Critical Context

The Land of Plenty was one of the best proletarian novels that was produced during the Depression, especially in the first half of the 1930’s, as writers responded to worsening socioeconomic conditions and described these conditions for the poor and unemployed. The leftward literary movement, which would culminate in novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), also saw dozens of novels such as Cantwell’s and plays such as Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1936), social realist works that depicted working conditions from the perspective of the laboring classes and envisioned workers finding the strength to overcome the forces of capitalism that exploited them.

Cantwell produced one earlier novel, Laugh and Lie Down (1931), and wrote a number of short stories, but, like many 1930’s writers, he drifted away from his early social realism and actually ended his career in the 1960’s as one of the first editors of Sports Illustrated. Still, his novel stands as a landmark in an important literary movement in America, sparked by Marxist literary criticism but truly fueled by the conditions under which people in the Depression were forced to live. In 1932, when one out of every four workers was unemployed, even the blindest of American writers recognized emerging social realist subjects. Robert Cantwell was one of dozens of writers who responded to these Depression conditions and produced lasting literary works. More than half a century later, it is hard to name a novel that describes working conditions and strikes with the accuracy and drama of The Land of Plenty.