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  • Radical Romance in the Piedmont:Olive Tilford Dargan's Gastonia Novels
  • Laurie J. C. Cella

In 1929, the National Textile Workers Union led a violent strike in Gastonia, North Carolina that caught the attention of the national and international media. At that time, the Piedmont region was particularly resistant to union organizing and the Communist-led NTWU pushed boundaries even further by attempting to unionize across racial divides. Increased violence on the picket line led to the murders of Police Chief Orville F. Anderholt and a popular strike leader named Ella May Wiggins. When NTWU leaders Fred Beal and Vera Buch were accused of Anderholt's murder, the liberal media quickly connected this southern trial to that of anarchists Sacco and Venzetti, two Italian immigrants whose trial and execution solidified their place as labor heroes. The Labor Defender and New Masses featured Wiggins's plight as a single mother, raising her children on her meager salary; her death at the hands of management thugs quickly captured the imagination of the American public. Because women like Ella May Wiggins and Vera Buch became instant heroines, the Gastonia labor struggle became a symbol of the strength, courage, and tenacity of women workers in America. These dramatic events in Gastonia inspired at least six novels, four written by women and two by men.1 In this article, I will focus on two novels by Olive Tilford [End Page 37] Dargan in order to investigate the ways in which Dargan addresses both the political and personal dramas of these uncompromising southern women in the development of her heroine, Ishma Waycaster.2

The narrative in Dargan's first novel, Call Home the Heart (1932), climaxes during the events of the Gastonia strike, but Dargan continues to focus on labor rebellion in the sequel, A Stone Came Rolling (1935), a novel that affirms Ishma Waycaster's role as leader of her working-class community. While Call Home the Heart has received some critical attention thus far, most critics focus on Ishma's failure to triumph over her latent racism. For example, in her recent assessment of Dargan's literary contributions to proletarian literature, Anna Shannon Elfenbein points to Ishma's regression to base instincts at the end of Call Home the Heart as representative of her failure as a radical heroine. However, I believe that Dargan made important revisions to the standard proletarian conversion narrative in her construction of Ishma Waycaster, revisions which become clearer when her Gastonia novels are read as one continuous narrative. Moreover, I will focus primarily on the events in Ishma's life as they evolve into what I will call "radical romance," a narrative strategy in direct contrast to those employed by male authors in the 1930s. A careful analysis of the literary texts written in response to the Gastonia strike reveals a gendered difference around the issue of sexuality: male authors view the sexual undercurrent of a workers' strike as a threat to masculine agency in the contest between management and workers, while female authors view expressions of female sexuality as a site of potential resistance and political strength.

In making this argument, I do not ignore the decidedly masculine tone set by critics like Mike Gold, whose 1928 call to "Go Left" was directed at the "wild (male) youth, at work in the coalmines" (Folsom 188). As the newly minted editor of New Masses, Gold was in the position to set the ideological and theoretical pace for left-leaning writers of the 1930s. His views reflect what feminist critics have since noted about leftist ideologues: though they gave lip service to issues involving gender, they often downplayed or ignored the "woman question." According to Alice Kessler-Harris and Paul Lauter, "though leftist ideology in the 1930s recognized the 'special oppression' of women and formally espoused sexual equality, in practice, the Left tended to subordinate problems of gender to the overwhelming tasks of organizing the working class and fighting fascism" ("Introduction" ix). In response to Gold's emphasis on the "masculine proletariat," feminist historians Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Nan Enstad, Ardis [End Page 38] Cameron, and Laura Hapke demonstrate that women have played an active part in many of the major...


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