From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with an emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)
(1934) “In one issue of the New York Times—May 10, 1933—we learned from the Mexican Bolshevik artist, Diego Rivera, that ‘art which is not propaganda is not art at all,’ and from Hitler’s Minister of Education that ‘it is no longer art for art’s sake in Germany, but art for propaganda’s sake—otherwise it is not art.’ The German Bolshevik artist, George Grosz, had already declared that ‘The artist of our day, if he does not want to be an empty runner…can choose only between technique and class-struggle propaganda.’ And Mussolini recently expressed the same view by refusing to open the Style Show at Turin until all the slim girls in the mural had been washed down, and issuing an instruction to the press to accept for publication only such representations of the female figure as exemplify the ‘fully developed bust and hips appropriate to the fascist girl and mother.’ It seems well agreed on both sides of the barricades, that in the future at least art is to be crudely purposive, and the artist’s prestige to depend upon his service to a social or political cause” (3-4).
–Max Eastman, Art and the Life of Action
(1935) “To characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn it. Such pamphlets have their place in the world. In the case of the liberal critic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weapon…. The liberal critic, the Man in White, wants us to believe that when you write about the autumn wind blowing a girl’s hair or about ‘thirsting breasts,’ you are writing about ‘experience’; but when you write about the October Revolutions, or the Five Year Plan, or the lynching of Negroes in the South, or the San Francisco strike you are not writing about ‘experience.’ Hence to say; ‘bed your desire among the pressing grasses’ is art; while Roar China, Mayakovsky’s poems, or the novels of Josephine Herbst and Robert Cantwell are propaganda …. If you were to take a worker gifted with a creative imagination and ask him to set down his experience honestly, it would be an experience so remote from that of the bourgeois that the Man in White would, as usual, raise the cry of ‘propaganda’ ” (9-12).
–Joseph Freeman in Proletarian Literature in the United States, Granville Hicks, Ed., et. al.
(1936) “I think that literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence. It is this duality, intrinsic to literature, that produces unresolved problems of literary criticism” (3).
“I suggest that in the field of literature the formula ‘All art is propaganda’ be replaced by another: ‘Literature is an instrument of social influence’…. [Literature] can be propaganda—in the more limited sense of my definition of propaganda; and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation. However, it often performs neither of these functions and yet does perform an objective social function… I am making these distinctions on the grounds of strategy and clarity, so that we may know what we are doing and what we are talking about. A leading critical confusion—as I have said—has arisen from using the word propaganda in various senses; then from hitching literature sometimes to one; sometimes to another, of these meanings; and finally from thinking that we have always had the same meanings in mind and that these meanings exhaust the roles that literature plays objectively in society, and subjectively upon the individual consciousness of the reader. In so doing, we have produced wasted polemics; and in confronting critics who oppose Marxism, revolutionary criticism has led with its chin; is it any wonder that opponents have leaped at it when such opportunities were offered?” (169-171).
–James T. Farrell, “Literature and Propaganda,” in A Note on Literary Criticism
(1939) “Socialist criticism in America may conveniently be dated from the founding of the Comrade—‘An Illustrated Socialist Monthly’—in 1901…. The Comrade appeared at the beginning of the muckrake era. It was superior to the muckrakers in the clarity of its vision as to the basic cause of social evils and the way to cure them…. The aims of socialist critics were propagandistic, and it was inevitable that they should be paramount in a time when American critical systems were divided between art for art’s sake, art for morality’s sake, and various compromises between those two exhausted theories of esthetic purpose.1 Consider the essays and lectures on the contemporary theatre by the anarchist Emma Goldman. Miss Goldman made no bones about her intentions. Her essay on ‘The Modern Drama’ in Anarchism and Other Essays (1911) was frankly a salute to its subject as an instrument for the dissemination of radical thought.”
(1“ ‘propaganda’ is not used here as an invidious term. It is used to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readers’ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something”) (289-292).
“The socialist’s affinity with realism was stated forcefully in the leading editorial of the Masses in February 1911—the second issue of a magazine…which was a successor, on a more mature and ‘politicalized’ level, to the Comrade. It said: ‘It is natural that Socialists should favor the novel with a purpose, more especially, the novel that points a Socialist moral. As a reaction against the great bulk of vapid, meaningless, too-clever American fiction, with its artificial plots and characters remote from actual life, such an attitude is a healthy sign …’ ”(289-290).
“Its militancy is the most obvious characteristic of American criticism since the war. In the whole of nineteenth century there was only one critic, Poe, who was deliberately and consistently disputatious. No one else made polemics the basis of a critical method. Whitman was a maverick, but he was exclamatory rather than argumentative. Now, however, it is customary for critics to be bellicose, and there are few who have let politeness stand in the way of controversy. The reason is not hard to find. Criticism in our time has been largely a war of traditions—a struggle between irreconcilable ideologies…” (302).
“The academy was growing up. It was beginning to share the emotions of serious adults who were trying to adjust themselves to an America become rich and imperialistic. In its own special field, literary history, it was beginning to achieve mature and realistic interpretations. In 1927 it came of age: V. L. Parrington, professor of English at the University of Washington, published the two completed volumes of his Main Currents in American Thought. With that work the academy was at last brought face to face with the ideas, sentiments, and historical methods of today…. Parrington’s Main Currents arrived to supply the most needed things: an account of our literary history which squared with recent works on the history of our people and a realistic technique for analyzing the relationship of a writer to his time and place—in addition to a militantly progressive spirit. Professorial and literary circles had consciously been waiting for such a work, and if the one that did come forth was far more radical than some people cared for, it simply could not be rejected. The author was a professor too; his scholarship defied scrutiny; and his ideas were couched in terms that were native American, most of them having come over shortly after the Mayflower. One must emphasize Parrington’s radicalism because it is probably the most significant aspect of his work. He sharpened, gave point to the economic interpretation of literary movements because of his desire to reveal the motivating interests and real direction of specific works of literature… (330-331).
“There was one critic who apparently possessed all the virtues—fine taste, poetic sensitiveness, intellectuality, an experimental inclination. His literary scholarship was beyond dispute, his writing deft and memorable. He was, moreover, a poet of the first rank, which gave his criticism of the art an extraordinary authority. He was universally respected: by Pound, by the later expatriates, by the impressionists of the Dial, by the Hound and Horn group. This critic was T. S. Eliot. His volume of essays, The Sacred Wood, published in 1920, is still considered to be one of the truly distinguished works of esthetic criticism produced in this century…. The reader will note that he is here described in the past tense. His works are many now, but The Sacred Wood alone is a consideration of esthetic problems. In the rest the emphasis is on the esthetic effects of moral and social beliefs. His development is one of the ‘consequences’ touched upon in the following chapter…. (358-359).
“[T.S. Eliot wrote,] ‘There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialistic [i.e., Marxist]. It is quite possible, of course, that the future may bring neither a Christian nor a materialistic civilization. It is quite possible that the future may be nothing but chaos or torpor. In that event, I am not interested in the future; I am only interested in the two alternatives which seem to me worthier of interest….’ Eliot chose not only the Catholic hypothesis, but also its political corollaries. His literary opinions were thus given a firm philosophical base to rest upon, and from that fact he drew the reasonable conclusions…[that] ‘Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive. In ages like our own, in which there is no such common agreement, it is then more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of imagination, with explicit ethical and theological standards. The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.’ To this has esthetic criticism at last come—to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality. It had become, in essence, literary criticism as socially conscious and as polemical as the criticism of the Marxists….
“Eliot spoke of alternatives, not of choices…. He believes that one of the alternatives has greater value, is nobler, is in a sense more real, than the other. The question is therefore not simply one of personal taste. It is a question of evidence and reason. But the alternative he favors admits of no evidence and derogates from reason. His philosophy is, in the last analysis, wholly mystical. It is not capable of being tested and verified and improved. The alternative he rejects is, on the other hand, the one that is favored by those who are determined to be as scientific as one can be in a non-physical field. The literary criticism of the neo-classicists is a criticism composed of obiter dicta inspired by intangible emotions. The literary criticism of the materialists stands or falls by the findings of the social scientists, psychologists, and historians. Eliot’s alternative involves a revulsion against democracy; the materialists are partisans of democracy. The literary criticism of his school tends to create a literature that will express the sensibilities and experiences of a few fortunate men. The criticism of the opposing school tends to create a literature that will express the ideals and sympathies of those who look forward to the conquest of poverty, ignorance, and inequality—to the material and intellectual elevation of the mass of mankind….”
“To whom does the future belong? In January 1939 Eliot announced that the Criterion, the literary journal he had edited since 1922, would no longer be published. His Europe had crumbled; the culture in which he had put his faith was dying. The Criterion had served its purpose. Eliot had arrived at a mood of detachment. There was nothing he could hopefully fight for now. But those who believe in scientific methods, in realism, in social equality and democracy, are hopeful and are fighting.” (384-387)
–Bernard Smith, Forces in Literary Critcism
(1940) “The propaganda novel is quite simply a story with a purpose. Not that every novel may not be interpreted as a story with a purpose; but there are some authors whose educative mission burns so ardently within them that it becomes impossible to consider any kind of writing save that of direct entreaty. There is little masking of the challenge. The banners flutter, the trumpets blare. The slogan flies to its appointed target. ‘And now, men and women of America,’ cries Mrs. Beecher Stowe, at the conclusion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘is this [slavery] a thing to be trifled with, apologized for, and passed over in silence? Farmers of Massachusetts, of New Hampshire, of Vermont, of Connecticut, who read this book by the blaze of your winter-evening fire; strong-hearted, generous sailors and shipowners of Maine—is this a thing for you to countenance and encourage?’ Such is the voice of the authentic propagandist. The pointed moral, and a tale adorned thereby.”
“It would be erroneous to suppose, however, that every type of propagandist found a field so favourable for opportunity as Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. All too often in history the reformer has been compelled to clothe his meaning in parable and allegory. This was Rabelais’s method in dealing with the corruption of the mediaeval Church, and that of Swift and Voltaire with the vileness of eighteenth-century government. The heavy-witted saw only the facile story: the man of critical intelligence the rapier point beneath.”
“The propaganda story, then, from sheer pressure of events, may shape itself to the half-concealed, the oblique approach. Perhaps the most famous example of this method is to be found in Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Primarily, Dead Souls is as much concerned with the problem of chattel slavery as Uncle Tom’s Cabin; but Gogol’s treatment is as far removed from that of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe as the timber profusion of eighteenth-century Moscow from the primly ordered architecture of Hartford, Connecticut…”
“How many real Socialists did [Upton Sinclair’s] The Jungle make? It is difficult to say. Very few indeed, if municipal elections between 1906 and 1936 count for anything. But perhaps the sum total of literary influence cannot be assessed by the mathematical habit. That Charles Dickens assisted the reform of the Poor Law, and Charles Reade that of the Victorian prison system, is undeniable; but exact measurement is beyond the reach of even the most ardent of social investigators. Such novels influence; but downright conversion is another matter. It is doubtful indeed if a novel of propaganda ever really converted anyone. That it may emphasize an atmosphere in which conversion becomes possible is perhaps as far as the Plain Man would care to go” (35-46).
–Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature