From The Archive
Chris Lehmann
No. 19  March 2012

Water World

  

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Here’s a little-noted quirk of our literary history, unlikely to turn up on the Trivial Pursuit board: the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, Ernest Poole, devoted much of his writing career to cheering on the demise of capitalism. Poole won the prize for His Family, but as Patrick Chura notes in his introduction to this new edition of The Harbor (Penguin Press, $16.00), the distinction was understood “as belated recognition for Poole’s more celebrated earlier work.”

In the context of Poole’s own cultural moment, his laurel is less incongruous than it seems in our present-day miniaturized literary scene, taken up as it is with tales of intrafamily redemption, therapeutic recovery, and baseball statistics. Indeed, it’s an awkward fact of American literary history that more than a few of its marquee names from the early twentieth century were raging socialists. The Harbor, written in 1915, recalls a time when the marriage of literary ambition and political commitment routinely produced class-conscious novels and plays by the likes of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Edward Bellamy, Upton Sinclair, and Eugene O’Neill. Sinclair and O’Neill followed Poole’s precedent, with O’Neill winning four Pulitzers for playwriting, and Sinclair claiming the award for his now-forgotten novel Dragon’s Teeth in 1945.

Meanwhile, if Poole’s literary sensibility now seems alien to our own post-committed world of letters, his material feels quite contemporary. By an accident of publishing history, Penguin’s reissued edition of The Harbor contains plenty of echoes for our own unsettled, post-meltdown age. One climactic moment in the novel’s pageant of working-class awakening occurs during a march of striking ship- and dock-workers up the stylish end of New York’s Fifth Avenue. Here’s the same vivid juxtaposition of the lords of pelf and the lower orders that we’ve lately seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Following Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s callous expungement of OWS protestors from lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park last fall, Poole’s account of the strike parade makes for an edifying counternarrative—a distant transmission from a long-ago galaxy where working-class New Yorkers felt they could come confidently into possession of the whole metropolis. The novel’s narrator—a perennially ambivalent, echt-modernist writer named Billy, who has come to chronicle the uprising for the high-end magazine that usually employs him to file admiring profiles of the titans of industry—sums up the scene, and his awkward place in it, this way:

The next afternoon the Fifth Avenue shops all closed their doors, and over the rich displays in their windows heavy steel shutters were rolled down. The long procession of motors and cabs with their gaily dressed shoppers had disappeared, and in their place was another procession, men, women, and children, old and young. All around me as I marched I heard an unending torrent of voices speaking many languages, uniting in strange cheers and songs brought from all over the ocean world. Bright-colored turbans bobbed up here and there, for there was no separation of races, all walked together in dense crowds, the whole strike family was here. And listening and watching, I felt myself a member now. Behind me came a long line of trucks packed with sick or crippled men. At their head was a black banner on which was painted “Our Wounded.” Behind the wagons a small cheap band came blaring forth a funeral dirge, and behind the band, upon men’s shoulder’s, came eleven coffins, in which were those dock victims who had died in the last few days. This section had its banner, too, and it was marked, “Our Dead.”

It’s easy to dismiss such earnest set pieces as literary agitprop: the profusion of languages and songs; the colorfully turbaned, post-racial, dock-working rank-and-file; the stirring show of mass unity and grievance before a common class enemy. But it’s difficult to overstate the impression that such shows of solidarity once made on writers and artists. As Chura notes, Poole modeled the waterfront strike that marks The Harbor’s climax on the great 1913 silk workers’ strike in Paterson, New Jersey. Poole spoke to the strikers and, in New York, joined organizers such as IWW leader Bill Haywood to rally popular support for the silk workers. Poole produced a pro-strike event that would seem exceedingly strange to the media-addled public today, almost a century after the Paterson strike was broken: a reenactment of its most dramatic moments, staged before enthusiastic crowds of as many as 20,000 viewers in Madison Square Garden. The Paterson Strike Pageant recreated worker walkouts and arrests, signature speeches by Haywood—even a funeral for a slain striking worker—and closed, naturally, with a rousing rendition of the Internationale. Poole, an experienced dramaturge, handled many logistical ends of the production and received credit as one of the chief writers in the pageant script.

The Harbor, in other words, is the sort of cultural product that’s probably imaginable only in the America of the early twentieth century: a novel based on a pageant based on a strike.

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The Harbor offers a glimpse into the age’s defining social conflict before it hardened into the flat, programmatic dogmas that seized both sides of the capital-labor divide. Rather than serving up the boy-meets-proletariat boilerplate of later social-protest fiction, Poole candidly appraises the promise and limitations of radical politics in an age of not-yet-fully tested mass protest and all-too sanguine violent state reaction.

For example, while the novel is in many ways a conventional modernist bildungsroman, it doesn’t settle on the note of chastened ambition or romantic sorrow that readers expect from latter-day writers confined to more domestic interior landscapes. In place of such anguished exercises in self-definition, the novel’s real romantic conflict lies between the narrator and the crowd—and revolves chiefly around Billy’s efforts to tease out just what this particular religion of solidarity would be like. When Billy does assay his full sentimental education—courting and marrying an erstwhile childhood playmate, Eleanore—the proceedings are oddly perfunctory: why dally over bourgeois sentiment when history is being made all around you?

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At any rate, Eleanore serves mainly as the cause of Billy’s relationship with her father, Dillon, an engineer who serves to embody the other historical force vying for the young man’s allegiance—the confident, great-man face of modernism, choreographing the inner workings of high-minded enterprise in the name of efficiency. As the two men tour the New York waterfront on the Great Man’s boat, Dillon seduces Billy with his Olympian vantage on progress and reassuring blandishments of the efficiency gospel. Billy recounts how, as the watercraft rounds the Battery, they

watched for a moment the skyscraper group, the homes of the Big Companies. The sunshine was reflected from thousands of dazzling window eyes, little streamers of steam were floating gaily overhead, street suddenly opened to our view, narrow cuts revealing the depths below. And there came to our ears a deep humming.

“That’s the brains of it all,” said Dillon. “In all you’ll see while exploring the wharves you’ll find some string that leads back here. And you don’t want to let that worry you. Let the muck-rakers worry and plan all they please for a sea-gate and a nation that’s to run with its brains removed. You want to look harder and harder—until you find out for yourself that there are men up there in Wall Street without whose brains no big thing can be done in this country. I’m working under their order and some day I hope you’ll be doing the same. For they don’t need less publicity, but more.”

Over the course of his early career, Billy follows his future father-in-law’s directives to a tee. He becomes a veritable Thomas Friedman of the industrial age, writing a series of mogul profiles under the cloying headline “The America They Know.” But as he trains his writerly gaze upward toward the brains of the Big Companies, Billy keeps getting dragged back down to Earth by Joe Kramer, an old college chum turned itinerant commie. Kramer turns up at key points in Billy’s odyssey to symbolize the revolutionary road not taken, and with each turn grows gaunter, shriller, and more confrontational. It’s Kramer who drags Billy into the teeth of the waterfront strike, goading him to visit the deplorable living and working conditions in the stokeholes of steerage ships and to report out a big magazine profile of strike leader Jim Marsh, who heads up a fictionalized “one big union” organizing campaign modeled on the work of former IWW head Big Bill Haywood.

Poole’s novel ends badly for both Kramer and the strike—but, for Billy, the two are fused into epiphanies about the haunting, universalizing power of the crowd. Kramer repeatedly professes his willingness to surrender his life, his talents, his domestic drives in the service of the crowd’s historic struggle for self-realization and worldly power. But Billy himself is never able to come down so cleanly in the camp of the working class and its rightful claim on the harbor, the city, and the future course of history.

Still, there’s one key regard in which The Harbor speaks quite eloquently to successive generations of cultural radicals: Billy’s journey toward—and away from, and then toward again—radical commitment is less noteworthy than the terms on which he pursues it. For he and the other lead characters in The Harbor are consumed with the quest for “real” experience, in the great tradition of culturally minded radicals in the American grain. Again and again, Billy and his cohorts are heard describing the harbor and its denizens as “more human,” “the real thing,” and “tremendously real.” Those who are plugged into this raw life force likewise sop up its vitalist properties; Joe Kramer, for instance, hews to “a sincerity so real and deep that it absolutely ruled his life.”

Billy’s core conflict, then, involves arriving at some sustainable resolution for his craving for authenticity—a quest that isn’t helped by his lifelong distaste for the harbor. Billy believes the New York Harbor cruelly absorbed the heroic ambitions of his father (a warehouse owner on the water who yearns for the nimble nineteenth-century heyday of the U.S. clipper fleet) while spewing forth a vulgar, unedifying, commercial and (not least by a long shot) priapic working-class culture in its wake. “I was a toy piano,” he explains to Eleanore in the throes of their neo-Randian courtship. “And the harbor was a giant who played on me until I rattled inside. . . . It wiped all the thrills out.” Billy then goes on to pin all of life’s great disappointments on the commerce-strewn body of water: “I told how the place grew harsh and bare, how I could always feel it there stripping everything naked like itself, and how finally when in Paris I felt I had shaken it off for life, it had now suddenly jerked me back, let me see what my father had really been, and had then repeated its same old trick, closing in on his great idea and making it seem like an old man’s hobby, crowding him out and handing us grimly two dull little jobs—one to live on, and one to die on.”

Today, both halves of Billy’s spiritual dilemma, pitting the muscular, vitalist working class against the easily enervated toy-piano bourgeoisie, seem overblown: the struggle for justice in the workplace is plenty taxing on its own, without the added burden of producing existential meaning for restless bourgeois spirits. While the particulars of Billy’s plight are far different (in gender terms, if nothing else), their broad contours call to mind Jane Addams’s famous complaint about the “snare of preparation” awaiting well-born women of the late nineteenth century as they embarked on their own straitened coming of age. The main drama on the harbor—the general strike—has no role for Billy’s vacillating spirit; it is a “which side are you on” moment. And it’s to Poole’s credit as a writer that, for all his clear sympathies with the proletarian side of the class struggle, he denies Billy and Sue their longed-for repose in the vitalist embrace of the workers of the world.

Still, for all its insistence on non-transferrable class allegiance, The Harbor alights on a curiously tentative evocation of the Marxist world spirit that coincided with the novel’s real-time composition: a prayerful invocation for the working masses to rise up and extinguish once and for all the blood-soaked nationalist rivalries then taking shape with the onset of war. “We are the armies you have called out,” Billy imagines the ascendant international proletariat declaring. “And before we come back to our homes, we shall make sure that these homes of ours shall no more become ashes at your will. For we shall stop this war of yours and in our minds we shall put away all hatred of our brother men. For us they will be workers all. With them we shall rise and rise again—until at last the world is free!”

Ouch. The course of history was not kind to Poole’s parting prophecy: the Great War fractured the socialist dream of internationalism. Workers in respective warring powers rallied to blood-and-soil slogans. And the standard lesson that chastened historians have offered in the Great War’s grisly wake is that the pathologies of nationalism are simply ingrained in human nature too deeply for the utopian dream of expropriating the expropriators to prevail over them.

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But the intensity of Billy’s universalist reverie—and working-class exoticism on display in The Harbor—suggests that the socialists of the past century were less besotted with working-class internationalism for its own sake than they were smitten with the psychic compensations of the enhanced reality that life among the proletariat had to offer. As Christopher Lasch memorably noted, one signal failing of the twentieth century’s new radicalism was its misapplication of political means to cultural ends—and boy, does Billy’s testimonial ever point up that category error.

There was always something discomfiting about restaging a strike’s bitterest and most violent moments for audiences at Madison Square Garden, and the politics of proletarian spectacle have grown no more wholesome since Poole’s time. The working class may be many things to many people—but one way to ensure that its lot will never improve is to keep it always at voyeuristic arm’s length.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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