Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Viet Nam-era Antigone now available free for download and performance

A New York march against the draft in the 1970s

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

-Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"

The one act play"Something There Is” , takes its title from Robert Frost’s poem on the futility of walls and those who build them, and seems once again to be relevant many decades after its only  production.

Originally staged in 1975 at the Elder Avenue Playhouse in the Bronx is now being made available as a free PDF.  The play is published under a Creative Commons ShareAlike license and may be performed by any non-commercial organization or group.

The entire tragedy takes place on a summer morning in 1968 in the kitchen of an upstate New York farm house, where a  backyard fence marks the border with Canada. A middle-aged immigration agent lords it over his small family of a daughter and two sons. His eldest boy is about to take his first solo flight from the nearby Plattsburgh Air Force base, and promises to fly directly over the farmhouse. His second son openly mocks his father and threatens to join the draft evaders who keep passing through the back yard on their way to Canada. Andrea, still in high school, has been dominated by her overbearing father until the morning of the play.

As the drama opens, Andrea and her aunt are watching draft evaders pass through a hole in the fence that keeps reappearing no matter how many times her father patches it.

an excerpt from "Something There Is"

A middle-aged woman and a teenage girl are standing by the kitchen window, looking into the back yard.

SUZETTE: There goes another one.

ANDREA: That makes three today.

SUZETTE: Really? I thought this was only the second one.

ANDREA: No, I saw one very early when you were still in bed.

SUZETTE: You didn’t go out into the yard, did you? You know what he said.

ANDREA: Yeah, yeah, I know what he said. First there was no talking on the phone on school nights. Then there was no dating until I was eighteen. And now this new rule about not going in the back yard is even crazier.

SUZETTE: I can’t blame him.

ANDREA: You never do!

SUZETTE: He afraid those hippies will bother you.

ANDREA: That’s not it.

SUZETTE: What is it then?

ANDREA: Here’s a clue, Tante Suzette. There is a big hole in the fence. Those hippies are heading for that hole.

SUZETTE: Which fence?

ANDREA: The one that our United States government put up years ago to show where the border is between the U.S. of A. and Canada.

SUZETTE: There is a hole in the border fence? That’s not right. Why doesn’t somebody do something about it?

ANDREA: My father has been patching up the holes with chicken wire but somebody keeps cutting new ones. Who do you think would do that? Do you think maybe my father has been cutting and patching up those holes himself?

Border Crossings, Then and Now

Ever since the American Revolution, the contradictions and shortcomings of our republic have been reflected in those who fled across the northern borders of our state to find freedom in Canada. It began with the freed slaves of New York City who left for Canada with their Loyalist allies. Then came the runaway slaves of the Underground Railroad. In the Civil War, one of my own distant ancestors, Mike Clark, went back to Canada, leading his middle aged father Patrick to enlist in the NY 16th Volunteer Infantry in his place. In the Viet Nam era, thousands of draft evaders and deserters passed through our northern border, although  not quite as depicted in this play.

Bill and Christine King were among
the many thousands who fled to Canada
decades ago 

Most recently, the ones fleeing to a better life in Canada have been immigrants who once dreamt of a new life in the United States, only to find themselves targeted by the current administration in Washington.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mr. Dolge’s Money and other titles now available in paperback on Amazon

Mr. Dolge's Money inspired by the final days of a visionary German-American industrialist best known as a forerunner of Social Security, is now in paperback  at Amazon as well as in the original ebook format.

Following the collapse of his utopian dreams in Dolgeville, NY in 1898, Alfred Dolge went on to build a new fortune and a new Dolgeville in California. The central character of the novel is Rudolf’s son, Jose or Joseph Dolge, who travels from Venezuela to California in the closing days of World War I in search of his grandparents.

After getting to know his grandson, Dolge dispatches the young man to Europe by the only route then open, across the Pacific to Vladivostok. The boy’s mission is to gain access to millions of dollars hidden away from his grandfather’s creditors and to direct that money into the hands of the German socialists struggling to wrest control of their devastated nation.

With the old monarchies in collapse, violent new forces of the Left and Right are provoking chaos in Russia and Germany. Joseph barely survives a rail journey across Russia, fleeing the Bolshevik terror into Ukraine and coming to Berlin just as outright war breaks out between the Spartacists and the Friekorps. Beset by treachery on every side, he sees Rosa Luxembourg murdered and is held prisoner by a crazed band of anti-Semites who will become the leaders of the Nazi party. And then, Alfred and Anna Dolge make their last trip to the old country with the goal of saving their beloved grandson.

Each of the five stories or novelas collected in this volume have been sold as e-book singles at 99 cents and remain available in that format. The stories, sharing a common link to New York history, are set in the twentieth century except for “You Don’t Need a Weatherman which imagines a near future in which climate change has drastically changed our local landscape. The retired couple at the center of the story live in a time when climate change denial persists even after the sea has covered New York City.

The Wobbly and The Witch Girl” is set in the immediate aftermath of World War I when repressive forces targeted radicals and misfits of every sort. Fleeing the draft to New York City, Tom Ryan is befriended by the anarchist leaders Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. They send him north to organize the workers of the Julliard factory in Stottville, NY and from there he flees the law into the isolated hill country of Columbia County where he discovers a people who have lived part from the outer world for a century. Here Tom falls in love with a girl who has inherited strange powers from her distant Puritan ancestress.

The Real Twentieth Hijacker” is inspired by my teaching at Laguardia Community College at the time of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The main character is a young Muslim immigrant who is drawn into the 9-11 conspiracy only to break away from the other plotters when he falls in love with an American girl.

Her Name Was Margarita” is loosely based on my experiences with a Fordham University project in Mexico in 1966. Beginning with marches against the war in Viet Nam, the scene then shifts to the province of Vera Cruz where the title character encounters a force or power that her faith cannot explain.

A Good Catholic Girl” is based on the murder of a parochial school girl by a deranged young man she barely knew. In my version of this tragedy, set in the Irish Catholic neighborhood of the North Bronx, she manages to turn the tables on her stalker.

Previously available on Kindle, this is one of only two non-fiction works I have written and describes educational philosophy and practice at a small public school in the South Bronx, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, from 2003 to 2009. The innovative portfolio assessment and interdisciplinary curriculum at Fannie Lou was based on the philosophy of the Coalition of Essential Schools and offers a valuable alternative to the standardized data-driven models now in favor in New York state and the nation. In a genuine tragedy for public education, the Coalition for Essential Schools was compelled to cease operations in March, 2017. This has made it even more important to preserve and publicize the truly student-centered learning environment as CES schools like Fannie Lou. As part of that effort, this book will also be available as a free PDF at

The work at Fannie Lou and other small public high schools was supported by the National Academy for Excellent Teaching at Columbia University Teachers College. NAFET was unfortunately dependent on foundation funds invested with the Madoff ponzi scheme and ceased operations in 2009.

Art and Humanities class at Fannie Lou

Monday, January 30, 2017

Emmet Till's Father and a Guy from Auburn NY

    Emmet Till

This week of “alternative facts” emanating from Donald Trump has coincided with the admission – sixty years too late – of a lie that condemned a young black boy named Emmet Till to a horrible death. The racism and hatred which our new president is calling up from the depths of our history has never been more than occasionally dormant,  but we need to believe that truth in the end will always overcome even the most vicious and destructive of lies. 
     As to the amazingly trivial lies that pour forth from new chief executive about the weather, the size of crowds and what he said five minutes earlier, those may defy expectation but they do serve to create a climate in which the big lies about Mexico, Muslims, and Black people are more readily believed - even in some corners of our usually rational upstate New York.
    Of course, people can hold to a lie for a long time, a lifetime even. But at long last the woman whose lies cost young Emmet Till his life in 1955 has finally come clean. Historian Timothy B. Tyson told The Associated Press on Saturday that Carolyn Donham broke her long public silence in an interview with him in 2008. According to the professor, he spoke to the 83 year old Donham for several hours and she admitted inventing the attempted rape story about Emmet, although she did not offer any explanation for her actions. Her husband and his brother were charged with the 14 year old boy’s murder and she testified in their defense during the trial, claiming that Emmet had grabbed her and “in profane terms, bragged about his history with white women. An all-white jury predictably acquitted them although Donham’s husband Roy Bryant later admitted, or bragged, about his guilt to Look Magazine.

    Carolyn Bryant Donham

  Shocking as Carolyn Donham’s sixty-two year silence is, I find it even more remarkable that after her admission, she evidently resumed her silence and made no effort to reach out to the Till family or to tell anyone else what she had done. Professor Tyson’s only defense for not revealing this information when he first heard it nine years ago is that “historians think in different terms than do journalists. I'm more interested in what speaks to the ages than in what is the latest media thing.”  Professor Tyson’s privileging of history “over the latest media thing” suggests that writers and historians owe nothing to the moral crises of their own time, but the corroding issue of racism is not something that can be put on a shelf for later study. In every era of American history, the racists will always say they must murder or abuse black or brown men to save us (white) people from some dark and evil threat. And the bizarre immigrant rape fantasies spewed by Breitbart and similar Trumpist sites are direct echoes of the lies told by Carolyn Dunham so long ago.

    Louis Till

By coincidence this week also brought attention to the great African American novelist John Edgar Wideman’s  Writing to Save a Life about the life and execution of Emmet’s father, Louis TillLouis has long interested me, in part because he was jailed with the poet and fascist collaborator Ezra Pound near the end of the second world war. He makes an appearance in my short novel, inspired by the war stories of an old friend, John Schillace (Squillace in the novel) of Auburn, NY.  

USO Dance at Auburn NY around the time when 
John Schillace was drafted (from the Fingerlakes Blog)

Here is an excerpt: In The Forest of Tombolo:

    There weren't any cots and only a few blankets. I looked around and saw thirty or forty colored guys staring at my face, probably ready to blame me for everything every white man had ever done to them. Washington tried to tell them I was okay but that only got him some shit. Both of us were slapped around a little bit before one of them said they should lay off.       “This white boy can't be too bad if they threw him in here with us.”
   “I'm Louie Till,” he said when the rest of them went back to whatever it was they were doing before we interrupted their fun. “You a poet?”
    “A poet?”
    “Yeah, the other white guy here says he's a famous poet. Crazy as a bedbug.”
    “Naw,” explained Washington. “We been runnin' a black market game.”
    “You're shittin' me. They don't put y'all here for black market. This here tent's for the worst of the worst. They gonna hang me as soon as they get round to it.”
    “For what?” I asked.
    “Rapin' and murderin' an Italian girl. Only I never done it. White boys did it but I'm the one they gonna hang for it.”
    “You mean they gonna hang everybody here?” Washington winced, pretty banged up from the beatings he took.“We deserters but we never killed nobody.”
    “Maybe they hang you and give this white boy life. But I think they hang white boys too. Everybody says they gonna hang the poet on account of he was workin' for Mussolini.”
    I was plenty scared, thinking they would charge us with joining the enemy. That had to be a hanging offense. “You said the poet guy was crazy. They won't hang crazy people, will they?”
    “You thinkin' of doin' a crazy act, huh? Don't think you could do it like old Ezra. I was handcuffed to him all the way from Genoa and I guarantee you never gonna talk as crazy as that old man. He sayin' President Truman gonna fly him straight over to Tokyo on account of how he can talk Chink and Jap. Him and this Chink named Confucius gonna work out the whole thing so Japan surrenders nice n' peaceful. He says he gonna do some deals with old Joe Stalin too, 'cause he talk Russki like a champ. Can you match that kinda crazy talk?”
    “I guess not.”
    Louie Till was a very decent guy, and as I got to know him, I could see he wasn't taking the prospect of hanging as easy as he put on. He had a baby son and when he talked about never seeing his boy, he got real sad. You probably heard about the son, Emmet Till. He grew up without a father after Louie got hung, and it was all over the news when the KKK down in Alabama lynched him just for whistling at a white woman.
    Every day it seemed they took out another colored fella to be hung, and I was scared shitless. I knew there had to be a court martial first, but those were always fixed deals, and you only had a few hours before they put the rope around your neck. I was awake all night dreaming up totally impossible ways to escape. Besides the two lines of barbed wire and the dogs, the klieg lights were on all night and the MP's had two machine guns trained on the barracks. Like Louie said, they considered us the worst of the worst and weren't about to let any of us go climbing over the fence and strolling away.
    I thought my number was up on the day that Sergeant Sessions and his pal came into the tent and pointed a long bony finger in my direction. “Wa'al, you a whi'man, huh? Git ov'here.” His southern accent was so bad I hardly understood a word he was saying. When I didn't move, he just yoked his arm across my throat and dragged me out of there. Washington must have tried to stop them because the last I saw, the other GI had beaten him to the floor and was kicking him in the head.
    When we were outside the wire, they dumped me on the ground. “What' a you, a fuckin' nigger-lovin' queer or a whi'man? Stand y'self up at attention when I'm talkin' t'you.”
    I got to my feet and did my best to stand steady while the sergeant walked around me, poking at my ribs with his billy club. “Tha's better. Now folla me and try'n act like a whi'man.”
When we reached a bunch of tents that weren't surrounded by barbed wire, Sergeant Sessions told me I was a fucking disgrace to my race. “But ya ain't no nigger, are you? You kinda dark. You half-nigger? You tell me the truth or I beat you to death here'n'now.”
    I told him my parents were Italian but I was born in New York state. “You a yankee Eye-talian? Tha's almos' bein' a nigger in my book.” He thought he was pretty funny and began to laugh himself silly. “Na, you ain't no nigger. Sorry 'scuse for a whi'man but a whi'man all the same. I got a job for ya.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Ya can call me sarge, that's good enough. Sergeant First Class Lucius B. Sessions from Shit Creek, Alabama. Here, have some coffee.”
    Sergeant Sessions handed me some clean fatigues, and outlined his plan for me. “Get you a shave'n'shower and you'll pass for a soljer. No reason why you can't stand guard for a sixteen hour stretch, is there?”
   “No sarge, I'll do whatever I'm told to do.”
   “Sure as shit you will. Just keep your eyes open for brass and don't never fall asleep, and we'll be the best a'friends. The thing is we got us another whi'man here, but I can't do nothin' for him. He's a traitor and your job is jus' make sure he don't kill himself before he gets hung.”
   “The poet?”
   “You know'im?”
   “No, I just heard there was a crazy poet here. Or writer or something.”
  "Asshole buddies with old Benito is what Mr. Ezra Pound was. A genuine traitor who I woulda had shot the day we got'im but the brasshats are stallin'. Meantime we gotta stand guard and I am sick of staying up all night long watchin' the fuckin' traitor snore away like he dint have not a care in the'world. And that's where you come in. You gonna watch him sleep, only you best not fall asleep y'self or I beat you to death, you get it?”
    And that's how I ended up meeting Ezra Pound. Of course, I'd never heard of him, being a high school dropout like I was, but I knew I had fallen into a pretty sweet deal. Sergeant Session was the worst bigot I ever met but lucky for me I was white, and one thing he could not abide was seeing a white man thrown in with a bunch of coloreds. Seemed too much like race-mixing to him, I guess, so he killed two birds with one stone. He and his cousin Lamar got out of having to guard Pound every night and he stood by a fellow white man. I didn't know it at the time but he covered his tracks by ripping up all the paperwork on my crimes. As far as the official Army records went, I had never deserted, never ran a black market game, never fraternized with Nazis and Fascists, never been arrested during the raid at Tombolo.

    John Edgar Wideman

Wideman’s book, of course, is not focused on an unknown upstate guy assigned to guard a crazy poet, but on a black man who was hanged for rape and murder and whose son would be lynched ten years later. As Thomas Chatterton Williams (New York Times 1/29/2017) puts it, “(Wideman's) disposition is to bypass blunt polemic and make his case through description and story, which is by necessity inventive, conditional and ambiguous. Simplicity sells, but the truth is seldom simple.” Williams goes on to say:

    He (Louis Till)  is not Rosa Parks by any stretch and Wideman makes no attempt to sanctify his character. Yet there is undeniably something in him that the author not only relates to but also admires, and it has to do with the fact that Till does not ever beg or plead but keeps quiet, even stoic, in the face of a system that “provides agents ample, perhaps irresistible, opportunities for abuse.”
    What unsettles Wideman about the Till case is not only that it was flagrantly flawed but that everything had the veneer of propriety about it. “Every T crossed, every I dotted,” he writes. “But seamless, careful, by-the-book performance provides no evidence of what the spider’s thinking about the fly enmeshed in its web.” Even participants in an unjust system can be blind to the ways they sustain it. It’s a jarring idea when taken to its logical conclusion, that, independent of any willful bigotry, the person on the jury or in the voting booth may not even know why she decided the way that she did. For Wideman, this means that transcendent racial harmony may permanently lie on the horizon, just beyond our reach. Which is also why, in his view, storytelling takes on the dimensions of a battle royal, a “never-ending struggle” to make sense of the world, which implies a kind of “ultimate democracy” but also “a kind of chaos.”

The reality, the facts, are
always there, but it is a "never-ending struggle" to find them in the sea of lies and delusions surrounding race, resentment and fear in America - and never has that been more true than today.

On Amazon

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Tales from the Rock City" by Helen Schloss, 1913

Thanks to the efforts of Little Falls native Bill Simpson, a series of thirteen articles by the public health nurse and labor activist Helen Schloss is being made available at low cost, or free, to the public. Bill is the great-grandson of Irving Stacey who founded the Little Falls Felt Shoe Company in 1905.

Writing for The New York Call in 1913, Schloss describes the horrendous conditions then existing in the working class slums of the town. At that time Little Falls was home to at least twice its present population, with foreign-born immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe living in extremely crowded housing on the south side of the Mohawk River, which was itself literally an open sewer. Not only did industrial waste flow unchecked into the river but toilets were located directly over the water in many cases. Workers slept in shifts in the slums and small children did piece work for the mills in their living quarters. Schloss decries the wasteful spending of the rich mill owners on the new YMCA on Jackson Street while mothers died of untreated infections on the other side of town. She was particularly affected by the fate of a small girl who fell to her death in a terribly crowded tenement.

The Russian-born Schloss came to Little Falls in April of 1912, was hired by a group of wealthy women to address the ongoing tuberculosis epidemic among the poor. She soon developed a disdain for “the good ladies” when her struggle for better housing and safer working conditions met with obstruction from their husbands. She describes her discouragement as she realizes that the workers simply cannot follow her advice on how to avoid disease., and felt that she had become only “a fad for the ladies.” By the time strike spontaneously broke out that Fall, she was isolated from both her wealthy employers and the poor whom she was so desperate to help. Shocked by Police Chief Long’s observation that all of the strikers “ought to be shot,” she helps to organize a soup kitchen, only to be jailed for inciting to riot. After two weeks in the Herkimer County lock-up, she returns to the battle which finally ended in January, 1913 with modest pay increases for the strikers.
Helen Schloss and the Little Falls strikers in jail
The articles which the young nurse wrote for the socialist newspaper provide a very individual look at the life of factory workers of a century ago. Helen Schloss is quite candid about her own doubts and weaknesses while offering very vivid descriptions of the people and environments she encounters. She later went on to join the labor battles in Paterson, New Jersey and Ludlow, Colorado. The last record of her is from 1919 when she went to Bolshevik Russia as part of a Quaker medical mission.

The Helen Schloss who appears in her own words is, in my view, only slightly different from the version of her I imagined in my 1912 novel of the strike, The Red Nurse. Her stay in the Herkimer County jail was much longer – two weeks- than I described it in the novel. If anything, she downplays her leadership role in these pages, failing to mention her part in the speaking tour with Big Bill Haywood which is well documented elsewhere.

Interestingly, she also fails to mention the key role of the other female strike leader. Matilda Rabinowitz, who similarly did not mention Helen in her own narrative, included as an appendix to The Red Nurse. The two young women were the same age, were both Russian Jewish immigrants, shared similar politics, and both went on to other labor battles of the era – but perhaps they had some kind of rivalry or simply did not get along.

My fictional version of the same events in The Red Nurse  is available at Wilderness Hill Books and Amazon paperback and kindle.
A much more fictionalized version of Helen also appears  in Mr. Dolge's Moneypublished this month on Amazon kindle. After fighting in the IWW battles at Paterson, New Jersey and Ludlow, Colorado, Helen joined a Quaker medical mission to Russia in 1919 and there is no  record of her after that point - In this novel she is imagined as finding a new career as a Comintern agent whose humanity soon marks her as an enemy of the Bolsheviks who so quickly subverted the socialist dream.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mr. Dolge's Money: a new historical novel

Mr.Dolge’s Money is a new novel loosely inspired by the final years of Alfred Dolge, the visionary founder of Dolgeville, New York. The historical Alfred Dolge was much influenced by his father, Christian, who was imprisoned for his part in the anti-monarchist uprisings of 1848. As a youth Alfred’s thinking was also guided by his father’s friend, Wilhelm Leibknecht, founder of the German Socialist Party. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1866, Alfred had already imbibed the stirring but contradictory ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

He came to what was then known as Brocketts Bridge in 1874, committed to building a utopian society that combined his highest ideals with a profitable business. Over the next twenty-four years, he build an industrial village founded primarily on the manufacture of pains and piano components but also including an autoharp factory and extensive lumber holdings. He also back Daniel Green in creating the shoe and slipper company that was a major employer in the area until 1999. Although Dolge provided a very good life for himself and his family, he never lost sight of his goal of improving the lives of his workers, many of whom he imported from Germany. The old age pensions he offered to his workers led him to credited as a forerunner of Social Security on that agency’s website. He also provided sick benefits, life insurance and profit-sharing far exceeded those available to American workers today, However, in 1898 his entire financial complex collapsed and he declared bankruptcy. For more on this intriguing history, see my short biography of Alfred Dolge or visit the Dolgeville-Manheim Historical society.

The novel takes up where this history ends and explores the implications of Dolge’ s ideas on a stage far larger than the small village at the edge of the Adirondack forests. One of the main characters is a fictional grandson who grows up in Venezuela where Dolge’s son Rudolf has gone after giving to his father’s enemies a power of attorney which they used to destroy everything he had built. Another leading character is Helen Schloss whom some readers may know from The Red Nurse or her own series of articles on the 1912 Little Falls strike, published recently as Tales from the Rock City.

Dolge’s grandson, known both as Jose and Joseph, is dispatched by the elderly Mr. Dolge to Europe as soon as the first world war ends in order to access funds secretly hidden during the debacle of 1898. In the resulting struggle for this money, Joseph becomes caught up in the beginnings of the Red Terror in Russia and fierce warfare between communist and fascist factions from Berlin to Barcelona. With the old monarchies in collapse, Joseph finds that the ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith which inspired his grandfather’s benevolent policies have become a pretext for unimaginable violence. Beset by treachery on every side, he sees Rosa Luxembourg murdered and is held prisoner by a crazed band of anti-Semites who will become the leaders of the Nazi party. His survival depends on women whose motivations he cannot understand, the Comintern agent and former I.W.W. agitator Helen Schloss and the Nazi mystic Maria Orsic.

Mr. Dolge’s Money is available exclusively on Kindle for $2.99.

Among the historical figures and events in the novel:

Teffi, the Russian humorist and writer
who helped Joseph flee from the Bolsheviks

Karl Leibknecht, murdered head of the German
Communist Party whom Joseph met at the height
of the Spartacist uprising

The Spartacist uprising in Berlin, 1919
Erich von Ludendorff, an early supporter of the Nazis
Maria Orsic, a fortune-teller and mystic
popular with the early Nazis
Prince Rupprecht and Princess Antonia of Bavaria,
whom both Joseph and Helen met at their castle
Neuschwanstein Castle where Joseph is imprisoned

 IWW activist Helen Schloss
who traveled to Russia with Joseph in 1919,
later a disillusioned Comintern agent
Anarchist fighter in Barcelona,
where Joseph Dolge arrived in 1937

Most recent article on Alfred Dolge appears at Utica Sojourner Post

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Crown Prince of Dolgeville

An excerpt from current work in progress: An historical novel inspired by the life and family of Alfred Dolge

     On a bright morning in March of 1893 when the fields and pastures were still covered with snow, two boys climbed high on the leafless branches of a maple tree and scanned the southern horizon. When they heard the steady huffing of a steam engine and saw a plume of smoke rounding the hills, they shouted to the crowd waiting in High Falls Park. “The train is coming! They're here!”
   “Ach, the crown prince of Dolgeville has brought home a bride,” declared a bearded old man, speaking in heavily accented English.
  “You must be indeed proud of your grandson,” replied the slender and younger man on whose arm the old man leaned. Then he added with a mischievous smile: “Though I cannot share your monarchical views, sir. Are you certain that you are the same Christian Dolge who fought on the barricades in 1848?”
    “You young rascal!” growled Christian Dolge. “I was there and so was your father, the bravest man of us all!”
    “I cannot wait to tell him of all that Alfred has built here in the New World.” The younger man smiled and took off his pince-nez, wiping the lenses. Karl Liebknecht had arrived in Dolgeville a week earlier on his tour of the United States and had spent much more time with Alfred Dolge's father than with the industrialist himself. His father's old pupil had barely a minute to spare from his busy schedule of supervising the felt mill, the autoharp shop, the piano manufactory, and the school board – not to mention second-guessing his wife on every detail of the approaching wedding ceremonies for his oldest son and his bride.

 Karl Leibknecht

Christian Dolge

    Karl was not disappointed to have the time with Christian. Even if he had mellowed in the decades since he and Bakunin had raised the red flag in Dresden, the old radical was still an inspiration in many ways. For one, he had actually known Marx in his youth before he had even written the Manifesto or put together the massive edifice of Kapital. The old man had paid a heavy price for his heroism, and spent years in the dungeons of the mad Bavarian king..
    At twenty-two, Karl Leibknecht had just completed service with the Imperial Guards and would begin his legal studies in Leipzig after returning to his homeland. This journey to America represented a small rebellion against his father's plans for him, one that would pass as quickly as his brief infatuation with the trappings of monarchy. As he listened to the tales of his father's old comrade, Karl's resolve to follow the revolutionary path was strengthened. And already he was beginning to doubt the efficacy of his father's decision to found a socialist party and work for a better future only within the confines of Bismarck's tightly controlled Reichstag.
    In his mid seventies, Christian Dolge's materialism was now more focused on zoology and botany than economics, and he delighted in showing off the menagerie that surrounded the sturdy home his son had built for him on the edge of the village. Prairie dogs, coyotes, raccoons and even an eagle could be viewed in their cages along the roadway beside the creek. Nearby was a five acre fenced area for deer, peacocks and a variety of wild local fowl. A den on the cliff above the creek contained a high wall that prevented, for the most part, wandering by the old man's beloved bears, Schnippsal and Schnappsal. At the foot of an adjacent hill, three fishponds were filled with trout, bass and bullheads – and the village children were welcomed to cast their lines at any time except during school hours
    To Karl, Dolgeville represented a model of what all of Germany, all the world in fact, could be once the socialist revolution was achieved. Thanks to Alfred's keen sense of business, well-paid work was provided for all. Even more, workers became eligible for old age pensions and sick leave funded by what was, in effect, a tax on their incomes. Every child was guaranteed a free education in the excellent public school he had built. Dissatisfied with the abilities of the typical, poorly paid American teachers, he doubled and tripled the salaries for teachers, thereby attracting well educated normal school graduates. In the company of Old Christian, Karl had visited the school and was particularly impressed by the charming kindergarten, an institution developed in Germany but hitherto unknown in the United States.
    “This village is a living illustration of what Marx meant by surplus value!” he exclaimed to the old man as they stepped out of the high school where a German lesson was in progress. “This is what can happen when the true value produced by workers is directed to the betterment of all instead of being diverted into the wasteful extravagances of the owner class.”
    “I agree with you, young man,” returned Christian with a sly smile. “But surely you have observed that my son also provides very well for himself and his family, have you not? Do you think that Karl Marx would approve?”
    Taken aback for a moment, Karl hesitated before answering. “Yes, I could not help but notice your son's fine mansion and of course I know of his annual trips to Europe, having met him on more than one occasion in my father's humble house. I confess, with respect, that I was concerned by the difference in wealth between your family and that of the workers. It seems at first...not truly socialist.”
    “And what is your verdict on our little utopia?”
    “In all honesty, I do not think your utopia could exist at all had not Alfred taken on himself the role and accoutrements of a capitalist. It is, unfortunately, what workers and particularly the German workers who come here, expect. They cannot imagine a successful industry without a boss, or a successful nation for that matter.”
    “I agree with you,” said the old man in great seriousness. “If this town were governed by a collective of workers, it would quickly dissolve into factions. I see how the workers of Dolgeville function when given a voice on the school board or in decisions regarding new parks and other improvements. Perhaps in the far future, after generations of careful education, workers will be able to govern themselves, but for now they need a strong hand.”
    “What Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat?”
    “No, the dictatorship of one very skillful man who is fully committed to the betterment of his people.”
   "But sir, even if I concede that your son is uniquely equipped to design and operate this small society, what future could it have in the long run? Who in the future could fulfill the role of dictator as he has done, taking just enough of the common wealth to maintain his position without falling victim to the greed of a Carnegie or Morgan?”
    “Perhaps the crown prince? Der Kronprinz?” the old man mused, puffing at his pipe.
   “His son Rudolf?” Karl shook his head. “Have we socialists truly come to a point where we must return to monarchy in order to attain our goals? There, sir, I find we must disagree.”
This conversation was much in Karl's mind as he and his elderly companion awaited the arrival of what could only be called the royal pair. He had been dismayed to learn that Alfred had hired a special train to bring Rudolf, his bride Anna and all their friends up from New York City. The costs, he calculated, must be astronomical and could in no way be justified by a need to maintain the necessary “dictatorship” of Dolge. It was, he had to admit, exactly the kind of wasteful gesture typical of the worst of the plutocrat class.
    Karl guided his companion to the open air pavilion where the rest of the welcoming committee and honored guests had assembled. The usually very sober Alfred Dolge could not conceal the intensity of his joy and kept turning to whisper into the ear of his wife, the stately Anna. By her side stood Dolge's great friend, one of the chief financiers of the newly completed Little Falls & Dolgeville railroad, Judge George Hardin. He was exchanging a comment with another of Dolge's business associates, Schuyler Ingham. In keeping with what Dolge's enemies called his “atheism,” the wedding ceremony was to be a civil one, and performed by Judge Hardin.
    As the train came into view, Karl observed that it was draped in colorful bunting and banners, one of which proclaimed in huge red letters: “This is the Dolge Wedding Party.” Glancing about, Karl did not see that anyone but he disapproved of such showiness. Even the money men, Hardin and Ingham, seemed completely overjoyed at the sight of the gaudy train and whooped with laughter to see the young people hanging off the sides of it, shouting their greetings.
   The wedding ceremony itself was brief as could be, taking place before a packed crowd in the Turnhalle, the great opera house that Dolge had built for his workers. The day had been proclaimed a sort of national holiday and the many hundreds of workers and their families who could not fit into the theater stood outside and cheered so loudly that the exchange of vows could not be heard more than a few feet away. As soon as the binding words were said, Rudolf and Anna stepped outside and waved to the throng, provoking more displays of enthusiasm. Then they returned to the bower of flowers erected on the stage and sat down to listen to speeches by the groom's father, his grandfather, Judge Hardin and too many other people for Karl to count. The young German was sure that the jewels that glittered on her dress were truly diamonds and pearls. And there was no doubt in his mind that the six fabulously gowned bridesmaids were each the daughter of some American millionaire. 
    A great quantity of food and drink was served, and not only to invited guests. The whole village lined up in the tents where tables were piled high with roast beef and steins of beer. What passed in America for a genuine German band began to play and soon the working people and the silk-hatted millionaires were dancing together with the greatest glee Perhaps, the young German thought to himself, such displays truly are necessary in order to cement the relationship between the people and their socialist leaders. 
    “Who can predict,” he said to a workman named Krebs, “what direction the revolutionary spirit will take in the new century?”
    “Who, indeed?” answered Krebs, reaching for another stein of fine German lager.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New glimpses of the Little Falls strike leader, Matilda Rabinowitz, aka Matilda Robbins

I recently discovered a number of photos of Matilda Rabinowitz (aka Matilda Robbins) at the Walter Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University, posted last year by an “eclemens.” Matilda was a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World who played a key leadership role, along with Helen Schloss, in the Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912. Those unfamiliar with that struggle of the largely women workers of a century ago can see The Red Sweater Girls of 1912 or my novel based on the strike, The Red Nurse. The novel includes a chapter from Matilda's unpublished memoir shared with me by her granddaughter, Robbin Legere Henderson. 

One of the photos at the Reuther library shows Matilda at work during the Little Falls strike, probably in the old Sokol Hall on Flint Avenue which served as the strike headquarters.

Another photo shows Matilda with her younger brother Herman, possibly in their hometown of Bridgeport Connecticut.

Here is Matilda after being arrested for strike activities in Detroit, perhaps at the Studebaker or Ford plants. 

These photos show Matilda with strikers from the Fort Pitt Steel Casings Co. in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

A group portrait of participants in the 1913 IWW convention in Chicago shows Matilda, the woman on the right.

The Reuther site has this note on Matilda in a 2015 article, also by "eclemens," entitled “On The Women of the Industrial Workers of the World.”

The poet, feminist, and activist Matilda (Rabinowitz) Robbins was an early organizer and a lifelong advocate and writer for the One Big Union. She first became involved with the I.W.W. during the Lawrence Strike as a volunteer, and later proved her mettle during the Little Falls Textile Strike where she became the central strike organizer after the other organizers were jailed. For 14 weeks she ran the strike office, organized the daily picket lines and strike kitchen, arranged for legal aid for the jailed workers, and recruited support, with the help of fellow I.W.W. member Helen Schloss. For three years following she traveled the country, organizing textile workers in the East and autoworkers in Detroit, where she was jailed for her activities. 

The Matilda Robbins Papers, contain personal writings, photographs, and clippings and are a tremendous resource toward understanding the philosophies of an early women’s rights activist.

The IWW – which still exists today – has this description of Matilda in a piece on IWW women  by Autumn Gonzalez, Nicholas DeFilippis and Donal Fallon:

As a young woman, Matilda Rabinowitz traveled the country with the IWW supporting organizing drives and striking workers. She may be best known for her participation in the Little Falls textile strike of 1912, where she was able to gain the trust and confidence of a diverse group of mainly immigrant workers, rebuild the organizing committee, and reform a completely female strike and picket line. While the long battle with the mill in upstate New York dragged along, Rabinowitz organized for the children of strikers to be housed by IWW-sympathetic families in neighboring communities, which prompted further community support for the mostly-female strikers. She also lead a legal defense fund for arrested strikers, going on a months long speaking tour for those who were arrested in the battle at the mill, raising money and awareness for the effort. Her leadership was key in the strike’s successful conclusion.

Rabinowitz wound her way  from upstate New York to Michigan, where her soapbox speeches began drawing lunchtime crowds of 3,000 at a Ford plant, causing Ford officials to abolish lunch privileges. Ford also had Rabinowitz and four other IWW organizers arrested for their activities, but the damage was done, and autoworkers in the area took the IWW messages to heart. Workers at a nearby Studebaker plant began organizing and calling for the eight-hour day and weekly paychecks—rather than the bi-monthly paychecks that they were receiving—held a combined skilled and unskilled walkout on June 17, 1913. This action, considered to be the first major strike at a U.S. auto plant,  not have occurred without Rabinowitz’s work. The fire spread to a nearby Packard plant, where workers were attacked by police, but in the end concessions were won on the paycheck issue, although the eight-hour day would wait. The IWW would not gain a foothold in the auto industry, but it proved to the union movement that both skilled and unskilled workers in one industry could work together in one union to fight the boss.