At the turn of the 19th century, several Slovak and other East European immigrant groups fled their native homelands in Europe to begin a new life in America. “Out of this Furnace” by Thomas Bell, set against the backdrop of the thriving steel mills of Pennsylvania, documents the great social upheavals experienced by one such Slovak family – the Dobrejcaks, across three generations.
Throughout the book’s narrative, the protagonists undergo extreme hardships in eking out a minimal existence in the newly-evolving industrial society shaping up in Pennsylvania and other North-Eastern states. It was not until the 1930’s and the third generation of Dobrejcaks, that they acquired enough grit and determination to fight for justice, and their civil rights.
In this thesis, it will be argued that only by organizing successful trade unions against greedy capitalist steel mill owners, did these immigrant groups truly succeed in their efforts to assimilate into the American way of life. The trials and tribulations experienced by the countless workers at those labor unions, and their families has set the stage for successive immigrant assimilation stories over the decades.
The plot begins with the narrative of Djuro Kracha, a newly-arrived immigrant from Austria Hungary (corresponding to present day Slovakia) who walks all the way from New York to White Haven (after splurging all his train fare money on buying whiskey for a married woman called Zuska whom he fancies). Like other immigrants, Kracha is looking for good fortune and wealth in his adopted homeland. His dreams are clearly evident as:
“Kracha’s story of his walk from New York was a nine days’ wonder. The first time he told it he had Francka watching him, listening to every word, and he was shrewd enough to keep it simple. When he came out of Castle Garden his money was in his pocket; when he reached the ferry house and wanted to pay for his ticket it was gone. Kracha spread his hands. There it was. He had given the problem a lot of thinking without getting anywhere, his manner implied, and now he was prepared to hear their speculations,” (Part 1, Chapter 3, 11).
Kracha soon befriends another Slovak immigrant, Dubik who helps him get over his initial troubles to settle down, and find a job in the burgeoning steel mills of Braddock, Pennyslvania. Dubik finds employment with Andrew Carnegie steel mills. This is where the first generation story about immigrant anguishes commences.
“There are men in that mill who were born here, whose fathers and grandfathers were born here. They know more English than you’ll ever learn. And what good is their vote doing them? They have to work in the mill and eat dirt like any greenhorn. Let me tell you, I’ve been in America enough to know that it’s run just like any other country.
In Europe your emperors and grand dukes own everything and over here it’s your millionaires and your trusts. They run the country to suit themselves, and don’t think they’re going to let you interfere every few years with your miserable vote. Get that into your head. Your vote means nothing. The company man always wins. If he isn’t a company man to start with, he becomes one afterward; the millionaires see to that.” (Part 1, Chapter 4, 3)
In contrast to Dubik’s constant struggles, Kracha sees some initial success in his adopted homeland and goes on to operate his own butcher shop which helps him earn over a thousand dollars per year. However, as success goes over his head, he again befriends Zuska and continues to lust after her. The immense success and material wealth makes him ignore his responsibilities towards his only wife, Elena who he brought back from Slovakia, but no longer cared for.
“Her poor health, or America, had changed her; Kracha never could decide. He had left her a lively, healthy girl, cheerful as the day was long; now she seldom smiled and went about her.” (Part 1, Chapter 6, 12).
The fact that Elena had developed a goiter-like condition upon arrival in America contributed to the growing alienation between the couple. Rumors of Kracha’s purported affair with Zuska saw several of his customers withdraw their patronage from his shop.
Over a period of time, he becomes terribly depressed with the turn-out of events and drinks himself to death. Zuska, who rose into prominence in Kracha’s life, soon disappears from the scene and it is evident that for the first generation of this fictionalized Slovak immigrant group, their life story is steeped in a constant predicament of failure and frustration.
For the second generation of this immigrant family, the story focuses on Mike Dobrejcak, who marries Mary, the daughter of Krasa and Elena. Unlike his father-in-law, Mike remains faithful to his wife and is shown much more assimilated into American society.
He speaks English fluently, registers as a Republican and fights for political freedom and voting rights on behalf of worker unions who produced the steel that created the Brooklyn bridge, but were usually discouraged from exercising their franchise. In this context, the reader is introduced to the growing discontent experienced by the immigrant class of workers against their employers.
The increasing economic disparity and lack of social progress for immigrants was already boiling into a major issue. When the Spanish Influenza struck in 1918, many people in the immigrant slums including Mary Dobrejcak started succumbing to this illness, got removed to a sanatorium and saw their entire lives being ruined, without the greedy steel mill employers caring one bit for their health and livelihoods.
In the last part of the story, George Dobrejcak, the son of Mary, joins an immigrant labor union to agitate for the common rights of all immigrant workers of East European background.
Being a third-generation American, George has enough voice to harshly denounce the ill treatment experienced by his fellow workers at the hands of greedy capitalists. He soon recruits several other labor unionists from his background and eventually, becomes the assistant director of his labor union. George’s feelings on the rising labor union sentiment are expressed as under:
“It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law — the same law — for rich and poor, for the people you liked and the people you didn’t like. About the right of every man to live his life as he thought best, his right to defend it if anyone tried to change it and his right to change it himself if he decided he liked some other way of living better.
About the uses to which wealth and power could honorably be put, and about honor itself, honor, integrity, self-respect, the whatever-you-wanted-to-call-it that determined for a man which things he couldn’t say or do under any circumstances, not for all the money there was, not even to help his side win.” (Part 4, Chapter 3, 20).
In conclusion, it may well be argued that over a period of three generations, the Dobrejcaks managed to successfully assimilate into American society only after they had acquired enough resolve to fight for their social justice, voting and civil rights.
The fictionalized account of their success matters a lot because it can serve as an inspirational tale for hundreds of thousands of newly-arrived immigrants, who currently find themselves at the bottom of the barrel in a “land of opportunity”, while carrying on with aspirations for social progress and upward mobility. Successful assimilation is all about learning to fight for one’s rights.
Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburg, PA, 1976.