Reviewed Rick Morton, One Hundred Years of Dirt, Melbourne University Press, 2018; Sarah Smarsh, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Scribner, 2018
Recently I chaired a session at the Adelaide Writers Centre, an event entitled ‘The Supremacy of Class’ at which Rick Morton and Sarah Smarsh discussed their books One Hundred Years of Dirt and Heartland.
Adelaide gives a good festival, with the outdoor setting adding a certain informality to proceedings, a nice antidote to bookish pomposity. A huge audience listened intently, both panellists spoke wittily and well, and the session proceeded as successfully as anyone might have hoped. And yet since then I’ve not been able to stop thinking about how oddly ‘class’ manifests in literary Australia.
In One Hundred Years of Dirt, Rick Morton writes about a childhood spent on the remnants of his family’s cattle empire. Originally the size of Belgium, it had been reduced by the time of his birth to something considerably less grand, with his parents trying to scratch out a living on a remote patch of soil ‘fourteen hours’ drive west of Brisbane, sixteen hours north-west of Sydney and the same distance by road north-east of Adelaide’.
The Morton patriarch, George, exercised a brutal tyranny over his children, beating and belittling them and, at one stage, forcing his son Rodney (Rick’s father) to sleep rough in the creek for weeks on end. As a father, Rodney struggled to accept a sensitive and introverted son. Then, after an affair with a teenage governess, he walked out on the family, leaving Rick to be raised primarily by his mother. Rick’s brother Toby descended into ice addiction; Rick moved to the city and the almost impossibly different world of journalism.
Morton writes beautifully about the long-term consequences of violence and impoverishment, the way misery deepens like a coastal shelf. ‘Ours is a trauma passed from one generation to another,’ he says, ‘family heirlooms that are bequeathed by the living.’ Morton’s narrative parallels the story told by Sarah Smarsh in her book Heartland. Smarsh, too, descends from multiple generations of farmers, albeit in rural Kansas rather than Queensland.
Like Morton, she documents a mismatched relationship between her parents. Her mother, trapped by pregnancy when only a teen, was often brutally cold to her own daughter (‘Stop breathing,’ she hisses, as the infant Sarah lies next to her in bed); her father lacked a socially acceptable outlet for his gentleness (‘writing poems and brushing your daughter’s hair isn’t something men brag about where we’re from’) and struggled to make sense of the blows (workplace injuries, gambling addiction, and so on) that life dealt him.
Smarsh chronicles the grinding physicality of rural poverty, a deprivation written on the flesh of the men and women around her farm house near Wichita—the leathery skin, the missing fingers, the permanent aches and pains of overworked bodies. ‘A society that considers your body dispensable’, she explains, ‘will inflict a violence upon you.’
She, too, transitioned from the country into the intelligentsia. But in the American university system, among students acutely sensitive to race and gender, she struggled to find a place, since ‘there was no language for whatever I represented on campus’.
And that, of course, extends to literary events, where working-class people invariably manifest as an exoticism, the manifestation of an entirely different world. The culture warriors sneer at writers festivals as affectations of the luvvies. Books and discussions of books enthral, they say, the inner-city latte set and leave working-class people cold. We all know that’s not completely false.
During the First World War, the poet Lesbia Harford left Melbourne University Law School to work in a textile factory. She wrote of how, to her literary friends, workers were ‘the invisible people of the days’—and then added the bitter line, ‘they toil to make life meaningless for you’.
Nearly a century later, when Elisabeth Wynhausen published Dirt Cheap—an account of her journalistic sojourn in casual and unskilled work—she used the same word. ‘In my experience as a low-wage worker,’ she said, ‘the jobs all had one thing in common: I no sooner took them on than I, like my fellow employees, seemed to be rendered invisible.’ Obviously, there’s an element of that blindness in the response to class in the literary milieu. But that’s not the only issue.
Decades ago I lived for six months or so in the Philippines. During that time, I joined one of the huge demonstrations marking the closure of the US base in Subic Bay. Among the million or so people in the street marched a large contingent from the Kilusang Mayo Uno (the leftwing union federation). Many of the KMU members wore T-shirts reading ‘I am proud to belong to the working class—the class to whom the future belongs’.
As well as an obvious socialist aspiration, the shirts described the reality in a developing nation where, every day, men and women left their villages to become urban wage labourers. Everywhere, peasants were becoming workers, making the working class, quite literally, the class of the future. The same transition had happened centuries earlier in the developed world, and the memory of that shift means that Europeans still associate the term ‘working class’ with the metropolis (as opposed to the peasantry of the countryside).
But colonial settler states such as Australia passed through a different history. After dispossessing the Indigenous occupants, the British used the land to establish capitalist agriculture rather than feudal estates. As a result, throughout the nineteenth century, many key working-class occupations were centred in the bush—think of how the Labor Party emerged, in part, from the mass strike of shearers in 1891.
That history continues to shape Australian attitudes both to the working class and to the bush, which are invariably presented as synonymous in a way that makes little sense elsewhere. Almost by definition, the majority of working-class people—people who sell their labour power for a wage—live in the cities, simply because that’s where the employers are.
Yet whenever the media discusses ‘class’, it uses the term to describe rural life—even though many of the professions we typically associate with the country are not, in strict terms, working class at all. Most obviously, as Smarsh notes, operating a farm means running a small business. ‘No one in my close family belonged to a union,’ she says, ‘most of the men being self-employed as farmers or tradesmen, and most of the women doing work that was poorly unionized.’
Both Morton and Smarsh describe appalling destitution. But ‘class’, as a meaningful term, can’t simply be reduced to income or lack of it—at least, not in any straightforward way. The deprivation that both books chronicle so well can be attributed, in part, to economic shifts that destroyed older occupations and intensified the shift of working class in the cities and regional centres. In the United States, for instance, in 1790, 90 per cent of the population worked (including as slaves) on farms. By 1910 that figure had fallen to 35 per cent—and today’s it’s less than 1.5 per cent.
Why does this matter? Poverty is poverty, and the stories of the rural poor deserve to be heard, no matter the terms we use to describe them. But the persistent association between a working-class identity and the countryside inflects the discussion with nostalgia, facilitating a presentation of working-class people as a peculiar hangover from the past. It weakens the potential for solidarity, so that an identification of common interests gives way to a voyeuristic curiosity. Smarsh reports how, when they learned about her childhood, her college friends said, ‘I haven’t heard of anything like that since The Grapes of Wrath.’
You wouldn’t know from contemporary literary culture that the great bulk of the population belongs to the working class (some 80 per cent of Australians work for a wage), nor that literary production is itself becoming proletarianised. Many journalists, for instance, now endure industrial conditions (short-term contracts, casualisation, an absence of overtime) that building workers would rightly reject as unfair. The wages paid to the largely female workforce of the publishing industry remain an open scandal, something that makes the recent decision of employees at Penguin to unionise so important.
We need books like A Hundred Years of Dirt and Heartland. But we also need, more than ever, to think about how such stories relate to the lives of the invisible people of the urban working class. •
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster.