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He is definitely one of the most gifted, if not the most gifted, of the writers arising from what some called the “proletarian literary movement,” but really that whole body of work was disappeared by the anti-communism and McCarthyism of the 1950s. My goal in the book is not simply to rescue one talented fiction writer and critic from oblivion. I also want to draw greater attention to a much larger gap in popular knowledge about American literature and culture. Cantwell was at the heart of a large-scale transformation that occurred in mid-twentieth-century U.S. culture, a transformation that Michael Denning has called “the laboring of American culture.” That movement was largely destroyed by post-WWII repression and by a series of compromises made by labor leaders at a time when the economic pie was large enough that workers could get a pretty good deal. The postwar period brought the largest sustained economic growth in world history, and all Americans benefitted, for some time. Unfortunately, the failure to keep a progressive labor movement going meant that when that period of growth ended (in the early 1970s), the infrastructure of worker resistance that had been the heart of progressive change was pretty weak.
It’s certainly astonishing how relevant, how of-the-moment Cantwell’s work feels today. Reading The Land of Plenty, it was hard to shake the feeling that not much had changed. I was particularly struck by the sections on the media—the manipulative media coverage of the logging strike, which always seems to go out of its way to demean and reduce the workers’ action, has such close parallels to the recent coverage of Occupy, and of the protests following the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. What do you think is the media’s role in all of this?
Most working journalists outside of clearly biased places like Fox News work hard to achieve some degree of distance and objectivity. But mainstream journalistic enterprises are inherently biased towards a corporate worldview.
Those with wealth and power simply have a far better PR systems in place than those who dissent or are marginalized by poverty or skin color or speaking a language other than standard English. In Cantwell’s day, sometimes the bias was easier to spot in the case of media moguls like William Randolph Hearst (the model for Citizen Kane); the only one of these left is Rupert Murdoch. But a subtler corporate philosophy shapes the newsrooms of even so-called liberal papers like the New York Times. They have a financial page and a business section. But there is no poverty page, no workers’ section. When the Occupy Movement was in full swing I got dozens of calls from journalists because I am a so-called academic expert on social movements, and I was consistently struck by how dismissive journalists were of protest, how they had to be led to see the movement from the movement’s perspective. They used phrases like “sixties-style” protest to trivialize, as if the choice to challenge injustice were a nostalgic lifestyle choice. Things are somewhat improved by internet activism these days which can sometimes, as in the case of Occupy and Ferguson, force the issue into the mainstream press through the power of viral narratives.
I’m interested in hearing more about the “proletarian literary movement” you mentioned. What did that movement look like? Who were the key players, and what were they writing?
The proletarian movement derived originally from writers in Russia in the wake of the revolution of 1917 who sought to articulate the world of ordinary workers, rather than just middle and upper classes. In the United States, Mike Gold, a writer of Jewish immigrant stories in New York in the 20s and 30s, put out a call for ordinary working folks—“factory hands, waitresses, shopgirls”—to become writers, to tell their stories in a context where fiction writing was largely, as it is now, a middle class phenomenon.
When he first put out this call in the roaring 20s, the response was moderate.
But when the Depression hit in 1929, the proletarian literary movement took off and led to the creation of dozens of novels, poems, and plays written by and about the lives, loves and political struggles of working class Americans.
As with any emergent literature, much of this was less than stellar, but a few truly great voices—Cantwell, Edward Dahlberg, Henry Roth, Meridel LeSuer, Tillie Olsen—emerged and a fascinating body of work was created.
The work in turn shaped better known writers like Dos Passos, Hemingway and Steinbeck. But those closest to the proletarian movement, sometimes correctly, sometimes wrongly, came to be associated with the Communist Party USA (which had indeed championed proletarian literature) so that when the vicious anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era hit in the 1950s, much proletarian literature was buried, politically suppressed, or declared to be not literary because it didn’t conform to certain “refined” standards that were biased toward the political status quo.
I pretty much stumbled onto Cantwell by accident. Way back in 1976 I was looking for a Master’s thesis topic while a grad student in History at the
University of Oregon. I was researching what I thought would be my topic:
“The IWW in Literature.” As I was reading everything I could find in the way of fiction written about the Wobblies, I came across a Cantwell story about the Wobblies, and then I read The Land of Plenty. It blew me away. Here was a book as rich as a Faulkner or Henry James novel written about a strike in Aberdeen, Washington. Why wasn’t this book well-known? Why wasn’t it on reading lists in American Literature classes? So I ended up writing my thesis on Cantwell.
Over the intervening decades I kept expecting someone to rediscover him, to write a book about him. When that seemed never to happen, I decided to do it myself, working at first from my thesis but then greatly expanding it. When I was almost finished with the book, I got word that someone finally was doing a biography of Cantwell—a Swedish scholar, since passed, named Per Seyersted. That set me back for a while. But his book turned out to be a disappointment because it downplayed Cantwell’s radicalism and did not really understand his aesthetic politics, which brilliantly argued for and then created a stylistically rich, but politically committed and radical kind of writing. So, finally, I hooked up with a great editor at University of Washington Press, Ranjit Arab, who understood the importance of what I was trying to do, and graciously supported the creation of what became Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left.
With the exception of a couple of short stories, virtually all the fiction Cantwell wrote, including two novels and a number of stories, is set in the Northwest. He grew up in a series of small lumber towns around the region (Little Falls, Carlisle, Onalaska), and he was right in the heart of radical labor movement. Eventually, Cantwell ended up in Aberdeen for his high school years. After a subsequent not very happy year in college at University of Washington, he was forced by his father’s illness and family poverty to go to work in a factory, Harbor Plywood, in Hoquiam. That four-year experience profoundly shaped his respect for working people, and was the basis for his novel The Land of Plenty (that novel, by the way, was recently reissued in a lovely edition from Pharos Editions, with an introduction by the terrific novelist Jess Walter).
The most significant force in the labor movement in the Northwest was the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, know colloquially as the Wobblies. They were formed in 1905, and while they had influence all over the country, they were nowhere stronger than in the Northwest, partly due to the horrendous conditions in the lumber industry where deaths and maimings were a daily occurrence, wages were miserable, and 12-hour days and longer were not uncommon. The Wobblies were the first major union to racially integrate, and one of the first to have significant numbers of women, including as leaders. Cantwell’s lumberjack uncle August (his mother’s brother) was a Wobbly for a time, and Robert came into contact with Wobblies and ex-Wobblies during his time as mill worker in the mid-1920s.
He also read avidly about the IWW in both conservative and labor publications.
Clearly, the IWW made a deep impression on him, one that profoundly influenced his political views and his writing as both evolved steadily leftward in the thirties. This influence is seen most directly in a story Cantwell wrote in 1934 titled “Hills around Centralia” that richly recreates the tense atmosphere surrounding the Centralia Massacre of 1919, in which Wobblies and American Legionnaires clashed in a town not far from where he was living at the time. The story is told from the point of view of a young teen (Cantwell himself was eleven at the time of the events) who experiences the clash among the antiradical ideology represented by his school principal and local authorities, a Wobbly handbill he finds describing their version of the massacre, and an encounter in the woods with two actual Wobblies who bear no resemblance to their stereotype and who give an eyewitness account of the attack on the IWW hall in Centralia, along with the horrendous details of the subsequent vigilante lynching of a young Wobbly organizer, Wesley Everett. Cantwell’s story impressively juxtaposes the conservative and progressive rhetorics of this earlier time in ways that could not help but echo ones very much in play in the mid-1930s when he published it, and that sound a lot like the conversation around the Occupy Wall Street movement of recent years.
Today, the Northwest still strikes me as a region with a fairly unique political and economic landscape. I’m immediately reminded, of course, of Kshama Sawant, whose election to the Seattle City Council as a Socialist candidate and continued fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage have made national headlines. And yet, at the same time, Seattle is home to some of the world’s biggest companies, including Amazon, a company that’s arguably pioneering a new era of automation-, surveillance-, and algorithm-based labor exploitation. How does the modern Northwest tie back to the Northwest of Cantwell’s time? Can Cantwell’s life or work help us understand the connections and disconnects between these two seemingly-conflicting sides of the contemporary Northwest?
The Northwest, like the rest of the United States, has always been politically split. Seattle had a female mayor in the early 20th century, and a number of socialists in government. But during the era when all those labor struggles were happening, there was also vicious repression by the government; the FBI was pretty much born to carry out the repression of leftists during the first Red Scare of 1918-20. And there was repression by right-wing organizations like the American Legion, which was responsible for horrible beatings and the hanging of Wobbly Wesley Everest in the Centralia
Massacre of 1919, as well as the Ku Klux Klan, which was also active in theregion.
In 1936, the communist movement in the state was so strong that the U.S.
postmaster joked, “There are forty-seven states and the Soviet of Washington,” but there were also deeply reactionary strands in the 30s too.
The WTO Battle of Seattle events at the turn of the 21st century exemplify this progressive spirit, but also in its global focus reminds us that regions are never separable from larger forces. We cannot, for example, champion our electronics industry without talking about the horribly exploitative labor practices in China, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere that make our shiny smart phones and PCs possible. We now have the phenomenon of what we might call “progressive elites,” who vote liberal on social issues but who live off very economically oppressive profit-taking.
I think your description of “progressive elites” is exactly right. It certainly captures the nature of a lot of the elites in the Northwest right now, as well as in cities like San Francisco and New York, where lip service to liberalism is paired with extreme income inequality and increasingly crippling issues of gentrification and real estate pricing. It feels like a fundamental disconnect between culture and politics. Do you think bringing writers like Cantwell back into the public dialogue can help address this issue? What lessons can the career of a writer like Cantwell teach us today?
One of the rhetorical tricks of recent years in our political discourse is the disappearance of the term “working class.” We are all middle class now, or poor. That is demonstrably false in demographic terms but it profoundly shapes our ability to think politically. You don’t need to be an old school Marxist to see that when you deny a class of people acknowledgement, you deny them a democratic voice. Cantwell may have been writing about an era when class lines were somewhat easier to see, but they are just as present today. It is just that the fog around talk of class is thicker. The Occupy Movement cleared some of the fog for a while, but a lot of it has returned.
Reading the work of Cantwell and his peers can sharpen our ability to see just how profoundly political economy shapes even the most intimate dimensions of our lives.