There are writers who are likely to be better understood or more beloved by readers who have occupied the same corner of the world where the author came from or based most of his or her work. I don’t necessarily mean that if you come from Mississippi, you automatically appreciate Eudora Welty more than somebody from Kansas, or that someone from the East Coast couldn’t possibly comprehend John Fante’s haunted Los Angeles. But reading something and being able to immediately envision its setting and milieu is a powerful advantage.
The writer who I tend to think of first in relation to my own hometown is Carl Sandburg (who was born on this day in 1878), whose poem “Chicago” includes that memorable “City of the Big Shoulders” line. I became acquainted with the works of Sandburg at an early age, introduced by teachers who called him the greatest Chicago poet, to the point that hearing his name today conjures up visions of smokestacks towering over the old brick buildings where workers in newsboy caps toil all day, and other opening sequence of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven type of stuff. The first book of poetry I ever recall pulling off a library shelf was a volume that included the collection of his Chicago Poems.
I started reading Sandburg when I was old enough to make conscious decisions about what I wanted to read, but young enough to not really read between the lines. It didn’t dawn on me, when I was 12 or 14, that Sandburg’s work is undeniably political — and that Sandburg, along with a number of other authors and artists I was reading around that time, was a committed Socialist. He wrote his Chicago Poems around the same time as he was penning articles for the newspapers aimed at Chicago’s working class. In these articles, Sandburg pointed to the city’s mayor and big-money families like the Rockefellers as the problem with Chicago and the United States as a whole.
As shown time and time again by cable news shows extolling the evils of Obamacare as a scheme straight out of the Marx-and-Engels playbook, America has always had a skewed view of what Socialism is. In the case of classic authors Sandburg, George Orwell — a British author whose Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered liturgy by Americans from both sides of the political spectrum — and Jack London, we look past or gloss over the affiliation more often than not.
Yet Sandburg, Orwell, and London are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to authors who were either active members of the party or simply sympathetic to socialism during the pre-World War II and early postwar years. They’re just the ones who are still selling books in large numbers, or have found their way into high school English curricula. Authors like John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, and Ernest Poole, who all wrote books with overtly political themes, from antiwar to child labor, tend to be periodically rediscovered more than consistently taught these days. The fact that they’ve faded from the American discussion leads me to wonder whether their works are too political for contemporary readers or simply outdated.
The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that they’re a little bit of both: while Sandburg wrote about citizens of the Windy City who were made “[t]o work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,” and “[t]o eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted” in the poem “They Will Say,” and Orwell’s second-best-known novel, Animal Farm, is a democratic socialist’s attempt at weaving a not-too-veiled allegory about Stalinism, neither of the works overtly challenge American ideals.
As we’ve seen in the past, there is always room for literary works to climb back into the discussion again. Sometimes it happens inexplicably; other times a renewed interest in an author can be sparked by a film adaptation or a small press deciding to republish the books and toss some promotional capital behind the work. Leftie writers of yesteryear — those who are still read along with those who have been relegated to the dusty shelves of used bookshops — might be due for a new look, their influence becoming more noticeable as many Americans on the left and right question their trust of the government and the direction the country is headed in. A trend is beginning to emerge in literature, with books like the forthcoming Imagine: Living In a Socialist U.S.A. (Harper Perennial). The New Statesmen recently had this to say about the “new socialist wunderkinds of America” (namely, The New Inquiry and Jacobin): “Something is brewing in Brooklyn, something far more inspiring than another batch of artisanal organic ale. There is a revival of left-wing intellectual thinking on a level unseen since the 1960s.” A new generation of politically minded writers who balance fiction with politics is already on the rise, and making waves in the literary world.
This may explain why readers have slowly been coming around to Dos Passos again, as evidenced by a recent Rumpus review of his U.S.A. Trilogy. “I’m not sure that any writer today is writing fiction as contemporary in substance as that which John Dos Passos was writing in the 1920’s and 30’s,” writes Will Augerot by way of introduction. This revived interested has also extended to Dwight Macdonald, whose Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain was republished in 2011. Even the beloved radio program This American Life would probably not exist without the work of the late Studs Terkel, a dedicated FDR man who found himself on the McCarthy blacklist for signing his name to one too many left-wing petitions. While Terkel wasn’t calling for a revolution like the one seen in Russia in 1917, his association with the infamous blacklist continues to color our view of him, even after his death in 2008. See a New York Times “Appraisal” in which Edward Rothstein calls Terkel’s work “an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor — the sense of disassociation that comes from the capitalist workplace.”
What does all this mean for Sandburg? His poetry still isn’t considered as important as T.S. Eliot’s or Robert Frost’s, but it certainly has its place as an artifact of when Americans were pushing hard for real change. That place, not coincidentally, is Chicago, which at the time was a hub for the likes of Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman, and socialist-associated writers who were either born there, moved there, or wrote about it in their work, from Richard Wright to Saul Bellow, as well as Dreiser and Dos Passos. There is plenty to take away from reading these dead socialist writers, but Sandburg’s work, with its poetic observations of one of America’s biggest cities during a time of unrest and change, might be deserving of a second look based solely on its historical importance — especially since history has been known to repeat itself.