William Attaway: Blood on the Forge

Attaway, William. Blood on the Forge, NYRB
ISBN 9781590171349

Blood on the Forge, originally published in 1941, is an interesting read. Its author, African-American novelist William Attaway, is perhaps best know today as co-writer of Harry Belafonte’s “Bananaboat Song“. His only two novels have deeply sunk into the obscure chasm of American literary history, much less successful than those by contemporaries like African-American novelist Richard Wright. Lucky for us, Blood on the Forge was rescued from oblivion by the invaluable NYRB Classics imprint. It’s not a perfect book by any means: for a short novel, it has quite a few dull stretches, and oftentimes, its author seems more interested in the story he’s telling and its political and historical contexts than in the telling itself, which is never a good sign. Despite all this, it’s a novel well worth reading, because Attaway crams it full of ideas and tangents and fragments. As a novel, there is a lot wrong with it, but as an overall reading experience, it’s a trip worth taking. When it was published, Attaway was all of 30 years old, and upon finishing it, his desire to create long-form prose narrative seems to have been finished with it. The rest of his career was spent by writing song-books, songs, and screenplays. Blood on the Forge, like Wright’s and fellow realist novelist Upton Sinclair’s work, is very much of its time, and aesthetically it’s hit-and-miss, but the fact is, it’s a damn remarkable book to end one’s career on, and fittingly, it contains enough details, energy and conviction for several more novels. I’ve never read a novel quite like it, and it feels more knotty and interesting than many more highly praised and well known novels of its era, which is enough reason to recommend it. Read it, dammit, and maybe NYRB can be persuaded to publish Attaway’s debut novel, as well.

Meanwhile, this is how Blood on the Forge begins: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar. You have to be native to the red clay hills of Kentucky to understand that.” We as readers are plunged straight in the middle of a heartbreaking tale of poverty and hunger. A family of African-American farm-workers, consisting of three brothers (called Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown), their mother, and Hattie, a strong and opinionated woman married to the oldest brother, is struck by tragedy as the mother dies while plowing the fields. In a fit of rage, Big Mat kills the mule pulling that plow. Now, however, the family, poor to begin with, finds itself completely unable to pay its debts, let alone pay for food or seeds or a new mule. As the desperate foursome attempts to somehow salvage the situation, events spiral out of control and the three brothers end up having to flee their home. It’s quite remarkable how well and densely woven this initial situation is. The novel never really looks back on “the red clay hills of Kentucky”, telling a story of steel mills in the North, but like so much of Attaway’s book, the setting and scene are incredibly rich with meaning, resonance and context. As Big Mat kills a white overseer in a fit of rage, we might forget what century we’re in. It’s like a tale straight from the late Middle Ages, where a peasant fights back against his lord and ends up having to flee the place he’s from. The contrast to the industrialized setting of the bulk of the novel is striking. The steel mill tell us: this is modernity, greasy, violent, dirty modernity, but the three brothers come from a world closer to the Middle Ages in social structure and outlook than to the 20th century.

This is significant, because the period the book is set in is a very specific historical period, the so-called Great Migration (1910-1930), and there are multiple stories of the Great Migration, two of the most well known (apart from Blood on the Forge) being Black Boy, Richard Wright’s absolutely extraordinary autobiography (originally published in 1945), and Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove’s Pulitzer-winning 1986 collection of poems about her grandparents who came to the North during that same period (a book that seems to be inspired in part by Attaway’s novel, by the way, Thomas and Melody sharing significant similarities). Attaway’s medieval brutality and feudal structure isn’t found in either of these books, and it seems to make a very specific and pertinent point about the society that Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown escaped from by making us aware how many degrees of civilized development co-existed within the same country in the 20th century. The man Big Mat killed might as well have been their liege lord for all the difference it would have made in this tale. But there is even more to this short early section of the book. We are, within the first three pages, made aware of the horrific misogyny of that society. It’s not just the fact that women, throughout the book, seem one-dimensional vessels to be used by the men, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also the absurd hatefulness with which all the book’s men seem to treat all the book’s women. As Hattie makes a cogent point, albeit in simple language: “We jes niggers, makin’ the white man crop for him. Leave him makin’ his own crop, then we don’t end up owin’ him money every season”, the novel imparts on us Melody’s perception of the situation, describing it this way: “Hattie kept at Big Mat, driving him crazy with her talk, blaming him for everything.”

This ‘hysterical screaming woman’ stereotype is used fairly often in Blood on the Forge and one would be tempted to see this as reflective of the author’s or at least the novel’s bigoted attitude towards women. It’s the densely packed beginning of the novel, however, that tells us this is not the case. Very clearly, the author shares Hattie’s disdain for wanting to obey the basic social and economic structures in place. Hattie, like other women later in the book, is a sensible character in an impossible situation. It’s interesting that Attaway seems highly aware of the fact that African-American women are oppressed in at least two different ways, both as African Americans and as women. The novel, largely channeled through Melody’s perception as it is, repeatedly offers us male misreadings of situations. As the novel hurtles towards its end, it’s the ravaged and desperate female characters that stood out most for me, although eventually, all women tend to fall by the wayside in this tale of three brothers. Their masculinity is not an asset, although at times it may seem like it. The novel contrasts Hattie’s sensible observation with this grandiose assertion of Big Mat, who (having murdered a man, and hopelessly in debt and with no way to pay for food) is in the process of convincing himself that leaving Kentucky is a good idea:

Ain’t nothing 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 in trouble. Shareworked these hills from the bad land clean to the mines at Madison. Now the land done got tired. (…) The land has jest give up and I guess it’s good for things to come out like this. Now us got to give up too.

Compared to Hattie, Big Mat is a silly sentimental fool who arrives at the correct conclusion by way of a strange and archaic process of reasoning. This, too, will be repeated in the rest of the book in various guises. There is no sympathy with Big Mat, whose obsessive but dispassionate relationship to a prostitute later in the novel is described like this:

Big Mat had slapped her around. He had made love to her tired body. It had not responded to either. He had gone to work twice and come home twice. Everything remained the same.

You can spent ages unpacking just this beginning of the novel, which isn’t more than a prelude, and introduction to the characters before putting them on a train north. At the same time, Attaway states most of the book’s concerns in an incredibly precise and concise although not always aesthetically pleasing way.

The rest of the novel develops and examines concerns that are already embedded in the early sections. The three brothers move north, and find work in a steel mill. Various disasters happen to them, and not all of the three will make it out of the ensuing tumults and turmoils. Big Mat meets and falls for the aforementioned prostitute. He is accepted by the Irish workers because of his strength (to quote one of his co-workers “He’s got some Irish in him somewhere […]. Lots of Black fellas have got Irish guts.”), but accidents, fights, depression and their fellow men wear all three brothers down in a book that always feels oppressive and dark. You’re not surprised by any bad turns because you sort of expected them to come. All this is not as simple as it sounds. The whole novel is as densely packed as the beginning and offers a multitude of ideas to work with. These things alone make it a novel worth reading. But there’s more.

It’s a novel about the Great Migration that turns into a book about industrialized oppression and the evils of exploitative capitalism; true, novels by more famous writers on the same subject, like Upton Sinclair’s 1906 masterpiece The Jungle are still in print, and are reprinted in multiple classic editions. But Blood on the Forge offers a vital antidote to the racism prevalent in many of these books. Sinclair and many of his contemporaries depict strikebreakers in labor conflicts as being black, which wouldn’t be so bad, if strikebreakers were not usually described as a villainous mass of people. In The Jungle, Sinclair speaks of “a throng of stupid black Negroes”, and feels obliged to offer this assessment of this group of people he just demonized in a few brushstrokes:

The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free,–free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.

William Attaway’s novel offers us the other side of the story. When he has someone tell us early on: “[People] always hate new niggers round here [because] the company bring them in when there strike talk. Keep the old men in line.”, it is an obvious reference to the long history of radical American prose with black strikebreakers playing the role of henchmen to the company bosses. This is remarkable in and of itself, but what’s more striking (no pun intended) is the fact that he doesn’t sacrifice a more general awareness in the process, which elevates his novel beyond those of writers with less generous empathies and more narrow awarenesses. And there’s so much more. I haven’t even touched on the two other brothers and their (significant) roles in the book, including most prominently, Melody’s music and Chinatown’s limitations, I haven’t begun to touch on the nature/culture rift discussed by the novel. You could write books and books about this novel. And this is its biggest weakness. With all the stories and ideas, there’s not much room for the slow business of literary perspicacity. But the riches the book offers more than make up for any of its shortcomings. Read this book.

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2 thoughts on “William Attaway: Blood on the Forge

  1. I will read this book. Thank you. The opening passage you describe reminds me of the stunning first pages of singer Eartha Kitt’s autobiography, Thursday’s Child, depicting Kitt’s early childhood in the years – by my calculation – just following the Great Migration (Kitt, born in 1927, was sent by relatives from South Carolina to New York City in the mid-1930’s). It’s one of the most stirring and evocative things I’ve read in American writing from any period.

  2. Thanks for this–any interest in reading/reviewing one of Michael Stavaric’s latest books for those of us curious about the latest winner of the Chamisso Prize? Maybe Boese Spiele or Brenntage?

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