Labor Fiction exhibit includes works inspired by true stories

“Manufacturing a Narrative about Work: Labor Fiction Inspired by the Industrial Age” includes fictional accounts of the labors of men, women, and children that tell the stories of textile workers, bakers, miners, steelworkers, and others who were involved in historical labor movements.

“Work conditions keep rapidly changing around us. The relationship of us to work as individuals and a society is under constant reexamination and redefinition, especially now, when artificial intelligence and concerns around wellness and mental health drive significant changes in ways we work, feel, and identify with it…” said Boaz Nadav-Manes, University Librarian. “This exhibit serves as a reminder that the societal and individual debates around work and its impact on our lives go far back to times when work conditions locally, nationally, and internationally were much different and reflects the ways by which authors and readers framed meaning and led significant social changes in response to their often harsh work realities.”.

Several exhibited works are of regional interest, including Final Assembly by E. H. Leftwich, that chronicles the lives of workers at a WW2 aircraft plant who were likely living in the Lehigh Valley. There are also fictional accounts of work in the Pennsylvania oil fields, including The Divining Rod: A Story of the Oil Regions.

As professor Mary Nicholas observed, “The rich history of labor in the Lehigh Valley still has many stories that should be better known. Luckily, we have compelling material to tell some of those tales right here in Special Collections! Classics censored in their time still have important lessons for the twenty-first century workplace…It is both sobering and inspirational to see what progress has been made in labor relations as we gauge how much further we still need to go.”

While many texts included in this exhibit are relatively obscure, among the more recognizable examples are novels by John Steinbeck and Jack London, both of whom included detailed descriptions of labor.

Professor Allison Mickel noted: “Bethlehem, and Lehigh, have been key sites for studying and understanding labor for more than 100 years--just think of Frederick Taylor's controversial study and reorganization of the workers at Bethlehem Steel. This tradition continues today, with faculty across disciplines thinking about issues of labor. Fiction gives us the opportunity to think vividly and imaginatively about the experiences, anxieties, aspirations, loyalties, fears, and dreams of workers over the decades. This is especially exciting at the present moment, with historic support for unions across the United States, and with the phenomenal push for labor organizing that we are experiencing.”

Many works of labor fiction were inspired by true events and serve as fictional accounts of strikes, including the 1937 Memorial Day killing of ten steelworkers in Chicago as told in Meyer Levin’s Citizens (1940). 

Special Collections gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Deborah Walters, class of 2023, and Lorne Bair Rare Books in the preparation of this exhibit. This exhibit begins in the Grand Reading Room and continues in the Cafe Gallery and Bayer Galleria, with an additional display in E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library, 5th floor through June 30. Please contact or call 610-758-4506.

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