William A. Wellman and the Politics of Golden Age Writers

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Two weeks ago, Nick Fuller wrote a very interesting article – not sure it’s the right formulation as everything Nick writes is at least very interesting, but let us not bother with such subtleties – on the respective politics of several major crime writers. This article prompted a long discussion, both in the blog’s comments section and over at the FB Golden Age of Detection group. The main question at hand was whether some writers really fit the label they had been ascribed – John Dickson Carr and Chesterton in particular being extremely tricky to categorize as they held simultaneously views that could be described as conservative and progressive. This led Scott K. Ratner to question whether the exercice itself made sense to start with.

I for one think it does, on the condition that it accounts for context. First by recognizing that politics are basically centrifugal so that today’s Right is tomorrow’s Far Right, and today’s Left is tomorrow’s Right.

Second by realizing that while the interesting times we live in are marked by extreme political polarization, so extreme that it becomes increasingly difficult for people to agree on something, things haven’t always been so. We often imagine the years between the wars, which happen to coincide with the canonical definition of the Golden Age, as ones in which political passions were particularly heated but it isn’t quite true, at least in the literary field. The French so-called « République des Lettres » for instance had a pretty open doors policy as far as politics were concerned: everyone was welcome as long as they could write, and every topic could be discussed, preferably but not exclusively in a civil way. Left-wing periodicals opened their doors to right-wing writers, and reciprocally. Léon Blum, a Jewish socialist politician, could be both an admirer and a personal friend of writer Maurice Barrès despite the latter being a nationalist and an antisemite. This system lasted well into the Thirties, even though it became clear to everyone that Hitler and Stalin meant business. We can suppose the period’s Detection Club worked the same way, which may account for Nicholas Blake and R. Austin Freeman not on record of throwing a fit at each other.

Third and final is to admit that some – most? – people are not that ideological and can embrace a vast array of opinions without realizing/caring that they may be, or supposed to be, incompatible. This accounts for some at first puzzling items such as Rex Stout’s hawkish stance on the Vietnam War or John Dickson Carr’s embrace of gay rights. That’s what I call the « William A. Wellman syndrom » so named after one of my favourite movie directors of the other Golden Age – the Hollywood one.

Wellman directed, often against the studio’s wishes, some of the most stridently and uncompromisingly progressive (by our standards) movies of the period. Few movies then and since have been as unflinching in their portrayal of the Great Depression and its social and political consequences than Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale. The Ox-Bow Incident, which making he imposed on Darryl Zanuck, is one of the earliest and still most powerful indictments of mob justice and lynching ever filmed. He was also responsible for the proto-feminist western Westward the Women, not to mention his war movies which carefully avoid any romanticization or patriotic exaltation.

Yet Wellman himself was no progressive. He was even the opposite according to French critic and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, a long-time fan of his who knew him well enough to call him a friend. So how to explain that curious dichotomy? Well, one might say that being a principled conservative doesn’t necessarily require being blind to injustice – or didn’t back in Wellman’s time. One might also say that only machines are always coherent. Human nature is messy, and especially so when politics are concerned. Whatever may be, the William A. Wellman Syndrom I think has a lot of explicative and predictive power and may perfectly apply to the most problematic items on Nick’s list.

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2 commentaires sur “William A. Wellman and the Politics of Golden Age Writers

  1. Thanks for that thoughtful, humane response, Xavier!

    « Everything Nick writes is at least very interesting… » At least? 😉 It also contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. It’s more fun that way! Wilfully maddening readers since 1983.

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  2. I totally agree that “Human nature is messy, and especially so when politics are concerned.” But that is indeed my point. Your assessment of the “William Wyler syndrom” is that an individual person is essentially one thing politically (which is where we should assign them on a linear political spectrum) who can also have certain unaccountable beliefs that are more aligned with a different point on that spectrum. But my point is that this messiness often makes it impossible to determine what the essential political makeup of an individual really is, or if there really is one that could be properly assigned as a spectrum point. For instance, aren’t Wellman’s progressive characteristics sufficient to make us question whether he was more a conservative with certain liberal idiosyncrasies or a liberal with certain conservative idiosyncrasies, or even— as I suggest— a combination of conservative and liberal tendencies sufficiently complex that neither one constitutes a reasonably definable essential core?

    J'aime

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