,
who asked me for that small contribution,
who prompted me to join the demonstration.
By the time I return
I want to know them better
I have lots of questions to ask
many things to find out
and they're the ones I have a hunch
who can tell me everything I want to know. (Collected 256)

In its turn to black humor as a psychic defense against Red Scare repression, Rolfe's late verse resists his moment's pervasive cultural pressure to disavow communal allegiances in favor of the socially restrictive simulacra of civic normalcy, sexual conformity, upward class mobility, as well as gender and race subordination that were all sanctioned in the new phenomenon of the suburban nuclear family. As an ideological figure of containment, the white middle-class patriarchal household of the 195os--as promoted, not insignificantly, by the spectacle of television and the burgeoning mass media--served as the domestic counterpart to America's emergent foreign policy doctrine of the containment of global Communism: the "malignant parasite" diagnosed as early as February 22, 1946 in George Kennan's so-called "Long Telegram" of eight thousand words from Moscow to the State Department. Moreover, as a habitas of social reproduction, the all-American family effectively displaced alternative identities whose social foundations rest on class, sexual, gender, and racial difference. Adopting the solicitous address of postwar advertising and bureaucratic speaking, Rolfe hails the would-be subject of upright civic virtue as itself a paranoid figure of state surveillance: "Sir, as you start for work each morning, please,/ check,your clothes-closet for skeletons,/ your dreams for inconsistencies,/ the radio in your car for microphones" (Collected 258). Not dissimilar to the kind of black humor we have come to value in Kenneth Fearing's caustic Depression-era verse. Rolfe's amusing parodies of middle-class phobias baffle the extreme, psychopolitical states of postwar cultural suspicion, paranoia, and terror otherwise registered in "Bal Masque" and "All Ghouls' Night."

In an era when poetic formalism served the New Critical mission of neutralizing socially committed verse, Rolfe's use of fixed forms to voice his most subversive commentaries on American life marks a key appropriation of traditional measures for political protest. Indeed, at the level of form, the rhyming couplets of "Little Ballad for Americans--1954" perform an implicit parody of the kind of poetic artifice that, in the fifties, defined the conservative New Critical hegemony in academic verse. Rather perversely, Rolfe turns such formalism against itself not only to capture the reigning paranoia of the Red Scare:

Student, student, keep mouth shut and brain spry
Your best friend Dick Merriwell's employed by the F.B.I.

but also, to succinctly push the mass-mediated spectacular logic of McCarthyism to its dehumanizing conclusion:

Give full allegiance only to circuses and bread;
No person's really trustworthy until he's dead. (Collected 260)

Similarly, in "Pastoral--1954" formalism drives home the point in Rolfe's ironic collapsing of two antithetical cultural moments, thereby clarifying the political divide separating Republican Spain from Republican America:

Who used to lie with his love

In the glade, far from the battlesector,

Now lies embraced by a lie-detector

And can not, dare not, move. (Collected 259)

In such savvy formalist measures, Rolfe masterfully marks the break between the passionate thirties and the paralyzed fifties: between the organicism of international socialist commitment and the paranoia of state surveillance.

Part of why Rolfe matters to 20th-Century American poetry is the sheer endurance of his political stances that bridge the interbellum and postwar decades. Moreover, Rolfe's evolving continuity of poetic strategies counters the persistent critical tendency to periodize modern poetry as a discrete domain cut off from contemporary American verse. In this shaping of American poetics, the postwar years typically belong to New Criticism, whose ahistorical formalism prevails up through the advent of the Beat and Black mountain movements anthologized in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry (1960). For too long that narrative of academic containment has backgrounded Rolfe's crucial linkage of the politically engaged project of Depression-era verse to the haunted cultural poetics of McCarthyism and the Cold War era. Edwin Rolfe: Collected Poems and Edwin Rolfe: Trees Became Torches will go a long way toward remedying that neglected literary history. The revival of the Rolfe corpus now restores a central voice to the American left--one whose speaking remains, for those of us who forward his work, "passionate, clean, untarnished by small fears" (Collected 248).

By Walter Kalaidjian. Reprinted from College Literature. Copyright 1998 by Walter Kalaidjian.


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