Beyond the popular front: Ethnic representation and the literary institutions of American radicalism, 1930--1953

Daryn P Glassbrook, Purdue University


In this study, I analyze the work of three midcentury literary figures---Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, and José Garcia Villa---to illustrate some broad cultural trends within U.S. ethnic minority communities that run counter to the hegemony of New Deal and Communist Party institutions. Applying many of the critical methods and theoretical concepts of cultural materialists such as Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, I consider why neither Communists nor New Deal progressives were able to sustain enough long-term, active support from ethnic minority communities to achieve more of their domestic and foreign policy objectives. I argue that many ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Filipinos, and unassimilated Polish immigrants, were largely preoccupied with how to respond to the overwhelming impact of modernization on their traditional ways of life. Since both Communists and New Deal progressives tended to view modernization as a universally beneficial process, they did not adequately diagnose or remedy many of the adverse consequences of modernization: mass migrations, urban ghettoes, cultural homogenization, organized crime, alienation, and class fragmentation. Despite their many differences, Hurston, Algren, and Villa all seek cultural solutions to these problems, derived from their close contact with a particular ethnic community (African Americans, Polish immigrants and diasporic Filipinos, respectively) marginalized by the modern American metropolis. These three writers composed images and narratives that contrasted with the ethnic stereotypes and melting pot precepts circulating within literary circles of the period. I discuss how they drew upon ethnic vernacular customs and materials to indicate that these three individuals were in dialogue not only with institutions of canonical literary knowledge and taste, but with the popular base of an ethnic community. I conclude my study by examining why Hurston, Algren, and Villa were unable to achieve canonical status during their lifetimes. I claim that they all belatedly consented to the dominant universalist literary values of the postwar period, failing to recognize the exclusionary encoding of this cultural system. Therefore, their descent toward marginal status can be seen as the outcome of a canon formation process that they encouraged and appealed to in its earlier stages.^




Patrocinio Schweickart, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American Studies|Literature, American

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