Joe, the Vanishing American

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” (  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!)



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