“I Married a Communist” by Philip Roth, 1998
Roth is an expert in sociological and emotional fiction, tracking the life of Jewish people in Newark, New Jersey after World War II and beyond. This book describes the tumultuous events that befell a single radical who came back leftist after the war and then collided with the McCarthy period. His name is Ira Ringold, a big loud aggressive zinc miner who became a radio star. Ira is one of those radicals who argues with everyone all the time. The story is told by a young friend of Ira’s, Nathan, and Ira’s brother Murray. Murray is an observant progressive high school teacher who thinks his brother is nuts. The device of the ‘rational’ brother observing the radicalism of his kin is common in American fiction and this is no exception.
Ira becomes a leftist in the Army when he meets an ascetic Communist Party hardliner, Johnny O’Day. Ira returns home, finds his way into doing Lincoln impressions, then gets on a NY radio show as “Iron Rinn,” a show dominated by CP members. Oddly enough, instead of marrying a working-class woman, he marries Eve Frame, a beautiful, neurotic film star and they live together in their upscale home in Manhattan. As the marriage breaks up as it predictably would, Eve writes a book exposing Ira titled: “I Married A Communist,” under the authorship of two wealthy Republican friends, the Grants. This book helps Ira lose his job and ultimately he ends his days selling colored rocks at a rock quarry in upstate New Jersey until he keels over dead.
Like “American Pastoral,” (reviewed below) Roth has a fascination with the intersection of left radicalism and the Jewish experience in the U.S. Why this book was written in 1998 is somewhat of a mystery. But the impact of the anti-communist purges of the 1950s still holds sway in left/liberal circles, reflected in recent films like “Trumbo” & “Good Night & Good Luck.” That fear is perhaps why so many of them refrain from Marxism and live in a cocoon of comfortable liberalism, just as Roth does. The rich do not come out well in this book either, as the two central women, Eve and her harp-playing daughter Sylphid are dreadful characters in their own way. Eve’s reactionary Republican friends the Grants fare even worse.
The real impact of the McCarthy period was not on the Hollywood 10 alone, as the liberal myth would have it. This book riffs on that slant, as the people fired were cultural workers. It was primarily an assault on union members across the U.S. For instance, 3,000 longshoremen were deported from the U.S. under the terms of the Walter-McCarran Act for being alleged Communist Party members. In the unions, the Taft-Hartley anti-communist pledge was forced on unionists, which purged the unions of open leftists and destroyed left-led unions. The Communist Party and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party leaderships were jailed at different times based on the Smith Act. In 1954 membership in the CP itself was outlawed in the U.S. All of this decimated American unionism and left the anti-communist ‘business unionists’ in control. At this point we know the long-term results of that big business strategy - the defanging of U.S. unionism.
None of this is explicit in this book, only hinted at. Roth is basically anti-radical in his portrayal of a specific kind of communism, though through his brother Murray Roth shows sympathy for Ira, flawed as Ira is. Ira does follow every twist and turn of Soviet policy like the CP, which indicates that the American CP had no independent thinkers or perspective. Roth in essence creates psychological depictions of radicals in order to dismiss them. In this book, he even adds a vicious surprise at the end, as Murray reveals that Ira bludgeoned an anti-Semitic thug to death in an alley in Newark when he was younger. To Murray, Ira had been running from his violent temper since, so Ira’s story becomes a story of emotions run wild, not politics. Many readers, however, might not be as upset about this act of violence as the author is.
Let’s look at the two primary and only Communists depicted in the book. Nathan finally meets the legendary O’Day, who lives in a tiny spare room in South Bend, Indiana, handing out leaflets to steel-workers coming off the job. Nathan almost becomes converted into a labor radical upon meeting O’Day, instead of just being a University of Chicago student prey to a mentor who pushes ‘art for art’s sake’ and homosexuality. O’Day is portrayed as a poverty stricken but relentless ‘monk’ of the revolution and indeed, there are communists like this. When Murray calls O’Day to help Ira, O’Day denounces Ira as a sell-out, proving his intractable sectarianism.
The other is Ira. Angry, quarrelsome, never shuts up, physically threatening to his multiple enemies – the angry Jew as even Roth calls him. There are communists like this as well. They figure if they argue or give their opinion enough they’ll somehow convert people through their observations alone – a sort of idealism gone personal. Nevertheless you feel Ira is a down-to-earth, working-class man who is definitely kind to young Nathan and working class people in general. But no mass movement is in evident in the book, just these two personality types. The one event that breaks this mold is when Ira takes Nathan to a mass Henry Wallace rally hosted by Paul Robeson early in the book. Only here do you see that something more is going on.
On reflection, the trauma of the 1948 Wallace campaign loss was the last time the CP ever endorsed anyone except a Democrat. The failed independent Wallace campaign made them a permanent Popular Front party, appended to the Democrats like a leach to the leg of a very fat, very rich man – what we jokingly call at this point the ‘left wing of the impossible.’ For CPers being ‘close to the power’ in the Democratic Party seems to substitute for many things, especially after the 1956 Khrushchev revelations when the party shrank from approximately 75,000 at its height to 10,000 members. Who knows what it is now, but it is far less than that. This nose for ‘power’ is important because for a time the CP proclaimed communism as ‘20th Century Americanism.’ They were coming off a war-block between the USSR and the U.S. and hence had respectability and even some power in normal society, while also fancying themselves an arm of the Soviet bureaucracy. All this was quickly shattered after Hitler was crushed – an event ironically carried out mostly by the Soviet Army.
This book reflects the destruction of that movement but in a narrow way, obscuring the sweep of what happened, turning it into an individual story about two communist ‘types.’ There is a telling statement in the book that implies that ‘few have ever met a communist.’ And so the confabulated ‘images’ of communists on American television, movies, in the papers or books substitute for people's real knowledge. Roth here, in spite of being sympathetic, has not really contradicted that portrayal, so he helped build the prye too. Anyone in the Marxist movement long enough knows that communists come in all types of personalities, just like most people. The title of the book is also the title of Eve’s book, and that is not an accident either. Though the title is also a sad reflection on the destruction of a man by the 'Red' scare.
Prior Roth book reviewed below, “American Pastoral,” which is now an even worse movie through no fault of his own.
November 6, 2016