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New Left Review I/130, November-December 1981

Ken Worpole

Expressionism and Working-Class Fiction

In his essay, ‘The Storyteller’, Walter Benjamin distinguishes between two generic traditions of story-telling, symbolized by two contrasting occupations: the peasant and the voyager. [*] The catalyst for this essay was coming across a reprint of George Garrett’s account of the Liverpool unemployment demonstrations in 1921–1922. Reading this pamphlet, which contained an excellent bibliography of all Garrett’s writings, also made me connect Phelan with Hanley in a way I hadn’t before. The Garrett pamphlet, produced by Alan O’Toole in Liverpool, is a good example of how much we need these local studies before we can begin to make the more general connections of movements and ideas. ‘If one wants to picture these two groups through their archaic representatives’, he wrote, ‘one is embodied in the resident tiller of the soil, and the other in the trading seaman.’ [1] Illuminations London 1970, pp. 84–85. In this essay Benjamin also makes some highly pertinent comments about the decreasing value attributed to the category of personal ‘experience’ by modernizing social systems and ideologies. One told the stories of the village, its people and its history, whilst the other brought stories from lands where people lived different lives according to different customs. Both traditions complemented each other. Benjamin’s distinction remains valuable in contemporary arguments about finding cultural forms and processes which enable the balancing of the local and particular with the national and international. This is one of the most pressing contemporary political and cultural problems and currently finds its most developed expression in the controversies surrounding the achievements—and also the limitations—of the recent and widespread growth of local peoples’ history projects. [2] See People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by Raphael Samuel, London 1980, particularly the section on ‘Local History’. This distinction is also useful to employ when looking back at one of the most energetic periods of working-class writing, the 1930s, because by doing so it becomes clear that most recent attention to the writing of that decade has been focused on just one of the traditions—the local—at the expense of understanding attempts to create a different aesthetic of working-class experience based not on place and continuity but on dislocation and transience.

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