Robert Cantwell—pioneer of the modern Pacific Northwest novel and Ernest Hemingway’s “best bet” for American fiction—has remained relatively unknown in the history of American literature. Until now. A new book, Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left: A Northwest Writer Reworks American Fiction, attempts to reclaim Cantwell’s legacy while also revealing the role he played in centering workers in twentieth-century American fiction. Here, author T.V. Reed discusses why reviving Cantwell’s literary legacy is essential to understanding both the literary history of the Pacific Northwest as well as broader trends in American history.
Robert Cantwell (1908–1978) is a lost writer of the Pacific Northwest. Born near Centralia and raised in the lumber towns of western Washington in the early years of the twentieth century, he became a significant literary figure in the New York of the 1930s. Yet he is now virtually unknown to all but a handful of experts on the literature of that era. He was Ernest Hemingway’s “best bet” for a fiction writer of his generation. F. Scott Fitzgerald said he “had a destiny as [a literary] star.” Cantwell rose to prominence in New York left literary circles based upon a fine first novel, Laugh and Lie Down, a kind of Northwest version of a Fitzgerald “lost generation” novel, and a superb second one, The Land of Plenty, the brilliant tale of the complex emotions at play during a lumber mill strike in a town like the Aberdeen of his adolescence. But his accomplishments as a writer with leftist beliefs and devoted to the idea that ordinary working folks should have their stories told with dignity in serious literature, ran afoul of the vicious post–Word War II anticommunism and McCarthyism, and his legacy has largely been buried.
The historian of Northwest literature, Bruce Barcott notes that Cantwell’s The Land of Plenty, “the first modern novel to come out of the Northwest [was] innovative and brutal and gripping at the same time. If it had been set in New York or Chicago it would still be on college reading lists. It’s just a shame that it’s lost in the musty stacks instead.” I hope that my book, along with a lovely new edition of The Land of Plenty from Pharos Editions, will help bring Cantwell out of the dusty stacks and closer to the attention he deserves as a significant American and Northwest writer.
But my goal is not simply to rescue one talented fiction writer and critic from oblivion. I also want to draw greater attention to a much larger gap in popular knowledge about American literature and culture. For Cantwell was at the heart of a large-scale transformation that occurred in mid-twentieth-century U.S. culture, a transformation that Michael Denning has called “the laboring of American culture.”
Cantwell’s story matters both on its own merits and also because it gives insight into this larger mid-twentieth-century cultural process that moved millions of working-class U.S. citizens from the margins to the center of the society, only to subtly and not-so-subtly remarginalize them during and after the Cold War era. Failure to acknowledge this cultural project has meant that millions of everyday American workers have remained largely absent from the story of American literature and the wider story of US culture. I hope my book will play a small role in reminding us of the point driven home by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, that social class inequality in America is a key fact we must face head-on if we are to honor our pledge of liberty and justice for all.”
T. V. Reed is Buchanan Distinguished Professor at Washington State University. He is also the author of The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle.