Culture

Remembering the Great Essayist and Activist Clancy Sigal

The best way to celebrate his life is to read his books and to organize resistance to Trump.

Clancy Sigal
Photo Credit: Screenshot / YouTube

Writer Clancy Sigal died Monday night at 90.

At any given time, I have 10 to 12 paperback copies of his autobiographical novel Going Away on my bookshelf at home. Whenever I go to a used bookstore, the first thing I do is look for more copies of that novel. I am not a hoarder; I give the books away to friends. I want everyone to read Going Away. This fictional memoir of Sigal's life as a former union organizer was transformational for me and for many others.

The novel describes a cross-country road trip that Sigal, then a 29-year-old blacklisted Hollywood agent, embarked on in 1956 to visit old friends, and some old enemies, many of them victimized by McCarthyism. Some of his old friends left their leftism behind, but Sigal remained a radical, unwilling to give up hope. In collecting and telling the stories of his comrades, old girlfriends and new acquaintances, Sigal captured the spirit of the era, much more so than Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, to which Going Away (which was nominated for a National Book Award) is often compared.

Going Away is a soul-searching memoir filled with fascinating characters. Those familiar with the post-war American left will recognize some of them, including the thinly disguised battles between socialist Walter Reuther and the Communists within the United Auto Workers, but most of the people Clancy portrays are not well-known figures. In Going Away, Sigal also chronicles the battles over racism at a time when the modern civil rights movement was just getting started.

Even during that dark time in our nation’s history, he refuses to give in to cynicism, even while recognizing the terrible toll that the Red Scare took on America’s politics and culture.

His view of America is hardly romantic and he is not uncritical of the blind spots of his left-wing friends, but his love of life, fighting spirit, and sense of adventure make it impossible for him to sink into despair, even as he gets ready to escape to England, where he would live for the next several decades.

The novel became something of a cult favorite among the baby-boom generation of radicals in the 1960s and '70s, but it has remained in print and popular among subsequent generations, too. And rightly so.

If Going Away, published in 1961, was the only thing Clancy ever wrote, it would have been enough. But in fact he was a prolific writer of fiction, memoirs, biography, film and literary criticism, and political observation. He was still writing up to his death. 

After moving to Los Angeles in 1993, I was fortunate to meet Clancy a few times, but mostly we corresponded by email and via Facebook. He was warm, funny and always outraged, but always with a twinkle of sarcasm.

After reading Going Away, I quickly got my hands on Weekend in Dinlock, his earlier (1960) novel about the brutal lives of miners in a British town, which has much in common with Orwell’s earlier nonfiction account, Road to Wigan Pier. Like Orwell, Sigal goes down into the mine to describe the dangerous, life-sucking conditions the workers face on a daily basis. But most of the novel is about their lives in the village, their families, their hopes and dreams, their union, and the price they pay (pain, fatigue, injury, lung disease) for doing the work that provides England with heat and electricity. It is particularly relevant today, when Donald Trump is making false promises about reviving America’s coal industry, while simultaneously gutting the health and safety regulations that the American mine workers union fought hard for.

Two other autobiographical novels — Zone of the Interior, published in 1976 (about his involvement in a British therapeutic cult led by psychologist R.D. Laing in the 1960s) and The Secret Defector, published in 1992 (about his relationship with writer Doris Lessing and with the British left, and his return to the U.S. in the 1980s) — portray his life as an ex-pat American living in England. (In The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, Lessing had already used a fictionalized version of Clancy as her love interest Saul Green).

I loved Clancy’s 2006 memoir/biography A Woman of Uncertain Character, about his mother Jenny, a bohemian and union organizer in Chicago, where Sigal was raised during the Depression. 

In Hemingway Lives!, a work of biography and literary criticism (2013), Sigal celebrated the novelist’s no-frills writing style and his political activism. I was never a Hemingway fan, but Sigal’s book made me rethink my attitude.

Clancy’s final book, published last year, was Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos, a nonfiction memoir of his life as a Hollywood agent in the 1950s, a period that is considered the film industry’s Golden Age, but which also was the time of McCarthyism, the blacklist and the fear of atomic bomb testing and nuclear war. It is filled with great stories about famous actors and actresses and unsung heroes.

Last December, soon after the book came out, Clancy emailed me to ask me to read it, and if I was so inclined, to recommend it to others. He wrote: “My latest...is a lighthearted romp through a very bad time in the Hollywood I worked in when I was, of all things, a talent agent (for Humphrey Bogart among others). I’d been blacklisted but fell through the cracks/ Sweating it out making deals in the boiler room of the Dream Factory while at night organizing a small group of dissident oddballs ‘fighting the power’ of McCarthyism and the real threat of another world war. An American history lesson I hope easy to take. How to keep good people together in a bad time suddenly takes on more significance."

In between these books, Clancy — who returned to live in the U.S. in the 1980s, settling back in LA, and teaching at UC-Santa Barbara and USC — wrote and published hundreds of essays about politics, films and American culture (for a variety of leftist and mainstream British and American magazines) as well as several screenplays, including a biopic about artist Frieda Kahlo.

In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Clancy wrote a poignant essay for the Guardian about his participation in that history-making event. Just a few weeks ago, Clancy, who was a World War II veteran, published an essay, "Memorial Day: Remembering 70 U.S. Wars, Big and Small," about American militarism and how wars have been portrayed in Hollywood films.

Ironically, this American ex-pat was probably better known in England than in his native country. During his years in England, Clancy was a frequent voice on the BBC discussing books, films and politics. To gain an equivalent kind of celebrity or notoriety in this country, he would have had to be a regular commentator on NPR or MSNBC. But he still had many American fans who read his books and articles and marveled at his wide-ranging interests, his brilliant writing and his perpetual outrage at social injustice.

There will be various obituaries and perhaps memorials about Clancy, but I think the best way to celebrate his life is to organize resistance to Trump and to read his books and other writings. I have extra copies of Going Away if you can’t find a copy in your local used bookstore or on Amazon.

Read AlterNet's archive of Clancy Sigal stories

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).