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Masses & Mainstream
November, 1948, p 81-84
The Railroad Men
reviewed by Howard Fast
WITH the publication of Great Midland, Alexander Saxton emerges as one of the foremost American writers of our time. His new book has a monumental quality, a literary grandeur, that in my opinion marks it as the finest and most important novel done by any American writer in the past several years. Here, for the first time in a certain area, is maturity a maturity compounded out of action and understanding. On this question, I will go into more detail later.
Consider the material first. Saxton writes a tale of railroad workers in Chicago; his time span is from 1912 to 1941; and his area of investigation is the Chicago yards of one of the great Middle-Western railroads. Three families are his subject matter, all of them of the working class, and from two of them come Dave Spaas and Stephanie Koviak, his protagonists. The Spaas are Dutch, the Koviaks Polish, and the third family, the McAdams, Negro. In each of the three families, two generations are depicted in the fullest terms of growth, development and decay. Against this background, in all of its complexity, the author writes the adventures of Dave Spaas, railroad worker, onetime seaman, veteran of the Lincoln Battalion, and rank-and-file Communist organizer during the three years before Pearl Harbor.
But the finely woven tapestry of the three families which forms the first part of the book becomes all of a piece with those three years during which Dave Spaas is engaged in his struggle for working class solidarity in Railroad. What emerges is a rich and broad canvas of Chicago railroad workers in the latter half of the thirties.
Dave Spaas, in himself, in his growth, in his struggle, is the focus of the book. The son of a railroad worker, with better than average education, he dreams first of becoming an engineer, sees his dream go the way of all such dreams in the depression, goes to work on the railroad, on an ore boat, goes to Spain to fight, returns then to Chicago to become a worker again and a rank-and-file organizer. Out of a "wobbly" family, he sees the tragic anarchistic dissolution of the I.W.W., joins the Communist Party, works in the Unemployed Councils, takes guidance and draws the breath of working-class wisdom from old Roman Koviak, teaches and then brings into the Party the Negro, Pledger McAdams.
Much of the book is devoted to a portrayal and analysis of McAdams, again a testimony to the understanding of Saxton. For the splendor and dignity and stability of McAdams come out of the very circumstances of white chauvinism and oppression. He represents the force that the Communist Party has enabled men to distill out of suffering.
Dave Spaas falls in love with his childhood playmate, Stephanie Koviak; the story of their marriage, of the petty-bourgeois dreams and illusions Stephanie clings to born out of her mother's influence and her college experience is a love story of great beauty: to Stephanie, the Communist Party is the bitter rival for her husband's affection to Stephanie the Party is the force beyond her understanding, which places itself between her and comfort, security and the gentle flow of academic life, a life she has always yearned for and admired.
Their love is compounded as so much of married love is today out of hatred and conflict, passion and urgency. Handled by the author with incredible tenderness and sympathy, it becomes integrated with the central struggle of the workers knowing and unknowing to break through the bonds of exploitation.
The very complexity of plot, character and setting prevents any simple recapitulation of the story; more than incident and narrative, Saxton's fine achievement is the creation for the first time in our literature of a fully mature and believable Communist hero. Anyone who has attempted this will understand the problems that beset any writer, in America in our times, who attempts to delineate the Communist in terms of the novel. Since the first crude proletarian novels began to appear in the late Twenties, the creative writer met his most difficult obstacle in the character of the Communist, that strange combination of the ordinary and the singular, the fallible and the indomitable. Though many attempts were made through the Thirties, there is no instance of recognizable success. From the megalomania of a Jake Home to the transparent fakery of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, where is the example of mature depiction?
Nor are the reasons for this too difficult so understand. In all literary statements of character there is reliance upon the subjective recognition of the reader; a line is drawn, and out of his own experience, the reader fills in the color: but there are no true colors in the public treatment of the Communist in America today and this leads and has led to grotesques of over-statement and over-emphasis. Also, the Communist movement in America had to fulfill, at least in part, its own struggle for maturity, for dignity and for integration before those ingredients could be reflected in literary terms. Not only the writer and the reader, but the hero himself had to reach and maintain new levels. In addition to this, one cannot set aside the fact of the Communist as the conscious architect of the future, the scientific enemy of hatred, cruelty and oppression. There are no manuals of practice to refer to, and Saxton's achievement partakes of pioneering importance.
He has done what has not been done nearly as well ever before in our literature. Consciously and forthrightly, he took as his dramatic crux that overwhelming contradiction of modern life the contradiction of socialism and capitalism. Choice of material cannot be over-emphasized in the creative act; and if a whole generation of writers chooses to indulge the safe evasion that communism is a dirty word and communists do not exist except as pictured by the corrupt New Leader, they will always meet that sterility which comes of reluctance to recognize and grapple with reality.
The same maturity Saxton displays in his treatment of the Communist is evident in his treatment of all workers. With fine objectivity, he paints them as they are, not as demi-gods, not as animals, but as men most centrally involved in the basic contradiction of capitalism and thereby spurred to action. Nor do the other characters of the book fare less well through his handling; for here is a man who knows his materials and works superbly with them.
Particularly in his treatment of the Negro, McAdams, does Saxton's maturity as a creative writer become evident; and the result is a portrait rarely equalled in our writing.
Let me underline the point that is integral to this, and part of it, the fine and ancient craft of storytelling, that mixture of pace and suspense that for me is the salt of the novel. Quite naturally, the success in the creation of this book is matched by the pleasure in reading it.
I like the fact that this book appears in the midst of the greatest campaign of anti-Communist slander and Red-baiting the world has ever seen. As with its hero, Dave Spaas, it sits on the firm foundation of truth and thereby it will long outlast the Parnell Thomases and John Rankins.
I take pride in this book, in the forces that made it, and in the great tradition of American literature, the tradition of Twain and Melville and Whitman and London and Dreiser out of which it came. My hat is off to Alexander Saxton.