RARA-AVIS: new guy on marxist criticism

Fri, 1 Aug 1997 17:37:52 -0400 I am new to this list. My hard-boiled reading is limited and primarily
includes the big guns Hammett and Chandler. I am also a big fan of
Willeford. I've dabbled a bit elsewhere (e.g., Ellroy's LA Quartet,
etc.). I am currently reading Horace McCoy's rather brilliant Kiss
Tomorrow Goodbye.

I thought I might weigh in on the marxist debate.

It seems to me that it might be useful to dispense with the heated term
"marxist," and instead say that there may be some value in considering
individual novels and larger developments in the genre in terms of
historical, economic, social, and class conditions. From this
viewpoint, one might in fact be a marxist critic without being a
marxist. (I guess it depends on whether one thinks one's critical
thinking will bring about the greater democraticization of the means of
production--but that's another story.)

What value? seems the next worthwhile question. As Dan Sontup notes,
writers think about action and character, not broad sociological
questions. This may be true of some writers. On the other hand, all
writers are products of their time and social milieu and they
willy-nilly articulate their positions in their culture, whether or not
they think about it consciously. I think it's a bit limiting to confine
ourselves to questions of authorial intention. Many writers are famous
for talking very poorly about what it is they do. I do think larger
social questions can illuminate the books themselves and deepen one's
interest in them; thus, these questions seem worth pursuing.

Finally, an example or two:
Charles Willeford was a child of the Great Depression. When he was 15,
he jumped rail cars, went hungry, etc. He joined the army when he was
16 or 17 and was a career enlisted man. While enduring poverty and then
the army, he continued to imagine himself as a poet. After WWII, he
wrote a collection of poetry called Proletariat Laughter--certainly a
loaded title--which includes prose interludes about the war. The war
pieces are incredibly stark and brutal and quite critical of America
(e.g., American Democracy in Europe means the ability to stand in line
outside a whorehouse to get the action you deserve).

Willeford's later writing is frequently critical of the banality of
American bourgeois life. Indeed, criminal action, or at least violent
impulses, seem to erupt from characters' responses to this banality.
The best example is probably Richard Hudson in The Woman Chaser (called
The Director by Willeford). Think too of the old man (what was his
name?) in Sideswipe. The psychopath Troy's wild, spontaneous criminal
life appeals to the old man after he thinks back on his existence as a
trim painter on an assembly line in a Ford factory.

I don't know how much you've discussed Hammet's communism. Somewhere he
talks about the horrors he saw perpetrated by the Pinkertons, and that
gave him sympathy for the working man. I just started looking over the
late story "Tulip" which seems to refer autobiographically to Hammet's
time in the joint for refusing to testify to the House Unamerican
Activities Commission.

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