ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
Ned Stuckey-French’s brilliance lay in many overlapping areas, including his understanding of the essay as a social and cultural phenomenon as explored in his very important book, The American Essay in the American Century. He was a brilliance of kindness and encouragement and a booster of others, a man with a wonderful sense of humor who took joy in supporting and watching others do the things he also loved, whether it was success in track and field or writing essays or teaching or talking to students about publishing. Though he was an academic, he also spent a decade—yes, a decade—working as a janitor and closet communist in Boston, an experience he writes about with characteristic understated Midwestern humility in “A Real-World Education.”
The first time I encountered this essay, I felt some sort of door open between my own secret/not-secret past life and my present life as an academic. Ned seemed to live in unity with all the pieces of the selves I carried in a jumble: Midwesterner who went to the east coast and ended up selling socialist newspapers in Harvard Square and then who went into academia and fell in love with the essay. His very existence meant, “You can do this all and traveled these routes and have all the pieces make sense together.” This was what Ned meant to me: he made all the pieces of my past make sense because he lived them all together. He did not cast off his past selves. The American Essay is a book that grapples deeply with class and region, holding out the hope that there is a way to bridge cultural divides that have built into avalanches that now threaten the health and existence of our country.
There are several ways to write an essay about being in a series of far-left groups, and I’ve tried a range of possibilities to describe my own experience and never been happy with the results. The topic is tainted, still, with red-scare shock or with the equally frustrating shock (these days) that there have been socialist or communist groups active in every big city in every decade of our nation’s history. That the left is, in fact, part of American history. One of the ways to ruin an essay like this is to present the confusing array of acronyms and vocabulary to make the whole movement sound obtuse and out of touch. Another way to do it is to laugh at yourself in retrospect, thereby denigrating the lives of people who believe that capitalism is dangerous (we can all admit this, yes?) and are willing to give up time to act on that belief. A third way to ruin an essay like this is to come off as a battle-hardened hero, opening a gulf between the reader and writer and making whatever experience you had sound like you’re Ché Guevara.
“A Real-World Education” begins by giving, very simply, Ned’s background, and the fact that he’d lied by omission on his application to get a job as a hospital janitor, which union activists call “salting,” (like salting a dish to make it tasty) in hopes that union activists will lead to a more organized union and therefore a more powerful and organized working class. Anyway, Ned doesn’t give you that nugget of terminology. Ned does not choose the self-judgmental narrator who will mock himself for his own youthful idealism, because he knew that if he were to do that, he would by extension be mocking anyone else who wanted to change the world. (I cringe at how I’ve done this in some of my writing when I was overly conscious of a judgmental and imaged middle-class reader, before I learned that choosing an imaginary reader was also a kind of revolutionary act). Ned’s essay says, quite clearly, there’s nothing wrong with either being a communist or wanting to make the world a better place. There’s no mocking of himself as an activist as a way to self-consciously mock the desire to change the world.
For the next decade, I worked at Mass General as a janitor and communist trade-union organizer, living a semi-secret life. I wasn’t the only one doing this: there were about fifteen of us at the hospital, trying to organize its several thousand workers into a union. Our larger democratic-centralist organization had cadres working throughout the Boston area—in the Quincy shipyards, the Lynn GE plant, the Framingham General Motors factory, a meat packing company, a steel fabrication place, and various community organizations. Nationally, there were hundreds of young, predominantly white, middle-class activists like us who had been politicized in the civil rights, antiwar, student, and women’s movements of the late ’60s.
The detail draws in the reader with artful compression of time and context, the sketch of an organization, and a map tying geography to industry. This paragraph shows the union of beauty and functionality not only of Ned’s writing but of his worldview. What I’m crying about as I read this is that we need Ned, the man who contained it all, who never scoffed. As a side not, I think it’s interesting, too, that he doesn’t veer off into “show-don’t-tell” sensory rococo that would also say, “Look, I’m a writer!” That’s not his point, because in this essay, his writer self is secondary to the other selves he’s been.
The essay is built as an argument for reading the Studs Terkel classic Working and ultimately for taking seriously the essayistic abilities of ordinary people—their ability to narrate their lives. Ned, in an essay shorter than the thing I’m churning out now about his essay—is doing steady subtle work at trying to bridge class divides and to make creative nonfiction and the essay places where working people live. He describes his experience reading Working then as a kind of how-to manual for connecting with the working class. And yes, that happened to me, too. Rightly, he points out that the interview text generated by Terkel through paying attention and careful listening results in these vignettes that read like personal essays. Ned’s writing sought to engage the question of the “middlebrow” essay, using the work of E.B. White and many others, to ask nonfiction writers who our intended audience is, what “people” we are writing for, and how we might write to give regular people access to culture and intellectual conversations. In short—what is the role that a writer may play in making a geographic clump and scattering of divided communities into a real nation? There are vehicles, like the middlebrow essay, and there are structures, like unions. Finally, Ned’s essay—in case you haven’t read Working—is a hermit-crab essay in the form of one of the interviews in Working. Ned gives details of his own life with direct yet vivid with detail in plain-spoken poetry.
Like Terkel’s workers, I filled my days at the hospital with routines: empty the trash cans; clean the bathrooms; clean up messes (blood, glass, vomit, and shit); sweep, mop, wax, and buff the floors. Like most of the people profiled in Working, I lived on a skimpy paycheck, had little job security, and received few benefits, but unlike most of them (the nonprofessionals, anyway), I had an out. I could take my white privilege and my Harvard degree and move on... as I eventually did.
The music in this writing is in the short sentences and the concreteness, modulated with lists to establish his authority (without setting up a divide between the writer and the reader). Accessibility is one of Ned’s watchwords, and taking this work seriously yet holding the task lightly was the other. The complexity in this writing is its lack of drama in discussing the failure, the vivid verb “cannibalized” and the confession of one loss, not two. The true drama and loss, in this essay, remains in the lives of people who couldn’t change classes, and Ned reserves his respect for them. For him, simply, “the jig was up.”
Ned was never the kind of guy to bring up this significant work and life experience in the context of other conversations. Instead he writes here that as his political work changed him, so Working also changed him, by letting him know that each life contains complexity, including the lives of those in the working class.
Now, it sounds a little grandiose—still worthy, but grandiose. I could never be a working-class hero. A déclassé revolutionary, perhaps, but objective conditions would have had to be ripe for a revolution, and they weren’t. Instead, Studs Terkel and the hospital took me outside myself and my class, if only for a while, and for that I’m ever grateful.
“Objective conditions”—that is a phrase that, if you’ve been in a radical left group, says I don’t concede. I am still waiting for the big change, however that may come.
Ned, I believe it’s still worthy. And I believe the world, on its best days, was worthy of you. I’m holding the memory of you with me. Your work changed so many of us, and you helped build my understanding of what was possible. Another world still is possible. Thank you for spending your whole career holding open the doors, encouraging, thinking, and never giving up.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program. Find her on Twitter at @sonyahuber.