The Heat: Steelworker Lives & Legends

The Heat is On
The Heat: Steelworker Lives & Legends, Cedar Hill Publications.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies — captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.”

That quote can be found at the front of “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller. Setting aside Emerson’s sexism, mysticism, and redundancy, I think he was onto something that Miller did not fully realize.

It’s not that I don’t think pathetic self-indulgence and cruelty can be real experience and true truth. But I think that Miller went on writing and writing after he’d made his experience quite clear and we might have benefited from hearing about someone else’s.

But how do you write someone else’s story without inventing it, and more likely than not using a traditional third-person narrative? Well, one way would be to help people put their extraordinary experiences onto paper, collect them, arrange them, and publish a book richer than one person can create alone.

This is what poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and the United Steelworkers of America have done in “The Heat.” The book collects about 30 short stories and a handful of poems, all written by steelworkers who participated in writing workshops with Baca.

Several of the stories are chillingly powerful. Some will make you cry. All are concisely and brilliantly written. Together they tell us of the lives of steelworkers inside and outside of the steel mills. We come to understand the prison-gate that slams on a young person reluctantly choosing to enter the mill. We appreciate the camaraderie and good humor of workers in a grueling and dangerous workplace. We come to understand the selfless heroism of some of these workers in their families and friendships, the traditions passed down through generations of steelworkers, the grappling with forces outside the workers’ control, and the tragic regret that can face workers at the end of a career.

Steelworkers are not glorified in this book, and the importance to them of their union is not touched on directly in most of the stories. The purpose of each story is not political but artistic. The result is a superb, entertaining, and optimistic collection. The Steelworkers union has helped dozens of its members develop into skilled communicators and shown us a view of their lives that we’ll never find in newspaper reporting.

I’d encourage every union to attempt the same.

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