The Pen, the Scaffold, and the Sword: Representations of Labor and Class Conflict in American Historical Fiction After 1945
Henson, Nicholas Allan
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Henson, Nicholas Allan
The Pen, the Scaffold, and the Sword traces sympathetic representations of class, labor, and radicalism in American literature from post-war modernism through the rise of postmodernism. I investigate two distinct but interrelated questions: How have authors writing after 1945 used history to represent labor and radicalism in their work? Furthermore, how have these historical representations explored avenues for resistance by exploited workers and their supporters? I use critical approaches to postmodern literature that have emphasized the proliferation of previously unheard narratives focused on race, gender, and sexuality as they are presented against dominant white male representations. However, I turn to class and labor as complementary avenues for critically investigating similar unheard historical narratives. I argue that by depicting specific labor conflicts each of these texts present counter histories to standard or popular historical narratives that have ignored the breadth and importance of class conflict in U.S. history. These texts retell the stories of historic labor struggles to rejuvenate an awareness of class and labor issues in contemporary readers. In doing so, they establish counter narratives meant to be read against common conceptions of the past. I contend they change reader perceptions of history and contemporary social and political issues by demanding we abandon totalizing conceptions of history and emphasize contingent or limited representations instead. Chapter I establishes the parameters of the project. Chapter II turns toWallace Stegner’s Joe Hill (1951) and its often ignored sympathetic portrayal of labor. Chapter III focuses on the 1954 film Salt of the Earth and its communication of historical lessons as a basis for future social reforms. Chapter IV compares Denise Giardina’s coal mining novels Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1990) with Upton Sinclair’s work in King Coal (1917) to examine the former’s emphasis on agency and environmentalism. Chapter V compares Thomas Pynchon’s exploration of history through the motifs of the frontier and families in Against the Day (2006) and Vineland (1990) with Owen Wister’s work in The Virginian (1902). Finally, Chapter VI examines historical fiction in the age of postmodernism though an examination of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1974).