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!