Since its construction, the Ford Motor Company's Rouge River complex in Dearborn has been seen as a sign of changing economic and social conditions in the city, region, and nation. Whether regarded as a powerful sign of American industrial growth, as the battleground between labor and management, as a symbol of U.S. wartime strength, or as a reminder of Rust Belt decline, the Rouge always stands for something larger even than itself. In the twenties and thirties, the Rouge was a self-contained mid-sized city, employing over 100,000 people. Today, it employs roughly 6,000 ("History"). The decentralization beginning after World War II resulted in a drastic reduction in automobile production at the Rouge, but in that time it has generated plenty of poetry, fiction, art, photography, and film.
For artists elsewhere - Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Journey to the Edge of the Night), Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times), and others-Henry Ford's marvel of mass production became emblematic of the dehumanizing thrust of the modern world. (Laurence Goldstein's essay, "The Image of Detroit in Twentieth Century Literature" provides a useful overview of the Rouge's mass production as represented in these and other works.) As the epitome of American industry in the 1920s and 1930s, the Rouge Plant is featured in "A Job at Ford's," Part 1 of the PBS documentary, The Great Depression, as the centerpiece of its examination of the period from the apparent prosperity of the mid-twenties to the 1932 Ford Hunger March, in which four demonstrators were killed by security forces employed by Henry Ford.
Upton Sinclair's 1937 novel, The Flivver King, delivers perhaps the most intense criticism of Henry Ford as an American prototype and the Rouge as the centerpiece of industrial capitalism. Sinclair follows Ford's transformation from the idealistic farm-boy-turned-inventor to a king of industry increasingly oblivious to his factory's assembly lines where "slaves" became "parts of machines--pick-up, push in, turn, reverse, pickuppushinturnreverse, pickuppushinturnreverse . . . " (68). During the Depression, Ford apparently does not understand that a careless announcement about hiring attracts to the Rouge "a mob of poor devils from the breadlines and flophouses" along with "other poor devils riding in open freight trains in the bitterest of winter weather" only to be greeted by "a swarm of 'service men' with clubs in their hands and guns on their hips" and driven from the plant's gates "with a stick in their backs" or "streams of icy water . . . from high-powered hoses" (80). On March 7, 1932, as the Depression continues and automation at the Rouge adds further to unemployment, workers march from Detroit's Fort Street toward Dearborn in protest: "In the distance could be seen the gigantic River Rouge plant, its tall silvered smokestacks rising like a huge pipe-organ" (86). As the marchers approach the gates, Dearborn police and members of the Ford security force under Harry Bennett confront them with "tear and vomit-gas," bombs, and bullets. Bennett is hit on the head with a thrown rock. "Immediately the men on the bridge turned loose a machine-gun into the crowd, and kept up a steady firing until they had wounded about fifty men and killed four" (87-8). For Sinclair, this is but one battle in American class wars, and the Rouge is among its best-known battlefields.
More recent works by local writers also grapple with the ways that Ford and the Rouge changed the world. Like Sinclair, they concentrate on the plant's workers and its turbulent labor history. They also emphasize the plant's impact on the Detroit area's air and water.
In Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex, the narrator's Greek immigrant grandfather, Lefty Stephanides, arriving in Detroit in 1922, secures his first job at the Rouge. In an extended section (95-97), Eugenides mimics Ford's system of mass production and its effect on the workers, conveying the repetition and speed of work with the refrain: "Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft." Eugenides captures the system of vertical integration on which the Rouge's mass production was then based by following the assembly line from the conveyor which brings the bearings "back to the Foundry where the Negroes work" and then outside through the "hills of coal and coke" to the river over which freighters bring the ore, to the earth under the north woods, and then back, through the plant and across the many individual lines that made up "The Line," to the finished product: a brand new Model T. Lefty Stephanides discovers the dangers of becoming a "speed king" on the line, learns English at the adjacent Ford English School, and enthusiastically participates in other activities that will hasten his assimilation into American culture. He also undergoes a domestic inspection from two members of Ford's Sociological Department, who later fire him because of his unwitting association with a figure in Detroit's underworld (97-105).
Henry Ford is often celebrated for hiring large numbers of African-American workers at the Rouge. However, as Thomas J. Sugrue points out, these workers were usually given jobs "in the dirtiest most dangerous parts of the plant" (99), often in the hot and hazardous Rouge foundry. Dudley Randall, who, in 1932 at age eighteen, began to work in the foundry's blast furnace unit, was one of these workers (Boyd 44-45). In his well-known poem, "George" (Litany 11), the speaker, "a boy desiring the title of man," works "to earn it / in the inferno of the foundry knockout." He admires George, an older worker, who "calmly" faces the everyday dangers of his job: the "monstrous, lumpish cylinder blocks" that occasionally jam the line and fall "with force enough to tear your foot in two." Unlike the autoworkers in works by Eugenides, Philip Levine, and Jim Daniels, these men do not resist the relentless pace of work by intentionally causing the line to break down; instead, they work hard to repair the damage when it does. Amid this grueling labor, the speaker earns George's "highest accolade": "'You not afraid of sweat. You strong as a mule.'" The poem's conclusion-which shows George as an old man waiting for death in a hospital "among the senile wrecks, / The psychopaths, the incontinent"-comments wryly on the ultimate purpose of a life of hard work and sweat.
In "Coming Home, Detroit, 1968" (New 75) Philip Levine regards the Rouge as emblematic of the violence human beings have done to the environment, to one another, and to the city. Levine skillfully blurs distinctions: the Rouge "sulfurs the sun" coloring it, not only in "Ford" colors, but "Cadillac, Lincoln, / Chevy gray." The people take on imagery associated with their devastated city: "the charred faces, the eyes boarded up, the rubble of innards." Fire and ice merge as destructive forces; Levine describes "a winter Tuesday, the city pouring fire" and recalls "the snowstorm" where all was lost:
the wolverine, the northern bear, the wolf caught out, ice and steel raining from the foundries in a shower of human breath.
Returning to Detroit for the first time after 1967, Levine refuses to see that summer's rebellion in isolation. The poem shows the legacy of Detroit violence, of which the riot is but one instance. The poem concludes: "We burn this city every day."
Levine and others write often of the Rouge's environmental impact, the way it tints the river "the color of iron" (New 75), "destroys the horizon" (New 233), and blows "its black breath in the face / of creation" (New 284). Upon arriving from the South, travelers see "the night sky burning / up ahead at River Rouge / like another day" (1933: 29). Lawrence Joseph makes similar observations in a journal entry: "The Rouge River seemed frozen, but, no, the water was only a drab, concrete gray. Could smell the sulphur. The smoke, powerful as it was pouring from the eight snowstacks, added to the massive quality and weight to the snowclouds ("'Our'" 302). In "That's All," Joseph describes a Rouge worker who covers his face with a handkerchief so that the "smells and heat" will not "destroy / his lungs and brain" (Curriculum 35).
Environmental damage notwithstanding, life continues in the communities near the Rouge. In a poem that describes sexual awakening, Mary Minock shows how the Rouge's fires, viewed from the downriver community of River Rouge, compete with the sunset. As the moon rises in the smoldering sky over the Rouge plant, the speaker watches Bobby, her "beatific cousin / with dusty hands" throw a stone. She
...smells the river smells the fire smells her dusty cousin and sees the rock hit true. The adult speaker recalls the emergence of passion amid these smells and sights. It's an elemental moment: "Water, earth and fire in the air," Minock says, set the scene, "for all the scenes to follow" ("The Rock Heap in River Rouge" 33).
Levine, especially in his later work, concentrates on the persistence of beauty amid the devastation of the modern industrial world. In an interview with Edward Hirsch, he describes as "one of his heroes" a friend's mother, Bernadette Strempek, who, after being abandoned by her husband, supported her five children by working the night shift at the Rouge (So Ask 142). Levine pays tribute to her in two poems in his 2000 volume, The Mercy. In "After Leviticus" (6-7), a beautiful riddle of a poem, he shows Bernadette finishing another week of what she terms "'serf work'" in "chassis assembly plant number seven" feeling "the same joy that comes to a great artist / who's just completed a seminal work." She shares with two other workers, Maryk and Williams, a bottle of Seven Crown in a 1947 Plymouth that makes "eleven slow circuits" of the parking lot. The two men, "serious drinkers" and smokers, hardly speak, but sigh often, maybe from fatigue or "from a sense of defeat neither understands, / or more likely because their lungs are going / from bad air and cigarettes." When the bottle is finished, they drop her off at her home, one of "seventeen metal huts" near the factory. The moment is mystical:
Bernadette Strempek, let me enter your story now as you stand motionless in the shadowy black burning inhaling the first warm breeze that tells you this endless winter is ending. Don't go in just yet; instead gaze upwards toward the stars. Those tiny diamonds, though almost undone, have been watching over your house and your kids while you've been away. Take another breath, a deeper one and hold the air until you can't. Do you taste it? You shake your head. It's God's breath, a magical gift carried all the dark way from Him to you on the wind no one can see.
This is the same wind that often blows in Levine's later work, a gift from the universe to those who feel the need to put into words those forces that cannot be seen. Levine first experienced this, he says, as a young boy growing up in the still undeveloped Seven Mile-Livernois area in the nineteen thirties and forties. He associates it with remarkable spirits, like his co-worker, Cipriano ("To Cipriano, in the Wind": New 218-219) and the great jazz artist, Sonny Rollins ("The Unknowable": The Mercy 36-37).
Also for Levine, the love of growing things distinguishes those who recognize the persistence of natural beauty in the urban world, even the industrial world epitomized by the Rouge. Tom Jefferson, in "A Walk with Tom Jefferson" (New 277-292), maintains an urban garden in the Briggs neighborhood near Tiger Stadium. Bernadette Strempeck, in "Photography 2" (The Mercy 26), plants tulips and irises outside her rented house near the Rouge. Levine's attention to her in the poem counters the artistic vision of Charles Sheeler, whose great photographs of the Rouge diminish the importance of its workers, "dwarfed / under the weight of the tools they thought / they commanded." Bernadette Strempek is not onlu diminished but erased: "Nowhere does Mrs. Strempek / show up in all the records of that year." Levine has frequently said that he feels his role is to tell the stories of the common laborers ignored in the sweep of history.
Diego Rivera's Detroit Institute of Arts murals are probably the best-known works of art based on the Rouge plant. In his autobiography, Levine, acknowledges that he is at first attracted to them, but he eventually rejects their view of working life, arguing that they depict a system of mass production far more organized than the battlefield-like chaos he experienced as a factory worker: "Automobiles," he says, "were produced by a colossal accident that shattered men and women." A single view of the Rouge from the inside (because of Henry Ford's "notorious anti-Semitism" he refused to seek a job there) convinces him that the Rouge, like the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Plant in which he had worked, was "a world that must be raged against with all the eloquence and fury a poet could muster" (Bread 143). Jerry Herron, on the other hand, in "The Passion of Edsel Ford" (Boyd and Liebler 169-174), reads in the murals a subversive message, not in an accurate portrayal of mass production, but in Rivera's understanding of the relationship between Henry Ford and his son. In Herron's view, Edsel, whom Rivera calls "Señor Capitalist," defends the controversial murals because he knows that Rivera has "seen" what he himself knows.
Lawrence Goldstein writes of the ways in which the "boosterism" of the auto industry controlled the literary image of Detroit for much of the early twentieth century, associating the city exclusively with the "inflated rhetoric of advertising" (272). Goldstein says that the absence of a "literary tradition" in Detroit and Michigan made this control possible (274). Since the Depression, however, a literary tradition has been established, partly in reaction to the advertising rhetoric and in response to the actual physical experience of life in and around Detroit industry. Because it is both the subject of advertising and a powerful physical symbol, the Rouge has inspired works which critique industrial capitalism's assurances of progress and complicate its vision of work and workers. Although the Rouge is best known as the model of mass production, which relies heavily on unskilled labor, the literature, film, and art created by individuals skilled in their crafts may well be among the most enduring of its products.
Frank D. Rashid is Professor of English at Marygrove College and editor of the Literary Map of Detroit.
Photo credits: Anna Fedor and Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
Boyd, Melba Joyce. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey to the End of the Night. Trans. John H.P. Marks.1934. New York: New Directions, 1960.
Chaplin, Charles, dir. Modern Times. Perf. Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. United Artists, 1936.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Groux, 2002.
Goldstein, Laurence. "The Image of Detroit in Twentieth Century Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 269-291.
The Great Depression. Prod. Henry Hampton, WGBH Boston. Video documentary. Alexandria, VA: PBS, 1993.
"History of the Rouge." The Great American Production: Ford Rouge Factory Tour. 2004. The Henry Ford. 2 Sept. 2004 http://www.hfmgv.org/rouge/history.asp.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Modern Library, 1946.
Joseph, Lawrence. Curriculum Vitae. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1988.
---. "'Our Lives Are Here': Notes from a Journal, Detroit, 1975." Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 296-302.
Levine, Philip. 1933. New York: Atheneum, 1974.
---. Ashes. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
---. The Bread of Time : Toward an Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
---. The Mercy. New York: Knopf, 2000.
---. New Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1993.
---. So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002.
Minock, Mary. Love in the Upstairs Flat. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1995.
Randall, Dudley. A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems. Detroit: Lotus, 1981.
Sinclair, Upton. The Flivver King: A Story of Ford-America. Pasadena, CA: The Author, 1937.
Sugrue, Thomas. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.