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By Joseph Kalar
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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IntroductionProletarian Night: The Life and Work of Joseph Kalar TED GENOWAYS
Joseph Kalar never published a book of poems. In fact, anyone who knows the name probably knows him for one poem. A lean, well-honed labor lyric, Kalar's "Papermill" has a deserved reputation as one of the finest protest poems of the Depression era. It is a political poem, but what makes it enduring is Kalar's fierce allegiance to specificity over stock symbolism and the crafted, tightly wound rhythms that propel each line.
Described by Cary Nelson as an "almost expressionistic portrait of an abandoned factory," the poem portrays the papermill that was once the lifeblood of International Falls, Minnesota, the small working village where Kalar grew up. Now, the poem reveals, the mill has been shut down, but the workers still pace outside the iron gates in disbelief:
Not to be believed, this dry fall Of unseen fog drying the oil And emptying the jiggling greasecups; Not to be believed, this unseen hand Weaving a filmy rust of spiderwebs Over these turbines and grinding gears, These snarling chippers and pounding jordans; These fingers placed to lips saying shshsh: Keep silent, keep silent, keep silent ...
Since its original publication in the Leftist magazine The Front in 1931, "Papermill" has beenreprinted numerous times-in Alfred Kreymborg's Anthology of American Poetry, Jack Salzman's Social Poetry of the 1930s, the Heath Anthology of American Literature, the Library of America's two-volume American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, and the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, to name but a few appearances. In his book The Enjoyment of Poetry, Max Eastman declared the poem "the rarest jewel so far produced by the ferment in America called proletarian poetry-and it is pure art." He explained:
Not one suggestion what to do or how to do it, not one thought or practical meaning accurately so-called, not one hint toward the "organization of class feeling" is contained in this verse. There is not a factory boss in America possessed of sense organs and a feeling heart who could not read it with vital participation. Like [Diego] Rivera's painting it might be well admired and paid for by the Rockefellers. This is a simple matter of fact.
Indeed, "Papermill" became so revered that Kalar worried it overshadowed the rest of his work. He told his close confidant Warren Huddlestone that he considered the poem "about as perfect in its way as a poem on that subject could be," but he lamented that it had been "so anthologized that I'm sick of it and almost afraid of its present grandeur pumped into it by well-meaning but slightly addled comrades."
Kalar's relative obscurity is not, however, the result of the quality of his other work; it was an obscurity he chose. He chose to publish only in Socialist and labor magazines; because of self-doubt and overwork, he chose never to gather his poems into a collection; and, when he was not yet thirty years old, he became disenchanted by the meager effect of his poems and chose to quit writing permanently. Perhaps the decision to choose obscurity was easier for Kalar than for most writers, because writing poems was no mere artistic-and therefore egocentric-exercise for him. Though his work bears the unmistakable stamp of his wide and varied reading, he wrote poems for practical purposes; and, unlike many of his poet-activist contemporaries, he wrote about social injustices he witnessed first-hand as a worker in the isolated mills along Minnesota's border with Canada.
By the time Kalar began to second-guess his choices, his moment had passed. As Robert Shulman recently stated in The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered, "In the 1950s, when the movement was either stigmatized or ignored, the value of each individual writer was also diminished, in many cases to the point of invisibility." The arrival of the 1960s brought new social causes to document and debate. However, as evidenced by the flowering of critical interest in Kalar's work in the last decade, his poems continue to resonate, and a collection of his finest poems and sketches is long overdue.
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Joseph Kalar was born April 4, 1906, in Merritt, Minnesota, the second son in a family that would eventually include nine boys and a girl (who died in infancy). His parents were poor Slovenian immigrants who met and married in Cleveland. Their "bohunk name," as Kalar called it, was originally pronounced "collar," but
way before this swine first began to stir in my mother's guts the name was Anglicized out of all resemblance to the original. We now pronounce it and are that way known-Kaler, to rhyme with tailor. In other words
Jo Kalar, Jo Kalar, His cock is a whaler, His balls weigh 45 lbs. etc.
Soon after marrying, Kalar's parents moved to northern Minnesota. Joe's father found work in one of the eight iron mines that surrounded Eveleth, and his mother picked up extra money as a barmaid in the saloon. Because Eveleth was nearly thirteen miles away from the mine, they lived in a tiny tarpaper shack in a mining village one mile east of what is now Biwabik. The village was officially called Merritt, but everyone knew it as Chicken Town because most of the families there kept chickens for eggs and meat. The creek that ran through town was grossly polluted, and rats were rampant and were "slaughtered by the hundreds." Worst of all, however, was the mine itself; in his sketch "Dust of Iron Ore," Kalar remembered, "The mine was like some horrible monster hidden in the red bowels of the earth, exhaling a poisonous vapor of dust which dropped like an unseen fog over Merritt and the little locations where the miners lived. We knew, dimly, that Merritt belonged to this monster...." To escape the monster, Kalar's father moved the family in 1914 to International Falls, where he took a job in the local papermill.
That mill was the latest extension of the empire of lumber baron Edward W. Backus, president of the Minneapolis-based Backus-Brooks Company. Between 1905 and 1910, Backus expanded his business from tree farming to pulping by building first a hydroelectric dam on the Rainy River, followed by one of the world's largest sulphite mills-the mill where Kalar's father went to work, in International Falls. It was a ragtag community in those days, booming during the summer months when lumberjacks were working in the surrounding woods and sawmills, blowing their wages in town on prostitutes and gin shacks, but grim during the winter when temperatures plummeted-often to more than forty below-and the papermill kicked into full swing processing the summer harvest.
The remote location and months of being cooped up by the cold made young Joe into a quiet child. He joined the Lone Scouts (a division of the Boy Scouts for boys in isolated places) and began corresponding avidly with other Lone Scouts around the world. Around the same time, he starting making regular trips to the local library, where he read adventure stories by the likes of Ernest Thompson Seton. Inspired by these tales, he began writing his own stories and published some of his earliest work in American Scout and Every Boy's Journal. He later lamented that his experience was so isolated from the Communist upheavals of the world: "The October Revolution was not a reality to me. All that I can remember, and that dimly, is a series of cartoons in the abominable Review of Reviews picturing a horrible bearded monster with bared wolfish teeth, booted feet trampling women and children, but even these cartoons made no impression on me, so was I in the mystical ecstacies of a boy of eleven."
In high school, however, he began to become aware of revolutionary ideas through the great Scandanavian writers, such as Knut Hamsun and Johan Bojer, and Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. During his senior year, Joe started a correspondence with a fellow aspiring writer named Warren Huddleston. Kalar confided to his kindred spirit that his ideas and readings were creating tension at home:
My parents are gross materialists-thinking that a full belly is the ultimate goal of every man-and every man that looks for something else is a fool. They sneer and jeer at me because I read Shakespear willingly-and call me a fool because I spend my money for books instead of candy or clothes. "Go," they tell me, "earn your money, and save it, so that when you are old you will have something to fall back upon." Damn, say I. Why should I make myself old trying to save something for my old age? I have youth-and it shall be spent in a youthful way. I will love madly and drink recklessly, and no man can say I am wrong.
As valedictorian of his graduating class, Joe was offered the chance to deliver the commencement address. To prove his point about youth, he initially proposed a defense of Poe's alcoholism, but-when the idea was rejected-delivered instead a bitter rant entitled "The Inferiority Complex of the American People."
That fall, Kalar entered the Bemidji Teachers College. He graduated from the short course with honors and went to teach school in Wayland, a remote spot in western Koochiching County-so remote, in fact, that the only accessible route to the settlement crossed into Canada and back. He taught kindergarten through eighth grade in a one-room log schoolhouse, heated through the brutal winters by a single woodburning barrel stove. Tucked in the heart of timber country in the furthest corner of the state, Kalar felt out of place. He had grown up in tiny International Falls, but nothing had prepared him for the isolation and loneliness of this place. In an unpublished story entitled "Swamp People," he wrote, through the voice of his narrator Mary, of the odd dichotomy of a claustrophobic landscape and distant neighbors:
We lived on a fertile ridge following the Tamarack river, a small tepid stream that flowed quietly between high banks toward Lake Superior, and all around us, for many miles, stretched the dark lonely muskeg, carpeted with moss, its spruce and tamaracks standing thickly in water.... The homesteaders clung to the high ridge, their shacks as far as seven miles apart, with a deep forest between. Our nearest neighbor was half a mile away, beyond a small stretch of muskeg that poked its way like a finger between our shack and his.
To escape the narrow confines of Minnesota, Kalar decided he had to see the country and find his own place in it. He quit teaching after only one year and started hoboing around. He spent a month with friends near Cincinnati, a short time in California, then his longest stint in Chicago. Each place he looked for newspaper work, but no one was hiring. In Chicago, he spent his days riding the streetcars and taking in the seedier side of the city. He claimed, in a sketch written about the time, to have "tramped around the niggersection and fell in love with a highyeller" and "hung around West Madison listening to bums and oystermouthed pimps and homos tried to pick me up and followed me all over Lincoln Park and down Michigan Blvd." He also remembered spending his days in the Argus Bookshop thumbing through books but not having any money to buy. He wrote, "O I didn't go hungry. I had a friend and he was kind of looking out for me though he kept track of how much I owed him figuring that I'd pay him back later when my ship came in but he was nice about it and we'd talk a lot about our schooldays together until we both got lonesome for the dump back in Minnesota with its sawmill and papermill and blindpigs as a man does that's down and out."
In the summer of 1926, Kalar returned to International Falls a defeated man, and took a job in the sawmill as a scaler. Every day he sat in a shack by the entrance gate to the mill, estimating the board feet in each load of lumber before it went into storage, keeping track of the totals for each type of timber. He worked twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.
That summer the young Meridel Le Sueur traveled from Minneapolis to the northern part of the state to write her piece "Evening in a Lumber Town" for New Masses. She described the effects of the grinding labor that sawmill workers like Kalar faced, as she watched them "come from the mill, down the streets close together, huddled together. Their black loose clothes are all alike. Like a dark moving mass they come shuffling along heavily, heads lowered, arms hanging, their dark half-drunken faces thrust out. They look drunk, drunk with a deadening concentration." More than the long hours and backbreaking work, Le Sueur lamented the relentless poverty of the lumber camps, which seemed to stunt all emotion and individuality. "They do not celebrate their being," she wrote. "They adhere so closely to the terrible, natural things that they are impersonalized, nullified," but she remained hopeful for the future as night fell and she saw "the very young men come out boldly upon the streets, lean as wolves." She spied a hunger in them that had not yet been defeated: "Genius might spring from such men, from such spare soil-genius too is born of such stark necessity, a humble necessity, a despair. Despair and humbleness make good ground for hardy growth."
Among the lean, young men on the night streets of International Falls was Joseph Kalar, and his own slow realizations of that time make Le Sueur's word seem prophetic. When the promise of shorter hours for better wages seemed far away, Kalar hit the town drinking and womanizing, but soon he recognized that they could not ease his restlessness. He wrote Huddlestone, "I can not find escape from myself in drink, in women ... only in books can I find surcease of this damnable gnawing." Since graduating from high school he had been assembling a loose group of poems he called "Seed," after his favorite literary magazine of the time. As the year drew to a close, his work began to show vast improvement as he left behind his Romantic influences and began to write about the people and places he knew so well. He wrote one poem entitled "My Village (South International Falls)," another called "Architect" about a drunken hobo building "a castle out of the clay / that banked the ditch," and his first truly autobiographical poem, "The Way It Goes," in which he described himself as
This one dark-haired with a face white like a saint's and the thin small girl-like hands of a never-has-worked-hard. Folks smiled, proud of him. Called him prodigy, said he would be a poet. That was before his face became pimpled and he drank booze and sang dirty songs with drunken whores.
Despite these advances in his subject matter, he continued to feel frustrated by the limitations of the form as he knew it. "I try to write poetry ... it seems good to me," he wrote. "It lays around for awhile ... I read it over, and it stinks ... stinks of mediocrity, of artificiality."
He began to explore more immediate forms in his writing, most notably the genre he dubbed the "proletarian sketch." The form was simple, he told Huddlestone; just write "some autobiographical stuff, in a realistic tone, dealing with some specific incident of your life, told in straight autobiographical style skillfully enhanced by creativeness." The advantage of the form, in part, was that it could "combine, as the short story never can, the elements of poetry and the novel." However, as Douglas Wixson writes, the sketch form also appealed to proletarian writers for the same reason it appealed to Soviet writers of the day: "The plotless nature, the personal-narrative quality of the sketch, preserving accents and idioms, was a form suited to the needs of the nonprofessional writer. ... Straddling journalism and literature, the sketch can be written quickly; it answers the need for quick production and timeliness." Furthermore, the sketch allowed writers like Kalar to address proletarian issues without either the aesthetic distance implied by poetry or the plot demands of a traditionally constructed piece of fiction. "Forget the plots," Kalar urged. "Grab a chunk of life and chew it and spew it out again. Life isn't a plot, it just goes on and on and is not culminated by a trick ending, very often."
Excerpted from Papermill by Joseph Kalar Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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