Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reflections on recent readings about textile workers in the Carolinas

Referring to: Doug Marlette, The Bridge (New York: HarpersCollins, 2001)
Allen Tullos, Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the
Carolina Piedmont (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Political cartoonist Pick Cantrell has a gift for pissing people off. After publishing a cartoon making fun of the Pope, he decks his publisher at a New York daily, gets fired from his job, and ends up in the Piedmont of North Carolina where he restores a house while his wife resumes her career. In it all, she about leaves him for a more successful man (who doesn't slug his boss) while he begins to discover the family secrets that Southerners are so good at hiding (I can say this since I’m one of ‘em). 380 pages later, his wife is back in love with him, he’s doing free lance work, they have a nice house due to his skills as a carpenter, his disgruntled grandmother dies happy and he’s given the town of Eno as well as his family back their lost history. The Bridge is just a tad too neat. It’s a comedy in the classic style, where fortunes are lost then restored fourfold. Yet, throughout the book, as Pick explores his family’s history through his grandmother Lucy, the reader is given a unique view of life in a textile mill town during the Great Depression. Furthermore, Marlette, who is a political cartoonist, shows brilliance in some very humorous scenes. On several occasions, starting in the first chapter, Marlette provides vignettes of Southerners getting the best of condensing Yankees. Marlette shares the throne with Roy Blount for the king of this genre (see Roy Blount’s piece about sushi in his collection of Southern Humor).

Felicity looked at me. "I couldn’t take all the racists down there."
"Yes," I said. "It’s awful. So unlike this garden of racial harmony y’all got up here—Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, Crown Heights—hell, New York’s a goddamn paradise of brotherly love!"

"Besides," she continued, "southerners just sound so… ignorant. I just can’t take anything they say seriously. I’m a Democrat, of course, but I must say I could barely vote for Jimmy Carter because of htat accent of his."
"Well, ma’am"—the chill in my voice could have frozen hummingbirds in mid-flight—"where I come from we call that bigotry."

Although the title page claims the book is a work of fiction, containing the usual disclaimer, "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental," Marlette admits he’s drawn much of the background from his own family. Like Grandma Lucy in the story, a National Guardsman bayoneted his own grandmother in the General Textile Strike of 1934. Although there wasn’t a massacre in Eno, there was a massacre of strikers in Honea Path, South Carolina. And like with Pick in the novel, Marlette’s own great uncle was a union organizer. There is at least one other similarity too. The Webb family who owned the mill seems to parallel the Love family who started Burlington Industries. They both had a son named Spenser (although the Spenser in the novel was disowned). Both families had a member who went north for additional graduate studies and became professors. However, I don’t think the Love’s ever had any children sympathetic to the union, like Spencer Webb.

Although Marlette’s first attempt at a novel is a bit too neat for my taste, I’m glad I read it for the picture he drew of life in the textile mill towns in the early 1930s. For those of you who do not know Marlette’s work, I’d recommend reading his comic strips "Kudzu," which portrays life in the South humorously. This strip can be found in most Southern newspapers and he has published several collections of the strip, one of which adorns the coffee table in my office.

I read Marlette’s book right after finishing Tullos’ work on the development of industry in the Carolina Piedmont. I’d only recommend Habits of Industry to those who seriously want to know more about the development of the textile industry (Tullos barely touches on the tobacco and furniture industries) along the Southern Railroad (which was started by and owned nearly outright by Yankees). The "Piedmont Corridor, ran from Danville, Virginia, south through Central North Carolina and Western South Carolina and North Georgia, ended up around Birmingham, Alabama. Tullos provides insight, exploring the lives of several key figures in the development of the Piedmont as well as looking at the lives of several individuals who worked as laborers in the mills. However, his work felt incomplete. His biographical sketches included the kings of industry and the women running looms, but not the managers that made it all happen. His work probably needed to be more focused, such as just dealing with the textile industries or the development plan of Piedmont carried out by Duke Power and the Southern Railroads. Although he talks about union attempts at organizing, mostly referring to the infamous strike and violence in Gastonia, NC in 1929. He only briefly mentions the General Textile Strike of 1934.

I’m not sure from where my interest in the industrial development of the Carolinas came. One of my grandparents and all my great-grandparents were farmers. They raised tobacco. Although the textile mills offered a glimmer of hope for those leaving the farms during the early years of the 20th century, my family stuck to the land.


  1. Sticking to the land is getting to be a hard thing to do.

    My County's Textile mill left a couple of years ago. It's now a 12 acre building sitting there with nothing to do. What was big here was a Paper Mill and an X-Ray Film Mill. We have neither one now. A couple of years ago Rutherford County was hit by several Mills shutting down. We're standing right here in the midst of another transformation.

    The book sounds intersting enough.

  2. yeah--we'll none of us are still "sticking to the land." I had one uncle who continued farming, but it's all leased out now and his sons (my cousins) are doing other things. The day of the small farm is just about over.

    Sorry to hear about the troubles in Rutherford County. Are you in the Rutherfordton/Forest City area?