Edited by Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz

Haymarket Books. 349 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-64259-583-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Writing Red corrects the failure of most collections from the 1930s to include a substantial amount of writing by women”. So says Paula Rabinowitz in her introductory essay to this useful and stimulating anthology of the kind of material she considers ought to have been represented in the books she lists. I don’t intend to mention them all here, but will acknowledge that she has a point when asking why so few women appear in them. And it’s very often noticeable that the same names – Josephine Herbst, Meridel LeSueur, Muriel Rukeyser, Ruth McKenney, one or two others – tend to crop up. It’s as if the compilers of these selections had only a limited range of women writers to choose from. Writing Red sets the record straight by delving a little deeper in the archives to discover some of the overlooked and forgotten.

I think it needs to be pointed out that a kind of pattern of male dominance had been set earlier. The 1930s anthology, Proletarian Literature in the United States, edited by an all-male team of six including Granville Hicks and Michael Gold, had only seven women in a contents table that listed a total of over sixty contributors.

It can, of course, be argued that numerous male writers of the 1930s have been forgotten, and that the anthologies on the whole focus on many of the well-known names – Steinbeck, Farrell, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright – to the exclusion of others who didn’t produce a great deal and never became famous. The literary world has always been littered with casualties, both male and female, and it requires a lot of effort to provide most of them with suitable memorials.

Another factor that perhaps needs to be taken into account when considering American left-wing writing in the 1930s is how a shift in policy in the Communist Party influenced who was given attention by critics and appeared in print. The early 1930s had seen the foundation of the John Reed Clubs in major cities like New York and Chicago. Magazines were started to publish work by Club members, with an emphasis on proletarian literature. There was always some confusion about what that meant. Did it refer to writing about proletarians, or writing by proletarians?  It seems true that many working class writers did find it an advantage to be connected to a John Reed Club and its magazine, and there were other little magazines and small presses which seemed to be open to work by them.

However, in 1935 Communist Party policy changed to one of a Popular Front and the Clubs, which were Party institutions, were closed. The proletarians were out and middle-class writers who would ally themselves with the aims of the Popular Front against Fascism were welcomed. I’m generalising out of necessity, the politics of the 1930s often being complex, especially where Communist motives were concerned. The League of American Writers, which was started when the John Reed Clubs were dissolved, made no claims to represent writers of proletarian fiction. Its membership included numerous well-known novelists and poets and, on the surface, didn’t emphasise its communist connections. It was meant to enlist a wide range of established novelists, poets, journalists and others who could be described as fellow-travellers and would give the League a veneer of moderation and respectability. The FBI considered it a “Communist front” organisation. A glance at the list of members of the League in Frederick Folsom’s Days of Anger, Days of Hope (Colorado University Press, 1994) shows that male writers predominated, and I’d hazard a guess that the majority of them were white middle-class in their social backgrounds.

It’s obvious that, one way or another, most women writers faced a hard time getting into print and having their work evaluated by critics. In addition to which their domestic demands, if they were married and had children, worked against them being able to produce anything sustained. Novels and long narrative poems were not compatible with family life, other than in exceptional circumstances. It could also be true that, during the days when proletarian writing was looked on favourably, “By linking the proletariat, and its culture, with masculinity, the metaphors of gender permeated the aesthetics debates of male literary radicals throughout the 1930s”. Those are Paula Rabinowitz’s words, and she quotes from a striking passage by Mike Gold, one of the Communist Party’s key commentators on cultural matters, which extols the virtues of young, working-class males who write “in jets of exasperated feeling” do not “polish their work” and are “violent and sentimental by turns”.  

The value of an anthology like Writing Red is that it can demonstrate how women were just as likely as many men to be directly involved in problems relating to political protest, union work, and other practical matters. Josephine Herbst was a novelist, short-story writer, and journalist whose literary reputation faded after the 1930s, but revived to a degree when some of her novels were re-issued in the 1980s. And her fine memoir, The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs which initially came out in the 1960s in Saul Bellow’s magazine, The Noble Savage, and Theodore Solotaroff’s New American Review, did help to focus some attention on her earlier books. Her contributions to Writing Red, one a short-story, the other reportage, are both set in Cuba, and point to her awareness of the political situation on the island.

Herbst was not the only woman to travel and write fiction or journalism relating to what she saw and experienced. Ruth McKenney is probably remembered now for My Sister Eileen, which was the basis for a popular film, but her Industrial Valley, from which a section is used, was a novel  combining fiction and snatches of newspaper items to look at the unemployment and general economic situation around Akron, Ohio, in 1932.

And there was Mary Heaton Vorse, a veteran labour journalist and novelist (see, for example, Strike!, based on the 1929 textile dispute in Gastonia, North Carolina) with radical roots going back to the early part of the twentieth century. She was writing about militant labour activity in 1916.   Her “School for Bums” looks at the kind of facilities available to the homeless and unemployed during the dark days of 1931. With regard to Vorse’s Gastonia novel it’s worth reading Ella Ford’s “We are Mill People”. She’s described as a “Striking mill worker in Gastonia, North Carolina”, and her account is a bleak narrative of violence and intimidation by local officials, the police, and vigilante groups.

Agnes Smedley and Anna Louise Strong both moved outside America and reported extensively on events in China, though Strong also covered revolutions in Mexico, Russia, and Spain, as her “Front Trenches – North West” indicates when she talks to Spaniards and foreign volunteers in the International Brigades about the fight against fascism. Smedley wrote fiction alongside her factual work. Her “Shan-fei – Communist” tells the story of a young woman from a wealthy family who becomes a communist and infiltrates a Kuomintang headquarters by pretending to be anti-communist and then secretly passes information to communist forces outside the city. She is captured and badly treated but still retains her faith in communism. I suppose it could be argued that a story like this is essentially a form of propaganda, but it is tidily written and retains some of its vitality, as well as being a record of a time and place.

I’ve taken just a few examples of the prose works in Writing Red to give an indication of what it has to offer, and I could just as easily have chosen others. Tess Slesinger’s story, “The Mouse-Trap”, isn’t obviously political but does show how a young, ambitious woman refuses to go on strike with her office colleagues and tries to ingratiate herself with the boss. By doing so she leaves herself open to his sexual advances. Leane Zugsmith’s “Room in the World” is about unemployment and its effects on family life. Vivian Dahl’s “Them Women Sure Are Scrappers” looks at women members of the Agricultural and Cannery Workers Industrial Union battling on the picket lines against scabs, police, and deputies.  

There are also several stories by black women writers. They clearly had the additional problem of racism to deal with, along with poverty, harsh living conditions, and unemployment. The writers among them also had limited access to publishing outlets. There were publications such as Crisis and Opportunity which did focus on black writers, and Writing Red has Edith Manuel Durham’s powerful “Deepening Dusk” which deals with “the theme of the tragic mulatto”. As Rabinowitz stresses, for many black women during the Depression “their imperative desire was to maintain their families”. But Elaine Ellis’s “Women of the Cotton Fields” refers to the organisation of the Sharecroppers Union in Alabama and its newspaper, The Southern Worker, which aimed to bring together both black and white cotton field workers.

Of the poets in Writing Red possibly only the names of Muriel Rukeyser, Genevieve Taggard, and Margaret Walker may ring some bells. And even then, only among academics and a few individuals who care to look beyond the immediate and to the past for some inspiration. Rukeyser’s “Ann Burlak” and “Fifth Elegy – A Turning Wind” still speak powerfully and directly and their political inclinations are evident. Rukeyser’s novel, The Savage Coast, dealt with her experiences in Spain during the early days of the Civil War. It remained unknown until 2013 when the Feminist Press published it.

Charlotte Nekola, in her introduction to the poetry section, says: “Poetry by women in the 1930s matched leftist arguments against ironic despair, aestheticism, and meaningless or elitist erudition in the works of such modernist poets as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound”. She mentions Lucia Trent’s biting “Parade the Narrow Turrets” with its final couplet: “Go live in your Ivory Tower. Build it as high as you can,/And parade the narrow turrets as a cultivated man”.

Genevieve Taggard’s “Silence in Mallorca” brings in the Spanish Civil War and “Ode in Time of Crisis” looks at a world in turmoil but raises hope for a brighter future. I have a copy of an anthology, May Days,  that Taggard edited in 1925 and which is compiled from poems published in The Masses and The Liberator, so it’s easy to see where her socio-political ideas were located. Margaret Walker’s “For My People” and “Dark Blood” have long-lined stanzas in the Whitmanesque mode, and are perhaps also reminiscent of Arturo Giovannitti’s verse, which she would possibly have been familiar with.  Walker was one of the few black writers to achieve some success in the 1930s and her collection, For My People won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1942.

There are other poets worth reading, including, I’m glad to say, Florence Reece and Aunt Molly Jackson, two working-class women writing out of their direct experiences in strikes. Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” stems from a miners’ strike in Kentucky (“If you go to Harlan County,/There is no neutral there/You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for J.H. Blair”), while Jackson’s “I am a Union Woman” likewise relates to the mine wars: “If you want to join a union/As strong as one can be,/Join the dear old NMU/And come along with me”. The NMU was the National Miners Union, a short-lived Communist Party creation.

Both Reece and Jackson wrote poetry that was meant to have an immediate practical use, and kept their use of words simple and straightforward.  There is an interesting collection, You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labour Poetry, 1929-1941 (University of Michigan Press, 2007), with poems from union newspapers. What is obvious is that the majority of them focus on bread-and-butter issues, such as shorter hours, higher pay, working conditions, unemployment. There is little, if any, political posturing or theory. I doubt that the names of the poets, female and male, will mean anything to most readers of poetry. I recognised a couple, Ralph Chaplin and Arturo Giovannitti, from their links to the Industrial Workers of the World. A collection of Giovannitti’s poems was published by El Corno Emplumado in Mexico in 1966.  

One final poem I want to mention is Tillie Olsen’s “I Want you Women up North to Know” which is about how the clothes that are on sale in big stores in New York, Boston, and other cities are made by exploited Mexican labour – “those dainty children’s dresses you buy/are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh”. It has relevance today if we think of poorly-paid workers in India and elsewhere producing clothes for the UK market and facing violent opposition from managers and police when they protest about low wages and bad employment situations or try to unionise.

Writing Red was first published in 1987 by the Feminist Press in New York, and it’s good to see it back in print. It has a great deal to offer in terms of the mostly-neglected writing it features, but also for the information it contains about obscure publications and the detailed commentary by Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz. And it can take its place alongside the other anthologies of left-wing American writing that Rabinowitz challenges for their lack of female representation. It helps to round out the picture of what was being written by novelists, poets, and others with a radical perspective about the state of things in the turbulent 1930s.