I was recently asked to review an article on protest literature for an online survey and review journal. In many ways it's a good piece of work. The author focuses on eleven instances in American cultural history in which the element of social protest was prominent. They are the right instances, too: the American Revolution, Indian removal, abolition, the early feminist movement, Vietnam, and the like. But the article clarified for me a number of theoretical issues that I did not altogether comprehend when I taught my course on Social Protest literature. Like the author of this article, I had decided to focus on certain issues: war, racism, feminism, fascism, in my case. I do not think I had adequately theorized that choice, rather than, say, taking a more strictly historical approach, something to which I will return. Despite this similarity in organizational format, I found myself increasingly impatient with the article. Trying to figure out why led me to think through a number of the theoretical issues that, I believe, inevitably arise in teaching a course of this sort. One has to do with the roles of writers or artists in movements for social change, or, to say it differently, the relationships between individual creativity and social action. A second has to do with the differences between works directly involved in moments of conflict and those that, retrospectively, are set into those conflicted historical moments. A third involves genre: in what ways do different kinds of works--poems, stories, manifestos, declarations, laws, movies, speeches--function as social protest literature?
Is there any functional core, a set of tropes, a particular discourse, which obtains across genres? Finally, how are we to understand--and to teach--the ways in which historical and cultural contexts interact with protest texts?
To begin, then, with the subject choices. There is no way, realistically, in which one can "cover" all or even most American social protest art in a single course. So it seems to me that one must either trace certain key themes through a course historically or choose certain issues that seem important in a particular moment. Once upon a time, in 1969 or so, at a very different place and, obviously, moment, I taught a course on "revolutionary literature." It involved works like Lu Hsun's stories, Andre Malraux's Man's Fate, Gladkov's Cement, and a number of American works, as well, for theoretical bal last, Mao Zedong's Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature and a N chapter or two from Raymond Williams's Culture and Society. My logic had to do with two things: it seemed to me, naively to be sure, that we were in an historical moment in which it might be useful to learn from these pre- and post-revolutionary texts. In particular, I thought, it was important for my students to understand the distinction Williams drew between the politics of bourgeois individualism and that of working-class collectivity. They probably learned the most from having to decide whether to participate in a collective final exam (and, in most cases, actually trying to do that) or to take individual finals.
That was then; today, or rather in 2005, it seemed to me that both protest and repression were in the air and that students might learn something useful --in literary as well as in political terms--by reading and talking about earlier texts which confronted war, racism, patriarchy ... and the coming of fascism to the U.S. I assumed that few of my students--about a dozen undergraduates in a privileged college, Trinity, and about the same number of Master's degree candidates--would be directly involved in political protest, and that therefore I needed to organize the material more on the basis of certain intellectual concerns at a distance from immediate involvement in resistance, much less revolutionary, activity. So I arranged my course thematically though I tried to hold on to a modicum of historical context by organizing the thematic materials more or less chronologically. …