The Blacklisting of Halldór Laxness
By Chay Lemoine
Icelandic Nobel Prize winning writer Halldór Laxness was blacklisted by the policies of the United States government using the same fear and intimidation that threatened to ruin the careers of Hollywood screenwriters such as Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Jr. and American Novelist Howard Fast. Recently declassified FBI documents show that J. Edgar Hoover and the State Department of the United States government authorized an investigation of Halldór Laxness which resulted in publishers refusing to publish the works of the Icelandic writer. These investigations and later inquires were also aimed at ruining the reputation of the writer in the eyes of the reading public both in Iceland and in the United States. The United States State Department ruined the literary career in English of Halldór Laxness during the late forties and early fifties and prevented him from having continued success in the United States.
Independent People has been acknowledged as one of the great novels of the twentieth century. In celebration of its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2002, World Literature Today, a respected literary journal published at the University of Oklahoma, selected a list of the forty most important novels of the last seventy-five years. Independent People is on that list as well as numerous other lists compiled by academic organizations, respected magazines and newspapers. When the novel was resurrected in English through the efforts of novelist and academic Brad Leithauser it had been out of print for almost fifty years. Vintage International’s reissue of the English translation in January 1997 sold well which resulted in the reissuing in English of six Laxness novels that were previously in translation but were also out of print.
When Independent People was published in English in the United States in 1946, the book was a major best-seller. It was a book-of-the-month selection selling nearly 450,000 copies. Certainly Laxness’ publishers would be looking for a way to quickly follow up with another book now that the American reading public had an interest in the new writer. Salka Valka had been translated by F. H. Lyon and published in England in 1936. There could have been a quick reissue of this novel until translators could complete work on World Light or Iceland’s Bell, two Laxness novels that had already been published in his native Iceland. There was no follow up to Independent People. Even after Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 Independent People was not reissued even in a limited edition.
In a front-page article in the New York Times, on Friday, October 28th, 1955, it was announced that Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness had won the highest literary honor in the world. The article focused most of its comments not on Laxness’ literary merits but on his past political associations. He was portrayed as rich, hypocritical, anti-American, and leftist. The article states “informed sources said the Swedish Academy, some of whose members disapprove of Mr. Laxness’ political views, decided to award him the prize this year only because of the relaxation of East-West tensions.” When Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in Oct 24 1958, The New York Times headline read “Nonconformist Russian”. The fact that Pasternak’s novels were not allowed to be published in his native communist Russia contributed to the glowing account of his life. The article placed Pasternak in a pastoral setting, “spade in hand, digging in his vegetable garden of an early spring morning or pruning his fruit trees in an October afternoon.” He was described as living in “a quiet two-story wooden house.”
The New York Times could have saved its venom. By 1955 Halldór Laxness did not have a literary career in the English. J. Edgar Hoover, infamous Director of the FBI, had personally directed an investigation of Laxness that included surveillance in Iceland by the Icelandic embassy. The concern was that the monies Laxness received from the sale of Independent People were funding Communist Party activities in Iceland.
In a recently declassified top secret memo dated Sept 19 1947 with the subject line “Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Special Inquiry, State Department” Hoover instructs the Special Agent In Charge of the New York Office to “endeavor to discreetly ascertain the amount of money Laxness has received from the sale of his book in this country through the Book-of-the Month club. This information should be furnished to the Bureau promptly.” The New York Bureau worked quickly and in a memo to Hoover dated September 25 1947 details were given about the financial arrangements made between the Book-of-the-Month club and Alfred A. Knopf Publishers. The director of operations of the Book-of-the-Month club provided the bureau with the details.
Initially the bureau did not approach the officials of Alfred A. Knopf Publishers because Hoover had explicitly used the word “discreet.” The September 25 memo states that “since Knopf is the publishers of the work of Philip J. Jaffe, subject of Bureau case entitled “Philip J. Jaffe, et al, Espionage. In the course of this investigation it was noted that Jaffe was on extremely friendly terms with officials of the Alfred Knopf Company.” Jaffe was key player in the Amerasia spy case in which he was accused of obtaining over 1,700 top secret documents from a State Department employee. Not only were Knopf officials deemed untrustworthy but it was felt that even the Treasury Department of the United States could not be trusted to act discreetly in this top secret operation. The memo states “it was not deemed advisable to direct a letter to the Treasury Department for the above information in view of the apparent discreetness of the investigation requested by the State Department.” Of course word was out that Halldór Laxness was being investigated by the FBI and was a known communist. Laxness’ publisher did not reissue or translate any of Laxness’ previous works to follow the success of Independent People.
In order to assure that future novels written by Laxness had no chance of publication in the United States, the Icelandic Embassy fanned the fire and sent a “Confidential” or top secret telegram on Feb 22 1948 to the Secretary of State of the United States warning that the Laxness’ novel The Atom Station was set for release. “Legation informed it is bitterly anti-American in tone and advances thesis that ICE faces destructions in aggressive war US now planning…” Lest there was any doubt as to the motive of those who sought information the memo further states “Consider Laxness’s prestige would suffer materially if we let it be known that is income tax evader”.
The investigation continued and at this point it was decided that the Treasury Department could be trusted after all. In Mar 16 1948 Joseph Gorrell Chief of the Withholding Returns Section of the Bureau of Internal Revenue gave a report on Laxness’ tax status. In Mar 18 1948 the State Department warned the Icelandic embassy that “It should be noted that it is understood from the Bureau of Internal Revenue that any action the Bureau may take on the basis of tax delinquency in this case would very likely involve the publishing company and agents in the United States rather than Laxness.”
This warning by the State Department did not stop the American Embassy in Icelandic from following the movements of Laxness both in Iceland and outside the country and reporting these movements to the State Department. In a recently declassified top secret “airgram” dated Nov 5 48 it is reported to the State Department that “ Halldór Kiljan Lanxess has left Iceland for the winter and has lately been visiting France. He is believed to be in Italy. It expected that he will get in touch with Communist leaders in the countries through which he travels and will write articles for publication in Iceland and abroad.”
The House Un-American Activities Committee had begun its witch hunt in 1947 around the time of Laxness’ investigations. American writers during the late forties and early fifties who were considered leftist or had in any way supported the Communist party were not only blacklisted they were often jailed for refusing to name names before Congressional committees. Successful Novelist Howard Fast was jailed for three months in 1950 for refusing to give a list of donors that contributed to a hospital built for refugees of the Anti-Franco war. When Fast was released from prison he wrote an historical novel that his publisher Little Brown planned to publish. Pressure from the United States government forced them to reject the book. No other publisher would handle the novel so Fast published it himself. Spartacus because a huge success and a movie based on the novel was also successful.
If the American publishers were attempting to wait out the controversy before publishing more of Laxness’ novels, the jailing of Howard Fast in 1950, the McCarthy era, and the blacklisting of American screen writers were all factors preventing Halldór Laxness’ works from being safely published in English. American publishers had begun policing themselves and in order to avoid a confrontation with the US State Department and the US Congress they quietly allowed politics to determine what would be sold to the American reading public. The fact that Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 did little to interest American publishers.
After Congress officially censured Joseph McCarthy in 1954 the insanity of the period began to subside. Giving McCarthy full credit for the travesty of the “red scare” may be giving to much credit to a sad alcoholic who used immoral tactics to further his career. The evil of the “red scare” was fed and nurtured by the American people and the popular culture of the time. McCarthy died in 1957 but his death did not end this especially horrific chapter in American history. The American press still felt the need to persecute when Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. It would take several years to wean them off the “red scare mentality”.
In England publishers were influenced by the prejudices of the United States but they were the first to begin publishing Laxness’ books in translation starting in the late fifties. In 1958 The Happy Warrior was published in a limited edition in England. An English translation of The Atom Station was also published in England in 1961. The Atom Station was not published in the United States until 1982 by Second Chance Press, a small independent press in Sag Harbor, NY. Laxness began to see his books published in the United States in the early sixties. Paradise Reclaimed was published in 1962, The Fish Can Sing in 1966 and World Light in 1969. All of the novels with the exception of The Happy Warrior were translated by British television personality Magnus Magnusson. The books were not best sellers and were published by small presses or University press publishers. There was no mention of political controversies on the dust jackets.
In the late fifties and the early sixties Laxness and Iceland were comfortably and securely confirmed socialists and there was little threat of the country reverting to Soviet communism. There was little threat of that happening when Laxness was being investigated as confirmed by a declassified top secret CIA document. The document dated Oct 18 49 and declassified in Jan 23 78 titled “Current Situation in Iceland” states “The Communist Party, as such, is no longer an important factor in Icelandic politics. It can no longer make or unmake a government; it will lose votes in the coming election, possibly two out of its ten seats, and its chances of participating in the new government are nil.” Laxness visited the United States in Sept 13 59 and a memo was sent by the Special Agent in Charge in New York to J. Edgar Hoover telling of his arrival and that he was staying at the Barclay Hotel in New York. It is the last top secret document in the FBI/Halldór Laxness files. J. Edgar Hoover was now losing interest in the Icelandic writer.
For over fifty years Laxness’ voice was silenced in English. In 1997 Brad Leithauser wrote A Small Country’s Great Book for the New York Times Review of Books which resulted in the reissuing of the epic novel Independent People. As a result of that article and the surprisingly brisk books sales Laxness rose like a phoenix from obscurity to become recognized as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. In 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down and in 1991 the Soviet Union fell. Six years later a novel that had been accused during the 50’s of being a socialist diatribe written by a “commie sympathizer” would once again capture the imagination of the American reading public. Today Laxness is acknowledged as deserving of the greatest literary prize. There is little chance that his books will be out of print in English once again and he has entered the International literary canon. English speaking readers and academics have accepted Halldór Laxness.
Halldór Laxness died in 1998 just one year after the reissuing of Independent People by Vintage International. He was 96 years old and had been suffering from dementia for several years. He may have had some realization that his book was going to once again be offered in English in the United States but he died before the full implication of its reemergence became clear. It is important that we acknowledge Halldór Laxness as one of the blacklisted artists of the period. He was not a novelist whose great work was lost because of a fickle and disinterested public, poor marketing by his publisher or because of some literary anomaly. Halldór Laxness and his great epic novel Independent People were victims of political persecution which resulted in the destruction of a world writer’s reputation. Generations of English readers were unable to experience one of the greatest novels ever written.
Chay Lemoine is a Laxness scholar currently living Edwardsville, IL. Chay has written articles on Halldór Laxness for Icelandic publications Mannlif, Grapevine and Logberg Heimskringla. This article originally appeared in The Icelandic Connection, and is used by permission of the author.