EXCERPTS: 1927-1934

From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with an emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)


(1928) “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet. They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world…. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine. I am aware that the word ‘propaganda’ carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published. In itself, the word ‘propaganda’ has certain technical meanings which, like most things in this world, are ‘neither good nor bad but custom makes them so.’ I find the word defined in Funk and Wagnalls’ Dictionary in four ways: …‘ “Propaganda” in its proper meaning is a perfectly wholesome word, of honest parentage, and with an honorable history…’ “


–Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda



(1928) “Propaganda itself is preferable to shallow, truckling imitation. Negro things may reasonably be a fad for others; for us they must be a religion. Beauty, however, is its best priest and psalms will be more effective than sermons.”


–Alain Locke, “Art or Propaganda?” African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000 (Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ed.)



(1931) “I believe therefore that the time is at hand when these writers, who have largely dominated the literary world of the decade 1920-30, though we shall continue to admire them as masters, will no longer serve us as guides. …the private imagination in isolation from the life of society seems to have been exploited and explored as far as for the present is possible. Who can imagine this sort of thing being carried further than Valéry and Proust have done? And who hereafter will be content to inhabit a corner, though fitted out with some choice things of one’s own, in the shuttered house of one of these writers—where we find ourselves, also, becoming conscious of a lack of ventilation?

     “The reaction against nineteenth-century naturalism which Symbolism originally represented has probably now run its full course, and the oscillation which for at least three centuries has been taking place between the poles of objectivity and subjectivity may return toward objectivity again: we may live to see Valéry, Eliot and Proust displaced and treated with as much intolerance as those writers—Wells, France and Shaw—whom they have themselves displaced. Yet as surely as Ibsen and Flaubert brought to their Naturalistic plays and novels the sensibility and language of Romanticism, the writers of a new reaction in the direction of the study of man in his relation to his neighbor and to society will profit by the new intelligence and technique of Symbolism. Or—what would be preferable and is perhaps more likely—this oscillation may finally cease. Our conceptions of objective and subjective have unquestionable been based on false dualisms; our materialisms and idealisms alike have been derived from mistaken conceptions of what the researches of science implied—Classicism and Romanticism, Naturalism and Symbolism are, in reality, therefore false alternatives. …our ideas about the ‘logic’ of language are likely to be very superficial. The relation of words to what they convey—that is, to the processes behind them and the processes to which they give rise in those who listen to or read them—is still a very mysterious one. We tend to assume that being convinced of things is something quite different from having them suggested to us; but the suggestive language of the Symbolist poet is really performing the same sort of function as the reasonable language of the realistic novelist or even the severe technical languages of science” (231-234)


–Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle



(1932) “Genuine proletarian criticism has seldom sought to deny the importance of literary values because of its desire for social significances. On the contrary, except in the United States, revolutionary critics have often been harder taskmasters from the point of literary quality than aesthetic critics…. The revolutionary critic should demand as much of the art he endorses as the reactionary [critic]. No revolutionary critic, for example, should deny that art in itself, in whatever form, is a trade just as pottery-making is, and as a trade it has its technique which has to be mastered if that which is produced is to be worthwhile.”

        “Revolutionary art has to be good art first before it can have deep meaning, just as apples in a revolutionary country as well as in a reactionary country have to be good apples before they can be eaten with enjoyment. The fact that the pottery or the apples are the products of a revolutionary culture—that is, made or grown by revolutionists—does not itself, or by any kind of special magic, make them good. It simply gives them a new form of ideological identification….

        “[Great revolutionary] films are great not because they are [only progressive in ideology] but because they are great first in their formal organization, and then greater still because of the social purpose which they serve. The revolutionary proletarian critic does not aim to underestimate literary craftsmanship. What he contends is simply that literary craftsmanship is not enough. The craftsmanship must be utilized to create objects of revolutionary meaning. Only through this synthesis does the revolutionary critic believe that art can serve its most important purpose today. Revolutionary meanings without literary craftsmanship constitute as hopeless a combination from the point of view of the radical critic as literary craftsmanship without revolutionary purpose. If proletarian literature fails in so many instances in America, it is not because it is propagandistic—most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another, including even that of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw—but because it is lacking in qualities of craftsmanship.

        “In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape. …Proletarian writers are not necessarily proletarians…but they are writers who are imbued with a proletarian ideology instead of a bourgeois one. They are writers who have adopted the revolutionary point of view of the proletarian ideology in their work. That often they fail in such expression is inevitable in a transitional stage of society in which we are living in today.

        “This much should be clear, however, and that is that proletarian writers are not to be confused with literary rebels. Literary rebels believe in revolt in literature; left-wing, that is proletarian, writers believe in revolt in life. The literary rebels, for example, who became the advocates of free verse as opposed to conventional verse must not be associated with proletarian writers, who are opposed to the society in which we live and aim to devote their literature to its transformation. Proletarian writers, then, are more interested in social revolt than in literary revolt. As a group they are convinced that present-day industrial society is based upon exploitation and injustice; that it creates distress and misery for the many and brings happiness only to the few; that its dedication to the ideal of profit instead of use is destructive of everything fine and inspiring in life; and that until its private-property basis is destroyed and replaced by the social control of all property, the human race will never be able to escape the horrors of unemployment, poverty, and war. More than that, proletarian writers believe that their literature can serve a greater purpose only when it contributes, first, toward the destruction of present-day society, and, second, toward the creation of a new society which will embody…a social, instead of an individualistic ideal. Unlike Ibsen, they do not ask questions and then refuse to answer them. Unlike the iconoclasts, they are not content to tear down the idols and stop there. Their aim is to answer questions as well as ask them, and to provide a new order to replace an old one. Their attitude, therefore, is a positive instead of a negative one” (459-462). 


–V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature



(1934) “The moral office and human function of art can be intelligently discussed only in context of culture. A particular work of art may have a definite effect upon a particular person or upon a number of persons. The social effect of the novels of Dickens or of Sinclair Lewis is far from negligible. But a less conscious and more massed constant adjustment of experience proceeds from the total environment that is created by the collective art of a time…” (344). “The theories that attribute direct moral effect and intent to art fail because they do not take account of the collective civilization that is the context in which works of art are produced and enjoyed. I would not say that they tend to treat works of art as a kind of sublimated Aesop’s fables. But they all tend to extract particular works, regarded as especially edifying, from their milieu and to think of the moral function of art in terms of a strictly personal relation between the selected works and a particular individual. Their whole conception of morals is so individualistic that they miss a sense of the way in which art exercises its humane functions. Matthew Arnold’s dictum that ‘poetry is a criticism of life’ is a case in point…” (346).


–John Dewey, Art as Experience






1934-1940                                                   EXCERPTS CONTENTS

Bibliography – 1800s to 2003            
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003 
Quick Views    
Social and Political Novel  
Social and Political Literature  



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