New Deal Writing and Its Pains

Nathaniel Mills

Labor Pains:
New Deal Fictions of Race, Work, and Sex in the South
By Christin Marie Taylor
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019, 232 pages, $30 paperback.

DURING THE 1930s, Communist Richard Wright and Harlem Renais­sance veteran Zora Neale Hurston exchanged brief reviews of each other’s fiction that have long framed both writers’ reputations. In 1937, Wright suggested that the “facile sensuality” of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of a southern Black woman’s psychological and sexual growth, had no social or political relevance and thus, like minstrel shows, merely gratified whites.

The following year, Hurston excoriated Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children for flattening Black life into Communist propaganda. Wright, she charged, depicted the southern Black folk as “elemental and brutish” individuals, and Black experience as merely violence and victimization. Racialized gender politics of representation inform both reviews: if Wright suggested that a novel about Black female interiority would merely titillate white audiences, Hurston found in Wright “lavish killing . . . enough to satisfy all male black readers.”(1)

These arguments have come to typify two polarized approaches for representing the Black folk: Hurston’s experimental modernist prose, appreciation of folk culture, focus on the interiority of individuals, and centering of women’s experiences; or Wright’s leftist radicalism, misogynistic biases, stock characters, and simplistic naturalist style.

As Christin Marie Taylor notes in the introduction to her new study, Labor Pains: New Deal Fictions of Race, Work, and Sex in the South, this exchange starkly dichotomizes “protest and a focus on racism and materialism” or “a focus on the self and desire” as alternatives to African-American representation. (Taylor, 17) Both reviews are almost entirely caricature, yet the Hurston-Wright debate raises some crucial questions for African-American writing about the Black folk.

In a more judicious 1937 evaluation of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Black leftist critic, Marian Minus, speaks to the heart of the debate when she indicates the need for a balance between depicting sociopolitical conditions and internal human emotion. Minus notes that late in the novel, Tea Cake — the love interest of protagonist Janie — is conscripted by whites to bury the dead from a recent hurricane.

Minus laments that this scenario passes without clear political commentary: “The incident is there and the seeds of action are there, but neither the characters nor their creator spade the earth. Here one wishes that Miss Hurston had allowed Janie and Tea Cake to be less in love for enough paragraphs to show more fully the depth of this bitter reaction.”(2)

Minus here indicates the need to depict politics and personal experience, materialist protest and human emotion, as intertwined: capturing the brutality of Jim Crow is not a matter of simply parroting superficial propaganda, but of “spading the earth,” exploring the psychological depths of characters to show how sociopolitical conditions manifest themselves, in complex and emotionally dense ways, within the psychic lives of both oppressed and oppressors. How it feels to be a member of the Black southern working class under Jim Crow, in other words, requires a synthesis of the priorities of Wright and Hurston.

Minus’s synthesized perspective suggests that complex approaches to the Black folk and the politics of representation were present in African-American leftist discourse of the 1930s, even if that presence has been obscured by the looming influence of the Hurston-Wright exchange.

Christin Marie Taylor’s study doesn’t consider interventions like Minus’s, but it echoes and develops many aspects of Minus’s piece. In Labor Pains, Taylor examines fiction from the Depression through the 1960s — an era she defines by associating it, not always convincingly, with the influence of the Popular Front on literature. The author asks us to consider the southern Black folk agricultural worker as a trope by which writers not only enact critiques of racism and capitalism, but mine the internal, felt realities of work, race, gender, sexual desire and social exclusion.

In chapters dedicated to studies of writers George Wylie Henderson, William Attaway, Eudora Welty and Sarah Wright, Taylor reads for “the feeling imbued in black working-folk aesthetics” (19), the interplay of human instincts, emotions, desires and aspirations that remain more amorphous than the prescriptions of political protest, and whose ambiguities resist public economies of representation, but which reflect both the oppressive environment of the Jim Crow South and the indelible humanity of Black agricultural workers.

Taylor’s readings chart the interpenetration of left politics and personal interiority, realist documentation and emotional exploration — the poles Minus denoted as the victimizations of Jim Crow and Tea Cake and Janie’s love. Reading representations of the Black folk with an eye toward both their political orientations and their handling of human affect — the emotive forces of psychological and subjective interiority — Taylor brings new appreciation to the writers and works she studies.

Broadening the Popular Front Left

Taylor’s chapters on Henderson and Welty introduce new texts to scholarly conversations in literary studies of the left. George Henderson’s Ollie Miss (1935) is relatively unknown today and has been seen as a romanticized novel of Black folk life. Taylor focuses on its depictions of labor and female desire.

The Black female protagonist of Ollie Miss is a working-class alternative to Hurston’s Janie, the most well-known heroine of African-American literature who, as Taylor points out, possesses a certain degree of autonomy derived from her middle-class status. Ollie, by contrast, is a homeless woman who comes to work on a black-owned farm in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Henderson studied at Booker T. Wash­ington’s Tuskegee Institute, and Taylor shows how the farm in Ollie Miss, which produces not for private profit but for the shared sustainability of its Black community, enacts a Washingtonian style of Black economic self-reliance. Despite Washington’s conserv­ative political and economic policies, this space enables Ollie to experience a relationship to her labor other than exploitation. Taylor shows how in the communal environment of the farm, Henderson recodes Ollie’s work as empowered knowledge and poetic expression, and in doing so supplements Marxist analyses of exploitation with reclamations of labor as autonomous self-discovery and libidinal fulfillment.

Eudora Welty’s fiction, as Patricia Yaeger points out, is often “made over in the image of her private persona: the friendly, generous, sweetly intellectual white lady.” In part this is because Welty does not stage explicit protests of racial injustice: “Welty does not focus on southern racism as an epic event, but as a quotidian praxis, a sadistic solution to the ordinary riddles of everyday life.”(3)

Similarly, Taylor offers a Welty whose fiction “take[s] up the mantle of African American workers to subtly resist” white supremacy. (106) In the 1941 story “A Worn Path,” the terror of white racial violence is experienced by Phoenix Jackson, a Black folk worker, as she navigates the southern landscape: the trauma and threat of lynching, for instance, shapes her perception of trees, and the sight of white-owned property provokes thoughts of economic violence and slavery.

Fear reproduces southern race relations at the level of the psyche as Welty explores white terror of Blackness and Black terror of whiteness in “A Sketching Trip” (1945) and The Golden Apples (1949). Taylor concludes that while Welty may not have penned the kind of explicitly hortatory fiction of her contemporaries on the left, she deploys “the ambiguity of fear and desire” to unsettle southern power structures. (135)

William Attaway and Sarah Wright, by contrast, are more typically read as writers of the literary left. Attaway was a member of Communist-backed literary groups during the 1930s and 1940s, while Wright was a member of the postwar Black left and a leader of the Harlem Writers Guild alongside Marxist writers like John Oliver Killens and Rosa Guy.

Taylor’s reading of Attaway’s 1940 proletarian novel Blood on the Forge identifies what she calls “the feeling of black manhood under pressure,” the way industrial production shapes and deforms imperatives of masculinity for male workers. (63) Blood on the Forge follows the Moss brothers, three members of the southern Black folk, as they migrate to Pennsylvania to work in a steel mill, and eventually participate in the 1919 steel strike. Taylor artfully connects the role of pressure in the production of steel to psychological forms of pressure that the men in the novel endure as they struggle to negotiate their manhood under the dehumanizing conditions of a production process that reduces them to its tools. Unable to be subjects in their labor, male workers release pent-up desires through “steely” heteromasculine expressions of chauvinism and violence that ultimately damage working class solidarity. If Ollie’s agricultural work allowed her to possess her femininity in Ollie Miss, industrial labor in Attaway transforms men into brutal machines.

In her reading of Sarah Wright’s 1969 novel This Child’s Gonna Live, Taylor attends to how Wright portrays “the affect of rejection” through the struggles of Black working-class mother Mariah Upshur. (30) The novel is set among Black workers in the Maryland oyster industry in the 1930s, which for Taylor allows it to address the racialization of state welfare practices both under the New Deal and in Wright’s own moment.

Taylor argues that the 1935 Aid to Families with Dependent Children Act employed a racialized, heteronormative definition of family that effectively excluded many Black working-class women. In 1965, Daniel Moynihan’s infamous The Negro Family: The Case For National Action stigmatized African-American women as agents of a pathological culture of matriarchy in the Black community that emasculated Black men and kept African Americans in poverty.

Moynihan’s report, like the earlier New Deal policy, thus rejects any state responsibility or ethical obligation toward working-class and poor Black mothers. Mariah’s story forces readers to reclaim kinship to the working-class Black women and families that America has rejected.

Taylor’s reading is compelling, but it misses an opportunity to link Sarah Wright’s novel not only to labor-related and Popular Front-era influences, but to contemporary 1960s Black Power discourses that also engaged Moynihan’s matriarchy thesis, particularly radical Black feminist critiques of both racist and racial nationalist heteropatriarchy carried out by writers like Toni Morrison or Gayl Jones.(4)

Additionally, Konstantina Karageorgos notes that Wright’s 1960 visit to Cuba was a major inspiration on the novel, which she terms African-American literature’s only “palimpsest narrative linking two key moments of 20th century Black Marxism, the Great Depression and the Cuban Revolution.”(5) Taylor’s focus on the labor pains of rejection could have been situated in productive dialogue with such New Left political influences.

Defining “Popular Front”

Taylor’s close readings are often excellent and trace sophisticated movements of tropes and figurative language in texts less astute readers might dismiss as sentimental or didactic. She also boldly brings together writers and texts not often read at all, or not read alongside each other.

At the same time, the political and historical contexts Taylor uses sometimes hamper the effectiveness of her analyses. For one, cursory terms like “materialist” or “protest” are often used to designate writing that provides any consideration of economic oppression, and such imprecisely defined terminology sometimes shortchanges Taylor’s readings of texts’ precise Marxist aesthetic strategies.

Taylor also at times invokes Richard Wright’s fiction much as Hurston caricatured it: narrowly focused on economic and ideological conditions, androcentric, and neglecting psychological depth. This stereotype of Wright has been challenged and complicated in recent scholarship, yet Taylor’s recourse to it sometimes means her claims rest on oversimplified distinctions between Marxism and affect as priorities in African-American writing.

The organizing historical frame for Labor Pains is the “Popular Front era,” which Taylor defines as “a time when forms of literary and political radicalism were used to combat the racism and classism that persisted from the interwar years through the 1960s.” (4)

In policy terms, the Popular Front, of course, was a 1930s-40s Communist Party strategy of allying with various labor organizations and liberal political groups to combat international fascism. The broader political and temporal definition used by Taylor derives from Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture (1997), which used the Popular Front as a broader rubric for the prevalence of socialist, pro-labor, pluralist, anti-racist and anti-fascist values in U.S. culture from the Depression to the 1960s or later. Yet as Alan Wald writes, Denning and others taking similar approaches sometimes show a “tendency to homogenize and marginalize the often specific varieties and experiences of commitment permeating the Left.”(6)

Similarly, in Labor Pains a broad definition of the Popular Front leads Taylor, at times, to an overly general definition of authors’ political commitment and the leftist content of their novels. Ollie Miss, for example, gives a depiction of farm work that as Taylor writes might “[ring] of socialism” (47), but her reading suggests that the novel’s political reference point is closer to a particular kind of agrarian collectivism than radical socialism or anti-capitalism. And when it comes to biographical evidence of Henderson’s leftism, Taylor’s evidence is somewhat scant. She cites his membership in the New York Typographical Union, friendship with figures like Langston Hughes, and in a somewhat metonymical argument, his classification as a Harlem Renaissance figure and thus likely left leaning, given general points of overlap between the two movements.

For a more resolutely left-wing writer like Attaway, the specific policy dimensions of the Popular Front were of a greater importance to his writing that Taylor acknowledges, as Blood on the Forge dissents from Popular Front Communist policy in its skepticism toward the possibilities of interracial working-class alliance.(7)

Arguably the monumental novel of the African American left — Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) — also sets itself at odds with the Popular Front through its excavation of the experiential and ethical difficulties of solidarity across racial lines. In addition, variations of Popular Front anti-fascism enacted by the Communists in support of the U.S. effort in World War II would help drive writers like Ralph Ellison and Wright away from the left, as support for the war against fascism led, in their view, to a diminishment of leftist anti-racist and anti-capitalist work.(8) In short, the specifics of the Popular Front as a policy were often crucial to how African-American writers engaged with the left in the 1930s and 1940s.

New Considerations

Taylor’s open-ended use of the Popular Front is elastic enough to inspire new consideration of writers like Henderson and Welty —an elasticity that should open up new avenues for future scholars — but is often imprecise when defining the actual political or ideological content of Popular Front influence, an imprecision that obscures the particular commitments and projects of individual writers.

The study’s two periodizing rubrics, the New Deal and the Popular Front, are temporally expanded in such a fashion as to raise questions about the utility of either in framing the literary tendencies Taylor analyzes.

But while its extension of “the Popular Front era” into the 1960s could use further justification, it raises a question that scholars of the U.S. literary left could and should address: how do we define the temporal parameters and ideological content of a “leftist” or working-class moment in U.S. literature and culture, without effacing the particular institutional and policy commitments of individual writers who identified, at one time or another, with one or multiple variations of the left?

For instance, writers like Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison were certainly, in a general sense, left-wing and Marxian in the 1930s and early-mid 1940s, but their political commitment was also filtered through and often positioned both within and against the particular institutional stances and practices of the Communist Party (including those associated with the Popular Front position). Attention to writers’ particular personal institutional connections and investments is a vital aspect of any methodology in left literary studies.

Finally, one wishes Taylor had applied her deft readings of labor, affect and the folk to the work of additional African-American writers firmly affiliated with the Communist left during the 1930s, such as Margaret Walker or Langston Hughes. A more institutionally-specific understanding of the Popular Front as a certain Communist position would not necessarily have narrowed this study, but it could have introduced new interpretations of the forms of leftist commitment operating in the work of Walker, Hughes, Wright, Ellison and other African American writers for whom the Black folk was a major figure in their engagements with and revisions of Communism.

These concerns aside, Labor Pains nonetheless offers a compelling answer to an important methodological consideration for readers and scholars of left-wing literature: how do we incorporate a consideration of affect — with all the messiness, irrationality, and resistance to delineated representation the term denotes — into our understanding of the ethical necessities and aesthetic complexities of protest writing? How do we read, at the same time, for the kinds of concerns so unfortunately dichotomized in the Hurston-Wright debate? Taylor’s readings not only point the way toward such a method, but demonstrate that for mid-century writers, Black political interest was not removed from the needs of the inner life, from what W.E.B. Du Bois famously called, with the same emphasis as Labor Pains, “the souls of black folk.”

Notes

  1. Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears,” New Masses, October 7, 1935, 25; Zora Neale Hurston, “Stories of Conflict,” Saturday Review, April 2, 1938, 32.
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  2. Marian Minus, review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, New Challenge 2 (1937): 87.
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  3. Patricia Yaeger, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 62-63.
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  4. See Madhu Dubey, Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
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  5. Konstantina Mary Karageorgos, “Reintroducing Sarah Wright,” Against the Current 170 (2014), https://solidarity-us.org/atc/170/p4161/.
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  6. Alan Wald, “Marxist Literary Debates in the 1930s,” The Cambridge Companion to American Literature of the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 32.
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  7. Alan Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 64.
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  8. Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: The Life and Times (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), 263; Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 2007), 141. For a discussion of the complexities of leftist and Popular Front understandings of fascism’s ideological and economic bases in the Depression period, see Martin Oppenheimer’s review essay “Fascism—What is it Anyway?,” Against the Current 202 (2019), https://solidarity-us.org/atc/202/what-is-fascism/.
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November-December 2019, ATC 203

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