Jim Burns


Some years ago I interviewed Allen Ginsberg and asked him about possible early influences. He'd grown up in a household where his mother was a member of the American Communist Party, and his father, a published poet, had leanings towards socialism, so it was only reasonable to assume that left-wing literary magazines would be available for him to look at. I knew that his father had been published in anthologies like May Days and Unrest, as well as in Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, which also featured Arturo Giovannitti, Lola Ridge, Maxwell Bodenheim, and others with socialist sympathies. Ginsberg acknowledged that he'd read old copies of The Masses (a prominent radical magazine suppressed by the government during the First World War, and later followed by New Masses, which was heavily dominated by the Communist Party), and then remarked that the poem from the Thirties that had impressed him and influenced the writing of his famous poem, Howl, was Ben Maddow's The City.

I happened to have a copy of Maddow's poem, and I also knew his name from his work in Hollywood in the post-war period. I went back to The City and read it again, and I could see how it might have shaped Ginsberg's thinking in some ways. Maddow's vision of the modem city as a monster consuming its inhabitants is not dissimilar to Ginsberg's, and the effect is built up through a series of powerful stanzas which push the poem along with the same kind of rhythmic hiatus that Howl displays: 

Children of the cold sun and the broken horizon
O secret faces, multitudes, eyes of inscrutable grief,
great breath of millions, in unknown crowds or alone,
rooms of dreamers above the cement abyss, - and I,
who all night restive in the unsleeping rain,
awoke and saw the windows covered with tears.

Maddow is more directly political than Ginsberg, in the sense of pointing the finger of blame, and whereas Howl largely charts the activities of specific people known to Ginsberg, The City aims for broader statements: 

Here the strict labour of the many must support
the monotony of the useless; and luxury is got
with smiles, false kindness, marriage, or embezzlement;
he who can feign desire, praise poison, or hang by his teeth,
lives well, accumulates the powerful bond,
receives inhuman honour, - but the kind man is strangled.

I don't want to enter into a detailed analysis of The City and its links to Howl, and in any case it is possible to point to other Maddow poems - Acts of God and Images of Poverty, for example - as possibly influencing Ginsberg in terms of technique. The long lines and packed units are from a tradition that, in America, derives from Whitman and goes through populist poets like Carl Sandburg, Arturo Giovannitti, and Michael Gold, and Ginsberg has always been seen as working in that way. Insofar as Maddow is concerned, you can observe how, in short, pictorial phrases packed closely together, he constructs his vision of the world:

Sleep on the way home 5 p.m., and each one shaken to a stifled flat. Sleep. The ads murmur. buy me, buy me. Hands hanging in a net of veins; the sweated collar; feet unseen; heart sodden with a full week's overtime. Heavy, hungry. Light scuds on the concrete. Our sleep is shaken like the shadow of vibrating chain. Another hour toward another hour, another hour toward

It is powerful stuff, mostly forgotten now but still capable of evoking a picture of a riven, discontented society. And Maddow himself, unknown to all but a few specialist in American radical writing and those with an interest in Hollywood screenwriters and politics, deserves to be remembered. His career, though sliding toward a sad ending, says a great deal about his times.

Maddow was born in 1909 in New Jersey, his parents being immigrant Jews from the Ukraine. His father had socialist ideals which influenced the son, but the family had to split up when their shop failed and Maddow's father want to work on a farm. Maddow lived with his mother in Passaic and New York City. He had ambitions to enter the medical profession, but came up against the system which restricted the number of Jews who could enrol on certain courses. He switched to biophysics and graduated from Columbia University in 1930. The Depression had hit hard by then and Maddow was unemployed for two years before working as a hospital orderly and then as a case worker for the Emergency Relief Bureau for another three. He later recalled how his experience of unemployment had affected him: "You have no idea, unless you have experienced it yourself, how it is to be out of work for two years, to have this big gap of empty time which makes you feel as if your life is being wasted."

He had always had a strong interest in literature and started writing poems and short stories, though he published them under the name of David Wolff. He did this, he said, because he didn't want his colleagues at the Bureau to "think him uppity." Known radicals were often excluded from government jobs. I've already noted that Maddow's poems were heavily political, and most of them revolved around images of the Depression, of broken and stunted lives, and of injustices. There was, perhaps inevitably, a great deal of personal need in the poems, even if they weren't directly autobiographical, and one critic, looking at Maddow's work some years later, thought that they "suggest an almost frantic need for a way up and out, for a personal vitality, for a career or commitment that would suffice. Emotional, concentrated, biting, his poetry is sometimes almost too private." The same critic also said: Maddow's poems have a common pattern, moving in a rather simple dialectic from depressing moments (sometimes juxtaposed to scenes from the life of the rich) to points of strong affirmation." Maddow himself, interviewed several decades later, said that "there was a tremendous amount of morbidity and inner depression from your experiences. Because you didn't know quite where you were going when you got out of college. There were no jobs and it was very tough on you spiritually."

Maddow was publishing in New Masses, Dynamo, and Partisan Review, and was included in the 1935 anthology, Proletarian Literature In the United States. All these appearances were as David Whiff, and he used that name when he began to work with a number of left-wing documentary film-makers. Maddow answered an advertisement for someone to write the commentary for a short film, and was introduced to activists connected with Nykino, which was a split-off from the Workers Film and Photo League, a communist-dominated organisation which made short documentaries about strikes and such issues, and also arranged showing of imported radical films. Some of its members were unhappy with the way it was run so formed Nykino, their aim being to continue making documentaries but to improve their quality. After a brief time with Nykino, Maddow moved to Frontier Films, where he worked on several films which are now viewed as classics of 1 930s American documentary film-making. He wrote the commentary for Heart of Spain, China Strikes Back, United Action, and others, and made some highly significant advances in how these things were done In his own words:

"As anybody who knows the history of the field can tell you, I invented a way of using narration in film which suited my purposes very well and has influenced other people - which was to construct the narration like poetry, in which every word modifies the image. I worked out a ratio of two words to a second, which worked so perfectly. In those days you ran the film as you were recording the narration, so you had this very, very close connection between the image and the writing. in that sense, I was not a writer, but a poet and a filmmaker. The narration really meant carpentering phrases so they fit the rhythm of the film."

Maddow's recollections of the politics of the group ha worked with were that "it was left-labour. You might say the group followed the Communist line, but the Communist line at that time was very Popular Front." I mention this because it is important in terms of later events in Maddow's life. He also recalled knowing "a political circle of various shades of opinion. I also knew a circle of poets that included Muriel Rukeyser, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Kenneth Fearing. We'd often read our poetry (publicly). Bodenheim always read with his back to the audience and his face to the poets."

During the Second World War Maddow served in the Army, making documentary films, and on his release was offered work in Hollywood. He joined another left-winger, Walter Bernstein, to write the script for a thriller, Kiss the Blood off my Hands, which now is listed in books about film-noir. He also worked on The Man From Colorado and wrote the screenplay for an adaptation of William Faulkner's novel, Intruder In the Dust. He was still writing poetry - there is a story that, to the amazement of everyone in Hollywood, he once turned down a lucrative offer to write a script because he said he was too busy working on a long poem - and he also finished a novel, 44 Gravel Street, based on his social work experiences. In 1950, Maddow was hired to co-write, with John Huston, the screenplay for The Asphalt Jungle, another film which appears in studies of film-noir. Although he seems to have worked regularly in Hollywood in the late-1940s he claimed that he had very little affinity with the system there and kept to himself, or at least restricted his socialising to fellow left-wingers. He said of the MGM studio: "There was a writers' table, which I was appalled by, because they discussed nothing but agents and contracts  don't forget that I grew up where intellectuals got together and fiercely argued some great point, and there was nothing of that there."

What is interesting is that very few people in Hollywood knew anything about Maddow's involvements with left-wing documentaries and radical poetry in the 1930s. But his past was about to catch up with him. In 1952 he was working on scripts for two films, High Noon and The Wild Ones, which were to become classics of their kind, but was suddenly informed that he was being dropped from both. He wasn't surprised, because other left-wingers had already been blacklisted, and he knew his turn would come. Asked about the blacklist many years later, Maddow said that he didn't think it had much to do with eliminating left-wing propaganda from films - there was little chance to put any in even if you wanted to, in Maddow's opinion - and that it was just a means of cutting off funds from the Communist Party. Its Hollywood supporters were well-paid enough to have poured money into its coffers, and the authorities wanted to stop this. Maddow felt that much of the left-wing activity in Hollywood was simply "a sop to the conscience" of those who felt guilty about earning high salaries for relatively little work.

Like many other blacklisted screenwriters, Maddow survived by writing scripts under assumed names and making uncredited contributions to a variety of films. Amongst those he was involved with, in one way or another, were Johnny Guitar, Men In War, and God's Little Acre. There are passages in the latter which describe how life in a mill town is affected by the closure of the factory which could almost be from a Maddow documentary narration. He seems to have worked steadily throughout the 1950s, despite being on the blacklist, so what happened next has a curious side to it, one that can perhaps only be explained in terms of personal psychology.

Around 1958 Maddow testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, naming at least some names in return for clearance so that he could work openly in Hollywood again. When asked about this in interviews, he was vague and sometimes unresponsive, at first denying that he'd testified and claiming that his agent had paid a Republican congressman with connections to the Committee to have his name removed from the blacklist. He later admitted that he'd signed "some sort of statement," but that he didn't remember what was in it. He was devious about what had happened, and other blacklisted film people were in no doubt that he had named names of former associates. Leo Hurwitz, a leading documentary film-maker of the 1930s, claimed he had evidence that Maddow had named him. And Walter Bernstein, in his memoir of the blacklist, Inside Out, tells of meeting Maddow in the late 1950s and being given the reason why he'd decided to name names.

According to Bernstein, "it had nothing to do with money or politics or being afraid or not able to work. He simply could no longer stand living in the shadows. Something had broken in him." Maddow explained how, when there was a screening of a completed film for all the studio heads, he had to wait until the lights went out and then slip into the cinema. Bernstein was horrified when he heard this: "Maddow had not been forced to do what he did. He had been working, being well paid, surviving the blacklist better than most. He had gone through the worst of it. But there are no gradations of betrayal. He had sold his friends so he could come out of the dark. Now he stood in the light and could put his name to his work, but he had sold his name as well as his friends. All I could feel was sadness."

Maddow returned to working openly in Hollywood, though ironically he asked for his name to be removed from the credits of Ella Kazan's Wild River (a film about the 1930s and the New Deal) because he was dissatisfied with the re-written script. He then wrote The Unforgiven for John Huston, and made a bleak little film, The Savage Eye, which was a dramatised documentary look at the seedy side of Los Angeles. He also worked on The Balcony (from the Genet play), The Way West, and The Mephisto Waltz, but by 1970 he had effectively retired from films and was concentrating on writing fiction and books about photography

The reasons why people co-operated with investigating Committees were many and complex, and in Maddow's case maybe Walter Bernstein got it right when he said that "something had broken in him." Maddow said that, around the time concerned, he was in low spirits and in analysis. But that he had testified shocked his friends, who had seen him as a talented, likeable left-winger with a good record as a poet, documentary film-maker, and Hollywood screenwriter. Perhaps going to Hollywood was his big mistake? Did he come to rely on the money and the boosts to the ego that seeing his name on successful films could bring? The sad thing is that had he held on for another year or two he might, like Walter Bernstein, have been able to work under his own name. The blacklist was breaking down by 1960 and Ben Maddow should have have been able to survive until then.

Maddow's career from the heady days of 30s radicalism to the Hollywood highlights of the 40s, the blacklisting of the 50s, and the low-key return to feature films in the 60s, is fascinating for what it says about the times he lived through. His early poetry is still worth reading, and not only because of its historical interest, It can still be relevant with its comments on social evils and injustices. And his contribution to documentary film-making ought to be acknowledged. He was not a prolific screenwriter, but he produced some scripts that deserve recognition. As for his human failings, it's best to be charitable by trying to understand the pressures he was under in difficult circumstances.



The best source for Maddow's poetry is Social Writing of the 1930s: Poetry, edited by Jack Salzman and Leo Zanderer, published by Burt Franklin & Co.Inc., New York, 1978.

Information about his work with documentary film-makers can be found in William Alexander's Film on the Left:American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942 published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1981.

A long, informative interview with Maddow can be found in Backstory 2:interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s by Pat McGilligan published by California University Press, Berkeley, 1991.

The screenplay, by Maddow and John Huston, for The Asphalt Jungle was published by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1980.

Walter Bernstein's Inside Out: A memoir of the Blacklist was published by Alfred A.Knopf, New York, 1996.

For general information about the blacklist, including references to Maddow, see Victor S Navasky's Naming Names, Viking Press, New York, 1980, and The Inquisition in Hollywood:Politics In the Film Community 1930-1950 by Larry Ceplair and Steven England, Anchor Press, Doubleday, New York, 1980.

This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications