Poles Apart? Ethnicity, Race, Class, and Nelson Algren
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 118-144



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Poles Apart? Ethnicity, Race, Class, and Nelson Algren

Ian Peddie


"There is NO RACE in the class war," Mike Gold declared in 1934. This sobering conclusion, which Gold drew from years of experience living in the slums of New York's Lower East Side, might simply have been forgotten had it not come from the hard Left's most prominent spokesperson. Gold had seen "negro landlords shoot down negro tenants with the aid of white police." "White bosses," Gold continued, "shoot down white workers. In the New York garment strike, Jewish bosses kill and maim Jewish workers by the aid of Italian gangsters and Irish cops" ("A Word" 136). Gold's activism offered perhaps the Left's most powerful call for a broad movement that subsumed race and ethnicity in favor of a class-based activism that would appeal equally to all. That it was near-utopian in its idealism and wholly unworkable in practice was not, however, something to deter those on the Left for whom some kind of proletarian populism meant the importation of the worst Soviet ideals.

Any centrist policy that failed to heed the differences that race and ethnicity brought to a broad class front meant that its appeal, especially to African Americans, was limited. The long-time communist Richard Wright was one of the most prominent African Americans to lament the Communist Party's apparent lack of concern with race. Wright's belief that the Communist Party could not accommodate race was one of the [End Page 118] reasons he eventually resigned from the party, a move he had signaled in the symbolic novel Native Son (1940). Here, then, lies the crux of the problem. Wright makes clear in Native Son that Bigger is condemned to a particular class by his racial make-up, that he is working class at least in part because he is black. Wright's implication was portentous, and it spoke to a larger social malaise in the United States. Though race and ethnicity had long been codified as markers of class, as the physical proximity between various racial and ethnic groups increased commensurate with the rise (and fall) of industrialization, so the vicissitudes of race and ethnicity became tied more closely to questions of class. This situation was especially prominent in the large urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest where, as Michael Denning reminds us, "ethnicity and race had become the modality through which working class peoples experienced their lives and mapped their communities" (239). The complex connection between ethnicity, race, and class is one of the most important features of the development of left-wing literature after the turmoil of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. During the difficult years of the Cold War it enabled American authors to write about class issues when it was no longer safe to do so. More than that, it fostered the intriguing notion that in the United States, ethnicity, race, and class are all but inseparable.

The changing political climate at the beginning of the 1940s pushed left-wing writers still pursuing social protest beyond the limiting calls for revolution found in the thirties and towards a more subtle expression of resistance. At the same time it also brought along a new set of problems. The image of protest literature was inextricably bound to the 1930s, and it had been internalized by critics as a kind of agitprop proletarianism, one that, as Leslie Fiedler put it, "provided only a handy set of formulas" around which "writers could organize their protests" ("Two Memories" 60). Fiedler's words suggest that critics already had a template to which certain writers, along with their chosen forms and subjects, were expected to conform. Unfortunately, that template failed to take into account the increasing sophistication of left-wing literature, which--in spite of Gold's convincing claims otherwise--in many instances recognized that class experience could not be read separately from ethnic and racial experience. Hence, writers who continued to tell the stories of the urban poor were often denigrated as...


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