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On "The Man at the Factory Gate"


Joshua Eckhardt

A number of depression-era poems critique capitalism by focusing narrowly on its individual victims. John Beecher's "Report to the Stockholders" profiles so many casualties of big industry: the worker who died from falling off his crane, the stopper-maker who "got a shoeful of steel," the "Negro" whose leg was run over, the laid-off worker, &c. The same can be said of Tillie Olsen's "I Want You Women Up North To Know," which focuses on the particular circumstances of Catalina Rodriguez, Marian Vasquez, Catalina Torres, Ambrosa Espinoza, and her brother for the consideration (in part) of a bourgeois readership largely responsible for their hardships. (Similarly, while the forces that close Joseph Kalar's "Papermill" are abstracted into remarkable wind and fog, their victims form a particular group of workers who stand disbelieving outside the iron gates.) While the last three lines of Olsen's poem threaten an end to this victimization, this threat relies upon the poem's individual portraits for its strength and defers the organization of the dressmakers into a unified, political force. Other depresion poems realize such a collective organization. Sol Funaroff's "The Man at the Factory Gate" opens with individual portraits at first similar to Beecher's and Olsen's: the innocent yet tortured German, the man passing out Communist literature at the factory gate. Then, in a stanza reminiscent of Hughes' "Negro," this individual "Man at the Factory Gate" is reincarnated in Berlin, Shanghai, Havana, and Alabama. In the next stanza, the focus is back on the individual at the factory gate:

He was a good shoemaker. He was a poor fish peddler.
He was an organizer in a labor union in San Francisco.

The last stanza proceeds to detail (in third person) his tortures and then (in second person) to assume the imperative and interrogative voice of his torturers. The poem's closing scene is again one of particular circumstances, but such circumstances have already, in stanza 5, been reproduced in several different settings. While Funaroff participates in Beecher's and Olsen's tactic of focusing on the individual (what Lukacs has called subjective) consequences of larger scale (Lukacs' objective) economic and political forces, he also extrapolates from that subjective point of reference to indicate how communist resistance can be envisioned and enacted. This is already the case in the first stanza. The first two lines profile the tortured German, then point to his resemblance to American prisoners in line 3, then Americans walking, then dying, in the streets in lines 4 and 5.

A man is tortured in a cell in Germany.
He is an innocent man. He has committed no crime.
There are men like that in the prisons of America.
Men like that walk the streets of America.
Millions of men in the streets await death.

In this manner Funaroff at once personalizes or humanizes the individual who is de-humanized by capitalism and red scare governments and simultaneously envisions the political potential of de-personalization, when it is realized as a political party based on a mass movement. 

Copyright 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt


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