(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Land of Plenty is divided into two parts and covers a few tense days in a strike at a veneer plant in western Washington. While little time passes in the novel, Robert Cantwell manages to convey fully both the socioeconomic forces and the psychological tensions in this workplace. Part 1, “Power and Light,” covers less than an hour, but it is a gripping depiction of the confused actions in that brief time. The first chapter opens, “Suddenly the lights went out.” A failure at the power house away from the plant is the cause, but the factory is now in darkness, both literally and figuratively. Carl, the night foreman, who should be in charge, is paralyzed by the darkness and by his unfamiliarity with the plant. Meanwhile, a hoist man has been hurt when the power shut down and a huge log crushed him, and part of the drama of part 1 comes from the reader’s knowledge that this worker lies injured somewhere in the darkness.

While Carl is wandering around in the dark, Hagen, the real leader of the night shift, is advising other workers what to do, trying to send messages to Carl, and working to save life and property. Yet the tensions between management and workers are terrible, and every action is preceded by a calculation of how it will affect job security. These tensions make the decisions of part 1 doubly difficult: whether to “pull the fires” in the furnaces, for example, or to break into the locked factory office to call the power house.

As the characters wander in the dark, Cantwell slowly reveals their situations. The date is July 3, the day before a national holiday, but there is hardly a festive mood. It is early in the Depression of the 1930’s, and the economic troubles of the country are apparent in the Northwest as well. Fifty men have been fired since Carl arrived, and there have been two paycuts. These economic woes have been compounded by personal problems. Ed Winters, the halfbreed who is Johnny’s crew boss, has a wife dying of cancer in the hospital; Marie Turner, on the...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Conroy, Jack. “Robert Cantwell’s Land of Plenty.” In Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, edited by Harry T. Moore. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. A proletarian novelist himself (The Disinherited, 1933), Conroy gives a positive reading of Cantwell’s novel thirty-five years later.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 1996. Denning only deals with The Land of Plenty in passing, but his study is the best account of the radical literary culture of the 1930’s.

Moore, Harry T. Preface to the The Land of Plenty, by Robert Cantwell. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Moore’s preface to this reissue of The Land of Plenty gives the broad biographical background to Cantwell’s novel.

Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. This early study is still the best overview of the proletarian novel of the 1930’s. Includes an excellent four-page analysis of The Land of Plenty.