Appropriate this

Lionel Shriver is an American novelist who lives in London. I will only add that she is a woman because her adopted name Lionel might lead one to infer otherwise (photo below).


On September 8 Shriver gave the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Her speech opposed the concept of “cultural appropriation.” The Guardian has posted the text of Shriver’s speech here. Shriver elaborated on her speech in the New York Times column “Will the left survive the millenials?”

Shriver’s speech triggered a leftwing meltdown (as Bari Weiss put it in the column linked below). The New York Times picked up on the controversy. The Times reported: “Officials in charge of an Australian writers festival were so upset with the address by their keynote speaker, the American novelist Lionel Shriver, that they publicly disavowed her remarks.” An Australian writer of Sudanese and Egyptian origin, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, got up and walked out, making live posts on Twitter about her dismay at what she described as “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.”

This past weekend Bari Weiss followed up in her Wall Street Journal column “The PC police outlaw make-believe.” Weiss briefly summarized Shriver’s argument. In Weiss’s summary of Shriver, “fiction writers should be permitted to write fiction.” Weiss rightly observes that Shriver’s speech and the subsequent events show “how the secular religion of identity politics is threatening imagination itself.”

“Taken to their logical conclusion,” Shriver said in her address, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”

So far, so good. To defend her work as a novelist, however, Shriver cited Dalton Trumbo. “If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled—because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to ‘appropriate’ the isolation of a paraplegic—we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun,” she said.

I may be mistaken, but I wouldn’t describe Johnny Got His Gun as a classic in the sense that Shriver uses the term. If it is a classic, it is a classic whose own story is part of the phenomenon that Shriver protests.

The story is related to my recent post “Those Angry Days.” Johnny Got His Gun was published in September 1939 and serialized in the Communist Party press in early 1940. Drawing on modernist literary techniques, the novel reflects pacifist sentiments that coincided with the Communist Party line at the time of its publication.

I believe that Trumbo himself acknowledged joining the Communist Party in 1943, although he said he may as well have been a member years earlier. In Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance With the Left, Ronald and Allis Radosh write that Trumbo had in fact joined the Party during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Referring to Johnny Got His Gun, they observe that the novel’s “fierce antiwar vision fit right in with the Party program of neutrality during the days of the pact[.]”

Once Germany turned on the Soviet Union, however, the Party immediately abandoned the antiwar line. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Trumbo suddenly “found his pacifism no longer tenable,” as Ring Lardner, Jr. put it. As Ron Radosh wrote in his Weekly Standard article on Trumbo: “Literally overnight, the Communist party’s peace campaign ended and was replaced by calls for intervention against Hitler.”

The Radoshes comment: “Practicing the self-censorship required of a good Communist…Trumbo remembered his novel, which was taken out of print and not mentioned again until the 1960s, when Vietnam developed as a cause of the left: then he not only resurrected the book but turned it into a major Hollywood film.” (Roger Greenspun really captured the flavor of the film, written and directed by Trumbo, in his New York Times review.)

And that’s not all. Ron Radosh adds to the story in his Weekly Standard article on Trumbo:

Trumbo censored his own book, took the plates from the publisher, and let it go out of print. But the novel, which had gotten good reviews, was still popular, and readers wrote to Trumbo to find out where it could be found. Not satisfied that his book was no longer available, Trumbo-fearing, undoubtedly correctly, that many of those letter–writers were isolationists, and some even pro-fascist–invited the FBI to visit him at home in 1944, and turned the letters over to the agents. He informed on Americans who only wanted to read his own novel! It was the right wing, he explained, that was trying to make censorship of Johnny Got His Gun into “a civil liberties issue,” so he had no compunction about informing on these people. After all, he told the agents, some of them were “organizing politically” and others had called Franklin Roosevelt a “criminal incendiary.”

Though Lionel Shriver finds Trumbo an ally of convenience, Johnny Got His Gun is not exactly a testament to the freedom of the artist’s imagination. If it is at all, it may be the least interesting part of the story.