• U.S.

Man v. Conveyer Belt

3 minute read

F. O. B. DETROIT—Wessel Smitter— Harper ($2.50).

In the 63-year period from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, writers have thrown tons of literary monkey wrenches into capitalism’s mass-production machinery—with about the same effect as a man kicking the sideboard he stubbed his toe on. Machine-hating writers still evoke sympathetic response, but another school has lately gained ground.

They see the fight between men and machines as the central drama of our time, but they think the solution lies in controlling machines, not hating them. The great industrial novel, they contend, will be written when men cease dreaming of such sentimentalities as a return to handicraft, a moratorium on inventions. Such a novel, they prophesy, will find its ideal subject in the automobile industry.

F. O. B. Detroit is one of the best novels that has been written on an automobile factory, but it gives small comfort to the latter school of thought. The story of an ex-lumberjack who hates the conveyer belt and dreams of going into the clam-digging business, it is the work of a University of Michigan graduate, now 44, who received “a sort of scholarship” in a large Detroit factory (presumably Ford’s), fled to Southern California “to get away from the roar and thunder of the automatics in the factory and the climbing production figures on the big chart in the office.”

Author Smitter tells a story strongly reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Says Big Russ, trying to entice his little pal Bennie (the narrator) to the woods and clam beds: “There’d be the smell of new clover hay and cornflowers in the air and by’n’by the fire would get low and go out and you’d see the fireflies . . . and way off somewhere —t’hell ‘n’ gone over the river—you’d hear a cowbell.”

Few dreams have taken a worse beating than Russ’s. He is always in bad, for fighting the pace of the assembly line (though earlier, running a crane, he complained his helpers were too slow); he marries a taxi-dancer who hates his rhapsodizing about clams as much as he hates conveyer belts; unemployment and a baby eat up his savings; his nerves go to pieces; his obsequious pal Bennie turns against him (why he tolerates Bennie, the human equivalent of a conveyer belt, is a puzzle); and an accident finally puts down his revolt for good.

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