Lewis had a way with language that spoke to the unlettered and unread—the key of which lay in slang and vulgarity.
By Devin Thomas O’Shea
Dung on his overalls, the farmer-poet H. H. Lewis of Cape Girardeau became one of the most celebrated writers of the 1930s American left. Lewis was a communist living in isolation; a Jeffersonian yeoman writing poetry by candlelight, pushing a plow through the gumbo during the day, “looking up a mule’s pratt,” as he termed it, struggling to find the words that would relieve the world of suffering through collective action.
Lewis died paranoid and alone in 1985, in voluntary poverty, far away from friends like William Carlos Williams and Jack Conroy. The once renowned Cape Girardeau farmer believed he’d been betrayed by everyone he’d come to trust, and that he’d discovered a conspiracy involving the Black Dragons, Pearl Harbor, and the FBI, who were monitoring Lewis’ “anti-American” activity the whole time.
Nicknamed “Bug” by his schoolmates for his interest in plants, leaves, insects, and things in the forest, Harold Harwell Lewis was always a loner. In his hometown outside of Cape Girardeau, Lewis ignored the other kids while completing three years of high school, sailing through high-school equivalency and Civil Service exams with high scores due to a natural interest in reading. Lewis never received a diploma, and came of age in the beginnings of the Great Depression, which taught him hard lessons.
After a cold winter as a postal clerk in Chicago, forging a path Tennessee Williams would follow, Lewis told his parents he was going to be a writer, and moved from St. Louis to New Orleans seeking literary companionship. For lack of work, in 1922, Lewis tramped west to California where he nearly starved to death in Los Angeles, on the “stem”—a skid row.
Lewis’ time on the stem was radicalizing. One of his first published pieces, “Sidewalks of Los Angeles,” was printed in New Masses, a prominent left wing literary journal, in 1929. It was a page-long ode to L.A.’s homeless who were dying on the street. Lewis describes the putrid hell of waking up on the floor of a rescue mission, having slept near a clogged, over-flowed, toilet. He writes, “Your breath warmed somebody’s neck and somebody’s breath warmed yours…. I had to pry myself from between two side-sleepers packed against me. Stiff, numb, almost paralyzed by the damp coldness and the bare floor, I then had to pound myself and stretch like a dope fiend before being able to stand.” Lewis witnesses a man who’d kept himself pickled in denatured alcohol (“canned heat”) die on the floor with a gurgle and phlegmy “ah.”
The stem was a shocking experience for a sensitive young farm boy. Lewis “soured on life” after it, according to his father. It also marked the beginning of a rich career as a proletarian writer; a growing movement poised for literary revolution. In New York’s Union Square, Mike Gold and fellow New Masses editors helped to develop a literary movement modeled on the revolutionary success in Russia, which had produced Nikolai Kljuev—a peasant-poet. In the late 1920s, it seemed as though economic conditions of the American hinterlands were bad, and getting worse, and would ultimately produce similar revolutionary peasant-poets. They would write prose that raised class consciousness to new heights. It had happened in Russia, it could happen here.
The wealthy were insulated from conditions of the poor; it was hopeless to persuade them, so art should reflect poor people’s problems. In contrast to the bourgeoisie “lower-case” modernists like E. E. Cummings, and the “expat” writers accused complicated prose beyond the understanding of regular people, proletarian literature would capture everyday speech. And Lewis had a way with language that spoke to the unlettered and unread—the key of which lay in slang and vulgarity. The vocabulary of the Hobo Union was important; the cadence, and correct usage of worker patois would demonstrate that the artist had really been there, lived it, and spoke the dark truth of the economic immiseration happening across the United States. “Wobbly talk was rife among us,” Lewis writes in “Sidewalks.” “We were stooled by the police and interviewed every few days, when not oftener, by a couple of dicks.”
Getting “vagged” meant getting picked up by the police—“A scene I can never forget is when the police raided the city’s free employment bureau and nabbed many who were standing outside.” The story culminates in Lewis lying to the cops, showing off a card that says he’s employed at Goodwill sorting supplies; proof that somehow he is not amongst the legions of unemployed, which is a trick every hobo knew. Some carried saws and hammers or dressed as preachers—“anything to give that on-the-job effect.”
After the stem, Lewis returned to the boot-heel farm of his parents, and plowed the Missouri fields while writing his first sketches and poems, culminating in his first collection, Red Renaissance (1930). It was dedicated to the Bolsheviks: “Written by a Missouri Farmhand and Dedicated to Soviet Russia.” He penned his own biography:
28 years old. Residence: a farm at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Former mission stiff and jungle buzzard. Town trade, dishwashing; country specialty, milking Missouri cows; hobby, writing poesy for New Masses. His creed: to make words rhyme and syllables come in exact order, to poetically exalt the proletariat out of its misery. His burden: about 2800 lines of radical jingles ready for book publications.
In Search of the Low-Down Americano
The politics of American farming has always been complex. In contrast to dominant trends in English and French literature, American Transcendentalism had reinvented the intellectual farmer as an artistic writer, beginning with a mythological reverence for settler-colonial farm steading.
Breaking with the plantation owners of the South, Missouri’s yeomen farmers were not liberals, but they had helped prevent slavery from spreading to new territories by being stubborn and independent. In Lewis’ time, that agricultural independence was destroyed by industrialization. Harold grew up with Socialist speakers like Kate Richards O’Hare traveling the Midwest with performers like Vachel Lindsay, performing, “Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket” and “The Eagle That is Forgotten.” By the outbreak of World War 1, a radical socialist-populist spirit had swept across southeastern Missouri—it dimmed during the war, but reemerged in the sharecroppers strike of the late 1930s, which is at the heart of H. H. Lewis’ work.
Publishing in similar magazines like Blast, the poet William Carlos Williams admired Lewis’ attention to worker’s speech. Williams had published “The Girl with a Pimply Face” and “Jean Beicke,” which were drawn from observation of, and encounters with, working-class people in Passaic, New Jersey. As epistolary friends, both Williams and Lewis were on a quest to define America by unearthing the roots that give meaning to the land and its people.
Lewis possessed the fierce sincerity of an Old Testament bible thumper, but for Lenin, Stalin, and the communist project. In appearance, Lewis resembled John Brown in John Steuart Curry’s famous painting. “His eyes tabbed at you and a wild shock of hair made him seem even taller than he was,” writes Douglas Wixson, author of Worker-Writer in America. William Carlos Williams distrusted the party’s covert functioning and dogmatic pronouncements. For Williams, Communist Party orthodoxy could never swallow his primary objective—to be an independent poet-observer of life. Additionally, Williams was skeptical that Americans would ever be open to communism, but both he and Lewis believed in poetry as a weapon of social justice.
With the support of Williams, editors like Jack Conroy, and a growing left publishing ecosystem made possible by the US Postal Service, Lewis became widely acclaimed. His poem “Farmhands’ Refrain” was published in Poetry and anthologized. Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic, hailed H. H. Lewis as “the red-starred laureate, the Joe Hill of the Communist Movement.” The conservative editor of American Mercury, H. L. Mencken, thought proletarian literature was doomed politically, but that Conroy, Williams, and Lewis all represented a fresh and vigorous voice in the search for the “low-down Americano” (Mencken’s term). Lewis’ “School Days” was retitled “School Days in the Gumbo,” and published in American Mercury in January 1931 to much acclaim.
As a worker-writer, Lewis spent his days plowing the sticky bottomland soil, writing at night, building a uniquely American tradition of worker art. “Rejecting capitalism, devoted to the idea of the Soviet Experiment, Lewis was nonetheless firmly rooted in American soil,” Wixson writes. “Communism in the early 1930s offered disillusioned workers like Lewis, stranded by the Depression, a belief to hold on to, a program of social change, a promise of heaven on earth, or at least a better hand than most Los Angeles flophouse occupants and Missouri gumbo farmhands had been dealt.” In his 1935 book The Road to Utterly, the poet outlines imagined utopian community:
Course that blindly forward wends,
While another Hope impends,
Through the worst to be;
Trending as a river trends,
Even with the backward bends,
Toward the sea;
Till the profit-system ends,—
That’s the road to Utterly.
As editor of the Rebel Poet and The Anvil, Jack Conroy praised the gumbo lyricist: “Lewis restores poetry to some of its ancient uses, for the wandering troubadour sang not to literary critics, not to collectors of first and limited editions, but to the common folk, to the great unwashed and underfed.”
But not everyone loved Harold, and our Cape Girardeau farmer was not afraid of a flame war. In a spat with the Partisan Review, Lewis was called “a necrophilic son of a cretin.” In return, Lewis called the New York critics, editors, and publishers on the Eastern seaboard a “Kaffee Klatsch Klan”— coffee house snobs who conspired to stunt his artistic reach.
When a review of Lewis’s booklet collections was rejected by The New Republic, Lewis wrote a brisling reply to editor Malcolm Cowley:
I have you in a well-bulwarked jam about this and I know it hurts, Comrade Recent, expatriate from Paris, middleclass snob, Sacred Cow-ley of Rappism [referring to the defunct Soviet Revolutionary Association of Proletarian Writers], you are hereby rendered into hamburger.
Cowley wasn’t offended, and later recommended Lewis for a Guggenheim which the gumbo poet never received.
Mike Gold of New Masses was very annoyed with Lewis, and came to believe he was as backward as the Missouri farmers he was surrounded by. Philip Rahv and William Phillips, editors of the Partisan Review, dismissed Lewis as a renegade from the Stalinist party line. As the 1930s progressed, many midwestern writers “west of the Hudson” were excluded from the proletarian literary scene by Rahv and Philips—who, according to Wixson, wanted to “cozy up with Communist Party cultural commissars, ignoring their Western literary comrades.”
William Carlos Williams was caught in the middle, but had gained enough recognition to rise above much of it, and stuck by his friend. In the summer of 1935, Lewis visited his poet friend: “I saw Williams in his home, and he admits that in praising my work he contradicted a lifetime of poetic practice and poetic criticism… So it is no wonder that the Kaffee Klatsch Klan was outraged at his ‘betrayal’ of the ‘intellectuals.’ Too damn bad that he had manifested his interest in Marxism by praising the Marxian effusions of a farmhand rather than those of some Eliotphile decadent recommended by the Klan.”
The FBI and the Black Dragon Conspiracy
Oh how can I struggle
And win through strife,
Looking up a mule’s pratt
All my life?
—from “Poof, No Chance to be President”
By the early 1940s, most of the left literary publishers of proletarian literature had folded. The Communist Party engineered a coup against The Anvil, which was absorbed by the Partisan Review, which in-turn transformed “into an organ of modernist high culture at the expense of other literary schools, most notably realism and naturalism,” writes historian Alan Wald in New York Intellectuals.
Worker-writers like Lewis became liabilities for a new formation of cultural and intellectual elites located in the universities and on editorial boards of magazines like the Kenyon Review. The only means of support for many left writers became WPA programs or Guggenheim Grants. “To reflect the verse, the attitudes, and problems of the farmers of Southern and Southwestern United States,” read the thesis of Lewis’ grant proposal.
In 1942, after three failed Guggenheim applications, and a sharecroppers strike roiling in Southeast Missouri, Lewis believed the Guggenheim decision makers had it out for him. He traveled to New York City armed with an enormous sheaf of poems—songs, ballads, free verse narratives, and prose rhythms. It was his last shot to convince the gatekeepers to support his cause. His subjects covered “every conceivable phase of the life of the underprivileged in his part of America,” Alfred Kreymborg wrote in New Masses. Lewis would later conclude that the “FBI or CP or Black Dragon, one or more,” surveilled him during this trip.
In New York, Lewis was received well by some, but his temperament had burned bridges with editors like Mike Gold, and the shifting political winds of literature in America rebuffed proletarian writing outright. With a fully primed victim complex, Lewis headed back to the farm.
“They’ll always attack your verse,” Williams wrote to Lewis in August 1943, trying to console his friend. “Let ‘em do it—and keep on writing.” Williams himself was experiencing wartime problems. “They tell me it’s due to a paper shortage,” Williams wrote of his rejections from publishers, “while more paper is wasted for asinine purposes than there is piss in an army latrine.” The dominance of the New Criticism would cause Williams’ contributions to American literature to be long-delayed, and it was much worse for less-famous proletarian writers like Conroy and Lewis.
Conroy ended up gang leader of the “Fallonites” in East St. Louis for a period, and instead of devoting his energy and talent to poetry, around the end of the Second World War, Lewis cracked up: “Behind all this there is perhaps the most luridly unheard-of spy-thriller of the present war,” Lewis wrote to Special Agent G. B. Norris of the FBI office in St. Louis.
The Oka Conspiracy
Lewis’ conspiracy letters to Agent Norris, Congressmen Orville Zimmerman of Missouri’s tenth district, and J. Edgar Hoover, are hard to follow. Here’s the summary:
The Pacific Movement of the Eastern World (PMEW) was a 1930s pro-Japanese movement of African Americans which promoted the idea that Japan was the champion-protector of all non-white peoples. The PMEW’s primary practitioner, Dr. Ashima Takis, also claimed to be a member of the ultra-nationalist Black Dragon Society—a clandestine paramilitary group that secretly controlled all of politics in Japan.
Dr. Takis became known in St. Louis for organizing poor African American communities using anti-white sentiment, arguing that Black Americans suffering in the Great Depression, oppressed by Jim Crow, to rise up against their white oppressors. Dr. Takis traveled all over to Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and New York, collecting pseudonyms for himself and membership fees in the PMEW. These fees would support Japanese soldiers, guarantee safety during the coming invasion, and maybe even provide a route to Japanese immigration. The Pacific Movement promised an end to hegemonic white supremacy, and there was plenty of discontentment to exploit.
Dr. Takis’ real name was Policarpio Manansala. He was Filipino, not Japanese, and he was a conman who skipped town on the Pacific Movement to sell spices as a traveling businessman. He was arrested for forging a money order in 1942 posing as Mimo de Guzman, one of his many pseudonyms. H. H. Lewis believed that Takis had another identity—a fellow communist in the literary scene named Sachio Oka.
Lewis and Oka were supposed to be friends. In 1934, Oka had translated into English an essay entitled “H. H. Lewis, the American Satirist Poet” authored by Japanese proletarian writer Masaki Ideka for the magazine Shi-Seishin. In 1942, Lewis came to believe that Oka was privy to Pearl Harbor information before it happened, and that Oka wrote to him in code about it, and so Lewis concluded that Oka was secretly Dr. Takis.
The St. Louis FBI office disagreed: “Prior to the apprehension of DeGuzman, his whereabouts was known to this Bureau, during which time he was under surveillance by our Agents.” He’s not that guy, he’s this guy, and we got him.
Lewis’ letters show a lot of signs of paranoid, disorganized thinking. He believed Takis had pulled off a big dodge, and that he had arranged a “surgical change of face” to pull off the deception. Oka’s letters to Lewis express deep frustration, as well as a plausible cause for this misunderstanding. Lewis’ primary evidence against Oka seemed to be that a mutual friend, Pete Chaunt, probably got Oka’s name mixed up with another Asian man in Chicago named Takano, which Lewis misheard as Takis.
The root cause of all this was probably oriental racism in the end, but Lewis continued to look for clues, and was driven to very risky behavior—calling for the official attention of both the American Communist Party and the FBI. Lewis took extra measures to ensure his letters to Congressman Zimmerman and Hoover were specially sealed, because Lewis believed someone was tampering with his mail. Someone was: The FBI.
It’s worth noting that Oka, an American Communist Party member who’d fled fascist Japan, was cleared of suspicion. In 1942, the Black Dragons appeared as villains in DC Comic books and as conspiratorial antagonists in two Sam Katzman films. And Lewis’ friends did not take this conspiracy seriously—“I doubt,” Jack Conroy wrote to Lewis in 1945, after hearing quite a lot about this Oka, “if the [Communist Party of America] will relish or credit your charges. Not only that, but many of the FBI agents are still more zealous in hunting down ‘red’ than Axis agents… There is almost sure to be a duplication of the Palmer Raids after the war is over. If you’re on the list, you’ll be one of the victims.”
Later, FBI agents visited Conroy and Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps when they were working for the Illinois Writers Project. Agents interviewed them about possible Black Dragon connections to the Nation of Islam. Both writers had no idea what the cops were talking about, but these fears illustrate an interesting early-Cold War paranoia. As Wixson puts it, “In a broader sense, Lewis’s story reflects events of greater consequence unfolding in a society when artists, writers, film directors, and actors were intimidated, mentally tortured by agents and agencies of the government, on evidence that no just court would admit.”
Uncashed Checks in the Corncrib
Douglas Wixson interviewed H. H. Lewis just before his death in 1985. The old rebel poet was living in a converted corncrib (a ventilated building used for storing ears of corn) outside of Cape Girardeau. There, Lewis confided in Wixson that “agents” had welded an automobile to stilts outside his window so that its headlights shone directly in upon his bed at night.
Wixson described Lewis in his old age as a man of great personal dignity, erect bearing, and old-fashioned courtesy. The poet was living in poverty more by choice than necessity. “Tell Jack I’m a wealthy man!” Lewis exclaimed, showing Wixson a coffee-stained check for $1,500 from Yale University in exchange for letters he had received from Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson. Lewis left the archive proceeds uncashed, lying in a pile of newspapers.
“It is likely that the Japanese espionage plot that Lewis had fantasized was bound up with the question of literary recognition,” Wixson theorized. “Lacking what he sought, Lewis felt abandoned and turned his disappointment to a paranoiac response directed at the FBI (who actually was harassing him) and alleged plots against the United States in World War II by the Black Dragons.” In his better days, Lewis wrote anti-racist poetry. Not to forgive a white man of the 1930s too much, but it was probably the surveillance combined with isolation and paranoia that nurtured the Oka fantasy.
Lewis was the son of a boot-heel farmer—the kind of people who were not often given a voice in literature. He and his family were caught up in changes brought about by mechanization, falling farm prices, and debt. Lewis was tired of “looking up a mule’s pratt,” and of the dung on his overalls, and yet he was attached to the home of his parents, and continued to help on the farm when his brother took over. Alienated and lonely, Harold Lewis searched for a secular faith in a fallen world where communism offered the promise of a better system.
As Douglas Wixson points out, the ideological sources of the midwestern literary radicals are woefully under-studied, out of print, nearly forgotten, but not gone yet. They derived their artistic-political formations from indigenous traditions of protest, expressed in earlier manifestations such as the Farmers’ Alliance, the People’s Party, the Non-Partisan League, the IWW, certain unions, and the various infusions of immigrant liberalism such as the free-thinking Forty-Eighters.
A rapidly changing literary economy in the 1930s, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and our limited willingness to look back on the Great Depression has resulted in many forgotten leftist artists, but the tracks are still there. Scholars like Wixson carried on the torch. Maybe there’s a treasure trove of exactly what we need to hear buried in the Midwestern university archives, just like Lewis’ papers.