| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Albert Maltz was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son
of immigrants; his father, beginning as a grocer’s boy, had become a contractor
and builder. Maltz attended public schools and Columbia University, where he
majored in philosophy and graduated in 1930. He then enrolled in the Yale Drama
School to study with George Pierce Baker, whose students had included Eugene
O’Neill, Sidney Howard, S.N. Behrman, and Thomas Wolfe. Another important
influence was that of fellow student George Sklar, whose radical politics
ignited Maltz’s own incipient leftist leanings. At first in collaboration with
Sklar and then alone, Maltz wrote and saw several plays produced, among them an
anti-war drama called Peace on Earth, and Black Pit, a study of conditions
endured by coal miners in West Virginia.
soon turned to writing fiction, and it is on his stories and novels that his
reputation rests. “Man on a Road,” published in the New Masses in 1935, sparked
a Congressional investigation of the dangers of silicosis to miners; this story
was later widely reprinted. Maltz’s excellent novella “Season of Celebration,”
which focuses on a dying man in a Bowery flophouse, and “The Happiest Man on Earth”
both won recognition when they appeared in 1938. These and other stories were
collected and published under the title The Way Things Are.
the principal strength and the central weakness of Maltz’s work arise from his
desire to fulfill an ideal of proletarian art and yet not betray “the great
humanistic tradition of culture” by serving “an individual political purpose.”
The tension between these aims caused him some personal trouble as well as
artistic ambivalence. In a 1946 essay entitled “What Shall We Ask of Writers?”
he criticized the shallow aesthetic tenets of the left, questioning whether art
was to be used as a weapon in the class war. For this he was bitterly
denounced, and after two months of verbal siege, Maltz backed down; the New
Masses published his retraction, in which he declared his earlier piece a
“one-sided nondialectical treatment of complex issues.”
is at his best when his political sympathies animate but do not overwhelm his
narrative gift. In stories like “Man on a Road” and “The Happiest Man on
Earth,” a muted undercurrent of anger at injustice and suffering renders the
protest extremely effective. But when he becomes openly didactic, Maltz’s
indignation subverts character, plot, and even feeling, as in his first novel,
The Underground Stream, which focuses on the struggle between auto industry
workers seeking to organize unions and the fascistic management who resist
them. Here the characters act simply as one-dimensional mouthpieces, delivering
various political viewpoints, rather than developing believably.
confronted his aesthetic dilemma with varying degrees of success in his next
four novels; The Cross and the Arrow is his best. In part this novel was
written as an answer to the theories of Robert Vansittart, a British diplomat
who contended that the German people as a race were addicted to war, and that
if this innate bellicosity could not be corrected by cultural reconditioning,
it would be necessary to exterminate them. Maltz’s narrative explores the life
of a factory worker named Willi Wegler, who, though decorated with a German
service cross, suddenly and heroically turns against his country’s cause.
this time Maltz was working in Hollywood as a screenwriter, but this career was
to be interrupted in 1947 when the House Un-American Activities Committee
reinstituted its investigation into Communist infiltration in the motion
picture industry. Maltz, along with nine other writers and producers, a group
thereafter known as “the Hollywood Ten,” challenged the constitutional
legitimacy of that committee on First Amendment grounds. Refusing to answer the
committee’s questions as to whether he was a member of the Communist Party and
the Screenwriters’ Guild, Maltz was fined and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment
in 1950. Blacklisted in Hollywood and so unable to work there for many years,
he moved to Mexico after his release from prison and remained there until 1962.
the time of the HUAC investigations, The Journey of Simon McKeever was
published; squarely in the tradition of the novel of the road, this compact
work recounts the adventures of a 73-year-old escapee from an old-age home, a
representative American who comes at last to a reaffirmation of the communal
ideal. A Long Day in a Short Life was written in Mexico and based on his
nine-months’ experience in a federal prison; a flatly realistic portrayal of
the lives of prisoners in a Washington, D.C., jail, it voices Maltz’s plea for
human commitment and solidarity as the basis of true democracy. A Tale of One
January was published in England and has never been printed in the U.S.;
chronicling the escape of two women from Auschwitz, its narrative centers on
one woman’s rediscovery of her sense of self, her womanhood, and her
relationship to the larger world.
Maltz died in Los Angeles in 1985. His constant literary concern for an
idealized vision of democracy links his work to the American tradition of
Emerson and Whitman. His fiction regularly focuses on the individual’s struggle
for self-realization under confinement in some prison-like situation; always
Maltz’s faith in human decency, in the viability of the human struggle for a
better life, and in the need for spiritual liberation triumph over the forces
of repression. Among the most talented of the social protest writers shaped by
the Depression years, Maltz projects an idealistic intensity in his best work
that makes it worthy of wider recognition and publication.
Rutgers University at Newark
In the Heath Anthology
The Happiest Man on Earth
Peace on Earth
The Way Things Are
The Underground Stream
The Cross and the Arrow
The Journey of Simon McKeever
The Citizen Writer
A Long Day in a Short Life
A Tale of One January
Afternoon in the Jungle
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