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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 164-189

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The Other Proletarians: Native American Literature and Class Struggle

Tim Libretti

Proletarian literature has for the most part been studied within the narrow historical confines of the 1930s, as the fleeting aberration of a singular moment of intense political, social, and cultural ferment in U.S. history--the Great Depression. Yet when attempting to reconstruct a proletarian literary tradition, one finds a wealth of literary production since the "Red Decade" that can certainly be classified as proletarian. These texts go unnoticed as such either because they fall between the cracks of literary classification--due to the lack of the category known as "proletarianism" to organize and comprehend contemporary literature--or because they become understood exclusively in the context of other literary traditions, particularly racial and ethnic critical categorizations that have tended to de-emphasize issues of class and labor by autonomizing race and ethnicity rather than understanding them in a material context. Native American literature is just such an unnoticed literature, having been studied in isolation from proletarian or working-class literature despite the fact that much Native American literature develops an anticapitalist perspective and treats issues of work and alienation in its broader analysis of colonization and genocide. I want to begin to explore contemporary Native American literature as a proletarian [End Page 164] literature in order to facilitate a move beyond both the confining traditional periodization of proletarian literature as a 1930s phenomenon as well as the sociological and thematic boundaries that have defined the genre in conventional literary historical terms.

I use the term "sociological" because the very notion of proletarian literature as a genre already suggests a literary category that mediates the sociological reality of the working class and its cultural expression, as highlighted in the 1920s by Mike Gold's founding formulation that the objective of proletarian literature is "to build up a picture of what the working class in this country looks like" (51). Indeed, what makes the genre of proletarian literature so unique in U.S. literary history is that it is the only genre that identifies itself with a class and a politics, forthrightly announcing itself as the literary form of class struggle. As Edwin Seaver argued at the 1935 American Writers' Congress, "In the last analysis, it is not style, not form, not plot, not even characters, not even the class portrayed that are fundamental in differentiating the proletarian from the bourgeois novel," but rather it is the "concern with political orientation, with economic orientation, with the materialist dialectic that is the basic definition of the proletarian novel" (215).

Studying Native American literature as proletarian both expands traditional sociological and thematic contours of the genre and also transforms its politics by rethinking and deepening the materialist dialectic through an incorporation of the historical experiences of work, exploitation, and colonization, as well as the class consciousness of Native Americans who have rarely been studied or understood as part of U.S. labor history. In calling "into question standard representations that make wage labor invisible in the culture histories of Native Americans," Patricia Albers has argued that "Native peoples are denied a place in most accounts of labor history in the United States and, even when present, [. . .] are relegated to a passive background position outside the flow of determinative economic movements and events" (246). Moreover, much of the so-called "authentic" work of Native Americans, she points out, tends to be perceptually isolated from other functionings of the economy and dehistoricized, "treated in legendary terms as part of a timeless, sacred tradition and ancient lore, [. . .] situated in a popular play of mythic images rather than in a progression of actual historic events" (248). This isolation and invisibility of Native American labor has also [End Page 165] been furthered by a narrow, even obsessive, focus on the land question as the overriding if not sole economic concern of Native Americans. As Martha Knack and Alice Littlefield admonish,

Another cause of scholarly silence about Indian labor has been the restrictive definition of Native American economics as...


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