Jack Conroy’s "The Disinherited" - The awakening of a socio-political missionary

Seminar Paper, 2002

33 Pages, Grade: Good (2-B)




The Disinherited
– The Awakening of a Socio-political Missionary
I. The Death of the Father
II. The Railroad Strike
III. The Concept of Education






There are many ways to read Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited . Ever since it was published the first time in 1933, critics and friends of the author differed in their receptions and assessments of the novel. To some contemporary critics, for instance Gold, Farrell and Hicks, The Disinherited conveyed too few communist ideas and did not satisfactorily “recommend militancy as a general solution for the workers’ problems.”[1] The communist party indeed is not explicitly present in the novel; to Conroy, Marxist politics did not play a crucial role in proletarian literature. Yet on the whole, the left-wing critics praised the book.[2] After its immediate success,[3] the impact of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s silenced the radical thinker Conroy, who had thenceforth difficulties in finding a publisher. Finally, since 1963, when “Daniel Aaron exhumed”[4] the novel, Conroy’s literary writing has been gradually rediscovered and the author has been rehabilitated to some extent.

Since any attempts to discover the author’s original intentions remain inevitably vague and speculative, this paper will not try to find out the true interpretation of The Disinherited . I will rather focus on an alternative reading which is possible to the present-day reader, who deciphers the novel approximately 70 years after its first publication and in different socio-political circumstances. In Walsh’s opinion, the novel “never rises to the level of a work of art in which each element is subordinated to a single unifying purpose.”[5] Yet, I claim that there is a priority aim: My suggestion is to interpret the narrator’s development as the awakening of a missionary who is not interested in a particular religion, but rather stands up for socio-political amendments in favour of the working class. In some respects, the reader may even draw parallels between Larry Donovan and Jesus Christ: both had a strong mother and a very “influential” father; both moved around a great deal, both sided with the underprivileged and tried to help them, and both were spokesmen of the lower-classes, for whose interests they eventually sacrificed themselves.

Since the novel deals primarily with class differences and class awareness, I will briefly explain my conception of the term class. According to Marx – who made class one of the cornerstones of his revolutionary theory of society – the social status of a person, whether someone belongs to the working or to the profiting group, is the decisive factor in class distinction. However, this system of oppressed versus oppressing people, non-possessing versus possessing people, fails to cover the more complex variations of class reality. Not only the place of birth, the family situation and the kind of education received have to be considered, but there are also some subtle factors which contribute to class distinction and determine class hierarchy even within one social class. The working class is not a homogeneous group; the people differ in many ways, for instance, in their readiness and capacity to act, or simply in their use of language. Some talk exclusively slang, others use something like Standard English. These characteristics are used as clear indications of the quality of their education and moral standpoints. Moreover, language not only is a means of conveying meaning but also signifies something itself. Moral values, stereotypical attitudes and prejudices are all mirrored in one’s language use, either in a clear or latent way.

On the following pages, I will analyse how narrative strategy and language are specifically used to support my central thesis of Larry’s development in a socio-political missionary. I will point out the brilliant – often latent – argumentation as well as the narrative weaknesses. Some characters will be scrutinized as to their reliability and functions. There will also be a close look at narrative distance. Finally, I will comment on the frequent use of intertextual references, as well as on the aspect of cultural heritage.

Since Jack Conroy and his works are rather neglected in literary criticism, only a few secondary sources are available in Vienna. My analysis thus is primarily based on the constructive impulses derived from class discussions.

Annotation: Mere page numbers after quotations refer to the primary source.

The Disinherited – The Awakening of a Socio-political Missionary

Some critics[6] assess the book by traditional literary standards and do not fully accept its new literary form, viz. proletarian literature. They argue that The Disinherited cannot be called a novel because of its episodic structure and seemingly loose narrative threads. In 1963, anyway, Conroy defends The Disinherited in an interview printed in the Chicago Daily News: “Novel or not, just so it tells the truth. I describe myself as a witness to the times, not as a novelist.”[7] Thus the loose strings of episodes might also be interpreted as mirroring reality. “The broken threads of the narrative lend realism to the novel; figures appear, then disappear, as in the experience of a migratory worker.”[8] To raise working-class people to social and political awareness, the text’s authenticity is most likely of greater significance than the fulfilment of all standard literary requirements of a novel. For the highly ambitious author, the content of his first book was more important than its literary form and aesthetic quality: “[A] strike bulletin or an impassioned leaflet are of more moment than three hundred prettily and faultlessly written pages about the private woes of a society gigolo.”[9]

But why are critics – as well as readers – so eager to categorize every piece of text, in particular literary texts? Why do the majority of people have big problems appreciating or at least accepting artistic innovations? I presume that such radical changes subverts one’s established world view and hence call the so far accepted value system into question. People, yet, need regularity, an invariable daily routine, or they become even more worn out and incapable to meet the demands of life. Simplified and generalized patterns of thought help them to understand and cope with the world. The desire to economize thoughts is one explanation why people tend to categorize their perceptions, and why everything that is hard to classify is distrusted at first.

Anyway, this paper will focus neither on any literary classification of the novel nor on its justification. I will rather work out and offer a new interpretation which is embedded in today’s western understanding. First, I will examine the structure of The Disinherited . At a closer look, the reader is able to discover a clear narrative strategy which goes beyond the general organization of the book in three parts – Monkey Nest Camp, Bull Market,[10] and The Hard Winter – and 30 chapters (11, 11, 8). Part I depicts Larry’s childhood and is presented as a clear unit, although it suspends chronological coherence. The ahistorical juxtaposition of events and descriptions imitates the child’s confusion and unawareness of time. In contrast to part II and part III, the narration does not follow a linear direction but rather moves in a circle. It thus draws a detailed picture of the protagonist’s childhood in Monkey Nest Camp, which was – despite its harshness – a homely nest to the boy. The narration gives considerable room to fairly happy and nostalgic recollections and renounces a merely grim naturalistic description. Only with the death of Larry’s father and the eviction from Monkey Nest, the protagonist is knocked into awareness of both time and the struggle of survival.

In parts II and III, there is a lot more motion than in the preceding one; the protagonist and most of his friends are “drifters”[11] who constantly move, depending on the current labour situation. Successively, Larry gets dislocated and loses his family ties. The coal mines and rural dwellings of Monkey Nest Camp give way to an urban setting where the adolescent narrator works in various factories: at the railroad company, the steel mill and the rubber heel plant, and eventually he takes a job in the automobile industry of Chicago. These jobs are dangerous and unhealthy.[12] Nonetheless, they seem to be better than the work in the coal mines, because the workers stay at least above ground, and the railroad industry promises a future at that time.[13] However, in the course of the story, the quality of the job skills as well as the prestige of the jobs successively deteriorate. At the railroad shop, Larry works as an apprentice; whereas in the end, his labour is reduced to very limited manual skills; he sets bricks – a “monotonous and gruelling work”.[14] Another feature which changes from job to job is the increasing working pace. The climax of the backbreaking time pressure is Mose’s collapse.[15] The “Steamboat”, as the bricksetters call him, used to set the pace for the workers and now goes down himself. At that time, Larry gives up his ambitions to rise socially and economically.

[…] I could no longer withdraw into my fantastic inner world and despise these men. I did not aspire to be a doctor or a lawyer any more. I was only as high or as low as the other workers in the paving gang.[16]

In the end, Larry returns to Monkey Nest, which no longer means a romantic place nor a protective nest to him. The remaining people are robbed of their entire economic base, they are disinherited and uprooted. Symbolically, his mother lives together with Aunt Jessie and her children in the former saloon, which once was a place of men’s entertainment to which only “indecent” women had access.

Yet, the novel contains a second, underlying structure as regards the decisive events in the protagonist’s development. Certain turning points form the frame of the narrative strategy and lead Larry to his vocation step by step. In this respect, The Disinherited conveys the typical features of an Entwicklungsroman : it portrays the development of the protagonist’s consciousness and social awareness. The novel contains some teleological elements as well, in so far as each stage of development brings Larry closer to his final target, and eventually he finds the “ultimate salvation”. In the following I will display the narrative’s crucial points.


[1] Foley, 95.

[2] cf. Foley, 113.

[3] At first, The Disinherited was “widely received as a major breakthrough in American working-class fiction.” (Giles, http://www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/ii941030.html) Yet, only 2,700 copies were sold by 1935, 1,000 of these at discount. (cf. Foley, 102; Rideout, 235)

[4] Introduction to The Disinherited by Wixson, 24.

[5] cf. Walsh, http://www.wsws.org/arts/1995/nov1995/conroy.shtml.

[6] e. g. Hicks and Farrell (cf. Introduction to The Disinherited by Wixson, 11, 13; Aaron, 300).

[7] Lefley, Robert. “Interview with Jack Conroy,” in Panorama magazine, Chicago Daily News , May 18, 1963, 9, quoted in Wixson, Introduction to The Disinherited , 11.

[8] Introduction to The Disinherited by Wixson, 12.

[9] Foley, 66.

[10] Bull Market, synonymous with the rising stock market, might also be interpreted as a symbol of the sale of the working men, treated and prized like cattle. (cf. 136 – 137, 157, 185 – 186) Further aspects of social Darwinism: 181, 202;

[11] cf. Rideout, 183.

[12] The penetrating stench of the heated rubber affects the lungs within a short time, for instance.

[13] The railroad industry boomed between 1890 and 1910.

[14] 263.

[15] cf. 270.

[16] 270.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


Jack Conroy’s "The Disinherited" - The awakening of a socio-political missionary
University of Vienna  (Institute for Anglistics/ American Studies)
Good (2-B)
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Jack Conroy, The Disinherited
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Sabine Rohrhofer (Author), 2002, Jack Conroy’s "The Disinherited" - The awakening of a socio-political missionary, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/4763


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