Vintage WD: The American Labor Novel

This #WritersDigest100 piece from our January 1937 archives by Louis Zara explores the potential for writers to pen The American Labor Novel and has surprising relevance for today.
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This #WritersDigest100 piece from our January 1937 archives by Louis Zara explores the potential for writers to pen The American Labor Novel and has surprising relevance for today.

One of my favorite things about going through the 100 years of Writer's Digest archives is stumbling upon pieces that speak to a very specific time in history--and looking at the predictions they make for the future. The advice they offer, in one regard, is so very specific to the readers of the time, but in another way, is as relevant today as ever.

Such is the case with this 1937 Writer's Digest essay by novelist, publisher, and art critic, Louis Zara. In it he offers ideas for writing the American Labor Novel and mentions a few representative novels of his time. In the comments section, please leave your suggestions for more contemporary novels on the theme. - Amy

American Labor Novel

By Louis Zara, Writer’s Digest, January 1937

The novel of labor and the laborer is more timely today than it ever was in this country. Labor will never again take a back seat in American politics. The manual toiler is more aware today of his position in the scheme of things, due to the renascence brought on by the NRA—than he ever was before. [Editor’s Note: In 1937, the NRA referred to The National Recovery Administration, an agency of the New Deal.] And correspondingly publishers who keep a sharp eye to current events will want to see this reflected in some of the novels they accept.

Beginning writers who are planning to embark upon a serious first novel are therefore cautioned to think twice before conning National Geographics for backgrounds to use in adventure stories and romances. Instead, they are advised to base their novels on the firm ground of first-hand information if they are at all acquainted with any one field of endeavor, any trade or craft. This is not an attempt to lure circulating library writers from the stenographer and young matron trade. But it is a definite declaration that the road is open to the writer who is familiar with any branch of manual labor and is not completely befogged by [Robert] Browning’s “God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.”

Perhaps fully half of the forty thousand persons reading this magazine are workers who are seeking creative expression in writing. At least ten percent of this number are thoroughly familiar with one or more of America’s basic industries. And yet few novels have to date been written on coal, steel, oil, rubber, cotton, copper, sugar, textiles, and so on. However, enough have been done (see examples later) to demonstrate that well-written stories based on the experience of the Average American at work, at play or on the relief rolls, will achieve publication and will be read by an audience that is annually increasing in size.

Abroad the novel of the common, and often forgotten, man has already had a half-century of acceptance. In this country the contemporary novel of labor may be said to have begun with The Jungle, a story of the Chicago stockyards, written by Upton Sinclair, in 1905. Incidentally, Sinclair, apart from his political forays, is perhaps the best example of a writer who has moved with his times. His chief works are novels of purpose, each directed to expose conditions in a single industrial scene, such as The Jungle, Oil, and Boston.

The Jungle, a novel of the muckraking genre, is a landmark in American literature if only because it commanded an investigation of conditions in the Chicago stockyards and was responsible not only for the sanitary packing of meat, but also for better conditions for those employed in the meat-packing industry. Today new stories remain to be told of the modern stockyards and its many subsidiary activities; certainly the relation between employer and employee has changed somewhat in these thirty years. Perhaps the beginning writer will be inclined to pull his punches. However, in Oil for the Lamps of China, a recent work on the fringe of this arbitrary labor novel classifications, Alice Tisdale Hobart gave a delicate portrayal of the relations of the white collar worker to that sinister power which she called only “the Company” that was none the less powerful. And the Hobart novel offers an excellent example of how romance and drama may be knit into an honest picture of the spread of American industrial interests abroad.

It is of the highest importance that the writer first command a definite source of material in any of the industries, and then, instead of writing about people with mysteriously huge incomes and a taste for caviar and champagne, to write about people whose incomes are definitely limited but whose lives are no less rich in the stuff of living. The thumbnail guide which follow here, employing Kipling’s “six honest serving men,” what and when and why and where and how and who, may be of service to the beginner in plunging into such a project.

  1. Where: Select the industry, art, or craft with which you, the potential novelist, are thoroughly familiar.
  2. When: Decide upon the time, the period in which you will picture this industry, art, or craft.
  3. Who: Create characters who are either an integral part of your industrial scene, or who depend upon it, or who are affected by it.
  4. What and Why: Decide what is going to happen in your story and plot its general outlines.
  5. How: Fix the important crises in your drama and build toward
  6. Write it.

An important lesson for the beginning novelist to learn is that no subject matter is too humble to merit his attention. The chestnut-vendor, the notions-peddler, the umbrella-mender, the door-to-door canvasser each has a story to tell, one that may well rival the oil millionaire’s tale in dramatic content. Nor is any kind of work, however colorless, unworthy of study by the potential novelist, from labor in a Grand Rapids furniture factory to the carding of pearl buttons usually done at home by children.

Last year in Chicago, a young man who had been writing pulp romances, asked me for advice on subject matter. I suggested that he write with his own trade and businesses for a background. He laughed. He owned a cleaning and dyeing shop and intimated that a story based on such work would be dull and uninteresting. But in the last ten years every industry, and particularly the cleaning and dyeing industry, has undergone drastic changes. In Chicago there remains to be told the story of the invasion of the cleaning and dyeing business by racketeers and gangsters, with violence flaring up from time to time, of the struggle between the small independent operator and the large chain operator, and of the influence of such a situation on the general political picture in a great metropolis. But the young man who writes pulp romances could see nothing in it.

The selection of the period in which to picture your events calls for some judgment. But if the story you plan to tell deals with a cause célèbre such as that growing out of the Haymarket riot, or the Sacco-Vanzetti case of with any important crisis, whether a wage cut, a strike, or the inauguration of the production-line, then that problem is at once settled: tying events to a historical hitching-post is the simplest, if a much over-used, trick in fiction.

In the last few years there have been many novels of local strikes. The most notable of these perhaps were Robert Cantwell’s The Land of Plenty, a story of a strike of workers in a Western lumber mill, and John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a drama laid in the fruit valleys of California. Strong novels of the general strike whether in Pekin, Illinois, Terre Haute, in Toledo, in Seattle, or in San Francisco still remain to be written. To my mind Volume III of Martin Andersen Nexo’s tetralogy Pelle the Conqueror, containing the story of a Scandinavian general strike, may well serve as a dramatic model for modern industrial writers.

We need not force a doctrine on the reader in such novels. It cannot be denied that the question of propaganda does arise: Should there be any and how much and on whose side? But that can be decided only by the individual writer and to suit his own purpose. As for the question, can propaganda be art, if it cannot be art than the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and their ilk and the entire school of Byzantine painters, engaged in propaganda for their faiths, are not art either. In effect, art is what my side accomplishes; propaganda is what the enemy does.

An example of a labor novel without what is commonly called propaganda, i.e. doctrination on behalf of the underdog, is Albert Halper’s Foundry, which skirts controversial issues to give a complete picture of a craft and the story of what occurred in a Chicago electrotype foundry the year that ended in the crash of ’29. This is an excellent example of the labor novel, for Foundry is rich in excellent characterizations and humor and tragedy, and also contains a fine portrayal of the life of electrotype foundry workers in the shop and at home.

Another example of the use of a trade in fiction occurs in Volume II of Nexo’s Pelle the Conqueror where the chief characters, the boy who grows up to be a great labor leader, is apprentice to the cobbler. In Give Us This Day [1935] I employed the bakeshop and the baker’s trade as a major backdrop before which all of the main characters acted out their lives. In the same way Catherine Brody has written of the automobile workers and Jack Conroy of the coal miners, and Myron Brinig of life in a copper mining town. In his Horse Shoe Bottoms Tom Tippett, Guggenheim Fellow in creative writing, wrote one of the most honest books on “death and victory in the coal mines” that has ever come my way. Perhaps a dozen other young writers have thus far occupied themselves seriously with the American Labor Novel. James T. Farrell’s works, particularly the Studs Lonigan trilogy, while not strictly in this group, deserve especial study for the uncompromising realism with which he attacks his studies of lower middle class society.

Acquaintance with the more modern techniques in storytelling is of undoubted help, but straight old-fashioned narrative can still be effective. In The Brothers Ashkenazi, a recent continental novel, I. J. Singer [Israel Joshua Singer] used it with great force in depicting growth and changes in the industrial city of Lodz. But the most comprehensive and intelligent study of all writing techniques the beginner will find in James Warren Beach’s The Techniques of the Twentieth Century Novel. Every aspiring writer who is at all interested in the craft of fiction should be familiar with this book and make it a part of his personal library.

For beginners who may be stumped for thematic ideas, I append a list of suggestions for labor novels. Current events will suggest others.

  1. A character story of the strikebreaker, “fink” or scab, perhaps on the order of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer [1925].
  2. Adventures of an organizer, say for the Committee on Industrial Organization, in a place say like Weirton. Romance and thrills in a labor novel: The organizer must do his work under cover with company thugs and murderers on his trail.
  3. Story of life among the steel workers from the failure of the steel strike of 1919 to the new John L. Lewis drive of 1936.
  4. Story of a modern family of transients running the blockade imposed from time to time by such states as California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Florida against people who are without means are on the move in search of employment and sanctuary. As many thrills could be packed into this one as in any story of running a blockade at sea.
  5. The realistic story of the American seaman with the background of the maritime difficulties of the last four years.
  6. The story of what a huge government project has meant to the people of the Tennessee Valley, Boulder Dam, Passamaquoddy.
  7. A novel of the child labor and industrial homework in this year of grace.
  8. Story of the ups and downs of a tenant farmer, not in the South, but in the West.
  9. A novel of life among those employed by a handful of firms in soap and soup and paper and chewing gum and clothing who have for many years, to the profit of all concerned, maintained fair relations with their employees.
  10. A general strike in a small town. When the strikers are beset with tear and vomit gas an unknown benefactor buys them a thousand gas masks!

It is not necessary to inject incendiary propaganda in the modern labor novel. The simplest, most truthful stories (see the novel of modern Italy, Fontamara, by Ignazio Silone for an excellent example) will often be the most effective dramatically. An in this direction lies the most promising field today for the earnest young novelist.

Read more of our archives like this piece about the writer's social responsibility from January 1970.

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