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Labor Literature for the NLC Community

Labor & Working-Class Literature

Looking for something to read?
Since we have so many avid readers in
the NLC community, I thought I would
share a few engaging novels that
reflect on labor and work issues.
Whether or not you’re new to the labor
movement and the NLC community,
chances are you may have missed
some of the rich labor literature
currently available. Numerous texts
have been recovered and republished,
offering us the opportunity to enter into
labor experiences in a way that only
Looking for something to read?
fiction can offer. In my labor
literature courses, I argue that
reading labor literature adds depth
to our understanding of the labor
movement and other social justice
causes. Try one of these novels and
see what you think.

Supporting Small Presses
Small publishers like West End Press and
The Feminist Press have been agents of
change for labor literature, recovering
texts from past writers and publishing
new voices. Without West End Press,
Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl would be
lost. Editor John Crawford worked with
Le Sueur to publish this book in 1978
after it had been blacklisted. A radical
activist in the 1930s, Le Sueur published
in small magazines of the time, and is
best known for “Women on the
Breadlines,” which was published in The
New Masses in 1932.
The Girl shares the rising consciousness
of a young, nameless woman who
seeks work in St. Paul, joining her friend
Clara to work as a waitress at a
speakeasy during the Depression. The
language is lovely, and, while it is
intense in its portrayal of the struggle to
survive, the message is hopeful.
If this novel interests you, please order
from West End directly, http://www.
westendpress.org/store/book/the-girl/
.

Voices of the Unknown and Disinherited
When people think of great
Depression-era novels, John
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
generally comes to mind. But if you
are looking for novels that offer
alternative experiences, you won’t
want to miss Sanora Babb’s Whose
Names Are Unknown or Jack
Conroy’s The Disinherited.
Gaining an advance from Random
House based on four chapters
submitted in spring 1939, Babb
completed her novel that summer,
blending autobiographical
experiences of growing up in a sod
house on a midwestern dry farm
with her volunteer work at migrant
farmers camps in 1938. Yet the
novel was not published until 2004
because John Steinbeck’s Grapes
of Wrath had appeared, and
Babb’s publishers felt another book on the dust bowl migrations would
not sell.
Conroy’s novel is also a fictional
autobiography, telling the story of
Larry Donovan, who grows up in a
mining village in Missouri, and,
seeking work throughout the
Depression, moves towards class
consciousness through his
experiences in the railroad, rubber,
and auto industries.
• Sanora Babb. Whose Names
Are Unknown. Foreword
Lawrence R. Rodgers. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press,
2004. Print.
• Jack Conroy. The Disinherited: A
Novel of the 1930s. 1933. Introd.
Douglass Wixson. Columbia:
University of Missouri, 1982, 1991. Print.

A Few Choices from a Rich Collection
A Few Choices from a Rich Collection
Agnes Smedley. Daughter of Earth. 1929.
Foreword Alice Walker. Afterword Nancy
Hoffman. New York: The Feminist Press,
1987. Print.
Marie Rogers stands in for Smedley in this
fictional autobiography that traces her
childhood, travels in search of work,
political activity, and marriages. Marie
reflects on the challenges of being a
working-class woman revolutionary. In
the 1930s, Smedley served as a
correspondent in China’s battlefields
during the Communist Revolution
(http://www.asu.edu/lib/archives/smedforeign.htm)
Labor Arts. "Pyramid of Capitalist System"
issued by Nedeljkovich, Brashick and
Kuharich, Cleveland: The International
Publishing Co., 1911. http://www.
laborarts.org/collections/item.cfm?itemid
=428
When people think of great
Depression-era novels, John
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
generally comes to mind. But if you
are looking for novels that offer
alternative experiences, you won’t
want to miss Sanora Babb’s Whose
Names Are Unknown or Jack
Conroy’s The Disinherited.
Gaining an advance from Random
House based on four chapters
submitted in spring 1939, Babb
completed her novel that summer,
blending autobiographical
experiences of growing up in a sod
house on a midwestern dry farm
with her volunteer work at migrant
farmers camps in 1938. Yet the
novel was not published until 2004
because John Steinbeck’s Grapes
of Wrath had appeared, and
Babb’s publishers felt another book
If you seek a poem, short story, novel, or other literary
work to illustrate a point in one of your classes, chances
are the idea has been explored creatively. Here are a
few to consider reading:
• Tillie Olsen. Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Introd.
Linda Ray Pratt. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of
Nebraska, 1974, 2004. Print. Olsen is more well
known for “I Stand Here Ironing” and Silences. This
early text, written in her teens and early 20s and
recovered 40 years later, shares a family’s struggle
to survive work exploitations in mining,
sharecropping, and packinghouse work.
• Langston Hughes. Not Without Laughter. 1930.
Introd. Maya Angelou. Foreword Arna Bontemps.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print. Hughes
shares protagonist Sandy’s childhood and
adolescence in this fictional autobiography that
considers how race, class, and gender intensify the
struggle for work and survival.
• Dorothy West. The Living Is Easy. 1948. Afterword
Adelaide M. Cromwell. New York: The Feminist
Press, 1982. Print. West’s semi-autobiographical
novel explores class, race, and gender issues as
Cleo, born to a poor Southern farming family,
becomes part of Boston’s African-American elite
society. In addition to raising challenging social
questions in her own work, West’s editorial career is
fascinating.
• Josephine Johnson. Now in November. 1934. Afterword
Nancy Hoffman. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991. Print.
Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, her first. Told
in first-person from middle daughter Marget’s point of
view, the novel reflects on the Haldmarne family’s return
to their family farm, which offers little shelter from the
Depression.
• Mike Gold. Jews Without Money. 1930. New York: Carroll
& Graf Publishers, 1996. A series of tales about Jewish
immigrants and their children living in the tenements of
New York, struggling with anti-Semitism, poverty, and
cultural alienation, Gold’s novel is a fictionalized autobiography.