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Writing From the Left: American Proletarian Fiction
James Kelley


“There never was a prior moment when cultural studies and Marxism represented a perfect theoretical fit,” Stuart Hall contends in a 1992 essay titled “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies.” Yet the shared points of departure for much of cultural studies–among these, the movement beyond the confines of individual disciplines and the refusal to make deliberate and lasting distinctions between cultural processes and social relations–attest to the enduring connections between cultural studies and Marxist inquiry. The book exhibit for the American Cultural Studies Conference held at the University of Tulsa (February 25-27, 1999) seeks to document these connections by showcasing selections from the Proletarian Collection housed in the Special Collections Department in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library.

The Proletarian Collection is organized around Walter Rideout’s seminal study The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954 (1956) and includes first editions of all but a handful of the 164 titles featured in Rideout's survey. Also present in the collection are many, and in some cases, all of the other books written by authors mentioned by Rideout. Thus, extensive collections exist of writers such as James T. Farrell, Upton Sinclair, and Richard Wright. A wide range of materials on Jewish immigrants of the early twentieth century and Black militants of the 1950s through the 1970s also comprise the collection. The Proletarian collection as a whole includes over 2,000 items including plays, poetry anthologies, song books, sheet music, and many other ephemeral documents and items of proletarian writing and culture.

From this wide range of materials, the book exhibit concentrates on three themes organized in three display cases.  Case One contains an exhibit of dust jacket artwork from strike novels of the 1930s as well as a brief treatment of the cultural and historical contexts in which these novels were written.  Case Two displays children’s literature from the first half of the twentieth century that engages proletarian issues as well as literature intended for working adults that makes use of themes drawn from the children’s literature.  Case Three gives a glimpse of the conventions of socialist literary utopias and related fantasy literature from the turn of the century to the 1960s, documenting the changing trends within the genre as well as noteworthy experiments in publishing.

Anne Stavney, professor of English at The University of Tulsa, and the Special Collections staff, both past and present–Sidney Huttner, Lori Curtis, Milissa Burkart–have all been helpful in the conceptualization and preparation of this exhibit.

Case One
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Case One: Strike Novels

Marked by the rise of capitalism, intensified labor strife, and a realignment of radical groups, the beginning of the twentieth century also saw the first sign of a new literary development. In 1901, the same year in which Judge Elbert Gary, Andrew Carnegie, Charles M. Schwab, and J. P. Morgan created the United States Steel Corporation, the first “supertrust,” Isaac K. Friedman’s By Bread Alone appeared, inaugurating the history of the radical novel in the twentieth century. This book imagines no utopia, no fantasy of the far away or distant future; rather, it deals with the here and now of a steel strike in a northern American city in realistic detail.

The six early strike novels shown here–from Mary Heaton Vorse’s Strike! (1930) to William Rollins’s The Shadow Before (1934)–are among those written in response to a protracted labor conflict in Gastonia, one of the leading textile cities in the South. These novels trace the migration of workers to the cotton textile mills of North Carolina and culminate in the violent events in the spring and summer of 1929. Rideout explains:

Soon after the strike broke out, the union headquarters and the strikers’ relief store were demolished by a masked mob. A second headquarters was erected on the union-owned land along with a tent colony to shelter the strikers evicted from company houses. When police attempted to enter the new union hall without a warrant, a fight ensued in which Police Chief Aderholt was fatally shot and four of his men wounded. Thereupon the tent colony was terrorized by the “Committee of One Hundred,” a vigilante group. After a trial noted for anti-communist histrionics on the part of the prosecution lawyers, [several] strike leaders were sentenced to long terms in state prison.


Robert Cantwell notes in a review essay titled “A Town and Its Novels” that of the three proletarian novels based on labor disputes in Aberdeen, Washington–Louis Colman’s Lumber (1930), Cantwell’s own The Land of Plenty (1934), and Clara Weatherwax’s Marching! Marching! (1935)–all describe strikes that were lost. However, Cantwell notes, in actuality there was a general lumber strike in that city in 1935 which labor won “hands down.” He concludes:

The novelists insensibly patronized the workers they wrote about. They knew the masses were on the move, but they did not know where they were going; and in their hearts they feared that the militant working class, its ranks solid and its morale high, was marching, marching! smack against a stone wall.


Case Two
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Case Two: Children’s Literature

Arna Bontemp’s books for children—Sad-Faced Boy (1937), The Fast Sooner Hound (1942), and Slappy Hooper: The Wonderful Sign Painter (1946)—feature working-class heroes.

 Ben Martin’s John Black’s Body (1939) and William Gropper’s The Little Tailor (1955) deal with social topics such as the alienation of the worker and industrial regimentation but in ways that might still appeal to young readers.

 Herbert C. Holdridge’s The Fables of Moronia (1953) exemplifies the use of the format of children’s literature by adult writers for adult readers. The satirical “Fable of How the Robot of the Machine Was Born in Moronia” suggests that although technological advances have socially equalizing potentials, they have often been used to benefit the few rather than the many:

Had the Moronians not looked into the golden eyes of the Serpent and been mesmerized, and been made to believe the humbug of profit, then might they have won control over the Robot of the Machine, and made him labor for the good of all, and men be freed from burdensome toil, and from fear of starvation.

 Case Three
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Case Three: Utopian Novels

The utopian novel allows authors both to entertain their audiences by speculating on the future and to educate them about perceived necessities of social reform. The publication of Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1887) and Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890) coincided in the United States with the beginning of a period of strikes and increasingly open conflict between capital and labor. Bellamy’s novel was tremendously popular and prompted a wide range of literary responses and sequels.

The “Publisher’s Notice” in Soloman Schindler’s Young West: A Sequel to Looking Backward (1894) calls attention to the book’s unique colored margins. This “novel feature in bookmaking,” the publisher proudly announces, “will become universal in the near  future” (). The colored margins are meant to reduce eyestrain from reading. The “Publisher’s Notice” goes on to inform us that the book we are about to read is available in three colors: “The purchaser can choose either ‘blue’ or ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ colors, as he thinks either of these colors best fitting to the condition of his eyes,” thus foregrounding the idea that the text itself is a tailor-made commodity.

The bed shown opposite the title page of William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) points to a common opening strategy in utopian novels: the narrator wakes to find himself catapulted far into the future. In Morris’s novel, he awakens in the twenty-first century and records his experiences with people who dress in classical and medieval garments and who live comfortably without the pollution, poverty, and other ills of his own industrial age.

“Utopias based on ‘Bellamy Socialism’ occasionally appeared after 1900,” Rideout observes, “but the newer novelists began increasingly to shift from projection of the future Cooperative Commonwealth to descriptions of the present conditions which made such a future inevitable and to analyses of the revolutionary dynamics whereby it might be hastened.”   Simply having the narrator wake up in an already-transformed future was no longer enough for most authors or readers. Thus, from a simple contrast, the genre developed into a complex inquiry into the mechanism of a society constantly in flux.

The revolutions depicted in these books, and the scientific innovations that accompany or enable these changes, are not always in the interest of the environment or of oppressed classes, as noted in the dust jacket summary of John S. Martin’s novel General Manpower (1938):

After [J. Orestes] Jones had built up his own puny body into that of a superman and thereupon discovered his unique ability of making husky, well-disciplined soldiers out of thin, spineless, run-of-the-mill sort of men, and when he found he could make a business of this ability, he figured somewhat as follows:

“These men of mine can clear forests, they can break strikes, they can do construction jobs. General Motors sells cars, General Foods sells things to eat. General Electric sells the force of electricity. I, J. Orestes Jones will sell manpower, organize my men into the greatest corporation that ever existed—General Manpower.”

Whether writing at the end of the nineteenth century or in the middle of the twentieth, whether painting a bleak or promising picture, the authors of utopian novels look into the past as much as into the future in order to identify the strengths and diagnose the illnesses of their own society.


Other Sources of Interest

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 Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward, 2000-1887. (1887). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917.

Bontemps, Anna Wendell. The Fast Sooner Hound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942.
---. Sad-faced Boy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937.
---. Slappy Hooper, The Wonderful Sign Painter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.

Cantwell, Robert. The Land of Plenty. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1934.
---. “A Town and Its Novels.” New Republic 86 (February 19, 1936): 51-52.

Colman, Louis. Lumber. Boston: Little Brown, 1931.

Donnelly, Ignatius. Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. Ed. Walter B. Rideout.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Friedman, I. K. By Bread Alone, A Novel. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1901.

Gropper, William. The Little Tailor. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955.

Holdridge, Herbert C. The Fables of Moronia. Sherman Oaks, Calif.: Holdridge Foundation for  the Advancement of Social Sciences, 1953.

Kirkpatrick, Ken and Sidney F. Huttner. “Women Writers in the Proletarian Literature                   Collection, McFarlin Library.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 8:1 (Spring 1989):      143-53.

Martin, Ben. John Black's Body: A Story in Pictures. New York: Vanguard Press, 1939.

Martin, John S. General Manpower. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938.

Morris, William. News From Nowhere or, An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From a Utopian Romance. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894.

Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1956.

Rollins, William. The Shadow Before. New York: R.M. McBride, 1934.

Vorse, Mary Heaton. Strike! New York: Horace Liveright, 1930.

Weatherwax, Clara. Marching! Marching! New York: J. Day, 1935.


Other Sources of Interest

 The University of Tulsa’s Department of English
The University of Tulsa’s Special Collections Department in McFarlin Library
Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature

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