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DAVID PECK SALVAGING THE MARXIST CRITICISM OF THE 30s The rediscovery of 30s Marxist criticism is linked to the development in this country of two major cultural interests. One is our growing fascination with America in the 1930s, a fascination we can witness in the popularity of Studs Terkel's Hard Times and John Houseman's Run-through, in the return of writers like Tillie Olsen, Dashiell Hammett , Tess Slesinger, and Nathanael West, and in our mesmeric attraction to the likes of "Sounder," "The Sting," "Chinatown," and "The Waltons." There is something sustaining in the stories we tell ourselves of our Depression past, and we continue to return to the literature and legends of the 30s to recover, or recreate, those myths of our suffering and camaraderie. The other significant cultural movement today is a renaissance in Marxist thought which, like the 30s revival, has its sources in the ebbing of political hysteria. Critics and scholars have discovered that a considerable body of Marxist criticism was written in European socialist countries during the Cold War and earlier, and translations of Georg Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Robert Weimann, and other Marxists are beginning to flow from American presses. At the same time, younger American critics, awakened by the pitched political and educational battles of the 1960s, have discovered the validity of Marxist thought for themselves, and have begun to apply Marxist ideas to a wide range of literary and cultural topics. In the past several years, dozens of new collections , translations, and studies of Marxist criticism have appeared in this country.1 The intersection between these two interests is not quite complete, however: we are still ignorant of much of that first American experiment in Marxist criticism which dominated the literary 30s. We are busy today recovering the achievements of the Federal Arts Projects, Depression photojournalism, its social art and theatre—all subjects of recent studies2—and yet historians persist in repeating the myths about the "dogmatic" and "orthodox" Marxist criticism of the decade. Here was a critical movement in part responsible for the literature of social consciousness we are today rediscovering through the Federal Writers' Project, the works of Clifford Odets, James Agee, Robert Cantwell, Richard Wright—and yet we know next to nothing of what the Marxists thought about literature, or how they prodded writers to confront 59 their own times. We ought to know more about our own radical heritage , for the social-literary temper the Marxists helped created in the 30s is strikingly similar to the critical atmosphere now emerging in contemporary American literature. If we study the political-literary history of the Cold War, then the reasons for our ignorance become clear.3 But there is little value in describing how those critics and historians who rewrote the 30s buried its literary Marxism—except perhaps to note how many were ex-Marxists (like Granville Hicks, Philip Rahv, and Malcolm Cowley) who still carried Marxist tools and values to their jobs after 1940. The only value for us is in trying to salvage our radical literary history by reviewing it in its original forms. In June of 1939, Morton Dauwen Zabel surveyed the literary criticism of the preceding ten years and announced in The English Journal that it was "a moment of exceptional alertness and tension in the critical thinking in the country": . . . American criticism is able to boast of certain signs of life and promise. The necessary conditions of healthy activity are present: rivalry of beliefs, leanness of fortune, and a general dissatisfaction with the present role played by literature in society. The "central event" in this past decade of criticism, Zabel declared, was "the controversy around Marxist thought and criticism": The issues raised by it have invigorated the work ofmany critics; they have confused the work of many more. The controversy is by no means settled; it is currently the source of some of the keenest critical debate and some ofthe worst literary hostility our century has seen. But there is no question of its importance in drawing to a point the diverging issues and doctrines—the aesthetic, the ethical, the economic, the political-for which literature provides a meeting-point. Zabel's description of "The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 59-84
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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