Review: Joe Hill

Joe HillJoe Hill, Wallace Stegner. New York: Penguin Books, 1990 (Originally published under the title The Preacher and the Slave, 1950).

Summary: Wallace Stegner describes this as a “biographical novel” and in it, he fills out the enigmatic life and death of labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill, who was executed for murder before a Utah firing squad in November 1915.

Maybe you have heard of Joe Hill from the poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” by Alfred Hayes set to music by Earl Robinson, and performed at Woodstock by Joan Baez, and a range of singers from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen. Hill (also known as Joseph Hillstrom) was a Swedish laborer who emigrated to the U.S., traveling across country from New York to the West Coast and serving as an organizer and songwriter for the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the “Wobblies” or the “One Big Union.” He ended up in Utah in 1913, was accused and tried for the murder of a store owner and his son in a robbery attempt by two men in Salt Lake City. One of the two men was wounded. The same night Hill sought treatment for a gunshot wound that he claimed he received in a quarrel over a woman. He never revealed the name of the woman, and was found guilty, and despite efforts that went all the way to the Supreme Court and the President, was executed in November 1915 by firing squad. Among his last words were these:

“Don’t waste time mourning. Organize.” (in a telegram to labor leader Bill Haywood)

Wallace Stegner fleshes out the bare outlines of Hill’s story in this “biographical novel” that explores this enigmatic character, who wrote IWW’s songbook, traveled from town to town hopping trains, and escaping scrapes with goons shutting down labor rallies. He picks up the story in San Pedro where Hill is a dock worker. Much of Joe’s character is explored through the eyes of Gus Lund, a Lutheran mission pastor, who Hill often visited late at night, and who is present with Hill on his last night and at his execution. What emerges is a gifted musician and songwriter, a shadowy figure who skirts the edges of the law and of violence, a selfless organizer for the IWW who will accept no money, and one who views the capitalist system with cynicism, perhaps born of being the bastard son of a Swedish capitalist.

Perhaps the most striking scenes are in a farm labor camp where a labor rally turns ugly, resulting in the death of Joe’s fellow-organizer Art Manderich. We see the substandard housing and primitive sanitary facilities that created the conditions for disease and disability among workers and their families.

Nearly half of the novel is devoted to Hill’s last years in Utah, his humiliation in a music store when he tries to get a love song published, his arrest, his unwillingness to produce his alibi and stubborn insistence upon a new trial. And indeed, the eyewitnesses were unsure of their identification and there were other irregularities in the trial. Hill is portrayed as a martyr for labor. We are never quite sure whether Joe is really protecting the woman over whom he was reputedly wounded, his fellow traveler Otto Applequist, who had his own shadowy pastimes, or whether he really committed the murder but thought the apparent injustice of his execution would better serve the labor cause.

My impression was that Joe Hill was driven by a restless, never in life to be satisfied, anger. Was it really against the capitalist system, or did this personify his capitalist father? What we do know is that he died angry, crying out as his executioners prepared to fire:

“Fire — go on and fire!”

2 thoughts on “Review: Joe Hill

  1. I consider myself a fan of Stegner but did not know of this book by him. Thanks for the information and the review. I just was going over a book forum discussion of Angle of Repose, a Stegner favorite. Would you say Joe Hill is like any of his other novels? Stegner’s skill at writing about the West, it’s character and imposing beauty is thrilling to read, and his plots are complex but compelling, I think.

    • Teri, actually it is somewhat unique, although it connects with his interests in Western history as well as his exploration of Hill’s inner life. Thanks for writing!

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