22 December 2009

Grace Lumpkin's To Make My Bread (1932)

Grace Lumpkin (1891-1980) was born in Milledgeville, Georgia, and at the age of about ten her family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and later to a farm in Richland County, South Carolina. She became a teacher and spent her summers in the southern Appalachians. She later went to Columbia University, New York, and became interested in Communist politics. Her first novel, To Make My Bread, is usually grouped with five other novels that concern the 1929 Loray textile mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, although it is only towards the end of the novel that the strike itself occurs.* Lumpkin's second novel, A Sign of Cain (1935), concerns similar themes, but she became disillusioned with Communist politics and her later novels - The Wedding (1939), and Full Circle (1962) clearly represent a major shift towards the right, and towards religion.

The first half of the book is set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, begins in 1900, and describes the poverty in which the mountain people - centring in particular on Grandpap Kirkland, his granddaughter Emma McClure and her young children as they develop. To Make My Bread won the Maxim Gorky Award for the 'best labour novel' of the year, and the book adheres to the realist literary ideology of the Soviet Union. Poverty is associated with illiteracy, and when, lured to visit the town in the low hills where the streets are said to be paved with gold, Emma wants to visit the toilet when the family rest in the station waiting room, she has to guess where to go:

'"Hit's got to be done", Emma said to herself. She got up and walked straight through the door over which the mysterous word was written.

'The girl who had gone in first was standing at a mirror in there. "Is this?" Emma began. The girl smiled and nodded toward a swinging door.'

The novel also depicts sexual matters frankly, if - necessarily for the time, of course - slightly coyly:

'About this time Emma needed some soft cloth. Bonnie [her daughter] was getting older and it had come upone her. For herself Emma could do with any rag that came along, but for Bonnie she wanted the soft cloth.'

Although To Make My Bread may contain some clichés about mountain people - the moonshine peddling and the feuds seen in abundance in such fiction Mary Noailles Murfree's short stories and novels, and the dime novels of the turn of the century, this work is clearly of a very different order. Lumpkin doesn't gloss over the racial prejudice of the time to make her protagonists appear more sympathetic: on the way to visit the town factory in the low hills, Emma sees some black children drinking from a water pump and is thirsty, but Grandpap says: 'They're niggers, Emma. [...] White and black don't mix.'

The novel covers Southern carpet baggers, the greed and inhumanity of the mountain people's towards their kind, and the destruction of Appalachian culture by mining companies.When the family moves down to the town they find not streets of gold but poverty worse than they experienced in the mountains. On the death of the protagonists Grandpap and Emma, the action increases and the strike gets in full swing. When the newly poiticized Bonnie - modeled on the influential Gastonian leader Ella May Wiggins, who was shot through the chest - is murdered, the Communist movement in this fictional town does not die, but is given fresh impetus.

*The five other novels are Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike! (1930), Olive Tilford Dargan's ('Fielding Burke''s) Call Home the Heart (1932), Myra Page's Gathering Storm: A Story of the Black Belt (1932), Sherwood Anderson's Beyond Desire (1932), and William Rollin's The Shadow Before (1934).

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