That Radical School
Peacework asked activists across the country to answer, "What work of poetry or fiction changed your life?" This is one of the answers. Please comment on our blog and describe how a particular work of literature has affected you.
Betty H. Zisk is a longtime contributor to Peacework as well as a Quaker and Green-Rainbow Party activist. She teaches courses on political movements at Boston University.
I took a seminar at Swarthmore that opened my eyes to explanations of grinding poverty and issues of crime and oppression about which I had been blissfully unaware. (It also caused my parents second thoughts about sending their naïve daughter to "that radical school." So I learned belatedly to keep my mouth shut as well!) The readings included Richard Wright's Native Son; James Farrell's Studs Lonigan; Zola's Germinal; as well as Kafka's The Castle and The Trial. In short, the canon on social realism or even deterministic literature. I can't state today which of these works was most eye-opening, but for purposes of this assignment I will choose Native Son.
My parents had gone to college (to a small Mennonite school) in the years just before the Depression. They were strongly indoctrinated in eugenics and genetics and explanations of human behavior that relied on "the bad seed" as an explanation. I came of age in the relatively privileged environment of Princeton, NJ. I cheered for the Republicans though not yet of voting age. Those English assignments at Swarthmore were my first experience -- ever -- in questioning my parents' view of the nature versus nurture controversy. Wright's apology for the poor but well-intentioned black man who accidentally murders the daughter of his benefactor doesn't read well today. It was also a work written while Wright was still enthralled by the Communist Party, as indeed were many of the authors I have mentioned above. But I had never before imagined that poverty, outright racism, and other environmental factors could provide an alternative explanation for the human degradation shown in these novels. For a time in fact I thought they provided the total explanation for the cruel side of human behavior.
I hasten to add that I have found my own students equally moved by both Depression-era poetry; the photography of Dorothea Lange, Eugene Lee, or Gordon Wright; and the music of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the like. But I first came to full awareness because of the sharp and unforgettable imagery -- and the world view -- of the seductive literature of protest.