Friday, June 7, 2013

Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland was born in Lansing, Mich., in 1967. Like so many Michiganders of his generation, he now lives in Chicago. His books include The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes, winner of the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award in General Nonfiction, and Horseplayers: Life at the Track.

McClelland's new book is Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
When I was writing Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, one of my goals was to show readers what an industrial city looked, sounded and smelled like. I went to high school across the street from a Fisher Body auto plant in Lansing, Mich. Every time I ran on the track, I inhaled paint fumes. Night shift workers watched our football games from balconies across Michigan Avenue. Double-decker auto carriers ferried bodies to the assembly plant on the Grand River, which glowed with a rainbow sheen.

I read over a hundred books in my research, but only four of them captured the industrial life I’d witnessed growing up:

Rivethead, by Ben Hamper: Hamper spent 11 years riveting bumpers onto Chevy Suburbans at GM Truck and Bus in Flint. During a layoff, he submitted a music review to the Michigan Voice, an alternative newspaper edited by Michael Moore. Moore convinced him to write a column about the shop (as Michiganders call auto plants). As a high school student, I read the Voice avidly. Hamper’s hilarious tales of working on the line with Hogjaw and the Polish Sex God, and drinking Bud in Mark’s Lounge after the shift, made him one of my journalistic idols.

Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town, by William Serrin: No place in America has more history per square mile than Homestead, Pa. -- home of Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Works, site of the violent 1892 Homestead steel strike, birthplace of the Negro League’s Homestead Grays. Serrin, a labor reporter for The New York Times, captured Homestead’s arc -- which was also the Rust Belt’s arc -- from its heyday of pouring steel for the U.S. Navy and the Apollo program to its bankrupt desperation after the Works closed in the 1980s.

Blue Collar Community, by William Kornblum: Kornblum was a University of Chicago sociology student who found his subject a few miles southeast of Hyde Park, in South Chicago, where U.S. Steel South Works was located. As Hyde Park is an academic colony, South Chicago was an industrial village, its rhythms defined by the round-the-clock work of the mill. To understand the community, Kornblum took a job as a steel inspector. He captured the tavern life, the churches, the ethnic loyalties and the politics of blue-collar Americans in the 1970s, the last decade when they were still middle class.

Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community, by David Bensman and Roberta Lynch: Rusted Dreams picks up South Chicago’s story in the decade after, when Wisconsin Steel and U.S. Steel -- which had employed tens of thousands of workers between them -- both shut down. The book put a human face on the steel crisis, capturing the stress and worthlessness felt by suddenly unemployed men who had worked since they were teenagers: “I feel like I’ve been robbed -- robbed of twenty-five, twenty-six years of my life really,” says an ex-Wisconsin Steel worker who lost his house and car and moved in with one of his children.
Visit Edward McClelland's website.

The Page 99 Test: Horseplayers: Life at the Track.

Writers Read: Ted McClelland (October 2007).

--Marshal Zeringue