In colleges across the country, debate rages over what should be considered classic and artful literature worth studying and what is not. Everyone recognizes the names of George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and John Steinbeck -- these authors from the 1930s are considered to be the quintessential literary “greats” of their time. But how many college students have heard of Mulk Raj Anand, for example? He, like many others from this era, was a political writer active in British literary circles of the 1930s, and he, like many other writers from this period, published many works on important cultural matters of his time. Yet, his and many other literary works go unnoticed on English syllabi, for no other reason than that these authors were not deemed “great” by powerful academic figures. This paper will explore the cultural work of little-known texts from the 1930s, and will utilize textual analysis to argue notions of “high” and “trash” literature. Ultimately, this paper will urge for reconsideration of “trash” literature and make the case for serious academic study of middlebrow texts.
For many leftist writers in the 1930s, narrative arts had a special role in exposing, deconstructing and eliminating elitist hierarchal ideology and agendas (which perpetuated grossly ignored, unfit/fair living conditions of ordinary people living in 1930s Britain), particularly through realist art forms considered “trash” by the “Minority Culture” (Leavis 17) of the upper class elite. Leftist writers saw that the desperate living conditions of millions had to be improved, as the entire British culture was threatened by the Depression and German and Italian Fascism on the outside, and unemployment, slums, and other by-products of capitalism on the inside. It is apparent through analysis of certain works, such as The Road to Wigan Pier, Untouchable, and Drifters, that many leftist writers believed improvements could occur only after the existing hierarchal perpetuations were eradicated. In an effort to institute a rescue system for the millions lost by capitalist failure, they began to transform and deconstruct elitist, hierarchal ideology through their narratives and films. In some ways, narrative arts achieved this cultural transformation specifically through the transformation of “trash:” by way of their writing, “trash” was no longer mineworkers nor latrine-sweeping nor the aesthetic forms (narration, documentary, realism, etc.) that said writers chose to work within. Rather, notions of trash were redefined from the bottom up, and advocated first and foremost the “throwing away” of highbrow agendas that sought to keep the masses right where they were: at the very bottom.
In order to understand how the works mentioned above prompted the transformation of an elitist, hierarchal British culture, we must first understand how that hierarchal culture was previously defined and perpetuated. F.R. Leavis summarizes it best in his essay on “Minority Culture and Mass Civilization.” Leavis refers to mass publication (and, therefore, indirectly to the widely published and distributed leftist narratives, as opposed to the “fine” arts, such as poetry) as a “crisis” emerging from “the common absence of concern for what is happening” to the “minority culture:” specifically, those fine works and the exclusive individuals “upon which fine living depends” (18). He urges:
In any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends: it is ... only a few who are capable of unprompted, first-hand judgment ... The minority capable not only of appreciating Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Baudelaire, Hardy ... but of recognizing their latest successors constitute the consciousness of the race (17-8).
In other words, the mass production and favoritism of things like The Road to Wigan Pier, Untouchable, and Drifters over the traditional, classical arts had been perceived by the upper classes as the real threat to Englishness. According to Leavis, the emergency in resolving impoverished living and working conditions for millions (who just as equally--by way of being so many in number, if for no other reason--constitute “the consciousness” of English society) was virtually non-existent. The rescuing of the fine arts, as deemed so by the privileged few, was far more important--so much so, that its urgency took precedence over the threat of rampant unemployment and slums during interwar England. Here, implications of societal peril due to highbrow hierarchal perpetuation and agenda, as implicitly forewarned by leftist writers, are evident: Leavis’ elitist status kept him so far “above” the masses; i.e., the lower classes that he had no reason to see or to care about the true crisis occurring among so many “ordinary” people. Because of his hierarchal status, he, and the “minority” culture that he identifies with, were unaffected. And it was precisely because of the hierarchal class structure, as perpetuated here by Leavis, that the millions left down at the bottom had no way of ever climbing out of their grossly ignored conditions--that is, they had no way of ever reaching the top (a position firmly held by and reserved for only the “Intelligent Few” (Britain by Mass Observation 293)). But leftist writers at the time saw through this agenda, as evidenced in works such as “Britain by Mass Observation:”
The present position of the Intellectual Few [Leavis] is a relic of the times when the mass of the population consisted of serfs who could neither read nor write. Then a few people at the top could easily impose their beliefs and rule on the multitude... [and although] everyone can read and write now...in so many ways there is as much intellectual serfdom as ever. When there are social reforms, they are imposed on the mass from above. Not ‘what they want’ but ‘what’s good for them.’ And the people who decide what is good for the millions are themselves a tiny group, with different habits of mind, ways of life, from those of the millions they are catering for (293).
Through analysis of literary works by other leftist writers of the era, we can begin to strip away these ideological agendas saturated in apocalyptic pronouncements such as Leavis’, and see through to both the discriminatory agendas of the Intellectual Few and the more imminent crises looming over England--the unfair/fit situations of the lower and working classes-- specifically through these writers’ challenges on notions of trash.
One way in which leftist writers attempted to redefine trash and eliminate the existing hierarchal ideology was by transporting middle-upper class readers/viewers “inside the skin of the [lowly] subject” (Elton 322). In Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, this occurs in part through the writer’s descriptions of the mineworkers, who are portrayed in Part One as having to work incredibly long hours in a place “like hell” (21), and who must perform their “dreadful job” in the “suffocating heat” of a “confined space,” all the while working “black [from coal] and naked” (22-3). Similarly, in Anand’s novel, readers are placed in the shoes of the Untouchable, as we accompany him in his latrine-cleaning routine: “[Bakha] worked on continuously, incessantly, without stopping for breath, even though the violent exertion of his limbs was making him gasp” (18). In both instances, descriptions of the work performed yield an imagining of the subjects’ hard lives. However, while these portrayals of excruciating work may elicit sympathy from the reader, they do not, on their own, promote or justify elimination of hierarchal ideology. Rather, it is through realist descriptions of working conditions in conjunction with atypical descriptions of the workers themselves that allows these novels to more fully adopt their leftist purposes, as partially described by documentary filmmaker Arthur Elton. Following the awful descriptions of Orwell’s mines in Wigan Pier, we are offered a juxtaposed view of the workers, who are described as:
almost superhuman ... look[ing] and work[ing] as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron--hammered iron statues...[and] it is only when you see [them] down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small...but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere (22-3).
This vivid portrayal of the “fillers,” with its use of such words as “superhuman,” “splendid,” and “noble,” is an obviously uncharacteristic view of these real-life workers, who were regarded as dirty low-lives by their contemporary upper-classmen. The overall description reads more like a depiction of Michelangelo’s “David” or a beautiful Greek youth than it does a filthy miner, which is exactly the point: readers are persuaded to feel at once sympathetic with their fellow countrymen’s work-related (and culturally necessary) plights, and in awe of their beauty, grace and dexterity in performing the terrible tasks at hand. We are necessarily reminded of “fine art” as we read about the dirty worker; thus, “the high bravery of upstanding labour” (Grierson 309) forces us to reconsider trash, filth and dirt, and our notions of the “usual cultural current which flows from the upper class down to the working class” (Mass Observation 299) must be reconsidered in this instance as flowing in the opposite direction. In this way, Orwell’s descriptive impulse compels us to forego highbrow assumptions of mineworkers, and to essentially turn the hierarchal structure on its head and realize “the specialized view of the man on the job” (Elton 321) as both valuable and essential to society.
Anand posits a similar juxtaposition of filthy, excruciating work and the beautiful, magnificent workman in his leftist narrative as well. Upon concluding his descriptions of Bakha’s work, Anand moves onto a vivid description of Bakha himself:
‘What a dexterous workman!’ the onlooker would have said. And though his job was dirty he remained comparatively clean. He didn’t even soil his sleeves, handling the commodes, sweeping and scrubbing them. ‘A bit superior to his job,’ they always said, ‘not the kind of man who ought to be doing this.’ For he looked intelligent, even sensitive, with a sort of dignity that does not belong to the ordinary scavenger, who is as a rule uncouth and unclean” (16).
“Superior,” “intelligent,” “sensitive,” “dignit[ary];” once again, our leftist author’s choice of descriptive words evoke notions of valuable persons of worth; quite uncommon to the typical descriptions of low and working classes. This technique is especially purposeful in Anand’s work--he has described the value of a person considered to be utterly “untouchable,” that is, so low as to be outside of the caste-system altogether. Anand’s description restores humanity to Bakha--all in defiance (and protest) to hierarchal ideology. Bakha is transformed from a filthy untouchable to a person of worth, a transformation that is only possible upon a transformation of notions of trash, filth and dirt. Through these transformations, Bakha emerges not as a dirty worker with a filthy job, but as a “superior” worker (and valuable human being) performing a necessary job. Once again, the old hierarchal structure has been flipped upside down.
Furthermore, Anand’s narrative remark that “the ordinary scavenger, who is as a rule uncouth and unclean” (16, my emphasis), exposes the “dirty-work” not of the latrine sweeper, as one might expect, but of the highbrow culture who unjustly condemn the low and out-castes as ill-mannered, dirty people. While it is arguable that the use of the word “rule,” as seen in this instance, typically denotes generality, we can read it here as literally implying directive or decree if we consider the frameworks of both Anand’s contextual apartheid and our larger view of that “cultural current which flows from the upper class down to the working class” (MO 299)
In both instances, these leftist writers, through realist narrative art forms, “affect the sense of the human situation and of the nature of life,” (Leavis 18) not unlike Leavis’ claims for art, science and philosophy. In this way, these leftist writers have redefined trash and thus, have justified their calls for a deconstruction of hierarchal ideology, as previously ordered from the top down. They have, in fact, switched the “cultural current” noted in “Mass Observation,” and have redefined trash such that the low, working, and out-casts set the standard of aesthetic value, social worth, and human artistry.
The same can be said of John Grierson’s documentary film Drifters (1929), which also departed from acceptable notions of “art” in favor of a realist, leftist focus on the ordinary workman. In Drifters, we are given a similar juxtaposition between “dirty” work (the hauling of fish by the men, the tearing off of the fish heads by women) and the “heroic” workers, as found in Anand’s and Orwell’s works. But unlike those narratives, we are given no exposure to the hierarchal ideology that perpetuated the common, counter attitudes toward those workers by their middle and upper class contemporaries. This is not to say that Grierson bluntly ignored that cultural crisis; rather, he deliberately abandoned those notions altogether in proposing an alternative view of England’s working-class society.
Perhaps Grierson’s biggest contributions to the transformation of English culture are in his essay, “First Principles of Documentary,” where he pays special attention to the educational role of film and other realist art forms. The filmmaker notes that “the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself, can be exploited in a new and vital art form” (303-4). Vital, in the sense that film can be more than entertainment, more than the “studio” films Grierson criticizes; it can motivate change through action and reform. As editor Patrick Deane notes, while quoting Bert Hogenkamp, Grierson upheld “a strong belief in the educational potential of a film, even to the point of maintaining that the crisis of capitalism could be overcome by better educating the people regarding their civic responsibility” (301). In this sense, documentary film was seen by Grierson as having the potential to re-orient English citizens to notions of hierarchal structure through cinematic “matter and method more satisfactory to the mind and spirit of the time” (306). Arthur Elton in his essay “Realist Films Today” says that it “was [Grierson’s] belief that if you could show the energies and humanities of the fishing fleet at first hand, without filtering them through the mannerisms of the studio, you could bring to the screen a vivid experience of reality” (320) that would do much more for the English culture than provide simple entertainment for the masses--it could begin to transform, or even abolish, hierarchal ideologies as perpetuated for so long by the Intelligent Few.
Grierson notes that a distinction must be made between realist, documentary film and cinematic “shorts,” (303), indicating his theorization of art’s relation to society as explicitly dependent on realist form, that is, on portrayals which are as true to the realities of the time as possible, in accordance with Eric Gill’s call for a reclassification of art as determined through its relevancies to the era in his address to the Royal Institute of British Architects, entitled “Art and the People.”(320). Elton subscribes to a similar idea, and notes that “The directors of the [silent film] school were in danger of growing into an art for art’s sake movement, without knowing it. We were beginning to be immersed in fine images and fine rhythms to the exclusion of human beings” (320). Here, reclassifications of trash are also implicit. Elton insinuates the danger, or hazard, in partaking in the “art for art’s sake” movement (as upheld by Leavis and the Minority Culture), and notes that an immersion in “fine images” and “fine rhythms” should not be the preference -- rather, human beings (including the “ordinary” ones, which Elton emphasizes in Housing Problems) is and should be the more important subject for film, as film carried with it the potential to directly expose audiences to these issues and allow those affected by them to speak out for themselves, instead of having to hope that writers, such as Orwell and Anand, would succeed in doing it for them. Thus, it is Elton’s assertion that the classical artistic culture is the true “trash;” the unnecessary “waste” of film production, through its traditional artistic focus on the imaginative, should be left or “thrown” out in favor of concentration on real people (namely, the “masses”).
Grierson, like Orwell and Anand, also reconsiders notions of “trash” when he declares that “the self-conscious pursuit of beauty, the pursuit of art for art’s sake to the exclusion of jobs of work and other pedestrian beginnings…was always a reflection of [vices such as] selfish wealth, selfish leisure and aesthetic decadence” (308). In other words, jobs and work are rescued from their dirty, trashy connotations and the “discerning appreciation” (Leavis 17) necessarily capable of only a select, elite few is unveiled as a deceptive, ideological agenda selfishly propelled to the delight of the self-imagining highbrows. Grierson redefines “trash” genres as well, through his proposal of a redefined concept of poetic art altogether: “realist documentary, with its streets and cities and slums and markets and exchanges and factories, has given itself the job of making poetry where no poet has gone before it, and where no ends, sufficient for the purposes of art, are easily observed. It requires not only taste but inspiration” (308). Here, the narrative arts, and documentary in particular, are viewable as not only having poetic value, but also -- with regards to realist works -- necessitating “unprompted, first-hand judgment” (Leavis 17) and appraisal, not unlike Leavis’ principles of valuations of “fine art.”
While tempting, Drifters, like Untouchable and Wigan Pier, cannot be viewed as an absolute, intrinsic or unbiased portrayal of working-class struggles. As Anand’s calls for sociopolitical change shape his portrayal of untouchability, and as Orwell’s lower-upper-middle-class ideologies penetrate his (often derogatory) commentaries on the “smelly” working class (6), so Grierson’s contract with the Empire Marketing Board influenced the support of fishermen in his documentary. We are shown one interpretation of the working class; albeit a more honest one, it is still one of many, and one that excludes any reference whatsoever to the way our heroic fisherman have been regarded by people such as F.R. Leavis. Grierson himself concedes that when filming a documentary, “you photograph the natural life, but you also, by your juxtaposition of detail, create [one] interpretation of it” (305). That is to say, you are not capturing the whole truth, but rather, one aspect of the truth; one view of reality.
Through this acknowledgement of the narrative arts as individual responses to hierarchal notions of trash, we can begin to see how their amalgamation became the web of social alliance and knowledge production that exposed the reality of the living and working conditions of ordinary people, and ultimately transformed English culture altogether. In unison, these “new persuasions” (Grierson 309) -- as well as their advocates -- formed a leftist reorientation of hierarchy and superiority that became too interwoven in Interwar British culture to simply be thrown out amongst the trash heap by the Intellectual Few. In fact, it was in this way -- as a cumulative stand against oppressive ranks and valuations -- that leftist writers felt their works would be best able to “repair” or “save” Britain, as evidenced in the success of the Left Book Club (whose very mission as a collaborative educational effort was “to help in the terribly urgent struggle for World Peace and a better social and economic order against Fascism, by giving…such knowledge as will immensely increase [supporters’ of better social and economic orders] efficacy” (Wigan Pier vii)). In this way, these works and writers come together to redefine aesthetic value through their reclassifications of trash, and to fight back against elitist hierarchal ideology for England’s sake. The end product of their cumulative efforts resulted in both a transformation of English culture as well as a distinctive 1930s political art.