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Thomas Bell, author of Out of This Furnace, grew up in the steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. His novel reflects the hardships faced by his family during the time when the mills ruled the area. The book also focuses upon the life of immigrant workers struggling to survive in the "new country." All events in Bell's novel are fictional, however, they create a very realistic plot and are based somewhat upon a true story. In this novel, Bell refutes capitalistic ideals and the lack of a republican form of government by showing the struggles and success of immigrant steelworkers.
In the late nineteenth century, many European immigrants traveled to the United States in search of a better life and good fortune. The unskilled industries of the Eastern United States eagerly employed these men who were willing to work long hours for low wages just to earn their food and board. Among the most heavily recruiting industries were the railroads and the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania. Particularly in the steel mills, the working conditions for these immigrants were very dangerous. Many men lost their lives to these giant steel-making machines. The immigrants suffered the most and also worked the most hours for the least amount of money. Living conditions were also poor, and often these immigrants would barely have enough money and time to do anything but work, eat, and sleep. There was also a continuous struggle between the workers and the owners of the mills, the capitalists. The capitalists were a very small, elite group of rich men who held most of the wealth in their industries. Strikes broke out often, some ending in violence and death. 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.
This is the struggle represented in the book: Out of this Furnace, by Thomas Bell.
The viewpoints of Thomas Bell in his novel seem to sharply contradict the viewpoints depicted by Congressman Abram S. Hewitt and Reverend Richard Storrs (Krause). These men were the main speakers at a key historical event during the late nineteenth century: the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. "The ceremonies were called 'The People's Day' (Krause). It was a day that "proclaimed victory over the dark forces of history", and a "day to celebrate progress" (Krause). However, the opening of the bridge would be a celebration only for those who benefited from it.
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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 opening of the bridge could not truly be a People's Day, as the speakers called it, if only a small, select group of people benefited from it. Perhaps Americans had won the "struggle of man to subdue the forces of nature to his control and use," but at what cost and to whom (Krause)? The wealthy of New York City may have paid for much of it with their money, but the true price paid was through the backbreaking labor and the suffering of the working class to produce the bridge.
The Reverend Richard Storrs spoke of the bridge as a "durable moment of Democracy itself" (Krause). This brings up questions as to what democracy really means. It is usually defined as a government for the people through elected representatives. So in a sense, one might assume that the bridge was built for the people because the people wanted it. However, the decision to spend the money and forge the steel and build the bridge, regardless of the human costs of that progress, most likely relied on the decisions of the wealthy upper class, politicians, and the capitalists of the industries that would benefit from it.
One of the most important points in Bell's novel is his refutation of the lack of a republican form of government for all people. Primarily the small group of upper class capitalists and the politicians that they kept in office to protect their financial and industrial interests made the country's decisions at this point in American history. Undoubtedly, Andrew Carnegie, for example, saw much greater advantages in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge than did one of the employees in his mills.
Mill workers and other laborers often did not vote, and if they did, it didn't have much effect on the outcome. In the following passage from Out of This Furnace, one character speaks to another about the division of power among classes and the political confinement of the immigrants:
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)
Many of the workers who produced the steel for the Brooklyn Bridge were the same workers that had little or no political freedom or voting rights. Workers were not encouraged to vote, and if they decided to vote, the company forced them to vote for the politicians that would favor the company. In Out of This Furnace, Bell shows how mill officials pressured a steelworker:
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 -- he would be fired. (Bell 189-190)
This type of political injustice and manipulation of a man's rights were one of the biggest problems in the steel mills and other large industries during the late nineteenth century.
The speakers also mentioned that the Brooklyn Bridge opening was "a day to celebrate Progress" (Krause). It is important to remember that capitalists and workers strove toward different ideas of progress in Out of This Furnace. While progress for the capitalists meant the further supremacy of man over nature or the unchecked accumulation of wealth, progress for the workers simply meant an improvement in their way of life and an opportunity for equality. These different viewpoints were perhaps the main cause of the disputes between the two classes. It should also be noted that the workers were not entirely anti-progress or anti-capitalist, but they did have certain problems with the way the capitalists ran their businesses and tried to control the local government.
Abram Hewitt remarked that the Brooklyn Bridge was "more than an embodiment of the scientific knowledge of physical laws or a symbol of social tendencies pointing inexorably toward a perfectly harmonious social order" (Krause). He also said that it was "equally a monument to the moral qualities of the human soul" (Krause). These statements may have been almost completely contradictory to the actual outcome. Because capitalists chose to drive their workers into the ground and force upon them very unfavorable working conditions, the workers began to unite against them. The organization of labor became a tool that the workers used to combat the tyranny of the capitalists. The early goals of organized labor were better working conditions and pay, and political insurgency. Amalgamation was perhaps the only way that the workers could begin to improve their lives.
Out of This Furnace shows how the mill workers organized themselves and eventually overcame the capitalists to provide better lives for themselves and hope for generations to come. It also shows the improvement in living conditions, equality, and political freedom experienced by the last generation of Bell's characters, which was a great victory for the working class. One character stated his view of the changes in this way:
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)
This passage represents not only events in history, but the way that Bell chose to portray the workers' idea of progress and show what they regarded as important.
Hewitt, Storrs and other wealthy capitalists largely over-glorified the Brooklyn Bridge as an example of progress American history. The ceremonies they presided over represent only the views and the interests of wealthy capitalists and mention nothing of the working class or hardships endured to achieve the capitalists' idea of "progress." Thomas Bell saw these neglected workers as the backbone of American society and he emphasizes how these people strove for true progress in their lives. They were the unsung heroes of an industrializing nation. Without the efforts of this working class, the Brooklyn Bridge may still be an idea on the drawing board.