The New York Times yesterday published the obituary of Alexander Saxton, a radical historian and novelist. Although Saxton published a number of well-regarded works of history after earning his PhD at the age of 43, he first came to critical attention when he published his first novel, Grand Crossing, in 1943. Though only 24 at the time, Saxton had already lived a varied life. He attended Harvard and the University of Chicago, and then dropped out to take on work he felt more directly useful to the world. He got a job as the brakeman on a railroad crew and began writing a column for the Daily Worker.
Although Grand Crossing had its share of a young man’s pontifications, the book was bold, ambitious in scope, and full of energy conveyed, in part, by the title of its French translation: “Chicago-Triage.” As a fan of great big Chicago novels like The Death of the Detective, I picked it up recently and it’s been sitting in my “to read” stack. I certainly must read it now.
Saxton’s most-acclaimed novel, though, was The Great Midland, which he published in 1948. Midland is even more ambitious in its scope, covering thirty years in the lives of a man and woman deeply involved in the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The University of Illinois Press reissued the book in 1997 as part of its “Radical Novel Reconsidered” series.
Saxton’s last novel, published in 1958, Bright Web in the Darkness, was somewhat shorter than the other two, and more mature in both perspective and structure. It dealt with the experiences and relationship of two women–one white, one black–who meet while training to become welders in a defense plant in World War Two. Bright Web in the Darkness was reissued in 1997 by the University of California Press as part of its excellent “California Fiction” series.
In reviewing the reissue of The Great Midland, one writer noted that, “the novel’s exposition is at times flattened out by the writer’s documentary calling.” Other critics observed that few of the characters in Grand Crossing were more than symbols or stereotypes. It may be no surprise, then, that Saxton found his natural voice more as a historian than a writer of fiction. In an email interview conducted just two years before his death, Saxton commented, “The novel claims only a brief span in human culture and may not continue to play a key role.” Still, one may fairly claim that Alexander Saxton’s three novels merit being written of and studied every bit as much as those of his better-known contemporaries such as Nelson Algren and John Dos Passos.