MyAmericanFuture

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

August 31, 2017: American Labor: The Haymarket Affair



[In this week leading up to Labor Day, one of our most poorly understood national holidays, five posts AmericanStudying texts and moments related to work in America. For many many more, check out Erik Loomis’ ongoing This Day in Labor History series at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog!]
On revolutions, large and small, and a controversial moment in labor history.

One of the more eye-opening classes I took in college focused on 19th century European history, and specifically on the spate of revolutions and radical shifts in government and authority that dominated much of the century (particularly if it’s defined to include the end of the 18th century and so the French Revolution) for many European nations. Prominent European historian Eric Hobsbawn designated the first half of the century The Age of Revolution, as per the title of the relevant volume in his seminal multi-volume historical series, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962). But even though 1848 did represent a culmination, with numerous nations undergoing revolutions of one kind or another, the decades afterward likewise included at least one more major upheaval (the Paris Commune of 1871) and a number of smaller but still significant revolts and shifts as well. There were lots of reasons why both the details of these historical events and the class that highlighted them were eye-opening for me, but I suppose the most salient is the contrast with the United States, which, despite the newness and definite fragility of its government and identity, underwent no comparable revolutions or changes in its government over the same period (the Civil War would seem to be an obvious exception, but I think it’s different in kind from any of the European revolutions in question, not least because the Confederacy didn’t want to turn Washington into a new form of government but rather just to break entirely from the existing one).

This isn’t going to be one of those posts where I try to entirely flip that vision of our history; I don’t think there are any unknown 19th century American revolutions waiting to be remembered and narrated (there is the 1898 Wilmington coup d’etat, but I’m talking national revolutions). But I do think that using the lens of the European revolutions, particularly in their near-ubiquitous emphasis on issues of class and caste as a chief factor in both their causes and results, can provide a helpful way to analyze one of the most complex and, yes, revolutionary elements of American life in the second half of the 19th century: the labor movement, and specifically the profound challenges it offered to American identity and changes it eventually effected. For one thing, the labor movement—and the singular term is a misnomer, there were many different labor movements in the period, with each particular union and organization representing a distinct community and vision and set of goals; but in the interests of space, I’ll refer to it with the collective term—was perhaps the only 19th century American social movement that comprised in large part an extension of existing, outside (and mainly European) movements. That doesn’t mean that labor in America didn’t take on shapes and tones specific and unique to our national history and culture and identity, but it did mean that some of the particularly prominent labor-related events that took place here were instigated in part by—and so, potentially, blamed on—international forces and organizations.

Exemplifying both the international instigations and the potential blame was the Haymarket Affair of May 1886, a labor protest (in support of the eight hour workday, the institution of which many different labor organizations had worked to make standard beginning on May 1st of that year) that turned into one of the more violent and chaotic events in the post-Civil War era. The principal organizer of the May Day marches and subsequent strikes in Chicago was Albert Parsons, an anarchist and founder of the International Working People’s Association; when the May 4th rally in support of the striking workers was torn apart by violence, both in the form of a bomb thrown at police and in a subsequent exchange of gunfire, it was eight anarchist leaders (five of them German-born) who were arrested and charged with inciting the bombing. The trial itself was largely a sham, since the prosecution admitted that it could not link any of the eight directly to the bombing, but an effective one, with all eight defendants found guilty and seven given the death penalty (four were eventually executed and a fifth killed himself while awaiting execution). But more telling still were the many journalistic responses to the anarchists, the authors of which consistently sought not only to criticize the anarchists’ political perspectives and castigate the labor movement for its association with them, but also and just as overtly to define them as foreign, as an unwanted alien presence in America (and thus to define the trial as a necessary, if not necessarily legally sound, repelling of this invasion of violent foreign ideas).

The aftermath of Haymarket highlights, on the one hand, the absence of overt revolutions in America—this was perhaps the moment of most heightened visibility for political radicals in the period, and yet the anarchists did not overthrow and remake Chicago’s government (as did the Paris Communists for that brief period in 1870) or in any other explicit way shift the nation’s political identity. But on the other hand, the eight hour workday was indeed instituted, just as the era’s labor movements eventually succeeded in achieving virtually every other significant goal (from an end to child labor to the creation of the work week, from safety regulations to more fixed wages and contracts, among many other advances). So it’s perhaps more accurate to say that America’s 19th century revolutions were social and gradual rather than political and radical—that the true bombs, that is, didn’t blow up our nation so much as slowly but profoundly reshape it. Last labor post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other work-related texts or moments you’d share?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

August 30, 2017: American Labor: “The Tenth of January”



[In this week leading up to Labor Day, one of our most poorly understood national holidays, five posts AmericanStudying texts and moments related to work in America. For many many more, check out Erik Loomis’ ongoing This Day in Labor History series at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog!]
On a short story that combines local color and sentimental fiction—and becomes much more.
I’ve written two posts about one of my favorite 19th century authors, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: this one on the overall arc and significance of her multi-faceted literary career; and this one on her best novel, the feminist, realist, and powerfully affecting The Story of Avis (1877). Throughout her career, Phelps wed sentimental writing (as in her spiritual Gates trilogy) to local color fiction (as in the New England regionalism of Avis), focusing consistently on the experiences of women within those different frames and settings; she also published a number of young adult and juvenile works, including the very popular Gypsy Brenton books (published when she was only in her early 20s). In the course of that long and successful career, she became one of the century’s best-selling novelists, inspired prominent subsequent writers like William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Edith Wharton, and deserves to be far better remembered and more widely read in our own era.
Yet with all of that said, it’s quite possible that Phelps’ most interesting and important piece of writing was her first published work of fiction for adults: “The Tenth of January,” a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1868 volume (when Phelps was only twenty-three years old). “Tenth” fictionalizes one of the worst industrial and workplace disasters in American history, the January 10th, 1860 collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. That famous and horrific historical event offered Phelps a perfect chance to combine her two most consistent literary genres in this debut short story, and she does so to great success—opening with an extended portrayal of this Massachusetts mill town and its unique culture and community (“it would be difficult to find Lawrence’s equal,” the narrator notes), and then gradually building a sentimental and highly emotional story about a particular young female worker (nearly all those killed in the collapse fit that description, with most of them recent immigrants), Del Ivory, whose tragic fate (along with those of many other characters, some only children) becomes intertwined with that of the mill.
Those elements alone, in the hands of a master like Phelps, would be enough to create a compelling and moving story out of this striking historical material. But in the voice of her narrator, at once a detached observer and a fiery critic, Phelps adds another complex and vital layer to her story. Consider these back to back moments in the story’s introductory section. First the narrator concludes a descriptive paragraph on Lawrence with these angry lines, “Of these ten thousand [workers] two thirds are girls: voluntary captives, indeed; but what is the practical difference? It is an old story—that of going to jail for want of bread.” And then she transitions into the body of her story with this elegiac paragraph: “My story is written as one sets a bit of marble to mark a mound. I linger over it as we linger beside the grave of one who sleeps well: half sadly, half gladly—more gladly than sadly—but hushed.” This narrative voice is not unlike that of another Atlantic Monthly story from earlier in the decade, Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861)—but by wedding this engaging narrator and her multi-faceted literary genres to a real and horrific historical event, Phelps add yet another layer of power and pathos to this unique short story.
Next labor post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other work-related texts or moments you’d share?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

August 29, 2017: American Labor: Life in the Iron Mills



[In this week leading up to Labor Day, one of our most poorly understood national holidays, five posts AmericanStudying texts and moments related to work in America. For many many more, check out Erik Loomis’ ongoing This Day in Labor History series at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog!]
On the striking novella that asks us to empathize with some of our worst work conditions.

If I had to identify one factor that can almost instantly change our perspectives (individually and communally) on any issue or story—no matter how entrenched our existing beliefs might seem to be—I’d have to go with empathy. Not just sympathy, ‘cause while that’s nice it’s still somewhat distant, regarding what’s happening to someone else and feeling badly about it. But the moment when we can empathize with them, the second we start imagining ourselves in that identity and situation and set of experiences, that to me is the lever that can force some daylight between our biases and the genuine and complex details of what these others are dealing with, making it possible, at least potentially, for us to see and understand the latter without being blinded by the former. That’s why, whatever else he did or does with his career, I’ll always be very grateful to Everlast for his song “What It’s Like,” which articulates the necessity of and stakes in such empathetic connections, even to some of the most controversial figures among us (an alcoholic homeless man, a girl getting an abortion, and a gangbanger), with perfect clarity and power (it also includes, in its bridge, one of the truest lines in American music: “You know where it ends, yo it usually depends on where you start”).

One of the most striking requests for an audience’s empathy in all of American literature comes in the opening paragraphs of Rebecca Harding Davis’s novella Life in the Iron-Mills (1861). The twenty-nine year old Davis was working as a reporter and occasional editor for her local newspaper, the Wheeling (WV) Intelligencer, when Life appeared in the April 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, and had published no works in any genre on a national level (her first novel, Margret Howth, would appear later in the year); so this incredibly dense and evocative work would have likely caught readers by surprise in any case. But the direct inclusion of those readers in that first sentence—“A cloudy day; do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?”—, and moreover the central role played by “you” in almost every sentence of the story’s first four paragraphs, represents a even more thoroughly surprising and immediately engaging element. And Davis asks her audience to do a great deal more than just envision a cloudy day; in the fourth paragraph’s culmination of this introductory section, she requests your empathy much more overtly and brazenly: “Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries; I want to make it a real thing to you.”

As the somewhat melodramatic language and tone there might suggest, the story that Davis proceeds to tell for us is certainly not without its sentimental and gothic extremes: from its heroine, a hunchbacked worker named Deborah who suffers from a lifelong unrequited love for the story’s hero, Hugh Wolfe; to Wolfe’s own conflicted identity as an iron worker who produces tragically beautiful works of art in his spare time and with spare materials; to the at times heavy-handed use of symbols, including a caged and soot-covered bird in the opening and the angel sculpture that represents both Wolfe’s masterpiece and, in the story’s main plot thread, his undoing and destruction. Yet of course one could argue quite successfully that such emotional and symbolic extremes represent purposeful choices on Davis’s part to help bring us in, to engage with her audience’s own emotions and ideas—and thus, paradoxically but crucially, that in these melodramatic elements, just as much as in the striking second-person opening, she is in fact working precisely to “make it a real thing” for us. And that argument could be made successfully because she most certainly succeeds in that goal: I’ve never been anywhere near a town of iron-works, and when I first read this story as a freshman in college had never even seen photographs of them, yet Davis’s text captures every sensory detail, every corner, of that setting and world with clarity and power; so much so that when we come back to the narrator’s voice and room in the final paragraphs, the circular structure reminds us of the first sentence’s question, and our answer now, wherever and whoever we may be, is “Yes.”
As with anything, even the best of things, empathy has its limits, and that’s not at all a bad thing; not every identity is healthy for us to imagine ourselves into, and I certainly have no desire to empathize with (for example) a Jeffrey Dahmer. But when it comes to defining experiences and places and issues in American history, especially those that are far removed from most of our 21st-century lives—and the world of industrial labor in the 19th century, before such things as the weekend or work hours or child labor laws or safety regulations were even matters for debate, is most definitely one of them—there are few things that can be more productive and important than imagining ourselves into them. And that’s a lot easier with a guide like Davis. Next labor post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other work-related texts or moments you’d share?