Research at the RBML | Gary Ley on Albert Maltz

RBML researcher and Swansea University PhD candidate, Gary Ley writes a guest essay about delving into the Albert Maltz collection at Columbia. Maltz, a screenwriter, novelist, and playwright, was jailed after his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding his membership in the Communist Party. (Columbia also has a collection of Maltz’ co-defendant, Alvah Cecil Bessie.)

Maltz was born in New York City and attended Columbia University as an undergraduate, before going to Yale School of Drama. He contributed short stories to magazines such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New Masses, for which he authored the controversial article, “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” In Hollywood, Maltz won academy awards for his screenplay, Pride of the Marines, and for his documentary work, including a short with Frank Sinatra in which the singer speaks out against anti-Semitism. His last screenplays before being blacklisted were Cloak and Dagger (1946) and The Naked City (1948).

Below, Ley describes his use of the draft materials in the RBML’s archives to assess the philosophical as well as political motivations for his fiction and to compare the editing strategies he used for his novels compared to screenplays. Ley describes the pleasure and surprise of archival research, noting that “the material held in the Columbia archive provided a moment or two of shot, in one or two instances, the impact of the materials seemed like a seismic event.”


A few years ago, on behalf of a friend, I visited Stanford University’s Department of Special Collections to research the papers of the film director Delmer Daves. It was in the folders containing material on the 1945 Warner Brothers film Pride of the Marines that I came upon a letter written to Daves by the film’s scriptwriter Albert Maltz. It was a warm, lively, vibrant letter. Over eighteen pages of rational argument Maltz raised objections to amendments made by Daves to the final script of Pride of the Marines. The letter, asking questions of Daves’ alterations, displayed a clear sense of purpose. It made its points in such a way that the reader was left in no doubt that the writer of the screenplay, Albert Maltz, held a passion for the words that he had crafted. The strength and courage of the letter made it seem that the words of Maltz’s screenplay were part of a mission, a mission that Daves, by making changes to the final script, had sabotaged. Daves’ response to the letter was not contained in the archive – a shame because one wondered whether Daves in his reply could have done anything other than acquiesce before the logic of Maltz. Yet, from the tone and the touch of the letter, one sensed that should Daves show spirit and provide an adequate reason for the changes he had made to the script, the proprietorial Maltz, wanting the best for his work, would have taken the time to consider Daves’ defence. If Daves could argue that he, rather than Maltz, had held the continuous line of reason that Maltz desired for the work, one sensed that Maltz, would have shown humility. He would have given way.

Intrigued, perhaps even smitten, I searched the Delmer Daves’ archive for more Maltz letters. From the content of the archive, I noted that Daves and Maltz had collaborated on four films but my search for further correspondence drew a blank. At that point I could have regarded the letter contained in the archive as nothing more than a fascinating autobiographical fragment but the colour and the passion of Maltz’s expression had drawn me to carry out further research. I found that Maltz, beyond his film work, had published novels and short story collections. This was a wonderful revelation. There would be books, short stories, novellas. I read Maltz’s published fiction voraciously. I also considered the judgement of Maltz’s published work made by academics. They labelled Maltz a socialist realist, proletarian writer. Yet my reading had uncovered content and sentiment that had spread well beyond the confines of such a nomenclature. From the monographs of Maltz written by Jack Salzman[1] and Eberhard Bruning[2] and from the transcripts of Joel Gardner’s interview with Maltz for a University College of Los Angeles oral testimony[3], I realised that Maltz, too, was critical of the literary boxes into which his work had been placed. I read that Maltz considered socialist realism to be a straitjacket. He thought it an inadequate theory. It demanded the use of a writing model to which he declared his work would not be subjugated. He would not let the model confine his words. He was even more brutal with regard to proletarian literature. He refused to recognise its existence.

I began to wonder which classification of the work that I had read and admired was correct, the classification carried out by Maltz, the creator of the work, or that of the academics and the critics who had absorbed and contextualised the finished product evident in the published and unpublished fiction. Sensing that Maltz’s fiction merited and required more analysis, I made a proposal to Swansea University and was accepted on the postgraduate programme of the American Studies Department as a PhD student. I set to work, reconsidering the long and short fiction, reading the work more closely before investigating the background of each book, considering the themes, the goals, the objectives and the philosophy that Maltz had applied to deliver his fiction. In this investigation secondary sources were useful but primary sources were essential. Of the Maltz archives – and there are several –a visit to Maltz’s fiction archive at Columbia University seemed most likely to provide answers. In late March 2023 I visited the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia which held the drafts of Maltz’s published novels. To study the evolution of each of the novels from the preparatory bones of the first draft through to the fleshy maturity of the final published copy was to access the trail of thought of the writer.  I arrived at Columbia armed with knowledge of the writing method that Maltz applied. From studying both the short and the long fiction I had detected a writing model. I knew, too that Maltz invested in the advice of readers. At the completion of each draft of each novel, he distributed the work to a loyal and small group of readers who set about developing a critique. Amongst the readers was a core group of old and trusted friends – the novelist and playwright George Sklar with whom Maltz had collaborated as a dramatist before turning to fiction, the scriptwriter Herbert Biberman, who like Maltz was one of the Hollywood Ten, Angus Cameron, Maltz’s editor at Little Brown, and Max Lieber, Maltz’s literary agent until Lieber’s move from America in the early 1950s to Europe. They would each make suggestions with regard to the editing of the draft, the shifting of emphasis and the making of additions. The content of the drafts held at Columbia should display the influence that they held. What was Maltz cutting? What was he adding? Was he as protective of his fiction as he had been with Daves over the content of the film script? Did he resist the suggestions of his readers? And how did the amendments shift the flavour of the work. Were the readers pushing the politicisation of the work? Or were the changes that they were advocating drawing Maltz away from the political and shifting his focus toward a more artistic portrayal of humanity?

Back home in Wales, from the material that I had digitally stored, I am now analysing the content of the early drafts of the novels held at Columbia. Some interesting research questions are being revealed. For example, in the third draft of A Long Day in a Short Life, a novel set in a prison, Maltz chose to expunge the character James Tuck. Tuck, the only political prisoner in the book, in the second draft of the novel had played a key role in the radicalisation of the young Negro Huey Wilson. It would seem that the influence of a reader, Lloyd Brown, a black novelist and activist whom Maltz asked to critique the novel from a Negro perspective, may have played a significant role in the amendment. Had Brown flagged up the inadequacies of Maltz’s interpretation of the Negro struggle and objected to the mystical bourgeois idealism used by Tuck in the second draft to radicalise Wilson? Had Brown indicated to Maltz that the Negro struggle came from within rather than without? In a similar vein, examination of the early drafts held at Columbia of Maltz’s debut novel, The Underground Stream, leaves one considering why Maltz reduced the importance to the book of a real event, the December 1933 killing in Michigan by the Black Legion of the Trade Union official George Marchuk. The first draft has a page of handwritten notes on the Marchuk case. Maltz even dedicates the first draft of The Underground Stream to Marchuk. Yet subsequent drafts change the relationship. By the final copy Marchuk’s status is reduced to two insignificant and very brief passing references. Marchuk is also removed from the dedication, the published version being dedicated to four of Maltz’s dearest friends, the couples George and Miriam Sklar and Mike and Laurie Blankfort. Did the readers question Maltz’s use of topical material? Did such material make the book too journalistic? Or had Maltz, in the writing of the book, shifted the emphasis from the political to the philosophical? The title of the first draft may hold a clue. Its working title, The Shining Earth: an Episode of Man’s Dignity, indicates that, beyond the politics, Maltz was intent on highlighting the human qualities of pride and dignity. As the book evolved did such qualities assume a greater significance than the politics? Was Maltz, when fully engaged in the writing, drawn back to considerations of Plato and Aristotle, philosophers with whom Maltz, under the tutorship of Irwin Edman and Richard McKeon during his undergraduate days at Columbia, had developed a fascination? Maltz, in The Underground Stream, draws as heavily on Aristotle and Plato as Marx. In the book his writing holds the Communist Party line while depicting his main character’s nobility through an Aristotelian consideration of pride and dignity. The circumstances of the main character’s death reflect the Aristotelian view that “… when in danger, he [the proud man] is unsparing of his life, knowing there are conditions of life which are not worth living”[4].

Yet, for all the questions that derive from the perceptual exuberance of archival activity, most revelations, like those outlined in the previous paragraph, are merely leads. They require further research. While at the archive the greatest surprises occur when archival material challenges or reinforces a truth that the researcher believes to be established and firm. Such challenges can shake or strengthen the foundation of the research. For each of Maltz’s published novels, the material held in the Columbia archive provided a moment or two of shock, in one or two instances the impact of the material seemed like a seismic event. For example, the material available at Columbia relating to Maltz’s third novel, The Journey of Simon McKeever, held an array of surprises. Some were welcome. They reduced confusion and provided clarity. This was the case with the identity given by Maltz in the early drafts to the character Harold Malone. The drafts show that Maltz, before landing on Harold Malone as a suitable name for the character, ascribed the working name Socrates to the character. The adoption of the name Socrates explains much about the character’s function in the novel. Like the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues, the character’s function is to question the nature of society and the position of man in the world. Like Plato’s Socrates, the character would be provocative. Like Plato’s Socrates, he would be unpredictable. He would be ironic. By adopting the Socratic method, the character through his musings makes McKeever uncomfortable. He draws McKeever one way and then another, questioning McKeever’s opinions and truths. The character, whose unfettered thinking roams and roams, is not afraid to draw McKeever to an alternative view of society which shakes the foundations upon which McKeever had built his quest and had established a purpose. Ultimately Maltz’s character outgrows the Socrates persona. By the final draft, having taken the name Harold Malone, he is lecturing and hectoring rather than discussing. His language moves beyond logic. It becomes violent. Indeed, Malone becomes violent. With the brandishing of a knife, the intensity of Malone’s questioning of McKeever’s philosophy fits with Maltz’s plan for the development of the book: “…as McKeever goes deeper into the journey he begins to think of his trek as analogous to the path travelled by mankind”[5]. The trek, like man’s path on Earth, becomes more difficult, more complicated and more hazardous. From a Socratic base, the character Harold Malone presents the ultimate challenge to McKeever. He questions the philosophy of McKeever and, in so doing, he also presents McKeever with a psychological challenge. Why do anything? Why work? Why not be rapacious? Why have goals and morals? At Malone’s departure McKeever is left with the sense that Malone’s projection of a jungle like existence might, just might, portray reality. As Maltz put it: “…after meeting him [Harold Malone], it is necessary for McKeever to affirm the goodness of life again…”[6].

When at the archive, the discovery that Maltz used the working name of Socrates for the character Harold Malone and so applied the Socratic method raised a wry smile of satisfaction. By contrast the considerations by Maltz presented in the Columbia archive with regard to the Marxist nature of The Journey of Simon McKeever were met with a gasp. Maltz’s move from socialist realism had allowed him to inhabit characters with ease. He described the detailed psychological terrain that his novels had colonised as being Marxist-Humanist. The new terrain allowed Maltz to provide a detailed and psychological examination of the life of his characters irrespective of their class. He would hold a mirror up to their lives and present people as they are rather than as Marxists wanted them to be. Marxism still played a key role. It provided the foundation of the model. Maltz, by engaging with the Marxist truth regarding the nature of the historical forces at work on labour and capital, accepted that the forces created tensions that his writing would represent in the day-to-day joys and frustrations inflicted on his characters. Consequently, with the change in the theoretical approach to his writing, Maltz followed Fred Prince, the Marxist hero of his socialist realist, debut novel, The Underground Stream, with a main character in his second novel, The Cross and the Arrow, who was apolitical and decent. Willi Wegler, the character, was Maltz’s depiction of a good German, a brave concept given that Maltz was developing the character in the early 1940s at the height of National Socialism and the Second World War. Wegler, like Fred Prince believed in brotherhood but Wegler’s brotherhood was based on decency rather than class. Simon McKeever, the main character of Maltz’s third novel, consolidated Maltz’s Marxist-Humanist approach. McKeever offered the reader a singular perception that spread its considerations well beyond the realm of socialist realism. The character developed his own creed. He rejected Marxism as “an impractical theory”[7]. As a practical rather than philosophical man, McKeever declared that “he has no use for it [Marxism]”[8]. Rather, McKeever turns to psychology. He sets his own goals and objectives. Thus, in Simon McKeever, Maltz develops a free-thinking democrat, a character who has more than his fair share of American dreams. Rather than change the world, McKeever is accepting of what it offers: “Why a life without happiness wouldn’t be a good life but a life without disappointments wouldn’t be real”[9]. By the adoption of such an attitude, in Simon McKeever, Maltz was able to portray artistically the noble courage of an old man. This subject matter, while within Maltz’s understanding of the Marxist-Humanist sphere, flaunted orthodox Marxist guidelines with regard to the suitability of material for the consideration of the novelist. It may have been the critical response of the hard left to the book in both the USSR and the USA that drew Maltz in the Columbia archive to defend the Marxism of The Journey of Simon McKeever. With regard to the Russian criticism, Deming Brown noted that “Russian critics after the war found that Maltz shared the unfortunate tendency of many left-wing writers to view American corruption with alarm and pity rather than belligerence”. Philip Bonosky’s review of The Journey of Simon McKeever in the American journal Masses and Mainstream was more damning. He presented the Marxist challenge by raising concerns about the blurring of class consciousness in Maltz’s literature. Bonosky lays the charge that in Marxist literature “the writer’s own class consciousness must place his people even in their unconsciousness in the real frame of life”[10]. The real frame of life for the Marxist is the class battle. Bonosky had thought the battle absent in The Journey of Simon McKeever.

There was no need for Maltz to comment upon the criticisms. He was comfortable with the content of both The Cross and the Arrow and The Journey of Simon McKeever. To him, the books fell within the Marxist-Humanist parameters that he had set. Yet, for me, Maltz’s defence in the Columbia archive of The Journey of Simon McKeeveras a Marxist book opened another dimension. Maltz claimed that the book’s Marxism stemmed from its theme. It was the optimism of the Gorky quote[11] heading the book that held for Maltz the essence of Marxism. The optimism of the quote with its emphasis on pride held for Maltz “a sound, a warmth, a beauty” that created the flavour, the feel and the perspective of The Journey of Simon McKeever. Maltz believed this to be “a peculiarly Marxist view at this time… The bourgeoise view [as represented in capitalist literature] presented man as dumb, desperate and bestial”[12]. Maltz’s stance in the book was, in his opinion, a Marxist stance. It held the view that man is good, that man is fine, that man is admirable. Maltz believed that not only the main character Simon McKeever represented such a construction of man but also that many of the book’s s minor characters were built from similar constructs. With the assembly of such positive, proud, considerate characters The Journey of Simon McKeever, according to Maltz, developed the quality of compassion. This set it apart. Maltz considered compassion to be a quality rare in the bourgeoise literature of the time.

On reading this defence, I sat back in Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library, shook my head, collected my thoughts and gasped. I began to read the defence again. On second reading it was clear to me that I had never before considered Maltz’s books in terms of their spirit. I had dealt with the concrete of their content. I had dealt with politics, psychology, philosophy. I had dealt with the author’s treatment of the capital owning characters. I had dealt with the literary skills of authorial comment and flashback. I had tried to be forensic. But the spirit of the book? No, I had not identified the spirit of each book and compared it with the spirit of the bourgeois literature at the time the book was written. This required further thought. What was the spirit of Marxism and Marxist literature in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s? Did it differ through the decades? And what, through the decades, was the spirit of bourgeois literature? I needed to look again, to reconsider my findings.

Back home in Wales, I am doing that. I am looking again, I am revisiting the material that I collected digitally from the archive. I am going slowly through the images, understanding from my experience at Columbia that at the most unlikely of moments there may be a page or a paragraph, perhaps a sentence or even a single phrase that informs and consolidates my understanding. Already the digital material collected from Columbia, much of which I am viewing properly for the first time, has yielded a few sighs. Consolidating my understanding, the sighs are warm and welcome but they are also warnings, telling me to concentrate, to be patient. Will I come across material like Maltz’s defence of the Marxist nature of The Journey of Simon McKeever, material that will make me gasp? I’m sure I will.

–Gary Ley, May 2023


[1] Salzman, Jack. Albert Maltz, Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1978

[2] Bruning, Eberhard. Ein Amerikanischer Arbeitschriftsteller, Veb Max Niemeyer Verlag: Halle, 1957

[3] Maltz Oral Testimony, UCLA, TEI Project, Interviews with Joel Gardner, February 13th 1975 – January 26th 1979

[4] Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics, 1124, 7-10

[5] Box 7, The Journey of Simon McKeever, Notes and Other Material, Albert Maltz Papers, Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

[6] Ibid

[7] Maltz, Albert. The Journey of Simon McKeever, Little Brown: Boston, 1949, p 184

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, p 232

[10] Bonosky, Phillip. McKeever’s Quest, Masses and Mainstream, volume 2, number 6, June 1949, p 72

[11]  The Gorky quote used as a frontispiece by Maltz for the novel The Journey of Simon McKeever reads:

“What is man? He is not you, not I, not they…no! He is you, I, they, the old man, Napoleon, Mohammed – all in one! Do you understand? That’s – tremendous. In that are – all beginnings and all endings. All is in man, all is for man! Only man exists, everything else – is the work of his hand and his brain. Man! That is – magnificent! There’s such pride in the word! M-A-N! You must respect man! Not pity him… not lower him with pity… you must value him! Let’s drink to man, baron!” Gorky. Lower Depths, p 83

[12]Box 7, The Journey of Simon McKeever, Notes and Other Material, Albert Maltz Papers, rare Books and Manuscript Library, Columbia University