restricted access Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 (review)
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Reviewed by
Barbara Foley. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. xiii + 459 pp. $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.

The newest book on 1930s proletarian fiction provides a comprehensive survey of the debates surrounding this much maligned era of American literary history. Foley's compendium of critical and novelistic forays into "politics and form" offers little original research for those familiar with the internecine warfare critics and writers, leftists and liberals, and Stalinists and Trotskyists staged during the decade; but this is an admittedly small audience. Thus, for the general reader, this will be the authoritative work on this turbulent period and its controversial cultural politics. Foley claims to be "devoted to . . . ground-clearing and reassessment"; however, Radical Representations often retraces well-worn paths through the thickets of left-wing politics and discovers landmarks already erected by those who have come before.

Foley's central claim is that virtually all previous scholarship on the 1930s Left has been marred by "the legacy of anti-communism." Still, by "treat[ing] the terms 'anti-Communist,' 'anti-Marxist,' and 'anti-Stalinist' as [End Page 365] interchangeable," Foley collapses ideas, practices and historical epochs. She is right to challenge the blind condemnation of the term "Stalinism," noting it "has become a virtually undeconstructable term," but she never fully explains how we might effectively rethink Stalinism.

Presumably the clues are to be found in the "politics and form" of her study which she (quite conventionally) divides into two parts: the first traces the arguments among critics and theorists about proletarianism, the national question, and the woman question; the second presents typological readings of the proletarian novel as a form poised within "the complex interplay of generic and doctrinal politics." In this, Foley follows the work of Granville Hicks (who, in a 1934 essay, "Revolution and the Novel," outlined a typology for proletarian fiction), and virtually every subsequent critic of the genre—myself included. As many theorists of what Deleuze and Guattari call "minor literature" have noted, what makes these texts interesting is precisely their conformity to an already-scripted plot and ideology, with the minor deviations providing clues to changing historical effects. However, Foley's decision to separate discussions of the politics and theory of proletarian fiction from their formal embellishments within the novels perpetuates—wrongly, I think—a division between theory and practice; privileging criticism over fiction and inadvertently marginalizing the voices of workers, racial minorities, and women who rarely formulated theory, but who did pen literature.

Still, Foley helpfully dissects the arguments about whether real workers needed to write for authentic workers to be deemed properly proletarian, or whether narrative verisimilitude or political perspective constituted the most telling feature of proletarian fiction. In the 1930s, these debates—endlessly repeated among successive generations of American radicals as ethnic and racial minorities, women, and gays and lesbians question the need for "positive images," "authenticity," and "realism" within representational politics—were adumbrated by the CPUSA. Foley's careful tracking of the implications of the differing positions on proletarianism serves as a cautionary tale. Her discussion of the "Black Belt thesis" as a form of the "national question" embedded within the integrationist efforts of black and white communists distills the research of Mark Naison and Robin Kelley to show how these contradictory ideas were elaborated in the novels of two black communists—Richard Wright and William Attaway. This chapter demonstrates the importance of reading fiction as theory. A point reiterated in her chapter summarizing the "woman question," which relies on others' discoveries (myself included) that women's proletarian novels complicated—not "counterpose[d]" as Foley charges us with—asserting the sometimes retrograde ideas about and policies on gender and sexuality circulating within the Party.

The second half of the book is less satisfactory for me—of course, I am one of the few living Americans to have actually read all the novels Foley discusses. By foregrounding a coherent generic typology (which closely follows Hicks's and that later reformulated by Walter Rideout), she glosses over the internal contradictions and narrative gaps within texts. Usually, [End Page 366] Foley shows how each novel pushed a communist...