Jack Conroy, Worker-Writer in America

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Carla Cappetti

Worker Writer in America:
Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990
By Douglas Wixson
University of Illinois Press, 1994, xvi + 678 pages, $34.95.

THE DEBT THAT modern American literature owes to myth and to European modernism has been, since World War II, widely acknowledged. The debt that modern American literature owes to American working-class folklore and to vernacular modernism has been largely ignored.

The reputations of Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston are exceptions. The debt that their work owes to the language and stories of common people, to what anthropologists call folklore, or what Gramsci called “popular culture,” has been recognized and celebrated.

As Douglas Wixson shows, Jack Conroy is the Twain and the Hurston of the U.S. working class. “Jack’s literary work grows out…and is nourished by Midwestern currents of radicalism, the old labor press, and homegrown varieties of populist and socialist culture and politics…Conroy’s sources are Southwestern humor, vernacular protest, and indigenous radicalism.” (72)

The sources, both political and artistic, of Jack Conroy and of the worker-writer literary tradition he represents are to be found in the radical political culture the Midwest generously nourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990 convincingly argues the importance of Jack Conroy to modern American literature, demonstrating the infusion of working-class storytelling, idioms, humor and experiences into that literature by way of Jack Conroy’s work and of the many working-class authors he encouraged, published and promoted.

Conroy was, in the literary world of the 1930s and of early twentieth-century U.S. literature, a pathbreaker in several significant ways. He was the author of The Disinherited (1933) and A World to Win (1935), two important worker novels of the 1930s.

He co-authored, with Arna Bontemps, the prose documentaries on the Black Migration They Seek a City (1945) and Anyplace but Here (1966). He wrote countless short stories that borrow from the industrial tall-tale tradition, use rural and urban working-class idioms and experiences, and turn folk humor and storytelling into literary language.

Selections of Conroy’s stories have been collected in The Weed King and Other Stories (1986); individual stories have appeared in collections like A Treasury of American Folklore, A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, A Treasury of American Folk Humor. A few, like Slappy Hooper, the Wonderful Sign Painter and Sam Patch, the High, Wide and Handsome Jumper, were co-authored with Arna Bontemps into children’s stories.

Conroy’s documentary prose pieces and reviews span a seventy-year period. They are scattered far and wide in small and large magazines from the Railway Carmen’s Journal to New Masses, from American Mercury to International Literature.

As the editor of The Rebel Poet, The Anvil and The New Anvil, three important little magazines of the 1930s, Conroy also performed, for the isolated Midwestern working-class authors, the role that William Dean Howells in the 1890s, and H.L. Mencken in the 1920s, had played in fostering literary realism and modern literature, urban and rural working-class settings, immigrant and migrant experiences, and a literary language that drew from American society rather than the British aristocracy.

Among the contributors to these magazines are to be found William Carlos Williams, the young Langston Hughes, such aspiring and then unknown writers as Richard Wright, Meridel Le Sueur, Nelson Algren, Sanora Bobb, Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Tom McGrath, as well as a heterogeneous, eclectic and remarkable group of authors like H.H. Lewis, “the plowboy poet of the Gumbo;” Joe Kalar, the paper mill worker-writer from International Falls, Minnesota; Kenneth Porter, the Christian-Socialist poet of Sterling, Kansas, and many others.

Conroy also edited Unrest:The Rebel Poets Anthology (1929, 1930, 1931), Midland Humor: A Harvest of Fun and Folklore (1947), and Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology, 1933-1940 (1973), anthologies that remain of great significance to the fields of working-class literature and 1930s culture.

A Pathbreaking Biography

It is both appropriate and fortunate that Conroy’s life, as a working-class author and as a Midwestern radical, and his work, as a poet, novelist, short story writer, documentarist, editor and journalist, should be recovered in a truly pathbreaking biography.

Douglas Wixson’s Worker-Writer in America — as the full title of the study quietly acknowledges — is several studies in one. It is the first literary biography of Jack Conroy as a significant figure in the pantheon of American modern literature.

Wixson reconstitutes the poor mining community and family into which Conroy was born in 1898; his apprenticeship in the railroad industry at age thirteen; the modern auto plants of Detroit and Toledo to which he, like many others, moved in the 1920s; the alternation of unemployment, migratory work, and life in hobo camps of the late 1920s and early 1930s; the difficult and conflicted straddling of work and writing throughout his life.

Wixson highlights the combination of Catholic and Methodist religion, genteel and popular literature, union writing and reading as significant elements in the cultural and intellectual formation of Conroy. Combining local history, social history and working-class history, Wixson gives us the story of a Midwestern working-class childhood and young manhood affected by and intersecting over and over with the battles, the victories and losses of U.S. workers in mining, the railroads, modern factories and in the courts.

Wixson successfully combines such a story with the more familiar portrait-of-the-artist genre so as to capture Conroy’s artistic development as a worker-writer and a working-class intellectual.

The Midwest As Cultural Center

That New York and Boston have been important intellectual centers is well known. The history of New York as a center of artistic and political radicalism in the early twentieth century has been told and revised in a number of important monographs.

The history of the Midwest, of its various Bohemian and radical centers — like the history of many other cultural, political and artistic centers and regions in the South, the Southwest and West Coast that increasingly in the twentieth century have played significant roles in the development of the literatures of the United States — remains mostly unwritten.

Wixson’s study represents a generous contribution to that vast uncharted field that is the history of U.S. literary regions and centers.

Following Conroy’s growth from his early years as a young union recording secretary and correspondent to his middle years as a major participant in the political and literary cultures of the 1930s, Wixson’s method and the style of the biography changes somewhat.

Less attention is paid in the central chapters to social and local history and more to the literary debates and intellectual battles that are familiar fare in 1930s studies. The important contributions that Midwestern literary radicals and worker-writers made to radical letters and, more broadly, American letters are examined in detail.

Conroy’s work as worker-writer, we are reminded, preceded and indeed contributed to the concept of “proletarian literature” rather than the other way around. Conroy began worker-writing as early as 1921, when his first articles and correspondences were published in the Railway Carmen’s Journal. He continued to practice worker-writing through the 1930s, when that writing received the benefit of various literary theories, “worker correspondence” first and “social realism” later, and became “proletarian literature.”

To these theories and their development, especially “West of the Hudson,” Wixson devotes a fair amount of attention, occasionally reproducing the less interesting history of left-wing factionalism that has traditionally been the hallmark of Communist Party historiography.

More interesting and original is the revision that Wixson operates by placing himself outside New York and by demonstrating that the 1930s radical culture was far from homogeneous. This becomes clear when one compares the Midwestern radical intellectuals with their New York counterparts.

In Wixson’s words:

“The ideological sources of Midwestern literary radicals like Kalar, Le Sueur, Conroy, Lewis, Corey, Kresensky, and Porter derive from indigenous traditions of protest — expressed in earlier manifestations such as the Farmers’ Alliance, the People’s Party, the Non-Partisan League, the IWW, certain unions, and various infusions of immigrant liberalism such as the free-thinking Forty-Eighters.” (149)

The juxtaposition of Midwestern radicals — pragmatic, less abstract, more in touch with workers, and vernacular socialist and populist traditions — and East Coast radicals — theoretical Marxists, abstract, dogmatic, out of touch with America, “pawns” of the Soviet Union and its policies — serves to make visible a radical tradition that had been erased.

If this differentiation occasionally sounds schematic, that schematism has something in common with the strategic essentialism of early feminist and African-American literary critics. One accepts it with caution, as a temporary device for recovering the memory of something forgotten — Women’s Literature, African American Literature, Midwestern Radical Literature. Thanks to the preliminary work carried out by Wixson, future scholars, it is to be hoped, will be able to make that characterization more rounded.

The `20s As They Really Were

The central chapters are especially useful in redefining the dominant iconography of the 1920s and in establishing the continuities of 1920s and 1930s political and literary movements. As Wixson notes:

“Most popular retrospectives of the 1920s ignore the desperate conditions of organized labor and the unemployed `homeless’…[They] neglect the masses of workers migrating to find work, focusing rather on popular heroes, popular culture, evangelists and bigots…Yet a new generation of artists and intellectuals was preparing the ground for the 1930s when textile mill workers, factory operatives, and miners would, for better or for worse, become subjects of literature and art that was produced in part by those writing within their ranks…The `other twenties’ included boxcar rambles, southern textile mills, towns, midwestern farms, and Detroit auto factories. These were constituents of a new radical literature with antecedents in literary naturalism, focused on workers as a class rather than as `the other half’ who failed in their attainment of the American dream.” (102)

The role of the little magazines in breaking “the isolation of a new generation of literary radicals west of the Hudson, who were widely separated geographically” (120), the names and often short sketches of these writers combine to produce a second valuable book and, to my knowledge, the first literary history of Midwestern literary radicalism:

“In little magazines, published throughout the Midwest, a new radical critical temper was undergoing formulation. The rebellion was in part against the aesthetic individualism that appeared to characterize
Broom, transition, Secession, the Little Review, the Fugitive, and other little magazines. These publications had fought the battles against the establishment along a cultural front that excluded the activist tradition of socialist and Wobbly poets. The new radical temper embraced a group-minded, leftist orientation with a penchant for social content, realism, and reportage.” (113)

Wixson shows how extreme and paralyzing was the isolation of radical and working-class writers in the Midwest. For worker-writers like Conroy, this isolation was physical as Midwestern worker-writers lived far from each other and from the urban concentrations of like-minded people; it was intellectual as they lived far from the publishing centers of New York and Boston; and it was cultural as their class and regional origins provided no access into publishing.

It is customary to emphasize the dogmatism and constraints that CP literary theories and policies placed on the art of party members and fellow travelers. Wixson, on the other hand, emphasizes the crucial importance of and the continuities between the little magazines first, the CP cultural apparatus later with its John Reed Clubs and the League of American Writers, and the New Deal cultural apparatus later yet with the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA, in breaking that isolation and providing access into publishing to new authors.

Wixson has written as well a significant chapter in the history of the U.S. worker-writer tradition. Those who associate worker-writing with a short period, the late thirties, with a few New York writers and with Soviet literary imports might now reconsider their assumptions. Wixson’s account stretches worker-writing back in time to the radical culture, magazines and correspondences of the 1920s, and even further to its Wobblies predecessors, just as he brings worker-writing out of New York and deep into the Midwest.

Conroy emerges as an important representative of the worker-writer tradition, one that finds among its nineteenth-century precursors the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, Herman Melville and Rebecca Harding Davis, Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Jack London and Theodore Dreiser, and a wealth of twentieth-century descendants including Booker T. Washington and Abraham Cahan, Eugene
O’Neill and Carl Sandburg, Michael Gold and Nelson Algren, Meridel Le Sueur and Richard Wright.

The Worker-Writer Storyteller

The United States has contributed more than its share of worker-writers, authors born outside the traditional elites, who were self-educated, or eclectically or discontinuously educated, and for whom an experience as domestic, sailor, worker, hobo or miner represented a significant portion of their education. Conroy is a prominent representative of this worker-writer school and its twentieth-century development.

In his essay “The Storyteller,” the German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin argues that the function of traditional stories lies in their ability to transmit historical memory, and to weave into the narrative the wisdom, the counsel, the practical advice of generations of workers.

In Wixson’s biography, Jack Conroy emerges as a veritable live archive of that wisdom, of the experiences, consciousness and subjectivity of the U.S. working class in its modern Midwestern radical incarnation, and as it found expression in humor, verse, tall tales, parody and union writing:

“Jack was an observer with a keen ear for idiomatic speech and a remarkable memory…In Monkey Nest and the Wabash shops he had taken part in the fraternal subculture of a work community. On the road he encountered a subculture of bums, pimps, hucksters, runaways, petty criminals, Wobblies, and itinerant workers…. Vigorous Wobbly idioms and the rebellious spirit of their songs and poems enriched his own repertoire of folk speech. Years later, in Chicago, Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, and Jack remembered their separate experiences tramping, `three old Wobblies,’ Sandburg said. The Wobblies were a tough, resilient, anarchic mix of harvest hands and timber workers. Conroy admired them as the embodiment of the independent reel, undoctrinaire and nonideological.” (101)

Finally, it is important to note that Worker-Writer in America should serve as a methodological model as well. Wixson has done enough primary research to spawn several more scholarly studies and as many dissertation topics as one could wish for. The list of individuals interviewed, and of archives, manuscript collections, little magazines and newspapers consulted amount to a significant reference work on the radical cultures of the 1920s and 1930s.

This is not the type of work that graduate schools and the tenure track system promote. It is rather the product of a passionate scholar who put his mind, his soul and many years of work into his study, a scholar who could afford to do so because no longer hampered by review committees and similar petty deadlines.

One hopes that more room will be made for this kind of studies, in the absence of which American literary history cannot be rewritten no matter how many new literary canons we invent.

ATC 53, November-December 1994