The Dark Day When Writers Faced Prison

So you’re a writer. And you’ve got problems. You’ve knocked out a book, maybe more, and you feel as though you are caught in a riptide of social media that is robbing you of all of your creative time, energy, and juices. There are blogs to write, tweets to tweet, emails to answer, the constant hammering of Triberr in your subconscious. Your fingers are sore, your mind is blank, you’re a hundred pages behind in your next novel, and you keep looking for a break, and the harder you work, the less time you have, the less you accomplish, and you fear that nobody will ever read your next book because you worry it’ll never spill out of your mind.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities interrogates writers as members of the Red Menace.

So you’ve got problems. No. You don’t have problems. You have challenges maybe. You have circumstances running amuck. You have consequences often beyond your control. But, as a writer, you don’t have problems.

Not once do you wake up and see Big Brother looking over your shoulder, shoving you into a dark corner, firing accusations at you, and threatening to send you to jail for something you might or might not have done fifteen or twenty years ago.

The writers in the late 1940s and 1950s had problems. No. They were lined up in front of a government firing squad, headed by a band of wild-eyed, radical, fire-breathing congressman, and ordered to testify, under oath, whether or not they had ever been a member of the Communist Party. And what’s worse, they were ordered to look around at their friends and colleagues, point accusatory fingers, name names, and betray anyone in the Hollywood writing or acting family who had ever even whispered the word Communism aloud or more than once.

It was the beginning of the Red Scare. And the writers were looked upon as the Red Menace. The law be damned. The First Amendment be damned. The Constitution be damned. Senator Joe McCarthy was on his glory-bound soapbox and vowing to rid every distant corner in America of its growing infestation of communists. Worry about the wordsmiths, he said. He feared the pen more than the sword.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart lead a protest against the HUAC hearings.

Then, as now, so many of the writers, especially during the difficult days of the Great Depression, had a distinct leftist view of the world around them. It was not a good world, and a lot of them had joined the Communist Party, which was the primary force in America fighting for the right of poor people, leading campaigns for improvements in welfare, unemployment, and social security benefits.

Those are the kinds of social battles that have long pricked the conscience of America’s writers. Besides, America and Russia weren’t at war. The two countries had even fought side by side as allies during World War II. President Roosevelt, in fact, persuaded Hollywood to produce a film extolling the virtues of Mother Russia, and Hollywood did, releasing Mission to Moscow, as pro-Soviet as possible.

But, alas, the war was over. Power and greed had raised their ugly heads. It was the time of the great land grab for defeated territories. The victors fought over the spoils. America and Russia no longer trusted each other. The Cold War had begun in earnest.

So many writers, especially those in Hollywood, were being called “Red Fascists.” A Mississippi Congressman declared that: “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this Government has its headquarters in Hollywood … the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.” But don’t worry, he said, “We’re on the trail of the tarantula now.”

In Hollywood and behind typewriters all of the country, writers were merely churning out words and telling their stories. In Washington, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) were bent on investigating those words and stories, claiming that Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting Red propaganda in U. S. films.

If they had, it was certainly news to the writers. It didn’t make any difference. One by one, the screenwriters were called to testify. Many admitted they had been a card-carrying communist, fell on their knees, and repented of their sins.

Blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote “Spartacus” and “Exodus” in exile.

The tough ones stood firm. The tough ones told the committee that their lives and their opinions and their words were protected by the First Amendment and what they had done wrong, if anything, was none of the Congressmen’s business. The tough ones fought back. The tough ones went to prison.

In Hollywood, they were blacklisted. Their names were churned around and turned to mud. If they had a regular job, they were fired. If they didn’t, no one would hire them. They and their work simply vanished off the face of the movie screens.

These were people like well-known playwright Lillian Hellman, whose words had been attached to ten motion pictures. She would not be employed again until 1966. Composer Elmer Bernstein said he had never been a member of the Communist Party, refused to name any friend who had, and found himself composing music for such movies as Cat Women of the Moon. Arthur Miller and Eliz Kazan came under attack. Gordon Kahn fled to Mexico, and he had written The African Queen, hardly the stuff of Red propaganda. Charlie Chaplin fled the country. Dashiell Hammett refused to cooperate, and his five months in jail hastened his death. The Committee overlooked the fact that Hammett, who had fought in World War I,  had enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. He was forty-eight years old at the time.

Dalton Trumbo was fired from MGM not long after the hearing. He was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sent to prison. From behind bars, he wrote this poem to his family: “Say then but this of me: Preferring not to crawl on his knee In freedom to a bowl of buttered slop Set out for him by some contemptuous clown, He walked to jail on his feet.” Dalton Trumbo remained defiant.

And like many of his friends in Hollywood, he continued to write, sometimes using an alias, sometimes using a front man who allowed his name to be placed on the silver screen with writing credits. It would be more than a decade later before Dalton Trumbo was finally given credit for two films he wrote in exile: SpartacusExodus, Roman Holiday, and The Brave One. Michael Wilson had written Friendly Persuasion and Lawrence of Arabia, working with Carl Foreman on The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Some endured and made it back. Some were lost in the whirlwind of public opinion. They and their work were cast aside and forgotten. They were the victims. Lionel Stander stood before HUAC and said boldly: “I know of a group of fanatics … they are ex-Fascists and America firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody, including Negroes, minority groups, and most likely themselves … These people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists.”

Members of the Committee might have nodded in agreement. But if they thought long and hard, they would have realized that Lionel Stander was talking about the sins of the Committee.

So you’re a writer and think you have problems. Think again. Right or wrong, good or bad, long or short, you have the freedom to sit down every day of your life and write whatever story is battling to crawl its way out of your brain.

You worry about a bad book review? Don’t. It could be Big Brother. He didn’t give a one-star. He gave jail.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of the new Christian suspense thriller: Golgotha Connection.

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