Rick Bowes writes a guest blog over at Matt Cheney’s blog The Mumpsimus, on Stonewall forty years later. Read it. It’s not only good, it’s a great perspective.
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.
Congratulations, Maine, on being the next state to rise out of the mire of a twisted sensibility. Let’s hope more will follow soon. Until then, I leave you with this really awesome poem by Frank O’Hara:
So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping
our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!
The song of an old cow is not more full of judgment
than the vapors which escape one’s soul when one is sick;
so I pull the shadows around me like a puff
and crinkle my eyes as if at the most exquisite moment
of a very long opera, and then we are off!
without reproach and without hope that our delicate feet
will touch the earth again, let alone “very soon.”
It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.
I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear
to my heart, that proud cur at the garbage can
in the rain. It’s wonderful to admire oneself
with complete candor, tallying up the merits of each
of the latrines. 14th Street is drunken and credulous,
53 rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good
love a park and the inept a railway station,
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up
and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave “It’s a summer day,
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”
My friend Deb over at Youngstown Moxie found this great photography project on rustbelt cities created by freelance photojournalist Sean Posey of San Francisco. His family left Youngstown in the 80s and now he’s putting together a fine art/documentary project that will look at Youngstown and other areas of Michigan and Pennsylvania as it considers the rustbelt and the effects of de-industrialization on these communities. I love the slide show (the images of disintegration, decay, nature reclaiming a once settled and extremely populated region, the abandonment left in the wake of the 80s, are the sort of images I tried to collect through words when my characters Adam and Jamie come into Youngstown toward the end of One for Sorrow–and by the way, for readers of the book, the photo of the church in this slide show is the church that Adam and Jamie squat in when they reach town) and the Bruce Springsteen song is a perfect match for background music. But I’ll just crib from Deb and you can follow the link to the site to see for yourself. Thanks for finding it Deb!
Odd how things work around here. A friend of mine sent me a link to a slide show created by Sean Posey and as I was looking through the photos I recognized a church that another friend of mine, Chris Barzak, had written about in his book One for Sorrow. The church is located by YSU and I’m told that it is was the first church in the area. It is in poor condition and I would love to see the building saved. However, that is a story for another day.
I want to share with you the slide show that depicts our ruins in all of their glory. In the decay there is much beauty. I,for one, believe that by looking and perceiving the ruins through a lens of creativity, new birth will come to Youngstown. Not only has Sean Posey captured the beauty of the place, but he has somehow managed to imbue his photos with the emotional strength and courage of the people who reside here though people are are not his subjects, and are not within the frames of the photographs. Click here to view the show.
One of my favorite sites on the internet these days is Shaun O’Boyle’s Modern Ruins. Full of photographic essays about places whose industries, way of life, or some other historical aspect, has fallen into ruin, it’s a beautiful way to preserve a particular swath of our cultural memory. My favorite is the Big Steel collection, which was shot nearby, just outside of Pittsburgh, where you’ll find husks of decaying and abandoned steel mills, part of the landscape I grew up in. I find them to be coldly beautiful and of another world, like Greek and Roman architecture, which you’ll also find in various spots here and in other parts of the rustbelt, in little cities that once dreamed of being empires.
This may be a long shot, but if anyone out there knows of links online or books or documentaries, or anything really, that has to do with munitions factories in the United States during WWII, I could really use some help finding stuff. I’ve been waiting to use the archives at the Museum of Labor of Industry here in Youngstown, but the archives have been closed the past couple of weeks as the archivist has been on vacation. She should be back in a few days, but I’m getting itchy, and also if there are good sources out there that I haven’t been able to locate on my own, I would love to see anything someone can point me to. You can post in the comments or e-mail me directly. Thanks in advance!