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Bohemian Rhapsodies

Mary Heaton Vorse’s labor reportage
August 9, 2007

In April 1952, Harper’s Magazine published “The Pirates’ Nest of New York,” a report on the aftermath of a wildcat strike on the city’s docks. The piece begins with a longshoreman and two activist priests conducting a friendly argument about exactly how a port reformer of an earlier era had been murdered. Was he shot, garroted, or immersed in fresh concrete? The article moves with an easy authority, sustaining its momentum by shifting between narrative and analysis every several paragraphs. By the end of its roughly ten thousand words, the reader knows why (and to what extent) longshoremen’s wages were lower in New York than on the West Coast; which Manhattan piers were under the sway of “the pistol local,” also known as “the superhomicidal local”; and how the shipping companies themselves were complicit in the mob corruption that had crippled the longshoremen’s unions.

Was this the work of an upstart writer inspired by the reportage of Edmund Wilson’s early Depression-era dispatches, The American Jitters? No, the energy that drove the creation of “Pirates’ Nest” was not the energy of a young reporter on the make. Its author was Mary Heaton Vorse, a seventy-seven-year-old who had been writing about labor for Harper’s (and many other outlets) since 1912.

Vorse was never a household name, but in her long career she witnessed an astonishing range of events. She interviewed Belgian refugees in the Netherlands during World War I, and then was detained at the German-Swiss border on suspicion of espionage; she was present at the creation of the Provincetown Players, who initially performed on a converted pier that she owned; she barnstormed for women’s suffrage in 1915; she organized textile workers in Pennsylvania in 1920; she visited Berlin during the grim summer of 1933, and wrote a dispatch for The New Yorker; she covered one of the Scottsboro Boys trials for The New Republic; and she attended the auto workers’ victorious sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. (Hours after General Motors capitulated, Vorse’s son, who was also a labor reporter, was shot and seriously wounded when vigilantes attacked a United Auto Workers celebration in Indiana.)

Not all of Vorse’s journalism has aged well. Her work from the 1910s and 1920s is often bracing, but it sometimes suffers from left-wing cant and overheated prose. Men and Steel, her book on the 1919 steel strikes, begins with this description of the industry: “The Principality of Steel is young. It has the despotism and the power of youth; its power rests only on wealth and dominion. Power without responsibility. Power that throttles among its subjects all efforts at self-government. Power brutal, young, riotous, lusty, driven by the force of steam. Power which treats men’s lives as commodities.” It was only in the early 1930s, when Vorse was approaching her sixtieth birthday, that her prose grew less strained and her reporting became consistently vivid and persuasive.

But even Vorse’s weaker writing holds a certain mesmerizing power today. She created a vast record of America’s labor battles, many of which would otherwise have been forgotten. Few present-day reporters cover social movements of any kind in such depth. She was occasionally sentimental, phony, and posturing, but those vices might have been inseparable from the motivation that pushed her through her fifty-year career.

Vorse was born in 1874 to a wealthy family, the Heatons, who divided their time between Manhattan, Paris, and Amherst, Massachusetts. In an essay in The New Yorker in 1930, she recalled playing in Bryant Park under the watchful eye of a governess, desperately envying the freedom of a friend named Ethel who was “alone and unattended” and who “skated freely with the ‘lowlifer’ boys” from the other side of the Sixth Avenue el.

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At nineteen, Mary Heaton persuaded her parents to send her to an art school in Paris and another in New York, but neither venture was a success. She married Albert Vorse, a young Harvard graduate and would-be novelist, in 1898, and the two of them set up house in proto-bohemian Greenwich Village.

Equally fond of alcohol and other women, Bert turned out to be a disappointment. But his failures helped give rise to Vorse’s career: while he struggled and slouched, Vorse supported the family, which soon included two children, by selling dozens of short stories and light essays to The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines. Vorse separated from Bert in 1910, and a few months later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vorse’s mother died the next day, after hearing the news of son-in-law’s death. She had long been horrified by her daughter’s unorthodoxy, and she had entirely disinherited her. Now Vorse and her children were truly on their own.

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.

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.

Vorse’s story was not, in the end, very much like Dos Passos’s nightmare. She saw a way to escape from the drawing-room life that her mother imagined for her, and she made that escape stick. But she did suffer a good deal of anguish along the way. She lost two husbands. She was addicted to alcohol and morphine for several years during the 1920s. She had an extremely difficult relationship with her daughter, who resented the long weeks she spent away from home. She wrote an essay for Cosmopolitan in 1924 titled “Why I Have Failed as a Mother,” and the title was not meant ironically. “I don’t even want the affection of my children when I’m through work,” she wrote. “All I want is to be left alone….They seem to me like a nestful of birds, their yellow beaks forever agape for me to fill.” Men like Eastman had an easier time negotiating the demands of domesticity. He took the repellent step of abandoning his wife and four-year-old child. As Christine Stansell points out in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, despite the Village’s self-conscious gender egalitarianism, the burden of domestic life and child-rearing still fell overwhelmingly on women.

Reading Eastman in college, and reading Vorse today, I find it easy to slip into a Walter Mitty reverie of 1915, imagining what it would have been like to argue about Kropotkin at 2 a.m. in some basement on Greenwich Avenue, or to scrounge for assignments to cover trench warfare in Ypres for Harper’s or The Nation. Most of all, I envy Eastman and Vorse for the vast and diverse range of friends they cultivated. But it’s not obvious how to translate those daydreams into advice for the practice of journalism in 2007. If someone wrote today, as Vorse wrote of her and O’Brien’s experience in Lawrence, that “we knew now where we belonged—on the side of the workers and not with the comfortable people among whom we were born,” I would think that person was a posturing fool. But maybe a small dose of posturing and folly is what we need, if that’s what it takes to motivate us to broaden our social circles and our moral horizons. Maybe a few more of us should abandon our profiles of the most recent YouTube star or today’s other vaudeville descendants and make our way to the next textile strike in North Carolina or Pakistan or China.

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