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North Carolina on the Map and in the News

LIFT EVERY VOICE a review by Walter Squire Wiley Cash. The Last Ballad: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2017.

WALTER SQUIRE earned a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee, specializing in American literature and critical theory. His 2001 dissertation on “The Aesthetic Diversity of American Proletarian Fiction” included a chapter on the Gastonia mill strike novels, adapted from his 2000 NCLR essay on the female authors of these books. He taught at UNC Charlotte for almost a decade before joining the faculty at Marshall University in 2010 where is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Film Studies program. His other publications are on American mad scientist films, cinematic depictions of teachers, Disney adaptations, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. WILEY CASH grew up in Gastonia, NC, and lives in Wilmington. He earned a BA from UNC Asheville, an MA from UNC Greensboro, and a PhD from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is the author of two other novels, New York Times bestseller A Land More Kind than Home (HarperCollins, 2012) and This Dark Road to Mercy (William Morrow, 2014; reviewed in NCLR Online 2015). Read more about him in an interview published in NCLR 2013.

Events live on beyond their historical moment in language, whether through speech or the written word. Perhaps second only to the trial, conviction, and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the 1929 strike at the Manville-Jenckes owned Loray Mill textile mill in Gastonia, NC, is the most (in)famous event in American labor history, in large part due to the words produced during and immediately after the strike. Despite the significant attention devoted to the Loray Mill strike of 1929, conditions were not considerably different than those at other Southern textile mills and during other textile mill strikes. One significant difference between other 1929 strikes and the one at the Loray Mill, however, was the presence of organizers, led by Fred Beal, from the Communist Party-affiliated National Textile Workers Union (NTWU). The Communist Party publications Daily Worker and Labor Defender made the events of the Gastonia strike national as well as international news, leading to coverage of the strike by such mainstream periodicals as Harper’s and the New York Times. Significantly, with the exception of the Gastonia Daily Gazette, which decried the actions taken by striking workers, almost all press accounts expressed sympathy for the striking workers and later the trial defendants, regardless of political orientation. One of the journalists to come to Gastonia during the strike was veteran labor reporter Mary Heaton Vorse. Vorse subsequently wrote the first novel to be based on the strike,

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Strike! (1930), completed even before the jury reached a verdict in the trial of union members. Strike! was followed by Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire (1932), Olive Tilford Dargan’s Call Home the Heart (1932; written under the pseudonym Fielding Burke), Dorothy Myra Page’s Gathering Storm (1932), Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread (1932), and William Rollins’s The Shadow Before (1935). These six novels are collectively known as “the Gastonia novels,” for they are based upon events during the Gastonia Loray Mill strike, even though The Shadow Before takes place in Massachusetts and Beyond Desire in Georgia. In the four novels written by women, though, women’s organization of and participation in the strike come to the forefront. Those written by Southerners – Dargan, Lumpkin, and Page – begin with women deciding to move their families to the mill towns. The family labor system within the mills gets much attention in these novels, leading to women with children to agitate for schools in the mill towns. Foremost among the organizers in these novels are those based upon the actual historical figure Ella May Wiggins. Although best known now for her ballads, such as “The Mill Mother’s Song” (posthumously known as “Mill Mother’s Lament”),1 she was instrumental in organizing African American workers in Bessemer City, where she worked as a spinner at American Number Two mill. Each of the Gastonia novels written by women, with the exception of Dargan’s, include versions of “The Mill Mother’s Song,” and they all provide accounts of Wiggins’s murder.

1

NCLR included the lyrics of “The Mill Mother’s Lament” in NCLR 2000, within the layout of Walter Squire’s essay on the Gastonia mill strike novels.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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