The 100th anniversary of the Ludlow massacre

(Courtesy of Red Hen Press)
(Courtesy of Red Hen Press)

This Sunday marks a grim 100th anniversary: On April 20, 1914, thugs working for Colorado Fuel & Iron and the Colorado National Guard attacked striking coal miners at Ludlow. Two dozen people were killed.

I learned about this historic outrage a few years ago in an unusual way: by reading a verse novel called “Ludlow,” by David Mason. It’s made up of more than 600 eight-line stanzas of nonrhyming iambic pentameter — hardly the way most of us discover the past nowadays.

But as the 100th anniversary of this massacre approaches, Mason’s unusual book is still finding readers. He says, “People keep telling me, ‘I didn’t know. They didn’t teach us about Ludlow in school.’ My novel, along with several nonfiction books by others, has encouraged some Coloradans to rethink our place in the national story. The governor has appointed a commission to commemorate Ludlow.”

Some readers have reacted to his verse novel in even more personal ways, recalling their relatives’ involvement as perpetrators or victims of the attack. And Mason says, “Many people — especially recent immigrants — have approached me after readings, saying, ‘This book is me.’ ‘Ludlow’ memorializes the individual soul caught up in violent history. It remembers the vulnerable. It counters the amnesiac culture of America.”

While some of the characters in the book are fictional creations, Mason includes historical figures such as Mother Jones and John Rockefeller, epic personalities for a modern-day “Beowulf.”

As union membership continues to decline in this country and long-term unemployment remains high, “Ludlow” is a harrowing reminder of a time when ordinary workers had no rights at all. “It was written partly in anger at corporate ownership of our politics,” Mason says, “the way America devours individual lives and spits them out, and the pathology of violence in our society. If more people knew the story of Ludlow and related events, perhaps they could see how a struggle for individual legitimacy and life has been with us from the start.”

But Mason doesn’t think of his book as “propaganda for unions or a diatribe against corporations. It’s a book about storytelling, the union of memory and imagination, the manufacture of meaning.”

In one of the book’s stanzas, he describes what happened at Ludlow as a “footnote nearly lost/ from the pages of the history books.” Sunday’s 100th anniversary is another good opportunity to keep that memory alive.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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