What is Working Class Literature: July 2002

What is working class literature?


filed 26 July 2002 | Chicago
by Lew Rosenbaum
[While there are a number of issues that should be expanded and
clarified in this article, I still think it explores some fundamental
ideas that are helpful to conceptualize when reviewing what is commonly
called "working class literature." -- Lew Rosenbaum, 2009]

“Literature is made anytime the legal apparatus is challenged by a conscience in touch with humanity.”

— Nelson Algren, Chicago City on the Make

In May 2002 a panel of distinguished writers discussed the question “Is There a Working Class Fiction?” I was very perplexed/excited by the topic of the panel. Every contemporary novel that has gripped me in the last two decades has explored working class life, its destruction and its possibilities. Take Leslie Marmon Silko’s images of transcontinental eco-warriors vs. corporate/fascist capital (Almanac of the Dead). Don Delillo’s description of a lyrical walk through Italian working-class New York contrasted with the grown up trash-king and the pursuit of popular culture as sports-icon-commodity (Underworld). These and other writers have invested their stories with heart-felt portraits and messianic visions. From Carolyn Chute’s Merry Men to Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, from practically anything by Barbara Kingsolver to practically anything by John Edgar Wideman. So my first reaction to the idea of the panel was: “The answer is obvious.” There’s writing about work. There’s writing by workers. There’s writing about working class life. There’s writing that transcends the present by imagining, “metaphoring” what working class life could be like. What could be simpler?

But second, I wanted to hear some discussion that would assess the role of fiction when the issue of class is beginning to reassert itself in the arts and in academics. Anthologies of working class writing have emerged, in part to feed the growing industry of working class studies on campuses. Working class studies? Are we mining the rich-yet-well-disguised cultural artifacts central to our lives, or . . . are we burying our past in a tomb-museum anthropological obfuscation? Janet Zandy, introducing her excellent anthology (What We Hold In Common) says, “I have always felt that if working class culture became merely an object of study, and not a means of struggle, then it would lose its purpose.”

Well, it turns out the question is not so simple, nor is the answer easy. To treat this question seriously we would first need to ask: what is class? what is work? and working class, then? Exploring these questions allows us to discuss: does working class describe the fiction, the author, the characters? And look at that unassuming little article, “a” in “Is There a Working Class Fiction.” The panel was charged with answering whether only one kind of fiction may be working class as opposed to another (perhaps naturalist, perhaps expressionist, perhaps not).

Unfortunately, the panel had little to say about these questions. Instead they focused on how critics use the term “working class writer” to imply second rate, as in “He’s pretty good for a working class writer.” The subject of working class writing may be considered in some sense “profane”– not dealing with universal, transcendent values, instead limited to temporal, sociological issues — consider, for example where John Steinbeck stands in the pantheon of “great writers”– a recent assessment of Steinbeck in his centenary year concluded that despite his popularity he does not belong on the same level as Hemingway, Faulkner and Joyce.

There also seemed some uncomfortable agreement on the panel that once the aspiring writer stepped away from his or her blue collar background, the term “working-class writer” no longer fit. Most of the panelists agreed that they write about the lives of workers, though not necessarily at work; and one panelist protested that he shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as writing “working class fiction” because most of his characters don’t even want to work “for the man.”

Much sound and fury, not too much light.

Why classify? Why indeed establish a category called “working class literature”? The only reason to organize information is to take information that corresponds to reality and use it to solve problems. Surely the academy and other sources have used taxonomy to suppress. And categories have been chosen to segregate the good and the bad. To borrow Zandy’s phrase: a taxonomy which operates as a “method of struggle.” Recognizing that all taxonomy creates categories that are changing, and that the purposes for creating the categories may change, I argue that at this juncture in our history it is important to look at literature and identify that literature which is useful to a developing and changing working class consciousness. This kind of category allows us to learn from and employ the metaphor and imagination that can stimulate the dreams and visions of the emerging movement.

Starting with some definitions at least gives us some common ground about which to talk. Class is most broadly a group of individuals organized according to common characteristics. We can talk about the class of pigeon-toed people, but that doesn’t yield much analysis. Terminology such as “working class” can only be understood in relation to another “non-working class.” From my vantage point, “working class” is best understood in an economic, Marxist sense, the most rigorous exploration of the term. I don’t mean to take the nineteenth century definition of the “modern working class,” the industrial worker, the “special creation of capitalism.” Language reflects life, and life is a process of constant change. Marx’s methodology required studying and taking account of changes. We have to consider the “working class” in its flux, in its motion, as a dynamic concept. As separate from a non-working class, the working class is still distinct from those who do not need to work: who are surviving quite well, thank you, because they exploit others. Do not need to work because they employ enough human, technological or speculative capital to live comfortably. That they choose to go to “work” 50 or 60 hours a week is of no concern to this investigation; nor is it our concern that some people “choose” to deal drugs or engage is some alternative money-making endeavor rather than slinging big macs all day.

A snapshot of laid-off Arthur Andersen secretaries, all out of work, does not depict people thrown out of the working class as much as people ejected from the practice of working. What is it that makes them “working class” if they are not working? They are part of a class which, from time to time, according to economic vagaries, are forced into the unemployment lines. Sometimes more, sometimes less, they may be absorbed or disgorged, as if they were water to a sponge, by the expanding or contracting capacity of capitalism. But what about the fact that so many disgorged from an increasingly automated capitalism are now superfluous, will never be called back to the work force? That our prisons house increasing numbers of these disgorged “workers”? Perhaps so many have never even had the chance to be employed, never mind disgorged.

Within the experience of that most bourgeois of nations, the United States of America, this definition includes those forced to work as slaves or indentured servants as well as those merely persuaded to work by fear of starvation. It includes those in soup lines and out on strike, those left in industrial factories and those in intellectual “factories”. While it includes those in unions, this definition specifically points to those who have no organizational status and declares: “you are one of us too.” In other words, this inclusive definition implies better than 90% of the U.S. population. Of course you have to agree that what these folks do (if and when they are paid) is work. And you have to wonder if we stand at a node of history in which what we have until now considered “working class” is profoundly transforming into something different, unknown, undescribed even by such descriptions as “underclass.”

But only by discussing this question of what we mean by working class can we even attempt to answer other questions, like: what is working class writing? Or, alternatively, is writing working class art only if it portrays the working class? Does the working class have to be portrayed heroically? Does a writer leave the working class when he/she joins a teaching faculty, perhaps obtains tenure?

The Oxford Book of Work is a thick volume. Thick as in 600 pages of small print on heavy paper; thick as in dense. Styled an anthology, it is more an encyclopedic reference work, organized semi-topically, of excerpts of work by anyone who wrote about work , from Phyllis McGinley to Karl Marx, from Diodorus Siculus to Vikram Seth. Published in 1999, still it looks much older, staid, traditional. Not surprising though: editor Keith Thomas is a former President of the British Academy and former president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. These certainly qualify him to publish a suitably stuffy looking anthology. In the first part, editor Thomas collects excerpts from writers on the nature of work: what is it, why is it by definition “tedious” and “painful” and in what resides its pleasure? This takes up 40% of the book, and the next third consists of writings about kinds of work (agriculture, factory, intellectual, various occupations). The small remainder of the book is devoted to “the reform of work”: resistance to tyranny, disaffection, organization.

This is a book which begs for a place on your reference bookshelf, to be taken down when seeking a source, looking for a timely quote to insert somewhere (perhaps when you want to justify a point in an essay you are writing). Then, moving to the index to look for an author writing on the place of black workers in the working class you stumble on . . . scarcely a reference to slavery, the central fact of American labor history (the central fact of British/American interlocked working class history). Frederick Douglass gets one reference in the index, Margaret Walker one, and none for Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, John Wideman, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou (here I’m only referring to black writers of fiction and poetry; not even mentioning the many noteworthy black scholars in non-fiction). This is not a mere lacuna in an otherwise comprehensive work. It’s a gaping crater that undermines the usefulness of this volume. It skirts the issue of oppression by practically omitting it from mention (there is a minor bow to “women’s work” as a separate category).

There is a lot of good reference material in this book. But its British classical orientation robs it of its usefulness, especially in seeking the rich varieties of work experience and portrayal that can be found in African, American, and Latin American literature. Perhaps the title should be changed to The Oxford Book of Anglo-American Work; that would at least eliminate the pretension of comprehensiveness this volume exudes.

Growing Up Poor, with a doll-like creature holding a doll pictured on the front cover, is what it states it is: “a literary anthology.” It does not promise to be comprehensive. It’s editors, Robert Coles (Children of Crisis) and Randy Testa, have selected writers whose work gives a real sense of what it means to be alive and poor in America. Testa, who has taught literature and medical ethics at Harvard and Dartmouth medical schools, could certainly use this book in his courses. Some of the work is culled from just such courses taught by co-editor Robert Coles. Testa describes its purpose by writing about the shared goals of the authors: “their great desire to bring readers closer to understanding the lives and dreams and obstacles of a group so readily turned into a “they” in a world of shrill materialism.

You have no trouble finding Langston Hughes in this anthology: part one starts out, “Well son, I’ll tell you/Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” There are other “classical” pieces, by which I mean old enough to have made into the American literary canon (even if not good enough for the “Great Books” editors — perhaps the University of Chicago’s answer to Oxford for stuffy/elite). William Carlos Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison are all represented. But also Dorothy Allison’s essay, “A Question of Class,” which explores what made her “other” in Carolina and Florida. “Indian Education” — a story by Sherman Alexie — concludes existentially: “Why should we organize a reservation high school reunion? My graduating class has a reunion every weekend at the Powwow tavern.” Richard Ford, Gary Soto, Luis Rodriguez all write about farm and factory, rural and city, employed and unemployed life.

Growing Up Poor is just out in paperback (New Press, 2002). Its prose and poetry really does give a picture of obstacles and resilience. The characters who people these stories often do not work. They have one characteristic in common: they are poor. By the definition above, they are part of a class whose members must work if they are to survive. Where historically welfare has filled the gaps between periods of employment, recipients of “the dole” occupy a rung on the class stepladder far below that reserved for trades union members (at least those in the skilled trades) and “professionals.” Those caught on this rung are preponderantly white; still the American media-myth portrays them as mostly Black, Mexican and Puerto Rican.

This could be a despairing book. It is angry and sad, but it is filled with defiance, resistance and dreams. Here again is Langston Hughes:

“Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now–

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

And here are the closing lines of Allison’s extraordinary essay:

“. . .I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw of the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us — extraordinary.”

These books imply that working class writing is about the working class. That is, it’s not necessarily about work. It’s not necessarily about working. But it is about the people making up that changing category called working class, whether at work or not. Further, fiction can be dull, dry, categorical. The fiction that screams, flies, and inspires can seize the imagination about what working class life can be.

Here is George Eliot, writing a review in 1856 of two German novels: “. . . The thing for mankind to know is not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the labourer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him.” Praising Charles Dickens powers of “rendering the external traits of our town population,” she goes on to criticize his sentimentality and romanticism, saying, “if he could give us their psychological character . . . with the same truth as their idiom and manners, his books would be the greatest contribution Art has ever made to the awakening of social sympathies.”

Jorge Amado, in Brazil (1937), defending himself against the “bosses of the Brazilian novel,” writes: “. . .in this series of mine of novels of Bahia, I have only given myself the freedom to invent, to imagine plots. I have refused either to imagine the customs of my state, or the feelings of its men, or the way in which they react to determined facts.” He goes on: “I do know . . . that there exists in [this series] a feeling . . .: an absolute solidarity with and a great love for the humanity that lives in these books.” His note is an afterword to the publication of the sixth and final novel of the Bahia series, Captains of the Sands.

Eighty years separate these statements by two great writers. Despite the gap of their cultural difference, they have found a common theme. Explicit in her criticism of Dickens is Eliot’s concern that the evocation of the character of the working class awakens social sympathies; Amado tells us as well that he is happy in knowing that his work has allowed millions to become aware of the sufferings and dreams of the people of Bahia, “making many hearts beat in solidarity with the drama of their brethren in Bahia.”

The artist’s arsenal holds weapons that can “cast a moral searchlight” on the sufferings of the mass of humanity, thereby awakening the sympathies of the millions. Even within the framework of the most reactionary of regimes, the artist, riding the wave of a movement, can broadcast an anthem of that movement.

Many writers have ridden the tidal wave and by so doing shaped the direction the wave went. Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair, for example. Richard Wright. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Harriet Beecher Stowe. The words may have been utopian (as with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) or dystopian (as with Jack London’s prescient novel of fascism, The Iron Heel). Muckraking or uplifting. The writing captured a moment and became banners around which people rallied. They were literary challenges to the legal apparatus by a conscience in touch with humanity.

Why now are there panels on working class literature? Why is there a Center For Working Class Studies forming at a number of universities in the Chicago area? This is an era in which corporations maximize profit by cutting employment costs (e.g. the phenomenon of mass firings called “downsizing”) and when work is redefined as a technological process rather than a human endeavor. It is not a coincidence that what was once a corner of the iron triangle of U.S. industrial production is looking toward tourism to keep it from falling into the abyss of economic depression. The centers can be a sign of nostalgia for a bygone era, a department of urban anthropology; the panels be a recognition of a trend that needs to be studied academically before it can be labeled and defanged. Studies, panels and monuments are often the measure that movements and metaphors are dead.

Perhaps pessimism is only the cynic’s side of the coin. Perhaps the panels and studies and the literature itself reflect an upheaval. The working class itself is undergoing a massive transformation that is only now beginning consciously to be explored by those of us whose business it is to explore it. That is, the beginning consciousness of these kinds of basic change come about once the change has begun. Here’s what John Gilmore of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has to say about these changes:

What is wrong is that we have invented the technology to eliminate scarcity, but we are deliberately throwing it away to benefit those who profit from scarcity. We now have the means to duplicate any kind of information that can be compactly represented in digital media. We can replicate it worldwide, to billions of people, for very low costs, affordable by individuals. We are working hard on technologies that will permit other sorts of resources to be duplicated this easily, including arbitrary physical objects (“nanotechnology”; see foresight.org.) The progress of science, technology, and free markets have produced an end to many kinds of scarcity. A hundred years ago, more than 99% of Americans were still using outhouses, and one out of every ten children died in infancy. Now even the poorest Americans have cars, television, telephones, heat, clean water, sanitary sewers — things that the richest millionaires of 1900 could not buy. These technologies promise an end to physical want in the near future.

Glimmers of hope can be found in dreams that precede the changes and often reflect antecedent changes and incomplete, unfulfilled dreams from the past. Dreams of “utopia” came long before any temporal possibility of achieving the dream. Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Yes, it does explode, but it also lies in wait, gathers its strength for the next round of even more advanced struggle, when the dream can be more completely realized. And if we in Chicago who write ought to know anything, we ought to know that — in this most proletarian of cities, the city of May Day’s birth and of the military suppression of the dream of the 8 hour day — our working class is profoundly unselfconscious of its identity. Chicago, a city of a working class increasingly permanently unemployed or underemployed, including ex-Andersen secretaries, World-com technicians and Dot-com engineers, to name a few, has many deferred dreams. If the freedom dreams of the 8-hour day struggle could not be completed; if the freedom dreams of the European immigrants to the Chicago stockyards could not be completed; if the freedom dreams of the wartime southern black immigrants to Chicago could not be completed; if all these and other dreams challenged the legal apparatus, were suppressed, and had to be deferred, these dreams did not merely dry up or fizzle in the explosions that greeted their suppression.

Why discuss working class art? Because there is nothing more important to discuss and to champion at a time when these dreams, long so brutally suppressed, now stand a chance of being realized. For the first time in our human history nearly every sector of our globalized working class is facing this choice: enter the world of creativity or be crushed by a similar poverty. This is the time to look beyond individual careers (will I be marginalized by being put in a working class writer box), accept the challenge proudly and defiantly. Whatever the form, whoever the writer, the stage is now set to reflect these changes and to give that changing class an imaginative voice. Fifteen years ago I read this passage and my hair stood on end:

The sky can’t make up its mind. He (John French) chews and pulls the high crowned hat tighter down on his skull. The snub toed brogans are a mile away when he stretches out his legs. Only way he can tell they belong to him is that twinge in the small of his back. They used to put them on wheels and pull people apart. Pull the arms and legs out the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Albert told him that. Albert had seen pictures of it. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet filled with spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said. Said he didn’t know exactly what ailed him till he saw the picture in his white woman’s book, and then he understood exactly. They got us on a rack, John French. They gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where it’s supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.

The setting is a dreary, damp, very early Pittsburgh morning on a street corner. John French is a paper-hanger, a casual laborer waiting to be hired for the day. He is skilled, but he cannot get a steady, union job because he is black. The power of the metaphor. Albert does not say, “It’s like they got us on a rack.” He says “They got us on a rack.” The experienced horror of exploitation today refers back to medieval torture machinery. Not similar to; it is. I had only minor personal skirmishes with “them” — cutting the tip of my finger off in a sample factory; working on the line assembling cabinets for televisions and hi-fi systems — but my skirmishes stream vividly back. The chill down my spine mimics the tingle in John French’s. Identify. I feel what the author of this passage, John Edgar Wideman, compacted into it. I feel that tenseness and horror and despair. More. I recognize my kinship with John French, with Albert Wilkes, with the boyard of feudal Europe. I recognize my identity because the group I belong to is the group that is compelled to labor in order to eat. I read this as the most powerful depiction of class identity.

Well, they still got us on a rack, life still ain’t no crystal stair, but as never before, more of us than ever before are assuredly in the same boat. Let’s start by writing/dreaming the boat in the direction we want to go in! This will be fiction that, as Amado says, makes “many hearts beat in solidarity with the drama of their brethren,” an anthem for new times and new challenges.

“All of working-class poetry from the 1820’s to the present needs to be retrieved and studied.. . . From the Wobblies to the poststructuralists, the basic question is: Who represents the working class? With an immensely diverse and complex working class, can a handful of writers “represent” or give a “realistic” portrait of the whole class?

Julia Stein, from the essay “Industrial Music”
in What We Hold In Common (Zandy, editor)
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One Response to “What is Working Class Literature: July 2002”

  1. Anne McGravie Says:

    I’m of the belief tha we have too many academics with too much time on their hands, so they feel the need to invent “studies,” and “departments,” and “new approaches” and all that rubbish. WE DON’T NEED ANY MORE CATEGORIES. A prime example of this waste of time: Women’s Literature. What is it exactly–and please don’t create a studies group to formulate an answer. But it does imprison women within it. Women Playwrights’ Festivals litter the world of theatre. What they do is sideline us, still, in what used to be called “kitchen-sink-drama.” More PC-aware now, theatre managements wouldn’t dare say the term out loud, but they still whisper it in their sleep.
    We are writers, female and male, and what we write about will depend on our particular bents. For my part, I use memory and the influences of how and where I grew up, how I view societies within my ken, what I want to throw open for a discussion with audiences.
    If we writers are worth our pepper and salt, we cover a wide horizon in our writing, refusing the barriers certain groups might wish to place us behind.
    Working-class writers? Yes, Langston Hughes was poor. He also rose out of poverty, looking back, but also moving forward. Couldn’t his musings on dreams deferred be applied to any level of society? Don’t we all have to deal at some time in our lives–working-class, middle-class, upper-class–with dreams unfulfilled? Who is so free that life from the cradle to the grave is controllable? To limit writers is to pen them in, insist that they stay within their class. “Write what you know” does not mean, stay in your own backyard.
    Writers are not robots programmed to write what they were born to.
    We’re better than that.

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