Eric Davin’s “Strike Pageant” Chronicles the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913

The saga of the Paterson, New Jersey, silk strike of 1913 was a glittering item of lore in American labor history — even before the actual strike of thousands of hard-pressed textile workers, across five months, ended in defeat.

Most uniquely, the strike had been fought not to resist a wage cut; rather, Paterson workers demanded more control over production. The highly skilled broad silk weavers resisted the increase in loom assignments; that is to say, the intensification of work from standards that had been set decades earlier. They were quickly joined by ribbon weavers and dyers’ helpers. Altogether, it was the biggest strike in the history of the highly concentrated silk production in Paterson.

It was also the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) last great Eastern strike before retreating to the West’s migratory labor struggles. Public memory, however, has focused on the June 7, 1913, “Pageant of the Paterson Strike,” a performance of more than a thousand workers, originally conceived by radical journalist John Reed and funded in part by his lover, heiress Mabel Dodge. Only a year after the dramatic IWW-led strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, this was a grand display of “Wobbly” charisma, and a moment when Greenwich Village Bohemians, artists and free lovers, joined in solidarity with the radical movement. Banners, music, speeches by some of the day’s great orators — all these made it memorable as a merger of struggle and dreamy aspiration.

Literary ventures into the world of the strikers and Bohemians also began during the strike itself, but mainly as journalism and illustrations in the Masses magazine and other left-wing publications of the time. Actual novels relating to the strike have been few, and Eric Leif Davin’s latest work, The Paterson Strike Pageant: An IWW Novel of Bohemia & Insurgent Labor, marks a renewal in a new key.

We should, however, begin with the author. A veteran of antiwar, labor and all manner of political activities since the 1960s, Davin has written a couple of intriguing, self-published memoirs — two fine scholarly history books and an earlier political novel about the 1877 railroad strike and the accompanying riots that (among other things) burned down a large segment of Pittsburgh. Davin, in other words, is at least a radical utility infielder and perhaps, now and then, a long ball hitter as well.

In The Paterson Strike Pageant, Davin begins the story proper, after a sort of stage-scene setting, with the famed Italian American anarcho-syndicalist, Carlo Tresca, in love with “the Rebel Girl,” IWW idol (and later communist leader) Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Tresca and Flynn were proletarian brawlers in the middle of strikes by the most impoverished sections of the working class. Famed for fiery speeches (but also for their skill in bringing people together and keeping the strikers brave enough, with hungry families at home, to stay the course), they were legends in their own time.

The devout anarchism of many of the Paterson workers was already legendary for 1913. However, strike organizers had to adjust themselves to the unique Paterson mentality and it could not have been easy.

Soon, Davin introduces Big Bill Haywood, the IWW hero with the wit to quip, to a Greenwich Village party-goer: “I never read Marx’s Capital, but I’ve got the marks of capital all over me,” as Haywood is quoted as saying. Raising money for the IWW, Haywood was a hit in these Bohemian circles.

And then there was Max Eastman, the strikingly handsome and talented writer who found his way into the Masses and became a leading figure on the magazine’s editorial board.

Davin is a little unfair to the anarchist intellectual Hippolyte Havel here — an anarchist who drank too much and promoted his anarchist beliefs too loudly — who is portrayed as just another character on the scene of the novel. The real-life Havel had a distinguished role in the editorial circle of Mother Earth magazine, chiefly the vehicle for renowned anarchist Emma Goldman’s opinions and appeals.

We proceed along this historical trail, meeting birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, Walter Lippmann (the later famed journalist was still a socialist at the time of the strike) and others of interest along the way. One high point is definitely John Reed’s time in jail at Paterson, with beaten, fellow incarcerated strikers singing their lungs out, cheering their own spirits.

As singing strikers march up from Hoboken to cross the Hudson River and meet an IWW band, filling Christopher Street, the book’s finale is prepared. In Madison Square Garden, Davin writes, “thousands in the audience began weeping as they applauded and stomped their feet.… They wept for themselves. They cheered for themselves.” The Lawrence strike of the previous year showed that the most oppressed (and mostly non-English speaking) industrial workers could take on powerful corporations. The Paterson strike and pageant seemed to lift this hope upward another step. A new world of industrial democracy might be born.

The strike ended in defeat. The conservative American Federation of Labor sought to undercut the strikers, while Paterson police arrested hundreds, treating more to brutal beatings. The strikers could win only by extending the strike to the workers of the Pennsylvania mills owned by the same manufacturers. The Industrial Workers of the World located their main activity westward, with some success, until their brutal repression by the federal government during wartime. The greatest of pre-war hopes for social change had been crushed.

I would not judge this literary performance in the same framework as other and more familiar novels touching on pre-1920 socialism and labor. With the moving narrators, actions larger than any individual character, this novel is (or intends to be) a visual narrative in prose. In its own right, The Paterson Strike Pageant is a success, and that is what counts.