Retrospective: Jack Conroy, Worker, Writer

Douglas Wixson

“Someone talked to me about going to business college. I thought it over, and decided I would rather end in the poor house than go to business college and work in an office.”
—Floyd Dell, Homecoming

NEAR THE END of his long life, Jack Conroy often said that one day he would rejoin his old friends in the final great writers’ conference in the sky; but my hunch is that he much prefers the company of the miners in Sugar Creek cemetery, near Monkey West mining camp in northern Missouri where he was born.

Jack was a storyteller with a vast repertoire of yarns that he recited to his visitors, with variations to fit the guest and his own mood. I spent many afternoons with Jack, “the granddaddy of all rebel poets,’ as Richard Wright titled him. Jack never ceased to surprise me: he was a living encyclopedia of radical culture, a workng-class genius, a warm and decent human being.

Jack received the occasional “pilgrim,” as he called his visitors, from all corners of the world. Sixteen years I visited Jack in his hundred-year-old stone house, until his death, at age 91, in early 1990.

From him I received an incomparable literary and political education, one grounded in people’s lives and what they lived for. I repay my debt by helping to disclose the many contributions he made to American letters.

Like Jack London’s Martin Eden, Conroy was a working-class son, self-taught who owned 5,000 books and was on personal terms with every one of them. Many of the books in his library were inscribed to him, for as editor he had made many contacts and helped many aspirin “ar-thurs,” as he called them, mimicking the Missouri folk pronunciation.

Jack kept in touch with hundreds of former colleagues and friends whom he had known as a writer and editor.(1) He was a “networker,” and many a young scholar had come to him for information on the whereabouts of some forgotten writing or writer.

Among The “Disappeared”

Conroy, in the years I knew him, was a “disappeared” writer whose work has been neglected, owing in large partly to Cold War politics and partly to changing popular tastes orchestrated by hegemonic forces in society. I determined to inquire into the details of his life-long devotion to literature despite great personal hardship, and in particular to the circumstances that led him, a coal miner’s son, to turn to writing during the brief interstices between days of manual labor.

What I discovered was that Conroy had chosen consciously to remain a worker and that he had written a novel, The Disinherited (1933), telling the story of that choice. In the 1930s, he edited a literary magazine while working as a day laborer, discovering new writers, some of whom later became famous.

He teamed up with the African-American writer and scholar, Ama Bon-temps, to co-author a series of books, an early example of interracial collaboration in American letters He was instrumental in pioneering a new field of study called industrial folklore.

Conroy had a devoted but small following of scholars and readers who have kept his work alive through university courses and left-wing bookstores. Few mainstream booksellers carry his work, yet it manages to survive. At presenI, three of his books are still in print. Like other great rebels, the man himself was a “book” that will not “go out of print” as long as succeeding generations continue to search the past for examples of writers who made bold experiments in creating a literature befitting a just and equitable society yet to be.

Jack Conroy was the last of the village bards; he kept language alive and interesting in an age of declining standards. He had his finger on the soul of the community and his ear pitched to the accents of the common people. He collected sentimental verse and religious tracts, valuing them for their verbal peculiarities; he hated cant and would review a book in less than an hour.

He was entirely devoted to writing but he hated the actual task. He would think a story out in his head, pull himself over to his typewriter finally, and with the keys flying at 100 words a minute, compose the first and final version, which he would check for misspellings.

I was privileged to know this man, and become his friend and occasional amaneusis. He opened doors for me to writers of his generation who had, in many cases, become involuntary exiles in their own land during the Cold War era, with its McCarthyism and irrational anticommunism.

The literary radicals of the 1930s slipped into obscurity during this devastating time, the years following World War II; publishers were no longer willing to take risks on them, exercising a kind of self-censorship. Counter-hegemonic writing, especially on the part of well-known leftists, was deemed unworthy of good literature in the eyes of the academy and critics.

I traveled sometimes great distances to visit Jacks writer friends, most of whom had been silenced in the Cold War climate Jack had published many of these writers in his magazine; they remember vividly his generous example as editor and Mends in the 1930s.

The Midwest radicals, the long-suppressed voices of ‘the other 1930s’ must be reclaimed, I vowed. They are the rightful mentors of young people without idealisms born in the Nixon and Reagan eras, just as many of the Midwest radicals of Jack’s generation found mentors and models in earlier generations.

As a young boy, Jack had heard Eugene Debs and Mother Jones speak Miners in Monkey Nest camp read the Socialist Party’s newspaper Appeal to Reason. Later, he traveled on freights with Wobblies and read Jack London, Maxim Gorki and Fred Dell. This was the now-forgotten cultural tradition to which he felt bound, the neglected figures in history and letters, the rebels.

Most working-class readers, Jack came to realize, preferred escapist fiction and films to realistic accounts of their lives. As a young writer he perceived that writers’ reputations are made within a System of literary production that ex-ducks the Jack Conroys and the “crude vigor,” as he termed it, of literature forged in the struggles of working-class people.

To open channels to those who wrote of this struggle he started The Anvil; and to tell the story of the workers he had known in mills, factorries and mines he wrote The Disinherited.

Today our armies prepare again for war in order to “defend democracy,” yet seldom in our past have the worth and dignity of the common people been so discounted. All the more reason then, I submit, that we need to become acquainted with Jack Conroy through his work and learn from his example.

Monkey Nest to Rebel Poets

The coal mining camp in northern Missouri where he grew up during the first decade of this century left a deep, lasting impression on Jack, with its communal and oral traditions, and periodic labor struggles.

His father, Tom Conroy, an Irish Immigrant to Canada, had fled a Jesuit seminary in Montreal, gone to southern Illinois where he joined other immigrant workers in the mines. Later, he moved to the bituminous coal fields of Moberly where he met a miner’s widow named Eliza Jane McCullough McKiernan who ran a boarding house, cherished the idea of writing romantic novels and wrote letters in a fine bookkeeper’s script.

The second-born from this marriage, John Wesley “Jack” Conroy (1898-1990), named in honor of the founder of Methodism, grew up in the close-knit coal mining community called Monkey Nest where his father frequently put down his pick to lead a strike; the safety conditions in the mines were lamentable.

As a child, Jack played in the wooded hollows around Monkey Nest mine and threw stones, along with the other miners’ children, at scab workers. His parents hoped that through study he would escape the hardship and violence of a miner’s life.

When Jack was nine, his father was killed in amine accident. Soon after Jack’s older brother died while crossing a railroad track. A hall-brother was crushed in Monkey Nest mine and two uncles also lost their lives in mining accidents.

Jack was thirteen, with an eighth-grade education, when his mother led him by the hand into the Wabash Railroad shops in Moberly to apply for work. He began as an apprentice-helper, soon becoming the union local’s recording secretary. In the Great Railroad strike of 1922, Jack resisted the anti-labor terms of recently enacted federal legislation.

The strike was broken;Jack joined thousands of dispossessed workers left stranded by broken strikes and layoffs, to search for work in factory cities, riding boxcars with fellow Wobblies while supporting a family. He had abandoned his hope of gaining a college education, devoting his few spare hours between factory shifts to writing and editing.

His first break as a writer/editor came in 1928 while he was an assembly line worker in the Willys-Overland plant in Toledo. Together with an Ohioan named David Webb, Jack edited a small magazine which lasted only a few issues. The Spider, listing itself in “the Vanguard of the Intellectual Revolution,” was aimed at college students, but the editors soon discovered that it was not among college students that they could hope for an “intellectual revolution.” In 1928, with massive layoffs in the auto factories, there were more pressing subjects at hand.

Jack’s editorial interests were grounded in Julius Wayland’s weekly Appeal to Reason and E. Haldeman Julius’s Little Blue Books, which provided a low-cost library of classics to rural areas of the Midwest when Jack was growing up. Populist-Socialist in spirit, these publications revealed a sympathy toward marginal elements in society, regionalist issues and the “little man?

Following the execution in 1927 of the two anarchist street peddlers Sacco and Vanzetti, however, Jack and others realized the need for a magazine expressing a new rebellious spirit that was antiestablishment, anti-capital and politically eclectic. Together with Ralph Cheyney and his wife Lucia Trent, both poets, Jack started the Rebel Poet organization whose publication Rebel Poet printed a wide variety of poets, loosely linked by their perception that justice had been sacrificed for political expediency in the Sacco-Vanzetti executions. Judges, politicians and university presidents were accomplices of the establishment that meant to keep the worker down.

Uneven in quality, the magazine nevertheless showed Jack’s ability to coordinate a dispersed membership, accommodate divergent views on the left, and win the services of a printer, Ben Hagglund, who provided a low-cost press for its production. Jack inspired trust in his associates and contributors, most of whom he would never meet.

He devoted an enormous amount of time to helping other writers place their names and stories; he was a “networker” for isolated worker-writers like himself scattered over the country, such as Minnesota lumbermill hand Joseph Kalar, Virginia tree-trimmer John Rogers, and Pennsylvania miner Ed Falkowski.

When, however, the Rebel Poet organization’s center of gravity shifted to its New York City chapter, control of the magazine began to slip from Jack, who attempted without success to hold together rival factions which struggled for control in the early years of the Great Depression, when freshly minted radicals and establishment writers alike were eager to do their part to speed the coming revolution.

These were the early years of the Great Depression, when Jack was struggling as a day laborer in a construction crew to keep bread on the family table and at night to write sketches of his experiences as a worker for H.L Mencken’s American Mercury.

The Anvil and The Disinherited

The dream of reconciling the fragmented political left yielded to a more realistic goal of promoting new writers, following the example of his mentor H.L Mencken, ina new little magazine called The Anvil. Like Mencken, Jack was interested in vigorous writing, faithful to actual American speech, reflecting the firsthand experience of its authors; on the other hand, he departed from Mencken in his concern for contemporary social issues such as homelessness, unemployment and racial injustice.

These concerns drew Jack close to the Communists, who at the time seemed to be doing what was needed for the working man and woman: restore in workers a sense of dignity and spirit of resistance through demonstrations of the unemployed and through strikes.

Jack himself had abandoned the American dream of material success in order to devote his writing (undertaken at night, after the exhausting fatigue of shovelling sand and digging ditches) to workers and their lives The shape of his aspirations were drawn in his first novel, The Disinherited (1933), put together out of some thirteen shorter pieces and tied together by the figure of the narrator, Larry Donovan.

Larry tells the story of growing up in a coal mining camp, carving out a rich imaginative life in the nearby wooded hollows despite his family’s privation and the death of his father. Bounded on one side by the presence of violence and evil, and on the other by examples of communal solidarity (the miners) and selflessness (his mother), the youthful narrator is faced with adult responsibilities and robbed of his adolescence.

At age thirteen, Larry begins an apprenticeship in the railroad shops, where he remains until the Great Railroad Strike, which ends in defeat for the strikers. Afterwards, he joins thousands of other dispossessed workers, on the read, questing for jobs in the auto factories of Toledo and Detroit, until the hard winter of 1929-30 following the stock market crash of October, after which he returns to Monkey Nest where he digs ditches and lays brick roads. Almost by chance, he stumbles into political commitment—unlike the protagonist of conventional proletarian novels, in which all preceding events of the narrative point to the conversion at the ending.

Loosely autobiographical, The Disinherited tells more about workers who accept their lot passively than about the revolutionary harbingers of change whom the Communists wished to find in proletarian writing, jack who (echoing Whitman) liked to call himself “a witness to my time,” supported the Communists in their programs to improve the workers’ lot, but was unable to submit his own observations on working-class life and attitudes to party ideology.

A storyteller, Jack was also a social historian with a sense of irony, quick to see the humor in events and the quirks of human character. Coal mines, the Wabash shops, a rubber heel factory, steel mill and auto assembly plants had been his university. His experience ranged widely—someone said that Jack had known a lifetime’s share of experience in his first thirty years.

Like Maxim Gorki, to whom he was sometimes compared,(2) the intensity and range of the experience had made him compassionate, tolerant of human weaknesses, an observer with an infallible ear for speech and storytelling.

His second novel, A World to Win, was less a critical success; Jack’s strength lay in short sprints, not the long distances necessary to sustain a novel. Sections of this novel reveal his mastery in weaving social history, workers lore and idioms into rich narrative The formal concerns of plotting a novel, however, lay beyond his scope or interest. He was already turning his attention to documentary writing, receiving a Guggenheim grant to study the migration of African-American and white workers from the South to northern factory cities like Detroit, Chicago or Toledo.

As editor of The Anvil, Conroy introduced Richard Wright, a Chicago post office clerk at the time, to his readers, printed Erskine Caidwell’s tales of racial intolerance when no other editor would touch them; and labored tirelessly to promote anew literature in American letters, more vigorous in its style and attuned to the essential in people’s lives. By mid-decade the proletarian literary movement had already lost its initial momentum.

The Scene Changes

Possessing enormous reserves of energy, yet at heart an easy-going, almost phlegmatic man whose favorite saying was “I’ll see about it tomorrow,” Jack edited Rebel Poet until he grew weary of the endless factionalism within the New York chapter of the Rebel Poets. Exercising his privilege as president and editor of its magazine, he dissolved the organization in late 1935.

His rebellious, independent spirit alienated him finally from his New York comrades, Communist Party functionaries and ambitious radicals. Party cultural doyens arranged a merger of The Anvil with Partisan Review, leaving Jack effectively out in the cold.(3)

1935 was a signal year for Jack at the top of his literary fortunes as Guggenheim recipient, editor of The Anvil and spokesman for the dispossessed, Jack gave one of the major addresses at the First American Writers Congress in New York City’s Mecca Hall. Already, however, literary politicians of the Popular Front were courting establishment writers in order to gain their support for the Soviet Union’s struggle against rising fascism in Europe.

Successful in mobilizing mainstream writers like Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker against fascism and war, the party nonetheless neglected the potential for and importance of a genume working-class literature. The support it had given Conroy and other workerwriters—larely owing to Mike Gold’s efforts—-basically dissolved after 1932, arid loss of The Anvil cut short the promise of a working-class literary movement

Worker-writers were no longer “useful” to the revolutionary movement. Moreover, the country was in a mood to divert itself from Depression woes. Proletarian writing was too bleak for most people’s states; Anthony Adverse was a bestseller, people with scarcely a coin in their pocket would pay for an escapist movie. And when in 1937, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath cast the plight of the uprooted in a Biblical myth, everyone except some offended Oklahomans enthusiastically accepted its literary reconstruction of events and decided to put the Depression behind them.

In the summer of 1936, after teaching a session at Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, where sharecroppers were learning how to speak up to their rights, Jack travelled to Alabama with a small group of writers and journalists to contest the notorious Downs law that prohibited the distribution of seditious” literature. The protest nearly cost him his life Betrayed by their lawyer, and chased out of town by gunfire, the group was unable to secure police protection.

Soon thereafter Jack found a position with the Missouri Writers Project in St Louis, funded by the WPA, with the purpose of writing a state guide. In St Louis, Jack lived with the painter Joe Jones, who had defied city authorities by holding free art classes for the unemployed in front of the city courthouse.

The Missouri Writers Project was stalled owing to the incompetency of its director, Geraldine Parker, a Pendergast machine appointee. Project members struck to protest the ineptitude of the director, the strike failed, but Jack was kept on. He spent a great deal of time with East St Louis mill workers who enjoyed Jacks humor and admired his writing ability. Jack spoke to workers at the aluminum mill in Granite City, participated in CIO demonstrations, and traveled to Des Moines to address the Farmer’s Holiday Association, which organized farmers to resist foreclosures and maintain farm prices at a fair level.

Balancing his labor activism during this period (1936-8) were the hijinx of his associations with the “Fallonites,” the East St Louis mill workers, and a poet named Waffle Wharton who served as their rhymester in the bars they frequented. The Fallonites diverted Jack during a very difficult period when, nearly penniless, discouraged by the loss of The Anvil, the mixed reception of his second novel and disgusted by the Unproductive Writers Project, he longed to revive The Anvil and renew his writing.

By 1937, Jack had quit the Missouri Writers Project and gone home to Moberly. Soon after, the Chicago writer Nelson Algren advanced him money for a bus ticket to Chicago where Jack joined the Illinois Writers Project under John T. Frederick, former editor of Midland magazine and a very able administrator. Living with Nelson Algren in an artists’ colony on Cottage Row, an arcade built for the Colombian Exposition, Jack revived The Anvil with Algren as the business manager.

Richard Wright and Maxwell Bodenhelm gave lectures to raise funds for the new publication, and Jack and his friends including “Red” Kruck, Algren, Amalie Woldenburg and Paul Romaine staged productions of “A Drunkard’s Warning,” a satire of James T. Farrell, the Irish-American novelist, cast as a temperance play. (Conroy was offended that Farrell had written a churlish review of The Disinherited. One expected that from critics, but not from a fellow novelist!)

Folk Histories

Assigned to the Black history project, Jack and novelist Arna Bontemps coauthored a study of Black workers’ migration, They Seek a City, which Jack had begun researching years before in the South. Benjamin A. Botkin, the folklore editor for the Federal Writers Project, expressing his interest in occupational folklore, discovered in Jack a walking encyclopedia of industrial lore. Jack submitted tales from memory, collected since Monkey Nest days and throughout his life as a worker.

In the company of Nelson Algren, Jack collected tales from circus downs, bums and itinerant workers in Chicago’s taverns. Botkin published a number of Jack’s folktales in Treasury of American Folklore (1944). In a remarkable collaboration, Bontemps and Conroy reworked the folk material into children’s stories, including the bestselling The Faster Sooner Hound.

Despite its successes in discovering or furthering new talent such as Margaret Walker, Frank Yerby and Thomas McGrath, New Anvil folded after six issues. When the Project shutdown finally early in the Second World War, Jack joined the staff of an encyclopedia and wrote reviews for Chicago newspapers, including The Defender.

Jack continued to write juveniles, realizing there was no market for working-class subjects, now tainted with associations from the “Red Decade.’ Nelson Algren, on the other hand, successfully mined Chicago’s underworld for literary material. Eventually the two friends were estranged; Algren, overly sensitive about the declining reception of his work, acted strangely toward his old frends, including Jack, distancing himself abruptly from them. An offending remark on Algren’s part severed the friendship.

Jack, on the other hand, was easy prey to fellowship, frequenting bars and attending parties with his Chicago friends and visitors passing through. A heavy drinker, he nonetheless continued to keep his job in the stultifying encyclopedia “mills,” in order to support his family.

In the mid-1960s, Jack collaborated again with Bontemps to write Anyplace But Here, an updated version of the earlier They Seek a City, including the civil rights movement. Jack retired from the encyclopedia in 1965, returning to Moberly where he planned to write his autobiography. He never got beyond the Monkey Nest days.(4)

A Popular Voice

Conroy’s last work, the so-called “Monkey Nest tales,” several of which were written when he was in his eighties, represent some of his best short narratives. As in his earlier narratives, ingredients of The Disinherited jack drew upon the resources of orality characteristic of work communities he had known.

He refashioned genres of everyday speech to represent the events and lives of ordinary people within a social context His natural sympathy lay with people, not with an abstract “the people;” the plural voices of work communities speak through his narratives, not literally transcribed but refashioned creatively to communicate worker attitudes and characterize individuals.

Within these narratives dwells a large-hearted sympathy for the other. He could not ignore, for example, the fact that homelessness continues to be a fact and that African-Americans suffer poverty more than whites, women more than men. Life and work were always one for Jack, since it was out of the circumstances of his life as a manual laborer that he produced most of his writing.

The old yearning among the common folk to have a voice, and to find suitable expression for their experience, occasionally finds expression through exceptional workers like Conroy. Part of his legacy to American literature was, as editor, to provide the means for these voices to be heard, reviving earlier methods of literary production that substituted horizontality for hierarchy, “crude vigor’ for the cult of personality.

There will always be pilgrim-readers, I suspect, who seek out Conroy. Marginal presses strive to keep alive our connections with the literary radicalisms of the past A handful of university teachers keep the neglected work of these radicals alive in the classroom.

Jack accepted his own footnote status in American literary history with humor, quoting the old English barroom ballad:

I’m a little wounded. but l am not slaln,
I will lay me down for to bleed a while.
Then I’ll rise and fight with you again.

A survivor of earlier embattled times, Jack Conroy has much to teach young leftist writers today, both through his work and the example of his life.

JACK CONROY’S books in print include two I have edited, The Disinherited (University of Missouri Press, 1991) and The Weed King and Other Stories (Lawrence Hill, 1985). In addition, The Jack Conroy Reader, ed. David Ray and Jack Salzman (Burt Franklin, 1979) and Writers in Revolt: TheAnvil Anthology, 1933-1940, ed. Jack Conroy and Curt Johnson (Lawrence Hill, 1973)—the latter, though listed out-of-print, is still available through Independent Publishers, 814 N. Franklin, Chicago IL 60610.

Notes

  1. These include Meridel Le Sueur, Sanora Babb, Paul Corey, Ruth Lechlitner, Joseph Vogel, Norman MacLeod, Erskine Caldwell, Margaret Walker, Ed Falkowski, Paul Romaine, Harold Preece, H.H. Lewis, Robert Cruden, Abe and Chester Aaron, Frank Sandiford, Ray and Charlotte Koch—and many more I could not meet because I arrived too late: Kenneth Porter, Harry Moore, Joseph Kalar, Ray Kresensky, Walter Snow, Ben Hagglund, John Rogers, Ben Appel, Willard Metley and others. ln addition, Dorothy Farrell, Lillian Friedman, Neal and Chris Rowland, Sanka and Ken Bristow, Zena Dorinson, Charlie and Lynn Miller, Margaret Burroughs, Studs and Ida Terkel, Win Stracke, Harold Sullivan, Russell Finch, Mike Hecht, Al Baumgartner, Mike Chomyk, Wallie Wharton, Betrenia Bowker—all shared vivid impressions of Jack with me.
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  2. Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine, was among those who made the comparison. Conroy’s reply was: “I wonder if Gorki is known as the Russian Conroy in the USSR?”
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  3. For details of the absorption of Conroy’s Anvil into Partisan Review, see James Gilbert Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America (New York: John Wiley, 1968) and Michel Fabre, “Jack Conroy as Editor,” New Letters (Fail 1972), 115-37.
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  4. Although he had planned an autobiography, Conroy said that “he could not get out of Monkey Nest (coal camp),” so powerfully did these early days affect his old age. These stories are gathered in The Weed.
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January-February 1991, ATC 30