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A continued theme I noticed in The Land of Plenty is the difficulty of communication across classes. It often feels like the managers literally can’t hear or understand the workers, as in the exchange between MacMahon and Hagen about the source of the power outage on page 181; the back-andforth between the two sides, which almost inevitably leads nowhere, can be excruciating at times. Do you see communication as an important theme in Cantwell’s work? And how might this tie into his political and aesthetic goals?
For Cantwell, communication between classes is not rooted in individual behavior or individual qualities. He sees that our social positioning in the world—our jobs, our gender, our race—determines to a large extent our way of viewing the world. It is much more difficult than is often claimed, though not utterly impossible, to see the world through the eyes of another. And he believed that fundamentally the wealthy and powerful were incapable of seeing those who worked for them as much more than instruments of profit.
It is not a matter of good bosses versus bad bosses, but of basic differences in power. All the instances of miscommunication in his work arise from seeing the world from either the perspective of those who have a vested interest in corporate capitalism, or those who realize that they are in one way or another misused by that system. In his work, certain folks are caught in the middle, between bosses and workers, and they have to choose in the old union song’s words “which side are you on.” The late great Northwest folksinger Utah Philips called it the blame game. Either you blame the poor and the working class for their condition, pushing the blame down on those already downtrodden, or you push the blame up onto those who reap great wealth from the labor of others. In the United States, that still largely determines our political affiliations: do you push the blame down on immigrants and so-called “welfare chiselers,” or do you push the blame up towards the 1% who benefit immensely from the corporate welfare of tax loopholes, lobbyists, oil subsidies, a biased legal system, et cetera.
Absolutely. I loved the note about Kurt Cobain at the end of your book, who, like Cantwell, grew up in working-class Aberdeen: “It is a sign of Cobain’s time, and our current time, that his much-heralded social anger is almost never analyzed in class terms but only through the cliché of youthful rebellion.” I think this is a powerful point, and speaks to how important context is to understanding a creative work. Do you think that seeing a figure like Cantwell or Cobain as a regional writer also has the potential to open up new forms of analysis?
I think it important to always respect the particularities of place, to see yourself connected to a particular geography and a history. At the same time, we are clearly also living in a time when recognition of our embeddedness in larger global forces is equally important. Cantwell’s story matters to our understanding of the Northwest, and matters because it gives insight into a larger mid-twentieth-century cultural process that moved millions of working-class U.S. citizens from the margins to the center of the society, only to subtly and not-so-subtly re-marginalize them during and after the Cold War era. My point about Cobain was that by the time grunge arose, the United States had virtually no language to talk about class politics. In contrast to the U.K. where punk clearly was understood initially as a working class reaction to economic inequality, grunge was just read as adolescent angst. I believe deeply that the failure to acknowledge the worker’s literature movement of the 1930s has contributed greatly to a denial of the role of economic exploitation in undermining real democracy in this country. It meant that millions of everyday American workers have remained largely absent from the story of American literature and the wider story of U.S.
culture. In turn, that allowed the political right to place blame for the ills of the working class not on corporate greed, but on the alleged laziness of the portion of the working class benefitting from our (ever diminishing) social safety net. The Occupy Wall Street movement dramatically brought this conversation back into the American household. I hope my book will play a small role in reminding us of the point driven home by Occupy, that social class inequality in America is the key fact we must face head-on if we are to honor our pledge of liberty and justice for all.
Hills Around CentraliaRobert Cantwell (1935)
Credited with writing “the first modern novel to come out of the Northwest” and praised by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as one of the most promising writers of his generation, Cantwell is a vitally important but often overlooked figure in the Northwest’s rich literary history. In “Hills Around Centralia,” originally published in the anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States, he depicts a small town in Western Washington responding to a real historic event that took place during his childhood—the Centralia Massacre of 1919. The story appears here for the first time since its original publication.
To learn more about Cantwell’s unique life and writing career, readers may turn to our interview with T.V. Reed (p. 31), whose recent book Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left examines the personal history of Cantwell and the broader cultural significance of his creative and critical work.
The whole community was in a frenzy of fear. Travelers were wounded for not halting immediately on command from the searchers. One posseman was shot and killed by his Companions.... Throughout the state over a thousand men were arrested without warrants in the first days after the tragedy in an effort to stifle publicity and prevent an adequate defense.
—Was it Murder? The Truth about Centralia As soon as they marched into school Kelly knew that something serious had happened, and for the next four days, until they met the wobblies in the woods, until they burnt the handbills and ran for their lives through the rain, he lived with a sense of danger and excitement confusing him and speeding up his life. Things happened, suddenly and unexpectedly, and everything was changed. The people became different and the town and the woods were strange. He waited for the wobblies to shoot, but they only passed out handbills. He hunted for a wobbly army but there was only a crazy old man and a logger who was running away. And on the first morning, as soon as they came into school and Miss Greer forgot to call the roll, he knew it was serious. The kids knew it. They began to whisper; even the girls whispered.
Paul Collins punched him between the shoulder-blades and said, “Progermans again.” Before he could ask Paul how he knew, the assembly bell rang, loud and startling.
Miss Greer said Rise. Stand. March. Ever since the War they had marched in and out of class. The big phonograph played The Stars and Stripes Forever March. As Kelly turned into the assembly hall, marking time as the line swung around, he could see the little kids at their side of the hall marking time irregularly, and as the music grew louder and the classes surged up the aisles together excitement grew in him and he trembled. He marked time beside his place; the Stars and Stripes Forever played its way through;
the kids stamped heavily on the oiled floor; the windows shook. Paul Collins shouted to him, “Progermans again! What did I tell you?” On the platform the principal lifted his arm slowly, bringing it down as a signal to stop marking time just as the music stopped.
Then the excitement began and did not let up.... The principal faced the flag on the wall and extended his arm toward it. His head was thrown back proudly. Below the platform, the teachers raised their arms toward the flag. For a long time, until the room became still, they did not stir. In the silence Kelly could hear the steady drumming of the sawmill and sometimes the shrill haulback whistle from the logging engines in the woods. Around him the hands pointed toward the flag pinned lifelessly to the wall and the stars and stripes forever marching repeated in his memory, repeated until shivers swept up and down his spine, and the grave words, obediently murmured, swelled like the roll of drums in a march. I pledge allegiance to my flag, the teachers said, and the children murmured in response, I pledge allegiance to my flag.
And to the Republic for which it stands.
And to the Republic for which it stands.
The words grew louder and more assured and more moving. One nation.One nation! he cried, holding his arm higher, Indivisible! With Liberty— with Liberty!—and Justice—and Justice!
They sang. Now they knew it was serious. The teachers were pale.
Awed and alarmed, the children found the singing a relief. When they came to the high place their voices swelled free: Long may thy land be bright, with freedom’s holy light. At the next song the strange and half-painful excitement that held Kelly grew stronger, lifting him with a strong, exultant pride.
America! America! God rest His grace on thee! And crown thy good. With brotherhood. From sea to shining sea. From the shining seas and from the alabaster cities the brave words rose, and when the song ended a vision of the great rich fields and forests lived and glowed in his mind. Alabaster, alabaster, he thought, treasuring the strange rare word, a church word that you could not use, putting it with the other deep words, freedom and majesty and liberty, in the hoard of precious words that could only be sung.
They sat down, and the principal faced them gravely. “Boys and girls,” he said, “I do not know how to begin telling you of the terrible thing that I must tell you. A terrible thing has happened, something almost more terrible than the War—I know you will understand how terrible this crime is and when you leave here today and go to your homes—for we are not going to have school today—I know you will go quietly and not shout or play on the schoolground. For this is not a holiday for you. I want you to remember—I hope that you will never forget—that we are closing our school to-day in memory of four brave men who have died, who were killed, defending their country and all that it means. These four men are dead, and we can honor them in the only way that we can: by leaving the schoolground quietly.” He looked out over the assembly. His voice was grave and shaken.
“I do not know how to tell you,” he said again. “These four men did not die fighting an enemy from some foreign country. They were shot down by traitors in their own country.... In Centralia yesterday they were marching in a parade to celebrate the return to peace to the world. Remember that. They were not marching toward enemy trenches where they knew they faced death. No. They were not marching into battle. They were marching just as you children marched into this assembly, peacefully, to do honor to brave men, their comrades in arms, who had died in the War. At their head was a young captain whose name you all know, a very brave and very young man who had fought bravely in Siberia and faced death a thousand times without fear. His name was Warren Grimm.” He paused, and the children stirred.
“Suddenly, as the parade passed a radical hall, someone shot down. Warren Grimm and three others were killed.” He stopped again. The strained look came back on his features. He started to speak and stopped abruptly, moving across the platform as he sought for the right words. There was a faint rustling from the crowded hall.
Kelly drew a deep breath, awed and alarmed because the principal was no longer like someone he knew, no longer the old man who taught civics and snooped through the halls, but changed and gray and subdued—What did I tell you? Paul whispered, and Kelly thought it was wrong to whisper in a moment so solemn.
The principal said slowly, “I do not know what you children have heard of an organization that is called the Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W.—it may even be that some of your fathers are in sympathy with this organization—I do not know, and it is not my place to say. But I do know that the members of this organization, no matter what they claim to believe, and how many innocent workmen they deceive, have been guilty of a terrible crime. I know that they killed four young soldiers who had returned safely from the terrible carnage of War. And I am sure that if those of your parents who are in sympathy with this organization could only know the truth about it, could glimpse the suffering and distress and agony that this organization has caused, and see the anguish of the parents of these poor murdered boys—I know then they would have nothing more to do with it, I know they would revile and curse whoever came to them preaching its traitorous unamerican doctrines.” His voice became angrily accusing. Kelly watched him with an absorbed oppression and fear. He thought the principal looked at him when
he said your fathers. He wondered if the principal knew his father had said: