Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941

Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941

by Barbara Foley

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In this revisionary study, Barbara Foley challenges prevalent myths about left-wing culture in the Depression-era U.S. Focusing on a broad range of proletarian novels and little-known archival material, the author recaptures an important literature and rewrites a segment of American cultural history long obscured and distorted by the anti-Communist bias of contemporaries and critics.
Josephine Herbst, William Attaway, Jack Conroy, Thomas Bell and Tillie Olsen, are among the radical writers whose work Foley reexamines. Her fresh approach to the U.S. radicals' debates over experimentalism, the relation of art to propaganda, and the nature of proletarian literature recasts the relation of writers to the organized left. Her grasp of the left's positions on the "Negro question" and the "woman question" enables a nuanced analysis of the relation of class to race and gender in the proletarian novel. Moreover, examining the articulation of political doctrine in different novelistic modes, Foley develops a model for discussing the interplay between politics and literary conventions and genres.
Radical Representations recovers a literature of theoretical and artistic value meriting renewed attention form those interested in American literature, American studies, the U. S. left, and cultural studies generally.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397755
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/23/1993
Series: Post-contemporary interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 484
File size: 706 KB

About the Author

Barbara Foley is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark Campus.

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Radical Representations

Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929â"1941

By Barbara Foley

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9775-5


The Legacy of Anti-Communism

In the last decade, the canon-busting movement in American literary study has brought into view texts and traditions of several previously marginalized groupings of writers. Feminist criticism has required that critics reconstitute not only the lineup of "standard" authors but also the traditional rubrics for demarcating literary historical periods. Commentary on African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American literatures has prompted reconsideration of the domain of the "literary," as well as of the politics embedded in conventions and genres. Recent challenges to the notion of "great books" have called into question the presumably timeless and apolitical aesthetic values sustaining a sexist, racist, and elitist literary canon. As Jane Tompkins observes, "Great literature does not exert its force over and against time, but changes with the changing currents of social and political life." Amidst all this revisionary activity, a sound drubbing has been given to the New Critics, whose privileging of qualities such as opacity, paradox, and ambiguity is routinely seen as an ideological maneuver rationalizing a conservative and exclusionary conception of literary value.

When the New Critics proclaimed the superiority of showing over telling or the heroism of holding opposed ideas in balance without committing oneself to a single point of view, they were announcing their departure from philological, biographical, and history-of-ideas modes of literary study. But they were also articulating a mandarin distaste for the unabashedly leftist social commitments guiding much literature and criticism produced and read in the 1930s. In 1933 Allen Tate, commenting on the incompatibility between Communist politics and poetry, argued that "[t]he task of poetry is the constant rediscovery of the permanent nature of man. Propagandist art exhibits that side of his nature in which he is most interested at the moment; it is a temporary oversimplification of the human predicament ... an escape from reality." When revolutionary poets issue their call, Tate concluded, "We get neither art nor politics; we get heresy." In 1936 Robert Penn Warren claimed that proletarian literature failed because it "politicalized literature." Even if the writer was sincere, Warren stated, "[h]is very sincerity, the very fact of the depth and mass of his concern, may not do more than imperil his achievement unless his sensibility is so attuned and his critical intelligence so developed that he can effect the true marriage of his convictions, his ideas, that is, his theme, with the concrete projection in experience, that is, his subject." In 1950 Robert Gorham Davis, who in the 1930s had written for the New Masses and Partisan Review under the pen name "Obed Brooks," sardonically commented on how the Agrarians had triumphed in the realm of literary theory. According to the emerging New Critical evaluative standards, Davis noted, "holding liberal-democratic-progressive views with any conviction made one incapable of appreciating imaginative literature at all."

In the postwar years the New Critics for the most part put into storage the explicitly conservative political agenda that had guided their Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand (1930), for which Tate and Warren had considered the catchy subtitle, "A Tract against Communism." But, Alexander Karanikas argues, Tate, Warren, and their colleagues "succeeded ... as New Critics ... in doing what they failed to do as Agrarians: to denigrate the democratic content in American literature, to smother its traditional note of social protest, and to elevate in its stead new literary gods and canons more acceptable to the rightist tradition." Moreover, as Lawrence Schwartz has recently demonstrated in his study of the process by which William Faulkner became "great," the potential political uses of New Critical doctrine were not lost on the government and business groupings providing New Critical journals and graduate programs with the funds and support necessary to ensure their rapid ascent to cultural hegemony in the postwar period. Anti-Marxism, in short, provided much of the political motivation for the formalistic critical program currently under assault by canon-busting critics.

Texts by women and people of color have thus far been the principal beneficiaries of the demise of New Criticism and the gate-crashing democratization in U.S. cultural studies. In recent years, however, there has also been a significant renewal of interest in the Depression-era literary radicals whose influence the New Critics set out to combat. Over a dozen 1930s left-wing novels have been reprinted; there is a major new anthology of women's writings; several significant articles and four book-length studies have been published, with more currently in manuscript. It would appear that the inquisitors have been vanquished and the heretics now have the field.

But it is premature to assume that the ground is clear for fruitful reconsideration of the texts now being exhumed. For, even though the New Critics' aesthetic program has been—at least for the moment—relegated to the antiquarian wing of the critical museum, the Anti-Communism that supplied much of its animus has not. In part the presence of anti-Communism in work on the 1930s is attributable to the continuing influence of the New York Intellectuals, with whom the New Critics formed what Maxwell Geis-mar called an "interlocking directorate" in the postwar years. Several of them former Trotskyists or Trotskyist sympathizers, a few of them former Communists, the New York Intellectuals developed a narrative about the role of the Communist party (CP) in Depression-era cultural movements that shapes much analysis of U.S. literary radicalism to this day. But anti-Communism also retains its force because of its covert incorporation into various premises guiding postmodernist theory. In writings on cultural leftism in general or the 1930s in particular, references to Stalinism and party orthodoxies can often be found unproblematically intertwined with analyses of logocentricity, patriarchy, and textual monologism. We cannot understand the politics and history of literary proletarianism until we hack this Gordian knot or—to use a metaphor less liable to the charge of "Stalinism"—disentangle this ideological skein.

In this chapter I shall delineate how anti-Communism, taking different forms over the past five decades, has shaped, and continues to shape, much of the discourse about 1930s literary radicalism. First, I shall sample contemporaneous responses to proletarian literature to demonstrate that, rather than being intrinsically "bad," it garnered significant respect from mainstream critics and reviewers. An examination of this generally hospitable reception suggests that the subsequent denigration and dismissal of this literature have been prompted by something other than purely literary considerations. Next, I shall describe the hostile assessment of proletarian literature that was offered by the first generation of anti-Stalinist critics, codified in various influential statements of Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv. I shall then describe the process by which commentary on the 1930s increasingly relied upon a priori assumptions about Communism and its relation to literature that attained the status of unquestioned dogma. I shall close with some comments on recent work in the field, noting how continuing Cold War assumptions detract from a scholarship that is otherwise expanding and deepening our understanding of the 1930s cultural left.

At various points in this discussion I shall treat the terms "anti-Communist," "anti-Marxist," and "anti-Stalinist" as interchangeable. This practice may trouble readers who consider it important to maintain distinctions between Marxism, Communism, and, especially, Stalinism. I recognize that these terms signify different theoretical and historical phenomena and that "Stalinism" in particular carries a powerful political charge. But I persist in this practice precisely because, in my view, the majority of commentators who use the term "anti-Stalinist" hide behind it. They rarely define it, let alone question its theoretical or historical legitimacy. "Stalinism" has become a virtually undeconstructable term, presumably attesting to the user's political acumen ("Communism" would be too crude), but retaining all the standard stereotypical significations— cynical manipulation, subordination of means to ends, cold rationality— routinely associated with the "C-word." As Robbie Lieberman has noted in a recent study of the People's Song movement, "[T]he terms 'Stalinism' and 'Communist front' [are] ... used too often as abusive terms and as excuses to dismiss the work of the Communist movement as totalitarian, conspiratorial, and duplicitous. Such labels do not contribute to a balanced analysis of left-wing thought and activity, nor do they reflect how cultural workers ... viewed themselves." If we are to achieve a "balanced analysis of left-wing thought and activity" in the literary sphere, we need to understand how the literary leftists "viewed themselves"—not to approach their project with the a prioristic notion that, because it was "Stalinist," it was doomed.

In pronouncing the illegitimacy of the discursive construction of "Stalinism," I am not perversely giving my stamp of approval to all things "Stalinist." I do not have the opportunity in this study to address the many serious issues raised in criticisms of the Stalin era—for example, the forced collectivization of the peasantry, the proclamation of an end to the class struggle in the USSR in the mid-1930s, the abolition of abortion in 1936, the stress upon Great Russian chauvinism in the Patriotic War, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the postwar period, the mass incarcerations and executions. The movement toward an egalitarian society in the USSR was reversed during the Stalin period—though not for the reasons routinely offered in the anti-Stalinist scholarship. But the denigrating use of the term "Stalinist" to describe all events in the world revolutionary movement between the death of Lenin and the ascent of Khrushchev enables commentators to dismiss out of hand tremendous achievements that also occurred in this period: the involvement of millions of workers in socialist construction, the emancipation of women from feudalistic practices, the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism, the fostering of previously suppressed minority cultures, the Soviet role in the defeat of the Nazis, as well as—our principal concern here—the creation of a revolutionary proletarian culture, in both the USSR and other countries. Enough is heard from all sides about the failures of the 1930s left-wing movement. Scholarship on the 1930s literary left needs to take into account the other side of the balance sheet.

The Contemporaneous Reception of Proletarian Fiction

In an anthology of essays on the 1930s published about a decade ago, the editors proclaim that "the best writers and most thoughtful critics refused to follow the party line." The lesson taught by those who did follow the party line, the editors conclude, is that artists who "allow ... their art to be shaped by a party line or other nonartistic considerations rather than their own creative judgments ... court disaster." It is assumed in advance here that literature committed to a political program associated with a specific political formation is condemned to a barren instrumentalism and that artists' "creative judgments" necessarily conflict with the "party line" they endorse. Students currently approaching proletarian literature with a knowledge only of the postwar critical reputation contained in statements like these may be somewhat surprised to learn that quite a few proletarian novels—often explicitly Communist ones—were read sympathetically and evaluated positively when they first appeared.

As might be expected, proletarian writers received generally favorable treatment in the pages of left-liberal periodicals such as The New Republic and The Nation. A 1930 New Republic review of Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike! even evaluated the text in accordance with the definition of proletarian literature that Marxist critic Mike Gold had offered three months previously in the New Masses, the main literary organ of the Communist left. Equally predictably, radical writers were consistently dragged over the coals in the conservative New York Times Book Review, whose principal contributors detested the emerging genre of proletarian literature. NYTBR literary editor J. Donald Adams, proclaiming individualism to be "the life blood of art," decried the "young left-wing novelists" who were "merging the individual in the mass, or in the class." The NYTBR rarely missed an opportunity to attack writers from the new literary school.

The Saturday Review also published its fair share of dismissive reviews. H. L. Mencken, criticizing the unabashed political partisanship of the New Masses, declared that the iconoclastic, witty radicals of the old Masses group had been replaced by political hacks. "The old-timers, if there had been any Moscow then, would have bidden it be damned," he proclaimed. "But the newcomers appear to sing whatever hymn is lined out, though always a couple of measures behind the beat, and in a faltering key." Elmer Davis, striking a similar note in a review of Fielding Burke's Call Home the Heart entitled "The Red Peril," noted, "The Red infiltration into present-day literature is a nuisance because it imports alien and irrelevant values. It is like a conversation in two languages between people who do not understand each other. The Communist standard of truth and beauty is incommensurable with all other standards, past and present." Noting a disjunction in the novel's shift into explicitly leftist political rhetoric in its second half, Davis proclaimed, "A work of art aims at producing what may be called an illusion, in default of a better word; if the propaganda (or anything else) shatters that illusion, the novel has been spoiled by bourgeois standards of taste and the propaganda—also by bourgeois standards—becomes unconvincing."

Yet the Saturday Review grudgingly noted in the "Books of This Fall" column in October 1934 that "the proletarian novel, which has been usurping more and more interest for some time past, still waxes strong." A number of Saturday Review commentators expressed admiration for the new literary school. N. L. Rothman adjudged Isidor Schneider's From the Kingdom of Necessity "exceptional and brilliant" for its "fus[ing of] the naked ugliness of the tenement jungle life" with a "ponder[ing] ... upon the social forces that had of necessity to produce that jungle." William Rollins's The Shadow Before, B. Traven's The Death Ship, Robert Cantwell's The Land of Plenty, Josephine Herbst's The Executioner Waits, Ralph Bates's Lean Men, and Jack Conroy's A World to Win—works all motivated by a Marxist analysis of exploitation, alienation, and class struggle—received warm praise. Henry Seidel Canby, the magazine's editor, proclaimed that Clara Weatherwax's Marching! Marching! conveyed "a workers' world seething about a revolutionary idea, spitting it down, yielding to it, frightened and exultant:—workers, unite." "[N]ot a tract," the novel is "humanitarian," he declared, the "first story of the American proletariat that succeeds in conveying its passion to the reader without benefit of previous conversion to the cause." Canby's swipe at other proletarian novels as "tract[s]" presupposing "previous conversion" indicates a less than sympathetic judgment of the genre. Interestingly, however, he reacted warmly to Marching! Marching!, one of the most didactic proletarian novels in its detailed illustration of the party line. For the Saturday Review's editor-in-chief, the novel's adherence to party politics was not in and of itself cause for dismissal, so long as the text portrayed contemporaneous reality in a creative and compelling—"humanitarian"—manner."

In its divided response to literary radicalism, the Saturday Review was not alone among mainstream periodicals. The Herald-Tribune Sunday book supplement published its share of openly anti-Communist commentaries, such as Babette Deutsch's approving assessment of Max Eastman's attack on Soviet cultural policy in Artists in Uniform: A Study in Literature and Bureaucratism. Generally, however, NYHTB published sympathetic commentaries on literary radicalism. Horace Gregory wrote a series of laudatory reviews of new radical novels, proclaiming of The Shadow Before author William Rollins that "there is no young novelist in America who has a better sense of dramatic form"; calling The Land of Plenty author Robert Cantwell "a prose stylist of extraordinary subtlety and power"; noting that Langston Hughes's short stories The Ways of White Folks had the mark of "genius" and rendered moot any controversy about "art and propaganda." Other reviewers added their positive judgments, showering praise upon Myra Page's Moscow Yankee, Anna Louise Strong's I Change Worlds, Tom Tippett's Horse Shoe Bottoms, and Grace Lumpkin's A Sign for Cain—texts containing patently left-wing perspectives on revolutionary militancy, Soviet socialist construction, the CP line on the "Negro Question," and unionization.


Excerpted from Radical Representations by Barbara Foley. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Part One

1. The Legacy of Anti-Communism 3

2. Influences on American Proletarian Literature 44

3. Defining Proletarian Litearture 86

4. Art or Propaganda? 129

5. Race, Class, and the "Negro Question" 170

6. Women and the Left in the 1930s 213

Part Two

7. Realism and Didacticism in Proletarian Fiction 249

8. The Proletarian Fictional Autobiography 284

9. The Proletarian Bildungsroman 321

10. The Proletarian Social Novel 362

11. The Collective Novel 398

Afterword 443

Index 447

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