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Working-Class Literature

[ 160 ] January 31, 2013 |

Labor Notes has an interesting survey of working-class literature, asking organizers and activists about their favorite class-conscious novels.

Admittedly, when I became a professor I stopped reading novels. This is literally the single biggest thing I don’t like about my job. I feel incredibly guilty if I read anything not related to a) my research, b) teaching, and c) political stuff for the blog. Obviously there may be some time management issues here….

Anyway, the three clear winners in my mind are John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and the last third of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Dos Passos isn’t taken too seriously these days and his late life turn to conservatism, which seems to be more about Hemingway being mean to him during the Spanish Civil War than anything concrete, makes him seem pretty superficial in his politics. But then what’s so different about that than for millions of other people. The USA Trilogy at its best tells great stories about working-class people. White people admittedly. I’ll probably be pilloried for this choice. But I still like reading them and occasionally pick them up.

On Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath is a better book than In Dubious Battle and certainly has the ability to inspire one to a class consciousness perhaps never really achieved by most of the characters themselves. I always wondered what would happened to Tom Joad. I assume he would have joined the army in World War II and come back to found an evangelical church in Orange County sometime around 1947. Maybe I’m too cynical. But despite the difference of quality in the novels, In Dubious Battle is probably the best book we have about labor organizing itself.

I know some people have problems with the end of Invisible Man, but I think the cluelessness of the communists about why race actually matters in this country and how this undermined the possibility of radical change in the first half of the twentieth century is elucidated in really useful ways by Ellison.

What’s very much not a good class-conscious novel is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, which is about as anti-union as American literature gets. Big unions, mean state hospital nurses, just another institution bringing down our independence, right Ken? Better to pass out acid like candy I guess. Was shocked to see one of the people surveyed list it.

As for the Gilded Age, If I never read The Jungle again, it’ll be too soon; Edward Bellamy is even worse and Frank Norris, well, I guess. I suppose I expected someone to name Jack London’s The Iron Heel but I’m glad they didn’t. Maybe the overt racism of London is too much to get over.

In any case, at least this should be a good reading list for me.

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  • Tnap01

    Weird, I’m not seeing any of these titles in my Regnery Publishing catalog.

    • montag2

      Ah, you need to look on the back of the flyer for “Subversive Literature.”

  • Peter Hovde

    If you spent less time calling for head on sticks . . .

    • Peter Hovde

      “heads on sticks”-though the original formulation is also interesting.

      • Karen

        Erik would be in trouble with Apple and anti-porn crusaders if he called for head on sticks.

  • Warren Terra

    If I never read The Jungle again, it’ll be too soon

    After many years of hearing paeans to the transformative importance of The Jungle, and after having enjoyed his brisk little memoir I, Candidate for Governor – and How I Got Licked, which I’d still recommend at the very least as a curiosity, I picked up a cheap copy of The Jungle at some point. I think I got a couple dozen pages into it. My god, was that book turgid. I’d rather have read tables of the statistics he was trying to dramatize.

    • It gets better, or at least more interesting, as it goes along; once the focus turns away from meat packing, you really have NO idea what to expect, because that’s not what made it famous. There’s a seriously bizarre part that I think is supposed to be comic relief featuring a Wodehousian upper-class twist.

      If I were making a serious Sinclair recommendation, though, I’d point to Oil!, which I think is a legitimately pretty-good Sinclair-Lewis-ish novel–which has essentially nothing to do with There Will Be Blood, however.

      • twit.

      • rea

        Aren’t you confusing Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair? The later wrote The Jungle and ran for governor.

        • Anna in PDX

          It is very easy to do. Sinclair Lewis is more prolific that is for sure.

        • No, I don’t think so. Oil! is a novel by Upton Sinclair that is reminiscent of the works of Sinclair Lewis.

  • howard

    wow, really interesting list including lots of stuff i’ve never heard of that looks worth investigating; thanks for checking out.

    i would say the harvey pekar american splendor series has a lot to say about class to make my own little contribution here, but far more important is that i’m proud to say that the 8-year-old already has the two recommended kids’ readings under his belt!

    • I like the Pekar suggestion.

      • mark f

        Pekar did an illustrated version of Studs Terkel’s Working, too, although of course American Splendor is a wonderful contribution itself.

    • rm

      Pekar is great.

  • JonP

    No A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at that list?

    • duckbilledplacelot

      Right? Also, in the younger reader area, the article mentions Ramona Quimby, which, geez, class was like barely a subtext, when there are so many books-about-class for kids. Like one of my favorites as a young’un – The Little Princess, which is straight up and down about money, status, and class. Or, you know, the Boxcar Children, if you prefer a series. Or any number of the vast ‘hungry child must be ingenious and preferably winning’ genre. The Hunger Games, for heavens sake.

      As for adult-targeted books, Erik, you study race, class, gender, nature, and sexuality? Dude. There is literally not a single book on the planet that couldn’t be plausibly deemed ‘for your research.’ Just start reading.

      • No, not really. I work on nature and labor, with a dollop of gender. Limits it a little bit.

        • duckbilledplacelot

          Does it? If there isn’t any labor-labor, there’s usually, like, food and clothes and care-taking and house cleaning and what-have-you. Or, if your tastes run to the more Big Major Event style of plot, war-as-work or nature (weather/hunger/illness) are generally in there. Given enough time and red wine*, I could create for you a theoretical line of historical inquiry regarding the absence of nature as signifier. Anyway, good books provoke and illuminate what you bring to the table, not just what the author thought up; most things I read make me think about gender. Most things you read will make you think about labor and nature, in new and exciting ways! Hopefully! Plus, good writers read. Reading Jessie Fauset is more directly related to your work than, say, going to the gym.

          *Two glasses, probably? Maybe three. Which is basically four, so I’ll need the whole bottle.

          • Theoretically, sure. In the world of having a tenure clock, it limits it as much as possible.

    • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was banned in Ireland. True story.

      • rea

        Whatever for? And did they ban A Hare Grows in Manhatten as well?

        • Anna in PDX

          Maybe because of her awful father and all the drunks in the story?

          • LeeEsq

            I’m guessing its becasue A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes a positive look towards heterosexual female sexuality rather being anti-sex. The father wasn’t awful so much as incompetent and drinking was moralized.

            The film version by Elias Kazan is one of his best works.

  • Julian

    Which part of the end of Invisible Man is disliked – the apocalyptic riot, the part where the Narrator is mistaken for the criminal, or the fact that he ends up living in the weird house with huge energy consumption?

  • LoomisBot

    *BEEP BOOP*

    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.
    RACE, CLASS, GENDER.

    *BEEP BOOP*

    • jdkbrown

      And thank God for it!

    • Julian

      Didn’t you hate how Jesus was always “peace peace peace, peace peace peace”

      what a nag

      • Jesus of Nazareth

        I come not to bring peace, but a sword. [Matthew 10:34]

    • Dude, we’ve had this conversation before. You have to include nature and sexuality here. Your race class gender robot is so Atari-1985.

  • Anna in PDX

    Augh, Norris was politically on the left but what a godawful writer. I read The Octopus a couple of years ago and can honestly say it reached levels of purple so high you need a UV light to read it.

    Read Dashiell Hammett. Lots of fun and a trueleftist to boot.

    • Richard

      He was a true leftist (Stalinist even) but some of the books were just way too plot heavy and contrived. Chandler was the better writer

      • Hogan

        Wait what? Chandler’s theory of plot was “when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

        • John

          I think the standard statement is that Chandler is the better writer (read: stylist) but Hammett is the better novelist (read: constructor of plots).

      • howard

        i like the clean lines of hammett’s individual sentences, but as richard rightly notes, when it comes to novel-length plots, only the thin man and the maltese falcon stand up well to re-readings, although many of the short stories do.

        whereas chandler i can reread and reread, and actually do: every few years, i plow through the library of america collected chandler and his voice never grows tiresome.

        they were, of course, both men of their times and there is much to dislike about aspects of their male-centric world view, but i’m prepared to live with it.

        • Hogan

          Hmm. Interesting question: how did Black Mask/pulp/noir fiction develop from short-form magazine publication to long-form novel publication? I know Chandler’s novels before The Long Goodbye were stitched together from stories in magazines (which led the the famous problem in the screenplay for The Big Sleep: who killed the chauffeur? Even Chandler didn’t know). Hammett’s novels were less so, but they were still written in a milieu where one of the basic plotting strategies was what Wilfrid Sheed called the “Edgar Wallace stream of meaningless surprise.” So how do you get from there to, say, Ross MacDonald, who did some damn fine long-form? What were the intermediate stages, and where do we find them in the fossil record?

          • Warren Terra

            One obvious candidate would be Conan Doyle, who wrote a couple of novel-length Holmes stories after his magazine short stories were so massively popular. Not as gritty as Sam Spade, but they’re still basically adventure yarns,

          • howard

            my knowledge about this is incomplete, but hammett was a key figure: he wanted to create a distinctively american form of the detective story rather than the eccentric holmes and the upper class wimsey that were the norms in england.

            as a pure guess, i would say follow the money: the black mask and its competitors didn’t exactly overpay, so conceivably going to novel form offered the potential of a higher payday, and of course, hammett’s “thin man” and “maltese falcon” were made into movies in the early ’30s, offering up a second major payday opportunity.

            but that’s just a guess. to get a full sense of the milieu out of which hammett emerged, i do recommend the black lizard big book of pulps and the black lizard big book of black mask stories.

            as for ross mcdonald, i know he was well-regarded in the ’50s and ’60s but i binge-read the complete lew archers 2-3 years ago, and while his literary craftsmanship was fine, his basic plotline was a kind of crude freudianism, which probably wowed them in a detective novel in the ’50s but got a little tedious when read in close sequence.

        • Richard

          Forgot about The Thin Man but it hardly qualifies as working class fiction

          • Anna in PDX

            Red Harvest does, i would argue.

            • Richard

              I agree about Red Harvest but Thin Man is two upper class drunks solving crimes and I don’t see any working class consciousness in Maltese Falcon

              • Vance Maverick

                I think they all stand up to rereading. And they show some awareness of non-upper-class people, but they’re genre fiction, books that accept the glamor of rich, powerful people as an essential motor of the plot. I don’t think the (retrospective) historical interest of Red Harvest makes it working-class literature — but it’s a good book.

                • howard

                  richard, i was discussing hammett and chandler in general, not whether all of hammett fits into a working-class frame.

                  that said, while the movie of the thin man (and you can count me among the many who think william powell and myrna loy were one of the great screen couples, particularly in the original) is – broadly speaking! – about a couple of heavy drinkers, that’s not really the book (everyone drinks in the book, and frankly, everyone drinks in more or less astonishing quantities to our modern sensibilities in all sorts of books of the day).

                  vance, de gustibus and all, but i did a hammett victory lap about 6 or 7 years ago, and i thought “red harvest,” “dain curse,” and “glass key” all fit the great line hogan quoted from wilfrid sheed up above.

                • howard

                  in the context of this discussion, by the way, i was just realizing that chester himes’ series featuring harlem detectives coffin ed johnson and gravedigger jones are must-reads for their distillation of 1950s african-american urban life in new york.

                • Hogan

                  Himes is wonderful, and Walter Mosley does something similar for ’40s-’60s LA in the Easy Rawlins novels.

        • bobbyp

          Howard,
          Agree. Have you read any James Lee Burke?

          • howard

            james lee burke is someone whose work i’ve been meaning to check out but haven’t gotten to yet: he’s one of the few well-regarded american detective novelists i haven’t made my way to.

          • I read most of his work. The stuff in New Orleans is the best. The novels in Montana and Texas don’t seem to be as interesting.

    • If a woman becomes a prostitute SHE IS DAMNED FOREVER.

      • ChristianPinko

        Or else a character in a Frank Miller comic.

      • Mary Magdalen

        I have it on the best possible authority that you are not correct about this . . .

  • ralphdibny

    As a professor of theatre, I must mention that Death of a Salesman makes students aware of working-class issues better than any piece of literature I’ve ever taught. Attention must be paid! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!

    • Gone2Ground

      Seconded.

    • Sean O’Casey begs to differ.

    • elm

      Clifford Odets should probably get a mention here, too.

      • John

        And Barton Fink, too. He aimed boldly at a theater of the common man.

  • The Dark Avenger

    The massacre in The Octopus is based on the Mussel Slough Tragedy, which took place about 50 miles west of where I live now in Tulare County.

    • Anna in PDX

      It was educational but the style was just overblown. And I like that period in general.

      • I’m a historian of the period but the literature is just not very much fun to read.

        • Hogan

          This. Dreiser and Norris are certainly important, but thank heaven for the writers who worked for newspapers in the telegraphic age, like Crane and Hemingway, where the economic pressure was for fewer rather than more words.

          • Karen

            The economics of publishing in that period would be an interesting subject. I had one teacher who really HATED Dickens, and noted repeatedly that the more chapters he wrote, the more he got paid, since he published serials in a magazine. (A point which everyone who reads this website knows.). Anyway, it would be interesting to compare the works of writers who published in newspapers that required single issue stories, writers who only published novels, and those who published in magazines. What influence did the publishers themselves have?

            • Hogan

              William Charvat did some work on writing as a profession in the US (mostly about Cooper, Hawthorne and Longfellow), but I’m not sure if anyone has followed up. (Hawthorne made a point of selling the same story as many times as possible; the title of his first collection, Twice-Told Tales, was a joke about that fact. Longfellow was an accomplished writer of sonnets, but he wrote hardly any because they didn’t pay as well as long narrative poems like Hiawatha and Paul Revere’s Ride.)

  • BenjaminJB

    As long as someone mentions Jews without Money, I’m satisfied.

    For a view of labor organization/a strike from capital’s POV, I’d recommend John Hay’s ridiculous dramatization of the 1877 strike as excellently execrable, with the labor organizer being an outside agitator who’s more interested in his own pockets than anyone else’s.

    • LeeEsq

      I’d also recommend, even though its not set in America, Yehoshue Perle’s Ordinary Jews. A lot of the Yiddish authors wrote about class and race, and the Jewish struggle to find a place in Europe was about race more than religion as we understand it. The Brothers Ashkenazi, the Family Moskat, the Family Mashbir, Three Cities, etc. are all pretty good novels on class and race.

  • For kids, I’d have to put The Pushcart War at the very top of the list, just because I like it so much. But really, it’s a book about class, money, Big Business, collective action and civil disobedience. And peanut butter.

    Thanks,
    -V.

    • Anna in PDX

      i loved that as a kid!

    • BigHank53

      I think that may have been the first book I specifically requested as a child, after hearing it on Reading Aloud.

      Well, that just dated me.

    • nosmo king

      The Pushcart War is one of the most important books in my life. I read it like 8 times in a row starting when I was 8. Labor issues, civil disobedience, class, modernity versus tradition, a good working knowledge of New York City (I was living in rural Hawaii when I found it in the library)– it’s all there. Plus it has a perfect no punchline deadpan comedy that didn’t come back to adult-targeted comedy for about 30 years. I would very much appreciate one of the historians here taking up the cause of the Large-Object Theory of History.

      • I apologize for the one too many uses of the word “comedy” in there. Preview please!

  • jp

    Meridel le Sueur and The Girl, anyone?
    Gets a little preachy at the end, but most of it is unforgettable. Those poor kids.

  • Thom

    It’s true, of course, that Sometimes a Great Notion is anti-union (and while he was at it, Kesey also opposed the anti-war movement as “giving too much attention to the government” or something like that). But what do you think of the descriptions in Sometimes a Great Notion of the process of working at logging? To someone who doesn’t know (me), they are very powerful and convincing.

    • Kesey definitely understood logging and loggers. Those descriptions are pretty accurate.

    • mark f

      It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I’m not sure I’d call Sometimes a Great Notion anti-union. Maybe ambivalent. But it’s not like the union’s antagonists were sympathetic or forward-thinking. The epigraph references senseless suicide, after all.

    • Bob

      Sometimes A Great Notion is a great novel (far better than Cuckoo’s Nest) and most certainly belongs on a list of class conscious novels. First, as Mark F already pointed out, calling it anti-union is simply wrong. You seriously misread the book if you took it to be some right-wing anti-union screed. Second, even spotting you the thesis that the book is anti-union, there is NO inherent contradiction in such a book being a positive example of class-conscious literature. The protagonists are blue collar workers who get up before the sun every fucking day and go out to do 12 hours of back-breaking work for little money. They are presented as noble, decent and valuable members of society – worthy of an epic novel. Their lives are presented as being good, complex and rich. They are presented as intelligent and honorable people. Blue collar workers are the heroes of the work, but not in any condescending, “come wonder at the noble prols” way. Kesey clearly understood and sympathized with the plight of the loggers.
      I agree with the routine progressives criticisms of right wing cultural critiques – it’s wrong to judge politics ahead of art when critiquing art. Lazily dismissing as complex and ambiguous a work as Sometimes A Great Notion as “anti-union” is Big Hollywood-level criticism.

  • montag2

    I think a necessary addition is Man’s Fate by Andre Malraux (which is about a failed Communist revolution in Shanghai in 1927.

    I also think William Gaddis’ JR ought to be included, as it’s a wonderfully (and viciously) satirical look at capitalism.

    So should Richard Powers’ Gain, as it is a very moving story intertwined with a slightly fictionalized history of capitalism in the U.S.

    And, if one is interested in the way class can warp consciousness–and send one’s moral compass spinning, maybe the best example is Theodore Dreiser’s A Place in the Sun.

    Another notable: Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, which nicely warps both Candide and the Horatio Alger stories. How can one not be drawn to a story with a Calvin Coolidge-ish ex-President named Shagpoke Whipple?

    • rkd

      To be pedantic, A Place in the Sun was the movie version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, but your point is correct.

      • montag2

        Apologies, you’re quite correct. It’s been less time since I’ve seen the movie than since I’ve read the book, I guess.

  • William Burns

    Germinal.

    • John

      Yeah, why no discussion of non-American possibilities?

      • wjts

        Germinal‘s on the list, as is Dickens (David Copperfield in particular) and War and Peace. Alan Sillitoe would also be a good British addition.

        • chomko

          Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for sure. But w/r/t British working class and labor lit, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is probably, for better or worse, the standard against which to judge the rest.

        • LeeEsq

          Most Emile Zola’s novels are pretty interesting reads on class. The Ladies’ Paradise and the Belly of Paris offer interesting looks into the petit and grande bourgeoisie in Second Empire Paris.

    • Terry Teagle

      I was going to suggest Germinal as well, until I clicked the link. I just read it recently – it has some definite problems with melodrama and some flat characterizations, but it sticks with you and its a quick read, despite it’s length. I thought the conversations between Etienne and Souvarine about how radical a leftist movement should be were the best parts of the book.

      And I just now discovered Gerard Depardieu starred in the 1993 French film version. LOL

    • Anna in PDX

      And Nana!

  • Thom

    Ok, if we’re listing more possibilities: Ousmane Sembene, God’s Bits of Wood.

  • rm

    I have to defend Sometimes a Great Notion just a little.

    First, what Thom said: actual work is important in the story.

    Also, it’s a much much better novel than One Flew Over the Misogynistic Romanticism, so if anything by Kesey should still be read, I’d rather it be Sometimes.

    Finally, the Stamper family may be anti-union but the novel itself is ambiguous, because the Stampers are batshit crazy. The novel paints them as somehow admirable, but their attempt to take the logs down the river without the unionized workers is probably suicidal. So it’s at best a tragic self-defeating kind of thing, and the reader can notice that it would have been a lot easier for them to be normal people and to compromise — with the river, with each other, with laws and customs, with the union. In the end I don’t think we admire them much more than we admire the Compsons.

    • chuck_taylor

      I agree. I read it in one sitting 30 years ago, so I may have missed a lot, but what I got was obvious.

      The father’s rugged individualism/never-give-an-inch way of life is obviously unsustainable–it’s his arm hanging from the fishing pole at the beginning, right? And his kid is messed up even worse, leading to the suicide run down the river at the end. Socialism may end in the gulag, but capitalism ends with drowning trying to deliver an order. Never giving an inch is a lousy way to live your life. Sometimes I takes a great notion to jump in the river and drown–I didn’t think that was subtle.

      At 2 a.m. when I finished the book I went and stood over my son’s crib and begged him to forgive for the ways I would mess up his life.

    • Anna in PDX

      Yes! Thanks for writing this comment so I don’t have to. I would say this is one of the best novels of the 20th century.

    • pete

      Yup. I havent read it in years but I used to think Sometimes a Great Notion was in fact the Great American Novel™ largely because it was so resistant to simplistic binary thinking. And if Kesey was onto the complicated relationship some of the anti-war soi-disant left had with the establishment power structure early … well, good for him. Actually, the one of his I recommend most is Last Go Round.

    • mark f

      Well, shit. Especially since you said it better, sorry for (unknowingly) jumping ahead of this comment up thread.

      • Bob

        Ditto

        • R. Porrofatto

          Your comment up above is spot on, too. Sometimes a Great Notion would be a great novel even if the story it told didn’t reflect well on the labor unions – in the story – but it most definitely could not be construed as propaganda, or anything like what right-wing cultural Zhdanovists would wish art to be.

    • quercus

      Agree that Kesey was complicated. I mean, given — without spoiling too much of the plot — how unsafe working conditions factored into the story of the anti-union father, it’s hard to call it anti-union propaganda.

      And in fact, as I recall, the father’s reasons for opposing the union were made clear(both admitted sort-of rational desire to fulfill a contract and his less rational need for independence), and he admitted that there might be reasons for supporting it. So I think anyone who finished Sometimes a Great Notion is going to be in a position to have a more reasonable, at least partly rational, discussion about unions. Which, sadly, is probably a huge step towards unionism for the average U.S. resident.

  • rm

    If this were a reading list for a course, I’d probably have the class read and listen to Woody Guthrie.

    • pete

      That should lead to some interesting discussions. For instance: Grand Coulee Dam, would Woody be supporting it today?

  • rm

    Langston Hughes — essays, memoirs, stories, most of the poems.

    • I Wonder as I Wander has some great scenes from Soviet Central Asia. Hughes spent some time in the early 1930s in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

  • Martin Eden
    Martin Eden
    Martin Eden
    In that order.

    C

    • SEK

      No, no, and no, in that order. And I’m the Jack London guy.

  • Linnaeus

    I feel incredibly guilty if I read anything not related to a) my research, b) teaching, and c) political stuff for the blog. Obviously there may be some time management issues here….

    I don’t, and I suspect that may be one reason why my dissertation still isn’t done…

  • Sherm

    I was pleased to see Richard Russo mentioned. Few pay more respect to working class characters.

    • wjts

      Me, too. Russo is hands-down my favorite living American novelist. Hell, he’s probably my favorite American novelist period.

      • Sherm

        I’m a huge fan as well. Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls were excellent. Mohawk and Straight Man were pretty damn good too.

      • Hogan

        Maybe not my favorite, but Top Five.

    • He writes the same book over and over, but it’s a pretty good book.

  • William Berry

    Erik: I agree completely about Ken Kesey. Many drug-addled hippie types of the sixties went on to become right-wingers or “libertarians”.

    Some other choices strike me as a little odd. THE DOLLMAKER may well be working class, but it is anything but pro-union. And Sara Paretsky: Hell, among her favorite villains are corrupt union bosses. Not there are no such: just that the choice of them as fictional villains says something about your POV.

    Donato’s “Christ In Concrete” is awesome, but it’s a short story, not a novel.

    • Gareth Wilson

      I haven’t read all of Paretsky, but the usual pattern is for VI to interact with a corporation in some unpleasant way, and then discover they’re murdering people. I only read one where the murderers were union bosses. Even there the union guys are quick to say they only started using violence because the corporations were using it on them.

    • I think I have read all the VI novels, and I dispute the categorization. They aren’t pro-union as such, but her favorite villains are (a) corporate bigshots, (2) The Church, and (iii) corporate bigshots. Corrupt union bosses are way, way behind. Her choice of villains says a lot about her point of view, yes–if I recall correctly, her anger at the corrupt union bosses is explicitly because they are stealing from the workers.

      Thanks,
      -V.

  • The USA Trilogy at its best tells great stories about working-class people. White people admittedly. I’ll probably be pilloried for this choice. But I still like reading them and occasionally pick them up.

    USA! USA! USA!

    • Gus

      I happen to love USA. I reread pieces of it frequently.

  • tomk

    I’d second Russell Banks, especially loved Rule of the Bone, a stoned, working class coming of age story. Ross Thomas wrote lots of brisk thrillers from a lefty perspective with an insider’s knowledge of political and financial sleaze.

  • BigHank53

    This a bit out there, but has anyone else read any of The Boxcar Children series? Obviously kid’s books, but very very much set in the Depression.

    • ruviana

      I LOVED the Boxcar Children! I was about 8 or so when I read them and for awhile my most fervent ambition was to live in a boxcar with a bunch of other kids.

      • Anna in PDX

        Me too…

    • Linnaeus

      It’s not out there. I got introduced to The Boxcar Children in elementary school and read several more in that series. Never finished the series, but I liked those books a lot.

  • upstate

    nice to see Russo and Kennedy on the list

  • HoppinJon

    With apologies to Erik, I grew weary of bad academic writing and rediscovered the truth in fiction.
    The USA Trilogy is very good and it is easy to ignore Dos Passos’s descent into Goldwaterism. Norris was confused politically- the heroes being feudal land barons and the minor character of the scab engineer, turned hops farmer, turned train robber- but I mostly enjoyed The Octopus. Anything that sticks it to the RRs is fine with me.
    I suppose James T. Farrell is out of favor now, and Studs Lonigan is more lower middle than working class, but I have a weakness for Chicago realism.
    For a working class novel, and more generally a great novel, I will defend God’s Little Acre. Garcia Marquez cited the murder of Will Thompson as early magical realism. And the setting is the mill district I worked in 35 years ago. Of course, the mills are all closed now.
    Self consciously proletarian novels are pretty dreadful. I have to ignore the politics of the best fiction writers. Wharton and Henry James were reactionaries. Faulkner was a Tory at best. Dreiser was an exception and if you don’t mind wallowing in Freud, O’Neill knew and respected the working class, sailors anyway.

    • “With apologies to Erik, I grew weary of bad academic writing and rediscovered the truth in fiction.”

      No apologies. I’m jealous.

  • Decrease Mather

    George Saunders needs to be on the list.

    • Bill

      +1

    • mattc

      Nobody currently writing better expresses how capitalism alienates people from themselves and others. Also, he wrote a fantastic children’s book, The Very Persistent Gapers of Frip, that every small child should be exposed to before being marinated in “up by the bootstraps” propaganda.

  • partisan

    Are An American Tragedy or Banished Children of Eve not quite relevant or not quite good enough?

  • shah8

    The Light Ages by Ian R Macleod.

    I don’t like it for a number of reasons, but Adam Robert’s A New Model Army.

    John Scalzi: Redshirts, a novel with three codas…

    Any of Nalo Hopkinson’s works, really… Same with Jo Walton.

    Alaya Johnson Moonshine

    Doris Piserchia (as Curt Selby) I, Zombie

    Anything of Felix Gilman

    There you go, a bit of spicy working class literature.

    • Hogan

      I hadn’t thought of Redshirts in quite those terms, but oh yeah.

      • mattc

        Seconding Gilman! The Half-Made World’s allegorical treatment of the rise of American capitalism cuts to the bone much more effectively than a lot of realist works.

    • Murc

      I am appalled by the omission of Paolo Bacigalupi from this list.

      Seriously. The Windup Girl. Well, literally everything he’s ever written, but especially that.

      • BigHank53

        The Windup Girl is a stiff hurdle for those not accustomed to SF. For a course I’d suggest his short story Pump Six.

      • shah8

        The Windup Girl isn’t really all that class based.

        It’s also notoriously racist for a successful science fiction novel that wins awards.

  • shah8

    Forgot Martin Solares, The Black Minutes

  • Gone2Ground

    James M. Cain, “Mildred Pierce”. It’s nothing but class and gender start to finish. I even wrote a paper about it in college for an American Lit class (I had to convince the prof it was “lit” enough….)

    Cain perfectly captures the Great Depression with his little asides about Mildred having her shoes repaired from walking the streets looking for work, or her fruitless visits with employment agencies who tell her they’ve got drawers full of women (Romney, is that you?) who have no skills except for cooking and sleeping….and Mildred’s horrible daughter is completely mortified when she finds out Mildred is ‘a, a, waitress!’

    Almost everything by Cain is miles of this kind of stuff, and powerfully written.

    • Linnaeus

      The movie (the Joan Crawford version) was damn good, too.

      • Gone2Ground

        Yeah, but the book was pretty controversial for the times….I didn’t see the HBO version that was on recently, but I was very gratified somebody rediscovered it and put it together. I always thought it should be remade because the character is so great and so flawed.

  • bloix

    Waiting for Nothing, by Tom Kromer. Somewhere between a novel, a memoir, and a collection of stories, it’s the best book about the experience of being unemployed and homeless wduring the Depression. And it’s short.

  • jim, this guy in iowa

    “rivethead” by ben hamper

    • Thom

      Excellent book, but it’s not fiction and therefore not a novel.

      • jim, this guy in iowa

        yah…. but it’s a book i wish more people had heard of

  • Said this on FB, but whatthehell.

    These are all (more or less) Irish, which is what I know best:

    The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell (real name Robert Noonan). Google it, buy it, read it. (Published 1914.) I don’t know anything about its international reputation, but for the Irish working class this was for many generations something like the Bible.

    For great working class historical fiction, you can’t beat Joseph Plunkett’s Strumpet City. Totally absorbing, brilliant. About the great & most important 20th century Irish historical event nobody remembers, the Lock Out.

    And then Sean O’Casey. Juno and the Paycock is a great working-class play.

    And then Sean O’Casey’s plays. (Not sure if you only meant American, these are all Irish.)

  • elm

    I agree with everyone else that almost anything by Russo is good on this dimension. And I’ll repeat myself from upthread that Odets’s plays should be in the discussion.

    Semi-seriously, I’d say that Pratchett’s Discworld series does a great job highlighting some of the absurd ways modern society deals with class issues.

    As for the best book to promote class-consciousness, though, I’m going to say The Great Gatsby. The moral repulsion the reader feels about the high-society world, and the tragedy that befalls Gatsby after trying to pass as an upper-class fellow, can make anyone aware of the haves and have nots and where most of us can be classified.

    • Possibly, though I’m not so sure generations of students reading Gatsby hasn’t led to more wishing they were in the big mansion than class consciousness.

      • LeeEsq

        But isn’t this true for a lot of literature dealing with the upper classes even if it wasn’t the author’s point? People have been misinterpreting literature since we created fiction in the first place. Also, we have Steinbeck’s probably more true that it should be observation that socialism never took off in America because the American working class viewed themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

    • I’d go beyond that, re: Pratchett.

      First of all, Guards Guards! and Men at Arms! really change your view of the politics of medievalist romanticism that underlies the fantasy genre in ways that can’t really be undone.

      Second, I’d put Small Gods and Thud! up against any number of angry Hitchens/Dawkins on religion.

      And I could keep going on…

    • wengler

      I hated every single character by the end of that book. Besides I think the message was ‘stupid rich bitches ain’t worth it’ above any sort of class fable.

  • For less classic fiction, I’d like to throw in a recommendation for Brust and Bull’s Freedom and Necessity – a great mystery/thriller in the form of an epistolary novel set in England in 1850, full of Red Republican secret agents, early feminists, and a cameo by Engels himself!

    And why has no one mentioned the work of China Meiville?

    • Murc

      I believe you just did.

    • I assume you are talking about Iron Council? The ending is far too ideologically rigid for me, but I guess it might be a recognition that something akin to the British SWP to which Mieville belongs is never going to take power anywhere and achieve utopia. The actual practicalities of ruling a state will always force such movements into a Soviet, Maoist, or at best Cuban style of authoritarian bureaucracy that recreates a different set of class divisions. You can not very effectively be a romantic revolutionary and run an effective state. That is why Castro sent Che out of Cuba to lead hopeless revolutions in Congo and Bolivia and why Mao’s China was an absolute disaster.

      • LeeEsq

        The SWP seems to be rapidly disintergrating because of giant rape scandal. Apparently, a key member, Comrade Delta, raped women who belonged to the SWP. When these allegations came out, the matter was dealt with internally rather than through the “bourgeoisie” court system. The result of this kangaroo tribunal was predictable. The SWP isn’t a politcal party, its an authoritarian cult organized around a political ideology rather than a religion.

        • Well that is one way to put it.

        • Mieville and pretty much every other prominent SWP member I read have been up in arms about that situation. At this rate, the Central Committee is going to be a committee without a party. I’m hoping the dissenting faction is a large enough majority of the party that they can simply re-coalesce after ridding themselves of the central leadership.

  • grouchomarxist

    When the Sleeper Wakes

  • wengler

    I think Catch-22 was an extremely subversive novel for not only challenging the traditional heroic narrative of World War II, but for presenting a capitalist character orchestrating the madness.

  • truffula

    Frans Masereel, Die Stadt.

  • Again I am putting in my vote for Jim Thompson’s Now and on Earth for great working class literature.

  • LeeEsq

    I’m late to the conversation by Theodore Dreisier’s Sister Carrie is a very good working-clas novel in its own fashion.

  • I’m very surprised that Nelson Algren wasn’t mentioned in 120+ comments. His collection of short stories, The Neon Wilderness and his great novel, The Man With the Golden Arm are classics.

  • Bruce Vail

    The exclusion of Theodore Dreiser is puzzling.

    A popular English teacher in my high school insisted that we read Sister Carrie, and almost caused an insurrection in the class. I liked it though, and it has a lot to say about work and class in Gilded Age America.

  • Terry Teagle

    How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, a Scottish stream of consciousness that seems woefully unknown in the US, despite winning the Booker Prize in 1994. I didn’t quite realize how much of class novel it was til I read other people’s negative reviews and saw how badly they missed the point.

    Kelman seems like a grand guy, and I hope to get to more of his work.

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