Working-class women's literature: an introduction to study.

Author:Lauter, Paul
Position:Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

Writing--and indeed thinking--about working-class literature presents a number of unique problems. To begin with, what do we mean by "working-class literature"? Literature about working-class people, literature by them, or literature addressed to them? If we use the first definition, should we include works that are ignorant of or hostile to the working-class people they write about like some turn of-the-century "industrial" novels? If we focus on writing by working people, do we include pieces that do not deal with their lives or even with their real concerns, like some "popular" songs? Should we include, say, literature by people of working-class origins, like D. H. Lawrence? To complicate the issue still further, there is the question of audience or, perhaps more accurately, of the differing functions of works with differing audiences. Florence Reece's song "Which Side Are You On?," for example, urges miners to stick together in the union, whereas Edwin Markham's poem "The Man with the Hoe" calls on the "masters, lords and rulers in all lands" to right the wrongs of working people. Since both concern changing the condition of the working class, are both working-class literature? Life in the Iron Mills, the first significant portrait in American literature of the lives of the industrial workers, clearly addresses a bourgeois audience, while many drugstore novels, like those of Mickey Spillane, attract a substantial working-class readership. Which would one want to retain in a "canon" of working-class fiction? Such questions cannot be answered categorically; we need a more adequate understanding of the techniques, functions, and distinctive qualities of working-class art.

Beyond these issues, there is the question of what defines the working class. Many such definitions exclude more people, especially women, than they include. The traditional image of the American industrial worker, for example, is male, in part because of ignorance about the role of women, historical and current, in United States industry. And the traditional image is also white, reflecting the racially segregated job structure that still persists in some industries.

It seems best to use relatively loose definitions and broad categories, but we must remain sharply aware of the difficulties involved, the manifestations within the culture of efforts to overcome (or to retain) class privilege, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Here I discuss literary works by and about working people, written and oral forms, "high," "popular," and "mass" culture. I designate as "working-class people" those who sell their labor for wages; who create in that labor and have taken from them "surplus value," to use Marx's phrase; who have relatively little control over the nature or products of their work; and who are not "professionals" or "managers." I refer to people who, to improve their lot, must either move in solidarity with their class or leave it (for example, to become managers). (1) I include those who work in homes, whose labor is sold although not for pay, as surely as is that of those who work in the mills or in the streets. I also include those who work on farms and those whose labor is extorted from them by slavery and peonage. Such categories, though admittedly blurred at the edges, give us at least a reasonable place from which to start.

In dealing with working-class culture, and especially with women's literature, we are confronted by a problem more fundamental than that of definition. It can be seen in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, "A Worker Reads History":

Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings. Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? And Babylon, so many times destroyed, Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses, That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it? In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song, Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend The night the sea rushed in, The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves. Young Alexander conquered India. He alone? Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army? Philip of Spain wept as his fleet Was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears? Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War. Who Triumphed with him? Each page a victory, At whose expense the victory ball? Every ten years a great man, Who paid the piper? So many particulars. So many questions. Brecht's poem vividly illustrates that the workers of the world have been hidden from history--omitted from the chronicles, myths, sagas, and fictions that embody it. Less openly, the poem illustrates how much more hidden are the women of the working classes, appearing here fleetingly as those who weep for the drowned sailors of Philip's fleet, and, perhaps, as the haulers of stone and the slaves of Atlantis. The chronicles, sagas, fictions, and poems were seldom written by people who labored for their bread. Laborers did not have the leisure or, generally, the literacy to write books (though they did leave us the works of their hands, in materials like stone and wool). And if they were female, still other veils shrouded their lives and limited their creations.

But working people were by no means silent. On the contrary, they have always produced literature. Its forms, however--including the forms of its transmission--its structural elements, and its purposes have been quite different from the dominant written forms of the last twenty-five hundred years or so. To approach working-class culture, therefore, we must lay aside many of our presuppositions about what literature is and is not. (2) We must begin by asking in what forms, on what themes, in what circumstances, and to what ends working people spoke and sang to one another. How did they gather, examine, transmit, and renew their experiences?

First, we need a broader definition of what we can call "literature." That working-class literature has often taken oral forms is not surprising, since many of its creators, along with their audience, did not read or write. (A theme of working-class art has been the struggle to gain access to the resources of culture and power, including literacy.) The study of working-class art must therefore include works that in the last fifty years have been generally displaced into courses called folklore and the like. (3) Today, when literature departments are more likely than they were a decade ago to include undergraduate folklore courses, as well as women's studies itself, we are better prepared for the interdisciplinary approach required for the study of folk culture. Similarly, since songs--for reasons I explain below --are one of the forms most widely used by working-class artists, we have to pay attention to their literary elements; many are significant creations of language. In addition, as is true in women's studies generally, we must pay more attention to the "fragmentary" or "incremental" genres--letters, diaries, and documents derived from oral sources.

As we move toward more inclusive definitions of "literature," certain issues that are largely submerged in the study of "high culture" become more critical. For example, it becomes necessary to distinguish between "folk" or "people's" ("popular") culture and what Dwight MacDonald characterized as "mass culture." Popular culture is what people who share class, ethnicity, and/or race produce in communicating with one another, as distinguished from what is produced for consumption by the "masses." There is, obviously, no clear-cut dividing line, and the distinction is particularly difficult for those of us brought up in the bourgeois cultural system, in which the norm is production by artists for consumption by consumers.

The distinction is only in part one of quality, although mass culture, which is often directed by the political imperative of shaping and dominating the consciousness of the masses, generally involves basically simplified ways of appealing to the lowest common denominator--as was illustrated by the sudden flourishing, a few years ago, of television shows portraying the cop as hero. It is more important here, however, to understand the functions of "popular" art and its patterns of creation. Much working-class culture originates and exists in situations that do not absolutely distinguish between the active "performer/artist" and the passive "audience"; or if that distinction is made, the artist's "product" is offered not for its exchange value (money for the song) but for its use in the lives of the people to whom it is directed. A fine example is provided by the Kentucky mountain songs sung with great majesty at the funeral of "Jock" Yablonski and recorded in the film Harlan County, U.S.A.

This distinctive quality of popular culture becomes clearer when we consider more fully the processes of creation and the functions of working-class art. The creative process is nowhere better described and analyzed than in Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness, (4) required reading for anyone concerned with this area. Levine has collected a number of vivid, firsthand descriptions of the creation of "sorrow songs," mainly in post-Civil War black churches, and he has examined the common features of these descriptions. One important observation is that new songs were most often based on old ones: a look at most labor songbooks shows that working-class artists were often concerned less with creating a work that would be unique than with building variations on tunes and themes well known in their communities. In many ways, working-class art, like other elements of working-class life, is highly traditional, even "conservative"; innovative form is certainly not a primary consideration. Similarly...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP