“I had read many radical books of late,” says the narrator of “The Harbor,” “and I had found most of them dry affairs.” Tendentious, too, he might have added, especially the novels among them. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Frank Norris’s “The Octopus” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” are still readable and powerful enough to move the reader, but most other examples of American protest fiction must be soldiered through. To the small company of exceptions should be added “The Harbor” itself, by Ernest Poole, which Penguin Classics has rescued from oblivion.
The revival is all the more overdue because “The Harbor” has suffered from a kind of dual neglect. When it came out in 1915, it was a critical and popular success, but the Pulitzer Prize for fiction didn’t exist yet. That became significant three years later, when Poole’s next novel, “His Family,” won the first Pulitzer awarded for fiction. The consensus is that it’s the lesser of the two works, that the Pulitzer committee was really honoring Poole for “The Harbor.”
The narrator is Billy, who grows up infatuated with New York Harbor, as well he might. Not only does the harbor provide his family with a comfortable living — his father owns a warehouse through which passes a myriad of imports from overseas — but their house overlooks the Brooklyn waterfront. Yet the harbor is changing beneath their eyes, the gracefulness of clipper ships under sail giving way to the grime and noise of modern steamers.
After graduating from college, Billy goes into journalism. His intimate knowledge of the harbor feeds him topics. Among his new acquaintances is Mr. Dillon, a managerial visionary who dreams of organizing the welter of shipping firms, docks and connecting rail lines into a single rational system, a unified New York Harbor serving “a vast fleet of Yankee ships that should drive the surplus output of our teeming industries into all markets of the world.” Dillon and Billy worship “a new god, and its name was Efficiency.”
But Joe Kramer, an old college classmate, keeps forcing Billy to look at a different aspect of the harbor: its hellishness. In a harrowing passage that is said to have inspired Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Hairy Ape,” Joe takes Billy on a tour of the sooty, foul-aired lower depths of a ship in which brutish men stoke the engine with coal. When Joe, whose god is something more like Decency, informs Billy that long shifts and woefully unsafe conditions contribute to the deaths and injuries of 6,000 workingmen at the harbor each year, Billy begins to question his loyalties. Luckily, the broad-minded woman he is married to — Dillon’s daughter, no less — is willing to do the same.
Poole writes exuberant prose, with frequent recourse to the kind of catalogues favored by Walt Whitman: “I followed this raw produce of Mother Earth’s four corners back into those factory buildings ashore. I saw it made into chewing-gum, toys, sofas, glue, curled hair and wall-paper. I saw it made into ladies’ hats, corks, carpets, dynamos, stuffed dates ” and so on. If occasionally Joe — and even Billy — mounts a soapbox to speechify, these lapses are outweighed by such dramatic episodes as the family struggle over whether Billy’s sister should marry Joe, who can bring almost nothing to the match but his idealism. “The Harbor” is also valuable for its snapshot of a little-known period in American urban history, when labor agitators were making headway, a trend that did not survive the federal crackdown on left-wing organizations during and after World War I.
Poole wrote several more novels before his death in 1950, at the age of 69, but none came close to the quality or sales of his two early successes. He may be destined to survive as a one-book man, but at least, with this reissue, we now have the right book.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
By Ernest Poole
Penguin Classics. 335 pp. Paperback, $16