Book Reviews Spring 2011

Jim Daniels, Jane McCafferty and Charlee Brodsky, From Milltown to Malltown (Marick Press) and Michael Adams, Steel Valley (Lummox Press)

by Jamie Owen Daniel, Field Service Director, Illinois steel valleyFederation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO

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In his wonderful essay on the value of “Unofficial Knowledge,” the British historian of working-class experience and culture Rafael Samuel noted wryly: “History, in the hands of the professional historian, is apt to present itself as an esoteric form of knowledge. It fetishizes archive-based knowledge….Argument is embedded in dense thickets of footnotage, and lay readers who attempt to unravel it find themselves enmeshed in a cabbala of acronyms, abbreviations and signs.”

This tendency might not have such a pernicious impact, Samuel muses, if it could be contained within the confines of the academy, with its chronic disciplinary anxieties and turf wars.  But too often it extends beyond disciplinary boundaries into “a quite tribal sense of who is, and who is not a historian.” Thus, “local [that is, untrained, uncredentialed] historians are disqualified by their parochial outlook” and accused of “practicing a naïve empiricism in which the facts are supposed to speak for themselves.”

One of the great strengths of working-class studies has been the extent to which it has resisted the narrow confines of academic disciplinarity in favor of a more open and promiscuous approach to unofficial knowledges and the experiences they document. It acknowledges that some facts—the often cold, hard facts of working-class experience—do indeed speak for themselves, or at least speak clearly enough without reference to the supposedly legitimating baggage of “archive-based knowledge. “

Both texts under review here document contemporary experiences of working-class people attempting to cope with the loss of work opportunities that formerly anchored their sense of belonging to place and community.

Writers Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty and photographer Charlee Brodsky, all of Carnegie Mellon University, document the vertiginous uprootedness of contemporary life in Homestead, PA. In terse, acerbic language paired with uncompromising black and white images, From Milltown to Malltown documents the experiential impoverishment of a place where work in the steel mills once anchored families, communities, and generations.  Empty storefronts and the rusty mailboxes hanging at the abandoned front door of what was once a home speak for the people for whom these seemingly banal locations were once part of a larger context of meaning and identity–the community life of a thriving milltown.

Michael Adams’ Steel Valley is equally site-specific, but it approaches the loss of work as an anchor for experience more individually and personally.  Naïve in the best sense, Adams includes poetry, the texts of family letters, and rambling conversations to locate his own life, from boyhood through late adulthood, within the working-class urban and rural cultures of the Monongahela Valley, the “Steel Valley” of his title.  Interwoven with his work experiences in the mills (“Sure, it was hell. But there was dignity, too, in that work, and the pride of being part of a team, of a hard and dangerous job done well”), he writes about his family, boyhood friends and women he loved, as well as the bars they hung out in after work, lamenting that “Even Chiodo’s is gone.”

Both of these books lament the loss of meaningful work in the Steel Valley, because this work and the living union wages it paid functioned as an anchor to generations of families like Adams’. Their loss has resulted in the scattering of families, the disappearance of neighborhoods, with their parishes and baseball teams and block parties and Friday-night fish fries. Even the taverns. ”Even Chiodo’s,” where I remember fish-in-a-dish and all those ratty old bras hanging from the ceiling. These life contexts will never be replaced by a trip to the mall.

And both books affirm Rafael Samuel’s contention that “history is not the prerogative of the historian….it is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands.”

Brigid O’Farrell, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker (Cornell ILR Press).

by Liesl Miller Orenic, History, Dominican University ofarrell.she

 

Eleanor Roosevelt is the most studied, loved and perhaps reviled First Lady in American history.  This “First Lady of the World,” as President Truman called her, changed the “office” of the President’s wife both inside and outside the White House.  Hundreds of books and articles have been written about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, addressing among other topics her public voice in her newspaper column “My Day,” the intricacies of her marriage to FDR, her efforts to improve race relations, and her work in human rights.  Contributing to this extensive body of literature is Brigid O’Farrell’s engaging portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, or “ER” as she refers to her, from the perspective of American workers.  O’Farrell refocuses the historical lens on Roosevelt, centering it on her engagement with the pressing questions of workers’ rights, unionization and even union corruption which marked the decades of Roosevelt’s adult life.  O’Farrell argues, “Her compelling vision of labor rights as human rights was widely known during her lifetime but has been marginalized or forgotten since her death.” (2).

This perspective on the American worker weaves Roosevelt’s story into the larger narrative of American labor history from the Progressive era through the early 1960s.  From her settlement house work as a young, privileged but lonely woman to her chairmanship of the Kennedy Commission on the Status of Women, Roosevelt was an observer, advocate, critic and insider in the American labor movement.    While some pieces of this story may be familiar — Roosevelt’s empathy for workers grew from her volunteer work in New York’s settlement houses; as First Lady she went down in a coal mine during the Depression; her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included clear language in support of workers’ rights — it is the behind the scenes participation and communication around workers issues that O’Farrell constructs so well.  From Roosevelt’s long and close friendships with Rose Schneiderman of the ILGWU and Walter Reuther of the UAW and her public and private meetings with dozens and dozens of other labor leaders and activists, O’Farrell’s narrative traces ER’s position on some of the most critical issues facing American workers in the twentieth century, including legislative developments from the NRA Blue Eagle program to the Taft-Hartley Act.

As an influential insider, Eleanor Roosevelt could bring people together and at least informally influence her husband’s position on labor issues.  As a journalist, she wrote often of the concerns of workers and rallied to their defense particularly when they faced attack by other sectors of the press.  Roosevelt was also a union member herself, as a writer she joined the American Newspaper Guild.  O’Farrell’s portrait of Roosevelt illuminates the conflicted nature of these varied positions and the consternation she felt when internal conflicts within the labor movement, the scandal of accusations of corruption and the zealous militancy of strikes unsettled, at least temporarily, some of her relations with the movement. O’Farrell argues that while a friend and ally to American workers, particularly working women, Roosevelt was not an unquestioning ally of organized labor.

She Was One of Us is a wonderfully engaging and clearly written narrative presenting a thorough and thoughtful understanding of the development of Eleanor Roosevelt’s position on workers’ rights and human rights, and it restores ER’s place as participant, advocate and critic of the American labor movement. O’Farrell’s extensive archival research, oral interviews and reading of a substantial body of secondary literature support this scholarly endeavor.  However, O’Farrell’s true hope for this book is not to reach out to the ivory tower. The tone of the book feels more like a story than a monograph.  Hers is an activist’s agenda in that she has written an accessible scholarly book designed to inspire.

Rodney Jones, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems (1985-2005) (Mariner Books)

salvation bluesby E.R. Carlin, English, University of Akron

Salvation Blues displays the craftsmanship of Rodney Jones, a popular poet’s poet, and lays bare his working-class roots. Spanning a twenty-year career, these one hundred poems, including twenty-four new pieces, read as more than a labor of love. Many reviewers from the time of Jones’s penultimate Elegy for the Southern Drawl (1999) have pigeonholed him as a Southern poet. While this is true regionally speaking, it leaves out serious discussion about the lived experience of the working class in Jones’s poetry. Virtually every critical review since Elegy has all but ignored Jones’s narrative poems on the working poor, the academy, and the lives of women and men at work for the privilege of labeling him a big ‘S’ southern writer with all the stereotypes that go along with that indelible crowning.

Many of these poems reveal the contradictions in the author’s life, but they also reach into the core of modern poetry and reveal its working-class roots. Jones’s recurrent narrative themes include negotiating the loss of his working-class identity, the relationship between the body and labor, and the musicality of the voice — even in speechlessness — instilling a sense of pride in real work. Admirably, though, he refuses to romanticize work and the worker beyond the qualities that make the ordinary extraordinary.

Along with choice poems from his six previous books that directly reference the schism between identifying as working-class and occupying a place of privilege in the academy, Jones’s new poems in Salvation Blues finally lay himself, body and spirit, on the line taking on his critics directly, the cultural baggage of the southern man, singing full-volume to his fans. It is as if Jones, while digging in the blue-grass of his Kingdom of the Instant (2002), pulled up his folk roots. Jones still uses self-effacing, often vulgar humor like he did in his class-ical poem “Pussy” as the connective tissue between his working life and academic life.  But in this positioning of contrasts, he captures something even more direct and special, the collective failures of the poet and the man and the world in the revelries of hard-won experience.

Perusing just the titles and last lines of a few of these lyrical new poems, it becomes evident that the personal has become Jones’s political: in ‘The Low-Down-Sorry Right-Wing Blues’ he ends with “The best parties are always in the smallest houses”; in ‘Olympiad’ he ends with “War artists, revolutionaries,/ deathmongers, great men—/ The first to become a god wins”; in ‘On Torture’ he ends with “Lord Therapy, arraigner/ and creator of memories,/ when did the truth ever/ have anything to do with words”; and finally in ‘The Language of Love’ he ends addressing President Bush, “He is no good with words. Ask any true lesbian./ He should take a poetry workshop with Adrienne Rich./ He should try using the world less and words more.”

The worlds of an academic and a pipefitter or of a poet and a hairdresser may seem unlikely to collide, but Rodney Jones enjambs every single soul together in his deepsong of salvation, highlighting the role of teammates at work, the work of the body, and the work of words and ideas with an unparalleled and truthful disclosure that makes this book a worthy addition to any labor library. His narratives and lyrics are full of contradictions and personal failures, and yet each poem in Salvation Blues is a carefully selected symbol of an extraordinarily, successful career as a working-class writer that should not be overlooked, commodified, or reduced in accordance to southern stereotypes.

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The Working-Class Studies Association aims to develop and promote multiple forms of scholarship, teaching, and activism related to working-class life and cultures.