I’ve been reading a novel called “Out of this Furnace” for one of my summer courses. It’s by Thomas Bell, an author from Braddock, Pennsylvania who grew up in a steel mill family. The novel is semi-autobiographical, following three generations of a Slovak immigrant family from the turn of the century through the thirties. The novel was published in 1941, not long after the last decade Bell writes about in the book, the 30s. The book works more like a very well-done historical narrative more than it does as a novel, at least in terms of what expectations for novelistic writing looks like these days. It provides many more insights than a typical historical narrative, too, because of the personal relationship the reader builds with its characters, rather than the distanced tone of an actual historical narrative. In any case, I learned a lot reading it, about a time and a place and a particular kind of people, and also a lot about how things looked during the first thirty years of the Twentieth century around places like the one I grew up in, which isn’t very far from the novel’s setting. Just outside of Pittsburgh.
In any case, a couple of quotes leaped out at me while I was reading today. The leaped out because even though they were written seventy years ago or thereabouts, they felt like they could have been written today:
“The depression deepened to the sound of voices chanting that prosperity was just around the corner, the country was fundamentally sound. In the face of unparalleled catastrophe the rich and powerful lacked even the decency to keep silent. Blind, ignorant, obsessed with the myth of their own infallibility–they had been obeyed longer than was good for an human being–they drooled their obscene mumbo-jumbo, witch doctors without faith in their own magic imploring the betrayed to have confidence, the penniless to put their money into circulation, the despoiled to take pride in an America plundered, gutted and laid waste. Silence would have become them more and proved wiser, for there must have been many like Dobie whom their stupidities shook out of bewilderment, goaded to anger.”
“What did they ever do for the working people? All through the depression they haven’t done anything to help anybody except the big banks and corporations. What good did voting Republican do John when he was getting dollar-fifty pays and taking money down to the mill on paydays to keep his insurance in force because they weren’t even giving him enough work to pay for his insurance? He had to take from our few dollars in the bank and pay it to the mill on paydays instead of them paying him. I owe four months’ rent and I’ve got a store bill that scares me when I think of it. Do they think we’re all greenhorns and they can rub our faces in the dirt forever?”
And there’s more where that came from.
Until well into the 19th century history was considered literature. Thomas Carlyle reads like a romantic novelist. Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” owes a lot to him. It was Francis Parkman more than any fiction writer who described the frontier and the Native Americans.
It worked the other way too. Novelists especially the social realists like Zola and Norris described the effect of historical events and trends on the lives of ordinary people.
Yeah, this is very much in the vein of Zola, though I always think of Zola as a Naturalist, and this seems more like Social Realism. There’s a bit of difference between them, though definitely related.
There has been in the last few decades a tendency for the novel not to be about society but instead to be interior. “Out of the Furnace” is classic social realism.
I think the main difference between Zola and Norris or Jack London is that Zola deals much more frankly with sex.
I am currently reading this novel, and loving it.
What a perspective to read about the conditions of America from the people who actually built America, and the most misunderstood ones.
Thanks for the reply, Karla. I know, it’s a fascinating book, for all the reasons you point out.
do you recall what pages the quotes you stated were on?
I wish I did, Abby! It’s been several years since I read the book and posted here, though. You might try looking the book up on Google Books and searching for the lines that way.