By Alan Wald
History’s shadow can be longer than one might think. Eight decades ago, a thirty-year-old African-American Communist writer published a bold and alarming dramatization of the social costs of capitalism and racism at the time of the Great Steel Strike in 1919. Failing to recognize common class interests, African-American and Euro-American workers were at each other’s throats.
Today, in a polarized era of anti–Black Lives Matter backlash and a union movement struggling to be reborn, it’s hard to think of another work of imaginative literature that reminds us so vividly of the deep relationship between racism and class oppression. Written in an audacious and colorful style, at times more expressionistic than realistic, William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge is a masterclass in how novels can be an alternative archive, a conduit for the preservation, transmission, and elucidation of the experience of oppressed people. In five scintillating parts, the novel follows the lives of three African-American sharecroppers, the Moss brothers, who are uprooted from rural Kentucky and hurled into the industrial inferno of Western Pennsylvania.
As with all literature, the landscape of Blood on the Forge expresses an interplay between the author’s biography and imagination. The characters and events grew partly out of field research and interviews, but also from the novelist’s personal circumstances, radical commitments, and literary sensibility. Some passages may even provide glimpses of a shadow self.
An aura of mystery clings to the life of William Alexander Attaway (1911–86). He now seems like a promising star quarterback of the literary left’s Great Depression generation who was puzzlingly cut from the team. A plethora of personal details about Attaway have been unearthed by several scholars, especially Richard Yarborough. Yet there are ample inconsistencies, contradictions, and elisions, so much so that the architecture of his experiences and personality persists as an elusive subject.
We know for certain that Attaway was the son of a successful doctor who moved from Mississippi to Chicago when he was age five (some sources say six). From childhood, he was much under the influence of one of his older sisters, Ruth, to whom he would dedicate Blood on the Forge. Ruth was later a well-known stage and screen actress; his other sister, Florence, became a Chicago public school teacher and administrator. All three Attaway siblings attended the University of Illinois at Urbana, but Bill — as he was universally known to friends — dropped out following his father’s death in 1931. He rode the rails, travelling throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
In 1934, Attaway completed his first novel, Children of Night, which he failed to publish, before returning to the university and graduating in 1936. After some brief contact with Richard Wright’s pro-Communist South Side Writers Group in Chicago, Attaway moved to New York, where he befriended the young painter Beauford Delaney and published short pieces in the Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, and left-wing Challenge. Unable to earn a living with his writing, Bill joined Ruth in the travelling theater company of the comedic play You Can’t Take It With You.
While he toured for two years, Attaway completed his first published novel, an on-the-road narrative about white itinerant workers. Titled Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939), it was positively reviewed in the popular newspapers and the Communist Party press (the Daily Worker featured an interview; the New Masses ran a book appraisal, as well as a later commentary by Ralph Ellison). But the book didn’t sell well.
Undeterred, Attaway secured a fellowship to research the steel industry for his next book. Blood on the Forge appeared two years later to even more favourable reviews in mainstream publications, but the same poor sales. Even worse, Communist publications explicitly condemned the alleged politics of the new novel’s conclusion.
His literary career now in limbo, Attaway joined the military after the United States entered World War II, serving in North Africa. He then returned to New York to launch a career in commercial mass media and popular culture. Although he was prolific and indeed pioneering in this milieu, he never received much public attention. He would gain his most visible notoriety for collaborating with singer Harry Belafonte and authoring two books about music, Calypso Song Book (1957) and Hear America Singing (1967).
In 1962, Attaway married the artist Frances Settele, after which the interracial couple moved to Barbados for a decade and raised two children. He died of either cancer or heart failure (both were reported) in Los Angeles at age seventy-four.
Documentation, mostly found in oral history, does locate Attaway in postwar Communist cultural circles. The recollections of former black Communists Harold Cruse, Howard “Stretch” Johnson, and John Oliver Killens, along with fellow traveller Belafonte, variously depict Attaway as a party member at times, possibly allied with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) leadership against Wright’s 1944 public criticism of the party and then dissidents in the Harlem Writers Club (in whose Harlem Quarterly he published in 1950); assisting secondary leaders who had gone underground; and active in the Literature Chapter of the Communist-led Committee for the Negro in the Arts. By the early 1950s, however, Attaway seems to have drifted out of the Marxist political picture (the same period when he ended his intimate relationship with Pandor, who eventually relocated to East Germany). His only other known radical political act was participating in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
Blood on the Forge kicks off with a big bang of melodramatic events. It is two weeks after the brutal death and mutilation of the Moss brothers’ mother, who collapsed while plowing the fields of Kentucky’s red clay hills and was dragged until unrecognizable by a mule. The oldest sibling, Big Mat, destroyed the animal in a furious outburst: “He came back hog wild and he took a piece of flint rock and tore the life out of that mule, so that even the hide wasn’t fit to sell.” Now the Moss family faces serious threats to their financial survival from the white Mr Johnston, owner of both the mule and the land.
Tensions mount in a dispute between Mat and Johnston’s riding boss over a replacement mule, and Mat explodes upon hearing a racist epithet aimed at his mother: “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 his neck.” Realizing that “the riding boss would live to lead the lynch mob against him,” Mat knows that he must flee. Within a few hours the Moss brothers take advantage of an offer from a white labour recruiter. Leaving Mat’s pregnant wife behind, the three board a train headed north, finding themselves “squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for the market, riding in the dark for what might have been years.” From the outset we’re propelled forward, freighted with a sense of foreboding that we’re headed toward apocalypse.
Disembarking from the boxcar in a Western Pennsylvania steel-mill town on the Monongahela River, the Moss brothers are gradually introduced to a class war with no discernible end. The mill town, possibly modelled on Duquesne, offers a culture utterly foreign to these three industrial conscripts, although the racist past of Kentucky has been indelibly burned in their collective consciousness. Among their first encounters is with a young black sex worker who has a rotting, cancerous left breast. They then meet a half-mad, disabled black worker named Smothers, who hears voices from the mills that threaten retributive violence for despoiling nature: “It’s wrong to tear up the ground and melt it in the furnace. . . . It’s the hell-and-devil kind of work.” These potent images linger and flavor the ensuing events as the three brothers learn steel production by day and indulge in the sex, drink, and dogfights of “Mex Town” by night.
Attaway doesn’t paint a monolithic African-American mass. Distinctions in personal temperament and experience are foregrounded through the novel’s indirect narrative style, which toggles between the three Moss brothers and a panoply of settings. As Attaway explained in a “Plan of Work” submitted for his fellowship, “the strong point of the historical novel” is that “not alone does it give us the facts out of a dim past, it also permits us to experience those facts through identification with the human beings depicted.”
Mat mostly radiates a bearish gloom but can suddenly morph into a coiled cobra, ready to strike; Chinatown, with his gleaming gold tooth, brings laughter and sociability despite merciless surroundings; and Melody, the moody artist figure, creatively uses his guitar to “slick away” what ails him. What we get is an unsentimental portrait of individuals caught up in a vicious, unsparing class war, where men and women struggle to find some measure of self-determination, endure a corrosion of scruples, and mostly do whatever the situation demands to survive. Middle-class moral judgments are thrown into question as almost any action brings the risk of danger.
Mat’s decision at the end of the book to become deputized to crush a strike of mostly white workers has been taken by some as a critique of the “black nationalist” response to the labour crisis. Yet there is little in Mat’s behaviour that suggests a coherent ethnic politics. More likely, he is driven by a wounded masculinity (after learning that Anna, the fourteen-year-old former sex worker with whom he is obsessed, has returned to her trade to earn money to abandon him) and a ferocious urge to turn the tables (“He, Mat, was the riding boss, and hate would give this club hand the strength it needed”). Melody is initially attracted to the strikers’ cause but is dissuaded by black politicians who insist that his own job wouldn’t exist if the union had its way; when he learns that these politicians were paid to promote the bosses’ views, he is further disillusioned from taking sides. Chinatown, who by this time has lost his eyesight in a horrific explosion that killed fourteen men, is oblivious to the dilemma.
For readers with narrow notions of the “proletarian novel” or “social realism,” Blood on the Forge provides a crash course in showing that what has also been called “the radical novel” is perpetually challenged and shaped by its own practitioners. It is elastic and regenerative, melding together many types of writing, and in this case widening one’s emotional repertoire. Perhaps due to the blinkered pigeonholing of the conservative postwar environment, Attaway’s books were mostly ignored by critics and scholars for nearly two decades after publication, existing in a literary netherworld through pulp paperback reissues. When the political climate changed from the late twentieth century to the present, Blood on the Forge was rereleased and elevated to the object of scholarly inquiry. This has dramatically expanded appreciation of the novel beyond Attaway’s original aim, which was to rebut the popular criticisms of African American scabbing in the labour movement by revealing the fuller context.
Scholars have spotlighted Attaway’s attention to environmental matters and compared his fiction and that of Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, and Wright. Others have quibbled with the novel’s perceived stereotyping of Latinas and disturbing treatments of rape. Nevertheless, while the themes of male sexual predators, gendered power dynamics, and sexual abuse are very strong, and female characters are less developed, Attaway’s is not exactly a sexism typical of the period in which he lived. Melody, something of a stand-in for the author, is mostly devoid of male aggression. The one exception is his fixation on Anna that starts with a fear of commitment and ends with a desire to dominate and control. Throughout the novel, starting with references to Mat’s beating of his wife in Kentucky, those oppressed by racism are shown to be further weakened by misogynous illusions about gender.
For those with a special interest in Communist Party aesthetics, the “Attaway Affair” deserves a separate essay of its own. The gist, however, is that the response of party-associated critics in the Daily Worker, New Masses, and even six years later by African-American playwright Theodore Ward in the postwar Mainstream, enthusiastically lauded the book’s style and young Attaway’s promise, but mercilessly attacked what they took to be Attaway’s conclusion. The first two publications were coupled with a public symposium at the Schomburg library in Harlem, where Ellison and New Masses editor Samuel Sillen confronted Attaway, and then a private debate between Ellison and Attaway at the apartment of New Yorker cartoonist William Steig.
Attaway’s Communist critics argued that the novel was politically misleading to the point of uselessness (or worse) because it ended at a cataclysmic impasse, denying the reader the model of a class-conscious black proletariat, whose numbers had swelled in the 1930s and were certain to expand even more in the future. Ralph Warner, a pseudonym for a prolific drama critic, felt there should have been a “Mr. Max,” the pro-Communist lawyer in Native Son (1940), to “evaluate the social significance.” Ellison wanted a character who would embody the “fusion” of agricultural and industrial experiences and therefore a higher consciousness. Ward called the book “defeatist” and linked it to a similar take on Ann Petry’s The Street (1946).
In truth, Blood on the Forge was a work refreshingly free from the assumption that a Communist novelist must write as if holding the master key to political salvation. In fact, despite the bellyaching, there is evidence of a developing class consciousness in Attaway’s novel. There is the suggestion of interracial working-class unity when Mat feels a new pride as white workers dub him “Black Irish” to show their admiration for his strength and skill. Later, when Mat dies at the hands of a Slavic union member defending himself, he displays a glimmer of awareness that he had chosen the wrong side.
Then again, Blood on the Forge may have been only the first stage of an uncompleted series intended to show further growth; Attaway’s 1939 “Plan of Work” explains that he had thought of “doing a sequel to this work sometime in the future.” So, even though Attaway did not wish to use literary characters to didactically illustrate a reassuring progressive master narrative, he may well have been revealing various paths wrongly taken in an attempt to provoke readers to consider alternative possibilities.
In 2023, Blood on the Forge still reads as a strong reminder that organizing for black equality remains a crucial part of the class struggle, a driving force of any movement for political democracy and a socialist economy. One cannot ignore race-specific demands and the need for unions and other left institutions to lead the fight against all forms of discrimination. Attaway’s novel, which aimed to awaken consciousness by shocking rather than instructing, has the virtue of making us face the facts of history and aspects of a past that has not fully passed. (IPA Service)