Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Land of Plenty is a strike novel, a subgenre of the proletarian novel of the 1930’s, a social realist literary form that tells a story from the perspective of working-class people. Cantwell shows not only the economic situations of these people but also how the strikers learn to gain their own power. The irresolute conclusion, however, reveals that there is no guarantee that such strike actions will result in triumph. It would be a few years before sit-down strikes in Akron, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, would show workers what they could do when they took over plants.

The novel also succeeds because it captures the complexity of the strike situation and shows what drives managers as well as workers—the naturalistic forces that play upon all the characters. As Hagen’s son-in-law Bill, who has just lost his job in Texas, asks,1>What the hell has happened to everything? You read in the paper things have never been so good; there’s never been so much prosperity; the God-damned stock market is booming; and then you find out you can’t get work, everybody’s losing his job, or their wages are being cut1.

This is “Puzzled America,” as the writer Sherwood Anderson described it in 1935, and both managers and workers are in the dark about what is happening to them. The novel is a tragedy in which the characters must play out their parts in a deterministic, nightmare Depression world.