I'm Dying Laughing
"'Once accused how can we not take our stand with the other side? For terror and dishonour and misunderstanding await us on the side our hearts once chose'
"Christina Stead, one of the twentieth century's most profound and original writers, died in 1983, leaving behind her this unpublished novel, on which she had worked for many years. I'm Dying Laughing is a tour de force, a brilliant and savagely funny exposť of radicalism and betrayal during the McCarthy era in America and Europe.
"Emily Wilkes, a politically naive young American journalist, travels to Europe in the thirties. On board ship she meets Stephen Howard, a rich radical. They become lovers and, inspired by his ideals she returns to the States with him, where they marry, become active members of the Communist Party and move to Hollywood. Soon they are the darlings of the fashionable American left: she with her filmscripts and folksy novels, he with his cast-aside upper-class background and incisive critique of society and the Party line.
"But Emily and Stephen fall in disfavour: neither the Party nor the left nor McCarhtyism on the right will allow dissidents. Taking refuge again in a Paris now recovering from the war and its own private treasons, the two consume each other in hysterical bitterness, their spirits broken by loss of political faith, and are finally forced to re-examine their sense of themselves and thier convictions - with tragic results.
"I'm Dying Laughing, edited and prepared for publication by Professor Ran Geering, Christina Steed's literary executor, is a magnificent achievement - an unsparing portrait of the disintegration of American Hollywood radicals, revealed with th epassionate objectivity which was her hallmark."
First Paragraph from the Preface:
Christina Stead paid her first visit to the US in 1935. In New York she and William Blake (who was an American citizen) were to become associated with the magazine New Masses and to meet writers and others of the radical Left. She and Blake were back in Europe again in the following year but returned in 1937 to the US, where they lived throughout World War II. This second stay was the period in which she wrote and published The Man Who Loved Children (1940), For Love Alone (1944) and Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946). The Man Who Loved Children and Letty Fox were set in the United States, as were the next two novels, which came out after her return to Europe in 1947, A Little Tea, a Little Chat (1948) and The People With the Dogs (1952). This book, I'm Dying Laughing published now for the first time, is the only other novel of hers which grew out of the years she spent in America.
The decades of the thirties, forties and fifties were critical times,
culminating for the radical Left in the McCarthy witch hunts conducted
through the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the Trial
of the Hollywood Ten in 1947-8. In a radio interview in July 1973 Stead
spoke of the 'terrific convulsion in the USA' in the thirties, and then of
the McCarthy period as follows:
It was very unpleasant. So many people, good worthy people were being attacked, and it was entirely for the worst political motives, they didn't care about Reds, there weren't enough Reds. They were all making their political ways, as some have done of course. Oh, it was a terrific moment, it was worth living through, it was great.
The novelist shows out in that final sentence. From this period comes I'm Dying Laughing, which is based, in Stead's usual way, on the fortunes of people she knew at first-hand.
In an interview in June 1973 Stead described I'm Dying Laughing,
which for a time she had dropped, in this way:
It was all about the passion of - I use passion in almost the religious sense - of two people, two Americans, New Yorkers, in the thirties. They are doing well, but they suffered all the troubles of the thirties. They were politically minded. They went to Hollywood. They came to Europe to avoid the McCarthy trouble. Of course they were deeply involved. And then, they lived around Europe, oh, in a wild and exciting extravagant style. But there was nothing to support it. At the same time they wanted to be on the side of the angels, good Communists, good people, and also to be very rich. Well, of course . . . they came to a bad end.
The last cable was off, the green lane between ship and dock widened. Emily kept calling and waving to the three below, Ben, a press photographer, her brother Amold and his wife Berry. Amold was twenty- three, two years younger than herself; Berry was twenty-four. Arnold was a dark fleshy man, sensual, self-confident, he fooled around, had never finished high school. From Seattle he came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while. He now was working on a relief project for the WPA and earning about a hundred dollars a month. Berry was a teacher, soon to have a child. She was a big, fair girl, bolder than Amold. She had already had a child by Amold, when they were going together, had gone to Ireland to some relatives to have it. Arnold had never seen it, but Emily regularly gave them money for it. It was a boy four years old and named Leonard.
This couple badly wanted to go to Europe. They had argued it out with Emily in their rathole in Bleecker Street. They wanted to open an arts service somewhere around Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. Betty's idea was to go to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Florence and Prague to collect new notions and curios, Wiener Werkstdtte, art objects, K5the Kollwitz dolls, Raymond Duncan batiks, to sell in their store and by catalogue through- out the United States.
'In the Depression?' Emily objected.
'All the artists are working for the Government; on projects. They're spreading art through the Union. Every village has its theatre in a barn; they're getting to see there's art in Bowery bums and the old-time oil paintings in Wild West saloons. The Depression is good for art. Besides, the Depression is not so deep now.'
Their idea was that Emily was to back them and sustain them till the business made money. If they ran out of cash in Europe, Emily would send it; that is, if she stayed in New York at her job; and then there was Lennie. Berry would visit her son while abroad. He lived with Betty's old nurse outside Belfast. Emily could wait for Europe till next year; but she observed that already, in their plans, were yearly visits to Europe, to see what was new.
From the Virago hardback edition, 1986.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2004 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Christina Stead page.
Last modified: January 26, 2004.