Vertical Invaders

The conservative philosopher Ortega y Gasset wrote of those who had stepped onto the stage of history and did not belong there. Vertical invaders he called them. Those who had come up from below.

Until the First World War, American literature had been an Anglo-Saxon preserve. Suddenly the children of immigrants whose parents had come to America to work in mines, factories, sweatshops and fields in search of better lives had come into their maturity. They had stories to tell. They had been educated. Their lives would not be silenced as their parents’ lives had been. They not only believed they had a place at the table but they also wanted to honor the lives of parents who sacrificed their own lives so that their children would have better ones. Suddenly there were black writers (Richard Wright, Langston Hughes), Jewish ones (Gertrude Stein, George Oppen), women (Josephine Herbst, Mina Loy), German (Theodore Dreiser), Spanish (John Dos Passos).


Not all of them lasted as writers. Studies have shown that two-thirds of black writers from the twenties through the fifties wrote only one book. They had a story to tell – their story – and once they told it had nothing more to say. It was also difficult for them to make headway. The literary establishment resisted any incursions on its turf. Blacks, women, immigrants, the working class were, after all, not fit subjects for serious literature. They were not kings, leaders of industry or government.


I want to talk about one these writers, a Clevelander, Ruth Seid, daughter of a Jewish immigrant family, who wrote under the name of Jo Sinclair (Jo, so that Esquire Magazine, which did not publish women writers in the forties, might publish her). Her neighborhood was originally Italian and Jewish but in the 1940s and 50s became black. She attended John Hay, a vocational high school in Cleveland, and was both president and valedictorian of her class. She could not afford to go to college and subsequently worked in a department store, a knitting mill, a box factory. The Cleveland Public Library, Sinclair notes, was her college.


It was not until she began work for the WPA in the Thirties and became friends with black novelist Chester Himes that her writing began to make headway. Her first novel, Wasteland, which won the $10,000 Harper’s Prize in 1946, tells of a Jewish immigrant family which is held back by their second-class status, what Richard Sennett terms the hidden injuries of class. In The Changelings (1955), Sinclair writes of, in effect, the Italian and Jewish neighborhood of her childhood that now has black neighbors. Her last novel, Anna Teller (1960), is the story of a 74-year old Hungarian women, forced into exile by the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956.


It is Sing At My Wake, published in 1951, the same year J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore and Graham Greene’s the Quiet American are also published, that I want to talk about. We find books we like, others we don’t care for, some we can’t finish, and some, not every day, those that stop us. Sing At My Wake stopped me. It makes The Catcher in the Rye a teenage boy’s book (which it is), immature, callow.


Sinclair’s portrayal of the dreams of Katherine Ganly (who an exasperated lover calls, “the virginal princess sleeping behind the hedge”); what holds her back – class, sex, education (“the old fear, the burden of being mysteriously punished for a nameless thing”); her triumph and failure is as perceptive and complex, if not more so, than any American novel of its time. Only the film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” matches the ferocity and honesty of the war between the sexes. Sinclair has come up from below and won’t be pushed back down.






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Volume 4, Issue 10, Posted 12:45 PM, 05.03.2008