Books that shaped work in America

I was recently asked to contribute to the Department of Labor’s ongoing list of “books that shaped labor in America” as part of their centennial.  It was fun, though of course absurd to try to whittle the list down to five.  Without rehashing Kathy Newman’s incisive post on the list that inspired me to make my own suggestions, suffice it to say, there’s no Marx and nearly all of Ayn Rand.  Fair and balanced indeed, and evidence, perhaps, that labor is still remarkable opaque to us 100 years after the Department of Labor’s founding.

At any rate, here’s my list (also accessible via the DoL):

Jack London, Martin Eden (1909). Jack London was among the first working-class writers to “make it” professionally, and his autobiographical novel Martin Eden narrates the breathtaking rise of a sailor from obscurity to literary celebrity. Its title character wants to “rise” like the prototypical Horatio Alger hero, but the novel gives this formula much more complexity by having Eden turn himself into a writer. Through him, readers are introduced to the labor of writing itself, as Eden confronts the barriers faced by working-class writers trying to gain access to a publishing industry dominated by middle-class values and styles.

Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete (1939). This book is an example of the “proletarian” novel of the Depression era. A Book of the Month Club selection in 1939, it relates the story of a boy forced into early service as a bricklayer after his father dies in a workplace accident. The novel is noteworthy both for its vivid depictions of the intricate and fast-paced world of construction work and its sociological survey of the Italian immigrant culture that sustains the families whose livelihoods stem from such work.

Muriel Rukeyser, US 1 (1938). I chose this book because of its inclusion of “Book of the Dead,” one of the great long poems of the twentieth century. The poem gives voice to the victims of the Gauley Bridge, West Virginia industrial disaster of 1935, in which upwards of a thousand men working to build a tunnel died from silica exposure due to inadequate safety precautions. The poem works in a documentary mode, combining traditional lyric writing with oral history, congressional testimony and even a bit of a stock ticker, to translate a scandal that was then front-page news into poetic form.

Harvey Pekar, Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation (2009). Harvey Pekar is best known for his American Splendor comics, themselves a fascinating document of white-collar work in 1970s and 80s Cleveland, but his adaptation of Studs Terkel’s oral history Working bears special mention. Terkel’s genius lay in his gift for allowing what he called the “walking wounded among the great many of us” to share their everyday pain, and Pekar gives these ordinary pains new life in visual form, as the Whitmanic waves of people and jobs seem to spill off the pages.

Hari Kunzru, Transmission (2005). Finally, Hari Kunzru’s recent novel, Transmission, captures the strange space-time of work in a world made ever smaller and more complicated by globalization and digital networks. The novel’s protagonist migrates from India to Silicon Valley on a work visa, and the wildly complicated plot explores themes of exploitation and creative “hacking” of existing norms and rules in a world with unpredictable flows of bodies, information and capital across borders.


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