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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Albert Maltz

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.

Maltz 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.

Both 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.”

Maltz 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.

Maltz 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.

By 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.

During 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.

Albert 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.

Gabriel Miller
Rutgers University at Newark

In the Heath Anthology
The Happiest Man on Earth (1938)

Other Works
Peace on Earth (1934)
Black Pit (1935)
The Way Things Are (1938)
The Underground Stream (1940)
The Cross and the Arrow (1944)
The Journey of Simon McKeever (1949)
The Citizen Writer (1950)
A Long Day in a Short Life (1957)
A Tale of One January (1966)
Afternoon in the Jungle (1971)

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Albert Maltz
Offers a biography and filmography.

Links to screenplays from the Internet Movie Database.

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