Oct 29, 2019 BLACK TUESDAY — THE ANVIL, PROLETARIAN FICTION MAGAZINE
“I live on a park bench.
You, Park Avenue.
Hell of a distance
Between us two…”
— Langston Hughes, “Park Bench”
Jack Conroy, ed.
Moberly, Missouri: The Anvil Press, 1933-1935
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in early March 1933, a quarter of the civilian labor force was unemployed. By the following winter, that number rose from fourteen million to seventeen million. Within the first three years of the Great Depression, the divisions among the upper and lower classes were stark and bitter. Economic disparity heightened tensions and highlighted social and political issues in the United States and abroad. The effects of land erosion and a growing insurgency among farmers and factory workers began to reshape the political and literary spectrum in America.
Proletarian literature was a literary genre influenced by the proletarian movement of the early twentieth century, which could be found in forms of poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction, drama, and criticism. Unlike other Depression-era literature written by the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner or Steinbeck, proletarian literature was specifically by and for the working class. As such, it was often affiliated directly, or indirectly, with the growing Communist Party USA. This political emphasis was well-noted by the American Writers Congress, and signaled a shift toward a more radical, left-wing agenda.
*Inscribed by Oakley Johnson
The “principal organ of the American cultural left” was New Masses, the magazine which had succeeded previous radical journals such as Masses and Liberator. Although New Masses was not afraid to present its radical views to the mainstream culture, it took one step further than its antecedents by claiming a direct political stance. By the 1930s, New Masses became one of the staple publications for the Communist Party USA. Issues of the magazine featured poems, short stories, journalistic inquiries and “sketches” that highlighted the presence of the worker-writer in print. Its aim was to attract a working-class audience, and to converge philosophy and policy within the literary realm. Of the many contributors to New Masses, there was one Jack Conroy.
Conroy was born to Irish immigrants in a coal mining camp called Monkey Nest, outside of Moberly Missouri. Although he intended to get an education, and even enrolled at the University of Missouri, Conroy was only able to complete one semester of college before dropping out to work a number of low-paying jobs. A Jack-of-all-trades, Conroy found work as a farmer, miner, bricklayer, railroad shop apprentice and foreman, auto factory and construction worker. As he worked, he wrote about his experience in the form of poems, short stories and, eventually, novels. Just as the Great Depression was looming, Conroy joined up with the Rebel Poets — a group of proletarian writers loosely connected with the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies. Within two years, his writing and enthusiasm landed him an editorial position with the journal Rebel Poet.
Rebel Poet was yet another proletarian journal that originated during the 1930s. Its issues were filled with poems, angry protests against wealth and privilege, and humanitarian essays on the topics of social justice, unemployment, and hunger. Unsurprisingly, funding for the publication was sparse. Printed on low-quality paper, the first five issues of Rebel Poet were done on a single signature, four 8x11inch pages, with no artwork, ads or cover. After gaining some traction and support, later issues reached the twelve page mark and included simple linoleum-block prints and exchange ads. Many of the writers who contributed to the Rebel Poet were inspired by the Soviet writers, whose work was being disseminated throughout the United States — the Soviets wrote poems that “are almost skeletal in form, telegraphic jottings, electric words compressing the gist of their thoughts, which run parallel to the throb of factory and guffaw of steel mill and backfire of tractor-squadrons plowing up oceanic state farms.” Likewise, the Rebel Poets politics also began to reflect the politics of the Soviet Union, increasingly with each issue.
The relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union quickly became a point of contention not only for the editors of Rebel Poet, but for the proletariat worker-writer in America. Conroy believed that the notions of social injustice within Rebel Poet were too ill-defined to attract the ordinary reader, nor would such a reader be able to connect his own experience with that of Soviet workers, let alone a “World Brotherhood.” The question of readership continued to worry Conroy, whose Midwest upbringing differed greatly from the New York faction of communists who controlled much of the publishing process. Conroy saw that real workers were, in fact, attracted to things like popular radio shows and comic strips, not radical and rebellious verse. His goal was to “rouse the sleeping masses.”
Jack Conroy understood that the proletariat were more sensitive to the enticements of mass culture and consumerism than slogans such as “Workers Unite!” He understood that the abstract analyses of Marxist theory in Rebel Poet likely deterred rather than engaged new readership. And while Conroy did support the Communist Party’s general aims and organization of labor forces, he did so on his own grounds: “fundamentally democratic, autonomous, and decentralized.” This approach, however, was not taken lightly in New York, where divisions and sectionalism had begun to take hold. The Communist Party USA was trying desperately to keep up the Party’s changing line in the Soviet Union — which had now began to disperse rival literary groups in order to create a collective union of writers while promoting the notion of Socialist Realism. Following suit, publications like New Masses and Rebel Poet were also required to introduce new restrictions on submissions and subject matter. Furthermore, The Communist Party USA became eager to rid itself of any of the “bohemian” midwesterners who could not keep up. This, unfortunately, also included Conroy.
One could say that, in the midst of “rebel poets” Conroy stood out. He was a “rebel” in the sense that he was reluctant to delve too deeply in political theory, or spend too much time thinking in abstract terms. He believed that the primary goal of Rebel Poet, and proletarian literature in general, should be focused on “the concrete terms of human existence.” For this kind of thinking, Conroy was accused of being too individualistic, and Party support of his editorial position dwindled. Other contributors to Rebel Poet, such as Philip Rahv attempted to push Conroy out, entirely — plotting members against each other with rumors that “so-and-so” was not, in fact, a true communist. To make his point clear, Rahv gathered a group of loyalists within the New York chapter to filter any submissions which were not explicitly “liberal” and “socialist.” Moving forward, the ideological content of Rebel Poet, was to be more consistent, Rahv argued, and any poems of “questionable ideology” would fall under group scrutiny. Ironically, this new and improved Rebel Poet, “was not an organ for encouraging possible rebels.”
Conroy was not interested in the gimmicks of and among ideologues. So, by the time the October issue of Rebel Poet was off the press, he had decided to completely disband the editorial board of the publication. And although Rebel Poet was now finished, Conroy was not. He refused to give up on the notion of a true worker-writer — someone like himself, a “veteran of the assembly line.” He wanted a publication molded from the experiences of young writers from the mills, mines, forests, factories and offices of America. He wanted a publication that portrayed an honest, rather than simplistic, view of the working-class experience. Most of all, he wanted to provide a new outlet for worker-reader so he could “wean” them away from romance novels and from escapist fiction that had nothing in common with their lives. With all this in mind, the Anvil was born in 1933.
In line with the Soviet Union’s sickle and hammer, the title Anvil evoked the worker’s world: strength, firmness, raw material, the force of physical labor, the shaping of a new world. These images also complimented the magazine’s slogan: “We prefer crude vigor to polished banality.” Ironically, such crudeness found in early submissions had to be “polished” and edited for publication. The proletarian literature that Conroy was seeking did not, in fact, exist. It would have to be created, encouraged, and replaced by the “entertainment narcotics provided by the bourgeoisie.” For the first issue of Anvil, Conroy enlisted the help of former Rebel Poets: Walter Snow, Joseph Kalar, Leonard Spier, John Rogers, and Ben Hagglund — who became Anvil’s itinerant printer. As word spread through factories in the Midwest and leftist bookstores on the East Coast, Anvil’s subscription list reached 250 people (one year’s subscription was $1.00). The first issue was printed in a run of 1,000 — two hundred copies were exchanged with other magazines and the rest were sold at 10 cents each.
“All the week stealthily through dark alleys and sombre side streets and proud, sneering, vacant lots. Arms interlocked, thinking how blackly in the room the shuddering crescendo of it had palpitated… ”
— Joseph Kalar, “Night Piece”
Kalar’s proletarian sketch, “Night Piece,” attracted the attention of Heywood Broun, a noted columnist of the New York World-Telegram. Broun criticized the pretentious language of Kalar’s prose, among other contributions in Anvil, arguing that, “proletarian literature failed because proletarians were not writing it.” Although Broun was not altogether wrong, he missed a crucial point. Conroy was doing something special with Anvil, he was fostering the creative spirit of workers, African-Americans, convicts, and women. He was accepting their stories and experiences in a time where other editors would have turned a blind eye to such content. He was highlighting civil-rights issues decades before they became mainstream, and, most importantly, he was developing a new relationship between reader and writer, where one could become the other. This mentality opposed the market relationship of commercial publications, and put reader and writer on a balanced, and equal playing field.
For a while, Jack Conroy had perfected a formula for publishing proletarian literature: he kept printing costs low, sought out voluntary help, networked with new writers, and kept in line with the Party just enough to take advantage of their distribution agency. But by 1935, the limit of “just enough” had changed. Conroy had come under Party fire for a number of transgressions, most of which had to do with printing advertisements for other authors and journals which the Communist Party deemed “counter-revolutionary,” “treasonous,” and “heretical.” And, because Conroy never officially became a member of the Communist Party, his decisions were heavily scrutinized. One such decision was printing Robert Whitcomb’s poem in the 9th issue of Anvil. According to the Party, Whitcomb was “a Trotskyite snake” who had long been expelled from the John Reed clubs in New York.
“Contributors to The Anvil… need not be Communists, of course. My associate editors and I are going to try to present vital, vigorous material drawn from the farms, mines, mills, factories and offices of America. We’ll not devote much space to theoretical problems.
For theoretical guidance, we refer you to The New Masses and International Literature.”
— Jack Conroy, “The Anvil and its Aims.” (May 1933)
Like Rebel Poet, Conroy’s was once again coerced to give up editorial control, with threats that issues of Anvil would be removed from Party bookstores. Walter Snow took over the editing position until the Communist Party made an executive decision to merge Anvil with Philip Rahv’s Partisan Review, moving production to New York. Before its end, the thirteenth and final issue had reached a circulation of nearly five thousand. Small, proletarian magazines such Anvil and Partisan Review — in addition to Blast, Dynamo, Scope, Dubuque Dial, and Windsor Quarterly — had an influence not only within the left-wing radical circles, but on society as a whole. With their publications, they promoted writers who would become central to the literary scene in the following decades, educated the audience on social issues, and challenged authority with regards to laws against “seditious” literature. They took risks.
Awareness of Jack Conroy and his work diminished after the 1930s as attention to the labor movements shifted toward the upcoming world war. However, Conroy’s memory, and the passion of the proletarian movement, can still be witnessed with these old copies of Anvil — an incredible piece of history in your hands.
*Rare Books copy of the second issue of Anvil inscribed by Oakley Johnson, socialist activist and founding member of both the Communist Party of America and the Proletarian Party of America. During the Fall of 1933 (when the issue was released), Johnson became the Communist candidate for the New York State Assembly in the 9th Assembly District of New York County.
Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990
University of Illinois Press, 1994
PS3505 O53 Z95 1994 (General collection: Level 1)