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  • Left and Literary
  • Harvey Teres
Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. Carla Cappetti. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Pp. 274. $17.50 (paper)
American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. Walter Kalaidjian. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Pp. 316. $55.00 (cloth); $18.50 (paper)
Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941. Barbara Foley. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Pp. 459. $55.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

The three books under review are part of the growing endeavor to rediscover, reinterpret, and revitalize twentieth-century literary leftism in the U.S. To some, of course, literary leftism remains an oxymoron. Traditionalists claim the left has produced little literature of note and has given scant support to good literature produced by non-leftists. Similarly, leftist organizers (as distinguished from academic leftists) have not shown great interest in literature, in authors, or in critics. Thus, for example, despite the unprecedented example of Edward Bellamy’s enormously influential novel Looking Backward (1888), the Socialist Party’s Appeal to Reason at the turn of the century suspended serial publication of that movement’s only enduring classic, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), in order to make room for more pressing political matters. And thus, during the 1950s Max Shachtman rebuffed Irving Howe and Stanley Plastrik’s request to have the Independent Socialist League sponsor a little magazine [End Page 177] devoted to non-sectarian political and cultural discussion. This forced them to found Dissent magazine on a wholly independent basis. Other examples abound. Contrary to the claims of all three authors and a good number of their colleagues, it wasn’t only the cold war, the New Criticism, or the anti-communism of the New York intellectuals that was responsible for suppressing the literary left: for some time now there have been good reasons to deny that any pertinent relationship has ever existed between radical politics and literary achievement. Most recent scholars, however, have chosen to dwell on causes outside the left to explain whatever incompatibility exists within the left between politics and literature. This is understandable given the beating socialism and the left have been taking these past five years. On the other hand, now that leftists have been unburdened of the heavy Soviet load they have long carried, at least in the public mind, they have the chance to remake themselves anew by reconsidering with ruthless honesty the depredations of their past. Thus far the ruthlessness has been reserved for traditional enemies; when it comes to analyzing problems internal to the left, a comforting solicitude still prevails.

Although this is by and large the approach taken by all three authors whose work is under review, it does not prevent them from making important contributions to our understanding of the literary left. Carla Cappetti’s Writing Chicago explores the abiding influence that the Chicago school of sociology had on Chicago novelists James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy, 1935), Nelson Algren (Never Come Morning, 1942), and Richard Wright (Black Boy, 1945). The Chicago school, of course, contributed greatly to the invention of modern sociology, particularly with its work on urban studies, race, and ethnicity. Cappetti carefully reviews the scholarship of William Thomas, Robert Park, Robert Redfield, William Thrasher, and others, showing how it provided a definitive conceptual and analytical framework for each of the authors. Cappetti makes large claims for this close relationship. She argues that the novelists’ association with the most advanced sociological thought of their time not only provided greater insight into social reality, but also led to innovative narrative devices and powerful narratives. She believes the connection to sociology should cause us to reconsider the literary labels that we have saddled these writers with—realist, naturalist, ethnic, regionalist, or proletarian—all of which have come to signify narrowness, naïveté, and conventionality. Cappetti bemoans the privileging of modernism over these terms, but rather than reverse priorities she argues that they have all outlived their usefulness. “Urban writing” is the term she prefers, and she believes that under its rubric critics would be free to invent new categories and methods that would encourage them to leave behind outmoded ideological positions...

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pp. 177-184
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