Defining Working-Class Literature(s): A Comparative Approach Between U.S. Working-Class Studies and Swedish Literary History

Magnus Nilsson, John Lennon


The aim of this article is to contribute to the theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of working-class literature through a comparison of how it has developed in two countries—Sweden and the United States—and, more importantly, how it has been conceptualized in two academic fields: contemporary U.S. working-class studies and the study of Swedish literary history. By establishing a dialogue between these places and fields, we explore differences as well as common threads of working-class literatures and the historical forces that helped create them, thereby allowing us greater understandings of the phenomenon of working-class literature. After outlining the conceptualizations of working-class literature within contemporary U.S. working-class studies and the study of Swedish literary history respectively, and discussing the material and historical contexts shaping them, we offer theoretical critiques of these conceptualizations and suggest possible comparative approaches that might help us expand and better understand the phenomenon of working-class literature. Our main argument is that our analysis makes visible two important features of this literature. The first of these, inscribed in the very concept of the term, is that working-class literature is both a literary phenomenon and a representation of working-class life. The second feature—a far less obvious, but not less important one—is that working-class literature is always historically and geographically situated and, thus, assumes divergent shapes in different times and locations. This opens up for an understanding of working-class literature as a phenomenon always in a process of formation. Loosening myopic nationalist understandings of working class literatures in favor of a comparative approach expands our understandings of them and allows for new vantage points in the analysis of the relationship between class and culture.


working-class literature, working-class studies, American literature, Swedish literature

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