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Remembering Nora Sayre

John J. Simon, has been a book editor and a broadcaster. He is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

What follows is a chapter from Nora Sayre’s Running Time: Films of The Cold War (The Dial Press, 1982). We reprint it here not only to mark the untimely death of its author on August 8, but because it is a good example of a kind of radical cultural analysis distinguished by incisiveness as well as clarity, and, unfortunately, not often seen. In this selection, Sayre not only provides a critical examination of films that resisted the post-blacklist conformity of Hollywood, but she places them in the context of both larger social and historical forces, and the evolving corporate pressures of the movie business.

Nora Sayre began her writing career with a conventional interest in literature and drama. So it was a fortunate accident that she was able to spend several years in London following her 1954 graduation from Radcliffe College. Those were gray years in the United States, especially for one who had a keen and critical curiosity, not only about the dominant culture—which would inform her most important work––but, ultimately, about large questions bearing on the state of the world. Then, as now in this country, the prevailing view of intellectual “realists” was that the great social and historical questions had been answered. Beyond a bit of tinkering around the edges, we were assured, the task of writers, scholars, and journalists, was to celebrate the perfected reality in which they lived. Of course, Monthly Review was not part of the consensus and, as Sayre would discover, neither were large numbers of others, especially abroad, who dissented from what the Cold Warrior/historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. called “the vital center.” In London, Sayre observed (and was influenced by) the first currents of what became a thoroughgoing break with the staid, hypocritical institutions of English capitalist society—the original use of the term “Establishment”—in the work of the “angry” playwrights: John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, and the novelists Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain, and Alan Sillitoe. Earning a living as a freelance writer, she wrote for the (then left-wing) New Statesman and BBC radio about these new insurgencies at the same time as she tried to make sense of American culture for a foreign audience.

Nora Sayre also joined the mass protests against the British invasion of Suez and the direct action movements protesting nuclear weapons; along the way she got to know the emerging radicals of the early New Left and, most importantly for her later work, the blacklisted Hollywood exiles living in London. It was with both groups that she honed her radicalism, which was not simply civil libertarian dissent, but evolved into a scrupulous and unflinching probing of the tools of corporate cultural manipulation. Sayre has written both a history of that time, Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s (Rutgers University Press, 1995) and a memoir, On The Wing: A Young American Abroad (Counterpoint, 2001). Both books are admirable for their wit and insight about the repressive decades of the forties and fifties. But what makes them special is that they are free from a hand-wringing sense of victimization all too common in the fifties. Instead, Sayre explains that it was support of trade unionism, civil rights, anti-fascism, and, above all the effort to defend the coalition of liberals, communists, socialists, and other radicals that caused them to be targeted by the witch-hunters. What Sayre admired was not some vague nobility that she found among the London exiles, but their unshrinking and ongoing commitment to radical goals.

At the beginning of the sixties, Sayre returned to New York as U.S. correspondent for the New Statesman, and later even did a stint as a daily film reviewer for the New York Times. But, mostly, she made her way as cultural critic and historian, writing and reviewing for many publications. She produced, in addition to Running Time and the two volumes already mentioned, an informal history of her own tumultuous times, Sixties Going On Seventies (Rutgers University Press, 1995). In a busy writing career that lasted until the month before she died (reviewing a book on the Hollywood studio unions’ battles of the forties), Sayre saw her task, as she put it, to force her readers to understand that “the state of their nation was their business.” She was a reader and admirer of Monthly Review and a good friend of many in the MR family. All of us will miss her.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 05 (October)
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