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date: 26 May 2017

American Proletarian Literature

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Proletarian literature in the United States resulted from three developments: industrialization and the emergence of the first U.S. working class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the rise of trade unions, anarcho-syndicalism, and Socialism; aesthetic and philosophical realism and naturalism inherited from the European novel of the 19th century, and to a lesser extent, from journalism, photography, film, and documentary. These aspects merged in proletarian literature’s endeavor to represent working-class life in positivist, materialist terms mainly from an anti-capitalist and Socialist point of view. The Russian Revolution of 1917 catalyzed and named the genre by attaching to writing by the working class Marx and Engels’s term for their lives: proletarians (from Latin, for the lowest order of Roman citizens). After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Soviet endorsement of “proletkult,” an acronym for “proletarian cultural-educational organizations” (proletarskie kul’turno-prosvetitel’nye organizatsii) led to critical essays and manifestos seeking to define the politics and aesthetics of proletarian literature.

In the United States, Mike Gold’s 1921 essay “Towards Proletarian Art” was a bellwether, and the beginning of this tradition. From 1920 to 1945, writers as diverse as Gold, Claude McKay, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Tillie Olsen, Agnes Smedley, and Richard Wright demonstrated allegiance to the task of advancing literature by and for the working-class. Yet the genre of proletarian literature has roots in disparate places—literature of slavery, industrial writing, radical journalism, and books like Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 novella Life in the Iron Mills. In 1905, well before Gold’s manifesto, Upton Sinclair declared hope that his exposé of conditions for packinghouse workers in Chicago in The Jungle would do for wage laborers what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Children did for slaves, namely lead to their emancipation. Sinclair’s term for the working class, “white slaves,” also shows how race is a constant modality, to use Stuart Hall’s term, for class experience in American proletarian literature. While the genre of U.S. proletarian literature is generally held by scholars to expire with the end of the Great Depression, its influence and modeling of commitment to working-class, anti-capitalist themes extends well into the contemporary period, as evident in writing by Russell Banks, Dorothy Allison, Simon Ortiz, Etheridge Knight, Leslie Feinberg, Jim Daniels, Sandra Cisneros, and others. Proletarian literature in the United States, broadly considered, has been one of the most hospitable genres for positive representation of the lives of women, non-white people, immigrants, and migrants, who have historically constituted a disproportionately large segment of the U.S. working class.