Redefining American Proletarian Literature: Mexican Americans and the Challenge to the Tradition of Radical Dissent

By Schocket, Eric | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Redefining American Proletarian Literature: Mexican Americans and the Challenge to the Tradition of Radical Dissent


Schocket, Eric, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


I. Critical Appraisals

The last decade has brought massive changes in the way the world is politically and economically organized. The fall of the Berlin wall, the disintegration of the Eastern Block, the demise of the Soviet Union, the massacre at Tiannanmen Square, the defeat of the Sandinista Party, and the imminent passing of Cuban socialism all seem to mark the end of a world-wide "experiment" with communism. What more proof do we need, we are told, that democracy and the models of pluralism and consensus are historical imperatives? As Time and Newsweek record the death of world communism, they simultaneously look within the United States at academic institutions, at these supposed bastions of learning, only to find the "Red Menace" within. And as in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, it is this internal infection which must be exposed and eradicated if the march to prosperity is to continue.

This may seem like an unlikely moment to begin a re-examination of radical dissent in this country. Yet, a small movement has begun which draws strength and intellectual vigor from these times. Whatever else it may have done, the fall of the USSR has forever dismantled the ridged binaries which haunted the Left in this country. Attention has shifted away from the never-ending debate about allegiance to and rebellion against the central Soviet. Leftist literary and cultural critics are again looking inward at the United States-this time with more attention to national and regional movements which had, and still do have, a particularly "American" character.

In 1956 and 1961, two books were published which, up until the 1990s, defined radical fiction in this country: Walter Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States and Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left. Both books defined radical literature in the narrowest sense, adopting the restrictive, conservative categories collectively agreed upon by the Right and the anti-Stalinist Left. In their view, radical literature, especially proletarian literature, was predominantly written by urban, white men who lived in the Northeast or the Midwest and who (when they were not actual party functionaries) were exclusively employed in heavy industries. This homogeneous group put their pens to paper first in 1903 and scribbled away diligently until they were rudely stopped by World War I and the Sedition act. After a decade's hiatus (when according to Rideout, all but Upton Sinclair enthusiastically embraced the roaring 20s-the proletarian as flapper), this group was again prompted into action by the stock market crash and, with literary blueprints straight from the Comintern, continued to write until they all slowly came to their senses in the 1940s.

One wonders half way through each of these books how a history of radical fiction could be written, much less published, in the milieu of the Cold War. Not until their respective conclusions does the reader fully grasp the thread of the narrative. Radical fiction is something that had happened, a somewhat rambunctious adolescence of the twentieth century intellectual. It has now been safely put to rest-in the political realm by that perceived alliance between labor and capital forged by World War II, and in the academic realm by the ascendancy of new criticism and the "democratizing" practice of formal analysis. For Rideout and Aaron agree, proletarian literature had content to spare, but suffered from the formal flatness of Soviet "boy meets tractor" literature. These critics did not write out of conservative maliciousness, but rather out of a comfortable humanism which allowed them to be frankly baffled by their predecessors' attraction to socialism as a form of social change. It is not so much that their historical configurations were in themselves reactionary, but that they were already co-opted at their inception. I quote the last few lines of each books, both to give some sense of their politics and tone and to lay to rest their overly eager burial of radical literature:

To demand that literature identify itself with, let us say, religion or with politics is ultimately to rob it of its special function, a function that has long been a high oneto inquire relentlessly and unceasingly and on its own terms into the human condition. …

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