Utne Blogs > Literature

Working-Class Heroes in Literature

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: fiction, American literature, Socio-Economics, Class, Great Writing, Tin House, Will Wlizlo,

Working Class Literature Blog 

When you imagine an author, what do they look like? Do they wear a fuzzy, slightly oversized sweater and stroke an equally fuzzy and slightly oversized cat perched on their lap? Does the author have postgraduate degrees framed on the wall? Or a “Best Young American Novelist” award next to his vintage typewriter? That image is one of someone who has never gotten his hands dirty, except to maybe plant some heirloom tomatoes on the balcony of his condo. In a thoroughly researched and deftly reasoned essay for Tin House, Gerald Howard explains why Americans no longer expect writers to have a blue-collar background:

Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.

Howard’s essay maps the trajectory of American literature onto the course of the country’s socio-economic history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Howard notes, “As the forces of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization began in earnest to transform America from a mostly rural civilization, our novelists took careful note, producing ‘naturalistic’ works that acutely registered the class drama of these epic social and economic developments.” He goes on to write that “the thirties became the literary decade of the worker” and, thus, “very much a star search for the writer of impeccable working-class credentials or at least the proper political point of view, the one who could produce the great proletarian novel, a much desired work of revolutionary struggle and ideological awakening.” A bumper crop of working-class authors were published during and after the Great Depression—most famously John Steinbeck—but this literary trend would fade after the end of World War II.

But why? According to Howard, working-class authors came out of vogue during a generation of mass upward mobility and rising standards of living:

We can point to the long stretch of postwar prosperity that moved millions of Americans into the middle class and off the farms and assembly lines, while bringing a measure of security and affluence to those who remained. . . . Most crucially, though, the whole concept of class came to be seen as almost a choice rather than a fate, as the powerful mechanisms of the meritocracy and the vastly expanded opportunities for higher education placed millions of Americans on the escalator of social mobility.

Howard’s essay is sprinkled with suggested reads, so we’ve compiled a list of go-to books written by working-class authors or detailing blue-collar life.

Suggested fiction from Howard (based on his essay): 

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Hungry Men by Edward Anderson
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
Continental Drift and Trailer Park by Russell Banks
Everything by Raymond Carver, but especially Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveThe Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
Bottom Dogs by Edward Dahlberg
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth by Denise Giardina
Jews Without Money by Mike Gold
The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howell
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers by Richard Price
Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Steelwork and Little Casino by Gilbert Sorrentino

Suggested non-fiction from Howard: 

All the Livelong Day by Barbara Garson
Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Utne Reader picks: 

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Maggie: a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’ Nan
Union Dues by John Sayles
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Any other suggestions?

Source: Tin House 

Photo Credit: Image by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, licensed under Creative Commons.