restricted access Labor's Text: The Worker in American Fiction (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1023-1025

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Book Review

Labor's Text:
The Worker in American Fiction


Laura Hapke. Labor's Text: The Worker in American Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001. xiv + 474 pp.

Laura Hapke's Labor's Text is an impressive, ambitious, and extremely informative history of the representation of workers in American fiction, beginning in the 1840s and continuing through the 1990s. Because of this sweeping scope, Hapke has had to make a few compromises, such as mentioning a number of works only in passing. But this approach allows her to call attention to a remarkable range of works, many of which are relatively unknown. Indeed, Labor's Text is, among other things, a work of historical recovery that reminds readers of the existence of a number of worker-oriented texts that have been largely forgotten. At the same time, Hapke discusses a number of well-known works, including those by canonical writers, such as Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck, who are sympathetic to the plight of workers. In general, however, Hapke's book is striking for the fact that it discusses so few canonical texts--for the very good reason that canonical American literature has largely ignored workers in its presentation of a national cultural identity. As a result, Hapke's history, though rich in examples of the representation of workers, is not a happy one. Running throughout the text are reminders not only of the absence of workers in mainstream American fiction, but of the general failure of writers who do represent workers to transcend the individualist ideology of America and to make positive contributions to the development of an effective American working-class consciousness. [End Page 1023]

Labor's Text is divided into three main sections, one covering labor fiction from the 1840s through the Progressive Era, one covering the 1920s and 1930s, and one covering the period from World War II to the end of the twentieth century. Along the way, Hapke punctuates her discussion of literary works with brief, but illuminating, discussions of labor history, outlining labor (and anti-labor) activity that serves as a background to the evolution of worker-oriented fiction. As a result, she is able to demonstrate that the difficulties faced by workers in breaking into American literature are closely related to the difficulties suffered by workers in the society at large, and thus to make clear that the problematic representation of workers in American fiction has high stakes and important consequences. With no effective sense of class identity (and with little literature to contribute to the development of such an identity) through most of American history, workers have been far more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by a capitalist system, the basic premises of which workers consequently tend to accept as natural and desirable.

Perhaps Hapke's text is made more downbeat by the fact that she pays relatively little attention to the proletarian fiction of the 1930s (which she acknowledges as the high-point of class-conscious American worker-oriented fiction), but this decision was probably a good one given that 1930s proletarian fiction has received so much attention elsewhere, in the work of critics from Walter Rideout to Barbara Foley, including Hapke's own earlier work on women writers of the 1930s. As a result, Hapke has space to explore other roads that have been less traveled, placing a special emphasis on the interconnections among class, gender, and ethnicity in American worker-oriented fiction. Labor's Text is, in fact, particularly good in its discussion of works by African American, Native American, Hispanic American, and Asian American writers, including works by women writers of various ethnicities, though Hapke again finds that such works all too often fail to challenge the basic premises of the class system of capitalism, focusing either on gender and ethnicity, or simply on individual success or failure.

Labor's Text is a major contribution to the study of the representation of workers in American fiction. It thus joins Hapke's earlier work and the recent...