© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

As with British Literature, American literature in the first half of the twentieth century can be divided into four distinctive strains: the “high” (or conventionally literary) realist strain, the “high” modernist strain, the “popular” strain written largely in compliance with the dominant ideology of the time but intended for a broad audience, and a strain of working-class literature written in opposition to that ideology. Individual works, of course, can participate in more than one of these categories simultaneously.

Mainstream American Literature

As the twentieth century began, realism continued to be less well developed in the United States than in Britain, though one of the most important turn-of-the-century American naturalist writers, Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) would move in a more realist direction with novels such as The Financier (1912) and go on to become a truly major realist novelist with the publication of An American Tragedy (1925), perhaps the greatest American realist novel, as well as a biting indictment of the greed-driven nature of the consumer capitalist system that had recently taken hold in America. Other important American novelists of the first half of the twentieth century also wrote in an essentially realist vein, including such figures as Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), the first American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. His novels were also noted for their satirical critique of certain tendencies in American society, as when Main Street (1920), perhaps his most famous novel, exposes the ignorant and narrow-minded attitudes that prevailed in America’s small towns at the time. Babbitt (1922) satirizes middle-class greed and conformism, while Arrowsmith (1925) critiques the culture of American medicine and Elmer Gantry (1927) skewers religious hypocrisy. Lewis was a prolific author whose works became immensely popular; many of his novels have been adapted to film.

John Steinbeck (1902–1968) also wrote in an essentially realist vein, though (like much American realism) his work was also tempered with other influences, as he often employed techniques derived from modernism, such as drawing upon myth to structure his narratives. Several of Steinbeck’s novels have survived the test of time and are still read. For example, the short novel Of Mice and Men (1937) is taught widely in American high schools, and the more epic The Grapes of Wrath (1939) remains one of the central novels of the American literary tradition. It is also especially well known because of the classic 1940 film adaptation, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best-known literary commentary on the impact of the Great Depression on American life and was a central reason why Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962.

The canonization of modernism in the 1950s thrust poets such as the William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (along with the expatriates T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) into the forefront of American poetry. Prior to that, Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) was probably the most widely known twentieth-century American poet, though that was partly because Sandburg was also famous for other things, especially his massive six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, published as Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (2 vols., 1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (4 vols., 1939). Sandburg also wrote journalism and children’s books, among other things. But he is best known as the poet who captured the spirit of modern America (and especially of his native Chicago), in a tough, strong poetic idiom first developed early in his career to express his socialist sympathies for the working class[1]. His description of his city in the poem “Chicago” (1914) is perhaps the best-known literary description of it:


Hog Butcher for the World,

   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

   Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

   Stormy, husky, brawling,

   City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,





   Building, breaking, rebuilding,

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,

Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,

Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Sandburg’s single best-known poem, however, is probably his description of fog in the short poem of that title, which was inspired by the Japanese haiku form (though it is not, strictly speaking a haiku itself). It is a simple poem, capturing an impression of fog through a single extended metaphor that compares the fog with a cat. It might remind some of the famous short poems of William Carlos Williams, but it is clear that poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow” are incomparably richer in terms of the variety of meanings they generate, urging readers to be creative in their interpretation, while Sandburg’s poem aims at effectively conveying a single meaning or impression.


The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

Also extremely prominent as a poet was Robert Frost (1874-1963), who became widely known for his depictions of rural American life with a distinctively American diction. Born in San Francisco, Frost grew up mostly in Massachusetts. Indeed, he was a member of an old New England family and much of his poetry engages specifically with New England life. Several of his poems have become widely known, and his poetry seems relatively simple and accessible, though a closer look often reveals complex layers of meaning. Published in the volume New Hampshire (1923), “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is probably his best-known poem and one that has been described as one of the most technically perfect poems ever written. Ostensibly a meditation on death, this poem ultimately embraces life.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

American Modernist Literature

One of the leading figures in American fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century was the New York-born Henry James (1843–1916), whose work represents a sort of transitional phase from realism to modernism, even as it also represents a transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. James was a liminal figure in other ways as well, especially in the way his work indicates connections between British and American fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century. Traveling widely in Europe throughout his life, James lived primarily in England from 1869 onward. His novels often feature Americans traveling in Europe, but generally contain a mixture of British and American main characters. James’ style was primarily realist, though it became more complex as he grew older. Where he particularly anticipated modernism was in his in-depth exploration of the inner lives of his characters. He produced major work as early as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), though his reputation rests primarily on a series of novels written and published in the early twentieth century: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). However, James’ mostly widely read novel today might well be The Turn of the Screw (1898), a brief novel in the tradition of the English ghost story (but with a proto-modernist focus on psychological depth) and the basis of several film adaptations, including Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), widely regarded as one of the finest ghost films of all time.

Among American novelists generally regarded as modernists, there are two principal types. Some, such as John Dos Passos (1896–1970) and William Faulkner (1897–1962), employ classic modernist motifs (such as stylistic experimentation and stream-of-consciousness) in the mold of Joyce and other European modernists. On the other hand, other major American modernists generally eschew Joycean stylistic complexity, while still working from a very modernist sense of writing in the midst of a rapidly changing world in which the old ways of doing things are fast becoming obsolete, while new ways have yet to be established. The two most important American writers in this vein are F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), though this broader definition also opens the way to consider numerous other writers as modernists, such as various writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance or hardboiled detective fiction writers such as Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888–1959). It should also be noted, however, that women authors such as Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)—as in Ida: A Novel (1941)—and Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)—as in Nightwood (1936)—produced some of the most daring and innovative American modernist fiction, even if their work has received less attention than that of their male counterparts.

Dos Passos first gained widespread attention with his antiwar novel Three Soldiers (1921), which grew out of his own experiences during World War I. He first emerged as a full-blown modernist with the publication of Manhattan Transfer (1925), an urban novel heavily influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses and other recent modernist works. But it was in the three volumes of his U.S.A. Trilogy—comprising The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—that Dos Passos made his most important contribution to American literature. The trilogy is remarkable for the encyclopedic scope of its sweeping historical panorama of the dramatic changes underway in America society during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Thus, Melvin Landsberg argues that “no other well-known work of fiction studies so large a variety of Americans. None ranges so widely through the physical United States” (188). And, noting the many similarities between the trilogy and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Robert Weeks argues that both aspire to be “an American epic that would create America’s image of itself” (432). Meanwhile, Dos Passos presents this encyclopedic matter via a range of innovative narrative techniques that make the U.S.A. trilogy one of the most important works of modernist fiction. But the trilogy is also one of the major works of modern leftist fiction. Though lacking a well-defined theoretical background, the trilogy at least begins from a clearly leftist perspective, and much of the point of the trilogy has to do with the death of the American dream beneath the onslaught of a modern consumer capitalist culture that leads the nation to disavow its original ideals in the interest of a ruthless and greedy quest for profit. At the same time, however, the trilogy is a critique of American leftist political movements that, through their own failures, did little to oppose this process.

The narrative of the trilogy is presented through a series of relatively brief textual segments of four different types. Most of the text consists of relatively straightforward, almost naturalistic, narrative segments, though these segments tend toward modernism in the complex way they interweave the points of view of a variety of different characters. These narrative segments, meanwhile are supplemented with “Newsreel” segments, “Camera Eye” segments, and brief (generally rather ironic) biographies of important figures in American history. The Newsreel segments supplement the fictional narration with bits and pieces of headlines and news stories derived largely from actual newspaper reports. They also indicate the complicity of the media in the phenomena they report. The Newsreels, together with the biographies, serve to connect the various strands of the fictional narration with contemporary history. The highly impressionistic Camera Eye segments (the most modernist segments of the book) then supplement the accounts of public events in the Newsreels and biographies with a series of extremely subjective reactions to various private experiences, largely Dos Passos’s own.

 William Faulkner’s fiction is distinctive for its stylistic complexity and its stream-of-consciousness narration. His long and productive career even included a stint as a Hollywood screenwriter, with screenwriting credits that included such Howard Hawks–directed classics as To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), not to mention the extensive work he did for Hawks as an uncredited script doctor. But Faulkner’s reputation as a writer rests mostly on a string of complex modernist novels set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, that wrestled with the weight of Southern history. These novels include especially The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). The Southern regional emphasis of Faulkner’s work stood apart from most of the major American writers of the 1930s, but Faulkner was also unusual in his lack of engagement with contemporary political issues related to the Depression. Indeed, Faulkner seemed essentially oblivious to the politics of the decade (making him a principal object of contempt on the part of leftist critics at the time), though even he was more socially engaged than his contemporary reputation indicated. Later, however, the anticommunist hysteria of the years after World War II—which included a glorification of apolitical literature—served Faulkner well. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, Faulkner suddenly came to be considered perhaps the greatest modern American novelist. Lawrence Schwartz has chronicled the fact that the rise in Faulkner’s critical reputation during the long 1950s needs to be understood within the context of a Cold War cultural campaign to delegitimate the left‑leaning social and proletarian realism that thrived in the pre‑Cold War United States. Within this context, Schwartz notes, Faulkner was lionized as a formerly misunderstood genius who, when read properly, emerged as “an emblem of the freedom of the individual under capitalism” (4). It should also be noted that the work of Dos Passos, arguably far more sophisticated than Faulkner’s in its application of modernist techniques, suffered greatly in reputation during the 1950s because of its left-leaning politics, especially in the U.S.A. Trilogy.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up primarily in New York City. Dying young after a long struggle with alcoholism, Fitzgerald published only four novels during his lifetime, leaving a fifth novel, The Last Tycoon, unfinished. He also published numerous short stories and spent some time as a screenwriter, though less successfully than Faulkner. His peak years as a writer, in the 1920s, were spent largely in Paris, where he became a close associate of Hemingway, joining the latter as the two most prominent “Lost Generation”[2] American writers. Fitzgerald’s work as a whole can be seen as a critique of the excesses encouraged by consumer capitalism, though he did not show a real inclination toward a leftist critique of capitalism until The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald became an immediate success with the publication of This Side of Paradise (1920), which he followed with another successful novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922). It was, however, with The Great Gatsby (1925), sometimes considered the greatest of all American novels, that he solidified his place in American literary history, even though it received mixed reviews upon its initial appearance. Personal struggles with alcohol and with his wife Zelda’s mental illness caused Fitzgerald to take nine years to complete another novel, in the form of Tender Is the Night (1934).

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, Ernest Hemingway for a time became America’s most widely known and influential writer, his stark, semi-journalistic style becoming a model for a whole generation of young American writers. But Hemingway himself became more famous than his writing, serving for many as a paradigm of American masculinity. Also a master of the short story form, Hemingway began his career as a novelist with a lesser work, The Torrents of Spring (1926) a brief, satirical work that lampoons pretentious writers. He then went on to produce several of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, beginning with The Sun Also Rises (1926), now widely considered his finest work. This novel focuses on American expatriates living in Paris, as did Hemingway himself at the time, and details their sense of a lack of any true meaning in their lives, while also showing them to have the strength and resilience to keep going nevertheless. He followed with the grim World War I novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), another masterpiece. To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) are also important, partly for their leftward political turn, though the latter’s experiments with stream-of-consciousness (showing the influence of Joyce, whom Hemingway knew in Paris and greatly admired) are not successful. Hemingway’s subsequent works are of lesser importance, but his ongoing prominence is evidenced by the fact that, in 2021, PBS broadcast a six-hour documentary outlining the details of his life and career and noting the colossal fame he achieved during his lifetime before his ultimate suicide.

Popular American Literature

American horror fiction prior to 1945 does not have as distinguished a literary pedigree as does British horror fiction, though there have certainly been highlights. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) helped to define the genre in the first half of the nineteenth century, while the cosmic horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) have exercised a powerful influence on horror fiction to this day, especially through their creation of the Cthulhu Mythos, to which numerous writers subsequently contributed, building an extensive shared universe. Similarly, American fantasy fiction was not especially strong in the first half of the twentieth century—perhaps because science fiction was much more suited to the modern outlook of American literature during this period. However, the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1895–1950), heavily influenced by the colonial adventures of Haggard, can be considered a form of fantasy. Tarzan first appeared in a series of stories published in 1912 in a pulp magazine, combined into novel form in 1914. Tarzan would go on to become one of the most popular characters of twentieth-century culture, in a variety of media. The pulp magazines that became especially popular in the U.S. in the 1930s also often included fantasy stories, such as those involving the character of Conan the Barbarian, first featured in a number of stories written by Robert E. Howard for Weird Tales magazine in 1932. The superhero comics that also grew out of the pulps in the late 1930s, featuring such characters as Superman and Batman, can also be considered a form of fantasy story.

The two key American popular genres of the period 1900–1945, though, were science fiction and detective fiction, both of which also grew out of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. Though Wells is widely acknowledged as the father of modern science fiction, it was Americans who dominated the category for the next half century after him. In addition to the Tarzan stories, for example, Burroughs published the “Barsoom” series of adventures set on a fictionalized version of Mars, beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1912. Science fiction as a self-conscious publishing category is generally considered to have begun in 1926, when American editor Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967) published the first issue of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction. Amazing Stories was marked by an extremely optimistic vision of a technology-driven future, foreshadowing such later visions as the future technological utopia of Star Trek. However, pulp science fiction quickly began to gain complexity and sophistication, especially with the work of John W. Campbell (1910–1971), who assumed the editorship of the pulp magazine Astounding Stories beginning in 1937. Campbell’s quest for stories with greater complexity and literary merit led to the discovery of such writers as Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), Lester Del Rey (1915–1993), Robert Heinlein (1907–1988), Theodore Sturgeon (1918–1985), and A. E. Van Vogt (1912–2000). Retitled Astounding Science Fiction in 1938, Campbell’s magazine dominated the genre through the World War II years and beyond, helping to make the period from the end of the 1930s to the end of the 1950s what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

The 1950s saw the proliferation of other important magazines, including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, as the short story continued to be a vital form for the exploration of new sf ideas. Meanwhile, the genre was changed forever with the rise, during that decade, of the science fiction novel as a specific publishing category, in the midst of an explosion in paperback publishing in general, especially in the U.S. However, the science fiction “novel” was initially dominated by the conversion of previously published magazine fiction from the 1940s (such as Asimov’s robot and Foundation stories) into book form. The rise of the original science fiction novel (with Wells still looming as an important precedent) provided room for Golden Age writers such as Heinlein and Asimov to exercise their imaginations in more expansive ways—and in ways that often differed dramatically from the innocent optimism of the Gernsback era. The opportunities offered by the expanding sf publishing industry of the 1950s also helped to launch the careers of younger writers with genuine literary talents, such as Alfred Bester (1913–1987) and Philip K. Dick (1928–1982), who began to take science fiction in a more literary direction.

The 1920s and 1930s were also something of a golden age for pulp detective fiction, with Black Mask magazine, which ran from 1920 to 1951 leading the way and providing an early forum for authors such as Hammett and Chandler to publish their stories. Tougher, more cynical, and more morally ambiguous than the novels of British authors such as Agatha Christie, the novels of Hammett and Chandler would go on to become important literary monuments; the “hardboiled” detective fiction that they pioneered has come to be regarded as one of the most important and distinctive contributions of American literature to world culture. In addition to their lasting influence on other writers (both in America and elsewhere), hardboiled writers such as Hammett and Chandler exercised a strong influence on the development of film noir, with noir films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), adapted from Hammett’s 1930 novel of the same title, and The Big Sleep (1946), based on Chandler’s 1939 novel of the same title, becoming classics of the genre.

American Working-Class and Leftist Literature

Social criticism, often from a radical perspective, has long been an important part of American literature, and much of this criticism has been specifically aimed at the social, economic, and cultural consequences of capitalism. This criticism has been especially effective in the novel, though there has been a substantial amount of leftist drama and a certain amount of leftist poetry as well, not to mention a strong left-wing tradition in American folk music by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But works as early as Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills (1861) represent the beginning of a significant attention to working-class issues in the American novel, and even the venerable Moby-Dick (1851), with its cast of mostly working-class characters, might be considered an important forerunner of the American proletarian novel. Meanwhile, William Dean Howells, perhaps the leading practitioner of realism in the American nineteenth-century novel, addressed a number of the negative aspects of emergent American capitalism in works such as The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). Still, the American novel of the Left, as a genre specifically informed by a socialist critique of capitalism, is essentially a phenomenon of the twentieth century, one that arises roughly in conjunction with the rise of consumer capitalist society in America at the beginning of this century. By this time, the transformation of America into a modern industrial capitalist nation was well underway, and novels such as I. K. Friedman’s By Bread Alone (1901) and Edwin Arnold Brenholtz’s The Recording Angel (1905) began to criticize the new system from a specifically socialist perspective, even if that perspective was sometimes naïve and often failed to transcend prevailing ideological limitations, such as racism and Christian morality.

Much early socialist fiction in America (to some extent following similar trends in British fiction, but also following trends set by late-nineteenth-century American works such as Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Looking Backward) was written in a mode of utopian romance, envisioning a better future world in which the establishment of socialism would have cured the many social and economic ills that were being produced by turn-of-the-century American capitalism. Other works, such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), were written in a more dystopian mode, emphasizing the brutalities of capitalism while still imagining the eventual coming of a better socialist future. Meanwhile, a realistic depiction of the conditions of modern labor and of the possibilities for working-class resistance to exploitation became a crucial project of the American leftist novel early on. By Bread Alone is centrally concerned with a steel strike, and other works dealt with similar themes as well, many from a specifically socialist perspective. Notable early socialist labor novels included Leroy Scott’s The Walking Delegate (1905) and Ernest Poole’s The Harbor (1915).

Established mainstream American novelists also began to explore such material, and the brutal realities of life under capitalism were the focus of a number of early works of American naturalism, though novels such as Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899) and The Octopus (1901) or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) concentrate more on various forms of the impoverishment of existence under capitalism than on the exploration of socialist alternatives. Indeed, Norris’s work even contains hints of a certain right-wing alternative to capitalism, though Dreiser would eventually move to the left (and join the Communist Party), producing works such as An American Tragedy (1925) that can appropriately be regarded as novels of the Left.

The first important work of urban naturalism to make the exploration of socialist alternatives to capitalism a central concern was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), and the indefatigable Sinclair would remain the most productive writer of American socialist fiction throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Sinclair deserves special mention in any history of the American novel of the Left, if only because of the sheer scope, volume, and steadiness of his literary production over a period of several decades. In addition to being the author of The Jungle, widely regarded as one of the classic works of modern American literature, Sinclair was the author of many of the most important American leftist novels of the twentieth century, including such works as King Coal (1917), a story of exploitation of workers in the coal industry. Sinclair’s novel Oil! (1927) explores corruption in the rise of the American oil industry and would later be adapted to film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), one of the finest films of the first decades of the twenty-first century. Sinclair’s Boston (1928) is about the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, while Little Steel (1938) is about abuses in the steel industry. Finally, Sinclair was the also the author of the tremendously ambitious, if not entirely successful, Lanny Budd saga, a sweeping sequence of novels that tracks the experiences of a single protagonist in an attempt to present nothing less than a synthesis of the entire history of the Western world in the first half of the twentieth century. This sequence includes a total of eleven volumes published over the period 1940 to 1953 and ranging from World’s End (which deals the World War I years) to The Return of Lanny Budd (which deals with the end of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War).

Sinclair’s career provides continuity to an American leftist literary tradition that has otherwise had its ups and down. For example, the leftist literary tradition that had begun to gather momentum before World War I was considerably curtailed by the wave of repression that swept America during and after that war. Sinclair, however, remained productive in those years, to the point that Walter Rideout states that Sinclair “almost was radical American literature” in the 1920s (38). Meanwhile, a number of young American writers who became prominent members of the literary Left got their starts in the 1920s, which in retrospect can be seen as a period of preparation for the explosion of leftist literary production in the 1930s. The 1920s thus saw the publication of the first novels of such authors as John Dos Passos and Josephine Herbst, while serving as a period of apprenticeship for such later important figures on the left as Mike Gold and James T. Farrell. Meanwhile, the decade ended with the publication of Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth in 1929, which in many ways inaugurated the production of proletarian fiction that would become one of the major phenomena of American culture in the 1930s.

The explosion in the production of American proletarian novels that marked the early 1930s can be attributed to a number of factors, including a lack of confidence in capitalism brought about by the collapse of Western capitalist economies in the Great Depression, accompanied by the existence of the Soviet Union (whose centrally planned economy experienced an unprecedented boom in the same period). Many of the most important American proletarian novels of the 1930s dealt directly with the experience of work and the phenomenon of labor activism. Many of these novels involved strikes, which became a central theme of proletarian fiction during this period, often providing fictionalized documentaries of real events. For example, the crucial Gastonia Mill Strike of 1929 formed the basis for an entire family of works of proletarian fiction, including Mary Heaton Vorse’s Strike! (1930), Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire (1932), Fielding Burke’s Call Home the Heart (1932), Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread (1932), Myra Page’s Gathering Storm (1932), and William Rollins’s The Shadow Before (1934).

Much of this kind of fiction was produced by workers themselves. Encouraged by radical journals such as New Masses and aided by Communist Party workshops and organizations such as the John Reed Clubs, numerous workers turned their hands to writing in this decade. Important works produced as part of this phenomenon included Jews Without Money, a 1930 autobiographical novel by New Masses editor Gold that was produced partly in an attempt to provide a model for other proletarian writers. Many proletarian writers, attempting to find a literary mode for the expression of working-class experience, also wrote in autobiographical veins, including Jack Conroy (The Disinherited, 1933), Isidor Schneider (From the Kingdom of Necessity, 1935), and Agnes Smedley (Daughter of Earth, 1929).

While class remained the central social category for proletarian writers, these writers also led the way toward more cogent treatment of issues involving gender, race, and ethnicity in American literature in the 1930s. Women writers were particularly prominent among the proletarian novelists of this decade. In addition to Herbst, Smedley, Vorse, Burke, Lumpkin, and Page, this movement also included such figures as Tess Slesinger (The Unpossessed, 1934), Tillie Olsen (Yonnondio, written in the 1930s but not published in book form until 1974), and Meridel Le Sueur (The Girl, written in the 1930s and early 1940s, published in book form in 1978). Meanwhile, writers such as Gold and Henry Roth (Call It Sleep, 1934) focused on the experiences of Jewish immigrants in America, while writers such as Farrell (Studs Lonigan trilogy, 1932–1935) and Pietro Di Donato (Christ in Concrete, 1939) did the same for Irish and Italian immigrants, respectively. Important participants in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes (The Ways of White Folks, 1933) and Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, 1928; Banjo, 1929; Banana Bottom, 1933), called attention to racial inequalities in America in works that were in many ways aligned with the proletarian movement. Some of the most important American proletarian writers of the late 1930s were African Americans who wrote about racial issues within the framework of class, including Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1936), Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940) and William Attaway (Blood on the Forge, 1941).

American leftist literary production in the late 1930s was further extended (and complicated) by the rise to prominence of the Popular Front as the major leftist strategy during this period. Alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe, and particularly galvanized by events in Spain, participants in the Popular Front abandoned the earlier proletarian rhetoric of class conflict in favor of an attempt to establish a broad-based antifascist alliance of liberal and radical groups of various kinds. As a result, American leftist literature in the late 1930s loses some of its specifically antibourgeois and anticapitalist charge but also gains a wider acceptance among American readers. It is not, for example, coincidental that the most popular works of leftist fiction (such as The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son) appeared only at the end of the 1930s, when the Popular Front was well established.

In The Cultural Front, a sweeping 1996 study of this phenomenon, Michael Denning details the extent to which Popular Front culture penetrated virtually every aspect of American culture during this period. Indeed, cultural historians are only now beginning to appreciate the breadth and vitality of American leftist culture in the 1930s, a phenomenon that not only featured a large number of proletarian and other overtly leftist writers but that also strongly influenced more mainstream writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (whose 1940 For Whom the Bell Tolls remains the most important American literary treatment of the Spanish Civil War, a major issue of concern to many on the Left in the late 1930s). Indeed, some works that came to be regarded as central classics of American literature were produced in sympathy with the proletarian movement of the 1930s. In this regard, one might single out Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–1936) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), though it is also the case that the canonization of Dos Passos’s trilogy was aided by its growing skepticism, from the first volume to the third, toward the realization of the utopian goals of socialism in an American context, while the continuing critical acceptance of The Grapes of Wrath in the years after World War II occurred at the expense of a consistent effacement of its radical political message[3].

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. The Modern American Novel of the Left: A Research Guide. Greenwood Press, 1999.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. Verso, 1996.

Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U. S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941. Duke University Press, 1993.

Landsberg, Melvin. Dos Passos’ Path to U.S.A.: A Political Biography, 1912–1936. Colorado Associated University Press, 1972.

Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelationships of Literature and Society. 1956. Columbia University Press, 1992.

Schwartz, Lawrence H. Marxism and Culture: The CPUSA and Aesthetics in the 1930s. Kennikat Press, 1980.

Van Wienen, Mark. “Taming the Socialist: Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems and Its Critics.” American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 1, March 1991, pp. 89-103

Weeks, Robert P. “The Novel as Poem: Whitman’s Legacy to Dos Passos.” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1980, pp. 431–46.


[1] Van Wienen discusses Sandburg’s early radical politics, noting how the American critical establishment has acted to “sanitize” Sandburg’s early poems, de-emphasizing their political nature.

[2] The term “Lost Generation” has been widely applied to designate the generation of young Americans who became adults during World War I and then emerged afterward into a confusing and rapidly changing world that left many of them feeling disoriented and directionless. The term has been especially applied to the writers, mostly living as expatriates in Paris, who described this experience, especially Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

[3] For a more in-depth overview of the American novel of the Left, see my The Modern American Novel of the Left. For a particularly insightful study of the American proletarian fiction of the 1930s, see Foley.