Un-American Activities Summary
by Sally Belfrage

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Un-American Activities

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sally Belfrage, who died in 1994, was the daughter of Cedric Belfrage, editor of the NATIONAL GUARDIAN, which was considered a dangerously leftist newspaper in the 1950’s. While adoring her outspoken father, Sally wanted desperately to be an all-American girl. She went so far as to fall in love with a West Point cadet, attracted by his unblinking and humorless patriotism. His patriotism appalled her too, revealing the ambivalence that made conformity impossible for her. It did not help, either, that her parents were British citizens, subject to deportation, or that they were divorced. Their unhappy marriage created bitter and lasting resentments making Sally feel even more an outcast.

Belfrage tells the personal parts of her story in a rushed, breathless present tense, ideally suited to depicting the stages of her emotional and political education. She lays the sarcasm on too thick at times, but her anger does not blind her to her own faults or the dark humor of her situation. At her best, she is funny and poignant at once, as in her account of the abortionist working and fretting to the accompaniment of the hit parade.

In the same way, Belfrage evokes the appeal of American society in the 1950’s while never overlooking its dangerous political currents. Even when most immersed in her dream of American middle-class life, she felt the cruel weight of a hypocritical public rectitude that condemned her father for mere honesty. She discovered after the execution of the Rosenbergs how frightening it can be, even in a democracy, to be perceived as the enemy within. This always absorbing book reminds readers that the United States did not just compromise its values in the 1950’s, but came perilously close to losing them altogether.

Though often angry at her father for the trouble he caused the family, Sally eventually discovered that she too is an “Un-American.” She left her cadet and sailed off to England. Many years later, as chance would have it, she renewed her affair with him. Beneath the irony, Belfrage understands that in his own way, he had been no less uncompromising than her father, whose courage pervades this honest and honorable book.