Kenneth S. Kang
Sunday, February 09, 1997
Hope sustained him, as it sustained them all; hope and the human tendency to feel that, dreadful though one's circumstances might be at the moment, there were depths of misfortune still unplumbed beneath one, there were people much worse off ... there was always hope, the hope of saving enough money to go back in triumph to the old country, of buying a farm back in the hills, of going into business for one's self. (47-48)
For many Americans, the Gilded Age was one of big business and hours of toil in unsafe factory conditions. Despite the dreary and miserable outlook, many Americans, clutching the ideals of laissez-faire and the American Dream, espoused by the popular dime novels, persevered in the hopes of success. Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace is one such story. It tells not of the fame and glory that a poor immigrant acquires by working through the ranks; instead, it is a story of immigrants in that time. Coming to America with dreams and hopes of a better life, Bell tells the story of reality and challenges that await the immigrating Slovaks. Nonetheless, they hold onto their dreams of a better life.
A recent immigrant, Djuro Kracha, left his motherland because "he hoped he was likewise leaving behind the endless poverty and oppression which were the birthrights of a Slovak peasant ..." (3). Kracha's desire to leave his plight behind in his native country and restart life in America is the reason that also drove the Chinese to the United States, earlier the Irish, and later the Mexicans. All of these immigrants have had to take some time to assimilate and to be accepted by the "Americans" ethnically, socially, and politically. Kracha was the first of his immediate family to come to the United States. Despite his dreams to leave poverty behind, Kracha, foolishly spending his money on alcohol, landed in New York without much money. He only had the hope of walking west until he found his friend, Andrej Sedlar, in White Haven, PA. Starting without money, a job, or his family, Kracha would have to find and earn his dream, freedom from poverty.
Tired of toiling in utter the most monotony of whistles calling them to work, workers always hoped that someday they could escape. For Kracha, escape and the freedom to run one's own farm or business required money. Finding jobs at the steel and iron furnaces, Kracha and his generation of Slovaks were only concerned with surviving and saving enough to go back home rich. Thus, their interests ended with the paycheck. Kracha said, "I feel good. I eat good, sleep good, work like a horse" (17). He simply did whatever the supervisor said and only took interest in his pay. Their dreams still eluded them, out of their reach; they felt trapped by the mills' rigid schedules. Dreaming of farming and a free life, Dubik, Kracha's friend, said, "But do you know what I'd like to do? Buy a little farm back in the hills somewhere" (33). The furnaces already restricted their lives. Each toot on the whistle signaled when work started and ended. For many, the furnaces also were an end of not just their dreams but also their lives.
Aspiring to not just wasting away, year after year, working at the steel mill, Kracha became the butcher. He enjoyed the freedom from the whistles that signaled the workers, but he was at the same time burdened with the demands of his customers, employees, and finances for rent, taxes, permits, and supplies. His butcher shop was a measure of his success as "a prosperous businessman" (75). Amongst these businesses and even with the mill departments, strong influences came from common ethnic backgrounds. Politics meant little to the First Ward Slovak community. They were not U.S. citizens and only sought to collect enough savings to set out on their own. Developments like the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor never entered their minds. Being a businessman, Kracha was respected by his customers and peers for rising above the mill workers. However, his "affair" with Zuska, the wife of John Mihula, aboard the ship on the Atlantic and the rekindling of that relationship would eventually bring Kracha back down to the common Slovak. For a while, Kracha was independent, and he had set off on his own. That financial freedom was short lived and Kracha soon became like the other workers, dreaming of someday having something of their own.
Kracha wasted his later years working and drinking, his family shattered by his affair. His eldest daughter, Mary, married Mike Dobrejcak, a mill worker. Immigrated during his teens, Mike had been raised by Dorta. She had always protected, cared for Mike and hoped that Mike would marry the right girl. Her wish for Mike was that he would have a decent family. Dorta, very accepting of Mary, let them face the realities of life.
Financially, they faced some difficult times. The United States Steel company, for which Mike worked, had offered "stock to its employees ... to find out how much money the workers could save on the wages they were getting ..." and cut their wages accordingly (145). Often scrambling for money, the Dobrejcak family took in boarders to pay off their loans. Boarders gave them extra income to buy luxuries like new outfits, dresses and shoes. With the extra money, the family could fulfill some of their material desires and have some entertainment. Despite hardships with wage cuts and long hours, Mike and Mary manage to have some financial security. Mike was happy with his situation, "I used to have such ideas [like farming and working the land], make such great plans. No more" (197). He sought out happiness in his own means.
Politically, Mike and the second generation of Slovaks became even more aware of their vote and campaigns. This was their little voice amongst the booming noise of the trusts and the giant businesses. With their concerns and a greater awareness of what is happening around them, the second generation started to vote. Pressured by his employer, "Mike had registered as a Republican..." (189). Despite the pressure from his employer, he votes socialist and manages to exercise his political freedoms as long as he did not speak. The only place where he could speak directly to someone was in his church. The mill directors would not hear the simple problems of a small worker, but "God heard [them] out" (171). The change from Kracha to Mike, the expression of their problems from alcohol to prayer, gave Mike a sense that "[the] world was always a less unfriendly place..." (171). Mike's dream and wishes for his children are reflected in his prayers and his vote, but they still go unfulfilled, crushed by the giant mills.
Even with the never ending struggles that plagued their union, their family, stable and strong, became more like the "middle class" Americans. Their strong family kept their hopes and dreams together. Even through Mary's pregnancy and the boarders, the family stays together. When faced with debt or boarders, Mike argues for his family, "... I didn't marry to have my wife take in boarders" (150). They take in six boarders to pay off their debt. Their cooperation and strength of working together through monetary hardships and the sharing of their concerns brought that sense one's own sphere of control and harmony to the Dobrejcaks. Perhaps indirectly, the mills had made him "rich" with a loving wife and family. Without all the luxuries of a middle class home and without freedom from the steel mill, Mike and Mary find some happiness. Their dreams of living comfortably together and being relieved of boarders are slowly whittled down when Mike dies and later Mary is diagnosed with consumption.
Mike, Mary, Kracha, and their children all dreamt of a better life, one without financial difficulties or suppression by the mill. As a businessman, Kracha achieved some success and freedom, but his life, shattered by bad fortune from investments and debt from the workers at the mill, wasted away, alone, and enslaved to the furnaces. For a moment, Mary and Mike created a refuge in their home, but that hungry steel mill, with Mike's death, took that refuge and that hope of somehow holding onto it. Their dreams have changed from escaping poverty, starting off on their own, to enjoying what they had. Hopes shattered and lives crushed, the last of the second generation, Mary, dies, leaving Johnny, later called Dobie, who would leading the fight to regain what had been lost ever since his grandfather's immigration to the "land of opportunity," America.
And for a moment everything that had happened ... became a bad dream which she needn't take seriously any more because it was only a dream and all she and to do was turn in her sleep, as she always did when a nightmare became unbearable, and she'd awaken and find herself safe in her own bed ... (258).
Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1941.