In almost a quarter-century as a reporter I covered only one labor strike, at a paper mill in Glens Falls, N.Y., and an obliging reader has found the story I wrote twenty years ago this month. I was working for the Associated Press and the Troy Record published it. Reading old work is always risky. I keep waiting for the inevitable infelicities, the lazy clichés of journalism, the straining after “poetic” effect. If the story were as cringingly awful as I half-expected, I wouldn’t be mentioning it here.
Advocacy journalism is distasteful stuff. A reporter reports, he doesn’t take sides. He trusts that the facts, carefully, impartially assembled, speak for themselves. He doesn’t think his sympathies are relevant. At the time of the paper mill strike, given my lack of experience in labor reporting, I read around in the field, including Edmund Wilson’s American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties (1957). By 2001 I had already lost most of my interest in Wilson and his work. His writing in a 1931 article about a textile strike in Lawrence, Ma., is hackneyed and sentimental:
“In spite of weak and ailing children, in spite of foolish broken-spirited men and slatternly-looking stringy-haired women, you feel here, on the wrong side of the social wall, much strong and rich human material: handsome well-formed Portuguese girls, who look worried; pretty and plump French-Canadian women with civilized [?] black eyes who don’t know now how they are going to take care of all the children their beauty has brought them; German and Polish men, self-confident, accurate and energetic, who know as much about the factories as their masters.”
Tedious and silly, I know. The 1930s and its strain of Stalinist romanticism were hell on American literature. This was the era of “proletarian” writing – Mike Gold, Jack Conroy, Agnes Smedley, the early Edward Dahlberg. Often mistakenly lumped in with this group is Daniel Fuchs, author of the “Brooklyn Novels”: Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936) and Low Company (1937). I love these books. Fuchs’ abiding interest is human, not political. Most of his people are poor but their suffering is inherent in their humanity, not capitalism. In the first novel, in the figure of Cohen, Fuchs parodies the proletarian writer, then very much in vogue. Cohen is a hapless schlemiel, a would-be writer who ends up writing little or nothing. He describes to his friend Philip Hayman his idea for a one-act play about a man who loses his job, rides the rails, joins the Communist Party and becomes an organizer:
“‘There’s a strike, and in the end he gets killed. There’s no fancy stuff here, but you see what tremendous force the simple narrative has.’
“‘All this is going into a one-act play?’ Philip asked dryly. The old bull thrower had made up the story as he talked.”