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Labor and Literature

It’s not clear any more exactly what Americans celebrate on Labor Day. As suggested by the rash of commemorative essays this weekend, including an especially doltish performance by an American novelist (you’ll forgive the expression) named Paul Theroux, its proximity to 9/11 may end up redefining the holiday.

But that’s not the whole of the story. As the late Anatole Broyard said in a 1980 review of Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (which is, in large measure, a strike novel set in the coal-mining district of West Virginia), “[W]e have grown used to more complicated oppositions between good and evil or labor and management. . . .” If nothing else, this explains the literary flimsiness of so much “labor fiction.”

Whether organized labor is more committed to organization than labor remains open to dispute, but there’s never been any question where American novelists stood. Henry James may have been among the first to acknowledge the rise of the entrepreneur (Christopher Newman in The American, Caspar Goodwood in The Portrait of a Lady), but he was remarkably vague about how these hard-working men earned their “piles of money.” The likelihood is that he had no clue. Theodore Dreiser was the first American novelist whose image of man included wringing bread from the sweat of one’s face.

Since then, American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.

Philip Roth is one of the few exceptions to the no-work rule in American fiction. He tells the stories of men whose work is fundamental to their identities. In American Pastoral, for example, Swede Levov patiently explains the technical problems of glovemaking to the young political radical who will later deliver a canting message from his fugitive daughter. In Indignation, he gives a full-length portrait of a kosher butcher at work:

First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg — they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. Then they’re ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, says a bracha — a blessing — and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn’t touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn’t perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It’s as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that’s how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain. . . .

The glovemaker belongs to management, though, and the butcher is a small businessowner. American literature has been hurt by the simple association of labor with unions. Perhaps on this day Americans (and their writers) should celebrate the importance of work to human identity, no matter who performs it, along with the unions that, at least historically, sought to give it some dignity.


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