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The Interwar Social Problem Novel

  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Nella Larsen
  • Jessie Fauset
  • Agnes Smedley

Abstract

In 1932 fifty-two writers, including Sherwood Anderson and Edmund Wilson, publicly backed the Communist Presidential ticket. This was the ‘The Red Decade’, a period when writers became enmeshed in politics, usually of the liberal and leftist variety. In general, the radical creative works of the era were marked by a code of social realism and social protest, often coupled to representations of ‘proletarian’ life and a fascination with vernacular speech (the climactic work in this protest tradition was, of course, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939). However, I want in this chapter to suggest a more capacious and fluid reading of the political fictions of the late 1920s and 1930s. Two female literary histories of this time are now familiar to us: the upsurge of polemical, committed writing (Meridel Le Sueur, Agnes Smedley and Tillie Olsen); and the emergence of black female modernism in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. This chapter suggests that these two bodies of work might be thought of in conjunction. The white leftists and the black modernists shared a commitment to a form of social problem novel. They identified a nexus of social or political problems, and then created around those issues (often identified explicitly as issues) new fictional shapes, or gave voice to the problem in an innovative, experimental register.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832–1867 (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1985).Google Scholar
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  3. 3.
    Franz Boas, ‘Preface’ to Mules and Men (1935), reprinted in Harold Bloom (ed.), Modern Critical Views: Zora Neale Hurston (New York and Philadelphia, Penn.: Chelsea House, 1986), p. 5.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’ (1934), reprinted in The Sanctified Church (Berkeley, Cal.: Turtle Island, 1981), p. 49.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) in Novels and Stories (New York: Library of America, 1995), pp. 3–171Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Houston A. Baker, Jr, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (paperback edition; Chicago, Ill. and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 58.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937; London: Virago, 1986), p. 243.Google Scholar
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    Alice Walker, ‘Foreword’ to Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977; London: Camden Press, 1986), p. xii.Google Scholar
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    Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African—American Literary Criticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 183.Google Scholar
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    Richard Wright, ‘Between Tears and Laughter’, New Masses (5 October 1937), excerpted in Harold Bloom (ed.), American Women Fiction Writers, 1900–1960, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, Penn.: Chelsea House, 1997), p. 15.Google Scholar
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    Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, p. 242. Hemenway discusses the responses of Locke and Wright to Their Eyes Were Watching God, pp. 240–3. Hurston’s interest in the ‘folk’ and the ‘folkloric’ continues to be seen as an escape from ‘history’. See Hazel Carby’s contrast of Hurston to the urban realist, Ann Petry: Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 164–6Google Scholar
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    For another reading of Larsen’s commentary on black identity politics see Carla Kaplan, ‘Undesirable Desire: Citizenship and Romance in Modern American Fiction’, Modern Fiction Studies, 43 (1997), pp. 144–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jessie Fauset, excerpts from her March 1922 column in The Crisis, reprinted in The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life and Selected Writings (1931; Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1995), p. 348.Google Scholar
  20. 22.
    For a discussion of Fauset and Larsen as radical explorers of black female desire see Ann duCille, ‘The Bourgeois, Wedding Bell Blues of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen’, The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 86–109.Google Scholar
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  22. 25.
    Laura Hapke, Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    Constance Coiner, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 27.Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    Agnes Smedley, Daughter of Earth (New York: Feminist Press, 1973), p. 8.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Guy Reynolds 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Nella Larsen
  • Jessie Fauset
  • Agnes Smedley

There are no affiliations available

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