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Thursday, September 23, 2021

September 23, 2021: American Modernists: Dos Passos and Wright

[September 24th is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 125th birthday! So in honor of that quintessential Modernist author, this week I’ll AmericanStudy him and a handful of other exemplary such writers. Share your thoughts on any of them, and any other Modernist authors and texts you’d highlight, for an experimental crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On two strikingly parallel yet also importantly distinct 1930s to ‘50s Modernist arcs.

Despite our longstanding collective national antagonism toward communism, one that precedes the Cold War but of course was greatly amplified during that half-century of global conflict, there have nonetheless been both moments and communities in which the political philosophy has had substantially broader and deeper appeal. In the 1930s, two such factors came together to help produce a sizeable and vocal cohort of Modernist American writers and intellectuals who embraced communism: the Depression’s heightening of wealth inequalities and social stratification seemed to highlight the limitations and even destructive capabilities of unchecked capitalism; and those economic woes, coupled with the continued destructive forces of segregation, lynching, and other communal ills and threats, led many African Americans similarly to seek an alternative to the dominant American systems.

Those responses happened within multiple communities, but they can be succinctly illustrated by two individuals, Modernist writers whose most significant novels bookend the 1930s in American literature and culture. John Dos Passos had been publishing fiction since the mid-1920s, but it was the trilogy that came to be collected as U.S.A. (1938)—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—that exemplified both his stylistic experimentation and his socialistic philosophies. Richard Wright launched his career with the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) but truly entered the literary stratosphere two years later with Native Son (1940), a novel that features both one of American literature’s most eloquent defenders of communism (in the lawyer Max) and a character (protagonist Bigger Thomas) whose tragic and brutal arc makes numerous, ineloquent but compelling arguments for the philosophy.

In the 1940s to 50s, both writers famously broke with those philosophies and with the Communist Party: Wright in one pivotal moment, the essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944); and Dos Passos more gradually, in a series of public statements and positions that culminated in his qualified support for Joseph McCarthy (among other turning points). Yet I would also argue that their shifts represent two quite distinct personal and national narratives in the post-Modernist era: Dos Passos genuinely seemed, in response to World War II, the Cold War, and other factors, to change in his political and social perspectives; whereas to my mind Wright’s perspectives remained largely unchanged, and he came instead to see, as does for example Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Communist Party as an imperfect and indeed failed vehicle through which to seek such political and social change. Such a distinction would of course become even more important in the 1960s, when a new generation of African American activists found anew a compelling alternative in American socialism.

Fitzgerald post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these authors and texts, or any other Modernist ones, for the weekend post?

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