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Radical Novel 1900-1954

By Paul Garon


One day back in the seventies, I was browsing through Walter B. Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956). Many of the authors discussed were then unknown to me: Robert Cantwell, George Allan England, Josephine Herbst, to name a few, but I'd heard of Howard Fast and I'd read Nelson Algren, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell and a few others. At this time, my wife and I were just starting Beasley Books. We discussed Rideout and the books he cited. The novels were intriguing, we enjoyed the ones we had read, and they were an important attempt to view American history from a radical and working class perspective. They documented the rise of organized labor in the US, while they confronted such issues as the growth of corporate industry and the centralization of finance, rapid urbanization, immigration, and the changing status of women and blacks. We decided to add to our already existing specialty of modern literature the categories of fiction, poetry and plays by writers on the left.

Rideout seemed a good place to start. He defined the radical novel as "one which demonstrates, either explicitly or implicitly, that its author objects to the human suffering imposed by some socioeconomic system and advocates that the system be fundamentally changed." The final clause is the most important, for many novelists sympathized with the victims of the system without advocating fundamental changes to the system itself.

For Rideout, the first such novel, in the twentieth century, was I. K. Friedman's By Bread Alone (1901), a novel inspired by labor struggles at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. Isaac Kahn Friedman was a Chicago Socialist and settlement-house worker who later became a successful journalist, but he never lost his radical perspective. His novel was a harbinger of the transformation in socialist thought from "utopian" to "scientific" socialism, but the literary tendencies toward utopias, romance and sentiment still exerted a strong pull, and it took at least a decade for more materialist viewpoints to win out in the minds of the socialist novelists.

Two other works highly thought of at the time were Edwin Brenholtz's "romance of the future," The Recording Angel (1905) and Leroy Scott's union novel, The Walking Delegate (1905) -- both seem slightly dated now -- but the first radical novel to have serious social consequences in the twentieth century was Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. As a young man, Sinclair had primed himself with Cervantes, Hugo, George Eliot, Dickens and most of all, Thackeray, but it was the hardship of trying to support himself with his writing, combined with his reading of the socialist Wilshire's magazine, that ultimately converted him to Socialism. He intended The Jungle to open the eyes of America to the evils of wage slavery, and he was stunned when his novel was instead seized upon as an exposé of the unsanitary stockyard and meat-packing industry. He may have contributed to the the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act, but that had not been his aim. The Doubleday edition of The Jungle preceded Sinclair's own Jungle Publishing Company imprint by a few hours, but collectors prefer the latter edition with the Socialist Party symbol on the front board and, hopefully, a Sustainer's Edition bookplate on the front pastedown. Make sure your copy is one of the earliest ones to come off the press, with "1906" in perfect type on the copyright page.

Sinclair founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1905 and Jack London, who was already famous by this time, was its first President. London had set his sights on becoming a professional writer, but his more revolutionary material didn't sell particularly well. Indeed, the dystopian The Iron Heel is his only novel to be cited by Rideout, although a case could be made for several others, including the short stories Goliah and The Dream of Debs in Revolution and Other Essays (1910). Another well-known personality of the era who turned out at least one radical novel was George Cram Cook, organizer of the Provincetown Players. His The Chasm was first published in 1911 in yellow cloth, but later copies were bound in cloths of other colors.

The writers who produced radical fiction in the first decades of the twentieth century tended to favor certain subjects, and while the details changed with each passing decade, the essential themes that attracted their attention did not: These themes included conversion to Socialism, fantasies about the coming of Socialism to America, labor struggles, the viciousness of the rich, and the sexual depravity of the capitalist male. The writers who produced these many works ranged from the obscure to the well-known, according to today's standards, but in their own time, nearly all of them were prolific journalists or novelists.

Arthur Bullard ("Albert Edwards"), a staff member of the socialist newspaper The Call, wrote Comrade Yetta, wherein a young girl's experiences in the garment trade lead her to Socialism via the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). It is in this novel that the IWW is first given serious treatment, but at least two novels were written by IWW members, and both are legendarily scarce: Charles Ashleigh's Rambling Kid (1930) and Harold Lord Varney's Revolt (1919). Ashleigh migrated from the UK to the US where he joined the IWW, but he returned to England subsequently. Varney soon repudiated his leftist cohorts, and became first a Republican, and then a supporter of Italian fascism.

A vivid and accurate picture of class struggles is depicted in Ernest Poole's best-seller The Harbor, an impressive radical novel whose message so struck the book-buying public that it quickly went through 22 printings! Finding a first printing is far from easy, however. Other novels of the teens to depict labor troubles are James Oppenheim's The Nine-Tenths (1911) and Upton Sinclair's King Coal (1917). To this list one could add a few less substantial but still affecting works: Florence Converse's The Children of Light (1912), Zoe Beckley's A Chance to Live and Walter Hurt's The Scarlet Shadow, published by The Appeal to Reason in 1907. While several of these novels were inspired by the tragic garment district fire at the Triangle Waist Company in 1911, Hurt's novel was based on the Western Federation of Miners' Colorado bombing case of 1905. In this case, IWW leader Big Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone were kidnapped in Denver and taken to Idaho to stand trial for the death by bombing of ex-Governor of Idaho Frank Steunenberg. The three were acquitted, partly due to the expert legal defense engineered by Clarence Darrow.

The ebb and flow in the growth of the radical movement seemed to be reflected in the number of radical novels produced each decade, and by this standard, the teens and twenties were thin years, indeed. But the novels that were written then are not without interest. Among the fantasy novels of the coming era of Socialism, George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn (1914) trilogy (published in one volume), The Golden Blight (1916) and The Air Trust (1915) are the most intriguing, and the latter title was cited by Lyman Tower Sargent in British and American Utopian Literature 1516-1975. England's work is briskly sold in the science fiction and fantasy markets of today, but few are aware of his importance from a radical perspective. He even ran as a Socialist candidate for Governor of the State of Maine in 1912.

The evils of the capitalist attracted the attention of many writers, but the most sophisticated novel emphasizing the lack of moral principles among the rich was Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). James Medill Patterson's A Little Brother of the Rich (1908) is also noteworthy partly because the wealthy author, having finished his brush with Socialism, went on to found the reactionary Chicago TRIBUNE and the (equally reactionary) New York Daily News. Like The Harbor, this radical novel was reprinted several times shortly after its release, and one must open many copies--after rejecting the Grosset and Dunlap editions--before finding one without a later printing statement.

Reginald Wright Kauffman's The House of Bondage (1910) (reprinted 16 times in two years), Hutchins Hapgood's An Anarchist Woman (1909), Sinclair's Sylvia's Marriage (1914) and Damaged Goods (1913), Elias Tobenkin's The Road (1922), Floyd Dell's Moon-Calf (1920) and The Briary-Bush (1921), as well as Max Eastman's Venture (1927) and Estelle Baker's The Rose Door (1911), all deal with sex or prostitution. The Rose Door also poses some interesting bibliographic problems. There are a number of copies with 1911 on the title page, some of which were issued with plates and some of which were not. Further, there are also obvious later printings with a 1913 title page date, with plates (and tissue guards). These plates, however, are different than the plates in the 1911 copies! We know from the publisher's archives that on several occasions Baker did give money to the Charles H. Kerr Company (her publisher), and it's possible that the pattern of her donations determined which printings were illustrated and which were not, but priority is impossible to assign at the present time.

The period under discussion was also characterized by immigrant novels like Elias Tobenkin's Witte Arrives (1916), political novels like I. K. Friedman's The Radical (1907), and anti-war novels like Upton Sinclair's Jimmie Higgins (1919). Institutionalized religion was attacked in Kauffman's The Spider's Web (1913), free love celebrated in Bullard's A Man's World (1912), and the new woman heralded in Vida Scudder's A Listener In Babel (1903) and Oppenheim's The Nine-Tenths, among others. The contradictions besetting such a woman were explored by Henry Berman in Worshippers (1906), while Mary Marcy's Out of the Dump was one of two novels cited by Rideout for their attacks on organized charity. The other was Caroline H. Pemberton's The Charity Girl, never published as a book, but serialized in The International Socialist Review. The breadth of subject matter for these novelists is wider than it first appeared.

To more fully comprehend the goals of these works and their creators, one can investigate other manifestations of the radical social thought that produced them, and the easiest way to do this is to browse through copies of The International Socialist Review (1900-1918), The Masses (1911-1917), The Liberator (1918-1924) and New Masses (1926-1948). Understanding the contributions these authors made to the radical press of their day reveals them as diverse and intriguing. James Oppenheim, for example, was a prolific poet, a lay analyst and an early follower of C. G. Jung, and the founder and editor of The Seven Arts, an important literary magazine of the time. Vida Scudder was an active Christian Socialist, Mary Marcy was an editor of The International Socialist Review, while Henry Berman had six plays published by Brentano's in 1931. Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left (NY: Harcourt, 1961) is an illuminating work in understanding the cultural networks that linked these writers and their causes.

Among the few radical novels written in the 1920s are highspots like Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth (1929) and Samuel Ornitz' anonymously issued -- and enormously popular -- Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl (1923). The 1920s also witnessed the first appearance of Jim Tully's novels of the lower classes, for example, Beggars of Life (1924), as well as Upton Sinclair's fine drama about Sacco and Vanzetti, the two-volume Boston (1928). Sinclair co-published many of his own books -- Boston is one example -- but collectors prefer the trade editions to the Sinclair-published editions (with the important exception of The Jungle). Frequently there was no "trade" issue, but with Sinclair's major works, there was usually a Boni and Liveright, a Farrar, or a Viking edition. Sinclair and Ornitz were among the few radical novelists who kept up their radical productions over a period of many decades; twenty-five years after Haunch, Paunch and Jowl, Ornitz was imprisoned as a member of the "Hollywood Ten," the group of Hollywood writers who suffered contempt citations and prison sentences for their refusal to cooperate with the House Committee on Unamerican Activities.

The main literary events of the twenties weren't "literary" at all, but their force would be considerable in shaping the radical fiction of the 1930s. The first such event was the birth of the Communist Party, with its significant connections to the Soviet Union. The Socialist Party had continued to grow until around 1912, after which its membership began to decline, thanks partly to disagreements about US participation in World War I. This, combined with the jailing of enormous numbers of IWW members and the deportation of anarchists and other radicals, left the radical movement in shambles and the Socialist Party fatally weakened; for the most part, it ceased to be a vital force in US radical politics. Another cataclysmic event was the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression. Further, while America was struggling against what seemed like economic disaster, the Soviet Union was heralding the success of its first Five-Year Plan. These forces--the birth of the CP, the wrecking of the IWW and the decline of the SP, and the worsening economic Depression--combined to draw many aspiring writers into the orbit of the Communist Party of the United States.

Active Communists encouraged the formation of John Reed Clubs in major cities to inspire the writing of proletarian literature, and countless leftist little magazines sprang into being, magazines with names like Anvil (edited by Jack Conroy), Blast, and -- one that hung on -- Partisan Review. Proletarian literature, as a term, was first used by Michael Gold in 1921, but it was his decade-later refinement of the term, endorsed by V. F. Calverton and Waldo Frank, that functioned as the concept under which Marxian fiction of the Depression era would be written and evaluated.

The 1930s was the decade of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Dos Passos' The 42nd Parallel (1930) and The Big Money (1936), but Dos Passos favored reform and persuasion, not revolution, and his work, like Steinbeck's -- whose politics were not sufficiently radical either -- went uncited by Rideout. Because of this exclusionary tendency, many collectors resist being confined by Rideout's precision. Indeed, for them The Grapes of Wrath seems to be the epitome of proletarian fiction. But let us remember that it's the revolutionary perspective, the "Marxian viewpoint," of the author that is the guiding principle in determining what is or isn't "proletarian literature." Before breathing a sigh of relief, however, note, too, that even the left was not unified on this matter, and throughout the early thirties, as well as at the 1935 American Writers' Congress, critics were arguing about whether the salient fact of proletarian fiction was the class loyalty of the author, the revolutionary viewpoint of the author, the class membership of the author, or the subject matter of the novel. (See Henry Hart, ed., American Writer's Congress (NY: International, 1935) for some of these discussions, and James F. Murphy's The Proletarian Moment. The Controversy Over Leftism in Literature. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991, for an analysis.))

For Rideout, who focused on the revolutionary viewpoint of the author, proletarian fiction came chiefly in four varieties: conversion novels, strike novels, novels of middle-class decay, and "bottom dog" novels about the down-and-out. But some books could fit in several categories, and some were difficult to classify at all. One of the most popular of the 1930s novels was Michael Gold's Jews Without Money (1930), more of a fictionalized memoir than a novel, but it was an appealing book that was reprinted dozens of times throughout the decade. Like Jack Conroy's The Disinherited (1933), which sold only 2700 copies, 1000 of which were remaindered, or Henry Roth's stunning Call It Sleep (1935), each of which traces the devlopment of its young and poverty-striken protagonist, it bridles a bit under such a rigid taxonomy, but the utility of Rideout's categories is the way in which they display the main preoccupations of the proletarian writers of the time. The "conversion to Marxism" was also chosen as a theme by authors as diverse as Maxwell Bodenheim (Run, Sheep, Run and Slow Vision), Waldo Frank (The Death and Birth of David Markand), Thomas Boyd (In Time of Peace), Albert Halper (The Foundry), and Meyer Levin (The New Bridge). Bodenheim is, of course, better known for his popular novels like Replenishing Jessica and Naked on Roller Skates and for being a bohemian "character," whereas Thomas Boyd is best known for his sombre anti-war novel, Through the Wheat (1923), and Meyer Levin is best remembered for Compulsion, a novel of the Leopold and Loeb murder case.

One of the best radical novels from the literary point of view was Robert Cantwell's Land of Plenty (1934), which sold only 3000 copies, a high figure for a proletarian novel. Like Clara Weatherwax's Marching! Marching!, which won the proletarian fiction prize sponsored by New Masses and The John Day Company, it chronicles a strike in the Pacific Northwest, but unlike that work, it has vision and polish more reminiscent of Edward Dahlberg's affecting Bottom Dogs (1930) or Nelson Algren's Somebody in Boots (1935), both novels of the lumpenproletariat, the vagrants, the paupers and the drifters of the US during the 1930s. Algren's book is reported to have sold only 770 copies. But even among the novels of middle-class decay, an admittedly rather dull-sounding category, can be found some of the most accomplished work. Two trilogies stand out: James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, consisting of Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934) and Judgment Day (1935), and Josephine Herbst's Pity is Not Enough (1933), The Executioner Waits (1934) and Rope of Gold (1939).

Rideout cited 16 strike novels of the thirties, but there are few polished novels among among them. It may be that aside from Mary Heaton Vorse, in Strike! (1930), Fielding Burke, in Call Home the Heart (1932), and of course, Robert Cantwell, in Land of Plenty, the other novelists relied too much on the inherent capacity of the strike itself to hold their reader's interest. Vorse was a practiced journalist, and Olive Tilford Dargan's skill were well above average in the works she penned as "Fielding Burke," but even such stalwarts as Sherwood Anderson (Beyond Desire, 1932) turned out weak books for this occasion.

There were other highspots of thirties radical fiction, however, and these included Edward Anderson's "bottom dogs" novel, Hungry Men (winner of a $1000 DD prize in 1935), Scott Nearing's novel of raciscm, Free Born (1932), William Cunningham's narrative of the armed uprising of Oklahoma farmers, The Green Corn Rebellion (1935), Tom Kromer's Waiting for Nothing (1935), Thomas Bell's All Brides Are Beautiful (1936), Josephine Johnson's strike novel, Jordanstown (1937), Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938), and Dalton Trumbo's famed anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939). In addition to these works, most of which are cited by Rideout, Daniel Fuchs' Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937), Hans Otto Storm's Pity the Tyrant (1937), and B. Traven's The Death Ship (1934) are all examples of radical novels not cited by Rideout. Nearly all of them are scarce. If you're pretty rugged in the delayed gratification department, you can confidently insist that your post-1920 novels have dust jackets, although many have found that setting a dust jacket cut-off point at 1930 or even 1935 makes more sense for them. Your pocketbook will have to help you decide.

A number of works by women authors are also now being recognized as radical novels. The fact that leftists advocated equal rights for women was no guarantee that women's literary productions would be evaluated "equally". Indeed, Michael Gold's constructed the notion of proletarian literature as an almost completely masculine enterprise by drawing on standard rhetorical stereotypes wherein the bourgeoisie was associated with notions of femininity and decadence while the proletariat was linked to ideas of masculinity, strength, and purity. But the revolutionary women writers recognized that the female body was a site where the contradictions of gender, race and class were often played out, and their work emphasized contraception, abortion, rape, and the repression of sexuality -- "women's issues"!

Because Rideout limited his 1930s novels to the more explicitly proletarian works that fit Michael Gold's description, books written from the point of view of female leftist intellectuals--important works like Tess Slesingers's The Unpossessed (1934), Lauren Gilfillan's I Went to Pit College (1934), or Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps (1942)--were ignored. Bessie Breuer's The Daughter (1938) and Beatrice Bisno's Tomorrow's Bread (1938) are other revolutionary novels ignored by Rideout's criterion but emphasized by Paula Rabinowitz in Labor and Desire. Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), who points out that writers like Monique Wittig, Marge Piercy, and Alice Walker are the heirs to this tradition.

By the late thirties, the proletarian novel was a dying breed, but what had caused this? And, more important, what replaced it? James T. Farrell, always an independent thinker, had published A Note on Literary Criticism (1936)--well worth a collector's attention -- wherein he plainly confronted the contradictions besetting "proletarian fiction," but this was essentially an aesthetic statement, a literary salvo, whereas it was a combination of political factors that led novelists away from the Communist Party and its aesthetic principles.

In the late 1930s, both party members and their fellow-travellers, were confronted with the Moscow Trials, the Civil War in Spain, and the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Spain became a central focus of activity in the US, unifying the left, and itself becoming the subject of many poems, stories and novels (See Frederick R. Benson's Writers in Arms. The Literary Impact of the Spanish Civil War (NY: NYU, 1967)). But it wasn't long before US Communists had to answer for Stalin's treachery to anarchists, Trotskyists, and other leftists in Spain, and for many US communists, this was impossible to do. This, combined with the wholesale murder of all the "old Bolsheviks" still alive in Russia, and topped off by a "deal" with Hitler, led many intellectuals and writers straight out of the Communist Party.

By the end of WW II and the beginning of the McCarthy era, the Party was in bad shape, having lost whatever "unity" it had attained through the common enemies of Hitler, fascism, and the Spanish Civil War. A few members hung on, however, one of whom was the prolific Howard Fast. Fast was alone responsible for eleven Rideout-cited novels in the period 1940-1954, and one of his best was one of his earliest, The Last Frontier (1941). A year earlier, Meyer Levin had published Citizens (1940), an excellent novel about the massacre of steel workers on Chicago's far South Side. Levin's works had always sold well, but he wasn't the only radical novelist with a good track record. Indeed, the radical novelists of the forties and fifties -- while few in number -- often turned out best-sellers, like Nelson Algren's National Book Award-winning The Man With the Golden Arm (1949), Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) or Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door (1947). All three books were book club choices, but the latter two books, both by black authors, occasionally fool the first edition collector. Native Son must not only state "First Edition" on the copyright page, but it must be bound in blue cloth with red stamping, not the book club binding of gray cloth stamped in black, with the book club dot on the rear board. The dust jacket must be typographic, and not the book club's pictorial dust jacket. Knock on Any Door must have a "(1)" at the foot of the last text page like most 20th century Appleton first editions, and the dj blurb on the rear panel must be about Willard Motley, not about Knock on Any Door.

Ruth McKenney's Jake Home (1943) chronicled the daily life of a communist organizer, as did Beth McHenry and Frederick N. Myers in Home is the Sailor (1948) and Grace Lois MacDonald writing as "Margaret Graham" in Swing Shift (1951). But only McKenney's name is familiar to the average reader, mostly because of her My Sister Eileen. Other important radical novels of the later decades are Albert Maltz' chronicle of communist daily life, The Underground Stream (1940) and his anti-war novel The Cross and the Arrow (1944), Chester Himes' labor novel, Lonely Crusade (1947), Ira Wolfert's crime novel, Tucker's People (1943), and Wallace Stegner's story about IWW hero Joe Hill, The Preacher and the Slave (1950). Maltz' greatest fame came as a screenwriter and, later, as a member of the "Hollywood Ten."

Rideout's survey, like ours, ended in the 1950s: dismal years of the blacklist when the stream of radical novels really seemed to be drying up. Luckily this was not so. And from our vantage point in the 1990s, we can see that later social disjunctions also produced radical novels: stories of the New Left, radical feminist novels, novels of Vietnam, and--just as in George Allan England's day--radical fantasy fiction of the future is still being produced in prodigious quantities, all just waiting to be collected!

This article originally appeared in Firsts 4:3 (March, 1994), and is presented here by permission of the author Paul Garon.

Published since 14 Dec 2009

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