Proletarian Literature: Working Class Heroes and Authors
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The earliest fiction—Lady Murasaki, 1001 Nights, Rabelais, Cervantes, Sir Walter Scott, or Washington Irving—wasn’t mundane or relatable. It focused on superhuman feats, aristocratic melodrama, heroic quests and picaresque adventures.
This shifted in the 19th century. The industrial revolution brought increased prosperity to the west. More people were middle class, educated, literate, had the time and inclination to read. Because literature was no longer merely for the elite, its content evolved toward something more egalitarian. Moreover, fiction was replacing poetry as the most popular form, and realism was becoming the dominant genre. Books about real people in ordinary situations. Characters who spoke like real people. Both writers and readers embraced narratives that reflected their own lives.
The natural extension of this was proletarian literature—novels written by and about the working class. Hunger, poverty, debt, homelessness, skid row. Before the mid 19th century, fiction didn’t offer much of this. There were exceptions, such as Balzac, who seemingly wrote about everyone and everything in French society, but the norm was to avoid the unpleasant details. Armies, plagues and curses were the problem, not social, political or economic injustice. The underclass, if it were represented at all, was often portrayed as quaint and smiling.
Let’s start with Dickens. He wrote many novels about numerous facets of life—a complex, detailed, panoramic study of England. His novels address people from every stratum of society, but he depicts the poor and wretched with particular depth and humanity. Dickens knew about poverty first-hand. He was forced to drop out of school and work 10 hours a day in a shoe-blacking factory, at age 12, when his middle-class father was jailed for debt. He lived first with a family friend and later in the back-attic of an insolvency court agent, paying for his own room and board. These ordeals are evident throughout his work, especially in the title characters of David Copperfield, a fatherless boy sent to work in a bottling factory, Oliver Twist, the orphan forced into a workhouse, and Little Dorrit, whose father languishes in debtors’ prison.
Knut Hamsun was born Knud Pedersen in 1859 in rural Norway to an impoverished peasant family. He was melancholy and misanthropic, rejecting human society in favor of nature. When he was nine, Hamsun was sent to live with an uncle. This is when he began school, but his education didn’t last long. The uncle beat and starved Hamsun, precipitating a life of physical, emotional and psychological torment. As a teenager he escaped back to his family and took a series of odd jobs: shoemaker’s apprentice, sheriff’s assistant, peddler, teacher, rope-maker’s assistant. He began to write at 17, precociously published a novel, worked his way around America, and returned to Norway. Success came in 1888 when he published fictional episodes, anonymously, in a Danish magazine. Two years later these sketches were published, to great acclaim, as Hunger. This novel is largely interior, about the ordeals of a young man in Oslo who refuses to work or take part in society. Hamsun depicts a man whose mind is falling apart as he wanders the streets—starving and homeless but performing acts of charity. Hamsun became famous, financially secure, and won the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature. However, this didn’t last. He welcomed the Nazis when they invaded Norway and gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels. Hamsun was old, ill, and then placed in a psychiatric facility. He was fined 325,000 kroner, more than $1,000,000 in today’s money. He died in poverty.
Richard Wright was born in Mississippi to a schoolteacher and illiterate sharecropper. His grandparents had been slaves. His father abandoned the family and, when his mother became too sick to care for the children, Wright and his brother were shuttled between family members in Detroit, Arkansas and Tennessee. He spent time in an orphanage and lived with an aunt until her husband was murdered. It was far from a storybook childhood, unless that book is Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Wright helped support the family with odd jobs and gathered coal by the railroad tracks so they wouldn’t freeze. He landed a steady job with the Post Office, but was let go during the Great Depression. Wright joined the Communist Party and began publishing poetry, nonfiction and short stories in leftist journals such as The New Masses. He founded New Challenge magazine, which only lasted one issue, and wrote two novels, but no one would publish them. Success came when he won first prize in a Story magazine contest. His debut novel, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), was highly acclaimed and he became a celebrity. His second novel, Native Son (1940), was a best seller about Bigger Thomas, a poor young man from South Chicago. Wright portrayed a world in which, for urban blacks living in poverty, there was no answer except crime and violence. Wright became an increasingly outspoken activist, called FDR a racist, and eventually emigrated to Paris. His later work was unpopular and he often faced hostile reviews. He died of an apparent heart attack at 52, although some claim he was murdered. His ashes were buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, home to Balzac, Molière, Proust, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison.
Takiji Kobayashi was born in Japan, in 1903, to a family of modest means. He began writing as a teenager and had a few pieces published. Japan was suffering a recession, which affected Kobayashi and his family. He became involved in the labor movement, campaigning for sympathetic candidates. After high school he worked for a bank even though he was devoted to Marxism. Kobayashi is best known for Kanikōsen (The Cannery Boat), which describes the hardships of life on a crabbing boat. The novel is anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist, which brought Kobayashi popularity but also unwanted attention from the government. He was surveilled by the police and later lost his job because of controversial writing. Like many proletarian writers, Kobayashi owes a great debt to Dostoyevsky, whose Notes From Underground, Crime and Punishment and other works were not only stylistically groundbreaking but also showed great compassion for the working class. Kobayashi, in turn, influenced many writers. Steinbeck, in particular, borrowed heavily from Kanikōsen for Cannery Row. In 1930 Kobayashi was—again, like Dostoyevsky—arrested for associating with radicals (the banned Japanese Communist Party). He was released but then quickly arrested again because Kanikōsen ostensibly insulted the government. Paroled a year later, Kobayashi went underground. In 1933 he was caught and tortured. That day, he died of a “heart attack,” as many people do while in police custody. He was 29.
John Fante wrote about Depression-era Los Angeles. He was among the first to show how the celluloid city wasn’t always the place to find your dreams. His father was a laborer who drank, gambled away the family’s money, and eventually left. Fante worked odd jobs to help support the family. He started writing short stories and novels, but without success. He later made a good living as a screenwriter and was a pioneer of “dirty realism” whose work influenced Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski and other working-class writers. Through Bukowski’s influence, Fante’s works were republished. Ask the Dust (1939)—about a poor, struggling, desperate writer—briefly became a bestseller 60 years after it was first published. At the end of his life, Fante was blind and had both legs amputated. A recurring theme among these writers: they can escape poverty, but not tragedy.
Charles Bukowski was the poet (novelist and columnist) of the working class. Or the non-working class. Born in Germany in 1920, his family moved to Southern California when he was two. His father was an American GI and his mother was German. Young Charles was often teased because, at the time, Germans were the enemy. His father made a decent living but beat him mercilessly, and his mother did nothing to stop it. He had a violently bad case of acne—not only on his face, but over much of his body—and didn’t get along with others. He was bullied, rejected, sullen, angry, misanthropic. He chose, like the author Nell Zink, to live as an itinerant hobo. He worked at a dog biscuit factory in St. Louis, slept in tattered rooming houses, worked in a pickle factory, delivered mail, gambled for a living, went to jail a few times, and nearly drank himself to death. Bukowski didn’t start writing professionally until his mid-30s and was a cult figure for most of his life. His work describes in vivid—some would say obscene—detail the joys, struggles and plight of the urban poor. His work is mostly about drinking, writing, loneliness and the search for love. Bukowski’s writing is idiosyncratic, funny, solipsistic, heartbreaking, spare and honest. Almost entirely set in Central Los Angeles, his work overflows with ridicule and bitterness for the soft, affluent and conformist, for fathers, bosses and authority figures, but it’s also filled with kindness and understanding for the downtrodden. In the 90s, Bukowski became quietly famous, started making money, wrote a screenplay, bought a home and drove a BMW, but he would always remain the outsider, suspicious of beauty, success and conspicuous consumption.
Nell Zink grew up in rural Virginia. Her county was divided equally between African-Americans and members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was middle class but traumatized by events she hesitates to name. She was intentionally homeless, worked as a bricklayer, secretary, New York Public Library employee, a ‘zine founder, and guitar-player in a noise band. She was a technical writer in Israel, a translator in Germany. Her first book wasn’t published until she was 50. Zink’s novels feature the poor and rejected, people living on the margins of society. The Wallcreeper (2014) concerns an unhappy woman who abandons conventional mores—consumption, domesticity, and marriage—to become an eco-terrorist. Mislaid (2015) is about a white lesbian woman who marries gay male professor, runs off with one of her two children, and lives in dire poverty posing as an African-American. Her novels are as unlikely as her biography.
There are others: Zora Neale Hurston, Upton Sinclair, Poe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Harry Crews, Theodore Dreiser, Toni Morrison, George Lippard, John Osborne. During the late-19th century, many people became active in social movements for the common good—women’s suffrage, prison & asylum reform, abolition, prohibition, and poor relief. This increased awareness of the underclass was manifested in fiction, especially in Naturalism, the Beats, Kitchen Sink drama and even Soviet Realism.
In the last 50 years, however, middle-class narratives have dominated fiction. Many of the novels we admire, as a culture, tend to be more literary than humanistic, focusing on style, structure and technique at the expense of vitality, passion and social commitment. Writers work hard to appear objective, minimal and neutral, as if the absence of qualities was the greatest quality—and often their books aren’t inspired by the human condition so much as assembled by committee at MFA workshops. Today, when the gap between the poor and obscenely rich is growing more dramatic, when politics are little more than an assault on human dignity, we must remember that there are other voices. The stories of tidy suburban cul-de-sacs and the urban chic are fine, but we also need to hear from, and about, the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Art should be more just than a mirror held up to the privileged class.
Image above Trotsky mural