On the Horizon: Radicalism in the American Novel
There is no more notorious fact about American culture than its cruel and bewildering changes. The writer sleep-walking through the later years of his life because his ideas and his reputation belong to some earlier era is a common and a sad spectacle. For many people Who have a need of what is now called “engagement” it is a grim fate to live in a culture whose eras last only five or ten years. The novel of social protest, or, as we used to say, “social consciousness,” is particularly at the mercy of history. And if there is anything that seems deader in 1956 than the Debs socialism of 1912 or the fellow-traveling of 1930, it is the novels these movements produced.
These novels, of which there was a surprisingly large number, have not been read in recent years, and it has become customary to consign them to oblivion on the grounds not only of their irrelevance but of their crudity and formlessness. Most of them are bad novels, to be sure. Yet a few are worth reviving, not only because they make good reading and show more variety and energy than one had thought, but because they are a part of our past. The challenging task before the cultural historian now is to understand the 1930′s, the 1920′s having been fairly well canvassed in recent years and being, in any case, an easier nut to crack. A novel about a strike or a young man’s or woman’s conversion to radical politics can be undistinguished and still tell us a good deal about the psychology of the depression era, even if it purports merely to tell us the shocking facts.
About the Author