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New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State

New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State

by Michael Szalay

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In New Deal Modernism Michael Szalay examines the effect that the rise of the welfare state had on American modernism during the 1930s and 1940s, and, conversely, what difference this revised modernism made to the New Deal’s famed invention of “Big Government.”
Szalay situates his study within a liberal culture bent on security, a culture


In New Deal Modernism Michael Szalay examines the effect that the rise of the welfare state had on American modernism during the 1930s and 1940s, and, conversely, what difference this revised modernism made to the New Deal’s famed invention of “Big Government.”
Szalay situates his study within a liberal culture bent on security, a culture galvanized by its imagined need for private and public insurance.
Taking up prominent exponents of social and economic security—such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, and John Dewey—Szalay demonstrates how the New Deal’s revision of free-market culture required rethinking the political function of aesthetics. Focusing in particular on the modernist fascination with the relation between form and audience, Szalay offers innovative accounts of Busby Berkeley, Jack London, James M. Cain, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Betty Smith, and Gertrude Stein, as well as extended analyses of the works of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In our era of vociferous strife over public arts funding, Szalay (English, Fordham Univ.) usefully outlines the government's role in establishing the social category of the artist as it is understood today. Although the welfare state typically fails to excite politically motivated critics, a wide range of American authors favored by such readers centered their works around the New Deal. In the works of anti-New Dealers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, Szalay unearths an urgent concern for the writer's function in society as an implicit response to federal policies. The specifically American conflict between free agency and group affiliation, as expressed in John Steinbeck's and Betty Smith's novels, Busby Berkeley's musicals, and Richard Wright's fiction, is recognized as a response to a federally mandated redefinition of the relation among the individual, the society, and the state. Drawing judiciously on American and European criticism, this splendidly nonpartisan book explains the shaping of American modernism by New Deal reforms to constitute a change so vast that it has so far passed unnoticed by political readers transfixed by the more spectacular idea of revolution. Recommended for academic and specialized collections.--Ulrich Baer, NYU Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From the Publisher
New Deal Modernism tells a strikingly new story about the relations of literature to political agency. Szalay’s work will be a welcome provocation, both to left revisionist scholarship on cultural politics and to the historiography of U.S. modernism.”—Sara Blair, University of Michigan

“An argument of striking range and precision. Oppositions of left and right, realist and modernist will look different from now on. A terrific book.”—Richard Ohmann, Wesleyan University

“Szalay brilliantly relates aesthetic debates of the 1930s to debates over how art might survive economic conditions in which art objects have little chance of competing with basic economic necessities. Szalay’s unique contribution is to show exactly how, in providing insurance against the market, the New Deal reinvented the project of making art.”—Frances Ferguson, Johns Hopkins University

“Through its frank assessment of New Deal culture, Szalay’s book adds mightily to the renascence of history-minded revisions of literary modernism. If you want to know how literary citizenship connected with the social motion of state initiatives like the Social Security Administration or the Federal Arts Project, then this is a very good place to begin.”—Andrew Ross, New York University

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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New Deal Modernism

American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State
By Michael Szalay

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2576-5

Chapter One

"The Whole Question of What Writing Is" Jack London, the Literary Left, and the Federal Writers' Project

Living with three tenant families in rural Alabama during the summer of 1936, gathering material for what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee expresses profound misgivings about the fact that he is in some sense exploiting his hosts. Despite all the compassion he feels for the families whose hardships and daily lives he records, he cannot escape the fact that his writing makes money only for his employer, Luce Industries. "I have no right, here," he intones to himself, "I have no real right." A despondent Agee recalls, "[I] wished to god that I was dead." Agee does do his best to distance himself and Walker Evans from the institutions-Fortune Magazine and the New Deal's Farm Securities Administration-that paid the two to make their book. He depicts the two of them as undercover defenders of what he calls the "individual, anti-authorative human consciousness" (xlvi): "It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profitinto a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings.... It seems curious, further, that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it, that from the first and inevitably they counted their employers, and that Government likewise to which one of them was bonded, among their most dangerous enemies, acted as spies" (7). Self-proclaimed enemies of corporation and government, Agee and Evans don the mantle of the radical conspirators. But persistently, despite these and similar efforts to imagine himself and Evans at odds with their employers, Agee is stuck with the fact that he is spying on his hosts more than his employers. He finds it "obscene, terrifying, and unfathomably mysterious" that, "realizing the corruptness and difficulty of the circumstances," he and Evans "accepted the work in the first place" (8).

In his response to a 1939 Partisan Review questionnaire that was never published by the journal, but that he includes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee makes clear that, as an artist, he should under no circumstances enjoy the economic security his tenant families so noticeably do not. Fielding the Review's question-"Do you think there is any place in our present economic system for literature as a profession?"-Agee responds firmly in the negative. "A good artist," he declares, "is a deadly enemy of society; and the most dangerous thing that can happen to an enemy, no matter how cynical, is to become a beneficiary. No society, no matter how good, could be mature enough to support a real artist without mortal danger to that artist" (355). But Agee is also concerned that the mundane realities of his employment, however morally and politically dubious, have rather serious consequences for his work. Radical artists seem least oppositional to him, least likely to break with the middle class and capitalism, when they are salaried employees of corporations, universities, or governments. "Communist by sympathy and conviction" (249), the Catholic humanist cum anarchist avers that it is next to impossible to protest the institutions of bourgeois society from inside their pockets. This is the case, Agee suggests, because "beneficiaries" cannot but produce reactionary, status quo art.

Nothing relegated art to this kind of irrelevance quite so much as its own objecthood. Agee insists of his work, "This is a book only by necessity" (xlviii). Were he not bonded to the world of necessity, there would be no book. For the journalist equates being a "good artist," a "real enemy of society," with an embrace of the aesthetics of "Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests" (16). Agee urges from the start, "Above all else: in God's name, don't think of this as Art" (15). "It is simply impossible," he later explains, "for anyone, no matter how high he may place it, to do art the simple but total honor of accepting and believing it in the terms in which he accepts and honors breathing, lovemaking, the look of a newspaper, the street he walks through" (240). Consequently, "anything set forth within an art form, 'true' as it may be in art terms, is hermetically sealed away from identification with everyday 'reality'" (240). Agee's desire to break this seal-like his wistful regret that he cannot include in his text "fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement" (13)-leads him back once more to his commitment to performance. Agee warns of his tendency to lose sight of what he calls "the actual" (244); generalizing from the particular without keeping an eye on the quotidian, he declares, is "artifacting" (245). Again, he urges "that you should so far as possible forget that this is a book" (246). Agee struggled to do the same: John Hersey reports in his introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that its author initially urged Houghton Mifflin to publish it on low-grade paper, not simply so tenant families could afford it but so that, fifty years hence, nothing of it would remain (xxiv).

At stake in Agee's willful amnesia is more than simply an avant-garde desire to collapse art into the everyday; forgetting that his writing constituted a book, Agee struggles to forget that he is not just a literary producer, as Walter Benjamin had recently put it, but an owner as well. A salaried journalist researching his story, Agee was pointedly not an owner; initially, he had no rights over his material. Returning from his sojourn in Alabama, Agee found that the already conservative Fortune Magazine had taken a still sharper turn to the right. Suddenly, his gushingly sympathetic portraits of rural labor were no longer desirable to the journal. But because the magazine had paid Agee a wage while he researched and wrote, it would not at first release its rights to the material that Agee then wanted to publish independently, as a book. Agee did eventually secure the rights to his material. But it is worth pointing out that the "necessity" Agee speaks of when he observes "this is a book by necessity" was his own, not Fortune's. To be sure, Agee's necessity was real. Novelist, historian, and first head of the Office of War Information, Elmer Davis might have been speaking for the perennially broke writer when, lecturing in 1940 at the New York Public Library on "Some Aspects of the Economics of Authorship," he suggested that writers and sharecroppers were equally victimized by their employers. Davis quoted at length from a recent piece in the Saturday Review by David Cohn: "He is a cotton sharecropper, I am a literary sharecropper. Each of us, by virtue of the system, has a certain amount of economic security, even if it is at a low level. His employer, the planter, and my employer, the publisher, must keep us alive so that we may create cotton and books by the sales of which they earn their livelihood. If he gets an advance of $15 a month so he can eat and clothe himself while he is making a crop, I get a lump sum advance so that I can eat and clothe myself while I am writing a book. In both cases, whether by calculation or by coincidence, the advance always seems to be just short enough to keep body and soul within hailing distance of each other." Though Cohn's analogy usefully registers how writers like Agee imagined themselves exploited by the publishing industry, some obvious problems remain. As much as both writer and cotton sharecropper are paid in anticipation of an eventual market income, the sharecropper is forever denied actual ownership over the land he tills. Conversely, Cohn's writer at some point sells his work to his publisher; unlike the sharecropper, he owns and controls his own means of production. Likewise, Agee did eventually secure the rights for his work; he and not Luce Industries ended up owning and selling his now classic volume. Fulminations to the contrary aside, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is in the end a book; Agee is in the end a capitalist.

It is precisely because of its imprecision, on the other hand, that Cohn's analogy explains why Agee opposes himself so strongly to what he calls "artifacting." Awash in middle-class self-loathing, intent on identifying with his host families as best as he is able, Agee embraces an aesthetics of performance that makes him seem more like a sharecropper than a landowner. For Agee, writing is a form of labor rather than a marketed commodity; in this light, his commitment to performance disavows his control of the means of production that sustain him. In what follows, I will have occasion to view similar celebrations of performance as representative of a "performative aesthetic" that played a similar role in the changing dimensions of bourgeois literary patronage. This aesthetic was given strongest formulation by Harry Alsberg, director of the Federal Writers' Project, who described writing as an activity subject to public regulation rather than an artifact for which one received a profit. Producing "books" was most assuredly not a "necessity," Alsberg reasoned, when writers were paid for their efforts. "Nothing like it, to my knowledge, has ever been in history," declared Edward Bruce, painter and government official. "The very method of payment is democratic. The artist is paid the highest craftsman's wage allowed under existing conditions and the product of his work becomes the property of government." The sheer number of writers who took advantage of this craftsman's wage on the WPA's Federal Writers' Projects after 1935-well over ten thousand-begins to suggest the impact of these performative commitments. "More than any other literary form in the thirties," declared Alfred Kazin in 1942, "the WPA writers' project, by illustrating how much so many collective skills could do to uncover the collective history of the country, set the tone of the period." But the project provided something more important than a utopian vision of collective agency: the Federal Writers' Project provided its workers with a method of payment meant to accommodate its performative view of art. Offering a wage for the labor of creation, but no dividends from an artifact over whose marketing and consumption a worker had no control and for which he or she was never cited as author, the Federal Writers' Project assimilated working-class politics, wage labor, and a performative aesthetic each to the other. The WPA was thus the first of many subsequent commitments the federal government would make to a performative aesthetic that-in the hands of NEA-funded Performance Artists from Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson to the recently embattled Karen Finley-would seem like an assault on the middle class only to the most hostile of conservatives.

Agee is thus just one of a broad contingent of radical writers-including those, like Agee, never themselves "clients" of the Writers' Project-who responded to the rise of salaried patronage by theorizing the relation between the specific modes of support used to enable writing and the aesthetic criteria used to justify that support. In their commitment to literary labor, and in the concomitant polemics they offered against the aesthetics of literary objecthood, these writers assimilated themselves to an emergent professional-managerial class in a way that belied the often radical content of their writing. Looking back on the Project in 1954, Malcolm Cowley reasoned that this "democratic" method of payment had taken the radical writer, initially allied with the working class, and turned him into "the salaried writer ... a new figure in American society." During the thirties, Cowley explains, this figure worked most visibly for the WPA, Hollywood studios, and universities' rapidly expanding creative writing and English departments. After the depression, Cowley's salaried writer found employment even farther afield from the literary. Where Agee and Evans "acted as spies" against the corporate interests that paid them-preserving in this way some residual loyalty to political and aesthetic commitments untenable to their employers-Cowley's writer, embracing camouflage of a different sort, maintained a more profound fealty to what would soon be called the establishment. The critic whispers that his new breed of salaried writers "might be disguised as a businessman, hired by a corporation to act as its spokesman or to edit and contribute articles to its house organ. Sometimes his disguise might be a military or naval uniform.... The writer might also be employed by other branches of the federal government, which, in addition to its many other functions, was the largest American publishing house."


And what is this "hazardous occupation"? Why that's where you're liable to break your neck or get smashed on the job so you're no good on that job any more and that's why you can't get any regular life insurance so long as you're on that job. -Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes (1936)

More than any other American literary figure, Jack London provided writers of the Depression era with an idealized image of the proletarian literary "professional" who succeeds by virtue of a maniacal work ethic, by working at writing as if it were a physical discipline. London was widely recognized as one of the notable predecessors in America's socialist tradition of letters; Michael Gold and Joseph Freeman both insisted that he was the significant forebear of the Depression-era radical writer. Jim Thompson makes this debt particularly clear in his working-class novel, Now and on Earth (1942). Barely able to support a large family with his job at a military aircraft factory, Thompson's protagonist, the emotionally and physically spent James Dillon, begs his family to let him strike out on his own so that he can get back into freelance writing. His mother and wife immediately refuse. "Of course, this isn't the best place in the world to write," his mother explains, "but you can't always have things just like you want them. Now look at the way Jack London did." Dillon interrupts her, declaring that he is not Jack London. "No, you're not Jack London," his mother replies. "Jack London didn't give up just because he didn't have everything right like he wanted it. He wrote on fishing boats and in lumber camps and-" (236). Dillon interrupts again and quickly lists his credentials: "Yes, and I wrote in caddie houses and hotel locker rooms and out on the pipeline; I wrote between orders of scrambled eggs and hot beef sandwiches; I wrote in the checkroom of a dance hall; I wrote in my car while I was chasing down deadbeats and skips; I wrote while I was chopping dough in a bakery. I held five different jobs at one time and I went to school, and I wrote. I wrote a story every day for thirty days" (237). Being a literary as well as a manual laborer, Dillon insists, is no solution at all. "You didn't read your London far enough," he tells his mother. "He began slipping off the deep end when he was thirty" (237).

The relevant text here is London's Martin Eden (1909), which tells the story of a working-class seaman who struggles through all manner of hardship to become a writer. Eden literalizes Dillon's metaphor: having left the working classes and won the middle-class approbation he once dreamed of, the now wealthy writer slips quietly into the deep end of the Pacific Ocean. And this after he has achieved literary and financial success. His success notwithstanding, Eden's rather lethal embourgeoisement suggests some specific limitations in Progressive-era literary professionalism. For starters, Eden professes a great disdain for the bourgeois lifestyle epitomized by what his refined companion Ruth calls "the position." His decidedly naturalist literary ambitions are in marked contrast to Ruth's constraining morality, the novel's preeminent Bildungsburger. "Their highest concept of right conduct," notes Eden of Ruth and her family, "was to get a job" (402). Eden wants a job himself, but for entirely different reasons. "Martin is after career, not culture," states one of the characters in the novel. "It just happens that culture, in his case, is incidental to career" (155). Eden puts this simply: "I seek to do what men have done before me-to write and to live by my writing" (329).


Excerpted from New Deal Modernism by Michael Szalay Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Szalay is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine.

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