Lehigh Libraries’ Special Collections, is pleased to announce the new spring exhibit, “Manufacturing a Narrative about Work: Labor Fiction Inspired by the Industrial Age.” Fictional accounts of the labors of men, women, and children proliferated at the end of the American Industrial Age. A subset of the Social Fiction genre, these novels tell the stories of textile workers, bakers, miners, steelworkers, and others who were involved in historical labor movements.

“Work conditions keep rapidly changing around us. The relationship of us to work as individuals and a society is under constant reexamination and redefinition, especially now, when artificial intelligence and concerns around wellness and mental health drive significant changes in ways we work, feel, and identify with it, in this post COVID-19 era,” said Boaz Nadav-Manes, University Librarian.

“This exhibit serves as a reminder that the societal and individual debates around work and its impact on our lives go far back to times when work conditions locally, nationally, and internationally were much different and reflects the ways by which authors and readers framed meaning and led significant social changes in response to their often harsh work realities,” he said.

Several of the works on display in this exhibit are of regional interest, including a scarce title, privately published in neighboring Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, by E. H. Leftwich, an aircraft worker. Final Assembly (1944) chronicles the daily lives of workers at a WW2 aircraft plant who were likely living in the Lehigh Valley. There are also fictional accounts of work in the Pennsylvania oil fields, including Francis Newton Thorpe’s 1905 novel The Divining Rod: A Story of the Oil Regions.

As professor Mary Nicholas, Modern Languages and Literatures, observed, “The rich history of labor in the Lehigh Valley still has many stories that should be better known. Luckily, we have compelling material to tell some of those tales right here in Special Collections! Classics censored in their time still have important lessons for the twenty-first century workplace. Students in my first-year seminar on Global Work will use this spring exhibit as a resource for their group projects on work around the world. It is both sobering and inspirational to see what progress has been made in labor relations as we gauge how much further we still need to go.”

While the majority of texts included in this exhibit are relatively obscure, among the more recognizable examples are works by John Steinbeck and Jack London, both of whom included detailed descriptions of fictional labor.

Professor of anthropology Allison Mickel noted: “Bethlehem, and Lehigh, have been key sites for studying and understanding labor for more than 100 years--just think of Frederick Taylor's controversial study and reorganization of the workers at Bethlehem Steel. This tradition continues today, with faculty across disciplines (from Economics to Sociology to Management to English) thinking about issues of labor. Fiction gives us the opportunity to think vividly and imaginatively about the experiences, anxieties, aspirations, loyalties, fears, and dreams of workers over the decades. This is especially exciting at the present moment, with historic support for unions across the United States, and with the phenomenal push for labor organizing that we are experiencing.”

Many works of labor fiction were inspired by true events or life experiences, such as the work of weavers and bakers, while others serve as fictional accounts of strikes and other labor movements, including the 1937 Memorial Day killing of ten steelworkers in Chicago as told in Meyer Levin’s Citizens (1940).

Special Collections gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Deborah Walters, class of 2023, and Lorne Bair Rare Books in the preparation of this exhibit. This exhibit of fictional accounts of labor in many forms begins in the Linderman Grand Reading Room and continues in the Cafe Gallery and Bayer Galleria. Examples from the collections will also be on display in E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library, 5th floor. Please see the libraries’ website for information regarding hours and access policies.

The exhibit will be on display from January 23 through June 30, 2023 during regular building hours. Please stay tuned for details about an upcoming Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries program on social fiction this spring. For more information, please contact Lehigh University Libraries, Special Collections at inspc@lehigh.edu or call 610-758-4506.