Hilton Kramer and his Pioneering Take on the Hollywood Blacklist
The death of Hilton Kramer produced a surprisingly fair-minded obituary in the New York Times, especially since after leaving the paper, he wrote a regular column in the New York Post that was devoted to a critical look at the paper’s flagrant omissions. In the “Arts Beat” column, however, NYT writer John Williams wrote about what he considered the most “provocative” of Kramer’s articles for the paper when he was arts editor, “The Blacklist and the Cold War.” It is a piece that stands up remarkably well even in our time, and reveals how sharp and prescient a critic Hilton Kramer was. Kramer's article became must reading. He argued forcefully that the treatment of the blacklist was meant to acquit the radicalism of the 1960s by portraying that of the 1930s as innocent, "altruistic, and admirable." Moreover, Kramer pointed out that there was a "myth of Communist innocence," and that one could regard "both Stalinism and the blacklist as threats to democracy," and see both HUAC and the Communist Party "as plagues to be resisted."
Williams reports that the piece “generated an avalanche of letters pro and con,” and among the scores the paper ran -- Mr. Williams cites the names of only eight people -- I am one of them, and am listed among well-known leftists who attacked Kramer’s letter, including Michael Meeropol (the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,) and left-wing historian Eric Foner, among others.
Let us skip from 1976, when Kramer’s article appeared, to the year 1987, and the Second Thoughts Conference in Washington D.C., convened by David Horowitz and Peter Collier. At the plenary session -- at which besides Hilton Kramer the speakers included Marty Peretz, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Peter Collier and David Horowitz -- Kramer said the following:
“How times have changed. In 1976, when I wrote ‘The Blacklist and the Cold War,’ it was praised in a letter to the editor by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and attacked in a letter by Ron Radosh. Now, I am regularly attacked by Arthur Schlesinger, and supported by Ron Radosh.”
I recall that line received a very big laugh from the audience.
Readers already have the link above to Hilton Kramer’s article, as well as his revisiting the original article in his new introduction. It was Kramer’s article that led me to first consider writing about how the blacklist was treated in the popular media, and appropriately, I published my piece in the pages of The New Criterion. You can read my article, “The Blacklist as History,” here. Eventually, my wife and I wrote a full-fledged account of the role played in Hollywood by the Communists, in our book Red Star Over Hollywood.
I owe my desire to look anew at the role in our culture played by the far Left in America to the pioneering article that Kramer wrote in 1976. He was the first person to address this head on, and he did so at a time when those who said the opposite of what Kramer argued, such as the playwright Lillian Hellman, were being applauded and even lionized. That is why Hilton Kramer will be deeply missed. Few critics of our culture and of our politics were as sharp and brilliant as Kramer.