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The Novel and the American Left

Critical Essays on Depression-Era Fiction

Janet Galligani Casey

Publication Year: 2004

The first collection of critical essays to focus specifically on the fiction produced by American novelists of the Depression era, The Novel and the American Left contributes substantially to the newly emerging emphasis on twentieth-century American literary radicalism. Recent studies have recovered this body of work and redefined in historical and theoretical terms its vibrant contribution to American letters. Casey consolidates and expands this field of study by providing a more specific consideration of individual novels and novelists, many of which are reaching new contemporary audiences through reprints.

The Novel and the American Left focuses exclusively on left-leaning fiction of the Depression era, lending visibility and increased critical validity to these works and showing the various ways in which they contributed not only to theorizations of the Left but also to debates about the content and form of American fiction. In theoretical terms, the collection as a whole contributes to the larger reconceptualization of American modernity currently under way. More pragmatically, individual essays suggest specific authors, texts, and approaches to teachers and scholars seeking to broaden and/or complicate more traditional “American modernism” syllabi and research agendas.

The selected essays take up, among others, such “hard-core"” leftist writers as Mike Gold and Myra Page, who were associated with the Communist Party; the popular novels of James M. Cain and Kenneth Fearing, whose works were made into successful films; and critically acclaimed but nonetheless “lost” novelists such as Josephine Johnson, whose Now in November (Pulitzer Prize, 1936) anticipates and complicates the more popular agrarian mythos of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

This volume will be of interest not only to literary specialists but also to historians, social scientists, and those interested in American cultural studies.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii-viii

The editor and contributors wish to thank the anonymous readers for the University of Iowa Press, who offered useful suggestions for improving individual essays and the collection as a whole. We would also like to acknowledge Prasenjit Gupta and Holly Carver of the Press for their prompt and careful consideration of the manuscript, and for vetting it through the final stages of production....

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Introduction: (Left) Contexts and Considerations

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pp. ix-xviii

How to narrate stasis? The question cuts to the core of fictional expression during the Great Depression, acknowledging the special artistic concerns of an America in crisis. Aesthetically speaking, one unique element of the cultural moment lay in its resistance to linear notions of progress, of movement, of hope—precisely those notions that had driven the most powerful American narratives to date. The story of the crash...

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Taking Tips and Losing Class: Challenging the Service Economy in James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce

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pp. 1-15

When James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce appeared in the fall of 1941, the reviewers seemed unprepared for this domestic drama from the man who had written The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Serenade (1937). In addition to the familiar complaints about Cain’s amoral characters—“Southern California abominations” who wallow in “the deep, slow pull of the ancient ooze where worms and serpents crawled” according to Robert Van Gelder...

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“My Little Illegality”: Abortion, Resistance, and Women Writers on the Left

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pp. 16-34

“The real class struggle,” contends a character in Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed, “is the struggle between the sexes; and rebellion begins at home” (23). It may seem counterintuitive that within a movement predicated upon the notion of human equality women would be viewed as inferior citizens. Yet work by Paula Rabinowitz, Laura Hapke, Constance Coiner, and others has illuminated the many obstacles facing leftist women writers of the ’20s and ’30s: the refusal of leftist party politics to address women’s issues, the resistance to women in positions of leadership, and the ideology...

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"Shriveled Breasts and Dollar Signs”: The Gendered Rhetoric of Myra Page’s Moscow Yankee

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pp. 35-60

In Christina Looper Baker’s In a Generous Spirit, Myra Page recounts the story of Valya Cohen, whom she knew while in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Page describes Cohen as a “beautiful,” “voluptuous,” and “athletic” girl, an aspiring engineer from a family active in the Communist Party. Cohen was living with her family in Baku when one day, while she was swimming, seven members of the region’s Azerbaijani minority attacked and raped her. According to Page, “In part, the rape was an...

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Monstrous Modernism: Disfigured Bodies and Literary Experimentalism in Yonnondio and Christ in Concrete

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pp. 61-80

One of the central reasons for the tortured tone of the textual portion of James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s celebrated 1941 portrait of three Alabama tenant farming families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is Agee’s expressed frustration with the incapacity of language to convey the full materiality of the sharecroppers’ existence. “This is a book only by necessity,” Agee states. “More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality...

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The Objectivity of Nature in Josephine Herbst’s Rope of Gold

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pp. 81-95

Literature of the Great Depression of the 1930s has remained distinctive and important in American culture because it so powerfully illustrates the effects that economic change can have on a society. The severe economic downturn of 1929–1933 rattled and reorganized American social life—including the culture of literary intellectuals.1 Although the causes of profound social change are often complex and obscure, in this period they appeared with great clarity. During the 1930s...

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Agrarian Landscapes, the Depression, and Women’s Progressive Fiction

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pp. 96-117

Any discussion of American agrarianism and Depression iconography must begin with The Grapes of Wrath, which manages to fuse the fundamentally conservative individualist values of the yeoman farmer with the ideal of collective, progressive action. Indeed, one might argue that the enormous success of Steinbeck’s novel as an arbiter of Depression imagery largely stems from this very combination, through which radical social alternatives are intimated but...

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The Avengers of Christie: Street Racism and Jewish Working-Class Rebellion in Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money

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pp. 118-131

In 1933, Theodore Dreiser wrote to Hutchins Hapgood that “the Jew . . . has been in America all of two hundred years, and he has not faded into a pure American by any means, and he will not. As I said before, he maintains his religious dogmas and his racial sympathies, race characteristics, and race cohesion as against all the types or nationalities surrounding him wheresoever” (Hapgood 436).1 Incensed by what he perceived as Dreiser’s anti-Semitism, in 1935 Hapgood reprinted this correspondence...

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“Smashing Cantatas” and “Looking Glass Pitchers”: The Impossible Location of Proletarian Literature

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pp. 132-150

Perhaps one of the most infamous slogans to ring out in the “literary class wars” of the early 1930s was the one pronounced by Jack Conroy at the 1935 American Writers’ Congress: “We prefer crude vigor to polished banality” (146). It would be easy to write off Conroy’s motto as a prime example of the “cultural Know-Nothingism” (Howe 277) of proletarian writers, especially in light of the visceral populism of their chief promoter and cultural broker, Mike Gold. Yet even “Know-Nothingism” is a rhetorical strategy...

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Marching! Marching! and the Idea of the Proletarian Novel

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pp. 151-171

In 1923, Survey Graphic, an illustrated American magazine that reached a general readership, devoted its March issue to aspects of life in the Soviet Union. Among the twenty or so articles and sketches was Soviet Commissar of Education A. V. Lunacharsky’s essay “Proletarian Culture.” Short on concrete examples...

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Time, Transmission, Autonomy: What Praxis Means in the Novels of Kenneth Fearing

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pp. 172-194

Today, with the exception of The Big Clock, each of Kenneth Fearing’s novels is out of print, out of sight, and largely out of memory. Among his contemporaries, even those who putatively shared his political views, Fearing’s novels were dismissed as inconsequential. “To shift abruptly to secular matters,” writes one reviewer, “The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing is a well-done book, though not, to my mind, worth doing” (Hardwick 587). The scant academic discourse currently devoted to Fearing concentrates...

Works Cited

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pp. 195-208

Radical Novels of the Depression Era: A Selected Bibliography

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pp. 209-210


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pp. 211-212


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pp. 213-216

E-ISBN-13: 9781587294754
E-ISBN-10: 1587294753
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877458807
Print-ISBN-10: 0877458804

Page Count: 236
Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 66403617
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Novel and the American Left

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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Communism and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Socialism and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Right and left (Political science) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Working class writings, American -- History and criticism.
  • Right and left (Political science) in literature.
  • Progressivism (United States politics).
  • Depressions -- 1929 -- United States.
  • Working class in literature.
  • Progressivism in literature.
  • Depressions in literature.
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