CHRIST IN CONCRETE: The Sacrifice of Immigrant Labor to the Pagan God of Capitalism

Christ in Concrete (1939) by Pietro di Donato

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          1939 saw the release of two celebrated works about the experiences of downtrodden American migrants to California during the Depression: John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and William Saroyan’s drama The Time of Your Life. Both would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes in their respective genres and enter the canon as classic American works of the proletariat in the Depression-era. Both would be mythologized in Hollywood films — the former starring Henry Fonda and the latter James Cagney. Equally celebrated in that year was a work of fiction that also would be turned into a film ten years later, Give Us This Day, directed by the blacklisted Edward Dmytryk. The novel’s author didn’t win any awards or achieve the canonical status of Steinbeck or Saroyan, despite his novel’s passionate prose, timely narrative, and (as almost eighty years of time has confirmed) timeless themes.

          The novel was Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, which focuses on the struggles of urban immigrants back east who risked their lives for starvation wages in the 1920s to help build the sprawling cities that drove an American economic boom that would come crashing down in 1929. Like The Grapes of Wrath and The Time of Your Life, Christ in Concrete is a critique of the mythical American Dream — an idea that fuels the capitalist exploitation of immigrants, migrants, ethnic minorities, and the working poor for the prosperity and comfort of the upper classes, thereby excluding from advancement the very American citizens who drive the economic engine. It is a novel in which the stark, bitter reality of the American promise becomes clear to the Italian immigrants who toil as bricklayers: their labor, their bodies, and their blood are used to develop a nation whose laws, justice system, and business practices not only preclude them from the profits of their labor, but dehumanize them at every turn — or simply refuse even to acknowledge their existence.

          The novel opens with the death of a bright and skilled bricklayer named Geremio, the patriarch of a large family of Italian immigrants who assume that their father’s hard work and honest living will help them soon to achieve the American Dream: a steady job, their own home, financial stability, upward mobility, security for their children, etc. In truth, Geremio and his Italian-American co-workers are treated as expendable tools, whose safety is the last thing of concern to either the construction corporation or the law.

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Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete), dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1949

          Geremio’s horrific death due to the negligence of uncaring bosses at his construction site is a brutal, visceral wake-up call: these immigrant laborers are not free and equal citizens in the American capitalist system. They are, instead, the Christs in concrete who sacrifice their lives for the pagan god “Job.” All that matters is Job. They live and die for Job. Job is their master.


His train of thought quickly took in his family, home and hopes. And with hope came fear. Something within asked, “Is it not possible to breathe God’s air without fear dominating with the pall of unemployment? And the terror of production for Boss, Boss and Job? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. O dear Lord, guide my path.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Commentators often comment on the so-called “personification” of “Job” in the novel. However, it is not so much a personification as a deification. Job is another word for the pagan god of Capitalism (or even more specifically, Corporatism) with the owners functioning as high priests, the foremen as deacons, and the immigrant labor force as the flock, ostensibly “saved” by the holy auspices of Job, but ultimately guided to their demise like lambs to the slaughter. As the sacrificial offerings to the pagan god of the New World, the men are martyrs to a nation whose economic system exploits their sweat, steals their blood, and gives them only the hope of some better life in the future — the “American Dream” as an eternal promise for their suffering. I would even suggest that the designation “Job” is a textual connection to the Biblical Job. Di Donato’s novel, like the Old Testament book, grapples with the injustice of innocent humans suffering purely on the faith of a silent god. In di Donato’s novel, that silent god is extended to include the pagan god of Capitalism.

          Set against this pagan god of the New World is the joyous, pastoral, communal celebrations of the Italian immigrants, as documented in the section titled “Fiesta.” Their Old World rituals are a stark contrast to both the stifling dominance of Job and the impotent emptiness of the Catholic Church, whose presence in the novel is epitomized by the Irish priest who dismisses a dire request for aid from Paul with a slice of “rich-rich cake.” Unable to nourish the spiritual needs of the immigrants or provide charity relief in their times of deep misfortune, the Church is the Old World equivalent of Job: taking from the people in the distant, empty promise of some mythical “better life” in the future. As a result, the working-class must rely on each other — as workers and as neighbors — drawing strength from their ancient, pre-Christian rituals of sharing food and song in a sense of communal bonding.

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Pietro di Donato

          As the narrative shifts from Geremio’s concrete crucifixion to the coming-of-age of his 12-year-old son Paul, the reader shares in Paul’s gradual awareness of his friends and family not as the recipients of the blessings of the Land of Plenty, but rather as the burnt offerings to this new pagan god. Although di Donato was drawing from his own personal experiences as the son of a bricklayer who died in an accident on the job, one can’t help but be reminded of Marx’s theory of surplus value from the first volume of Capital, in which he uses bricklayers as an example of highly skilled workers whose labor generates new value well beyond the labor-cost: “The distinction between skilled and unskilled labor rests in part on pure illusion, or, to say the least, on distinctions that have long since ceased to be real, and that survive only by virtue of a traditional convention; in part on the helpless condition of some groups of the working-class, a condition that prevents them from exacting equally with the rest the value of their labor-power. Accidental circumstances here play so great a part, that these two forms of labor sometimes change places. Where, for instance, the physique of the working-class has deteriorated, and is, relatively speaking, exhausted, which is the case in all countries with a well developed capitalist production, the lower forms of labor, which demand great expenditure of muscle, are in general considered as skilled, compared with much more delicate forms of labor; the latter sink down to the level of unskilled labor. Take as an example the labor of a bricklayer, which in England occupies a much higher level than that of a damask-weaver. Again, although the labor of a fustian cutter demands great bodily exertion, and is at the same time unhealthy, yet it counts only as unskilled labor.” Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one of the purest fictional depictions of Marx’s theory of surplus value. As Paul begins his bricklaying career, he soon comes to realize that the fruits of his labor far exceed the value of his compensation.


“Mister Rinaldi, if you don’t mind — I’d like to say something to you –”

Rinaldi bent his ear a little toward Paul but did not look at him.

“Mister Rinaldi, we can’t do anything with my five dollars — oh, please, Mr. Rinaldi, am I not worth more than five dollars? Oh please, I can’t go home with only five dollars…”

“You see, Pauli, I don’t run the corporation by myself. Understand?”

“But, Mister Rinaldi, don’t you think I should get more than five dollars…?”

“…I — say you are.”

“So, Mister Rinaldi…please…?”

“I can’t fight with the corporation.”

“But they knew my father and worked for him — they know I am worth more than five dollars — why don’t they help me? Mister Rinaldi, why?”

Rinaldi looked for the first time at Paul, and kindly, then said with a shrug:

“I’m sorry, Paulie…That’s the way the world is.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Di Donato’s deeply empathetic portrait of the Italian immigrant laborers is both humanizing and glorifying: like Paul, the reader comes to see these men as martyrs, whose gruesome deaths on the scaffolding of the new cathedrals of the pagan god Capitalism are preserved in concrete like the saints who adorn the stone parapets of medieval cathedrals — monuments in stone that were created, not coincidentally, by the guilds of Old World working-class stonemasons, carpenters, and metallurgists who were the forefathers (perhaps even literally) of these Italian immigrants.

          It cannot be coincidental that di Donato names his young protagonist Paul. Like St. Paul the Apostle, he witnesses a “crucifixion” and undergoes a spiritual transformation, accepting his role as an apostle of the new labor movement by testifying to the Christs in concrete who have suffered and died so that their families may one day secure a better life in a New World. Paul’s conversion roughly follows the new spiritual awakening described in the Pauline epistles, culminating in Paul’s mystic dream-vision  — not in subjugation to the false gods of Job or Church, but in service to the very human sacrifices of his fellow laborers. Paul’s dream details his conversion to a new faith in socialism and the labor movement.


He looks about Job. He is in a huge choir loft with scaffolding about the walls. In niches are Saints. They wear overalls and look like paesanos he dimly recalls. They step down and carry hods and push wheelbarrows. But what Saints are they? The little fellow and the curly-headed and the mortarman look like Thomas and Lazarene, and the Snoutnose who once visited the house.

— Pietro di Donato


          Paul’s allegiance is now with his working-class brethren, whose martyrdom he has witnessed on the scaffolding of Job. Paul’s mother, a devout Catholic, soon makes the heart-rending decision that her faith must be born anew, not in the “plaster man and wooden cross,” but in her fellow man: “Follow him,” she tells her children of this newly transformed Paul. His mother’s blessing is a testament to his new faith, which is documented in Christ in Concrete much like St. Paul’s own conversion was recounted in his First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Almost eighty years after its publication, di Donato’s autobiographical portrait — testifying to the sacrificial burden of new immigrants in a nation that purports to welcome them, while simultaneously exploiting their labor and dehumanizing their struggle — remains, unfortunately, all-too-relevant. The American conceit of being a land of hope and plenty for tempest-tossed refugees is belied by every new generation’s attempts to deny immigrants the same opportunities granted their ancestors. As we have learned from the fiction of so many great American writers who emigrated to the United States in the twentieth century — Yezierska, Cahan, Saroyan, Rølvaag, and di Donato, among them — the success of immigrants is won in the face of overwhelming challenges and hardships. For them, the promise of the American Dream exists at the expense of their struggle, rather than as a safe harbor from it. Their triumph is an overcoming of adversity built into a system that actively denies them its loftiest ideals.

 

AMERICA AND AMERICANS: The Lasting Hope of “One People Out of Many”

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

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          As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States — to the considerable shock and lamentation of over half of this nation’s citizens, who did not vote for him– I can’t help but feel anxiety for the future state of the republic: its most vulnerable citizens, its institutions that have (until this moment) stood in resistance to any one leader who might exhibit authoritarian tendencies or exert tyrannical force, and its progress toward a more perfect union — even through all its stumbles and black-eyes along the way. In short, I fear that with the election of Donald Trump the United States is veering wildly off course, as perhaps it hasn’t done since the days of the Civil War.

          I don’t know if this doom-and-gloom feeling is overstatement or if it’s the accurate diagnosis of a wobbly political system that is close to the point of breakdown. In either case, I wonder: Is there a hope for a divided nation? Do we have anything at all to look forward to in the coming years? If we look to the past (and to literature) to answer those questions, then we might respond, “Yes, but it will be a long, hard road. And that hope might not translate into progress for many years, if not decades.”

          I wanted to end my Inaugural List on a note of hopeful-yet-realistic optimism. As low as things seem, our country has been here before. In fact, today is part of a larger struggle that has always existed in this nation. But it’s a struggle that we are winning, and will continue to win — a bright spark of optimism for when we feel our lowest.

          With these thoughts in mind, I recall a rally I recently attended to protest the policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump, in which a protestor was carrying a sign that read, “AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.” I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the intent of the sign: to acknowledge that our nation has always perpetrated atrocities and injustices, even while claiming to be a lamp of liberty and tolerance. But our nation was founded precisely on that struggle to close the gap between our rhetoric of idealism and our reality of injustice. In that struggle lies our greatness.

          It’s a struggle that Steinbeck illuminates and celebrates in his final book, American and Americans, while neither resorting to the tired clichés of patriotic claptrap, nor thrashing away at the easy straw man of overgeneralized sentiments like those expressed on the sign held by my fellow Trump protestor. 

ARTIST PHOTOGRAPHER

John Steinbeck and Charley

          Instead, Steinbeck’s collection of essays — the only nonfiction book on my Inaugural List — is a meditation on the American people, character, landscape, history, and future. He offers insight on the paradoxes of our political system, the immigrant experience (and our treatment of immigrants), the myths that construct our shared American identity, the way we project our identity to the rest of world, our connection to (and destruction of) the land, our economic obsession, the pitfalls of our nation, and how we seem to overcome our flaws to continue progressing as a nation. Steinbeck offers an honest, frank, and highly-subjective analysis (which he freely admits on page one), and he does so out of an obvious abundance of love for the nation and its people. 

          Sometimes his essays are illustrated by personal experiences or stories he has heard from other Americans. The hardback edition from 1966 contains striking black-and-white and color photos offering a glimpse of America in the mid-twentieth century that perfectly compliments Steinbeck’s text. Photographs are included from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, among many others. The result is a literary and visual composite of a people in the mid-20th century, at the height of America’s influence in the world after WWII, but also in the midst of some of the nation’s most challenging and chaotic problems, including the Cold War, the atomic age, and the fight for civil rights. Steinbeck’s portrait still holds true fifty years later, and his warnings of a populace numbed by complacency and all-too-riled-up by emotional political rhetoric that panders to base fear and prejudice remains relevant as our nation enters the years of a Trump administration that threatens to take us down an authoritarian route.

          Perhaps we can understand the rise of Trump from Steinbeck’s view of what Americans desire in their politicians: “We want a common candidate but an uncommon office holder.” It’s an impossible contradiction, but one that has somehow worked in the past, which Steinbeck acknowledges. But what happens when that office holder is revealed to be decidedly “common”? Or even worse: dangerous? Again, I turn to Steinbeck to offer some words of hope. The final paragraph of his afterword reassures us that even in the midst of our darkest moments (which Steinbeck does not shy away from illuminating throughout the book) we always manage to progress. These are comforting words for those of us who recognize our nation’s tendency to slip backward on the road of progress, but who have hope that we can once again work together to overcome our basest human flaws to work toward our ideals. The paragraph is worth printing in its entirety:


From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back — never.

— John Steinbeck


          I leave these words of hope at the end of my Inaugural List after twenty days of writing about fiction that explores some dark and often depressing subject matter. Moving forward with this blog during the Trump years, I’d like to see Steinbeck’s words as a small but necessary flicker of illumination in a very dark and vast — but not unchartered — path of America’s history. Let us hope that the Ideals of this nation, as expressed by Steinbeck, may ultimately rule the day, guiding us away from Mephisto’s Mother Night and back into the light that burns for “one people out of many.”

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

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.

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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.

WE ARE NOT ALONE: Shared Human Experiences Connecting a Divided World

We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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          Fear of the Other, nativism, a militarized nation on the warpath against a cagey enemy, a crackdown on civil liberties, a culture of surveillance: it’s an old formula that makes for the easy persecution of immigrants and refugees. It was in this political climate in England, so similar to the one we now face in the United States in 2017, that James Hilton published We Are Not Alone in 1937, a novel about a small town British doctor and his relationship with a poor German immigrant, set against the backdrop of a xenophobic town that rushes to judgment to determine their guilt when a terrible accident occurs. The plot revolves around Dr. David Newcombe, a quiet family man in a small British town leading up to World War I, who treats a suicidal German immigrant dancer named Leni. After forming a bond with her — perhaps romantic — Newcombe hires her as the family governess. As the war jitters intensify, Newcombe’s wife dies mysteriously, and the town immediately condemns Leni without any evidence. The witch hunt soon turns dangerous for both Leni and Newcombe.

Although his name is not as well known as it was seventy years ago — and even then he suffered from the dreaded “middlebrow” label — Hilton was one of the great British novelists of the 20th century. While Virginia Woolf’s genius and stylistic innovations strike my intellectual fancy and E.M Forster’s search for human connectivity appeals to my personal struggle with empathy and identity, only Hilton’s storytelling can hold me entranced, as if drifting in the rapture of an hallucination. He is a Storyteller of the type that Walter Benjamin claimed the modern world had all-but-lost: one who transcends the trauma of an isolated, mechanized post-WWI society to celebrate communal memory.

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Jane Bryan and Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1939)

          At a time when artists were expressing the impossibility of communication (“They walk incommunicado,” as American poet William Carlos Williams laments in Paterson), Hilton succeeds in imparting the shared experiences of simple human contact. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster writes in Howards End. And Hilton does so, not by avoiding modernity or escaping the present through pure nostalgia, but instead by seeking those pockets of universal humanity that unite us with each other and with our natural world. After seeing a boy with a fatal infection (and in light of the upcoming Great War) Newcombe muses on the power of renewal inherent in human connection with our surroundings, and with each other. The lack of empathetic communion leading up to both World Wars– which is a personal struggle for myself on a daily basis, not to mention for a large segment of Americans — is for Hilton an existential question.


It was a lovely night, warm from earth; and he felt, as he always did when he had seen recent death, a mystic communion with all things living and dead, as well as a perception of their own communion; so that, through such a prism of consciousness, he could sense life in a dead stone and death in a living tree.

— James Hilton


His characters might be alienated, lost, doomed to fate, or even facing certain death, but Hilton’s message is clear: we are not alone. It is not a pat, saccharine declaration meant to provide easy comfort (although his fiction most certainly offered solace for weary readers between the wars). Instead, his message is one that resonates as the purest form of storytelling: the expression of shared experiences that lead us to greater wisdom in times of trouble. Hilton does not flee from the Storyteller’s responsibility nor claim that such communication is impossible. He meets the challenge head-on and finds the images to convey truth where speech might otherwise fail: “He had never found it possible to put everything he meant into speech; indeed, he had sometimes felt that words offered merely surface exactness that was both an illusion and a danger.” In the words of Benjamin, Hilton offers not the cold immediacy of information and fact, but the connectivity of wisdom through shared experience.

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James Hilton

          We Are Not Alone, like the best of Hilton’s fiction, constructs memory as a landscape that we yearn to traverse, even as we see it fading from our senses. It bridges the divisions of modern man, revealing the distances that separate us to be spaces where we might one day connect, if only we have the courage to reach out to each other. As Hilton concludes, “Their worlds were different, their ages were different, their lives and language were different; yet all those differences became themselves absurd when measured against the flash of recognition that sprang between them at every nearness.” Hilton stands out from his contemporaries because he strove to express our “every nearness” in his fiction during an era when literature was defined by alienation, isolation, and separation. That his words continue to ring true is a testament to his success as a Storyteller in a new century bereft of communal memory.

TRANSIT: Writing as a Place to Live for Refugees

Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

transi

“For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

          In the past two years, the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe (and now across the world) has been the most widespread since World War II. It has challenged the ability of free nations to balance compassion with security and has changed the political climate to the extent that xenophobia and populist dissent are now threatening to overrun the free world. In reading the fiction of the mid-twentieth century, we find that these issues are nothing new. Indeed, in this fiction we can learn important lessons and gain new perspectives on the challenges that continue to face us today.

          Anna Seghers’ novel draws on her own experiences as a refugee from Germany in the 30s, when simply existing as a person was a crime and crossing borders for freedom (and basic survival) was a Herculean task that could lead to capture, murder, or suicide. Transit is narrated by a man who has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and is seeking to live a life of peace in France. He soon discovers that this is impossible, as he becomes part of a group of refugees trying to escape France before the arrival of the German army.

          The resulting bureaucratic nightmare requires refugees to have an endless amount of papers and visas, which are nearly impossible to attain. One must have a resident visa merely to reside temporarily in France, and only on the condition that one is looking to leave. In order to leave, one must have a visa to enter the country of refuge. However, one cannot simply travel to that country without first stopping at other countries in-between, either by land, air, or sea. Therefore, one also needs transit visas for each stop in-between. By the time a person can obtain the proper entry visas, their transit visas become out-of-date, and vice versa. Since it takes so long to obtain these myriad visas, one risks out-staying a resident visa, for which one must continually re-apply, but which are perhaps the most difficult to obtain.

          It is a Kafkaesque nightmare that leads the narrator to adopt the persona of a fellow refugee — a writer who has recently committed suicide (possibly a reference to Seghers’ acquaintance Walter Benjamin?). As the narrator goes in circles trying to either stay in France or obtain the proper visas to flee to Mexico, he runs into the girlfriend of the deceased writer, who is currently searching for her lover, whom she doesn’t realize is dead.


And yet although all this transit whispering made me feel quite miserable, it was amazing to think that even though thousands, no, hundreds of thousands, had died in the flames of the air raids and the furious attacks of the Blitzkrieg, there were many more who were born quite without being noticed by the consuls. They hadn’t asked for letters of transit, hadn’t applied for visas; they were not under the jurisdiction of this place. And what if some of these poor souls, still bleeding physically and spiritually, had fled to this house, what harm could it do to a giant nation if a few of these saved souls, worthy, half-worthy, or un-worthy, were to join them in their country — how could it possibly harm such a big country?

–Anna Seghers


          Lost in all this paperwork is the humanity of the refugees, who are shuffled around like so many cattle, often rounded up for little or no reason and sent back to concentration camps. Our narrator gives us an idea of the constant fear and despair felt by these men and women who discover that their only crimes are being alive and trying to cross borders to survive. The novel is written as a narrative told by the unnamed narrator at a cafe, which suggests that he is not only adopting the persona of a writer, but also has become a storyteller himself, spinning his tale for those of us who have never experienced this kind of madness. In that sense, to paraphrase Adorno, writing has become a homeland for both Seghers and the narrator, who slowly comes to embrace a revolutionary point-of-view as he lives the life of the dead writer seeking asylum.

Internationaler Schriftstellerkongress 1935 in Paris - Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers, 1935, at the International Congress of Writers. Photographer Gisèle Freund said Seghers had “the eyes of a dreamer.”

          We readers understand, too, that fiction is more than the communication of facts, but a place of refuge for the weary — a point of contact where disparate (and desperate) people might embrace a humanity denied to them by certain social or political restrictions, might cross boundaries and barriers that are impossible to cross otherwise, and might build a community of shared experiences that reflect the values of men and women who are so often lost in the system. In short, fiction gives voice to the voiceless, and puts a human face on complex geopolitical issues such as the current refugee crisis.

          Seghers’ novel remains just as relevant today as it was when first published in 1944. As Peter Conrad writes in his introduction: “It is sobering and alarming to rediscover this book: what Seghers saw as an emergency has now become what we call normality.” In reading this novel, we come to value not only the importance of providing refugees with comfort and compassion, but also of the essential need for nations to work together to maintain free and open borders, especially in the face of forces (sometimes violent) that might threaten to destroy that international ideal.