Although Lionel Trilling observed in 1966 that “for American intellectuals of this century, the Thirties were the indispensable decade,” the political poetry of the Depression has suffered complete neglect in both scholarly and popular opinion. This blind spot provides us with an extraordinarily obvious example of historical erasure: it is nothing less than the exclusion of a whole group of authors from the official canon that is taught in the universities and codified in literary histories. Such a de facto suppression of literary texts that were once regarded as expressive of central issues of the Depression tells us a great deal about the limitations of institutionalized scholarship and the mechanisms by which guardians of  the status quo selectively ratify a history that eventually becomes “literary tradition.”

The claim that an entire group of poets and a literary tendency have been “erased” is not an exaggeration. The standard histories of twentieth-century American literature and poetry—written by estimable scholars such as Marcus Cunliffe, Roy Harvey Pearce, Robert E. Spiller, and Donald Barlow Stauffer—omit entirely a discussion of politically inspired Depression poetry. The authoritative Third Edition of Literary History of the United States, for example, contains only three sentences on the subject:

for the most part the new political and economic interests were more effectively expressed in novels and plays than in verse. Though Sandburg . . . made a renewed Whitmanesque affirmation in The People, Yes, no younger group emerged here at all comparable in quality to the new English poets surrounding Auden. Among the poets who began to be known in the 1930s, Horace Gregory added to Crane’s city a serious knowledge of our public issues, and Kenneth Fearing used the freest of rhythms for a harsh staccato satire, while Langston Hughes continued to contribute left-wing blues, and Muriel Rukeyser, among many others, brought warm social sympathies to an imperfect search for the proper form.

Who are the “many others” to whom the authors obliquely refer? One way to answer this question is to turn directly to the leading periodicals of the Depression. For example, Morton Zabel, editor of Poetry  magazine and an authoritative critic of his generation, published a survey in the New Republic called  “American Poetry: 1934” in which he identified the three outstanding “revolutionary poets” of the day as Horace Gregory, Norman Macleod, and John Wheelwright. As we have seen, the standard Literary History mentions Gregory—although the phrase “knowledge of our public issues” hardly communicates his Communist sympathies at the time (he was, literary editor of the Communist Party’s New Masses). But Macleod and Wheelwright are not cited at all—even though the Literary History discusses Fanny Fern, Kimball Flaccus, and other poets whose merit may be judged considerably less. Macleod and Wheelwright are also omitted from the Oxford Companion to American Literature; and the entry on Gregory contains no hint at all of any quondam left-wing association.

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