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Out of This Furnace is a historical fiction that was written by Thomas Bell in 1941 and describes the life of immigrant workers in America. Bell grew up in Braddock in Pennsylvania, a mill town that was typical of many of the industrialized areas in America at that time. His novel reflects the hardships his family faced as they struggled to survive in the “new country” and he utilizes the medium of a fictional story to challenge the capitalist ideals of the government of that period through the trials and tribulations of his immigrant steelworkers.
The book focuses on the lives of four individuals and describes how the four individual characters; Kracha, Mike, Mary and Dobie’s lives change as a direct consequence of changes which occurred in general for America immigrants between the mid 1800s and 1920s. Through encompassing the life experiences of four generations, Bell is able to provide the reader with insights into the way in which these individual’s lifestyles and beliefs became more liberal.
Alongside this the story of the development of the labor unions is staged and the reader gains impressions into how these unions were viewed and approached by the people they were designed to help. Many workers had no political freedom or even a voice in the company that employed them. However, through all of these hardships, the immigrants continued their struggle for a better life. For many people America, during the economic and evolution of the mid 1800s, represented a country of hope and dreams, a place that could provide them with great opportunities and better economic prospects.
As a result of this many European immigrants, many without skills, left their countries of origin in order to work in the many factors and steel mills. Whilst jobs were in abundance the work was hard, laborious and very poorly paid. The Slovaks of Thomas Bell’s Out of this Furnace are representative of these immigrants. The first of the three generations described within the story is Djuro Kracha, a Slovak peasant (p. 3) who left behind his nation of birth in the hope of ending the poverty and oppression he suffered there. Kracha initially works on the railroad before landing a job in a Dubrik mill through a friend.
The descriptions of the work he endured provides the reader with the impression that employment at the mill was dangerous, arduous and relentless. The hours of work were long and tiredness of the employees often led to accidents thus evidenced by the death of Dubik’s best friend George who is killed as a blast furnace explodes. Whilst such accidents were typical on a daily basis in the mills of America but no actions were taken to improve safety or the working conditions of the employees in the mill. In Bell’s book, Kracha eventually terminates his employment at the mill in order to become a butcher.
This however, does not make his situation any easier and he inevitably turns to alcohol as many immigrants of the time did. The scenes described by Bell in the novel are not limited to the workers themselves but also point out the environmental damage the industrialization created: “The mills had filled in the shore line for miles up and down the river, destroying trees, obliterating little streams and the pebbly beaches where as recently as the turn of the century campers had set up tents in summer, burying the clean earth under tons of cinder and molten slag.
The banks no longer sloped naturally to the water\\\’s edge but dropped vertically, twenty-foot walls of cold slag pierced at intervals with steaming outlets and marked by dribbling stains. (Bell 153) The second major character within the novel is Mike Dobrejcak, another Slovak immigrant who came to America whilst still in his teens and married Kracha’s daughter, Mary. Although still aspiring and yearning for the American Dream, Mike is a second-generation immigrant who is more aware of the politics of the US and the potential of his vote during election periods.
One of the significant themes of Bell’s book is that of the lack of republican form of government for all the people. The countries decisions were made to benefit the financial and business interests of the few. Many of the mill workers did not vote and, for those that did, their input made very little difference. This is reflected in Bell’s description of the division of power: “There are men in that mill who were born here, whose fathers and grandfathers were born here. They know more English than you’ll ever learn.
And what good is their vote doing them? They have to work in the mill and eat dirt like any greenhorn. Let me tell you, I’ve been in America enough to know that it’s run just like any other country. In Europe your emperors and grand dukes own everything and over here it’s your millionaires and your trusts. They run the country to suit themselves, and don’t think they’re going to let you interfere every few years with your miserable vote. Get that into your head. Your vote means nothing. The company man always wins.
If he isn’t a company man to start with, he becomes one afterward; the millionaires see to that. (Bell 66-67) Workers were not encouraged to vote, and if they decided to vote, they were strongly encouraged to vote for the politicians the company endorsed, “Mike had registered as a Republican, anything else would have been suicidal, but had determined to vote for Eugene Debs, the Socialist. He knew the risk. Should he be found out, and that the company had ways of learning how a man had voted nobody in Braddock doubted. e would be fired”. (Bell 189-190).
Through Bell’s description of Mike’s opinions, it becomes clear that whilst the workers wanted progress, their view of how this would be achieved contradicted that of the capitalists. The capitalists aimed for generation of wealth and industrialization whilst the workers simply wanted a better way of life and greater equality. Such conflicting aspirations cause a number of disputes between the two representative groups.
Mike unfortunately is killed during an accident at work and the story progresses onto describing, through Mary, the reality of families attempting to survive and support themselves after the death of their partners in the mill. The final part of the novel concerns a character called Dobie, the son of Mike and Mary. Dobie’s life and experiences differ greatly from Mikes as he matures during a period of policy reforms and changes. The Unions have become more prominent and workers rights and working conditions have improved.
Dobie himself has become a symbol for these changes as he becomes a Union leader and campaigns tirelessly to gain the rights his father and grandfather were denied. Dobie’s stories depict how the mill workers in the US eventually overcame the capitalists and achieve political freedom: “It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law — the same law — for rich and poor, for the people you liked and the people you didn’t like.
About the right of every man to live his life as he thought best, his right to defend it if anyone tried to change it and his right to change it himself if he decided he liked some other way of living better. About the uses to which wealth and power could honorably be put, and about honor itself, honor, integrity, self-respect, the whatever-you-wanted-to-call-it that determined for a man which things he couldn’t say or do under any circumstances, not for all the money there was, not even to help his side win. (Bell 411).
Dobie’s story in Out of This Furnace took place during a crucial time in America’s history that, through the creation of a number of legal acts, allowed unions to establish themselves. The first of these, The National Industrial Recovery Act paved the way for psychological acceptance of the concept of union negotiations and bargaining. Dobie confirms this by mentioning that the act removed the fear of unionization that had previously been established by the company and gave the men the confidence to fight for their rights.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) is also of significance in the novel. Through establishing the AFL in Braddock, Dobie was able to cement the concept of a group formed to protect their rights and such groups inevitably allowed for mass strikes and movements. This was further enhanced by the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) which was formed to represent specific industries such as the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Unlike the AFL, the CIO, explicitly represented unskilled workers and were able to run campaigns that yielded significant results.
One example of this during this period in history was the rubber workers in Akron, Ohio who staged a strike on the job in 1936. 70 workers were initially sacked as a result of their actions but this led to a further strike of 1400 workers. Unable to sustain operations the managing company, Goodyear, was forced to negotiate with the workers and changes to hours of work and payment terms were ultimately agreed. One of the most significant acts of this period was the Wagner Act that created the National Relations Board.
This board provided the workers with the rights to select their own union representatives and therefore create a fair, unbiased representation for their rights. These legal Acts and the events they sparked allowed much improvement for workers and, although the road to their acceptance and implementation was long and arduous, by the end of the 1930s 1/3 workers belonged to a union and were able to freely and fairly fight for fair pay and working conditions.
Out of this Furnace is not simply a story of three generations of mill workers; it is also a reflection of Americanization and the development of political rights for the immigrant workers in America. Within the novel, each generations development and success was related to the previous generation’s failures and learning. As time progresses the mill workers gain a better understanding of American culture and its politics and the domino effect of family generations.