American Civilization

March 30, 2009

Modernity and the American Roman Noir

Filed under: Mass Society — equiano @ 6:10 pm

Key Terms


Roman/Film Noir





Value (exchange, use)

Finance capital

Mass Society (Mass Culture)

Realism/Naturalism/Roman Noir/Hard-boiled

The hard-boiled style has roots in literary naturalism, a genre of writing most often associated in American literature with authors such as Frank NorrisStephen Crane andTheodore Dreiser. Naturalism, in turn, is generally considered to be an outgrowth of realism, and in a rough approximation of its difference from that cultural mode we can argue that if realism’s mise-en-scene is the bourgeois parlor then naturalism plays out in the ghetto among urban lowlife. William Dean Howells, one of the major figures of 19th century American fiction, is easily the most famous praciticioner of realism (though movie studios have been kinder to Henry James) and novels such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes are essentially stories of the vicissitudes of social mobility told with a genial warmth that a younger generation of writers– notably the above-mentioned Norris and Crane– found claustrophobic. Norris in particular, ambitious and cocksure, sought to transform the American literary scene and so borrowed quite heavily from perhaps the absolute master of naturalism, Emile Zola. Naturalism, then, was in a sense an import, but one that morphed– as do all cultural products and practices– in translation.

Scholars and aficionados often date the inception of hard-boiled fiction with the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest— a dirty, violent, and canny first novel featuring a body-count equal to any Jerry Bruckheimer flick and one of the most compelling “dames” of pulp modernism, Dinah Brand. Hammett has long since become an icon, not only for his four magnificent novels (excluding the never-completed Tulip) but in deference to his delinquent charm, political courage, and variegated past. He worked as a detective, served in the Army, wrote ad copy for Samuels’ Jewelers, and helped build Black Mask magazine, a veritable school for crime fiction talent, into a lucrative venture. While working for the notoriousPinkertons in Montana– a company that was essentially a mercenary force against unions– he refused $5000 to murder IWW agitator Frank Little, whose body was later found castrated and shot hanging from a railroad trestle.  Increasingly disillusioned by this sort of ubiquitous reactionary violence and suffering from tuberculosis, Hammett quit the Pinkertons and moved to San Francisco, where he began his writing career. Years later, a success and a celebrity, he went to jail rather than fink on his comrades during the red paranoia of the 50s.

Red Harvest was published the year of the Crash and there followed in rapid succession three more brilliant novels. At the same time James M. Cain was producing classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce. In the early 40s Raymond Chandler began to consolidate his reputation as a writer of calculated crime fiction. Though Chandler is usually grouped with both Hammett and Cain as one of a triumvirate of seminal roman noir authors, he resisted identification with the latter. To Chandler Cain’s novels were lurid and cheap, and he famously remarked to his publisher that

“Everything [Cain] touches smells like a billygoat.  He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking.  Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.  Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated.  A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door”.

Chandler’s asperions are worth considering not only for their vitriol but for what they tell us about his vision of the hard-boiled style. If “dirty things” are the subject of the American crime novel then the method of execution required to make them interesting– perhaps even render them as art– depends on the writer’s ability to calibrate language, to take control and produce a text that is “hard and clean and cold and ventilated.” The Chandler aesthetic values lowlife– the dingy bar, the slow-witted ex-con, the slatternly cigarette girl, the arid banality of Los Angeles– on the condition that in their representation such tropes and themes become more than the sum of their parts.

For Chandler, Cain’s work fails because it is excessive, a style that relishes extremities– “cheap scent” and “a bucket of slops”– for their own sake. This self-indulgence occurs at a formal level– after all, what would “a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking” write?

Realism sought to represent the world as it was (or seemed to be) yet largely confined itself to a polite social zone. Naturalism revised that impulse to verisimilitude though its obsessive concern for the abject was weighed down by theories of innate depravity and the over-determinism of heredity. The hard-boiled school drew its energy from both of these movements but tended to eschew gentility or over-arching theories of human nature in favor of a style that lingered on the surface of things, that approximated the key values of late modernity: smoothness, functionality and precision.


In its broadest sense modernity is “a certain mode of the experience of space and time” (Harvey 201).  The Communist Manifesto is useful here. In one of his most widely quoted passages Marx characterizes modernity as follows:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Modernity, then, is the experience of this unprecedented expansion of productive power in all of its jarring, dislocative power. The ceaseless social transformations provoked by capitalism are a key trait of modernity. Everyday life accelerates. Tradition yields to innovation. Identities are extinguished and new ones take their place. In general this seething activity has a cosmopolitan character: “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange — of the means of communication and transport — the annihilation of space by time — becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

That cosmopolitanism comes at the price of alienation.

“The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. . . . With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. Here the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly. Precisely in this connection the sophisticated character of metropolitan psychic life becomes understandable as over against small town life which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the more unconscious layers of the psyche and grow most readily in the steady rhythm of uninterrupted habituations. The intellect. . . develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. In this an increased awareness assumes the psychic prerogative. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. The reaction to metropolitan phenomena is shifted to that organ which is least sensitive and quite remote from the depth of the personality. Intellectuality is thus seen to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life. . . .”

–Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903)


Hammett, copywriter

DH’s employment as a Pinkerton agent is well-known, though less widely acknowledged is connection to the lynching of Wobbly Frank Little in Butte, Montana. According to one of his biographers, Barbara Johnson, a substantial offer was made to Hammett if he would participate in criminal acts against the IWW at the behest of copper mining concerns.

Earlier, Hammett had worked as a soldier, freight clerk, stevedore, timekeeper, yardman, and railroad worker. After leaving the Pinkerton’s because of a worsening medical condition (he was a victim of Spanish Influenza while in the army during WWI) Hammett eventually became a copywriter for Samuels Jewelers in San Francisco. It was here that he began to hone his craft as a writer. The constraints of copywriting– limited space, clarity of purpose– influenced his later style, particularly in that the ads he scripted were intended to appeal to potential customers in a ‘soft-sell’ technique and thus often took the form of very short stories.


By 1923 Hammett was supporting his family with copywriting and freelance work for one of the most significant pulps of the era, Black Mask, an activity he called ‘blackmasking’. Hammett’s first story in Black Mask was “The Road Home,” published in December 1922 under name Peter Collinson. It was for this magazine that he created his nameless character, the Continental Op, who would become the protagonist for his first novel, Red Harvest. The Op was an eponymous figure, based on several men Hammett had known as a Pinkerton and is notable for the way he inverts the standard romantic paradigm of the strong-jawed hero. The Op is middle-aged and paunchy, a man who lives for his (poorly compensated) job. He is above all unsentimental, clear-eyed concerning the foibles of human nature. At the same time he is not strictly speaking amoral, for he has a code of professional ethics. The Op will not be bought with sex or money. He won’t, as Sam Spade tells Brigid, “play the sap.”

Hammett himself possessed such a code:

“ In 1951, Hammett was called to testify before the New York State Supreme Court as a trustee of the Bail Bond Committee of the Civil Rights Congress in the wake of the violation of bail by eleven members of the Communist Party for whom the CRC had posted bond, four of whom could not be located. When Hammett refused to testify–even to identify his signature–he was sentenced to six months in federal prison for contempt of court. He served his term between July and December of 1951.

“In April of 1953, Hammett was called to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Joseph McCarthy. His testimony before that committee is often quoted. Asked by McCarthy if he would ‘purchase the works of some seventy-five Communist authors and distribute their works throughout the world, ‘Hammett replied, ‘If I were fighting communism, I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all’” (Twayne).


Above: first edition of The Maltese Falcon, currently listed at $136,000.oo

Notes on The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett

Ch. 1: Spade and Archer

opening lines: SS is  a man of angles, with a predator’s features. the echo of masculine modernity in the description’s emphasis on his rectilinearity

Effie Perine: a “boyish face”– flapper-esque, modish and thus also a modern figure

Brigid O’Shaugnessy (Miss Wonderly): note her alias, as something not easily accounted for (a wonder) and her true name, which emphasizes her Irish-American roots, stands in for a kind of gritty, urban identity, and evokes Irish-American machine politics.

She’s from NYC, she claims, thus establishing her urbanity.

Note Hammett’s (and by extention Spade’s and O’Shaugnessy’s) emphasis on precise description, a stock in trade of the crime novel, one drawn from a professionalized discourse of detection, police procedure, etc.

Spade’s modernity is leavened with certain symbols of an earlier, 19thC version of masculinity: the roll-your-own cigarettes, the union-suit and garters.  What is being conveyed here? That modern men require some elements of an earlier version of masculinity? Spade in this sense shares something with other male characters in American fiction such as Natty Bumppo. An iconoclast– independent, calculating, ruthless, yet with sense of honor, a moral code.

Note the geography Hammett lays out: “where Bush St. roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown”. CT as a sort of nadir, located in the depths of the city.

A clue: “The blast burnt his coat.” ie, the shooter was very close to Archer.

Evidence of Spade’s hard-boiled demeanor: “a tone that was utterly meaningless”. These moments signify his modernity as well, his location outside of a Romantic or Sentimental tradition. Spade is a realist, and the creation of Hammett’s realism.

The Lt.: “A five-dollar gold-piece was pinned to his necktie and there was a small ealborate diamond-set secret-society emblem on his lapel.” What to make of this? IN a sense, the Lt.’s gold-piece appears as a sherrif’s badge, marking him as a figure from an earlier time, while  the emblem indicates his participation in a older brotherhood. He seems to be both Spade’s antagonist and a potential ally. He too, is on the square. He also exhibits machine-like tendencies: his gaze seems as if it were “ a matter of mechanics.” To be real men, this passage seems to indicate, is to be part machine (cf. Terminator). Yet Dundy’s machinery is more reminiscent of Victorian-era gear works than smooth, precision industry of the 20thC?

Spade’s professionalism: he has “clients” who pay him “retainers” and he practices the standardized tools of his trade”

Iva Archer: voluptuous, emotional, even grasping, a woman whose appeal is largely limited to her physical attributes. Spade has already grown bored of her. Not like Brigid, whose beauty is complemented by intelligence and canny instincts.

Iva asks Spade, “Did you kill him?” An important quesiton b/c the world these characters inhabit is one where such a question is not entirely unreasonable. But it is also a crucial misjudgement of Spade for two reasons: he would not kill his partner and he is not the kind of man who kills for passion anyway.

Within 24 hours Spade tells Effie to have Spade&Archer taken off the door: cold and practical, and also a sign that he is anxious to be on his own. Spades characteristics, his practicality, rationality, his sense of professionalism, etc.– are all attributes of the “proper” modern subject, one whose actions are to be guided by a carefully calibrated, “enlightened self-interest.” Other qualities: coolness, skepticism, sharp humor, self-preservation.

Spade goes to meet Brigid. She attempts to play him along, though he’s wise to her tricks: “You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.’” Spade recognizes the femme fatale and is simultaneously wary of and compelled by her.

“the Orient”: Brigid came from Hong Kong with Thursby. California as part of the Pacific Rim. “The Orient” as a means of heightening dramatic tension, of giving an exotic aura to the story. We are not in the world of the Western, limited to the back country of the continental US but at the edge of a Asia, with all of the (often stereotypical) “color” that locale implies.

Sid Wise: an urban ‘type’; the sly shyster/lawyer: “a small olive-skinned man with a tired oval face under thin dark hair dotted with dandruff.” Coded as Jewish. Compare with Joel Cairo.

Joel Cairo: note the name, which is “oriental” and his description– Effie says outright “This guy is queer”– marks him as both “foreign” and homosexual. “A small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, etc….” Wise and Cairo are virtually identical in some respects, radically different in others. They seem to offer two version of a type.

Our first mention of the falcon: Cairo says “I am trying to recover an– ah– ornament.” What sort of ornament? “the black figure of a bird”. What kind of object is this? What is its significance?

After Spade knocks out Cairo, he goes through the latter’s possessions. Again, note the precision of the descriptions– this is a form of writing that beleives that the visible, the empirically observed, is a key to knowledge and truth. As if by noting each item Spade (and the reader) will be able to discern Cairo’s nature. The material world is evidentiary; it is a realm of objects that reveal something about their possessors. To that extent, detection shares its methods in common with modern science.

From Marling’s The American Roman Noir:

MF as an origin for subsequent crime fiction. Style.

The falcon as an icon, the value of which Spade is unconvinced. A speculative value. No use-value. Pure exchange. But from an earlier period, when wealth consisted of gold and gems rather than stocks and bonds.

Note the “objective” view of the text: we cannot see into the minds of any of the characters. This puts an emphasis on action and events. As in the famed passage on pp. 11-12 where Spade rolls a cigarette. This illusion of objectivity is reinforced periodically as in the passage about the man crouching at the billboard.

Style: allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Understatement “not to deceive but to increase the impression made on reader” (Hammett qtd. in Marling 130). Hypotactical sentence structure: not many conjunctions. Instead, a series of statements.

Spade’s animalism: predatory eyes and features, bear-like, etc.

Spade’s explanation for turning Brigid over to the police. The code, which has 19th century (partner) elements, professional (business) elements  and even class interests.

Those characters who fail to control or regulate themselves are doomed to destruction. The self-management of modernity’s proper subjects.

The problems confronting CA no longer emanate from the east (NY) but the East (Hong Kong, the ME)

Spade’s apt. and office as spaces of modern efficiency: Murphy bed, etc. “embodies an emerging economy” (140).

the chapter entitled “3 Women”: as fates, related to Stein?,


Flitcraft: the knowledge that the world is a place where beams fall doesn’t really make any difference. The Flitcraft parable seems to speak to the radical contingency of everyday life in the modern era.

Two clips:

Joel Cairo

Falcon Lore

Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley…. [He] gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”

— Raymond Chandler

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930)


The Geography of the Falcon

As a critique of modernity, the novel not only describes a society whose values have been transformed and deformed, but engages with the mysteries of finance capital and mass production. The world of The Maltese Falcon– its primary setting the city of San Francisco at any rate, a place where “most things… can be bought, or taken”– is cosmopolitan. The Maltese Falcon itself, the strange artifact crafted by medieval knights as a form of tribute, links the Mediterranean, the Near East, and– in the language of the day– the Orient with the US. San Francisco– the notorious Barbary Coast, already a space of exotic figures and a shadow economy– thus becomes a site of confluence. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whose name evokes the “white ethnic” identity of Irish-American machine politics, claims to have come from New York. Joel Cairo, a “queer” character in more than one sense, is said to be Levantine, though his travels with Gutman and Wilmer have taken him around the world. Jacobi, the captain of a merchant vessel, is also a transnational figure even if readers know little about him beyond his function in the novel– to deliver the bird and then die.

Significantly, the Falcon’s transit around the world establishes a geography of historical events and contemporary trade. Tracking its movements over time and across space produces a map of the development of modernity (and thus capitalism), from the pre-capitalist Mediterranean with its feudal relations of tribute and deference to the Pacific Rim commercial networks of a globalizing world economy.


The Falcon, as a unique object d’art, possesses an unrivaled status, a value that exceeds its material composition (black-laquered gold) and arises from the historical circumstances of its production and its complicated provenance. We could “read” this artifact in at least two ways, as a commentary on the irrationality of finance capital or the culture of the copy. Let’s look at both of these interpretations.


The Falcon and Finance Capital

The criminals in TMF are clearly willing to do whatever it takes to obtain the black bird. Though every murder in the novel takes place off-stage, there is little doubt that Gutman and company have killed or betrayed anyone impeding their acquisition of the Falcon.  Yet what exactly do they seek? As an object, the bird is without use-value with the possible exception of a paperweight or doorstop– it has no purpose other than to exist, to be contemplated or treasured. In this sense the bird is an irrelevance. Its original content– that which it was intended to signify– was simply a gesture of fealty, what a linguist might call “performative” language, a word or phrase which essentially does what it says and communicates nothing more. Torn from its context the bird becomes a curio– Spade calls it “the dingus” (Ger. literally, “the thing”) a name that effortlessly deflates its importance– an expensive piece of medieval kitsch which is valuable because it is held to have value by those who desire it. In this sense the Falcon bears a strong resemblance to the occult instruments of finance– futures, shares, hypothecated bonds– which in and of themselves have no meaning or purpose save what value might be realized upon their redemption. Gutman and the others are chasing a fantasy, a useless article which will in no manner improve their lives.

In this scenario, the Falcon embodies what Karl Marx called the commodity fetish— the notion that value inheres in an object, that value is the product of some inherent property of a given thing rather than the outcome of human activity. The obvious analogy here would be with the rise of a “post-material” economy, one in which wealth comes not from the production of socially useful commodities but from the ballooning yet insubstantial value derived from speculation.

An alternative reading of the Falcon as a fiduciary symbol would emphasize that the figure’s very materiality, gold, locates it within a prior economic formation, the legacy perhaps of mercantile capitalism. Wealth, in this earlier paradigm, consists of precious metals rather than industrial capital and thus depends on extraction rather than production.

The Falcon and the Copy

“[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements.”

— Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

The contraband article swaddled in paper which Jacobi delivers to Sam Spade’s office turns out to be a forgery, a hunk of lead molded to assume the appearance of the fabled Falcon. Men have died, it seems, for nothing.

Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, quoted above, wrestles with the effects of the age of reproducibility–  later modernity itself– when mass society produces a mass culture. Largely, though not entirely, absent from this scene is the experience of art as a kind of pilgrimage to the original work– imagine traveling hundreds of miles to see a painting in an obscure monastery, for instance– which has been replaced by the mass production of copies with no proper context. A silkscreen of the Mona Lisa seen at the airport or a digitized image of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel only a few keystrokes away on the internet– that sort of thing.  For Benjamin this means the death of the work of art’s “aura”– the mystery of a unique artifact and our encounter with it. This change, it should be said, is a form of alienation, though one with ambiguous consequences. (Indeed, modernity itself, as Simmel argues, can be seen as alienation embodied in everyday life, that sociological conceit “anomie”– a condition of radical individuation and isolation most prominent in urban centers.)

The auratic properties of art have been stripped away by a means of production which relentlessly excretes standardized cultural commodities. Aesthetic experience is now structured according to the same principle that manufactures canned soup or rubber bands or automobiles. Art is product, one size fits all: if you don’t like what’s on offer then simply stroll down to the next shop window.

Populating this uniform landscape of mass-produced images, sounds and artifacts are people whose very insistence on their individuality (as we will see in a week) is the symptom of a deep and abiding conformity. The consumption of culture industry dross regulates our dreams and desires, gives us the pre-packaged rudiments for idle conversation, influences our ability to imagine the world. Yet the transition from one cultural regime to the next is never a neat affair. The rise of mass culture proceeds unevenly, sparking anxiety in its objects (us) a response which creates friction, which can lead to a rejection of the new regime. Perhaps Gutman, the amoral collector, prizes the Falcon precisely because it cannot be copied. Even the forgery delivered by Jacobi is an original of sorts– hand crafted to fool the uninitiated. If this is the case, then Gutman’s quest for the bird is essentially anti-modern, or at least at odds with the prevailing cultural logic. In this sense, Spade, whose apartment, office and habits exemplify the key modern value of efficiency opposes Gutman. Someone who sleeps in a murphy bed and excels in evaluating facts and evidence can have little use for intangible worth. Spade is above all practical; he is a professional, while Gutman most resembles a 19th century aesthete.

Yet Spade bears the marks of an earlier age as well, notably in his union suit, roll-your-own cigarettes, and garters. In this regard he is like Dundy, though with a crucial difference: Spade is modern, we might say, where it counts– in his methods and mental acuity.

Spade’s hard-boiled empiricism is paralleled by the novel’s prose, which never deviates from a purely objective point of view. TMF does not offer its readers any interiority of character– we learn about their motives by speech, action or appearance– and in this regard the world of the text, its mise-en-scene, is a real of surfaces, of physical facts which must be gathered and assessed.

March 24, 2009

I’ll meet you in the park and we can share a can of beans

Filed under: PSAs — equiano @ 3:32 pm

How completely shredded is your economic future? Here’s one take, a bottlerocket of an essay by Matt Talibbi.

March 23, 2009

Modernity and the Falcon

Filed under: modernity — equiano @ 4:06 pm
Tags: ,

The trailer for the 1941 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel and arguably the first film noir. As you read the book over Spring Break pay close attention to its style and keep in mind that we’ll be discussing this classic crime novel in terms of modernity.

“Modernity must be understood, in part at least, against the background of what went before. Industrial society emerged only patchily and unevenly out of agrarian society, a system that had endured 5,000 years. Industrial structures thus took much of their characteristic form and colour from the rejection, conscious or unconscious, of preindustrial ways. Industrialism certainly contained much that was new, but it remained always at least partly an idea that in both its theory and its practice was to be understood as much by what it denied as by what it affirmed. The force of the modern has always been partly a reactive force, a force that derived meaning and momentum by a comparison or contrast with, and by rejection or negation of, what went before.

Considered at the most general level, this point suggests a view of modernization as a process of individualization, differentiation or specialization, and abstraction. Put more concretely: first, the structures of modern society take as their basic unit the individual rather than, as with agrarian or peasant society, the group or community. Second, modern institutions are assigned the performance of specific, specialized tasks in a social system with a highly developed and complex division of labour; in this they stand in the sharpest possible contrast with, for instance, the family in peasant society, which is at once the unit of production, consumption, socialization, and authoritative decision-making. Third, rather than attaching rights and prerogatives to particular groups and persons, or being guided by custom or tradition, modern institutions tend to be governed and guided by general rules and regulations that derive their legitimacy from the methods and findings of science. In principle at least, they are not the agents of particular individuals, such as a king or priest, endowed with divine or prescriptive authority, but act according to the rational and impersonal precepts formulated by “experts.”

These contrasts by no means complete the characterization of modern society, nor are they the only ones that might be drawn. Nevertheless, they do illustrate the dependence of the concept of modernity on past structures that form the basis of comparison and exclusion. Indeed, it is such a set of contrasts, not necessarily carefully distinguished, that most people have in mind when they speak of modern as opposed to traditional society.

With regard to the more positive features of industrialism, industrial society can best be thought of as consisting of an economic core around which other, noneconomic structures crystallize. In Marxist terminology, this is rendered in the more deterministic form of an economic base conditioning a noneconomic “superstructure.” This seems unnecessarily rigid and misleading. The relation of the economic to the noneconomic realm is mutual and interactive, as can be seen by considering the impact of scientific ideas on economic and technological development. Still, it is true to say that, fundamentally, it is the economic changes that most dramatically affect industrial society.”

— Encyclopedia Britannica

March 19, 2009

Reading for April 9th

Filed under: PSAs — equiano @ 7:01 pm
Tags: , ,


Above: an image stolen from

The syllabus is changing: the new reading for April 9 is Theodor Adorno’s seminal essay “Enlightenment as Mass Deception”. Make sure to print out a copy and bring it to lecture. Here’s the url:

Be advised that Adorno’s work is often called “difficult.” You will be reading one of the founding texts of Critical Theory and should be prepared to be challenged. You may– imagine!– even need to read the essay twice. And remember: “Dialectical thinking is the attempt to break through the compulsory character of logic with its own means.”

Good luck.

March 16, 2009

sick leave

Filed under: PSAs — equiano @ 5:18 pm

I may have picked up a dose of Dengue fever at the anarchist bookfair this weekend. Whatever it is, I’m prostrate. Seminar is cancelled for Tuesday, Mar. 17.

March 9, 2009

Filed under: IWW,Labor,Machine Age,Revolution — equiano @ 8:26 pm

First Move: A Thought Experiment

Let’s try a little counter-factual history. Imagine that because of some unexpected circumstance the Confederate States of America won the Civil War. We could posit any number of possible scenarios: a train of misfortunes for the Grand Army of the Republic after a crippling victory by Lee at Antietam, the intervention of Great Britain at the behest of the South, a sudden storm in the Atlantic destroying the Union fleet, etc. Whatever the case, the South has won. The US sues for peace and the CSA is now a nation unto itself. Gradually, diplomatic ties are established. Slavery continues for the indefinite future. Given this scenario, would it be fair to say that the abolitionist movement had failed?

2nd Move: The Dialectic of the Affect of Revolution

Maybe this won’t work for you, try listening to Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” as a way of getting inside the affect of revolution:

Now, listen to Billy Bragg’s version of Joe Hill’s classic song “There is Power in a Union”:

The impulse to revolution, I want to argue, springs from the tension between what Malcolm X once called “the gift of anger” and what another revolutionary from the same era described as “great feelings of love.”

Above: the Sabcat, designed by Ralph Chaplin, symbolizing the wildcat strike.
The Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905 at what Big Bill Haywood called “the Continental Congress of the working class,” was an industrial union committed to the overthrow of capitalism. Notable for its strikes in Lawrence, Paterson and McKees Rocks, among many other places, the IWW constituted a radical challenge to economic hierarchy in the United States. What follows are key concepts and events which will tell us something about the IWW and the world that produced it.
“We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism. There is no organization, or there seems to be no labor organization, that that has for its purpose the same object as that for which you are called together to-day. The aims and objects of this organization shall be to put the working-class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.”
— William “Big Bill” Haywood, opening remarks at the IWW’s founding convention (1905)
“The IWW’s affirm as a fundamental principle that the creators of wealth are entitled to all they create. Thus they find themselves pitted against the whole profit-making system. They declare that there can be no compromise so long as the majority of the working class lives in want while the master class lives in luxury. They insist that there can be no peace until the workers organize as a class, take possession of the resources of the earth and the machinery of production and distribution and abolish the wage system. In other words, the workers in their collectivity must own and operate all the essential industrial institutions and secure to each laborer the full value of his product.
“It is for these principles, this declaration of class solidarity, that the IWWs are being persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, murdered. If the capitalist class had the sense it is reputed to have, it would know that violence is the worst weapon that can be used against men who have nothing to lose and the world to gain.”
— Helen Keller, “What is the IWW?” (1918)
“My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out an starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production….”
— Lucy Gonzales Parsons (1905)
Preamble to the IWW constitution (1905):

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.”

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.


What is Industrial Unionism?

“THE term Industrial Unionism is used to express a modern form of labor organization whose jurisdiction is not confined to any particular trade or craft, but is co-extensive with the industrial development, and embraces the entire working class. Industrial unionism is the outgrowth of trade unionism and expresses the highest form of industrial organization the working class has yet attained. As its name implies this form of unionism contemplates the organization of industries in their entirety, uniting all employees within the same economic body….”

— Eugene V. Debs (1909)

What is syndicalism?

“Syndicalism was a movement committed to destroying capitalism through revolutionary industrial struggle. Parliamentary democracy and working for reforms through the state were rejected as dead ends. Syndicalists instead looked to the power of the working class as exercised through its economic organisations, the trade unions.

Important differences existed on this question. Most European syndicalists saw their task as the conversion of existing unions to a revolutionary position [a position the Wobblies termed ‘boring from within’], while Americans. particularly those influenced by the ideas of Daniel de Leon, believed It was necessary to create new unions [and ultimately, according to the IWW, ‘One Big Union’– also known as ‘dual unionism’]. But all saw the main task as uniting the working class as a whole across racial, craft and sectional divisions. The road to the emancipation of the working class, they said, lay through direct action, solidarity, and finally the general strike which would lead to the working class seizing the means of production.”

— Phil Taylor (1987)

What is direct action?

“It is the action labor takes when it fights in the direct, natural way and that which brings greatest results. When workers rebel on the job and slow down or cease work until their grievances are redressed–that is direct action. When workers, united as a class, conduct a general strike to defend their interests–that is direct action” (

“Direct action means industrial action directly by, for, and of the workers themselves, without the treacherous aid of labor misleaders or scheming politicians. A strike that is initiated, controlled, and settled by the workers directly affected is direct action. . .. Direct action is industrial democracy” (quoted in Zinn. from an issue of the Industrial Worker?).

Defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law was a form of direct action. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Nat Turner’s uprising. Sit down strikes. Whenever a group chooses to circumvent institutions or mechanisms in order to intervene in a situation (political, social, economic) immediately.

What is a General Strike?

“The General Strike, as its name implies, must be a revolutionary or class strike instead of a strike for amelioration of conditions. It must be designed to abolish private ownership of the means of life and to supplant it with social ownership. It must be a strike, not of a few local, industrial or national groupings of workers but of the industrial workers of the world as an entity. If we keep in mind that there are four phases of the General Strike it will help to understand clearly what we mean by using the term:

  • A General Strike in a community.
  • A General Strike in an Industry.
  • A national General Strike.
  • A revolutionary or class strike– THE General Strike.”

— Ralph Chaplin (1933)

What is Syndicalism/ Anarcho-syndicalism?

Syndicalisme (French)= “trade unionism”

“A movement among industrial workers having as its object the transfer of the means of production and distribution from their present owners to unions of workers for the benefit of the workers, the method generally favoured for the accomplishment of this being the general strike” (OED).

“The fundamental difference between Syndicalism and old trade methods is this: while the old trade unions, without exception, move within the wage system and capitalism, recognizing the latter as inevitable, Syndicalism repudiates and condemns present industrial arrangements as unjust and criminal, and holds out no hope to the worker for lasting results from this system.”

— Emma Goldman (1913)

What is “strike on the job”?

“The ‘strike on the job’ would usually come when the formal strike seemed lost. Then the Wobblies returned to work, abruptly ending their formal strike. Announcing that they were ‘taking the strike to the job,’ they continued to harry the employers and to restrict production. They would follow foremen’s order to ludicrous, work-stoppage extremes or stand idle when minor decisions were required. Fired for these dilatory tactics, the Wobblies moved to other jobs and repeated their tactics.”

— Philip S. Foner (1980)

What is sabotage?

“Sabotage means primarily: the withdrawal of efficiency. Sabotage means either to slacken up and interfere with the quantity, or to botch in your skill and interfere with the quality, of capitalist production or to give poor service. Sabotage is not physical violence, sabotage is an internal, industrial process. It is something that is fought out within the four walls of the shop. And these three forms of sabotage — to affect the quality, the quantity and the service are aimed at affecting the profit of the employer. Sabotage is a means of striking at the employer’s profit for the purpose of forcing him into granting certain conditions, even as workingmen strike for the same purpose of coercing him. It is simply another form of coercion.”

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn “Sabotage” (1916)

This pamphlet, based on a speech by Flynn, was later withdrawn from the IWW”s official literature at her request. In her autobiography, Rebel Girl, Flynn writes,

“Many of the practices I referred to in this pamphlet were not ‘sabotage’ at all, but simply old-fashioned working class practices from time immemorial– such as the Scots system of “ca’ canny’ or slowdown on the job. Another was the ‘Open Mouth’ practice of workers in restaurants, stores, etc., telling the customer the exact truth about the quality of foods or goods…. [I]n Paterson in 1912 we discovered that the silk was unwound from the cocoons, worked into skeins and then dyed after a preliminary process of weighting. This business was picturesquely called ‘dynamiting’– loading with adulterants of tin, zinc and lead. One pound of pure silk would come out from three to 15 pounds heavier in weight…. Our expose explained to the public why the modern silk fabrics cracked so easily. Part of our ‘sabotage’ advice to the workers was to throw the adulterants down the drain and dye the beautiful silk pure and durable, pound for pound…. This loose talk about sabotage opened the door for the most vicious charges against the IWW, such as setting forest fires in California, which had to be proven untrue in the Criminal Syndicalist trials by producing the fire records of the State of California. It was a form of infantile Leftism in a big way, consisting largely of ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ We came to realize that class action and not uncontrolled individual actions is required on behalf of the workers” (163-165).

What is passive resistance?

“[W]e are not going to tell our membership to allow themselves to be shot down and beat up like cattle. Regardless of the fact that they are members of the working class, they still have a duty that they owe to themselves and their class of defending themselves whenever they are attacked and their life is threatened. Violence is not always the choosing of the working class; as a general rule, it is forced on them as a simple act of self-defense. They have to strike back when they are struck at, and that is the spirit and that is the idea the organization is trying to educate the workers into.

“We do not– we do not want to be understood as saying that we expect to achieve our aims through violence and through the destruction of human life, because, in my judgment, that is impossible. The achievement of success… the realization of what it is striving for– depends on one thing only, and that is gaining the control of a sufficient amount of the labor power that is necessary in the operation of industry. Now, when we have that control, then through organization the necessity for violence will be reduced; in fact, it will almost disappear. It will disappear. The necessity for using any tactics that will lead to violence will disappear, and the protection and the safeguarding of human life will increase just in proportion as we have that control.”

— Vincent St. John, testimony before the US Commission on Industrial Relations (1916)

Timeline (borrowed and abbreviated from

Originally Titled, 95 Years of Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, by Michael Hargis—featured in Anarcho Syndicalist Review, #27 and #28. This time line copied from the web site of the Industrial Workers of the World

* IWW Founding Convention—June 27: The “Continental Congress of the Working Class” establishes the industrial Workers of the World with cooperation of elements from Socialist Labor Party/Socialist Trades & Labor Alliance, Socialist Party of America, Western Federation of Miners and survivors of International Working People’s Association.


* Haywood, Pettibone and Moyers, WFM leaders, framed for attempting to kill the governor of Colorado.
* Second Convention of IWW abolishes office of president and ousts “pure and simple” trade unionists.
* Lockout of IWW members in Goldfield, Nevada. Vincent St. John arrested for conspiracy to commit murder in death of a restaurant owner.
* WFM-IWW miners strike against wage cut in Goldfield. Federal troops sent in to crush strike; first stay-in strike (3,000 workers) of the 20th Century carried out by IWW at General Electric plant in Schenectady, NY.


* Founding of National Industrial Union of Textile Workers, 1st chartered IWW industrial union.
* Strike at Marston Textile Mill, Skowhegan, Maine;
* 3,000 IWW sawmill workers strike in Portland, OR;
* IWW smeltermen strike in Tacoma, WA win 8-hour day and 15% pay hike;
* Lumber workers strike in Humboldt County, CA, Missoula, MT and Vancouver, B.C.;
* Bakers in San Francisco strike;
* Lumber workers strike in Montana;
* Textile strike at Mapleville, RI;
* American Tube strike in Bridgeport, CT


* Textile workers strike, Lawrence, MA
* Fourth convention results in split between political actionists, led by Daniel DeLeon of the SLP, and direct actionists, led by Vincent St. John and J.H. Walsh. DeLeonists set up rival IWW in Detroit and accuse Chicago IWW with “anarchism.”


* Industrial Worker begin publishing in Spokane, WA as the voice of the Western branches of IWW.
* Pressed Steel Car Company workers strike in McKees Rock, PA.
* Sheet and tinplate workers strike in New Castle, PA.
* Solidarity begins publishing in New Castle, PA as organ of Eastern branches of IWW.
* Missoula, MT free speech fight.


* Strike against Standard Steel Car Company in Hammond, IN.
* Strike against Hansel & Elcock Construction in Chicago.
* First reference to “direct action” in IWW publications.
* Strike against Lamm & Company, Chicago clothiers.
* First use of terms “sabotage” and “passive resistance” in IWW publications.
* Meat packers strike in Pittsburgh, PA; Show workers strike in Brooklyn, NY.
* Organizing against “job sharks” in Washington State leads to victorious Free Speech Fight in Spokane, WA.
* Brotherhood of Timber Workers, racially integrated union, formed in Louisiana and East Texas.


* IWW Free Speech Fight in Fresno, CA.
* Brooklyn shoe workers strike several shops.
* Strike at American Locomotive.


* Wobblies join Magonistas in insurrection in Baja California, briefly proclaim the Baja Commune. U.S. troops invade Mexico to crush the rebellion; IWW-led General Strike in Tampico, Mexico for release of political prisoners crushed by army.
* William Z. Foster leaves IWW and forms Syndicalist League of North America to “bore from within” AFL.
* Socialist Party forbids those who oppose political action or advocate sabotage to belong to the party.
* Bill Haywood recalled from NEC. Many IWWs leave SPA.
* Bread and Roses Strike—25,000 textile workers strike in Lawrence, MA, call for IWW leadership. IWW leaders Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti arrested for the murder of striker Anna Lo Pizza.
* Formation of Forest and Lumber Workers Industrial Union.
* IWW textile strike in Lowell, MA (18,000 workers).
* Strike at National Malleable Casting in Indianapolis, IN.
* Lumber workers strike throughout Gray’s Harbor region (Hoquiam, Raymond, Cosmopolis and Aberdeen, WA).
* Strike of railroad construction crews against Great Northern and Grand Trunk lines. IWW establishes “1,000 mile picket line.”
* First use of the term “Wobbly” in IWW publications.
* Strike of organ and piano builders in New York.
* Two-week strike against American Radiator in Buffalo (5,000 workers).
* Unsuccessful national lumber workers strike.
* Strikes at Warner Refining in Edgewater, NY and Corn Products Refining in Shadyside, NJ;
* Strike at Avery Implements in Peoria, IL.
* Brotherhood of Timber Workers affiliates with Forest and Lumber Workers Industrial Union, IWW; strikes Galloway Lumber Company in Grabow, LA. Three strikers killed and 58 arrested for defending themselves, acquitted in December.
* Textile strike in New Bedford, MA (11,000) Dockworkers strike in San Pedro, CA.
* Tobacco worker strikes in Pittsburgh and McKees Rock, PA.
* Ettor and Gionvanitti trial ends in acquittal.


Strike instigated by IWW dual-carders in AFL Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union against the Astor and other premier hotels in New York City.
* Paterson Silk Strike—Silkworkers strike in Paterson, NJ (25,000 workers)
*Paterson Pageant

* BTW in 7-month strike against American Lumber Company (1,200 workers)
* Textile strike in Ipswitch, NY
* Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union formed by Philadelphia, PA, longshoremen as a result of spontaneous strike.
* Strike against Studebaker, car manufacturer (6,000 workers); short strikes against Metal Wheel in Detroit and Foyer Brothers in Toledo.
* Strike against Dry Slitz Stogie leads to lockout of 1200 workers in Pittsburgh, PA, 800 IWW cigar workers strike in retaliation.
* Dock workers strike for safety equipment in Duluth, MN set up branch of MTW;
* Wheatland Riots—Hop pickers strike against Durst Ranch in Wheatland, CA. Gun battle results in indictment and conviction of IWW organizers Ford and Suhr who are sentenced to 15 years in prison.
* Textile strike in Baltimore, MD undermined by AFL scabs. BTW strike in Sweet Home, LA.


* World War I begins in Europe.
* 3,000 unemployed demonstrate in Detroit; IWW gains control of Unemployed Convention in San Francisco. New York unemployed, led by Wobbly Frank Tannenbaum, occupy churches; Union Square unemployed riot.
* Sioux City, Iowa, free speech fight.
* IWW Unemployed League organized in Detroit.


* Detroit IWW, aka Workers International Industrial Union, dissolves.
* AWO Established—Agricultural Workers Organization 400 (later renamed Agricultural Workers Industrial Union 110) founded in Kansas City, MO, introduces the job delegate system into IWW.
* Joe Hill Executed—Joe Hill, IWW organizer, executed by copper bosses in Utah.

* BTW dissolves. Victim of 5,000 blacklisted members.
* National Industrial Union of Textile Workers dissolves, its remaining locals affiliate directly to IWW.
* Philadelphia MTW wins recognition at non-union docks without a contract.
* Shoe workers strike 28 shops in Philadelphia; Strike of 700 against Solvay Processing Plant in Detroit, MI;
* Strike of 3,000 against Kelsey Wheel in Detroit, MI;
* Housemaids organized in Denver, CO;
* Iron miners strike on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota (6,000 workers);
* Miners strike, Cayuna Range, MI;
* Dock workers strike in Two Harbors and Duluth, MN;
* Shingle-weavers strike in Everett, WA; Miners strike in Scranton, PA
* Vernillion Iron Range out on strike.
* Everett Massacre—IWWs murdered by hired guns in Everett, WA. Seventy-five held for murder of deputy, acquitted.
* IWW Convention adopts anti-war resolution.


* Oil Workers Industrial Union and Metal Mine Workers Industrial Union chartered.
* Longshoremen strike in Philadelphia, PA.
* Lumber Workers Industrial Union established.
* River drivers strike in Fontana River, MT, and win 8-hour day.
* Idaho and Minnesota pass Criminal Syndicalism Laws (pdf) to counter IWW organizing.
* General Construction Workers Industrial Union formed; construction strike in Exeter, CA. Construction strike in Seattle wins IWW hiring hall; Construction strike in Rockford, IL;
* Speculator mine disaster in Butte, MT leads to strike;
* Copper strikes in Arizona in support of Butte;
* Lumber workers strike in Spokane district, WA;
* Miners strike in Virginia, MN.
* Bisbee Deportation—1200 copper strikers deported from Bisbee, AZ.
* Miners strike Gogebic Range.
* Frank Little Murdered—Frank Little, IWW organizer, lynched by copper bosses.
* Australian IWWs tried for treason for opposing conscription, IWW outlawed.
* Federal agents raid IWW halls and offices nation wide, arrest 165 IWW members.
* LWIU 120 Wins 8-Hour Day—Lumber strike in on the job wins 8-hour day in Northwest timber country.
* General Defense Committee formed to defend class war prisoners.


* IWW lumber workers burn bedrolls and mattresses.
* Chicago trial of 100 IWWs for espionage ends in sentences of 20 years for 15 men; 10 years for 35; 5 years for 33;1 year for 12 and nominal sentences for the rest.


* General strikes in Seattle, WA, Butte, MT, Toledo, OH and, Winnipeg, MB.
* MTW strike in Philadelphia, PA.
* Mine workers strike in Butte, MT and Oatman, AZ or 6-hour day.
* Lumber strikes on river drives win clean bedding.
* Lumber workers hall in Superior, WI, attacked by mob but show of force by Wobs turns them back.
* Short-log district lumber strikes include demands for release of class war prisoners and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Russia.
* Centralia Massacre—Mob of Legionnaires attack IWW hall in Centralia, WA. IWWs defend hall with force. IWW Wesley Everest, one of the hall defenders, tortured and lynched by mob. Eight others sent to prison on conspiracy charges.
* MTW branch established in Buenos Aires, Argentina
* IWW administrations established in Mexico and Chile.
* Wichita and Sacramento IWW trials. 2000 class war prisoners.


* Palmer Raids—Palmer Raids round up and deport thousands of alien radicals.
* IWW and British Shop Stewards Movement agree on exchange of membership cards.
* MTW strike in Philadelphia, PA.
* Chilean IWW conducts strike to protest export of food during famine; Chilean government launched reign of terror to destroy IWW.
* Communist-controlled IWW General Executive Board suspends Philadelphia MTW on false charges of loading arms for Russian counter-revolutionary Wrangle.

* Congress of Red Trade Union International attended by delegates from IWW and Canadian OBU. Their reports of political domination by Communists convinces IWW not to affiliate.
* 46 IWWs out on bail on the espionage convictions start prison terms. Bill Haywood and 8 others jump bail and flee to Russia.
* IWW hall raided in Tampico, Mexico. General strike forces government to allow it to reopen.
* Philadelphia MTW branch reinstated.


* Joint MTW and ILA strike in Portland, OR, against Fink Hall, sold out by ILA.
* Construction strike on Great Northern Railroad.
* Strike on power projects in Oregon and Washington.
* Metal Mine strikes in Bingham Canyon and Butte.
* Oil Workers Industrial Union drive in Southwest.
* MTW strike in Portland, OR.
* ILA-hired thugs attempt to drive MTW out of Hoboken, NJ.
* Railroad shopmen’s strike supported by IWW Railroad Workers Industrial Union.
* MTW in Philadelphia strike against blacklist and for 44-hour week.
* Construction strike in Hetch-Hetchy project near San Francisco and on Edison Power irrigation project near Fresno, CA.


* Two strikes against Warren Construction Co. out of Fresno.
* Police try to shut down IWW hall in Mobile, AL but free speech fight prevails.
* Strikes to free class war prisoners conducted by IWW in San Pedro, Aberdeen, New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Mobile and Galveston, and by Lumber and Construction Unions in Washington and Oregon.
* San Pedro free speech fight


* Emergency Program / Four-Trey Split—IWW splits: Emergency Program-IWW sets up headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
* Thugs raid IWW hall in San Pedro, destroy hall and scald children.


* Philadelphia MTW goes over to ILA due to disillusionment over 1924 split and perceived interference from General Administration.
* IWW coal miners strike in Alberta against UMWA check-off.


* Sacco & Vanzetti Murdered—IWW strikes for Sacco and Vanzetti in Colorado. Sacco and Vanzetti executed in Boston.
* Columbine Massacre—Colorado coal strike leads to Columbine Massacre.


* Police raid IWW hall in Walsenburg, CO, two Wobblies killed.


* IWW drive among coal miners in Illinois gains sizable two-card membership in UMWA.
* Strike against U.S. Gypsum Company near Oakfield, NY.
* MTW branch established in Stettin, Germany.
* The Great Depression Begins—Stock market crashes, beginning of Great Depression.

Repression and Disinformation:

“The popular attitude toward the Wobblies among employers, public officials and the public generally corresponds to the popular notion that they are arch-fiends and the dregs of society. It is the hang-them-all-at-sunrise attitude. A high official of the Federal Department of Justice in one of our western states gave the writer an instance. On a recent visit to a small town in a distant part of the state he happened upon the sheriff. That officer, in reply to a question, explained that they were ‘having no trouble at all with Wobs’: ‘When a Wobbly comes to town,’ he explained, ‘I just knock him over the head with a night stick and throw him in the river. When he comes up he beats it out of town.’ [I]n such a situation almost any poor man, if he be without a job or visible means of support, is assumed to be, ipso facto, an I.W.W. Being a Wobbly, the proper thing for him is pickhandle treatment or– if he is known to be a strike agitator– a ‘little neck-tie party.”
— Paul Brissendon, The I.W.W.: A Study of American Syndicalism (2nd ed. 1920)


“…material was being gathered for a new outbreak in the United States. The casual laborers had greatly increased in numbers, especially in the West. These migratory working men—the “hobo miners,” the “hobo lumber jacks,” the “blanket stiffs,” of colloquial speech—wander about the country in search of work. They rarely have ties of family and seldom ties of locality. About one-half of these wanderers are American born. They are to be described with precision as “floaters.” Their range of operations includes the wheat regions west of the Mississippi, the iron mines of Michigan and Minnesota, the mines and forests of Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, and the fields of California and Arizona. They prefer to winter in the cities, but, as their only refuge is the bunk lodging house, they increase the social problem in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other centers of the unemployed. Many of these migrants never were skilled workers; but a considerable portion of them have been forced down into the ranks of the unskilled by the inevitable tragedies of prolonged unemployment. Such men lend a willing ear to the labor agitator. The exact number in this wandering class is not known. The railroad companies have estimated that at a given time there have been 500,000 hobos trying to beat their way from place to place. Unquestionably a large percentage of the 23,964 trespassers killed and of the 25,236 injured on railway rights of way from 1901 to 1904 belonged to this class.

“It is not alone these drifters, however, who because of their irresponsibility and their hostility toward society became easy victims to the industrial organizer. The great mass of unskilled workers in the factory towns proved quite as tempting to the propagandist. Among laborers of this class, wages are the lowest and living conditions the most uninviting. Moreover, this group forms the industrial reservoir which receives the settlings of the most recent European and Asiatic immigration. These people have a standard of living and conceptions of political and individual freedom which are at variance with American traditions. Though their employment is steadier than that of the migratory laborer, and though they often have ties of family and other stabilizing responsibilities, their lives are subject to periods of unemployment, and these fluctuations serve to feed their innate restlessness. They are, in quite the literal sense of the word, American proletarians. They are more volatile than any European proletarian, for they have learned the lesson of migration, and they retain the socialistic and anarchistic philosophy of their European fellow-workers.”

— Samuel Orth, The Armies of Labor, from the chapter entitled “The New Terrorism: The IWW” (1921). Jim Crutchfield, from whose website this quote is taken, describes this text as “A disgusting piece of A. F. of L. propaganda. Full of lies and vitriol against the I. W. W., it endorses lynch-law and covers up the crimes of the boss class and its “labor lieutenants” in the A. F. of L. against the authentic organization of the working class. The Everett Massacre is presented as a valiant defense of the town against an invading army, rather than the ambush of peaceful workers by a drunken gang of deputies’.”



“Most of the individuals involved in this movement are aliens or foreign-born citizens. There are some, however, of unquestioned American extraction. Some of the leaders are idealists with distorted minds, many even insane; many are professional agitators who are plainly self-seekers and a large number of potential, or actual criminals whose baseness of character leads them to espouse the unrestrained and gross theories and tactics of these organizations. If there be any doubt of the general character of the active leaders and agitators amongst these avowed revolutionists, a visit to the Department of Justice and an examination of their photographs there collected would dispel it. Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.”

— Mitchell Palmer, hearing before the House of Representatives (1920)



Notes on Ahmed White’s The Crime of Economic Radicalism: Criminal Syndicalism Laws and the Industrial Workers of the World, 1917-1927.

Official repression of the IWW included not only “authorities manipulation of laws of general relevance…. for example, with the large scale and totally unfounded prosecution of IWW members for conspiracy to interfere with the war effort” but by the use of “vagrancy laws, ‘tramp acts,’ and other relatively minor laws” (651).

Tens of thousands of wobblies were arrested and charged using these laws.

“Such charges were use time and again to run members out of town, intiate beatings and other indiginties, and preempt organizing and strike efforts.”

“beyond legal artifice and selective prosecution”:

“official lawlessness as well as official complicity in private acts of antiradical vigilantism. Countless members were beaten and on occasion even killed by American Legionnaires, Ku Klux Klansmen, private detectives, and other self-nominated protectors of ‘true’ Americanism.”

“In the late 1910s and early 1920s, almost half of American states and territories enacted criminal syndicalism laws that essentially criminalized any sort of challenge to industrial capitalism. These laws did this under the guise of criminalizing advocacy of ‘political or industrial change’ by means of ‘sabotage,’ ‘terrorism,’ and other criminal conduct” (652).

“key terms… like sabotage, were only vaguely… defined”

“it was the purpose and function of criminal syndicalism laws to effectively criminalize mere membership in the IWW and thereby challenge its continued existence as a functioning institution.”

“these were serious criminal laws concerned far more with destroying the IWW and punishing its members for their radicalism than regulating speech and association rights in any abstractly juridical sense” (654).

Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape:



SCENE—Nearly a month later. An I. W. W. local near the waterfront, showing the interior of a front room on the ground floor, and the street outside. Moonlight on the narrow street, buildings massed in black shadow. The interior of the room, which is general assembly room, office, and reading room, resembles some dingy settlement boys club. A desk and high stool are in one corner. A table with papers, stacks of pamphlets, chairs about it, is at center. The whole is decidedly cheap, banal, commonplace and unmysterious as a room could well be. The secretary is perched on the stool making entries in a large ledger. An eye shade casts his face into shadows. Eight or ten men, longshoremen, iron workers, and the like, are grouped about the table. Two are playing checkers. One is writing a letter. Most of them are smoking pipes. A big signboard is on the wall at the rear, “Industrial Workers of the World—Local No. 57.”
YANK—(Comes down the street outside. He is dressed as in Scene Five. He moves cautiously, mysteriously. He comes to a point opposite the door; tiptoes softly up to it, listens, is impressed by the silence within, knocks carefully, as if he were guessing at the password to some secret rite. Listens. No answer. Knocks again a bit louder. No answer. Knocks impatiently, much louder.)
SECRETARY—(Turning around on his stool.) What the devil is that—someone knocking? (Shouts:) Come in, why don’t you? (All the men in the room look up. YANK opens the door slowly, gingerly, as if afraid of an ambush. He looks around for secret doors, mystery, is taken aback by the commonplaceness of the room and the men in it, thinks he may have gotten in the wrong place, then sees the signboard on the wall and is reassured.)
YANK—(Blurts out.) Hello.
MEN—(Reservedly.) Hello.
YANK—(More easily.) I tought I’d bumped into de wrong dump.
SECRETARY—(Scrutinizing him carefully.) Maybe you have. Are you a member?
YANK—Naw, not yet. Dat’s what I come for—to join.
SECRETARY—That’s easy. What’s your job—longshore?
YANK—Naw. Fireman—stoker on de liners.
SECRETARY—(With satisfaction.) Welcome to our city. Glad to know you people are waking up at last. We haven’t got many members in your line.
YANK—Naw. Dey’re all dead to de woild.
SECRETARY—Well, you can help to wake ’em. What’s your name? I’ll make out your card.
YANK—(Confused.) Name? Lemme tink.
SECRETARY—(Sharply.) Don’t you know your own name?
YANK—Sure; but I been just Yank for so long—Bob, dat’s it—Bob Smith.
SECRETARY—(Writing.) Robert Smith. (Fills out the rest of card.) Here you are. Cost you half a dollar.
YANK—Is dat all—four bits? Dat’s easy. (Gives the Secretary the money.)
SECRETARY—(Throwing it in drawer.) Thanks. Well, make yourself at home. No introductions needed. There’s literature on the table. Take some of those pamphlets with you to distribute aboard ship. They may bring results. Sow the seed, only go about it right. Don’t get caught and fired. We got plenty out of work. What we need is men who can hold their jobs—and work for us at the same time.
YANK—Sure. (But he still stands, embarrassed and uneasy.)
SECRETARY—(Looking at him—curiously.) What did you knock for? Think we had a coon in uniform to open doors?
YANK—Naw. I tought it was locked—and dat yuh’d wanter give me the once-over trou a peep-hole or somep’n to see if I was right.
SECRETARY—(Alert and suspicious but with an easy laugh.) Think we were running a crap game? That door is never locked. What put that in your nut?
YANK—(With a knowing grin, convinced that this is all camouflage, a part of the secrecy.) Dis burg is full of bulls, ain’t it?
SECRETARY—(Sharply.) What have the cops got to do with us? We’re breaking no laws.
YANK—(With a knowing wink.) Sure. Youse wouldn’t for woilds. Sure. I’m wise to dat.
SECRETARY—You seem to be wise to a lot of stuff none of us knows about.
YANK—(With another wink.) Aw, dat’s aw right, see. (Then made a bit resentful by the suspicious glances from all sides.) Aw, can it! Youse needn’t put me trou de toid degree. Can’t youse see I belong? Sure! I’m reg’lar. I’ll stick, get me? I’ll shoot de woiks for youse. Dat’s why I wanted to join in.
SECRETARY—(Breezily, feeling him out.) That’s the right spirit. Only are you sure you understand what you’ve joined? It’s all plain and above board; still, some guys get a wrong slant on us. (Sharply.) What’s your notion of the purpose of the I. W. W.?
YANK—Aw, I know all about it.
SECRETARY—(Sarcastically.) Well, give us some of your valuable information.
YANK—(Cunningly.) I know enough not to speak outa my toin. (Then resentfully again.) Aw, say! I’m reg’lar. I’m wise to de game. I know yuh got to watch your step wit a stranger. For all youse know, I might be a plain-clothes dick, or somep’n, dat’s what yuh’re tinkin’, huh? Aw, forget it! I belong, see? Ask any guy down to de docks if I don’t.
SECRETARY—Who said you didn’t?
YANK—After I’m ’nitiated, I’ll show yuh.
SECRETARY—(Astounded.) Initiated? There’s no initiation.
YANK—(Disappointed.) Ain’t there no password—no grip nor nothin’?
SECRETARY—What’d you think this is—the Elks—or the Black Hand?
YANK—De Elks, hell! De Black Hand, dey’re a lot of yellow backstickin’ Ginees. Naw. Dis is a man’s gang, ain’t it?
SECRETARY—You said it! That’s why we stand on our two feet in the open. We got no secrets.
YANK—(Surprised but admiringly.) Yuh mean to say yuh always run wide open—like dis?
YANK—Den yuh sure got your noive wit youse!
SECRETARY—(Sharply.) Just what was it made you want to join us? Come out with that straight.
YANK—Yuh call me? Well, I got noive, too! Here’s my hand. Yuh wanter blow tings up, don’t yuh? Well, dat’s me! I belong!
SECRETARY—(With pretended carelessness.) You mean change the unequal conditions of society by legitimate direct action—or with dynamite?
YANK—Dynamite! Blow it offen de oith—steel—all de cages—all de factories, steamers, buildings, jails—de Steel Trust and all dat makes it go.
SECRETARY—So—that’s your idea, eh? And did you have any special job in that line you wanted to propose to us. (He makes a sign to the men, who get up cautiously one by one and group behind YANK.)
YANK—(Boldly.) Sure, I’ll come out wit it. I’ll show youse I’m one of de gang. Dere’s dat millionaire guy, Douglas—
SECRETARY—President of the Steel Trust, you mean? Do you want to assassinate him?
YANK—Naw, dat don’t get yuh nothin’. I mean blow up de factory, de woiks, where he makes de steel. Dat’s what I’m after—to blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de woild up to de moon. Dat’ll fix tings! (Eagerly, with a touch of bravado.) I’ll do it by me lonesome! I’ll show yuh! Tell me where his woiks is, how to git there, all de dope. Gimme de stuff, de old butter—and watch me do de rest! Watch de smoke and see it move! I don’t give a damn if dey nab me—long as it’s done! I’ll soive life for it—and give ’em de laugh! (Half to himself.) And I’ll write her a letter and tell her de hairy ape done it. Dat’ll square tings.
SECRETARY—(Stepping away from YANK.) Very interesting. (He gives a signal. The men, huskies all, throw themselves on YANK and before he knows it they have his legs and arms pinioned. But he is too flabber-gasted to make a struggle, anyway. They feel him over for weapons.)
MAN—No gat, no knife. Shall we give him what’s what and put the boots to him?
SECRETARY—No. He isn’t worth the trouble we’d get into. He’s too stupid. (He comes closer and laughs mockingly in YANK’S face.) Ho-ho! By God, this is the biggest joke they’ve put up on us yet. Hey, you Joke! Who sent you—Burns or Pinkerton? No, by God, you’re such a bonehead I’ll bet you’re in the Secret Service! Well, you dirty spy, you rotten agent provocator, you can go back and tell whatever skunk is paying you blood-money for betraying your brothers that he’s wasting his coin. You couldn’t catch a cold. And tell him that all he’ll ever get on us, or ever has got, is just his own sneaking plots that he’s framed up to put us in jail. We are what our manifesto says we are, neither more or less—and we’ll give him a copy of that any time he calls. And as for you—(He glares scornfully at YANK,who is sunk in an oblivious stupor.) Oh, hell, what’s the use of talking? You’re a brainless ape.
YANK—(Aroused by the word to fierce but futile struggles.) What’s dat, yuh Sheeny bum, yuh!
SECRETARY—Throw him out, boys. (In spite of his struggles, this is done with gusto and éclat. Propelled by several parting kicks, YANK lands sprawling in the middle of the narrow cobbled street. With a growl he starts to get up and storm the closed door, but stops bewildered by the confusion in his brain, pathetically impotent. He sits there, brooding, in as near to the attitude of Rodin’s “Thinker” as he can get in his position.)
YANK—(Bitterly.) So dem boids don’t tink I belong, neider. Aw, to hell wit ’em! Dey’re in de wrong pew—de same old bull—soapboxes and Salvation Army—no guts! Cut out an hour offen de job a day and make me happy! Gimme a dollar more a day and make me happy! Tree square a day, and cauliflowers in de front yard—ekal rights—a woman and kids—a lousey vote—and I’m all fixed for Jesus, huh? Aw, hell! What does dat get yuh? Dis ting’s in your inside, but it ain’t your belly. Feedin’ your face—sinkers and coffee—dat don’t touch it. It’s way down—at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, and yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole woild stops. Dat’s me now—I don’t tick, see?—I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong! (He turns a bitter mocking face up like an ape gibbering at the moon.) Say, youse up dere, Man in de Moon, yuh look so wise, gimme de answer, huh? Slip me de inside dope, de information right from de stable—where do I get off at, huh?
A POLICEMAN—(Who has come up the street in time to hear this last—with grim humor.) You’ll get off at the station, you boob, if you don’t get up out of that and keep movin’.
YANK—(Looking up at him—with a hard, bitter laugh.) Sure! Lock me up! Put me in a cage! Dat’s de on’y answer yuh know. G’wan, lock me up!
POLICEMAN—What you been doin’?
YANK—Enuf to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure, dat’s de charge. Write it in de blotter. I was born, get me!
POLICEMAN—(Jocosely.) God pity your old woman! (Then matter-of-fact.) But I’ve no time for kidding. You’re soused. I’d run you in but it’s too long a walk to the station. Come on now, get up, or I’ll fan your ears with this club. Beat it now! (He hauls YANK to his feet.)
YANK—(In a vague mocking tone.) Say, where do I go from here?
POLICEMAN—(Giving him a push—with a grin, indifferently.) Go to hell.


A Working Class Counterculture:



Above: IWW band, Joe Hill, performance of Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave (lyrics below).

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

The starvation army they play,
They sing and they clap and they pray
‘Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum:Holy Rollers and jumpers come out,
They holler, they jump and they shout.
Give your money to Jesus they say,
He will cure all diseases today.
If you fight hard for children and wife —
Try to get something good in this life —
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight;
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.



Above: Cover art for “Rebel Girl,” excerpt of a talk by EGF and the song itself, Flynn agitating in Lawrence.

The World As It Is Today


“The capitalist system, rotten as it is, has resources which cannot be overlooked. The armed forces of the state are not nearly so formidable as the venal press and other avenues of publicity and class mis-education. The capitalist press and class-controlled radio are perhaps the very strongest bulwarks for the established order. By means of these, labor hatred and mob frenzy can be lashed to fever heat at any time and against any individual or group which dares to challenge the capitalist system. ”

Ralph Chaplin, “The General Strike” (1933)

“The wealthiest 5% of the world’s people now earn 114 times as much as the poorest 5%. The 500 richest people on earth now own $1.54 trillion – more than the entire gross domestic product of Africa, or the combined annual incomes of the poorest half of humanity.”

— UK Guardian, 9/3/03


March 7, 2009

The Mask of Empire

Filed under: American rhetoric,Empire & Colony — equiano @ 10:29 am

By way of a follow up to Thursday’s lecture, take a look at this recent article by Tom Englehardt, which seems to echo some of the issues raised in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.

March 6, 2009

MidTerm Prompts

Filed under: prompts — equiano @ 11:26 am

Midterm Exam Prompt
American Studies 1B, Spring 2009 (Connelly, Daly, Georges)


Three questions are printed below. Although only two will be randomly selected for you to write on during the exam period, you must prepare answers for all three.

Exam date: Thursday, March 12. Time: noon. Location: BBC 004 (lecture hall).

> No books, notes, electronic devices, etc. – just exam booklets, pens, this sheet.
> Exam ends at precisely 1:15—no extra time for anyone.
> Please write in pen or pencil, using only one side of each page.
> We may assign or re-assign seating before or during the exam.
> No seminar meetings after the exam.

Exam Questions

1) The Progressive impulse that gained its highest visibility between 1895 and 1920 galvanized a variety of individuals and groups across the lines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender to reform American society. Describe Progressivism in terms of its causes and goals, and assess its outcomes using the works of three individuals from the list below to illustrate how the Progressive cause was advanced.

Ida Wells-Barnett, “Lynch Law in America”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Chs. 1 or 3 (choose one)
Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, Chs. 13 and 14
Jack London, “South of the Slot”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Anzia Yezierska, “America and I”
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House, Ch.8 “The Problems of Poverty”
Zitkala-Sa, “School Days”

2) Support for the earlier phases of U.S. imperialism took many forms. Arguments were advanced by policy makers and in popular culture to justify various instances of American intervention and aggression, from the racial cleansing of the western plains to the annexation of Hawaii to the colonization of the Philippines. Using the Norton, formulate a list of some of the most significant pro-imperialist arguments and explain the reasoning behind them, then consider them in light of three of the following anti-imperialist texts: “The Emperor Jones,” “This Bloody Blundering Business,” “Editha,” and “School Days.” How do these three texts criticize American empire not only in terms of their content but also in terms of their form?

3) Most—if not all—of this course’s primary sources evince an identifiably gendered perspective. Whether or not a text is overtly concerned with gender issues, gender and gendered dynamics—i.e., masculinity and femininity, male privilege and female subordination—often work in the background (as a “subtext”) to help create the text’s larger meanings.  Formulate a thesis about gender at the turn of the century based on a careful examination of the gendered perspectives in three primary sources. Think about the following questions to help you get started: How did gender intersect with other important categories of experience, like race, class, immigrant status, and religious identity? What role did gender and gendered dynamics play in the struggle against segregation and racial terrorism? In the Progressive movement? In westward expansion and imperialism? In responses to industrialization, immigration, technological change, etc.? Use the Norton and lectures to help establish historical context.

March 5, 2009

We Cotch Him

Key Terms






“anti-colonial imperialism”

“cultural resistance”

Art and Propaganda

“Thus the white artist looking in on the colored world, if he be wise and discerning, may often see the beauty, tragedy and comedy more truly than we dare. Of course if he be simply a shyster like Tom Dixon, he will see only exaggerated evil, and fail as utterly in the other extreme as we in ours. But if, like Sheldon, he writes a fine true work of art… or like Ridgeley Torrence, a beautiful comedy… or like Eugene O’Neill, a splendid tragedy like ‘The Emperor Jones’– he finds to his own consternation the Negroes and even educated Negroes, shrinking or openly condemning…. [O]nly yesterday a protest of colored folk in a western city declared that ‘The Emperor Jones is the kind of play that should never be staged under any circumstances, regardless of theories, because it portrays the worst traits of the bad element of both races.’

“No more complete misunderstanding of this play or of the aim of Art could well be written….

“Nonsense. We stand today secure enough in our accomplishment and self-confidence to lend the whole stern human truth about ourselves to the transforming hand and seeing eye of the Artist, white and black…. Torrence and O’Neill are our great benefactors– forerunners of artists who will yet arise….”

— WEB Du Bois, “Negro Art” (1921)

“Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent….”

WEB Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926)

The Emperor Jones

On its face The Emperor Jones looks like the tarnished relic of a racist past, one more loathsome piece of kitsch in the junkyard of “ethnic notions”. Divorced from its aesthetic and socio-historical context, Eugene O’Neill’s story of the fall of Brutus Jones– the “emperor” of a nameless West Indian island, and former Pullman car porter and fled convict– seems like an exercise in the grotesque. According to this uncomplicated view the play simply represents an African American con man’s regression into his racial past, what Race Scientists might call “reversion to type” and President Andrew Johnson once suggested was a “‘tendency to relapse into barbarism’” (quoted in Fredrickson) a form of atavism ostensibly peculiar to the “Negro”.

I want to argue in this lecture that this well-intended but insufficient reading of The Emperor Jones is incorrect, that it fails to take into account not only O’Neill’s pointed criticism of US imperialism– a project which was and continues to be directed at impoverished people of color globally– but the very strange and unstable dynamics of racial identity itself.

“The inborn characteristics of the Negro had been formed by natural selection during ‘ages of degradation’ in Africa and his savage traits could not have been altered in any significant way by a mere two centuries of proximity to Caucasian civilization in America. Thus his present ‘reversion to type’ was understandable. Lacking the discipline of slavery, ‘the young negro of the South… is reverting through hereditary forces to savagery.’”

Paul B. Barringer in The American Negro: His Past and Future (1900) quoted in Fredrickson

James Weldon Johnson 28 Aug. 1920

The Context: Haiti



US Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.

O’Neill situates the play “on an island in the West Indies as yet self-determined by White Marines”. Note the irony here. As with This Bloody Blundering Business a satirical sensibility functions as a form of criticism.

The historical context of the play, specifically the United States government’s use of gunboat diplomacy to control Haiti’s domestic situation, points to a critique of an economically and racially motivated violation of the sovereignty of so called third world Caribbean nations, an imperialist project provoked by U.S. concerns about Germany’s influence in the region and justified, legally, by the Monroe doctrine. “Humanitarian” arguments were also advanced in light of Haiti’s political instability.

His protagonist is loosely based on two Haitian rulers, Henri Christophe and Guillaume Sam (though the Gelb biography also mentions a nameless bartender).

Despite the official rationale that the occupation was a necessity imposed on the United States by Haiti’s unstable political situation– a ‘moral duty’ undertaken to protect the lives and property of American citizens– United States’ policy in Haiti reflected a desire to ‘quickly establish U.S. political and economic dominance. Further, such dominance was part of a larger Caribbean plan (Abbot, 100).

In the first year of the occupation alone, U.S. Marines ensured that Philippe-Sudre Dartiguenave was ‘elected’ president by the Haitian Senate, the customhouses were taken over, the Haitian army was disbanded, the national bank was seized and all of its available cash sent to New York , and, on September 16, 1915 an agreement was pressed upon the Haitian government that allowed U.S. Marines to ‘police the country and to control public finances for ten years’ (101).

Here is how Haitian born novelist Edwidge Danticat phrases it:

“On July 28, 1915, U.S. forces invaded Haiti, launching an occupation that would last 19 years.

The U.S. invasion came in the wake of President Woodrow Wilson’s professed commitment to make the world safe for democracy. However, as soon as the Marines landed in Haiti, Wilson’s administration remapped the country into police departments, shut down the press, installed a lame-duck government, rewrote the constitution to give foreigners land-owning rights, took charge of Haiti’s banks and customs and instituted a system of compulsory labor for poor Haitians.

Those who resisted the occupation — among them a militant peasant-run group called Cacos — were crushed. In 1919, U.S. Marines in blackface ambushed and killed the Cacos’ fearless leader, Charlemagne Peralte, mutilated his corpse and displayed it in a public square for days.

By the end of the occupation, more than 15,000 Haitians had lost their lives. A Haitian gendarmerie was trained to replace the U.S. Marines, then proceeded to form juntas, organize coups and terrorize Haitians for decades.

Although U.S. troops were officially withdrawn from Haiti in 1934, the U.S. government maintained economic control of the country until 1947.”

Some Documents:

“The election of Dartiguenave is preferred by the United States.”

— Navy Dept. dispatch to Adm. Caperton

“In order that no misunderstanding can possibly occur after election, it should be made perfectly clear to candidates as soon as possible and in advance of their election, that the United States expects to be intrusted with the practical control of the customs, and such financial control over the affairs of the Republic of Haiti as the United States may deem necessary for efficient administration….”

–Telegram Secretary of State to Charge D’Affairs, August 10, 1915

Art. I. The Government of the United States will, by its good offices, aid the Haitian Government in the proper and efficient development of its …resources and in the establishment of the finances of Haiti on a firm…basis.

Art II. The President of Haiti shall appoint, upon nomination by the President of the United States, a general receiver … who shall collect, receive and apply all customs duties …

The President of Haiti shall appoint, upon nomination by the President of the United States, a financial advisor…

Art. III. The Government of …Haiti will provide by law…for the payment of all customs duties to the general receiver…

Art. V. All sums collected …by the general receiver shall be applied first [to pay his expenses] second, to the interest and sinking fund of the public debt of …Haiti…

–Treaty Between The United States And Haiti Signed September 16, 1915

Further context:

These initial acts of imperialism were, however, only the beginning of an eighteen year effort to transform ‘every aspect of Haitian life’ (Suggs 36). U.S. troops dispersed Voudoun ceremonies, chased worshippers away, destroyed sacred drums and other artifacts, and arrested houngans and mambos.  Marines and the U.S. trained Haitian army sought and destroyed armed resistance on the part of officers of the old, ‘disbanded army, landowners, and peasants’ (Trouillot 101).  In order to combat guerilla warfare more effectively, the occupying American forces instituted forced labor on road construction. Laborers were ‘roped together like slaves, underfed and brutally overworked’ in a revival of an old French Colonial practice known as the corvee (Abbott 41). Those who attempted to escape risked being shot. The increasing antagonism of U.S. forces, most of whom brought with them to Haiti the prevalent racist attitudes of the United States and saw the Haitians as little more than savages, finally led to the Cacos Wars (1918-1920), in which thousands of Haitians were killed (42).

The press in the United States, particularly “Negro newspapers,” were aware of the events transpiring in Haiti. The Nation published at least four articles on U.S. involvement in Haiti in the latter half of 1920. James Weldon Johnson condemned the brutality of American troops and ‘charged that the U.S. Marines had killed 3,000 Haitians since 1916 in so-called hunting bandits expeditions’ (Suggs 36).  Two unsigned articles in the Literary Digest, ‘Probing Haitian Scandal’ and ‘Undeclared War in Haiti,’ both of which appeared in October, 1920, criticized Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox for his position on the occupation and suggested that Republican contender Warren G. Harding would be more amenable to changing U.S. policy toward Haiti. This prediction, however, proved to be optimistic. ‘The first step in Harding’s reorganization and rationalization of his Haitian policy was the acceptance of the recommendations of the Select Senate Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo to continue the occupation indefinitely.”

“In October 1930 Haitians chose a national assembly for the first time since 1918. It in turn elected as president Sténio Joseph Vincent. In August 1934 U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew the Marines; however, the United States maintained direct fiscal control until 1941 and indirect control over Haiti until 1947” (Enc. Brit.)

The Play

At a time when most depictions of blacks on stage and screen consisted of racial myths and falsehoods, The Emperor Jones was the first American play to present black actors–as opposed to black-faced actors–and to highlight a black protagonist, arguably one of the most important African-American characters in the history of American drama.  The Emperor Jones established the careers and reputations of such legendary actors as Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson by offering them a role that, at least superficially, defied popular racial misconceptions.  More importantly, the play assisted in encouraging white audiences to sympathize with an African-American character who did not fit the well-established minstrel show taxonomy of dandy, sambo, etc.

Critics were immediately compelled to invoke Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. Both Othello and Brutus Jones are powerful men of African descent who are ultimately destroyed by their foibles.

The Emperor Jones was heavily influenced by expressionism, “a general term for a mode of literary or visual art which, in extreme reaction against realism or naturalism, presents a world violently distorted under the pressure of intense personal moods, ideas, and emotions: image and language thus express feeling and imagination rather than represent external reality” (Oxford Concise).


Above: Possibly the most widely known example of Expressionist painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (a series of paintings, actually, created between 1893 and 1910).

It is said that O’Neill’s play was a product not only of his own travels in Honduras, but the photography of Charles Sheeler, who focused on African sculpture from 1916-1918.


Above: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, influenced by African masks.

An interest in “the primitive” was a hallmark of the early phase of modernism, a sensibility which characterized the work of both EuroAmerican and AfricanAmerican artists. Primitivism would become a fertile resource for writers such as O’Neill and Vachel Lindsay (see his frankly revolting poem The Congo) and also Harlem Renaissance figures including Aaron Douglas and Claude McKay. See also Orson Welles’ amazing adaptation of Shakespeare, the so-called Voodoo Macbeth:



Above: Aaron Douglas’ The Emperor Jones Series (woodcut on paper, 1926)

Racial Themes

Scene One:

The color scheme, the overdetermined whiteness of the set– “white-washed walls…. white tiles… white pillars”– are an obvious clue that the dominant racial hierachy of the period is askew.

The palace can be seen as an inversion of the plantation myth; the agrarian paradise where everyone is content and knows her place; here, the master is African-American.

Smithers enters wearing the classic effects of the colonizer: pith helmet, riding crop, puttees, pistol and cartridge belt.

The dialogue between Jones and Smithers is rife with role reversals and inversions (ex. Jones feels “contempt” for Smithers, he tells him to “talk polite, white man”).  Structurally speaking, O’Neill uses Smithers to provide exposition and background regarding Jones’ rise to power.  On another level, Smithers is a corrupt hanger-on, a vulture who scavenges on the remains of Jones’s once-mighty island empire.  He is subordinate to, fears and loathes, Jones yet also admires his cunning and tenacity.  Smithers’ sense of white supremacy, the natural order of things, is undermined by Jones’ brash effectivity.

The description of Jones is telling, and brings us back to the metaphor of blood in the “common sense” discourse of the day: Jones, according to the script, is a “full-blooded Negro” whose “features are typically negroid, yet there is something decidedly distinctive about his face– and underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect.”

It would be easy to point to this passage as evidence of a relatively uncomplicated negrophobia were it not for the fact that in The Hairy Ape Mildred’s aunt is also “a type– even to the point of double chin and lorgnettes”. What this seems to indicate is that typicality is not simply a function of race. On the other hand it is undeniable that Jones’ position as emperor and the ostentation of his uniform are intended to be incongruous. Even so, according to the stage directions “he has a way of carrying it off.”

References to “the natives” are contemptuous as well. Clearly BJ views himself as superior, wilier, more sophisticated. This apparent contradiction– an African American  exploiting Afro-Caribbean people– is complicated not only because it challenges our notions of racial affinity and commonality, but because it makes us question that very assumption– i.e., that it is to be expected that BJ would feel sympathy or obligation to other members of the African Diaspora.

Rather BJ has internalized the class and race logic of wealthy American whites:

“dere’s little stealin like you does and dere’s big stealin like I does”, a lesson he attributes to his years as a Pullman car porter.

Jones even goes so far as to explain the most effective methods of colonization to Smithers: exploit local culture (Jones’ claims to be invulnerable to all weapons save a silver bullet seems to tap into native supersitions) and learn the language.

Jones’ past is interesting: it is implied he was imprisoned for murder and that he escaped by killing a guard. Mention of lynching.

The residue of minstrel show conventions: BJ talks to his feet more than once, he claims to have gotten into “an argument wid razors ovah a crap game.” Confronted with a vision of a chain gang “his eyes pop out”.

It becomes evident during his conversation with Smithers that BJ is someone to be taken seriously. He matches his defiance of white supremacy– “man, de white men went after me wid bloodhounds where I come from an’ I jes’ laughs at ’em”– with scrupulous planning– “Dawn tomorrow I’ll be out at de oder side and on de coast whar dat French gunboat is stayin’. She picks me up, take me to the Martinique when she go dar,and dere I is safe wid a mighty big bankroll in my jeans”.

Yet one of the central facts of The Emperor Jones is that it is a play about an African-American adventurer written by an Irish-American man. Does this fact mean that what we are witnessing is some sort of more sopthisticated version of a Minstrel Show? This is an important question, one that we can only answer by thinking about the play’s historical performances, from the opening with Charles Gilpin in 1920 to its revival by the Wooster Group in 1993 (revived again in 2007) when Kate Valk played Brutus Jones in black face and Willem Defoe played Smithers (see time-lapse of performance here).

The drums begin:

Letter from Marines stationed in Haiti during the occupation describe a similar experience. U.S. troops were unnerved by “the nights broken by the throb of voudou drums and the thin eerie wails of conch shells” (38). This form of cultural resistance was, perhaps, ultimately more effective than the armed resistance that the Cacos waged against the Marines.

O’Neill’s biographers also claim that he experienced this sound as a result of a bout of malaria.

Scene Two: “the forest is a wall of darkness dividing the world”. The stage directions suggest two things: Jones is headed into the dark terrain of his own unconscious or some sort of racial memory, and he is entering the domain of the “native”– the Cacos guerrilla.

The “little formless fears” can be read not only as the Jones’ internal state externalized but in terms of the Haitian guerillas who attacked both Haitian troops and U.S. Marines then seemingly vanished into the jungle during the Cacos Wars of 1918-1920.

Scene Three:

We find that Jones has lost his stylish Panama hat and “His face is scratched, his brilliant uniform shows several large rents“.

Jeff, the Pullman porter whom Jones murdered during a dispute over a game of craps, appears.  Jeff crouches on the ground, throwing dice “with the regular, rigid, mechanical movements of an automaton,'” a picture that, viewed within the context of the natives’ supernatural opposition toward Jones, suggests that Jeff is a zombie. The clicking of the dice, a sound that evokes both the rattling of bones and the casting of lots, catches Jones’ attention. Stunned, he recognizes Jeff. He takes the apparition to be a living man. Gradually, however, Jones realizes that because Jeff’s presence on the island is an impossibility, he is a ‘ha’ant’ (21). He fires his revolver, once again revealing his position in the forest and expending another round of ammunition. Jeff vanishes and Jones ‘plunges wildly into the underbrush’ (21).

The chain gang scene– Scene Four— serves to fulfill two functions: it continues Jones’ regression into his own past– pointing to the similarities between his former position as a prisoner and the natives’ situation as subjected or colonized persons– and it introduces the idea of the ‘corvee,’ a form of impressment instituted by U.S. Marines to build roads that would enable them to undertake ‘hunting bandit’ missions with greater efficacy. The road, as a symbol of empire, is both another attempt to restructure the terrain, to alter its essential features and thus recreate it in the image of the imperial center, and a means of confining the indigenous population. The natives are compelled to undertake labor, the product of which aids occupying forces to annihilate armed resistance. Peasants who have been impressed into the corvee are effectively barred from participating in the guerilla warfare that they depend upon to free them from the shackles of empire. In addition to causing Jones to relive his oppressed past, O’Neill suggests a broader critique of the methods of empire building; a set of strategies scarcely distinguishable from the crudest expression of imperialism, the slaved-based economy of EuroAmerican colonialism.

BJ is now “stripped to the waist”. It should be obvious by now that as BJ loses clothing he symbolically sheds layers of “civilization,” or what we could deem the social mask. In stripping away these marks of socialization, O’Neill isn’t simply invoking the myth of a “reversion to type” but attempting to speak universally. In this instance BJ is more than a representative of his race. It goes without saying however, that this is also a kind of strip-tease, with the athletic black male body slowly revealed to the audience. There is clearly a “phantasmatics” of fascination and desire at work here, one that is decidedly raced but which exceeds that encoding.

The Auction Scene (Scene Five):

BJ begins to break down. Plagued by doubt, fear and guilt, he laments his bad behavior, begging god forgiveness. Figures emerge from the gloom and we find ourselves confronted by the pantomime of a slave auction. Again, these figures are described as “stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish about their movements” in the stage directions.

Note the presence of mother and child– the invocation of the destruction of the family as a consequence of chattel slavery. Outraged, Jones fires twice. He is down to his last (silver) bullet.

In Scene Six O’Neill further regresses the character of Brutus Jones– explicitly linking his “depth psychology” with historical memory. Jones’ “pants have been so torn away that what is left of them is no better than a breech cloth”

We are now witnessing the Middle Passage. The enslaved are reduced to an keening murmur. Jones joins in. It is interesting to note that certain Voudou ceremonies involve a reenactment of crucial moments in history (Parrinder).

Scene Seven: The Witchdoctor and Crocodile God

Jones, frightened and confused , remarks “seems like I ben heah befo'”.

Now appears perhaps O’Neill’s most technically accomplished portrait of an undifferentiated Other.  With his painted body, antelope horns, bone rattle, cockatoo feathers, (post-contact?) glass beads, and numerous piercings, the Congo witch-doctor is an impressively thorough hodgepodge of every conceivable cliche in the white imagination.  He starts to dance and chant, crooning ‘without articulate word divisions’ (29), yet constructing ‘a narrative in pantomime’ which echoes Jones’ own flight from pursuit.

“Jones has become completely hypnotized. His voice joins in the incantation, in the cries, he beats time with his hands and sways his body to and fro from the waist. The whole spirit and meaning of the dance has entered into him, has become his spirit. Finally the theme of the pantomime halts on a howl of despair, and is taken up again in a note of savage hope. There is a salvation. The forces of evil demand sacrifice. They must be appeased. The witch-doctor points with his wand to the sacred tree, to the river beyond, to the altar, and finally to Jones with a ferocious command. Jones seems to sense the meaning of this. It is he who must offer himself for sacrifice.”

What exactly is going on here? In Scene Eight we discover that Jones has been killed by Lem’s soldiers (Lem, the figure of Cacos resistance to imperial rule). By what witchcraft has Jones’ fired his silver bullet at the apparition of a Crocodile God and ended up dead himself?

A psychological reading of the scene would likely argue that confronted with his core psychology, the rapacious and irrational psychic forces of his unconscious, Brutus Jones is destroyed.

Our “uncomplicated” reading of the play would probably dismiss any deeper meaning to the scene, and instead contend that O’Neill is simply regurgitating an incoherent colonialist fantasy of primitive natives and racial atavism.

An overtly politicized reading might suggest that all of the supernatural elements of the play symbolize cultural resistance to imperialism, as was a significant aspect of the formation of Voudou.

Scene Eight: “We cotch him.”

Lem’s certainty and imperturbability. His ‘primitive’ soldiers. Smithers gets the last lines. Think about what it means for the last word of this play to be what it is. How is this explosive word being used? Clearly as a gesture of racist contempt on the part of Smithers. But what else does the term signify in light of all that has passed? Let’s keep this an open question.

The Performances

Brutus Jones was first played by Charles Gilpin whose tortured relationship with O’Neill over the play’s dialog has become legend. Years after the premiere of the Emperor Jones Gilpin is reported to have said “I created the role of the Emperor. That role belongs to me. That Irishman, he just wrote the play.”

Show clip from Robeson’s performance as Brutus Jones in the 1933 adaption written by Dubose Heyward the author of Porgy (1924) a novel which was the basis for the musical Porgy and Bess.

There was also a 1955 television adaptation starring Ossie Davis.


Above: the Wooster Theater Group’s version of the Emperor Jones. Actor Kate Valk performed the part in both racial and gender drag.

Create a free website or blog at