It’s interesting/instructive to compare the depictions of manual labor in Chapters 16-28 of Martin Eden and in sections 5 and 7 of the “Job” chapter in Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete.
Martin Eden, his money depleted, is forced to get a regular job to pay for the time to study and write. In a San Francisco employment office, he meets Joe Dawson , who is looking for someone to work as a “second man” in the laundry of a resort hotel 70 miles north of Oakland. Lured by the prospect of a “room to himself where he could burn the midnight oil unmolested” (186), Martin agrees , and becomes part of a two-person service-industry assembly line. The hope of continuing his program of self-development while replenishing his cash quickly goes out the window: “It was exhausting work, carried on, hour after hour, at top speed” in sizzling heat; it devours all his energy, mental and physical. He becomes merely “ an intelligent machine” (194) to supply “clean linen” to the “cool guests on the veranda” (195).
The depiction of this quasi-Taylorized labor has some interesting features. To save time, Joe, and Martin after him, devise efficient routines and use their experience to create knowledge and intuitions to carry out the work better and faster – all for the sake of shortening the work-week by a few hours. To save time, for example, they need to know whether the irons are correctly heated for the various kinds of work, and their own bodies become part of the equipment: the housewife’s “ordinary test of a wet finger” on the iron is too crude, so they hold “the irons close to their cheek , gauging the heat by some secret mental process that Martin admired but could not understand. When the fresh irons proved too hot, they hooked them on iron rods and dipped them into cold water. This again required a precise and subtle judgment. A fraction of a second too long in the water and the fine and silken edge of the proper heat was lost, and Martin found time to marvel at the accuracy he developed – an automatic accuracy, founded upon criteria that were machine-like and unerring.” (194)
The necessities of the work thus have aspects of art and craft, and in Joe have even prompted the creative invention of labor-and-time saving devices (see mid –page 192), but turn the men into sou-deadened beasts, robots. “They performed prodigies of valor. They fought laste each night under the electric lights, bolted their meals, and even got a half hour’s work in before breakfast…. Every moment was drive, drive, drive, and Joe was the masterful shepherd of moments, herding them carefully, never losing one, counting them over like a miser counting gold, working on in a frenzy, toil-mad, a feverish macine, aided ably by that other machine that thought of itself as once having been one Martin Eden” (202). Only at the end of Chapter 18 does Joe lose his zeal (p. 205).
Thus there is a kind of doubleness in such labor. On the one hand, it offers the opportunity for mastery, agency, the exercise of marvelous powers of perception and discrimination, as well as physical coordination. “valor.” On the other hand, human capacities are used for such narrow purposes, none of them self-determined, that work devours the worker’s spirit. Laboring men have no time to “commune with” themselves (195) nor with each other (“Conversation threw them out of their stride, as it did this time, compelling Martin to miss a stroke of his iron and to make two extra motions before he caught his stride again” (195). As Joe succinctly remarks at one point, “This is hell, ain’t it?” (195
It is striking that although the men are exploited and overworked, they seem to feel a commit-ment to the work beyond simply having to earn their pay or hold onto their jobs. To be sure, if they don’t fulfill the week’s quota, there will be a penalty, yet the zeal with which they labor suggests a sense of moral responsibility and ethical commitment, even a kind of heroism (which somehow coexists with underlying rage and resentment: see the end of Chapter 18, where Joe notices the hotel-manager’s shirt in the pile ready for the washer and stomps on it maniacally, a gesture that shows both his justified rage and his actual helplessness.) Another aspect of men’s apparent ethical commitment : when Martin and Joe decide to depart the Shelly Hot Springs laundry, they don’t just leave the “pigheaded Dutchman” manager (206) high and dry. Joe responsibly sends to the labor office for replacements , and both he and Martin stay until the new men are trained – though Joe himself does not do another stroke of work. The depiction of Joe and Martin’s sense of responsibility and commitment to “the job” may reflect London’s desire to give a good account of these men.
The depiction of manual labor in sections 5 and 7 of the “Job” chapter in Christ in Concrete differs strikingly from that in Martin Eden. Labor in Martin Eden is a condition to be risen from , cast off like a snakeskin: “And so you arise from the mud, Martin Eden…. And you cleanse your eyes in a great brightness, and thrust your shoulders among the stars, doing what all life has done, letting the ‘ape and tiger die,’ and wresting highest heritage from all powers that be” (183). Physical dangers alluded to in Martin early work life are dangers survived. In Christ in Concrete , by contrast, labor is God’s curse, the excruciating price of bread and life, and sometimes leads to crucifixion (Geremio) or near-crucifixion (Luigi, who loses his legs and thus his power to work).
In Martin Eden the life of labor is individual and solitary; in Christ in Concrete the context of work is social, done largely for the sake of family and carried out amongst others, with more or less camaraderie: see the convivial (if foreboding) opening of “Geremio” and, in a hellish setting, section 5 o “Job,” the paragraph beginning “Compression engines snort viciously,” which ends with a description of “one hundred hands fighting rock – fifty spines derricking swiveling – fifty faces in set mask chopping stone into bread — fifty hearts interpreting labor hurling oneself down and in at earth planting pod-footed Job.” (Note: I’m using a different edition of Donato from the one assigned and thus can’t cite page references.) The allusion to “Job” – a noun capitalized and repeatedly used without an article, like a proper name – suggests a behemoth, a monster to be appeased and sacrificed to.
Yet work is also the site of self-creation, self-fashioning, the carrying-on of one’s bloodline and tradition. Geremio’s son Paul must work or his family starves (no institution is willing to help), but the work is also a necessity on another level: the tools of his father’s trade (see beginning of section 7) carry memories and knowledge. Touching them, Paul begins to perform the motions of his father’s work. “The trowel on his hip felt a shield, a sword, and as he walked uptown to where the jobs lay, he felt bigger” (section 7, paragraph 7). He has to learn the craft by trial and error on the job, but he seems to have a natural talent for it, transmitted from father to son . Donato’s description of the work is poetically charged. One of his father’s fellow workmen encourages him and there is almost a laying-on of hands: “The trowel of your good spirit father is sainted and lays brick of itself.” He nevertheless must undergo trials – see the six paragraphs in section 7 beginning “He worked for hours alone on his knees….” and later passages describing the physical toll the work takes. When the bosses pay him only $5, his spirit breaks, he screams out in his sleep, “I can’t do it – I can’t pay – I can’t pay it” (about a page from the end of section 7). (There’s more to say but this is already overlong.)
To conclude: as seductive as Martin Eden’s individualist dreams may be (Howard Ruark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, anyone?), and as clunky and strange as Donato’s poetizing language sometimes is,Donato succeeds in evoking the dignity and almost sacra, soul-making and life-saving aspects of work.