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4 8 0 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e W in t e r 2 0 0 6 Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. By Janet Zandy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 224 pages, $62.00/$21.95. Reviewed by Vanessa Hall Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana Best known for her writing on working-class experience, Janet Zandy con­ tinues in Hands her work of recovering and narrating working-class women’s lives. Marginalized in mainstream American cultural expression as well as in academic discourse, working-class women and men, Zandy claims, “harbor an epistemology, a way of knowing and understanding the world that comes out of the physicality of work” (3). Zandy persuasively argues that there exists an implicit division between physical (working-class) labor and mental labor performed by various professionals and academics. This division influences who we choose to study as well as the questions we ask; “human labor has been fenced offas something inappropriate, perhaps too vulgar or even grotesque for literary consideration” (45). There is much to be gained by complicating and bridging this divide, which serves ultimately to demean and obfuscate the lives and knowledge of countless people. This beautifully written and provocative book will become central in the growing field of working-class studies, I believe. In addition to pushing at the boundaries of literary studies, Zandy tests “new forms, using collage and juxta­ position, story and analysis, as tools to penetrate the world ofbourgeois cultural assumptions and sensibilities” (2). Using the human hand—both a tool of creative expression as well as an instrument of labor—as the central metaphor and unifying image of this multilayered text, Zandy scrutinizes (auto)biography and well-known and obscure literary texts, all the while examining how work­ ing-class experience influences perception and cultural expression. Zandy also works to define what makes a text working-class. Although, as ought to be expected on this contentious topic, I do disagree with parts of her definition that may function to exclude some literary texts that can be profitably under­ stood as working-class, this complex definition is the best I have seen and is intended by Zandy to be “contested and debated” (92). Many of the literary texts Zandy analyzes are by writers central to the field of western American literature: Tillie Olsen, Agnes Smedley, Helen Viramontes , Meridel Le Sueur, Leslie Marmon Silko. Zandy’s readings of their texts stress that important issues of cultural recovery and gendered experience are intimately linked to economic sustainability, representations of work, and the dangers—graphically depicted—unique to much working-class experience and labor. These texts, and many of the others Zandy selects, relentlessly examine the material conditions of working-class lives, maimed bodies, and stunted life spans too often an undesired wage of their labor. B o o k R e v ie w s 4 8 1 Westerners ofall class backgrounds are familiar with these stories, although they too often seem to vanish as shockingly and rapidly as they appear. At the time I began reading this book, a variety of articles were circulating about an exceptionally high rate of rare cancer diagnoses in Libby, Montana, located near my hometown. Asbestos contamination from a vermiculite mine appears to be the cause. A pending lawsuit posits the mine’s officials were well aware of the contamination but chose (along with company doctors) not to disclose this information to the company’s employees or the town’s residents, many of whom were given toxic material from their workplace to use in their homes and gardens. Working-class people’s lives have always been cheap to their employers, as stories like this demonstrate, and are particularly vulnerable in the United States at this time, which is “a time ofruthless economic disparities, of disappeared jobs and struggling cities and towns, of political and corporate oligarchies, and fear of America’s vulnerability and its imperialistic power” (3). Cultural visibility and social empowerment are clearly linked, and work­ ing-class lives and experience portrayed in Hands, beyond providing sobering depictions of capitalism’s...


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pp. 480-481
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