Themes and Meanings
Many of the novel’s values are the commonplace ones associated with Manheim and Kit: friendship, honesty, fidelity, love and wholesome sex, social responsibility. Schulberg adds praise of union activities (the writers’ guild is a good thing) and eloquently extols the dignity and joy of good work in the film industry.
Because films can be good, it is important to try to understand those people in the industry who misuse their authority. Manheim and Kit ask over and over again what it is that makes Sammy run. What makes people like Sammy do what they do, without any regard for other human beings? Schulberg himself, in a 1952 introduction, advances the theory that Sammy is typical of second-generation immigrant children, driven to succeed in a country to which their parents could not adapt. In the novel itself, Kit uses popular psychology to generalize that Sammy simply expresses his anarchic id, unfettered by the ego and superego that restrain the rest of us.
The novel itself provides another psychological explanation when Manheim unearths the facts of Sammy’s childhood. His betrayal of the screenwriters’ guild can be explained by his father’s losing his job because he was loyal to the union. Sammy’s ruthlessness is a reaction to his brother’s virtue; his contempt for women stems from his ugly introduction to sex. Sammy feels no bond with his fellow Jews because of the anti-Semitic violence he suffered as a child. His family’s dire poverty causes him to pursue money at all cost. To make money, to escape from the ghetto—these motivations make Sammy understandable.
Schulberg, through Manheim, offers another answer as well, an answer that becomes an underlying theme. In the novel’s concluding sentences (and in the ending of his introduction), Schulberg emphasizes that Sammy’s world mirrors American society as a whole. In its immoral pursuit of wealth, its push and hurry, and its selfishness and corruption, the United States is propelled by a profit-driven capitalism in which only the Sammys can succeed. Sammy’s life is thus an update, parody, and denial of the career of that great American success, Horatio Alger.