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The Last Ballad — A Classic “Social” Novel

February 9, 2018

I wrote a week or so ago about the general disdain for “social” or “social protest” novels (also called “social problem” novels) among the lit biz powers that be. Their prevailing attitude seems to be that readers aren’t interested in fiction that comes freighted with a message. As one acclaimed novelist put it, “The landscape of literary history is littered with the wreckage of writers who thought they were on a mission.”

Just as there’s no unanimity about the proper name for this type of fiction, there’s disagreement about whether the plot must revolve around the struggles of workers, or if protesting other social problems are acceptable literary fodder, such as the economic demoralization and destruction of the middle class. Ayn Rand certainly thought so, when she published what is arguably the most influential social protest novel of all time, Atlas Shrugged. And although my political leanings and solutions are diametrically opposed to hers, I agree that fiction can and should have an influential voice in tackling middle-class problems and concerns. That’s what I attempted to do in my new novel, The Piketty Problem, or The Robots Are Coming, The Robots Are Coming.

Those critics who would disagree about such an approach would likely describe Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1906, as the epitome of the social protest genre. Sinclair wrote the story to dramatize the inhuman working and living conditions that immigrants to America were forced to tolerate, and to advance socialism as the solution for their plight. Not surprisingly, (middle-class) readers focused less on the travails of Lithuanian Jurgis Rudkus, than on the unsanitary conditions in the Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses that were tainting the steaks and roasts that they bought for everyday consumption. Or as Sinclair famously observed, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." As a result, instead of socialism, America got the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Into this intellectual fray jumps The Last Ballad, a new novel by another acclaimed novelist, Wiley Cash. And on the surface, it is a social protest novel by anyone’s definition, this story of Ella May Wiggins, a working class woman and single mother trying to build a better life for her children by toiling 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week, as a cotton mill worker in Gaston County, North Carolina. While the conditions of her employment are more sanitary than those in The Jungle, they are equally as brutal, with the ever-present threat of docked pay or a lost job or the kind of industrial accident that costs fingers, hands, or even arms.

And just as in The Jungle, the solution to Ella May’s harsh life is socialism, arriving in North Carolina on the heels of a general strike organized by the National Textile Worker’s Union and its Communist Party ally. Not surprisingly, the lynch-loving, old-boy locals, both rich and poor, take exception to the invasion of godless Bolsheviks, and things don’t end well, either for Ella May or her fellow strikers.

Cash based the story on the real Ella May Wiggins, who became a symbol of the struggles of organized labor to improve the lot of union members. In addition to being a hard worker and caring mother, Ella May was a talented singer and songwriter. Her best-known ballad, “A Mill Mother’s Lament,” which she sang at union organizing meetings, was later recorded by Pete Seeger, and her grave in Bessemer City, NC, is marked by a monument erected by the A.F.L.-C.I.O, inscribed "She died carrying the torch of social justice."

With these real life bona fides, and Cash’s well-crafted prose, it’s impossible not to feel the striker’s misery and empathize with their cause to the point of wanting to join them, no matter how Red the union hierarchy. So the novel works as social protest, or would if the conditions depicted in the book still existed. Of course, unions today are more commonly derided for pumped-up wages, no-show jobs, and exorbitant pensions. So it’s social protest without benefit of a cause, unless you side with the New York Times reviewer who loftily suggested the novel might “help us bear the burden of Southern history, which is pressing down hard on us today.”

Nonetheless, the general tone of the reviews was enthusiastic and sales are respectable. I only wish Cash had used his talents to make the story more actionable, perhaps by translating it into the twenty-first century equivalent of those cotton mill and meatpacking workers, the legion of minimum wage workers, largely immigrants themselves, who often live and toil in wretched conditions, like those in the chicken and pork processing plants scattered across the South.

The opposition to raising the minimum hourly rate is more commonly explained as a business decision rather than as a credo of capitalist culture, but it’s no less hard-hearted than the mill owners quashing the strike. Sadly, minimum wage workers, wherever they are found, are still waiting for their Ella May Wiggins, either real or fictional.