The Social World of Working-Class Readers
Ed Falkowski felt a pang of remorse as he walked to work at a Pennsylvania coal mine in the fall of 1916, two weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday. Months earlier, in a detailed “self-analysis,” the grandson of Polish immigrants had confidently declared himself to be well educated and ready for work. He enjoyed reading books of science, he explained in the neat cursive of a public school student, and “the best novels,” including those of Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, Poe, and the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. He knew that work was the more practical and manly path, but he felt his resolve weakening as he parted ways with his former schoolmates and, like his father and grandfather before him, went to work in the local mine. As he wrote in his diary that night, “I felt kind of queer today because I missed school. However, the greatest education a young man can get is that gotten by earning his own living, so I see I am attending the High School of Life, and not that of Shenandoah, Pa. And more—a graduate of the H[igh] S[chool] of Life is much more respected than a graduate of H[igh] S[chool] of Shen[andoah]. I am satisfied as far as that part is concerned.”
The lessons of book learning and everyday life were never as far apart as many would insist.
Falkowski’s enthusiasm for what he called “industrial education” did not survive its encounter with the monotony and danger of coal-mining work. Reading and fellowship with other readers became a precarious refuge from the darkness—literal and psychological—of his underground labor. He carried books down into the mine to read on his breaks and at night struggled through dense volumes with a dictionary close at hand. On days off he hiked into the hills with friends. They spent hours telling jokes, reading aloud from their favorite books, and holding impromptu debates. Over the next few years, Falkowski and his friends launched a chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League, put on plays, and edited a literary journal in their little town. Falkowski nurtured “lofty dreams of literary success,” filling journals with handwritten poems, stories, and essays. The final pages and back covers of each volume were filled with long lists of books he had read, “rescued from the slumbers of second-hand bookstalls, borrowed from public libraries, or paid for with sweaty dollars.” He sent some writing off to Frank Harris, editor of Pearson’s Magazine, who wrote back admonishing him not to romanticize the life of a writer. Chastened by his hero’s words, Falkowski kept most of this writing to himself. “Would these studies open a little avenue to self-mastery?” he worried in a particularly dark journal entry. “Or would the torrential burdens of each succeeding day wash away the effects of the evening’s devotion to my studies?” His plans to finish high school and go to college proved elusive, but ten years after he first went into the mines, his union sponsored him for a two-year term at Brookwood Labor College. There he learned from leading labor intellectuals and forged lifelong friendships with workers from all over the United States. The wide world seemed to spread out before him once more.