Granville Hicks, the son of Frank Stevens and Carrie Weston Hicks, was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on 9th September, 1901. He was educated at Harvard University and in 1925 he married Dorothy Dyer. (1)
Hicks taught at Smith College and an an assistant professor of English at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 1931 he helped to establish the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP). Other members included Lincoln Steffens, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Suzanne La Follette, Floyd Dell, Waldo Frank, Josephine Herbst, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Louis Fraina, Sidney Hook, Langston Hughes and Edmund Wilson. (2)
In 1934 Hicks joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and soon afterwards was appointed as literary editor of its journal, New Masses. He later wrote: ''I became a Communist because, after I had discovered that capitalism wouldn't plan, I made up my mind that I would find out just what had to be done. 'I looked around and it seemed to me quite clear that the Communists not only had the clearest conception of how a society of abundance was to be brought about, but were doing the most effective work toward that end.'' (3)
Hicks became involved in a dispute with Max Eastman over his book The Literary Mind: Its Place in the Age of Science (1934), where he argued that "art and action could not be joined". (4) Hicks disagreed claiming "a work of art changes us, and that it is necessary for the critic to ask what the change has been and whether it is desirable." (5)
In 1935 Hicks was sacked from his teaching position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute because of his political activities. The Nation magazine described the incident as ''a flagrant violation of academic freedom.'' (6) In 1936 Hicks was asked to co-write John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary, a biography of radical journalist John Reed. The book received good reviews but was attacked by Mabel Dodge for providing a too positive view of her former lover. (7)
Others criticised him for claiming that he died a loyal Communist. Reed's wife, Louise Bryant, Angelica Balabanoff, and Benjamin Gitlow, all claimed that his disillusionment with Soviet rule hastened his death. "Hicks replied that he did not accept Louise Bryant's revised version because she had told different stories to different people. While recognizing that lack of evidence made for uncertainty, Hicks stood by his account." (8)
During the Great Depression he became one of the party's leading cultural spokesmen. (9) Hicks also worked at Harvard and in 1937 he formed a CPUSA unit at the university. Other members included Daniel J. Boorstin, Louis Harap, William T. Parry, Robert Gorham Davis and Wendell H. Furry. (10)
On 5th September, 1939, Earl Browder described Hicks as "one of our most distinguished Communist educators". (11) The following month Granville Hicks resigned from the Communist Party of the United States. In a letter to The New Republic, he explained that he was a strong opponent of Nazi Germany and strongly disagreed with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Hicks added that he was disturbed by the CPUSA's uncritical endorsement of Soviet policy. "If they had only admitted their ignorance, the Communist Party of the United States would be intact today. But instead they insisted that the Soviet-German non aggression pact was the greatest possible contribution to peace and democracy and offered anything that came into their heads as proof. They rushed into print with apologies completely devoid of clarity and logic. Only one conclusion could be drawn: If the Party leaders could not defend the Soviet Union intelligently, they would defend it stupidly. The leaders of the Communist Party have tried to appear omniscient, and they have succeeded in being ridiculous. They have clutched at straws, juggled sophistries, shut their eyes to facts... They have shown that they are strong in faith - which the future may or may not justify - and weak in intelligence." (12)
During the Second World War Hicks became a fierce critic of the Soviet Union. In his essay, Communism and the American Intellectuals, he argued that in the 1930s there seemed many good reasons for supporting Communism: the depression, the Communists' programme of action, the united front against fascism, the high quality of party members. "We were a good lot, but rather stupid." (12) Hicks's book, Small Town, a portrait of life in the rural crossroads of Grafton, was published in 1946.
In February 1953, Granville Hicks, Robert Gorham Davis and Daniel J. Boorstin appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HCUA) and testified that Wendell H. Furry was a member of the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s. "A member of the Harvard physics department for twenty years... he invoked the Fifth, but argued strongly that the Soviet Union had not started the Korean war." (13)
Harold H. Velde asked Hicks why he had not spoken out against members of the CPUSA in the way that Louis Budenz had done. Hicks replied that most of them had left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and they no longer posed a problem to national security: "I am sure that the Communist Party membership has been reduced considerably - certainly the eggheads have all gotten out of it... and I think the situation is exaggerated now." Hicks added that he thought that members of the CPUSA should be allowed to teach in public schools because of his belief in "academic freedom". (14)
Hicks taught in a variety of institutions including the New School for Social Research (1955-1958), New York University (1959), Syracuse University (1960), and Ohio University (1967–68). Books by Hicks include Where We Came Out (1954), Part of the Truth (1965), Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction (1970) and Granville Hicks in the New Masses (1974).
Granville Hicks died in New Jersey on 18th June, 1982.
Granville Hicks, literary critic, novelist, columnist and a leading writer in the proletarian literature movement of the 1930's, died yesterday at the Franklin Convalescent Center in Franklin Park, N.J., after a long illness. He was 80 years old and had lived in Kendall Park, N.J., before entering the convalescent home.
Mr. Hicks, a bespectacled mild-mannered man, was often the focus of political and literary controversy on an intellectual journey that took him from an early rapture with Marxism to far more moderate political ground later in life. In 1953, he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a ''cooperative'' witness.
In a career that spanned nearly half a century, he joined and quit the Communist Party, was dismissed from a college teaching post in a storm over academic freedom, taught at half a dozen universities and wrote scores of articles and more than a dozen books, including novels, criticism and biography, along with a 1965 autobiography.
Mr. Hicks's last work had been as a literary columnist from 1973 to 1977 for The American Way, published by American Airlines. He had written a column of criticism for The Saturday Review from 1958 to 1969....
The work that established Mr. Hicks as an important critic was ''The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War,'' which was written from a Marxist point of view and published by Macmillan in 1933.
A New York Times critic commented: ''It is disappointing to find a young man as intelligent and sensitive as Mr. Granville Hicks accepting hook, line and sinker the economic evaluation of literature.''
Other, more sympathetic critics praised the book as ''the first really valuable detailed history of the full sweep of our literature from the Civil War to the present,'' and as ''the most comprehensive and compelling analysis of modern literature that has yet appeared.''
The treatment of him by communist writers explains Max Eastman's reaction to Granville Hicks's book on John Reed. It was the first biography of Reed and the most important, for Hicks gathered the documents on which subsequent works have depended. He and an assistant interviewd hundreds of people who had known Reed. Hicks was the nicest and most ethical of Communist writers. Max refused to cooperate with him anyway, telling Hicks that as a member of the "Stalin International" Hicks could not be objective. Eastman was mistaken. John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary was a remarkably honest book. Hicks praised the Masses for having "the seriousness of strong convictions and the gayety of great hopes." He presented, from Max's point of view, a fair account of the great artist revolt of 1916, saying that Reed gave Eastman his proxy vote because he knew that Eastman more than other editors cared about economic issues. Hicks even went against the party line in assigning Max some credit for the second Masses trial. "Eastman, in his eloquent summation of the defense, was far more outspoken than he had been in the spring, and made fewer concessions to the hysteria of the moment." Hicks did not make Eastman out to be the central figure of both trials, which he was. Otherwise the book is hard to fault.
Max took issue with it just the same. Quibbles aside, the sticking point was Reed's frame of mind when he died. Hicks presented the official story, which was that, though Reed had quarreled with Zinoviev and resigned from the Comintern, he later rejoined it and died a loyal Communist. As it was not disputed by Louise Bryant, everyone accepted this version at the time. Years afterward Louise told Max that Reed had been shocked by the self-indulgence of Soviet bureaucrats and by Zinoviev's callous management of the Comintern." Angelica Balabanoff, an oppositionist who had been Secretary of the Comintern and knew Reed well, supported Bryant. She believed Reed's disillusionment with Soviet rule hastened his death. Hicks replied that he did not accept Louise Bryant's revised version because she had told different stories to different people. While recognizing that lack of evidence made for uncertainty, Hicks stood by his account.
If they had only admitted their ignorance, the Communist Party of the United States would be intact today. But instead they insisted that the Soviet-German nonaggression pact was the greatest possible contribution to peace and democracy and offered anything that came into their heads as proof. They rushed into print with apologies completely devoid of clarity and .logic. Only one conclusion could be drawn: If the Party leaders could not defend the Soviet Union intelligently, they would defend it stupidly....
The leaders of the Communist Party have tried to appear omniscient, and they have succeeded in being ridiculous. They have clutched at straws, juggled sophistries, shut their eyes to facts... They have shown that they are strong in faith - which the future may or may not justify - and weak in intelligence.
(1) Walter H. Waggoner, New York Times (19th June, 1982)
(2) Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals (1987) pages 57-58
(3) Walter H. Waggoner, New York Times (19th June, 1982)
(4) William L. O'Neill, The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (1978) page 139
(5) Granville Hicks, New Masses (6th November, 1934)
(6) Walter H. Waggoner, New York Times (19th June, 1982)
(7) Mabel Dodge, letter to Max Eastman (10th May, 1938)
(8) William L. O'Neill, The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (1978) page 170
(9) Walter H. Waggoner, New York Times (19th June, 1982)
(10) David Caute, The Great Fear (1978) page 406
(11) Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1964) page 68
(12) Granville Hicks, letter to the The New Republic (4th October, 1939)
(12) William L. O'Neill, The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (1978) page 195
(13) David Caute, The Great Fear (1978) page 412
(14) Granville Hicks, testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (26th February, 1953)