New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State.
One has to admire efforts to identify whether and to what extent there is a "cultural turn" in our midst and, if so, what its warp, woof, and contours look like. The reference is, of course, to Fredric Jameson's usage, and to a recently published collection of essays between 1983 and 1998. And there is much of Jameson's influence in Michael Szalay's analysis of what he calls "New Deal" modernism, examined here. Two very large topics converge in Szalay's study: an American literary tradition, and the political context in which representative works in that tradition are written. Both topics are cradled within an emerging "paradigm" among literary critics, one largely and increasingly recognized as "postmodernist," an angle of vision which, to this reviewer at least, seems particularly fascinated with the prospect of "closing gaps." Szalay, for example, thinks it "crucial" that "literary historians" close a gap between "revolutionary politics and more seemingly prosaic debates over congressional funding and appropriation" (20). The key reference here is to "seemingly prosaic." For in the machinations of parliamentary or Congressional debates over funding priorities are to be found the hints needed to plot the outlines of a larger process, a cultural turn perhaps, wherein the state-contrary to all good-thinking radicals, leftists, cultural critics, and literary historians--is not altogether a demon. And this is among the virtues of this study.
For Szalay, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, there are important connections between the literary culture of 1930s and 1940s America and important decisions made by an emerging welfare state. These connections, though complex, are best viewed through the eyes of selected participants in both worlds, most pointedly through the eyes of Wallace Stevens the poet/administrator. There are also connections having to do with insurance and actuarial tables. It is no coincidence for Szalay that key literary figures of the New Deal period also had links to the insurance business: James M. Cain, Charles Ives, Richard Wright, and Wallace Stevens, for example. In fact, it is "difficult to overstate the importance" of "comparisons between the state and insurance companies in the context of the New Deal" (12). In addition to Stevens' poetry, the novels of James M. Cain and Richard Wright also play what some would call a disproportionate role in Szalay's concept of New Deal literature.
Borrowing from Kenneth Burke's Philosophy of Literary Form, with its emphasis on the statistical representation of literary forms, Szalay also seeks to place New Deal literature beyond conventional political labels, though he concedes the important work of scholars like Alan Wald, Carey Nelson, Paula Rabinowitz, Michael Denning, Michael North, and others, who classify the artists of the period according to more conventional categories. Of special interest to Szalay, following Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of Frankfurt School fame, is the concealed ideology beyond biographical studies gleaned from archives. It is the "political and economic status of literary form" that literary historians should concern themselves with. There is certainly nothing new in this. Literary critics within the Marxist tradition have always insisted on such priorities. Szalay, however, would have his readers understand that in the period under investigation the political and the economic were changing in "massive but still insufficiently theorized ways" (19) and a new "vocabulary" is needed to "interrogate" the period.
Basic to Szalay's new vocabulary is a concept of "performative aesthetics" taken primarily from a tradition of discourse extending from J. L. Austin to Jacques Derrida, a tradition also suggestive of Emersonian pragmatism. Examining in Chapter One the "whole question of what writing is," a quotation from John dos Passos, Szalay presents interpretive portraits of Jack London, the first American Writer's Congress of 1935, a "foundational moment for the literature of the period" (37), and the Federal Writer's Project. In the latter project "genuine indigenous art" was paramount, art as artifacts was discouraged, and individual authorship, especially in the American Guide Series profiling the forty-eight states, was not important. Project writers represented a cultural force beyond individualism and individual authorship and in the general direction of "a linguistic self-incarnation of America" (74).
In subsequent chapters Szalay analyzes the literary art of about a dozen New Deal writers. The "politics of textual integrity" (chapter two) presents an intriguing consideration of Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway which distances them from a politics of the right, or, in fact, "from political organization altogether" (84). The "invention" of social security (chapter three) focuses on Wallace Stevens and poetry as "perfect insurance" (126). The "vanishing American father" (chapter four) features an analysis of the Grapes of Wrath and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And in the "Death of the Gallant Liberal" (chapter five), works by Robert Frost, Richard Wright, Busby Berkeley, and James Cain illustrate New Deal liberalism's reworking of the dynamics of sympathy, its transformation of individual and group feelings, its creation of alienated doubles, particularly as revealed in insurance narratives, and its midwifing of audiences who "watch themselves" perform, particularly in movie musicals.
One might observe here that in addition to Adorno and Horkheimer, there were other emigre scholars who came to the United States during the New Deal period, scholars less "ideological" in their approach, less taken with the insights of Marx and Freud, and also insurance tables. Among them was Hannah Arendt. Arendt makes a distinction in her work, among many distinctions, between homo faber and homo politicus as forces in the evolution of western cultures, a distinction which is of some importance in evaluating Szalay's study of New Deal Modernism. Szalay's subtitle, for example, refers to the "invention" of the welfare state and in his Introduction we are introduced to New Deal writers as an "ideologically diverse group" who actively participated in "the reinvention of modern governance" (3). This is highly suggestive of the New Deal literary artist as homo faber, man (humankind) the maker, suggestive of the depression-era writer as agent of the bourgeoisie, that class fixated on security and clean, well-lit places, that class which, for Arendt, is the least political in history. It is a class also particularly fond of insurance. But it is surely of no small significance that the American welfare state, such as it is, is more the product of principled pragmatists sensitive to their roles as "political" women and men applying proximate solutions to insoluble problems in the spirits of a native common sense tradition and of a philosophical movement best represented by Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, John Dewey, Louis Brandeis, Roscoe Pound and Oliver W. Holmes, Jr. than the product of bourgeois inventors more desirous of selling insurance. Surely, with respect to the politics of the period, this is what historically distinguishes the American response to the contradictions and crises of global capitalism after the crash of '29 from responses in Berlin, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo, and other capitals.
With respect to literature, it is perhaps still conceivable, or at least imaginable, that what distinguishes good literature from the mediocre or the poor is the ability of the artist in question to transcend socio-economic circumstances, perhaps even the circumstances defining the aesthetic paradigm of the time, and to touch a common, even a vaguely universal, human sensibility beyond "atavistic" boundaries, whether drawn by homo faber or homo politicus. Natsume Soseki's character sensei in Kokoro, for example, in what amounts to a deathbed plea to his young friend, observes that if his story helps us to understand "even a part of what we are" he shall be satisfied. Soseki's "we" is Japanese, only more so. The art points beyond Japanese culture to a common humanity. Perhaps, too, there is more to American literature during the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century than a somewhat unconscious midwifing of "consumption as a legitimate form of political action" (270) within which "American consumers"--or is it the "American citizen"? (271)--can enjoy economic and cultural security. Perhaps there are also echoes of a transcendence beyond the modern, beyond the postmodern, even beyond the traditional. Michael Szalay's study is a thoughtful, inventive, provocative, well-written study more revealing of literary politics in the twenty-first-century American university than either literature as art or mid-twentieth-century American politics. Still, as a window into the first, it is highly recommended.
TIMOTHY HOYE, Texas Woman's University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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