Modern Japanese literature emerged as Japan asserted itself as a military-industrial power from the end of the 19th through the early 20th centuries. The subject of modern literature was worthy of a seat at the table of the world’s powers, or so goes the story of a literary canon all too often focused on the legitimacy of elites. But modern literature is not only about a male alienated intellectual failing to have a satisfying relationship. During the international “red decade” (1925–1935), proletarian writers in Japan as elsewhere sought to harness and transform the technology of modern literature in order to represent the hitherto un- or underrepresented women and men, peasants and factory workers, elderly and children in order to bring the masses into consciousness of their collective power. For a decade, nearly every writer in Japan engaged the energetic but often divided proletarian movement as they sought to grasp the challenges of a rapidly modernizing society, transformation in the family and gender, dual economy, worldwide depression, and escalating imperialism. Largely overlooked during the Cold War, this important decade of modern literature has experienced a well-deserved scholarly and popular revival in a period of 21st-century precarity, protests against privilege, and questioning of media and representation. Two exemplars from proletarian literature—Hayama Yoshiki’s “The Prostitute” (1925) and Miyamoto Yuriko’s “The Breast” (1935)—offer a frame to apprehend the richness of genre, voice, storytelling, experimentation, and ethics in proletarian literature, a vital part of modern literature.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.
Proletarian literature (from the Latin proletarius, referring to the lowest class of free Roman citizens) is writing in all literary genres by, about, and primarily for working-class people, describing their experiences and often featuring anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, or revolutionary themes.
Alan M. Wald
At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships. With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions. As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.
Julia L. Mickenberg
Children’s literature can be radical in its form, its content, or both. At the most basic level, radical children’s literature challenges conventions and norms—about society and, often, about childhood—and it inspires change, especially movements for social and environmental justice. Radical children’s literature represents a paradox. On the one hand, some of the most enduring works of children’s literature are in some way subversive. Yet because of the persisting ideal of childhood innocence, “radical children’s literature” might be seen as an oxymoron, an impossibility: if it is radical, it cannot really be children’s literature. And yet, not only is “subversive children’s literature” a core thread within mainstream children’s literature, but radical children’s literature has also been an adjunct to nearly every social movement of the modern era, from abolitionism to socialism, communism, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, and gay liberation. The history of radical children’s literature is tied closely to the history of children’s rights (within whose history the impulse to protect and the impulse to liberate children have sometimes been at odds: with each other, and with the real needs of children). Radical children’s literature, like the children’s rights movement, is both a reaction to “childism,” or prejudice against children, and is also vulnerable to it. Like the romantic ideal of the essential Child, the child subject or object of radical children’s literature is almost always an adult projection, thus liable to serving adults’ needs over those of children. Within this dialectic, however, children’s literature has been a powerful force of positive change in many parts of the world, responding to and for the most part advancing the place of children in society. This has been the case even in repressive climates and under regimes hostile to change, both because children’s literature has tended to be a marginalized field, controlled by women and not seen as worthy of attention, and because of various institutional factors, from educational policies to children’s book awards that have inadvertently or actively helped promote the production and dissemination of radical children’s literature. Like the majority of historical children’s literature, contemporary children’s literature remains predominantly an agent of embourgeoisement. Even so, the range of radical children’s literature published, especially in the past few decades—challenging racism, sexism, and heterosexism; promoting environmental responsibility, internationalism, peace, and collective solidarity against injustice and the abuse of authority; and urging children to challenge childism and to imagine other possible worlds—has been vast.
The forerunners of modern investigative journalism emerged during the US Progressive Era Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and became known as the muckrakers, a badge of shame they often wore with honor. Finding venues in the popular mass magazines of the early 20th century—such as Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s—and in more overtly populist, socialist publications, such as the Appeal to Reason, that also had considerable readerships, these writers railed against corporate greed, political corruption, and to a lesser degree race discrimination (their race investigations seldom challenged Jim Crow or Mexican- and Chinese-Exclusion). Muckrakers’ value-driven investigations often clashed with the purported professional objectivity of the day’s more politically beholden mainstream journalists. Ironically, Upton Sinclair—who began as a romantic-minded novelist and never quite worked as a journalist, properly speaking—became the most famous among them. Sinclair’s investigation into the meatpacking industry, which brought him to fame as their exemplar, began as an assignment for the Appeal, before it developed into a novel, The Jungle. He had narrated it to move readers to socialism. Instead, it provoked Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. Ignoring the disdain of high literary circles, Sinclair went on to self-publish a staggering number of reform-driven novels, book-length essays, and pamphlets grounded in evidence-based critiques of every conceivable injustice. He sold them directly, democratically, and cheaply to huge and growing audiences throughout his lifetime and became, arguably, the world’s first mass-market author. Sinclair also remains representative of the white, culturally Protestant narrative privilege that historical muckrakers tended to assume. He would rise to world prominence and would carry the muckrakers’ historical moment and movement beyond their own times, into its final connection with the more racially inclusive New Left that arose at the time of his death.