Commentary Magazine

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.

A new book by Walter B. Rideout, called The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954, makes, within its limits, a thorough study of the fiction of the political left. Mr. Rideout begins with an author few people are likely to know anything about—I. K. Friedman, whose novels are precursors of later radical fiction. Friedman’s novels were popular in the first decade of the century and although their language must have seemed flowery and stilted to the young progressives of the 1930’s, they were on the required reading lists of the labor schools which during the depression devoted themselves to the instruction and indoctrination of workers and middle-class rebels. Friedman was born in 1870 in Chicago. His parents were wealthy, but he became a radical as a result of his university studies and his later experiences in settlement-house work. The socialism to Which he pledged himself is reflected in the novel called By Bread Alone, published in 1901. This novel’s tone of socialist revolution and its dramatic analysis of the forces at work in the Carnegie Steel strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania, give it a better claim to modernity than the less committed socialism of an earlier novel like Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes or the naive Utopian visions of Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

But despite its radicalism, By Bread Alone is the work of a temperate mind. It places its faith in the leadership an enlightened and humane middle class can give to the workers and it urges the middle class to master the two violent and lawless extremes—the capitalists on the one hand and the Anarchists on the other. It was to be left to the Communist and fellow-traveling novelists of the 1930’s to envision a middle class too corrupt for regeneration and to dream of its finally being crushed between the hammer and the anvil, as the phrase was—between, that is, the capitalists and the proletariat.

The plot of By Bread Alone became a classic one in the socialist novel and in a different way in the proletarian novel of the depression too. It concerns the son of well-to-do parents who has chosen a respectable profession, in this case the ministry, but who gives this up and becomes a radical after he has found out about the social injustice on which American capitalism has been built. He goes to work in the steel mills in a town which is virtually a fief of the steel tycoon, and he and the tycoon’s daughter inevitably fall in love. When the workers strike in an effort to improve their lot, the young man becomes head of the workers’ advisory committee. The owner sends for the Pinkerton men to break up the strike, but as they approach, the workers and their families, ignoring the pleas of the advisory committee, launch an attack on the Pinkerton men and invade and vandalize the mills, creating a situation of lawlessness which is not curbed until the governor sends the militia. The middle-class leadership of the hero having failed to win the strike, the workers turn against him and the situation is ripe for the Anarchists, who attempt to assassinate the mill owner, as Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate H. C. Frick at Homestead. But the failure of the strike leaves unshaken the hero’s resolve to work for the revolution through peaceable political action. He has gained no belief in the self-disciplining powers or the emerging consciousness of the proletariat and he feels nothing but a fascinated contempt for the Anarchists—depicted in the persons of the vulture-like Sophia Goldstein, a Russian who has fled from St. Petersburg, and the French conspirator La Vette, a chemist in the steel plant, who finally commits suicide because he too has fallen in love with the tycoon’s daughter.

An intelligent observer with a store of facts about the industrial world which were largely unknown to or ignored by his class, Friedman was an effective novelist. His writing is of the oddly formal, sometimes heavily facetious or melodramatic sort that proclaims him the contemporary, on the left, of novelists like Winston Churchill, author of Coniston and Richard Carvel. But he can still be read with pleasure.



The old socialist times were exciting for those who heard the call. So we gather from Upton Sinclair’s account of the emotions that came to him when, as a struggling young writer living in hardship and poverty, he was led out of the wilderness by his discovery of socialism: “It was like the falling down of prison walls about my mind; the most amazing discovery after all those years—that I did not have to carry the whole burden of humanity’s future upon my two frail shoulders.” This was the typical tone, whenever the emotion grew emphatic—thin, ethical, rationalistic, alternately joyous and indignant.

Besides the novels of Friedman and Sinclair, Mr. Rideout mentions such works as Vida D. Scudder’s A Listener in Babel, Walter Marion Raymond’s Rebels of the New South, Arthur Bullards’s Comrade Yetta, George Cram Cook’s The Chasm, Susan Glaspell’s The Visioning, Ernest Poole’s The Harbor, and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky. He also discusses A Little Brother of the Rich by Joseph Medill Patterson, later a publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, and he introduces us to Father T. McGrady, a Kentucky priest whose Marxist romance, Beyond the Black Ocean, described the ultimate triumph of socialism under the leadership of Isaac Gilhooley, a descendant of one of the lost tribes of Israel by way of Ireland.

Summing up the socialist novels, Mr. Rideout notes that with some exceptions they were moderate and middle class. The most common theme was the enlightenment and conversion of a well-to-do idealist. The most common plot was the involvement of the characters in a strike or an industrial disaster like the Triangle Waist fire in the garment center. The Emancipated Woman who frequents these novels is earnest, chastely exuberant, and determined to show at last that it is possible for a woman to march shoulder to shoulder with the men and yet to build a home, as one of them expressed it, based on “a broader, freer life, a new health, a home built on comradeship and economic freedom.” A partially inverted and secularized Christianity is felt in many of these books, the authors of which believe, as Mr. Rideout says, that man is basically good and that sin came into the world with “the first private ownership of the means of production.”

The emergence of the proletarian novel brought many revisions of the old socialist views. In the novels of the 1930’s, the faith in parliamentary change is gone and a “coming struggle for power” is predicted. The Communist or fellow-traveling novelist, with much more ambiguous and often mystical feelings, thought of himself as being immersed in the “proletariat.” And the “proletariat,” although ostensibly the People in their irresistible march to freedom, was subconsciously regarded by the more imaginative of these writers as a vast purgative force, like what Conrad called in Lord Jim “the destructive element.” In these novels we find that the middle class has ceased to present itself as the intelligent guide to a better society and has begun to immolate itself on the altar of history. In the proletarian novels the old taboos of sex are of course abandoned, and in many of them the hero and heroine have intercourse at the climax of the plot, when violence breaks out in the struck plant, for example. It is by now a cliché that the authors of these novels, most of whom continued to be educated middle-class people, identified the proletariat with potency and the sex act with revolution.

Although belonging chronologically to the older socialist period, Jack London’s novels make a kind of transition between the prewar era and the depression. The Iron Heel, written in 1908, was ahead of its time, with its turgid but powerful picture of the fascist oligarchy which will evolve out of capitalism and hold power until the revolution from below finally establishes socialism. The book’s conclusion is an impressionistic holocaust of violence and defeat for the insurgent masses and was a forecast of many of the novels of the 30’s. London was the first American to give the word “revolution” a mythic or even deific quality, and to embody, as many later readers noticed, both proletarian socialism and blood-and-soil racism. During the 1930’s and later, the inevitable Stalinist books on London appeared, claiming him for the cause and explaining away London’s having been a slave-runner in the Pacific, or his having described one of his characters as “a blond beast . . . aflame with democracy,” or his reactionary agrarian novel The Valley of the Moon. In one sense, however, The Iron Heel seemed old-fashioned to the proletarian novelists of the 30’s. It was a prophetic romance, and as such did not qualify as “socialist realism” but belonged in the company of visionary melodramas like Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column, a Populist nightmare written in 1890 which describes an apocalyptic battle in a futurist New York between the Plutocracy and the People and the final establishment of a Populist republic in Uganda, to which the narrator, Gabriel Weltstein, flees after the Plutocrats and proletarian terrorists have destroyed each other and left the whole Western world a shambles.



One of the best of the depression novels (of which Mr. Rideout counts about seventy that qualify as “proletarian”) is Robert Cantwell’s The Land of Plenty, published in 1934. It is a careful and solidly rendered account of a strike in a veneer mill on the Northwest coast, where Cantwell himself had grown up and worked for a time in just such a mill after leaving the University of Washington. The first half of the book, with its picture of what happens on the night shift when the electric power is accidentally cut off at the source, is best. Despite certain false notes, such as the ghostly voice that urges the workers to strike by repeating “Just say the word and I’ll walk out,” Cantwell resourcefully builds up the dramatic tension as we learn the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the short period while the lights are out and while surprise and uncertainty gradually mount to a subdued hysteria. An ironic as well as a dramatic tone is given to the story by the fact that it is the night before the Fourth of July, and festive skyrockets occasionally shoot up over the mill from boats offshore. During the crisis the workers behave efficiently, displaying only a marginal unruliness, even though the tension mounts because a man has been hurt and because there is a chance that, with the blowers off, the heat from the vats, presses, driers, and kilns may set off the sprinkler system.

By contrast there is Carl Belcher, the foreman, who has come to the mill as an efficiency expert and who clearly represents the faltering middle class. Indecisive, vindictive, without dignity or scruple, he makes his way through the crisis, as he has ever since he has been at the mill, by exploiting the many areas of ambiguous responsibility in the management of the mill in such a way that reliable workers like Hagen, the machinist and oiler, have to take responsibility on their own shoulders and are then blamed for doing so by the efficiency expert. Even more feckless than Carl Belcher is MacMahon, the manager, with his self-pity and his endless, degrading fights with his wife. The capitalist Digby appears only at the end, fingering his paunch and shouting that the Communists must be put down.

Actually the workers in the mill have no political sense and little belief in unions or strikes. But after the lights have finally come on, they leave the plant with a new feeling of solidarity. When they return after the Fourth, they find that MacMahon has fired a group of the best men, whom, at the time of the shut-down, he had promised not to fire. This leads to a spontaneous strike, which is put down in bloodshed and violence by the police. At the end the young hero has seen his girl clubbed down and is told by an old ex-Wobbly who has befriended him that his father has been shot. And Cant-well leaves him cowering in the rain on the marsh, hiding out from the cops.

Although, as Mr. Rideout notes, Cantwell called The Land of Plenty “quite simply, a work of propaganda,” it does not really follow through as such, and it is more interesting than his description would imply. That Cantwell was a man of literary cultivation with a taste for James and Hawthorne one would not gather from his novel. Yet the influence of Malraux, which he hoped was apparent, can perhaps be distantly felt in the extended and controlled melodrama of the events in the dark factory in the first part of the book. The influence of Hemingway is also apparent, especially in the habit the characters have of speaking tersely and saying everything two or three times—a trick which becomes a little irritating but appropriately suggests that the speakers are holding on tight to their common sense in a situation that may explode at any moment into terror and panic.



Mr. Rideout has some good passages on the strike and the conversion to the proletarian cause as motifs for fiction. Both, but especially the strike, have what he calls “a basic rhythm not unlike that which underlies almost any piece of literature.” It is not surprising that the strike and the conversion are the most common themes of the proletarian novel, as they were of the socialist novel. Mr. Rideout notes the regularity with which in these novels the strike is broken or in some other way the book ends in violence and defeat for the workers, whereas actually in the depression years labor scored one success after another. There might be many ways of explaining this apparent anomaly, but Mr. Rideout seems to put us on the right track to some of them by reminding us of the guilt feelings, the fascination with violence, the contradictory allegiances, the fantasies of sex and death which one might expect to find in a middle-class novelist whose new god was the proletariat.

The most intelligent of these novelists perhaps did not believe that America really had a proletariat—no uniform lower class with a collective will and the capacity for concerted action. So Cantwell himself seemed to suggest when, commenting on the ending of his novel, he confessed that he “couldn’t imagine clearly what would happen” if the workers had seized the factory. And if the writers of the 30’s were not quite at ease with such abstractions as the “proletariat,” they were not quite clear either about the “proletarian novel.” One of the comic aspects of the depression years is the long discussions and the solemn papers delivered by eminent speakers at the American Writers’ Congresses in an attempt to define a proletarian, as distinguished from a bourgeois, novel. Was it a novel whose subject was the proletariat, regardless of the doctrinal viewpoint of the author? Or must it be a doctrinally correct novel, regardless of the subject matter? Or must it be proletarian in both subject and doctrine? The debate was as extended and as little related to reality as in recent years discussions of myth and the politics of Edmund Burke have been.



Among the better-known proletarian novels are Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, Mary Heaton Vorse’s Strikel, Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire, Maxwell Bodenheim’s Run, Sheep, Run, Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread, and Josephine Herbst’s Pity Is Not Enough. There was also Marching! Marching! by Clara Weatherwax. This novel was one of ninety submitted in a contest conducted jointly by the New Masses and the John Day Publishing Company and was adjudged the best proletarian novel of 1935. Miss Weatherwax was adept only at schoolmarmish heroics, but her Stalinist soap opera about a strike in the Pacific Northwest was widely praised as a contribution to socialist realism. When she came to New York to receive her award, she was met by a deputation of (quite possibly ironic) intellectuals. Her book was hailed, without irony, by the non-proletarian Henry Seidel Canby, who said in the Saturday Review of Literature that Marching! Marching! was “the nearest approach in the current school of so-called proletarian fiction to those passionate works of the imagination which have accompanied every great attempt at reform.”

Not surprisingly, the best depression novels are those which were least mindful of the party line as this was being laid down in the New Masses by Michael Gold and Granville Hicks, and proselytized locally over the country by the John Reed Clubs. Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs, published in 1930 with a rather inappropriate introduction by D. H. Lawrence, has hardly any overt political feeling at all. But this mordantly whimsical and grotesque book, with its echoes of Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson, makes very good reading, especially if one had shared the dim image of Dahlberg that came down into the 1940’s as some sort of Lawrencian apocalypticist who had once said something important about Melville. The picaresque story has to do with the adventures of Lorry Lewis, who as a young boy is put in an orphanage by his mother, a lady barber with a horrible pair of pince-nez glasses that are always slipping awry, so that she can take up with a Mississippi river-boat captain. There is much sordid realism and much sharp observation in the chapters dealing with the boy’s early days in Kansas City and the years in the orphanage with such brilliantly caricatured companions as Herman Mush Tate and Bonehead-Star-Wolfe. The later scenes, in which Lorry Lewis, now a tramp on the eve of the depression, winds up in Los Angeles and gets involved with a group of vegetarian intellectuals and homosexuals in the Y.M.C.A. are very funny. And the chapter about Solomon’s Dancepalace is a memorable picture of the underside of the Fitzgerald era.

Such as it was, the proletarian novel flourished in the first half of the depression decade, during what were later called the “sectarian” days of the Stalinist line, and dwindled away during the later Popular Front days. The Radical Novel in the United States supplies the reader with an interesting account of how the way was prepared for this fiction. There was, for example, such a rhapsodic outburst as “Towards Proletarian Art,” an early credo by Mike Gold that sounds alternately like Isaiah, Marx, and Whitman. There were Floyd Dell’s articles on “Literature and the Machine Age.” There was the still living and much recounted legend of John Reed as the intellectual who had given up “vagabondage” to work for the masses. There were Granville Hicks’s articles on “Revolution and the Novel,” and Gold’s later proclamation, “Proletarian Realism,” as well as his notorious attack on Thornton Wilder, “Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” During these “sectarian” days the Gold-Hicks axis, a picturesque collaboration between Jewish apocalyptic sentimentality and the rather grim, literal, doctrinaire side of New England puritanism, was functioning in high gear. The “sectarian” critique, however, was soon to be countered by the more flexible approach advocated by the early issues of the Partisan Review and by James T. Farrell. All this background material is skillfully reconstructed by Mr. Rideout, and in fact the long sections of his book that deal with the background of polemic and propaganda are often more interesting than the novels in the foreground.



As was inevitable, Mr. Rideout has some trouble deciding what is a “radical” novel and what is not. He regards Farrell’s Studs Lonigan series as among the best works of the depression period, and he has an even higher opinion of the novels of Dos Passos. Yet he admits Farrell’s novels as radical—but not those of Dos Passos, although paradoxically he devotes several pages to them. His rule of thumb is that a novel is radical if its author “advocates that the system be fundamentally changed.” This leaves out Steinbeck, although it is customary to call Grapes of Wrath a proletarian or radical novel. But perhaps a proletarian novel is not necessarily radical? Perhaps no novel by a bourgeois individualist like Dos Passos or Hemingway can be radical? These dilemmas have led Mr. Rideout into an arbitrariness of choice which in the larger part of his book has forced him to accept, on his own grounds, pretty much the Communist dogmas on what is radical and what is not.

One of the first thoughts that occurs to a reader of Mr. Rideout’s book is that novels like Faulkner’s Light in August and Robert Penn Warren’s Night Rider and All the King’s Men are really more “radical,” in the literal sense of the word, and tell us more about the essential facts of American social and political life than any number of proletarian fairy tales. The scholar-critic must of course be granted his subject, even if he is doggedly determined to follow through to the last implication an inferior literary tradition. But Mr. Rideout has not widened his horizons enough in the process of making a book out of what was originally a Ph.D. dissertation. The reader misses in the author a sense of the larger implications of what he is doing, as well as a sense of what he is not doing but might have done except for his arbitrary procedure.

Furthermore the academic requirement that he be as unbiased and factual as possible has led the author of The Radical Novel in the United States sometimes to present small truths without realizing that they are being contradicted by large truths. This is particularly noticeable in the last chapter, called “The Long Retreat,” with its several lame, misguided, and hollow-sounding pages on Howard Fast, whom Mr. Rideout apparently takes as seriously and treats as respectfully as he does Dos Passos or Farrell. Noticing Fast’s love of putting into his books “a Negro, a Jew, and a white Gentile,” Mr. Rideout hazards that “the repetition of the pattern becomes too glib and suggests that Fast’s imagination is overly subjected to ideological habit”—which is certainly the understatement of the year. We find him saying, “Nor is the critic or the Congressman wise to insist that the Marxist novel be proscribed simply because it is Marxist”—Whereas in the historical context in which he speaks, the word should be “Stalinist,” not “Marxist.” One would not expect to find in 1956 a man of Mr. Rideout’s cultivation counterbalancing “the doctrinaire Communist and the doctrinaire conservative” (both of whom he deplores) as if the two quantities could exist in the same discourse of logic. There are undoctrinaire conservatives. But where are the undoctrinaire Communists? At Brook Farm perhaps? Unhappily, Mr. Rideout’s myopia in these matters has combined with current history to make his book almost perfectly fit the line of the Communist party, in its recent mood of “self-criticism” and “liberalization.”

One wishes also that Mr. Rideout had made some attempt to differentiate his own aesthetics from the standard idea, still accepted widely in and out of the universities, that realism is the only possible genre for radical fiction. He makes the often heard complaint about the “melodramatic” confrontations and oversimplifications which he finds in some of the novels he discusses. He is usually right to do so, because the passages he objects to are overwrought, sensational, or falsely portentous. But does Mr. Rideout then mean that there should be no melodrama in the radical novel? If so, he has to deal with the fact that not only in Faulkner and Warren is melodrama often of the essence; it is also of the essence in Cantwells The Land of Plenty, of which Mr. Rideout thinks well. And have not Dostoevsky, Dickens, James, Conrad, and Malraux written political novels in which melodrama functions profoundly and creates effects inconceivable within the limits of realism? The novel of radical social analysis cannot be judged by how far it leaves melodrama behind, but by how successfully it employs melodrama.

But all objections aside, The Radical Novel in the United States is a notable episode in our attempt to understand ourselves, which we cannot do unless we understand our history. To most people, so rapidly do attitudes and eras come and go, the history of the intellectual and literary life of modern America looks anarchic indeed. And the impulse to ignore the whole thing and to take up a position of aloofness and skepticism or to devote oneself to the universal and the timeless is very strong. It is strong both in the disillusioned intellectual and in the contented citizen of the Eisenhower era who seeks the peace of mind that now has a quasi-official status and whose notion of history is perhaps derived from the poetic universalism of Toynbee. A book like Mr. Rideout’s, including its errors, reminds us that actually history is made up of hard, lumpy, insistent realities


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.