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The Place of Workers in American Culture Imagining Labor by Irving Howe This essay, which was first published in the April 11, 1981 New Republic, will appear as the introduction to Images of Labor \(The Pilgrim Press, 132 West 31st Street, New York, NY 10001; publisher and the author. The book contains 32 original art works on American labor. Irving Howe teaches literature at CUNY. That there has long been in the United States a working class numbering in the millions, with needs and interests of its own; that significant aspects of the experience and culture of these workers set them apart, even if not quite so sharply as in Europe, from other social classes; that many American workers have organized themselves into trade unions which together comprise a powerful labor movement, defending the rights of its members and often acting on behalf of social betterment throughout the nation all of these may seem self-evident statements, indeed, self-evident to the point of the commonplace. But they are not. The truth is that the working class, both as actuality and idea, has never been wholly accepted in American society or adequately reflected in American culture. My own recollections from school and college are that trade unions or the workers as a distinct social group rarely were mentioned in classrooms or textbooks. If you look at our popular culture from comic strips to movies, from novels to televison you will be struck by the extent to which this crucial segment of the American people is blocked out. A film like Norma Rae comes to seem notable simply because it is there. Why should this be so? One reason, I think, is that a recognition of the working class as a major component of American Society runs counter to the dominant American myth. That is a myth of a nation of independent craftsmen, small farmers, sturdy businessmen, usually self-employed, sometimes hiring a few “hands,” but mostly succeeding through their own industriousness and sobriety. It is a myth closer to the realities of the age of Jefferson, even Andrew Jackson, than the age of Carter and Reagan. The persistence of this myth in American life is something to marvel at. It increasingly fails to describe our social reality, yet it hangs on. It is utterly inadequate to indeed, glaringly in contradiction with the America of giant industries, massive plants, concentrated wealth, enormous multinational, corporations. But people want it, need it. That this myth once had great liberating power in our society and culture; that it still has some attractive moral elements, such as a stress on individual effort and a defense of private life yes, of course. But in its decline from Ralph Waldo Emerson to has disabled us from seeing what is there in front of our nose. And still we cling to that myth. We cling to its picture of a small-town or pastoral nation, if only because it answers some deep need within us, some overpowering nostalgia. Perhaps it’s a case of what historians call “cultural lag,” sentiment and idea lagging behind reality. Sometimes this lagging can even serve a useful purpose: it may enable keen criticisms of our social arrangements. Sometimes, I would say more often, this myth is cynically exploited, as in political ballyhoo and corporate advertising. Anti-union corporations appeal to the tradition of “individualism” as if a solitary worker, unlinked with the workers next to him, could ever be a match for the wealth and power of a giant company! One reason for the reluctance to acknowledge the sheer idea of an American working class has been the claim and it has some truth to it that things in America are “different.” American workers, it is said, are not so rigidly held into fixed or limited class positions as workers in Europe. That may also explain why the American labor movement has not been nearly so friendly to socialist ideas as the European labor movement. And as I say, there is some truth to these claims, though with the passage of time, less and less truth. Mainly, however, the idea of the working class as a distinct and major presence’in American life has not been fully accepted because of our incorrigible nostalgia for an earlier, simpler America where there were few industrial laborers, few large corporations, few immense cities. But there is no going back. Whatever else, for good or bad, we cannot go back to this earlier America. It no longer exists, except in isolated pockets here and there. We will either work our way to a more democratically humane and socially just society within the context of advanced industrialism, or we will drift further into a corporate-dominated, bureaucratically managed society. In either case, however, advanced industrialism \(or postclass and a strong labor movement. What seems especially strange about these failures in national self-perception is that work as human activity finds a very important place in 19th-century American literature. In Whitman’s poems work is lyrically celebrated; in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi work is lovingly evoked; in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick work is described with a passion for exact detail. For the most part, however, the work portrayed in 19th-century American literature is that of the independent craftsman the steamboatman of Twain, the day printer of Whitman. And the same seems to be true for 19th-century American painting. The worker as we know him and her first appears in a strange, haunting story by Melville, “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” Set in a 19th-century factory, this story anticipates the work that we know in factories and shops: the dehumanized labor of men and women tending machines. At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper. . . . The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery that vaunted slave of humanity here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and clingingly as the slave serves the Sultan. American Income Life Insurance Company Bernard Rapoport Executive Offices: P.O. Box 208, Waco, Texas 76703 Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13