Out of This Furnace

Out of This Furnace

Out of This Furnace Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thomas Bell

Thomas Bell was born Adalbert Thomas Belejcak in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1903. He was the son of Michael and Mary Belejcak, ethnic Slavs who immigrated to Braddock from the Sarisa province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bell started work in the steel mill at age fifteen, first as an apprentice electrician. He also began writing as a teenager, and by his early twenties, he wrote for the Braddock News-Herald. Bell moved to New York in 1922, where he continued writing. In 1930, he published his first novel, The Breed of Basil. His second novel, All Brides are Beautiful, a romance story set in New York in the years before World War II, was published in 1936. Out of This Furnace, published in 1941 and re-issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1976, is his most well-known work. Bell based many of the characters on his own family’s experiences as immigrant Slovak steelworkers in Braddock. His grandfather was an alcoholic, and his grandmother committed suicide. Bell’s father, Michael, started in Braddock as a steelworker before transitioning to retail work, but he died from tuberculosis at a young age. Bell’s mother, Mary, succumbed to the same disease five years later. Of his three uncles who emigrated to Braddock, only one, Joseph, survived to old age. A fellow steelworker likely murdered Bell’s uncle Paul, and poison gas from a furnace killed his uncle John at age thirty-two. Bell died from cancer in 1961, and an autobiographic memoir, In the Midst of Life, appeared that same year.
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Historical Context of Out of This Furnace

Bell’s novel covers a wide span of American history, which includes the Gilded Age (1865-1900), the Progressive Era (1890-1920), the Roaring Twenties (120-1929), and the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929-1939). These decades encompassed a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Between 1880 and 1920, over 20 million immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to America seeking work in the nation’s growing heavy industries. Their arrival contributed to a swelling working-class population that, by 1900, constituted 6 million people who labored in manufacturing, mining, and construction. Concurrently, this period oversaw a vast gulf in economic equality, in which wealthy owners of capital, such as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, wielded great power over workers and heavily influenced the American political system. This divide between labor and capital spurred the rise of labor unions such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations—all of which challenged the power of capital via the collective organization of industrial workers. Having grown up in the ethnic steel town of Braddock in the early twentieth century, Thomas Bell incorporates his own experiences living through such tumultuous eras into Out of This Furnace. He chronicles the interwoven stories of organized labor’s demise during the Gilded Age and its subsequent rebirth at the tail end of the Great Depression, as well as the long cultural process by which ethnic Slovaks transformed from immigrant outsiders into full-fledged American citizens.

Other Books Related to Out of This Furnace

Thomas Bell wrote Out of This Furnace during the Great Depression of the 1930s and published it on the cusp of America’s Depression-ending entrance into World War II. The Great Depression witnessed a burst of proletarian literature in America, as working-class writers told stories about factory workers, farmers, and other laborers struggling to survive in an era when capitalism appeared to have failed and socialism seemed the promise of the future. Proletarian literature seeks to depict accurately the material and social conditions of working-class people, to validate their culture, and to critique the capitalist power structure and its narrative of classlessness and middle-class mobility. Proletarian literature has a long history in America, and Bell’s novel shares a kindred spirit with Rebecca Harding Davis’ novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861), a searing depiction of the harsh lot of nineteenth-century ironworkers in a small industrial town. Like Out of This Furnace, “Life in the Iron Mills” also grapples with themes of industrialization, destruction, and coping with one’s poor circumstances. Contemporary works of Bell include Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited (1933), a novel about the struggles of coal miners at the onset of the Great Depression. Bell’s novel also exemplifies how Proletarian writing overlapped with Depression-era ethnic literature. Similar works include Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), a novel about working-class Jewish life in New York City’s Lower East Side, as well as Hsi Tseng Tsiang’s And China Has Hands (1937) which follows the struggles of immigrant Chinese in New York’s Chinatown. Modern books about laborers that have a similar social message include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which examines the effects of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act on the working class, and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, which chronicles one man’s experience living in Mexico City’s industrial suburbs.
Key Facts about Out of This Furnace
  • Full Title: Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America
  • When Written: 1930s and early 1940s
  • Where Written: New York City, United States
  • When Published: Originally published in 1941 and re-issued in 1976
  • Literary Period: Proletarian
  • Genre: Historical novel, ethnic novel, realistic novel, family saga, proletarian literature
  • Setting: Braddock, Pennsylvania, as well as other steel towns like Homestead.
  • Climax: John “Dobie” Dobrejcak helps to organize the Braddock steelworkers into a union under the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)
  • Antagonist: Capital, embodied by the Carnegie Steel Company/United States Steel Corporation.
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Out of This Furnace

In Real Life. Thomas Bell’s descriptions of the landscape in Braddock, Pennsylvania, are so exact that readers can use the detailed location of Mike Dobrejcak’s grave in the novel to find the gravestone of Bell’s own father, Mike Belejcak, in Braddock today.

Shrinking Suburb. Braddock is one of Pittsburgh’s oldest suburbs, but the process of deindustrialization in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s utterly hollowed out the city’s population. From a peak population of 20,879 in 1920, its current population now rests at only 2,189 today, a drop of 89 percent.