John L. Lewis—A Most Peculiar Man
The legendary mine union chief explained
September 23, 1977
Publication of a new biography of the miners’ union autocrat occasioned this review. His long residence in the capital city was news to most Springfieldians by the 1970s. I see the book was reissued in 1986 by the University of Illinois Press.
Reviewed: John L. Lewis: A Biography by Melvyn Dobofsky and Warren Van Tine. Quadrangle Books, 1977
Springfield has always liked to lay claim to John L. Lewis. Lewis was the formidable head of the United Mine Workers union from 1920 to 1960 and the third of the three "L’s"—Lincoln and Vachel Lindsay were the other two—who’ve graced Springfield’s past. Lewis rivaled Lindsay in eccentricity and rivaled Lincoln (on whose birthday he himself was born) in power, but, unlike them, he was not a Springfieldian by either birth or adoption. The only home John L. Lewis ever knew was the United Mine Workers.
This and much, much more is made clear in a new biography of Lewis just released by Quadrangle Books. Simply titled, John L. Lewis: A Biography, it was written by Melvyn Dobofsky and Warren Van Tine, professors of history at the State University of New York (Binghamton) and Ohio State, respectively. It is a major work about a major historical figure.
A capsule description of Lewis that appears on the book’s dust jacket is as good a summary of the man as any: "John L. Lewis stood astride the growth of American labor movement as did no one else in this century. He ruled the United Mine Workers from 1919 until 1960. He built the CIO and organized assembly line workers in the steel, automobile, chemical and electrical industries, among others. And, for three decades, he defied Presidents, challenged Congress, and kept American political life in an uproar."
The Lewis–Springfield link has sometimes been exaggerated and sometimes misunderstood, but it was real. An Iowan by birth, Lewis first saw Springfield in 1908 when he passed throughout his way to Panama, Illinois, in Macoupin County. It was in Panama that Lewis got his start in union politics. It was only two years before he returned to Springfield, this time as a lobbyist for UMW, and another seven after that when he moved his family—a wife, two daughters, parents, sisters, and a flock of brothers and cousins—to the Illinois capital. The family made their home in a roomy three-story house at 1142 W. Lawrence Avenue for eighteen years, his mother for more than thirty.
But why Springfield? Lewis at this stage of his career was on the road constantly, organizing, politicking, working out of the national UMW headquarters in Indianapolis. "Successful politicians, businessmen, and labor leaders necessarily sacrificed many of the customary obligations of family life to the exigencies of the ‘job,’” the authors note. "But that scarcely explains why Lewis voluntarily chose to establish his home in a city distant from his place of ‘business." The authors suggest a conflict with his wife Myrta’s "oppressively bourgeois character," possibly also a fear that, were he to live and work in the same city, he would spend time with his family "at the cost of his union career and soaring ambition."
The line Lewis drew between his public and private lives is one of the most significant and fascinating things about his busy life. Previous biographies offered little about his life outside the union office and much of what they did offer was inaccurate. Much of this was the result of Lewis’s own stubborn silence on the subject. It has been said that men who worked, closely with Lewis for years couldn’t tell for sure how many children he had or what their names might be. Dubofsky and Van Tine note: "It was as if the two aspects of Lewis’s life required totally different personalities . . . . The union role necessitated public presence, cunning, excessive selfishness, and low ethics; proper family life demanded privacy, personal warmth, cooperative effort, and a firm moral code."
Lewis’s tenure as head of the mine workers was marked by ruthless infighting, occasional violence, vote frauds and dozens of lesser illegalities, and a disregard for the law that bordered on the anarchistic. His private life, on the other hand, was a model of Victorian probity. It is in their explication of this, the least known aspect of the man’s life, that Dubofsky and Van Tine are most useful. His life was an unhappy one: a beloved daughter dead at seven, her troubled overweight sister, a wife who schooled their only son to devise a life that was a "flight from the reputation of his father."
Lewis was no Springfieldian, in spite of what it said on his voter registration card. He maintained the Lawrence Avenue house as his voting address long after he left for the new UMW headquarters in Washington in 1935,though it is unclear why. He was seen on the streets of the capital only occasionally after 1950, the year his mother died, usually when he was in town on union business. Still, Elise Morrow recalled in a 1947 magazine article that his appearances—the tavern at the Leland Hotel was a favorite haunt—were very much taken for granted.
It was as UMW president, not as a citizen, that Lewis left a mark on Springfield. During the late ’20s and early ’3()s, when the coal industry and the UMW were staggering from the effects of the Depression, the union was disintegrating and challenges to Lewis’s leadership were mounting.
An election in 1932 to approve a reduced wage agreement in Illinois supported by Lewis was voted down by the miners. A second vote was taken but never tallied because the ballots were mysteriously stolen in a daylight grab in downtown Springfield. Lewis declared an emergency, and announced the new wage pact approved. It was widely thought among Illinois miners that Lewis forces had engineered the theft. The authors give us this bit of doggerel:
John L. Lewis blew the whistle;
John H. Walker rang the bell;
Fox Hughes stole the ballots,
And the miners wages went to hell.
The incident touched off the bloody mine wars of the ’30s, a decade of violence that split the central Illinois miners into two camps. The depth of bitterness toward Lewis was revealed in 1960, when a local reporter asked Dino Fartiglioni, of the anti-Lewis Progressive Miners of America, for comment upon the news of Lewis’s resignation as head of the rival UMW. Fartiglioni said simply, "There’s no comment from us at all. They’re United Mine Workers and we’re Progressive Mine Workers."
Lewis left behind him staunch allies and bitter enemies; the only people who were neutral about him were those who did not know him. Springfield opinion is still divided, for example. Historians, able at a distance of some years to finally put Lewis’s career in perspective, seem equally divided. Lewis
deserved the praise given him in a private note from Herbert Hoover in 1960 in which the ex-President said, "Your life has been one of stout support of the miners’ interests . . . you supported the installation of every labor-saving device and the elimination of feather-bedding; and you insisted upon constantly greater safety measures. That is statesmanship." But it can be said with equal truth, as Dubofsky and VanTine do, that "entrepreneurism, despotism, and a contempt for the law ranked high among the legacies the ancient leader passed on to his successors . . . "
By the time of his death at eighty-nine in 1969, Lewis was enfeebled and largely alone, having outlived most of his contemporaries. His remains were cremated in Washington and returned to Springfield, where they lie buried in the Lewis family plot in Oak Ridge Cemetery next to those of his wife and mother (and near those of Lincoln and Lindsay). The authors note of the passing of a man who once dared Presidents: "Most Americans . . . reacted to Lewis’s death with mild curiosity rather than grief. From many came the telling words; ‘I thought he was already dead.’"
One of the things about Lewis that strongly impressed the public (in addition to his remarkable eyebrows) was his skill with words—a trait he shared with poet Lindsay and statesman Lincoln, with whom he is often linked. He was one of the few union leaders before or since able to quote Shakespeare to a crowd of coal diggers and not only get away with it but make them like it. During World War II, when Lewis’s CIO was fighting with the steel industry, Franklin Roosevelt angrily fumed, "A plague on both your houses." Lewis thundered back, "It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace."
Self-made man, tyrant, brawler, a man "who had tried to be a good father even if he did not know how," a man the authors call "this strange creature, this most peculiar man, this man Lewis" could fill the six hundred pages of this book and more. A fascinating puzzle. Dubofsky and Van Tine have
assembled more of his parts than anyone has yet been able to do. ●