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Ragged Revolutionaries: The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature.

<i>Ragged Revolutionaries: The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature.</i> Nathaniel Mills. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017. 216 pp. $90 cloth, $21.99 eBook.

JAMES BALDWIN'S SCATHING CRITIQUE OF RICHARD WRIGHT'S NOVEL <i>Native Son</i> set the tone for considerations of black protest fiction for a generation to come. In his essay "Many Thousands Gone," Baldwin accuses his former mentor Wright of acquiescing to the vulgar materialism of Marxism, a claim punctuated by his description of Wright's protagonist Bigger Thomas as a "symbolical monster" (26). Ralph Ellison would later echo Baldwin's dismissal of Wright's communist perspective in <i>Native Son,</i> lamenting in his essay "The World and the Jug" that Wright had discovered the "facile answers of Marxism" at the expense of his own artistic vision (167). How are we to understand, then, the role of Marxist politics in the fiction of black authors like Wright and others?

Nathaniel Mills responds to this central question in his book <i>Ragged Revolutionaries: The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature.</i> Mills (re)examines the Marxist figure of the "Lumpenproletariat" in the literary works of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Margaret Walker. Although a pejorative figure in Marxism denoting the criminal underclass, the lumpenproletariat acquires new meaning in the fiction of these authors whose appropriation of the figure represents "revisions and expansions, not rejections, of Marxism" (20). More specifically, Mills describes how these authors marshal the discarded figure of the lumpenproletariat, not as a social outcast or pariah as classical Marxism would have it, but rather as a sort of transient revolutionary, unmoored to the conventional methods of working-class political action. This figure of the "ragged revolutionary" has important implications for (re)thinking the role of Marxist political thought in the works of these and other African American authors.

Perhaps Mills's most significant contribution in the book is his extended discussion of Margaret Walker, an often neglected but immensely important author in the African American literary tradition. Walker is frequently associated with Wright, whom she knew personally and about whom she wrote a biography, but her trajectory as a writer and poet in her own right is certainly worthy of consideration. Mills's reading of her seminal poem "For My People," a powerful statement of black political solidarity and revolutionary hope, reveals the transformation of the lumpen figure or "ragged revolutionary" into a "folk hero" in the black cultural tradition. Walker's invocation of a black collective consciousness, where she describes "my people everywhere singing their slave songs repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees" (13), is for Mills an expression of the unconventionality of black revolutionary thought. Such unconventional thinking does not express itself here as class struggle (in the traditional Marxist sense of what counts as revolutionary political action), but rather posits the struggle itself as political meaning.

The book is not without some unevenness of thought, however, particularly as it pertains to the larger debate about the function of politics in art and literature. All three authors considered made very public breaks from the Communist Party. Although Mills acknowledges their departure from "the institutional Communist left," his explanation that "none of them fully abandoned the spirit of their 1930s Marxism" (173) is insufficient in explaining why they decided to publicly disavow leftist politics in the first place. Wright certainly felt the tension of party politics encroaching upon his artistic freedom. And what about Walker, who, according to Mills, falsely denied having ever been published in "left-wing magazines" (136)? Did these authors feel the limitations of politically tendentious writing, or were they simply forced to mute their politics because of Cold War-era ideologies? Despite this criticism, however, Mills offers here a thoughtful account of how the literary works of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Margaret Walker revised classical Marxist thought in their reimagining of the lumpenproletariat figure.

<i>Donald Shaffer</i>

<i>Mississippi State University</i>
                        Works Cited


Baldwin, James. <i>Collected Essays.</i> New York: Library of America, 1998. 19-34.

Ellison, Ralph. <i>The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison.</i> Ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995. 155-88.

Walker, Margaret. "For My People." <i>For My People.</i> New York: Arno P, 1968.13-14.
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Author:Shaffer, Donald
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2016
Words:707
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