By Jim Burns
I’m looking at an anthology, Americans Abroad, edited by Peter Neagoe, and published by the Servire Press, The Hague, in 1932. There are fifty-two contributors and all the names one might expect from a book dealing with American writers who spent time in Europe in what Neagoe refers to as the “after-war period” are there: Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, Robert McAlmon and others. The histories and memoirs of the expatriate experience provide information about them, and their writings have often been reprinted.
But what intrigues me are the names of those who are no longer remembered, and who haven’t had books and scholarly articles written about them. What do we know about Virginia Hersch, Allan Dowling, Muriel Draper, Ruth Jameson, Robert Sage, and Cary Ross? There are notes in the book which indicate what and where they had published prior to its publication. They were young then, so hadn’t appeared in print a great deal. And recourse to browsing the Internet, or finding their names on Abe Books, does sometimes indicate that they went on to write novels, short stories, poetry, and other material after their time in Europe. Hersch, for example, wrote several novels, one of which, To Seize a Dream, was based on the life of the French artist, Delacroix.
One person who I have been able to track down in some detail is Sherry Mangan, a poet, novelist, journalist, and follower of Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary. Mangan’s contribution to Americans Abroad is called “Spot Dance” and consists of a series of short sketches which focus on some of the inconsistencies and contradictions of personal relationships. Earlier Mangan had edited a little magazine, larus: the celestial visitor, been involved with another publication, Pagany, and appeared in various magazines, such as This Quarter and Poetry.
He had also published a novel. Cinderella Married or How They Lived Happily Ever After: A Divertissement, which, according to Professor Alan Wald, reflected his experiences when he was hired as a tutor by a wealthy Boston family. Wald also described it as emulating the work of Ronald Firbank “too closely” in concentrating on “some of the same precious, contrived, bored, and lethargic characters”. A short story, “The Coat”, published in the London Mercury in 1933 can be seen as dealing with people who, while not being wealthy, want to be and are affected by their yearning for money and material goods to the extent that the husband influences his wife into committing adultery with a wealthy admirer who will buy her a fur coat.
Mangan had published poetry, and his 1934 collection, No Apology for Poetrie, was described by one critic as “the latest book the intelligentsia like”. As a Harvard graduate, and a poet, he associated with R.P. Blackmur, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Fitzgerald, and others. He was a friend of John Wheelwright, a Boston poet from a wealthy family who had turned radical in politics, and was responsible for introducing Mangan to the ideas of Trotsky. Mangan became a firmly-committed and active Trotskyist, something which may have seemed incompatible with his career between 1938 and 1948 as a journalist for firmly-capitalist publications such as Time, Life, and Fortune. But travelling in Europe and South America as part of his journalistic duties no doubt gave him an opportunity to maintain contacts with a variety of Trotsky’s supporters. It’s appropriate to note that when there was a factional fight, and a split in the American Trotskyist group, Mangan followed James P. Cannon rather than Max Shachtman, and helped form the Socialist Workers Party.
In the early-1950s he turned away from direct political activity, though without losing his commitment to the Trotskyist movement, and tried to reconstruct his career as a creative writer. Some of the poems and stories from this period can be found in a small book, Blackness of a White Night, published in 1987. What is significant is that, bearing in mind Mangan’s involvements, there are few direct political references in the poetry and fiction. A poem, “Activist Miliciano” relates to the Spanish Civil War, and the long story, “Snow”, clearly has links to Mangan’s own activities as a kind of courier for the international Trotskyist movement. It’s set in the post-1945 period when it seemed necessary to reconstitute an organisation, the Fourth International, shattered by the events of the Second World War. Another story, “Blackness of a White Night”, is based on an “affair with an intellectual ……in the circle of Hannah Arendt”.
A third story, “Reminiscences from a Hilltop”, was published in 1957 in the final issue of Black Mountain Review, edited by Robert Creeley, and mostly devoted to Black Mountain and Beat writers. It would be interesting to know how Mangan’s story came to be alongside them. It is worth noting that “Reminiscences from a Hilltop”, and another story from the early Fifties, “A Night in Scranton”, are inclined towards fantasy or science-fiction in the way they extend reality into the surreal. And in this connection Mangan had contacts with Surrealists in Paris in the 1930s. It might also be relevant to mention that when the Surrealists broke away from the Communist Party they moved politically towards the Trotskyists.
The 1950s were, on the whole, not a good time for Mangan. They were years when anti-Communism meant that prejudice was rampant against anyone with even the slightest leanings in that direction. . As an active Trotskyist Mangan experienced great difficulty in obtaining work in the field of journalism. What little he published in the way of stories and poems wasn’t likely to attract fees of any consequence. And he devoted a lot of time to editing the Trotskyist magazine, The Fourth International, which was more a matter of commitment to a cause than a way of earning a living. In addition his health was bad. He moved to Spain and lived in a small village, hoping to be able to live frugally, and then to Rome, where he died in 1961, “alone, destitute, forgotten, not quite fifty-seven years old”, to quote Alan Wald.
Sherry Mangan was a minor writer, and a political activist with a small group which perhaps had little or no influence on wider events. But he has always fascinated me because of his dedication to both writing and politics. His family background and education could have enabled him to live differently, but he chose to involve himself with matters that meant he would, out of necessity, exist on the sidelines.
As I said earlier, it’s the lesser-known figures in the Americans Abroad anthology that intrigue me. I doubt that very few people, apart from a handful of scholars, know or care about Ernest Walsh. He was described by Edward Dahlberg as having “all the fever of a tubercular who knew his days were few”, and, although he was a poet, is probably remembered mostly for his brief editorial role with This Quarter, a magazine he started with financial assistance from Ethel Moorhead. This Quarter is now seen as one of the key publications of the Paris expatriate scene and printed work by Hemingway, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Djuna Barnes. Walsh was portrayed in Kay Boyle’s novel, Year Before Last, a fictionalised account of their affair. He died in 1926. The third issue of This Quarter, edited by Ethel Moorhead, was dedicated to Walsh and had a substantial amount of prose and poetry by him.
And there is Wambly Bald. He had a story, “Dreary”, in Americans Abroad which had previously appeared in The New Review, a magazine edited by Samuel Putnam, and was about a couple of lesbians in Paris. Bald had led a colourful life before arriving in the French capital, having wandered around the United States and been a merchant seaman. He obtained a job as a proof reader for the European edition of the Chicago Tribune, where he worked alongside Henry Miller and Alfred Perles. He is in Miller’s Tropic of Cancer under the name, Van Norden. But his main claim to fame is as the man who wrote the lively and informative “La Vie de Bohème” column for the paper between 1929 and 1933. Bald didn’t achieve much when he returned to America later in the 1930s. He worked for the Office of War Information during the Second World War, and then seems to have been a freelance writer, living in Greenwich Village and occasionally contributing pieces about his time in Paris to magazines.
Mangan, Walsh, and Bald are just three of the forgotten writers from American Abroad, and there are others I could have written about. Emily Holmes Coleman wrote a single novel, The Shutter of Snow, and had work in little magazines like transition and Seed, but published little else due to her fragile mental state, though the novel has been reprinted in recent years. Or there is Emanuel Carnevali, who was published in This Quarter. He suffered from a form of sleeping sickness, and was partially supported financially by William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon. An Italian-American, he returned to Italy in 1922, needed constant medical attention, and died there in 1942. And Peter Neagoe, a now-forgotten novelist as well as editor of Americans Abroad. His final book, The Saint of Montparnasse, was a fictionalised account of the life of the sculptor, Constantin Brancusi, who Neagoe had known in Paris.
I make no claims for the writers I’ve mentioned being major talents, though Sherry Mangan deserves to be written about because of the way in which he combined journalism, creative writing, and political commitment in his life. But they all produced work of interest and were a part of the overall literary scene of their time. And for that they ought to be remembered.
1. Americans Abroad edited by Peter Neagoe. The Servire Press, The Hague, 1932
2. Alan Wald, The Revolutionary Imagination: The Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1983
3. Sherry Mangan, Blackness of a White Night: Stories & Poems, Arts End Books, Newton, 1987
4. Sherry Mangan, “Reminiscences From a Hilltop” in The Black Mountain Review 7 , Black Mountain, Autumn, 1957
5. Sherry Mangan, “A Night in Scranton” in New Directions 14, New York, 1953
6. Sherry Mangan, “Coat” in The London Mercury, London, April, 1933
7. Ernest Walsh, “Some of His Latest Poems and Writings” in This Quarter 3, Monte Carlo, 1927
8. Wambly Bald, On the Left Bank, 1929-1933, edited by Benjamin Franklin V, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1987
9. Emily Holmes Coleman, The Shutter of Snow, Virago Press, London, 1981
10. Emanuel Carnevali, The Autobiography of Emanuel Carnevali, edited by Kay Boyle, Horizon Press, New York, 1967. Some of Carnevali’s poems can be found in This Quarter 2, Milan, 1925
11. Kay Boyle, Year Before Last, Faber and Faber, London, 1932
12. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, John Calder, London, 1963