Books - Reviews - Comment
Sept. 2, 1946
Working Class Materials Challenge Creative ArtistsThere is something strange about setting aside a day for labor, a condescending note that implies patronization and separateness; and if we make the day our own, in making it so we should hammer home the point that labor is the heart of the nation--literally that, the life-pump that sends the blood coursing to the farthest edge of our land, from the rim of Florida to the brow of the lakes.
I have often thought of this in terms of creative writing, how the distinction between labor and life, that false and incredible distinction, has permeated the mental processes of many writers of great good will to an extent where they themselves accept and practice it, stereotyping their work, rejecting an approach or using a schematic approach as vulgar as it is futile. Again and again, you hear the cry, "What am I to write about--?" Or, where a subject is chosen, it falls into one or another of the glib--I use the word advisedly, for even sincerity can be glib--slots in the so-called lexicon of the progressive. And what are these slots but the final debasement of political slogans, the final and not so gentle kiss of death to art, which can spring only from life and never from a sloganized reflection.
The working class itself is alive, more vitally alive than any other section of society. It waits for the creative artist the way a thick, gold-ridden vein of quartz waits for the miner. It contains within itself, past, present and future, an epic saga that men will sing for centuries to come. It has bred heroes that put to shame the classic giants of old; and within the moving dialectic it has produced villains inferior to none. What was Benedict Arnold to a Powderly, and on the reverse of the coin, where has the modern age bred such men as a Lenin, a Dimitroff, a Tito, a Foster -- to mention four among a million?
The mother lode that runs through our history is virtually untapped. What story teller has told of the first trade unions, in the time of Jefferson? Or the labor parties of Jackson's era? Or the militant struggle of the Iron Moulders' Union under Sylvis, who, if he had lived, might have changed the direction of history?
And what of the labor volunteer battalions, armed and clothed out of their own pockets, who marched out of New York City and into the first battles of the Civil War? Short of a war, nothing more dramatic than the great railroad strike of the '70s ever hit our nation, and its aftermath, the pitiful and tragic two-week rule of St. Louis by the workers--historically and theoretically unprepared--is life made for the hand of the story-teller. Or, to pass ahead a decade, where else in the world was a mighty labor movement, eventually to number millions in its membership, organized and built underground, as were the Knights of Labor?
And the struggle for the eight-hour day, the battles in which Pinkerton armies, numbering sometimes more than a thousand men, engaged in armed warfare with the workers. In all our history, only John Brown stands with the stature, the purpose, and the unearthly courage of Albert Parsons. In all our history, there is nothing so shameful as the legal murder of the four Haymarket martyrs.
Laid end to end, our rooten-tooten, trashy two-gun western novels would probably reach from here to the moon, but where is there yet a writer to tell of the nameless and numberless western miners, in a hundred silver and copper towns, who died for the working class, who lie buried in unmarked boot-hills, and who laid the groundwork for a proud and militant organization that became the International Workers of the World?
And where is the young Irish writer, with an ear for the rhythms and lilt of Irish-American speech, with a memory of his people's folklore, who will tell the finest episode in their American story, the fighting struggle of the Molly Maguires?
This is the past, but only a taste of it, only a fragrance of it, only a few names where names are legion. What of yesterday, of Sacco and Vanzetti, of Haywood, of Debs, of Ruthenberg? What of a moment past, in the timescale of history, when the CIO was forged and made, when the American workers sent a battalion of their own to fight fascism in Spain? And what of today and tomorrow, the wondrous complexity and motion that is still only a beginning, only the rough, half-shaped youth of a world to come?
There is material for the writer, limitless and complex. We need no sloganized pigeonholes; we need only an approach to and understanding of life, of the deepest and strongest currents of life.