Book Review

Blood on the Forge by William Attaway

phenomenal, wise, novel about the great migration and the manipulation of white working class resentment

This year has been a time, for many people, of reflection.

As I’ve spent far too much of my life fruitlessly reflecting on and painfully repeating the same tired personal mistakes, rather than reflecting on myself and on the shitshow of an island nation on which I was cursed to be born (date of writing is August 12th: the week in which the UK normalised the dehumanisation of desperate asylum seekers and YouGov published a poll – probably forgotten by the time this is posted, whenever that will be – that revealed a full 49% of British people [surveyed] admit, openly, to holding opinions that are fundamentally evil), I’ve instead chosen to spend this week trying to read excellent books, and with Blood on the Forge by William Attaway, I’ve found one.

This novel, first published in 1941 and reissued in the often (but not always) excellent NYRB Classics series in 2005, offers an engaging and intriguing exploration of a significant period in modern American history, that of the “Great Migration”.

The Great Migration refers to the period in which millions and millions of poor Black people moved from the exploitative agricultural industry of the deeply and proudly racist Southern States of the USA to the exploitative manufacturing, resource-extraction, mining and metallurgy industries of the deeply but slightly-shamefully racist Northern States of the USA.

This is not a period of history or a historical reality I’ve encountered discussion of before, but of course I was immediately able to recognise that this is what was happening to the non-Fitzgerald and Hemingway classes during the “roaring” nineteen twenties.

The reasons for this migration make stark sense: both on an individual basis for every single Black worker who moved northwards hoping for a higher standard of living, and also too to the industrialists and capitalists who sought to exploit the hope and desperation of these impoverished people for their monetary gain.

These Northern employers didn’t need to promise (or deliver) much to appear (or be!) better employers than the farmers in the South.

Culturally, too, was a big difference: the vast majority of Southern farm owners would have been descended from “slave owners” and, in 1919, a few old-but-active farmers would have literally participated in the active enslavement of people in their youth. Though the legal terms may have changed, employers treating their workers with dehumanising contempt had not.

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Attaway’s novel follows the story of three men, the Moss brothers, as they journey from Kentucky to Virginia and then onwards, depleted, to another city and (likely) more horrors.

When the story opens they are sharecroppers, which is essentially the same system as existed for centuries in feudal Europe. The brothers are indentured tenants, paying for the privilege of working another man’s land, with secret, inexplicable, financial justifications used to increase their debt year on year.

The brothers lease the land, they lease the equipment, they lease the work horses, they lease their houses, they lease the seeds that are grown, they lease the well, so that even a well-tended farm worked intensively and efficiently produces crops of a value less than the figure demanded by the landowner.

It was a deliberate, unpretentious, corrupt and racist system as it existed in the early twentieth century in the Southern United States, though the existence of this type of arrangement has occurred globally in feudal systems without the element of racialised differentiation. For example, the plight of North American coal miners as memorably evoked in the 1947 Tennessee Earl Williams song, ’16 Tons’, which I first encountered as the end credits theme of an episode of Mad Men:

It was not hard, of course it wasn’t, to persuade strong, hard-working people with ambition and drive to move Northwards, away from the generational trauma of slavery and Reconstruction and towards the potential of prosperity.

Blood At The Forge is about the shattering of this dream: it is about the loss of self that comes from being a faceless one of thousands in a factory, and about how Black labour was deliberately and repeatedly brought into industrialised areas in order to mitigate against unionisation and strikes.

Factory owners exploited and stoked racial tension and fought against industrial action by subterfuge and distraction, much as happens now tbh.

The industrialist, the millionaire, the contemporary right wing newspaper: “Don’t blame me for having to run my factory with cheaper labour when you unionise; blame the poorer, Black man for coming here and accepting that job.”

It’s the same sinister capitalistic scapegoating that will occur forever onwards unless education systems are reformed to the point where significant majorities of capitalistic countries are effectively taught critical engagement, modern history and basic fucking empathy.

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The Moss boys of Attaway’s novel are not “good” men: they are violent and cruel and arrogant and misogynistic, but they are not the villains, far from it.

We all know – those of us who have managed to attain the faculties needed to critically engage with our corrupt systems without sacrificing the soul required to feel compassion – that exploitation and abuse is something that amplifies itself.

Of course, the oppressed will oppress where and when they can: it is human nature to lash out when we are hit.

Like many millennials, I am progressive, educated and though not impoverished I don’t own property or a car or whatever, and I am often encouraged to direct my ire about reactionary societal trends towards the highly prejudiced, uneducated, right wing voting, “white working class”. These people, though, are oppressed people, too, though of course not as oppressed as the people who their voices are used to attack.

The ire from those people shouldn’t be “downwards”, just as I try to make sure mine isn’t, our collective disenfranchised ire should be towards the least oppressed people – the ones doing and causing the most oppression.

To blame “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” etc for the effects of government austerity is always disingenuous if one is not a fool.

The other thing it always is, is evil, sinister and cruel.

This holds true if the racist is thick as shit and has (genuinely) been manipulated into oppressing those beneath them, or if the racist is a billionaire industrialist who financially benefits from the layers and layers and layers of oppression that our awful, shit, societies are founded upon.

In short, Blood on the Forge is a thought-provoking novel that is written intelligently and compassionately, but it does not sugar-coat the misdemeanours and cruelties of its protagonists.

Though not all of the brothers personally commit heinous acts, those that don’t, do directly allow and enable heinous acts to be committed by others, which means they are culpable.

Attaway does not patronise his readers by describing “good” or “exceptional” men “ruined” by injustice, he shows us real, realistic, believable men living with and responding to injustice.

Racism is unjust.

The injustices of racism are not the “story” here, they are the context.

The Moss brothers are not archetypes: they are not “good” or “bad” men, they are merely men, responding to the circumstances they find themselves within in the same manner as countless other men would have done.

Their race, their gender, the time and place in which they were born: these are the circumstances they must respond to. That response, given the context, could never be picturesque.

Blood on the Forge is a very good, a very serious, novel.

And, because it’s about a steelworks, I’ll take this opportunity to share my under-appreciated 2011 video, ‘Tom Jones and Steel’:

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