What is the connection between Ezra Pound, the Constitution, and the Steel Industry?

The steel industry is making profits, hand over fist. But it’s not passing the profits on to the workers. So the 30,000 members of the United Steelworkers Union are talking strike. If the workers wind up benefiting from the current boom, it’ll be in spite of the industry, not because of it.

Which reminds me…

Literary scholars know the publishing house New Directions as the publisher of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, and Wallace Stevens, among others. It was founded by James Laughlin, scion and heir of the Pittsburgh Laughlin family, of Jones & Laughlin Steel fame, after Pound told him that he didn’t have a future as a poet.

Constitutional scholars know that Jones & Laughlin Steel produced one the most transformative Supreme Court cases of the New Deal era, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, which upheld the Wagner Act, thereby making joining and organizing a union a fundamental right, blessed by the Constitution (the Commerce Clause, however, not the 13th Amendment, as an earlier generation of labor organizers and scholars had hoped). With that case, as Karen Orren argued, the entirety of the old constitutional order, grounded in feudal common law, came crashing down.

NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel was decided in 1937, one year after Laughlin founded New Directions.

So two bursts of modernism: one literary, one constitutional; one in 1936, the other in 1937—both the products of the American steel industry, in spite of itself.

Shana Tova.


  1. Chris Morlock September 11, 2018 at 8:33 pm | #

    Yes, and the solidarity with autoworkers in similar strikes in December 1936 was another huge step in the process. At the exact same time UAW staged a sit down in Flint that spread across dozens of cities. In total about 150,000 UAW members were on strike by early 1937.

    By mid 1937 8 million workers were in Unions. Fast forward 15 years and we had the defeat of National Socialism, the GI Bill, Social Security, an explosion of science, technology, and art.. The space program, from which all modern technology stems. The civil rights movement. Talk about the “cradle of civilization”.

  2. Ed Dupree September 12, 2018 at 10:02 am | #

    Thanks Corey. I never knew Laughlin was a scion of the steel industry, though I can’t say I’m surprised. Reminds me once again how the palace of culture is always built on shit, as Brecht put it. Examples abound nowadays, maybe more than ever. The Poetry Foundation and _Poetry_ magazine get $100 million from big pharma via the Lilly Foundation. _The New Yorker_ publishes poems, some of them very good, alongside ads for Rolex watches and brokerage firms. In Boston, where I live, the Museum of Fine Arts has its Bank of America entrance–the name is carved in stone, right beside the steps. Adorno & Horkheimer’s Culture Industry truly is industrial! For me, a scion of the lower working class who managed to cobble together an artsy education, it’s kind of maddening. –Then again, when was high art not a product of elite patronage?

  3. Jim September 14, 2018 at 12:14 pm | #

    I grew up in Pittsburgh and the “J&L” plant (as it was known) was a hideously ugly belchfire monster. I guess it could be seen as a really bad example of steampunk art, though. By the late 1960s, US Steel was taking the huge profits from the Vietnam War and plowing them into real estate while loudly blaming the unions and the environmentalists for making their industry “uneconomic”. They reluctantly invested in far more efficient electric arc furnaces and other technology and gradually got out of the 19th century Bessemer converter process but basically they could see the handwriting on the wall. Foreign firms were younger, more efficient and less corrupt.

    J&L and Bethlehem Steel are now extinct and US Steel (which, at one point, cynically changed its name to USX but has now resumed its old name) is a much smaller company now though still headquartered in Pittsburgh. Most big corporations are always very careful to identify convenient enemies like trade unions and environmentalists to disguise their bad management and locational extortion to get public sector subsidies.

  4. Lichanos September 15, 2018 at 2:07 pm | #

    Thanks for the link to Orren, a new one for me. ?

  5. UnionHorse September 18, 2018 at 10:17 pm | #

    Consider the potential for civic engagement which has been demonstrated. Consider a Jackson reincarnated as a Trump and the good things embedded into the offal. He is the hardest arrow anyone has thrown at the beast. Why not support the man at this time.

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