|I recently scanned the text of this dissertation, The Populist Romance: A Study of Michelet's Le Peuple and Selected Novels of Hugo, James, Zola, and Galdós (University of Texas at Austin, 1980), and have not finished proofing. (Move your mouse pointer over French or Spanish text to see translations.) —David McMurrey|
It may seem strange that little mention has been made of Marxism throughout this study, especially since Marxists have practically made the phrase "the people" their own. Indeed, there is much that is similar in the Romantic notion of the people and the Marxist notion of the proletariat. Common to both is the sympathy for the combined physical, economic, social, and political sufferings of the people, as well as sympathy for their physical and moral excellence and their heroism in the face of hardship. Both the people and the proletariat are promised a triumph in a future to be marked by prosperity, justice, and classlessness. Both are described as the chief agents in this process of perfecting the world, in part as the result of their acute perception of the social world based on their position within it.
However, the differences between the notion of the people and that of the proletariat are more crucial. While the Romantic would stress class conciliation and harmony as the means and the strategy of revolution, the Marxist would see such social bliss as a possibility only after a lengthy period of necessary class struggle, conflict, and even class warfare, which in his view is the revolutionary force.1 As historians of the nineteenth century have often noted, the very idea of revolution itself changes around the midcentury. Where once revolution was imagined as a spontaneous blossoming forth of love, peace, fraternity—a sudden, apocalyptic change of heart, it is seen in the latter part of the century as long, protracted warfare which must be carefully, professionally, "scientifically" planned. Revolutionaries thus are no longer apostles of a gospel of social harmony but tough, merciless, vengeful warriors. Marx himself of course had his own romantic, "utopian" revolutionary phase and, as Jacques Barzun has argued in his scathing attack on Marx, was eager to put that phase behind him and attack others as "romantic," "idealistic," "utopian," and the like.2
No doubt a Marx, a Lenin, or a Lukács would attribute the impracticality and the failure of this earlier brand of revolutionism to the effect or influence of the type labelled here the romantic populist, whom Marxists would calmly call the "bourgeois revolutionary." In this view, class consciousness is an inescapable fact; the romantic populist cannot hope to escape his class-bound perception of the social world, nor ever hope to serve any other interests than those of his class of origin. If he is raised in a bourgeois milieu, he will possess a bourgeois consciousness, and his attempts to go to the people and transform his identity in terms of social class will always be hopeless.
Marxists are not necessarily unsympathetic to the romantic populist's attempt to go to the people and to escape his own social milieu. Lukács spends a great deal of time in both his literary and theoretical writings describing the sterility, the deadness, and the "reification" of the bourgeois world—a description which echoes much of Michelet's own in Le Peuple.3 But one of the keys to this inability to escape bourgeois class consciousness is the perceptual limitations of this consciousness—its inability to see the structural realities of the society in which it lives.4 Only the proletarian consciousness can clearly see the social structure in its totality and thus know how to transform it. Despite all of the romantic populist's good, humanitarian intentions toward the common people, his revolutionism ends by escaping into utopian dreams and fantasies, which are the result of that blindness and of an ultimately self-preserving mechanism deep within bourgeois consciousness.
Thus many of the features of romantic revolutionism in the Marxist view only help protect and preserve the bourgeoisie: the pacifism, the humanitarianism, the abhorrence of violence and struggle, the emphasis on revolution through conciliation and personal, moral conversion, and its refusal to acknowledge the power of vested class interests—all of these elements simply put off, dampen, or misdirect the inevitable shock of social conflict.
Marxists would doubt the romantic populist's adventure in one other respect: they would see his effort as ultimately individualistic and self-serving, despite all his superficial good intentions, rather than concerned for the people. His populist quest is directed toward his own personal solace, toward overcoming the inadequacies of life in bourgeois culture. In his individualism, he reflects one of the chief aspects of bourgeois culture. And more generally, his whole romantic populism is ultimately anti-plebian in that the people must remain as they are for him to reap the psychological and even physical benefits he seeks or imagines in them. One takes up a life of poverty in order to develop a certain aura of nobility, austerity, or saintliness rather than to struggle alongside the people to help them overcome that poverty.5 The world of the people becomes one's own private hairshirt, a via dolorosa or a means of self-denial. Still within the framework of individualistic, self-serving quests, that world can serve not only as a purgatory but also as a higher form of entertainment or amusement. One joins popular revolution for excitement and leaves it as soon as it turns dull. That world too can serve as the populist's means of overcoming the competitive, alienated, fragmented, lonely, sterile aspects of his own milieu.
Despite the harshness one could well expect from a Marxist criticism of romantic populism, despite the irony waged on such ideas about the people by Emile Zola and Henry James as well as others, and despite the general irony of our age, elements of this tradition can be found cropping up again and again in 20th century literature. Though the preceding chapters seem to suggest a straightforward evolutionary process in which the populist theme is stated as romance then develops through irony and tragedy, no iron-clad law of development for the literary idea of the people in the nineteenth century is intended. Rather, the return of certain elements of the romance of the people in Galdós's La Revolución de Julio should suggest the persistent, inextinguishable nature of the idea and its continuing fascination to the modern imagination. No doubt modern populists may well still be open to the same criticisms expressed by the realists and the Marxists. Modern populists may indeed create unreal sociologies of the common people and go to the people for all the wrong reasons. However such things still happen as a look at recent or modern literature can prove.
Nations or societies seem to undergo periodic waves of populism when the interest of literature, in its broadest sense, and the other media, turn to a preoccupation with all things related to the common folk. And these periods or phases may be linked to crisis periods in these communities' history. In America alone, for example, two such periods have been the thirties and the late sixties. In the 30's, the Great Depression of course triggered great concern for the people; in the 60's, on the other hand it was not so much economic problems as concern for minorities and for the "quality of life" that contributed to a re-emergence of populism in the U.S.
The most recent period, the sixties, or its fallout in the early seventies, saw the publication of a welter of populist-oriented books, for example, The Workers, The World of the Blue Collar Worker, Work in America, and Working. There was an enormously popular television show, All in the Family, which concerned itself with the life of a rigorously lower class American family. In particular, a best-seller, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, evokes some of the spirit of the romantic populist sociology. In his recreation of his talks with such common people as a farmer, a strip miner, a receptionist, a hooker, a press agent, a garbage man, a janitor, a spot-welder, an interstate truck driver, to name a very few, Studs Terkel creates a book that is partly sociological and partly literary. His effort is to capture something quite intangible: he describes himself in an earlier but quite similar book as "on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method, or technique...seeking out the feeling of the 'ordinary' people living out their anonymous lives in a large industrial city.'"7 Terkel himself came of age in the thirties when he was active in the Federal Writers Project and more recently has updated the populist tradition as moderator of a radio interview program in Chicago, otherwise known as a "talk show." Pictures of this man as well as his adopted name "Studs," the name of James T. Farrell's plebian hero, all suggest a certain self-conscious identification with the plebian. The book, Working, itself purports to be the words and thoughts of the people themselves, but Terkel has edited out all his side of the talks and has molded his subjects' conversation into smooth-flowing, powerful monologues. Throughout the book runs the theme of the discontent—not the misery—of the American people; throughout there runs a note of sympathy:
But there are stirrings, a nascent flailing about. Though "Smile" buttons appear, the bearers are deadpan because nothing smiles back. What with the computers and all manner of automation, new heroes and anti-heroes have been added to Walt Whitman's old work anthem. The sound is no longer melodious. The desperation is unquiet.8
Terkel is yet another who has gone to the people, in this case with recorder in hand, to capture that almost undefinable spirit of the people, and to create his own version of Michelet's Le Peuple:
A commonly observed phenomenon: during the early evening hour, trains, crowded, predominantly by young white men carrying attaché cases, pass trains headed in the opposite direction, crowded predominantly by middle-aged black women carrying brown paper bags. Neither group, it appears, glances at the other.9
Like Michelet's peuple, Terkel's Americans are separate or isolated from each other and are caught in a society that seems dominated by the wrong values.
The Depression era in the United States was of course another period of interest, concern, fascination—perhaps all of these combined—directed at the common people. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1946), though not published in the thirties, reflect that era. The former celebrates the strength and heroism of common Oklahomans in surviving the Great Depression; the latter, modelled in certain respects upon the career of Huey Long, one of America's great politicians of "the people," contains a remarkable portrait of the romantic populist in Adam Stanton, the assassin of the Huey Long figure, Willie Stark.
Adam, a doctor and the son of a wealthy old Southern family, has joined Willie Stark's populist movement as director of a proposed people's hospital—a humanitarian project Adam deeply believes in, but one that Willie Stark, as Adam discovers, uses merely for political gain. Once he discovers this and the Governor's other misdealings, Adam, the idealist—aptly named—suddenly awakened to the realities of the world, assassinates this politician of the people. Throughout the novel, Adam is described by Jack Burden, the narrator of All the King's Men, in the familiar language of the populist romance: Adam has left his affluent, genteel world to go to the people in their moment of great need; he attempts to save them and to do good for them in his capacity as doctor; he has taken an apartment in an emphatically plebian neighborhood as part of his effort to change his identity. Jack Burden describes his departure from Adam's apartment:
I slammed his door and was running down the dark stairs, for it was the kind of apartment house where the bulb burns out and nobody ever puts a new one in and there is always a kiddie car left on a landing and the carpet is worn to ribbons and the air smells dankly of dogs, diapers, cabbage, old women, burnt grease, and the eternal fate of man.10
Jack Burden is intensely aware of the meaning of Adam's presence in this building, though he never states it:
I stood in the dark street and looked at the building. The shade of a window was up and I looked in where a heavy, bald man in shirt sleeves sat at a table in what is called a "dinette" and slumped above a plate like a sack propped in a chair, while a child stood at his elbow, plucking at him, and a woman in a slack colorless dress and hair stringing down brought a steaming saucepan from the stove, for Poppa had come late as usual with his bunion hurting, and the rent was past due and Johnnie needed shoes and Susie's report card wasn't any good and Susie stood at his elbow, plucking at him feebly, and staring at him with her imbecilic eyes and breathing through her adenoids, and the Maxwell Parrish picture was askew on the wall with its blues all having the savage tint of copper sulphate in the glaring light from the unshaded bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Through the eyes of Jack Burden, Robert Penn Warren has created a powerful image of the common man and an equally powerful image of the romantic populist in that world. Adam, despite his efforts, is an idealist, out of touch with this milieu, abstracted and cut off from life in general. Like so many populists, he seeks in this plebian world his own rejuvenation, a renewal, in the midst of the people:
And somewhere else in the building a dog barked, somewhere else a baby was crying in automatic gasps. And that was life and Adam Stanton lived in the middle of it, as close as he could get to it; he snuggled up to Life, breathing the cabbage smell, stumbling on the kiddie car, bowing to the young just-married, gum-chewing, hand-holding couple in the hall, hearing through the thin partition the sounds made by the old woman who would be dead (it was cancer he had told me) before summer, pacing the frayed green carpet among the books and broken-down chairs.
As Jack wonders vaguely why Adam lives there, he imagines the doctor has "snuggled up to Life, to keep warm perhaps, for he didn't have any life of his own—just the office, the knife, the monastic room." And if not that, perhaps Adam, "watching from the deep-set, abstract, blue, clinical eyes, slightly shadowed," had to be close "in order to keep a reason for the things he did."
The example of Adam Stanton forcefully reminds us that the traditions of the populist romance are still alive in the twentieth century and that romantic populists still go forth in quest of the people, both in fiction and in real life.
1Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971). Lukács describes such attempts to avoid a "full-blown crisis of class conflict" as misguided and ultimately more destructive; bourgeois humanitarians simply delay the proletariat from gaining full consciousness of "its historic mission and itself"—both of which will be the ultimate and only key to solving the "impasse of capitalism" (p. 76).
2Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958), pp. 142-43.
3Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, pp. 77-78. See also his essays on Balzac and Zola in Studies in European Realism, trans. Edith Bone (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1964), pp. 47-96, which discuss this aspect of bourgeois culture further using literature as examples.
4Lukács speaks of a "veil" drawn over the true nature of capitalist society to the bourgeois consciousness partly as a result of its refusal to acknowledge the inhumanities of the system (History and Class Consciousness, p. 66).
5Lukács defines the "reified" consciousness of the bourgeoisie as trapped between two extremes: one, a "crude empiricism" that refuses to see the role of history, class conflict, and the proletariat as essential to the achievement of a just and prosperous society (pp. 77-78). No wonder then the bourgeois "utopian" sees man as potentially a "saint" who can achieve "inner mastery over external reality" (191-92), that is, inner, psychological change—personal conversion—rather than social, economic change.
6Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (New York: Avon, 1974); Kenneth Lasson. The Workers: Portraits of Nine American Jobholders (New York: Grossman, 1971); Work in America: Report of a Special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973); The World of the Blue Collar Worker, Irving Howe, ed. (New York: Quadrangle, 1972).
7Studs Terkel, Division Street: America (New York; Avon, 1968), n.p.
8Terkel, Working, p. xxix.
9Terkel, Working, pp. 164-165.
10Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men (New York; Modern Library, 1953), pp. 253-54.