Two years later, in 1912, came the event that transformed Vorse’s life. Thousands of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike over low wages and dangerous working conditions, and Vorse felt compelled to witness it. In A Footnote to Folly, her 1935 memoir, she writes that she was moved specifically by a police riot that had prevented strikers’ children from boarding a train to Philadelphia, where sympathetic families had promised to take them in. After reading that news, she set aside her current assignment (a report on the reunion of the vaudeville team of Weber and Fields) and vowed that she would get a Lawrence assignment before nightfall.
Harper’s Weekly took the bait, and Vorse boarded a midnight train with her lover—soon to be husband—Joe O’Brien, a freelance reporter with a wide circle of radical friends. The ensuing article, Vorse’s first piece of labor reporting, deftly explains the organizational context of the strike and the American Federation of Labor’s refusal to engage with the workers. Its tone is Olympian and at arm’s length and, to modern eyes, Vorse probably spends too much time exoticizing Lawrence’s immigrant neighborhoods (we read of “goats’ cheese and salami hung up in the windows” and “beautiful long-eyed Syrian women, their hair down their backs”) and not enough time conveying the voices of individual workers. But the article includes enough wage and rent figures to make clear why the workers were desperate enough to strike. Lawrence’s leading employer, the American Woolen Company, was so impressed that it withdrew its advertising from Harper’s.
Vorse had been drifting toward left-wing politics for some time. In 1911, she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a few blocks from her Sheridan Square home. The same year, she volunteered in a campaign to reduce infant mortality in New York by providing low-cost sterilized milk to poor mothers. Her research demonstrated that “when the wage scale dropped below a certain point, children died, mothers were starved,” she wrote in A Footnote to Folly. “A society that allowed children to die because their parents didn’t make enough money seemed senseless and vicious.”
But Lawrence was a catalyst much more powerful than those earlier events. Vorse’s biographer, the Rutgers University historian Dee Garrison, notes that “a peculiar fusion…occurred among the outside observers. Lincoln Steffens, Fremont Older, William Allen White, and Vida Scudder were only a few of the reporters and writers who formed lifelong friendships as a result of the strike. Like Vorse and O’Brien they were moved by the almost religious spirit of the Lawrence workers.” Vorse herself later wrote that she and O’Brien realized in Lawrence that “we could make one contribution—that of writing the workers’ story—as long as we lived.”
As it turned out, Vorse had another fifty-four years to live, but O’Brien had only three. He died of stomach cancer in 1915, shortly after Vorse returned from a grueling tour through wartime Europe. Now widowed for a second time, Vorse might have been tempted to retreat into domesticity, to return to writing fiction and to concentrate on her three children. (She and O’Brien had a son in 1914.) But she did not. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that her life for the next forty years was an endless repetition of her trip to Lawrence: she would visit a strike-torn town for a few weeks, write an article or two, and move on to the next site. When money ran short, she would churn out a few short stories. As Murray Kempton wrote in an appreciation of Vorse in his Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955), “she would stop and hole up in some hotel to dictate the easy flow of soft, popular language that paid her enough to return to the hard road of her choice.”
A Harper’s article from 1929 about a textile strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, embodies the strengths and weaknesses of Vorse’s mid-period work. Without resorting to cliché, she makes the town’s poverty visible and morally urgent. She gives horrifying accounts of mob violence against the workers, which culminated in the fatal shooting of one of the strike leaders, a mother of five. Like almost all of Vorse’s labor articles, the Gastonia piece records petty acts of violence that might otherwise have been lost in the memory hole. (“Two policemen, after a celebration in Mecklenburg County, chased a man into the Catawba River and playfully shot at him.”) She offers a cogent explanation of how Gastonia was structured as a company town, and she sketches three-dimensional portraits of a few of the organizers.