William Attaway, born in 1911, was of Richard Wright’s generation, and, like Wright, he came to Chicago from Mississippi and found his voice in the Marxist literary climate of the 1930s. Attaway was middle-class, some distance from the poverty of Wright’s youth, yet even though his father was a doctor and his mother a schoolteacher he would have been as vulnerable as Wright’s people to the violence of the racism in Mississippi. Attaway’s family moved to Chicago when he was five years old, early on in what became known as the Great Migration, the mass movement of black laborers from the exhausted South to the industrial cities of the North, where World War I had interrupted the supply of European immigrant workers. Most black people were getting away from the predictability of lynch mobs as much as they were escaping the hopelessness of debt peonage, and prosperous blacks were also the targets of resentful whites in the South.
As a youth Attaway seems to have repudiated the aspirations of the black professional class, intending to enter vocational training to become an auto mechanic. However, one day in his high school English class he heard a poem by Langston Hughes, and the discovery that Hughes was black changed his life, he later said. He went on to the University of Illinois, but his father’s death as the Depression began forced him to drop out. For two years he was a hobo and itinerant worker, experiences he would draw on in his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939). In 1935, Attaway joined the Federal Writers’ Proj- ect in Illinois, where he met Wright. He returned to the university to complete his degree, and published his first short story in 1936.
The odd jobs on which Attaway survived included acting and he was on the road with the touring company of Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It with You when he received word that his first novel had been accepted for publication. Let Me Breathe Thunder is a tender story about the hard adventures of two young white hoboes in the American Northwest of the Depression. Not since Paul Laurence Dunbar’s commercial romances of the late nineteenth century had a black writer published a novel in which the main characters were white. Yet Let Me Breathe Thunder is not “raceless” fiction; blacks appear as secondary characters. Attaway’s style in Let Me Breathe Thunder and Blood on the Forge (1941) was much influenced by the naturalism that had brought ethnic groups and the working class into American literature.
Both books were well received, but in spite of the critical attention, they did not sell, and Attaway never published another novel. He served in North Africa during World War II as captain of a black regiment, wrote for radio in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the 1960s was one of the few blacks writing for television. He also had a career as a songwriter, producing in 1957 the Calypso Song Book and in 1967 Hear America Singing, a history of pop music for a young audience. He wrote over five hundred songs, the best-known of which is the Harry Belafonte hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Attaway and his wife, a white woman, had waited twenty years to marry. In the 1960s, because of their concern about the racial situation in the US, they moved their family to Barbados. Eventually they returned to the US, where Attaway died in 1986.
Blood on the Forge1 is a relentlessly grim story about three brothers, the Moss boys, who flee their sharecroppers’ lives in Kentucky for the hard scrabble of labor in the Pennsylvania steel mills. The year in which Attaway set his novel, 1919, is significant in that not only was it the height of the Great Migration, it was the year of the Red Scare, when J. Edgar Hoover, at the newly created FBI, deported thousands of foreign-born radicals, and also the year of the Red Summer, when unrest between black and white workers led to deadly race riots across the country, one of the most severe in Chicago. Carl Sandburg, then a young reporter in Chicago, where twenty blacks and fourteen whites were killed, blamed poverty and the police for the violence.2
Blood on the Forge is about a time and place every bit as violent as the Mississippi of Wright’s first stories and the Chicago of his novels. However, it is about unionism as much as it is about race prejudice. Attaway’s novel, like other proletarian literature of the 1930s, wants to say that what was then called unregulated wage capitalism was just as brutal a life for unskilled workers as sharecropping. He seeks to illustrate the consequences of overwhelming social forces, to show the unorganized worker lost in the industrial machine. Moreover, his novel is saturated with regret for the historical truth that the mill owners and the police are able to exploit the antagonism between white immigrants and blacks, preventing them from recognizing that as workers they share common interests. Historically, blacks had been barred from unions, and were often used as strikebreakers and scab labor.
It has become almost a convention to say that the characters in novels of social realism have no complexity. However, as portraits of the psychological upheavals of migration, Attaway’s descriptions of the Moss brothers, each with his defining character- istics, are far from simplistic. Chinatown, the youngest of the brothers, easygoing and pleasure-seeking; Big Mat, the eldest, the younger boys’ half-brother, a strong but morbidly sensitive giant; and Melody, who looks out for them both and has almost as intense a relationship with his guitar as he does with his brothers—they are “green” and naive, young black men who will try to make sense of their new reality, equipped only with the integrity of their feelings. The novel’s dialogue is arresting, the prose vivid with color and sensation. The Moss boys’ undoing moves in brooding, tight language. In its concentration of images and intensity of connections, Attaway’s naturalism sometimes seems also to contain a kind of symbolism.
In the clay hills of their Kentucky home, Melody has never had a craving he couldn’t “slick away” with his music: the “Hungry Blues,” for instance, which he sings as Big Mat’s wife, Hattie, threatens to get her husband to yank out lazy Chinatown’s flashing gold tooth, the only thing he has ever worked for. Their mother has been dead four weeks. She dropped dead between the handles of a plow, and was dragged through the damp, rocky clay by a mule trained never to balk in the middle of a row. Hattie had to work on the body for some time with yellow hog-fat soap.
Big Mat killed the mule with a piece of flint rock, attacking it so wildly that the hide was not fit to sell afterward. “Deep inside him was his familiar hatred of the white boss, but the thought of the mule was hot, like elderberry wine.” Not only would the landowner not let them have food on credit, he claimed their share of the crop for the next two years in payment for the mule. “He didn’t say where the crop was coming from when there was no animal to plow with.” The landowner doesn’t want to hear what Big Mat thinks of the soil’s poor condition, telling him that he has “niggers” instead of whites working his land because “niggers” “make it the best way they kin and they don’t kick none.” But he has to let the Moss boys have another mule, because there are “jacklegs” around recruiting blacks to work up North.
Because Big Mat is much darker than his half-brothers, white sharecroppers’ children chanted verses at him to the effect that his father must have been a lump of charcoal. The family’s optimism over getting another mule will be short-lived. Big Mat talks back to the landowner’s “riding boss”—“Us used to play together when your folks was sharecroppin’ next to mine”—who then strikes him with his whip and insults the memory of Big Mat’s mother. Big Mat lashes out, killing him instantly. He and his brothers keep a midnight rendezvous at Masonville Junction with the jackleg who already has been to see them about making the boxcar ride north. Big Mat says a solemn farewell to the hills, reflecting that the land had become tired, and if the land had given up, then maybe they should, too.
The Moss brothers, crammed in with other black workers, are herded by sealed train to Vaughan, a mill town in Pennsylvania of rain, slag, soot, garbage, dirt roads, and prostitutes stinking under their perfume. The banks of the Monongahela are lined with red ore, yellow limestone, and black coke, a stark contrast to the landscape they grew up in, as Big Mat, especially, never fails to note. There are lessons from the South to “unlearn.” At first, the nearness of white women makes the brothers panic. “Back in the hills young Charley had been lynched because a girl screamed” becomes something of a refrain as they come across immigrants as unfamiliar to them as white people as they, as black men, are to them. “In the eyes of all the Slavs was a hatred and contempt different from anything they had ever experienced in Kentucky.” In the steel mill where the brothers work, another black man, an old hand, explains to them that everyone hates new blacks on the job because they’re brought in whenever there is talk of a strike.
Nevertheless, the brothers enjoy a certain freedom and equality in the bunkhouse, among the drunken crap shooters, the mixed workforce of Slavs, Irishmen, Italians, and blacks. Initiation takes the form of warnings, stories about hideous injuries among new workers. “Gobbler,” the language of the Ukrainian workers, may be impenetrable to Melody, but he understands their music, because field hands back home “sang that same tongue.” “A shift was anywhere from ten to fourteen hours in the heat. Everybody averaged around twelve hours a day.” Attaway pays attention to the cramped working conditions and to the solidarity the mixed-race crews find as they share the dangers of the job, the fear of fast-flowing molten metal. A worker who survives an accident becomes important; injuries are like badges of honor. Big Mat proves to be a “natural hot-job man.” Praised for his reliability around the hearth, he is called “Black Irish.” Mill life gives him new confidence. He believes that he can outwork any man and in so doing prove himself worthy in God’s eyes.
Melody and Chinatown have no such ambitions. The mill will never be home to them:
Naked to the waist, they worked hard, cleaning a big ladle for relining. The air was stifling. When Melody raised his lips upward to search the thin air he could see Big Mat high above. Pushing up his glasses, he wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He could see the liquid steel hitting the sides of the test spoon, scattering in clouds of white stars over Mat’s gloved hands. Even to his hazed eyes, Mat’s muscles sang. His own muscles did not sing. They grew weak and cried for long, slow movement. He could not stop them from twitching. It was not the heat and work alone—the rhythms of the machinery played through his body—the stripper, knocking the hardened steel loose from the molds. He couldn’t hear it. It would have been a relief to hear it. He felt it inside himself—the heavy rhythm of the piston that used only a stroke to a mold. That rhythm in his body was like pounding out those ingots with a blow of his fist. And he was tired. Twenty-four hours had to pass before he could stagger away to the bunkhouse. Only a thought kept him on the job: next week end he would pleasure himself in Mex Town while some other bastard was baking on the long shift.
In the shanties Mexican women sell themselves for a dollar. Over green corn whisky, Melody meets fourteen-year-old Anna and falls in love.
Big Mat hasn’t joined his brothers on their visits to Mex Town because he sends money to his wife and is also saving to bring her from Kentucky. But when he gets the sad news that she has miscarried, lost yet another baby, he loses heart. Previously, all of their children were born dead. Big Mat believes that he is cursed by God. He takes to drink and follows Melody and Chinatown to dog fights. Much to Melody’s torment, Anna, the young prostitute, conceives a passion for Big Mat, a man she hopes is strong enough to protect her. They move into a shack and Blood on the Forge becomes the story of a miserable triangle. Big Mat doesn’t know that Melody is in love with Anna. It pains Melody to be his brother’s confidant, and he asks to be transferred to another area of work so that he won’t have to see his brother head home to Anna at quitting time. She, quickly disenchanted with Big Mat, deceives both brothers and is ill-used and sexually degraded by them in return.
On their own, without one another, the brothers are lost. Melody’s music hardens; Chinatown is bewildered that the bond between his brothers has been mysteriously broken. Big Mat has always had Melody to help him to make sense of his feelings. Deprived of his brother’s organizing presence, he ends up under arrest in a nearby town, having beaten both Anna and a man he wrongly accuses of being her lover. It will take a devastating accident, an explosion in a blast furnace that kills fourteen men and blinds Chinatown, to bring the brothers together again. “Steel just had to get somebody that day.” Afterward, they are together, but Chinatown is a shade of his former self, his injuries are no honor, and the accident has destroyed Big Mat’s confidence. “His brokenness was his adjustment.” Big Mat takes to walking in the ruined hills, restless, fatigued. Melody fails in his attempt to recreate the harmony of their shared past; Anna takes care of Chinatown, but rejects both Melody and Big Mat. Meanwhile, the town has changed and they have scarcely noticed how hostile once friendly foreign workers have become. Even in the intense summer heat, no Slav families sit on the porches.
Whites attack black workers, calling up in the Moss boys a deep fear of white mobs that has its roots in their Southern history. But blacks get promoted when there is union trouble:
For a man who had so lately worked from dawn to dark in the fields twelve hours and the long shift were not killing. For a man who had ended each year in debt any wage at all was a wonderful thing. For a man who had known no personal liberties even the iron hand of the mills was an advancement.
Though Big Mat is made uneasy by the fact that some black workers are stool pigeons for management, things come to a head in the cataclysmic strike that is also much like a race war. Deputized by the sheriff, Big Mat runs amok. Permission to wield brutal power over whites fills him with destructive jubilation. He reflects on the names he has been called since childhood, names that signified poverty and filth:
He had not been allowed to walk like a man. His food had been like the hog slops, and he had eaten. In the fields he had gone to the branch and gotten down on his belly. He had drunk his water like a dog left too long in the heat. They had taken his money and his women. They had made him run for his life. They would have run him with dogs through the swamps. They would have lynched him. He would have been a twisting torch. And he had escaped the South. Now here in the North he was hated by his fellow workers. He was a threat over their heads. The women covered their faces at the sight of him; the men spat; the children threw rocks. Always within him was that instinctive knowledge that he was being turned to white men’s uses. So always with him was a basic distrust of a white. But now he was a boss.
He dies in the street battles. There is no intimation of heroism in his death, no uplifting message, only a sense of waste. Attaway steps beyond propaganda and melodrama to give his characters and their story a real tragic fatality.
Though Blood on the Forge was published as the US entered World War II and blacks and whites were migrating from the South in search of defense industry jobs, something in its philosophical disposition looks back to Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), with its vagabond ex-servicemen who do not want to be strikebreakers, and even to the D.H. Lawrence of Aaron’s Rod (1922), in which every piece of North England grime is remembered as an insult. In spite of its themes, it is less overtly political than the novels Chester Himes would publish about blacks and unionism in the 1940s, as if Attaway’s labor story takes place too early to have any Communists in it. Attaway emptied his novel of the expected politics in order to reflect instead on the rituals of black life that cannot be transplanted to the new environment. He captures the beginnings of the most significant cultural change in twentieth-century black America, the shift from the rural South to the urban North.
In his review of Attaway’s powerfully realistic but deeply fatalistic novel, young Ralph Ellison faulted his contemporary for not doing more with the folk feeling he drew on. “Conceptionally,” he wrote, “Attaway grasped the destruction of the folk, but missed its rebirth on a higher level.”3 It was not enough to show destructive forces at work on black migrants, Ellison said; the black writer had a duty to recount the transformation in social consciousness of the black individual, an argument that, interestingly enough, made Ellison sound like an apologist for political propaganda. Ellison argued that Attaway’s failure to show the transcendence of his characters as representatives of the folk confined his work to the most limited naturalism.
But Ellison failed to hear the lyricism in Attaway’s recitation of brutal particulars. It is Attaway’s style, stripped, bright, and cold, that makes memorable his recognition of the power of sex, and of Big Mat’s helpless fate. “Jest as well I was born a nigger. Got more misery than a white man could stand,” Big Mat says early on, his voice like the slow roll of a drum. As Blood on the Forge unfolds, Attaway concentrates what could be called the novel’s blues feeling in Big Mat. His brothers say of him more than once that he has never laughed in his life, just as the Mexican whores say of Chinatown that no one can resist laughing when he is around. Melody mediates between the two, interprets their feelings. However, by the end of the novel, his music, like Chinatown’s flashing smile and Big Mat’s strength, has run out. Misfortune is piled upon misfortune, but Attaway manages to convince us that some lives are like that, unlucky. Big Mat, believing himself cursed, unlucky in Hattie, unlucky in Anna—in a life gone so wrong only the blues can come in.
A new edition of Blood on the Forge is being published this month by New York Review Books, with this essay, in somewhat different form, as an introduction.↩
Carl Sandburg, The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 (Harcourt Brace, 1919).↩
New Masses, December 2, 1941.↩