Proletarian themes in modernist literature

Topics: Working class, Social class, Culture Pages: 12 (4191 words) Published: February 26, 2014
Despite a profusion of new critical work on the 1930s and the radical writing of the decade, it can be difficult to recall just how central proletarian literature was to the American literary and cultural scene of the 1930s. Between roughly 1929 and 1935, proletarian literature captured the energies, ambitions, talents, and labor of two generations of American cultural workers. Younger writers like Jack Conroy, Tillie Olsen, and Richard Wright, along with lesser-knowns like Eddie Rolfe, Grace Lumpkin, Thomas Bell, and others launched their literary careers under the aegis of proletarian literature, while established writers and critics - - from Erskine Caldwell to Langston Hughes to Josephine Herbst - -dedicated themselves and their formidable literary capital to the proletarian movement. Publishers and magazine editors, including H.L. Mencken at the American Mercury, solicited manuscripts from up and coming working-class writers, and one literary historian of the period counts over fifty "proletarian" novels published in this short five-year span (Rideout 295-7). Every major literary magazine, from Hound and Horn to Saturday Review of Literature reviewed proletarian novels and engaged with debates about literature and politics. Granville Hicks, the Communist literary editor of the left-wing New Masses, published Marxist analyses of popular literature, Sinclair Lewis, propaganda, and other topics on a regular basis in English Journal, the forerunner of today's College English ("Assumptions," "Mystery," "Sinclair Lewis"). "Today," the independent Marxist V.F. Calverton wrote in 1932, just as proletarian literature was breaking out of more confined cultural quarters, the proletarian theme has begun to absorb the conversational and literary energies of the intellectuals. Magazines recognize its challenge; newspaper columnists welcome its discussion; lectures are in demand upon the topic; and publishers, ever quick to sense change in literary interest and taste, are already alive to the possibilities of what one of them, a well-known 'hunch' man in the field, described with obscene naiveté as 'the proletarian racket!' ("Can We" 39) Where Calverton underscored the dangers of domestication and incorporation that accompanied cultural legitimacy, Mike Gold, proletarian literature's most ardent promoter, saw the movement's emerging cultural authority as a premonition of cultural revolution. "It is only a few short years in America since the concept of a 'proletarian literature' was a shabby rebel starving in a lonesome furnished room," Gold wrote in 1934. If critics once snubbed the "crude upstart" of proletarian literature, now "they find him hiding in every batch of current books that arrives from a publisher. They smell his spoor through the pages of nearly every periodical. They must take account of him, and find answers to the cruel questions he is forever propounding" ("Daniel Boone" 24). Gold's merger of autobiography and literary history captures the excitement, urgency, and anticipation felt by many on the left in the 1930s as they struggled, for a brief, successful moment, to "proletarianize" American literature.

By 1935, this proletarian moment would be over. Some, like Leslie Fiedler, Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Irving Howe, and other former radicals soon to become post-war mandarins, would read proletarian literature's brief reign as a parable of Communism's threat to liberal culture and society (Foley 15-42; Peck, "Orgy"). "An honest devotion to writing hypothetically attacks Stalinism, tests its pretensions against our own analysis at once," the young Leslie Fielder addressed his peers in a 1948 Partisan Review symposium. "There is, after all," he continued, "that monument to an opposite approach, momento mori and souvenir of [the writer's] beginnings in one, Proletarian Literature in the United States" (875, 871). Less viscerally attached to Cold War culture, later revisionist critics have...
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