Labor & Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America: Gender and American Figure

Labor & Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America: Gender and American Figure

Labor & Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America: Gender and American Figure

Labor & Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America: Gender and American Figure


This critical, historical, and theoretical study looks at a little-known group of novels written during the 1930s by women who were literary radicals. Arguing that class consciousness was figured through metaphors of gender, Paula Rabinowitz challenges the conventional wisdom that feminism as a discourse disappeared during the decade. She focuses on the ways in which sexuality and maternity reconstruct the "classic" proletarian novel to speak about both the working-class woman and the radical female intellectual.

Two well-known novels bracket this study: Agnes Smedley's Daughters of Earth (1929) and Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps (1942). In all, Rabinowitz surveys more than forty novels of the period, many largely forgotten. Discussing these novels in the contexts of literary radicalism and of women's literary tradition, she reads them as both cultural history and cultural theory. Through a consideration of the novels as a genre, Rabinowitz is able to theorize about the interrelationship of class and gender in American culture.

Rabinowitz shows that these novels, generally dismissed as marginal by scholars of the literary and political cultures of the 1930s, are in fact integral to the study of American fiction produced during the decade. Relying on recent feminist scholarship, she reformulates the history of literary radicalism to demonstrate the significance of these women writers and to provide a deeper understanding of their work for twentieth-century American cultural studies in general.


As a child of suburbia growing up in the 1950s, I did not fully realize how the 1930s represented an important, though unspoken, episode in the lives of my parents, grandparents, and ultimately myself. I was made to understand that my middle-class life was a direct result of the poverty that had controlled my parents' childhoods, and that I was to be grateful for FDR and the NRA, for CCNY and a range of alphabetic institutions. Still, not much was actually said about the past. School proved little help; American history classes never managed to take us past the first world war. It was not until I entered college and became involved with the New Left that the idea of an old Left, of another era of radical ferment, could be explored in any depth. This study owes its beginnings to two unrelated sources: an offhand comment Fredric Jameson made, in a lecture at the 1982 Midwest Modern Language Association meeting, that we should "reinvent" the 1930s, and the revelation by my grandmother of a shame-filled memory she had from the Depression. To earn money to buy a chicken for Sabbath suppers, she told me, she would on Fridays sit in the butcher's shop and, for a nickel a chicken, perform the service of plucking feathers for those customers who could afford this small luxury. Her embarrassment about this was profound; it declared to the whole community that her husband could not provide for his family and, more significantly, that she was an incompetent Jewish mother because poverty had led her to work in public. The image of my grandmother's hands, covered with blood and feathers, has haunted me since she secretly related the scene to me before her death.

Jameson had suggested that, as radical scholars, we need to rewrite the narrative of the 1930s. My grandmother's story seemed to suggest how. It was the absence of almost any women's names from Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left that led me to begin this study. I knew from my own family and from films . . .

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