National Association of Authors : The Writer's Position in America

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Langston Hughes in 1943 by Gordon Parks

This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.

Opens with remarks by Clifton Fadiman. Followed by historian Bruce Catton, author of several books on the Civil War including "A Stillness at Appomattox" and "This Hallowed Ground." Catton speaks about the position of the American writer in retrospect with a focus on Whitman and Melville, he is somewhat critical of publishing industry but overall believes the USA is still willing to listen to its writers.

Fadiman introduces John Mason Brown, drama critic, author, and social commentator. Brown talks about the present position of the writer in American and his prospects for the future. Talks about Orwell's 1984. "We must admit that there have been threats to individual freedom, often as terrifying as the fantasy Orwell envisioned. McCarthy is gone but McCarthyism may reappear in a different form. 63% of national budget goes to military expenditures. That says more about the present than anything else. Writers hope to make order out of the upheaval of our world."

Fadiman returns with optimistic recap of Catton and Brown. Followed by Jacques Barzun, writer, social commentator., and professor of history at Columbia University. "In light of what's been said, I feel like a quarentine officer before a clean bill of health. How the present looks to me...lets take the pool of literary talent. Literature has disappeared in the glut of information of our day." Danger of the literary talent being associated with the University. Why is the University a refuge for such talent? We are going toward a different conception of the artist. The semi-professional. It has not occurred for literature. Might consider the possibility that around the university it will happen.

Langston Hughes speaks on "The Position of the Negro Writer in America." Hughes talks about the position of the Negro writer in America. My chance to be heard as a Negro writer is not as good as your chance. Once sent out a story about racial violence in the South. Editor said his readers didn't want to read about such things. Another story editor could not tell if the characters were white or colored. Asked that I make them Negro. He did and the story was accepted. Censorship. The Black list. Negro writers have always been on the black list. There are libraries that won't accept our books. Negro newspapers have to be sold under the counter. American magazines that have never published a Negro. Censorship begins with the color line. Hollywood won't hire a Negro writer, no matter how famous. How many colored editors do you see? How many Negro reviewers do you see? If you have a Negro reviewer he's reviewing only books by Negroes. Why don't they send them any books? What happens to the Negro speaker. Tells stories of discrimination on the lecture circuit. Colleges in the border states. Students had to be polled who would dine with a Negro. Northern city where Negro women wanted to attend. Compromised, head of college brought her maid. We have in America today a dozen top flight Negro writers. Isn't it strange that most of them live abroad. Goes through a long list of black expatriot American writers: Richard Wright, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, William Denby, Ralph Ellison, Frank Yerby, Willard Motley. They live either in Paris, Rome or Mexico. Live outside of our country because of stones thrown. Bombs under Rev. King's house. Jim Crow schools. Concludes with poem about a black girl who grows up in the deep south who is brought to a northern city where she sees a merry-go-round and is uncertain about it since she's not used to an unsegregated merry-go-round. Hughes urges the audience to help make a country where every kid will have a horse on the merry-go-round.

Arthur Miller speaks next on the integration of the writer into the domestic and foreign policies of the government under which he lives. He talks about the conflict between the artist's search for meaning and the politician's belief that all should live under the laws established. He notes that the pressure once fell mostly on newspaper writers, but now falls on all novelists, fiction and non-fiction writers alike. Throughout history, the relationship between artist and political power has been uneasy. Our profession has had a higher number of exiles and jailbirds than any other. The welfare of the race must insist on the conditions of freedom. Refers to a recent exchange of letters between C. L. Sulzberger of the New York Times and John Foster Dulles on the State Department ban on American journalists in China. Dulles is wrong, Miller asserts. The punitive power of government should not be used against citizens to stifle political opponents. The State Department has interferred with the distribution of arts and letters abroad. We have - by being silent - allowed this to happen. It's time for writers to make it clear to government that writers and artists are not busiinessmen and soldiers. Free expression of opinion does not come from iron or armies. The news is sacred. The freedom to write is as important as "high policy". It is not a question of rights or complaining. It is purely a question of preserving a free press and literature. We, who are the experts, need to make things clear. I say these things because I have learned them at my cost.

Glenway Wescott, novelist, describes himself as being against "professional writing" because very few writers can survive as "professionals" without cheapening themselves and their work. He speaks briefly because the program is running long and Jessamyn West is still yet to speak.

Jessamyn West author of the books The Friendly Persuasion, Cress Delahanty and To See The Dream, speaks on "women's traditional due, the final word." She notes that the National Association of Authors is not a place to harp upon their differences, rather to focus on their likenesses. History and Prophecy have always belonged to men, women have always preferred the present. She discusses the writer's intent to get something important on to the paper. Some truths can only be told through the arts - they transcend the merely factual

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection

WNYC archives id: 5739
Municipal archives id: LT6348