Russell Banks Was a Working-Class Writer for Our Global Age

Novelist Russell Banks, who died this month at the age of 82, brought to life the brutality of contemporary capitalism and the hardships of workers across the world. He was a writer of and for the working class.

American writer and poet Russell Banks in Saint-Malo, France, on June 3, 2017. (Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images)

Russell Banks, the acclaimed novelist who died of cancer earlier this month at the age of eighty-two, did not so far as I know identify as a socialist. But he did describe himself as a person of the Left, and in 1985 he wrote a profile for the Atlantic of the then-not-widely-known socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

Banks’s piece assumed the tone of a mainstream magazine, but one could sense his admiration for the radical ideas, quirky charisma, and earnest attention to everyday workers that mark Sanders’s political appeal. Banks contended that Sanders’s narrow victory in 1981 — by only ten votes — and his subsequent reelections by increasingly wide margins were “due to [his] willingness to work long hours, day after day, week after week, knocking on doors, speaking to crowds until his voice went hoarse, . . . evoking from his supporters a kind of passionate loyalty that a party machine or patronage can never generate. An ideology can generate that kind of self-sacrifice, however, and so can a remarkable personality. Sanders had both going for him.”

Although written in the 1980s, Banks’s piece was not published until October 2015, shortly before Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary by more than 20 percent. In a May 2016 interview, Banks noted that he had voted for Sanders in the Florida primary. He noted, too, the decades-long consistency of Sanders’s message: “[H]e has been saying the same kinds of things all along. His loyalties are, indeed, to the working classes and to the average man and woman in America and his targets have always been the plutocracy as he sees it that controls and manipulates the American economy and therefore American society.”

The same anti-plutocratic theme churns through Banks’s bracing novel Continental Drift, published the same year he penned the Sanders profile. The book, which earned him the Dos Passos Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, typified Banks’s attention over his twenty-one books (novels, short-story collections, three works of nonfiction) to working-class life. Published during the heart of the Reagan era, Continental Drift offered perhaps Banks’s most ambitious take on the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. The book pairs two narratives: the story of Bob DuBois, a New Hampshire oil burner repairman who moves his wife and two daughters to Florida in a bid for better things, and the tale of Vanise Dorsinville, her infant son, and her nephew Claude, who flee threats of violence in Haiti for the promised land of the United States.

In the book’s concluding paragraph, the narrator zooms out, ruing that regardless of what happens to Bob, Vanise, and Claude, the larger dynamics of economic exploitation that set them in motion roll on:

Haitians keep on coming and many of them are drowned, brutalized, cheated, and exploited; . . . [and] men in three-piece suits behind the desks in banks grow fatter and more secure and skillful in their work; . . . [and] young American men and women without money, and trades instead of professions, go on breaking their lives trying to bend them around the wheel of commerce.” [original italics]

A Working-Class Novelist

Banks was born in 1940 in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised there and in Barnstead, New Hampshire, in a working-class family. His father, a plumber, was abusive and deserted the family when Banks was twelve. After graduating from high school, Banks was awarded a full scholarship at Colgate University, but dropped out and hitchhiked to Florida, intending to join Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution. He got waylaid instead, bogged down trying to stay afloat financially by pumping gas, doing odd jobs, and living in a trailer park.

Banks returned to New England and, inspired by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, resolved to become a writer, a decision that was encouraged by another working-class author, Nelson Algren, whom Banks met at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and who became a mentor. Still harboring his artistic dreams, Banks worked as a pipe fitter and, with encouragement and funding from his second wife’s family, received a BA from the University of North Carolina in 1967.

In Chapel Hill, Banks got involved with Students for a Democratic Society and joined civil rights protests. But his writing about race started in earnest after spending a year and a half in Jamaica the following decade. “I hadn’t really imaginatively engaged the issue of race,” he later explained in an interview, “until really I got to Jamaica and I just allowed myself to do it . . . I just thought: ‘This is not my story.’ Then I began to realize: ‘No, I can write about this. It is my story as well.’ It’s not just a black person’s story. It’s a white person’s story. It’s an American story and it’s central to the American experience.”

His ensuing novel, The Book of Jamaica (1980), about a white US college professor grappling with his own racism as he explores Jamaica’s history of colonialism and resistance, set the stage for Continental Drift’s meditation on race in the trans-Caribbean world. Bank’s attention to the history of racial oppression culminated in Cloudsplitter (1998), his eight-hunred-page Pulitzer Prize finalist about radical abolitionist John Brown, told from the point of view of his son, Owen.

Banks admitted that he agreed with the Browns that the history of the United States has effectively been one long war between the oppressed and the oppressors. “History is written by the victors,” he said.

Continental Drift, Racism, and Capitalism

Banks’s focus on capitalism and racism, and his desire to write about the oppressed, is well known: even the New York Times underscored it in their obituary for Banks. Yet the reception of his work at times converted his interest in economic and social injustice to matters of transcendental and individual concern. Writing in 1985, reviewer Michiko Kakutani described Continental Drift as “a visionary epic about innocence and evil” that “remains, somehow, acutely personal,” offering “a frightening glimpse of our own mortality.”

But rendering Continental Drift as a conflict of “innocence and evil” saps the novel of its political dimension. For the book is not only a chronicle of desperate migrants, and an excruciating portrait of a blue-collar white man who, in the long tradition of literary naturalism, seems unable to grasp the larger dimensions of his own existence; the novel is also a trenchant anatomy of how contemporary capitalism shapes the lives of working people across the Americas.

The novel exemplifies what Marxist critic Fredric Jameson calls “cognitive mapping”: literary narratives that position individual stories amid the grand sweep of global economics and politics. In the opening pages, Continental Drift introduces the earth’s shifting plates as its core metaphor for the wrenching changes of the late twentieth century. “It is as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes . . . were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses.” By interweaving Bob’s and Vanise and Claude’s stories in alternating chapters, the novel brings out their common membership in a global class of migratory workers. Speaking for the millions fleeing “war, famine, and flood,” the narrator proclaims: “We are the planet.”

Yet it’s a planet divided, even within this common class. The novel’s narrator traces the impetus for Bob’s move to Florida to his economic frustration with a late-1970s society that is shedding industrial jobs and encourages white men like Bob to blame their problems on women, immigrants, and people of color. Bob complains: “The mill is turned into a fucking pea cannery where only women work, so I’m fixing broken oil burners for Fred Turner, crawling in and out of boiler rooms and basements my whole livelong life!” In Florida, the sight of black people makes Bob (whose last name in this context takes on an ironic reference to W. E. B. DuBois) squeamish; he feels “exposed, revealed to the world for what he is”: “poor and ignorant in his noisy, dented station wagon.” His economic insecurities manifest as racial anxiety and elsewhere, fear and bigotry.

The novel’s frank insistence on the opposition between rich and poor dovetails with its assertion that the American Dream — “the dream of a new life, the dream of starting over” — has in the Reaganite era collapsed into a hollow fantasy. All the novel’s US characters — not only Bob, but his brother Eddie and pal Avery Boone — are floating on debt, about to drown. “The bank’s got me by the nuts,” Avery tells Bob, economic desperation mixing with masculine insecurity.

The novel devotes fewer pages to Vanise and Claude than to Bob, but they, too, are working people (albeit much worse off than Bob), subject to conditions of neo-slavery in the Caribbean’s underground agricultural and sexual economies. On their journey from Haiti, Vanise and Claude are confined for several days to the fetid hold of a small vessel in a figurative, if not quite literal, death. Both are raped repeatedly. “They had come,” the narrator explains, “over three hundred miles as if chained in darkness, a middle passage.”

After Vanise and Claude are deposited in the Bahamas, Vanise is held captive by a club owner who sells her sexual services to local seamen. Claude finds and joins a community of people forcibly hidden in the shadows who perform the menial labor that keeps the tourist economy running: “people from the outskirts of towns, the squatters and shack people, whose lives are official secrets. They . . . wash the dishes, scrub the pots, clean the toilets, clip the grass and haul the trash for the managers of the enormous glass, steel and concrete hotels and casinos . . . for wages acceptable only to someone who would otherwise starve.”

It’s a biting indictment of the essential yet subordinate role of immigrant labor in the global economy — made all the more scathing because Continent Drift appeared just after Ronald Reagan, in blatant disregard for the well-being of refugees escaping the François Duvalier dictatorship, had shifted US policy to aggressively intercept Haitian migrants at sea and return them without accepting applications for asylum. For several years before his death, Banks had been working with Raoul Peck — director of I am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx, and Exterminate all the Brutes, whose family had fled Haiti when he was a child — to turn a Continental Drift into a feature film.

Banks and the Proletarian Novel

Banks may be best remembered for his novels that did appear on the silver screen: Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. But no novel better exhibited Banks’s piercing storytelling than Continental Drift. In its focus on the everyday struggles of workers on the move and the lacerating power of capitalism, the novel stands in the long and diverse proletarian literary tradition, which stretches back to nineteenth-century slave narratives and reached its apex during the Great Depression with writers like Mike Gold, Tillie Olsen, and Richard Wright.

In depicting the dark side of the Sunbelt service economy, and by expanding the story of American workers into the Caribbean, the book updates that tradition for our own era of precarious labor and global migration. Continental Drift thus reminds us that, to paraphrase William Faulkner, proletarian literature is not dead; it is not even past.

There is one stark difference: unlike many proletarian novels from the 1930s, Continental Drift lacks a sense of radical possibility. The novel’s primary arc is tragic; no collective triumph looms on the horizon, and racism remains a potent barrier. Banks was writing as Reagan’s ascendant anti-union, everyone-for-themself economic policies devastated and divided working people. Banks couldn’t realistically envision solidarity between Bob and Vanise and Claude.

However, in weaving their stories together through the tectonic forces at play on the planetary working class, he insisted their fates are intertwined, and opened space for those who came after to grapple with the problems, and also the possibilities, of working-class struggle in the contemporary world.