American Poetry’s “Labor Problem”

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Sarah Ehlers

Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys:
Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry
By John Marsh
University of Michigan Press, 2011, 280 pages, $80 cloth, $35 paper.

IN 1925, WHILE clearing tables at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., Langston Hughes (then relatively unknown in the literary world) noticed famed poet Vachel Lindsay dining alone. Even though busboys weren’t permitted to talk to guests, he took a chance and recited three poems from his forthcoming The Weary Blues to Lindsay’s table.

The next morning, Hughes read in the newspaper that Lindsay had discovered a “busboy poet” (139-40). Riding the publicity wave that Lindsay’s “discovery” had stirred, Hughes “arranged to have his picture taken in full busboy regalia, with a tray of dishes on his shoulder” (140).

Fittingly, the cover of John Marsh’s Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry reproduces that photograph of a young Hughes clad in a crisp white busboy uniform. The relation between Hughes’s work as a busboy and his career as a poet — which Marsh recounts in a later chapter — helps to set up one of the major points of his book: “that, in terms of content, modern poetry often enough meant poetry about workers and the poor.” (141)

Indeed, Marsh’s analysis of Hughes takes seriously both the hard facts of doing labor (like serving and clearing food) as well as the larger historical realities of the “labor problem” in the United States. In so doing, he considers how poverty and working-class life were represented and used by American poets in writing poetry that was considered “modern.”

In this sense, the staged photograph of the “busboy poet” is a more apt cover image for Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys then one might, at first, assume. In Hughes’s simultaneous performance of both “busboy” and “poet,” the image suggests the complex relationship between the two. And it is this relationship that Marsh’s book teases out with nuance and verve.

“Make it New”

The groundwork for Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys is the coincidence of two developments during the years from 1912-1922: “the birth of modern American poetry” and “the coming to crisis of the labor problem” and the period of “industrial unrest” that followed. While scholars of 20th-century poetry have either ignored the simultaneity of these two events or treated it as merely “an accident of history,” Marsh reveals how American modernist poetry was, in fact, formed vis-à-vis an awareness of both the “labor problem” and “the laborers and working poor who constituted it.” (3)

Avoiding the myopia of other scholars and offering a thorough examination of this previously overlooked historical perspective, Marsh is able to make a significant scholarly contribution. He effectively re-narrates the origin story of modern American poetry by tracking the ways that early-20th-century poets wrote about not just poverty and labor conflict, but also about the poor and working class.

As he puts it in his introductory chapter:  “(W)hen many modern American poets began writing poems, many began by writing about the poor and working class — began writing, that is, about workers’ and the country’s labor problem.”

Thus, writing poems about poverty and labor was central to the development of one’s career as a modern poet. But such an artistic project was rarely undertaken because the art of poetry might play a role in changing poor living or working conditions. “Though rarely approaching these problems as problems — that is, as problems to be solved — modern poets nevertheless felt compelled to invoke these problems and those who lived, suffered, and occasionally sought to correct them.” (9)

Insisting on the centrality of the labor problem to the formation of modernist American poetry, Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys, like much other work fitting under the rubric of “new modernist studies,” challenges predominant narratives about literary modernism, even as it surveys the work of canonical figures. It establishes a new context for understanding the well worn but constitutive imperative that modern poetry should strive to “make it new.”

In Marsh’s narrative, during the early part of the twentieth century, writing about workers and the poor provided a means for U.S. poets to buck 19th-century genteel verse traditions. Those traditions emphasized poetry’s role as a wellspring of beauty and held that the art transcended, rather than reflected, the clamors of modern life. Poems portraying the gritty realities of modernity were antithetical to poems written by genteel versifiers.

The finer details of this portion of Marsh’s argument regarding the role of working class content in the development of modern American poetry draws on such historical sources as writings by genteel critic Henry Van Dyke, reviews from The Dial, and curriculum guides.

While he lays out his story of modernism’s break with Victorian and genteel traditions convincingly, he oversimplifies it at times.

As Marsh notes, modern poets formally resisted poems that only “rhymed and scanned” and they sought out what genteel critics might view as “anti-poetic” content. But, at least in his introductory arguments, Marsh unnecessarily  (perhaps unwittingly) replicates the conventional wisdom that, as one contemporary scholar puts it, “the history of American poetry” is “a drive toward modernism.” (Jackson, 187) Such an otherwise thorough study might do more to account for literary-historical continuities rather than re-inscribe traditional divides between 19th- and 20th-century verse cultures.

Marsh’s more convincing point about the early development of modern American poetry, especially as it was circumscribed by the “labor problem,” is that modern poets held in common a certain skepticism toward capitalism. They are united, in Marsh’s words, by the fact that they “looked skeptically, often regretfully on capitalism and the poverty and alienation thrown up in its wake” and “resent[ed] capitalist modernity.” (15)

In particular, Georg Lukacs’s concept of “romantic anticapitalism,” especially as chronicled by Marxist critics Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, establishes a shared ground for modern poets. Romantic anticapitalism, as Lowy and Sayre define it, is “the set of forms and thought in which the critique of bourgeois society is inspired by nostalgia for the past.” (10)

In Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys, Marsh attempts to prove that modern poets are part of a “romantic anticapitalist tradition.” As a result, he maintains, “the possibility existed that modern poets might join, or at least sympathize with, those other occasional haters of capitalism, modern workers and the poor.” (17)

Six Modern Poets and Labor

The poets in Marsh’s canon, then, are united by their anticapitalist bent as well as by a common interest in or awareness of workers and the poor. Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys considers the work of six well-known modern American poets: Hughes, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Claude McKay and Carl Sandburg.

Each chapter explores a specific set of relationships between modern poetry and the labor problem. In so doing, individual chapters make interventions on multiple fronts — providing new optics for understanding canonical U.S. poets and, at the same time, beginning to retell the history of modern American poetry.

An opening chapter on William Carlos Williams, for example, demonstrates how he attempted to “be a mirror to modernity” by “mirroring” the poor and working class in his poems. More specifically, he did so by challenging the formal and political limits of the pastoral. Rather than depict romantic rural landscapes as in the traditional pastoral, Williams “casts a spotlight on the rural poor and working class in all their degraded, despoiled specificity.” (28)

Modernizing an old form, Williams’s “counter-pastoral,” as Marsh dubs it, also allows him to intervene in hometown politics by making the citizens of Rutherford, New Jersey, aware of the poverty that existed within their seemingly idyllic rural landscape.

Marsh’s chapter on Eliot demonstrates how Eliot’s “awareness” of urban poverty is key to understanding the origins and development of his poetic career. Considering early unpublished poems as well as the more widely read poems from Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), Marsh argues that “Eliot’s career as a poet fairly begins with his discovery of the urban poor and more or less develops as his thinking about them develops.” (63)

The chapter culminates in a compelling analysis of how Eliot imagined the poor as automata. Linking the poet’s depictions of the poor to his interest in the ideas of Henri Bergson, Marsh shows how, for Eliot, the labor problem came to stand in for other philosophical problems that continued to preoccupy him.

Moving from Eliot’s impoverished urban-scapes to Millay’s Greenwich Village bohemia, Marsh shifts focus from figurations of the poor and working class to more subtle engagements with economics. In an original reading of Millay’s widely read volume A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), Marsh argues that even while early-20th-century bohemian poetry like Millay’s “becomes increasingly anticapitalist … it nevertheless risks, somewhat counterintuitively, also becoming increasingly indifferent to the problems of labor and poverty.” (107)

In Marsh’s hands, an oft-read Millay poem like “First Fig,” for example, where the speaker’s “candle burns at both ends,” is a piece about “excessive wasteful consumption.” (109) More broadly, bohemian poetry eschews domestic labor and actual privation, ultimately stabilizing the deep divide between the voluntarily poor (Greenwich Villagers like Millay) and the involuntarily poor.

The hard labor of serving, especially as it figures into the space of the early-20th-century cabaret, forms the groundwork of Marsh’s study of McKay and Hughes, two poets who wrote about their work as a waiter and busboy respectively. In these poems McKay and Hughes depict the “damaging” “emotional labor” of doing such work. In an observation that might appeal to contemporary scholars working within the field of affect theory, Marsh shows how McKay’s and Hughes’s “service poems constitute an archive of feelings about service labor.” (174)

Few scholars have taken up these service poems; giving them sustained attention also allows Marsh to comment on predominant views of the cabaret scene as restorative and redemptive. That cabaret is, after all, a workplace that is not free from the economic realm.

The chapter ultimately detects a bit of a romantic anticapitalist strain in postmodern scholarship. In a (laudably) biting indictment of recent work on jazz culture, Marsh suggests that contemporary scholars “come for the hot jazz, stay for the counterhegemonic contestations of time, space, and power,” and presumably forget the working-class realities that constitute and undergird those spaces. (170)

In a closing chapter centered on Sandburg, Marsh presents the fate of the arts and crafts movement as a new context for reading Sandburg’s 1916 Chicago Poems. The “craft ideal,” especially as it manifested in early-20th-century America, bore within it a set of “critical questions about work.” (180)  Marsh traces this set of questions in readings of Sandburg’s early poetry, showing how Sandburg attempts to elevate work to an art form.

Sandburg’s poems, it turns out, are in dialogue with arts and crafts movement figures like John Ruskin and William Morris, but they also illuminate the limits of their ideas. The “Chicago” section of the Chicago Poems, in particular, demonstrates a trajectory of Sandburg’s views of labor, culminating in a reading of the section’s final poem, “Skyscraper,” that shows how Sandburg attempted to theorize the “collective possibilities of the machine and its symbolic expression, the skyscraper.” (204)

Closing with Sandburg, Marsh illuminates the paradoxes of the romantic anticapitalist position.

Working on American Poetry

Marsh’s study ends, interestingly enough, around 1930, when poems written with a distinctly proletarian flavor — and that directly addressed pro-labor and anticapitalist themes — would begin to dominate the literary scene.

In his anthology You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-41 (University of Michigan Press, 2007), which won the Constance Coiner Book Award from the Working-Class Studies Association, Marsh undertook the daunting task of recovering, organizing, and explicating previously forgotten poetic texts written and published by union workers during the 1930s.

What’s admirable about Marsh’s subsequent study is that he now directs the scholarly gaze toward an earlier period — primarily the 1910s and 1920s — showing how these decades, usually deemed the height of high modernism and not nearly as often discussed in terms of labor conflict, were just as wrought with “labor problems” as the 1930s. Moreover, by considering primarily canonical poets, and revealing new aspects of their best known works, Marsh gets to the heart of how fundamental the “labor problem” was to the making of modern poetry — and to modern poetry’s goal of “making it new.”

In so doing, he resists reducing the “political” to a simple celebration of working-class poetry. Rather, Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys sees the production and circulation of poetry as having ideological effects that can be read as political, even if such a reading isn’t immediately apparent in the poet’s biography — or, as is especially the case in Marsh’s chapter on Millay — in a work’s thematic content.

Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys shares in a recent wave of scholarly interest in the relation between literature and economics, and it offers up a significant historical means to formulate and explore new questions pertaining to the forms of poetry and its political function in relation to poverty and labor conflict. The book’s historical groundwork will certainly provide the foundation for subsequent related studies, by scholars interested in less canonical poets as well as those who raise questions about how poetry’s “labor problem” in the first decades of the 20th century is situated in relation to earlier Victorian traditions and the “radicalization of American culture” in the 1930s.

As problems of poverty and labor take new forms during the current economic downturn, literary-historical explorations like Marsh’s will continue to assume importance. If, as Marsh suggests, both modernists and Americanists tend to “shy away” from issues of class, then Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys will certainly make us pay due attention.

Additional Works Cited

Jackson, Virgina. “Bryant; or, American Roman­tic­ism,” The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century. Ed. Meredith McGill. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2008. 185-204. Print.

Löwy, Michael and Robert Sayre. Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity. Trans. Catherine Porter. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. Print.

September/October 2012, ATC 160