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