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The Power of Political Art: The 1930s left reconsidered.

African American Review, Volume 35, Number 4 [C]2001 James Smethurst

Robert Shulman. The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. 340 pp. $49.95.

Those of us who write about left-wing literature of the 1930s generally enjoy reading most of the works we study. These works move us in a variety of ways and that is no small part of why we are drawn to them. However, when we write about the literary Left, few of us make sustained cases that the literature we discuss is good art. Of course, many of us are suspicious of such evaluations and the standards on which they have often rested (especially since these standards have assumed a priori that these works we love much are second-rate and of sociological interest at best).

What makes Robert Shulman's new book about the literary Left of the 1930s so engaging is that its project is largely to produce a series of close readings of radical texts from the Depression era that demonstrate the considerable artistic achievement of those texts. In an odd way, Shulinan's book is both a reaction to and participant in the new turn toward aesthetics and the question of beauty in literary criticism, in which he argues for the skillful and often complex formal design of works that are often still taken as the antithesis of aesthetic sophistication. Moreover, Shulman does not ground his argument in an effort to revalue these works through a process which recovers them from the Left, especially the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). A number of recent critics have attempted to validate the work of various Left writers, say Meridel Le Sueur, by trying to show how that work opposed or evaded CPUSA political and artistic orthodoxy. Shulman on the other hand points out that Le Sueur's mature style developed while she was closely engaged with the CPUSA--indeed was at times part of the national leadership of the CPUSA.

Another strength of The Power of Political Art is that, unlike many general considerations of the literary Left in the 1930s, it recognizes the crucial participation of African American artists in the cultural world of the Communist Left during that period. Among the five "representative careers" that Shulman studies are those of the Popular Front's most popular poet, Langston Hughes, and of the most powerful novelist associated with the Communist Left, Richard Wright. (He also considers the fiction of Meridel Le Sueur, the novels of Josephine Herbst, and the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser during the 1930s and early 1940s).

The book begins with two relatively brief introductory chapters. The first provides an overview of the cultural world of American Communism during the 1930s. The second is a group of biographical capsules of the five "representative" artists. The chapters that follow contain a series of close readings of works that in a number of cases, especially that of Hughes's "Red" poetry, have received little or no sustained critical attention. These readings are frequently extremely thoughtful and perceptive. For example, Shulman's analysis of Hughes's "Air Raid Over Harlem" is richly and deftly historicized. Shulman's take on a far more studied work, Native Son, resituates Wright's novel within the cultural conversation of the Popular Front where it belongs, a critical move that only a few contemporary critics, such as William Maxwell and Barbara Foley, have been willing to make.

One slightly anachronistic aspect of the book, an aspect that might not be the author's fault, is its lack of engagement with some crucial recent texts in the field of Left studies. There are a lot of comments in Shulman's notes that important books, such as Michael Denning's The Cultural Front (1997), were published too late to be taken into account. Other significant works, such as William Maxwell's New Negro, Old Left (1999), are not mentioned at all. It is possible that Shulman's book was in production for a long time, but still it would have been good if it had grappled with such a seminal work as Denning's--which appeared three years before the publication of Shulman's work. Even if this gap was unavoidable, this sense that the book is on a sort of three-second delay lingers.

The book also seems a bit disjointed at times. Despite the efforts of the introduction and the first chapter, the representativeness of the works of the five writers within the context of the literary Left is never fully documented. Instead the book is a series of often excellent close readings of works from the 1930s by Left authors that are not entirely tied together. The only real departures from this structure are two "codas" in which Shulman takes issue with two critics, one of Josephine Herbst's Trexler Trilogy and the other of Muriel Rukeyer's Book of the Dead. While such a desire to strike out directly against what one considers particularly wrong-headed criticism is understandable, and sometimes irresistible, it seems tangential here. There is also the longstanding problem in the field of Left studies of reinforcing the notion of "Red Decade" exceptionalism despite the fact that significant Left influence on American literature, especially African American literature, hardly ended with the Hitler-Sta lin Pact.

However, these problems should not distract readers from the book's genuine success in producing close readings that demonstrate the power of these radical writers--and by implication, the power of the works of the literary Left--aesthetically as well as socially. For students of Langston Hughes's "revolutionary" poetry, Shulman's readings are among the very best ever produced--and in many cases, the only existing readings, despite Shulman's convincing arguments as to the accomplishment and importance of these poems.
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Author:Smethurst, James
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:946
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