Submitted by Jim Aune on October 30, 2005 - 9:44pm
I'm eligible for a sabbatical in 2006, so I'm writing the proposal now. I've decided to revisit an idea I had about twenty years ago. If anyone in Blogora-land has a moment to read this and make suggestions, I'd greatly appreciate it.
During the leave period, I plan to research and write a book on the Gastonia, North Carolina textile strike of 1929. The strike was the first American Communist-led labor dispute to receive national and world-wide attention. The strike was a dismal failure, resulting in the conviction of the strike leaders for conspiracy to commit murder, and in a long-lasting hostility to labor organizing in North Carolina and the South generally. The events leading up to the strike and the trial of the strike leaders, however, exercised a powerful hold on many writers, both academic and popular. The Yale theologian Liston Pope used the events to write a classic work in the sociology of religion, Millhands and Preachers ((1942). John R. Earle, Dean Knudsen, and Donald W. Shriver updated Pope's work on the role of religion in Gastonia labor relations in their 1976 book Spindles and Spires. At least six novels drew directly on the Gastonia events, three of which were even translated into Russian for the edification of the Soviet working class. Fielding Burke's (Olive Tilford Dargan) Call Home the Heart, has received considerable recent scholarly attention from feminist literary critics. Marxist-feminist Barbara Foley discusses the novels in her 1993 work Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. W.J. Cash's influential The Mind of the South has a major section on the strike. A series of sociological studies of the Southern textile industry, most of them originating at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, also were inspired by the strike. Historians of American Communism have largely interpreted the strike as an example of the Party's impractical radicalism in the late 1920's. Fred Beal, the Communist labor organizer who led the Gastonia strike, fled to the Soviet Union after the trial of the strikers for the murder of the Gastonia police chief (the trial, which had a number of peculiar features--including a life-size replica of the murdered police chief's body, which terrified a juror so much he had to be institutionalized--was the subject of an intensive discussion in the Harvard Law Review). He soon became disillusioned by the Soviets' treatment of their workers. Louis McLaughlin, one of Beal's fellow defendants who had escaped to Moscow, was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread. Beal returned to North Carolina to serve his sentence, although he was pardoned in 1942. His book about the strike and his Soviet experienes, Proletarian Journey, was serialized in the Hearst papers, and he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness. of American labor usually discuss the strike in terms of the ongoing failure of labor unions in the South, although Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et al. in Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton-Mill World have documented sympathetically the distinctive culture of the Gastonia workers. John A. Salmond's 1995 book, Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike, is the only complete narrative history of the strike. There is no study of journalistic representations of the strike in the United States, although some work has been done on foreign press coverage. The scholarly and popular representations of the strike and its causes provide a useful body of materials for discussing the following questions: 1. How did ideological factors, e.g. Marxist and/or feminism, affect the narrative and argumentative strategies in works on the strike? 2. How did the rhetorical constraints of academic disciplines (the sociology of religion, literary theory, women's studies, and labor history) affect scholarly understanding of the strike? 3. How do the academic and popular writings address the issue of historical causation? What is the proper relationship among cultural, political, and economic factors in accounting for the strike and its aftermath? 4. What is the nature of public memory of the strike, both in Gastonia and in the Southern Piedmont generally? 5. How might we explain the strike and its effects in terms of current theories of the rhetoric of social movements or "contentious politics"? 6. What are the implications of the study for understanding the role of rhetoric and narrative in historiography? 7. How does the strike illuminate the complex relationship between structure and agency in historical events?
During the leave, I intend to research primary archival materials on the strike, most of which are held in the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Gastonia, North Carolina libraries. I also intend to spend two weeks in Gastonia investigating the public memory of the strike among the town's citizens. My book will focus on the rhetorical strategies of the sociological, literary, Marxist, feminist, religious, and legal commentators of the strike. It will provide the first overview of the ways in which the strike and the strikers were represented in narrative and academic forms, usually to serve some ideological or institutional purpose far removed from the needs and desires of the Gastonia strikers themselves. The book continues my research program in the history of Marxist theories of culture and communication, begun in my 1994 book Rhetoric and Marxism, and in the rhetoric of economics (Selling the Free Market, 2001).