On the negative side of the ledger: We learn a great deal about wages and hours in Gastonia, but not much about the texture of the working day inside the mill. There are traces of condescension: “Yet the men have dignity and the women have sweetness. They have not lost their mountain habit of hospitality.” There are a few odd passages of Fabian kitsch: “North Carolina is so beautiful and so finished, there is such mastery in its great highways, that it seems as though it were the work of some superman—the result of a stupendous,
organized plan.” And Vorse does not offer much detail (though she surely knew it) about the then-hot competition between AFL unions and Communist Party-affiliated unions, which was an important part of the strike’s context. (Vorse herself kept the party at arm’s length, having been bruised by an unhappy relationship with a dogmatic party functionary in the early 1920s. In the 1930s, she loosely associated herself with the anti-Stalinist magazine Common Sense, but she rarely spoke bluntly about
Soviet crimes.)

As the years wore on, Vorse grew more skilled at structuring her material, her traces of condescension grew rarer, and she sometimes allowed herself to be more candid about internal union politics. In 1959, at the age of eighty-four, she made her last major investigative trip, reporting on anti-union violence during a textile strike in Henderson, North Carolina. She died at home in Province-town seven years later.

Years ago in college, when I was clumsily worrying about what to do with my life, I developed an intense love-hate relationship with the memoirs of Max Eastman, who was Vorse’s colleague on the editorial board of The Masses in the mid-1910s. Reading Vorse’s work has conjured up many of those same mixed feelings: both Eastman and Vorse write movingly and intelligently about bohemia and radical social movements—except when they slip into sentimentality and treacle, every five pages or so.

(Curiously, despite their extensive association, neither of them says much about the other in their memoirs. Eastman writes that Vorse was “pale and fragile, and although abounding in energy had a permanently weary look.”)

One of the most alluring—but also vaguely ridiculous—elements of Eastman’s and Vorse’s autobiographical works is their strenuous effort to reshape their personalities. Both of them self-consciously transformed themselves from shy, earnest young Protestants into people who could easily share a drink with Russian anarchists or Chicago stevedores. John Dos Passos, a longtime friend of Vorse’s who owned a Provincetown house not far from hers, drew on her quality of willed self-creation when he invented Mary French, an ill-fated labor organizer in The Big Money, the third volume of his U.S.A. trilogy.

The portrait is sympathetic but laced with a streak of cruelty: French, a young woman from a comfortable home in Colorado, drops out of Vassar College to become a social worker in Chicago. When that does not feel like a sharp enough break from her bourgeois roots, she moves into a rooming-house in Cleveland and works in a diner. When a friend worries that she has “lost her mind,” French exclaims: “I’m not a Vassar graduate…I’m just like any other working girl.” She finds her way to the labor movement, where she works endless hours, eventually acquiring “a haggard desperate look.” She is disappointed by a series of men, including an aggressive organizer for a Communist union and a smooth procedural liberal who works for a Democratic senator. As the novel ends, she is drinking heavily, unable to save her union friends from the police and unable to quite escape the “parasite life” of the rich New Yorkers her mother wants her to spend time with.

David Glenn is a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education.