Radial Books ($14)
by Paul Buhle
The “proletarian novel,” so often praised for its vision and more often cursed for its supposed literary inadequacies, seems to be destined for perpetual renewal. In his saga of class warfare in a mining village of Colorado of the 1910s, novelist Ben Kostival offers us a new and remarkable bit of continuity.
A little background to the genre will be helpful. The proletarian novel is of distant, one might say almost ancient, socialist vintage, even in the still-young USA of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One major part of our socialist literature remains little appreciated because it most often appeared serialized in languages other than English. The newspapers that immigrants found to be at once a comfort in their own language/culture, and useful in their coping with an often cruel American class struggle, also hosted original literature, both poems and fiction, frequently from the pen of the editor of the paper. First the Germans, then the Yiddish-language Jews, then a plethora of others, most interestingly perhaps the Finns—an editor of their women’s socialist paper was a proud feminist as well as a novelist—saw these legendary figures in their own small worlds. They wrote, edited, and toured, usually raising money to keep the paper going. They knew the proletariat up close.
The better-known second act of labor-radical novels, in the Socialist era of Eugene Debs, featured English language writers with sometimes large audiences, some of them writers still read today. Jack London and Upton Sinclair topped the list, with Theodore Dreiser close enough to have been serialized in the daily socialist New York Call. A third act, during the 1930s when the Communist Party commanded wide allegiance among intellectuals, was notably decried by liberals as artificial drama. The best of the near-Communists or sometime Communists, like Richard Wright, Jack Conroy, Tillie Olson, and Nelson Algren, defied such judgments, although a handful of the best of the latter-day novels were written in the 1940s to middle 1950s. Most often about everyday life rather than labor drama, these books offered human tragedy, usually depicting defeats without redemption.
Kostival takes us back to the Coal Strike days near the turn of the century, in part because he has absorbed John Steinbeck’s famed novel The Grapes of Wrath, but also because he found Sinclair’s King Coal, which he stumbled upon while himself working in Alaska, so overdramatized and far from the actual history of the strike.
We find ourselves, in The Canyons, with remarkable characters, so remarkable that they become altogether convincing. The notion that a skilled worker of 1910 or even a self-educated drifter of the Socialist Party or Wobbly type would not likely be a reader, let alone a reader of Greek or Latin, has become one more blurring of the past. The worker-socialist, in one of a dozen languages across parts of the U.S., was actually more likely to be a serious reader than his or her middle-class counterpart. The notion that a railroad white-collar or managerial employee automatically lacked sympathy for the proletariate is another of those assumptions, somewhat more accurate but only as a generality. Thus Kostival is a most useful iconoclast or code-breaker.
As the story—centered on a strike in a Colorado coal district—unfolds, the class contrasts are nevertheless hard set. Company towns with shacks for workers and fairly modest accommodations for the supervisory personnel—these are natural enough because the owners live far away and care only for steady profits, relying on a market for their product and labor peace to make those profits possible. With a middle-class so small as to be almost nonexistent, the class struggle atmosphere prevails; in many of these towns, it not this one in particular, socialist votes loomed significant.
Rare has been the left-wing novel that places a management figure, an opponent of a strike, sympathetically rather than casting him as the epitome of wickedness—and Harlan Baxter certainly is an agent of exploitation, an import (typical for management in distant mine villages) from the East, New York or Chicago. He is already disoriented in the first chapter and he spends the whole novel disoriented, in the sense that he does not really belong on either side of the class conflict. His wife hates her exile from middle-class, urban existence and from the proper environment for their growing children—and he can’t blame her for it.
His opposite number, labor organizer Max Hawkins, is straight out of radical labor lore, but not at all unrealistic for that reason. He’s well educated, not only in the auto-didact way but also in the shrewd understanding of how strikes can be won or lost, unions built or destroyed. I am not giving anything away by noting that Hawkins willingly puts his life in danger, not because he is eager for martyrdom but because he will do what the workers want, even if their strategy is wrong-headed. Left to himself, he would choose defeat of a local strike in the belief that success might be better had elsewhere—but he is not left to himself. He’s a follower of Eugene Debs, labor’s martyr several times over, and he’s willing to take the punishment for the sin of rebellion.
The bulk and sense of The Canyons is in the detail, and no review can do justice to the loving care with which Kostival treats the whole scene: the mine village, the mine itself, the ordinary proletarians and their families struggling for a decent existence—and, of course, the ruthlessness of the orders that emanates from the mine owners back East.
The “mine wars” figure among the most dramatic and brutal of the confrontations of labor and capital, certainly from the 1890s to the 1930s. John L. Lewis, himself mired in a history of personal corruption and yet the miners’ champion, led a campaign to civilize class relations and provide medical care for the victims of Black Lung. Today, the coal industry is almost gone but the scars remain. Among those scars, what we might call necessary wounds, is a history and a literature that will not let go.