by Arnold Goldman

Having arrived late to the 1930s American literary scene, Paul had set about making up for lost time. If the Paris-set Concert Pitch, on which he had worked over so much of the decade, was out of touch with the contemporary fashion for proleterian fiction, he would now make clear his solidarity with home-based American democratic forces. The Stars and Stripes Forever is a melodramatic labor novel set in the western Connecticut town of Meldon which, like Santa Eulalia and the Steuben, Maine, of Low Run Tide earlier, had been characterised by order and apparent changelessness:

You could see it across the valley, rooftops in clusters, with double rows of trees where the streets cut through, and the steeple of the Congregational church and the square tower and small gold dome of the Unitarian church where some famous man, I forget his name, had been minister. There were flags fluttering in the old burying ground.1

In April 1936 it is entering the troubled stream of history.

Mark Loring is the owner of Meldon’s one factory, the Starret-Loring Company, which makes loudspeakers and amplifiers. (The newest is named "The Voice in the Wilderness.") Loring’s immediate reaction to the appearance of a C.I.O. organiser in town is, he tells his family, to buy another factory across the state line in New York and move Meldon’s operation to it, even though "[I]t would ruin the town." Is he "just bluffing," or will he go through with his threat? In Loring’s feudal-capitalist ideology it is a matter of "pride": "It wasn’t that Mark wasn’t willing to pay the men what other factories paid, or even a bit more. That fed his pride. What he couldn’t stand was the idea of anyone else having anything to say about Starret-Loring."2

As so often Paul chooses an untried, sensitive young man as a participant-narrator, making him and the powerful Loring mirror-image characters. Ned Bascomb’s father and Mark Loring’s had been business partners, but Ned’s had "bungled the Loring dough and someone [had] stolen [his] invention." Now Mark not Ned "owned the town." Ned’s sister Phyllis, for reasons which are never clear, "married Mark without expecting companionship, without admiring him or expecting to admire him afterward." Owing his job and his home to Mark’s charity, Ned is deeply ambivalent. Depressed by his insider knowledge of Loring’s apparent plans for Meldon, Ned makes a small gesture of rebellion at a baseball game between the formen and the workers, a ritual demonstration of the boss’s feudal sovereignty as captain and pitcher for the management side. Catching for his brother-in-law, he whispers tips to the batsmen about what to expect and the boss is humiliated.3

Ned wants to be accepted by the workers, whose toughness and straighforwardness he admires. They are naturally enough wary of the boss’s brother-in-law and keep him at arm’s length. To strike some sort of further blow against Mark, albeit still without jeopardising his job and causing difficulty to his sister, Ned points an attractive new reporter for the local News in the direction of a story about Mark’s plans. When he learns she has been fired for having written the piece, he tells the C.I.O. organiser, Norcross, about Loring’s plan. Norcross hires "the newspaper jane" to "organize the factory girls."4

Loring begins to tighten the screw, moving the machines out that make "The Voice of the Wilderness." When the company’s sweetheart union asks for information, Loring prevaricates and the local worthies don’t want to believe the worst. (When Ned suggests they press Mark, the Mayor asks, "’Just what is your position in this matter... You’re not in sympathy with your brother-in-law?’") En famille, Ned tries to explain matters to his distressed and naive sister. Mark’s mother takes the line that

"[I]t’s because those Reds from New York have come into town."...
  ..."I’d rather see him burn the factory than turn it over to a lot of foreign agitators to run."...
  "They are Communists and thieves and should be hanged...."

The family lawyer Pillsbury. while guarded in her (and Mark’s) presence, sets out his beliefs for Phyllis and Ned:

"The [Roosevelt] administration has encouraged wage earners to organize, and rightly so, I believe. Such a course is consistent with my own conceptions of liberty and justice.... Needless to say, my advice has not been followed [by Mark].
  ..."Either we are going back to the Middle Ages, when a man who [sic] worked as a slave, or we are going forward to a better goal and the worker is going to have a larger share in government and in controlling his cvondition. I believe with all my heart that that is the trend.
  "...I hope and pray that wholesale slaughter may be avoided."

Phyllis is appalled at her previous frivolity - "’We all have had a useless education,’" says the lawyer, who urges her to attempt to take up the effort to influence her husband. It is the message for which Ned has been waiting: "For the first time in years I was really interested in something... Meldon suddenly had been swirled into the main current" of the world’s action.5

Ned still has to prove himself to the workers and the wary C.I.O. organiser and he ingratiates himself further by trying to turn up evidence of Mark’s intentions. The union men’s talk "about the freights and wheatfields, the horde of migratory men who roamed the plains and hit for the South before winter, the strikes and frame-ups and false arrests" make Ned "feel small and juvenile. Now I was in the midst of something. The focus of a world-wide conflict seemed to have touched the town of Meldon and drawn me into service."6

Ned is taken aback at Mark’s ability to dominate the concerned "citizen’s commitee" which has asked him about his plans. Mark denies his connections with the New York factory, falsely claiming that the C.I.O. Communist agitators had invented the story that he was about to close the Meldon factory: "’Until they suggested such a move, it had not entered my mind. Nevertheless, there are other towns that are willing to offer us the highest inducements, complete protection from the Reds, lower taxes....’" Intimidated, the town fathers stay on Loring’s side by creating a Better Business Bureau, which inveighs against the union.7

In the Fall, with the Roosevelt-Landon election looming, Loring begins to fire the unionized Meldon workers. "’We’re fighting Washington and all the crack-pot Jew advisers, and radicals all over the world...," he tells his family. "The Wagner Act’s not law. The Court hasn’t upheld it and never will.... It’s Roosevelt and his gang who are breaking the law.’" When Phyllis reckons that "’as far as I understand the situation, I’m in sympathy

with the men,’" her mother-in-law reflects that "’Your father had wild ideas, too... All the Bascombs have.’" Loring heads off a threatened strike by running his own ballot; the workers resort to sabotage. For Mark it is "’survival of the fittest.’" The C.I.O. workers vote to strike; sixty-percent of the workforce comes out, enough to cripple manufacturing in Meldon, and the plant closes.8

Trying to respond to his sister’s pathetic request to advise her how to restrain her husband, Ned expresses his puzzlement as to what motivates Mark:

He didn’t admire the men, except the very few he could get to ride the others.... The directors he thought were a lot of fossils and the stockholders a passel of dupes. What good his wealth was I couldn’t figure out. He didn’t know how to spend it, he hadn’t learned the elements of good living. Why, he couldn’t even order a decent meal.... What he wanted most on earth was for Phyllis to love him and bear him children and I think his biggest moment each year was when the newspapers printed the income tax list and he read his name in the first few dozen....

Tied to Ned’s first-person narrative, the novel gives us no more enlightenment about the person whose actions create its story; but Ned’s inability characterises him and underscores his weakness.9

Ned expects "trouble between the union men and outside strikebreakers." When Loring erects a "FOR SALE OR TO LET" sign, however, Ned becomes convinced "that there was nothing he wouldn’t do, that he’d go to any lengths to ruin the men who’d defied him." Picketing begins and the town divides along battle lines - when the Unitarian minister illustrates a sermon with readings from the Wagner Act, a committe "sent Dr. Austin a letter suggesting that his usefulness had passed and he resigned." The worker’s tavern loses its license after a fight breaks out between foremen and men. The small amount of New Deal relief, spread between the union and non-union families, doesn’t go far. Mark believes that when the election sweeps Roosevelt out of office the strike will collapse. The election returns produce "astonishment and disappointment" in "the residential section of Meldon... while the factory end of town rejoiced." Ned "reveled in the news of the landslide," but Lawyer Pillsbury cautions that Mark won’t give in and will "use force."10

What Mark does is to offer to re-open the plant "to Strikers and Non-Strikers Alike," to spread the rumor that the strike is collapsing, and to bring in "armed guards in gray-green uniforms," Burns men. With the situation darkening each day, Ned (with Paul showing through) thinks of the change that has come over the country:

it struck me then how much America had changed since I was a boy, how in the days when my father was alive a man didn’t have to hold on to a job if he didn’t like it. He could quit, make a fresh start, change his business or occupation. I’d wondered then why Europeans thought every little change in their lives was so important, why they argued and hesitated and called in their relatives for advice. Here we’d taken a whole new continent and practically ruined it after three hundred years.

Soon there is a pitched battle between strikers and hired thugs, which results in the strikers being clubbed down. By joining the strikers, Ned has now declared himself publically and must move from the family home. A "grandstand reopening" of the factory fails, partly because the thugs, who had been promised no trouble, take themselves off. A soup kitchen is opened; visiting it, Ned "feels wonderful" at having declared his solidarity.11

Events become garish. Loring gets the C.I.O. organiser and his assistant committed to the state hospital. His mother becomes convinced that the hospital, which she founded in her husband’s memory and which has been seeing impartially to the wounded on both sides, is "a hotbed of radical propaganda and subversive thought," and she fires the doctor. Phyllis, having been able to do nothing with her husband, leaves him, acting as an assistant to the doctor in temporary quarters. On Christmas Day, Mark takes out an injunction against the picketers, threatening the use of the state police: "before Mark’s Christmas threats the strikers had felt that they might be conducting a winning struggle. After that they knew they had to lose, but they wouldn’t give in." When strikebreakers are brought in, a last battle occurs. The strikers are beaten. The plant reopens with imported scabs. Though the town has now turned against Mark Loring, it is too late. Ned goes off to teach and coach at a small boys’ school in Western Massachusetts, while Mark

has a national reputation. The Employers’ Association elected him president and gave him a unanimous vote of thanks. He made a speech... outlining his formula for dealing with strikes and beating the C.I.O., and the chairman said afterward: "That’s what the big employers of this country have been looking for for quite a while."12

If the novel closes with mordant satirical cynicism, however, there are also last expressions of hope:

I couldn’t help feeling that Mark and his crowd were making the big mistakes and were on the skids.... I thought of the company of friends... and my pulse started pounding when it came to me that never would one of us be idle from that day on.... That explained why the defenseless, no matter how badly repulsed, seemed always to make a gain and to get nearer to the light. There were always disciples. Looking over Meldon, once a peaceful quiet town paternally guided by Marcus, Senior, anyone could see that Mark’s brittle structure set up by means of thugs and guns and contempt for law and progress would last but a very short time.13

Bennett Cerf was not wrong to point to stereotyping, and not only of characters, though some of it can be put down to the narrator’s persistent naivité. Paul may equally have felt this simplicity a useful educational vehicle for a widely popular novel; if so, its poor sales would have disabused him. He may himself have recognised that his ability or even commitment to pursuing moral depths and distinctions through traditional fiction-writing had run its course. Certainly there had been more passion, shading and depth in The Life and Death of a Spanish Town (1937). In any case, abandoning the notion of multiple versions of The Stars and Stripes also meant the end of novel-writing as he had pursued it since 1921.


1 Paul, The Stars and Stripes Forever (New York: Random House, 1939), 6.
2 Ibid., 4, 7, 28. Random House’s lawyer, Horace S. Manges, earlier reported to Saxe Commins on the possibility of libel in The Stars and Stripes Forever. Mark Loring, he noted, was James Rand, Jr., the Starrett-Loring Company was Remington Rand, the Excelsior Precision Tool Co. was the Elmira Precision Tool Co. Random House’s Belle Becker asked Paul to changes some names: one Chowderhead Cohen would be too easily recognisable as the fictional "Chowderhead" and Pearl Bergoff as Pearl Weinstein. Before subsequent Paul books were published by Random House, more - sometimes much more - would be heard from Lawyer Manges (Manges to Commins, 22 September 1938; Becker to Paul, 28 September 1938, Columbia University Library Random House Collection).
3 Ibid., 29, 30,79; "her lover... had died five years after the War, from the effects of gas," 228.
4 Ibid., 54, 55.
5 Ibid., 70, 75-6, 81-2, 94.
6 Ibid., 132.
7 Ibid., 143.
8 Ibid., 185-6, 187, 210.
9 Ibid., 229-30.
10 Ibid., 237, 235, 237, 279, 297.
11 Ibid., 303, 313, 341.
12 Ibid., 358, 377, 393. James H. Rand, Jr., president of Remington Rand, the company on whose labor relations Paul based The Stars and Stripes Forever, declared that his "Mohawk Valley formula" was the reason for his victory over an AFL strike. "Two million businessmen have been looking for a formula like this and business has hoped for, dreamed of, and prayed for such an example." In The Turbulent Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 478, Irving Bernstein wrote, "The fact that the formula violated the Wagner Act gave [employers] no pause." Bernstein reports the Mohawk formula as the National Labor Relations Board outlined it in 1937. Its elements read like a plot summary of Paul’s novel.
13 Stars and Stripes, 390.

This analysis of The Stars and Stripes Forever is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

go to the Elliot Paul bibliography

go to the Elliot Paul homepage

go back to the top of the page