Many months ago, my friend Greg Sanders recommended Thomas Bell’s long out-of-print 1941 novel Out of this Furnace. The subtitle is A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America.
It describes generations of an immigrant Slovak family working in Pennsylvania still mills beginning in the mid-1880s. It reflects the slow evolution of workers’ rights to safety, fair wages and early union organizing.
Greg is a Youngstown native who grew up at the tail end of that community’s robust steel-producing era. In his late teen years, he witnessed the demise of the steel industry, how it affected the workers and families he knew as neighbors.
He knows I am interested in the subject myself, as my father-in-law was a United Steelworkers’ Union president during the time and he is a great resource of first-hand information about that tough time in labor history.
So I found and read the novel, coincidentally, during the height of Bernie Sanders’ ascendance in the primaries. This gave my reading an even deeper meaning because of two things: Sanders’ support of labor and the overall focus in Donald Trump’s message about today’s immigrant workers in the United States.
Let me share with you a few observations and excerpts of Bell’s writing:
“When human flesh and blood could stand no more it got up at five in the morning as usual and put on its work clothes and went into the mill; and when the whistle blew it came home.” This reminded me of Paul Simon’s lyric from “American Tune,” still tomorrow’s gonna be another workin’ day, and I’m trying to get some rest…
The Work They Do
On page 50 is this word-painting of the hard work of laborers: “When Kracha could pause to look around him again the sky was pale with dawn and the yard outside the cast-house, all night a smoky darkness flecked with lamps, was no washed gray, revealing the familiar pattern of buildings and railroad tracks. It looked like another hot day. He scooped a dipperful of brackish oatmeal water from the bucket and drank slowly. One hour to go.” This is a reminder of the work that they do, that many others do not want to do.
Distrust of Politicians
Bell describes the working class distrust of politicians — in this case, William Jennings Bryan — on page 265: “…by his very success in getting nominated Bryan had ceased to be a little man. And the big man who was for the little man didn’t exist, never had and never would. Kracha’s distrust of big men, rich men, rulers, was profound.”
And on the very next page, this description of the so-called elite of his day:”In the face of unparalleled catastrophe, the rich and powerful lacked even the decency to keep silent. Blind, ignorant, obsessed with the myth of their own infallibility — they had been obeyed longer than was good for any human being — they drooled their obscene mumbo-jumbo, witch doctors without faith in their own magic imploring the betrayed to have confidence, the penniless to put their money into circulation, the despoiled to take pride in an America plundered, gutted and laid waste.”
The Abuse of Labor and Environmnt
And this, finally on page 408 – as relevant today. “All over America men had been permitted, as a matter of business, as a matter of dollars and cents, to destroy what neither money nor men could ever restore”…
Page 408 describes the mill towns of generations past, but just as easily describe the abandoned manufacturing towns of today: “In their [mills] details they were ugly, clumsy, apparently built of cast-off odds and ends with an air of congenital deficiency about them — slovenly workmen doing everything the hard way with the wrong tools.”
How We View our American Selves
Page 410 holds up a mirror to today’s “border/immigrants” phobia. It is easy to imagine today’s illlegal-but-hard-working domestic or farm laborer saying these words, from the novel: “I’m almost as much a product of that mill down there as any rail or ingot they ever turned out. And maybe that’s been part of the trouble. If I’m anything at all I’m an American, only I’m not the kind you read about in history books or that they make speeches about on the Fourth of July; anyway, not yet. And a lot of people don’t know what to make of it and don’t like it. Which is tough on me but is liable to be still tougher on them, because I at least don’t have to be told that Braddock [Pennsylvania] ain’t Plymouth Rock, and this ain’t the year 1620.”
This, on 411, reminds me of stuff that comes out of the mouth of TV’s Chris Matthews: “…it wasn’t where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from. It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law — the same law — for rich and poor, for the people you like and the people you didn’t like…” and it goes on, and it sounds just like Matthews defining America.
It was written about immigrant Slovak steelworkers. But it is about all who come to America to work and build better lives — and it could not be more relevant today as it discusses manufacturing in America and the rights of the workers who work in those plants.
Mark Morelli is a New York Times Bestseller reader.