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What the Working Class Reads

Some time ago Mr. Louis Adamic contributed to The Saturday Review of Literature a curious article called “What the Proletariat Reads”—curious because in spite of its title and subtitle, “Conclusions Based on a Year’s Study of Hundreds ofWorkers Throughout the United States,” it had nothing whatever to do with what the proletariat reads. In fact, it was all about what the proletariat does not read, and since there are many books the proletariat does not read, has never heard of and does not give a damn about, it is obvious that Mr. Adamic has found a fresh approach to some of the more complex problems of literary criticism. In fairness to him, however, it should be said that he makes no attempt to deal with all the working class does not read—he is concerned with a few novels, generally called proletarian novels, which it does not read more markedly than it does not read others. Yet he tells us that “the overwhelming majority” of the American working class does not read “books or serious, purposeful magazines”; in fact, “hardly reads anything apart from the local Sunday and daily newspapers and an occasional copy of Liberty, True Romances, Wild West Tales or Screen Romances.”

This is a serious indictment, not merely of the cultural development of the American working class, but of the cultural development of the country as a whole. To what extent is it justified? Mr. Adamic docs not give the reasons for his sweeping charges, since he is primarily interested in discovering the exact extent to which the working class does not read such books as William Rollins’ “The Shadow Before,” Grace Lumpkin’s “To Make My Bread,” Catherine Brody’s “Nobody Starves” and other works that fit into the same category of proletarian literature, which he defines as literature addressed to the working class. It may be observed in parenthesis that Mr. Adamic began his inquiry with a basic misunderstanding of what constitutes proletarian literature, and that his major premise—that its “strongest justification” is “that it is addressed to the working class”—would be disputed by most proletarian novelists and their critics. Proletarian or any other literature can only be “justified”—culturally, artistically—by the extent to which it advances the heritage of human culture; even, its defenders would insist, by the extent to which it promises to advance human culture, the extent to which it incorporates and hands on and revitalizes and makes significant to the present the great achievements of the human imagination. It is a cultural product and its value cannot be determined in any important way by the size of its immediate audience. Furthermore, none of the books whose readers—or lack of readers—Mr. Adamic analyzes are addressed to the working class in the sense that such publications as True Romances and Wild West Tales are addressed to the working class.

But the important question raised in Mr. Adamic’s article is whether the working class, which means the majority of the population of the country, is inherently incapable of responding to a higher type of literature than that offered by the newspapers and cheap commercial publications. A novelist or a critic’s opinion on this must be organically connected with his whole concept of the value and dignity of his effort. Few American critics have faced this issue as frankly as Mr. Adamic, or accepted so candidly the responsibilities of their decision.

If you believe, as Mr. Adamic believes, that because the broad masses of the working people accept a kind of cheap commercial fiction produced for their consumption, and at the same time do not respond to more serious works written in their interests, that they are therefore inherently incapable of responding to or taking part in any highly developed cultural activity, you must recognize the circumscribed program for literature in general that flows from such a belief. Creative literature becomes of such dubious value, its possibilities seem so limited in comparison with the strain and patience it demands, that the inspiration of the individual writer is constantly threatened by his sense of the social meaninglessness of his labor. The inspiration must be powerful indeed to keep him at his desk for the hours and days and years that his craft requires, if he is to reflect, whenever he looks around him, that the overwhelming majority of his countrymen are forever barred from any understanding of what he writes, or of the kind of writing that is encouraged because of what he writes. Even the powerful creative spirit that surged through Stephen Dedalus ebbed when he considered the Ignorant Irish peasant, with his “red-rimmed horny eyes,” upon whom his deepest insights must always be wasted—“I fear him!” Stephen cried. “It is with him I must struggle till he or I lie dead!” But between Stephen and the peasant there rose the barrier of language; how much sharper must be the dilemma of an American writer who feels himself permanently cut off from the better-educated masses of his own country, and who lives, moreover, in a world in which books are burned and banned, and murals ruthlessly destroyed? A sense of the futility of the finished work, a sense of the danger of a vast mass immobility and indifference, assaulting the imagination at its moments of greatest intensity, arrests and discourages it, leads to an intermittent productivity or—the real “great tradition” of American literature—to complete silence and exhaustion.

This Mr. Adamic recognizes. To counteract it, he proposes that writers abandon the working class to its True Stories and its Wild West Tales, and address themselves to the middle class—indeed, that they write for the specific purpose of making large sections of the middle class “unfit” for fascism. But then, as if recognizing that no serious artist can find a sustained inspiration in the desire to make anybody unfit for anything, he adds:

Or let the books be so written, with such honesty, truthfulness, scope and emotional sweep, that whoever will read them, regardless of class, if he has any soundness left in his mind and heart, will be filled with shame and indignation that we Americans, while creating a marvelous technical machine, have made such a mess of ourselves spiritually and culturally on this continent, which is still offering us the opportunity to build on it a great civilization.

These are brave words, though it is a little difficult to see how, after having made such spiritual and cultural messes of ourselves—on this continent —we can still he sound enough in mind and heart to heed them. Mr. Adamic is rightly logical, and if his premises—that the working class cannot nourish a highly developed culture, that the educated classes alone can provide a responsive and vital audience—are granted, his conclusions follow. But is it true that such magazines as True Stories give an accurate indication of the level of working-class culture? And is it true that the middle class alone makes up the admittedly small group of serious readers in American society?

Soon after Mr. Adamic’s article appeared, there was published a little book called “Who Reads What?”[1] bearing directly on this problem and to some extent contradicting Mr. Adamic’s findings. “Who Reads What?” had its origin in the desire of its author, who is president of the American Library Association and assistant librarian of the St. Louis Public Library, to discover the extent to which the work of Mark Twain is now read. After reading “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” and “Mark Twain's America”—both of which bored him—he wondered if anyone still read Twain, and—as he records with breath-taking simplicity—“accordingly” he "examined the records of 3,289 Mark Twain adult readers in the St. Louis Public Library.” He found that Twain is still widely read in St. Louis, and inquiry of other librarians convinced him that at the present time Twain is the most popular writer in the country. He also found that the readers of Twain were almost entirely drawn from the working class, from the industrial proletariat or from the lowest-paid ranks of the white-collar workers. The representation of other classes was negligible. He then investigated 700 readers of Hardy, 341 readers of Shaw, an unstated number of readers of Sandburg, William James and the Greek classics, with similar results. He also corresponded with the borrowers of the different books in an effort to draw out expressions of what the readers “got out of” their reading, and publishes many of the letters. Some of them are badly phrased; some are mere reflections of prevailing highbrow opinions; some attempt rather highly developed critical appraisals.

Mr. Compton does not seem to understand the class division among the readers, and he does not generalize from his findings. He classifies the readers by occupations, hut even in these unnecessarily complicated groupings the implications are plain. The readers of Twain, for instance, were about evenly divided between the industrial proletariat and the white-collar workers, with business and the professions—even if the teachers (102) are included with doctors, dentists, advertising men, insurance agents, ministers, etc.—totaling less than the factory workers. Exact figures on each group are impossible to ascertain from Mr. Compton’s figures, but the overwhelming representation of the working class may be seen by comparing the readers from the industrial proletariat (214 factory workers, 317 unemployed, 48 laborers, 44 mechanics, 35 needleworkers, 65 “having to do with automobiles”—though this includes dealers—34 electricians, 96 in the building trades, etc.) and the white-collar workers (230 clerks, 134 stenographers, 40 bookkeepers, 17 typists, 20 messenger and office boys, 175 salesmen, 25 postal employees, etc.) with all other miscellaneous professional and business groups (28 insurance men, 10 manufacturers, 22 physicians, 12 dentists, 15 ministers, etc.). The findings on the readers of Hardy are not given in such detail; nevertheless it is worth noting that out of the seven hundred investigated almost two hundred were stenographers and salespeople, “mostly department-store clerks and neighborhood-grocery clerks”; that there were fewer lawyers than waitresses, fewer ministers than tailors.

The fact that most library readers of these “serious” books are members of the working class does not mean that they constitute an audience receptive to revolutionary or radical fiction. A taste for the higher achievements of bourgeois culture may, on the contrary, encourage rather backward political and cultural convictions on the part of the working-class reader, may tend to make him less class-conscious or lead to a feeling of superiority over other workers whose cultural interests are not so highly developed as his own. But it does suggest that, contrary to Mr. Adamic’s thesis, there exists now, within the American working class, a growing and groping and eager audience, acquainted with the higher achievements of bourgeois culture and actually straining the resources of the library system in its search for intellectually adequate reading. The four hundred million books that are taken from the public libraries of the country each year go largely to students and to masses of readers that librarians characteristically describe as belonging in “the lower economic groups.” The number has been falling oft in the last few months, principally because the libraries are now running out of books—the $16,000,000 spent by the library system for new books in 1929 had been reduced, last year, to an estimated half-million. The few scientific studies of library reading that have been made would seem to suggest that Mr. Compton’s opinion on the level of taste revealed would be revised if the country as a whole were considered, but most library students agree that the quality of the books taken out is relatively high, and that most of the borrowers are working people. If Mr. Compton’s book is considered with other library studies, the implication is plain: the working class perhaps makes up the majority of serious American readers, even though the majority of the working class may not read seriously.

In commenting on Mr. Compton’s findings, Publishers’ Weekly says they seem to show “that the general level of intelligence among people without formal education is higher than people generally believe.” Mr. Compton’s studies, the trade journal goes on, “reveal one thing to the book trade… if someone ever solves the problem of how to put good new books on the market cheaply, an entirely new audience will be available.” But why are attempts to reach this potential audience so persistently frustrated? Is it altogether a technical problem, as publishers generally believe? Or is it also a social problem, deeply involved with the whole question of the bourgeois domination of American cultural life?

Some of the letters Mr. Compton prints suggest a partial answer. They suggest, though dimly, that while serious cultural interests on the part of a member of the working class do not necessarily heighten his class-consciousness, they nevertheless tend to raise political issues, and lead, somewhere along their way, to his questioning the structure of the capitalist system. The letters from the readers of Shaw raise the issue of socialism, and it is noteworthy that they are much clearer and more vigorous than those dealing with the other writers. Working-class readers, it seems, are self-conscious about expressing their literary interests; in writing about Twain or Hardy they seem either afraid of being pretentious, and so say little more than that they like the books because they like them, or they accept the opportunity and phrase their responses in the most inflated textbook comment on “great” literature. But when they come to write about Shaw they are obviously sufficiently provoked and stimulated to think out their opinions and express them strongly—even where the letters are hostile they are sharply phrased, and before Mr. Compton had finished with his study of the readers of three writers he had encountered, in the quiet of the library, the pertinent question of the overthrow of capitalism. Reading the letters on Shaw after those on Twain and Hardy gives onethe impression that the mere habit of intelligent reading in a member of the working class greatly increases the likelihood of his finding a clear and vigorous statement of the meaning and possibility of socialism, and that the experience has a far deeper significance for him than it has for the educated members of other classes.

It is impossible to dispute Mr. Adamic’s charge that the working-class audience of proletarian novels is limited, but his assumption that the working class cannot possibly provide the basis for a highly developed culture is emphatically challenged by a study of the users of the libraries and the quality of the books they read. For his suggestion that novelists look to other classes for a vital and responsive audience, Mr. Compton suggests a possible answer. “Do you suppose that the ninety-one bosses are readers of Hardy like their ninety-one stenographers?” he asks. And he is forced to conclude that the bosses, like our Presidents since Wilson, get most of their esthetic satisfaction from detective stories and from romances with happy endings.

Robert Cantwell is the author of two novels, “Laugh and Lie Down” and “The Land of Plenty.”

This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.

[1] Who Reads What? By Charles H. Compton. Introduction by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. New York: H. W. Wilson Company. 117 pages. $1.25.