Dalton Trumbo Essay - Critical Essays

Trumbo, Dalton


Trumbo, Dalton 1905–1976

Trumbo was an American novelist, dramatist, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer. His work reveals a powerful and passionate voice, as in his antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo's Communist party membership resulted in an eight-month prison term after he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was subsequently blacklisted by the movie industry, but continued to write screenplays under several pseudonyms. His unfinished last novel, The Night of the Aurochs, was edited and published posthumously. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)

Ben Ray Redman

["Johnny Got His Gun"] is one of the most horrifying books ever written….

You have heard of the "basket cases" that are a byproduct of war. Perhaps you have seen one, and if you have you have almost certainly asked yourself, as you looked at the armless, legless object: What is it thinking and feeling? How can it go on living? The obvious answer to the second question is that a basket case has no power of self-destruction. The answer to the first question is the story of "Johnny Got His Gun."…

[As] Dalton Trumbo writes the tale, the poignancy of [the past memories of Joe Bonham] matches and complements the poignancy of [his present condition]….

Joe Bonham awoke to a timeless world, and his first need was to recapture time. "If you can keep track of time you can get a hold on yourself and keep yourself in the world but if you lose it why then you are lost too. The last thing that ties in with other people is gone and you are all alone." The description of how this man carried out his "idea of trapping time and getting himself back into the world" is one of the most moving chapters of his history; no reader can fail to share in the urgency and agony of his quest. But still more moving is the account of his frantic but persistent efforts to establish communication with the outside world….

To say that this book is a terrific indictment of war is to employ a phrase that has been robbed of its proper weight of meaning by careless and promiscuous use. Yet the phrase must serve…. "Johnny Got His Gun" is not merely a powerful anti-war document; it is also a powerful and brilliant work of the imagination. In giving voice to a human experience that has hitherto been, voiceless, Mr. Trumbo has written a book that can never be forgotten by anyone who ever reads it.

Ben Ray Redman, "In the Midst of Death," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1939 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 20, September 9, 1939, p. 5.

Harold Strauss

["Johnny Got His Gun"] is a tour de force which derives its intense but morbid interest not from any of the common allurements of fiction, but from the unraveling of an unusual physical and psychological puzzle. The solution is one of considerable brilliance and probability, and it holds the reader engrossed. This view of his book may surprise Mr. Trumbo, for there is evidence that he intended the novel as a passionate jeremiad against war, and as a dramatization of the sufferings that must come in its wake. But regardless of Mr. Trumbo's intentions, one soon forgets that Joe Bonham was blasted out of a dugout in France in 1918, and remembers only his tremendous struggle to return to the world of the living….

The story is told through Joe's stream-of-consciousness…. His mind is driven inward upon itself, seeking occupation, and in a mood of tenderness and sorrow he undertakes a recherche du temps perdu….

But soon the possibilities of recollection are exhausted. Without conscious intent to find a new occupation, Joe finds himself possessed by a fierce desire to measure the passing of time. Cleverly he weaves strands of evidence together—the changing temperatures of day and night, the regular visits of nurses. Only one thing remains—to communicate with a human being. The particulars of this achievement and the tragic irony of the response which he receives form a harrowing climax to a harrowing book. The inhumanity of that response is one small bit beyond the borders of belief. Yet there can be no question of the effectiveness of this book, nor that it tells a story such as has never before been told.

Harold Strauss, "The Body Maimed," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1939 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1939, p. 7.

Luella Creighton

["Johnny Got His Gun"] is a fierce, brave and extraordinary novel. The author is a young Virginian who has drawn on his own varied experience of living as the back drop for the breathless silent statement of the mind and memory of Joe Bonham. The ebb and flow of consciousness in the mind of Joe Bonham makes up the book. It is a simple, direct and terrible story, in the telling.

Joe, small town American, was wounded and mutilated beyond belief, in the war of 1914–18, but yet continued to live. The story of the remembrance of his life splits through in bright kaleidoscopic shots as his sole remaining sensory medium, his skin, transmits the elemental facts of heat, cold, wet, to his consciousness. Transitions in time are very skill-fully made, and some of the strange staccato writing in the half-dream, half-memory sequences is extremely effective. Especially absorbing and exciting is the struggle to establish a means of communciation….

"Johnny Got His Gun" is strong meat for a queasy stomach. Gruesome physical details are copiously supplied, but one feels not for mere effect. The whole thing seems to be a sincere attempt to describe with fiendish clarity the effect on body and soul of subjection to war. At times the swift technique degenerates into a suggestion of uncontrolled hysteria, but throughout the book there alternate patches of savage violence with passages of a smooth, brilliant beauty. But its great contribution is not a purely literary one. It stands as a fierce and infinitely pitiful diatribe on the senseless futility of war.

Luella Creighton, "Strong Meat," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XIX, No. 227, December, 1939, p. 294.

Beatrice Sherman

["The Remarkable Andrew"] includes two remarkable Andrews—one, young Andrew Long of Shale City, Col., and the other General Andrew Jackson. The tale combines stiff doses of the literal and the fantastical which effervesce into a high-powered satirical cocktail. As a means for Mr. Trumbo to blow off steam about the present bewildering condition of local and world affairs, young Andrew is put through a very curious experience.

An honest, hardworking, sane young clerk in the offices of the city treasury, he one day finds that his books won't balance…. It takes a consultation by a half-dozen historical characters to get him out of this horrid mess. In the process the author indulges in blood satire on United States foreign policy and on municipal corruption in Shale City. The subjects seem oddly assorted, but each in turn comes in for its share of an ironical going-over.

The trial of the upright young man for embezzlement gains in effect by the narrow margin it leaves between straight reporting and gross burlesque. The book makes some trenchant points and offers some stimulating comment, but its blending of the didactic and fantastic, the romantic and practical, is more remarkable than felicitous.

Beatrice Sherman, "The Remarkable Andrew and Other New Fiction," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1941 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1941, p. 6.

The Nation

The author of that gruesome memento mori called "Johnny Got His Gun" has tied one hand behind his back and tossed out a jaunty little fantasy ["The Remarkable Andrew"] about the ghost of General Andrew Jackson intervening to save an honest young bookkeeper from the machinations of a crooked political clique in a small Western town. Aside from being a rather thinned-out version of "The Devil and Daniel Webster," it gets in some easy and not very telling cracks at political corruption and at our present foreign policy. It all adds up to nothing more than an entertaining little scherzo.

"In Brief: 'The Remarkable Andrew'," in The Nation (copyright 1941 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 152, No. 6, February 8, 1941, p. 164.

Emile Capouya

The correspondence collected in Additional Dialogue is largely the record of the aftermath of [Dalton Trumbo's] appearance before his Congressional inquisitors. For Mr. Trumbo, the question was how to survive—economically and morally—through the first decade of the Cold War, the McCarthy period, and the years of slow-motion while the silent generation was holding its tongue. The letters are evidence that he survived very well, despite official and amateur persecution that might well have broken a less jaunty spirit.

What is the literary quality of these letters? Well, like many writers, Mr. Trumbo is pretty full of himself, and that gives a good deal of bounce to his private...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Eric F. Goldman

Before anyone else declares that the art of letter-writing is lost in contemporary America, he had better read this volume of Dalton Trumbo's correspondence ["Additional Dialogue"]….

In his 64 years [Trumbo] has known quite a life—the munificently paid screen writer of hits like "Kitty Foyle" and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," author of the grim novel "Johnny Got His Gun," devoted paterfamilias, prisoner No. 7551 at the Federal Correctional Institute in Ashland, Ky., bête noire of Hollywood and exile in Mexico, and then in the 1960's, triumphant over the film industry that had pilloried him. Through it all Trumbo kept pouring out letters that often caught perfectly the circumstances and...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Bruce Cook

Eclipse is a first novel any writer could take pride in. It tells the story of John Abbott who is, when we meet him in 1926, the most successful businessman in the town of Shale City, Colorado. (pp. 79-80)

[On] the eve of the 1929 stock market crash … Abbott receives word that his wife, who has now left him, has died.

He faces the Depression alone. One by one, those who had admired him and sought his favor reject him as his enterprise declines. His bank fails. His department store goes into receivership, and he is kept on as an employee. Physically disabled by a stroke, Abbott has sustained even greater damage to his psyche. Disoriented, bewildered, he is partly to blame...

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Laurie Stone

[In Dalton Trumbo's fascinating novel fragment Night of the Aurochs] the subject of Jews and Nazis is mixed with the themes of sex, power, and guilt….

Near the end of his life, former Auschwitz commandant Grieben, the narrator of Trumbo's novel, begins to believe that he knew Anne Frank, that he was kind to her before she died, and that she appreciated his kindness….

It is perfectly logical for Trumbo to have made Anne Frank's unfinished life pivotal to the action of his unfinishable novel. After 16 years of work—interrupted by several screenplay assignments—Trumbo had completed only 10 chapters (100 printed pages), less than a third of the projected whole. Thanks...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Stefan Kanfer

Trumbo's decency and restless intelligence were evident in his pacifist 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, and they enliven portions of his last book, Night of the Aurochs. Unhappily, portions are all there are. Trumbo never completed the novel…. It cannot have been an easy or pleasant task [to edit Trumbo's notes]. For one thing, the subject—the Holocaust—is too monumental to be apprehended in fragments, if at all. Second, Trumbo's idea—the investigation of evil—seems to have been too demanding for his fading powers. (p. 32)

Anyone who has read or thought about Germany's past has wondered about the nature of guilt and whether a whole nation can be condemned….


(The entire section is 286 words.)

Bruce Cook

[Night of the Aurochs] is a hodgepodge of a book, incorporating 10 consecutive, completed chapters, an outline of the rest of the plot, together with random scenes, notes, and oddments of every description, including several letters pertaining to the project. (pp. 45-6)

Here was a novel that, if completed, would be different not only from anything Trumbo had ever done, but also (as far as I knew) different from anything any writer, European or American, had ever attempted—the Holocaust from the point of view of a Nazi….

Had Trumbo ever gotten to the Auschwitz chapters of the book, Grieben's powers of rhetorical rationalization would have been sorely taxed—particularly...

(The entire section is 465 words.)