LIFE AND WORK
APRIL, 1932 NUMBER I
In this time of economic chaos and general disillusionment with the promises held out by the machine age, it is a startling experience to open "Leaves of Grass" and read the exultant chants which Walt Whitman hymned to the America of his day:
"Land of coal and iron! Land of gold! Land of cotton, sugar and rice!
Inextricable lands! The clutch'd together! The passionate ones!
A world primal again, vistas of glory incessant and branching,
New politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and arts,
See, ploughmen ploughing farms-see, miners digging mines-see, the numberless factories,
See, mechanics busy at their benches with toolssee from among them superior judges, philosophs, Presidents emerge, drest in working dresses. . .
Walt Whitman knew how to string verses together in conventional meter and rhyme, but the exuberance of his love for strong-limbed, hopeful America could not permit restrictions. His "barbaric yawp" must have freedom in which to shout the lusty message that here on this virgin continent the working man had found great joy in his labor. For among Walt's mechanics and artisans the intellectual leaders of the new race were to emerge, great homespun leaders, with their thought sprung from the soil and the work bench. Observe that he did not bar out the mine and the factory. Here, too, men were to find joy in the work of their hands.
But somehow it has not come out that way. America has progressed in industry beyond the dreams of the Good Gray Poet; in the doing of it America has lost that first flush of enthusiasm
UNDERGR 0 UND
in work which set the whole process in motion. It is easy to trace reasons why this happened. We see in retrospect the first period where each mechanic was his own master, independent, earning his living and not much more. Then came the time when a few workmen banded together and began to see the possibilities of large profit through specialization. The inventions which Walt sang so blithely turned the factory into something else. For instance, the old hand-blown glass factory metamorphosed into one of gigantic mass production, wherein the individuality of the worker was lost. His labor was no longer his own. He became a replaceable unit in a vast enterprise designed to make profits for share-holders having no active part in the work. The hireling no longer had joy in his labor.
There seemed, however, to be compensations for the loss of this primitive pleasure. Machine age production rewarded the working man with high wages, and put into his hands the luxuries of science, such as radios and automobiles. The workers became small stockholders in many industries, and this fact moved our prophets to herald a new age in which the distinctions between capital and labor would be wiped out.
Then came the recent upheaval. The highly specialized financial and production structure began to show dangerous cracks in its foundations. The present economic depression has shown a singularly strong questioning of the system we have so laboriously erected. When neither capital nor labor is happy it seems a good time for them to talk things over and see whether a better deal cannot be made for all.
It is from this national aspect that we approach the problem of the half million coal miners, at least half of whom face permanent unemployment because of the severe maladjustment of this basic industry to its market.