Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Memory, Oral History, and Scholarly Research

Homestead Works, 1976. Photo by G. Edward Busch

As I child, I listened with fascination to my father's story of his grandfather's death at the hands of Irish unionist saboteurs in September 1892.  Grandpa John Paul was trying to restart one of the numerous furnaces that had been shut down during the lockout, when it exploded.  He and three other men were killed. A couple of months later, my grandfather, George W., went to work in the mill's machine shop.  By 1900, he had worked his way up to the lofty heights of machine shop superintendent.
Machine Shop, Homestead Works, 1936. George W. Busch, Superintendent (in center with white shirt)

Over the years, as I went through college and grad school, I repeatedly wondered what the whole story was about regarding the infamous strike and battle of July 6, 1892. I didn't dare plunge into retelling the story via a novel until after my father's death.  Understandably, he took a proprietary interest in the Strike story (as of course I do as well), and I didn't want to have to negotiate my way with him through my version of the story.

At the time, I thought it strange that Homestead-Munhall  locals didn't talk about the Strike, at least from a personal perspective.  Only after I began researching this book did I realize that the entire community, the descendants of scabs, is wracked with a kind of "survivors' guilt."  The consensus was that Frick was the main Evildoer, a ruthless bastard who engineered union busting first in his coke production plants, then in Carnegie's steel mills. Views on Carnegie were mixed, ranging from Good Guy who built our fabulous library, to sneaky coward who fiddled in Scotland while Homestead burned.

In 2000, I began research in earnest.  Over the next 14 months, I worked my way through everything on the Strike from books to TV programs to scholarly articles. (See list of recommended books.) When I found a particularly good resource, I'd pass it on to my mother and then discuss it with her.  I interviewed her, classmates, neighbors, cousins--anyone who had some story to tell about immigration, work in the mill, and life in Homestead.  Some of my classmates obligingly sent stories about their families via e-mail; my cousin's husband, Phil Krepps, was invaluable in developing a sense of what.was involved in steel production--and what the Homestead Works was like from the inside.  I hied myself to the Bost Building on 8th Avenue, union HQ during the Strike and now the home of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Ron Baraff and his staff were very helpful in leading me through primary documents related to the Strike (e.g. letters by one of soldiers posted to Homestead).  I had a grand old time.

But alas, if one wants to write, one must put aside research and pick up the laptop. I had a vague idea about the main characters: an older doctor (who could get into the best and worst of Homestead residences) and a young man from Wales.  In 2003, on a visit to Wales, Welsh-speaker Emyr Morris kindly took me around to the sites I envisioned my character inhabiting: Treorchy in the Rhondda, Ton du.  I interviewed Vivian Jones, a retired minister who had served in Minneapolis.  He gave me the names of scholars who could answer my questions about Welsh Congregationalism in the late 1800s.
Treorchy, South Wales. 2003.  Photo by Trilby Busch

Then I plunged into writing.  From 2003 until 2007, it was slow going.  I was teaching all but six weeks out of the year.  The various drafts became hard to manage, and I resorted to e-mailing dated copies to myself to keep track.  During the months preceding and following my mother's death in July of 2008, I, an only child, focused my attention on her care, and afterward, on settling the estate.  It was a sad day in September of 2009 when I pulled out of the driveway of my parents' former house on Wayne Road in Munhall, knowing that I would never have a physical "home" there again.

Since that day, as I toiled in exile, I managed to put together the whole story, starting with exposition in November of 1891, and ending with the protagonist, Emlyn Phillips, leaving Homestead in December of 1892.  As so many writers have described the process, once I got going, the characters wrote their own stories.

At the suggestion of an editor, I added characters based on my Busch ancestors, incorporating my dad's narratives (like Grandpap Busch's childhood friendship with Honus Wagner) into the story.  To this I added my memories of my grandfather in retirement: an avid gardener and Pirates fan, a hymn-singer, lover of watermelons, and fount of folk expressions (e.g., "How's your liver?").
George W. Busch c.1955 (Photo by Ed Busch)

The quotations from contemporary accounts seemed very stilted, so I used my recollection of the rhythms and metaphors of his speech in constructing the dialogue of the American characters. (Also, I should thank Harry Sinclair Lewis for some help with that, too.)  I was unable to faithfully reproduce the inflections of Welsh-speakers in English (as Llewellyn does in "How Green Was My Valley"), so I settled on simple word order changes in the speech of the Welsh characters.  To that, I added bits of dialogue in the Welsh language, contributed by Emyr's mother, Ann Morris.

It's been quite a ride writing out this story.  I've learned a lot (more about what I learned in other posts) and cried a lot.  It's not a pretty story, any way you look at it.  I tried to tell the story without editorializing. But I really didn't have to, as the truth is self-evident. Even anti-unionists will have to admit that the only winners in this tragic event were the owners of the mills.  Everybody else, from management on down, lost something--their jobs, their livelihoods, and some their lives.

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