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New International, February 1948


Louis Cassel

The Secret Life of James Burnham


From New International, Vol. XIV No. 2, February 1948, p. 62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Among the leading American contributions to world culture is a still little-known institution based on a bright idea: the New Entertainment Workshop (NEW). If, its founder reasoned, shoes and automobiles can be mass-manufactured to precise specifications, leaving nothing to chance or individual craftsmanship, why cannot novels be turned out in the same way?

Creativity, artistic uniqueness – such phrases are all very well in literary magazines. But how do yon know the product will sell?

Should the heroine commit suicide or fall into her beloved’s arms? These things cannot be left to the whims of authors or literary critics.

And so the Workshop breaks down submitted novels into their constituent plot values and cog wheels, greases the story transmission, and reconstructs them on the basis of tested audience reactions.

If Proust, for example, had worked with NEW, he would have been able to write a clear, salable story of endurable length and discernible plot, instead of meandering over seven books merely because his mind was upset by a piece of French pastry.

One of the writers whom NEW has recently serviced is James Burnham.

Burnham’s lubricated story outline is at present being submitted to movie companies and may be overhauled into a novel. It concerns one John West, wealthy young man with a social conscience, who joins the Communist Party and becomes a prominent intellectual front. Heroine is wife Jane West, also of a wealthy family, who is troubled by his work for the traitorous Communists. (No locale is given for the home but it might be some modest nook on Button Place.)

John West’s activities for the CP are of heroic proportions. Unlike so many other intellectuals who refuse to sacrifice a comfortable academic status, he really throws himself into the struggle devotedly. At a gigantic anti-Nazi demonstration of 50,000 outside Madison Square Garden in the 30s, he makes a great rabble-rousing speech.

But he also runs into the party witch-hunt trial of a “deviationist” who mysteriously disappears after a veiled threat by a Comintern “rep.” This perturbs him. Russia attacks Finland; he wonders. West is assigned to sabotage Oak Ridge; under Jane’s persuasion he sees the light and does the patriotic thing for Army Intelligence. Western civilization is saved. Back in New York, at a party mass meeting in Madison Square Garden, he gets up before the 20,000 Stalinists and dramatically, openly, courageously he denounces the CP and proclaims his loyalty to the red, white and blue.

To appreciate this promising young novelist, a bit of biographical data is necessary. NEW’s statement that the scenario is based on Burnham’s personal experiences is on the loose side. As it happens, Burnham was never in the CP but was for a time in the Trotskyist movement. This detail is of some interest when we recall that his pen name as a Trotskyist was John West. For that matter, the gigantic anti-Nazi demonstration at which West-Burnham spoke was actually led not by the CP but by the Trotskyists. The personal experience is there, we see, even though Burnham has fused the Stalinist and Trotskyist movements to achieve artistic verisimilitude, as in his political writings.

What is most remarkable, however, is the personal transmogrification of West-Burnham in the transition from life to fiction. In actual life West-Burnham announced his resignation from the Workers Party one lonely morning in 1940 by leaving a note at the office with a secretary who was trying to fix a radiator, tipping his hat politely and leaving. No courageous defies, no heroic gestures, no dramatic speeches. Alas, that life should be grayer than the world of dreams!

But this is mere cavil. We are face to face, if not with the Great American Novel, then at least with that perennial phenomenon of American life: the timid little man who sees himself as a Hero; the puny soul who could never decide between politics and cocktail parties now imagines himself before 20,000 Stalinists denouncing them to their very face. What difference does it make if Burnham-West-Mitty has concocted an amalgam between known facts about the CP and troubled memories of his own role in the Trotskyists? As NEW remarks, in addition to its political appeal there is a powerful love story threaded through it.

We also resolutely reject as irresponsible cynicism any suggestion, sure to be made by Philistines, that the deep political thinker who made The Managerial Revolution and fought The Struggle for the World is now merely grubstreeting for a few loose dollars. If nothing else, Burnham-West-Mitty has stature: he is a professor of philosophy, an intellectual aristocrat who formerly edited the learned periodical Symposium, a literary critic of such modern authors as Mann and Kafka, and now – honor heaped on honor! – an advisory editor of Partisan Review.

As for the proposed film, one of the first problems that will occur to any movie company will be casting. The proper heroic figure should be available for the lead. We make bold to help out.

How about Arthur Treacher?

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