EXCERPTS: 1989-1995

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

(1990) “I start with the recognition that we are at war, and that war is not simply a hot debate between the capitalist camp and socialist camp over which economic/political/social arrangement will have hegemony in the world. It’s not just the battle over turf and who has the right to utilize resources for whomsoever’s benefit. The war is also being fought over the truth: what is the truth about human nature, about the human potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family and the human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain’t easy. There are so few truth-speaking traditions in this society in which the myth of ‘Western civilization’ has claimed the allegiance of so many. We have rarely been encouraged and equipped to appreciate the fact that the truth works, that it releases the Spirit and that it is a joyous thing. We live in a part of the world, for example, that equates criticism with assault, that equates social responsibility with naïve idealism, that defines the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as fanaticism.” “I do not think that literature is the primary instrument for social transformation, but I do think it has potency. So I work to tell the truth about people’s lives; I work to celebrate struggle, to applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block…” “It would be dishonest, though, to end my comments there. First and foremost I write for myself….”


–Toni Cade Bambara, Black Women Writers at Work (Claudia Tate, Ed.)


(1990) “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably to social change. So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can’t say it is an either-or proposition. Art for art’s sake doesn’t really exist for me. What I saw was wrong, and I had to speak up. I loved poetry and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.”


–Audre Lorde, Black Women Writers at Work (Claudia Tate, Ed.)


(1993) “The 1930s literary radicals, I have demonstrated, brought various considerations to bear in their definitions of proletarian literature. There was, however, no party line on the subject. As Jack Conroy remarked retrospectively about the debates over what proletarian literature was, ‘We used to talk about it endlessly and never arrived at any definite conclusion’…. Even if writers did not feel bound to one or another definition of proletarian literature, [certain] critics argue, they felt obliged to conform to a rigid didacticism involving stock characters, formulaic plots, and a programmatic optimism. Art had to be a weapon and, as such, an instrument of propaganda. But since art and propaganda are antagonistically opposed, left-wing didactic literature was condemned to mouthing slogans and preaching conversion to the cause.

   “In future chapters we will have the opportunity to determine whether proletarian novels were in fact as formulaic and predictable as their detractors charge. What I shall argue in this chapter is that there is very limited validity to the charge that routinely accompanies accusations of political straitjacketing—namely, that Third-Period Marxist critics, as mouthpieces for the party line, sought to impose a specifically propagandistic view of literature upon the writers in the party orbit. I shall show that left-wing literary commentators only rarely promoted the notion that literary works should impart or promote specific tenets of party doctrine; insofar as the critics had a coherent aesthetic theory, this theory was almost exclusively cognitive and reflectionist rather than agitational and hortatory. Indeed, I shall argue that in certain important ways the American approach to questions of representation and ideology was committed—as was the dominant tendency in all Marxist criticism of this period, Soviet and European—to a number of premises about literary form that were bourgeois rather than revolutionary. Literary radicals might applaud proletarian novelists whose works encouraged revolutionary class partisanship. Gold hailed Conroy as ‘a proletarian shock-trooper whose weapon is literature’; the novelist Ruth McKenney wrote Isidor Schneider that his From the Kingdom of Necessity was ‘a more powerful weapon than any tear gas the other side can manufacture.’ In general, however, commentators, critics and novelists alike, held back from theorizing—let alone legislating—any of the representational maneuvers specific to this literary weaponry. Their espoused commitment to the notion that all literature is propaganda for one side or another in the class struggle was countered by a deep antipathy to viewing proletarian literature as propagandistic in any of its distinctive rhetorical strategies. The 1930s radicals never fully repudiated the bourgeois counterposition of art to propaganda: to them, proletarian literature contained very different values and assumptions, but as literature, it was just like any other kind of writing. Ironically, to the extent that they were prescriptive in advocating any given set of aesthetic principles, the Marxist critics urged a largely depoliticized conception of mimetic practice that coexisted only uneasily with many of the values and ideas that they congratulated writers for articulating in their texts” (129-131).


–Barbara Foley, “Art or Propaganda,” in Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941


(1995) “Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which for its portrayal of an array of thoughtful, autonomous, and passionate black characters leaves Huck Finn far behind… The power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the power of brilliant analysis married to great wisdom of feeling. Stowe never forgets the logical end of any relationship in which one person is the subject and the other is the object. No matter how the two people feel, or what their intentions are, the logic of the relationship is inherently tragic and traps both parties until the false subject/object relationship is ended. Stowe’s most oft-repeated and potent representation of this inexorable logic is the forcible separation of family members, especially of mothers from children…. The grief and despair [the] women display is no doubt what T.S. Eliot was thinking of when he superciliously labeled Uncle Tom’s Cabin ‘sensationalist propaganda,’ but, in fact, few critics in the nineteenth century ever accused Stowe of making up or even exaggerating such stories. One group of former slaves who were asked to comment on Stowe’s depiction of slave life said that she had failed to portray the very worst, and Stowe herself was afraid that if she told some of what she had heard from escaped slaves and other informants during her eighteen years in Cincinnati, the book would be too dark to find any readership at all… One of Stowe’s most skillful techniques is her method of weaving a discussion of slavery into the dialogue of her characters…. Stowe also understands that the real root of slavery is that it is profitable as well as customary…. The very heart of nineteenth-century American experience and literature, the nature and meaning of slavery, is finally what Twain cannot face in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…. Why, then, we may ask, did Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for all its power and popularity, fail to spawn American literature? Fail, even, to work as a model for how to draw passionate, autonomous and interesting black literary characters? Fail to keep the focus of the American literary imagination on the central dilemma of the American experience: race? …The real loss, though, is not to our literature but to our culture and ourselves, because we have lost the subject of how the various social groups who may not escape to the wilderness are to get along in society; and, in the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the hard-nosed, unsentimental dialogue about race that we should have been having since before the Civil War. Obviously, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no more the last word on race relations than The Brothers Karamazov or David Copperfield is on any number of characteristically Russian or English themes and social questions…. When Stowe’s voice, a courageously public voice—as demonstrated by the public arguments about slavery that rage throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin—fell silent in our culture and was replaced by the secretive voice of Huck Finn, who acknowledges Jim only when they are alone on the raft together out in the middle of the big river, racism fell out of the public world and into the private one where whites think it really is but blacks know it really isn’t.” “Should Huckleberry Finn be taught in the schools? The critics of the Propaganda Era laid the groundwork for the universal inclusion of the book in school curriculums by declaring it great. Although they predated the current generation of politicized English professors, this was clearly a political act…. I would rather my children read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe’s novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption—just like life. Like little Eva, who eagerly but fearfully listens to the stories of the slaves that her family tries to keep from her, our children want to know what is going on, what has gone on, and what we intend to do about it. If ‘great’ literature has any purpose, it is to help us face up to our responsibilities instead of enabling us to avoid them once again by lighting out for the territory.”



–Jane Smiley, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘Masterpiece,’ Harpers, December 1995











1996-2003                                                   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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