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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 968

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This is the grave of Morris Rosenfeld.

I have used this image before, to profile Vladimir Medem. But the graves are so close together in this cemetery that I couldn’t only take a picture of that grave. Then I realized that Rosenfeld was worth a quick post too.

Born in 1862 in what is today Poland, right on the other side of the modern Lithuanian border, Rosenfeld grew up in the ghettos of eastern Europe during the dark period of anti-Semitism that the Russian government used to distract from its own failings. He managed to get an education, including in Warsaw. But he was not going to stay in eastern Europe. He emigrated, first to London and then to New York. In doing so, he followed millions of other eastern European Jews looking for a better life. By 1886, he was in New York, where he worked as a tailor in the city’s many sweatshops and also wrote for Jewish newspapers. He particularly became well known as a poet who wrote extensively about the experience of the Jewish working class in the city. He initially published a series of left-wing poems in 1888 called The Bell, but he later hated it and sought to buy and destroy all copies of it. Among his other collections, which he evidently liked more, are The Chain of Flowers (1890), Songs from the Ghetto (1898), and Songs of Labor and Other Poems (1914). He also became known for his song parodies. Rosenfeld was not initially taken seriously by the Yiddish literary world, but then Leo Weiner, the first Jewish professor at Harvard and a native Yiddish speaker, started translating his working-class poems into English. This gave Rosenfeld a much wider audience than he had in the Yiddish language world and literary respectability that people could not ignore.

Despite the anti-Semitism that dominated elite America during these years, Rosenfeld was a respected enough literary figure to give talks at Harvard, Chicago, Wellesley, Radcliffe, and other colleges. After his discovery, leading members of the Jewish community raised enough money to get Rosenfeld out of the sweatshops and allowing him to write more often. They raised enough for him to buy a candy store and start a newspaper distribution business,. He hated the candy store and so went into journalism full time. When the Triangle Fire happened in 1911, he just called a new generation of sweatshop tragedies. But by this time, his popularity waned and as the bad era of the sweatshop began to fade in the late 1910s, he couldn’t really sell his work any longer.

Rosenfeld was heavily involved in Zionist causes and was a delegate to the Fourth Zionist Congress in 1900, held in London. As he aged, he became more deeply involved in Zionism, partly because he was bitter at his lack of ability to sell his work anymore to either the English or Yiddish language communities. Rosenfeld died in New York in 1923. He was 60 years old.

Let’s read a couple of Rosenfeld’s poems. Here’s “In the Factory”

Oh, here in the shop the machines roar so wildly,
That oft, unaware that I am, or have been,
I sink and am lost in the terrible tumult;
And void is my soul… I am but a machine.
I work and I work and I work, never ceasing;
Create and create things from morning till e’en;
For what?–and for whom–Oh, I know not! Oh, ask not!
Who ever has heard of a conscious machine?

No, here is no feeling, no thought and no reason;
This life-crushing labor has ever supprest
The noblest and finest, the truest and richest,
The deepest, the highest and humanly best.
The seconds, the minutes, they pass out forever,
They vanish, swift fleeting like straws in a gale.
I drive the wheel madly as tho’ to o’ertake them,–
Give chase without wisdom, or wit, or avail.

The clock in the workshop,–it rests not a moment;
It points on, and ticks on: Eternity–Time;
And once someone told me the clock had a meaning,–
Its pointing and ticking had reason and rhyme.
And this too he told me,–or had I been dreaming,–
The clock wakened life in one, forces unseen,
And something besides;… I forget what; Oh, ask not!
I know not, I know not, I am a machine.

At times, when I listen, I hear the clock plainly;–
The reason of old–the old meaning–is gone!
The maddening pendulum urges me forward
To labor and labor and still labor on.
The tick of the clock is the Boss in his anger!
The face of the clock has the eyes of a foe;
The clock–Oh, I shudder–dost hear how it drives me?
It calls me ‘Machine!’ and it cries to me ‘Sew!’

At noon, when about me the wild tumult ceases,
And gone is the master, and I sit apart,
And dawn in my brain is beginning to glimmer,
The wound comes agape at the core of my heart;
And tears, bitter tears flow; ay, tears that are scalding;
They moisten my dinner–my dry crust of bread;
They choke me,–I cannot eat;–no, no, I cannot!
Oh, horrible toil I born of Need and of Dread.

The sweatshop at mid-day–I’ll draw you the picture:
A battlefield bloody; the conflict at rest;
Around and about me the corpses are lying;
The blood cries aloud from the earth’s gory breast.
A moment… and hark! The loud signal is sounded,
The dead rise again and renewed is the fight…
They struggle, these corpses; for strangers, for strangers!
They struggle, they fall, and they sink into night.

I gaze on the battle in bitterest anger,
And pain, hellish pain wakes the rebel in me!
The clock–now I hear it aright!–It is crying:
‘An end to this bondage! An end there must be!’
It quickens my reason, each feeling within me;
It shows me how precious the moments that fly.
Oh, worthless my life if I longer am silent,
And lost to the world if in silence I die.

The man in me sleeping begins to awaken;
The thing that was slave into slumber has passed:
Now; up with the man in me! Up and be doing!
No misery more! Here is freedom at last!
When sudden: a whistle!–the Boss–an alarum!–
I sink in the slime of the stagnant routine;–
There’s tumult, they struggle, oh, lost is my ego;–
I know not, I care not, I am a machine!…

Here is “My Boy”:

I have a little boy at home,
A pretty little son;
I think sometimes the world is mine
In him, my only one.

But seldom, seldom do I see
My child in heaven’s light;
I find him always fast asleep…
I see him but at night.

Ere dawn my labor drives me forth;
‘Tis night when I am free;
A stranger am I to my child;
And strange my child to me.

I come in darkness to my home,
With weariness and–pay;
My pallid wife, she waits to tell
The things he learned to say.

How plain and prettily he asked:
‘Dear mamma, when’s ‘Tonight’?
O when will come my dear papa
And bring a penny bright?’

I hear her words–I hasten out–
This moment must it be!–
The father-love flames in my breast:
My child must look at me!

I stand beside the tiny cot,
And look, and list, and–ah!
A dream-thought moves the baby-lips:
‘O, where is my papa!’

I kiss and kiss the shut blue eyes;
I kiss them not in vain.
They open,–O they see me then!
And straightway close again.

‘Here’s your papa, my precious one;–
A penny for you!’–ah!
A dream still moves the baby-lips:
‘O, where is my papa!’

And I–I think in bitterness
And disappointment sore;
‘Some day you will awake, my child,
To find me nevermore.’

One more. Let’s read “Liberty”:

When night and silence deep
Hold all the world in sleep,
As tho’ Death claimed the Hour,
By some strange witchery
Appears her form to me,
As tho’ Magic were her dow’r.

Her beauty heaven’s light!
Her bosom snowy white!
But pale her cheek appears.
Her shoulders firm and fair;
A mass of gold her hair.
Her eyes–the home of tears.

She looks at me nor speaks.
Her arms are raised; she seeks
Her fettered hands to show.
On both white wrists a chain!–
She cries and pleads in pain:
‘Unbind me!–Let me go!’

I burn with bitter ire,
I leap in wild desire
The cruel bonds to break;
But God! around the chain
Is coiled and coiled again
A long and loathsome snake.

I shout, I cry, I chide;
My voice goes far and wide,
A ringing call to men:
‘Oh come, let in the light!
Arise! Ye have the might!
Set Freedom free again!’

They sleep. But I strive on.
They sleep!… Can’st wake a stone?…
That one might stir! but one!
Call I, or hold my peace,
None comes to her release;
And hope for her is none.

But who may see her plight
And not go mad outright!…
‘Now: up! For Freedom’s sake!’
I spring to take her part:–
‘Fool!’ cries a voice. I start…
In anguish I awake.

Morris Rosenfeld is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other writers of the working class experience, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rebecca Harding Davis is in Philadelphia and Tillie Olsen is in Mill Valley, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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