Academic journal article American Studies

"Fighting Words": Ralph Ellison and Len Zinberg

Academic journal article American Studies

"Fighting Words": Ralph Ellison and Len Zinberg

Article excerpt

On December 17, 1940, the New Masses published Ralph Ellison's review of Walk Hard-Talk Loud, a first novel by Len Zinberg, a working-class Jewish Communist from Manhattan who was also, at the time, a "friend" of Ellison.1 Zinberg published only three novels under his own name, and none of them are much read today, but after his death in 1968, the New York Times reported that the detective fiction he wrote under the name Ed Lacy had sold 28 million copies.2 The first Ed Lacy novel, The Woman Aroused, appeared in 1951, the year before Ellison staked his claim to a place in the American canon with Invisible Man. Two very different career trajectories, then, and ones that could not have been predicted back in 1940 when Ellison and Zinberg moved in the same literary and political circles, attending meetings of the League of American Writers and publishing reviews and stories in the likes of New Masses and Cross Section.3 Today, Ellison's review, "Negro Prize Fighter," is read much more often than Zinberg's novel, mostly to demonstrate his "enthusiasm for ideological commentary founded in material class analysis" during the late 1930s and early 1940s.4 But Walk Hard-Talk Loud may have provided Ellison with more than an excuse for pointing out the importance of "a Marxist understanding of the economic basis of Negro personality."5 The following essay makes a case for the novel's place among the plethora of Invisible Man's intertexts, and indeed as a book worth reading in its own right.

In addition to their common political interests during that period, Ellison and Zinberg both "learned much" from Hemingway, whom Ellison later described as "the true father-as-artist of many of us who came to writing during the late thirties."6 What Hemingway offered was a distinctive style, which during the 1930s had become codified as the "hard-boiled," and a distinctive philosophy, which during that period and beyond was often rejected as "social cynicism."7 But Hemingway also suggested ways in which attention to the rituals of modern life-in particular those involving sport-might allow a writer to explore larger themes and ways in which the writer himself (and the pronoun is definitely male) could be thought of as a kind of fighter.


"She'll have to learn the symbolism of the revolution," somebody said.

"But why can't Communism speak a language she understands?" I asked.8

By the mid-1930s, as part of a wider Popular Front attempt to widen its appeal, the American Communist Party (CPUSA) began to rethink its approach to sport. The accepted orthodoxy was that "American workers are greatly interested in professional sports, too much, in fact, for their own class interest," but it became clear that simply repeating this point would achieve little.9 "What are we going to do," Mike Gold asked the readers of the Daily Worker in 1935, "insist that they give up this taste?": "Are we going to maintain our isolation and make Americans stop their baseball before we will condescend to explain Communism to them? When you run the news of a strike alongside the news of a baseball game, you are making American workers feel at home. . . . Let's loosen up."10 Six months later, on January 12, 1936, the Daily Worker launched a new Sunday edition that included two pages of sports coverage, and nine months after that, the paper began to publish a daily sports section. Sport was not, however, simply a way of making readers feel at home, of providing some sugar with the political pill; the paper's coverage insisted that sport was itself an arena in which political change could be enacted. And so, in 1936, the CPUSA's "Negro Commission" announced its intention to campaign against "'discrimination in all fields of sports, especially big league baseball' and the Daily Worker's sports page . . . defined this as its central concern."11 In the years that followed, the Party "devoted increasing attention to sports-related issues," sponsoring basketball teams, staging sports benefits for the Scottsboro Boys, and campaigning for recreational space in Harlem. …

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