It's a living: the post-war redevelopment of the American working class novel
Thesis DisciplineAmerican Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
A recurrent premise of post-war criticism is that World War II marked the end of the American working class novel. This thesis challenges this assumption and argues that the working class novel redeveloped throughout the 1940s and 1950s in response to major social, political, economic and cultural changes in the United States. A prime justification for the obituary on the working class novel was that after 1945 the United States no longer had class divisions. However, as the first two chapters of this study point out, such a view was promulgated by influential literary critics and social scientists who, as former Marxists, were keen to distance themselves from class politics. Insisting that the working class novel was hamstrung by a dogmatic Marxist politics and a fealty to social realism, these critics argued that the genre's relevance depended on the outdated politics and conditions of the 1930s. As such they were able to use literary criticism as a means of justifying their own ambiguous politics and deflecting any close scrutiny of their accommodation with the post-war liberal consensus. In a close examination of four writers in the subsequent chapters it is shown that, in fact, working class writers were extremely successful in adapting to post-war conditions. Harvey Swados, in his novel On the Line (1957) and in his journalism, provides crucial insights into the effects of the transition from a Fordist to a post-industrial society on the identity of the industrial worker. In The Dollmaker (1954) Harriette Arnow dramatises an important migration from the rural South to Detroit during World War II which exposes the ways in which American capitalism was able to diffuse a national working class identity. Chester Himes' novel If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), and his experiences as an African American writer in the 1940s, highlight the intersections between race (and racism) and class in the United States. Hubert Selby, in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1957), undermines the hegemonic ideology of post-war consumerism by drawing attention to the poverty and violence in an urban working class community. All these writers share a common concern with continuing, and re-developing, the dynamic and heterogeneous tradition of American working class cultural production.