Alvah Bessie Essay - Critical Essays

Bessie, Alvah


Alvah Bessie 1904–

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, critic, editor, screenwriter, and translator.

Bessie draws on his own experiences for the material in his major works, which often deal with the problems of a capitalistic society. His most memorable book, Men in Battle, concerns the International Brigades, with whom he served during the Spanish Civil War. While a screenwriter in 1947, Bessie appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities; he was sentenced to a year in prison and blacklisted by the movie industry. He became known as one of the Hollywood Ten.

His recently published novel, One for My Baby, depicts nightclub life during the 1950s and the stand-up comics whose social criticism influenced the social, sexual, and political awareness of the 1960s and 1970s.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

The Christian Science Monitor

["Dwell in the Wilderness"] is a long novel, chronicling the history of an average middle-class family from 1876 to 1925….

Together with the disintegration of the home of Eben and Amelia, the book follows the fortunes of their children…. These unhappy, intertwining lives are placed against a shifting background of Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, presenting a panorama of changing American city life during the past few decades.

It is a one-sided picture, however, and a continually unpleasant one. Mr. Bessie has a fluent style, and a gift for creating living characters but his unceasing pessimism makes his work often unpalatable. He is preoccupied here with the gloomy side of material life, with hate, sensuality, fanaticism, vulgarity and weakness. His individual style and narrative skill, with his indubitable sincerity, compensate to a degree for the dreariness of his subject matter, but he is too much like Coleridge's atheist, who closes his eyes and calls it night.

Mr. Bessie's book is too often merely a savage indictment against the contentious woman of Amelia's type, who brings desolation into a home. He portrays, too, the futility of the lives of those people who drift aimlessly on turbid waters tossed by hate, bewilderment and weakness. This second indictment, against a society where such things are nurtured, has at best only the negative value of a warning.

"House Built upon Sand," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1935 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), August 19, 1935, p. 14.

Howard Mumford Jones

["Dwell in the Wilderness"] chronicles the fortunes of a middle-class family in Michigan from 1876 to 1925. Both time and scene have special significance for the theme of the tale. For the parents are representatives of that sterile emotional moralism which, though it had healthy roots in New England, grew both impotent and hysterical as successive generations moved across central New York, upper Ohio, and southern Michigan. The mother, Amelia, the most imposing figure in the book, unscrupulously uses the selfish sentimentality and meaningless piety which this tradition offered its women, to destroy her husband's vitality and to dominate the lives of her children….

Mr. Bessie is shrewdest in picturing the smothered ambivalent relationships of parents and children…. [Although] this relationship is central to the book, Mr. Bessie has also interested himself in depicting the flowing panorama of the American scene through the lapse of years.

The novel is thoughtfully planned and thoughtfully executed. It leaves an impression of weight, due in part to the care which has gone into its creation and in part to the slow tempo of the narrative. The tempo is a source of strength and of weakness. Mr. Bessie capably holds the situation at important points, wringing from it the last ounce of psychological richness which it can give. But the problem of carrying forward the inner life of six or seven lives simultaneously inevitably results in a sort of falsity of perspective, with the result that Amelia, who begins almost as a caricature of a period, ends by looming as a monstrous destructive force….

The only other important defect is that Mr. Bessie underlines his intentions. Again and again there is a touch too many, a step too far….

But the novel must be seriously considered. Scene after scene is presented with loving fidelity and great vividness. If none of the characters is masterly, the theme is important, and the family group is worth the patience lavished upon them. And the book represents an important fusion of two fictional techniques—the interior monologue, and the heaping up by the author of happily observed external detail.

Howard Mumford Jones, "Portrait of a Family," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1935 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XII, No. 18, August 31, 1935, p. 10.


The demons that haunt the Morris household [in "Dwell in the Wilderness"] are, of course, familiars of contemporary fiction, yet they are still terrifying. The psychopathological offshoots of nineteenth-century moralistic dualism have been studied before; they remain engrossing. Were Mr. Bessie equipped with the proper scientific implements with which to probe the character of Amelia, "Dwell in the Wilderness" might have been a fine novel. In its present form it is a disorganized, deceptively lifelike piece of work. It has moments of genuine horror and a continuous superficial verisimilitude. The material aspects of the family life are at all times sharply presented. Using a dozen different recent techniques of the novel—the interior monologue, the dream, the revery, newspaper citations, snatches of popular songs, the shifting point of view, the sharp parenthesis breaking the long, loose-jointed colloquial sentence—Mr. Bessie has contrived to make the behavior of his people recognizable and therefore half true.

Beyond this, however, he cannot go: behavior he perceives, but not its sources. The novel revolves about Eben and Amelia. It is the woman's sexual illness, plus the man's inability to deal with it, which poisons the family cell. Each action of the novel should, accordingly, spring, directly or indirectly, out of the central situation, or, conversely, impinge upon it, Unluckily, Mr. Bessie was unable to plumb the center of his story…. In many instances the characters, tastes, and careers of the four children are in no way predicated upon the marriage of their parents, with the result that they seem irrational, and the novel comes to remind one of a rambling family history, spirited but pointless. (pp. 278-79)

Mary McCarthy, "Middle Western Marriage," in The Nation (copyright 1935 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 141, No. 3661, September 4, 1935, pp. 278-79.

Samuel Romer

Out of his own experience as a soldier of the line Bessie has written a powerful story of the International Brigades in Spain. ["Men in Battle"] is not a pleasant book to read because there is little pleasant in war; but it is an honest picture of men in battle, of heroism and cheap cowardice, of sacrifice and demoralization, of soldiers and of phonies dressed in uniform. Bessie has tried hard to tell his story plainly, and his success is shown by the characters who live on every page of the book….

[Bessie] is at his best when describing the actual battle scenes—in vivid narrative that spares the reader none of war's horrors but, because Bessie is no pacifist, brings forth the positive convictions of soldiers who knew why they fought.

Samuel Romer, "Volunteers in Spain," in The Nation (copyright 1939 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 149, No. 21, November 18, 1939, p. 557.∗

Vincent Sheean

There are some pages in Bessie's book ["Men in Battle"] which tell us more about the war in Spain, and in fact more about war in general, than whole volumes of parliamentary records. And this in spite of the fact that the author hardly ever generalizes, seldom mentions anything he did not see, and appears to write in almost unsullied political innocence.

I think this is one of the best war books I ever read. Its effects come directly from the material in an extraordinary way; it does not seem to be opaque, like most books, hiding from the reader just what the author most wishes to reveal. There are no "literary" effects at all, or, such as they are, the material creates them. The whole thing gives such a terrifying impression of exact truth that in its climactic passages … we lie there, we the readers, on that stony slope, and hide our heads beneath the moaning of the shells, and gasp with relief at each one that has gone safely by. This kind of short circuit in communication is one of the rarest phenomena, happens only occasionally even in the work of great writers, and is not likely to be achieved by any writer for long at a time….

Most of [the men in the International Brigades] believed in social revolution, and some did not, but all seem to have been convinced (at any rate to start with) that they fought not for Spain alone, but for the masses of their fellow men. There may have been great political naiveté in their ways of thinking and feeling, but there was also great human force. These are the exact values which were shattered at the outbreak of the present war, to be reassembled (if at all) in another pattern. To understand that process, which is so much bigger than the International Brigades ever were Bessie's book is a valuable help. But aside from its contribution to what we may understand of the course of events, it has its independent value as a powerful narrative, an almost unique document of human experience in war.

Vincent Sheean, "One of the Best War Books," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1939, p. ix.

Louise Maunsell Field

With sincerity and deep sympathy Alvah Bessie has told the story of a man to whom life for many years gave not bread but a stone in ["Bread and a Stone"]. A brutal stepfather, a home that was not home, then reform school, the penitentiary, odd jobs, the penitentiary again, were all Ed Sloan knew for more than thirty years. Then he met Norah Gilbert, a school teacher….

The story is told partly from his point of view and partly from Norah's, both in the main narrative and in the many flashbacks which intersperse it…. As far as Ed is concerned the novel is consistent, firmly handled, over-repetitious, perhaps, but interesting, a vivid, understanding portrayal….

Norah, on the...

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William Rose BenéT


["Bread and a Stone" shows that Bessie's] writing of fiction has come to maturity. However he first became interested in his protagonist, Ed Sloan, his problem became to present Ed in all his dumbness (in several senses) and complete lack of any advantages or graces, and yet make us see the potentiality of the man and sympathize with him in spite of his becoming a liar and a murderer. He has succeeded. His Ed Sloan is alive in every fibre and thought, and how in the world he managed to sit inside that brain and follow that thought, catch the exact accent of the thought-speech (as he convinces us he does), and reconstruct with overwhelming conviction the half-witless sequence of...

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Simon Raven

[In his novel The un-Americans Mr. Bessie] tells of two journalists, both of whom sympathised with the Republican Government in Spain, both of whom came home to write about their experiences there, and both of whom joined the Communist Party in about 1939…. Both are hauled up in front of an Investigation Committee. Francis, poor squashy liberal, more or less collaborates; staunch Ben is recalcitrant and goes to prison. Mr. Bessie is obviously a fair journalist himself (Ben, Francis, or Francis-Ben?), and his descriptions of the Committee's sessions are interesting. But about Spain he is terrible—nagging and prolix when writing, like Ben, about the People, or sickeningly sub-Hemingway among the empty bottles...

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The Times Literary Supplement

It is, in a way, refreshing to read a book about McCarthyism and the investigation of "subversive activities" in which the hero is not a liberal falsely accused, but a Communist proud of his party membership….

It is difficult to review a book like The Un-Americans; one is led inevitably into consideration of it as a piece of propaganda. There is no reason why a novelist should not use his work as propaganda for what he believes to be true; the trouble is that, granting the plausibility of Mr. Bessie's account of the way in which Lang is broken down, it is almost as difficult to accept his version of the Communist Party's role in Spain and elsewhere as it would be to accept that of a Nazi...

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Al Richmond

Men in Battle remains the best descriptive narrative of the Spanish Civil War to be written by a combatant, or by anyone else for that matter. It ranks with the best narratives of war, fictional or reportorial; vivid and honest, it conveys the chaos and cruelty of war, the obscenity and profanity, the filth, the pain, the death, the physical exhaustion and the emotional drain, the camaraderie, the episodes of heroism and the instances of demoralization. If these are universal attributes, Bessie also communicates the uniqueness of the International Brigades, a community of ideologically motivated and committed men, fighting for a cause. But in doing so he refrains from political rhetoric….


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Rita Fink

One for My Baby is the best evocation of the nightclub scene I've read. For many of us who were in the hungry i audiences, it is impossible not to superimpose reality on fiction, yet the Night Box is fictional. The story is of the personal lives, the dressing room rages, the off-stage agony and the after-hours turmoil—of which audiences have only a shadowy glimmer. When the show is over for the star, the music-makers, the hard up and profligate owner, the waiters or hatcheck girl, lucky they all are to have a Dan Noble to raise and dim their personal lights with a sensitive antenna for the red light emergency. Bessie's touch is certain, his dialogue is accurate. (p. 30)


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Larry Ceplair

Alvah Bessie, whose Hollywood career was brutally truncated as a result of the studio blacklist, has, in [One for My Baby], created a cast of fascinating, complex and troubled people struggling with themselves and each other in a San Francisco nightclub during the 1950s. (p. 319)

Banished from his chosen occupation in 1947, he has held various nonprofessional jobs. His finest novel to date, One for My Baby, builds on one of those jobs: his stint at the "hungry i" nightclub in San Francisco. The torn and troubled decades of the 1930s and 1940s left many people physically, mentally and spiritually maimed. Bessie has selected about a dozen of these "cripples," placed them in The Night Box,...

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Jonathan Sharp

Alvah Bessie's latest novel [One for My Baby], perhaps his best work since the classic Men in Battle (1939), delves into the midnight world of the intimate nightclub "network" (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Francisco) of the 1950s, a world in which the most telling social criticism of the day was delivered by stand-up "comics," to the shock and dismay of many and the amusement of most….

[One for My Baby is] a funny/sad, at times savage, and ultimately compassionate tale of the "clowns, sweethearts, walking wounded, genuine artists, and pinheads" who people the Night Box, located in San Francisco's North Beach area….

Bessie's purpose is to...

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Gabriel Miller

Although [Bessie's first novel, Dwell in the Wilderness], abundantly fulfilled his early promise and won substantial critical praise, it sold poorly. It certainly was not a fashionable novel for its time; perhaps its lack of (radical) political rhetoric sufficient to the Depression years contributed to its quick demise. It is, however, a masterpiece, a novel that transcends its time and one that deserves reconsideration today. Dwell in the Wilderness introduces what would become Bessie's primary fictional subject: human isolation and the resultant painful loneliness. Probing the life of an American family—here not employed merely as a device for chronicling a variety of adventures, but as the thematic...

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