Nancy Berke: On "Mill Town"

Much proletarian literature of the 1930s concerned itself with the pathetic plights of working men. Depression-era historical documentation and popular culture are filled with familiar images of male figures standing on bread lines, slouching over watery soup in church basements, flagging down rides on desolate highways, or fighting policement or scabs during strikes. While Genevieve Taggard's proletarian collection Calling Western Union contains poems that honor working men and their difficulties, she pays particular attention to women. Whether they are the wives of strking workers, alienated members of the middle class, or laborers themselves, in Calling Western Union, women's issues take center stage.

The poem "Mill Town" stands out from the majority of poems in Calling Western Union that speak particularly about women's Depression-era experience. Rather than presenting women in their middle class security as in "Middle-Age, Middle Class Woman at Midnight" or "Interiors," or as they come to political consciousness in "At Last the Women Are Marching" and "Feeding the Children," "Mill Town" presents the bleak realities of laboring women. Taggard introduces the poem with an epigraph from medical historian Paul de Kruif. His book Why Keep Them Alive (1936), which appears to have inspired the poem's composition, details the public health crisis the Depression created, particularly the malnutrition and starvation of America's children.

Taggard begins the poem as an accompaniment to de Kruif's dispiriting scenario, imagining the woman whose "womb is sick of its work with death."

                            . . . then fold up without pause The colored ginghams and the underclothes.                                         And from the stale Depth of the dresser, smelling of medicine, take The first year's garments. And by this act prepare Your store of pain, your weariness, dull love, To bear another child with doubled fists And sucking face...

"Mill Town" provides a gendered vocabulary of working class experience by suggesting the double meaning of the word "labor." The woman of this "mill town" experiences the excessive strains of wage-labor and that of repeated childbirth. As the poem's opening lines explore domestic routine, the infant's tight rage is a reminder of the tenuous grasp the Depression era mother has on the domestic milieu.

The poem's last seven lines show an ambiguous attitude toward the woman's poverty. What we might construe as a scolding tone stands out in these last lines. It is unlikely, however, that Taggard would intentionally reprimand the mill mother for her passivity. Her sympathetic eye for working-class conditions as they affect women and children would provide a more critically engaged treatment of her subject's circumstances. Since nowhere else in Calling Western Union does Taggard take the male left to task for its insensitivity to gender issues, it is unlikely that she means to appropriate its voice, chiding the woman for not politicizing her position. Instead it appears that the speaker's reproachful tone appropriates the voice of a hypocritical and judgmental social order, which rebukes working class mothers who become pregnant repeatedly in an atmosphere of economic want.

                            Clearly it is best, mill mother, Not to rebel or ask clear silly questions, Saying womb is sick of its work with death, Your body drugged with work and the repeated bitter Gall of your morning vomit. Never try Asking if we should blame you. Live in fear. And put Soap on the yellowed blankets. Rub them pure.

In keeping with the poet's desire to portray the Depression-era woman who was not on the barricades, one must notice the poem's negative representation of the female body. Childbearing and mill work take serious tolls upon it. In childbirth it readies its "store of pain". . . "weariness," and "dull love"; negative too are the fruits of its labor. This "store of pain," one of Taggard's most disturbing images, exposes the womb as complicit in life as death; the "mill-mother" gives birth to children who then die of starvation. Thus the female body "drugged with work," incapacitated by morning sickness, and later the child-bed of unanesthetized home birth, also represents the isolation of those women whose participation in the social struggle so important to the poet are eclipsed by domestic burdens; of course inequalities of class and gender officiate these burdens--a "womb sick of its work with death."

"Mill Town" presents perhaps the bleakest portrait of working-class life in Calling Western Union. It also complicates Taggard's desire to create a sense of hope in her readers, and to keep with the objectives of the proletarian literature of the period to present the working class as progressive agents determined to usher in a new age and new culture. Taggard never claims, as did socialist and feminist writer Crystal Eastman in the early 1920s, that if and when capitalism fell, women would still be enslaved. Yet her portrait of the captive mill-mother, however, placed alongside a variety of poems whose themes are positive and optimistic, reveals the feminist poet's tensions between representing difficult social realities and imagining a future that could transcend them.


Title Nancy Berke: On "Mill Town" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Nancy Berke Criticism Target Genevieve Taggard
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker
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