Novelist Robert Cantwell’s journey from left to right
T.V. Reed’s “Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left” chronicles the life of Aberdeen’s Robert Cantwell, whose fiction took a conservative turn. Reed appears with Spokane author Jess Walter Wednesday, Aug. 27, at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left” will appear in discussion with Spokane author Jess Walter at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).
People today may think of Aberdeen as the birthplace of Nirvana, but cultural disaffection and rebellion have deeper roots in that area, as WSU professor T.V. Reed reveals in his new book, “Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left” (University of Washington Press, 240 pp., $40).
This critical study dusts off the largely forgotten work and career of Cantwell, who was born in Southwestern Washington, went to school in Aberdeen, and then worked in the local lumber mill not long after the heyday of the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World).
In 1929, Cantwell made his way to the East Coast, where he became a critic and respected “proletarian” novelist during the Great Depression. Although not a proclaimed Communist, he was certainly a sympathetic fellow traveler.
As a critic, Cantwell advocated for literature with progressive content. In the midst of the economic devastation of the 1930s, he was in the vanguard of the literary left, which was intensely involved in critiquing the failings of American capitalism and conjoining radical new ideas about social justice with literary purpose.
Cantwell’s second novel, “The Land of Plenty,” was widely hailed as meeting those standards. Set in a lumber mill very much like the one he had worked in Aberdeen, the novel captured both the “utter fatuity” of management and the oppression borne by the workers.
But two things happened to interrupt Cantwell’s promising trajectory as a writer.
First, he had married and started a family of his own while still assisting in the support of his mother and siblings out West. With more mouths to feed, he needed to make better money, so he accepted a job as the biographer of Boston department store owner E.A. Filene, and relocated from New York to Boston with his young family.
From the outset, the pairing of subject with biographer was less than ideal, and the project seemed to go in fits and starts. Further aggravating matters, Cantwell missed being out of the bustle of New York’s literary circles.
The other obstruction was the news coming in from overseas — Stalin’s brutal distortion of the Russian Revolution and the subversion of the Civil War in Spain were souring the zeal of Communist sympathizers in America. Cantwell, who had been thinking about a new novel, was left with both a broken ideological compass and writer’s block.
His politics became more conservative and when he accepted a job back in New York writing for Time magazine, he became a sellout in the eyes of some of his peers. His subsequent books avoided politics and focused on sports or nature.
But eyebrows were raised some years later, when Cantwell’s name was associated with the Alger Hiss spy case. As with so many things pertaining to that episode, passions were inflamed but details were fuzzy.
T.V. Reed has performed a service in bringing Robert Cantwell and the topic of proletarian fiction back to the fore.
Because Reed is a scholar and this book has been published by a university press, it should come as no surprise that many pages are devoted to painstaking critical analysis. But the academic jargon intermittently seems hellbent on smothering a really fascinating tale.