THE HARBOR: Socialist Fiction as a Voice for Labor

The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

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          Ernest Poole won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1918 for His Family, but it was his novel of three years earlier, The Harbor, that remains his most lasting work. It’s the story of a journalist named Billy (surely based on Poole himself), who grows up in a comfortable middle class house overlooking a harbor that his father runs as a small businessman. However, the harbor soon leaves his father behind as it becomes one huge corporate entity (along with the railroads) financed by Wall Street. Billy is stuck between two worlds, desiring to marry into a wealthy family whose patriarch is one of the engineers of the new industrial center, but strangely drawn into the world of the working class men who toil in the harbor, as represented by his radical college friend, Joe. We witness Billy grow up and come into his own as a writer while slowly beginning to understand the wage slave exploitation of the stokers and dockers who power international trade in the harbor but see none of the profits.

Poole’s novel is honest, balanced, and straight-forward in its portrayal. The rich owners and their Wall Street backers, represented by the engineer Dillion, are not evil monsters. In fact, they think their work is actually helping the nation to grow (which it is, but at the expense of its poorest workers). The middle class, including Billy’s father, are not out-of-touch or unsympathetic characters. They work hard, but have faith in the system. Billy’s father doesn’t agree with the strike, and he even looks down on the labor leaders, but he is not a character “type” who exists merely as antagonistic counterpoint to the strikers. He supports Billy’s writing and is hopeful for the future. Likewise, the labor leaders are not painted as saints or heroes. They are regular men who have family problems and health issues. Their ideals carry them through their work, but they understand that the fight will go on long after they are gone, even if they do believe that the revolution is near. We are shown the harsh lives of the stokers, but never in an emotionally manipulative way. Poole doesn’t exaggerate, nor does he hold back. We are witness to the workers bickering among themselves, and also their struggle to put aside their own personal prejudices.

In the midst of this, Billy acts as a type of connective surrogate. He reports on the events for both sides — first for the industrialists, then for the strikers. He remains on friendly terms with both, even as he begins to side with the strikers. He believes in the revolution, but understands that it will not happen as soon or as quickly as Joe believes. He also understands that the best way to get out the message is not to work outside the system, but to work from within, trying to get his articles published in mainstream papers.


Was the defeat of this one strike the end?

The grim battleships answered, ‘Yes, it is the end.’

But the restless harbor answered, ‘No.’

What change was coming in my life? I did not know. Of one thing only I was sure. The last of my gods, Efficiency, whose feet had stood firm on mechanical laws and in whose head were all the brains of all the big men at the top, had now come tottering crashing down. And in its place a huge new god, whose feet stood deep in poverty and in whose head were all the dreams of all the toilers of the earth, had called to me with one deep voice, with one tremendous burning passion for the freedom of mankind.

–Ernest Poole


One hundred years after the novel was written, some progress has been made, but we are still dealing with the same issues presented in the novel. Workers who drive their industries make barely enough to survive. They work long hours will little overtime pay (and, if some in the Trump administration get their way, none at all). Wall Street still reaps the profits while the average worker goes home with not enough enough money to pay rent. Conservatives with ties to big business continue to dismantle labor unions and work to protect the interests of the 1%.
The question we must ask ourselves: where are the strikes? Where are the national movements of workers demanding their rights? Occasionally, we will see strikes for a 15-dollar minimum wage or equal pay for women (a point that Poole makes in his novel, as the suffragists are an important inspiration for Billy to join the socialist movement). And, of course, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement. But with all the power that social media gives us in organizing, we haven’t made all that much progress in those marches translating to legislation, especially considering the work done on that front in the Progressive Era. The march forward continues, but at a pace that seems far slower than it was one-hundred years ago.

ernest-poole

Ernest Poole

Another question we must ask: where are the socialist literary voices helping to carry the banner in the 21st century? Where are our Ernest Pooles, Upton Sinclairs, Ida Tarbells, Carl Sandburgs, and Emma Goldmans? And if they do exist, do they have any mass appeal? Does anyone read their work, outside the halls of the academy or urban intellectual circles?

In an era when the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has even been — when the new Trump cabinet will have more wealthy businessmen than even Harding’s administration — Poole’s novel challenges us to question how we will respond, and whether or not fiction can still be a powerful force in the struggle.

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