Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Damned Hurt: Albert Maltz’s The Journey Of Simon Mckeever

While writing about Henry Fonda a few years ago, I learned about a movie project he desired to make late in his life, but never did an adaptation of a novel called The Journey of Simon McKeever, written by Albert Maltz and published in 1949. I’d never heard of the book. But I got a copy, and read it. It haunted me for days, and I've wanted ever since to tell people about it.

Simon McKeever is seventy-three and lives meagerly in a Sacramento nursing home; his wife and child, both killed in an explosion, are long dead. Born in Ireland and raised in America, he has labored all his life, and now suffers from crippling arthritis. Yet he resolves to hitchhike, by himself, 400 miles of highway to find the doctor someone says will cure him. Simon is a sober, sensible man who accepts pain and even death, but not uselessness; he’s also a man of great complexity and sensitivity who is plagued by Kafkaesque nightmares in which he finds himself to be “a cockroach after all; not a man, a bug.” But above all, Simon is profoundly, rebelliously alive.

Anyone who has read about the McCarthy-era blacklist knows Albert Maltz’s name, even if they can’t quite remember his work. Born in Brooklyn in 1908, he was one of the Hollywood Ten – a group of screenwriters who, called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during its 1947 investigation of Communist influence in the movies, refused to answer questions, and were subsequently banned from the industry and jailed for contempt. Prior to the HUAC hearing, Maltz had been a playwright in the WPA-era Theater Union; an award-winning short story writer and respected novelist; and a screenwriter who, answering Hollywood’s siren call à la his compatriot Clifford Odets, chalked up some decent credits: This Gun for Hire (1942), Pride of the Marines (1945), Cloak and Dagger (1946), The Naked City (1948).

A full three years after his HUAC appearance, Maltz was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment (he served nine months); the screenplays he’d written meanwhile – for Broken Arrow (1950) and The Robe (1953) – were credited to “front” writers. In the same interim, Maltz wrote and published The Journey of Simon McKeever, his first novel in five years. Well-reviewed, it drew interest, ironically, from the very industry that had expunged its author. Twentieth Century-Fox bought it for a reported $35,000, intending to cast Walter Huston. (In Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten, Bernard F. Dick has the less likely Walter Brennan – a consummate support player – starring, with Jules Dassin, hot from The Naked City, directing.) Blacklisted, Maltz was unemployable as a screenwriter under the so-called Waldorf Statement, drafted in 1948 at the eponymous Manhattan hotel, in which the major studios agreed not to hire politically “questionable” individuals; yet Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, a co-signer of the statement, had to have approved his studio’s purchase of Maltz’s novel. In any case, Zanuck killed the project owing to “heavy clamor from the public” – mainly, the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, chaired by John Wayne. (The Screen Writers Guild failed to support Maltz in the controversy.)

Maltz made a near-comeback in 1960 when Frank Sinatra, attempting to mount a film version of William Bradford Huie’s nonfiction classic The Execution of Private Slovik, hired Maltz to do the script; but Sinatra, like Zanuck, bowed to political pressure – from Wayne, among others – and terminated both Maltz’s employment and the project. (Sinatra and Maltz had a history: one of the latter’s earliest screen credits had been the 1945 RKO short film The House I Live In, with a young, skinny Frankie preaching, and crooning, religious tolerance to a group of bigoted street kids.)

Nine of the Hollywood Ten. Albert Maltz is fourth from the right, in pinstripes.

Unsurprisingly, given Maltz’s apprenticeship in the Communist crucible of 1930s New York theater, The Journey of Simon McKeever is rife with what were once referred to darkly as “sympathies” – sentiments of social justice, non-exploitation of labor, etc. Poor health care is a theme in the novel (and it’s not an irrelevant one, then or today), as is the corrupting influence of money: “the dollar bill that stretches until it’s a rope around our necks. . . . It’s the shame of our civilization!” Also “sympathetic,” and refreshingly unusual in a novel of this vintage, is Simon’s consistent and unselfconscious respect for women, chiefly his long-dead wife, who “owned what he needed in a woman, a vigor of flesh and spirit that matched his own, and a quiet, steadfast tenderness that accepted him for what he was.”

As a novel of the working class, Simon McKeever is heavily indebted to The Grapes of Wrath, published by John Steinbeck a decade earlier. The hero’s cockroach dream recalls Steinbeck’s description of a tortoise’s agonizing odyssey across a highway, and the novels share the thematic and physical unity of the road. Simon doesn’t reference Steinbeck directly, but he has a yen for literature: his last great goal in life, aside from finding the arthritis doctor, is to compile a two-part anthology of writings on the model of Upton Sinclair’s mammoth The Cry for Justice (1927). “The first section,” we’re told, “would hold all of the material [Simon] had ever read about Man’s destiny on earth – provided it was sensible – it would describe the world, and the changing of the world by men, the golden endeavor; and the second part would have selections from Debs and Upton Sinclair and London and Whitman and thinkers like that.”

We recognize here and there in Maltz’s style the great inherent weakness of American art of the WPA period, whether film or novel, drama or painting – the overweening rhetoric of the intellectual who would sing the song of the common man. “His sinews were tired, Youth had gone, but were all the fine moments also gone – the moments of Chance, sweet and tragic, and the moments of high activity, high triumph and high feeling? . . . Or was not the mark of it somehow on this earth, inscribed somewhere in Time?” Maltz’s prose flirts with mawkishness and sanctimony; sometimes, it even buys them dinner.

But that’s only some of the novel. As a whole it ventures far past the righteous bell-ringing of thirties social realism, or the shrill “poetry” of WPA drama. In fact, one of Simon’s most redeeming qualities is his resistance to the intellectual and moral simplicities such language means to decorate. We learn he was once friends with a “Wobbly” – an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, the most powerful and hated labor union of the early twentieth century – but refused to sign the union card, not because he disagreed with union aims but because “he had no belief at all in a coming revolution by the working man. He thought it was an impractical theory and he had no use for it.” Far from being a conventional proletarian serenade, the novel is immersed in an individual consciousness, a singular perception; Simon rejects any communal ideal that withholds the space he needs to walk, talk, dream, and disagree. He’s an American, and a democrat, through and through.

Albert Maltz.
But The Journey of Simon McKeever is different from most proletarian literature in still other ways – different from even so great a novel as The Grapes of Wrath – and the difference is not easy to define. What it may amount to is that the basic rhetorical tools of New Deal narrative, imagery, and persuasion are transformed completely by a context of waking dream and vivid nightmare. Flights of rhetoric are pulled back by swoops of psychological horror; the wet handkerchief of sentiment is held off by pure, hard observation and intent study of one character’s kaleidoscopic, often frightening inner life.

The novel is full of pain, both physical and psychological, and Maltz squares up before it. “When you get the damned hurt,” Ernest Hemingway famously counseled F. Scott Fitzgerald, “use it – don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.” Maltz is something of a scientist here. He spends pages anatomizing in precise prose Simon’s apprehension of not just the world-historical situation but his own thoughts, motives, feelings, and dreams – from the “loathsome nightmare” of the crushed cockroach to the reality of being elderly:
It was not the sheer fact of growing old that McKeever ever had minded. There was a rhyme and a reason to that, like night and day. . . . The only thing he did fear [was] the horror of having to lie twisted and helpless in bed, endlessly, day and night, without function or purpose, while life passed him by. When a man was like that he was nothing, he was . . . garbage.
Littering the novel’s scenery is Simon’s obsession with waste, detritus, the refuse and rot of used-up or useless life. Hemingway’s “damned hurt” is for Simon nothing more or less than “the waste of a human being . . . the fine dream of an innocent heart turned into garbage. And it took an old man, lying prostrate on a grassy bank, to understand how wicked such waste was.”

There is hurt in the novel, and there is horror. Its themes – fear and loss, demons and spirits, the need for freedom against the need for emotional bonding – climax in Simon’s long night beneath a sheltering bridge with a derelict who seems at first friendly, if unusually intense, but is revealed by the hours and the moon to be a psychopath. The men’s long, rambling talk twists with the quickness of a knife into violence that we believe utterly, and that shakes any feeling we might have had left of being safe in these pages. This hair-raising encounter is followed by Simon’s most expansive and detailed nightmare – a vision of decapitation and decay that begins on a highway of the mind and leads to a wrenching communion with ghosts, before ending in a waking as peaceful and desolate as the grave. These are among the most startling, devastating passages I’ve ever found in American literature, and I doubt more than a few hundred people now living have read them.

The other side of the novel’s horror, equally hurtful if less brutal, is its perception of ghosts and ghostliness – the transparent living and the disembodied dead, spirits without a place in this world or any other. “Many learned people believed in the spirit world, not only old ladies,” Simon reflects. “Those things were real, they were brainwaves, and everybody knew that all life was molecules and electrons at bottom.” He pities the other men in his nursing home as “spirit wanderers . . . pining uselessly for the time when they were thirty or forty or even a boy.” In the novel’s most delicate and moving scene, Simon watches two circles of light move across his bed: “One was blue with a red circle around it, and one was red with a blue circle around it. They shimmered and moved and came toward him.” He reaches out, they disappear, and he wonders if they were the spirits of his late mother and sister, or if it was all “a fine and wonderful dream.”

The Journey of Simon McKeever is not a dream – it’s too hard and clear for that – but it is surely a kind of ghost. It is richly redolent of the New Deal, the righteous bloom of the social movements that preceded World War II. But it was published on the other side of the war, when all of those world-changing fervors seemed far past, and the post-war period of peace – what Gore Vidal called that “golden or for us at least not too brazen an age” – was rapidly closing. The Cold War was hardening, the national-security state was growing, and the progressive-collectivist prose once exemplified in America by writers like Sinclair and Steinbeck seemed eerily, even disturbingly irrelevant to the new prosperity, the new serenity. So Maltz’s novel, ten or 15 years out of its time, is, yes, a kind of ghost; given that it was created in the time between its author’s condemnation and his imprisonment, perhaps it was even written by one.

There’s a line in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One that has never quite left me: “Outside, I heard a woodpecker tapping up against a tree in the dark. As long as I was alive I was going to stay interested in something.” That’s what we search for in the dark rooms and open highways of art – the pure vision that grasps the meaning of a moment, the importance of a sound. The Journey of Simon McKeever too has a line, even simpler, that has likewise lingered, susurrating somewhere close to my ear. In Dylan, a sound tells the singer who he is. In Maltz, a sound releases an old man from the cares of the day, the weight of body, country, identity, the wonderful hell and damned hurt of being alive.

“He closed his eyes. He heard a dog bark far off in the night and he fell asleep.”

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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