The 1930s was a critical period in terms of class identity and politics. And for the production of working-class writing. Male members of the working class appropriated the bourgeois novel, and the fact that it is the working class who are writing about the conditions of the workers is a new and vital development. Many working-class stories of this period have urban settings where issues of unemployment and the effects of poverty are central themes, as seen in the novels of Walter Greenwood, Walter Brierly and Jack Jones.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the British financial crisis of 1931 resulted in high unemployment and seemed to indicate that capitalism was near to collapse. Exponents of modern art based their assumptions on the idea that conventional forms of representation cannot capture the complex nature of reality. However, this modernist concern with the self seemed inappropriate in an age of acute material issues: mass unemployment, poverty and social conflict. These issues needed to be confronted, which required concentration on external events, not internal processes, and commitment to making people more aware of the world and its problems. A crucial part of this process was challenging conventional representations of the working class as the comedy relief, the buffoon, the idiots or the servants - particularly seen in films.
A discrete working-class literary heritage emerged, where worker-writer organisations and worker-education movements began to publish more assuredly and created a left-wing literary formation. The concept of working-class culture was consolidated and became more visible in post-war discourse. In 1934, the writer's congress in the Soviet Union coined the new aesthetic of 'socialist realism.' In Britain, George Orwell detailed an account of working-class life and analysed the relations between the classes in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In 1938 the 'Left Book Club' was founded by Victor Gollancz, and one of its aims was to provide the indispensable basis of knowledge that would help create a better social and economic system.
The Nineteenth Century
Industrialisation heralded significant developments in working-class writing. A new militancy developed among the working class, resulting increased political tracts and essays. And for the first time, there was a mass readership of the radical press. At the same time, middle-class writers showed an awareness of working-class conditions, and the 1840s saw the advent of the English industrial novel. However, these were written by sympathetic middle-class observers and not by working-class members. Authors such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell were popular. However, middle-class writers, lacking experience or knowledge, were typically unable to describe the reality of working-class life, so the majority were often romanticised and stereotypical portrayals of working-class people.
However, two notable working-class writers of novels did emerge at the turn of the century - Robert Tressell and D.H. Lawrence, although their styles differed considerably. In many respects, Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) connects with the older model of aA sympathetic observer, but a participating and exposed observer whose narrative and commentary on the ills of capitalism can be read as an instruction manual of socialism. Whereas Lawrence writes about characters immersed in the actual experience of working-class life and its immediacies of family, friends, and places. Consequently, what emerges in his novels is not simply a reductive depiction of class but a collage of working-class existence.
Since the onset of the industrial revolution, the working class have historically made up about three-quarters of the population. However, the representation of their experiences has been conspicuously absent in literature. But working-class writers have not been silent; they have always produced literature, although its forms, structural elements and purposes have differed from the dominant forms of the past two hundred and fifty years.
We must employ a broader understanding when considering working-class literature, such as: in what forms, on what themes, in what circumstances, and to what ends have working-class people told their stories? Since many storytellers and their audiences were illiterate, working-class literature has often taken oral forms. Moreover, it has been created and related in group situations, such as churches, meeting halls and pickets lines - not in the privacy of a study as with their middle-class counterparts. Therefore, it is rooted in the experience of a particular group of people facing a specific problem at a certain time: within the context of shared experience where ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ share a common reality.
Since it is produced and written in the present context, traditional notions about literature - such as looking for the timeless and transcendent, contemplation as an end, metaphysical complexity of language, and ironies of tone - are not conducive to approaching working-class literature.
In addition, the available forms of the novel and its conventional themes did not offer a point of entry for working-class writers. For example, the nineteenth-century bourgeois concern with the problems of the inheritance of private property and propertied marriages did not apply to working-class experience. It was not something with which working-class writers could relate. There is evidence of many talented working-class writers in the nineteenth century, but most turned their attention to writing autobiographies and memoirs rather than the novel.