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Books

Prole pulp

Literary lessons from Detroit in the Dirty '30s

 

Published 4/15/2009

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Lots of people don't realize it, but, during the Great Depression, Detroit finally became a genuine literary location, thanks to writers who came to town to document the economic upheaval in a working-class town. And they left stories that shed light on the city during those troubled times, with maybe even a few lessons to help us in our strife today.

Take Jack Conroy. He moved to Detroit in the late 1920s, a working-class writer looking to explore the lives of autoworkers. That time here infuses his three-part novel The Disinherited (1933), much of which is set in Depression-era Detroit. In Conroy's loose story, several country bumpkins from coal country are drawn to Detroit by promises of jobs and high wages. Unfortunately, they end up eking out a provisional life — drinking off assembly-line stress in Hamtramck beer halls during good times; swilling home brew in lean times, shivering through hard winters.

Unlike many working-class writers of the time, Conroy doesn't beat readers over the head with caricatures of capitalists or workers. Instead, he uses a writer's ear and abundant personal experience to depict working people who crackle with life and roar with authenticity.

Instead of being radicalized by the Depression, Conroy's Detroiters actually cling to upstart ideas of affluence, of not living in "outmoded wooden residences formerly occupied by the aristocracy of the 1890s." (Sound familiar?) In a suburban setting worthy of Steinbeck, a couple lives in a premature development that has become all but vacant after the crash. Past the impressive brick columns of "Rosewood Manor" are weedy lots where "Delmar Vista Boulevard" consists of "two faint tracks in a growth of wiry grass." They pay a heavy note for their property in the sub, where they live in a ready-cut garage in the rear of their lot, dreaming of the fine brick-veneer home they'll build "as soon as they could afford it." The scene has eerie parallels today, in some of Detroit's unfinished exurban subs.

Over all these dreams hangs the threat of unemployment, visible in the gaunt faces of jobless men gathering on park benches in Grand Circus Park at night, where "powdered, perfumed and rouged men strolled among the benches and occasionally accosted a bum, offering to take him on a party or buy a bottle."

Ultimately, Conroy presents Detroit as a city that can break your heart, where workers are driven daffy or mangled by the machinery, where the girl you were sweet on back home shows up in town only to start hooking out of a hot dog shop. Where you might dream of solidarity, but your fellow man says, "The other fellow's just wanting the chance to gig you. Beat him to it, that's all."

Though Conroy was clearly a progressive, his book isn't a hymn to solidarity like The Grapes of Wrath. Though loaded with political insights, his story steers clear of polemics.

Upton Sinclair, on the other hand, doesn't stint on the polemics. In The Flivver King (1937) Sinclair offers up an excoriating critique of Henry Ford. Part industrial agitprop and part family saga, it follows the travails of the fictional Shutt family as it grows up with the Ford Motor Company. And the book portrays an insulated and increasingly clueless billionaire surrounded by gangsters and a private police force that greets protest marchers with bombs and bullets. Following the daily lives of the Shutts, Sinclair charts a history of all-too-familiar upheavals in our dear town: chaotic real estate speculation, rampant unemployment and auto companies on the brink of extinction again and again. How did a novel like this ever get into print? The campaigning, political-minded author published this book from his home in Pasadena, Calif., thanks to the United Auto Workers — which bought 200,000 copies for its members.

A very little-known book about Detroit, F.O.B. Detroit (1938) is an industrial buddy novel set in the Depression. The "F.O.B." in the title is a bit of archaic shorthand used in a factory. And it was at factories, shops and work lines that author Wessel Smitter honed his ear for authentic dialogue of the time (which means some pages are littered with the casual N-bombs of the day). The novel really shines when contrasting the workers' daring industrial exploits with their tedious, insecure lives of sporadic employment.

And things get pretty bad. At one point, to get firewood for a harsh Depression-era Detroit winter, the two main characters join a "house-wrecking" party, where evicted residents stick it to the mortgage company by tearing down their property with industrial efficiency in a few hours, something of which we might take note today. In one of the book's best speeches, the "dictator" gives instructions on how to do it: "We'll do it the same as barn-raising, except that everything will be done in reverse. I want five men to go in the cellar and tear out the underpinning from the rear wall. ... Six fellows will tear up a couple boards from the floor along the walls. I want ten others to get ready to rip off the plaster and drop it down into the cellar. The others take out all doors and windows. Make it snappy."

One of the best-known pieces of proletarian fiction is Tom Kromer's Depression novel Waiting for Nothing (1935). Though not specifically about Detroit, many of the scenes of "stiffs" trying to survive in the hostile Midwest, with its park benches and soup lines, might well have taken place here. Though the tough-guy language often sounds a little forced and repetitive, Nothing can't be beat for advice about being on the bum. One of its savvy characters knows how to knock on the doors of houses that are just the right shade of yellow, how to "penny up" on grocers and butchers to make a nourishing hobo stew, even how to carry a roll of chicken wire through town so cops won't bother you. In one elaborate scheme, a smart stiff buys a doughnut and leaves it carefully on a curb. When enough women have lined up for a streetcar nearby, the stiff returns, spies the donut and leaps upon it ravenously. For this dramatic nickel scene, the women file over and give him dollars. "That is the prettiest little trick I have seen in a long time," his acquaintance says. We think so too.

Michael Jackman is a longstanding fan of proletarian fiction. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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