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.


Monday, February 04, 2013

The Cinder Buggy - part 21 - Chapters XXXVI, XXXVII and XXXVIII; F. A. Hayek; W.H. Hutt; Capitalism and the Historians

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

      I had written in part 20 that the end of Chapter XXXV seemed to deviate from the plot with apparently unrelated matter that leads the story in a new direction with new characters.  From reading Chapter XXXVI, it appears that these concerns were unfounded, as Chapter XXXV appears to have set the stage for Chapter XXXVI, which takes the original story to a new level. 

      Between Chapters XXXV and XXXVI, Garrett bridges the gap between (1) compulsive gamblers that cannot stop betting on horses and (2) owners of large companies, where the company's incredible value does not truly enrich the owner because the company is too large to be sold.  Both types of people are trapped:

. . . and there seemed no way either to quit or get out.  If you had all the wealth in the world you could not sell it.  There would be no one to buy it.  In principle that was their problem.  If they could sell out they would be millionaires.  But where was there anybody with money enough to buy them out?
[p. 301].  Garrett's (and John's) solution was intended to take the story of steel in America to new heights.  A modern reader would lament that steel companies of the past 40 years have achieved the opposite of what John was attempting.    However it would turn out for John, it was obvious that the characters had come a long way from the original iron furnaces of New Damascus. 

      At this point Garrett also introduces the concept of the Wall Street speculator.  Speculators and stock/commodity price manipulators played a major role in the plots of both Satan's Bushel and The Driver.  Despite the complexity involved in speculation, Garrett was very comfortable with this subject and the type of events depicted in Chapter XXXVI .  Speculators have served as both the heroes and neutral characters in Garrett's works.  They often, as here, play the role of advancing the action toward a conclusion more quickly. 

      Chapter XXXVII integrates the events of Chapter XXXVI into the old plot involving the old characters .  It becomes apparent at this point that Garrett, instead of taking the plot in a new direction, has continued the plot in a more complicated fashion with a new element. Chapter XXXVII gives the reader the feeling of experiencing the "calm before the storm," as the book proceeds to its final few chapters with good things happening to the major characters.

      Chapter XXXVIII is a continuation of Chapter XXXVII, only on a broader scale.  The financial prospects for the major characters look better than ever, as the steel industry continues to grow.  Garrett tries to place steel in perspective with a statement that could not be fully comprehended until our own time:

Nobody knew how big it should be nor could tell by looking at it what stage it was in.  Not until afterward.
[p. 322] [emphasis added].  This quote might fall into the category of unintended irony.  I am not sure if Garrett has an "afterward" planned for some point in the rest of the book.  I know that since the mid-1970's, the United States has been living in the "afterward" of the steel industry.  I lament that Garrett is not around to place the 1970's and beyond into the proper context. 

      Garrett's description of the growth of the steel industry stands in sharp contrast to the accepted doctrine in modern textbooks.  Textbooks describe steel (and other) "trusts" creating monopolies and being somehow "bad."  The modern student is left with a vague impression of big business needing government regulation to avoid the dreaded "monopoly."   Garrett's pre-New Deal description of events would surprise those whose only exposure to industrialism came from modern textbooks:

  Minor groups were continuously springing up at preciesly the wrong time.  They generally smashed up or had to be bought out by the others to save themselves from ruinous competition. The steel age cared nothing about profits.  All it wanted was steel - more and more and more. 
[p. 323].  Garrett goes on to write that specialization in the steel industry began and "only intensified the competition."  [p. 323]. But the specialty steel companies began to form trusts for the sake of preserving profitability:
So there came to be a steel pipe trust, a sheet steel trust, a bridge and structural steel trust, a tin plate trust, a trust for everything; and matters became a great deal worse because some of the biggest mills, such as John's, were never in a trust and if the pipe trust or the structural steel trust got prices too high the independent mills would begin to make pipe or structural steel. 
 [p. 324]. Garrett makes the same point as a few modern writers that have recognized the effect that competition and potential competition had on prices over the long term.  Large companies might have enjoyed large profits for a short time, but high prices always attracted the threat of competition that would drive or hold down prices.  Companies would come and go, but prices would ultimately reflect the threat of more competition.

      The main characters did their part by producing steel rails at a lower cost than their competition. This ability gave them the "whip hand." [p. 322]. 

      Establishment historians have long remained vague on the movement of actual prices and the effects of competition, while focusing on labor disputes and the supposed evils of wealth accumulation. One book I have seen cited (but have not read) for the purpose of refuting these attacks is Hayek's (and W.H. Hutt's) Capitalism and the Historians:

      I know from experience the treatment that modern text writers give to this era.  I spent my high school (and junior high school) years being bombarded with propaganda.  The text writers were consumed by vague attacks using buzzwords such as "monopoly."  I am curious as to how pervasive was this tone during the early 1920's, when Garrett wrote his books. Was he writing in response to an increasingly shrill anti-capitalist movement?  Hayek's book might help with the answer. 

      Chapter XXXVIII is important for a complete understanding of the industrial revolution and the steel industry. Chapters VII, XIII, XXXIV and XXXVIII should be required reading in history classes.  Even though Cinder Buggy is fiction, there is more truth in those chapters than in most allegedly nonfiction history textbooks.   These chapters would serve as a supplement and a practical application of a free market based economic treatise.  Without Garrett's writing, Americans will never fully understand what they lost when the steel industry shrank to its present level. 

      Chapter XXXVIII ends with mild foreshadowing of a continuation of the triangle plot.  

      Update - Click here for part 22.         

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