Friday, March 25, 2011

Haunted by History

March 25 - Today's post provided by Esther Friesner

     There seems to be a big split among those who have an ongoing interest in history.  (You could argue that we all have a vested interest in it, since history is where we keep all our stuff, but I’m talking about the people who take an independent, self-motivated interest, one that is not forced on them by school coursework.)  I’d like to call this the Great Historical Novel Attitude Schism.  It sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  And it would sound even more impressive if I knew how to pronounce “Schism.”

     The GHNAS manifests itself simply:  On one side are those people who enjoy learning about history any way they can—textbooks, popular nonfiction, movies, television, even graphic novels (Larry Gonick’s peerless The Cartoon History of the Universe series is my personal favorite).

     On the other side of the rift are those who want to keep history solidly in the camp of nonfiction.  Television and movies are acceptable media when they’re offering documentaries.  “Titanic:  Tragedy at Sea,” YES.  “Titanic:  Leonardo DiCaprio Drowns Nobly,” NO.

     These are often the people who point out that fictionalizing history can trivialize it.  Specifically, they argue that it can trivialize tragedies.

     I beg to differ.  Loudly.  And not just because I write historical novels.  My personal involvement with two of the major tragedies of our time—the Holocaust and 9/11—is deep and undeniable.  It’s a part of who I am, where I come from, and why I write.  Although I accept that some historical novels are pure entertainment, those that I find most satisfying as both author and reader are the ones that don’t trivialize tragedy but memorialize it.  

     Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, described as the worst workplace disaster to hit the city until the events of September 11, 2001.  There are many facts about the Triangle fire, facts which will be cited repeatedly as the tragedy is remembered.  Numbers play a key role:  How many of the workers died in the flames, in the collapse of the one fire escape available, by plunging into the shaft when the elevators finally broke down, by leaping to a quick death from the windows rather than by waiting for an agonizing one in the fire; how many minutes passed until the fire department arrived on the scene and how many until the blaze was put out; how many people attended the public funeral for the fire victims; how many of those who perished remained unidentified for nearly a century.

     I’ve always had a problem with numbers.  Perhaps it’s because too many of my relatives had their humanity reduced to tattooed numbers before Nazis murdered them.  Can you murder numbers?  Numbers don’t require compassion.  Numbers are easy to erase.  Numbers have no faces, lives, loves, or dreams.  Numbers make it all so. . .tidy.

     Tidy:  Like sweeping things under a rug.

     The day-to-day existence of the women and men who lost their lives in the Triangle fire was not neat and tidy.  Many of them were immigrants and were sending money home to the families they’d left behind.  Many of them were very young, in their teens and twenties, with the two youngest girls just 14 years old.  Their wages were low to begin with, and their take-home pay shrank even more under a system that fined them for something as trivial as a broken sewing-machine needle.  Their work was seasonal, and their income could be reduced to nothing if they were among those laid off during the “slow” season. They had to line up single file at quitting time at the only unlocked exit door and submit to being searched, to make sure they weren’t stealing.  They had to ascend to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, where the Triangle factory was located, in the freight elevators.  They weren’t permitted to use the passenger elevators.

     When the fire broke out, many of them died, enough to make people pay attention to the forces behind such a tragedy.  An oft-repeated phrase you’ll hear connected with the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is, “Their deaths were not in vain.”  The wording may vary, but the meaning stands:  The aftermath of the fire brought reform to the abuses that had made the fire itself so devastating.

     I don’t want to argue this; I can’t.  What I would like to do is point out that keeping our eyes fixed on the deaths of these human beings keeps us from remembering their lives.  It makes it seem as though the only means of influence they had was to die, that they were important only for being victims.

     They were more than that. 

     I chose to write a novel about the Triangle fire from the point of view of a Jewish immigrant girl because that’s who so many of the real world casualties were.  I’m sure that these girls were told repeatedly that they shouldn’t complain about their working conditions because they were lucky to have a job.  I’ll raise that bet to include their being told that if they didn’t appreciate what they had, there were plenty of other girls out there looking for work who would be more than happy to take over.

     No doubt they were told, one way or the other, to remember their “proper place”.

Clara Lemlich
     And yet, these were the women who decided that enough was enough.  In the autumn of 1909 saw the Uprising of the 20,000, a garment workers’ strike.  It lasted until February, 1910.  One of the voices that galvanized hesitant workers into crying out better pay, shorter hours, and fairer treatment was Clara Lemlich.  A strong supporter of unions, she had been assaulted and severely beaten by hired thugs some months earlier for speaking out.  This small nineteen-year-old girl suffered many serious injuries, including broken ribs, at the hands of the three grown men hired for the job.  It wasn’t enough to crush her spirit.  She called for a strike and was heard.

            Other women refused to remember their “proper place,” or perhaps they decided that they were the only ones qualified to define it.  15,000 walked off the job the next day at many factories.  The most fiercely anti-union factory owners saw nothing wrong in forming a union of their own, to show a solid front against the striking workers, and to use strike-breaking tactics that included more physical assaults by hired strongmen and prostitutes, and by using their political influence to turn the police and the judiciary system into their tools.  Strikers were arrested, fined, imprisoned, and in one case a judge decreed, “You are on strike against God!”

            The strike wasn’t just the province of the poor.  Many rich women of New York’s upper crust supported them.  These women were in the main suffragists, working to get all women the right to vote.  They ran rallies and fund-raisers for the shirtwaist-makers’ cause and used their own ample funds paying fines for the strikers who were arrested.
Strikers from 1909 Uprising of the 20,000

            The strike was settled in February of 1910 with some gains for the strikers, but not enough.  Although the striking workers from Triangle were hired back, they were still denied the right to unionize, to have all workplace doors remain unlocked, and to have fire escapes that worked.  (The sole fire escape available was located in an airshaft, which is pretty much like having your only means of escaping a fire on the floors beneath you be located in the chimney that’s drawing the flames upward.)

            A little over a year later, Triangle burned.

Some of the last of the fire's victims to be identified (HBO)
            I know many people who don’t like learning history in the classroom because it’s often presented as data without the human context.  There is a significant difference between saying “1.7 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1979” and hearing the story of just one of those deaths from the point of view of someone for whom the victim was not one in 1.7 million but someone precious, beloved, irreplaceable. 

     We can’t hear all the stories about that one precious life lost.  We are either too far removed from them in space and in time.  It would be so much easier if we could forget about them altogether, but these stories themselves make it impossible for us to do so, if only we can hear them.  They give dry facts human faces, and we remember human faces.

     As we should.  In the years before the Civil War, people living comfortable lives in the northern states didn’t have to make an effort to remain unaware of the abuses of slavery.  There were newspapers, but no modern media saturation forcing them to confront a subject that might trouble their thoughts. It was easy for any consideration they might give it to be one of benign neglect, along the lines of:  “Yes, I know, isn’t slavery dreadful.  Someone should do something it.  I don’t own slaves and I donated a dollar to the impressive Mr. Frederick Douglass, so I’ve done my part.  Now, what’s for supper?”

     Then came Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and slavery had a face and a heart and a presence that called for justice. 

     It was a historical novel, even if the history behind it was contemporary, and it was written by a woman.  No matter modern opinions concerning this book, it’s undeniable that it was a significant force in stimulating popular sentiment that eventually led to the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.  It carried both the message This must stop and—more important still—This must never happen again.

     And we remember it even now.

     I wouldn’t call that trivial.


© Esther M. Friesner, 2011

Editor's Note:
Esther Friesner's most recent novel is Threads and Flames (Viking 2010).  
Cornell University offers many resources related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
See also:  The Jewish Daily Forward:  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire--A Century Later, a special section that includes translations of articles in the Yiddish daily newspaper Forverts in the days and weeks immediately after the fire.  


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this on the anniversary of the Trinagle Shirtwaist Company fire. To ensure that terrible, preventable tragedies never happen again, we must first ensure that we never forget those that did happen. Your book and others that we've shared this month are so important. Historical fiction is most certainly a valid and moving way to keep history alive - especially for young readers. Thank you for your post today.

  2. What a moving post--thank you. May we keep alert to the same events happening today ~

  3. Yesterday, surrounded by the fire department, relatives of the people who died in this terrible fire, read their names out in from of the Flatiron building, as they do every year. If nothing points to the need for unions, this fire does.
    Historical fiction has always inspired me to find out more about any unfamiliar events upon which the story is based.
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  4. Thanks for this great post and helping people remember. Looking forward to reading Threads and Flames

  5. I love historical fiction and I think it can be a really good way to keep awareness of important historical events - tragic or othrwise - alive. I think all of the areas of history I'm interested in, I was introduced to through fiction, because it's fiction that draws me in and makes me care about a place, time and people. As a professional historian, I have to add one caveat - historical fiction is great as long as no one mistakes it for history and thinks everything in it is true! But I think most people know that (though I'm still scarred by the woman I overheard in the pub declaring that The Da Vinci Code was based on 'real historical fact'...)

  6. >>They give dry facts human faces, and we remember human faces.<<
    This is one of the reasons why I love historical novels. Thanks for the terrific post!