Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Literature. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 16 January 2021

Proletarian Literature Reconsideredfree

  • Bill V. MullenBill V. MullenCollege of Liberal Arts, Purdue University


Proletarian literature is best understood as strongly anticapitalist literature by or about working-class people. As a cultural form, proletarian literature is an expression of the experiences of working-class people under capitalism, an index to the social relationships created in and against capitalism. As a genre, proletarian literature was formalized in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the cultural arm of the Bolshevik Revolution, amid intense debate about the nature and function of workers’ culture under socialism. Yet its roots run much deeper, coinciding with the development of capitalism, industrialization, and the making of class society itself. In the 19th century, for example, both the slave narrative and nonfiction writing by factory workers can be counted as expressions of working-class life and subjectivity. Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, may be taken as one of the first full-length, self-conscious examples of proletarian writing. That Davis’s book was written by a woman is also significant: proletarian literature reflects the disproportionate experiences of women, immigrants, migrants, African Americans, colonial subjects, and other people of color as members of the working class globally. Indeed, because the genre has historically been tied to the development of communist and socialist movements worldwide, proletarian literature is necessarily a global phenomenon, and an insightful indicator of the relationships between workers in different nations and colonies yoked together by global capitalism. Thus, proletarian literature should be studied as corollary to the development of capitalism across time and space; as an index to the lived experience of race, gender, sexuality, and class; and as one of the most important expressive forms and historical records left by members of the working class as a whole.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, might stand in for the contradictions and paradoxes in defining proletarian literature, while pointing to an expanded canvas for delineating the genre. Michael Folsom has called The Jungle the first proletarian novel in the United States. Yet the category of proletarian literature did not exist at the time of The Jungle’s publication.1 The novel began as reportage, then became fiction—Sinclair admitted that after six weeks of research at the Chicago packinghouses he still did not have any “characters.” The book was published initially in serial periodical form—as propaganda for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason—and, in his catalogue of influences on the book, Sinclair included Emile Zola, a naturalist, and not, in Sinclair’s account, a socialist. The book’s reception and afterlife also raise intrigue about what might be called the political temporality of proletarian literature: Jack London, for example, called the book the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” suggesting proletarian roots in 19th-century abolitionist melodrama.2 London also calls attention to the novel’s frequent efforts to compare white wage labor and slavery, and Sinclair’s alternative ending for the novel, which emphasized not trade union activism or immigration but the divisive role of Southern racism on the American working class.3 Finally, The Jungle has inspired an array of commitments and imitations beyond the reach of much of what is traditionally considered proletarian literature: Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day was inspired to a life of activism by Sinclair’s book,4 and nearly one hundred years after its publication, liberal journalist Eric Schlosser wrote his own exposé of American food production—Fast Food Nation (2001)—in part as homage to Sinclair’s groundbreaking work.5

Sinclair’s novel should welcome us then to a broad reconsideration: if proletarian literature is as elastic in influence, form, and legacy as The Jungle suggests, we limit ourselves by relying on what might be called scriptural definitions of proletarian literature. Typically, this canon of citations begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917; the formation of “proletcult,” or proletarian culture, within the Bolshevik movement; touchstone essays, like Mike Gold’s 1921 “Towards Proletarian Art,” and flagship texts—like Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited; internecine debates among a narrow range of cultural Left figures of the 1920s and 1930s; and a dogged commitment to a “mirror” theory of cultural production in which political rebellions and economic downturns—like the Gastonia Strikes in North Carolina, or the Great Depression—find their “form” in literature produced against and in tandem with these events. Indeed, most of the classic, and groundbreaking, studies of U.S. proletarian literature, at least—Walter Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States, James Murphy’s The Proletarian Moment, Barbara Foley’s Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941, and Constance Coiner’s Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSeuer, to name just a few among many—take the period of 1900 to 1941 as a general rise and fall of the proletarian moment.

Yet a moment is also a microcosm, or a durée.6 The long period of proletarian literature is rooted in the capaciousness of political and aesthetic approaches to representations of working-class experience taken by writers in the United States and around the world. Its definition: that proletarian literature is a rather simple formulation: literature about the working class that is strongly anticapitalist, owing to class society’s continuity as the structure and structure of feeling within which working-class literature and anticapitalist protest have been produced and reproduced. Concomitantly, proletarian writing may be understood as the literary modality, to use Stuart Hall’s formulation, through which working-class experience of class, race, gender, and sexuality have been lived.7 Finally, proletarian literature as a category depends not on critical and political “naming,” or literary taxonomy, but an apprehension of the variety of discursive literary forms which nominate working-class experience. Indeed, what Alan Wald has argued of proletarian fiction specifically, applies to proletarian and working-class literature as a whole, namely that “in certain respects” it “shaped itself according to those who made use of the category or were identified as having done so by others.”8

The constitutive elements of working-class, anticapitalist expression have changed over time, so too have criteria of form, aesthetics, and political commitment often central to originary definitions of “proletarian”: aesthetic form itself is materially determined. Thus, contemporary proletarian writing, effected by events like capitalist globalization; labor market fragmentation; shifting immigration patterns; mutable definitions of race, ethnicity, and sexuality; the relative decline of communist parties and socialist influence; and the diminution of labor union participation, on one hand, and on evolving conceptions of the “literary,” on the other, compels us first to map the texts and writers seeking to chart these conditions as a way of signaling possible new contours of aesthetics and commitment.

Rethinking the Time and Space of Proletarian Literature

The term “proletarian” first came into English language use in 1650s Europe to describe the lowest class of people in emergent capitalist societies. Its etymology invites us to comprehend proletarian literature as incipient to capitalism’s development of class society. Historian E. P. Thompson has characterized the social process behind this history:

. . . class happens when some [people], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other [people] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which [people] are born—or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, and institutional forms.9

Thompson helps us see proletarian literature as one of the traditions and institutional forms through which working-class consciousness finds expression. It can include writings by laborers, indentured servants, seamen, pirates, prostitutes, slaves, factory workers, farmers, indigenous persons, domestic workers, wives, and prisoners who comprise at different moments in capitalist history the working class. For example, in their edited Oxford Anthology of American Working-Class Literature, Nicholas Coles and Janet Zandy include writings by a wide range of laborers who contributed to the development of pre-Republican North American capitalism from the 1600s to 1800s. These include poems by felons transported to the colonies, white indentured servants’ personal reflections on their passage from Europe to North America, and slaves’ spirituals and work songs. The inclusion of slave texts is consistent with the so-called new capitalist history which has argued for slavery as an intrinsic part of modern capitalism.10

Zandy and Coles also challenge and expand generic boundaries of proletarian literature by including letters from young women hired to work in textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, and a public song recounting their daily travails:

Then since they’ve cut my wages down To nine shillings per week, If I cannot better wages make, Some other place I’ll seek.11

Like the factory letters, the song of the mill women alludes to marriage as an escape from factory work, giving powerful testimonial to the twin contributions of female proletarians to early industrial capitalist reproduction: in the workplace, and in the domicile—the latter a phenomena contemporary scholars refer to as the “social reproduction” of labor under capitalism.12 The Oxford anthology’s inclusion of disparate materials and types—from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1850 poem “The Ship-Builders,” to Walt Whitman’s civil war poem “The Wound-Dresser,” to 19th-century work songs—also amplifies Eric Schocket’s argument that proletarian literature’s historical arc should be viewed in parallel to capitalist development rather than emerging as a “formal” category during the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s and the years of communist revolutions.13 In this long history, we might also place industrial writings by the English poet John Clare, William Blake’s poems of working-class life such as “The Chimney Sweep,” and the literary output of the English Chartist movement of the 1840s. From this point of view, proletarian literature is the persistent chronicle of the uneven experiences of the working class under capitalism rather than a “type” of writing mechanically aligned to the rise of formal trade unions, heightened industrial organizing, or cultural decree by political organizations and literary czars.

Schocket and the insights of “new capitalist history” also compel us to examine touchstones of proletarian literature in a new light. Take, for example, Rebecca Harding Davis’s seminal 1861 novella Life in the Iron Mills. The book was first published in the middle-class literary periodical Atlantic Monthly and is generally considered the first widely read literary story of working-class life published in the United States. The story and Davis fell out of the canon of U.S. literature until Tillie Olsen persuaded the Feminist Press to reissue it in 1972. The story examines the life of a Welsh puddler in a West Virginia iron mill whose benighted life is rendered a gothic projection of early 19th-century industrial capitalism. The self-consciously middle-class Harding Davis and her middle-class reader converge in the narrator’s guided tour of factory life. The Atlantic Monthly’s abolitionist politics and liberal views of race are also subtext to Davis’s sympathetic accounts of “drunken Irish” immigrants to the mill town and, metaphorically, of America’s Black chattel, evoked through the figure of a “negro-like river slavishly bearing its burden day after day.”14 Wage labor and slave labor are thus set as dual structures, one representationally present, one absent, yet co-dependent. Thus “Life in the Iron Mills” may be read as an adjunct to Frederick Douglass’s account from the other side of the color line of slave and wage labor in his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass introduces this duality when the slave Frederick is allowed to earn his own wages as a caulker on the Baltimore docks. He is unwelcome by free white workers who perceive him as labor competition, and attempt to beat him. In combination, “Life in the Iron Mills” and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass bring to mind Ira Berlin’s famous formulation, “If slavery made race, its larger purpose was to make class,” with class understood, pace Thompson, as the “productive relations into which [people] are born.”15

Olsen was also among the first to recognize the proletarian novel as an expression of the lives of working-class women. Davis captured both “the factories and mills spreading over more and more of the landscape, thieving the farms,” and “proud, vulnerable women subjected to indignities and rejection because their appearance and being do not fit the prevailing standards of female beauty or behavior.”16 In “Life in the Iron Mills,” Deb is a “hunchback,” deformed by industrial life, and one of the doubles for the figure of the Korl Woman, a figurine carved from industrial scrap kept near the writing desk of the narrator of the tale. Olsen perceived Harding Davis’s novel, in other words, as a radical commentary on the blighted lives of working-class women, and the story itself as an expression of the lives of all women, including the author, indelibly shaped by capitalist processes. For Olsen, class exploitation and women’s oppression conjoin especially in the erasure, negation, or “silencing” of literary representations of capitalism’s totality of effects on human lives.

Olsen thus invites us through another portal into the long proletarian tradition oddly resonant with London’s comparison of Sinclair to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “sentimental” melodrama. That is, Olsen’s homage to Harding Davis legitimates London’s claim as a feminist one about the history and roots of proletarian writing. Rather than questing for pure “origins” and temporal boundaries of proletarian literature, Olsen encourages us to seek out and define its discursive features. Here we can return again to Sinclair’s The Jungle for clues and analysis: the novel is the first North American narrative of Lithuanian immigration to the United States. Sinclair makes clear that his protagonists are economic refugees from Czarist Russia, bottom dwellers transported from an old feudal order to a new capitalist one equally if not more oppressive. Sinclair’s novel thus looks backward and forward to another of proletarian literature’s discursive trademarks: its rooted internationalism.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s famous claim that “the working man has no country,” meant to indicate how capitalist states dispossess the working class of their right to nation—or national self-determination—locates itself in the proletarian literary tradition’s earliest forays. Russian novelist Nikolai Chernyshevky’s 1863 novel, What Is to be Done?, is seminal here. Chernyshevky’s protagonist, Vera Pavlovna, abandons her privileged existence and seeks economic independence fostering economic collectives geared toward industrialization. The book led to the development in Russia of the Land and Liberty society of Narodniki (middle- and upper-class citizens committed to socialism). But the book’s most lasting legacy was its impact on V. I. Lenin, whose 1902 pamphlet “What Is to be Done?,” inspired by Chernyshevky’s title, argued that only international working-class radicalism from below could overthrow capitalism.17 The novel was also influential on the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, and the German socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemberg (and much later the American playwright Tony Kushner), all of whom saw in it a prescription for drawing together an international proletariat. Indeed in The Jungle, Sinclair perceives the 1904 packinghouse strike that inspired him to write the book as a possible companion to the 1905 Russian Revolution, which he alludes to by way of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War that helped produce it. Intertextually, then, Sinclair’s novel is an allegory of anticapitalist world strikes, his war on meat, meat production, and labor exploitation an American “What Is to be Done?”18

This thick internationalism in proletarian literature is dialectical, not reflective. The Chartist movement, a key English current in the European revolutions of the 1840s, produced one of the first waves of English proletarian writing. Kirstin Ross has demonstrated how both Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry and William Morris’s revolutionary utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890) attempted to render working-class experience as formed by the Paris Commune,19 understood by its proletarian actors as the first truly internationalist communal body. Contemporary poetry on the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City and the songs collected in the Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World [IWW]) “Little Red Song” book reflect the internationalization of the labor movement in migrations from Eastern Europe to North America especially in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. Likewise, publication of workers’ poems in Yiddish-language newspapers in North America bespeaks the international polyvocality of working-class experience even at the level of reading and writing. Agnes Smedley’s 1929 novel, Daughter of Earth, is the loosely autobiographical account of an American working-class women’s induction into Indian nationalist politics, the Ghadr Party, and a life of exile in solidarity with anti-imperialist, anticolonial movements in Asia.

This handful of examples begins to chart the wide-ranging panoply of proletarian literature, novels especially, that flourished globally in the period between World War I and the 1930s, a period Michael Denning has characterized as the onset of a “proletarian avant garde.”20 Indeed, part of the internationalizing aspect of proletarian writing in the 20th century is its apprehension of a modernizing function for the global working class—call it proletarian modernism—unified by combined and uneven development of capitalist exploitation, oppression, and resistance. These themes rocket through a wide range of texts published across the world in this period. Chinese fabulist Lu Xun’s “True Story of Ah Q,” an episodic novella first published in 1921, demonstrates satirically the contradictory ideological effects of modernization, revolution, and republicanism on a Chinese village worker. In 1925, Soviet writer Fyodor Gladkov published Cement, the story of a Red Army soldier who returns to his home village to try and rebuild the Revolution. The novel is often identified as “social realist” but should also be understood as a byproduct of debates within the Soviet Union over proletcult as documented by scholar James F. Murphy.21 Murphy notes that proletcult originated in the Soviet Union in a group called Vepred, or “Forward.” Its leader, Alexander Bogdanov, argued for workers’ culture as the ideological superstructure of society’s economic base and promoted writing by worker-writers in the pages of Pravda. In 1917, a Society of the Proletarian Arts was formed in the Soviet Union.22 In 1920, Lenin argued that in Soviet society, art and literature should be “imbued with the spirit of the class struggle being waged by the proletariat for the successful achievement of the aims of its dictatorship.”23 In 1925, Victor Serge, reporting on the Bolshevik movement, would publish the essay “Is Proletarian Literature Possible?” In 1928, the first All-Union Congress of Proletarian Writers was held in Moscow.24

As with political debate within the Comintern (or Communist International) formed in 1919 after the Revolution, the proletcult discussion in the Soviet Union reverberated globally as a call to follow Moscow’s lead and to infuse culture with the spirt and practice of internationalist working-class struggle. Assessing the degree to which writers and artists outside the Soviet Union adhered to principles articulated in Soviet debate is a longstanding challenge for scholars of proletarian literature: books by James Murphy, Barbara Foley, Michael Denning, Alan Wald and others have variously assigned a leading—if contested—role in the development of proletarian aesthetics to figures like Georgy Plekhanov, referred to by Anatoly Lunacharsky as the “founder of Marxist criticism.”25 In the United States, key manifestos on proletarian literature included Edwin Seaver’s “What Is a Proletarian Novel? Notes toward a Definition” (1935); and Mike Gold’s “Go Left, Young Writer” (1929). In general, writers who described themselves as proletarian in the post-1917 period shared a commitment to the idea of art as action, to advancing the political chances of workers in the class struggle—often oriented to or by Communist Party politics--and were committed to developing proletarian culture as an expressive adjunct of the working class. This created remarkable heterodoxy of thought about the genre. For example, while Gold is often taken as the most didactic proponent of clear standards for proletarian writing in the United States, he also averred, “Proletarian literature is taking many forms. There is not a standard model which all writers must imitate, or even a standard set of thoughts. There are no precedents. Each writer has to find his own way. All that unites us, and all we have for a guide, is the revolutionary spirit.”26 In perhaps the most radical expression of hopeful indeterminacy for the form, Leon Trotsky argued in Literature and Revolution that proletarian literature as a category would not need to exist after socialism, since classes would be abolished.27

What can be said with certainty is that the Bolsheviks and their acolytes formally internationalized the question of what role a worker’s culture should play in the fight against capitalism. Broadly speaking, the fight centered literature and the role of writers in what the Communist Left called a “cultural front” or “Left Front.” Thus in China, the Philippines, Germany, Hungary, Austria, the United States, Japan, and other countries, writers organized themselves into leagues and associations meant to show political and aesthetic solidarity with worldwide revolutionary culture.28 The First International Conference of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers, attended by writers from fourteen countries, took place in Moscow in 1927. In 1930, the Second Conference took place, attendees renaming themselves the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. Proletarian writing, in turn, flowed from these collectives as evidence of political commitment to cultural internationalism.

Fruits of this radical cosmopolitanism included, in France, Henri Barbusse’s 1930 novel Chains, published the same year as Henry Poulaille’s Nouvel age littéraire calling for a proletarian internationalism in French literature. In Japan, a rising proletarian literary movement produced Takiji Kobayashi’s 1929 novel The Cannery Boat about self-organizing efforts by crab ship workers.29 In the United Kingdom, inspired by the General Strike of 1926, Walter Greenwood published in 1933 the novel Love on the Dole about workers living in poverty in Northern England. As in the Soviet Union, theoretical debate about the nature of proletarian art was everywhere conjoined to cultural production. In China, Chen Duxiu, who helped introduce naturalism to China and helped to found the Communist Party, and Lu Xun, who helped to found the Chinese League of Revolutionary Writers, led discussion of social realism and the form and function of proletarian literature. George Orwell’s books from the 1930s, including Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and his Road to Wigan Pier (1937), helped advance arguments for a proletarian perspective in British writing. It should also be noted that nationalist literary movements in the colonies—the Philippines, India, and Africa—were beset by questions of the relationship of the national liberation struggle to proletarian internationalism. This is reflected in C. L. R. James’s assessment in this period of the role of literature in Trinidad, and in debates among writers writing in Tagalog.30 M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga have also recorded the long-term impact of Soviet socialist realism and proletarian aesthetics on African anticolonial writing, a tradition that begins with the influence of socialist ideas and proletarian aesthetics on negritude writers like Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor.31

Proletarian literature’s internationalization is also demonstrated in the radical democratization of literary genres, like drama. In Moscow, Vesevelod Meyerhold attempted to nationalize theater after the Bolshevik Revolution. He failed, but did help promote proletarian and revolutionary dramas in the 1920s; in 1926, Sergei Tretyakov debuted his play Roar China! at the Meyerhold Theater in Moscow. The play was based on Tretyakov’s travels to China during the workers’ uprisings in Shanghai and other cities. He attempted to bring that class struggle home in dramaturgical form. Around 1930 in Germany, the agitprop theater group Dasa Rote Sprachrohr began offering collective work dedicated to proletarian–revolutionary culture.32 In 1934, in London’s West End, the recently relocated Trinidadian immigrant and socialist C. L. R. James staged his play Toussaint l’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History: A Play in Three Acts. The play attempted to bring the Caribbean diaspora, Haiti’s revolution, and the role of black workers (slaves in this instance) directly into the heart of British empire, and was prelude to completion of James’s magisterial history of the Haitian revolution, Black Jacobins, published in 1936. James’s play and history are thus forerunners to the “new capitalist history,” firmly locating plantation slavery within what James called the “modern” system of capitalism.33

Other examples of theater’s internationalization of proletarian themes include the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), formed as the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India in 1942. While the primary objective of the IPTA was to advance the nationalist movement, it also produced plays like Deshasathi, which dramatized the attack of Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union.34 IPTA was thus part of global theater’s general wave of proletarianization between 1920 and 1940: anchored by German socialist Bertolt Brecht, whose 1938 Threepenny Opera tried to merge proles, lumpen, and a mass audience as the “subject” of class antagonism in capitalist society, workers’ theater, or some variety of proletarian production, catapulted American playwrights such as Clifford Odets, Langston Hughes, Orson Welles, and Theodore Ward into new roles as tribunes of workers’ culture. Waiting for Lefty, Odets’s best-known play, helped give rise to both independent black working-class theater, like the Harlem Suitcase Theater founded by Langston Hughes, and the theatrical mainstreaming of breakthrough proletarian novels like Richard Wright’s Native Son, adapted for the New York stage in 1941. An important experiment in proletarian drama is Langston Hughes’s Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and Play, published in 1932. The Scottsboro Boys case of nine African-American youth accused of raping two white women on an interstate train in Alabama occasioned a campaign by the Communist Party to “proletarianize” the defendants and to point out the strangling economic conditions of black workers, especially in the American South. Hughes’s treatment of the case affirmed that interpretation.35

Debating the Proletarian Moment: What’s Left Out

Tillie Olsen’s 1972 claims for Rebecca Harding Davis as a foremother of proletarian writing at once devised a new trajectory for locating a history of working-class women’s writing and her own career as a proletarian author. Since the official end of the Cold War, scholarship on proletarian literature, radical literature, and working-class literature has similarly been impelled by revisionism of both a political and taxonomical order. Where the Cold War held in place prejudices against communist writers, proletarian aesthetics, and canon expansion to the Left, post-Cold War scholarship has engaged not only with the legacy of Cold War exclusion, but with debates about the relative strengths and weaknesses of proletarian literature as a forerunner of contemporary feminist multiculturalism. For example, books by Constance Coiner, Laura Hapke, and Paula Rabinowitz have subjected U.S. literary radicalism to a sympathetic but vigorous examination of the “head boys”—male Communist Party and cultural figures especially—who often established masculinist tenets of inclusion and evaluation for the production and valuation of proletarian writing.36 In their important anthology of radical women writers of the 1930s, Charlotte Nekola and Rabinowitz quote Michael Gold’s 1929 essay “Go Left, Young Writers!” as an exemplar of the type:

A new writer has been appearing; a wild youth of about twenty-two, the son of working class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, steel mills, harvest fields, and mountain campus of America. He is sensitive and impatient. He writes in jets of exasperated feeling and has not time to polish his work. He is violent and sentimental by turns. He lacks self confidence but writes because he must.37

Nekola and Rabinowitz aptly point out the ruffian male individualism of Gold’s posture, its comportment with what Philip Rahv once detested as “emasculated unsocial writing,”38 and its general elision of women who themselves took part in the mill, mine, and farm labor Gold celebrates as homosocial terrain. Beyond this, Gold’s tropological landscape, borrowed from the mythic wellspring of American manifest destiny discourse, simultaneously occludes entire proletarian populations themselves overrun by U.S. westward settlement: Asian Americans (especially Chinese laborers who built the railways); African Americans and slaves; indigenous populations. Jewish Gold likewise adopts the mask of white settler-colonialism in the name of the proletariat, a troubling bit of critical minstrelsy that has come down through history as a narrow, reactive, and blinding obsession with the Western working class as both white and, in a global sense, part of what Lenin once called the “labor aristocracy.”39

Ironically, Gold himself was one of many proletarian writers whitewashed by conservative and formalist standards of literary criticism in the 1950s and 1960s, when New Critical elided, downgraded, or disappeared the proletarian literary movement. Yet buried deeper still were other writers on the Left, working-class writers and women with proletarian sympathies who were subordinated to the margins of even a proletarian canon. Given Gold’s ideological landscaping of the literary “frontier,” Carlos Bulosan offers a useful place to begin. Bulosan was born in Binalonan, a small village in the Philippines, and emigrated to the United States at age seventeen. His best-known work, America Is in the Heart, is a complex autobiographical novel about his life as an itinerant laborer on the West Coast between the end of the 1920s and World War II. Bulosan earned popular and critical acclaim for the book and short stories published in commercial magazines during the 1940s. Yet America Is in the Heart was long out of print before being reissued by the University of Washington Press in 1973. Since then, it has been canonized in Asian American literature as one of the most important autobiographies among Filipino writers. But the book also challenges easily assumed political and ideological coordinates of proletarian literature. While strongly anticapitalist, and certainly from the point of view of the working class, the book’s opening third represents the long effects of colonialism and U.S. occupation of the Philippines. The novel is also a Popular Front bildungsroman; the main character advocates for Filipino enlistment in the U.S. military as an expression of anti-fascism, while simultaneously excoriating the brutal racism, xenophobia, and exploitation of black, Mexican, and immigrant labor. Like other proletarian texts by male writers, the novel includes prostitution and the exploitation of women as one of capitalism’s sins, while also evincing repulsion and a borderline misogynist contempt for women. In short, America Is in the Heart lives up to Gold’s mandate of a proletarian virility, while offering a multiracial critique of the legacy for the working class of both domestic U.S. manifest destiny—“Go West, Young Man!”—and its exterior other, Pan-Pacific imperialism.

Making a brief appearance as the radical, intellectual mentor to the hero of America Is in the Heart is Alice Odell, a fictional portrait of the Communist writer Sanora Babb. Bulosan and Babb were friends in a cadre of left-wing California writers, which included journalist and sociologist Carey McWilliams and the Italian-American novelist John Fante. Like Bulosan, Babb’s location as a proletarian writer upends easy categorization and typology of the genre. Babb was born in Red Rock, Oklahoma; she, her sister, and father, a farmer and gambler, moved constantly before settling in California. Her Dust Bowl novel Whose Names Are Unknown was rejected by Random House in 1939 because of the recent publication of John Steinbeck’s blockbuster The Grapes of Wrath, generally considered a bellweather of U.S. proletarian writing. Names was only published in 2004 by the University of Oklahoma press.40 Babb’s novel is in fact more explicit in its anticapitalism than Steinbeck’s opus, and more insistent on representing interracial unity between “Okies” and non-white migrant California labor. Indeed, one of the sources for Steinbeck’s novel were notes taken by Babb as she and her sister Dorothy, a photographer, traveled California’s agriculture valleys while working for the Farm Security Administration in 1938–1939. The text and photos were published in 2007 as On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering Dust Bowl Refugee Camps. As in Whose Names Are Unknown, Babb gives close attention to the conditions of Mexican and Mexican-American labor. In tandem, Babb and Bulosan’s writings destabilize the singular place of masterworks like Grapes of Wrath in representing proletarian life in Depression-era California. By focusing on immigration and migration from the Global South, they also expand the geography of proletarian literature, locating proletarian internationalism as emerging out of settler–colonial conquest of the West.

Babb and Bulosan thus help signal what is sometimes left out of definitions of proletarian literature while helping to open other passageways to its historical formation. In 1990, the University of Texas Press published for the first time Américo Paredes’s novel George Washington Gomez. Paredes, born in South Texas in 1915, completed the manuscript somewhere near the end of the 1930s. The book is the partly autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man, George Washington Gomez (called Gualinto by his family), raised in South Texas by an uncle after his father is murdered by the notorious vigilante group the Texas Rangers. The book broadens the proletarian genre in several ways. It locates the conditions of the Mexican working class of South Texas in their historical dispossession and displacement after the U.S. war against Mexico. Stolen land, stolen wealth, and stolen national identity are made parallel historical processes in the novel. Paredes thus represents working-class Tejanos as living under perpetual internal colonization. Land, wealth, and political power, in turn, reside in the Anglo power structure of a society which can be mimicked—to use Homi Bhaba’s notion—but not overturned.41 Gualinto’s “double consciousness,” as W. E. B. Du Bois called African-American perspective, or liminal status in this matrix—what Paredes calls a social “checkerboard”—is thus resolved through imitation: he marries a white woman, the daughter of a Texas Ranger, and joins the U.S. military as a spy assigned to protect the U.S. border with Mexico. As with Bulosan, military service is seen as a path to economic and political citizenship for a minority working class against whom capitalism directs its greatest force. U.S. imperialism’s economic ravaging of Mexico (which includes South Texas in Paredes’s historical schema) demonstrates combined and uneven development of capitalism as the terrain for class and social struggle in the novel. Finally, Paredes’s novel is one of the first about the troubled “border” between native and immigrant for frontera subjects who are economic refugees.

Genre and proletarian inflection also merges here with problems of historical marginalization in the example of the proletarian short story, a literary mode which foregrounds important questions relevant to form, publication, delivery, and audience for proletarian literature. Originally the purview of middlebrow literary magazines seeking out largely middle-class narratives for bourgeois readers, the short story and the literary periodical, underwent a simultaneous proletarianization with the onset of an expanded Left and a more literate working class. Indeed, one of the first collections of “official” proletarian writing was the 1933 literary magazine of short stories Blast, edited by William Carlos Williams and Fred Miller. Upton Sinclair’s Jungle was published in serial form, propaganda style, suitable to the reading timetable and work schedule of laborers who might dip in and out of the pages of a socialist newspaper like Appeal to Reason. The proletcult movement in the Soviet Union likewise inspired a series of radical and avant-garde journals and periodicals dedicated to creating and reaching new masses. In 1923, notes James Murphy, members of the Soviet October Group, began publishing a weekly magazine called Na postu, or “On Guard,” announcing their intention to “stand firmly on guard over a strong and clear Communist ideology in proletarian literature.”42 In 1926, the magazine New Masses was launched in the United States as a sequel to an earlier radical bohemian journal, Masses. Mike Gold became sole editor in 1928. As Michael Denning notes, Gold’s 1928 editorial called for “worker-correspondents” to send “revelations by rebel chambermaids and night club waiters—. . . Strikes stories, prison stories, work stories—Stories by Communist, I. W. W. and other revolutionary workers.”43 In 1928 Germany, the magazine Linksskurve was founded. In 1930, the International Union of Revolutionary Writers established as its official organ the magazine Literature of the World Revolution, which appeared in multiple editions in several countries.44

The proliferation of these leftist magazines paralleled and coincided with an explosion of proletarian writers’ groups and collectives, like the Communist Party’s John Reed Club, whose chapters published magazines across the United States, including Midland Left in Indianapolis and Proletcult in Seattle and Portland.45 These “mushroom mags,” as Denning refers to them, oriented proletarian writing to genres that would fit them, namely poetry and short stories. Scholars have thoroughly mined the contours of 1930s proletarian-era poetry as it took up a range of issues from women’s reproductive rights, to longshoreman’s strikes, to the Spanish Civil War, to the prospects of workers’ revolution. They have in some instances unearthed remarkable surprises, like Denning’s observation that William Carlos Williams was a “ubiquitous figure” in proletarian magazines of the 1930s.46 Yet the response to Gold’s call for “strike stories, prison stories, work stories” has been less detailed.

To understand more fully the role of short stories in proletarian writing, we might begin with the career of Chester Himes. Himes has in recent years been slowly recovered as a working-class writer by scholars like George Lipsitz. Born to a Missouri middle-class family, Himes was sentenced to prison for armed robbery in 1928. From prison, he published several stories of prison life, including “Cast the First Stone,” based on his eyewitness account of a fire at the Ohio Penitentiary in 1930. Himes was one of the few African-American writers to publish stories in the prestigious, middlebrow, and largely white Esquire magazine. Ironically, the success of his stories paved the way for publication of his two bitter proletarian novels of the 1940s: If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947). The former is set in the Los Angeles shipyards of World War II. Because of his own middle-class background, publication in a commercial magazine, skepticism in his books about prospects for class unity, and criticism from the Left of both the Communist Party and Stalinism, Himes has been too often bypassed in accounts of the proletarian movement. Yet the introduction of African- American prison life into the canon of American letters launched a proletarianization of that theme that carries through the important 1960s writings of Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Assata Shakur. Himes’s work thus serves as a starting point for literature of “mass incarceration” by African Americans as a subset of proletarian writing.47

While best known for his poetry, Langton Hughes’s time as a communist-minded fellow traveler to the Left was also expressed through short stories. Hughes’s best-known foray into fiction are his vignette-style stories about the working-class African American Jessie B. Semple. Hughes used the stories to express black working-class satire, humor, and social critique of a wide range of topics, from employment and work discrimination, to the American political system. Hughes published them in his dedicated column in the Chicago Defender beginning in 1943. The Defender, like the Pittsburgh Courier and other black newspapers, was a secondary venue for proletarian and proletarian-inspired writing by black authors seeking to reach a wide working-class newspaper readership.48 Hughes’s example inspired at least two other significant deployments of the genre of the short story toward working-class readers: from 1944 to 1946, Negro Story magazine, published in Chicago by editors Alice Browning and Fern Gayden, included stories by teachers, workers, and housewives intended to represent quotidian conditions on Chicago’s South Side. In the 1950s, Alice Childress used the pages of Freedom, the left-wing magazine founded in Harlem by Paul Robeson and Louis Burnham, for publication of dramatic soliloquies by a black female domestic worker, published in 1956 as the book Like One of the Family. Childress’s vignettes take up direct working-class concerns like unionization of domestic workers and class antagonism between employers and domestics.49

The influence of Hughes (1943) on Childress (1956) in developing proletarian themes bespeaks not just the long prominence of the working-class short story but the difficulty of drawing finite temporal boundaries around proletarian literature as a category. In 1946, Ann Petry published her astonishing novel The Street. It is the first full-length treatment of black women’s domestic work in the proletarian tradition. The book tells the story of Lutie Johnson, a single mother who begins the novel as a domestic worker in a wealthy Connecticut white home then moves to Harlem in search of a stable place for her young son. The novel is a particular study in ideology: Lutie is working class, but is drawn toward racial uplift, decency, and middle-class respectability. The clash between the material conditions of her life and her aspirant mobility structures the action of the novel. Petry’s sources for the novel are drawn from the decade of proletarian writing before her. In a 1950 essay on writing and the novel, Petry acknowledged the influence of social realism and Marxism on her own work.50 She prepared for writing the novel by writing newspaper stories for the progressive Harlem publication The People’s Voice, a Popular Front journal, and publishing short stories like the superb “Like a Winding Sheet,” a tale of working-class domestic violence and racism in the workplace. Lutie Johnson’s lived experiences of sexism, sexual violence, and workplace oppression all emerge from the social relationships of working-class Harlem. Lutie is interpellated—to use Louis Althusser’s notion—by the heavily stratified class structure of New York. The novel’s violent ending—Lutie’s erstwhile resistance to contradictions in her life—expresses the social logic of these relationships as dramatically as the famous “conversion” to socialism undertaken by Jurgis at the end of Sinclair’s The Jungle, or the narrator of Gold’s Jews Without Money (1929). Thus Johnson’s life may be read as an allegory of what Communist Party theoretician Claudia Jones called in 1949 the “triply oppressed” conditions black women faced under capitalism.51

Proletarian Literature during the Cold War and by Another Name

In his important book American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War, Alan Wald includes Ann Petry in a catalogue of writers whose work of the 1940s and 1950s carried the spirit, if not the name, of proletarian literature into the postwar era. “Writing that emerged from a Left literary sensibility into this ambience,” writes Wald, “did not necessarily replicate 1930s proletarianism yet still exhibited the tone, mood, and point of view of those who knew the score in regard to class oppression and often made use of the documentary impulse of the Depression by going to the source.”52 In The Cultural Front, Michael Denning likewise argues that the “laboring” of American culture after 1935, the “age of the AFL-CIO” in Denning’s words, significantly imprinted the literature, politics, and music of the United States up until at least the 1960s. Bob Dylan, for Denning, is Woody Guthrie’s proletarian troubadour in the village (Greenwich Village).53

Wald and Denning encourage further elongating the definition of proletarian literature: if proletarianism can be a “mood,” a “tone,” and a process—like the “laboring” of culture—we should scour the literary landscape to determine what fits. This task is a rewarding one for scholars charting a long history of proletarian literature into the postwar and contemporary period. In many ways, the condition of proletarian writing in this era reflects changes in social relationships generally, pointing to four trends of the period. The first is the persistence of anticapitalist themes sharpened by both dashed expectations of working-class people expecting to reap the rewards of World War II victories and the capitalist boom. As Sharon Smith and other scholars have pointed out, despite Communist Party and capitalist state support for “no strike” pledges in support of the war effort, wildcat strikes and walkouts reached an all-time high in the 1940s; strike activity slumped somewhat in the 1950s but resumed with a vengeance in the 1960s, peaking in the United States during the Vietnam War era.54 The second theme is the decolonization movements of the Third World; the third is the neoliberal turn toward fragmentation, deindustrialization, increased policing and militarization of working-class life, and labor deracination. The fourth trend is the emergence of civil rights; feminism; and queer, gay, and lesbian politics; many of these social movements have been led by or participated in by working-class people or working-class writers. These factors should be seen dialectically, in total, as shaping anticapitalist working-class literature.

In retrospect, the novels and plays of the so-called angry young men writers of 1950s Britain appear clear harbingers of the neoliberal era and its general hostility to, and deracination and fragmentation of, working-class life and institutions. John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger summoned the immediate disillusionment with postwar working-class life against roseate views of postwar British progress and economic ascent. John Braine (Room at the Top, 1957) and Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1959) are likewise grouped with the so-called kitchen-sink realism of 1950s British working-class writing, in general a bitter, castigating view from below of postwar British class society. In the mid-1960s, Pat Barker, born to a working-class family in 1943, began writing fiction and eventually published a postwar masterpiece of British working-class life, Union Street (1982), followed later by her book on prostitutes in London, Blow Your House Down (1984). The anticapitalism of these books is rarely conjoined to stories of radical political commitment or even trade unionism, reflecting in part the “tone” and mood of atomized Cold War working-class life in the West.

In the United States, the 1950s saw two important, retrospective proletarian novels published by women: Harriette Arnow’s The Doll Maker (1954), about a Kentucky family’s experiences of World War II, and Myra Page’s Daughter of the Hills (initially published in 1950 as With Sun in Our Blood), first drafted in the 1930s when Page transcribed the oral history of Dolly Hawkins whom she met while organizing for the Communist Party in Arkansas.55 Willard Motley, trained during the Popular Front to a pro-working-class point of view, manifested both in his 1951 novel, We Fished All Night, set among communists and laborers in late 1940s Chicago. At the other end of the decade, still in Chicago, Frank London Brown’s Trumbull Park (1959) was a protest fiction describing agitation in a South Side Chicago community around housing desegregation—a theme endemic to working-class African-American writing from Petry’s The Street to Lorraine Hansberry’s breakthrough play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Hansberry’s father Carl, an attorney, was plaintiff to a Supreme Court case challenging restrictive covenants in Chicago, one of the sources of inspiration for Hansberry’s groundbreaking play. Collectively, these texts reveal the proletarian novel maintaining ties with both prewar, Depression-era themes and techniques contoured to a progressive, materialist analysis of poverty, segregation, housing, and labor. Exemplary here too is James Baldwin’s 1953 coming-of-age working-class novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book’s nuanced analysis of black aspirational social mobility thwarted by the Great Migration and Harlem poverty should be read in conjunction with his dalliance in the 1940s with the Young People’s Socialist League when he was beginning to conceive the novel.56 Finally, Paule Marshall’s important 1959 working-class novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, about Brooklyn’s Bajan immigrant community is, like Bulosan’s work, an important internationalization of the genre within the U.S. context. Marshall’s attention to Caribbean immigration during the 1950s was consistent with the trend of colonial and postcolonial authors during the postwar period to show the deleterious effects of capitalism’s legacy on working-class migrants.

Indeed, Marshall’s American novel should be seen as complementary to the work of 1950s and 1960s commonwealth writers whose migration to the United Kingdom profoundly altered literary representation of postwar capitalism and social relationships both in the colonies and in Europe. Important to this trajectory would be, for example, C. L. R. James’s forerunning 1936 novel, Minty Alley. The book tells the story of workers in a barrack yard James stayed in one summer; it is the first novel by a black West Indian to be published in the United Kingdom. The 1948 arrival of the S. S. Empire Windrush at Essex in 1948 carrying hundreds of Trinidadian migrants welcomed by the government as cheap labor with which to rebuild postwar England likewise proletarianized U.K. literature and society in new ways. In 1953, George Lamming published In the Castle of My Skin, a “peasant novel” (Lamming’s terms) reflecting the changes to Barbardian society during its move toward independence from the United Kingdom. Lamming’s second novel, The Emigrants, is a direct portrait of the outsider status of many Caribbeans of the post-Windrush generation. Lamming and Samuel Selvon (Lonely Londoners, 1956) effectively naturalized working-class immigrant experience to the United Kingdom, putting “Black in the Union Jack,” to use Paul Gilroy’s felicitous phrase. The space opened up for anticapitalist critique of postwar British society arguably extends from this proletarian moment of the 1950s through its peak in the Margaret Thatcher years of the 1980s: Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay for the queer working-class film, My Beautiful Laundrette (1984), and anti-racist Pakistani and black migration film, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), directly confront a postwar British state intent on both smashing working-class interests and “policing” the attendant crises in the lives of working-class U.K. residents, as Stuart Hall put it.57 In the lead up to Thatcher, Buchi Emecheta’s first two novels, In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen (1974), narrate the lives of poor and working-class immigrants confronted simultaneously with motherhood and poverty.

M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga have likewise argued that postcolonial literature generally bears the influence of both political and aesthetic experiment in socialist and proletarian literature, and more specifically, reflecting the Soviet Union’s political and economic role in Africa, of Soviet socialist realism.58 Their observation bears out the need for reconsideration of anticolonial and postcolonial writing in Asia and Africa as part of a long proletarian era. Ding Ling’s 1948 novel, The Sun Shines Over Sanggan River, winner of the 1951 Stalin Prize, is generally considered one of the best social-realist novels of the Mao Zedong era and even post-Mao era in China. Booker and Juraga also point out that novelist and essayist Ngugi Wa’Thiongo, perhaps the best-known African intellectual of the anticolonial era, applied social realist and experimental techniques in his fiction and in his arguments for the form and function of African literature. Festus Iyayi’s 1979 novel, Violence, is considered by many the first proletarian novel from Nigeria, narrating the life of a jobless man and his wife against the backdrop of Nigeria’s struggling 1970s economy. Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo’s 1977 debut novel, Our Sister Killjoy: Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, is a stinging critique of colonialism’s legacy and neocolonial consciousness expressed through from the point of view of a Ghanaian woman visiting Germany. The novel reflects arguments made in earlier Marxist-influenced anticolonial writings by Frantz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth, 1961, Black Skin White Masks, 1952) perceiving the colonized subject as perpetually produced by the exploitative relationships between the colonial center and its subaltern margins. An example of this tradition updated and relocated is Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, White Tiger. The book tells the story of an Indian villager who travels to Delhi and gains work as a chauffeur. His employer is a rising businessman and avatar of neoliberal “India shining” policies. The protagonist fights for survival in an economy which ratchets up historical caste and class antagonisms to full setting. The book’s nod to social realism includes a plot borrowed partly from Richard Wright’s proletarian classic, Native Son (1940), and Ralph Ellison’s surreal, allegorical proletarian novel manque, Invisible Man.59

Proletarian Literature in an Age of Globalization

The transnational intertextuality of Adiga’s novel is also symbolic of the internationalization, broad political affiliation, and social intersection in proletarian literature of the contemporary period. Still unified by an anticapitalist thematic, this work sutures the political influences of social movements within and without working-class settings into composite portrayals of class as a lived experience. The interpellation of working-class subjectivity by anti-racist, feminist, and LGBTQ discourse is a particularly important current in this work. Contemporary proletarian writing also shows generic experiments reflective of general tendencies in postmodern literature understood as what Fredric Jameson calls “late capitalism” and its attendant contradictions.

An important representative authors of these tendencies is the working-class Chicana lesbian writer Gloria Anzaldúa. Born into a sharecroppers family in the Rio Grande Valley, South Texas, Anzaldúa worked in the fields to help support her way to university. Prominent among her metaphors for living in the “Borderlands” between the United States and Mexico is the lived experience of expropriation and exploitation for brown workers under capital:

To live in the Borderlands means the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart pound you pinch you roll you out smelling like white bread but dead.60

Anzaldúa is of a generation of Chicano/a writers who lived through the Bracero program which allowed quotas of Mexican-American male laborers into the United States to sustain the economy during World War II. Borderlands/La Frontera was also published during a decade of immigration sweeps and deportations in the United States and of intensified restriction on border crossing from Mexico.61 Its dialectical representation of Mexican and Mexican-American labor under U.S. colonialism of Mexico and capitalism is thus critical to what Anzaldúa calls “new mestiza consciousness.” The book’s hybrid representational strategies—poetry, testimonio, autobiography, history, philosophy, feminist theory, postcolonial theory—also index the varieties of genres and social movements reflected in the broad discursive field of contemporary working-class literature.

Literature of the United States indicates these representational trends, because its contemporary history reflects symbolically the transnationalization, globalization, and diversification of the international working class under late capitalism. As such, the anticapitalist thematic in contemporary U.S. writing signifies the interpenetration of a variety of modalities of lived working-class experience aptly captured by Anzaldúa’s figure of the boundary and border-crossing subject.

Literature of the civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ movements were from their outset shaped by anticapitalist, working-class voices. The Combahee River Collective, which produced the groundbreaking multiracial queer anthology This Bridge Called My Back, pronounced in its founding 1974 statement that “acombined anti-racist and anti-sexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism.” It also declared, “We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy” and argued for the extension of Marxist analysis to the lives of black women.62 The 1983 edition of This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, foregrounded anticapitalist, working-class perspective by including writing by Nellie Wong and Toni Cade Bambara, titling one section of the book “Between the Lines: On Culture, Class, and Homophobia,” and reprinting the original Combahee River Collective statement. Combahee and the Bridge anthology thus coalesced the anticapitalist, anti-imperialist spirit of the Vietnam War era (one section of the book was also dedicated to “Third World” writings), the influence of black female Marxists like Angela Davis, and women in the Marxist-oriented Black Panther Party like Kathleen Cleaver. Black feminism’s anticapitalism was also critical to distinguishing itself from what it generally called middle-class white feminism. A range of poems, novels, and plays by black women of the 1970s and 1980s reflects some portion of this current: Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye (1970), about Depression-era Ohio; short stories and novels by Toni Cade Bambara (Tales and Stories for Black Folks, 1971; Gorilla My Love, 1972); the poetry of Lucille Clifton and Maya Angelou; Ntozake Shange’s drama, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enough (1975); August Wilson’s plays, including Fences (1983) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984). Shange’s and Wilson’s work also bears the immediate influence of the Black Arts Movement, whose founders, especially Amiri Baraka, often fused Marxist, anticapitalist perspective to black nationalist themes. Other African-American writers including strong working-class themes and ideas in their work from the 1990s onward are John Edgar Wideman (Philadelphia Fire, about the MOVE bombing, 1991; Brothers and Keepers, about race and incarceration, 2005); Sapphire (Push, 1997, American Dreams, 1996); and Yusef Komuyakaa (his poems “Work” and “The Whistle”). Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire also incorporates hip-hop lyrics (his own) into the novel to represent the working-class roots of the genre and its sharp exposé of neoliberalism’s effects on black lives, from the Sugar Hill Gang of the deindustrializing 1970s Bronx to later figures like Niggaz With Attitude and Kendrick Lamar. Indeed, both Tricia Rose and Robin D. G. Kelley have demonstrated the dominance of anticapitalist, working-class themes in postindustrial hip-hop lyrics.63

In their Oxford Anthology of U.S. Working-Class Literature, editors Janet Zandy and Nicholas Coles demonstrate how Native American and Latino/a writers of the contemporary period center working-class life in a manner reminiscent of work discussed earlier by the likes of Carlos Bulosan and Américo Paredes. This work, too, reflects the anticapitalist tendency of late 1960s, early 1970s national liberation struggles fought by groups like the United Farm Workers, the Chicano Movimiento, and the American Indian Movement. Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, born into a military family, centers working-class experience in poems like “Making Do” and “The New Apartment, Minneapolis.” Leslie Marmon Silko’s influential novel, Ceremony (1977), includes a working-class Pueblo man drafted into World War II who is awakened to the horrors of atomic weapons and U.S. imperialism and their links to the exploitation of both Native peoples and native land. Simon J. Ortiz grew up in an Acoma Pueblo village, son of a potter and stonemason. His poem “Final Solution: Jobs, Leaving” describes the life of itinerant laboring families in a manner reminiscent of great migration narratives: “We had to buy groceries,/had to have clothes, homes, roofs,/windows. Surrounded by the United States,/we had come to need money.”64 Writing by American Indians, rarely considered working-class literature, or anticapitalist, merits significant reconsideration as recent scholars like Benjamin Balthaser have argued.65

Contemporary U.S. Latino/a and Chicano/a literature likewise regularly writes from a working-class perspective while remaining sharply observant and critical of exploitative or oppressive conditions wielded by contemporary capitalism. Former prison inmate Jimmy Santiago Baca, in poems like “So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans” and “The New Warden,” critiques capitalism from below in service of literature of mass incarceration. Cherríe Moraga’s play, Heroes and Saints (1992), and Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1997) were inspired by the United Farm Workers grape boycott and the Sleepy Lagoon Riots of 1943 Los Angeles, respectively. In the latter, working-class Mexican-American “pachucos” are targeted as enemies of the U.S. wartime state. Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, or farmworkers theater, conceived at the height of the Chicano Movimiento to bring theater into agricultural fields and workplaces, must be considered one of the great innovations of contemporary proletarian culture, akin to the “Workers Theater” movement of the 1930s. Tomas Rivera’s 1987 . . . y no se lo trago la tierra/And the Earth Did not Devour Them (1987) stands alongside an earlier generation of proletarian novels like William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge (1941) as a classic labor migration novel, this one of Mexican Americans from the South to Midwest. Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada has written some of the most acidic portraits of labor and labor exploitation in contemporary poetry. See his 1993 poem, “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” for example. Anzaldúa’s “border” theory helps frame this body of literature as a class-conscious response to immigration, labor segregation, Latino working-class self-activity, and the “long” period of Chicano community activism dating to the 1940s of Valdez’s groundbreaking play.

There is also a broad, self-conscious contemporary proletarian literature which mostly, but not exclusively, represents the experience of the U.S. racial majority. This literature draws much of its anticapitalist tone from expression of class discontent directed at longstanding impoverishment, deracination, and disillusionment within working-class communities. One of the strongest anticapitalist texts of the contemporary period is also a queer and transgender classic: Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Originally published in 1990, the book tells the story of a working-class woman from Buffalo, New York. The protagonist is targeted as a lesbian in her youth, then takes hormone therapy to escape the trap of cisgender identity. The novel correlates the protagonist’s coming to sexual and gender consciousness to coming to anti-racism and class consciousness. Du Bois’s “double consciousness” is also a guide in the protagonist’s battle with class exploitation and sexual repression. At one important interval, her union becomes the only community in which she is comfortably “out.” Feinberg also discloses the working-class habitus of Greenwich Village in the Stone Wall era, suggesting that the rebellion fought there against police brutality in 1969 was also, in part, a class uprising.

Similarly groundbreaking as a queer proletarian text was Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). Rural southern white poverty, a subject of classic Gastonia strike novels of the 1930s, returns in Allison’s text as a material determinant of domestic violence, rape, and sexual alterity. Allison self-consciously relates the emergent lesbian political consciousness of her protagonist to the oppressed, outsider conditions of African Americans in the South, a gesture also meant to measure real and missed opportunities for interracial class solidarity—a theme of southern working-class history since Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. Russell Banks mines similar ground of interracial working-class unity imperiled by capitalist history in his novels Continental Drift (1985) and Rule of the Bone (1995), the latter a rewriting of Huckleberry Finn. Banks’s identification with naturalism in the working-class novel is paralleled in Raymond Carver’s short stories of working-class life, like What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981), whose anomie and dissipation seem metaphors for attenuated economic landscapes and material scarcity under neoliberalism (Banks once called Carver “our Stephen Crane”). The contemporary U.S. playwright with strongest affinities to proletarian theater of an earlier generation may be Naomi Wallace. Her 2007 play, Things of Dry Hours, is the story of a black communist organizer in Alabama. The play takes its title from Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic poem of tenement life, “kitchenette building,” and its subject from Robin D. G. Kelley’s 1990 study, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.

An extraordinary range of poets carry on the tradition of proletarian verse in the contemporary period. Philip Levine established himself in the 1970s as a working-class bard of Detroit, which also produced poet and former autoworker, Jim Daniels, and a score of African-American poets with working-class roots, like Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall, and Melba Boyd. These writers might be considered part of something like a Detroit school of working-class writers, and their work a collective testament to what may be the most important working-class city in the United States. While politically their work varies considerably (Hayden being more of a formalist, Daniels a wry chronicler), common to their work is the imprint of lived class oppression. A wide range of poets, many of them lesser known, similarly sustain working-class themes in their work, including Susan Eisenberg, Nellie Wong, Sue Doro, and Jeanne Bryner. Two exceptional collections of U.S. working-class poetry have been edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick: For a Living: The Poetry of Work (1995) and Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life (1991). The anthologization of working-class literature is another link hearkening to proletarian literature’s ongoing self-canonization dating to classic anthologies of the 1920s and 1930s like Granville Hicks’s Proletarian Literature of the United States (1935), a tradition bespeaking the continuity and vitality of the type.


This survey began with two premises: that anticapitalist literature about the working class was a long tradition, and that the definition of what constituted that tradition was historically contingent. These intersecting points of analysis are integral to understanding what constitutes proletarian literature. The persistence of conditions for its making, the continuity of authors emerging from the working class, and the human desire to express the lived experience of social relationships especially animate a history of proletarian writing which shows no end in sight. Meanwhile, the “laboring” of culture remains an essential task of the unfinished tradition of proletarian literature and its critics.

Review of the Literature

The first U.S. book to survey proletarian literature as a genre is Henry Hart’s edited collection, American Writers’ Congress, containing papers on the topic delivered at the American Writers’ Congress, New York City, New York, April 26–28, 1935.66 This included important treatises on the nature of proletarian literature by participants in the movement like Kenneth Burke and Jack Conroy. The first comprehensive critical study of 20th-century proletarian writing is Walter Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States: 1900–1954.67 Written at the height of the Cold War, the book surveys the influence of realism and naturalism and treats both canonical (Upton Sinclair, Jack London) and non-canonical writers. David Madden’s edited collection, Proletarian Writers of the 1930s, includes fifteen critical essays defining proletarian literature of the Depression era.68 Ralph Bogardus and Fred Hobson’s edited volume, Literature at the Barricades, is an important volume of disparate political persuasions and original work on figures like Howard Lawson and proletarian literature in the U.S. South.69 Lynn Mally’s Culture of the Future is still the best overall study of the debate over proletarian culture in the Soviet Union.70 James F. Murphy’s The Proletarian Moment admirably defends and defines the influence of Soviet proletcult on U.S. proletarian writing during the 1920s and 1930s.71 Rosemary Chapman’s Henry Poulaille and Proletarian Literature 1920–1939 is a singular study of the development of proletarian literature in France.72 George Tyson Shea’s Leftwing Literature in Japan remains a classic study of the movement in Japan.73 Mark Steinberg’s Proletarian Imagination locates proletarian literature within the context of Soviet modernism.74 Ramón López Ortega and Francisco García Tortosa’s edited collection English Literature and the Working Class is a collection of essays on British working-class literature.75 Epifanio San Juan Jr.’s Toward a People’s Literature provides a historical materialist account of Philippine writers, including Carlos Bulosan.76

A renaissance and widening scholarship on proletarian literature commenced in the early 1990s, informed by reconsideration of the Cold War, communism, and anti-communism and by the influence of ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies. This scholarship has helped inform the argument for both a long proletarian movement and a liberalization of the category to include anticapitalist working-class writing. Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor and Desire broadened the canon of proletarian writing to include Mary Heaton Vorse, Tillie Olsen, and other women while insisting on attention to domestic labor.77 Barbara Foley’s 1993 Radical Representations revisited debates about Soviet proletcult while increasing attention to African American writers.78 Laura Hapke’s Daughters of the Great Depression recovered women writers considered outside of the proletarian tradition like Agnes Smedley.79 Constance Coiner’s Better Red places two obscured women at the center of Left cultural production in the 1930s into the Cold War, when Olsen’s short stories like “I Stand Here Ironing” were published.80 Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front is an epic recovery of proletarian and working-class writing in the United States, extending the influence of the “proletarian moment” into the 1960s.81 James Smethurst’s New Red Negro restored the place of numerous African American poets within a tradition of proletarian, working-class writing.82 William Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left examines debates and contributions of writers like Claude McKay, Mike Gold, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston to proletarian writing.83 Bill V. Mullen’s Popular Front extended the periodization of the Popular Front and its influence on African American working-class writing to the end of World War II.84 Liu Kang’s Aesthetics and Marxism is good survey of debates within 20th-century Chinese literature over proletarian aesthetics.85 Amy S. Lang’s The Syntax of Class locates the roots of proletarian tradition in 19th-century women’s writing, including that of Rebecca Harding Davis.86 Janet Zandy’s Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work similarly extends the canon of working-class writing to include Italian-American authors and other neglected cultural workers.87 Alan Wald’s trilogy of the literary Left, beginning with Exiles from a Future Time, provides the most sweeping portrait of the making of the Left proletarian literary scene in the United States from World War I through the end of the Cold War.88 Eric Schocket’s Vanishing Moments: Class and American Literature argues for a “long” proletarian tradition in the United States beginning in the mid-19th century.89 Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist is a singular study of the proletarian and working-class character of writing by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Lloyd Brown, and others.90

Further Reading

  • Ahmed, Talat. Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932–1956. London: Routledge, 2009.
  • Balthaser, Benjamin. Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Depression to the Cold War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015.
  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front. New York: Verso, 1996.
  • Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Hapke, Laura. Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
  • Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
  • Lee, Steven. The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
  • Mally, Lynn. Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  • Maxwell, William. New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Mullen, Bill V. Popular Front: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics, 1935–1946. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Murphy James. The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy Over Leftism in Literature. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Rabinowitz, Paula. Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991
  • Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.
  • Schocket, Eric. Vanishing Moments: Class and American Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
  • Shea, George Tyson. Leftwing Literature in Japan: A Brief History of the Proletarian Literary Movement. Tokyo: Hosei University Press, 1964.
  • Smethurst, James. New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Steinberg, Mark. Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910–1925. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Wald, Alan. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Century Literary Left. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Wald, Alan. American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  • Zandy, Janet. Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.


  • 1. Michael Brewster Folsom, “Upton Sinclair’s Escape from The Jungle: The Narrative Strategy and Suppressed Conclusion of America’s First Proletarian Novel,” in Upton’s Sinclair’s Jungle, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2001), 21.

  • 2. Jack London, “What Jack London Says of The Jungle,” Chicago Socialist 6.351 (1905): 2.

  • 3. “Excerpts from the Appeal to Reason Version of The Jungle,” in The Jungle, ed. Clare Virginia Eby (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 331–343.

  • 4. Walter Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 111.

  • 5. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Mariner Books, 2012).

  • 6. I borrow the idea of a “long duree” both from the French Annals School, which prioritizes long-term structures over events, and from the idea of “long” social movements. Jacqueline Dowd Hall used the term “long civil rights movement,” for example, to extend the period of scholarship on the civil rights movement prior to before the 1950s. See Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91.4 (March 2015): 1233–1263.

  • 7. Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” in Black British Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Houston A. Baker Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth Lindborg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 20.

  • 8. Alan Wald, American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 50.

  • 9. Qtd. in Nicholas Coles and Janet Zandy, American Working-Class Literature: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), xxii.

  • 10. Examples of “new capitalist history” would include Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014), and Walter Johnson’s River of Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2013). For a good overview of the strengths and weaknesses of this history, see John J. Clegg, “Capitalism and Slavery,” in Critical Historical Studies 2, n. 2 (September 2015): 281–304.

  • 11. Coles and Zandy, American Working-Class Literature, 59.

  • 12. On social reproduction theory, see especially Lisa Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), and Tithi Bhattacharya, “What Is Social Reproduction Theory,” Socialist Worker, September 10, 2013.

  • 13. See Eric Schocket, Vanishing Moments: Class and American Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

  • 14. Rebecca Harding-Davis, “Life in the Iron Mills,” in American Working-Class Literature: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 111.

  • 15. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2000), 5.

  • 16. Tillie Olsen, Silences (New York: Delta, 1978), 57.

  • 17. V. I. Lenin, “What Is to be Done?,” in Collected Works, trans. Joe Fineburg and George Hanna (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), vol. 5, pp. 347–530.

  • 18. For ways of teaching Sinclair’s novel, see Bill V. Mullen “Firing the Canon, or, Teaching U.S. Working Class Literature,” in Class and the Making of American Literature, ed. Andrew Lawson (London: Routledge, 2014), 265–280.

  • 19. Kirstin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (New York: Verso, 2015), 19.

  • 20. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (New York: Verso, 1996), 64.

  • 21. See James Murphy, The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy over Leftism in Literature (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 21–36.

  • 22. James Murphy, Proletarian Moment, 22.

  • 23. James Murphy, Proletarian Moment, 23.

  • 24. James Murphy, Proletarian Moment, 24.

  • 25. James Murphy, Proletarian Moment, 28.

  • 26. Denning, The Cultural Front, 203. For a good overview of aesthetic debates around Soviet and proletarian modernism, especially relating to ethnicity and national self-determination, see Steven Lee, The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

  • 27. Trotsky develops his argument about proletarian literature in Literature and Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005).

  • 28. An excellent account of the formation of international writers clubs and association is given by Michael Denning in The Cultural Front, “The Proletarian Avant-Garde” and “Movement Culture,” 53–67.

  • 29. See George Tyson Shea, Leftwing Literature in Japan: A Brief History of the Proletarian Literary Movement (Tokyo: Hosei University Press, 1964).

  • 30. See Hazel Carby, “Proletarian or Revolutionary Literature? C. L. R. James and the Politics of Trinidadian Resistance,” South Atlantic Quarterly 87 (1988): 39–52.

  • 31. M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga, “The Reds and the Blacks: The Historical Novel in the Soviet Union and Postcolonial Africa,” Studies in the Novel 29.3 (Fall 1997): 274–296.

  • 32. Murphy, The Proletarian Moment, 41.

  • 33. See the appendix to C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Oeverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989), 391–418.

  • 34. For a good account of the IPTA, see Talat Ahmed, Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932–1956 (London: Routledge, 2009).

  • 35. The best account of the political debates about the Scottsboro Boys Case is James Miller’s Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

  • 36. See Constance Coiner, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Paula Rabinowitz, Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); and Laura Hapke, Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).

  • 37. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rebinowitz, eds., Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930–1940 (New York: Feminist Press, 1987), 3.

  • 38. Nekola and Rabinowitz, Writing Red, 3.

  • 39. Theodore Allen argues in The Invention of the White Race that race was developed as a method of social control by ruling elites in Europe and American to divide and maintain class rule. While numerous scholars have contributed to the topic, Allen’s work remains the most comprehensive and reliable guide. See Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control, 2d ed. (London: Verso, 2012). Lenin put forward this theory of a “labor aristocracy” in his 1916 Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin argued that a “layer” of workers in the colonizing world drew benefits from capitalist exploitation of the colonies and thus were an obstacle to proletarian internationalism.

  • 40. The scholar Douglass Wixson has been essential to the recovery of Babb’s legacy. He edited the 2007 edition of On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) and wrote an introduction for the 2013 publication of Babb’s long-out-of-print novel The Lost Traveler (New York: Muse Ink Press, 2013).

  • 41. See Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2004), 85–92.

  • 42. Murphy, Proletarian Moment, 25.

  • 43. Denning, Cultural Front, 35.

  • 44. Murphy, Proletarian Moment, 38.

  • 45. Denning, Cultural Front, 209.

  • 46. Denning, Cultural Front, 213.

  • 47. The idea of “mass incarceration” of African Americans as a strategy of social control in the United States was popularized most widely by Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).

  • 48. For Hughes’s Defender writings, see Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture, 1942–1962, ed. Christopher DeSantis (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995). For more on the role of black newspapers in publishing poetry and fiction by African-American writers, see Bill V. Mullen, Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–1946 (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), especially chapter 2, “Turning White Space into Black Space: The Chicago Defender and the Creation of a Cultural Front,” 44–74.

  • 49. The best book on the topic of representations of domestic workers in U.S. literature is Trudier Harris, From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).

  • 50. In her essay “The Novel as Social Criticism,” Petry wrote, “The novel, like all other forms of art, will always reflect the political, economic, and social structure of the period in which it was created.” Reviewing the tradition of social protest literature, she also wrote that “the ghost of Marx seems even livelier than that of Hamlet’s father’s ghost.” See Petry, “The Novel as Social Criticism,” in The Writer’s Book, ed. Helen Hull (New York: Harper, 1950), 33, 34.

  • 51. In her 1949 essay, “An Essay to the Problem of the Neglect of Negro Women,” Claudia Jones wrote that the “triply-oppressed status of [Black] women is a barometer of the status of all women, and that the fight for the full, economic, political and social equality of the [Black] woman is in the vital self-interest of white workers, in the vital interest of the fight to realize equality for all women.” The essay is published in Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment, ed. Carole Boyce Davies (London: Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2011).

  • 52. Alan Wald, American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 50.

  • 53. Denning, Cultural Front, 28.

  • 54. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

  • 55. Wald, American Night, 103.

  • 56. For a personal account of Baldwin’s relationship to the Left in the 1940s, see Stan Weir, “Meetings with James Baldwin.”

  • 57. See Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). For Stuart Hall, see Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (New York: Palgrave, 1978).

  • 58. Booker and Juraga, “Reds and Blacks.”

  • 59. Barbara Foley demonstrates that Ellison’s early drafts of Invisible Man were influenced by proletarian literature and that his short stories from the 1930s and 1940s bear a similar influence. Foley argues that Ellison erased that influence in revisions of the novel. See Foley, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

  • 60. Coles and Zandy, American Working-Class Literature, 713.

  • 61. A good account of this period and its influence on Latino/a/Chicano/a cultural production is José Saldívar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

  • 62. “The Combahee River Collective Statement.”

  • 63. See Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), and Robin D. G. Kelley, “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangster Rap in Postindustrial Los Angeles,” in Race Rebels: Politics, Culture and the Black Working-Class (New York: Free Press, 1996), 183–228.

  • 64. Coles and Zandy, American Working-Class Literature, 708.

  • 65. See Benjamin Balthaser, “Travels of an American Indian into the Hinterlands of Soviet Russia: Rethinking Indigenous Modernity and the Popular Front in the Work of Archie Phinney and D’Arcy McNickle,” American Quarterly 66.2 (June 2014): 385–416.

  • 66. Henry Hart, American Writer’s Congress (New York: International, 1935).

  • 67. Walter Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States: 1900–1954 (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1956).

  • 68. David Madden, Proletarian Writers of the 1930s (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).

  • 69. Ralph Bogardus and Fred Hobson, eds., Literature at the Barricades: The American Writer in the 1930s (Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1982).

  • 70. Lynn Mally, Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

  • 71. James F. Murphy, The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy over Leftism in Literature (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

  • 72. Rosemary Chapman, Henry Poulaille and Proletarian Literature 1920–1939 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992).

  • 73. George Tyson Shea, Leftwing Literature in Japan: A Brief History of the Proletarian Literary Movement (Tokyo: Hosei University Press, 1964).

  • 74. Mark Steinberg, Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity,and the Sacred in Russia, 1910–1925 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).

  • 75. Ramon Lopez Ortega and Francisco Garcia Tortosa, ed., English Literature and the Working Class (Seville, Spain: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Sevilla, 1980).

  • 76. Epidanio San Juan Jr., Toward a People’s Literature: Essays in the Dialectics of Praxis and Contradicion in Philippine Writing (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1984).

  • 77. Paula Rabinowitz, Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

  • 78. Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham: NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

  • 79. Laura Hapke, Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s (Athens: University of Georgia, 1995).

  • 80. Constance Coiner, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

  • 81. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (New York: Verso, 1996).

  • 82. James Smethurst, New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

  • 83. William Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

  • 84. Bill V. Mullen, Popular Front: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics, 1935–1946 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

  • 85. Liu Kang, Aesthetics and Marxism: Chinese Aesthetic Marxist and Their Western Contemporaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

  • 86. Amy S. Lang, The Syntax of Class: Writing Inequality in 19th Century America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

  • 87. Janet Zandy, Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work (Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press).

  • 88. Alan Wald, Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Century Literary Left (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  • 89. Eric Schocket, Vanishing Moments: Class and American Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

  • 90. Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).