What Happened to Proletarian Literature?

Populist Fiction

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.

Thmas Hart Benton-Boomtown-mural

*******

(Art: “Detroit Industry” by Diego Rivera; “Boomtown” by Thomas Hart Benton.)

 

Advertisements

I Was a Drunken Clifford the Big Red Dog

Populist Fiction

Underground writing? Have you ever read underground writing? Did you even know there was such an animal as underground writing?

We’re very high on zine/underground writing, because that’s where our roots lie. More than that, zines are authentic roots literature. They present writing that’s unprocessed and unfiltered– NOT strained through banks of editors and agents and committees and workshops full of politically correct, go-along thinking. They’re also throwbacks in their commitment to print, and to the U.S. Postal Service, in the way they present their art. Creating a zine, where you do literally everything yourself, from editing to formatting to designing to marketing and selling, is an arduous endeavor– but also fulfilling.

Today we have a story from one of the best, most politically-incorrect zine writers, who goes by the name of Fishspit. Read his story here, and see if it’s a more uninhibited story than the status quo variety!

Two things to note about Fishspit’s tale. 1.) it’s told in a folksy vernacular. 2.) in its voice but also its underlying theme it’s very populist– the reality of today’s economic situation is not broadly stated but everpresent.

(We have to ask: How many other struggling writers have donned the Clifford costume at some point?)

But we like the story because it’s entertaining!

I looked in the paper and the goddamned Smackover Library was hiring someone to shelve books. It was only a r a week gig . . . and it paid abysmally. Yet it somehow seemed prestigious . . . to work in a library . . . a far cry from all those fucking factories. To go from a factory grunt to a library employee seemed a step up, even though it was a step down in pay.

(Clifford photo courtesy of renowned children’s author Kathy Ellen Davis. Thanks!)

The Serpent’s Wink

Populist Fiction

How many stories give a sense of living in history?

Our new tale does. Read Nathaniel Heely’s “The Serpent’s Wink,” in which main character Andrew Schulden is caught amid financial manipulations, media noise and street protests– the chaos of the contemporary world.

I’m fucking helping people here.” Matranga’s voice interrupted, “I’m really really trying to at least and,” that was snot, flecked with snowflakes again, now tripping down his lip, “and people—my own goddamn friends—are calling me crooks! Like making money was something I did wrong!”