- The Big Boxcar, and: The World Above
With the reissuing of these novels, the University of Illinois Press adds two more titles to its exciting series, “The Radical Novel Reconsidered,” a collection of reprints of (now practically forgotten) American “left-wing” fiction. The series was launched in 1995 with reprints of four novels: Anzia [End Page 1146] Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements (1922), Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread (1932), Myra Page’s Moscow Yankee (1935), and John Sanford’s The People from Heaven (1943). In the intervening years, four more titles have appeared in the series: Josephine Herbst’s Pity Is Not Enough (1933), Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People (1943), Alexander Saxton’s The Great Midland (1948), and Phillip Bonosky’s Burning Valley (1953). Interestingly, this group of novels spans a period of years which both antedates and postdates the first five years of the Depression, when the majority of so-called “proletarian” novels were produced in the United States. Thus the “radical” novel which Illinois Press is encouraging us to reconsider is not only or necessarily confined to the historically specific model of the “proletarian” novel of the early 1930s—represented in the series by the three works of Lumpkin, Herbst, and Page—which has become the object of growing critical attention. The mere fact that radical (politically “left”) novels continued to be written throughout the 1940s and 1950s, in the face of the Red Scare, McCarthy and the HUAC trials, testifies to the force of writers’ commitments, as well as to the lasting impact of the 1930s literary-radical movement in these later decades.
The Big Boxcar (1957), the first of three novels written by Alfred Maund, presents a group of fugitive train-hoppers in Alabama, all trying in this way to make it to the “North” where, they presume, they will find greater opportunity and civic equality. The group consists of five black men, one black woman, and one white man (who, the last to get on the train, is on the run from the bloodhounds and guards of a chain gang in which he was unjustly serving a 14-year term). As it turns out, the North is no farther north than Birmingham, Alabama, and the train, unbeknownst to these seven people, is actually headed to Atlanta, Georgia. But by the time this is revealed at the end of the novel, a kind of political consciousness has been produced among the inhabitants of the boxcar which renders the idea of escaping to some imaginary North more chimeric than practical. This political awakening—varying in significance and degree for each of the seven travelers—is accomplished by a combination of their storytelling and the events which transpire within the boxcar between their individual stories. In order to pass the time, each of the seven travelers tells the story of how he or she ended up on the train heading north. Since their object is to tell stories about white people, the travelers’ narratives all take the form of testimonials of various encounters with racism, in both its individual and its broader institutional forms. Maund’s genius as a writer is to present this series of personal narratives in a way that delineates a sort of phenomenology of specifically capitalist-driven forms of racism.
The first narrative describes a socially “impossible” love affair between a black woman and a wealthier white man whose erotic fantasies are coupled with his desire to access, through the woman, his ideal of an “authentic” African-American culture. This story serves to indicate the size of the distance separating whites from blacks in the Alabama of the 1950s. The next two narratives begin to explore limited forms of resistance to racial-economic [End Page 1147] oppression; the first by means of a folk tale about a “Talking Dog” to whom the poor African-American...