To Jean Wick [Letter 15]

Item Reference Code: 077_12A_022_001

Date(s) of creation

October 27, 1934


Jean Wick


[Page 1]
1750 North Serrano Avenue,
Hollywood, California.

October 27, 1934.

Dear Miss Wick,

I owe you an apology for my long silence. Perhaps you understand that it was caused by the matter of my stage play—“Woman on Trial”. It has just been produced here, at the Hollywood Playhouse. I am enclosing two clippings of reviews—from the “Los Angeles Times” and the “Hollywood Citizen-News”. I am very happy about the production and it looks as though it is going to be quite successful. Mr. Woods [A. H. Woods, Broadway producer] has not accepted it for production as yet, but he is negotiating about it with E. E. Clive, the local producer, I believe.

I have had a very hectic month and all my time has been taken up by the supervision of rehearsals. During the last few weeks we have been rehearsing day and night. Please excuse me for not writing to you sooner.

I have received your letter today and I have thought it over carefully from every angle. I greatly appreciate all the details of the matter which you have given me. Here is what I have to say: I certainly would not go so far as to demand the book [We the Living] be published exactly as it is or not at all. I am quite willing to make all the cuts and changes that may be required to improve it. But I do insist that the theme and spirit of the book be kept intact. Therefore, I must explain in detail exactly what I mean.

I am afraid that I cannot agree with Mr. [Barry] Benefield’s [an editor at Appleton-Century-Crofts] idea of the book. It is not a love story. It never could be. In fact, I believe, personally, that the love story is the least interesting thing about it. Mr. Benefield may be right about the fact that I have too much background in it and I am willing to cut it some. But that background is more essential than the plot itself for the story I want to tell. Without it—there is no story. It is the background that creates the characters and their tragedy. It is the background that makes them do the things they do. If one does not understand the background—one cannot understand them.

And Mr. Benefield is completely mistaken about the fact that the American reader “has a fair knowledge of

[Page 2]

existence in Leningrad during the time covered by the novel.” The American reader has no knowledge of it whatsoever. He has not the slightest suspicion of it. If he had—we would not have the appalling number of parlor Bolsheviks and idealistic sympathizers with the Soviet regime, liberals who would scream with horror if they knew the truth of Soviet existence. It is for them that the book was written.

The principal reaction I have had from those who have read the book is one of complete amazement at the revelation of Soviet life as it is actually lived. “Can it possibly be true? I had no idea that that’s what it was like. Why were we never told?”—those are the things I have heard over and over again. Those are the things I wanted to hear. Because the conditions I have depicted are true. I have lived them. No one has ever come out of Soviet Russia to tell it to the world. That was my job.

I repeat, I may have too much of it in the book and I am willing to cut it down some. But I also repeat that it must stand as a most important part of the novel—not merely as a setting for a love story. I have never heard one person say that he was bored while reading the book. I have tied my background firmly to the structure of the plot. But that background has to be there.

Furthermore—and here we come to the most important point—has Mr. Benefield understood the idea of the book? “Airtight” is not the story of Kira Argounova. It is the story of Kira Argounova and the masses—her greatest enemy. Those masses—and what they do to the individual—are the real hero of the book. Remove that—and you have nothing but a conventional little romance to tell. The individual against the masses—such is the real, the only theme of the book. Such is the greatest problem of our century—for those who are willing to realize it.

I feel I must explain one point to Mr. Benefield—a point of the greatest importance. Mr. Benefield wonders why I stop in the last chapter to present the biography of the soldier who kills Kira Argounova. That stop, in my opinion, is one of the best things in the book. It contains—in a few pages—the whole idea and purpose of the novel. After the reader has seen Kira Argounova, has learned what a rare, precious, irreplaceable human being she was—I give him the picture of the man who killed Kira Argounova, of the life that took her life. That soldier is a symbol, a typical representative of the average, the dull, the useless, the commonplace, the massess—that killed the best there is on this earth. I believe I made this obvious when I concluded his biography by saying—quoting from the book: “Citizen Ivan Ivanov was guarding the border of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.” Citizen Ivan Ivanov is the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And that Union killed Kira Argounova. Kira Argounova against citizen Ivan Ivanov—that is the whole book in a few pages.

[Page 3]

I cannot find words to emphasize strongly enough how profoundly grateful I would be to you if you could find the time to explain this point to Mr. Benefield. As a matter of fact, I would greatly appreciate it if you could let him read this entire letter. But if you find this impossible, I would like him to know at least my answer to that one objection.

I have gone into all this at great length to explain why I find it impossible to cut the book to half of its present length. I wanted to present a picture of the whole country under the Soviets. That picture would be incomplete if I sacrificed many of its characters. Each one of them has been included for a definite purpose.

I am willing to do some cutting and I believe I could cut out about fifteen thousand, perhaps even twenty-five thousand words. That would be the most. Cutting it down to 100,000 words would be impossible. [The published book is approximately 175,000 words.]

I agree that the title may not be a good one and I am entirely willing to change that.

If this is acceptable to Mr. Benefield, I shall get down to work on the cutting at once. However, since the offer is only conditional, I must insist that you do not withdraw the book from other publishers, but continue to submit it, until—and if—we reach a definite agreement with the D. Appleton-Century Company.

As to the matter of a suggested collaborator, I give you full authority to refuse at once, without informing me, any and all offers that carry such a suggestion. I do not care to hear of such offers. I consider them nothing short of an insult. Anyone reading my book must realize that I am an individualist above everything else. As such, I shall stand or fall on my own work. I hope you do not consider this as a beginner’s arrogance. It is merely the feeling of a person who takes pride in her work. At the cost of being considered arrogant, I must state that I do not believe there is a human being alive who could improve that book of mine in the matter of actual rewriting. If anyone is capable of improving that book—he should have written it himself. I would prefer not only never seeing it in print, but also burning every manuscript of it—rather than having William Shakespeare himself add one line to it which was not mine, or cross out one comma. I repeat, I welcome and appreciate all suggestions of changes to improve the book without destroying its theme, and I am quite willing to make them. But these changes will be made by me.

I am very anxious to have the novel submitted to two publishing houses which are recommended to me here very strongly: Farrar & Rinehart and Simon and Schuster. I believe these houses would be somewhat inclined to share

[Page 4]

the view-point of the novel. Please let me know whether you find it advisable to submit the novel to them next. Particularly, if you submit it to Simon & Schuster, please let me know about it, because I have some friends who know Clifton Fadiman very well, and who have offered to help the book.

I have had a long conversation about the book with the West Coast representative of the Hearst Publications. He suggested that we submit it to Mr. Richard E. Berlin of the Cosmopolitan, as he believes that W. R. Hearst would be very much interested in backing an anti-Soviet novel. He said that if the Cosmopolitan found it impossible to publish the novel, Mr. Berlin may still direct us to a politically-right publisher. He also recommended very strongly that we find an actual political backer for the book. The time is certainly ripe for an anti-red novel and it is only a question of finding the right party to take an interest in it. I do not believe that we will get very far with publishers who disapprove of or try to diminish the political implications of the book. These implications are its best chance of success. If you remember, Mr. Morris in his letter to Mr. Mencken, referred to the book as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Soviet Russia.” That is exactly what the book was intended to be and exactly the angle under which it must be sold. It was suggested to me that I get in touch with some of the senators who objected to the recognition of Soviet Russia, with some political interests who are fighting Communism in this country—and get them to launch the book. I do not believe that it would be advisable for me to approach them myself. Would it be possible for you? Please let me know what you think of this angle.

In closing, I must thank you for the manuscript of “Red Pawn” which I have recieved. I quite agree with your decision on this matter, as I did not know the circumstances of which you spoke.

Please let me know your reaction to this letter as soon as it is convenient for you. I am naturally anxious to hear it. And if I may ask you to take the time, I would like to hear some of the opinions which have been expressed to you about the book. It may help me to form an idea of the readers’ reaction to it.

Thank you again for your efforts and interest, with best personal wishes,

Sincerely yours,


In her October 31, 1934, reply, Wick discussed various publishers, including major ones who “are personal friends of mine,” but she did not explicitly address AR’s request that Wick contact them directly. As to the criticism Wick had seen of the novel, she wrote that “in nearly all of the letters of rejection they have said that the script was undoubtedly worthwhile and had merit but they questioned its selling popularity. Some have gone on to say that the subject matter did not interest them sufficiently for the number of words.” Note: as of 2017, We the Living had sold approximately 3,000,000 copies.