I have it on good authority that I once wrote something discerning about Jack Conroy. He told me so. That was in 1968 when, in an essay on proletarian literature, I said about his 1933 novel The Disinherited that, [End Page 138] despite the tendentious, formulaic, virtually autonomic proletarianizing, coming mostly at the end, the pervading sense of the novel was pastoral and nostalgic. At the end of this plainly autobiographical novel, Larry Donovan, standing in for Conroy, reaches the standard epiphany: “I knew that the only way for me to rise to something approximating the grandiose ambitions of my youth would be to rise with my class, with the disinherited, the bricksetters, the flivver tramps, boomers, and outcasts pounding their ears in flophouses.” And off indeed he then goes, to be an organizer, or a colonizer, in company with the standard tutelary radical German refugee, usually (as here) named Hans. But that development plainly, so I thought, had been a publishing and political necessity of the moment. Much of the moving genuineness of the novel was in its evocation of family and companions, and of home. The home place was a mining camp just outside Moberly, Missouri, which, despite the many and terrible brutalities imposed by the mine, offered solaces of space and nearby woods and warmth and tenderness.
On the other hand, there was also plain implication in Conroy’s letter to me that he would have written to anybody who said a kind word, given the “long period in which,” as he said, “if I were mentioned at all, most critics tagged me as a servile lackey of Moscow with little talent and less artistic integrity.” (Murray Kempton, in his account of the 30s had referred to Conroy as a “hopeless soak in Chicago,” to which Conroy replied that, though he might be a soak, he wasn’t hopeless. So Conroy told me.)
This present book by Douglas Wixson is of course an attempt to reclaim Conroy from the long period of neglect. Wixson, who is Conroy’s literary executor, says that he has here written something that is not a biography, exactly, but rather a study of Conroy’s “significance as a worker-writer,” which would indicate intention to reclaim more than the man and his writing, as there is every good reason to do. Conroy was at once a novelist (he wrote a second novel, A World to Win, published in 1935), a short story writer, and a poet, and he was also a center of energy. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he organized the group of young writers who called themselves the Rebel Poets and secured publication for them in anthologies and the Rebel Poet magazine. When that folded, he founded Anvil, a poetry and fiction journal on the left which, largely by Conroy’s pleading and bullying and sheer energy, achieved a distribution of some 4500 and which was the leading journal of its kind in the 1930s—until, against Conroy’s will, it was amalgamated [End Page 139] into the journal which was at first called Partisan Review and Anvil. As Wixson reminds us, Conroy in the various enterprises either discovered or was otherwise quick to recognize writers including Langston Hughes, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, and even John Cheever, as well as scores of the less surviving who nonetheless created a literary culture for the 1930s.
Conroy was, moreover, a “worker-writer” in every generic way. The son of a coal miner, he had little formal education. At age 13 and for nine years thereafter he had worked in the shops of the Wabash railroad. He had laid pavement brick, and had worked as a drift miner and on the line in automobile factories in Detroit and Toledo, and again on the line in a shoe factory (in Hannibal, MO), and so on. When Mike Gold, off in New York, called (in The Liberator) for writers who had “a knowledge of working-class life in America gained from contacts,” he should...