November 20, 1994
In context -- that is, in his poem “September 1, 1939” -- W.H. Auden’s description of the Thirties as a “low dishonest decade” was true and liberating. But the phrase has become a cliché, quoted reflexively by people interested in discrediting radical politics then and now. No less than in any other decade -- and certainly more than in the Eighties and Nineties -- there was plenty of high-mindedness and high-heartedness in the Thirties. A swatch of these and other qualities is beautifully reproduced in Hope Hale Davis’s memoir, Great Day Coming.
In 1930 Davis, a young New York City writer and editor, fell in love with Claud Cockburn, a brilliant English journalist and legendary wit (and later, father of today’s semi-legendary Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn). Claud was determined to return to England in time for the expected Communist revolution, so at Davis’s urging they launched “Project Revolutionary Baby.” By the time they were reunited in England, after the baby’s birth, their feelings had changed and they separated again. Back in America, Davis resumed a budding romance with a handsome, cultivated New Deal economist, Hermann Brunck.
They married, their careers flourished, they joined the Communist Party, they were intensely happy. Davis skillfully evokes FDR’s Washington, where bright, brash progressive newcomers tried to maneuver around hidebound bureaucrats and time-serving hacks. She’s equally good on life in an underground Communist cell, with its satisfying ardor and camaraderie and its demoralizing drudgery, conformity, and secrecy. Her depiction of her courtship and marriage, though sketched lightly and delicately, glows with sensuality, as does her portrayal of Claudia, the revolutionary cherub. And there are walk-ons by the famous and infamous: Alger Hiss, Henry Wallace, Richard Wright, Jean Ross (the original of Sally Bowles in Isherwood’s Berlin Stories), Trotsky’s future assassin.
After a glorious year or so, the story darkens. Hermann’s mind is invaded, then overwhelmed, by paranoid delusions. His work in labor economics, just beginning to attract national attention, seems to him worthless; his admiring colleagues supposedly believe him a fraud; a global Nazi conspiracy has targeted him. He is committed to a prestigious clinic and the care of eminent, arrogant, incompetent psychiatrists (in particular, the celebrated Frieda Fromm-Reichman, who behaves despicably). After many months of flickering hope and steady misery, Hermann, in a different clinic and apparently recovering, commits suicide. In an Epilogue, Davis recounts her subsequent disillusionment with Communism in the wake of the Moscow Trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Davis, now 91 and a longtime writing teacher at Radcliffe, has evidently been gestating this memoir for decades. Verbally and psychologically, it’s very finely honed. Her prose is spare, quick, limpid:
"In the room where we lay hearing Claudia’s breathing nearby, the test came that we did not pass. In loving simulation we each gave what we thought the other expected. Only after further whiskies at a different bar could we find words to admit, reluctantly, that something was missing, something essential had gone.
I could hardly have expected those months with Hermann to leave me unchanged. For himself Claud had worked out a theory based on his early erotic tastes. When he first met me in New York, with my hair cut short and sleek, he had seen me as a sort of boy-girl, dashing and reckless. Now he saw me as a mother, responsible. My hair, falling almost to my shoulders, symbolized the difference. He took a different pleasure in seeing me this way; it intensified our sharing of Claudia. But…"
There are darker, more dramatic scenes as well: an awesome thunderstorm and a harrowing final confrontation with the odious Fromm-Reichman. And Davis deftly shuttles politics between background and foreground in the book, with the Depression glimpsed through anecdotes from the Consumer Council and the Agriculture Department, where she worked fascism seen lowering on the eastern horizon.
In several ways Great Day Coming resembles Diana Trilling’s superb The Beginning of the Journey, published last year. Both protagonists are accomplished, independent women, married to famous and troubled men. In varying proportions both of them engage with, and fight free of, both Stalinism and Freudianism. Both accounts recreate that striking feature of the the Thirties, the overlapping of intellectual and emotional experiment, of advanced politics and advanced art. And both authors speak in a voice of extraordinary directness, naturalness, and intimacy. It’s not hard to believe that, in each case, ninety years were required to achieve such refinements of spontaneity.
There’s scarcely a word about feminism in either book. Yet both are feminist classics. For no one with a spark of imagination can fail to identify with these brave, witty women, any more than with, say, the heroines of Henry James or D.H. Lawrence. And it’s from such imaginative identification that lasting solidarity arises, far more than from ideologically explicit scholarship or polemic.
Both women are (they’ll forgive the gallantry) an honor to their sex; and equally, to the decade they memorialize: the sometimes low and dishonest, sometimes generously striving Thirties.