Phillip Bonosky's Burning Valley

— Laura Hapke

Burning Valley
by Phillip Bonosky, with an introduction by Alan Wald
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) $16.95 paper
(a volume in The Radical Novel Reconsidered series edited by Alan Wald).

IN AN INTRODUCTION to the reissued Burning Valley, Alan Wald observes: “The existence in the early 1950s of working-class novels advocating social revolution in the United States is often missed because it is unexpected.” (vii)

In that time, when the publishing house of Little, Brown, and Company reneged on its commitment to his semi-autobiographical Burning Valley, the worker-writer Phillip Bonosky, himself the son of a steelworker and an avowed Marxist who had worked at (until blacklisted from) the Duquesne Carnegie-Illinois Steel Mill in the 1940s, remained one of the most gifted refusniks of the McCarthy era.

From his teaching writers’ workshops in the late 1940s to his co-editing Masses & Mainstream to his present rediscovery by the academic left, his literary mistreatment in the Cold War years serves as another in a seemingly endless series of indictments of HUAC’s treatment of radical artists. Bonosky had to ask for contributions even to have the novel published in 1953 by the Communist-sponsored cultural journal Masses & Mainstream.

Burning Valley received reviews in left-wing journals, while Bonosky lived with the knowledge that HUAC was compiling a dossier on him, the FBI was hounding his son, and he himself was navigating appearances to testify before HUAC between losing jobs and contracts. When asked in a recent interview to recall “What, in sum, was it like to be a Marxist in the HUAC years?” Bonosky replied: “You were living in this reality ... The rawness of the struggle was debilitating. You were in the midst of a trauma.”(1)

Yet this eloquent social-protest novel, set in the wake of Homestead and the failed 1919 steel strike, used that era to, in Alan Wald’s phrase, suggest ways for workers and their advocates to live in the Taft-Hartley 1940s and `50s.(2) In the year 2000, with the labor left beleaguered again and the striker replacement acts in full force, the novel is more resonant than ever.

Burning Valley is set in ethnic Homestead, the onetime Carnegie/Frick fiefdom and the site of 1892 and 1919 strikes brutally repressed by corporate and government power to break the back of the steel union. The narrative frame is the proletarian bildungsroman of Benedict Bulmanis, a young Lithuanian who serves as participant-observer in the political turmoil of that company town.

Throughout the novel, Benedict attempts to reconcile Christian teachings with the Social Darwinism of the mill that had maimed so many of his father’s coworkers, thrown his father out of work, treated Blacks as menials, and was now engaging in a corporate version of urban renewal by tearing down workers’ housing in the name of expansion.

The Law’s the Law

Bonosky balances the priestlike young man’s belief in universal justice with the arrogance of local law enforcement, personified by the Coal and Iron Police. As Benedict tries to block the seizure of a poor Black woman’s shack, he protests her disenfranchisement in the name of the local church:

“’I tend Mass there every Sunday ... Father Dahr knows Mother Burns, too. She’s an old lady. I’m teaching her the catechism. She hasn’t got nowhere to go, she’s an old lady!’

“The Sheriff put his hand on Benedict’s shoulder.

“’Son, This ain’t got nothing to do with religion. Everybody got a letter asking them to be out of the premises on such-and-such a time and on such-a-such a day ... The law’s the law – you got to get to learn that early, son. The Company owns this property, it can do anything it damned well wants with it. And if you don’t get the hell out of it in two seconds flat I’m going to arrest you for trespassing. You furstay English?’... And he gave Benedict a shove that shot him, like a bullet, to the door.” (118)

Other representative passages, such as this description of played-out men returning from their day’s labor, also in the best tradition of industrial realism, are literary inheritors of the visual sociology of Lewis Hine, who photographed Pittsburgh in the post-Homestead years. Challenging the claim that proletarian fiction lacks aesthetic values, Bonosky writes:

“When they arrived at the top of the wooden steps leading down Honey Bee Hill, they ... stopped to gaze over the Hollow. The hot-metal cars were still being dumped, and as they watched, the sky lit up with [a] nervous glow and a huge yellow ball slid out of the inverted car and began to roll down the hill. It leaped high into the air at one point and shattered into a million fragments, and then it rolled like fiery raindrops down to the bottom. The slag field was in shadow, and beyond, where the red ore fields began, only darkness gleamed, its shining black fur lit like a brooding cat’s by the fire. The Mill, sleepless, shuddered in the distance, and the iron bars, like gigantic trees, fell and shook the air. Workers were coming home, emerging darkly out of the City and clattering in their heavy work shoes down the steps.” (59)

In its juxtaposition of working-class authenticity and unworldliness and the power of the industrial state, the passage is reminiscent of classic displacement descriptions in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, in Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

But the novel is in many ways a modern blue-collar “eviction narrative.” Many of its scenes eerily anticipate the post-industrial present of plant closings (U.S. Steel closed its massive Pittsburgh plant in 1986); General Motors tossing workers out of housing on Christmas Eve; and the corporate rewards to shareholders of off-shore factories, downsizing and deindustrialization.

Bonosky offers therefore a people’s history, a public history in the survival strategies in a time when ruthless corporate policy meant union-busting, company “unions,” and the beginning of a paternalist welfare capitalism that is in place to this day.

Moreover, paralleling the situation today, the setting of the novel is not an economic depression. As the narrative continues, Benedict comes to realize that however divine is forgiveness, milltown justice itself is mandated by money.

Just as the disarray of the steel unions continued well past the thwarted strike of 1919, Benedict himself is left at novel’s end as yet uncommitted to revolutionary action. Drawn to the outcast, he is equally a friend of the militant Dobrik and of the aging priest Father Brumbaugh, and the road to a proletarian consciousness lies before him.

Aware of the McCarthyites’ attack on the labor left, Bonosky’s Burning Valley revises the militant novel of the 1930s, with its spirited decision to rise with one’s class, the reiterated phrase of Bonosky’s friend Jack Conroy in The Disinherited.

It is no mean feat to produce a workers’ art in the midst of a crackdown on labor. As Bonosky wrote about his own steelworker father, heroism under such circumstances “followed broad lines of necessity.”(3)

In a posthumously published memoir, the social-realist painter/lithographer Louis Lozowick could have been predicting Bonosky’s verbal art. Observed Lozowick of his own poetically detailed industrial workscapes: “I always believed, then and now, that [they] do necessarily represent capitalism [but] something that will ultimately be the property of the worker.”(4)

It remains the enduring power of Burning Valley that Bonosky never relinquished that vision.


  1. Excerpt from an interview by the author with Phillip Bonosky, Reference Center for Marxist Studies, New York City, June 22, 1998. Used by permission.
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  2. Bonosky himself drew the parallel in an homage to his father, “The Life and Death of a Steelworker,” Masses & Mainstream, April 1952, when he observed, The massacre at Homestead was still a live, if whispered story when my father came to work in Duquesne, a stone’s throw from here, at the turn of the century.” (15)
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  3. Bonosky, “Life and Death of a Steelworker,” 19.
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  4. Louis Lozowick, Survivor from a Dead Age: The Memoirs of Louis Lozowick, ed. Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 268.
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ATC 86, May-June 2000