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I began my research for this book in 1950 as an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, where I was serving a one-year sentence for a rare crime called contempt of Congress. My wife, Frances Chaney, supplied me the books I needed, all dealing with Roman Catholic theology, but she couldn't mail them herself; prison regulations required that they be sent directly from the publisher or a reputable bookstore. This was a safeguard against words in the text being marked in some way to send a message about an escape plan or some other violation of the rules. Even then, books were subject to review, and the ones I was receiving caught the attention of the civilian clerk who was my boss in the Office of Classification and Parole.
Like all inmates at the FCI, I had an eight-hour-a-day job; mine consisted of typing from Dictaphone records the past history of each new arrival, and of converting draft letters by my civilian superiors into finished copy. In the process I improved wording and corrected grammatical and spelling errors, and as a result, unlike my colleagues in the "Hollywood Ten," who received only the standard sixty days off for good behavior, I was awarded an additional fifteen days for "meritorious good behavior."
The clerk in charge of me was a devout Catholic, and as Christmas approached, he let me know that the traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve would be celebrated in the chapel that served all sects impartially. Since I contemplated a midnight mass scene in my novel, I asked if I would be permitted to attend this one, and it turned out that was just what he had in mind. A couple of days later he contrived a meeting for the two of us with the Catholic chaplain for the purpose, it soon became clear, of satisfying my obvious desire to join the faith. Since it seemed unwise to reveal that I was actually considering a book that would be critical of some aspects of their theology, I told them instead that taking such a step under my present circumstance of duress might seem a mere gesture for sympathy and possibly parole. They were left with the inference that I could be converted only when I was a free man again.
My crime was committed on October 30, 1947. It was a strange and frightening era, that decade that began with the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, and the end of World War II that summer. The two strongest powers left on earth, staunch allies during the war years, began to regard each other as enemies and, instead of dismantling their huge war machines, to actually increase them. From a recognition of the dangers of nationalism, typified by a book, ONE WORLD, by FDR's third-term opponent, Wendell Willkie--from a universal hope that nuclear weapons would make another war unthinkable--the relationship between those superpowers became a cold war that affected every phase of their national policies, foreign and domestic. In Washington, the new spirit took the form of a Truman Doctrine and a Truman Loyalty Program, and the first Congress in 20 years with a Republican majority. One of the first acts of the new House of Representatives was to convert a temporary Committee on Un-American Activities, which had been investigating fascist sympathizers during the war, into a permanent one concentrating on the political left. Its chairman was J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, whom I was to meet again in prison, where he was sent for diverting government funds to his personal use.
A first main target for the committee was Hollywood, probably because of the publicity value. Certainly no one could seriously think that left-leaning writers or directors could sneak revolutionary messages into movies whose content was rigidly controlled by producers, executive producers, and studio heads. Whatever their motives, the Congressmen subpoenaed an assortment of liberal and radical filmmakers. Ten of us were actually called on to testify, and we all declined to answer questions about our union or political associations. My response, when Thomas asked: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?" was "I could answer the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I'd hate myself in the morning." Those were the last words we exchanged until our Danbury reunion, when we did little more than acknowledge each other's presence.
When the Ten were convicted of contempt, we had some hope that the Supreme Court would sustain our position. As a matter of fact, that is just about what they did in another case some years later, after the tension had eased somewhat following the downfall and death of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But to our appeal the justices' response was that they chose not to consider the issue at that time, a tactic they sometimes resort to when they can't bring themselves to affirm a verdict and are reluctant, in the national mood at the time, to reverse it.
That national mood is a major element in this book, which was first published in 1954. A large proportion of Americans believed what they were told by the House and Senate committees, by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and by a majority share of the media; namely, that a very small number of Communists and their sympathizers could somehow subvert our structure of government and our democratic society to their alien thinking, and therefore were a menace to our way of life. They also believed that we were in imminent danger of attack by a country whose leaders in actual reality were sure a war with America would be suicidal.
In that atmosphere of fear and hysteria, there was an intensification of the traditional impulse of racial, religious and national origin groups to stick to their own kind. Back in that first cold war decade, interracial marriage was still a scandalous aberration, and interfaith marriage could be a cause for distress to both families and often to the marrying couple themselves. Prescribed procedures governing such unions were taken more seriously than they are today, among them the Catholic requirements that the outsider spouse agree to raise all children as Catholics, and himself or herself undergo a course of instruction aimed at conversion to the true faith. Another result of those 1947 Un-American hearings was a blacklist in the entertainment industry that eventually spread from the Ten to hundreds of men and women working in movies and television. In my own case it meant a gap of seventeen years between screen credits. Since it was not supposed to exist in the book business, after I finished the novel in late 1952, I submitted it to a number of American publishers. The prevailing pattern was a favorable reaction at a lower level and then a curt rejection or no word at all when it went higher up. One editor at a very large firm told me the content made it unacceptable there because it could mean their entire textbook division would be boycotted in parochial schools nationwide. Finally, I sent it to a friend in England whose first submission of it was to the highly respectable firm of Jonathan Cape, Ltd. When it was immediately accepted there, I felt it prudent to prepare them for the possibility of having to deal with my notoriety in my native land. The response from Mr. Cape himself was: "We have, of course, heard of the curious affair in which you were involved, and there is enough interest in it over here so that it may be of some publicity value in selling your book." -- Ring Lardner Jr., New York City, 1997From the Back Cover:
This classic novel is the story of what happens when an idealistic, fiercely honest young man tries to reconcile Roman Catholic dogma with the realities of America of the 1940s. In this brilliantly comic and pungent tale, Lardner dissects the thought control of the McCarthy era, business ethics, racial intolerance, repressive sexual attitudes, the Manhattan nightclub set, "enlightened" penology, vigilantism, and other social phenomena. The ecstasy which Owen Muir seeks is of both the earthly and the spiritual kind, and his wonderfully funny fate lies in the fact that he cannot have his flesh and eat it, too.
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