Near quitting time on a March Saturday in 1911, a cigarette started a fire in Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Within 30 minutes, nearly 150 workers – predominantly young immigrant women – were dead, many of them having jumped from the ninth floor, where the doors had been locked.
One witness described the falling bodies as “streaks of fire.” Another remembered the sickening sound of thudding bodies as they hit pavement. Those bodies fell so fast that firefighters didn’t have time to cover them.
This gruesome moment in American labor history has received its just due in several books. Christine Seifert’s ambitiously titled “The Factory Girls: A Kaleidoscopic Account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,” has joined the field, in a story pitched to YA readers.
Seifert opens with the stories of five young adult women – four teens and a 21-year-old – who were in the factory when the fire began; late in her book, she finishes their respective stories, telling us what happened to each of them.
It’s an effective opening, in a book that’s best when it focuses on such particulars, drawing on previous studies of the fire as well as oral histories and primary sources.
Even as she wears out the words “probably,” “likely” and “must” with wild conjecture, these sections of Seifert’s book give the workers names and bring them to life. One can readily agree with Seifert’s statement that “it’s hard to read these stories and not be emotionally affected.”
But that’s no excuse for her frequently preachy and condescending generalizations – many of them regurgitating infinitely better histories like Alan Trachtenberg’s “The Incorporation of America” – through which Seifert attempts to connect the dots between what happened in New York that day and the preceding Gilded Age.
As Seifert rightly notes, the Gilded Age gave rise to extraordinary disparities between rich and poor – the product of a largely unrestrained and unregulated capitalist system, a growing culture of consumption and a large pool of unskilled immigrant labor.
But Seifert also concludes that this combination made the Triangle Shirtwaist fire inevitable (it “was bound to happen”), just as she later suggests that it was the fire that caused workplace reform (“some people had to die in order for the system to change”).
Such an overdetermined, cause-and-effect model turns history into chronology, while resulting in some stunning simplifications, like this one: “poverty was a result of a system that was rigged to take
Such history here isn’t just dumbed down. It’s mindlessly judgmental.
Corporations are “simply vehicles for a few people to make obscene amounts of money.” “Those who were rich were stinking rich.” Factory owners “are making money hand over fist.”
Such lazy thinking breeds inaccuracies. Examples: A wildcat strike isn’t a strike unfolding at just one factory; it’s one unauthorized by union leadership. Booker T. Washington didn’t found the NAACP; W.E.B. Du Bois was among those who did.
It can make writing – subpar, throughout this book – maudlin. Example: “Through all the years she drew breath, the girls of Triangle survived in Bessie’s heart.”
Seifert’s heart is in the right place; one can agree with much of what she says. But history isn’t a revival meeting or a cartoon, and we do young people no favors by treating it – and them – to versions less sophisticated than it is and they are. The workers she desperately wants to honor deserve more respect. Seifert’s bludgeoned readers deserve a better book.
“The Factory Girls: A Kaleidoscopic Account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire”
By Christine Seifert
Zest Books, 176 pages