Bookbriefs

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Social struggles are at the heart of many great American novels from the first half of the last century.

Literature does not remake the world, but it can change the way we see it. The most 'political' novels are those that give us new ways to think about the conditions that we want to change, and of all the American novels from the first four decades of the 20th century, two famously span the extremes of experience of capitalism. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Wordsworth £1.50) describes the 'Jazz Age' among the very rich of Long Island. These pointless people are so bored that wrecking each other's lives and those around them does at least pass the day. In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin £6.99), the farming families of the Midwest also have no work. Repossessed by the banks, they load everything they own onto trucks heading for the orange groves of California with promises of work and a better life. Yet neither of these great books really touches the cities, the breeding grounds of an ever-larger working class.

Published in 1906 and inscribed 'to the workingmen of America', The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (Bantam Classics £5.99) is present at that birth, describing the industrialisation of meat production in Chicago and the bloody battles for union recognition. Jurgis and Ona and their extended family are Lithuanian peasant immigrants who believe that all you have to do is be honest and work hard, and your dreams of home comforts, children and restful old age will come true. Sinclair considered the book a failure because it caused a public outcry and led to the passing of pure food laws, not the remaking of society into socialism, as he wanted.

Elmer Gantry (Signet Classics £5.99) by Sinclair Lewis is a very funny study of a charismatic Baptist/Methodist preacher's career from a rustic Bible college to a cathedral-sized church in New York. Elmer wants to be rich, self-indulgent, hypocritical and avoid anything like real work. Lewis clearly touched some very raw nerves as he was invited to a jail cell in New Hampshire and to his own lynching in Virginia!

Manhattan Transfer (Penguin £8.99) by John Dos Passos works like a set of short films strung together to pick out the details of workers' lives from the apparently overwhelming mass of New York in the 1920s. There are ship and dock workers, waiters, salesman, nurses and farm boys from upstate and the Midwest, and they all speak for themselves in this vivid collage.

Dos Passos was part of the anti-Stalinist left with James T Farrell against an American popular front of Communist, populist and celebrity liberal writers. Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy (Penguin US £12.99) and his O'Neill-O'Flaherty cycle (not in print but available very cheaply from Abebooks, a second hand book website) are some of the greatest novels ever written about the US working class. American Stalinists, that 'league of frightened philistines', accused him of determinism as Studs is the child of reactionary parents and a viciously bigoted Catholic education who remains reactionary his whole life, but in the O'Neill-O'Flaherty cycle Danny O'Neil is from the same neighbourhood, with the same racist and superstitious upbringing, but he becomes a revolutionary socialist. This was more or less Farrell's own experience.

The Cold War, the collapse of America's left and Soviet imperial expansion drew Farrell into social democracy. Nevertheless, throughout the Second World War he remained a committed and vociferous opponent of fascism, Stalinism and America's imperialism. Now, with the spectacle of the yapping toy dogs of the British pro-war left calling the Iraqi resistance fascists, Farrell's defence of Trotsky and dozens of ordinary workers persecuted by the American state in the 1930s and 1940s, and the throat-catching beauty of his work, remain a powerful achievement that revolutionary socialists can be proud of.

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