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Proletarian Literature in the USA

The Masses, New Republic, The Liberator, The New Masses, Manhattan Transfer, An American Tragedy

american masses writers political

The beginnings of the proletarian ‘tradition’, sometimes termed ‘movement’, in twentieth-century American letters can be dated to the first appearance of The Masses magazine in 1911. Founded by Piet Vlag but most influential from 1913 onwards under the editorships of Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, The Masses espoused an exhilarating mixture of avant-gardism, anarchism, and radical socialism. By 1918 the increasingly leftwing affiliation of the weekly magazine and its open support of the Russian revolution (Eastman had published Lenin's ‘Letter to American Workingmen’ and had defended Bolshevism against the attacks of Walter Lippmann in the New Republic) brought it under the scrutiny of the US government and it was suppressed in December 1918. In just six years, however, The Masses had established an intellectual and political climate on which a later generation of writers, notably those of the Depression years, could build. The Masses was succeeded by The Liberator (19181924), and when the latter folded the openly Marxist The New Masses came in to fill the space left by its demise. Through the boom years of the 1920s The New Masses offered a sustained critique of American capitalism but did so in a climate that was more literary than political.

The leftwards shift in American culture in the late 1920s and 1930s is more a mark of the affiliations of the literary intelligentsia than of American society in general. Influenced, particularly, by Lenin's remarks on the place of literature in society and the emphasis on the closer identification of the creative writer with the worker's cause, many American writers sought to create imaginative works which were simultaneously a criticism of the worst excesses of advanced capitalist society and, to varying degrees, a call to arms. Novels, therefore, such as John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925) and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925), though not tendentious in the Leninist sense, have distinct affinities with later, more overtly political, proletarian writings.

By 1935, with the USA deep in recession, The New Masses published a call for an American Writers' Congress, and Waldo Frank's address to the first congress in May 1935 spoke of the inevitability of communism and the plight of the American writer under a capitalist system. Other significant papers read at the congress included those of Malcolm Cowley and Joseph Freeman; Cowley, in particular, in his paper ‘What the Revolutionary Movement Can Do for a Writer’, sought to give the term ‘proletarian novel’ a specific American character and definition. Writers whose works are closely associated with the proletarian literature of the Depression years include Robert Cantwell, Michael Gold, James T. Farrell, Howard Fast, Albert Halper, Josephine Herbst, Albert Maltz, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck, while among critics V. F. Calverton, Granville Hicks, and Edwin Seaver, as well as Cowley and Gold, acted as important proselytizers.

By 1940 the movement was, to all intents and purposes, dead, the victim of internal contradiction and disagreement, and of external events such as the Hitler–Stalin pact and evidence of purges within the Soviet Union which had, collectively, eroded the movements' intellectual and political credibility; many of the writings of those associated with American proletarianism, however, continue to have value whilst others have little more than historical interest. Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left (1961) remains the best general study of the left-wing proclivities in American writing in the inter-war years, whilst Walter B. Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954 (1956) is more narrowly concerned with proletarian fiction. Joseph Freeman's edition of Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935) is the most valuable contemporary anthology of the literature.

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