Born 20 May 1905, Milledgeville, Georgia; died 27 February 1996
Raised and educated largely in South Carolina, Grace Lumpkin later taught school in Georgia and worked as a home demonstration agent for the government, thereby coming into contact with the poverty of many Southern farm families. Her sympathy for the poor was expanded by living and working among North Carolinamountain people and watching their migration to the cotton mills. She became a staunch anticapitalist and ardent supporter of industrial unionism.
Lumpkin went to New York when she was twenty-five and began to write short stories, becoming involved in liberal and radical politics. Her first story was published in the New Masses, and during the 1930s, like many young writers, she became a fellow traveler. During this period, she wrote two proletarian novels, both about the Southern poor. A Sign for Cain (1935) was the subject of a 1953 inquiry by the Senate Permanent Investigating Sub-Committee, at which Lumpkin testified she had been forced to write communist propaganda into the novel, under threat of having her career "broken" by communist book reviewers. Lumpkin, who lived for years in Columbia, South Carolina, was said to be working on a new novel, God and a Garden, but she died in 1996 and the work remains unpublished.
Lumpkin's first and best novel, To Make My Bread (1932), traces the movement of poor Southern tenant farmers and share-croppers from their rural homes to newly industrialized mill towns. It is a compassionate novel that uses the author's intimate knowledge of these people to explore the cultural shock and the disillusion they encountered in the transition. While in the Southern mountains, these people had endured a stable kind of poverty, ameliorated by the natural beauty of their surroundings, the intoxicating rituals of their fundamentalist religion, and the closeness of family and community ties. In the cotton mills, their large families became a burden, especially for the women who were needed as wage earners; their religion became a tool of the bosses who exploited and distorted its ideals of submissiveness; and the natural beauty was replaced by dreary industrial ugliness. Lumpkin's heroine, Bonnie McClure, like many of the other women, is pushed, almost reluctantly, out of her traditional feminine role as childbearer by the economic exigencies of her life: sooner than watch children starve to death she will become a union organizer and strike leader. Lumpkin's sympathies for factory women are strong, but she tends ultimately to see the resolution of their problems in a socialist transformation of society, despite the fact that their sufferings are markedly different in nature from those of their husbands and brothers.
In her second novel, A Sign for Cain, Lumpkin again attempts to demonstrate that the interests of all the poor are best served by communism, this time by exploring the potential power of a political alliance between black and white sharecroppers in the South. This novel has, as a kind of antiheroine, a rebellious bourgeois woman, Caroline Gault, who, modern and assertive in her sexual morality, is nevertheless condemned for trying to substitute a reactionary code of individualism for collective action. This novel proposes even more directly than the first that women should not seek sexual justice outside the framework of a socialist redistribution of society's resources.
Lumpkin's third novel, The Wedding (1939, reprinted 1977), makes a movement away from political tendentiousness in favor of a rather sympathetic examination of a Southern middle-class family in a state of personal crisis. Her last published work, Full Circle (1962), is a novel embracing neither her political nor her literary reputation, dealing as it does with what one critic has called the overcultivated soil of international communist conspiracy.
It is in the first two novels Lumpkin makes her most significant contribution to the literature of feminism. Both provide early examples of the continuing dialectical debate between the adherents of solidarity with other movements of oppressed groups and those who believe that no economic or social equality can ever exist without a prior radical revision of the relationships between men and women.
Chestnut, S., The Difference Within: Southern Proletarian Writers Olive Dargan, Grace Lumpkin, and Myra Page (dissertation, 1994). Rideout, W. B., The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954 (1956).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995). TCA, TCAS.
Books (27 Oct. 1935). Nation (19 Oct. 1932). New Republic (7 Dec. 1932, 23 Oct. 1935). NYT (26 Feb. 1939). Saturday Review (9 Nov. 1935).