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The Forgotten History of American Working-Class Literature

By Amanda Arnold

Rebecca Harding Davis does not promise her readers a pleasant experience—comfort is not her concern. Do not avert your eyes, she pleads. Let me show you what you don’t want to see.

“I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia,” the omniscient narrator of Life in the Iron Mills demands, peering out of a windowpane at dirty yards and coal boats. “[This story] will, perhaps, seem to you as foul and dark as this thick vapor about us, and as pregnant with death; but if your eyes are free as mine are to look deeper, no perfume-tinted dawn will be so fair with promise of the day that shall surely come.”

Published in The Atlantic Monthly in April 1861, Life in the Iron Mills is a seminal text in a category of writing that didn’t become “literature” for nearly a decade after its publication and one that still isn’t always considered literature today: narratives of the working class. Inspired by the iron and steel mills in her childhood town of Wheeling, West Virginia, Harding Davis’s novella tells the story of men with “dull, besotted faces” who “[stoop] all night over boiling caldrons of metal.” She intended for the work to attract the sympathies of the middle class, and, while popular upon publication, the text vanished until the mid 1960s when another working-class author, Tillie Olsen, uncovered it.

Working class texts, due to questions of literary merit and a not-yet-substantial place in academia, have struggled to assert their place in any canon—or even find to their way outside libraries or the hands of a small group of scholars. In the past 50 years, though, a few presses have formed with the specific goal of publishing both old and new working-class narratives. And since the mid-90s, American universities have slowly begun adopting working-class programs to study the narratives of a demographic that’s both underrepresented in academia and near universally misunderstood. Together, these efforts aim to promote an understanding of what could constitute its own canon of literature—one that has been continuously produced since the early 19th century, but, for years, been ignored.

There’s value in surfacing the stories, fictionalized or non-fiction, of a major American demographic, the pro argument goes; if you disagree, the same argument might ask, what is it that’s so hard to face?

As Davis writes, “Are pain and jealousy less savage realities down here in this place I am taking you to than in your own house or your own heart,—your heart, which they clutch at sometimes?”

Nearly every study of working-class literature begins with the same question: “What do we mean by ‘working-class literature’?” It’s how Paul Lauter starts his 1979 essay “Working-Class Women’s Literature: An Introduction to Study,” published in Radical Teacher. Lauter asks: is it literature written about, by, or to the working class? To answer his question, he first sets out to define the working-class: “Those who sell their labor for wages; who create in that labor and have taken from them ‘surplus value,’ to use Marx’s phrase; who have relatively little control over the nature or products of their work; and who are not ‘professionals’ or ‘managers.’”

But Lauter’s interpretation isn’t universally accepted. In her 1979 essay “Culture and Crisis in Britain in the ‘30s,” Carole Snee argues that writing produced by those in the working class is inherently working-class. Touching on Marx’s theory of class consciousness, Snee argues that it’s not necessary for a writer to have this awareness in order for their work to belong to the category.

When I begin my conversation with Dr. Sherry Linkon with a question about her definition of the working class, she laughs, expecting it. An English professor at Georgetown University, Linkon’s research focuses on the working class; she was once co-director of the Center for Working-Class Students. In her work, she tries to illustrate this central question’s complexity: While studies relating to the economy or politics make divisions based, for example, on college education, Linkon also takes into account income, social status, and the kind of work being performed. A working-class job could be manual labor, like construction, or it could be a desk job, like data entry.

“What the jobs have in common in is a lack of power over labor and its future,” she says, and ultimately, she considers working-class literature to be that which comes from the working-class perspective. “But class has a set of tensions associated with it that makes it hard for people to talk about. American ideology and the American Dream says anybody who works hard enough should not be working class because this is the land of the opportunity.”

Working-class literature has also been defined by its major themes and subjects, which Linkon outlines on Georgetown University’s website Working-Class Perspectives: “a focus on work, accurate representation of the material and social conditions of working-class life, validation of working-class culture, resistance to existing power structures, [and] rejection or critique of the standard middle-class narrative of upward mobility.” She traces the genealogy of working-class writing back to 18th- and 19th-century slave narratives, especially to those of the 1830s, when writers were telling stories of auctions, their families, and the desire for freedom due to emergence of the modern American abolitionist movement. In 1831, Nat Turner dictated the narrative The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was published just before he was hanged. Through the printing of an estimated 50,000 copies, the narrative would become the most widely read slave narrative of its time.

The working class texts that emerged after that point existed more or less in a vacuum. From 1840 through 1845, female textile mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, published The Lowell Offering, a monthly magazine that included everything from essays about seeking relief in nature from “the dull monotony of factory life” to short stories about a “factory-girl heroine” who “aims to reduce prejudice against factory operatives.” But as literacy rates among the 19th-century laborers were low, the most popular forms of working-class literature were stories in oral forms that existed as street literature. The authors of these stories were not concerned with producing capital nor with individual genius; shared communally as songs and hymns, working-class art sought to address class consciousness through living, shareable products in which artist and audience were one and the same.

In the 1930s, working-class literature flourished during the Proletarian literature movement, which included writers like Jack Conroy, Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Agnes Smedley. By nature of telling honest stories about poverty-stricken women and factory workers without job stability in Depression-era America, much of the writing of this time promoted radical and leftist ideology, appearing in a number of left-wing periodicals. As early as the late 1920s, The Communist Party USA’s John Reed Clubs had begun generating proletarian art, and in 1935, the party-sponsored League of American Writers would meet for the first time. Le Sueur, who some considered to be too political, others considered to be too literary, was at the center of the leading debate of the time: what is literature’s role in a revolutionary culture?

While some of these texts would experience a resurgence in the 1960s, many became obsolete, buried under the literature of the post-WWII Beats and realistic modernists. It was for this reason that some independent presses began to intervene, dedicating themselves solely to surfacing these forgotten poems and novels. In 1970, Florence Howe founded Feminist Press and set out digging up old texts by working-class women. Similarly, in 1975, John Crawford founded West End Press in New York City, which republished progressive and working class texts, mainly from women and writers of color.

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Scholars have debated the reasons for working-class literature’s obsolescence after the 1930s. In the 1995 book Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur, Constance Coiner argues that “despite its place in the now familiar list—race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability—class is often the least addressed of these issues [in academia].” She goes on: “One may be that few people of working-class origin make it into the ranks of the professoriat, so few people with an ‘insiders’ sensitivity to this issue are undertaking scholarship and shaping curricula.” Lillian Robinson, a Marxist feminist author and activist, opines that “the most massive and brutal attempts to deny the existence of an analytic category occur with respect to class,” especially in university English departments.

Alan Wald pins the lack of class discussion on anti-communist, pro-capitalist ideology in literary studies, writing that the lack of studies around working-class texts has denied the demographic “a genuine history of their own cultural activities through access to authors who wrote about strikes, rebellions, mass movements, the work experience, famous political trials, the tribulations of political commitment, as well as about love, sex, the family nature, and war from a class-conscious, internationalist, socialist-feminist, and antiracist point of view.”

But it was shortly after the publication of Coiner’s book that working-class studies finally emerged as an academic field. Michael Zweig, the former director of the Center for Study of Working-Class Life at the State University of New York, ties its birth in the 1990s to the “economic restructuring [that] began to undermine the structures and experiences of work that had played central roles in the formation of the working class” after the deindustrialization of the 1980s. 

“The field of working-class studies has arisen in such an environment of crisis at the hands of capitalism,” Zweig wrote in the Journal of Working-Class Studies. “Instability generates fear and confusion. The crisis of an old order usually leads to a crisis in understanding, to intellectual confusion.”

All of which contributed to the formation of SUNY’s Working Class Studies Association in 2004, which is just one among a handful of university programs dedicated to the study. Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies in Ohio was the first program to emerge, in 1996, and the most recent university to adopt a similar program is Collin College in McKinney, Texas.

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As both our definition and canon of working-class literature evolves, so must the way in which we characterize and analyze the texts. While it’s certainly worthy to study the works of Le Sueur, Herbst, and other writers most closely associated with forgotten proletariat literature, since the 1990s, scholars have since recognized the necessity to reassess how class factors into texts that have become part of respective women’s, ethnic, and LGBTQ literary canons. As Paula Rabinowitz writes in Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America, “women’s revolutionary fiction of the 1930s narrates class as a fundamentally gendered construct and gender as a fundamentally classed one.” Class is inextricably linked to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and disability; the increasingly multiracial working class is projected to be majority people of color by 2032. For an intersectional understanding of the relationships of marginalized groups to systems like capitalism and criminal justice, class cannot be ignored.

“If you’re going to talk about the long history of racism or heteronormativity or the patriarchy, it’s not in your interest to really dig into the fact that some African Americans are upper class or that some women have advanced professionally [to roles historically held by men],” Linkon says. “When you make class central, you see both solidarity and conflict within groups.”

Which, Linkon argues, is necessary. And in her most optimistic moments, she thinks that if there’s one good thing to come out of Trump’s presidency, it’s a renewed interest in studying class. In just a month, Linkon will head to Bloomington, Indiana for Joseph Varga’s Working-Class Studies Association’s 2017 Conference; its third day will kick off with a discussion of Michelle M. Tokarczyk’s Bronx Migrations, a poetry collection that chronicles a young girl and her family’s experience of leaving the Bronx in the 1960s.

Frances Benson, the editorial director at ILR Press, a leading publisher of the workplace and labor narratives, spoke to me about a trend of which Bronx Migrations is a part: an increase in demand for working-class memoirs and fiction. Today, there are a handful of places putting out these texts: Bottom Dog Press in Ohio publishes work out of Appalachia and the Midwest, and has a series dedicated to “Working Lives,” along with both ILR, Feminist Press, and West End Press.

“Academic studies have stressed that working peoples’ voices need to be at the heart of our efforts to make sense of social class,” Bensen says. “Literature is one of the best ways to do that.” The demographic signifies more than just a statistic without a college education, or a percentage who voted for Trump. At the basic level, which should be enough, the working class is made up of people.

Barbara Jensen writes in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America that “the most common form of classism is solipsism.” In Life in the Iron Mills, Rebecca Harding Davis asks us only to not look away.

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