Life in the Factory

Life in the Factory

ON THE LINE, by Harvey Swados.

Fiction about factory workers has been a rarity during the past two decades. Most novels at all concerned with work take as their setting and inspiration the air-conditioned offices on Madison Avenue, not the grinding assembly lines. In fact, if one’s knowledge of American life were confined to certain literary and intellectual oracles, it would be hard to know that people still work in factories, that the work is dull and wearisome, and that men who spend their lives on assembly lines continue to feel any emotions other than those of gratified contentment.

That factories are still ghastly places in which to work is made very clear by Harvey Swados in his new novel, On the Line. Swados has shaken off any remnants of old notions about the workers; he is trying realistically to see what they are like in the midfifties. He has no ideological preconceptions to advance, he starts with no confining archetypes. Each worker is distinct: a man who comes to the factory, punches in, serves his time and takes home his check in ways that are different from those of his fellows.

The novel does seem to have one “extra-literary” purpose. Swados has written with marvelous eloquence (“The Myth of the Happy Worker,” an article in The Nation, August 17, 1957) about the lack of sensitiveness and concern that characterizes the attitudes of most liberals and intellectuals toward factory workers today. The novel is intended not to polemicize or persuade toward a political point of view, but to recall to our attention a major segment of humanity, the people who, despite mortgages and autos, remain, in important ways, the “bottom dogs” of American society.

In Swados’ novel the most rebellious workers on the line are the young boys who have either just quit or graduated from high school. One boy, who wears “pegged” pants to work instead of coveralls, expresses violent hatred for the assembly line. Before he quits, he manages to take his vengeance by wrecking four new car bodies. “I came here to earn a living,” he yells, “not to kill myself!” Later on he says, “This isn’t work; it’s slavery” The older men laugh sympathetically. When the foreman warns him to “smarten up,” the kid replies, “I was born smarter than some of the characters in this dump!”