THERE WAS A TIME. . . .
There was a time when the American literary scene was defined by proletarian writing. Notably in the 1930’s, with the novels of John Steinbeck (Cannery Row, In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath) but from others, all-but-forgotten names like Horace McCoy, James T. Farrell, and Jack Conroy. The genre became so important that no less an author than Ernest Hemingway tried his hand at it, with the regrettable artistic and commercial failure To Have and Have Not.
After World War II the literary establishment, whether from reasons of commerce or ideology, de-emphasized populist writing. Scattered authors continued to add their insights and experiences. The excellent novella On the Line by Harvey Swados (1957) was one of them. By and large, though, with the rise of middle-class MFA programs and word-focused “literary” writing, the proletarian style of American literature fell by the wayside.
WHAT is the proletarian style? It’s marked by unpretentious prose– no sparkling Updike stylistic fireworks, sorry. No David Foster Wallace convoluted ruminations. Instead, simple accumulation of hard experience, focused on the working class, usually about economic hardship or collapse. Leaving the reader with a very different sort of impact. As if the reader had been– appropriately– punched between the eyes.
WE have an excellent contemporary example of the form, from a writer of now, Tim O’Connor, who gives us “The Baler.” In his story O’Connor expresses past hopes along with a disillusion which runs through many new writers. Amid a swiftly-changing world, an absence of faith in the future– in their future. As the editors of this site are from the long-beaten-down city of Detroit, we know that feeling well. As if the floor has dropped out from beneath you.
“The Baler” is a visit into a land alien to many Americans, the industrial world–
It’s the kind of scene you’d expect a factory worker to thrive in. The one where all the men at the bar are middle-aged and overweight. A majority of them have thick mustaches and wear thirty-year-old hats with retro beer logos on them. If you squint your eyes hard enough you can imagine them crushing cans of Schlitz, commiserating over another failed pennant race by the Tribe under the glow of a neon sign.
(Art: “Detroit Industry” by Diego Rivera; “Boomtown” by Thomas Hart Benton.)