20 July 2010

Mary Heaton Vorse: Strike! (1930)

Mary Heaton Vorse (1874 -1966) was born in New York and brought up comfortably in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was a feminist, journalist, and novelist who published Strike, one of the six novels mentioned below (under Grace Lumpkin) which concerns the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, which received national newspaper coverage. The textile mill strikes began in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and soon spread to the Carolinas. In the late 19th century, Northern industrialists had been drawn to the South by the promise of happy, contented workers who would work for considerably less money than workers in the North.

However, after World War I, demand for textiles declined as uniforms were no longer needed, and the fashion of the 1920s required less material. The mill owners were forced to makes cuts, and the work of management consultant F. W. Taylor in particular was given a great deal of attention. Families were working 55-hour weeks for less pay, and the workers became far less happy and contented and joined unions. The Gastonia strikes led to several deaths, and Strike is in part a re-creation of the workers' struggle, emphasizing the general animosity toward unions, Northern intelllectuals driven south in sympathy, and a hatred of communist ideas. Strikers (largely meaning unionists), of course, were demonized by mill owners and their supporters.

Unsurprisingly, although Vorse is tremendously sypathetic to the plight of the workers, unlike Lumpkin's To Make My Bread (1932), she was an outsider, and her novel - perhaps particularly from the point of view of the living conditons of the workers and their language - seems to lack the authenticity of Lumpkin's work, much of which is set in the mountains and descriptive of the subsistance farming before the workers were lured to the mills in the lower lands by the illusory temptation of greater wealth.

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