Dalton Trumbo Eric F. Goldman - Essay

Eric F. Goldman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 moods….

Naturally most of the correspondence concerns Trumbo's 1947 confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee and its results [which included blacklisting by the movie industry]….

Making a precarious living through the Hollywood black market, Trumbo led in assailing and undermining the blacklist and finally saw it disintegrate. In the letters of this embattled period, he is at his best, whether in long powerful statements of his fundamental credo or in swift thrusts at its enemies….

In the correspondence presented [however,] he does not attempt comment on a serious concern of many who were stanch defenders of freedom from Congressional witchhunters—what frequently happens to the works of writers and artists when they choose to subject themselves to a party line. Through much of the volume the reader wants to ask: Why does Dalton Trumbo keep expecting a Hollywood industry which he describes as a "vast whorehouse" to be anything except a vast whorehouse, even if he fights to continue as part of it and its rich returns?

These and other questions remain, but the essential value of this book is not in doubt. In one letter Trumbo speaks of "a brand of cussedness" which has served America well by insisting that broad areas of a man's life—his marriage, his religion, his politics or the cut of his clothes—are nobody's business but his own. He has not only expressed this attitude with spitfire eloquence; he has lived it with high courage and no small personal sacrifice.

Eric F. Goldman, "'Additional Dialogue'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 1, 1970, p. 6.