Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Ambivalence on the Left: Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Ambivalence on the Left: Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?

Article excerpt

Like so many novels of the 1930s and early 1940s, Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) has a transparent political agenda. Because it follows so closely Schulberg's own participation in the founding of the Screen Writer's Guild in Hollywood, the novel has provided labor historians with as much raw material as literary historians. Sammy Glick's rise to wealth and power as a film industry insider is contrasted with the ill-fated attempts of left-leaning screenwriters to unionize and fight the oligopoly of the "big eight" studios that sought a paternalistic relationship between capital and labor in the film industry. (1) Kit Sargent, the woman Al Manheim, the novel's narrator, will eventually marry, is the driving force behind this movement. She gives several tidy lectures that ventriloquize the rhetoric of labor at the time. But her oft-professed love for the artistic potential of the new medium makes evident that issues of capital-labor antagonism are inseparable from aesthetic issues.

This linkage of labor politics and aesthetics is the entry point for this essay, my basis for arguing that the novel's literary value warrants reassessment if we treat it with the critical rigor usually reserved for "superior" Hollywood novels like Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. In the usual narration of the history of the Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? is taken for an indictment of Hollywood in the name of the liberalism endorsed by so many politicized screenwriters in the thirties. (2) The narrator, Al Manheim, rails against the titular character Sammy Glick and interprets Sammy's meteoric rise as a sign of what is wrong with Hollywood. On a first reading, this summary dismissal of the novel seems justified. Whenever Al is ruminating on his hatred for Sammy, he says that figuring out what makes Sammy run is the "answer to everything." His invocations of Marx and Einstein make clear that Sammy is an object of academic analysis only and is supposed to be a representation of certain social determinations. The characterization of Sammy--and the characterizations of most everyone else for that matter--is admittedly static, along the lines one would find in popular genres like sentimental fiction (which the novel most closely resembles). The effect, deliberate no doubt on Schulberg's part, is to direct our attention to the political agenda of the novel.

But if we pay close attention to the relationships among the novel's characters, the novel's pro-labor political charge becomes more complicated. Schulberg's depiction of the intersubjective relations among the novel's characters renders any character's criticisms and truth claims suspect and symptomatic. This dimension of the novel provides a more subtle, counterintuitive way to read the political utterances of characters. The intersubjective relations that drive the novel are based on masochism, as it was given literary shape by Leopold von Sader-Masoch in his Venus in Furs and psychoanalytic intelligibility by Freud first and Gilles Deleuze more recently. Masochism serves two very different political functions. On the one hand, in its traditional Freudian construal, masochism undermines the ideologies articulated by Al the narrator since his fixation on Sammy betrays a repressed, sadistic identification with the top-down power of the film industry. On the other hand, masochism in its more recent theoretical revisions--which reject Freud's claim that masochism is really primary sadism--provides a way to read Sammy's characterization as an eschewal of the institutions and ideologies for which he has usually been taken as an embodiment. In this latter reading, Sammy is the real masochist and his desire to revel in his subjugation in front of Al suggests a way to theorize a politically progressive aesthetic that does not depend upon the class-based political orthodoxies that prevailed between the wars. …

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