Book Review

07.22.12

David's Book Club: Fellow Travelers

Since the 1970s, gay politics have meant left politics, or at least liberal politics. 

It is surprising, then, for some to discover how many of the leading figures of the hard-right anticommunist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s were gay. Whittaker Chambers was, and Roy Cohn, and Marvin Liebman (the creator of the Committee of One Million and one of the most effective early anti-communist organizers). The homosexuality of other important figures in the anti-communist struggle - J. Edgar Hoover; Francis Cardinal Spellman - is rumor and conjecture rather than acknowledged fact. But still … it adds up.

It adds up to enough for Thomas Mallon to have made a novel out the subject, his 2007 book Fellow Travelers, which I have very belatedly finished last month. Since the middle 1990s, Mallon has published a series of novels set in the American past. My favorite was Dewey Defeats Truman, a love story set just after World War II, in which a young woman must choose between two suitors, one an idealistic union activist and Truman backer, the other a rather sinister - but interesting and charming - young Republican. The title reveals the ironic ending.

Fellow Travelers is set just a few years later, in the Washington of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Hawkins Fuller, a handsome State Department official in his early 30s, picks up naive young Timothy Laughlin in Dupont Circle, launching a love affair that will ebb and revive and ebb again over the next 40 years. Laughlin is a devout Catholic and a fierce anticommunist. Both men will face career risk because of their homosexuality, and one will eventually betray the other.

Like Dewey Defeats Truman, Fellow Travelers is a book set in the world of politics without being a political book. Mallon plays with the idea that the anticommunist investigations and anti-gay purges of the 1950s represented equal and interrelated attacks upon human freedom. He ends the book in 1991, applauding both the advance of gay rights and the overthrow of the Soviet Union as equal and interrelated advances for human freedom. The tension between these two moral intuitions goes unresolved - really unaddressed - in the novel's pages. Mallon is more interested in the human side of politics: such as the triangular relationship between Senator Joseph McCarthy, his protege Cohn, and the handsome young playboy David Schine, with whom Cohn was besotted. Mallon is likewise more fascinated to reproduce the physical reality of those days when trolleys still rolled on DC streets than to reiterate the era's debates and controversies from the inside.

Timothy Laughlin, the Catholic anticommunist, will feel both his religious and his political faith slowly fade, not as the result of some wrenching crisis, but as a subordinate effect of the central drama of his life, his unequal love for Hawkins Fuller. His youthful views seem merely that, youthful, like his habit of drinking milk in hope of bulking up his slight, small frame. Yet there is a story to tell about the gay anti-communist right, and perhaps Mallon - a sometime contributor to National Review, a magazine with its own distinct place in that story - will yet tell it.

Living as we do in a world of mind boggling personal and consumer choice, it's hard to cast the mind back to a time when it felt as if all individuality was dissolving into mass society. Two world wars, a great Depression, and a post-war economic revival characterized by mass-production enterprises seemed to have compressed a once-vivid and various world into a dismal conformity.

"There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at its present moment," wrote the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1930 book, The Revolt of the Masses:

The fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power … The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: 'to be different is to be indecent.' The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.

Liberal anti-communists of the 1940s and 1950s might reject communism as a perversion of progressive ideals of social justice. The conservative anti-communists denounced communism as the culmination of evil tendencies within progressivism itself. As Whittaker Chambers remarked in Witness:

[W]hen I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.

Communism, the conservative anti-communists argued, was the final and most extreme form of the tyranny of the "many" over the "one." And if you were "one" who already acutely felt his soul crimped by the "any color you like so long as it's black" conformity of mid-century America, you would be especially drawn to a politics that fought communism for the sake of individuality rather than democracy. After all, the United States proclaimed itself a democracy - and yet if you were gay in 1940s America, you felt yourself living in a police state, perpetually surveilled, continually in danger of arrest or worse. Strike up the wrong conversation with the wrong person -  be caught dancing or holding hands with a person you found attractive - and ruin would instantly follow. A government employee could be dismissed from his job, his career and life chances smashed, merely by the statement - without any further overt act - of the full truth about himself. A person in such a position would not need much imagination to understand life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In many ways, he was living under such a regime already.

Likewise, such a person might well find extra-convincing the conservative analysis of communist methods. Liberals in the 1940s emphasized communism as a more or less understandable response to objectively unacceptable social conditions. They pooh-poohed as paranoid the conservative concern with communist infiltration. "Who promoted Peress?" was Joe McCarthy's battle cry in his great final battle against the U.S. army - Peress being Irving Peress, an army dentist who had received a commission as captain despite invoking the Fifth Amendment when asked to complete a questionnaire about his past political activities. The liberal response to McCarthy's Peress obsession might be summed up as: "Who cares?" Okay, yes, conceded, the draftee dentist at a New Jersey army base might have had communist sympathies, might still have them for all anybody knew. So what? Republics aren't overthrown by subversive dentists!

To which the conservative anti-communists responded, "That's exactly how republics are overthrown" - and a Roy Cohn would have special reason to agree. "You think a tiny outlawed minority actively hunted by the police cannot take power in the state? I am a member of a tiny outlawed minority actively hunted by the police - and I have taken power in the state!" Indeed, you could argue that Cohn's manipulation of the McCarthy committee to pursue his own private quarrel against the army for drafting his beloved David Schine precisely tracked Cohn's fears of what even a very small number of communists could do inside the U.S. government by eluding investigation just as he had eluded investigation.

In pursuit of the men he desires, Hawkins Fuller deploys a trade craft that would do credit to an espionage agent on the hunt for government secrets: messages are dropped - conversations are begun in one place, then continued in another - potential informants are detected, isolated, and neutralized. Men who knew how to do such things were not likely to be impressed by political opponents who argued that such clandestine methods could not bring success. They themselves owed their lives and careers to the success of their clandestine methods. Surely others could do so as well.

These are not Mallon's topics. But they are the themes suggested by Mallon's time travel into the period and the vicinity of the gay anti-communist right. They remain in the writer's notebook available perhaps for another book at another time. In the meanwhile, Fellow Travelers ably conjures the era and the culture in which the gay anti-communist right developed and flourished.