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America in The Time of the Toad, Again: Two Excerpts and a Tribute

September 12, 2007

Crotonblog: Letters to the Editor, Croton-on-Hudson, New York 10520
To the editor,

Browsing among my notes collected over the years, I came upon two items that have remarkable resonance today. The first excerpt is from a pamphlet published in 1949, 68 years ago.

“Some time before he became involved in the Dreyfus Affair, Emile Zola wrote an article called ‘The Toad.’ It purported to be his advice to a young writer who could not stomach the aggressive mendacity of a press which in 1890 was determined to plunge the citizens of the French Republic into disaster.”

“Zola explained to the young man his own method of inuring himself against newspaper columns. Each morning, over a period of time, he bought a toad in the market place, and devoured it alive and whole. The toads cost only three sous each, and after such a steady matutinal diet one could face almost any newspaper with a tranquil stomach, recognize and swallow the toad contained therein, and actually relish that which to healthy men not similarly immunized would be a lethal poison.”

“All nations in the course of their histories have passed through the periods which, to extend Zola’s figure of speech, might be called the Time of the Toad: an epoch long or short as the temper of the people may permit, fatal or merely debilitating as the vitality of the people may determine, in which the nation turns upon itself in a kind of compulsive madness to deny all in its tradition that is clean, to exalt all that is vile, and to destroy any heretical minority which asserts toad-meat not to be the delicacy which governmental edict declares it. Triple heralds of the Time of the Toad are the loyalty oath, the compulsory revelation of faith, and the secret police.”

The second excerpt is from an essay in the 100th anniversary issue of The Nation, published in 1965. 42 years ago.

“They wait, all of them from high to low, and they prophesy crisis, which is to say they pray for it. They know the power of their weapon, and our fear of it, and even a small crisis is better than none. But what they especially dream of is a profound crisis, that anguished crisis of the spirit which tears us to pieces every thirty or forty years, one that will soften our hearts to the tall fierce strangers who stand outside the door and cry salvation. They are certain the door will open; they have no doubts at all that a time will come when the prevalence of devils will persuade us that freedom is best defended by surrendering it altogether.”

“And perhaps they are right. Perhaps we don’t like freedom any more. Perhaps we have listened so long to the concatenation from the swamp that all unknowingly we have passed the point of no return, and now drift closer and closer to the heart of that thick, nadiral stupor in which men no longer want to be free. The cats have killed all the birds, the swimming pools everywhere overflow, and across the street at the old Bella Union—che bella that union was in her time, che bellissima—the bar is closing down. The midnight air stutters with the magic word, and men with pinched white faces steal through the street. They have long memories and the shortest tempers you ever saw, and they fondle guns instead of girls. Yet I do not dread them as much as I fear the others—the silent ones, the contented, the alienated, the frightened, the acquiescent.”

If these excerpts don’t describe an America today being torn apart by a president who waged a small, unnecessary war no one wanted and managed to turn it into a national debacle, a president who goes virtually unchallenged by a spineless press or the opposition party, I’ll eat my hat. Both were written by Dalton Trumbo, a member of the so-called “Hollywood Ten”—screenwriters, producers and directors blacklisted and prevented from working in the film industry by groveling entertainment executives.

Their sin? Citing the First Amendment, they refused to testify in 1947 during hearings held by Rep. J. Parnell Thomas and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The hearings were a red-baiting attempt to prove that the movie-making industry had been infiltrated by what Thomas called “subversives.” Refusal to answer the Committee’s witch-hunting questions led to their conviction for contempt of Congress. In 1950, after the group’s appeals were rejected, they were imprisoned. Having been expelled by the Screen Writers Guild, blacklisted writers could not find work in Hollywood, and were forced to write scripts under false names, always for starvation wages.

There’s a marvelously ironic twist to the Hollywood Ten story. Prominent newspaper columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson were critical of J. Parnell Thomas and his committee’s methods. Thomas’s secretary Helen Campbell confirmed rumors about corrupt practices on the part of Thomas by sending documents to Pearson. The columnist used these to expose Thomas’s corruption in his August 4, 1948 column. As a result, J. Parnell Thomas was summoned to answer charges before a grand jury.

Thomas refused to answer questions, citing the same constitutional rights the Hollywood Ten had cited, but which Thomas had refused to accept. Indicted, Thomas was tried and convicted of fraud, fined and sentenced to prison for 18 months. He resigned from Congress on January 2, 1950. In a satisfying twist of irony, he was imprisoned in the federal Danbury Correctional Institution in which Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr., both members of the “Hollywood Ten,” were also serving time.

Before being blacklisted, Trumbo had worked on screenplays for such movies as A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle, A Guy Named Joe, Tender Comrade, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. During the blacklist, Trumbo either remained uncredited or used “fronts”—other writers who allowed him to use their names. Trumbo wrote Deadly Is the Female, also known as Gun Crazy, as Millard Kaufman, He Ran All the Way as Guy Endore, and The Boss and Terror in a Texas Town as Ben Perry.

Trumbo’s screenplay for Roman Holiday, written under the name Ian McClellan Hunter, won the 1953 Academy award. In 1992, the Academy belatedly decided to recognize Dalton Trumbo as the writer. The Oscar was posthumously awarded to his widow during the 1993 Oscar ceremonies. Similarly, Trumbo’s screenplay for The Brave One, written under the name of Robert Rich, won an Academy Award in 1957, but he was not actually recognized as the writer and presented with the award until 1975.

Trumbo did not receive credit under his own name until 1960, when maverick producer-director Stanley Kubrick decided to buck the blacklist by giving Trumbo screen credit for his script for /em>Spartacus. Following that masterpiece, Trumbo’s credits included Exodus, Lonely Are the Brave, Hawaii, Papillon, and The Fixer. He died in 1976 of a heart attack at the age of 70.

— Packrat



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