Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Few Proletarian Writers

American literature has a grand heritage of progressive politics. Simply thinking of our great anti-racist Huckleberry Finn or of such supporters of old John Brown as Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman indicates that this is the main line of the tradition. The world crisis of the 1930s produced an intellectual milieu in which a great many artists considered themselves Marxist and developed theoretical literary perspectives based on their activism as well as producing poetry and fiction they felt would serve the revolution. The American 1960s, when I was in university, provided a weaker echo of this tendency.

Though willing always as a good citizen to do my part to move society forward, I have never integrated my politics with my critical or artistic practice. In this I am not alone. I recall a number of academics whose disjuncture between theory and practice was the mirror image of mine. I took a graduate seminar from a Marxist professor whose home displayed expensive and beautifully framed Cuban graphic art, but who never appeared at campus demonstrations. I recall a European Marxist composer of electronic music who considered his abstruse pieces, heard by a small coterie of intellectual aficionados, to be his contribution to the coming revolution.

And even the most orthodox Marxists must contend with the fact that Marx himself had what might have been called bourgeois, even aristocratic taste, admiring Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Goethe, yet taking little notice of the engagé writers of his day. More pointedly Engels explicitly condemns ideologically driven fiction, what he calls the Tendenzroman, while noting that the novels of the royalist Balzac contain more data on French society than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period.” [1]

It is difficult today for Americans to imagine to what an extent a vulgar sort of Marxist view of literature dominated intellectual circles during the late 1930s. This Depression vogue stimulated an efflorescence of writers whom few today read, yet some of those who might be described as “proletarian” were first-rate, and deserve readers of all tendencies.

Edward Dahlberg, for instance, even in his early work, is a painstaking stylist. His Bottom Dogs the original edition (1929) of which was brilliantly, if oddly, introduced by D. H. Lawrence, who said it depicted “the mass of failure that nourishes the roots of the gigantic tree of dollars.” Lawrence goes on to analyze the American obsession with bathroom fixtures and halitosis as a sign of “secret physical repulsion between people,” a dramatic shift from the European “flow from the heart” that resulted in “thousands of little passionate currents.” Lizzie, the itinerant practitioner of barbering and related trades, reminds me of Neal Cassady’s feckless father, another bottom feeder. The story is told with eloquence and convincing verisimilitude. His rhetoric is straightforward but calculated and cadenced. He became a more ornate stylist (and I fancy this manner as well) in his later books Can These Bones Live, The Sorrows of Priapus and finally Because I Was Flesh.

Charles Reznikoff is well-known today as a central figure in Objectivism and for expanding the sort of use of documentary material in Dos Passos and Williams’ Paterson into the powerful “found words,” the purposeful collages of Testimony and Holocaust. Yet his work received little attention for most of his life as he pursued art and integrity, ignoring money and fame. Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan (1939) is an unusually poetic version of the Jewish immigrant experience, including, as do most of the genre, the themes of poverty, bigotry, and the labor movement. His hero Ezekiel is convincingly Jewish in his sense of profound social alienation and in his ethical standards. Seeking the best, he praises Icelandic sagas and Aucassin and Nicolette, while, like the author but unlike some of his fellow immigrants, stubbornly resisting economic goals. And in each of these qualities, many non-Jewish readers will, of course, see themselves as well. As always, his words are palpable and well-chosen, laid into a solid masonry on the page, rarely attracting attention, economical and, so very often, just exactly right.

Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) simply and movingly tells the story of the hardships of a poor immigrant family. The fact that so very many Lower East Side Jews prospered in America, moving before long to Washington Heights, Queens, or Jersey, does not invalidate this negative example. Gold was a central figure in Communist Party USA circles for decades. If he sometimes refers all suffering to poverty, flattening his thematics, details such as the bedbugs and Mrs. Fingerman’s parrot make it sufficiently real to carry the reader. When he is not addressing culture (for him Gertrude Stein was an “idiot” and Marcel Proust a “masturbator”), I appreciate Mike Gold’s journalism as first-rate agit-prop.

Nelson Algren’s first novel Somebody in Boots (1935) was originally to be titled Native Son before Algren decided to give the title to Richard Wright with whom he had worked in Chicago’s John Reed Club and the Federal Writers Project. In Algren’s case the “native son” was Cass McKay, a “Final Descendant of the South,” descended from landless, slaveless white workers, an incipient criminal whose native “Americanism” is presented as every bit as ironically as that of Wright’s Bigger Thomas.

Written on an advance of a hundred dollars based on a single story and set in Texas where Algren himself was imprisoned for stealing a typewriter, whatever Romantic attitudes about poverty the author had, he, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Charles Bukowski, earned them.

His other novels Never Come Morning, The Man with the Golden Arm, and A Walk on the Wild Side (which includes material from Somebody in Boots) made him more money, but for me his outstanding work is the short stories in The Neon Wilderness. Algren’s losers are presented with love and sympathy, for all their sordid foolish fecklessness.
His Chicago: City on the Make presents the most emotionally and rhetorically powerful arguments for a simple Marxist view of literature in combination with a defense of progressive tradition among Midwestern writers, a people’s history of Chicago, and a personal memoir. Though he once shocked and alarmed the city fathers (the Tribune called the book “an ugly, highly scented object,” a comment featured on the back of the book), I understand that a statue of the writer has been installed in his old neighborhood in the Polonia Triangle though the local Poles successfully fought against naming the location for him.

On occasions such as that controversy, or the one during the 90s over National Endowment for the Arts funding, or over Chris Ofili’s elephant dung in the Brooklyn Museum, it is clear that right-wing opponents of art know nothing about the subject. Whereas I fear it may be that well-intentioned leftists may sometimes also make artistic judgments on non-aesthetic grounds, I recognize their far more creditable motives, and I am glad to recommend these books regardless of the dubious turns in political line some of their authors may have negotiated. (I am thinking of “democratic centralism” and tailing the Soviet line in particular. So far as I am concerned these policies harmed the American movement.) Now that the Occupy movements have focused the social contradictions on the most significant single element: money, it is well to recall the achievements of a long tradition of right-thinking American writers.

1. Letter to Margaret Harkness. In an earlier letter to Laura Lafargue, he expresses the same admiration, this time in contrast to the leftist writers: “all the Vaulabelles, Capefigues, Louis Blancs, et tutti quanti.” Engels refers to Balzac’s “revolutionary dialectic.” Both are included in Marx and Engels On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress, 1976. p 93. Marx, too, thought Balzac, with Cervantes, the greatest novelist and planned to write a book on him. Fielding was another of his favorites. (Marx and Engels On Literature and Art, p. 439)

1 comment:

  1. How about a tribute to James Gould Cozzens !