Working-Class Heroes in Literature

| 9/14/2010 2:05:19 PM

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): 

raul garcia
9/23/2010 2:38:12 PM

dagoberto gilb is not on the list. THE MAGIC OF BLOOD is about the working class mexican-americans and is a classic. he also has a novel THE FLOWERS.

don batt
9/23/2010 10:03:23 AM

I agree with the comments above regarding black writers; there are other groups of writers which should also be considered "working class." I am speaking about Native American writers and writers of Western American literature. Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Sam Shepard, Kent Haruf, and Mark Spragg all deal with the trials of those on the edge of poverty. Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdich, and especially Linda Hogan focus on not only the economic but also the spiritual assault visited upon the indians by the dominant culture. This is only a partial list of current Western writers who address issues of class in their writings.

9/21/2010 2:13:51 PM

Another working class must have -- Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis. Might be the oldest on the list, but still a great working class read.

dennis leroy kangalee
9/21/2010 1:09:17 PM

I completely agree with you, Connie Harold, and I am only posting a comment because it is rather unnerving that he left out so many writers, especially Black authors who constantly wrote about work and looking for work, unstable employment, etc. I am a writer living in Harlem. I recently published my first chapbook. My background is in the theater. I have no degree, no fancy friends (although from time to time folks think I'm rich cause they can't imagine a writer--especially an African American writer-- who is not some kind of Ivy-League Graduate School hybrid...unless he's a rapper or possibly a SONG writer...!!) And Connie when you mentioned the writers who could have written about/during the late 1970's,early 80's -- have been decimated I agree with you on that as well. My wife and I often bemoan the fact that there is a severe missing link in our Literary culture and it is a shame that such a hole exists. Today, however, writers are less inspired by their own lives and the mess of their actual existence -- than they are by Literary history and the NY Times. Writers look at me like I'm insane when I show up at some places or do readings cause they can't understand how I can write the way I do (i.e. "protest poetry," socio-economic satires, personal fiction, etc.) and yet speak so "clearly." The ignorance never ceases to amaze...and infuriate.

connie harold
9/20/2010 7:06:08 PM

Nice essay except he completely left out all the African American writers of the 60s and 70s such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker,and others who certainly wrote about working class characters. I always wonder why no one ever thinks about how the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s decimated the ranks of creative writers and artists of all stripes. I believe there really has not been a great novel of the 1970s because most of the people who could have written it were wiped out before they had a chance. And the reality is that the people who buy books don't necessarily want to get their literary hands and minds too dirty.

9/20/2010 6:49:02 PM

Anything, fiction or non-fiction, by Wendell Berry

9/20/2010 6:48:59 PM

Anything, fiction or non-fiction, by Wendell Berry