- Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West by Michael C. Steiner
edited by Michael C. Steiner
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. 399 pp. Cloth $29.95
Numerous left-leaning photographers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters, and entertainers worked in the American West during the 1930s and ’40s. My own study of post–World War II agricultural labor in the Great Lakes region was influenced by some of them—especially John Steinbeck and Carey McWilliams, whose Factories in the Fields, a study of California agricultural and farm workers, was of vital importance to me. But Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West acquainted me with some leftist regionalists I did not know, among them Meridel Le Sueur, Sanora Babb, and Carlos Bulosan.
Michael C. Steiner’s introduction asserts that critics of the time often dismissed American regionalist ideas, writings, and art—considering it insular, nostalgic, even reactionary. Their negative assessment of regional visual art has some validity in reference to the nostalgic paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and other Midwestern artists who were influenced by the regionalists. But this assessment does not take into account either the leftist-radical Depression art of Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, and Jack Levine of the urban industrial Northeast, or the work of Western artists Dorothea Lange and Joe Jones.
Since the emergence in the 1980s of the “new” Western history in the work of Patricia Limerick, William Cronon, and others, readers have learned that the Trans-Mississippi West was subject to generations of extensive, often violent abuses against its peoples and lands, abuses that were obscured by the triumphalism promoted so effectively by Hollywood films. Many millions watched the violent annihilation of Native American peoples in countless Western movies, a story most often portrayed as a positive feature of the myth of the Golden West. Although there were hints in some of John Ford’s Western movies of the 1950s and 1960s—such as Fort Apache and The Searchers—that this destruction was a bloody tragedy, it was not until 1970 that the tragedy was effectively brought to the big screen in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. Millions also saw the portrayal of the suffering of Dust Bowl migrants in Ford’s movie version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath. It is a story that may easily be seen as a modern exception [End Page 212] to the myth of the Golden West. By offering an introduction to the thinking and art of Westerners on the political and social left in the 1930s and 1940s, including John Steinbeck, Regionalists on the Left works effectively to reduce the power of this myth. This book focuses on men and women who saw, lived with, and fought against the dark forces underlying the dominant triumphalist myth.
Regionalists on the Left divides the Trans-Mississippi West into sub-regions: the Upper Midwest, the High Plains, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and California. The writers show that their subjects have concerns and experiences that vary according to the peculiar physical, economic, and social environments in each region. A commonality that is recognizably both Western and left-radical also emerges from the essays.
For the most part, the book avoids the worst excesses of academic writing, and the stories told are dramatic enough to hold the interest of general readers. For readers with scholarly concerns, the essayists provide generous and detailed notes containing extensive bibliographical data. Many of the essays refer to other essays in the collection, suggesting that the left-radical Western regionalists really did constitute a community of ideas, shared common interests, and experiences that resonate with the present time. For example, T. V. Reed’s essay on Robert Cantwell observes that Cantwell and the late grunge rocker Kurt Cobain come from the same factory town—Aberdeen, Washington. Although they share a similarly bleak outlook on the town’s factory culture, Reed notes, Cobain, a product of late twentieth-century youth culture, develops neither Cantwell’s sharply defined class consciousness nor his instinct for survival.
Most of these essays provide substantial biographical information on...