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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 269-273

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Book Review

The Power of Political Art:
The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered

The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. By Robert Shulman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 340 pp.

Since the 1974 republication of Tillie Olsen's novel Yonnondio, the 1930s U.S. literary Left has been in a steady condition of reconsideration. James Bloom, Constance Coiner, Michael Denning, Barbara Foley, Paul Lauter, William J. Maxwell, James Miller, Cary Nelson, Paula Rabinowitz, Deborah Rosenfelt, James Smethurst, Alan Wald, Douglass Wixson, and others have during the past twenty years, and especially the last ten, produced important [End Page 269] revisionist studies of the period. Many have offered groundbreaking treatments of race and gender, in particular, while rethinking both the canon and periodization of the 1930s in ways that have made this decade understood as far more than a radical aberration in American literary history.

Robert Shulman's book The Power of Political Art attempts to add to and, to a lesser extent, synthesize much of this scholarship. Toward these ends Shulman's most original contribution is in method, not substance. He brings an "in-depth, contextualized analysis" (9) to the work of five writers he considers emblematic of the 1930s literary Left: the prose and fiction writers Meridel Le Sueur, Josephine Herbst, and Richard Wright and the poets Muriel Rukeyser and Langston Hughes. Fundamentally, Shulman seeks to demonstrate how carefully apprehending the formal features of their work—structure, language, metaphor, symbolism—puts 1930s Left writers on an equal aesthetic ground with their apolitical (or conservative) modernist contemporaries. So read, he argues, the work of these writers constitutes a Left "avant-garde" of the period. This argument is significant to Shulman's revisionist project. As he reminds us, it was the New Critics and high modernists of the 1940s and 1950s—T. S. Eliot, Clement Greenberg, and the circle around the journal Partisan Review—who dismissed and diminished much of the Left literature of the 1930s as formally mechanical, politically monologic, in a word, Stalinist. Shulman in effect uses the New Critics' own criteria to hang this argument. In so doing, he joins the aforementioned list of critics, who have returned to the 1930s, in part, to liberate literary history and critics from Cold War prejudice.

In addition, Shulman's book advances literary history on the 1930s Left by both deploying and arguing with the recent new wave of critical interpretation of 1930s literature. While cautioning at the start that he is "not a Marxist critic or scholar" (1), Shulman attempts to build on, for example, the Marxist-feminist scholarship of Coiner and Rabinowitz in his readings of Le Sueur and Herbst. In their 1990s books Better Red and Labor and Desire, respectively, Coiner and Rabinowitz identify a feminist dialectic at work in these writers as they assess the Left's, and particularly the U.S. Communist Party's, line on what was called in the 1930s "the woman question." 1 Shulman weighs in on an already lively area of interpretive debate by claiming that Coiner and Rabinowitz are both right and wrong: works like Le Sueur's story "The Girl" and Herbst's novel The Executioner Waits, he argues, anticipate the later feminist scholarship they have received by demonstrating implicit or explicit sexism within the 1930s Left. Yet Shulman quarrels with [End Page 270] what he charges is contemporary scholarship's tendency to make gender and class radically contingent categories. Shulman argues, in other words, that the 1930s literary Left's comparatively naive idealism is worth resurrecting in the face of the pressures of contemporary academic strains like poststructuralism and what Shulman implies is a doctrinaire feminism. Here one wants to push his premises and methods farther. In celebrating as evidence of formal and political radicalism Le Sueur's "free-flowing form . . . fusion of genres, and . . . reliance on metaphoric language" in important works like "Woman on the Breadlines" (1932), for example, Shulman presents us with an unresolved problem in his own attempt to...


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