The neo-conservative humanist? D.G. Myers, late of A Commonplace Blog (apt name) writing in Commentary this week on the subject of Labor Day, says that, "American Literature has been hurt by the simple association of labor with unions."
A critic whose literary judgement is largely informed by his politics, he is normally at his highest dudgeon with those who would criticize Israel. He begins by expressing his befuddlement at what we celebrate on Labor Day, then segues into an excoriation of the novelist Paul Theroux, for a "doltish performance" in The Telegraph on the subject of 9/11. I read Theroux's piece, and apart from its mild critique of America's Middle East policy, there was nothing doltish about it, especially for a one-off in a newspaper. It was right on the mark about the impact and aftermath of 9/11. Myers justifies his dour digression by speculating that Labor Day's proximity to 9/11 might one day redefine the holiday. Is this man a clod or what?
Myers goes on to castigate writers for failing to separate the dignity of work from the struggle working people undertook for a share in the rewards of their labors. He decries the "literary flimsiness of so much labor fiction" and goes on to say that, "Whether organized labor is more committed to organization than labor remains open to dispute, but there’s never been any question where American novelists stood."
He says that Theodore Dreiser "was the first American novelist whose image of man included wringing bread from the sweat of one’s face," and that "since then, American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. Perhaps he should read the novels of Richard Powers, which are full of the work that people do, though none of it is so routine as cutting meat or mounting engines. But he puts Powers on his list of writers most likely to be forgotten.
He claims that Philip Roth is "one of the few exceptions to the no-work rule in American fiction," and cites a passage on a kosher butcher slaughtering a cow. A far better piece on slaughterhouses occurs in Tim O'Brien's Northern Lights (I believe). Perhaps Dr. Myers is too immersed in his specialty, and doesn't have an awareness, either of labor history or literature in general. He ends by paying lip service to "the importance of work to human identity, no matter who performs it, along with the unions that, at least historically, sought to give it some dignity."
There is reason unions are important in this world, one that we are all too prone to forget. As Richard Pryor once joked upon his release from jail, "There's a reason for prisons, it's the people that's in them." There's a similar reason for labor unions: it's the people in management. Those who do the hard work in this world are despised like no one else, and treated with no consideration for either their needs or their welfare. It is they who add the value that generates the wealth. Workers fought and often died for their fair share and decent working conditions and that has steadily eroded over the past four decades. It is a shame we are not reminded of that, and that philistines such as D.G. Myers would dare to demean the literature that illuminates that history.
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