Fanfare for the common American

- American Literature and Culture, 1900-1960. First Edition
- American Working-Class Literature. First Edition

May 25, 2007

Textbooks are like horses designed by committee. If you are not careful, you end up with a camel. With that in mind, I opened Gail McDonald's American Literature and Culture: 1900-1960 with some trepidation. Works aimed at students just getting started in a subject need to be a stimulating read as well as covering all the facts, and in this regard McDonald does an admirable job.

The book is divided into four large thematic chapters - "Big", "Rich", "New" and "Free" - which are carved into smaller chunks including the symbolic landscape of the city, freedom, the work ethos and modernism. As far as it goes, the book touches all the bases in reasonable detail. All this is backed up with some mostly decorative illustrations, a chronology and a too exhaustive bibliography.

Where the book worries me is in its rather old-fashioned feel. Despite discussing films, McDonald does not mention Disney; she deals in a peremptory way with television and with women modernists, and there is no mention of children's literature or of the rediscovery of writers from the pulp era. These are odd omissions, as the first half of the 20th century is ripe for rethinking.

A book that does attempt such a rethinking is American Working-Class Literature edited by Nicholas Coles and Janet Zandy. Anyone who has attempted to teach American social history or find the right phrasing for a discussion of the working class or of labour history in the US will know that there is a resistance, especially among American students, to recognising that America has anything like a European working class, and discussion of its few media appearances often collapses into a consideration of why this aspect of social history is so little regarded.

In this respect, seminars on shows such as Roseanne or Ugly Betty substitute for the hard work of finding new texts that have the same status as working-class literature and film in, say, the British tradition. Indeed, at one point McDonald states: "It would not be accurate to say that Americans manifest a strongly developed working-class consciousness." Blaming this variously on the emphasis on individualism, lack of collectivity, dishonest union bosses and the divisions of ethnicity, she skirts the issue and instead illustrates her point with On the Waterfront. The triumph of American labour, at least as represented in mainstream film, is, she finds, merely a "personal one".

It therefore comes as a corrective to this approach to discover Coles and Zandy, two American professors in search of the authentic voice of labour from the memoirs of indentured servants in the 17th century to Mart!n Espada's post 9/11 writings. Their editorial effort has gathered 300 texts ranging from fiction to poetry and drama, from memoir to journalism and letters and from oral statement to manifestos and songs. These cover everything from hard labour to home working, political activism to working as a waitress as well as encompassing the anglo, black, Hawaiian, Hispanic and Nyorican (Puerto Ricans from New York City) voices that make up the sound of an authentic American working class. There are rich pickings here ranging from well-known names such as Frederick Douglass and Upton Sinclair to less well-known writers such as Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga and Lois-Ann Yamanaka, a writer from Hawaii who uses "pidgin" to address issues of class shame and racism. Of course there is also Joe Hill, hero of the American working class and of the counterculture, stitched up for a murder he did not commit.

There has been a long wait for such an anthology. It is a shame that many of the books on the American labour movement from a historical or sociological perspective are no longer in print or too specialised for general use. Coles and Zandy's book opens a new chapter in the debate and, despite its unwieldy size and the inclusion of perhaps too many disparate texts, it shows the wealth and richness of a "denied" tradition. McDonald may indeed be right and there is no coherence to the American working class, but in its inconsistencies it remains fascinatingly non-European.

American Literature and Culture, 1900-1960. First Edition

Author - Gail McDonald
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 264
Price - £50.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 9781405101264 and 1011

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