Teaching Working-Class Literature in Labor History Courses

Labor Notes conducted an informal survey of labor activists, asking them about their favorite class-conscious novels. The range of works was pretty interesting (and gave me a good reading list as well). It got me thinking about teaching working-class literature in history courses. I don’t teach all that much fiction, tending to prefer a memoir like Ben Hamper’s Rivethead or Jack Metzgar’s Striking Steel. But in the last few years, I’ve taught three novels: John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle (1936)
John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936)

I had the greatest success with Steinbeck. The accessible language works well with undergraduates and I always appreciate how Steinbeck articulates the complexity of organizing. The students did alright with Sinclair, possibly because many had been exposed to The Jungle before, but I find the novel quite unpleasant to read. I realize this admission will probably get me a stern talking to, but I just don’t like it. I used Bellamy to introduce a course on the Gilded Age. I thought it was a great way to introduce them to the social and economic inequities of the time and give them a sense of how Americans were thinking about the change, but the students just hated it. I’ve wanted to try part of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, but I’m not real sure the students could handle it.

Anyway, I thought this might be a useful entry point into a discussion of teaching working-class literature in our history courses. What books have people found useful or not so useful?

1 Comment

  • Rosemary Feurer
    Rosemary Feurer February 5, 2013

    Thanks for starting this conversation, I hope others will join in.

    Among those I was going to write to promote is a classic, Out of this Furnace. But Nick Coles over at Working Class Studies just posted a blog on that book and another I’ve used, Blood on the Forge. Both of these are period proletarian novels that I have used in the past with varied success, and never came away feeling that they were a waste (at least for the students who really read them!)

    I have found Storming Heaven: A Novel by Denise Giardiana to work very well. It culminates in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Giardiana weaves political economy and environmental issues into this and the sequel Unquiet Earth, though I’ve never assigned the sequel.

    Another one that I used a while back is Iain Levison’s A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. Students seemed to relate to this tale of itinerant and alienated labor, and found it promoted their own ascerbic tales and reflections on their own experiences. Not a proletarian novel by any means. In fact, assigning this book alongside Bell’s would be a good fuel for thought.

    I’ll also plug Coles and Zandy’s collection American Working-Class Literature: An Anthology, a beautiful compilation of the songs, poetry and literature excerpts. It’s too expensive for my classes, but I’ve put it on reserve and shamelessly used it to integrate songs and poetry into my classes.

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