Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636
SOURCE: "Tough and Tender," in The New York Times Book Review, June 25, 1939, p. 7.
[Young was an American editor, educator, poet, playwright, and critic. In the following review, he favorably appraises characterization and language in Let Me Breathe Thunder.]
This first novel [Let Me Breathe Thunder] by a 25-year-old Negro quite definitely proves two things: That it is possible for a Negro to write about whites, and that William Attaway has a legitimate reason to face a typewriter in the years to come. His tough and tender story of two young box-car wanderers and their love for a little Mexican waif who rides the reefers with them has some of the emotional quality and force of the familiar relationship of George and Lennie in Of Mice And Men. We see two rootless men faced by hard reality yet still susceptible to dreams and affection.
Ed and Step, the major characters, represent in these times the vast army of drifting young Americans who grab their scenery from the top of a freight [train] and take their emotions from an empty stomach. They are apparently living from day to day and waiting for nothing. They are not professional hoboes given to talk about the "romance of the road." Their single thought is to keep alive, to push on over the next mountain, to pick hops in California, berries in Washington, back-doors in Ohio, until by some miracle they land and take root.
In New Mexico Ed and Step meet Hi-Boy, an inarticulate Mexican kid with dreams in his eyes and a wistful, trusting way that breaks through their casual, tough veneer until the men appoint themselves as road guardians to the boy. It is in no way the average jocker-lamb relationship of the hobo jungle. The kid becomes a kind of domestic symbol to the wanderers and a kind of outlet for their affection and all the tenderness which is missing in their abnormal lives.
No matter what brothel or bar or circumstance Step's primitive urges lead him into, Hi-Boy's reactions to the scene take precedence over everything else. They delight in him when they find he is a crack shot with a rifle; they are paternally concerned when he is ill. He is their cub and they want to keep him happy and rolling in the sun they have not seen. When the rancher at Yakima Valley wants to keep Hi-Boy, the men are torn between their desire for the boy's future and their own need of him, and William Attaway makes their decision seem urgent and humanly important.
All the emotions of the book are direct and primitive, and the bareness of the speech cuts the action to lean and powerful lines. The scenes in Mag's roadhouse, Step's relations with the emotionally starved rancher's daughter, Hi-Boy's moment when he jabs a fork into his hand to prove his courage to Step—these and a dozen other incidents are as jabbing to the nerves as a power-drill. Less ably written the book would only be melodrama and sentimentality, but the characterizations are sure and the dialogue distilled to the point that a poet writing a cablegram could not better.
It is surely true, however, that the understated writing and the hard-boiled characters cloaking their semi-conscious good intentions are ingredients of novels that have become rather familiar of late. Before James Cain or Edward Newhouse or Benjamin Appeal, or even the early Hemingway, this book would have caused great excitement. It is no particular discredit to William Attaway to say that in his first work he...
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has paralleled the style of his more eminent contemporaries. He has, in many moments of this book, equaled them, and, in the poetic overtones of the writing, occasionally surpassed them. He is an authentic young artist not to be watched tomorrow but now.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
SOURCE: A review of Let Me Breathe Thunder, in The Saturday Review of Literature, July 1, 1939, p. 20.
[In the following mixed review of Let Me Breathe Thunder, the critic praises the plot and pace of the work but faults its dramatic elements, stating that Attaway "will write a better novel when he puts the stage entirely behind him."]
William Attaway writes easily, the way a man walks or tells a tale, with natural vigor and his objective clear every foot of the way. His first novel [Let Me Breathe Thunder] is one that shows off this kind of writing most effectively: a hard-bitten story of two roaming hoboes, working stiffs, and a Mexican boy they have picked up somewhere on the road. The little Mexican injects a fresh element into their lives, a note of responsibility and, irresistibly, against all stubbornness, a note of tenderness. Upon this level of unwilling masculine sentiment the tale spins its length, moving briskly and with unfailing narrative skill, towards its desperate climax. All of this is on the credit side. On the debit, we must note that Mr. Attaway has projected much of his dramatic experience (he has written and acted in plays) into his writing. Too many of his scenes are plainly stagy, seen as tableaus in terms of groups and gestures, or heard as dramatic speeches, with an eye towards effective curtains and black-outs. Sometimes he lets his characters say things that might carry a punch across the little-theater footlights, without carrying any credibility in a realistic novel. One end-product of this staginess is the cutting of the story into scenes that ought naturally to have flowed together. Mr. Attaway will write a better novel when he puts the stage entirely behind him.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
SOURCE: "The Color Line," in The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 1941, pp. 18, 20.
[In the following review of Blood on the Forge, de Kay praises Attaway for his skillful and unsentimental portrayal of the Great Migration.]
During and for several months after the close of the first World War a shortage of man power existed in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia steel industry. Attracted by wages of $4 a day, Southern farm Negroes moved North to enter the steel mills. From the point of view of tenant farmers living in a state of virtual peonage the low wages of the mill workers seemed riches, while there was an additional inducement to desert the land in the expectation of enjoying greater social freedom. The mass migration which drained large sections of the South of its farm labor, causing a new problem for agriculturists, also created a series of problems for Northern employers and labor leaders. At the time the unions were conducting their initial efforts to organize the steel industry on a closed-shop basis and the employers were relying increasingly on Negroes as strike-breakers. Consequently the unions watched this influx with mounting anxiety. Also to be reckoned with was the fear of the white workers that they might eventually be displaced by Negroes willing to accept lower wages and working conditions. These and other aspects of the Southern Negro migration are touched upon in this story [Blood on the Forge] of the three Moss brothers—Melody, Chinatown and Big Mat—who abandon their worn-out tenant farm in the red clay hills of Kentucky to work in a West Virginia steel mill. Through the narration of their experience as industrial workers we perceive social and economic issues that are part of the history of an epoch.
Written by a Negro author with notable objectivity, [Blood on the Forge] is a starkly realistic story involving social criticism as searching as any to be found in contemporary literature; but Mr. Attaway, though his protagonists are of his own race, has not singled out the Negro as the sole victim of unjust conditions. He shows native white Americans and immigrant Slavs working under the same system of low pay, cruelly long hours and unnecessary hazards to life and limb. Many of these injustices have since been rectified, but that fact does not detract from the story value of a tale which holds one's attention primarily by its realistic characterizations, the vividness and intensity of dramatic moments and its pathos. There is a double theme: the Negro competing with the white man in an abnormal condition of the labor market, and the man of the soil forced to make an adjustment with urban industrial life.
Big Mat, a physical giant with the mentality of a child who has never learned to play, tries to remain faithful to his wife, Hattie, who waits in Kentucky until he shall have earned enough money to send for her. He reads his Bible regularly and saves his pay. His brothers persuade him to attend a dog fight, where he meets Anna, a Mexican girl of the red light district, and yields to the urgings of his physical nature. Like other unmarried steel workers, Melody and Chinatown spend their pay on corn whiskey, dice and women. The greater social freedom for Negroes turns out to be largely delusive, for their chief competitors, the Slavs, hate them, while white Americans and Irish preserve a guarded attitude. When the union organizers appear the black workers are easily brought into the employers' camp, being persuaded that, as the least efficient racial group, their only chance of continuing on the job consists in making the best of present conditions.
Working in the terrific heat of blast furnaces and open hearths while under a complex of moral and emotional tensions, the brothers fall under the spell that ensnares all steel men. But one sees in the attitude of these black men something more—a transference of their mystical worship of earth to that other primal element, fire, yet not without a struggle and a haunting sense of apostasy. Earth will be avenged for man's presumption in converting it into steel.
This novel portraying life in the raw is not for those who shun the unlovely aspects of human nature, who have a distaste for bloodshed and the cruder manifestations of sex. Indeed one of its chief claims to literary distinction consists in the author's refusal to sentimentalize his earthy men and women. The artistic integrity Mr. Attaway evinced in his first book, Let Me Breathe Thunder, is equally evident in the faithful depiction of the primitive approach to life of a social group on whose laborious efforts the whole scheme of modern industrial life is based.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5900
SOURCE: "Migration: William Attaway and Blood on the Forge," in Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1968, pp. 47-64.
[Margolies is an American educator and critic who specializes in African-American literature. In the excerpt below, he provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Blood on the Forge.]
There persists to this day a widely held belief that the deep South, with its brutal casts system and its savage history of racial atrocities, represents for Negroes an image of steaming hell. Such a view is constantly reinforced by spokesmen for civil rights organizations and activists of various liberal persuasions. It serves their political convenience and humanitarian goals, which is all to the good, but unfortunately it muddles their thinking. For it is grounded on the assumption that people are political and economic entities whose motivations and behavior may be simplistically understood. Since Negroes have been systematically exploited and oppressed in the South, it follows they must hate the South that has persecuted them. There are partial truths here—how else explain the vast northward migrations that have been taking place over the past fifty or so years? But what of the large numbers who have stayed behind? Partial truths are not satisfactory to the artist, for he understands that people often leave the place of the origins not simply out of hatred, but because they want to continue to love their homes. And they carry their love with them to the dismal ghettos of the North and cherish it all the more for their adversity. Jean Toomer, for all his woozy romanticism, persuades because his South represents a heartfelt need, and even racial militants like Richard Wright, may, on occasion, speak lyrically of "down-home" times. They miss especially the soil, the seasons, the sense of community they once knew; they regale one another with stories and fables and legends of family, friends, and relatives they left behind; and they attempt to adapt their older ways to the anarchy of city life. Frequently they return South for visits in order to renew themselves.
Calvin Hernton, in a recent book of essays, describes the mixed feelings of some of these visitors:
The fact that Negroes are alienated from the broader life of the South and its deeper mysteries does not frequently pull them away, but binds them ever more closely to the bosom of Down-Home. The South is the mother-matrix out of which and in which the Negro's mind has been fashioned; it is at the same time the festering ache in the republic of his heart. This, more than anything else, is why they go back.
Such ambivalence has seldom been expressed with more skill or emotional impact than in William Attaway's Blood on the Forge (1941), a narrative describing the first stage of the Negro's journey North from his ancestral home. It recounts the experiences of the three brothers. Moss in a steel-mill town in western Pennsylvania after leaving their Kentucky hill-country tenant farm during World War I. In the course of the novel one of the brothers is killed, and as the book closes the two remaining brothers move on to the city, where they hope to acquire new roots.
The novel not only records a critical moment in the Negro's history but expands its significance by reference to some of the larger events of the American experience. It takes into account the looming strife between incipient labor unions and the steel companies, the psychology and culture of east European immigrants as they work alongside Southern Negroes, and the specific work conditions under which they all struggle. But it would be a mistake to regard Blood on the Forge as a tract, for Attaway rendered the usual subject matter of the proletarian novel into a work of art. He transcended his materials to describe a strange odyssey of the human spirit—without losing several familiar sociological truths. Indeed, what may puzzle the reader is a certain cold realism combined with what can only be described as fervored romantic pessimism.
The failure of the novel to attain popularity may perhaps be ascribed to this paradoxical achievement. On the face of it, Blood on the Forge—even its title—suggests simply another of the interminable working-class novels dealing with the downtrodden and their efforts to succeed to a dignified life. Or perhaps the novel was read as naturalistic fiction, but because it did not quite fit the "up-lift" formula of its day, it was ignored and relegated to the dustbin of the ideologically confused. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that neither the "aesthetes" who wanted their art to eschew all sociological comment, nor the "socially committed" who wanted their art to point the way, would have looked favorably on Blood on the Forge, since in form and subject matter it seems to lie somewhere in a no man's land. Attaway has ideological axes to grind, but they are honed in peculiarly traditional American accents. He urges the primacy of the life of the soil over the life-denying machine, and projects the American image of men of different nationalities and colors working and living together. For all that, his books may have appeared a little foreign to American readers. Possibly the publication of Richard Wright's more sensational Native Son the preceding year had something to do with it. Wright's novel was less polished, but it contained rather startling revelations for white readers unused to racial complexities. The American reading public apparently could take only one Negro at a time. Wright became a "spokesman"; Attaway never published another novel.
Attaway prepared the way for Blood on the Forge with Let Me Breathe Thunder, a novel he published two years earlier in 1939. In one sense Attaway is less inhibited in his first book because he is writing primarily about white characters whose point of view would not be readily understood as racial. Yet his protagonists, hobo migrant farm workers, are Negroes under the skin—pariahs, consumed at the same time with wanderlust and the desire to stay put. Their agony is a Negro agony, and their allusions to race problems are more "inside" than Attaway might have cared to admit. They speak on more than one occasion of interracial sex and its conspiratorial acceptance in middle-class communities, of the various kinds of racial prejudice they meet throughout the country—and the fact that only hoboes do not appear to discriminate; of the private humiliations "outsiders" experience in a bourgeois milieu, and above all of their uneasiness in accommodating themselves to the patterns of American life, and their desire not to do so. They are the alienated, the uncommitted, whose discontents may one day be marshaled toward revolution—but not necessarily of the doctrinaire, ideological variety. They do not yet know what they want, but they know what they dislike. Once they are aware of what they seek, they are perhaps capable of changing their world.
Attaway here does not understand his people. His solution, like Toomer's, is a return to the soil. A character named Sampson, who owns orchards and farm lands, has suffered considerably during his life; his wife and sons have died and he lives alone with an adolescent daughter. But his strong sense of identification with the land serves to renew him and give him perspective and emotional balance. Sampson is portrayed most sympathetically, but Attaway cannot make him ring altogether true. And the hoboes whom he asks to stay with him on the land cannot believe in him either; as the novel closes, they leave to try their luck elsewhere. Attaway's inability to make Sampson believable stems as much from anachronism as from failure of craftsmanship. The American dream of the independent farmer was outmoded by the Depression years, and Attaway was simply unable to cope with his nostalgia.
The plot of Let Me Breathe Thunder is unsophisticated and sometimes Hollywoodishly sentimental. It deals with two hardened migratory farm workers in Washington State who adopt as their companion a lost, orphaned ten-year-old Mexican-American youth. Hi Boy, the name they have given him, speaks no English at first, rides the rods with them, and comes to adore Step, the more romantic and volatile of the two. At one point Hi Boy grinds a fork into his hand in order to prove to Step (who rather disapproves of the child as an unnecessary encumbrage) that he has the fortitude to bear the vicissitudes of the migratory life. The three companions settle later on Sampson's farm in Yakima, where Step rather reluctantly falls in love with Anna, Sampson's daughter. Their place of assignation is the home of a Negro woman, Mag, who owns brothels and considerable property in Yakima. In the course of events, Anna is rather dramatically discovered awaiting Step in Mag's house, and Step and his companion and Hi Boy flee in a boxcar. As they travel east across the country, Hi Boy's hand swells up from his self-inflicted wound. The men do everything they can to save him but he dies. Step and his companion conceal the body under a tarpaulin in a boxcar headed for New Mexico, Hi Boy's birthplace, then continue east to Kansas to seek new work.
The novel celebrates the loyalty and decency of men on the move, and the essential virtues of the life of the soil. Attaway's Negro themes, as we have seen, are muted and disguised, which allows him to speak the language of protest without using its rhetoric. In shying away from making his main characters Negroes, Attaway was perhaps fearful of having his novel labeled protest fiction. The two Negro characters who do appear in the novel have no especial "Negro" traits, and although one of them is nearly lynched for the supposed attempted rape of a white girl, scarcely any allusion is made to his race. It appears as if Attaway were bending over backwards to assure his readers that he is not writing "sociology." Such a position is absurd, since any reader would naturally associate lynchings and imaginary sex crimes with race. The novel falters on other counts: the characters rarely spring to life, and their situations vaguely suggest those Steinbeck described two years earlier in Of Mice and Men. Yet for all that, the narrative does possess a certain verve, and the prose is economical and clean in the Hemingway manner—objective but replete with undertones of irony and sadness.
In Blood on the Forge, the Hemingway style is transformed by Negro tones and rhythms. As the novel traces the deterioration of the Negro peasant under the crush of industrial life, Attaway rings changing images of the natural Southern landscape against the hearths, blast furnaces, and smoking chimneys of the steel-mill town. Implicit in the language is a kind of hell-death-decay imagery. His "green men" glance about them upon their arrival in Allegheny County and remember their former homes, the red clay hills, where "there was growing things everywhere and crab-apple trees bunched—stunted but beautiful." What they see now is an "ugly, smoking hell out of a backwoods preacher's sermon." Later they ask, "Where are the trees? They so far away on the tops of the low mountains that they look like the fringe on a black wear-me-to-a-wake dress held upside down against the sky." Attaway foreshadows the disintegration of black men under these conditions when the brothers, on their first day in the Pennsylvania community, spy a Negro whore approaching them on the street. At first they are attracted, but as she passes alongside, they are nearly overcome by a sickening odor. They are told afterward that one of her breasts is rotting away.
The reduction of the brothers begins almost immediately. Surrounded by rusty iron towers, brick stacks, magnets, traveling cranes, and steam shovels, they appear even to themselves physically diminished in size:
They had always thought of [Mat, the eldest] as big and powerful as a swamp tree. Now, in their eyes, he was getting smaller and smaller. Like spiral worms, all their egos had curled under pressure from the giants around them. Sooner or later it came to all the green men.
Attaway does not, however, confine this effect entirely to Negroes. The other workers in the mills—Irish, Italians, Slovaks, and Ukrainians—in one sense make better adjustments to industrial life. They raise families—for them their children are "growing things"—while the Negroes make no attempt to send home for their wives and children. Yet the white workers fare scarcely better: their children fornicate and commit incest in the weeds outside their homes, and their grown daughters become whores.
Steel, the indestructible symbol of industry, assumes a powerful impersonal force, brutalizing and degrading to the human spirit.
The fire and flow of metal seemed an eternal act which had grown beyond men's control. It was not to be compared with crops that one man nursed to growth and ate at his own table. The nearness of a farmer to his farm was easily understood. But no man was close to steel. It was shipped across endless tracks to all the world. On the consignment slips were Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, rails for South America, tin for Africa, tool steel for Europe. This hard metal held up the new world. Some were shortsighted and thought they understood. Steel is born in the flames and sent out to live and grow old. It comes back to the flames and has a new birth. But no one man could calculate its beginning or end. It was old as the earth. It would end when the earth ended. It seemed deathless.
But if Attaway deplores the evils of the industrial North, he does not conversely romanticize the virtues of the pastoral South. Unlike Toomer, he savagely portrays the South as being too oppressive for Negroes. In the first part of the novel the three brothers live together (with Hattie, Mat's wife) as tenant farmers in the Kentucky red-clay hills. They are on the verge of starvation and enslaved in debt. Even farming is largely useless because most of the topsoil has been washed away over the course of years. What remains for the brothers is the memory, the idea, the "dream" of the land as it must have been before they and the land were exploited by racist owners. The erosion of the land suggests the erosion of their morale which, in a sense, washes them off the land. The immediate cause of their hasty departure, however, is a beating administered by Mat to a white overseer. In order to escape the inevitable lynch mob, the brothers go North to the steel mills. Circumstances keep Mat from taking Hattie along, and Mat's separation from his wife signals the beginning of the dissolution of their family life.
The Kentucky sequence serves to introduce the major characters, who together suggest a composite Negro folk personality. Melody, who will manage best in the ordeal ahead, is sensitive and poetic. He is so named because of his skill with the guitar and because he is capable of articulating in song the folk life of the peasant. Chinatown is simple, lazy, sensual, and hedonistic. He lives by outward symbols; his greatest source of pride is his gold tooth, because, as he puts it later, it shines and smiles at him. Mat, the dominant figure of the group, is huge, brooding, and sullen. All his life he has suffered insults and humiliation at the hands of whites, but he has managed for the most part to suppress his rage and adopt a glazed expression when he is most hurt. An intensely religious man, Mat reads the Bible constantly to discover the causes of his agony. He believes he is cursed because he was conceived in sin, and that the curse has manifested itself in Hattie's inability to give birth to a child. Six times pregnant, Hattie has "dropped" her baby each time before it was born—and this is the central metaphor that supports Attaway's main theme, for Hattie's infertility corresponds to the infertility of the Southern soil that can no longer give sustenance to Negro life. Hence the brothers seek to sink roots in soil elsewhere. Insofar as they cannot do so, they will diminish and wither.
The second part of the novel relates the journey of the brothers to Pennsylvania—crouched and huddled in a dark boxcar with numerous other Negroes who are being brought North to work in mills.
Squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for market, riding in the dark for what might have been years, knowing time only as dippers of warm water gulped whenever they were awake, helpless and dropping because they were headed into the unknown and there was no sun, they forgot even that they had eyes in their heads and crawled around in the boxcar, as though it were a solid thing of blackness.
The screech, the rattle, the roar of the train, the fetid air, the smell of urine demoralized the men. "The misery that stemmed from them was a mass experience." Not even Mat could "defend his identity against the pack." Chinatown whimpers, terrified that someone in the dark may try to steal his gold tooth. He tells Melody that "without it I ain't nobody." Nor can Melody play his guitar and sing in the deafening noise. It is as if the train journey has suddenly and shockingly severed them from all connection with the past—a feeling not unlike what their African ancestors must have experienced in the holds of the slave ships. Yet in another sense the boxcar is a kind of womb preparing to disgorge them into a new life.
But the life of the steel mills is even more dehumanizing than the one they have fled. Once the green men overcome their initial bewilderment at the sterile, ugly grayness of the community, they attempt to acclimate themselves. They learn from bunkhouse talk how to survive in their dangerous work. They feel the hostility of the white workers, who fear—with justification—that the Negroes have been transported North in order to weaken the union. They learn above all the drudgery of the mill, the tedium, the immense physical stamina required of steel workers on twelve-hour shifts. Their off hours at first are spent sleeping, but soon they begin to enjoy dice games in the bunkhouses, drinking corn whiskey, "whoring" in Mex Town, and attending dog fights. Even Mat allows himself to be drawn into these frivolities after he learns by letter that Hattie has lost her seventh baby. Melody has meanwhile fallen in love with a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American prostitute, Anna, whose earthy nature is adulterated somewhat by her pathetic longings for dance-hall dresses and high-heeled shoes. When Melody fails to satisfy her at their first encounter, she throws herself at Mat, whose brute strength and courage in a melee at the dog fights had rescued her from physical harm.
In certain respects Mat appears to adjust more easily to the life of a steel worker than this brothers. His physical strength is put to the test, and he proves himself more than equal to it. He wins a grudging respect among his fellow workers, and his self-abasement under the glare of the white man seems to disappear. Yet after breaking with his puritanical, Bible-oriented moorings, Mat will need something more than the knowledge that he can stand up to any white man in order to sustain his emotional balance.
Chinatown, on the other hand, makes the worst adjustment. His gold tooth does not count for much in the gray steel community. Nor can he, in his casual Southern way, easily withstand the pressures and tensions of the world he has entered. He misses the out-of-doors, the feel of the earth beneath his bare feet, the sun and the warmth. Melody tries to keep the brothers together but is troubled by a sense of loss. He cannot play his guitar and sing as he once did. He is aware of a need for other melodies, other rhythms in his new environment, yet he cannot quite catch them. His impotence with Anna suggests the signal impotence of all three brothers in their new life.
There is a remarkable soliloquy in this section of the novel, delivered by a crippled Negro named Smothers. Smothers has lost the use of his legs in an accident in the mills some years before, but he is retained on the job by the steel company as a watchman. He is regarded tolerantly by his fellow workers despite his obsessive tirades against steel. Smothers is prophetic—a crippled Tiresias announcing the apocalypse if men persist in their materialist pursuits. His harangues restate the view implicit at the start of the novel that the earth gives moral and spiritual sustenance to men, and that its destruction transgresses nature and denies men their potentialities. On one occasion he rises in the bunkhouse to utter the following words:
It's wrong to tear up the ground and melt it up in the furnace. Ground don't like it. It's the hell-and-devil kind of work. Guy ain't satisfied with usin' the stuff that was put here for him to use—stuff on top of the earth. Now he got to git busy and melt up the ground itself. Ground don't like it, I tells you. Now they'll be folks laugh when I say the ground got feelin'. But I knows what it is I'm talkin' about. All the time I listen real hard and git scared when the iron blast holler to git loose, an' them big redhead blooms screamin' like the very heart o' the earth caught between them rollers. It jest ain't right….
Can't blame the ground none. It give warnin'. Yessir, they was warnin' give a long time ago. Folks say one night there's somethin' fall right outen the sky, blazin' down, lightin' up this ol' river in the black o' night…. A solid hunk o' iron it be, big around as a house, fused together like it been worked by a puddler with a arm size of a hundred-foot crane. Where it come from? Where this furnace in the sky? You don't know. I don't know. But it were a warning to quit meltin' up the ground.
Later in the same section, Attaway describes a dog fight which the brothers attend along with other workers. The event is particularly savage but evidently serves to relieve the spectators of their built-up murderous frustrations. Its effect on Mat, however, is quite the opposite, as he begins to strike out wildly and indiscriminately at the other workers like a starved dog loosed from its leash.
The passage of time brings the further decline of the brothers. Mat has rented a shack and is now living with Anna. He has given up all thoughts of sending for Hattie and has left his Bible behind in the bunkhouse. Melody broods over the loss of Anna and schemes to get her back. He calls on her while Mat is working at the mill. Anna suspects his motives, and her suspicions are confirmed when he announces that he wants to give Mat a letter from Hattie. Anna wrestles with him to take the letter away from him. Exhausted and unsuccessful, she gives up the fight and she and Melody make love. It soon becomes clear that Anna is not happy living with Mat, who does not allow her to go out and show off the sequined dress and high-heeled shoes he bought her with money he had been saving for Hattie. The next day Anna disappears, and when she returns two days later Mat assumes she has been "lying" with someone and beats her savagely. Actually she has been lying on the hills near the big homes of wealthy townspeople, fantasying that she is the mistress of a rich man.
Events move swiftly now. Melody has an accident at the mill which severely damages his guitar-playing hand. Then Mat is arrested in Pittsburgh for attempting to kill a man. Melody drives to Pittsburgh to bail him out, and on the return trip Mat, crushed and defeated, tells him that Anna no longer truly gives herself to him.
The portents of disaster build. Again steel serves as the underlying metaphor to suggest the hellish antilife man has created, and it is again the raving Smothers who calls up the image of a monster that demands human sacrifice. Smothers senses impending death. "Ever'body better be on the lookout. Steel liable to git somebody today. I got a deep feelin' in my bones," he says. The men laugh and Bo, the foreman, promises Smothers, "If it's you … we make you up into watch fobs. The boys round the bunkhouse'll wear you across their vests for luck." Smothers tells the hair-raising story of how he lost his legs in the mill and how afterward, "All the time in the hospital I kin hear that steel talkin' … I kin hear that steel laughin' an' talkin' till it fit to bust my head clean open … I kin hear when cold steel whisper all the time and hot roll steel scream like hell. It's a sin to melt up the ground…."
Melody, too, has come to sense steel as a death god. "Suddenly Melody was aware of the warning. He started up. There was great danger. Something screamed it inside him…. Perhaps the monster had gotten tired of an occasional victim. Perhaps he was about to break his chains. He would destroy masses of men, flesh, bones and blood, leaving only names to bury."
And then there is a blinding flash, followed by "a mushroom cloud, streaked with whirling red fire…." Several workers, Smothers included, are killed. Chinatown is blinded.
In a sense each of the brothers has now been rendered impotent: Chinatown, who lives by outward symbols, can no longer see; Melody, who lives through his music, can no longer play the guitar; and Mat has become a hulking shell of a man because Anna no longer loves him. All three brothers go to live with Anna. She no longer sleeps with Mat, but takes care of Chinatown, whose eyes are like "old eggs rotting in their ragged half shells, purple and revolting."
Racial tensions are rising in the town. The union is moving toward a strike and the steel interests are countering by bringing more Negroes in from the South. Negro leaders have been bought off and are directing Negro workers not to join the union. Meanwhile the depleted Mat has taken to walking alone among the hills on the edge of town. On one occasion he is approached by the law and sworn in as a deputy, ostensibly to maintain order but really to help break the forthcoming strike. He views this as an opportunity to redeem his faltering manhood with Anna—and at the same time, unconsciously, to wreak his vengeance on whites.
On the day of the strike, Melody, in order to bolster Chinatown's dashed ego, takes him to a brothel. Inadvertently he discovers Anna has been secretly working there nights, and rushes back to the shack to accuse her—and to beg her to run away with him. Suddenly Mat returns. Overhearing their conversation, he savagely beats Anna into a heap, then shambles back to town and brutally provokes some of the strikers on orders of the sheriff. In the ensuing melee, Mat kills and injures a number of them before he is himself hacked down.
The novel closes on Melody and Chinatown headed for Pittsburgh, where they will begin life anew.
Part of the strength of this final section of the novel lies in Attaway's generally successful fusion of naturalistic and metaphysical elements. The social and economic forces that drive the brothers from the Kentucky hills and divide the steel community in bloody conflict are in themselves crimes against nature. The same pride and greed that destroy the soil manifest themselves again as racial tension and industrial strife. Attaway focuses these perceptions on Mat just prior to his death. Having been rejected by Anna, Mat tries to redeem his ego by identifying himself with steel.
Big Mat looked at the mills, and the big feelings were lifting him high in the air. He was big as God Almighty…. He could have spit and quenched a blast furnace…. Smothers had been a liar. Steel couldn't curse a man. Steel couldn't hurt him. He was the riding boss. How could those dead mills touch him? With his strength he could relight their fires or he could let them lie cold.
But like some epic Greek hero, Mat recognizes his hubris at the moment of his death, and intuits that his brutality in attacking the workers is just like the brutality to which he himself had been subjected in the South. And he recognizes too that the young Slav who is striking at him with a pickaxe handle is not unlike the Mat who struck out violently at a white man in Kentucky. Like Oedipus, Mat is his own persecutor and victim.
Unfortunately, for Mat (and the Negro by implication) vision comes too late. Attaway contrasts Mat's vision at death to Chinatown's continuing blindness in life. On the train that carries Melody and Chinatown to Pittsburgh, the brothers meet a blind Negro soldier who used to be a steel worker. When Chinatown asks why he left the mills, the soldier explains that he responded to a deep feeling inside him—a sound of guns. He tells Chinatown that he too can hear the guns if he listens carefully. Chinatown strains, and "their noise came over the rumble of the train."
"Sound like somethin' big an' important that a fella's missin', don't it?" asked the soldier.
Melody watched the nod. He looked at the two blind men closely. Their heads cocked to one side, listening for sounds that didn't exist. They were twins.
And so the blind lead the blind. Just as the soldier was lured away from home by the nonexistent glory of war, so Melody and his brothers have been seduced from their homes by promises of freedom and security in the North. And thus it would always be for men like Chinatown and the soldier.
One of the most significant passages in the novel describes a strange ritual some of the workers perform after Smothers' death. It will be recalled that prior to the explosion in the mill, Bo says that if Smothers were to die, the men would use his remains for watch fobs. The men carry out their promise one day in the bunkhouse.
[Bo] sat on the floor in the middle of an intent audience. No one spoke. Their attention was for Bo and for what he did. Between his legs was a pile of little steel scraps. In front of him burned a tin of canned heat. Bo put a steel dish on the heat. Into the dish went a few pieces of lead. Then he sat back to wait.
For twenty minutes they sat. Nothing sounded but the sudden scrape of a boot against the grain of the floor. Then the massed breathing of the men began to grow until it whistled. A watch in someone's pocket ticked louder and louder. The creak of the bunkhouse in the changing air came now and again. Each man heard his own heart circling its own blood. So what was silence spoke louder and louder.
Then the time was up. The lead cupped the bottom of the dish, a heavy dust scumming its brightness. With ceremony Bo broke that scum. Then out of his pocket came the little chains. A drop of lead fastened each chain to one of the steel scraps. Shortly he was through. Bo began to pass out these newly crested watch fobs. Afterward the group broke up.
Attaway ends his novel on a note of defeat. Yet even in defeat, his protagonists persist—though not very hopefully—in their struggle for survival and identity. The brothers' renewed search for the good life seems doomed from the start. One knows that the entire cycle of hope, passion, and defeat will begin again with such persons as the blind "twins," Chinatown and the soldier—blind because they will continue to be deluded by unattainable dreams and promises.
One wonders, naturally, whether their author was himself as overcome with the hopelessness of his prognosis. Born in Mississippi in 1912, the son of a physician, Attaway was himself part of the great migration North. He attended public schools in Chicago and, after an interim as a hobo, he worked at a variety of jobs before returning to the University of Illinois to complete his education. It was in high school, Attaway writes, that he developed an interest in becoming an author. He had always assumed that Negro success was to be won in genteel professions like medicine, but upon first reading Langston Hughes, his outlook was transformed. Prior to the appearance of his two novels, he published little. His first novel, as we have seen, was promising; his second, a classic of its kind. Why then did Attaway stop writing fiction? He was only twenty-nine when Blood on the Forge appeared. It is, of course, always hazardous to guess at the motives of a writer, but possibly some clues may be found in the works themselves.
It is first of all clear that Attaway had no intention of writing "race" fiction. He did not want his novels to stop short at "protest," but rather hoped to make some grand metaphysical statement about the conditions of life and human experience, in which, possibly, Negro characters figured. But such a wholly laudable ambition was not, as has already been suggested, something the American reading public was prepared to accept from a Negro author—especially at the outset of World War II, when the great tasks ahead appeared to lie more in action and less in reflection. Attaway may simply have been discouraged at the response to his book—and quit.
Another alternative, however, suggests itself. It is perhaps in the realm of ideas that we may look for the source of Attaway's arrested artistic development. Basically Attaway is a romantic. Let Me Breathe Thunder, for all its praise of stable family life and the virtues of farming, ultimately celebrates the free-wheeling bohemianism of hoboes—and Attaway, by manipulating his plot this way and that, manages to free his protagonists from any social and moral obligations. In another romantic vein, Blood on the Forge projects the myth of the "good" soil corrupted by man's greed, whose logical absurdity manifests itself in the manufacture of steel. While no one would deny that the excesses of American capitalism have produced cruel and dehumanizing injustices, it is hard, after Darwin, to ascribe moral virtues to nature. And since it is scarcely possible any longer to look to nature as something apart and holy, Attaway may well have written himself out of subject matter.
And yet if one grants Attaway his premises, it is undeniable that he has written a beautiful and moving novel. Nor can one deny that his vision of earth as sanctified remains persistently embedded in the American mythos. It is, after all, out of such nostalgia that art is created.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975
SOURCE: "An Examination of Whiteness in Blood on the Forge," in CLA Journal, Vol. XV, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 459-64.
[Klotman is an American educator and critic who specializes in African-American literature and film. In the following essay, she assesses Attaway's nonstereotypical depiction of whites in Blood on the Forge.]
William Attaway's Blood on the Forge was reissued in 1969, the same year that saw the renascence of Jean Toomer's Cane, as well as the publication of several significant novels by contemporary Afro-American writers, such as Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke—Down. Attaway's important but ignored book about the three Moss brothers, who leave the depleted farmland of Kentucky for the steel mills of Pennsylvania, poignantly but realistically tells the story of one facet of the Great Black Migration during the first World War.
Blood on the Forge was originally published in 1941, only one year after Native Son, but Attaway does not deal with whiteness in character and symbol in the same terms that Richard Wright used. Attaway eschews the stereotypical; his white characters, with the exception of the sheriff and "Boss" Johnston, are essentially complex and well-rounded figures. Nor is whiteness his central symbol. The steel mill is. Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown are seduced North by the promise of jobs and decent wages, but are gradually beaten down and stripped of their manhood by the uncompromising and brutal, man-eating monster, the steel mill. Behind the faceless monster is the white power structure, manipulating the lives of white immigrants and black unskilled workers—who are shipped in by cattle car, a disgusting and dehumanizing experience—for the sake of feeding the mill and filling their coffers. The bosses are never seen; their power is felt mainly through their underlings who set white worker against black, deputize strikebreakers, and generally control through fear or famine.
Racism as an omnipotent factor does not exist in the lives of the three brothers after they leave Kentucky. At least for a time. They are accepted by the Slavs, the Irish and the Italians with whom they work in the mill; they drink, gamble and whore together. As a friend, old Zanski warns that they'll never be happy until they send for their families—a man needs children in his home and a wife to put up curtains—he admonishes. In a word, stability. But few black workers move out of the bunkhouse. Their separation from their past—rootedness in the soil, the folk, religion, family—is almost as complete as that of their ancestors who traveled to a new and ugly life in the dark bellies of slave ships instead of airless boxcars. When Mat does finally set up "housekeeping," it is with Anna, the Mexican prostitute, who wants an "Americano" because she is tired of "peons." (Anna suffers from the delusion that all "Americanos" are rich, regardless of color.) The three brothers are systematically unmanned by the dehumanizing process of forging steel. Chinatown is blinded in an accident which eats up the lives of fourteen men; Melody's hand is smashed so that he is no longer able to play his guitar; Big Mat is killed during the strike in which he has become an unwitting tool the bosses wield against the white workers. Earlier his skill and strength earned him the approbation of his fellow workers and the title "Black Irish"; later he comes to be "hated by his fellow workers. He was a threat over their heads. The women covered their faces at the sight of him, the men spat; the children threw rocks. Always within him was that instinctive knowledge that he was being turned to white men's uses. So always with him was a basic distrust of a white. But now he was a boss. He was the law. After all, what did right or wrong matter in the case? Those thrilling new words were too much to resist. He was a boss, a boss over whites."
There is very little about the unionizing process that the black workers, including the Moss brothers, understand or identify with. The backbreaking hazardous work in the mill has been a kind of salvation for them. Having sharecropped all of their lives, always on the verge of starvation, they are neither shocked nor dismayed by the twelve-hour day in the mill. At least they get paid. They have not begun to think about the possibility of better working conditions—an eight-hour day, better wages, unions—a fact that the Northern industrialists well knew and used to their advantage in controlling the "socialist" oriented, organizing aspirations of the white immigrants: "Big Mat was not thinking about the labor trouble. Yet he knew he would not join the union. For a man who had so lately worked from dawn to dark in the fields twelve hours and the long shift were not killing. For a man who had known no personal liberties even the iron hand of the mills was an advancement."
One of the things that drives the Moss brothers North is the impossibility of paying off a $40 debt to Mr. Johnston, the landowner to whom they are perpetually in debt. Fear of the control the white boss has over their very ability to stay alive is a given with the black sharecropper. It inspires Mat's hate: "Deep inside him was the familiar hatred of the white boss." There are only a few stereotypical characters in Blood on the Forge. Mr. Johnston, the Kentucky landowner, is a classic bigot, indigenous to the South, but interestingly enough, he uses the black sharecroppers against the white just as the bosses in the northern mill use the black workers against the immigrants. Johnston explains to Mat why he doesn't have white sharecroppers work his land: "well, they's three reasons: niggers ain't bothered with the itch; they knows how to make it the best way they kin and they don't kick none." They don't "kick" because they have no recourse. If their anger gets out of control, the resultant violence always turns against them. When Mat explodes in anger and fury, killing the mule that killed their mother in the fields, he puts them all in Johnston's debt to the point of starvation. They don't run because they have no place to go, and Johnston thinks he can keep them from getting the "itch" by manipulation and innuendo, an "old Master" tactic, in the plantation tradition: "My ridin' boss tells me there some jacklegs around, lyin' to the niggers about how much work they is up North. Jest you remember how I treat you and don't be took in by no lies."
They don't get taken in by northern lies; they leave because they know southern truths. One of these truths is never to look at or touch a white woman. Melody knows that Mat has "more sense than to talk to a white lady"; Chinatown agrees: "It's dangerous….' member young Charley from over in the next county got lynched jest cause he stumble into one in the broad daylight." Another of those old-fashioned southern truths is never strike a white man a semi-lethal blow. When the riding boss refuses to give Big Mat the mule Johnston has promised him ("If Mr. Johnston got good sense you won't never git another mule…. You'd be run off the land if I had my say. Killin' a animal worth forty dollars,' cause a nigger woman got dragged over the rocks—"), Mat in a blind rage strikes him down. Realizing that the man will live "to lead the lynch mob against him," Mat and his brothers reluctantly leave the land they have worked so lovingly yet for so little reward.
The white line drawn about their lives in the South is straight, clear, immovable. The Moss brothers are powerless to effect change, to shift that boundary in any direction, but they understand their role in the schema and derive some satisfaction from a sense of belonging to the land. Big Mat is a powerful man who seems to draw strength from the soil's blackness which is like his own. When he goes North he becomes unmoored, confused by the change in the pattern, but he adapts to the work better than his brothers, better even than the whites. What he doesn't understand is that hate can be generated to meet the needs of new situations. When the white workers become politicized enough to strike, more blacks are shipped in, in boxcars, and the brothers remember, identify with those men—"bewildered and afraid in the dark, coming from hate into a new kind of hate." Bo, the only black foreman, knows the pattern—they only send for black men when there's trouble.
Big Mat is a tragic figure, reminiscent of the one slave on every plantation who refused to be whipped by the soul driver, a man of tremendous physical power and courage who could never be submissive. As developed by the early black fictionists, he becomes the black hero or the "bad nigger," feared by everyone. Big Mat has some of these characteristics, but in Blood on the Forge he is also an Othello-like figure, proud, jealous, and formidable. And his blackness is played off against a white Iago, a sneaky little boss-sheriff who manipulates him by appealing to his new-found sense of manhood. "Deputize this man," the sheriff says, "assign him his hours. He won't need a club. Just give him a couple of boulders. He'll earn his four dollars Monday." Actually the bosses save the four dollars. Mat destroys and is destroyed, as so many are in the struggle for steel. Most of Attaway's characters—black, white, all shades of ethnic groupings—are handled well. Many have real nuances of complexity, including the two brothers, Chinatown and Melody, who are left derelict at the end; Anna, the grasping but pathetic Mexican girl; Zanski's granddaughter Rosie, a union sympathizer who turns prostitute for the scabs in order to support the starving strikers in her family; and Smothers, the black prophet of doom, who understands that all men will have to pay for ravaging the earth: "It's a sin to melt up the ground, is what steel say. It's a sin. Steel bound to git ever'body 'cause o' that sin. They say I crazy, but mills gone crazy 'cause men bringin' trainloads of ground in here and meltin' it up."
One of the tragic outcomes in the novel is the loss of continuity in the lives of the men who are almost human sacrifices to the industrial Moloch created by an unseen hand grasping for profits. And that hand is white. If we used to think that free enterprise meant freedom to exploit all the resources of our country—both human and natural—to destroy the land and leave it in waste, we have since been forced to change our minds. There is something very timely in Attaway's implicit warning, as Edward Margolies suggests in his introduction to the 1969 edition of Blood on the Forge: "Possibly he [Attaway] saw his worst fears realized in the rapid spread of industrial wastelands and the consequent plight of urban Negroes. From one point of view his feelings about the sanctity of nature now seem almost quaint in an age of cybernetics. Yet given what we are told is the dangerous pollution of our environment, who can tell but that Attaway may not have been right?"
What is most interesting about the "rediscovery" of such novels as Blood on the Forge is their contemporaneity. We have now, some twenty-eight years later, reached the point of no return in our violation of the environment and of each other. Yet we are as unseeing as Chinatown and the soldier at the end of the novel—"blind men facing one another, not knowing."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2486
SOURCE: "William Attaway's Unaccommodated Protagonists," in Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 1-3.
[In the following essay, Felgar discusses the main themes of and characterization in Attaway's novels.]
So much emphasis has been placed recently on nominating the important new Black novelists that attending to the older ones has been neglected. Large critical claims have been made lately for Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and John A. Williams, while the work of William Attaway and Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, remains buried under the weight of years of critical indifference. I want to make a plea for William Attaway as a novelist, one who, like so many Afro-American writers of fiction, wrote one or two books, and then, as in the case of Toomer, apparently was discouraged from fulfilling early promise. Attaway published his first book, Let Me Breathe Thunder, in 1939, his second, Blood on the Forge, two years later. The two are almost completely unknown by Black and white readers; both audiences should give themselves the chance to become seriously concerned with Attaway's vision.
In neither book does he embrace a prescriptive racial esthetic: many of the major characters in Let Me Breathe Thunder are white, in Blood on the Forge Black. He writes about people who engage his sympathy and imagination; sometimes they are Afro-American, sometimes white Americans. Since the implied audience for both books is "the common reader," Attaway is not confined to writing "only" about Blacks or "only" about whites. Neither color is a limitation on his writing: they are given material. The false dichotomy between "race" novels and novels of "universal significance" is fortunately not a problem for him.
The central characters in Let Me Breathe Thunder are estranged from bourgeois American society because although racially acceptable, they are hoboes, and therefore outsiders in social, if not racial status. As proletarians, both their stake and their place in America are problematic. They have no permanent home, employment, or social relations. Movement is the permanent ontological fact of their existence. The narrator, Ed, has perhaps a more common-sensical hold on experience than his fellow hobo, Step (using names descriptively is sustained in the later novel), but the lack of any lasting orientation in both their lives is equal. They befriend a nine-year-old Mexican youth who is even less at home in the universe than they are: Hi Boy is without parents (Step "adopts" him as Sampson becomes the temporary "father" of the two transients), without friends except Step and Ed, and without a language to articulate his plight—he has the slipperiest of grasps on English. An emblem of almost total exclusion, he dies of an infection caused by a wound in his hand he inflicted with a fork in order to prove to Step he was not a coward. The world he greeted with his name allowed him the briefest existence only. The themes of separation and dislocation inform Blood on the Forge in a different way because the Moss brothers are racial as well as social outcasts.
Attaway dramatically imagines Ed as having had more advantages than Step. Ed has had a high school education, some home life, some sense of belonging. His sidekick, however, never had a real home; he was sent to the mills instead of having candles on his birthday cake, yet he pathetically carries a set of keys that fit locks on a nonexistent home. Anna, the girl Step violates in a tawdry affair of sexual initiation, has no mother and her four brothers died of an illness during the war. Possessed of a home and a father, she demands more; her vision of the open road she assumes Step and Ed travel ends in a whorehouse operated by Mag, a middle-aged Black ex-prostitute living with Cooper, her man. To sustain his public image as a lady's man, Cooper makes Mag jealous of Anna, whom she accidentally wounds with her rifle while trying to hit Cooper. Appropriately, he flees as a hobo on the same train car Ed, Step, and Hi Boy are running away on. Just as in Blood on the Forge, indifferent machines transport the protagonists across America, as if they were merely freight:
"That's what trains was made for … passengers," he (Step) said.
"And freight," I added.
"We ain't neither," he said. "Don't that strike you funny?"
"Nothing strikes me funny now," I said, trying to shrink my back away from my soaked jacket.
"We ain't even people. We ain't nothing.
They refuse to accept their existence, insisting that they are looking for "a job of work," rather than being hoboes. Like the Indian in the myth Sampson relates to them, they are completely out of place, and if they move, they will cause a disturbance. Consequently they "breathe thunder": "'he (the legendary Indian) was a wanderer by nature. Being outside of patterns, he had to be a wanderer.'" His tormented spirit "'still moans and moans, and in its misery sometimes breathes thunder.'" Attaway's figures recall the Wandering Jew, the mythical Indian, and all the Eternal Wanderers of legend in that all are unaccommodated: their fate is never to find a permanent home in the universe; they are not fully welcome anywhere. Imprisoned in such a world, they demand a locus of moral responsibility, but there is none, as Step knows:
"Why'd he stick the fork in his hand in the first place? Whose fault was it that we couldn't leave him in Yakima and was scared to get a doc when there was a chance? Whose fault is everything?"
There is no resonance between reality and Step's question because of the nonsensicality of the world and man's total negligibility.
The only echo Step and Ed hear as they listen to existence is Hi Boy, the phrase the Mexican boy keeps repeating and the phrase they use to call him by. He represents the commitment and obligation to another human being, a responsibility they are unaccustomed to. When the mountains of Hi Boy's native Mexico are mentioned, the narrator says,
The kid gazed away in the distance. His eyes were soft and mystical looking. He was far away at some place that must have been so simple and beautiful that only a child's mind could bear to go there. His eyes rose with a mountain whose peak was lost in white and mist.
Hi Boy is the innocence, the Edenic state that Ed and especially Step were denied; he is "a pocket-size edition of a priest laughing over his beads, saying his saints on his fingers."
Like the Lost Generation writers before him, Attaway suggests that after all the dross has been melted away from society, only basic values, however temporary, remain. As Toomer and Hemingway find a kind of secular redemption in the earth in Cane and The Sun Also Rises, so Attaway implies that Sampson's orchard on Four Mile Farm is as close as his characters will come to a home, a place of orientation. Attaway's symbolic use of geography approaches the pastoral ideal, a Hesperides where Anna is a nymph guarding the golden fruit. Herrick might not be able to hammer out his golden verses in this Arcadia, but it is the only place Step and Ed find at least an evanescent accommodation with the conditions of their existence.
In King Lear after Edgar enters disguised as Poor Tom, the mad man, the King says, "Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art." Attaway adds resonance and amplitude to his second novel by exploring Lear's image of natural man in a more elaborate intense manner than he did in Let Me Breathe Thunder. The three protagonists in Blood on the Forge, the Moss brothers, not only lack a home (they are part of the Great Migration to the industrial North), but also they are alien to the racial majority. Their train ride north is more devastating than Ed and Step's train rides, because it recapitulates the original slave passage of their ancestors when they were deracinated. With Ed and Step the three Mosses share also a love for the earth which they farmed. Blood on the Forge also terminates with a pointless train ride.
The first part of this five-part novel demonstrates that in leaving the South the Mosses were not losing paradise. In leaving "the red clay-hills of Kentucky," they are abandoning an overworked earth that has become sterile, like Hattie, Big Mat's wife, who has lost six children. They are virtually slaves in the crop-lein system that exploits them. Still, in the South Melody plays the hungry blues on a guitar, while in the North he stops playing when he intentionally smashes his picking hand; in the South, Chinatown, who lives through outward symbols, has stature because of his shiny gold tooth, while in the North he becomes blind and can no longer know if his tooth impresses others or not; in the South Mat's family integrity is maintained—he and his half-brothers live together with Hattie—while in the North Mat forgets about Hattie for Anna and he and his brothers draw apart.
Adumbrations of the family's imminent disintegration percolate through the surface of the narrative of Part One. The bloody violence Melody will witness is foreshadowed: after Mat mutilated the mule that killed the brothers' maw, "Melody had fallen on the ground and vomited and for three days afterward he couldn't hold food on his stomach. The sight of blood always acted on him like that." Mat's attack on the riding boss preludes his assault on the union members in the steel mills. But the most powerful foreshadowing is also a resonant prospective irony: when Chinatown contemplates the jackleg's proposal of going north he says "'man have to kill himself workin' to make the kind of money he was talkin' about.'" Mat of course is killed and China may as well be dead when he loses his sight.
Part Two is only a few pages in length, but it forestalls the ultimate separation of the Moss brothers and it also contains metaphors that imply the identities of each of the three brothers is problematic. On their journey north in a boxcar, the Blacks are "bunched up like hogs headed for market." They "forgot even that they had eyes in their heads," and when the train stopped for a while, "they were blinded by the light of a cloudy day." Filled with sight imagery, the entire novel is a study in optics: none of the three major characters can see clearly. They are either literally blind like Chinatown and the blind preacher from Kentucky, or their moral vision is clouded. Crammed into the train car, "Big Mat could not defend his identity against the pack." Melody, China, and Mat repeat the pattern of their West African ancestors three hundred years earlier: they are the chattel of the white capitalists. China's sense of individuality is so gravely threatened by the passage that he insists Melody feel his gold tooth, China's emblem of selfhood.
The third section introduces the three into the world of the steel mills, where machines rule men. They wonder "what men in their right minds would leave off tending green growing things to tend iron monsters?" (Attaway's emphasis). Cut off from their beloved earth, the men realize they have not gained the Promised Land but its very opposite. And in fact, the inside of a steel mill is hot and fiery like Hell itself. Melody tells China the Day of Judgement will be the coming of a steel mill. Attaway implies that if being transported as slaves from West Africa was the first step in the destruction of Black men, the second step was the Great Migration after World War I. Just after the train's arrival in Pennsylvania, China and Melody cannot find their way back to the bunkhouse when it starts to rain so they are not able to see; this geographical and optical disorientation reflects their metaphysical plight. The whore the two brothers watch has a rotten breast which will be recalled later by China's blind eyes, "old eggs rotting in their ragged half shells, purple and revolting." All three brothers later encounter another figure, the seer Smothers, who prophesies that steel is a monster which will cram them into its maw. They do not attend his warning; he himself is later converted into watch fobs for the workmen to wear, after he is killed by the same monster he warned against. Attaway's second Anna is introduced in Part Three: she is a Mexican whore who is also far from home and unhappy in her new environment. She will be the wedge that drives Mat and Melody apart.
The last two parts chronicle the final destruction of the Mosses: China is blinded, Mat loses Anna and is killed, and Melody smashes his hand so that he can never play the guitar again (the end of Black folk art). Their downfall is paralleled by the fall of the East European steelworkers, who, although many have families and children, nevertheless see their daughters being raped by their own brothers and also becoming whores for their father's own fellow workers. Attaway believes no one has any cosmic status because of mankind's utter negligibility and the universe's absolute nonsensicality. Suffering does not bring understanding or grandeur: when China loses his vision, the paradox of the blind seer does not obtain—his blindness simply literalizes the metaphor. If what matters is man's relationship to himself, to other men, to Nature, and to God, then all four relationships have been abrogated in Attaway's vision of experience. Blood on the Forge suggests there are no relationships: man is completely unaccommodated by the facts of existence. To compensate, the Moss brothers retreat to the past. Big Mat and Melody walk in the hills around the giant industrial complex below, while Chinatown and Melody play the wishing game: they wish they were back on the land, where there is growth instead of death only. Mat's last effort to gain some sense of selfhood, however provisional, is as a deputy sheriff for the mill owners. He becomes in effect the riding boss he had earlier beaten; now a young Slave becomes the earlier Mat and beats Mat to death during a riot between the union members and the sheriff's men. Mat has been exploited by whites once again. Rather than winning Anna back as a strikebreaker, he loses his life. At the end, Melody and Chinatown board a train going to Pittsburgh; across from China sits a sightless Black veteran of World War I: "Melody watched the nod. He looked at the two blind men closely. Their heads cocked to one side, listening for sounds that didn't exist. They were twins." An image that Pinter or Beckett might employ, it reveals Attaway's uncompromisingly hopeless view of a permanently disoriented, unregenerate creature.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1370
SOURCE: "Black Reality and Beyond," in Black Writers of the Thirties, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, pp. 203-35.
[Young is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines Blood on the Forge as an example of proletarian fiction.]
In his eloquent novel, Blood on the Forge (1941), William Attaway delved into the history of the black man in America. But, like Richard Wright in his folk history of the migration, instead of dramatizing the exploits of a historic race hero, Attaway looked with the scrutiny of a sociologist at the brutal experience of the mass of blacks who migrated from the agrarian South into the industrial North at the time of the First World War. Like [Arna Bontemps'] Black Thunder, Attaway's novel should be classed as proletarian fiction. In fact, the general structure of the novel conformed more closely to the typical proletarian novel than did Bontemps' because the setting was more contemporary and the exploitation of the workers was placed in an industrial environment. But Attaway's book was not the run-of-the-mill, artless formula-novel which was characteristic of so much proletarian fiction. For in addition to portraying the persecution and exploitation of the workers, black and white, Attaway also intelligently dramatized the erosion of the old southern folkways by the immense and impersonal force of the machine.
Blood on the Forge was Attaway's second novel. In 1939, he had published Let Me Breathe Thunder, a picaresque novel about two depression-era hoboes. Perhaps the most interesting note about this novel is that its principal characters are white. Though in many ways Attaway's first novel is very effective, it relies too heavily on melodrama; his protagonists are just a bit too naïve and sentimental to be believable. Such is not the case with Blood on the Forge which ranks as one of the finest novels of the depression era.
Attaway's main characters are three brothers. Chinatown is lazy, hedonistic, and lives by outer symbols—his proudest possession is his golden tooth about which he explains "can't 'ford to lose this tooth." Melody is introspective, intelligent, and sensitive—the music he makes on his guitar is expressive of his personality. And, finally, Big Mat, the oldest brother, is a physical giant who, in hopes of some day receiving a call to preach, reads his Bible every day. Wrote Attaway, "To almost everybody but his close kin he was a stupid, unfeeling giant, a good man to butcher hogs…. Melody alone knew him completely. Melody, from his dream world, could read the wounds in Big Mat's eyes." The essential characteristic of each of the three men will be destroyed by the new machine environment.
All three brothers are tenant farmers in the green hills of Kentucky. They are forced to flee from those hills when Big Mat, pouring out the bitterness of years of humiliation and persecution, thrashes the white riding boss: "The riding boss fell to the ground, blood streaming from his smashed face. He struggled to get to his feet. A heavy foot caught him in the side of the neck. His head hung over his shoulder at an odd angle," Aside from the immediate necessity of escaping white retaliation, their flight has another level of meaning for Attaway. They are leaving the land because it has become infertile. It is worn out, incapable of sustaining the black folk any longer. "The land has jest give up, and I guess it's good for things to come out like this," observes Big Mat as they prepare to leave.
They meet an agent from a northern steel mill who gives them passage to the mill on board a freight car. The blackness of the boxcar is symbolic of a womb out of which they will be reborn into the industrial environment. But it is also a coffin, symbolic of the impending death of the folk consciousness: "Squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for market, riding in the dark for what might have been years, knowing time only as dippers of warm water gulped whenever they were awake, helpless and drooping because they were headed into the unknown and there was no sun, they forgot even that they had eyes in their heads and crawled around in the boxcar, as though it were a solid thing of blackness."
When the new men arrive at the mills, Attaway contrasts them to the men who have already been conditioned to the sterile monotony of the industrial existence: "Everything was too strange for the green men to comprehend. In a daze, they were herded to the mill gates and checked in. The night shift was getting off. They mingled for a few minutes at the mill gates. All of them were gray in the dirty river mist." The idea that the green men will become gray men is skillfully developed by Attaway. He never deviates from the attitude that as bad as the feudalistic southern environment was, it was still alive; it was still characterized by very personal relationships between human beings, not the impersonal, mechanized quality of the northern environment. Social scientists like E. Franklin Frazier, looking toward long-range goals, had optimistically observed the destruction of the old folk culture as a positive development accelerating integration into the mainstream of American society. Attaway had carefully dramatized this process, but without the optimism of the sociologists. His artistic consciousness was much more sensitive to immediate suffering, and it told him that possibly something valuable was being destroyed.
It does not take long for the three brothers to become gray men, stripped of their folk identities by the mills. Melody finds that "the old music was going," and after an accident to his hand in the mills he ceases to play his guitar altogether. Chinatown is blinded by an explosion in the mills and he is no longer capable of seeing those outward symbols through which he had lived: "Now those symbols were gone, and he was lost." Big Mat, because of his enormous strength, fares best in the competition with the monster machines. But even he succumbs eventually, losing his religion and becoming shamefully impotent—a mere hulk of the virile man he once was.
The last sections of the novel revolve around Mat and his efforts to regain his manhood. There is rising dissatisfaction among the workers at the mills and they decide to strike. Big Mat has no intention of joining the union. And through his attitude the author attempts to explain why black men were successfully employed as strike-breakers for so many years. "Big Mat was not thinking about the labor trouble. Yet he knew that he would not join the union. For a man who had so lately worked from dawn to dark in the fields twelve hours and the long shift were not killing. For a man who had ended each year in debt any wage at all was a wonderful thing. For a man who had known no personal liberties even the iron hand of the mills was an advancement. In his own way he thought these things. As yet he could not see beyond them." Mat is signed up as a company deputy and he regains his manhood through violence. "He had handled people, and they feared him. Their fear had made him whole." But this feeling of manhood is only temporary, it has no strength against feelings or ideas such as those behind the expression "nigger." He can maintain his manhood only through repeated violence.
Attaway reintroduces the proletarian theme within the context of Mat's anti-union violence. He understands Mat's position, but clearly disagrees with it. Mat achieves proletarian consciousness only as he is being beaten to death by one of the union men. He suddenly suspects that he has taken over the role of the riding boss. "Maybe somewhere in these mills a new Mr. Johnson was creating riding bosses," realizes Mat, "making a difference where none existed." Big Mat's sudden, intuitive realization rings perhaps the one false note in Attaway's novel. The attempt to submerge race conflict within the context of class conflict was no more convincing when portrayed dramatically than when it was proclaimed by radical politicians and scholars.
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SOURCE: "In the Shadow of Richard Wright: William Attaway," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 13-18.
[In the following excerpt, Simms favorably appraises Attaway's portrayal of the disenfranchised in his two novels.]
Undoubtedly, Mississippi's best known native-born black writer is Richard Wright. Wright's reputation, which has grown steadily since the publication of his Native Son in 1940, is justly deserved. Yet over the years, Wright's achievement has tended to overshadow and obscure the work of other Mississippi-born black writers. One of them whose work deserves to be better known is William Attaway. His Blood on the Forge (1941) is an excellent novel which stands up well when compared with any other fiction dealing with blacks written during the past three decades….
Attaway's first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder, appeared in 1939. It is the tough and tender story of two young box car wanderers and their love for a little Mexican waif. The major characters, Ed and Step, are rootless white men faced by [a] hard, precarious reality, yet still capable of dreaming and caring. They represent the large numbers of young people who drifted about America during the difficult depression years of the 1930's. They live from day to day, waiting for nothing in particular. Ed and Step are not professional hoboes given to pointing out the "romance of the road"; their single object is to stay alive and keep moving. They support themselves through brief stretches of farm work.
During a stop in New Mexico, Ed and Step meet an inarticulate Mexican boy named Hi-Boy. His wistful and trusting way soon breaks through their casual, seemingly tough veneer. Ed and Step appoint themselves the boy's guardian and take him on the road as they continue their roaming. Hi-Boy becomes an outlet for their affection and for the tenderness missing from their rootless lives. For Ed and Step, Hi-Boy's welfare comes to take precedence over all else. Quite naturally, when a Yakima Valley rancher wants to take Hi-Boy permanently into his family, Ed and Step are torn between their own need for the boy and their concern for his future.
Attaway's Let Me Breathe Thunder has some of the emotional force and quality of the relationship between George and Lennie in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937). Less ably written, the book would be melodramatic and overly sentimental. But the characterizations are sure, the dialogue is crisp and natural, and careful attention is given to physical detail. All told, Let Me Breathe Thunder is a solid first novel and makes the point that a black writer can deal successfully with a work made up primarily of white characters.
Published in 1941, Attaway's second and best novel, Blood on the Forge, is set for the most part in an Allegheny Valley steel-mill community during World War One. During and for several months after the end of the war, a manpower shortage existed in the West Virginia and Pennsylvania steel industry. Attracted by wages of four dollars a day, many Southern farm blacks moved north to work in the mills. To these black tenant farmers living in a state of near peonage, the low wages of steel workers seemed like true riches. The prospect of enjoying greater social freedom provided an additional inducement for deserting the land.
This northward migration of blacks looking for a better life in the mill towns created problems for northern employers and labor leaders. At the time, unions were engaged in initial efforts to organize the steel industry on a closed shop basis. When strikes resulted, the employers relied increasingly on black strike breakers. The unions consequently watched the black influx with growing anxiety. Many white workers came to fear that they might be permanently displaced by blacks who were willing to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions.
Set against this background, Blood on the Forge is the story of three black brothers—Mat, Chinatown and Melody Moss—who abandon their worn-out tenant farm in Kentucky's red clay hills to work in an Allegheny Valley steel mill. The novel thus has a double theme: blacks competing with whites in an abnormal condition of the labor market and men of the soil attempting to adjust to modern industrial life.
Mat, the eldest brother, at first appears to be making an adjustment to his new environment better than his brothers. Heretofore, he had stoically coped with life through his own understanding of the Bible. In the mill, his tremendous physical strength gains him a respect he had never gotten in the South. But Mat's new-found self-confidence proves to be an illusion. Discarding his Bible, he finds that his virility is not enough to sustain him. It counts for little with Anna, his Mexican mistress, who dreams of becoming the mistress of a wealthy mill owner. Playing on Mat's false sense of himself, the owners easily turn him against his fellow workers as they attempt to organize.
Chinatown, the hedonist, fares worse than Mat. Delighting in the senses, he spends his pay on corn whiskey, dice, and women. He is utterly dependent on his brothers. Of the three, he is hit the hardest physically by the harsh life of the mill worker. Eventually, he is left blind by an explosion in the mill.
The third brother, Melody, survives best. A musician in the South, he is still something of a poet after his move northward. But his new environment renders him impotent. His old songs don't seem to have any meaning any more; he is unable to play his guitar. Yet even though he appears at best indifferent to the manipulation of his fellow blacks by both the owners and white workers, he does manage to come through his Northern experience, unlike his two brothers, in one piece, physically and mentally.
Throughout the novel, Attaway reveals that the blacks' dream of greater social freedom in the mill towns is largely delusive. Many of their fellow white workers—especially the Slav and Irish immigrants—hate them and see them as a threat. When the union organizers appear, the employers easily manipulate the black workers into their camp. The blacks, being convinced that they are the lowest group in the racial pecking order, see their only chance of continuing on the job as bending to the desire of the owners.
Yet Attaway does not simply single out the blacks as the sole victim of the unjust conditions which he vividly portrays. He shows the European immigrants and native whites working under and being exploited by the same system of low pay, long hours, and unnecessary hazards to life and limb. He compassionately shows the blighted dream of the immigrants for a new life in America.
In Blood on the Forge, Attaway has mined a rich vein of human experience. His outlook is not very optimistic in this work, but he writes about his people knowingly and with warm appreciation. At once, his main characters are likable, humorous, bewildered, and stout-hearted. The dialogue sounds completely authentic.
Unfortunately, Attaway has published only the two novels considered above. The best of these, Blood on the Forge, has only recently begun to receive the critical recognition it merits. Edward Margolies has noted [in the introduction to the Collier Books' edition of Blood on the Forge] one of the reasons why Attaway's novel was largely ignored when it was first published: "Appearing one year after Richard Wright's sensational Native Son, Attaway's book may have looked tame to an America preparing for another war and whose reading public had already found its Negro 'spokesman' in the virile Wright." In any event, a careful reading of Blood on the Forge leads one to believe that, excepting Wright's Native Son, it is the strongest of black novels dealing with the plight of blacks and racial violence written during the inter-war period.
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SOURCE: "From Pastoralism to Industrial Antipathy in William Attaway's Blood on the Forge," in Phylon: The Atlantic University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, 1975, pp. 422-25.
[In the following essay, Vaughan states that in Blood on the Forge "Attaway rejects the traditional forms of agrarianism which call for a return to nature, and sounds the theme of alienation that marks the modern existential novel."]
When Blood on the Forge by black novelist William Attaway was published in 1941, it received little notice. The book, nevertheless, represented a literary achievement in its own right, and at the same time it realistically portrays the transition of a people from a structured authoritarian, rural existence to an industrialized urban frontier (Attaway himself was a part of that northward migration of blacks—coming from rural Mississippi to Chicago). On the one hand, Blood on the Forge continued a long tradition of pastoral and anti-pastoral literature proceeding from early nineteenth-century Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne through Mark Twain and Hamlin Garland in the Gilded Age, and ultimately to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner. At the same time, the novel is worthy of special attention as a powerful plea in behalf of a struggling race. In this sense Attaway rejects the traditional forms of agrarianism which call for a return to nature, and sounds the theme of alienation that marks the modern existential novel.
In Blood on the Forge, the earlier paean to the qualities of the simple country landscape suddenly becomes an angry repudiation of industrial life as destructive to human values. The focus then shifts from delicate scenes of lavish woods, succulent orchards, and flocks of sheep—an idealization of nature from a distance as the moral symbol of the good life—to the horrible fact that man has already been swallowed up by the machine. This transition from bucolic nostalgia to "industrial antipathy" represents a literary consummation, but at the same time and most tragically, an individual act on the part of Southern blacks.
In the first part of the novel, the author explores the futile attempts of a family of black farmers to apply agrarian values to a bleak environment in the red clay hills of Kentucky during World War I. Attaway's Joads are three brothers—the elder Big Mat, who represents the plodding strength and endurance of all Southern Negroes under their particular color-caste system; Melody, whose blues singing recreates and sustains the pastoral myth [in a footnote, Vaughan observes: "Edward Margolies points out in this connection that the pastoral yearning does not mean a romanticizing of the brutality and emptiness of the submerged condition of Negroes, but instead 'the memory, the idea, the "dream" of the land as it must have been before they and the land were exploited by racist owners.'" See Margolies, Native Sons, a Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors (1969)]; and Chinatown, whose lazy, happy-go-lucky attitude reflects in part a psychological response to the subjugated position of Negroes. Throughout this "pastoral" section of the novel, Attaway testifies to the myth's fragility when faced by the reality of such an existence—an existence characterized by images of hunger (one of Melody's songs is the "Hungry Blues"), barrenness (the soil as well as Mat's wife Hattie, who has failed six times in childbirth), drudgery (the plowing from sunup to sunset for no reward), and finally, death. This last image is poignantly expressed in Attaway's account of the death of Mat's mother.
She had dropped dead between the gaping handles of the plow. The lines had been double looped under her arms, so she was dragged through the damp, rocky clay by a mule trained never to balk in the middle of a row. The mule dragged her in. The rocks in the red hills are sharp. She didn't look like their maw any more.
Mat himself voices the apparent triumph of brutal reality over the pastoral myth after he kills the white riding boss for the latter's derogatory remarks about his dead mother. Before fleeing his Kentucky land, Mat says:
Ain't nothin make me leave the land if it good land. The hills bigger 'n any white man, I reckon. Take more 'n jest trouble to run me off the hills. I been in trouble. I been born into trouble. Share-worked these hills from the bad land clean to the mines at Madison. The old folks make crops here afore we was born. Now the land done got tired, ceptin' the muck in the bottoms. It do somethin' to a man when the corn come up like tired old gents. Somehow it seem like it come time to git off. The land has jest give up, and I guess its good for things to come out like this. Now us got to give up too.
With these words of farewell to the South—and the myth—Attaway switches abruptly to the departure northward. The "shock" of the flight from the land is graphically described in the following passage:
Squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for market, riding in the dark for what might have been years. Knowing time only as dippers of warm water gulped whenever they were awake, helpless and drooping because they were headed into the unknown and there was no sun, they forgot even that they had eyes in their heads and crawled around in the boxcar, as though it were a solid thing of blackness…. The air, fetid with man smell and nervous sweat, the pounding of the wheels shaking the car and its prisoners like a gourd full of peas, the piercing screams of the wheels fighting the rails on a curve, the uniform dark—those things were common to all. The misery that stemmed from them was a mass experience. Big Mat could not defend his identity against the pack.
Critic Edward Margolies sees the boxcar taking them north as a "kind of womb preparing to disgorge them into a new life." But what kind of a "new life"? Attaway hints of a life that is a radical departure from "green" living, thus rendering the older values useless. While the train roars north, Big Mat cries:
What's the good in strainin' our eyes out these windows? We can't see where nothin grows around here but rusty iron towers and brick stacks, walled up like somebody's liable to try and steal them. Where are the trees? They so far away on the tops of the low mountains that they look like the fringe on a black wear-me-to-a-wake dress held upside down against the sky.
Once Big Mat and his brothers arrive at the mills, "steel" replaces "earth" and comes to dominate the workers' lives, as [earth] had earlier dominated them. Attaway juxtaposes the "green life" up against the "mill life" and shows how pitiful are the attempts to apply agrarian values to industrial problems. And in this regard, perhaps the old black worker Smothers—whose legs have been crippled beyond use by a hot bar of steel falling across them—best expresses the conflict between the two worlds with these words:
Listen close now, am' I'm goin' to talk to you so you know something. Steel want to git you. Onliest thing—it ain't gittin you fast enough. So there trouble in the mills. Guys wants to fight each other—callin' folks scabs and wants to knock somebody in the head. Don't nobody know why. It's 'cause steel got to git more men than it been gitten'….
Attaway further develops this clash between pastoral and industrial-urban living with his account of Melody's exposure to "fast steel" ("Slag was dripping down through a hole to the floor of the pit, and there was no buggy in place to catch it."). In the midst of this fire and steel, Melody's blues fade and the measured pace of life in the Kentucky hills founders under the huge furnaces as "talk faded into nothing in the face of the heat," and "his body played the noiseless rhythms of the mill." Melody becomes fully aware of his plight following an explosion which injures his playing hand.
He had been thinking of the guitar, knowing it could never plunk away the craving that was in him. In the South the music makers had said, "A love cravin' gits so mixed up with the music you can't tell which is which." Melody had said that also. Now he knew it for a fact. The last three days of picking at his guitar had wearied him. Yet he knew he would not be able to let the music box alone. That was what he had been thinking. Now he was lying with his hand quivering at his side, and blood ran in hot circles around his fingers. He would always wonder if he had done it purposely. That was how it seemed at the time.
From this point on, the men's lives are dominated by the crashing sounds of the steel mill—"Engines panted and struggled with the rails. The ore boats along the river kept up their own noises. Each tin house had its own pulse. And above everything an organ of whistles sighed and bellowed." Attaway is suggesting that "steel" could not be controlled by men—least of all "green men" ("No one man could calculate its beginning or end. It was as old as the earth. It would end when the earth ended. It seemed deathless"). The author leaves the reader with the feeling that the only human adjustment is the symbolic gesture of summoning forth the pastoral myth, however useless it might be from any practical standpoint. Big Mat makes such a gesture in the hills outside of town following the explosion that blinds Chinatown.
In his trouble his spirit was near home. So the song of the mills was muted, and all that he saw had another air. The sky sometimes took on the colors of planting time. He did not see the smoke and slag of the mills. There was that coming-summer smell that the gases could not kill…. He walked, and his nostrils windened in the light wind…. There had been an old mule pressed against a rail fence on a sloping red hillside. Its nose had felt the breeze for good smells…. He would be far away from the river, up in the black hills. Because he listened for other sounds he would lose the sound of the steel makers.
Despite the apparent solace this symbolic "return to nature" provides Mat and his brothers, it is obvious from the conclusion of the novel that Attaway sees a rural subjugation replaced by an industrial-urban one. Following the influx of more and more workers to the mills and the subsequent labor strife, Big Mat is used by the white police as a deputy to break up a massive workers' riot. While this role seems to give him a new sense of power and freedom, Attaway makes it clear he is headed for destruction against his own kind, black and white. It even becomes evident to Mat when his Mexican mistress calls him a peon ("It was a term like 'nigger.'… His new found power had had no strength against that contempt …"). After Mat dies in the riot, Melody and the blind Chinatown leave the mills and head for Pittsburgh. During the train ride north, Melody perhaps best expresses emerging realizations by Negroes that there will be no return to the greenery of the garden.
Someday, Melody thought, he and Chinatown would go home to Kentucky. But he did not think about that very hard. He was beginning to feel the truth: they would never go home. Now they would go to Pittsburgh. Many Negroes had gone to Pittsburgh before them; many were cast-offs of the mills. They had settled in the bottom of that city, making a running sore at those lowest points.
Toward the close of the novel, therefore, Attaway makes the complete shift from a mystic pastoral nostalgia to an industrial-urban repudiation—a shift that would become increasingly noticeable and prominent in black fiction. Big Mat is the literary forerunner of a truly urban Negro—one who subconsciously knows he is in his new environment to stay.
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SOURCE: "William Attaway, Blood on the Forge," in Black Time: Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 164-68.
[In the following excerpt, Barthold discusses Attaway's "jazzlike use of images of fragmentation" in Blood on the Forge.]
Blood on the Forge begins on a Kentucky farm with only "one good strip of land" remaining, farmed by the Moss brothers—Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown—and Big Mat's barren wife, Hattie. The barrenness of the land and of the woman signal the death of an agrarian and communal way of life. Big Mat's quarrel with a white man only hastens the Moss brothers' departure for the North, and they accept a steel-mill recruiter's offer to board a boxcar for the Allegheny River and a strikebound steel mill there.
Predominantly the narrative focuses on the destructive life in the mill community. The mill workers suffer crippling or fatal accidents: one loses his arm, another his legs (and later his life); Melody damages his hand, and Chinatown loses his eyes; Big Mat is killed in a strike-related riot. The novel concludes with Melody and the blind Chinatown once more on board a train, this time bound for Pittsburgh, using the $250 compensation for Chinatown's eyes to buy their tickets.
The structure and narrative technique of Blood on the Forge are largely familiar—the third-person narrator with selective omniscience, the hope for a new and better way of life that meets with disappointment, the destructive cycle in which the present recapitulates the dispossession of the past, and a linear journey that ends where it began. Anna, the prostitute who becomes Mat's woman, has already been discussed as a Mammy-Wattah figure. But there is another facet to Attaway's novel—its jazzlike use of images of fragmentation. These images carry the thematic burden of the novel and provide a solution to the problem of characterization in a novel whose characters are largely inarticulate, incapable of verbal expression.
Melody provides an early clue to this aspect of Attaway's technique. He believes that "a man had oughta know book learnin'—so's he kin know how to say what he's feeling." But earlier he has been described as never having had "a craving in him that he couldn't slick away on his guitar." For Melody, his guitar provides a substitute for words. As the narrative progresses, however, his capacity to give musical shape to his feelings is eroded. Early on, he admits that "every once in a while he would get filled up … with a feeling that was too big to turn into any kind of music." Later, in the mill town, his guitar playing changes, from the "slicking" that was "for back home and the distance in the hills" to "quick chords with the finger … right for that new place [but] nothin' like the blues that spread fan-wise from the banks of the Mississippi," a way of playing better suited to "the whirling lights and … the heart of the great red ingots." The stasis of Cane gives way to movement, and the images of twilight to images of whirling lights and fragmentation—and this is the change one must imagine in Melody's guitar playing, as he gives voice to his feelings about the milltown and about Anna. His feelings, however, get "too big" for even this changed way of playing; more or less deliberately, he injures his hand and hangs up his guitar. His feelings cut off from their expression, he becomes one of the images of fragmentation in the novel. And it is as though Attaway takes up where Melody leaves off, using a counterpoint of images centering on animals and barrenness that taken together signal that the erosion of time apparent in Cane is here complete. In the imagery of fragmentation, time explodes.
In Part I, Mat returns to Mr. Johnston's farm to butcher the pigs he has slaughtered the day before: "The sun was coming up. Nine white carcasses gleamed, gaping open, split down the middle, head and feet gone. They were like nine small human bodies." At the beginning of Part II, the Moss brothers flee Kentucky on the boxcar:
Squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for market, riding in the dark for what might have been years, knowing time only as dippers of warm water gulped whenever they were awake, helpless and drooping because they were headed into the unknown and there was no sun, they forgot even that they had eyes in their heads and crawled around in the boxcar, as though it were a solid thing of blackness.
The metamorphosis of animal to human, human to animal, recurs throughout the novel, along with the notion of slaughter. Time becomes alternately fragmented and opaque, only partially knowable. In the "Mex Town" episode of Part II:
There were dogs everywhere. Stray curs came smelling at [their] heels. They did not kick at them. The whores of Mex Town had more love for animals than for men. One steel worker who had killed a dog had been found on the ash pile. A knife had let his blood soak the ashes.
Later, Chinatown loses his eyes and loses as well even his fragmentary perceptions of time, the red pop and gold teeth that punctuate the darkness. He is looked after by Anna: "Anna would take good care of Chinatown. Like all her kind, she had a ready sympathy for a maimed animal, whether dog or man." In the dogfights that are staged for the workers' amusement and the dog trainer's profit, the description of one man's method of training his dog to fight mimes the "training" Big Mat undergoes for his fight at the conclusion of Part IV:
Son's [the dog's] owner … knew how to keep a dog savage and ready for blood. [He] kept Son in a dark closet for weeks at a time, feeding him raw meat sprinkled with gunpowder. Sometimes [he] would let him out and tease him with a sharp stick. Son would tear up anything that came within the radius of his chain.
By the time Big Mat is "deputized" to help control the strikers, he too is "savage" and "ready for blood"—and for much the same reason. He has been locked in darkness: on the boxcar, in a town where days pass with the sun concealed behind steel-mill smoke, and in a work schedule that means rising before dawn and returning from work after dark. Tormented by his growing impotence with Anna, he spends hours of his "free" time balancing a rock at the end of his outstretched arm as a proof of his strength. Chained by the circumstances of his life, Big Mat is more than ready "to tear up anything."
The men's dismemberment in work accidents again mimes the slaughter of the hogs. In the women, too, there is dismemberment and the stench of death: one of the first women the brothers encounter is a black whore with "a rot-stink." They are told that "her left breast 'bout rotted off…. You kin smell it a mile away."
Images of barrenness figure as another form of fragmentation, of human beings cut off from time and cyclic continuity. In Part I, most of Mat's farmland is so lacking in topsoil that it is barren; and he has no mule for plowing. His wife, Hattie, is barren, having suffered six or seven miscarriages. Though Anna finds in Big Mat a fulfillment of her yearning for a man "with a pine tree on his belly, hard like rock all night," by the end of Part IV she has turned to "a piece of ice" beneath him, "a dead body," and the image again is one of barrenness. Earlier, Mat has explained his barrenness as the result of a curse by God on "a child of sin." He knows how to lift the curse: "I got to preach the gospel—that the only way." But his knowledge, too, is barren; "No matter how much inside [him]," he can't preach. "If I tries to preach 'fore folks it all jest hits against the stopper in my throat and build up and build up till I fit to bust with wild words that ain't comin' out." He lacks the words to bring forth the Word, and belief is fragmented from its expression.
These various images of fragmentation are epitomized in the character of Smothers, the mad, crippled timekeeper at the mill. Smothers feels that the earth will sooner or later take revenge against the steel mill's violation of its sacredness, and the revenge will focus on the men who work the mill. "Steel gonna git you," he says. Crippled in an accident that he brought on himself as an act of defiance of the "monster" mill, he has become a kind of mill worker everyman, his crippled legs his wounds in an ongoing battle. Before he is killed, in the same explosion that takes Chinatown's eyes, his foreman has jokingly promised him that if steel "gits" him, "we make you up into watch fobs. The boys 'round the bunkhouse'll wear you across their chests for luck." After Smothers's death, Melody passes through the bunkhouse and finds Bo keeping the promise, affixing watch chains to shreds of steel from the explosion.
Smothers's vision and death echo Sekoni's in The Interpreters: both are struck down when natural process goes out of control. The Keeper of Time is fragmented into shards, and time explodes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4174
SOURCE: "Playing the Wishing Game: Folkloric Elements in William Attaway's Blood on the Forge," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 10-22.
[In the following essay, Garren examines "the wishing game," a verbal game associated with black culture, as it is depicted in Blood on the Forge.]
One element of black folk culture that plays an important part in William Attaway's novel Blood on the Forge (1941) is the wishing game. Early in Part I, Melody, one of three Moss brothers subsisting on a poor Kentucky farm in 1919, begins the game. His motive is distraction from hunger while awaiting Big Mat, the brother who sharecrops the farm and who may bring some food. In the call-and-response fashion characteristic of Afro-American culture, Melody involves his brother Chinatown in the game: "'China,' he half sang, 'you know where I wish I was at now?'" Chinatown needs no prodding because the brothers have often played this game, their wishes usually formed by the "grand places pictured in the old newspapers" lining the walls of their shack. Led on by the responses of Chinatown, Melody spins his narrative. He imagines himself in town on a Saturday noon, all dressed up in a "white-checkered vest and a ice-cream suit," with a gold watch chain and "yeller shoes with dimes in the toes. Man, man!"
A small detail in this apparently insignificant game reveals an important difference between Melody and the other Moss brothers. In helping along the story, Chinatown tries to add girls, but Melody says that the girls can wait until evening. Noon is the time instead for playing pool. When Chinatown objects that Melody in actuality cannot play pool, Melody replies, "But I wish I can." Unlike the other major characters in the novel, Melody can maintain the distinction between unrealizeable desires and reality. With one exception, which he quickly recognizes, Melody keeps wishing within the confines of play, part of a necessary game that the mind must perform when a person is denied opportunities and privileges by society. For others in the novel, however, the wish becomes the delusion, to be paid for with pain and even death.
These events lie in the future, however. The first instance of the wishing game celebrates the rich poetry of the black oral tradition and the gifted folk artists within it. As the brothers continue the story, Chinatown regrets that Melody has brought his guitar to town but will not play it. Melody answers:
"It don't make no never mind, 'cause my box is shinin' with silver, and the stops all covered with mother-of-pearl. An' everybody see me say that must be Mr Melody. They say howdy to Mr Dressin'-man Melody."
The values of the wishing game are clear. The suppressed desires of a deprived minority can find expression and a measure of vicarious gratification. Unusually gifted individuals acquire a medium for expression and acclaim. Painful present reality can be temporarily forgotten, and frustrations can find a safe outlet. The limitations of this game are included in this early scene also when Hattie, Big Mat's wife, interrupts to say, "Wish night gone and real night come on." The brothers are quickly brought back to the reality of no food in the house and only used tobacco to chew.
Melody's oral virtuosity has not ended, however, as Hattie's play on the word "night" runs through his mind. Her statement, he says, sounds like a line from the blues, another of the great black oral achievements. As Melody develops the figure of the night personified, a fundamental element of the wishing games will become evident, the desire to escape a white-dominated world. This theme, the core of most desires voiced by the nonwhite characters in Blood on the Forge, explains the large role the author gives to this particular game. Melody imagines night as an old black woman, sweeping her black skirts to obliterate the things of the earth:
"At night the hills ain't red no more. There ain't no crab-apple trees squat in the hills, no more land to hoe in the red-hot sun—white the same as black…. Where the mule gone at? He only a voice in the pasture land…."
Melody's ability to pull back from fancy to reality appears at this point, too. When suddenly "he became conscious of what he was doing," he turned the game into a lighter vein with a strong undercurrent of reality:
"… Night-flyers is glow buckles on the garters of old creepin' night. The mosquitoes is her swamp-fever sting…. But it don't last long, 'cause she say, 'Git along, an' be nothin', 'cause black ain't nothin', an' I is black….'"
Throughout the novel, Attaway shows the crucial yet ambiguous role of wishing in black life by juxtaposing playful and serious manifestations. At times, the reader cannot determine which of the two forms is being expressed by a character, and one senses that the characters themselves are sometimes equivocal. When Big Mat returns with the makings for chitterlings, the family happily awaits their preparation. The white landowner who has given Mat the food surprisingly has promised the use of a mule, too. Immediately, Hattie and Melody begin imagining what the increased productivity will buy—fresh tobacco and pork on Sunday. When Chinatown voices suspicion, Hattie, reluctant to forgo her dream, advises not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Chinatown replies, "'I'm pass the mouth now. I'm lookin' right down his throat.'" Such caution regarding the white world proves true when Big Mat recalls that as the landowner made the loan he warned of "jacklegs" coming into the area recruiting blacks to go North and work. The refusal to let dreams lead one permanently away from the reality of living in a white world seems instinctive as long as these people live in Kentucky. When the brothers are forced to take the jackleg's offer and go to work in the Pennsylvania steel mills, though, only Melody successfully resists the lure of destructive wishes.
By making wishing a key element in Blood on the Forge, Attaway conveys a major theme of the novel. The fuller life seemingly promised for blacks by life in the North proves to be an illusion. When the hopes contained while living in the South are given expression in the North, even greater pain and disillusionment result. For Attaway, the lesson of the Great Migration to the promised land is ironic indeed.
Even before leaving Kentucky, the difference between Melody and Big Mat in handling disappointment is evident. Whenever the deprivations of his life threaten to overwhelm Melody, he finds release in song and game. An exceptional creativity enables him to project his desires at length in verse, feel satisfied, and return to reality better able to cope. Big Mat, however, has no such release. Melody, who knows Mat best, sees the emotional pressure behind the strong, stoic demeanor. For both men, the chief obstacle is being black in a world controlled by whites.
One spring morning, the two brothers pause before plowing to enjoy the smell of the only good parcel of land they farm. Feeling the "earth like a good thing in his heart," Melody tells Big Mat that such pleasure will "[m]ake you forgit you just a nigger, workin' the white man's ground." In a skillfully written passage, thoughts of what might be lead the brothers in separate ways. Melody speaks of the great lack in his life, never having the chance to attend school year round "like white kids." This man, gifted with words, knows how much an education would have benefited his expression. At the same time, Big Mat pursues his own line of thought. Disappointed by his wife Hattie's miscarrying six times, Mat bitterly compares her to the reliable earth. Finally, Melody's articulation of his furthest fantasy, "Guess I oughta been white," is surpassed by a deeper agony when Mat says, "Jest as well I was born a nigger. Got more misery than a white man could stand."
Chinatown, the third Moss brother, lacks the sensitivity of Melody and the potential explosiveness of Mat. Instead, he indulges in a different kind of play—chasing women, eating, and drinking his favorite "red pop." Representing Chinatown's dedication to fun is his front gold tooth, a visual symbol of his desire to please others on sight. For all his love of good times, Chinatown surprisingly is the most vulnerable of the brothers to extreme stress. Jammed into a boxcar with other blacks going north to Allegheny County, all of the Moss brothers are miserable, but Chinatown nearly loses control. Significantly, Melody's reassurance rescues Chinatown from panic. As they talk in the boxcar, Melody learns that Chinatown's easygoing nature masks a deeper insecurity based on race. Convinced by white mistreatment that he is nothing, Chinatown decides that he has to have something to make him feel like a person: "So all the time I dream 'bout a gold tooth, shinin' an' makin' everybody look when Chinatown smile." To achieve his goal, a healthy tooth was removed to make room for the gold.
The inhuman, terrifying crowding of the blacks in the train boxcar reawakens Chinatown's insecurity. He becomes convinced that the car's rattling has loosened the gold tooth, and if he sleeps, it will fall and be stolen. Eventually calmed by Melody, Chinatown repeats, "I jest got to have that tooth. Without it I ain't nobody." When the boxcar is finally opened, all the men temporarily experience what will become a permanent state for Chinatown at the end of the novel—blindness and the hearing of sounds that no longer exist. Identifying this condition with Chinatown implies that the greatest illusion a black person can suffer is one best typified by him, staking one's identity on visible tokens of self-esteem. Of all the characters surviving at the end, Chinatown is the most lost because his dream was the most superficial.
Another major character in Blood on the Forge who succumbs to the wishing game is Anna, one of the whores in the steel mill village. Originally from Mexico, Anna, a girl of fifteen, has come from New Mexico at the bidding of her aunt, Sugar Mama. When Melody first meets Anna, he learns of her dream of meeting a man who will get for her all the grand things she associates with white life in the United States. The man she describes has some of the qualities of certain heroes in folklore:
"He will be a big man with muscles like a bear on the mountain. That is so he can kill Sugar Mama if she try to hold me when I go with him. He will have a pine tree on his belly, hard like rock all the night. He will get me high-heel shoes with bright stones in the heels."
Such characters, larger than life in attributes and deeds, partake of the element of imaginative fulfillment of extreme human fancies in a manner similar to that of the wishing game. Some figures in black folk culture who reflect some of these qualities include John Henry, High John de Conquer in some of his manifestations, and Shine.
The man who answers Anna's wish is Big Mat. Impressed by his rescue of her at a dogfight, Anna wins him with a single kiss. In this initial encounter, their communication is primitive, speaking of a time thousands of years ago "when men said things in the talk of the wild beast." Events will prove, however, that the modern world requires more than this kind of blood knowledge. Anna and Big Mat will suffer in pursuing their dreams because they lack the thought and detachment that only Melody possesses. Later in the novel, when Mat sees himself as just such a giant character as Anna desired, he is at the height of his delusion.
Later, Anna discusses with Melody the origin of her dream. As a young girl, she became determined to rise above the impoverished lot of the Mexican peon. The chief stimulus was touring "Americanos," whose greater wealth inspired Anna to be just as grand:
"All the time I dream of high-heel shoes with bright stones in the heels that will make me like the Americanos, and nobody will take my picture along with the goats."
When Anna moves in with Big Mat, she spends the money he had been saving to bring his wife North in an attempt to realize the good life of white Americans. The result is pathetic:
Anna went into the stores and came out with rhinestone shoes and dresses like the hostesses wear in the dance halls. The rhinestones did not glitter after one trip down the slushy road. The dresses were heavy around the bottoms where they dragged in the mud. Still, Anna wore her new clothes every day and paraded through the Mexican part of town like an overseer's wife.
Anna's infatuation with rich American life leads eventually to violence. When she comes home late one night with clothes wet from lying on the ground and with twigs in her hair, Big Mat, thinking she has been with another man, beats her savagely. The truth is again pathetic. Identifying the good life with the people who live on the hills above the steel mills, Anna has spent the night on a furtive trip into those hills. Creeping close to one of the "white hill houses," Anna had spent the day and night hiding in the bushes until slinking back home dispirited in body and soul.
Life in the North becomes increasingly demoralizing for the Moss brothers. Conflict between union supporters and the steel company leaves the brothers in the middle. Big Mat's relationship with Anna grows more strained and frustrating. Further catastrophe strikes when a blast furnace explodes, killing fourteen workers and blinding Chinatown. The brother who put such stock in his visual appearance now has eyes that look like "old eggs rotting in their ragged half shells, purple and revolting."
In the crucial first days after this accident, Melody shows his superior ability to cope with reality by his treatment of Chinatown. Again the wishing game is involved. Still in shock, Chinatown reverts to the past, avoiding confronting the reality of his mutilated condition. Melody plays along, assuring Chinatown in his greatest need that the gold tooth is intact. This gambit threatens to undo Chinatown's precarious balance when he asks to see his tooth in a mirror. For diversion, Melody begins the wishing game by asking Chinatown, "You know where I wish I was at now?" Chinatown quickly joins in.
The time in the game is the same as before when Melody sang in Kentucky to appease hunger—noontime. Instead of staying in one place, however, Melody is on the move. Like a larger-than-life folk hero, Melody must hurry because he plans "to cover the earth 'fore midnight." Perhaps reflecting his increased fears, Chinatown asks about stepping on snakes. With amazing ingenuity, Melody sings in succession of a number of snakes, each embellished with highly fanciful details. The rich black oral tradition, with its capacity for inventing endless variations on a subject, enables Melody to create a form to divert and delight Chinatown.
The first snake Melody meets, a coachwhip, lashes at him, but Melody stomps it into the ground. Up it springs, as a "tall whitewood tree," lashing the air "a little at the tip as the leaves 'gin to fall." Next Melody outwits a hoop snake, pushing its head into the ground. All that is left is "a crooked wild chinaberry tree, curved in the wind and broken like a old wagon tree." Thus Melody's inventiveness runs, dispatching snake after snake. As quickly as Chinatown calls out names of new snakes, Melody can transform them into harmless objects, exorcising his brother's fears at one remove.
To illustrate Melody's spontaneous creativity, a rattle-snake becomes a "tree full of jack-o'-lanterns now, rattling when the wind blow"; a blue racer a bow tie; a barn snake "a string of red and yellow beads for the neck o' a gal"; and a root snake "a walkin' stick, like a branch o' juniper." The last snake, a spreading adder, is completely confounded in Melody's fantasy:
"When I come up on him he unjoint himself. Ain't nothin' but a lot of little pieces underfoot. All I got to do is mix him around with one toe. When he come back together there his tail at the wrong end, his head in the middle."
In the climax of this version of the wishing game (which also takes the form of the boast, a venerable tradition in black folk culture), three themes already discussed come together: wish fulfillment, assumption of fabled attributes, and longing for escape from white dominance:
"Come midnight … come midnight … well, I go look at all the farmers. They all black. There ain't no white man in the land. Nobody gits crop-aliened. There ain't no ridin' boss. The muck ground cover all the farmers so they grow potatoes under their armpits. They grow field corn between their toes. One man jest let a big tree grow on his back for shade. All he do is walk in the shade and drink corn whisky."
Fortunately, the exhaustion of Melody's fancy and the demand of Chinatown's thirst coincide. The limit of Melody's ability to ride the wishing game is evident when he goes to get Chinatown's favorite red pop. As Attaway writes, Melody "was glad to leave the wishing game unended, glad to leave the house for the red pop."
The realism of Melody is further underscored when we follow him in search of Chinatown's drink. After obtaining the pop, Melody stops at the bunkhouse and discovers Bo, a gang boss, involved in a strange operation. He is making chains fastened to scraps of steel to be used as watch fobs. The bits of steel represent the remains of the body of a worker named Smothers, melded amongst the debris scattered by the force of the furnace explosion. Interestingly, in light of Attaway's investigation into the complex nature of play in Blood on the Forge, Smothers had been crippled when trying to win a bet by walking the steel-rolling tables from one end of the mill to another. Close to winning his wager, Smothers' legs were crushed by a hurtling bar of hot steel. Now Melody joins the others in the bunkhouse in wearing "that little piece of Smothers across his vest for luck." Just as throughout Blood on the Forge game merges with seriousness, here realism flirts with superstition, and the singer undaunted by snakes readily secures a fetish.
As tension grows between the union and the company, the Moss brothers retreat further into their own small unit. Impressed by Mat's strength, the leader of a group of strike breakers working for the company offers Mat a chance to become a deputy earning four dollars a day: More than the extra pay Mat is lured by the words of another deputy:
"So long, pal. Just remember Monday that you're the boss in this here town. Anythin' you do is all right, 'cause you're the law."
Mat thinks back to another game, one played when he was a child in Kentucky by white sharecroppers' children who enjoyed taunting Mat with a racist chant:
"Nigger, nigger never die. Black face and shiny eye, Kinky hair and pigeon toe— That the way the nigger go…."
Now Mat has an opportunity to turn the joke around since he has become the boss, the law: "Those thrilling words were too much to resist. He was a boss, a boss over whites."
Returning before a final assault on union headquarters, Mat in his newly won power expects respect from Anna. Instead, three sets of unrealistic dreams come together tragically. Anna is still possessed by her desire for a rich life, symbolized by the gaudy dress and rhinestone shoes she wears. Melody has become infatuated by Anna and arrives hoping to persuade her to run away with him. For once, even Melody has lost his objectivity. When Anna tells both brothers that to her they are contemptible peons, Mat again unleashes his fury against her. Unable to stop the belt whipping of Anna, Melody withdraws, like the others now, a "man in a dream." After the attack ends, his artist's eye fastens on a telling image: "two bright objects in the center of the room," the rhinestone shoes with high heels left behind by Anna. Gazing at the wreckage of several people's hopes, Melody returns to reality, aware more than ever of the delusive power of dreams.
Mat's aggression against the striking workers is fueled by Anna's reference to him as a peon. Although he may have been a kind of peon in the South, Mat thinks that in the North "here there was no riding boss," symbol for a life bound to the soil. While Mat beats the strikers in the union office, however, he gains a new insight:
He was exalted. A bitterness toward all things white hit him like hot iron. Then he knew. There was a riding boss—Big Mat.
For a time, this knowledge increases Mat's sense of power to the point of megalomania. The mythic superman of folklore returns in the person of Mat, recalling Melody's playful songs but changed by the real context of violence:
Big Mat looked at the mills, and the big feelings were lifting him high in the air. He was big as God Almighty. The sun was down, or his head would have thrown a shadow to shade the river front. He could have spit and quenched a blast furnace. Big Mat's eyes were big as half-moons.
At the height of his sense of power, like a classical instead of a folklore hero, Mat is fatally clubbed by a young Slav worker. Before dying, however, Mat achieves at last "all the objectivity of a man who is closer to death than life." In this last lucid moment, Mat realizes that he is like all of the riding bosses of both North and South, merely a tool of larger forces. Once, back in Kentucky, Mat had beaten a riding boss. Now someone similarly beats him, and the cycle continues. As Mat dies, he wonders:
Had that riding boss been as he was now? Big Mat went farther away and no longer could distinguish himself from these other figures. They were all one and the same.
Emphasizing that point, the worker clubbing Mat becomes as frenzied as had his victim whipping Anna and beating the workers. As the worker continues hitting an already dead Mat, the description points out the close, almost frightening line between certain forms of play and some of the grimmest aspects of reality:
The young Slav danced about and used the pickax handle. Because the big black man did not fall he was filled with terror. Because the little eyes seemed to regard him so calmly he had to become frenzied to finish the job. So he danced about, and the sound of the blows was dull. It was like a Punch and Judy show, the way the black head wagged under the stick. It was funny, funny without laughter.
In the conclusion of the novel, Melody picks up the pieces, arranging Mat's funeral, obtaining two hundred fifty dollars from the company for Chinatown's accident, and finding a place for them to start anew in a black ghetto in Pittsburgh. Riding a train out of the steel mill, as they had in different circumstances into the area, the brothers meet a black ex-soldier who also has been blinded. As the two blind men talk, Chinatown learns that the ex-soldier cannot stop hearing a particular sound. When Chinatown fails to hear the sound, the ex-soldier describes it: "'There, it soundin' off again!' he cried. 'Hear it? Boom!… Boom!… Boom!…'" Chinatown is still perplexed, and the other blind man adds that the noise comes from guns, perhaps a hundred miles away. Chinatown strains with ears rendered more acute from his loss of sight until he, too, believes he hears the guns:
"Sound like somethin' big an' important that a fella's missin', don't it?" asked the soldier. Chinatown nodded.
For the last time, Chinatown is playing the wishing game. Largely because of the terrible accident, which took the one faculty essential to his identity—sight—Chinatown is further abandoning actuality for a preferred realm, a world where wish becomes reality.
The author's description of Chinatown and the ex-soldier in this final scene implies that many blacks have been permanently wounded by white society, left with little more than a life on the sidelines given over to some form of the wishing game. Although Melody has suffered greatly, too, he retains his unique ability to perceive events realistically. This is the sole hopeful quality emerging from the grim conclusion:
Melody watched the nod. He looked at the two blind men closely. Their heads cocked to one side, listening for sounds that didn't exist. They were twins.