December 30, 2020
In October 1995, the American writer Dale Maharidge - the co-author with the photo-journalist Michael Williamson of the 1985 book A Journey To Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass - got a call out of the blue from one of Bruce Springsteen’s people. It turned out that Springsteen had been so moved by A Journey to Nowhere that he had written two songs for his new album, The Ghost of Tom Joad about it: “Youngstown” and “New Timer”.
Appropriately enough, then, Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 working class hymn mourning the post-industrial fate of Youngstown was, itself, inspired by a ten year old description of the once proud Ohioan steel town. Springsteen’s work was a lament about the “sinkin’ down” of human agency. A song about how the once proud working-class people of Youngstown were fucked at birth.
Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do."
These mills they built the tanks and bombs
That won this country's wars
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we're wondering what they were dyin' for
35 years and several award-winning (including a Pulitzer) books after the publication of A Journey To Nowhere, Dale Maharidge is back with his 2020 saga of the not-so-new underclass - a travelogue of suffering entitled Fucked At Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s. Today, I had the honor of being the first person to interview Maharidge about his important new book.
What is astonishing is how little has changed over the last thirty five years. Yes, we all know about Trump and COVID and the opioid epidemic which has ravaged middle America over the last quarter century. But the core narrative, what Maharidge calls the “central question”, the story of the death of human agency, that Maharidge wrote about in A Journey to Nowhere and Springsteen put to music in “Youngstown” hasn’t changed. The yard remains “just scrap and rubble.” Rather than Korea or Vietnam, the people of north east Ohio sent their sons to Afghanistan and Iraq. But once again they have no idea “what they were dyin’ for”.
In Fucked At Birth, Maharidge returns to Youngstown where he describes biblical infestation of suffering, poverty, addiction and fire. “One house on average per day burned when I was reporting in Youngstown in 1983,” he writes. “They were still burning…” No wonder Maharidge entitles this chapter “I’m Sinking Down”. He describes a ghost-town, the mutilated body of a failed civilization, the concluding chapter of the American dream.
“Youngstown is the kind of place that if you have repeatedly visited over the course of the past nearly four decades, you don’t pay attention in 2020 to the beautiful corpse that is downtown, along Federal Street and its environs. You notice what’s missing, retain memory of what once was: the neighborhood that had dozens of homes but today is a vast meadow. Steel mills stretching for a dozen miles along the Mahoning River and the 50,000 high-paid union jobs associated with them, vanished; the flats along the banks of the river returned to nature, thick with maturing riparian forest.”
Or perhaps it’s just the penultimate chapter. Maharidge’s perennial guide to Youngstown is a Labor Studies professor named John Russo who predicted both the deindustrialization of the Midwest and the rise of Donald Trump. But he sees the post 2020 future in even more apocalyptic terms. “2024, that going to be the seminal election,” Russo speculates. The economy will be devastated, there will be trillions of dollars of debt, and the rise of a real strongman - a chillingly competent and coherent Trump.
“I think 2021 to 2024 is going to be contested terrain,” Russo predicts. “You’re having the death of one type of system, and the beginnings of something else.”
God knows what kind of music Bruce Springsteen will create after reading Fucked At Birth. Rather than hymns of regret, however, we collectively need to learn a new song about the resurrection of human agency. It’s the only way that the American dream can be recalibrated in the 2020s.