Despite an excellent introductory essay by Patrick Chura explaining the significance of Ernest Poole’s 1915 socialist novel, The Harbor, it is hard to see it as a literary masterpiece. Certainly it is historically valuable; certainly it was a significant influence on the work of more important writers. But The Harbor, itself, like the bulk of socialist protest literature, is so concerned with manipulating character and plot to make its critique of capitalism and its excesses that it never really creates any emotional stakes for the reader. Characters are less like fully developed human beings than they are spokespersons for the ideas they espouse.
The Harbor tells the story of Billy, no last name given, a young writer as he attempts to find his place in a society dominated by capitalism. It uses the New York harbor and Billy’s changing attitudes to it as a furnace in which to forge his growth as a writer and as a man. The book starts with his childhood in Brooklyn Heights where the harbor is a mysterious place to be feared. Influenced by his mother’s love of literature, he goes off to college and then to Paris intending to become a writer, only to discover that no one is interested in the kind of literary writing he wants to do.
When he returns to New York at his mother’s death, he comes under the influence of the father of the woman he falls in love with, an engineer who is a disciple of progress through capitalism, and for a while he is successful as a writer of profiles of the rich and famous, the “big” men. The harbor has become a symbol of capitalistic progress. But then, under the tutelage of a radical old college friend, he is shown the effects of that system on the harbor’s working class, and he becomes radicalized as a result. The harbor is now a trope for the oppression of the worker and a symbol of the need for revolution.
It is not necessarily the book’s political message that is the problem, although I am sure there are those that will find it so, the treatment of workers at the turn of the century was nothing short of criminal and it is justifiably attacked. Even today when unions have lost much of their clout under conservative attack, it is hard not to recognize their importance in improving the lot of the workers. Indeed, as far as that goes Poole’s descriptions of the life of the laborers and their families is both accurate and convincing. The problem is that it lacks drama. Compare it with a later classic like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and its failure to engage the reader emotionally is clear. Compare it with John Dos Passos USA, and its lack of epic scope becomes apparent.
The novel also suffers some for its prose style. As often as not it seems “clunky” to the modern reader used to more natural syntax. This is especially true of its dialogue. Although there is some charm in the use of period slang and obsolete vocabulary. Words like “bim,” “revolooting,” “scouse” and “crimp,” for example will have some readers smiling. There are some stirring revolutionary passages, but given the subject matter not as many as you’d expect. Here is the radical labor leader describing a picture of a group of workers:
“I know every figure in it. I know just where they’re strong and where each one of ‘em is weak. I’ve never made gods out of ‘em. But I know they do all the real work in the world. They’re the ones who get all the rotten deals, the ones who get shot down in wars and worked like dogs in times of peace. They’re the ones who are ready to go out on strike and risk their lives to change all this. They’re the people worth spending your life with.”
Not a bad speech, but I can’t help hearing Henry Fonda in the 1940 movie of The Grapes of Wrath in the background.