From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with an emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)
(1941) “The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the finest example we have so far produced in the United States of the proletarian novel. This is a somewhat loose term to designate the type of novel that deals primarily with the life of the working classes or with any social or industrial problem from the point of view of labor. There is likely to be a considerable element of propaganda in any novel with such a theme and such a point of view. And it often happens that the spirit of propaganda does not carry with it the philosophical breadth, the imaginative power, or the mere skill in narrative which are so important for the production of a work of art. Upton Sinclair is an example of a man of earnest feeling and admirable gifts for propaganda who has not the mental reach of a great artist nor the artist’s power of telling a plausible story and creating a world of vivid and convincing people. One sometimes has the feeling with Sinclair that he starts with a theory and then labors to create characters who will prove it; that his interest in the people is secondary. And that is a bad start with a writer of fiction” (327).
–Joseph Warren Beach, “Art and Propaganda,” American Fiction: 1920-1940
(1941) “Here I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Sociological criticism is certainly not new. I shall try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach. And to make the ‘way in’ as easy as possible, I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs. Examine random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. You will note, I think, that there is no ‘pure’ literature here. Everything is ‘medicine.’ Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling” (253).
–Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” The Philosophy of Literary Form
(1941) “The present article proposes to say something further on the subject of art and propaganda. It will attempt to set forth a line of reasoning as to why the contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda. Hence we feel that the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic.
“Our thesis is by no means intended to imply that ‘pure’ art or ‘acquiescent’ art should be abandoned. There are two kinds of ‘toleration.’ Even if a given state of affairs is found, on intellectualistic grounds, to be intolerable, the fact remains that as long as it is with us we must more or less contrive to ‘tolerate’ it. Even though we might prefer to alter radically the present structure of production and distribution through the profit motive, the fact remains that we cannot so alter it forthwith. Hence, along with our efforts to alter it, must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the ‘pure’ or acquiescent art of today serves this invaluable psychological end. For this reason the great popular comedians or handsome movie stars are rightly the idols of the people. Likewise the literature of sentimentality, however annoying and self-deceptive it may seem to the hardened ‘intellectual,’ is following in a direction basically so sound that one might wish more of our pretentious authors were attempting to do the same thing more pretentiously. On the other hand, much of the harsh literature now being turned out in the name of the ‘proletariat’ seems inadequate on either count. It is questionable as propaganda, since it shows us so little of the qualities in mankind worth saving. And it is questionable as ‘pure’ art, since by substituting a cult of disaster for a cult of amenities it ‘promotes our acquiescence’ to sheer dismalness. Too often, alas, it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen. Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness” (271-278)
–Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Philosophy of Literary Form
(1942) “Our modern literature was rooted in those dark and still little-understood years of the 1880’s and 1890’s when all America stood suddenly, as it were, between one society and another, one moral order and another, and the sense of impending change became almost oppressive in its vividness. It was rooted in the drift to the new world of factories and cities, with their dissolution of old standards and faiths; in the emergence of the metropolitan culture that was to dominate the literature of the new period; in the Populists who raised their voices against the domineering new plutocracy in the East and gave so much of their bitterness to the literature of protest rising out of the West; in the sense of surprise and shock that led to the crudely expectant Utopian literature of the eighties and nineties, the largest single body of Utopian writing in modern times, and the most transparent in its nostalgia. But above all was it rooted in the need to learn what the reality of life was in the modern era. In a word, our modern literature came out of those great critical years of the late nineteenth century which saw the emergence of modern America, and was molded in its struggles…. We live in a day when the brilliance of some of our critics seems to me equaled only by their barbarism. In my study in Chapter XIV of the twin fanaticisms that have sought to dominate criticism in America since 1930—the purely sociological and the purely textual-‘esthetic’ approach—I have traced some of the underlying causes for the aridity, the snobbery, the sheer human insensitiveness that have weighted down so much of the most serious criticism of our day….” (viii-xi).
–Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds
(1943) “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
–George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press” (Excerpt from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm; published 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement, also 1993, in the Everyman’s Library edition of Animal Farm)
(1949) “In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that cornerstone of American social protest fiction…speaking for the author…Miss Ophelia and St. Clare are terribly in earnest. Neither of them questions the medieval morality from which their dialogue springs: black, white, the devil, the next world—posing its alternatives between heaven and the flames—were realities for them as, of course, they were for their creator…. Mrs. Stowe’s novel, achieves a bright, almost a lurid significance, like the light from a fire which consumes a witch. This is the more striking as one considers the novels of Negro oppression writers in our own, more enlightened day, all of which say only: ‘This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!’ (Let us ignore, for the moment, those novels of oppression written by Negroes, which add only a raging, near-paranoiac postscript to this statement and actually reinforce, as I hope to make clear later, the principles which activate the opposition they decry.)” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteousness, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty; Uncle Tom’s Cabin—like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants—is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality—unmotivated, senseless—and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.” “But this, let us say, was beyond Mrs. Stowe’s powers; she was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel; and the only question left to ask is why we are bound still within the same constriction. How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?” “[…] In Native Son, Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses…. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”
–James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Notes of a Native Son, 1955; American Literature, American Culture, 1999
(1950) “How should Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Germinal, and Mary Barton be classified? As proletarian literature? If Gentleman’s Agreement is a problem novel what is Daniel Deronda? Jack London may be a proletarian writer but his most famous book The Call of the Wild is an adventure story. George Sand has been called one of the founders of the ‘problem’ novel but the bulk of her output dealt with those bourgeois emotions: love and passion. I think one of the difficulties here is the refusal to recognize and admit the fact that not all of the concern about the shortcomings of society originated with Marx. Many a socially conscious novelist is merely a man or woman with a conscience. Though part of the cultural heritage of all of us derives from Marx, whether we subscribe to the Marxist theory or not, a larger portion of it stems from the Bible…”
–Ann Petry, “The Novel as Social Criticism,” African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000 (Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ed.)
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature