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On "Asbestos"


Cary Nelson

In "Asbestos," published as "The 100 Percenter" in The Daily Worker in 1928, a stunning, if gruesome, conceit transforms a worker's body into his deathbed. The exploitation of workers, we learn, literally impresses itself on their bodies. Those bodies are the fulcrum, the point of application, of all the power relations in which their lives are embedded. Yet the poem's very fluency, its metaphorical bravado, embeds political resistance within social tragedy. Rolfe is only nineteen when he writes the poem, but he has learned a lesson that will help carry him through the rest of his career. It is first of all a lesson about class relations and about how they play themselves out in the industrial workplace. But it is also a lesson about how political poetry can take up traditional lyric forms—here the rhymed quatrains of the ballad stanza—and give them fresh social meaning.

Both the abab rhyme scheme and the character's generic name (John is a common name in ballads and folk poems) might lead us to expect a conventional folk tale, but the power of the central conceit and the recurrent enjambments disturb the potential for predictability. The partial echo of the ballad form, then, creates a context which the poem's content violates, though the generic form also reminds us that the poem's unique metaphor points to social relations that are anything but unique. For the poem demonstrates that the popular imagination of the time must encompass the culture's exploitation of the ordinary worker; John is the everyman of the 1920s and 1930s industrial state.

from the introduction to Rolfe's Collected Poems. Copyright 1993 by Cary Nelson


John Marsh

If the workers in John Beecher’s "Report to the Stockholders" suffer from violence perpetrated by industrial conditions and the rhetoric used to frame those conditions, the representative worker in Rolfe’s "Asbestos" suffers from his inability to connect those industrial conditions to his own and others’ (over)work, suffering, and exploitation. "Asbestos" originally appeared in The Daily Worker in 1928 under the title "The 100 Percenter"—that is, the effort Rolfe’s allegoric worker gives to his work and, ultimately, the effort that reduces his subjectivity to that work. He does not give 100 percent—he is such work:

Knowing (as John did) nothing of the way
men act when men are roused from lethargy,
and having nothing (as John had) to say
to those he saw were starving just as he

starved, John was like a workhorse. Day by day
he saw his sweat cement the granite tower
(the edifice his bone had built), to stay
listless as ever, older every hour.

"The way/ men act when roused from lethargy" glosses Marx and Engels concluding sentences—"The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win—from The Communist Manifesto. This alternative and revolutionary discourse, however, remains unavailable to John—and thus his circumscribed political consciousness limits his solidarity with others of his class. John has "nothing to say" to those who starve just as he starves. Rolfe’s "Asbestos," however, tries to fill that silence: to provide John and those to whom John has nothing to say, that is, other similarly circumscribed workers, with a language and class-consciousness they otherwise lack. A project that in pre-Depression America and the pro-business climate of the 20s would prove difficult indeed.

Irving Bernstein, among others, has noted the shift in worker demographics that took place during the 1920s. While reliance on new immigration labor halted after Woodrow Wilson’s enactment of the quota in 1917, increasing agricultural mechanization drove more and more rural working men to employment (and unemployment) in increasingly populated cities (48). These emigres from rural America, besides providing a pool of unskilled and semiskilled workmen "inured," Bernstein argues, "to the low level of farm incomes," also "brought with them...the conservative outlook and individualistic accent of the rural mind" (49). Rolfe’s "John," if not an exact historical cognate to the displaced rural worker, nevertheless suffers from an inability to think of labor in any but individualistic terms. This unreflective effort eventually abducts his humanity—he is, instead, "like a workhorse," an animal from some farm. "Day by day," the poem continues,

He saw his sweat cement the granite tower
(the edifice his bone had built), to stay
listless as ever, older every hour.

Rolfe’s description of John’s work consciously resists the fetishism of commodities—the tendency to obscure the work in seemingly neutral, finished products, in this case "the granite tower." John’s sweat, and not cement, holds the building together, and his bone gives it structure. Despite his ability to see such evidence of his own labor, he nevertheless cannot connect such extracted labor to his own and others’ exploitation. Failing these connections, he remains as passive and circumscribed as ever, except older and robbed of so much "life" that now resides in the skyscraper he helped build. Rolfe’s "Asbestos" attempts to prompt a more collectivist model of understanding one’s own work and one’s own (dying) body.

This dying body receives greater attention in the second half of the poem:

John’s deathbed is a curious affair:
the posts are made of bone, the spring of nerves,
the mattress bleeding flesh. Infinite air,
compressed from dizzy altitudes, now serves

his skullface as a pillow. Overhead
a vulture leers in solemn mockery,
knowing what John had never known: that dead
workers bodies are dead before they cease to be.

Whereas before the workers’ body structured "the granite tower," it now constructs, rather gruesomely, his own death bed. "The exploitation of workers," Cary Nelson has written of the poem, "literally impresses itself on their bodies. Those bodies are the fulcrum, the point of application in which their lives are embedded" (6). The shift away from what we might call John’s false consciousness to his decaying, "embedded" body is what probably enables Rolfe to change the title to "Asbestos" (without altering the text) for the 1933 collection We Gather Strength. For if the first half of the poem has seemingly little to do with asbestos and more to do with construction, the transformation of the body through work has everything to do with the gruesome effects asbestos took on workers’ bodies throughout the 20th Century.

Remembered best today, if it all, as the relatively harmless poisonous insulation removed from antiquated public schools and office buildings, asbestos was not always so benign. Before the nineteenth century, asbestos, since it would not burn and did not conduct heat or electricity, was sometimes used in the production of protective clothing and resting pads for hot objects (Kotelchuck 193). After advances in technology in the last decade of the nineteenth century, extraction of asbestos increased along with its use in the manufacture of insulation paper for homes, brake lining for cars, and, mixed with cement, shingles and water pipes (193). At the time of the composition of Rolfe’s poem, however, a causal link between consistent exposure to asbestos and specific diseases had been neither widely nor conclusively circumstantiated (192). A 1924 British journal had established a link between asbestos dust exposure and asbestosis, a particularly grisly disease of the lungs not unlike black lung or silicosis. Not until 1930, however, was the first U.S. death reported—and by 1935, Great Britain and the United States had reported "only" 28 cases of asbestos-related death (196). Despite such evidence of disease and death—including its own in-house studies and legislation passed in Great Britain that made asbestosis an occupational disease—the largest U.S. asbestos producer, Johns-Manville (a subsidiary, after 1927, of J.P. Morgan & Co.), made no public acknowledgment of any of the health hazards associated with asbestos (196). Indeed, no such acknowledgment would come until the 1960s (Rosner, Deadly 208) David Kotelchuck’s "Asbestos: ‘The Funeral Dress of Kings’—and Others," details "how [the asbestos] industry established a corporate policy of covering up its products’ hazards"—a cover up that resulted in "the needless loss of tens of thousands of lives over several decades...as well as the profound human suffering by the victims of asbestos disease" (192).

Part of the cover up involved epidemiological studies that consistently (and fraudulently) denied asbestos caused a specific disease (since asbestosis resembled tuberculosis), played down the severity of diseases caused by asbestos, and shifted the blame for asbestosis (white lung) to other causes (199). An industry sponsored study by Dr. Anthony J. Lanza, completed in 1931 but not released until 1935, suggests what made possible such fraudulent denials—and rather disturbingly connects with Rolfe’s poem. Despite 79 percent of asbestos workers reporting shortness of breath and/or coughing, typical early symptoms of asbestosis, Lanza dismissed such reports by claiming that "Too much emphasis should not be placed on subjective reports of symptoms" (198). In other words, workers could not be trusted to understand or experience (the failings of) their own bodies; their experience did not count as experience.

Rolfe’s "Asbestos," then, is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because of its prescience. When Rolfe changes the title for the 1933 collection, asbestos, at least in the United States, had only barely (and reluctantly) been acknowledged as even a potential threat to workers bodies. Further, even if John had been able to understand the connection between his deathbed and his work, physicians would have dismissed this understanding as a not-to-be trusted "subjective report." The central conceit of Rolfe’s poem—the workers’ body as deathbed—acknowledges, as medical exams had not, the link between work and the decay of a worker’s body. Rolfe’s grisly description of John’s body-cum-deathbed—"the posts are made of bone, the spring of nerves,/ the mattress bleeding flesh"—legitimates those "subjective" accounts elsewhere denied, in the process legitimating an etiology also elsewhere denied.

Rolfe’s "Asbestos," especially the last lines, and given the epidemiological politics of the disease, are grimmer and more disturbingly apropos still. After company physicians realized the extent and severity of asbestosis, they nevertheless withheld such information from workers suffering from the disease. A 1949 memo from Dr. Kenneth W. Smith, medical director for Johns-Manville, contains his recommendation for how the corporation should treat its asbestosis victims:

It must be remembered that although these men have the X-ray evidence of asbestosis, they are working today and definitely are not disabled from asbestosis. They have not been told of this diagnosis for it is felt that as long as the man feels well, is happy at home and work, and his physical condition remains good, nothing should be said. When he becomes disabled and sick, then the diagnosis should be made and the claim submitted by the Company. The fibrosis of the disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and that the Company can benefit from his many years of experience. Should the man be told of his condition today there is a very definite possibility that he would become mentally and physically ill, simply through the knowledge that he has asbestosis. (203, my emphasis)

One suspects from the company’s tautological self-deceptions (one gets sick from knowledge of the disease and not the disease itself) that it concerned itself less with a diseased man living and working in peace than it did with the benefits to the Company. Regardless, as David Kotelchuck points out, workers were "not told of a potentially grave condition, so that [they] might consult other doctors, have other tests performed and possibly have some medical action taken, such as surgery. And since the worker was not informed of his condition, he could not choose to quit, seek to transfer from his dusty job, stop smoking (if he was a smoker), take any protective measure, or sue for damages" (205).

The J & M memo makes it difficult not to read a grim, admittedly anachronistic historical irony in the final lines of Rolfe’s poem: "Overhead/ A vulture leers in solemn mockery,/ Knowing what John had never known: that dead/ Workers bodies are dead before they cease to be." At one level, the vulture shares with J & M doctors the knowledge that workers literally walk around in dying bodies—knowledge of which has been deliberately denied them. At a more general and figurative level, though, the practice of withholding information about their disease from workers only makes literal and immediately physical the operations and injurious effects of ideology and false consciousness. Workers, in Rolfe’s poem, are interpellated into an ideology that makes them the victims of capital, of policies designed so "that the Company can benefit...." Equally, too, an ideology that precludes the development of a class-consciousness that could enable them to act in their own best (collective) interests. In the case of Rolfe’s and J & M’s workers, the interest of saving their lives—either from the relatively quick death of a fibrous lung disease, or the prolonged wage-slavery that keeps workers, according to Rolfe, "listless as ever, older every hour," until their "curious" deathbeds. The difference between lying about worker’s diseased bodies and creating conditions that preclude the development of class-consciousness is one of degree and not kind. Both keep workers in ignorance of the knowledge that their body is dead before it ceases to be—and thus from any (collective) action that might postpone their funeral march.

Copyright 2001 by John Marsh


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