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Working-Class Literature

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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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