Iron City

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A realist novel by Lloyd Brown, was published in 1951 and reprinted with a critical introduction in 1994. Iron City is based on Brown's experiences in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Jail in 1941. In the novel, Paul Harper, Henry Faulcon, and Isaac L. (Zach) Zachary, three African American communist political prisoners, lead a campaign to free Lonnie James, a framed African American youth on death row. As Alan Wald points out in his critical introduction to the 1994 edition, Iron City is possibly the first African American prison novel, and probably the first novel to depict the activities of political prisoners in the United States.

In addition to the fight to save Lonnie James, both the inner world of the characters, and the “outside” world—an ironic term to use when talking of a prison novel—are strikingly portrayed. The action of Iron City may be confined to the jail, but through the telling of the life stories and testimonies of the three main characters, the novel is able to move from criticizing the racism and injustice in one American institution to a critique of the American capitalist system as a whole. Through the novel's use of autobiographical, biographical, and historical materials, the novel offers a critique of racist, oppressive capitalist America and offers communism as the answer to the American racial question.

Brown's novel was written in response to the tendency for African American writers of the 1940s and 1950s to create dark and negative portrayals of their people in such works as Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). Iron City was a conscious attempt to introduce positive working-class African American protagonists into African American literature.

Alan Wald, foreword to Iron City, 1994.

Karen Ruth Kornweibel.

Subjects: Literature.

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