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Authors: Tess Slesinger

The Unpossessed

TESS SLESINGER (1905–1945) grew up in New York in a progressive assimilated Jewish family and attended Swarthmore College and the Columbia School of Journalism. After a few short-term jobs at New York newspapers, she married Herbert Solow, editor of the
Menorah Journal
, through whom she became acquainted with the leading young leftist intellectuals of the time, including Lionel Trilling and Clifton Fadiman. A second marriage, to Frank Davis, a producer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, took Slesinger to Hollywood, where she worked as a screenwriter for ten years until her early death, from cancer, at the age of 39. In addition to
The Unpossessed
, her only published novel, Slesinger's work includes a book of short stories,
Time: The Present
, and several screenplays, among them
The Good Earth
and
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
.

ELIZABETH HARDWICK was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and educated at the University of Kentucky and Columbia University. A recipient of a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is the author of several novels, a biography of Herman Melville, and four collections of essays. Her novel
Sleepless Nights
and her study of women in literature,
Seduction and Betrayal
, are both published by New York Review Books. Elizabeth Hardwick lives in New York City.

THE UNPOSSESSED

A NOVEL OF THE THIRTIES

TESS SLESINGER

Introduction by

ELIZABETH HARDWICK

NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

New York

CONTENTS

Biographical Notes

Title Page

Introduction

PART ONE

1. Margaret Flinders

2. Miles

3. Professor Bruno Leonard

4. Flinders Blood

5. Norah's Jeffrey

6. The Bruno Leonard Circus

7. Why Can't We Have a Magazine?

PART TWO

1. Elizabeth

2. Bruno and the Black Sheep

3. The Fast Express

4. Miles and His Wife

5. The Pivot

6. Emmett Middleton

7. Before the Fast Express

8. Margaret and Her Husband

9. The Inquest

10. The Conscience Ticks

11. Bruno and Emmett

12. Under Comrade Lenin's Eye

13. Hello America, I'm Home!

PART THREE

The Party

PART FOUR

Missis Flinders

Copyright and More Information

INTRODUCTION

THE UNPOSSESSED
is a daring, unique fiction, a wild, crowded comedy set in New York City in the 1930s. The inchoate, irrational, addictive metropolis, ever clamoring, brawling between its two somehow sluggish rivers, is a challenge to its citizens and to the novelist's art. In the end, people gather with their own kind, as they do in the towns with the right side to live in and the wrong side, with Baptists and Catholics, girls brought up for the Junior League and others to become plump, nice ladies taking covered dishes to the Oddfellows picnic. Manhattan, ever a proper symbol of an immigrant nation, lives in the daytime by “immigrants” from the boroughs who come in to build the skyscrapers, paint the walls, caulk the leaking pipes, drive the cabs; it is also the dream site of travelers from Alabama, Illinois, or Michigan with the longing of their specialized ambition to go on the stage, master the Steinway grand, paint pictures, or write stories for
The New Yorker
.

The city is, as it must be, a nest of enclaves in the surrounding smother.
The Unpossessed
looks with a subversive eye on a disorderly, self-appointed group: intellectuals, critical of society's arrangements and very critical of each other. It is the 1930s and the reign, you might call it, of the left; of well-to-do Greenwich Village friends of the workers striking in Detroit and of the woebegone, cotton-picking sharecroppers of the South. Above all, the echoes from the “classless” society in Russia, the proles sending the feckless aristocrats to Paris, aroused in intellectual circles here a sort of conversational communism.

The Unpossessed
is a kindly act of intellectual friendship written by a sensibility formed by the period and yet almost helplessly alert to the follies of a programmatic “free love” and the knots and tangles of parlor radicalism. Tess Slesinger, the author, was born in New York, the daughter of a non-practicing Jewish family. Her father, Hungarian by birth, attended City College but after marriage went into the garment business owned by his wife's family, the Singers. The garment business seems to be almost foreordained in the history of Jews in the city and not more on the dot than the fact of the author's mother, early education interrupted to work in the family business, ending up, after night classes, and a spell with Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, as a lay analyst and along the way taking part in the beginning of the New School for Social Research.

Tess Slesinger attended the progressive school, Ethical Culture, Swarthmore College, and the Columbia School of Journalism. She married Herbert Solow, a man about town in intellectual circles, who was on the staff of the
Menorah Journal
and, much later, like the progression of so many radicals, on the staff of
Fortune
magazine. By way of the
Menorah Journal
, it was the world of Elliot Cohen, Clifton Fadiman, and Lionel Trilling that this young woman, at the age of twenty-three, more gifted than any in the group except Trilling, inhabited in her fashion. She published short stories and, in 1934, her only novel,
The Unpossessed
; was divorced from Solow, and went to Hollywood. There she married Frank Davis, a producer, had two children, a son and a daughter, worked on successful screenplays, and died at the age of thirty-nine. A crowded life indeed and far more than a footnote in American literature.

The Unpossessed
is overflowing with “characters”: grocers, cabbies, waiters passing through the landscape briefly, but each there in his own singular skin. And of course the characters of fiction with their wives, their money or lack of it, their careers, their presentation of themselves in battle with the self they fear from knowing it far too well. Miles Flinders, a New Englander surviving the terrible trips to the woodshed for punishment by Uncle Dan and yet masochistically suffering from his own knowledge that his sins were greater than those Uncle Dan was thrashing. His “balmy” wife Margaret, kind, intelligent, wishing to please and for that reason somewhat a burden to Miles.

Jeffrey Blake, a second-rate novelist and master fornicator, is first seen expertly mixing cocktails in the kitchen with the help of Margaret Flinders while Miles, from his unhappy childhood a believer in economic determinism, is in the next room with Jeffrey's wife, Norah, explaining that economic conditions control all, even marriage. Meanwhile, Jeffrey is flinging himself, as if obliged to do so, against Margaret and saying, “Are you never going to throw away your bourgeois notions, are we always condemned to sin against ourselves and our desire. . . .”

Bruno Leonard, of German Jewish origin, had been in college with Jeffrey Blake and Miles Flinders, and now in New York they are planning, somewhat murkily, to put out a magazine. Throughout the drunken pages, the floating ship of private life sails in the waters of the historical moment: the Depression, apple sellers in the street, the Scottsboro boys on trial, Walter Damrosch concerts, the plays of Eugene O'Neill, about which Miles says, “My Uncle Daniel would have sneered at ‘Beyond the Horizon'; even my father would have walked out on it—staggered out, to the nearest saloon.”

The Magazine, instrument of arcane propaganda and personal identity for the little band of pinkos, figures in the hopes like a valuable visitor one hasn't the money to entertain with a suitable feast. Jeffrey has somehow learned of a certain Comrade Fisher who might have his hand in the pocket of the Party. Comrade Fisher turns out to be a bulky woman, whose name is Ruthie. Ruthie is a sloganeering geyser who, nevertheless, has some poignant items on her résumé. She has actually spent a night in jail, has been the lover of one Comrade Turner, a mill worker who led a famous strike. Jeffrey, seeking his own claim as a revolutionary fit for international celebrity, will end up in bed with Comrade Ruthie, homely as she is, and through her tired flesh experience a sort of mystical transformation:

He lay and listened peacefully to the revolutionary bedtime story, his hands at rest on her head as though her story, her former loves, the spirit of Comrade Turner, the spirit of the strike itself, passed through her and into his fingers. . . . He was Comrade Turner lying with Comrade Fisher in his arms. . . . He was the raw-boned mill worker who led the strike. He was the many mill-hands singing the International. . . . Gratitude toward Comrade Fisher overwhelmed him like love. He threw off the hot counterpane and made love to Comrade Fisher, Comrade Turner's Comrade Fisher, under Comrade Lenin's sightless eyes.

There is indeed no financial advantage to Ruthie, who has after an uncomfortable trip to the Soviet Union become a Trotskyite. But there is money, big money, elsewhere in the Middleton family, parents of one of Bruno's students at the university where he teaches in a lackadaisical manner that enchants the young with their own revolt against the unholy powers of the school administration and the capitalist tyranny of the society they live in.

Mrs. Middleton, along the way seduced by the importunate Jeffrey, will give an evening party, a fund-raiser for the Hunger March gathering in Washington and for the Magazine. Radicals, rich friends, antiques mostly, of “old New York” society, the butler, the band, the buffet table laden with ham, turkey, sturgeon, caviar, and from a celestial bakery a pastry in the shape of the Capitol in Washington. Conversation is picked up, lost, returned to once more; syllables of comment, private matters between old acquaintances resurrected and cast into the party din.

The band leader is a melancholy, failed classical composer doomed to ballads and fox trots and oldies for a tone-deaf audience. The poor man, remembering his ambitious days, chooses to play the Allegro (Spring) from his rejected “Symphony of the Seasons.”

“Beethoven, isn't it?” said a Miss Hobson. Around her, there is talk of horses, one named Minerva. “You liked that blind-in-one-eye, spavined, consumptive creature with a rotten gallop like a Ford,
wh-why
!” Mrs. Stanhope whinnied in her horror. “You know it's possible it's Brahms,” said Mr. Terrill suddenly. The band leader is requested to leave off and play “After the Ball Was Over.” “Thank God for that,” Mr. Terrill whispered. “I never really cared for Debussy anyhow.” The bits of musical and horse appreciation are scattered over many pages, drifting in and out in the crowded rooms.

There is comment in a similar spread about a modest Negro gentleman, Graham Hatcher, invited in a period of one for every party to liven things up. It is felt he must “represent” something: “in musical comedy perhaps.” “I wonder,” said Ruthie Fisher, “if he might not be the communist candidate for vice-president; he must be
somebody
.” Mr. Hatcher wearily smiles and says he doesn't represent anything, but a guest will be heard saying he might be the house detective. The host, Mr. Middleton, name of Al, makes club-man, Wall Street jokes throughout the evening and decides that the courteous black gentleman might have “some pullman porter blood.” Or, from another part of the room, “Ooooh, I wonder could he be Paul Robeson.” At last, Mr. Hatcher, standing about dressed in his singular complexion: “I am
not
the entertainment,” he exploded, “God damn it, I am Vice President of the C.F.S.U.S.—The Colored Folks' Social Uplift Society.” To a Mr. Ballister who could hear and to Miss Ballister who couldn't it is explained that the C.F.S.U.S. must be some little magazine the colored folks are starting.

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