Home / General / “How much of strength, of skill, of possible loyalty, does modern industry tap from the average Hunky?” Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (IV)

“How much of strength, of skill, of possible loyalty, does modern industry tap from the average Hunky?” Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (IV)



The genre of “rich person going undercover to show us what the real life of the working class is like” is pretty old now, going from at least the mid-nineteenth century to Barbara Ehrenreich. Sometimes these exercises can be useful, often they are condescending. I decided to read Charles Rumford Walker’s 1922 book Steel: The Diary of a Furnace Worker for the same reason I read many things–it appeared in front of my face at the right time.

It’s hard to feel comfortable reading such a text when this appears in the first paragraph:

I acquired the current Anglo-Hunky language and knew speedily the grind and the camaraderie of American steel-making.

Ah, nothing like some pejoratives to really sum up the camaraderie of the steel mills. Certainly Thomas Bell’s family just loved being called Hunkies by Anglo folks.

I love the class privilege involved in this sort of paragraph, as our narrator decides what to do after being an officer in World War I:

I was twenty-five, a college graduate, a first-lieutenant in the army. In the civilian world into which I was about to jump, most of my connections were with the university I had recently left, few or none in the business world. Why not enlist, then, in one of the basic industries, coal, oil, or steel? I liked steel— it was the basic American industry, and technically and economically it interested me. Why not enlist in steel? Get a laborer’s job? Learn the business? And, besides, the chemical forces of change, I meditated, were at work at the bottom of society—

The next day I sent in the resignation of my commission in the regular army of the United States.

I’ll bet those Hunkies were making the same choice. Should I go work in middle management of U.S. Steel or slum up with the boys? This guy was really with the people!

This guy clearly was one of the boys:

I was first conscious of the blaring mouths of furnaces. There were five of them, and men with shovels in line, marching within a yard, hurling a white gravel down red throats. Two of the men were stripped, and their backs were shiny in the red flare. I tried to feel perfectly at home, but discovered a deep consciousness of being overdressed. My straw hat I could have hurled into a ladle of steel.

Lucky they didn’t hurl him into a ladle of steel.

My heart leaped a bit at “the night-shift.” I thought over the hours-schedule the employment manager had rehearsed: “Five to seven, fourteen hours, on the night-week.”

My father worked the night shift for many years. I don’t think his heart “leaped a bit” over the matter.

As a whole, the thing reads reasonably decently. Walker is a fair writer. He describes the process of steel making pretty well and enlivens it with a decent amount of swearing from the Hunkies and Wops. Oh, wait, did I mention that Walker loves stereotypes? The Russians booze it up. The Italian makes an OK boss even though Walker admits his resentment to taking orders from the Wop. Surprised he didn’t figure him to be an anarchist, infiltrating the steel mills, or perhaps a member of the Black Hand. But, to give Walker credit, after struggling to understand what anyone is saying, he admits his realization:

This is amusing enough on the first day; you can go off and laugh in a superior way to yourself about the queer words the foreigners use. But after seven days of it, fourteen hours each, it gets under the skin, it burns along the nerves, as the furnace heat burns along the arms when you make back-wall. It suddenly occurred to me one day, after someone had bawled me out picturesquely for not knowing where something was that I had never heard of, that this was what every immigrant Hunky endured; it was a matter of language largely, of understanding, of knowing the names of things, the uses of things, the language of the boss. Here was this Serbian second-helper bossing his third-helper largely in an unknown tongue, and the latter getting the full emotional experience of the immigrant. I thought of Bill, the pit boss, telling a Hunky to do a clean-up job for him; and when the Hunky said, “What?” he turned to me and said: “Lord! but these Hunkies are dumb.”

Of course, he immediately backtracks:

I suddenly had a vision of how the New York subway looked: its crush, its noise, its overdressed Jews, its speed, its subway smell. I looked around inside the clattering trolley-car. Nobody was talking. The car was filled for the most part with Slavs, a few Italians, and some negroes from the nail mill. Everyone, except two old men of unknown age, was under thirty-five. They held their buckets on their laps, or put them on the floor between their legs. Six or eight were asleep. The rest sat quiet, with legs and neck loose,

“Its overdressed Jews.” Gawd….

What’s remarkable is how utterly apolitical this book remains. Walker tells of the heat and stress and long hours. But to what end? It’s almost as if the description is just entertainment for the middle classes reading it. There is very little sense of political purpose until the end, when Walker briefly admits that the long shifts are terrible and undermine workers’ lives. But there’s certainly little empathy with the long-term struggles of the working classes in any political aim, except for one brief mention of Walker, who could talk to bosses since he came from their class and was kind of slumming through this, telling one that his claim that his workers labored an 8-hour day was not true..There’s also very little discussion of workers dying on the job, just a mention or two of stories from the past, which is an obvious omission in an industry suffering frequent deaths. This could have led to something of real interest, but is too much about Walker wanting to “learn the trade.”

In short, too much tourism, not enough analysis. It is a kind of interesting book, but suffers the problem of the wealthy in 1919, when Walker labored in the mills, not really understanding the working class, even when they do actually interact with them.

After Charles Rumford Walker left the steel mills, he had a very hard career ahead of him working for Yale. It’s unclear if he let any Hunkies or overdressed Jews into the august institution.

I am one of all of seven people to download this text. A best seller!

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Riggsveda

    Erik, I grew up just south of Pittsburgh, going to school with lots of kids of Eastern European ancestry, and many who went on to work in the mills and mines. I married into a Slovak-Hungarian family; my father-in-law worked for Wheeling Pittsburgh and became a plant engineer. My husband spent a summer in his dad’s mill on the labor gang at the basic oxygen furnace, and then working on the Jane blast furnace re-line then being done. His grandfather, who would have been working at the same time Walker’s book came out, died of dehyration in a different mill because they didn’t give out salt tablets back then. A friend I went to high school with passed out from heat exhaustion while running a crane and got second degree burns from the crane floor before they got him out. The point is, I knew that world intimately, and no one I knew ever expressed displeasure at being called a hunky. I never heard it used in a nasty way the way racial/ethnic slurs were. We would have never called someone “wop”. Maybe in 1922 it was an ugly term, but by the 60’s it had been drained of sting, to the point that my family still calls stuffed cabbage “hunky hand grenades”.

    • Gator90

      Don Shula, for what it’s worth, used to call Larry Csonka “my Hunkie.”

      • Ahenobarbus

        What did he call Mercury Morris?

        • Gator90

          He called him Mr. Morris!

      • Dennis Orphen

        Can we get one of those all-time ethnic argument starter football teams going? I got three for the offensive 11 right here: Namath, Biletnikoff and Csonka. Help me out people.

        • Hogan

          Dick Butkus. Bronco Nagurski.

    • In the 1950s/early 1960s my parents and I visited her parents and sister four or five times a year in California PA (a little more than “just south” of Pittsburgh). We lived on the West Side of Cleveland OH, where I went to school with lots of kids (maybe a plurality) of Eastern European ancestry, including Hungarians, Bohemian–Hungarians, and Poles (as well as Balts, Finns, Rumanians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, etc., etc.). Although I knew (but wasn’t allowed to use at home) the words “hunkie” (as I would have spelled it) and “bohunk”, somehow the word “polack” never entered my consciousness until once in California the kid across the street asked me insistently if I was one (without defining the term, and therefore getting consistently frustrating replies). I’m fairly sure that, at least for him and his family, the term had been “drained of sting”. (On the other hand, when I went to put my shoes back on before returning to my grandparents’, I found that the kid’s little brother had shat in one of them. So maybe I’d mis-handled an important shibboleth, one way or the other.) I still wasn’t allowed to say “polack” at home, though.

      • Riggsveda

        Yeah, “polack” was a different kind of animal. We knew very clearly that was not something to call someone. There were lots of polack jokes, and none of them were nice. But no hunky jokes.

        I had friends who went to California University. Good memories.

      • Dennis Orphen

        Moral of the story: Leave your shoes on.

    • This may be true. But in the early 20th century it was definitely absolutely an ethnic slur. As I linked to, Thomas Bell writes about this powerfully in his fiction.

      • galanx

        The most successful marketer of Ukranian food in British Columbia, Bill Konyk, calls himself “Hunky Bill” and sells under that name. There was a controversy in 1983 when the Ukranian-Canadian Profesional and Businessmen’s Association sued him to force him to drop the name on the grounds that it was an ethnic slur.

        They lost. The court held that though it was an ethnic slur, it couldn’t be banned on the grounds that the person charged was using it to describe himself, and thus couldn’t be accused of malicious intent.

        In my entirely-white elementary school in the Vancouver suburbs in the early 1960s (well, we did have one half-Japanese kid), the ethnic slur of choice was ‘DP’ for ‘displaced person’, roughly equivalent to Bohunk, or Doukhobor, from the Russian religious sect who had settled in B.C. and made a habit of blowing up power lines and burning all their possessions, including houses and clothes (‘sky-clad’).

        • the ethnic slur of choice was ‘DP’ for ‘displaced person’

          Oh, many of my elementary schoolmates described above were DPs (or their parents were), but I don’t recall DP being used as a slur (perhaps because there were so many of them around, and of such a wide variety).

    • sean_p

      Ok, I feel hopelessly naive to be posting this, but what ethnic group does the term “hunky” (or “Bohunk”) actually describe? I managed to grow to adulthood before I ever heard the term, and I had developed the idea that it referred to those from Bohemia. But even the loosest definition of “Bohemian” wouldn’t seem to include folks from Ukraine. Thoughts?

      • JR in WV

        Originally, Hungarians were hunkies and bohunks were bohemian. I know this from next door neighbors from Youngstown, Ohio, another once famous steel town.

        But people who had entered the country in earlier waves didn’t really know the difference between nationalities in central Europe, and so Hunky or Bohunk gradually meant anyone from anywhere in the Slavic or Balkan regions, probably including Ukraine.

        My mom grew up in a little coal town, and they used the same words for the various ethnicities that worked in the mine. With the same sliding of meanings, as well.

  • Kahomono
    • Hogan
      • Dennis Orphen

        Does anyone else have a sudden desire to read Ann Rutherford Gwynn’s He Came Like Thunder?

  • Joseph Slater

    First, I personally have been doing my best all my life to undermine the stereotype of the overdressed Jew. Second, I am disappointed this piece did not have a video link to Pulp’s “Common People.”

    • Gator90

      I’ve made a lifelong project of undermining the stereotype of the Jew who makes smart decisions about money. Sigh.

      • galanx

        Bringing to mind Clemeceau’s remark about Lucien Klotz, “Why must I have as my Minister of Finance the only Jew in France who knows nothing of finance?”

      • DAS

        Even though as a kid I was pretty good at money management when it came to earnings from my summer jobs and allowance, by the time I got to grad school and was trying to date and have a social life, I was never as frugal as I needed to be, and hence always complaining about my money woes (and hence also undermining the stereotype of the Jew who makes smart decisions about money … I certainly wasn’t undermining the stereotype of the overdressed Jew though, although undermining that stereotype is a key aim of Zionism). Hence, upon watching When You Wish Upon a Weinstein, my flatmates pointed out that what I needed was a Jew.

    • Jackdaw

      Yes, “Common People” leaped immediately to mind for me also.

      Erik could have posted the Pulp version or William Shatner’s cover and either would have been fine.

  • dp

    Erik, your eccentric tastes (and access to eccentric sources) are things that turn this blog to eleven. Thank you very much!

  • Calming Influence

    I became an addict of project Gutenberg a number of years ago, and an offshoot of pg.austrailia ( http://freeread.com.au/index.html) which is a treasure trove of free novels by popular authors from the 1800s to the mid 1900s. They tend to slant British, but there are many North American popular writers as well.

    What I’ve learned from reading tons of these popular novels of the period is how absolutely pervasive racial and cultural stereotypes were, as well as physiognomy(sp?), or determining a person’s character by facial features and head shape. Without any qualms of being caught out, I’d be willing to bet that easily 80% of the novels, and particularly mystery/suspense/detective novels of the period contained some stereotype that we would consider offensive.

    I guess my point is that probably any white American male, regardless of class, would have thought the same way, and the immigrants would have probably thought the same things about each other.

    We have actually have come a long way.

    • What I’ve learned from reading tons of these popular novels of the period is how absolutely pervasive racial and cultural stereotypes were, as well as physiognomy(sp?), or determining a person’s character by facial features and head shape.

      Oh god yes.

      • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

        Then there’s Pratchett’s retrophrenology . . .

        Almost needed medical care after reading that little aside.

        It was those brief excursions that made Pratchett such a great read.

    • cpinva

      go read any Sherlock Holmes novel, stereotypes/facial-head features abound.

    • Dennis Orphen

      We have actually have come a long way.

      Some of us would rather fight than switch.

  • Karen24

    May I say that I love these posts a lot, and prefer them immensely to the dead horses? (The American grave series, on the other hand, is a work of genius and must be continued forever.)

    • Sadly, I am out of dead horses. But I am not out of dead books.

      • Calming Influence

        “Sadly, I am out of dead horses.”.

        A lost Hobson quote.

        • BigHank53

          A line that probably hasn’t been used since trebuchets and the hurling of disease-laden carcasses into cities under siege fell out of fashion. Probably five centuries at least. Not too shabby.

      • N__B

        There must be some way to combine that interest with They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

  • Lurker

    I really wonder what crime 1LT Walker had committed to be forced to resign and then choose a life as a steel worker to “learn the industry”.

    It sounds like there were one or more women who had been badly abused, or an unpaid gambling debt. Personally, I would wager a girl from a good family whom Walker had not married after getting her pregnant, with some additional complication like a botched abortion. Or perhaps a problem in the accounts. Anyhow, it really needed to be something more drastically ungentlemanly than run-of-the-mill womanizing.

  • Steven desJardins

    Small correction: that’s 7 downloads in the last 30 days. The total number of downloads since it was posted would be much higher—generally, the number of downloads at PG will be highest in the first few months after a book has been posted, then drop steadily to single or double-digit downloads each month.

  • Dennis Orphen

    I’ve read at least two books on Project “G”. The first was R.W Surtee’s Soapy Sponges Sporting Tour. It was mentioned in Sinister Street as a typical book in an Oxbridge undergrad’s room at the time (late 1800’s). I had to check it out, wanting to become totally immersed in Compton McKenzie’s world of the time, and with the internet, well, why not? It was also available at Powell’s but, hey, whatever. More money to spend on Viz hardback annuals and conveyor belt sushi. Anyways, I loved it. And it made a great appetizer for the main course of Sigfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. How could I not read a book with a title like that?

    The other book was The Martyrdom of Man by William Winwood Reade. Why I had to read that, I don’t remember. It had to be mentioned in another book too. Anyways, he gives his idea of how the modern nation states have their roots in some unsavory characters raiding, looting, pillaging, etc. It’s a fascinating hypothesis.

    P.S. I am not a steampunk.

    • Porlock Junior

      Surely you had to read Martyrdom of Man because Sherlock Holmes liked it.

      Though that in fact has never inspired me to read it,

  • wengler

    At least Ehrenreich acknowledged in the end that she was being classist, and realized the people she was working with were people instead of background from central casting.

  • Scrumley

    But why is it that everyone’s good-faith effort becomes a point of outrage and belittlement for Eric? And this from a guy so naturally intolerant that he can’t countenance the fact that Brazilian beer is not made to his taste?

  • The Temporary Name
  • JR in WV

    I downloaded the book and am way into it.

    I just read about the first light of the new blast furnace.

    I used to work in an office beside an engineer’s office, an industrial engineer, experience in steel mills, power plants, etc. I’ve always admired large scale industry, dams, bridges, etc. The book was pretty interesting. Short lived men working 14 hour shifts, OMG.

    Those buys needed a union so bad!

  • narciblog

    Funny, when I think “hunky steelworker” what comes to mind is the gay bar The Anvil from The Simpsons.

It is main inner container footer text