A whole genre of literature, that of the American working class during the Great Depression, has all but disappeared. Now a WSU professor and a Northwest novelist are bringing writer Robert Cantwell, a Washington native, and his most significant book, Land of Plenty, out of the mists of time.
Cantwell, one of the finest American writers of the 1930s, was admired by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, says T.V. Reed, professor of English and American studies. His masterpiece is set in a Washington plywood factory and his characters are based on the workers he once toiled alongside.
Born in southwest Washington and raised in Aberdeen, Cantwell witnessed labor strikes, mill fires, worker injuries, and a town divided by income and class. At the same time, Cantwell was “very much a literary kid,” says Reed. He read Henry James and Karl Marx, and later Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.
After, in Cantwell’s words, “one barren and miserable year” of college, he went home to work in a Hoquiam plywood factory. Though he was there to earn money as a veneer-clipper operator, he came away with more. “He felt the workers were, in fact, far more interesting than the people he met at the UW,” says Reed. In his spare time, he wrote. Inspired by the people around him, including women and American Indians, he wove their individual stories into short stories, a play, and even portions of a novel capturing a broader working-class agenda.
In 1929, he sold a short story and moved to New York just a month before the stock market crash. Nearly broke and selling stories and reviews where he could, he nonetheless managed to finish his first novel, Laugh and Lie Down, also set in Washington. Then, in the thick of the Great Depression, he wrote Land of Plenty, a tale centered around a labor strike at a lumber mill. Published in 1935, it won widespread critical acclaim.
Writer Jess Walter grew up in a union family in Spokane, a decidedly blue collar town. He remembers hearing references to Cantwell and Land of Plenty, the last edition of which came out in 1971.
“Even finding a copy was really tough,” says Walter. But he was thrilled to discover writing on a par with the best of the time, and “about this place that we know so well.” Cantwell’s descriptions of the town, the mill, the tideflats, and “the last great forests between the mountains and the Pacific” are pure Washington.
Cantwell’s writing style is modern, his subjects relevant today, says Walter, who recently chose Land of Plenty for reprint as part of a Pharos Editions’ effort to reissue great works that are out of print, lost, or rare.
Cantwell caught T.V. Reed’s interest 40 years ago when he was a graduate student. Exploring writing about the labor movement, he came across Cantwell’s work and was stunned to find, “it was ten times better than anything else that had been written about it.
“He captured the spirit of a radical and revolutionary time,” says Reed. And when he approached politics and social questions in his work, his writing got even better, he says. “It’s a very modern text in the way it explores social inequality.”
He knew Cantwell was worthy of a book-long consideration, “But I thought someone else would do it,” says Reed.
No one did.
Recently Reed returned to his subject, publishing Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left with the intention of not only bringing Cantwell back into view, but to draw attention to the large gap in American literature from the 1930s, when working class people were at the center of American culture. First World War II, and then the cultural shift to the middle class of the 1950s, led Americans to abandon many great works of this era.
“Cantwell was so much a creature of his time, he was forced to remake himself when the decade came to an end,” writes Reed. In fact, the scholar explores the various factors, including 1950s McCarthyism, the abandonment of Marxism by his peers, and a mental breakdown, that led Cantwell away from radical fiction and into the safer territories of magazine journalism and biography. “He never completely recovered,” says Reed. “He becomes the quiet Sports Illustrated guy rather than the young revolutionary.”
Walter and Reed recently celebrated the release of Reed’s biography and the reprinting of Land of Plenty at an event hosted by the Elliott Bay Book Company. There they told the crowd that it was time we rediscovered the fiction of the 1930s before that body of work is lost. From that time and genre “we’re allowed the Grapes of Wrath and nothing else,” says Walter. “But Land of Plenty should be taught in writing programs.”
And the time has come for a critical focus on “working class studies,” says Reed. “This is our political history, our literary history, and our social history.”