TESS SLESINGER : NEW YORK IN THE 1930s

                                                                                  JIM BURNS

Tess Slesinger’s novel The Unpossessed was published in 1934. It doesn’t rate a place in two early studies of left-wing American writing, Walter B. Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954 (1956) and Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left (1961), though the book was later “rediscovered” and reprinted. And Alan Wald has placed Slesinger firmly in the context of 1930s New York intellectual activity, and discussed her work in his The New York Intellectuals (1987). She is probably still only something of a fringe figure and little-known beyond the bounds of the academy, and possibly even then only where there is a focus on 1930s radicalism, or Jewish writers in America. In that context, it might be of interest to note that a large anthology, A Treasury of American Jewish Stories (1952), failed to acknowledge Slesinger. She had died in 1945, and her books were out-of-print, so was a forgotten figure by 1952.

She was born in 1905 into a comfortable Jewish Family. He father was a businessman and her mother a social worker who became a successful psychoanalyst.  One of Slesinger’s brothers also practised as a psychoanalyst. She was educated at Swarthmore College and the Columbia School of Journalism. She had always nursed ambitions to be a writer, and started publishing short stories in the late-1920s and early-1930s, including in such publications as Scribner’s, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, as well as in little magazines like Pagany and This Quarter.

In 1928 she married the journalist and editor Herbert Solow. He was connected to the Menorah Journal, a predominantly Jewish publication edited by Solow and Elliot Cohen. A couple of her stories were published in the magazine. Her marriage to Solow failed in the early-1930s, and some of the reasons for that may be suggested by the story “Missis Flinders”, which revolves around an abortion that a woman undergoes at the insistence of her husband. Did Slesinger have to face up to a similar situation? The story had been rejected by some American magazines because of the nature of the subject-matter, but was accepted by the editors of Story who were then operating from Spain. It was later used by Slesinger as the final chapter of The Unpossessed. It might also be worth considering that there could have been political differences between Solow and Slesinger. He had started as a fellow-traveller with the communists, but switched his allegiances to the Trotskyists, whereas she seems to have remained closer to the Communist Party, insofar as she was politically active. Solow’s deviations eventually took him towards conservatism and a job as an editor at Fortune.

It’s generally accepted that the novel, satirical in its intentions, uses aspects of Slesinger’s experiences among the Menorah Journal group of left-wing writers as its basis. Some of the originals for the book’s characters have been identified, though Slesinger had not in any way written straightforward descriptions of the persons concerned. Her husband, Herbert Solow, may have had some of the habits of thought of Miles Flinders, but the latter was not Jewish, whereas Solow was. And Margaret Flinders may have corresponded to Slesinger in part, but it has also been suggested that Elizabeth, an artist who has been living in Europe and returns to New York half-way through the story, could represent some of Slesinger’s state of mind in the 1920s, if not necessarily her actions.

A couple of other characters – Bruno Leonard and Jeffrey Blake – are based on Elliot Cohen and Max Eastman, with whom, Alan Wald says, “Slesinger had an affair at the time”. But, as he is quick to stress, “the characters in The Unpossessed are essentially composites designed to express a variety of themes emanating from the milieu” in which the originals functioned. Wald says that Lionel Trilling thought “Slesinger’s book was an act of passing judgement upon and separation from the very ‘contemporaries’ to whom the book was dedicated”. One other significant difference between the originals and their fictional versions is that Cohen and Solow were involved with an existing magazine, whereas in the novel, Leonard, Blake, and Flinders, not to mention some others, are planning to launch one, if they can raise enough money. The money aspect leads to some amusing consequences.  It’s rather reminiscent of Irving Howe’s comment that, “when intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine”. But it’s a mistake to assume that the book is a documentary account of the group that came together in the pages of the Menorah Journal. It is, first and foremost, a novel.

It’s not my intention to provide a detailed analysis of the plot of The Unpossessed. It essentially concerns itself with the relationships between the people I’ve mentioned, and several additional men and women who pop in and out of the narrative. Leonard is beset by a group of young radicals anxious to have a platform for their ideas in the new magazine. They’re of the opinion that poetry is “propaganda for sitting on your ass reading it”, while “forgetting what’s wrong with the world”. At the same time, Leonard’s mind keeps returning to Elizabeth, his childhood sweetheart, who is due to arrive from Paris.  Blake is busy seducing a wealthy woman into funding the magazine, and keeping one or two other women, including his placid wife, happy. Flinders is trying to bring his gloomy New England temperament into line with his communist beliefs, while his marriage to Margaret appears to be floundering. In between, like all intellectuals, they talk and argue about what the magazine should aim for. As one of the participants dryly remarks: “We talk and talk like an old Russian novel. I’d like to know what any of us do?”  And, of course, a Manifesto has to be drawn up.

Comrade Fisher, a plain-looking activist, appears and impresses Blake with her radical accreditations. She’s been to Russia, slept with a working-class strike leader and a couple of officials from the Communist Party, and spent a night in jail after being arrested on a picket line. She’s bitter, though, because she’s been rejected as not ready for proper Party membership. He beds her in her dingy room with a poster of Lenin looking down on their activities. Later, he discards her and begins to chase after Elizabeth, the hard-drinking artist who supposedly has come to link up with Leonard.

The high-point of the book is a party the foolish wealthy woman insists on having to raise funds for  the Hunger Marchers heading to Washington, and for the new magazine. One of the more-engaging characters at the event is the woman’s husband, a self-made man who takes a surprisingly relaxed view of the fact that it’s his money that is being used to provide food and drink for the party and, in due course, the magazine. He’s humorous and mildly mocks the supposed revolutionaries and their antics, but without ever losing his temper or becoming unduly concerned. It’s as if he knows that ultimately they will never present a real threat to him or his kind, so why take them seriously?

The party ends in chaos when Bruno, whose speech to promote the magazine has been sabotaged by a young admirer who has become disillusioned, gets drunk and improvises an address that appears to pull down the supposed lofty ideals of the intellectuals. Murray Kempton, looking back at the novel in his Part of Our Time, described Leonard’s speech as “a haunted exposition of the desperation of some intellectuals in the year 1932”.  At one point he ridicules his young followers, and says, “Run, Sheep, Run”, and it raises the question of whether or not the phrase had been picked up by Slesinger from Maxwell Bodenheim’s 1932 pro-Communist novel of that name?

It’s interesting that a party given by a similarly silly wealthy woman is also the subject of one of Slesinger’s short stories. “After the Party”, was included in her collection, Time: The Present, published in 1935. The woman in question has divorced her husband after he’s turned into a committed socialist and decided to give away all his money. She has her own income so isn’t affected by his actions. Following the divorce her doctor advises her to find a new interest in life. After rejecting several suggestions which might involve some discomfort she settles on becoming a party-giver, but of a specific kind. She’ll host parties at which a noted literary celebrity will be the special guest. But she doesn’t want “certain critics, who should not be brought face to face with certain writers”.  

The satirical approach is obvious and one of the invited novelists is a young woman called Regina Sawyer who has written a book called The Undecided which has had some success. It’s not difficult to decipher that she may be Tess Slesinger in fictional form and perhaps capitalising on her experiences attending literary events. It’s not a major story, but has a light touch and neatly makes fun of the woman and her guests. Another party-story, “Mr Palmer’s Party”, from the New Yorker in 1935, seems light-weight but has an edge as Mr Palmer finds himself side-lined by his aggressive wife and the guests he has invited. He’s either ignored or derided when he tries to make conversation. It’s funny, but sad, and one somehow feels sorry for Mr Palmer, an essentially kind-hearted, mild-mannered man, treated contemptuously by the indifferent in spirit.

There were at least three stories in Time: The Present which can be said to have been directly concerned with social, economic and political matters in the 1930s. “The Times So Unsettled Are” is about a young Viennese woman whose boyfriend, an ardent communist, is killed during the 1934 uprising in the city when the Karl Marx Hof (specially constructed workers’ accommodation) was attacked by the military and police during a left-wing uprising. She had previously met a couple from America who seemed to exemplify everything about personal relationships that she desired. Hearing of her predicament they invite her to New York. When she arrives they whisk her away to a café and she senses that something is not quite right. Finally, the man gets up to leave. The couple no longer live together - “here in America, too – the time unsettled are”.

“Jobs in the Sky” more directly comments on the effects of the Depression. It is Christmas Eve in a large department store, and a young man has obtained a temporary job after being unemployed for eight months. He’s in charge of a section in the book-hall and anxious to impress the supervisor in the hope that he’ll be offered a more-permanent position. He’s also fantasising that if he is, he’ll ask one of the other assistants, an attractive young woman, for a date. In the end he’s told that he’s no longer required, and he slinks out, knowing that he has nothing to offer anyone in the harsh economic climate of 1930s New York, a place where his father had always told him he would be sure to succeed. He’s not the only one dismissed. A middle-aged woman who has lost her job as a teacher, and is desperate to find alternative employment, is also sent on her way. The title of the story plays on the old Wobbly (IWW – Industrial Workers of the World) song, “The Preacher and the Slave”, with its line, “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”.  

Another story, “The Mouse Trap”, sees a smooth-talking boss defusing a potential strike situation when he reduces the wage of one of the workers and the others try to rally in her support. He’s assisted by his good-looking secretary who considers herself a cut above the others, dreams about marrying the boss, and has told him what is about to happen. He isolates individuals, preying on their fears about unemployment in a city with 400,000 families on relief, and pointing to their domestic situations and other factors that might cause hardship should they lose their jobs. As he says to them, there are lots of people looking for employment and they can easily be replaced: “I can get college professors to write copy, and debutantes to sell it – while you people will have a hard time finding work anywhere else”.  The initial defiance of the potential strikers slowly fades away until only three or four of the most militant employees are left isolated. There is something of an ironic ending when the boss, high on his success, attempts to seduce his secretary only to be rebuffed when she, realising what he really wants from her, flees from his office.

There are a couple of other stories deserving of attention, though they aren’t specifically set in a 1930s context.  “On Being Told that her Second Husband has taken his First Lover” is an interior monologue using a stream of consciousness technique as a woman contemplates her situation. “A Life in the Day of a Writer” interestingly takes on the thoughts of a male author as he struggles to overcome a temporary block and get a short-story underway while his wife fumes at his behaviour: “He had spoken to no-one all the morning since Louise – shouting that she could put up with being the wife of a non-best-seller, or even the wife of  a chronic drunk with a fetish for carrying away coat hangers for souvenirs, but not by God the duenna of a conceited adolescent flirt – had slammed the door and gone off cursing to her office”. It’s essentially a story about the creative process as the writer slowly constructs a story out of the fragments of memory, imagination, and his wife’s assertions swirling around in his mind.

I think it’s fair to say that Slesinger did try to move her writing in the novel and several of her stories beyond a straightforward narrative account. Alan Wald comments: ”The Unpossessed is a highly original novel. Slesinger adapts some of the modernist techniques of Joyce, Proust, and the early Hemingway to her purposes, but the book is also closely shaped by her close reading of Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Parker, and Virginia Woolf. The book anticipates both Saul Bellow’s novels about frustrated Jewish intellectuals such as Herzog (1964) and Mary McCarthy’s political satires such as The Oasis (1949)”.

Slesinger’s last published story appeared in 1936 and The Unpossessed was her only novel. It’s difficult to know if she intended to write more fiction or had decided to call it a day. She moved to Hollywood, married a producer and screenwriter named Frank Davis, had two children, and was hired for work on a number of films, only a couple of which might be said to have survived the years. The Good Earth (1937) was based on a novel by Pearl S. Buck, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) on a novel by Betty Smith. Another film that Slesinger worked on, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) has aroused interest among feminists in more-recent years. It was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women functioning in that role in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was directed by Elia Kazan, a member of the Hollywood left-community at the time. Slesinger herself seems to have become part of it and sustained her commitments to left-wing causes, but it isn’t clear if she ever became a member of the Communist Party. Both she and Frank Davis belonged to the Hollywood chapter of The League of American Writers, an organisation which included numerous socially-committed writers and was considered by the FBI to be a Communist front. Slesinger appears to have aligned herself with the Party line on certain subjects as, for example, when her name appeared on a Communist Party document attacking the Dewey Commission for its investigation of the Moscow trials. She died in 1945 from cancer, so escaped the HUAC hearings which divided Hollywood in 1947 and again in 1951.  Had she still been alive and called to testify, her involvements with communism might have been made public. It has been indicated that she may have become disillusioned with the Party because of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, but remained pro-Russia throughout the war years.


The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1934.

Time: The Present by Tess Slesinger. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1935.

“A Life in the Day of a Writer” by Tess Slesinger. Story, New York, November, 1935.

“Mr Palmer’s Party” by Tess Slesinger. The New Yorker, New York, April, 1935. Also in Short Stories from The New Yorker, Victor Gollancz, London, 1951.

The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s by Alan Wald. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987.

Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the in the American 1930s by Laura Hapke. The University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1995. There is an excellent discussion of The Unpossessed and several of the short stories, plus some useful information about Slesinger’s activities, in this book.  

Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940 edited by Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz. The Feminist Press, New York, 1987. Contains Slesinger’s short-story, “The Mouse-Trap”.

James T, Farrell: The Revolutionary Socialist Years by Alan Wald.  New York University Press, New York, 1978.

Part of Our Time by Murray Kempton. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1955.

Days of Anger, Days of Hope: A Memoir of the League of American Writers, 1937-1942 by Franklin Folsom. University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 1994. 

The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling by Diana Trilling. Harcourt Brace, New York, 1991. Useful for her comments about Slesinger and The Unpossessed.

Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood by Lizzie Francke. British Film Institute, London, 1994.

Sam Holman by James T.Farrell. Prometheus Books, New York, 1983. Farrell’s novel was published posthumously. Sam Holman is clearly based on Herbert Solow and Frances Dunsky on Tess Slesinger. Farrell only lightly disguised them and most of the other characters can easily be identified (see Alan Wald’s book about the New York intelletuals referred to above).  And Frances Dunsky publishes a novel called Uncommitted Young Men in which Holman is made to seem ”powerless and ineffectual in his aim to change the world” and not only “a little naïve but also a little ridiculous”.

There have been reprints of The Unpossessed and Time: The Present in recent years.  An edition of the novel, with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, was published by New York Review Books in 2002. The short stories, with the addition of the previously uncollected “A Life in the Day of a Writer”, have been reprinted under the title, On Being Told that Her Second Husband has taken His First Lover.