- From Black Marxism to Industrial Ecosystem:Racial and Ecological Crisis in William Attaway's Blood on the Forge
Known for its tragic portrayal of the early-twentieth-century Great Migration, William Attaway's 1941 novel Blood on the Forge follows in the naturalist and black Marxist tradition of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). As critic Philip H. Vaughan rightly assesses, one of the novel's central conflicts is the "clash between pastoral and industrial-urban living" (424) as it "becomes an angry repudiation of industrial life as destructive to human values" (422). Employing both naturalism and pastoralism to dramatize this clash, Attaway curiously breaks out of these two representational modes through his use of a relatively minor secondary character named Smothers, a prophetic spokesman for the earth's pain: "[o]ne of the men whispered that Smothers was off his nut. Yet they listened and heard a different sort of tale: 'It's wrong to tear up the ground and melt it up in the furnace. Ground don't like it. It's the hell-and-devil kind of work'" (52–53). His legs dismembered in a brutal steel mill accident, Smothers's shrill prophecies are the product of wisdom gained through suffering, of a heightened sense of what the ground feels as it is mined, smelted, [End Page 566] and made into steel. Because he brings an ecological perspective to the ethical and ontological relations among worker, machine, and earth, his character appears on the literary scene as an enigma not only for the Great Migration narrative, but also, perhaps, all of early-twentieth century African American literature. This article explores this strange anomaly of Smothers and the ecological themes of Blood on the Forge.
Literary critics have acknowledged the importance of Smothers for articulating the novel's twin themes of machinic violence performed on worker and land. Edward Margolies goes the furthest in this direction when he conflates Smothers's worldview with Attaway's, arguing that the novel condemns "a kind of greed that manifests itself as a violence to the land, a transgression of Nature" (xiv). Yet no critic has fully explored its ecological themes, nor asked why a novel published in 1941 and set in 1919 should so strongly anticipate the various environmentalist movements that hit mainstream American cultural and political discourse in the 1960s. Perhaps this marginalization is due partly to the novel's critical reception and classification as African American fiction, a category typically perceived as tackling social injustices rather than environmental causes.1 Alan Wald reads the novel within the political context of the late 1930s, calling Attaway a black Marxist "whose exertions were aimed in part at educating the white labor movement about the corrosive costs of continued racial chauvinism" (282). Wald cites Attaway's involvement with the Communist Party as evidence for his strong political commitments, though Blood on the Forge reveals more an analyst of race and capitalism than a propagandist supplying cultural weapons for an American October Revolution.
We never see in Blood on the Forge the triumph of racial accommodation and assimilation, or the awakening of class consciousness. Set in 1919, when World War I had cut off migratory flows from Europe and thus depleted the pool of cheap immigrant labor in northern industrial cities, the novel follows the three Moss brothers—Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody—as they migrate from the Jim Crow South to the industrial wasteland of western Pennsylvania. As historian Carole Marks pinpoints in her analysis of the Great Migration, northern steel mill employers saw that if they could maintain the influx of racially diverse labor, they could rely on perpetual conflict to undermine organized labor (15). The narrative ends tragically with one brother dead, another blinded by a mill explosion, and the third with an injured hand that prevents him from "slick[ing] away" his blues on the guitar (1). The two surviving brothers catch a train ride farther north to Pittsburgh proper, each feeling uncertain about his future. Attaway's protest is bleak, even nihilistic, but it does testify [End Page 567] to the singular experience of workers who might otherwise be lost in a Chicago School sociologist...