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Proletarian Literature

Proletarian literature was a literary movement that emerged in the early 1930s to become a central current in American culture.  Affiliated, sometimes
directly and often more indirectly, with the Communist Party U.S.A., proletarian literature represented a sharp politicizing of American literature.  The movement radicalized established writers and promoted the work of a newer generation of writers, many drawn from the American working-class. Some of these writers, old and new, included: Malcolm Cowley, Agnes Smedley, Langston Hughes, Jack Conroy, Meridel Le Sueur, Muriel Rukeyser, Tillie Lerner (Olsen), and Philip Rahv.  All of these were primarily interested in bringing literary writing closer to the burning social and political issues of Depression America.

The central organ of proletarian literature was New Masses, a cultural magazine with roots in older, World War I left and radical cultures.  But, proletarian literature also spawned a new crop of small literary magazines, many modeled on the small magazines associated with the literary modernism of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and others.  Anvil, published by Jack Conroy, is a good example of the little proletarian magazine.

Proletarian literature spanned the available literary genres - - fiction, poetry, drama, criticism - - and also contributed at least one new genre to American literature - - reportage, a kind of politically committed documentary writing.  The diversity of proletarian literature - - in its political stances, its literary genres, and its voices - - can be found in Proletarian Literature in the United States, the 1935 anthology of proletarian writing that represented both the high water mark of American literary proletarianism and its curtain call.  

Shortly after the publication of Proletarian Literature in the United States, the 1935 American Writers Congress signalled a shift in radical literary energies toward a leftwing cultural nationalism.  These impulses had been visible within the proletarian movement, especially in its attention to folk songs and African-American literature and song.  Though proletarian literature lost its avant garde status and energies after 1935, its forms and themes lived on well past the 1930s - - for instance, in the kind of social democratic realism of writers like John Steinbeck, Meyer Levin, and Irwin Shaw, and in "low" literary genres like hard-boiled and urban noir.

Here's a sampler of texts from Proletarian Literature (1935):

Mike Gold, "On the East Side" (originally from Jews without Money (1930))

Tillie Lerner [aka Tillie Olsen], "The Iron Throat"

Albert Maltz, "Man on a Road"

Albert Halper, "Scab"