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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February 24, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Celestials in North Adams

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
A reminder of a great historical novel, and a couple other thoughts about its contexts.
As part of last summer’s Beach Reads series, I highlighted Karen Shepard’s wonderful historical novel The Celestials (2013). Shepard’s novel fictionalizes the historical experiences of a group of Chinese immigrant workers who were brought in as strikebreakers to work in a shoe factory in the small valley town of North Adams, Massachusetts (which is, contra my series introduction above, close to the Berkshire Mountains, but is I would argue not generally included in the region called The Berkshires). I can’t recommend Shepard’s novel strongly enough, for all the reasons I traced in the post hyperlinked under “historical novel The Celestials.” Here I wanted to complement that post and the novel with two other AmericanStudies contexts, one likewise part of Massachusetts history and the other further afield but deeply resonant as well.
For one thing, I believe those arriving Chinese workers could be productively compared to the young women who had come to work the Lowell Mills about half a century earlier. The Chinese workers were all young men, and certainly that gender difference contributed to distinct attitudes toward and treatments of both communities; but in many other ways, the two groups were very similar: very young, many experiencing their first time away from home and first shifts into the world of work; immigrants, dealing with culture shock and linguistic differences along with that new stage of life and work (many of the Lowell workers were Irish immigrants, so not as much of a language gap but a contrast nonetheless); and outsiders immersed in a new world, not a longstanding part of that community but living, studying, and socializing as well as working within that world. Far too often, as I argued at length in my last book, we have treated Chinese immigrants as fundamentally different from (for example) Irish arrivals—but the parallels are at least as strong as the distinctions, and a comparison of the North Adams factory workers to the Lowell mill ones illustrates the point nicely.
When it comes to what differentiated the Chinese workers from their Lowell counterparts, I would especially emphasize not culture, nor even gender, but rather the Chinese arrivals’ status (one I’m quite sure, as Shepard likewise argues, they did not know when they arrived) as strikebreakers. That difference reflects in large part the very different histories and realities of labor and activism in the 1870s than had been the case half a century earlier. And if we want to understand how that status and those histories might have impacted the Chinese community’s experiences in North Adams, I would recommend another work of American historical fiction, this one a visual text: John Sayles’s film Matewan (1987). In one of its main plot threads, Sayles’s film depicts the arrival to its West Virginia mining community of groups of African American and Italian immigrant workers brought in as strikebreakers; like the Chinese arrivals, these new workers are both cultural outsiders and occupying that complex middle ground between labor and management, and they experience initial violence and hostility as a result. Yet over time, both new groups become part of the broader community of mine workers in Matewan, changing the identity and culture of that town as a result—an effect I’m quite sure the Celestials produced in North Adams as well.
Next history tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

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