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.
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
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.”)