Thanks for Mary for the heads-up: interesting review (by Dwight Garner) of a book by novelist Chad Harbach examining the split between creative writers who make their bones in Master’s of Fine Arts programs (MFAs) and those who do so in messier fashion in the literary circles of NYC. Mary thought that the article was reminiscent of MARTIN EDEN for its examination of the machinery of publication and the position of the literary outsider looking for credentials or other access to the “lever” that makes the machine go.
A friendly reminder that you are required to bring all assigned texts to class: I’ve noted a disturbing trend towards desks denuded of all readings. And reading on your 3″ sq. iPhones doesn’t cut it. Hunter allows for upwards of 2k free printed pages/term, so use a few of them. I’ve noticed that a wave of you have (finally) signed up for Dropbox this week, so that’s a good sign, if a late-arriving one.
Reading Swados’ On the LIne has been a depressing and anger-making experience. Oddly, I wasn’t angry at the book’s equivalent of di Donato’s “Job” but rather at Swados himself, who had made a case against dehumanizing labor by depicting workers themselves as gray-faced hopeless losers, sometimes victims of their own ambitions and dreams or of their sense of duty to family and social roles, sometimes divided from fellow workers by jealousy and resentment and contempt. Where was the life that animated the souls of Christ in Concrete, the fierce hunger that drove Martin Eden?
That was my visceral reaction to what some other students describe as the bleakness of Swados’ book. I couldn’t help indicting Swados for his own biography: university-graduate son of a well-to-do doctor; a Trotskyite fellow traveler (Trotskyites are political moralizers and spoilers, in my lexicon); a man with relatively little experience on aircraft or auto assembly lines; and mostly scornful of unions into the bargain. Naturally he’d written a book that might leave middle-class readers feeling contempt or pity for the working class. Swados was a “condescending savior,” I felt, and I couldn’t get that notion out of my head long enough to find a hook for my blog, for if I condemned Swados’ version of assembly-line workers, wouldn’t I be guilty of leftist sentimentality?
Round and round.
I decided to page through the book from beginning to end in order to regain my cool. Glad I did. Though I still think Swados is a condescending savior (which, per “The Internationale,” the working class doesn’t need), I now see better how the book is put together, can better appreciate the variety and range of the characters, and can give Swados credit for being concerned about the way workers are swallowed up in, corrupted from the inside out by, the “system.” (On their internal corruption, BTW, see p. 216 for a passage about Frank, returnee to the line at age 56, whose sweat, “chemically affected by the lead in the air, stained underclothing, sheets, and pillow cases, even after he had bathed [!].”
One thing highlighted by my page-through is that Swados has a main surrogate in the text, Joe, the Vanishing American, in Chapter 3, especially pp. 57-67, Joe is introduced after a base chapter each about Leroy, the good-humored would-be opera singer who loses his voice in an accident, and Kevin, the Irish country-boy/schoolteacher who is initially dazzled by the plant and what it produces (like Jurgis Rudkus’ awe in The Jungle at his first sight of the stockyards). Joe is the raisonneur, who “voices the central theme, philosophy, or point of view of the work” (dictionary.com). His interpretation of things is delivered to the naive Walter, recent high school graduate and still a good student, saving money to go to engineering school:
“,,,it’s no fun to be doing time and to be told that your sentence might turn out to be indefinite [i.e., factory as prison]” Joe advises.. “Then if you’ve got a good imagination you can see yourself gradually getting used to it, even getting to like the routine, so that one day follows another and the first thing you know the wrinkles are there and the kids are grown up and you don’t know where it’s all gone to, your life . . . .
“Day after day your life becomes a joke without any point, a trick that you lay on yourself from punching in to punching out. . . .
“Don’t you think that inspector [who had just urged Walter to take shortcuts, not strive for perfection] had ambitions? Don’t you think he still has his man’s pride? Did you ever figure the cost of the job in terms of what it does to the personality of a clever, intelligent fellow like him? He says if you’re going to be trapped you might as well make the best of it . . . . Anyway don’t be too quick to blame him — he probably never had the opportunity to save money and go off to college” (pp. 57-58).
Validating Joe’s tutelage, Walter’s viewpoint eventually “alter[s] into a mature concern with the fate of others who could not, like himself, set a term to his labor” (p. 64). And although “Walter fought hard against the influence of the older man, whose crabbed and subversive outlook was so foreign to everything Walter had been taught . . . he was forced to admit to himself that more and more he was seeing the factory through Joe’s cold, discerning eyes, and he began to fear that if Joe were ever to leave, the plant would have no real existence other than as a money-producing nightmare. Not only was there no one else really to talk to about it, but Joe had forced Walter to try to formulate his merging ideas in an adult and comprehensible way” (p. 65).
Joe cautions, “Never mind the machinery. Remember the men. The men make the machines, and they make their own tragedies too. Once your own life gets easier, you’ll take it for granted not only that theirs must be easier too, but that they deserve what they get anyway, that some law of natural selection has put you up where you are and them down where they are” (p. 62). ( Why doesn’t Walter feel disheartened by this?)
So Swados’ surrogate manages to give the workers some of their due, some sympathy for the hand they’ve been dealt, while also still holding them responsible for their fate.
Which is true, they are their only salvation, but this somehow still comes across as blame, and still lets the plant owners and the ruling class — there, I’ve said it — off the hook.
(I started this tendentious piece late, and it’s got too much quotation, but I have to leave it raw and unfinished. Sorry!)
I really welcomed the change in styles that On The Line provides in contrast to the two earlier novels we’ve discussed. I think there was a drastic difference in how Swados attempts to explore the working class novel. In no way does it seem that Swados is trying to “wow” the reader with beautiful language, he simply states, rather matter-of-factually, the conditions that these characters go through, which I think really enhances the novel in a way that add an almost “meta” layer to the novel. When I first began to read the novel, I had no idea that it was going to feature medium length vignettes in almost the Winesburg, Ohio type mold; I thought the entire novel was going to chronicle Leeroy and his ambitions to become a singer in the Metropolitan Choir and support his pregnant wife and how the factory line shaped and affected his life. While it does not pan out this way, by the end of Leeroy’s story and the end of Kevin’s I think it becomes sort of apparent that each character’s story is almost one section of the assembly line, and as a reader you’re working on it yourself. Predictably, the novel becomes extremely predictable, just like the line. As a reader, I felt almost like Kevin, I was intrigued by Leeroy’s story the same way Kevin was inititially intrigued coming to the factory everyday seeing the machines they controlled and the almost majestic fruits of their labor…for a while, but as the novel progresses and you realize the characters will never get what they want it almost becomes drudgery in the same vein as the novel’s characters. You slave through the bland but descriptive writing not because you’re excited, or even invested…it’s more like watching a car crash, you just have to. You see the characters walking down the road counting their eggs and you know they won’t hatch, you’re just waiting for the expected tragedy. You’re not really reading to know what happens next, you know what happens next: someone has a dream they are chasing, they come close to achieving it or they achieve it, then everything comes crumbling down or even worse, they achieve their dream to realize it amounts to nothing. We see this with Leroy getting his vocal chords severed, never to sing again; we see it with Kevin, achieving a small piece of the American dream, only to see that the same dream has been sold to hundreds of thousands of others, maybe even millions. By the time we get to Pop’s narrative, we know that him buying a car for his son will only end in tragedy, we simply don’t know how yet. All we can do is keep reading until it is over. I think this greatly mirrors life on the line and the shape of the novel. In a sense the line just keeps coming, you know what is on it and you know what you have to do, but when you do it, what then, but to do it again? In that sense, the characters are consumed by the line, slowly but surely until everything outside of what they do at the factory is almost non-consequential; all that matters is that work the line. Leeroy has no more dreams all he has is his job that he needs to feed his family. Kevin has lost all the novelty that made him different from the other workers and is now just another big bodied, fully conformed ‘cussin’ American. Pop becomes an annoying stickler of a foreman after losing his son. The only person we see really escape the Line is the disappearin’ American, Joe, and even he is still bound by the line in some sense. While he’s disappeared from this particular factory line, we know that eventually he is sure to pop up on another one somewhere here or there, ultimately there really is no escape for the workers and there is no escape for the reader. We have no hope for a happy ending, but like the characters on the line, what else is there to do but keep going?
Our discussion this morning made me think about a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the idea of normality in American culture. It strikes me that the very feeling of the “normal” that is central to Swados’s book–the boring job, driving the same car as everyone else, the tract house–is itself abnormal from our 21stC perspective of the “precariat” who lack stable jobs and the staggering inequality that divides the “one percent” (really the 0.1 %) from the rest. Purely optional, but might be interesting to some.
Brief coda to Packer’s piece on Amazon in the NYer that focuses on a) the near invisibility of labor in the “information economy” and b) the problematic rise of monopolies amid the decline of governmental regulatory power since the Progressive era. Thanks to Karen for passing it on.