Working-Class Women's Literature: An Introduction to Study

By Lauter, Paul | Radical Teacher, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Working-Class Women's Literature: An Introduction to Study


Lauter, Paul, Radical Teacher


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Writing--and indeed thinking--about working-class literature presents a number of unique problems. To begin with, what do we mean by "working-class literature"? Literature about working-class people, literature by them, or literature addressed to them? If we use the first definition, should we include works that are ignorant of or hostile to the working-class people they write about like some turn of-the-century "industrial" novels? If we focus on writing by working people, do we include pieces that do not deal with their lives or even with their real concerns, like some "popular" songs? Should we include, say, literature by people of working-class origins, like D. H. Lawrence? To complicate the issue still further, there is the question of audience or, perhaps more accurately, of the differing functions of works with differing audiences. Florence Reece's song "Which Side Are You On?," for example, urges miners to stick together in the union, whereas Edwin Markham's poem "The Man with the Hoe" calls on the "masters, lords and rulers in all lands" to right the wrongs of working people. Since both concern changing the condition of the working class, are both working-class literature? Life in the Iron Mills, the first significant portrait in American literature of the lives of the industrial workers, clearly addresses a bourgeois audience, while many drugstore novels, like those of Mickey Spillane, attract a substantial working-class readership. Which would one want to retain in a "canon" of working-class fiction? Such questions cannot be answered categorically; we need a more adequate understanding of the techniques, functions, and distinctive qualities of working-class art.

Beyond these issues, there is the question of what defines the working class. Many such definitions exclude more people, especially women, than they include. The traditional image of the American industrial worker, for example, is male, in part because of ignorance about the role of women, historical and current, in United States industry. And the traditional image is also white, reflecting the racially segregated job structure that still persists in some industries.

It seems best to use relatively loose definitions and broad categories, but we must remain sharply aware of the difficulties involved, the manifestations within the culture of efforts to overcome (or to retain) class privilege, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Here I discuss literary works by and about working people, written and oral forms, "high," "popular," and "mass" culture. I designate as "working-class people" those who sell their labor for wages; who create in that labor and have taken from them "surplus value," to use Marx's phrase; who have relatively little control over the nature or products of their work; and who are not "professionals" or "managers." I refer to people who, to improve their lot, must either move in solidarity with their class or leave it (for example, to become managers). (1) I include those who work in homes, whose labor is sold although not for pay, as surely as is that of those who work in the mills or in the streets. I also include those who work on farms and those whose labor is extorted from them by slavery and peonage. Such categories, though admittedly blurred at the edges, give us at least a reasonable place from which to start.

In dealing with working-class culture, and especially with women's literature, we are confronted by a problem more fundamental than that of definition. It can be seen in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, "A Worker Reads History":

   Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
   The books are filled with names of kings.
   Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
   And Babylon, so many times destroyed,
   Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's
   houses,
   That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

   In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
   Where did the masons go? … 

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