- The Three Rs:Reading, (W)riting, and Romance in Class Mobility Narratives by Yezierska, Smedley and Saxton
This essay examines how constructions of womanhood and femininity affect the working-class encounter with the academy in three early to mid-twentieth-century American novels that feature female protagonists: Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth, Alexander Saxton's The Great Midland and Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers. Each of these novels weaves together a narrative of desire for education and desire for love. While these women are trying to obtain upward class mobility through education rather than marriage, and while Smedley and Saxton's novels contain the added element of involvement in Socialist and Communist politics, all three protagonists end up unable to escape the romance plot. Taken together, these novels offer valuable insights into the gendered nature of class mobility.
Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers (1925), Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth (1929), and Alexander Saxton's The Great Midland (1948) each feature a strong-willed, independent, fiercely intelligent working-class female protagonist, and all three narratives tell of these working-class characters' whole-hearted pursuit of education. This pursuit of education and engagement with various educational institutions is what I call these protagonists' "encounter with the academy," and it is that encounter that I wish to bring into focus here. Their accounts of the encounter with the academy are based in the premise that home and school constitute two different worlds.1 These novels also chronicle the losses, costs, and alienation (and the attempts to resist that alienation) that result from the process of [End Page 125] obtaining class mobility via education. Smedley's and Saxton's novels in particular critique education for its implication in the perpetuation of class hierarchy. In her recent essay, "Rags to Riches to Suicide," Renny Christopher identifies "[a] sub-genre of U.S. working class literature" she calls "narratives of unhappy upward mobility,"2 (2002, 79) and these three novels fit readily into that category.
For each of the protagonists of these three novels, education in general and the encounter with the academy more specifically is structured through romantic feelings for or full-blown romantic relationships with men. Overall, these novels tell us much about the gendered nature of both class mobility and education: each of them weaves together narratives of desire for education and desire for love. While these female protagonists are trying to obtain class mobility through education rather than marriage, they end up unable to escape the romance plot. And while Smedley's and Saxton's protagonists' involvement in radical politics provides them with a framework for understanding and critiquing the classed nature of their education, it does not exempt them from the mechanisms of sexual politics.
My reading of these three novels is decidedly unorthodox, as at first (and perhaps second) glance, there are several obstacles to grouping these texts together. Smedley's and Saxton's texts are examples of proletarian realism; according to Paula Rabinowitz, Daughter of Earth's publication in 1929 "signaled, according to many critics then and subsequently, the beginnings of proletarian realism as a literary movement in the United States" (1990, 68), while The Great Midland, published in 1948, appeared at the tail end of that movement. Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, by contrast, comes out of a tradition of ethnic immigrant literature, documenting the experiences of European Jews in New York City in the beginning decades of the twentieth century.
In addition to the markedly different contexts of their appearance, there are other differences that complicate the grouping together of these three novels. Smedley's and Yezierska's novels are highly autobiographical; indeed, Alice Walker asserts that "Marie Rogers of Daughter of Earth is Agnes Smedley," (1987, 2) and Alice Kessler Harris writes that "Anzia Yezierska and Sara Smolinsky, the novel's narrator, are emotionally interchangeable" (1999, xviii). By contrast, Saxton's portrayal of Stephanie Koviak is an example of both cross-class3 and cross-gendered writing.4 Further, while the character of Stephanie Koviak is central to the book, the story of her encounter with the academy, her love life, and her political struggles are interwoven with and juxtaposed...