Sunday, April 14, 2013

Proletarian Writing (in America)

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”  ― Karl Marx,
The Communist Manifesto

Ok. Who or what, exactly, is the Proletariat?

In short, the proletariat are low-ranking members of the socioeconomic class without means to self-production or promotion (Foley, web)

In other words, they are the ever-toiling, poverty-stricken laborers. They are cherry pickers, coal or diamond miners, ditch-diggers and sweatshop workers. The 1920s and 30s proletariat often looks different than the upper class, with dark eyes, dark hair (Foley, web) and wearing dirt, grit and grime as a uniform.

Today, these members of society are euphemistically called "blue-collar workers". The term is convenient because it denotes a kind of social class without actually coming right out and acknowledging that such a class system exists. 

The proletariat are usually understood as the laboring citizens that make up the industrial working-class. Usually, more specifically, a radical (Marxist) thinker in the industrial working-class, of a mind to spread and teach radical ideas (Foley, 86).

Proletarian Ideals

At its base, the radical ideals of the proletariat revolve around a belief that the problems of the working class (like extreme poverty, starvation, death from overwork) only exist because of deliberate or indifferent exploitation by the capitalist ruling class, or bourgeoisie (Aaron)

Where does the Marxist/radical part come in? The proletariat, borrowing ideas from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, rebels against the idea that a small portion of the nation's people should manage and control the majority of the population by obtaining the majority of the resources and forcing the largest portion of the population to work without hope of achieving those same resources and therefore, the same opportunities. 

It is also a wholesale dismissal of the social rungs in which class differences like accents, dress and education separate people and define a person’s identity and self-worth. Ultimately, it calls for an overhaul of the current system, a more universal self-rule by the working-class and eventual merging of the classes until differences are defined by personal character and not by the affected customs that follow a varied economic status.

The Proletariat: Feeding the Nation’s Rich
In America, as capitalism becomes the darling economic reality of the governing class, immigrants pour into the country, leaving behind everything, seeking to rise from nothing and become something. Instead, they confront the truth of tenement slums and a virulently racist ruling class. It is a shock to the system. 

The subsequent myth of the American Dream haunts them all. Horrific factory conditions and disgusting slums claim many thousands of lives. Starvation and disease are very real threats to the working class. 

Feeding the Nation

In the relative peace pre-World War I, the proletariat begins to question the rank and file of the capitalist system, starting with the world rulers, religious leaders and religious ideology, then the very rich, the burgeoning middle class and finally, the largest and most maligned class, the poor laborers that grind, beat, mold and drag up the goods that the upper classes so desperately consume. 

This disparity and death among the workers leads to the formations of international unions, like the International Workers of the World. Then, the very existence of the unions themselves encourage the proletariat to test and push back on the boundaries of social norms.

The Rich Man’s War

As the unions form and ideas foment, war from across the ocean looms. Despite the nation’s isolationist leanings, American companies, worried that the world war might negatively affect the growth and success of a now more global business market, encourage America’s entrance into the fray. 
Once America joins World War I, those working class voices and questions are raised louder and more provocatively, calling the war a “Rich Man’s War” and finding various means and methods to protest the war where the horrors of trench warfare make cannon fodder of untold millions of soldiers -- many of them members of that seemingly expendable working class. In the sobering wake of WWI and with the magical day-growing advent of electricity, the proletariat begins, with increasing passion and frequency, to write.

What did they write? Everything! Poetry, plays, literary critiques, novels, and many, many magazine articles!
Proletarian Literature - Author, Audience, Subject

"Everyone has a great tragic-comic story to tell. Almost everyone in America feels oppressed and wants to speak out somewhere. Tell us your story...Tell it simply and sincerely, in the form of a letter. Don't worry about style, grammar, or syntax. Write as you talk. Write. Let America know the heart and mind of the workers." -Mike Gold, New Masses, 1929
The proletarian novel has many characteristics, most of which are hotly debated, but always centralize around some recognizable form. 

Primarily, the work is Marxist, socialist or anarchist in some form.

Basically, the novel is a creative piece of work conceived of by, written by and written for the working class. It can be fiction or nonfiction, but the topic must be proletariat-oriented in subject (Foley, web). The voice (and audience) best accepted by purists is as propaganda intended to embolden, educate and excite the fellow proletariat. 

As the genre evolves and authorship morphs, the audience can be much wider, intending to share the plight of the working class and repressed minorities with the attentive, if sometimes pandering petty-bourgeoisie, who are slightly better placed economically and might be more able to make social changes (Foley, 87)

In the case of authorship changes, the original authors were proletariat. Writing, as Gold eagerly champions, with integrity, truth and simplicity in a field that previously excluded the uneducated or so-called “low-brow” art of the working class. 

As the interest in proletarian literature spreads and gains the respect of famous authors like Hemingway, the petty-bourgeoisie try to take up the cause of the proletariat. In that case, one proletariat, Granville Hicks, writes in the leftist magazine, New Masses, that the literary-minded, revolutionaries of the petty-bourgeoisie “should not merely believe in the cause of the proletariat; he should be, or should try to make himself, a member of the proletariat” (Foley 89).

Art or Propaganda? Themes?

“We used to talk about it endlessly and never arrived at any definite conclusion" -- Jack Conroy
In the proletariat’s mind, the proletarian novel is a weapon (Foley, web), socially-conscious literature is a weapon, the pen is a weapon. The weapon is meant to attack and destroy social convention and to incite proletarian outrage in the working class. 

The authors hope that their words will lead the proletariat to throw off their chains and join the communist or socialist cause...and fight against capitalist tyranny. Therefore, much of the writing is propaganda and art.

Often, the literary proletariat discussion involved purpose in art. What was the purpose of the novel? The author? The subject? Was the author writing solely to please herself, and was that okay? 

Later, the discussion involved even more intricate details. What gender, minority or specific struggle was being represented? Which struggle should be represented? IS art for the sake of art still proletarian, if the art if created by the proletariat? 

These questions were not often answered easily or consistently.

Q. In the end, what is Proletarian Literature? 

A. Overall, the core of proletarian writing questioned the modern social structure, demanded new awareness of the struggle inherent in the proletariat lifestyle and provided a voice (however meager) for the previously voiceless minorities, like immigrants, blacks and women. This writing was proletariat-initiated and proletariat-supported. 

Q. What themes prevail in Proletarian Writings?

A. Themes are fairly consistent and represent the deepest wishes of the proletariat class (Aaron). Frequent themes are: the political and social rise of the working class, collectivism, the unfair treatment of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, exploring the mind of the disdainful upper class, the sexualization of the working class, socialism is realized in America, and/or the difficulties of life for the tenement (slum) dweller.

Using various literary outlets, the working class is usually depicted in a realistic setting beset with real problems. The hero (there is often a hero) before the end of the novel, typically realizes the only way to improve or grow is to throw off the shackles of the oppressive ruling class or classes and works to achieve that end (Foley 87-89)

A Few of the Writers

Mike Gold
Michael Gold -- born 1894,on the Lower East Side of New York City to Romanian Jewish immigrant parents. He was a Jewish American member of the Communist party who fervently awaited the rise of the Worker’s Revolution. Gold was also the founding editor for the leftist magazine, New Masses, and wrote a well-known novel, Jews Without Money, published in 1930. He is famous for demanding that the proletariat writer adhere strictly to the Communist party line and for disparaging those writers that attempted to embody the working class plight without this specific class revolution firmly in mind (Aaron)

In 1928, Mike Gold writes in the New Masses of Ernest Hemingway, acknowledging the usefulness of his wonderfully sparse style but reservedly noting his aloofness, saying that “revolutionary writers of the future will be grateful to him; they will imitate his style. But they will have different things to say. A new wave of social struggle is moving on the ocean of American life...Hemingway is not the herald of a new way of feeling, but the last voice of a decade of despair” (Foley 88)

Hemingway famously responds with a gruff: 

“Go tell Mike Gold, Ernest Hemingway says he should go f--- himself” (censorship mine, Flynn 219).

Agnes Smedley
Agnes Smedley -- born 1892, in Missouri into a coal mining family with many children. Agnes Smedley is most known for writing the largely autobiographical, proletarian novel, Daughter of Earth, in 1929, she was a journalist, writer, socialist, communist, revolutionary and activist that followed the Chinese revolution and Bengali Indian revolutions with empathy and eventual involvement. Although she found disheartening resistance in the communist party to the independent and strong female position in society, Smedley maintained her foothold in the community and continued to write proletarian works until her death.  

Jack Conroy -- born in America to Irish immigrants in 1898 and known as the Worker Writer of the novels, The Disinherited and A World to Win. His semi-autobiographical book, The Disinherited, told the tale of a coal-miner’s son living during the Great Depression. The novel was “hailed” by his peers as an “authentic” and “genuine literary talent” and Gold praised his work, calling him a “proletarian shock-trooper whose weapon is literature” (Foley 89). Conroy was an important member of the literary proletariat and, like, Gold, made a habit of reviewing the work of fellow proletarian authors for the valued qualities of authenticity and revolutionary, movement-oriented ideas.

Inspiration and Influence

Proletkult -- Russian Proletarian Art following the Bolshevik overthrow of monarchy in Russia, worked to promote a new culture for the proletarian ruling class.

The Communist Manifesto -- Karl Marx’s innovative work on the potential of the working class and codifying the idea that things could change, challenging fate and upper class propaganda, stating that social caste struggles were not written into the fabric of humanity.

Industrialization -- simultaneously chains the body and frees the mind of the working class, providing minimal upward movement and atrocious working conditions, but also a population surge, a move to social reform and community.

Rooted In/Birthed from:

  • Enlightenment Ideals
  • The Young Intellectuals
  • The Communist Movement
  • Various Political and Social Changes
  • WWI (Rich Man’s War)
  • Advances in Art
  • The Industrial Workers of the World or I.W.W.
  • Social Reforms

The First Red Scare 

The First Red Scare followed political shifts occurring in the world post-WWI and featured paranoid, often illegal behavior in both the federal and local government level. Cases like the Sacco-Vanzetti case consolidated and polarized proletarian writers. 

Anarchists were outraged and often advocated violent retaliation. 

Communists saw the case as a prime example of upper class warfare on the lower class and favored using it as a tool to incite the proletariat masses. 

Many other social contingents found something in this case to represent the injustices done to the legally ill-prepared and insufficiently represented working class. How each of the factions dealt with and reacted to the case revealed the many ideological fissures in the proletarian world. 

Splits and Shifts 

Time constraints do not allow me the time to explore these terms further. The link on each should guide and encourage you to explore them in your own time, at a later point. The differences between them deserve a blog post all their own. Suffice it to say, that these political differences are important enough to piecemeal and eventually weaken the proletariat position in society and lead to very interesting complexities in proletarian literature. 

The Great Depression 

Following the stock market crash and the scourge of depression sweeping the land and devastating the already hungry working class, the time was ripe for revolutionary ideas. The 30s marks an explosion of proletarian writing and authors. The bleakness of the time and the failure of both the government and capitalism to save the economy left many in the worker class looking elsewhere, anywhere, for guidance. 

Sometimes, they found it in the stories of the struggling proletariat and her eventual redemption through social revolution.

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print. 

Foley, Barbara. "Writing Up the Working Class: The Proletarian Novel in the U.S." Editorial. S.A.M.A.R. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. 

Flynn, Daniel J. A Conservative History of the American Left. New York: Crown Forum, 2008. Print. 

Garon, Paul. "Radical Novel: 1900-1954." Editorial. Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine Mar. 1994. Radical Novel: 1900-1954. Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. 

Nekola, Charlotte, and Paula Rabinowitz, eds. Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940. New York: Feminist at the City University of New York, 1987. Print.

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