Back in the late 1990s, in the days of my ABDhood, I used to hunt for syllabi for courses in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Many of these syllabi required or recommended Thomas Bell's Out of this Furnace. Totally unfamiliar with this title, I decided it must be fairly new and with it being so esteemed I placed it on my reading list. For some reason Out of This Furnace proved very difficult to locate. Several libraries I visited listed it in the catalog but a copy could not be found on the shelf. Two months ago to my great surprise I found a copy at Barnes and Noble. First, I have to admit I had no idea it was a fictional account of Slovak family through three generations, which is why I stared at it for a couple of minutes thinking what is this doing here? Second, I was surprised to find out that it was written in 1941.
I can't say I really enjoyed Out of This Furnace. Even though I can believe that immigrant life in the steel towns of late nineteenth and early twentieth century was as bleak as Bell depicts it, I have to think there were still moments of happiness and joyful events. What I really took away from the book as an historian is the way the different generations related to life in America. The first generation seemed content to work and isolate themselves. Coming from a fractured Austro-Hungarian Empire, it only seemed natural for them to withdraw into themselves and forego learning English or making any attempt to assimilate into the larger culture of which they remained largely suspicious. The second generation wanted to fit in, but were not welcomed. They learned English, attended schools, but were derided as "Hunkies". Conscious of otherness, they felt stuck between two worlds - wanting to be Americans but not accepted as such. Finally, the third generation demanded a piece of the pie and felt comfortable using American methods to attain it. The triumph of the third generation in winning labor reform clearly votes for FDR.