A comparison of English and West German working-class literature between 1949-1989

Steve Eszrenyi

In my PhD study, I will undertake a comparison between English and West German working-class literature from 1945 to 1989. The main research issues are two-fold. Firstly, it is to establish any links there might have been between working-class writing in England and Germany between 1945 and 1989. Secondly, the thesis will deal with assessing and calibrating the various representations of working-class life reflected in the themes of work, community and identity and gender as seen in the novels of Barry Hines and Max von der Grün, detailing major patterns, similarities and differences.
My argument for both English and West German working-class literature will be situated within the cultural materialist approaches to literature, which will enable me to study the texts in relation to their historical, social and cultural contexts. I will draw on the ideas of cultural materialists such as Raymond Williams. Cultural materialism, as I see it, with its determination to challenge established categories of literature, acknowledges the readiness of writing of various kinds to explore themes, social and cultural perspectives that are not conventionally regarded as appropriate subject matter for literature.
I propose to divide this thesis into six different but related sections as follows. The first section is the introduction and this will give the outline of the thesis. The second section will provide a framework and overview of major literary, political and cultural events in both England and West Germany. It is impossible to neatly seal off developments in literature from the political and the cultural and I will make reference to the major political and cultural episodes in both countries to enable a more complete literary picture in both countries to emerge. This will enable me to provide a backdrop against which I will pinpoint more clearly the development and place of working class literature in both countries. The third section will deal with critical perspectives on class and will lead to an attempt to define the term working class in both England and Germany during the period 1945-1989. The analysis of working-class literature in England and West Germany will form the fourth section. My fifth section will deal with the case studies of Barry Hines and Max von der Grün. This case study is situated at the end of the thesis as it is my aim to move from the general to the specific and to concentrate in this section on the comparison of the following themes in the novels of Barry Hines and Max von der Grün: community and identity; work; gender. In my sixth section, I will then draw together the findings from my thesis in a conclusion.
I have chosen to focus on the novels of Barry Hines and Max von der Grün, because they both were worker writers at some point in their lives. The following brief biographical overview of both writers supports this. Barry Hines was born in 1939 and was the eldest of two sons born of a miner and a miner’s daughter. After leaving grammar school at fourteen without any qualifications he went to work down the pit. Urged by his mother, Hines returned to school and passed six ‘O’ levels and then went to work for the National Coal Board as an apprentice mining surveyor at Rockingham Colliery, Rotherham. Hines left the pit, worked as a teacher in a local school and later became a professional writer. Max von der Grün was born in 1926 and died in 2005. He was the son of a cobbler and began his working life as an apprentice in the Rosenthal factories in Selb and Marktredwitz. During the Second World War, he was an American prisoner of war and returned to Germany in 1948 and found employment down the mines. From 1963 onwards he worked as a writer in Dortmund-Lanstrop.
Both Barry Hines and Max von der Grün were from a mining background and both writers have or have had, in the case of Max von der Grün, their roots in the working class and have grown up inside a working class community – or more specifically, a mining community. The texts of both writers focus powerfully on aspects, issues and themes of working-class experience which will enable me to form the basis of my comparison between English and West German working-class literature. I hope in the course of the thesis to see if novels dealing with mining communities differed or were similar in any way to “other” working-class novels – in England and West Germany respectively.
This study will also include reference to English authors such as Sid Chaplin, Len Doherty and David Storey. These writers too, have or have had a strong affiliation to the working-class and all three have a mining theme running through their work. It will, though, draw primarily on the novels of Barry Hines and in particular, the following: The Blinder (1966), A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), First Signs (1972), The Price of Coal (1979), Looks and Smiles (1981) and Unfinished Business (1983).
The study of German authors will involve writers such as Bruno Gluchowski and Walter Köpping. These writers, like Chaplin, Doherty and Storey in England, have a connection to mining communities in West Germany. The thesis will also take into account work produced by the Gruppe 47, the Gruppe 61 and the Werkkreis Literatur der Arbeitswelt. The main reference point for German working-class writers 1945 - 1989 will be Max von der Grün and the following novels will be studied in the comparative thesis: Männer in zweifacher Nacht (1962), Irrlicht und Feuer (1963), Zwei Briefe an Pospischiel (1968), Stellenweise Glatteis (1973), Flächenbrand (1979) and Die Lawine (1986).