Monday, December 13, 2010

Umnak Island, 27 July 1944

Dearest Nunny...

A good day, this. The mail brought a letter from you, one from Sergeant Lewis of Muroc Air Base [Howard Lewis], and two copies of the New York Times and a Fortune.

Howard had wrangled himself a two-day pass and gone in to Los Angeles. There he visited Nancy Winter, Tom Bridges, and the Wirsigs. [Wintner and Bridges worked on the 1943 Busby Berkeley movie The Gang’s All Here]. Of Nancy, he says, “She is working for very little per in the city news service, an organization that is bracing its feet for a long slide into bankruptcy… She says she is getting very valuable experience and I could hardly disagree. However, as I found out on the Bethlehem Globe-Times, there is experience and there is experience. She didn’t look too well, frankly…
“Of Me:  I’m having pretty tough going here. Your cherished compliments always backfire when I try to answer because I feel that I have some sort of a standard to live up to. And the harder I try, the longer I sit and stare at the typewriter, searching for the right cliché. I don’t understand, either, your thrashing about in search of a style. The last judgment I passed on our writing was made to another Columbian, something to the effect that I knew no one else who could make facts so interesting in themselves. So many of the current run of news articles apologize for the facts in them by putting icing over them, as if they were trying to hide the jumps in the cake. It’s a hell of a lot easier, god knows, but it takes more than icing to make a good cake. Now that you’re assured of a steady income, why not ease up on writing for a market and write for yourself at least a couple months? Maybe you are trying to find a style to suit your present existence—if you are I hope to hell you can’t. It always seemed to me that the major attribute of your prose was its vitality, growing out of the extremely active life you led—I mean active in your wholehearted enjoyment of life. If you try to change your style because you don’t feel the vitality any more—because living has slumped down the day-to-day existing—I think I would personally knock the living bejesus out of you.”
Howard’s comments on my writing style came, I guess because I praised his and expressed dissatisfaction with my own progress in the craft of getting stuff down on paper. I probably was singing a very low bass because my last letter to him was from the old station. But though I may have begged for a bone of praise, I didn’t expect the whole damn cow and feel exceptionally flattered at all those nice things. Bake a cake for Howard, or knit him a pair of gloves. 

[About Rosa planning to quit her job] I don’t blame you at all for getting fed up, nor for pulling out, but I envy you your vacation. When you go back to work I hope practically prayerfully that it is in some form of photographic work. I am counting on you supporting us postwar while I spend a couple more years getting the next three chapters done on Day of the Dead.

Your comments on my comments about Dewey make me wish I had a copy of that letter. I remember writing it at a moment of great dissatisfaction with politics in general but surely I wasn’t as enthusiastic about Tiny Tom as you indicate. I remember something about thinking even as I wrote that letter, that most of the arguments I gave could have applied just as well to Hoover in 1928 although the comparison probably is unjust. After all, Dewey has come of age politically during a period when the climate was liberal and it must have had some effect.

Frankly, I’m pretty sick of the whole business. I know that my attitude is probably based more on disgust for my current way of life than it is on the fundamental issues of politics at home. But that is only natural. It is impossible to keep from being affected by the intellectual climate of the Army. And being at once bored and tense I find it easier to get tense than bored by election year politics. 

It seems to me we are all voting hunches, nothing more. We liberals have a hunch that Roosevelt is still a liberal although his actions no longer show it. We vote for him on the hunch that, re-elected, he will quit playing commander-in-chief and thinking like an army man and get back to looking after the forgotten man. The chief reason for thinking he will do that is that after the 1932 and 1936 elections he was much more liberal than he had indicated he would be during the campaign.

But he has been making compromises for five years now. And his biggest single compromise was his failing to back Wallace to the limit. Wallace, after all, was the last of the New Dealers. With the exception of Ickes and Larry Fly of the Federal Communications Commission there is not a New Dealer left in an important position—except on the Supreme Court where even FDR found he could not get rid of men easily. Wallace is gone, Corchoran is gone, Cohen is gone, Maverick is gone, Norris is gone, in fact try to find anyone of that frame of mind around any more. Name a New Dealer, quick. 

The habit of compromise is hard to break. It is easier to get along, as any study of the life of a Time editor will show. From the age of 57 to the age of 62 Roosevelt has been making concessions to promote harmony. All his current advisers and close associates are either the men he has made the concessions to (Jesse Jones, etc.) or those who have advised making the compromises (Hopkins, Ickes, etc.). It is going to take a lot of guts to go back and pick up where he left off in 1938.

You mention my use of the phrase “Tired Old Men.” I don’t know how tired FDR is, but it’s probably pretty. However, I wasn’t thinking of him. After all he makes up in experience and past efficient performance for at least some of the effects of age. But what about Hull? Good gray Cordell Hull, the greatest Secretary of State in a hundred years, sitting on his reciprocal trade treaties while the rest of the world hatches cartel agreements. The gallant old eagle hatched out policy of compromise with Italian Fascism and our policy of compromise with Spanish Fascism. What will he cluck up in regards to a defeated Germany? The fact that Russia also cuddles up to the House of Savoy is no justification for our doing so too. After all we don’t take our cues from the Comintern and Stalin’s doing something is not an argument for or against its being democratic.

The Secretary of Commerce is still Jesse Jones. Roosevelt gave him the friendly nod in his fight with Wallace last year. Wallace is now hat in hand at the White House door, hoping for a post-election appointment to something, anything, where he may be of some use. Jones is one of the most influential members of the government, in spite of the fact that he snafued our Latin American policy, our strategic stockpile policy and is all for turning the war plants over to the prewar monopolists. Even the British probably would have kicked him upstairs before this.

The Secretary of the Treasury is no has-been, he is a never-was. The Secretary of Labor is a national joke, too inefficient even to be important. The Attorney General is a Biddle. The Secretary of War is Stimson. Wickard is no Wallace, although he does appear to be passable. Ickes, still one of the best, nevertheless has not only gone along with all the compromises of the chief but has suggested a few of his own., the old curmudgeon. Probably the best man in the Cabinet is Forrestal, but he is an accident. Not even an insurance company would bet that the mortality rate among the rest of the oldtimers will be high enough in the next couple of years to help. And Roosevelt is not one to scuttle this secretaries, not matter how bad they become.

Nevertheless, there is no one else to vote for. Because if Roosevelt is the hunch bet of the liberals, Dewey is the hunch bet of the conservatives. They can’t be sure he will play their game. His record as governor of New York is not much more conservative than FDR’s was while he held the same job. But they are betting on his self-made smugness and the influence of the men who have been advising him—mainly Hoover. They may have something there. 

My disgust is not so much with the growing illiberalism of the administration but with the fact that although it is getting more and more complacent it can afford to. We have no one else to vote for. However I’ll fool them to a degree. I’m going to write in my own vice presidential vote and our Hank will be on the ballot.
Probably my general disgust with politics comes from the discussion we have been having recently. They are the same old sophomoric talks about ends and means, duty to society and duty to individuals, that I had ten years ago. And after ten years of little but talking I still haven’t made up my own mind. Still unresolved for me is the contradiction of my personal belief that end do not justify means and my growing realization that only coercion, based on government power, will eradicate social evils such as race prejudice.

This inability to decide wither I’m a liberal Dr. Jeckyl or a Machiavellian Mr. Hyde puts me more and more in the frame of mind that Koestler must have had when he wrote, “I felt like telling the world to go muddle through without me.” In other words, I’m ready to settle for a postwar world which will let me drift down the Mississippi.

Before leaving the subject of political attitudes, one other comment. For a while I was very pleased with the groundswell of internationalism. But more and more it seems to me that we have as many different kinds of internationalists as we have small-d democrats. And most of them are those who believe that we can be international on strictly our own terms. An internationalist who won’t make concessions at the peace table will be about as helpful as Bertie McCormick. The public has been “sold” the phrase—but not the meaning.
The hell with it.
I am looking forward to the picture of you in the sail boat, impatiently…also to the results of Haj’s romancing. If she has pups in the houseboat she had better make them water spaniels…remind Carmen she owes me a letter. My last one didn’t offend her for any reason, did it? …Do you like the song “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” I do, for it reminds me of the Village Vanguard and “Knock Me Some Chops.”
Only nine more months and I have it made, Nunny. It’s a long, long time.  …

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