Edward Anderson: Depression Blues

Though few would write so movingly about the Depression, Edward Anderson, the author of Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us, received neither the recognition nor the financial reward he deserved. Part black-Irish and part-Cherokee, Anderson was born in 1905 in Weatherford, Texas. Leaving school at an early age, he became a printer’s apprentice—his father’s trade—then a cub reporter for an Ardmore, Oklahoma newspaper. Within a few years Anderson worked on more than ten newspapers—“Legalized prostitution,” he would call it—within the Oklahoma-Texas area. When he tired of journalism, Anderson found occasional employment as a trombone player.

Trim and muscular Anderson had high Indian cheekbones and dark hair. Like that other hobo-writer, Jim Tully, Anderson was, for a short time, a boxer with at least one professional bout under his belt. At twenty-five, he quit his job as a Houston copy editor to fulfill his dream of joining expatriate American writers in Europe. Shipping out on a freighter from New Orleans, he arrived to find the Lost Generation were mostly on their way back to America.

Edward Anderson

Edward Anderson

He returned to the States to find the Depression in full swing. Unable to find employment, Anderson began a two year odyssey, riding freights, sleeping in parks, asking for handouts and working as an itinerant odd-jobber. Back in Abilene, he wrote a story entitled “The Guy in a Blue Overcoat” about a 23 year-old hobo, and met John H. Knox, the son of a preacher who wrote poetry and sold stories to the pulps at a rate of two cents a word. Knox, whose family residence housed Abilene’s largest personal library, introduced Anderson to the world of books. Prior to acquainting himself with Knox’s library, Anderson’s reading had been confined to Tully and Jack London; now he was reading Knut Hamsun, Gorky and Marx. It was Anderson’s desire to write about the lives of hoboes, but the pulps were after stories about detectives, cowboys and athletes. Either the pulps thought it wrong to give hoboes a status beyond their worth, or they thought readers wanted to escape from a society that produced hoboes. Consequently, Anderson’s first published effort for a pulp magazine would be a boxing story.

In 1934, after finding employment as a printer, he met federal employee Polly Anne Bates. Though interested in the arts, Anne came from a family of law enforcers. Her uncle was Gus T. Jones, an FBI agent who helped hunt down Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Butch Cassidy. Anne’s father, despite his hatred for J. Edgar Hoover, also worked for the FBI. Edward and Anne married in August, and moved to New Orleans where Anderson worked for yet another local newspaper where Anderson would rifle through the paper’s files in search of material. Meanwhile, Anne looked after their new born daughter and made occasional trips to the police station to gather information that went into stories Edward was writing in the evenings for magazines like True Detective and Murder Stories. Soon he was selling articles with titles like “Uncovering the Vice Cesspool in New Orleans: The Shameful Facts Behind the War between T. Semmes (Turkeyhead) Walmsely and Huey (Kingfish) Long”; “Tough Guy! The Career of Dutch Gardner”; and “The Kiss of Death and New Orleans’ Diamond Queen.” An article for True Detective about Henry Meyer, the official state hangman was returned saying it might work better as a short-story. The article became “The Hangman,” which marked the start of Anderson’s career as a fiction writer. In an era of proletariat fiction, Anderson’s portrait of life on the road impressed White Burnett and Martha Foley at Story magazine enough to give him $1,000 and a Doubleday/Literary Guild book contract.

Moving to another apartment—Anne was pregnant again—Anderson, over the following seven months, put the finishing touches to Hungry Men. Written in a calm, observational style, its energy and emotional impact overshadowed any stylistic deficiencies. Less a novel than a series of vignettes strung together through its main character, the book sold moderately well, and was praised by Raymond Chandler as well as the New Republic who cited the book’s “firm quiet realism.” Most critics ignored it, and those who did review it thought Anderson was another writer chronicling the Depression, such as the British reviewer who said, “[Anderson’s] style, the extreme nakedness of presentation, the slang, ‘like an animal talking,’ owes everything to Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”

Derivative it might have been, but Hungry Men was less influenced by Hemingway than by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, a Nobel Prize winner who, unfortunately, wound up publicly defending Hitler and the Nazi’s occupation of his country. Like his predecessor, Anderson would also find himself in murky political waters, though this would not become immediately apparent. At the time, Hungry Men, which follows protagonist Acel Stecker as he goes from freight trains to breadlines, from hobo jungles and Hoovervilles to political demonstrations, fit in perfectly with New Deal politics, while rejecting the need for social revolution.

At the time of publication, the novel’s most severe critic turned out to be hobo and author of Waiting For Nothing, Tom Kromer. He attacked Anderson’s novel for its politics and lack of realism. Published two years before Hungry Men, Kromer’s Waiting For Nothing was considerably more revolutionary in tone and outlook. According to Kromer, Anderson’s view of “life on the stem” was too sunny and romantic. So perturbed was Kromer that, in an October, 1936, issue of Pacific Weekly he published a piece which purposely appropriated the title of Anderson’s novel. In three pages of newsprint, Kromer rewrote Anderson’s novel. Covering the same time-span, Kromer, in his hard-bitten approach, rejects Anderson’s ending in which Acel and his small band of musicians, having refused to play the Internationale, decide to call themselves “The Three Americans” and learn to play patriotic and off-color ditties. Instead, Kromer depicts a hundred flophouse stiffs joining locked-out motormen in the streets during the 1934 Los Angeles Yellow Car strike. Kromer was particularly annoyed by the way Anderson sought to sanitize and depoliticize the hobo. In his review, he wrote, “You’ll see no Jesus Christ looks in the eyes of Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men, no working stiffs dying of malnutrition on lice-infested blankets of three-decker bunks in the missions, no soup-lines that stretch for blocks in the city streets and never start moving. In a word, you find no Hungry Men.”

On the other hand, Louis L’Amor, at the time another gentleman writer of the road, and not yet Ronald Reagan’s favorite author, praised Anderson’s Hungry Men, saying, “It seems highly improbable that a revolution will take place in this country at the present time… although the subject is interesting… one wonders what will become of a country where young men such as Stecker are forced to wander helplessly, driven by the police, in fear of chain gangs, and out of work through the force of economic changes over which they have no control.” While it’s impossible to ignore Hungry Men’s sense of social justice, it’s apparent that Anderson believed rugged individualism and a benevolent state could combine to defeat Depression poverty. Finding Anderson’s perspective politically naive, Kromer offered the opinion that the former would appeal only to those who’ve been conned by the system: “If you have read all the Horatio Alger novels and would like to get the same story with a depression slant, you will not be able to put it down.”

With the money he received from Burnett and Foley, the Andersons purchased a car and drove to Kerrville, Texas, where they rented a cabin. Situated a thousand feet above Huntsville, Kerrville was famous for sunlight and Guadaloupe water, supposedly beneficial for those recovering from tuberculosis. It was in Kerrville that Anderson would write his second novel, Thieves Like Us.

This time Anderson based his characters on the exploits of real criminals: Bonnie and Clyde, recently gunned down in Athens, Louisiana, not far from Anderson’s home town; John Dillinger who had just been killed outside the Biograph in Chicago; and bank robbers Anderson had interviewed in Huntsville prison, a research expedition that allowed him to record their stories and note their speech patterns and ways of viewing the world. Talking to prisoners had served Anderson well when it came to creating a character like T-Dub, whose manner of speaking—“it’s raining cats and nigger babies”—and perspective came from Anderson’s research. Anderson was now reading Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Zola, Dostoevsky, and James Farrell, and would spend evenings testing dialogue on Anne, asking her what the girl, Keechie, would say in a given situation. The novel’s title derives from a line delivered by T-Dub in which he refers to those in respectable professions—bankers, politicians, police officers—as “just thieves like us.” It’s this perspective, and the portrayal of those drawn by circumstances into illegal activities, that makes Thieves Like Us a classic hardboiled proletariat novel. According to Chandler, the novel was better than Steinbeck, and “one of the best stories of thieves ever written… one of the forgotten novels of the ’30s.” Having ignored Hungry Men, Saturday Review was now calling Anderson “the most exciting new writer to appear in American letters since Hemingway and Faulkner.”

Despite his two novels, Anderson was pretty much broke. After a stint with the Work Projects Association writing about Abilene tourist sites for a Texas guidebook, the Andersons moved to Denver where Edward found work with the Rocky Mountain News and wrote for a local radio show, The Light of the West, dramatizing the region’s historical events. There Anderson received a telegram offering him a screenwriting job in Hollywood. It looked as though Anderson’s fortunes were about to change. He was sure his background as a journalist—writing stories, taking photographs, doing background work, rewriting—would stand him good stead in Hollywood, just as it had the likes of Hecht, Fowler and James M. Cain.

Taking the train west, Anderson and his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once had just been released and crime stories with a social angle were in vogue. An optimistic Anderson installed his family in The Seaforth, an apartment complex on the corner of Clinton and Norton, a few blocks from where the film adaptation of his latest book would eventually be made.

It was Ad Schulberg—the mother of Budd Schulberg—who had sent the telegram. Separated from her husband, B.P. “Ben” Schulberg, Ad had set herself up as a Hollywood agent. Meanwhile, Adolph Zukor had given her husband a budget, the promise of producing eight films a year, and an office off Melrose Avenue. With Ad representing Anderson in negotiations with Paramount, the writer must have thought it odd that, whatever their marital status, a Schulberg sat on each side of the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the deal did not bring Anderson the riches he imagined. Anderson was to be paid $150 a week, not much compared to the $5,200 per week Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were making, but not bad when compared to the $25 a week Anderson had been earning as a journalist.

Installed in William Saroyan’s old office, Anderson started off writing a football movie on which the former had been working, a dreamchild of Paramount story editor and pigskin-obsessive George Auerbach. The problem was, Anderson had no idea how to adapt a story for the screen. Though he embarked on a crash course in the art of writing for the movies, no screen credits would be forthcoming, which meant his chances of advancing in Hollywood remained negligible. Auerbach sympathised, believing Anderson’s problem was that he had come in “through the backdoor,” by which he meant it had been Ad Schulberg who had landed him the job in the first place.

When his contract expired, Anderson moved to Warners. At least it was a studio known for gangster films and a solid roster of writers. On the downside, Jack Warner expected his writers to arrive at 8:30 in the morning and stay until 5:30, work six days a week, and could churn-out twenty to thirty pages a day. Anderson’s first assignments were a series of B features alongside Bryan Foy. Foy was the son of Eddie Foy, Jr., of the Seven Little Foys vaudeville team, and a former gag man for Buster Keaton. Such was Foy’s position that he was referred to as the “keeper of the B’s.” The result of their first effort was Siberia, which was probably where Anderson must have felt he’d been sent. With his career going from bad to worse, Anderson ended up working on a series of Nancy Drew mystery films. Not quite what the writer had in mind when he contemplated a career in Tinseltown. On the other hand, writing Nancy Drew scripts—from 1938–1939 there were four such films, directed by William Clemens and starring Bonita Granville as the teenage detective—wasn’t much different from writing for the pulps.

He quickly grew to detest Hollywood. Ill at ease amongst the rich and famous, he began to drink even more than usual. Despite his good looks and athletic appearance, he didn’t possess the personality necessary to get ahead in Hollywood. Nor did he care for his colleagues or employers. Instead, he gravitated towards hard-drinking ex-newspapermen like Hecht, Fowler and Charles MacArthur. He and Fowler had much in common. Both had arrived in Hollywood from Denver; both were fascinated by boxing; and both were former press agents.

In March, Anderson received notice that the rights to Thieves Like Us had been sold to Rowland Brown for $500: Anderson was to receive $250 on signing the contract and a further $250 thirty days later. Nevertheless, Anderson took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner, only to be fired not long afterwards for making jokes about the so-called international Jewish conspiracy. Indeed, Anderson was becoming increasingly anti-semitic, even attending a Los Angeles American Nazi rally. Not that anti-semitism was uncommon in Hollywood. Myron Brinig’s early apocalyptic Hollywood 1933 roman de clef Flicker of an Eyelid, with its unflattering portrayal of the notorious L.A. poet Jake Zeitlin, was criticized as being anti-semitic. Likewise, Jim Tully’s Hollywood novel Jarnegan portrays Jewish movie moguls in a unflattering manner. Since most Hollywood producers, as well as many of its agents and actors, were Jewish, anyone with a grievance had a ready-made target. This was, of course, helped by the fact that a handful Jewish studio executives—Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer—were themselves borderline anti-semites.

Without a job, and hoping to get out of L.A., Anderson found work on the Sacramento Bee. But Anne had problems living in a house that belonged to a Japanese couple who had been interned at the start of the war. So quickly had they been spirited away that all their belongings remained in the house. It wasn’t long before Anderson quit his job at the Bee to devote more time to writing. While Anne went out to work, Anderson began a novel about the west, Mighty Men of Valor. Then he heard screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) was in the market for a western about Fort Griffin, an old outpost near Abilene where a small war with the Commanches had been fought. But neither Anderson’s novel nor his treatment would come to anything. During this period Anderson produced two other stories, one about Sam Houston, the other about a settler who mistreats his family. Neither sold. Increasingly difficult to live with, Anderson was now drunk most of the time, leading to the couple’s separation. They eventually got back together, divorced, and remarried. When, a few years later, Anderson came down with a bad case of the DT’s, followed by a bout of pneumonia, Anne decided, when he recovered, she would leave for good. Though Anderson tried to quit drinking and joined AA, he was, for Anne, beyond redemption, so she divorced him for a second, and final, time.

Over the years, Anne remained bitter that Edward received only $500 for the film rights to Thieves Like Us. Particularly when she remembered all the lines of Keechie’s that she had edited or, in some instances, composed. Buying the rights was a gamble for Rowland Brown, a director-writer hoping to ease his way back into the frontline. Known for his gangster films and portrayal of underworld figures as representatives of the capitalist ethic, Brown had hit his peak in 1932, directing and writing the underrated but influential Hell’s Highway. As an indication of how fickle Hollywood could be, Brown, three years before securing the rights to Thieves Like Us, had garnered an Academy Award for Angels With Dirty Faces. Yet by 1939, when he purchased Anderson’s novel, he was already yesterday’s movie news.

At least Brown’s script remained true to the spirit of the book, incorporating, as it did, large chunks of its dialogue and observations. If Brown was to fail, he was going to do so without sacrificing his artistic and political integrity. Unfortunately, he immediately had problems with the film, failing in his attempt to cast his friend Joel McCrea as Bowie. When Paramount refused to allow McCrea to do outside work, Brown must have realized his project was going to flounder. In 1941, Brown, his career nearly over—he did go on to receive a story credit for Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential—sold the film rights and script to RKO for $10,000. Not a bad return on his $500 investment. Despite Brown’s track record, RKO wanted another director. Either they considered Brown past his sell-by date, or, having seen his script, and knowing his reputation, they were concerned about the film’s politics. It could be they realized that Brown had no intention of implementing the changes demanded by the Breen Office, or had refused to kowtow to Washington’s insistence that representing judges and prison guards as evil or cynical was counter-productive to the war effort.

At this point, RKO hired Dudley Nichols (Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach) to rewrite the script. In 1944, Brown, for some reason, was rehired. But RKO balked at the director’s suggestion they shoot the film in Mexico. Just when it looked like the studio was about to write-off the project, John Houseman appeared on the scene. Hired as a studio producer, Houseman came out of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and had been involved with films like Citizen Kane and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Houseman would begin his tenure at RKO by resurrecting Thieves Like Us for a young director, Nicholas Ray, who, at the time, was a protege of Houseman’s, and known for his New Deal theatre and radio work. It would be Nicholas Ray’s first film. “I found the book,” said Houseman, “and gave it to Nick to read, and he fell madly in love with it.” To persuade the studio that the film merited resuscitation, Houseman explained to his employers that Ray, who had submitted a 196 page treatment to the studio, had worked with Alan Lomax and the Department of Agriculture and knew the milieu in which the film was set.

Making $300 a week, Ray wanted Robert Mitchum for the part of Chicamaw. Mitchum had read the book and liked it. Moreover, as a child of the Depression, he had first-hand knowledge of boxcars, soup kitchens and Hoovervilles, having even served time on a Georgia chain-gang for vagrancy. However, the studio refused to let their $3,250 per week star take the role. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the studio thought they should keep a tight rein on him. Had Mitchum landed the part, the film’s ambiance would have been decidedly different. Even so, Ray’s casting—Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw, Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie and Farley Granger as Bowie—was nearly perfect.

Though the war was over, Ray’s film was still having problems with the Breen Office as well as with Howard Hughes, who was again head of the studio. Hughes had little interest in the film, while the Breen Office maintained that “one very objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society which justifies the title.” This helps explains the film’s various titles, as well as the contrasting approaches taken by Ray and his producers, and, ultimately, the film’s depoliticalisation.

Originally Ray had wanted to call the film Little Red Wagon. Then Ray, who considered himself a leftist, changed the title to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, so shifting the subtext from a song of experience to one of innocence. Other titles booted around by the studio included The Narrow Road, The Dark Highway, The Twisted Road, Never Let Me Go, and Hold Me Close. Finally, Houseman polled preview spectators: the film would be titled They Live By Night. Though depoliticized, the film still looked as though it would never reach the screen. It was only when Dore Schary, another Hollywood liberal, took over as head of production in 1947 that it was finally given the green light.

Upon completion of the film in 1947, Bantam republished Anderson’s novel under the title Your Red Wagon in a print run of 270,000 copies. However, the author, no longer owning his novel, would receive no money from the film tie-in. Though the film had been ready for release in 1947, thanks to further discussions between the director, Houseman, Schary and Hughes over the title, it would be another two years before the film would hit the screens.

On its release in Spring, 1949, Ray’s movie, rewritten by Red River scenarist Charles Schnee from the director’s adaptation, had little box office impact. Film goers were looking for more urbane material. Even though Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script are prefaced by a passage from Solomon—“Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.”—Ray prefaces his film with “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” It’s an indication that Ray’s film will lack the urgency of Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script. Without Brown’s politics, Ray could bend Anderson’s text—flexible because its politics had been diluted—into his own brand of cinematic lyricism.

Ray’s capitulation over the sound track is another indication of how his film strayed from the novel and Ray’s original concept; namely, to use the music as a defining element around which the action would take place. In a sense, what Ray envisioned, Robert Altman would accomplish in his remake, blurring background and foreground through the utilization of radio drama fragments—Gang Busters, Romeo and Juliette—as well as music. Had Ray stuck to his original idea, viewers might have been treated, as was his intention, to Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special,” as well as an assortment of other folk music of the era. All that remains is a radio fragment, extraordinary in itself, of Woody Guthrie singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Newspaper columnist Louella Parsons predicted the film would be a success. Having read her column, Anderson decided Hollywood owed him something beyond the $500 he’d originally received for the film rights. Now making $30 a week as a Forth Worth journalist, Anderson wrote to Howard Hughes, asking for more money. Hughes simply handed the letter to his legal department who, in a terse and formal reply, rejected Anderson’s request.

For some twenty years, the world forgot the novel and its author. By 1964 RKO had allowed the book to fall into public domain. Though the studio hadn’t reregistered the title, it retained adaptation and foreign rights. Then independent producer Jerry Bick, having paid 25 cents for a copy of the novel in Needham’s Bookfinder in L.A., purchased the rights to Anderson’s book from RKO. It was said that John Ford was interested in remaking the film as well. The fact that the conservative Ford was amenable to the book’s “social significance”—saying it couldn’t be avoided—is another indication of the pliability of Anderson’s novel.

Bick, who produced Altman’s The Long Goodbye, had been paying the options on Anderson’s novel since 1967. In 1972, he purchased the story for $7,500, and immediately sent the book to writer Calder Willingham. Altman, having come across the book a year earlier, was also interested in adapting it. When he, Bick and Willingham met, Altman made it clear that he intended to use his own scriptwriter, Joan Tewkesbury. Rather than follow Ray’s film, Tewkesbury returned to the novel, extracting and cutting where necessary. Though she hadn’t read Willingham’s script, the Screen Writer’s Guild insisted the latter be credited for the work he’d done.

Altman shot his version in Mississippi, in places like Jackson, Vicksbourg and surrounding small towns. The film was finished at the end of 1973, and greatly differs from Ray’s version. With his own historical sense, Altman was able to strip away Ray’s sentimentality and romanticism, replacing it with a stony-faced and laconic stoicism. Both are excellent movies. Ray’s might be the more touching, but Altman’s, with its humour, brutality and finely drawn characters, is the more believable. Where Altman seeks realism, Ray opts for romance. One imagines that Anderson would have preferred Altman’s adaptation, which, other than the ending, sticks closer to his novel.

There’s no telling what Anderson thought of Ray’s film when it opened in Forth Worth in 1950. Certainly critics were ambivalent. Not long after its premier, Anderson was back on the road, moving from one small-town newspaper to another. He stayed in San Antonio for a few years, then he went to El Paso, Laredo, and finally Brownsville, where, between 1960 and 1963, he covered municipal politics for the Herald. Obsessed by Fidel Castro—he believed America was pushing Cuba into the arms of Russia—and having developed an obsessive interest in the philosophy of Swedenborg, he drank—though apparently not to excess—and, in a Brownsville dancehall, met Lupe, a Mexican dancer whom he would marry.

Lupe could barely speak English, but Anderson’s border Spanish must have sufficed. A modest woman, Lupe wore no make-up or jewelry, and neither drank nor smoked. She had a child from a previous relationship, and before long she and Anderson had a new-born son. But Anderson was still reluctant to settle down. While Lupe remained in Brownsville, Anderson continued to wander while showing further signs of mental instability. Not only did he want to write sermons and promotional material for young evangelists, but, in a letter to his daughter, he said, “It is also my discovery … that the United States is unprecedented, perhaps, since the Egyptians, in the worship of ‘graven images,’ automobiles, that is. Their adoration of the scarab (beatle) is historic and it is not accidental. I hold, that the most popular car in the world today is the Volkswagen, known also as the ‘beatle.’” Now living off social security checks, Anderson claimed to be working on a book that would expose the corruption of the clergy. He moved to Cuero, a small port town near Corpus Christi, where he wrote articles for the Record. It would be his fifty-second newspaper. Crankier than ever, he still ranted about Zionism, believed Charles Lindberg would one day lead the nation, expressed admiration for Robert Kennedy and Helen Keller, and began work on a Swedenborgian text, entitled “O Man, Know Thyself.”

When he tired of Cuero, Anderson returned to Brownsville, where he died in September, 1969. He was sixty-four years old. Three years later Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us would be released. After Anderson’s death, his agent Alex Jackelson was said to have several unpublished Anderson manuscripts in his possession, including a novel alternatively titled Several Hundred Wives and One Hell and Many Heavens. Begun fifteen years before his death and rewritten several times, it is the story of a group of indigents along the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa and is imbued with a Swedenborgian optimism. Anderson also had thoughts about reigniting his Hollywood career, as indicated by a synopsis sent by Anderson or his agent during the 1960s, to Warners where it still sits in the studio’s archives.

Anderson’s literary accomplishments would continue to go largely ignored. If anything, his lack of recognition was as much the result of not belonging to any literary group or movement as to his literary inactivity or mental problems. Neither a Black Mask hardboiler, a Hollywood backslapper, nor a well-connected East Coast journalist, Anderson remained a literary outsider throughout his life. Moreover, he was never able to crank out paperback pulp fiction or brain-numbing film adaptations. Though his literary gifts were suited for the 1930s, his fiction would be lost amidst the more extreme stylizations that would come, then, finally, recycled in an age of tough love and trickle-down economics. While one cannot help but be moved by his fiction, Anderson’s life was shaped by the same circumstances that moulded the lives of his characters: another victim of hungry men and thieves like us.

Authored by Woody Haut.