Rereading the Radical Novel in America: Defying Expectations

James C. Hall

Posted July 30, 2008

The Radical Novel Reconsidered (Grace Lumpkin, To Make My Bread; Myra Page, Moscow Yankee; John Sanford, The People from Heaven; and Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements). A reprint series from the University of Illinois Press. Alan Wald, editor. Each title $15.95 (paperback).

ONE OF THE happiest accidents of my education was that I never formally took a course in American literature until very late in my graduate school career. My sense of an American canon was very much shaped by the offerings of used book stores and my tendency to read according to taste and desire instead of what had been established as important or necessary.

The canon-expanding measures of the past twenty years have seemed to me less the righting of past wrongs—although they are most certainly that—and more the expansion of potential reading experiences. My most fundamental appreciation of the efforts of scholars on the left, and scholars of minority and multiethnic literatures, has been the ways in which they have made possible for me knowledge of different worlds.

For some time now, the Feminist Press has reprinted “lost” works by American women, and Northeastern University’s “Library of Black American Literature” has reprinted important works from the African-American tradition.

Less systematic, but still crucial, efforts have been pursued by the University Press of Mississippi and Howard University Press (both in African-American literatures), and the University of Washington and Temple University presses (in Asian-American literatures).

It is no overstatement to say that the cooperative venture by the Schomburg Library and Oxford University Press to publish the works of pre-Twentieth-Century African-American women writers has revolutionized a field.

A Tradition of Radical Writing

The Radical Novel Revisited, published by the University of Illinois Press and edited by Alan Wald of the University of Michigan, has the potential to be among the most influential of all these important efforts at cultural reconstruction.

Recent scholarly work by individuals like Wald, Barbara Foley, Paula Rabinowitz and the late Constance Coiner has challenged monolithic portrayals of left literary activity in the 1920s and 1930s. Dismissing the idea that writing from the left was historically insignificant, and challenging the canon shaped by (largely conservative and anti-Communist) postwar critics, the new scholarship argues that “radical writing” is a vibrant, varied, and continuous tradition of American thought and action.

Taking advantage of this small scholarly renaissance, the University of Illinois Press is reprinting novels written from a variety of left perspectives and in a variety of styles that have never made it on to college reading lists, often despite sparkling critical reviews.

Significantly, the books to be included in the series were originally published between the early 1920s through the late 1950s. This chronological range challenges the misconception that “committed” literary activity was a brief phenomenon, largely as a response to the economic crisis of the Great Depression.

Affirming Possibilities

The first four books in the series—Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread (1932), Myra Page’s Moscow Yankee (1935), John Sanford’s The People From Heaven (1943) and Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements (1923)—are representative of the stylistic and ideological diversity noted above, and certainly a fine first step to stretching our understanding of an American tradition of “radical writing.”

Future volumes in the series will include Alexander Saxton’s The Great Midland, Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People, Philip Bonosky’s Burning Valley, Josephine Herbst’s Pity is Not Enough, Alfred Maund’s The Big Boxcar, and William Attaway’s Let Me Breath Thunder. One hopes the University of Illinois Press will continue to produce the books in as exquisite a fashion as they have with the first four; the design is superb.

These books collectively advance a kind of defamiliarization, or, more simply, defy expectation. It seems to me highly unlikely that any single theory of left literary production (or consumption or distribution) could explain these diverse and satisfying offerings.

Grace Lumpkin’s account of the McClure family’s struggle with industrialization and anti-unionism in the Appalachia region is a rich historical narrative, a multigenerational family saga which will be familiar to any reader who knows anything of The Godfather or Roots.

Myra Page’s Moscow Yankee attempts to describe the early years of Soviet Socialist industrial production and sincerely represent the enthusiasm of workers and the roadblocks in the way of the creation of the Workers’ State. As Barbara Foley nicely argues in an introduction to the novel, it is simultaneously a good love story and a more propagandistic conversion tale in which the Detroit auto worker, Frank Anderson, discovers the affirming possibilities in this new way of doing things.

John Sanford’s The People From Heaven takes stylistic cues from William Carlos Williams and Sherwood Anderson in shaping a novel that readily crosses the conventional boundaries of the novel genre. A largely impressionistic account of racism and anti-semitism in a single upstate New York community, the book is relentless in its critique of greed and provincialism.

Finally, Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements is a revision of the sentimental novel in which Sonya Vrunsky of New York’s Jewish ghetto (who is both Cinderella and Salome) discovers that the rich Protestant prince she catches and marries has a somewhat limited understanding of the impoverished immigrant existence from which she emerges.

Personal Journeys

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the writer’s biographies reveal as much diversity as does their art. Lumpkin was a privileged white Southern woman who became active in both bohemian and political circles in New York. By the end of the Second World War, however, she had become a conservative Episcopalian and anti-communist.

Myra Page died in 1993 after a long activist life as “Communist, unionist, a feminist, an opponent of racism and war.” While Page and Sanford shared ideological concerns, Page was (and this is not necessarily negative) much more consciously involved in the process of creating a literature to promote a particular political program.

Anzia Yezierska was never associated closely with any specific political program and her notoriety, such as it is, is largely a product by her being reclaimed by feminist and Jewish Studies. Indeed, her eclectic corpus of fictional, essay and autobiographical works is difficult to associate with any clear ideological orientation.

John Sanford—despite the admiration of William Carlos Williams and despite completing twenty-one books—continues to toil in almost complete obscurity. Shamed by his not knowing about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Sanford became a committed leftist and still holds to the same political principles that informed The People From Heaven in the 1940s.

Sanford provides a brief but moving preface to The People From Heaven. He recounts trying to explain to his wife the origin of his radical politics, given that he was born into a middle-class upbringing, a fine education, and the opportunity to travel. He argues that:

I’m doing penance . . . I was so vastly ignorant that I hadn’t heard of Sacco and Vanzetti until the night of their execution. I don’t know what I was up to during the seven years of their agony. All I can say is that they came into existence for me only when their existence ended, and my shame was so overwhelming that it sickened me. My emptiness was a sin, and I had to acknowledge it and atone for it, but I had to wait until I learned to write…

Our emptiness, I think—and perhaps also a sin—is the unquestioning acceptance of a canon of American literature bereft of the efforts of writers on the Left, of women, of persons of color. Luckily, in most cases, we do not have to wait until we can learn to read. Perhaps we do need to learn to talk—to friends, colleagues, co-workers, family—and converse about what we value and what should last and be preserved.”

Writing for Social Justice

These first four books in the series seem to be carefully chosen for their readability. Whether one finds oneself agreeing or not with the ideological presumptions of the novelist (or of his or her version of history), readers will certainly encounter “good writing.”

As such, there is a great deal of pedagogical potential here, whether it is in the college or secondary school classroom or reading groups organized through unions, grass roots organizations, or churches. Despite a minimum of fifty years having passed since original publication, each novel speaks effectively to some present situation—be it the situation of labor, the endurance of racism, or the necessity of imagining new possibilities for a more just social order.

Alan Wald, as series editor, seems to have given the scholars chosen to provide introductions to each novel plenty of room to articulate a rationale for reprinting and the significance of the author.

Barbara Foley writes as a scholar committed to a program of revolutionary transformation and sees Myra Page’s importance as her unwavering commitment to Communism and her creation in Moscow Yankee of a plausible vision of “ordinary people . . . organizing themselves with humanity, efficiency, and intelligence.”

Gay Wilentz sees Yezierska’s Salome as a pioneering critique of liberal social welfare and the author as notable for her refusal to turn from her class and ethnic roots.

Suzanne Sowinska does not shy away from the difficult question of Grace Lumpkin’s turn to the right, but neither does she let it become cause to forget either novelist or text. To Make My Bread illustrates the complexity inherent at the intersection of class, race, and gender oppressions; it is this substantial accomplishment and the author’s betrayal of her peers to Roy Cohn and the House Unamerican Activities Committee that deserve the attention of today’s reader.

Alan Wald celebrates John Sanford’s unrepentant and pioneering anti-racism, while at the same time directing attention to Sanford’s (née Julian Shapiro) dynamic consideration of Black-Jewish relations and the possibility of effective coalitions.

Each introduction is an important document in and of itself; the useful bibliography and notes will keep both scholars and casual readers busy.

It could be argued that Wald might take on more directly the question—perhaps in some kind of general preface to the series—of just what constitutes a “radical novel.” It did seem to me, for instance, that the rationale for Yezierska’s inclusion was less clear than, say, Sanford or Page.

Yezierska’s politics come through the novel as predominantly negative. She is quite clear about what she is rejecting, i.e. the ideology of assimilation and the hegemony of liberal reformers, but much less sure as to what is to replace it. Sonya Vrunsky’s obsession with beauty may be simply a variant of the bourgeois lifestyle that she demonstratively rejects.

I suspect that every reader will have a slightly different response to this question and may indeed reject other of the novels or novelists included as central to a tradition of “radical” American writing. Noting the particular function of “taste” (and its ideological roots) has been a central accomplishment of this very scholarship.

It may be Wald’s intention that as each novel in the series finds its way into print, the answer to the question of what constitutes a “radical novel” will become increasingly clear. It is certainly true that the appearance of this series is promoting broad conversation about what we value in this culture and why.

Wald’s commitment to ensuring that this conversation is a real and open one is admirable. I think, however, that readers unfamiliar with the broader cultural narrative of the “disappearance” and “reappearance” of this literature would benefit from a definition and statement of purpose from Wald, even if tentative or contingent.

As John Sanford put it, “we need to learn to talk.” The Radical Novel Reconsidered certainly makes the conversation possible, to say nothing of lively and challenging. It is an important effort in the necessary reconstruction of our past and present.