Skip to content

Life After the Avant-Garde

Proletarian Realism, Proletarian Modernism

Ben Hickman

Pages 585 - 601


This essay analyzes the category of “life” as mobilized by proletarian writing, and through this analysis explores proletarian realism’s relation to Marxism and the avant-garde. Surveying the commitment to everyday life, inherited from avant-gardism, in the work of Michael Gold, Jack Conroy and Langston Hughes, the essay investigates the relation of two central modes of its expression: testimony and allegory. From here the claim is that proletarian realism’s everyday life was defined by two Marxist commitments: to relation and to purpose. In the case of the first, testimony and allegory are brought together to connect the immediate embodied particulars of working life to the wider processes that enforce them. In the second, they are brought together to mobilize this relation towards action. Here we see a bifurcation: on the one hand, we encounter writing that, anxious to mold its particulars into a meaningful whole, attempts to fix them into an overarching economy in danger of draining its evocations of everyday life of vitality; on the other, we see writing that makes purpose a subject for thought and literary form and carries everyday life’s dynamism over into committed literary expression.

1 Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. Print.

2 Allred, Jeff. American Modernism and Depression Documentary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

3 Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. Print.

4 Calmer, Alan. “Readers Report.” New Masses Sep. 1935: 23-25. Print.

5 Caws, Mary Ann. Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001. Print.

6 Conroy, Jack. The Disinherited. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963. Print.

7 Funaroff, Sol. Rev. of An “Objectivists” Anthology, by Louis Zukofsky. Dynamo 2.3 (1934): 27. Print.

8 Gold, Mike. “Change the World!” Daily Worker 13 June 1934: 5. Print.

9 ---. “Go Left, Young Writers!” New Masses Jan. 1930: 3. Print.

10 ---. “Home Relief Station.” The Mike Gold Reader. Ed. Samuel Sillen. New York: International Publishers, 1954: 45-50. Print.

11 ---. Jews without Money. New York: Carrol and Graf, 1984. Print.

12 ---. “Let It Be Really New!” New Masses June 1926: 20. Print.

13 ---. “A Letter to Workers’ Art Groups.” New Masses Sep. 1929: 16. Print.

14 ---. “A New Program for Writers.” New Masses Jan. 1930: 21. Print.

15 ---. “Notes of the Month.” New Masses July 1930: 3-5. Print.

16 ---. “Notes of the Month.” New Masses Sep. 1930: 3-5. Print.

17 ---. “Thornton Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” The Mike Gold Reader. Ed. Samuel Sillen. New York: International Publishers, 1954: 45-50. Print.

18 ---. “Write for Us!” New Masses July 1928: 2. Print.

19 Hughes, Langston. “Come to the Waldorf-Astoria!” New Masses Dec. 1931: 16-17. Print.

20 James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. London: Constable, 1890. Print.

21 Kalar, Joseph. “Letter.” New Masses Sep. 1929: 22. Print.

22 Klein, Marcus. Foreigners: The Making of American Literature, 1900-1940. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. Print.

23 Lefebvre, Henri. The Critique of Everyday Life. Trans. John Moore. London: Verso, 1991. Print.

24 Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Simon and Schuster, 1988. Print.

25 Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1976. Print.

26 ---. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin, 1973. Print.

27 Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Trans. Christopher John Arthur Lawrence. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970. Print.

28 Nilsen, Helge Norman. “The Evils of Poverty: Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money.” Anglo-American Studies 4 (1984): 45-50. Print.

29 Olson, Liesl. Modernism and the Ordinary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

30 Randall, Bryony. Modernism, Daily Time and Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

31 ---. “Modernist Literature and the Everyday.” Literature Compass 7.9 (2010): 824-35. Print.

32 Reznikoff, Charles. Testimony: The United States, 1885-1890: Recitative. New York: New Directions, 1965. Print.

33 Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1956. Print.

34 Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2005. Print.

35 Schappes, Morris. “Historic and Contemporary Particulars.” Poetry (1933): 343. Print.

36 Spector, Herman. Bastard in the Ragged Suit: Writings of, with Drawings by, Herman Spector. Sacramento: Synergistic, 1977. Print.

37 Vescia, Monique Claire. Depression Glass: Documentary Photography and the Medium of the Camera-Eye in Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and William Carlos Williams. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006. Print.

38 Zukofsky, Louis, ed. An “Objectivists” Anthology. Var, France: TO Publishers, 1932. Print.


Export Citation