Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Cinder Buggy - part 22 - Chapters XXXIX and XL - The Homestead Strike; Geisinger Medical Center; Danville, PA

Click here for Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21 of my review of The Cinder Buggy.

Chapter XXXIX contains much to think about while providing mostly a narrative of continuing action. 

The story revolves around a violent labor confrontation that is loosely based on the Homestead Strike of June 1892.  There were a number of similarities with (1) the events of the confrontation, (2) the physical setting and (3) the people involved (including an unnamed thinly veiled version of H.C. Frick). I will avoid writing more about the story to avoid plot spoilers.

The use of the Homestead type story is significant for several reasons.

  • The story involves the labor movement for the first time in Cinder Buggy.
  • While not identifying the year, the use of an event from 1892 helps show the passage of time.  About two decades have elapsed since the main characters began operating their first factory in Pittsburgh.
  • Garrett is telling a fictional story, while tying that story as much as possible to specific historic events. Garrett wants his story to be thought of in the context of the real history. While he writes of fictional characters, he uses those characters to tell the story of American industry.
Chapter XXXIX presents a challenge for followers of Garrett, as Garrett uses language that today would be considered very un-PC and derogatory toward eastern Europeans.   Establishment followers would undoubtedly use these passages to denigrate the entire capitalist message, even though Garrett wrote very sympathetically of the workers in this particular dispute.  Notwithstanding this potential controversy, Garrett's comments were not uncommon in that era.  The prevailing attitudes toward eastern Europeans at that time are exemplified in other sources, including a geography book entitled Carpenter's New Geographical Reader, American Book Company (New York 1928).

Chapter XL provides the long aftermath of the events of Chapter XXXIX. (I will be brief to avoid plot spoilers).  Garrett further indicates the passage of time by explaining how the characters, were it not for their relationship, "would have missed the Autumn and gone directly from Midsummer to the Winter of their lives."  (p. 334).

One of the characters returns to New Damascus and funds the creation of  "the finest hospital in the state."  (p. 335). This passage is a thinly veiled reference to Geisinger Medical Center. The previous owner of my book copy (the nearly anonymous tour guide from Part IV) noted in pencil in the margin (@ 1927) that this passage was a reference to "Geisinger Memorial Hospital" - as it was then known.  As I wrote in Part IV:
Danville [New Damascus] is known today primarily for Geisinger Medical Center, which opened in 1915 from the proceeds of the iron business of George Geisinger. Geisinger is today one of the premier health systems in all of Pennsylvania.
These circumstances form a rough parallel with the events of Chapter XL, but there is no known historical connection with the Homestead strike or its aftermath.  This reference helps establish the timing of Chapter XL's end as roughly the early 20th century. 

The creation and continued prominence of Geisinger allows the American iron age and the industrial revolution to live on despite the serious decline of all American industry.  Early American industry made Geisinger (and many other modern institutions) possible. The long forgotten real-life counterparts of the Gibs and the Breakspeares, through Geisinger, continue to influence individuals across Pennsylvania who have no knowledge or appreciation of how their medical treatment was made possible.  One drives by the blue historical marker on the highway where an iron mill once stood, but fails to realize that the words on this marker describe long forgotten events that, even today, make our lives possible.   Those of us who bother to read the marker might scoff at iron "T-rails" while taking medicine for granted.  While few of us place actual trust in government plans to nationalize health care, we fail to appreciate how much we owe to America's early industrialists for the health care that we will soon lose.

Garrett finishes Chapter XL with a flexible time reference -  "And so the Autumn stole upon them"  (p. 335). Garrett means, of course, the advancing age of the characters - not the changing seasons of the year. 

Click here for Part 23.



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