I ran across a review
of The Harbor that said it was one of the few accessible novels of protest fiction, up there with the Grapes of Wrath. Tying it to my second favorite Steinbeck novel was a good reason for me to grab this book. [In Dubious Battle is my favorite Steinbeck work.] The Harbor is a long book, coming in at almost 400 pages on my Kindle, but it is worth the effort, and the flow is effortless.
The book chronicles the life of the narrator, Bill, who grew up in Brooklyn, overlooking the New York harbor. His curiosity, fear, love, admiration and hate of the harbor over his lifetime is the main anchor of the novel. His college friend, Joe Kramer, pops in and out of his life, acting almost as his conscience to remind him to look beyond the surface. A socialist message of workers uniting to own their destinies and profit from their own labor is a strong theme. I thought at times the book might be a bit preachy, although the author was preaching to the choir for me. But right after I thought that, I felt the story was good and I wasn't being beaten over the head with his thoughts. I found Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle" a better strike novel, with characters being more fully developed, but then again, Steinbeck wrote that in 1936, not 1915. Poole captures the mood of the workers, the poor and the environments they live and work in.
While reading The Harbor, you first have to get past the sexist point of view, which was par for the course when this book was published in 1915. The women characters aren't fully developed and are flighty and impuslive, or simply follow their men. The main character's wife is a little better, but her strength as a character is mostly from her adopting an assertive yet still traditional female role. After that, you have to get through some racist language about non-white dock workers. However, racist ideology is challenged by the characters themselves, who urge, and succeed, in aligning people by class rather than constructed ideas of race or ethnicity. So while the terms are used, the essence of racism among the working class is vocally called out as a dividing force and not worthy of the workers and their struggle for rights. Having said that, though, I must note that the workers who are on strike get past these racial barriers far too easily and quickly. It would have been the hope of the author that they would, but in reality, it seems like some would transcend the hate but others would need more time to process it.
When Bill talks about his friend Joe Kramer at one point, he says: "And when the term 'muckraker’ came into use, I remember his deep satisfaction. 'Now I know my name.'" (p. 63). When Joe talks about the workers in the harbor, he says that they're not looking for a leader or a vanguard. Bill asks “And you think you can build a new world with them?" to which Joe replies, "No– I think they can do it themselves.” (p. 245).
These workers are the ones who bear the brunt of war and peace, an important theme for the novel as it was written at the start of and during World War I. Joe says, "I know they do all the real work in the world. They’re the ones who get all the rotten deals, the ones who get shot down in wars and worked like dogs in time of peace.” (p. 291). Just as we question our leaders today, Joe questioned them back then: "Why is it that we are at war? What good is all this blood to us? Is it to make our toil any lighter, life any brighter in our homes–or are we sent out by our rulers to die only in order that they in their scramble might take more of the earth for themselves?” (p. 382)
Jim Marsh, the labor figure who comes to town to lead the harbor strike, has a great comment about the flaws of our media and the general population's attention focus. When speaking of a ship that sunk two miles out in the Atlantic, Marsh says that there was plenty of uproar about the women who died on the ship due to a lack of lifeboats. He goes on, “But we haven’t heard much of the cries for help of the thousands of men who go down every year in rotten old ships upon the seas! Nor have we heard of the millions more who are killed on land– on the railroads, in the mines and mills and stinking slums of cities.” (p. 325)
Just writing this review made me change my rating to five stars. I thought it would be a four star book, but it has great themes and it was a pleasure to read. I heartily recommend picking up this book.