Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Black on White

May 5, 1935
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Theodore Dreiser is no more to blame for his gradual unfoldment as an anti-Semite of the more psychopathetic variety than he is for other manifestations of encroaching old age. Whoever has read his letters to Hutchins Hapgood must be aware that they show neither logic nor balance, being a pitiful, floundering attempt to rationalize unreasoned prejudices.

The anti-Jewish hallucinations, especially his tell-tale hallucination of numbers, which a lucid intelligence would have resolved as one resolves a nightmare, poor Dreiser accepts as fixed premises for his “thinking” on the Jewish problem.

One may as well argue against the thinning of his hair or the ebbing of his virility as argue against the submersion of his logic in the slimy morasses of race hatred.

The Left intelligentsia here, rightly shocked, may eventually bully the old man into softening, toning down or even retracting his frank expression of anti-Semitism. Their good opinion is doubtles worth something to him and they may manuever him into confession of error. But nothing will be gained thereby—he will be doubly anti-Semitic under the surface for having been forced to do penance.

The spectacle is sufficiently tragic. Dissolution and putrefaction attacking a mentality of noble proportions is no matter for levity. Luckily the tension has been considerably relaxed by some well-timed comic relief. The record is spread in the current isue of The New Masses and I recommend the number highly for its unconscious comedy (Adv.).

A solemn delegation from that magazine called upon the erring Dreiser and tried to argue him out of his phobia. The expedition failed, the novelist defended his right to hate the Jews and the visitors “came away . . . discouraged and dissatisfied.”

A second, more formidable delegation was then sent to renew the argument. It included Corliss Lamont, John Howard Lawson, and other intellectuals. Even through the painfully careful phrases of the official report one can visualize the picture: the delegates citing Lenin and Hitler while Dreiser repeats his absurdities with the stubbornness of second childhood. Driven into a corner Dreiser finally composes and signs a statement attesting that he “draws a distinction between Jewish worker and the Jewish exploiter.”

Having recognized that distinction, and signed it reluctantly, he then made it clear to the delegation that he dislikes both workers and exploiters if they happen to be Jews. Had he been bludgeoned into admitting that he draws a distinction between Jewish males and females, or tall Jews and short ones, the total significance of his compromise would have been exactly the same.

Other assaults on Dreiser’s right to hate the Jews, and to wish them safely packed off to Palestine (which is Hitler’s wish too), are presumably under way now. The New Masses editors promise that “a still further effort will be made to go over these questions with him and to end all such confusion as remains.” They “decline to believe that it will be impossible for Theodore Dreiser to regain his traditional place as a fighter for human liberty.”

The performance is merely ludicrous. If the delegates were not the sort who substitute slogans and formulas for thought and content themselves with lip service to a political “line,” they would see the absurdity of their behavior. They would realize that the more valid their arguments, the greater the patient’s resistance.

It speaks volumes for the strange state of mind induced by political orthodoxy. Those expeditions, of course, were wholly political and undertaken in the curious belief that a formal retraction would change something in Dreiser’s mind or Dreiser’s essential position.

The whole report in The New Masses is a revelation of the Communist belief in the efficacy of confession. The editors went to Dreiser “hoping that he would stand by his long record.” They went in hopes of “the ringing repudiation which we all had a right to expect of him.” As if that would have altered anything!

The conception of a rigid “party line” and a G. P. U. to enforce respect for it carries with it unavoidably everything else that goes with an armed official religion. How often I have witnessed scenes of formal “repentance” and tearful “retraction” by Soviet writers and politicians and scientists, under threat of expulsion from jobs or exile to Siberia. If The New Masses were in the position of the Moscow Literary Gazette and had a G. P. U. to back up its arguments, Dreiser’s public statement would have been speedier and more satisfactory, but Dreiser’s private phobia would have remained just what it is.

As it is, the report can merely record as a minor victory that Dreiser “came around to see a few of the contradictions involved in his stand” and that he signed a meaningless statement with the “adequacy” of which the editors are “far from satisfied.”

The formal, legalistic wording of these regrets adds to the comic aspect of the performance. Where is The New Masses well-known talent for invective? Why is the caption over the report “Dreiser Denies He Is Anti-Semitic” when the report itself proves the opposite?

Recommended from JTA