Monday, September 07, 2009

My favorite labor novel

Two years ago the Duke University Press journal Labor asked several historians to name their favorite labor novel.[1] The term is left undefined. “[W]e turn to novelists to illuminate the murky recesses and interstices of our research,” writes Joshua Brown (Graduate Center, City University of New York) in his introduction, “the connections between workplace and home, individual and community, consciousness and agency, the myriad elements composing class.” The titles of seven English-language novels were put forward.

• Jack Conroy, The Disinherited (1933). A proletarian novel from the early Depression by a young novelist who grew up in the coal-mining district of northern Missouri. “The novel spends relatively little time discussing ideology, radical organizations, or trade union politics,” says George Lipsitz of the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Instead, it grounds its prophecy of revolt in the oppositional dimensions of everyday working-class life.”

• Pietro Di Donato, Christ in Concrete (1939). Elsewhere I have listed it among the Five Books of immigrants. Italian-American construction workers from Abruzzi are sacrificed to “Job,” the impersonal force that claims and shapes lives. “Every page reminds you that you have left the world you know,” says Donna Gabaccia of the University of Minnesota.

• Harriette Arnow, The Dollmaker (1954). Gertie Nevels, a woman from the Kentucky hills, struggles to guard her family, her creativity, and her her rural heritage. “The power of the novel comes from Arnow’s ability to narrate both a family’s tragic story and also a much broader account of the social transformation that occurred in wartime Detroit and other norther cities,” says Thomas Dublin of SUNY Binghamton.

• Alice Childress, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life (1956). Written in the form of short dramatic monologues by a black woman working as a domestic servant in the late ’forties and early ’fifties, Like One of the Family “offers a point of access through a black woman’s class consciousness to the rich left/civil rights/labor organizing before anticommunist repression broke apart these productive alliances,” says Judith E. Smith of UMass Boston.

• John Marlyn, Under the Ribs of Death (1957). Set in Winnipeg’s North End, the novel concentrates upon “the tortured path of an immigrant child as he struggles to come to grips with his place in a society that wants him only on its terms,” says Bryan D. Palmer of Queen’s University. “Work is not insignificant in this encounter, but it is work as an upward mobility path to ‘becoming Canadian’ that is accented.”

• Kevin Baker, Paradise Alley (2002). The second volume in the City of Fire trilogy of historical novels about New York, Paradise Alley explores the 1863 draft riots “in which heavily Irish working class turned its fury against the city’s white Republicans and especially its African Americans in an explosion of class resentment and racist fury,” explains Eric Arnesen of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

• Monique Truong, The Book of Salt (2003). A Vietnamese cook works in the interwar Paris household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Ultimately, says Mae M. Ngai of Columbia University, the “story is about the encounter with social death that is imposed by colonialism and racism.”

If a labor novel must be written out of the labor movement—or must at least be written from the left—then my vote goes to Clancy Sigal’s fat autobiographical “road” novel Going Away (1962). A former organizer for the United Auto Workers before he sold out to Hollywood, where he worked first as a screenwriter and then as a talent agent, Sigal emigrated in the late ’fifties. Going Away tracks his experience from the U.S. Army to his last glimpse of New York, and provides a fascinating inside look at the labor movement (and its history), in tart and abundant prose. Leo Litwak’s Waiting for the News (1969), about the efforts to unionize a Detroit laundry in the ’thirties, is also worth mentioning.

But if the term labor novel refers instead to a novel in which work is central then I can’t think of a better book than Jude the Obscure. Ever since I first read the novel as a teenager, Jude Fawley’s thwarted ambition for a life of learning, displaced into the enviable labor of a stonecutter, has stayed with me. As he walks through the streets of Christminster, looking for “work, manual work,” he gazes at the Gothic buildings of the great university:

The numberless architectural pages around him he read, naturally, less as an artist-critic of their forms than as an artisan and comrade of the dead handicraftsmen whose muscles had actually executed those forms. He examined the moldings, stroked them as one who knew their beginning, said they were difficult or easy in the working, had taken little or much time, were trying to the arm, or convenient to the tool.Finishing the novel, I was not sure—I still am not—that Jude did not have the greater knowledge than the professors whose lives he coveted.

[1] “Reading Roundtable: My Favorite Labor Novel,” Labor 4 (2007): 23–32.