restricted access Cultural Work and Class Politics: Re-reading and Remaking Proletarian Literature in the United States
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Cultural Work and Class Politics:
Re-reading and Remaking Proletarian Literature in the United States

I

Shortly after the Second World War, the editors of Partisan Review published the results of a survey they had sent out to America's most prominent writers and literary critics. In his contribution to "The State of Writing in America, 1948," one young critic summed up an emerging post-war consensus on the relations between literature and politics by asserting that: "The absolute claim to freedom in the creative act . . . challenges many political systems. An honest devotion to writing hypothetically attacks Stalinism, tests its pretensions against our own analysis at once; what cannot endure the practice of the most human of activities is the Enemy" (Fiedler 875). It was time, Leslie Fiedler claimed, for contemporary writers to turn away from the leftist politics of the previous decade and to realize that matters of social conscience rested in "the ultimate humanity, the essential morality, the necessity of the practice of [the writer's] art, and he is tempted to trust his metaphors, his meters more than himself" (871). If a writer balked at the existential and romantic terms of this new politics of writing, Fiedler offered a simple therapy: "There is, after all, on his shelf that monument to an opposite approach, momento mori and souvenir of his beginnings in one, Proletarian Literature in the United States" (871). Published in the same month that Whitaker Chambers was fingering Alger Hiss as a high level Soviet agent, Fiedler's advice carried practical overtones: to reconstruct their cultural authority in the Cold War era, American writers might have to enact a kind of ritual suicide, killing off and interring that earlier, less morally acute self and time. [End Page 715]

Fiedler's use of Proletarian Literature in the United States as a symbol for the indiscretions of the 1930s was a particularly apt one. After all, this anthology of radical verse, fiction, poetry, drama, and criticism had been hailed by most critics in 1935 as a major expression of the new, powerful presence of radical politics in American culture. Lauding the anthology's contributions from established writers such as John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, Malcolm Cowley, and Josephine Herbst, as well as those from newcomers such as Jack Conroy, Meridel Le Sueur, and Tillie Lerner (later to publish under her married name of Olsen), Louis Kronenberger declared that: "one need not be ardently sympathetic with the movement which this anthology represents to agree that artistically the movement has begun to stand on its feet. There is more to it now than vitality and purposefulness; there is a growing amount of literary significance" (600). Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Horace Gregory judged the anthology to be "extraordinarily successful" and "invaluable to the student as well as to the general reader" (vii). In his review, Newton Arvin claimed that the anthology announced "a new and, now, healthy chapter in American literature" even as it "shows how an old promise, an old potentiality in our culture from the beginning, is going to be fulfilled and made a reality" (12). Although reviewed unfavorably by that bulwark of middle-class taste, Henry Seidel Canby's Saturday Review of Literature, even he acknowledged the serious status of proletarian literature by assigning two long, detailed reviews of the anthology to Mary Colum and Bernard DeVoto. A short while before this flurry of attention, William Phillips had argued in Partisan Review that "revolutionary literature" had permanently displaced the "lost generation" to claim modernism's mantle as "the most significant and strongest literary current" in contemporary literature (52). With the publication and reception of Proletarian Literature in the United States, Phillips' claim seemed to find its most decisive and concrete proof.

It was the memory of this cultural prominence and authority that Leslie Fiedler sought to convert into a "momento mori" in 1948, and I offer this instance of historical revision as a specific example of what Raymond Williams calls the "selective tradition." To forge continuity within historical change, selective traditions both destroy and create; the past is cancelled and preserved, although in displaced and disguised forms. The selective tradition...


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