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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Views on proletarianism and individualism

In this excerpt, Arnow discusses how although she was not politically active during the Great Depression, she was very much aware of proletarianism, especially as it was expressed in literature. Although Arnow describes her support of and sympathy towards the plight of workers and unionization at several points throughout the interview, here she explains that she ultimately found proletarian ideology unappealing. Her own personal upbringing had greatly emphasized the importance of individualism, and as a result, Arnow thought that proletarianism too greatly exaggerated the notion of workers as "the masses." She believed that workers should instead be treated as "individuals with minds of their own" rather than as "one great herd of proletariat."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Were you politically active at all during this period or other periods?
No, I don't recall that I was politically active at all. The most you heard about in the literary world was proletarianism.
Yeah, I think somewhere we mentioned this. Is it true that near the place you were working as a waitress, near that restaurant, there was a newsstand that sold The Daily Worker andNew Masses, and was that the first time you'd seen such publications?
Yes, I read those. I read some proletarian novels, and what I read didn't jive with my upbringing and individualism: man is responsible for his own acts. Also, most of this, especially The New Masses and The Daily Worker, talked of the proletariat as if they were just a herd, like cattle, with no minds of their own, with no thoughts, and they were to be guided and driven, gently, of course, to greener pastures; that was the purpose. And I couldn't see treating people in such fashion. I mean, even though they never spoke of force or any cruelty, but thinking of the masses of people not as individuals with minds of their own, but as one great herd of proletariat, it sickened me.
Did it make you in any way remember when you were at Berea, when they glorified work, and it was not terribly connected with what you knew of work?
No, proletarian writersglorified the worker; the work didn't appear to matter. Just to be a worker appeared to be. . . . Of course, there were some that weren't too bad.