Born Solomon Fishman in New York, Edwin Rolfe grew up on Coney Island. He took the pen name Rolfe in high school and eventually adopted it as his only name. Rolfe began writing revolutionary poems while he was still in high school and was soon publishing them in the Party's newspaper, Daily Worker. Along with Langston Hughes, he read his poems at the Party’s "Red Poets Night" in 1928, but the following year, disenchanted with rigid party functionaries and alienated by the infighting that helped destroy his parents' marriage, he quit the party and enrolled at the Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin. Two years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, it no longer seemed possible to opt out of revolutionary politics. Rolfe in any case had never abandoned his identification with working people or his theoretical devotion to international socialism. He returned to New York, rejoined the party, and became features editor of the Daily Worker. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he recognized that fascism put the world at peril and saw the opportunity for a properly international political commitment. He joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1937.
He had published his first book of poems in 1936; it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, accompanied by his photograph. If his first book was focused on the Great Depression, his second, privately printed in 1951, was centered on Spain and pervaded by the haunting lyricism associated with the lost cause of the 1930s. He moved to Los Angeles in 1943, supporting his poetry writing by part-time work on the fringes of the motion picture industry. A breakthrough came in 1947 when Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were signed to star in a film based on one of his scripts, but within months the anticommunist House Un-American Activities Committee hearings arrived in Hollywood; Rolfe was blacklisted and his film abandoned by Warner Brothers. He then took up his last great subject, the nightmare of the long inquisition that culminated in McCarthyism, writing stronger poems on the topic than any other American. After Rolfe died of a heart attack in 1954, poet Thomas McGrath assembled some of his poems for a posthumous volume, but a number of Rolfe's poems were not published until his 1993 Collected Poems.