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Reviewed by:
Alan A. Block. Anonymous Toil: A Re-evaluation of the American Radical Novel in the Twentieth Century. Lanham, MD, New York, and London: UP of America, 1992. 139 pp. $37.50 cloth, $18.50 paper.

In Anonymous Toil, Alan Block argues that the radical novel "has existed throughout the course of American literature." The attempts of its principal historians and critics—he cites Walter Rideout, Daniel Aaron, and James Gilbert—to define it as a separate sub-genre of American fiction have stigmatized it as "inferior" and resulted in its marginalization. Its reification, however, "speaks more to the power of the ruling culture to define literature than it does to the claim these works might have to it." Where in the bourgeois novel "consciousness results as a product of the self in contradistinction to [the] world," in the radical novel, Block contends, "consciousness is the understanding of the self in the world, of the construction of the self as a product of social conditions, and of the possibility of empowerment in the struggle over control of those conditions." He traces the emergence of class-conscious subjectivity in a range of texts from almost every decade of the twentieth century: Susan Glaspell's The Visioning, Ernest Poole's The Harbor, Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike!, Fielding Burke's Call Home the Heart, Ira Wolfert's Tucker's People, Lars Lawrence's Morning, Noon, and Night, E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, John Nichols' The Milagro Beanfield War, and Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven.

Block's study is limited and flawed in a number of respects. Published in 1992, it targets older scholarship and does not take into account the available revisionary narratives of US literary radicalism by Cary Nelson (1988) and Paula Rabinowitz and Charlotte Nekola (1989). It is based on no [End Page 153] new archival work, nor—despite a few comments about Bakhtin and Foucault—does it illuminate its texts through the deployment of recent critical methodologies. Only white writers are discussed; while half are women, issues of gender are invisible. Block's use of Marxist categories is unsophisticated: "means," "relations," and "forces" of production are confused, and "superstructure"—despite a cited warning from Raymond Williams—is objectified; in economistic fashion, "working class subjectivity" is held to emerge "only in the activities of production." Moreover, Block restricts himself to novels in which protagonists experience a rise in consciousness and evades any potentially troublesome questions about the politics of the novel form itself. In a broad range of texts Block predictably traces one theme—about "empowerment" and "subjectivity" emerging from characters' perception of their capitalist "objectification"—and overlooks significant literary-historical developments over the century.

Despite its shortcomings, however, Anonymous Toil contributes to the revisionary work currently being done with US left-wing literature. Block ably supports his contention that the radical novel cannot be ghettoized as the "socialist novel" or the "proletarian novel" by demonstrating the left-wing inspiration behind a range of compelling and diverse texts published up to the present. Moreover, his discussion of a number of these texts' politics is sharp-edged: I found particularly exciting his analyses of the capitalist roots of fascism and anti-communism in Tucker's People and Morning. Noon and Night. Finally, even though Block's readings of his novels are couched in somewhat overused formulations, his approach has the virtue of consistency and synthesis. Block is clearly an impassioned pedagogue: as he notes in his closing comments, "Reading is the making of connections. . . . The twentieth century radical novel, structured upon a historical materialism, offers a materialist purpose to and in reading." Block's students are clearly lucky to have a radical teacher so committed to helping them reclaim and expand their subjectivities. His book offers a highly useful course outline to teachers interested in offering their students a similar experience.

Barbara Foley
Rutgers University
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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 153-154
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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