Monday, September 25, 2023

Hard Times

Sarah Orne Jewett was known for her portrayals of the lives of the farmers and fisher-folk of her native state, but she wrote at least one story that recognizes that nineteenth-century rural Maine, with its abundant water power in the form of rivers, was also a center of industrial production. "The Gray Mills of Farley," published in 1898, tells of events in a company town dominated by a cotton mill. The mill's labor force has arrived in successive waves: first, young people from neighboring farms, then experienced English millhands, poor Irish immigrants, and finally, the newcomers, French-Canadians who are willing to work cheaper and are viewed with suspicion by the older hands. The town is grim and poor, if not, when times are good, utterly desperate.

Jewett largely focuses on the mill's "agent," who is in charge of its day-to-day management and effectively mediates between labor and capital. No stereotypical brutish overseer, he was born in the town, was orphaned at a young age and grew up poor, but gained a commercial education and has returned to run the mills. Jewett describes him as "a single man, keen and businesslike, but quietly kind to the people under his charge." As the story begins, he meets with one of the mill's directors and reports that the mill has done well and will be able to issue a healthy dividend of nine percent to its investors. He adds, however, that he hopes the board will declare a dividend two or three points smaller than that and return some of the earnings to the labor force, whose wages had been cut during a previous downturn and never restored. He notes that the market is currently glutted and that it may be prudent to keep a reserve within the community. His proposal is politely but firmly dismissed; the directors feel no responsibility for the welfare of the workers, who, in their view, should consider themselves fortunate to be employed at all.

Sure enough, a downturn comes and the mill hands are laid off. Penurious to begin with, they are soon barely above starvation. As the months drag on the agent digs deep into his own pocket to help out as many families as he can, and provides an allotment of land and free seed potatoes so they can raise a bit of food. The local Catholic priest (again, portrayed sympathetically) dips into the takings of the collection plate and puts some men to work laying the foundation for a new church. The workers are resentful but have little recourse; many of the French-Canadians depart, returning home or seeking work elsewhere.

In the end, a reprieve comes. Business conditions improve and the workers are called back. But the positive note on which the story ends is tempered by a recognition of the harsh realities of industrial labor.
"Jolly-looking set this morning," said one of the clerks whose desk was close beside the window; he was a son of one of the directors, who had sent him to the agent to learn something about manufacturing.

"They've had a bitter hard summer that you know nothing about," said the agent slowly.
"The Gray Mills of Farley" can be found in the Library of America volume of Jewett's Novels and Stories.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

The Harbor of Lost Ships

Brad Fox, paraphrasing William Beebe's "final, disorganized notes on marine subjects," here describing the fate of shipwrecked sailors:
The sea angel Amphitrite swoops down for the sailors who have served her faithfully, and takes them to the court of King Neptune, who judges whether they've lived by the laws of the sea, whether they've been worthy.

Others end up in a harbor in the far north where lost ships go. Some vessels crossing in the northern seas encounter these ghost ships, appearing and disappearing, flagless, unresponsive to salutations or threats. The Harbor of Lost Ships is locked in by high, barren, icy cliffs. In their shelter lie thousands of hulls, pressed together. Their ghostly crews walk the wharfs or stand still, as if they would sail off the next day, trimming sails and swabbing decks in the icy mist.

The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths
Update (September 2023): Not long after coming across the above passage, I picked up Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, one chapter of which recounts a tale of a voyage to the extreme north (somewhere above Labrador, or thereabouts) where sailors encounter a mysterious town populated by drifting "shapes of folks." The town, "a kind of waiting-place between this world an' the next," vanishes like mist when the sailors approach. Jewett's description is too long to quote here.