Monday, January 22, 2007

Edward Anderson: From Hungry Men to Thieves Like Us

Part 1

Though few would write so movingly about the Depression, Edward Anderson, the author of Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us, received neither the recognition nor the financial reward he deserved. Part black-Irish and part-Cherokee, Anderson was born in 1905 in Weatherford, Texas. Leaving school at an early age, he became a printer’s apprentice- his father’s trade- then a cub reporter for an Ardmore, Oklahoma newspaper. Within a few years Anderson had worked on more than ten newspapers- “Legalized prostitution,” he would call it- all within the Oklahoma-Texas area. When he tired of journalism, Anderson found occasional employment as a trombone player- his experiences as a jobbing itinerant musician would find their way into his fiction.

The trim and muscular Anderson had high Indian cheekbones and dark hair. Said to be cocky and attractive to women, he, like that other hobo-writer, Jim Tully, was, for a short time, a boxer with at least one professional bout under his belt. At twenty-five, he decided to quit his job as a Houston copy editor to fulfil his dream of joining expatriate American writers in Europe. Shipping out on a freighter from New Orleans, he arrived only to find the Lost Generation had recently been found, and were, for the most part, on their way back to America. Though disappointed, Anderson took the opportunity to travel through France and Germany.

He returned to America to find the Depression in full swing. Unable to find work, Anderson began a two year odyssey, riding freights, sleeping in parks, asking for handouts, and, after getting hold of a merchandise wagon, becoming an itinerant odd-jobber. Back in Abilene, he wrote a story entitled “The Guy in a Blue Overcoat” about a 23 year-old hobo, and met John H. Knox, the son of a preacher, who wrote poetry and had sold stories to the pulps, which, at the time, were paying two cents a word. Knox, whose family residence housed Abilene’s largest personal library, introduced Anderson to the world of books and local writers. Prior to acquainting himself with Knox’s library, Anderson’s reading had been confined to Tully and Jack London, but now he was reading Knut Hamsun, Gorky and Marx’s Das Capital. Anderson wanted to write about hoboes, but pulp magazines wanted stories about detectives, cowboys and athletes. Hoboes weren’t the era’s favourite subject matter. Either readers thought it wrong to give hoboes a status beyond their worth, or they wanted literature that allowed them to escape from a society that produced hoboes. Consequently, Anderson’s first published effort for a pulp magazine would be a boxing story.

In 1934 he got a job as a printer and met federal employee Polly Anne Bates. Interested in the arts, Anne came from a family of law enforcers. Her uncle was Gus T. Jones, an FBI agent who helped hunt down Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall gang. Anne’s father, despite harbouring an intense hatred for J. Edgar Hoover, also worked for the FBI. Edward and Anne married in August, and moved to New Orleans where Anderson found work on a local newspaper, the New Orleans State. While her husband was at work, Anne looked after their new born daughter, occasionally making trips to the police station to gather information for her husband who spent his evenings writing stories for magazines like True Detective and Murder Stories. At work, Anderson would rifle through his newspaper’s files in search of material. Soon he was selling such pieces as “Uncovering the Vice Cesspool in New Orleans: The Shameful Facts Behind the War between T. Semmes (Turkeyhead) Walmsely and Huey (Kingfish) Long”; “Tough Guy! The Career of Dutch Gardner”; and “The Kiss of Death and New Orleans’ Diamond Queen.” He wrote an article for True Detective about Henry Meyer, the official state hangman. The magazine sent it back saying it would work better as a short story. The article became a story entitled “The Hangman,” which marked the beginning of Anderson’s career as a writer of fiction. He sent one of his Depression stories to a writing competition run by Whit Burnett and Martha Foley’s Story magazine. In an era of proletariat fiction- Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited had just been published- Anderson’s portrait of life on the road impressed Burnett and Foley enough to receive $1000, and a Doubleday/Literary Guild book contract.

After moving to another apartment- Anne was pregnant again- Anderson, over the next seven months, put the finishing touches to Hungry Men. Written in a calm, observational style, its energy and emotional impact makes up for its stylistic deficiencies. Less a novel than a series of vignettes strung together through a main character, it sold moderately well, and was praised by Raymond Chandler and Elizabeth Bowen. However, it was ignored by most critics and publications. Those who did review Hungry Men were of the opinion that the writer was merely one more Depression chronicler. While the New Republic praised the book’s “firm quiet realism,” a British reviewer said, “[Anderson’s] style, the extreme nakedness of presentation, the slang, ‘like an animal talking,’ owes everything to Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”

Derivative it might have been, but Hungry Men was less influenced by Hemingway than by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, a writer who would end up defending the Nazi’s and their occupation of his country. Like his predecessor, Anderson too would soon find himself moving into murky political waters. At the time, Hungry Men, which follows protagonist Acel Stecker as he moves from freight trains to breadlines, from hobo jungles and Hoovervilles to political demonstrations, fit in perfectly with New Deal politics, while rejecting any notion of social revolution.

The novel’s most severe critic would be hobo and author of Waiting For Nothing, Tom Kromer, who attacked Hungry Men for its politics and lack of realism. Published two years before Hungry Men, Kromer’s Waiting For Nothing is decidedly more revolutionary in tone. According to Kromer, Anderson’s view of “life on the stem” was overly sunny and romantic. So enraged was Kromer that, in an October, 1936, issue of Pacific Weekly he published a short piece which purposely appropriated the title of Anderson’s first novel. In three pages of newsprint, Kromer rewrote Anderson’s novel. Covering the same time-span, Kromer, in his typically hard-bitten manner, rejects Anderson’s ending in which Acel and his small band of musicians, having refused to play the Internationale, decide to call themselves “The Three Americans” and learn to play patriotic and off-colour ditties. Instead, Kromer depicts a hundred flophouse stiffs joining locked-out motormen in the streets during the 1934 Los Angeles Yellow Car strike.

Kromer particularly disliked the way Anderson attempted to both sanitise and depoliticise the hobo. Reviewing the book in Pacific Weekly review, he wrote, “You’ll see no Jesus Christ looks in the eyes of Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men, no working stiffs dying of malnutrition on lice-infested blankets of three-decker bunks in the missions, no soup-lines that stretch for blocks in the city streets and never start moving. In a word, you find no Hungry Men.”

On the other hand, Louis L’Amor, at the time just another gentleman writer of the road and not yet Ronald Reagan’s favourite cowboy author, praised Anderson’s Hungry Men, saying, “It seems highly improbable that a revolution will take place in this country at the present time, or near it, although the subject is interesting, but one wonders what will become of a country where young men such as Stecker are forced to wander helplessly, driven by the police, in fear of chain gangs, and out of work through the force of economic changes over which they have no control.” While it’s impossible to ignore the novel’s deep-rooted belief in social justice, it’s also apparent that Anderson believed that rugged individualism as much as a benevolent state could defeat Depression poverty. Finding Anderson’s perspective politically naive, Kromer offered the opinion that his fiction would appeal only to those who’ve been conned by the system: “If you have read all the Horatio Alger novels and would like to get the same story with a depression slant, you will not be able to put it down.”

With the money he received from the Story competition and his novel, the Andersons purchased a car and drove to Kerrville, Texas, where they rented a cabin. Situated a thousand feet above Huntsville, Kerrville was famous for its convalescent qualities. Its sunlight and Guadaloupe water, were supposedly beneficial for those recovering from tuberculosis. It was in Kerrville that Anderson would write his second novel, Thieves Like Us.

It would be an improvement on his previous effort. Anderson based the characters in this novel on the exploits of real criminals: Bonnie and Clyde, who had been recently gunned down in Athens, Louisiana, not far from Anderson’s home town; John Dillinger who had just been shot down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago; and the bank robbers Anderson interviewed in Huntsville prison, a research expedition that allowed him to record their stories while noting their speech patterns and way of looking at the world. Talking to prisoners had served Anderson well, particularly when it came to creating a character like T-Dub, whose manner of speaking- “it’s raining cats and nigger babies”- and way of seeing the world came from Anderson’s research. Anderson was now reading Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Zola, Dostoevsky, and James Farrell, and would spend evenings testing out dialogue on Anne, asking her what the girl, Keechie, would say in a given situation. The title of the novel derives from a line of T-Dub’s in which he refers to those in respectable professions- bankers, politicians, police officers- as “just thieves like us.” It’s this perspective, as well as portraying those drawn into marginal concerns by social circumstances, that makes Thieves Like Us a classic hardboiled proletariat novel. When it was published in 1937, Chandler wrote that Anderson was better than Steinbeck and the latter novel was “one of the best stories of thieves ever of the forgotten novels of the 30’s.” Having ignored Hungry Men, Saturday Review called Anderson “the most exciting new writer to appear in American letters since Hemingway and Faulkner.”

Despite his two novels, Anderson was nearly broke. After a stint with the Work Projects Association writing about Abilene tourist sites for a Texas guidebook, the Andersons moved to Denver where Edward found work with the Rocky Mountain News and wrote for a local radio show, The Light of the West, dramatising historical events in the region. While in Denver, Anderson received a telegram informing him that, if he was interested, he had a screenwriting job waiting for him in Hollywood. It looked as though Anderson’s fortunes were about to change. He was sure his background as an all-round journalist- writing stories, taking photographs, doing background work, and rewriting- would stand him in good stead in Hollywood, as it had such screenwriters as Gene Fowler, James M. Cain and Ben Hecht.

Taking the train west, Anderson and his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once had just been released, and crime stories with a social angle were in vogue. Thieves Like Us seemed perfect. Optimistic, Anderson installed his family in The Seaforth, an apartment complex on the corner of Clinton and Norton, a few blocks from where Thieves Like Us would eventually be made.

It had been Adeline “Ad” Schulberg- the mother of Budd Schulberg- who had sent the telegram. Separated from her husband, B.P. “Ben” Schulberg, Ad had set herself up as a Hollywood agent. Meanwhile, Adolph Zukor had given her husband a budget, the promise of producing eight films a year, and an office off Melrose Avenue. With Ad representing Anderson in negotiations with Paramount, the writer must have thought it odd- if he thought about it at all- that, regardless of their marital status, a Schulberg sat on each side of the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the deal struck in Ben Schulberg’s office did not bring Anderson the riches he might have been expecting. Anderson was to be paid $150 a week, not much when compared to the $5,200 per week Dorothy Parker and her partner Alan Campbell were, at the time, making, but it was a substantial sum compared to the $25 a week Anderson had been earning as a journalist.

Anderson was given William Saroyan’s old office. Like Anderson, Saroyan had published in Story magazine (“The Man on the Flying Trapeze”). Unable to produce dialogue disciplined enough for Ben Schulberg, he had recently left for New York where he would write such plays as The Time of Your Life and My Heart’s in the Highlands. Anderson’s first assignment was a football picture on which Saroyan had been working, a dreamchild of Paramount story editor and pigskin-obsessive George Auerbach. The problem was, Anderson hadn’t any idea how to adapt that, or any other, story for the screen.

Though he embarked on a crash course in the art of screenwriting, there would be no screen credits forthcoming for Anderson. And with no credits, the chance of advancing in Hollywood was negligible. Auerbach sympathised, believing Anderson’s problem was that he came in “through the backdoor,” by which he meant that it had only been through Ad Schulberg’s influence that he had gained employment in Hollywood.

When his contract at Paramount expired, Anderson moved to Warners. At least it was a studio with a backlog of gangster films and a roster of writers. On the other hand, Jack Warner expected writers of Anderson’s lowly ilk to arrive at 8:30 in the morning and stay until 5:30, to work six days a week and churn out twenty to thirty pages per day. A trench surrounded the building so writers could not sneak out during the day. Moreover, Jack Warner had none of Ben Schulberg’s artistic pretensions. Nor was he beyond firing a writer rather than giving him or her a raise, only to later rehire the same writer at a lower wage. Anderson’s first assignments were alongside Bryan Foy on a series of Burbank B features. Foy was the son of Eddie Foy, Jr., of the Seven Little Foys vaudeville team, and a former gag man for Buster Keaton. Such was Foy’s position that he was often referred to as the “keeper of the B’s.” The result of their first effort was Siberia, which was the place to which Anderson was beginning to feel he had been sent.

Already Anderson’s star was descending. The only Edward Anderson that film goers were likely to have heard of was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the African-American actor who had begun working for comedian Jack Benny, who, the year before, and the star of the all-black feature Green Pastures. With his career moving from bad to worse, Anderson ended up working on a series of Nancy Drew mystery films. Not quite what the writer had in mind when he contemplated his career in Hollywood. On the other hand, writing Nancy Drew scripts- from 1938-1939 there were at least four such films, all directed by William Clemens and starring Bonita Granville as the teenage detective- was not much different from writing for the pulps. Still, Anderson was not, and never had been, a formula writer.

He’d also grown to detest Hollywood. Ill at ease amongst the rich and famous, he was drinking more than ever. Despite his good looks and athletic appearance, he didn’t have the personality necessary to get ahead in Tinseltown. Nor did he care for his colleagues or employers. He found himself gravitating towards hard-drinking ex-newspapermen like Hecht, Gene Fowler and Charles MacArthur. He and Fowler had much in common. Both had arrived in Hollywood from Denver; both were fascinated by boxing; and both were former press agents, Anderson having briefly worked for Texas politician William McCraw, while Fowler had worked for Queen Marie of Rumania.

In March, Anderson received notice that the rights to Thieves Like Us had been sold to Rowland Brown for $500: Anderson was to receive $250 on signing the contract and a further $250 thirty days later. Despite the sale of his novel, a Anderson took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner. However, he was soon fired for making too many jokes about the international Jewish conspiracy. It was apparent that Anderson was becoming increasingly anti-semitic, and, on one occasion, even went so far as to take Anne to an American Nazi rally. This even though he had worked on an amicable basis with Ad and Ben Schulberg and had many Jewish friends. Not that anti-semitism was uncommon amongst Hollywood writers. Myron Brinig’s early apocalyptic Hollywood 1933 roman de clef Flicker of an Eyelid, was, with its unflattering portrayal of the notorious L.A. poet Jake Zeitlin, considered to be anti-semitic. Likewise, Jim Tully’s Hollywood novel Jarnegan, which portrays various Jewish movie moguls in a unflattering manner. Since most Hollywood producers, as well as many of its agents and actors, were Jewish, anyone with a grievance had an easy target in the culture and religion of those in power. This was, of course, helped by the fact that a handful Jewish studio executives- Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer- were themselves racist, and even anti-semitic.

Without a job, and wanting to get of L.A., Anderson found work on the Sacramento Bee. But Anne was never to feel at home in that city. Their house had belonged to a Japanese couple who, during World War Two, had been interned, and their belongings were stored there. Wanting to devote more time to writing, Anderson quit his job at the Bee, while Anne went out to work. He began a novel on the West, entitled Mighty Men of Valor, then heard that screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) was in the market for a western about Fort Griffin, an old outpost near Abilene where a small war with the Commanches had been fought. But neither the novel nor Anderson’s treatment would come to anything. During this period Anderson would produce only two stories, one about Sam Houston, the other about a settler who mistreats his family. Neither sold. Growing increasingly more difficult to live with, Anderson was now drunk most of the time, which led to the couple’s separation. They eventually got back together, divorced, then remarried. When, a few years later, Anderson came down with a bad case of the DT’s, followed by a bout of pneumonia, Anne decided, when he recovered, she would leave him for good. Though Anderson tried to quit drinking and joined AA, he was, as far as Anne was concerned, beyond redemption, prompting her to divorce him for a second, and final, time.

to be continued...

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