Proletarian writing is widely regarded as the antithesis of modernism. According to conventional critical narratives, modernist works use innovative techniques to explore the psychological complexities of the metropolitan middle classes, whilst proletarian texts employ the strategies of documentary writing and nineteenth-century realism to describe the experience of workers, often in provincial, industrial areas, emphasizing the community rather than the individual. Although the subject matter of proletarian works seems to disrupt established literary structures, they are, in this account, stylistically conservative. The tension between their form and content undermines their radicalism and helps to explain and justify their critical marginality. Because they remain trapped within established representational conventions, they not only fail to contribute to literature, a category implicitly understood in terms of conspicuous technical complexity and innovation, but to the transformation of subjectivity necessary to broader social change. If they are valuable, it is not as art but as historical sources and because their limitations clarify the achievements of the modernist texts that dominate literary histories of the early twentieth century. This understanding of proletarian literature as relatively homogeneous and formally conservative is frequently untroubled by any substantive engagement with actual texts or reflection on the term itself. There is consequently a need for analyses that combine close reading which recognizes the complexities and differences of individual works with a theoretically informed exploration of the field. Nick Hubble’s The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question achieves this difficult balance, making a valuable contribution to this rapidly evolving area of scholarship. It is particularly significant because it suggests that proletarian literature is not defined by its failure to meet the challenges posed by modernism but, as the title suggests, by its ability to address them in new ways. Hubble argues that despite their intentions, previous studies of proletarian writing have too often ended up confirming its marginality by constructing it as ‘little more than a sub-canon’ (p. 29). His own approach, in contrast, places it at the centre of twentieth-century British literature and insists that, far from being confined by received categories of thought and representation, it enables new forms of political practice and new subjectivities, in part because it is able to ‘simultaneously address class and gender oppression’ (p. 36). A renewed attention to proletarian writing consequently not only has the capacity to reshape literary histories but to contribute to the emergence of the kind of ‘postcapitalist, post-work, post-gender-gap world’ (p. 39) imagined by people like Paul Mason, whose ideas provide one frame for Hubble’s arguments. Terms such as working-class and proletarian writing are so variously used that any effective analysis must begin with an act of definition. Hubble emphasizes from the outset that he is not just interested in authors from working-class backgrounds or the narrow category of ‘proletcult’ literature, and The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question considers writers from privileged families, such as Naomi Mitchison, alongside figures such as D. H. Lawrence and Walter Brierley. His emphasis on the issues texts address and the ways they function is paralleled in his understanding of modernism as a project rather than a period or set of techniques, an attempt to respond to the problem articulated by Alick West; ‘[w]hen I not know any longer who the ‘we’ are to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either’ (quoted p. 1). This is the ‘modernist question’ of the title, of ‘how to identify a collective that would support a liberated identity’, and intersects with the ‘proletarian question of how to express a post-capitalist culture’ (p. 139). The formation of proletarian writers consequently parallels that of modernists, save that it ‘involves the additional step of the artist needing to overcome their own individualism’ (p. 162). Proletarian authors do not ignore the personal to concentrate on the communal but recognize that individual identities are always negotiated within specific cultural and material contexts and that emancipation is always a social practice. Their texts cannot sustain the fantasy of an individual solution to collective problems and can in this sense be understood as a critical extension of the modernist project rather than an evasion of its challenges. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question is a wide-ranging book that considers everything from canonical novels like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier to relatively obscure works such as John Sommerfield’s Trouble in Porter Street. It is particularly concerned with texts that have in one way or another been neglected or disparaged. These range from Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned, which was poorly received on its first publication and has received scant attention since, to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is arguably still one of the most famous novels of the twentieth-century but has seen its reputation decline, along with that of its author, in recent decades. Hubble often challenges critical orthodoxies, as when he argues that Lawrence contributes to ‘what would now be called an intersectional feminist analysis of society’ (p. 134), but, as this claim suggests, his work is consistently characterized by an interpretative generosity, an interest in the value of texts that might easily be dismissed as too artistically or politically flawed to merit significant further attention. The result is a series of original, sometimes provocative readings that, taken together, not only suggest the need to sometimes read different things but to read differently. Although The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question is well-written book, it is often demanding. The close readings are intricate, requiring careful attention, and though it is never obscure, its broader argument addresses complex theoretical questions. It is nonetheless compelling, in part because it insists that something is at stake in the reinterpretation of the texts and period it discusses. This does not mean that Hubble has an instrumental understanding of literature, but that he recognizes the aesthetic, intellectual, and political possibilities of works that have been marginalized, misinterpreted, or simply disregarded and their significance for our own historical moment. He argues persuasively that we need a ‘politics that can handle intersectional complexity as well as individual desires’ and that literary critics can contribute to this, helping ‘to break down the implicitly gendered opposition between stable, plannable systems and individual desires by reinterpreting literary history’ (p. 198). A renewed attention to the proletarian writing of the early twentieth century, and particularly the 1930s, is central to this project. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question is an important contribution to the necessary work of integrating it in literary history, a process that has the potential to alter the existing order in broad as well as narrow ways. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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