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On Labor Day Hurricanes

The history of all hitherto existing society may well have been the history of class struggle, but this struggle has been pitched against a background of relentless exploitation of the natural world. Cascading climate disasters around the world in the past year — in the past weeks, even — have forced me to finally acknowledge the traces of natural disasters and their manmade causes in my dissertation research. Scenes of injured coal miners and destitute farmers speak as much to the domination of nature by humans as they do to the domination of workers by capitalists. One print in particular fuses these struggles with its moral clarity and enduring relevance.

William Gropper, What Price America?, [1935]. Offset Lithograph. Published in New Masses 16, no 12 (September 17, 1935).

It was made by William Gropper, one of the better-known artists of the class struggle in the United States. The lithograph appears as Road Workers in the 1936 exhibition America Today, which is where I first encountered it. A stocky worker cradles a fallen comrade, their shovel, pickaxe, and asphalt-flecked wheelbarrow abandoned. The composition evokes the Pieta, if the Virgin Mary were permitted to scream. Gropper’s economy of line melds the screamer’s hardhat to his head, and the stippling technique and tusche wash that distinguish his work from that of his contemporaries cast a dirty pallor over the scene. Even without context, this is an image of devastation. Emotionally, if not formally, it brings to mind the infamous photograph of Kent State students murdered by the National Guard.

The America Today exhibition was this print’s second outing. It first appeared in the Communist Party-backed journal New Masses on September 17th, 1935, as What Price America? It illustrated a special report filed from Key West by Ernest Hemingway called “Who Murdered the Vets? A First Hand Report on the Florida Hurricane.”

Cover of New Masses 16, no 12 (September 17, 1935).

Late summer hurricanes are the dangerous ones. My mother, a lifelong South Florida resident, has evacuated before a hurricane exactly twice: both were end-of-summer storms. (And the first of those evacuations, caused by Andrew in 1992, was less about the hurricane, she told me once, and more about avoiding the specific horror of being pregnant in Florida in August without air conditioning.) Evidence for this bit of inherited wisdom revolves around one particular storm, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. It was massive, it was brutal, it was the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the United States, according to my elementary school teachers. And seven hundred World War One veterans were abandoned in its path by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).

They were sent there to build the Overseas Highway connecting Key West to the mainland. As Hemingway tells it, they were left there because they had embarrassed FDR by protesting for the veterans benefits they had been promised but had not received. An evacuation train, sent too late, derailed on its way to the workers’ campsite as the storm made landfall. Over four hundred people in the Florida Keys died in the Labor Day Hurricane, more than half of whom were veteran-workers. FERA was already, at that point, set to become the Works Progress Administration at the end of the year. What Price America? plays on the initials of the now-ubiquitous WPA in a searing indictment of the state’s monstrous neglect.

Rescue Train Swept off the Tracks by the Labor Day Hurricane, Florida, United States of America, 1935. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

I have driven the Overseas Highway countless times, and “highway” is a generous description. For most of its length, it is a single lane of traffic in either direction suspended above the Gulf of Mexico. It’s one of the most beautiful drives in the United States, but, as the only road out of town, it backs up easily. Sitting in rush hour traffic between keys best traversed on foot or bicycle, watching sailboats outpace you on either side, you’d be forgiven for concluding that cars are not an efficient mode of transportation for islanders. For long stretches of your journey, you’d be accompanied by the hulking, rusted-out remains of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad, the track off of which that ill-fated rescue train derailed. (Other parts of the track were incorporated into subsequent repairs to the highway itself.)

The Overseas Highway demonstrates the absurd lengths to which the United States goes to preserve the myth of individual freedom that is bound up with its car culture. It is an engineering folly that will, like the railroad that haunts it, crumble into the sea when the right late summer hurricane strikes. Make-work New Deal roadbuilding projects like this one both fed into and were spurred on by a growing cult of the automobile, itself fueled by advertising which promised that freedom could be purchased at the nearest Cadillac dealer. (Freedom, in the hands of advertisers, became an absence: a lack of responsibility to one’s community, the right to just get in your car and drive away.) Gropper’s print reminds me that this myth is paid for with workers’ blood.

Overseas Highway, 2014, writer’s own image

The state’s ongoing refusal to confront climate change, its insistence on shoring up extractive capital at the cost of our lives, ensures that What Price America? will remain contemporary and urgent. Joe Biden’s much-touted infrastructure plan devotes more funding to roads and other car infrastructure than it does to all forms of public transit combined, further binding us all to the extractive pattern of consumption that is killing us. Lawmakers jettisoned even modest steps toward clean energy in the bill in favor of $25 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel industries. Our elected officials will not save us from this crisis.

Five days before Labor Day, the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused catastrophic flooding in my borough of Queens. Water rushed into basement apartments and brought down buildings; thirteen people died in Queens and Brooklyn, and at least fifty-two people have died in the Northeast as of this writing. I won’t pretend that I had Gropper’s print in mind as I attempted to stem the leak in my bathroom that night. However, in the days since, I have found myself asking what price, America? What is it going to take?

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