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Saturday, Oct 29, 2011, 9:21 am

Ernest Hemingway, Labor Journalist?

By Mike Elk

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Papa Hemingway, pre-beard.

There's been a resurgence of interest in Ernest Hemingway and his eccentric adventures lately—you can watch the hilarious potrayal of the writer in Woody Allen's latest film Midnight in Paris or read the books The Heming Way, Hemingway's Boat or The Paris Wife, all published this year.

But despite all the attention Papa's enjoying these days, few know that throughout his long career, Hemingway occasionally acted as a labor journalist covering strikes, including at his first job after high school, when he worked as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. The other day, I was reading the definitive history of the United Electrical Workers (UE), Them and Us: The Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union, and struck by the story of Hemingway's actions while covering a bloody Maytag strike in Iowa.

In 1938 in Newton, Iowa, Maytag locked out 1,600 workers, members of the then-fledgling UE, demanding that the workers accept a wage cut. At one point, several hundred workers took advantage of a chaotic picket line to sneak in with scab workers and occupy the plant. In response to the tension caused by the lockout, the governor of Iowa declared martial law and called out the National Guard to enforce a strict curfew.

Hemingway, recently returned from covering the Spanish Civil War, showed up in Newton to cover the labor struggle. He quickly made his mark as a shit-kicking journalist, as this passage shows:

Among the reporters who came to Newton was Ernest Hemingway, just back from covering the war of the Franco fascists upon the elected popular governments of Spain, Hemingway told Senter and a group of strikers one night while they were having a drink together in the family-owned Maytag Hotel. "Then I got back to the States," the novelist went on, "and I heard about martial law and guns in my own native land, out in Newton, Iowa. So I came to have a look."

As Hemingway and the group of UE people left the hotel and hit the street, they were immediately threatened by a guardsman with rifle and fixed bayonet. He commanded Hemingway and the union leaders to get a move on, to break it up and leave, or he'd clap them in jail. 

"Now, son," said Hemingway turning toward him, "you ought to be more respectful when you address your elders. If you don't behave yourself, let me tell you what I'll do. I'll take that rifle and bayonet away from you and shove it up your ass and blow out your brains."

Fortunately, a National Guard officer nearby, recognizing Hemingway, got the young guardsman out of the tangle before harm was done. That was only one of the tense incidents of the difficult times in Newton.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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