n June 16, 1960, two weeks after my twenty-second birthday, I began work as a junior-executive trainee for the General Motors Corporation. General Motors had been looking for a liberal-arts graduate—someone with no preconceptions about working in the corporate world, and with no background in engineering or business administration—to be part of a one-year experimental training program. They wanted, they said, “a fresh, honest viewpoint.”
I wanted to write novels. As an undergraduate at Columbia in New York City—I’d graduated a year earlier in 1959—I had completed two unpublished novels. During the nine months before I took up my position with General Motors, I’d been a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, where I’d been living on the proceeds of a generous university fellowship, and where I’d started skipping classes midway through my first semester to work on what would become a third unpublished novel. Early in the spring semester, the dean of the graduate school summoned me to his office, told me that my professors had informed him that I’d stopped attending their classes, and said that if I didn’t begin going to class, he would revoke my fellowship. I began attending classes again while also looking for a job that would have nothing to do with writing or literature, so that the conflicts that plagued me during my time in graduate school—whether to go to class or stay in my dormitory room to write; whether to be a critic of literature or a writer of literature that others would one day read and study—would, I hoped, be gone.
When General Motors offered me a position and assigned me to a Chevrolet body-stamping plant in Indianapolis, an hour’s drive from Bloomington, I dropped out of graduate school and moved to Indianapolis. Four other recent college graduates—two engineers, two business-school graduates—began the training program with me. For the next twelve months, we were to spend approximately half our time in the factory, and half our time in the plant’s executive offices. We would work in the factory with union men—foremen, carpenters, millwrights, chip handlers, truckers, electricians—and in the plant’s executive offices with clerks, secretaries, accountants, department heads, supervisors, and engineers. We would start in five different departments, changing assignments weekly, and submit reports about each department we worked in; at the end of the year, we would be appointed to our first executive positions.
We were, the personnel director explained, “to get the lay of the land,” so that in a year we would understand how all departments, divisions, and subdivisions of an automobile plant—whether Chevrolet-Indianapolis or other General Motors plants—were organized, and how departments, budgets, materials, policies, and decisions were interrelated. The workers and executives under us, it followed, would have faith in our actions and decisions because they would be assured of what was literally true: that we had access to information they didn’t have. As good as the prospect seemed for someone hoping to move up the corporate ladder of what was then the largest corporation in America, it seemed even better for someone hoping to write novels.
The Chevrolet plant, situated on the west fork of the White River, two miles south of downtown Indianapolis, covered a hundred acres—about the size of a hundred football fields—and on my first day there, Ralph Sharpe, the assistant director of personnel, gave me a tour of facilities that employed approximately three thousand factory workers and five hundred white-collar workers. Ralph introduced me to the company’s department heads, took me to lunch in the executive cafeteria, and told me about the many plans—stock options, car purchase, pension, health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance—that awaited me in my new life. Ralph and I had become friendly during the interview process, and my transition from Bloomington to Indianapolis was made easier by his offer, which I quickly accepted, to house-sit his mother’s home in Indianapolis (for forty dollars a month) while she was in Michigan for the summer, tending to an invalid sister.
I spent my first week at Chevrolet-Indianapolis in a pleasant air-conditioned office across from Ralph’s, reading through stacks of company literature he’d put together for me: the role of Chevrolet in the General Motors Corporation, the role of our plant in the Chevrolet Division, the role of the spot-welder in the door-assembly line, and so on. I recall in particular two things I read that week. The first was the story of how Louis-Joseph Chevrolet—a Swiss racecar driver who, with William C. Durant, founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company—chose the emblem for the car that would bear his name when, lying sleepless in Paris one night, he fell in love with a trapezoidal “bowtie” design in the wallpaper of his hotel room.
And I recall a handbook for foremen about how to get along with workers. The handbook contained charts that defined “the twelve basic human motivations.” By ranking a worker in each category and then using data in a “Human Motivational Chart” to construct a graph of the worker’s “personality type,” the foreman would be equipped to handle any worker. When something went wrong and the foreman knew whose “fault” it was, he was to approach the worker and ask him the reason for the trouble. “Listen politely to his answer,” the handbook advised, “then ask him for the real reason.”
At the start of my second week, I was assigned to the Materials Department, where I worked in its various divisions and subdivisions, office and factory, for the next six weeks. To ensure that the plant had “sufficient material to meet production schedules,” I would later write in my report, the materials department “received and handled all productive material from outside sources, as well as machinery, supplies, and equipment”; maintained records and scheduled “the fabrication of all productive parts throughout the plant”; and scheduled “the shipment of all material to Chevrolet assembly plants.”
I designed charts that showed the interrelation of departments in the offices and factory so that at any moment any individual item, whether a box of typewriter ribbons or a right-rear-inner-door-bracket-connecting-hinge, could be located. Nor was it “enough to merely know as much as possible about one’s own division or department,” I wrote, since in order to “do one’s own job well,” one needed to know “what the next guy’s job is, and how it relates to his.” Thus, “a clerk in Steel Follow-Up must know what is going on in Steel Stores, the Shipping Foreman must know what is going on in materials handling, and so on.” In all these reports I included a daily log in which I noted what I did and what I learned, along with the name of each employee—executive, clerk, foreman, engineer, or union man—with whom I worked.
On my first day in the materials department, the general superintendent, Art McGee, welcomed me, then opened the top drawer of his desk and took out a toy model of a Volkswagen Transporter minivan. With great pride, as if revealing a top corporate secret, he told me that at Chevrolet-Indianapolis we would be making body parts—side panels, doors, floors—for a Corvair 95, a Light Duty Forward Control (LDFC) vehicle that, like the Corvair car, would have a rear-mounted, six-cylinder, air-cooled engine, and would essentially be a replica of the Volkswagen minivan.
On my third day in the materials department, I was assigned to Henry Smith, a supervisor in charge of steel scheduling and follow-up. Henry put me at a desk directly behind his own, gave me several stacks of oak-tag sheets and told me to total—on my electric adding machine—columns of figures from one set of sheets and to post the totals on other sheets. Henry’s office, a long glass-enclosed rectangle in the north wing of the executive building, contained three rows of gray, chrome-rimmed desks, ten desks in each row.
The supervisor of each of three materials department subdivisions sat at the head of each row, executives, clerks, and secretaries at the twenty-seven desks behind the supervisors. The supervisors had telephones, and, except for the secretaries, everyone had an adding machine. At the rear of the room, the secretary to the superintendent of the materials-handling department sat at a desk in line with the middle row of desks, a few feet from the glass-enclosed office of the general superintendent.
I tried several times without success to get from Henry and—when he dismissed my questions with a curt “Just do your work, son!”—from others in the office some explanation of what the numbers I was posting represented. Nobody knew. As the hours went by and I kept posting hundreds of numbers from one card to another, I began amusing myself by inventing complicated problems in multiplication and division in order to listen to the pleasant whirring of the adding machine and watch it move, magically, on its own.
The man whose desk I’d taken returned a few days later; I resisted the urge to ask him about the numbers I’d been posting so that, when I returned to Bloomington on weekends (my girlfriend, working toward a master’s degree in music, was a classical pianist whose parents, upon her graduation from Hollins College the year before, had given her a Corvair rear-engine car!), I could tell a story that in its mundane insanity—performing thousands of calculations for eight hours without any understanding of what those calculations represented—seemed a Kafkaesque paradigm of a modern worker’s life.
I’d had long hours and days of rote work before that were made necessary by my family’s financial situation. My father had failed at every business he tried; my mother, a nurse, had supported us by often working sixteen-hour double-shifts at hospitals, and taking additional secretarial jobs on evenings and weekends. Receiving no weekly allowance from my parents, I started working part-time jobs when I was twelve, and continued doing so all through high school and college: collating advertising flyers; fulfilling orders for a mail-order hosiery company; boxing mail at the post office; pushing clothing racks through Manhattan’s garment center.
But the days I spent in the Chevrolet-Indianapolis offices seem, in memory, the longest of my life. I remember the heavy, surreal slowness of time, and the still heavier substantiality of the factory’s concrete and steel structures, the size and weight of body-stamping presses, the crushing power of the scrap baler, and a seemingly infinite variety of sounds, textures, and colors—from conveyor belts, overhead cranes, fork-lift trucks, double-door railroad boxcars, blackened floors, large tubs of iron bolts, and huge oil-slicked coils of steel. A picture that stays with me: four men wearing oversized safety mittens stand at the corners of a three-story-high stamping press, where, in tandem, they place a sheet of steel at the bottom, then touch buttons to close the press, stamping out a door or side-panel, after which the press opens, the men remove the stamped-out piece of steel, and put a new sheet in its place. It was a procedure they repeated twenty-odd times an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week.
The supervisors and department heads to whom I was assigned were mostly middle-aged men without college degrees who had fought their way up to positions of authority through hard work; they were men whose positions and salaries I was programmed to surpass within a year, and I quickly became aware that my being assigned to them added yet another obligation to long lists they were already working hard to fulfill. Once Ralph introduced me to them, they’d generally tell me to tag along with them for the rest of the day. They’d explain their job and their department’s functions, introduce me to others, and try to find work for me: doing time-motion studies, running off blueprints, working simple machines and presses.
By the second or third day, I’d usually suggest to the department head that I’d prefer to be on my own for the rest of the week—that I could introduce myself to staff and workers, and figure out where and how I might best be of use. My offer was invariably accepted, and I’d spend my time talking with staff members and workers, finding odd jobs and, most of the time, wandering around with a serious, concerned look on my face while dreaming of phantom novels. And sometimes, when the department head and his staff had trouble finding useful work (or make-work) for me, I’d search out the quietest place I could find and spend the day reading.
Thus, when I was in the personnel department, I spent several days reading articles and books about computers: what they were, and all the ways, from manufacturing to sales, GM executives and engineers believed they were going to revolutionize the automobile industry. The imminent arrival of computers, along with the small light-weight transistors that would make them practical—the first pocket transistor radios, the Regency TR-1s, had been manufactured only six years earlier in Indianapolis!—promised to transform not only the automotive industry, but virtually every form of manufacturing and communication in the world. In my report on the materials department I noted that while many employees found it difficult to concentrate on “routine” tasks such as posting numbers, “at our present rate of growth it would soon be possible to have IBM computers handle much of this work.”
On weekends in Bloomington, I’d entertain friends with tales of my life at Chevrolet-Indianapolis and of my nascent political consciousness (Read all about it: ASSEMBLY LINE WORKERS DO EXIST STATES NOVELIST NEUGEBOREN…. Extra! Extra! YOUNG NOVELIST DISCOVERS RACISM IN MIDWEST); but by my second month I was experiencing an acute, dizzying siege of nausea every morning, along with the fear that it would be on that day that I’d act out on my fantasies: invite all the Black janitors to lunch in the executive cafeteria; arrange screenings of Modern Times for the factory’s workers; hand out copies of Das Kapital to the plant manager, supervisors, and department heads. Meanwhile, the novels and stories I had out on submission were being turned down regularly, and in the evenings, exhausted and depressed, I did no writing. Would it be this way forever? Would I, like workers on assembly lines and clerks at adding machines, wind up performing what to me were dull, meaningless tasks for the rest of my life? Worse still, would I become the executive in charge of getting others to perform such mind-numbing tasks?
How, I wondered, did they do it? How did they work at such jobs for the better part of their waking hours—and at what price to their inner lives and the lives they lived away from the factory? There was also, like the nausea and my evening gloom, the specter of my father, and of my mother constantly humiliating him for his failures, along with the shame he’d felt two years earlier when she’d forced him into bankruptcy and he’d been unable to repay friends and relatives who’d been secretly loaning him the small amounts of money he brought home in his futile attempt to convince my mother he was not failing. If I never published—or, as now seemed alarmingly possible, if I never wrote again—how would I ever have the family I’d hoped to have? How could I submit a wife and children to life with an unpublished, frustrated, and failed writer?
As my life alternated between increasingly paralyzing depressions and antic fantasies, my fear of failure and humiliation were joined by the fear that I was, like several other members of my family who’d had breakdowns and been institutionalized, beginning to go mad.
Still, I loved the days I spent in the factory doing physical work: shoveling coal, loading boxcars, welding parts, trucking tubs of parts from one section of the factory to another. I loved helping to install a new twenty-five ton baler, and I took pride in being put in charge of the installation of a new spray booth and bake oven on the factory’s roof. I also helped install two new giant presses, and was fascinated to learn how this was done with pneumatic air jacks, timbers and rollers, rigs and winches. I took pleasure laying in feeder ducts for new welders in the LDFC door assembly area, and working an overhead crane that laid in copper wiring for new conduits.
I usually worked the six-thirty-to-three-o’clock shift, and I especially loved the days on which I was assigned to work with an individual worker. It gave me the chance to get to know somebody and thereby regain the belief that each of the several thousand men around me, despite the dreary, mindless nature of the work, was a unique human being. I recall the lovely feeling, one hot August afternoon, of resting against the inside wall of an empty coal car, sweat dripping down my face, neck, arms, and back—the adventure involved in doing the kind of real work I’d read about novelists of previous generations doing, and the flush of the physical work, conspiring to make me feel sublimely free and easy. The coal car—like Huck and Jim’s raft?—seemed adrift, the noises of the factory far away, and I enjoyed hanging out with the young Black man with whom, side by side, I’d spent the morning shoveling coal.
His name was Lou, and he was a handsome, well-built man of twenty or twenty-one, with a bullet-shaped head and steady open eyes. During the day he shoveled coal at the factory and at night attended school, working toward a high-school diploma. About a third of the factory workers at Chevrolet-Indianapolis were Black, most of them in the lowest salary categories, and most of the white workers—their origins in Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Indiana—were not shy about expressing hatred for them, especially those who’d arrived from the South.
Until I lived in Indianapolis, I’d only read about a sign I now began to see everywhere, in bars, restaurants, and amusement parks: WE SOLICIT WHITE PATRONAGE ONLY. If such signs were shamelessly displayed in a northern city in 1960—a city where, I learned, the Ku Klux Klan had had two hundred fifty thousand members when it was headquartered there forty years earlier—my imagination confirmed my worst beliefs about what life had been like for Black people in the South before 1960 and, as I was discovering, not only in the South.
Before heading out to Bloomington in the fall of 1959, I’d never been west of New Jersey. I knew about racism and anti-Semitism, but in our Brooklyn neighborhood, I rarely experienced it. Yes, I’d heard aunts and uncles talk disparagingly about Black people—about their fears that the “schvartzes” were moving in—and once, when I was eight years old and on the way home from Hebrew school, I was ambushed in the hallway of my building by three Irish kids who called me a “dirty Jew” while splitting the top of my head open with a belt buckle. (I recognized the boys and knew where they lived, and after the police investigated the incident, my mother chose not to press charges because, she explained, the boys came from families “less fortunate than ours.”) But that incident remained singular, and I considered it my good fortune to have grown up in a neighborhood that was racially and ethnically mixed. In my eighth-grade graduation picture from P.S. 246, seven of my classmates are Black, ten are Jewish, the other nineteen either Italian or Irish. From kindergarten until I graduated from high school, I’d hung out with Black kids on a daily basis, and like my family and the families of Jewish, Irish, and Italian friends, my Black classmates came from lower-middle-class homes, most of them in a three-block neighborhood that was a ten-minute walk from my house.
Lou was from Louisiana, and that August afternoon in the coal car he told me his story. His grandfather, father, and older brothers had worked in a factory in his hometown. After dropping out of high school, Lou had worked there too, until three years before when the owner, a white man, accused him of stealing.
“I didn’t do it, man, and I told him so,” Lou said. “He kept yelling at me that I did it and I kept telling him to yell at somebody else, that I didn’t do the fucking thing. When I got home that night my old man took a strap to me. I told him I didn’t do it, but he strapped me anyway. ‘Don’t you be talking back to a white man,’ he said, and my brothers just kept eating supper and didn’t say anything. The next morning I took my money and got on a bus and came north.”
Lou offered me a ride home, and on the way, we stopped at a bar for a beer. “This the color skin God gave me,” he said at one point, shoving his forearm in front of my eyes. “If any man doesn’t like it, that’s his tough shit. A man wants to be my friend, that’s fine with me. He doesn’t, that’s okay too.”
I became friendly with other workers, including Pete Kelly. Pete was a millwright, the highest-paid hourly position in the factory—a jack-of-all-trades, skilled at assembling, installing, and dismantling machinery—and I worked with him for a week, trouble-shooting a row of presses. Pete was a wiry man, about five foot five, a plug of tobacco always set in his cheek. He had a reputation for being “a character,” and he worked at maintaining it. He’d walk the aisles singing “My Old Kentucky Home” off-key, and goose workers who didn’t see him coming; at the end of his shift, after putting his holster and tools away, he’d edge toward the punch-out clock, and when the siren went off he’d be first in line to punch out, after which he’d lean back against a wall and chide workers still in line for “working overtime.”
At the end of our last day together, while we were washing up, he turned to me. “You won’t have to do this shit when you get to my age,” he said, and then, as he made for the punch-out clock: “They expect me to be their clown, so I’m their clown.” And later, over beers: “Even if you’re a skilled worker like me, what do you have to look forward to?” he asked. “Same old stuff, day in and day out, and maybe the union gets you a raise every couple of years. But nothing really changes. You’re lucky, kid, so you remember to take good care of yourself, okay?”
When Ralph ended our talk, I nodded, but made no promises, and I continued to ride home with Lou, Pete, and other union men.
A few days after I worked with Pete, Ralph Sharpe summoned me to his office to tell me that he’d learned I’d been riding to and from work with “hourlies.” “We all think it would be a good idea if you wouldn’t,” he said. He informed me that, over and above what he considered commonsense reasons for not becoming “friendly” with hourlies, plant policy forbade it. The philosophy behind that policy was summarized in a GM pamphlet I’d read during my first week at Chevrolet-Indianapolis. “An executive has a lot in common with a jockey, a racing driver or a fighter pilot,” the pamphlet stated. “They all have the same job—to get maximum performance from the machine, animate or inanimate, that has been entrusted to their care.” When Ralph ended our talk, I nodded, but made no promises, and I continued to ride home with Lou, Pete, and other union men.
Some of the older factory workers would tell me about what things were like in the days before unions gained power, and the stories were straight out of novels by John Dos Passos—workers sabotaging assembly lines, police disrupting rallies, union organizers losing jobs. Several men remembered the time when, after breaking up a union rally at the plant (which had been a carriage factory before it became Chevrolet), the police had cornered the speechmakers and beaten them senseless while the workers looked on.
Although my sympathies—reinforced by my reading of grievances and labor-management hearings—were more with the workers than with management, any idealized notion I’d had of the Noble Working Man soon disappeared. Many of the workers I met were bigoted, lazy, and mean-spirited; like the men in the executive wing, what they wanted was more money with which to buy more things, and individuals they saw as threats to their jobs, status, and way of life—Black people, poor people, immigrants, “smart-aleck” professors, Jews, beatniks, Communists—were resented and reviled.
Jokes about “niggers” and “kikes” were the staple of their humor; hate sheets drenched in racial slurs were shown to me for my approval; World War II veterans, not knowing I was Jewish, would tell me that the mistake we’d made at the end of the war was “not to join up with the Nazis against the Communists,” and remark that “maybe a lot of them Jews had it coming.” Some told me stories about going “coon hunting” on Saturday nights—four or five guys, with chains, riding dark backroads in search of a solitary Black guy. Others talked with pride about burning down the homes of Blacks who’d moved into their neighborhoods.
How to respond to these remarks and tales—and to what end, and at what price? The rage I felt was overwhelming, yet only served to reinforce my feelings of helplessness, isolation, and failure. Once, on the way home from work with three “hourlies,” I nearly killed the four of us by reaching over from the back seat and whacking the driver over the head with a rolled-up newspaper when, in response to a remark I’d made, he said, “What the fuck are you—a nigger lover?”
At the end of the summer, Ralph’s mother returned to Indianapolis, and I accepted an invitation from one of the other trainees to move into an apartment in the Meadows. A new development on the north side of Indianapolis, the Meadows consisted of several dozen three-story brick buildings whose residents were young executives (men), schoolteachers (women), divorcées (more than I realized existed), and married couples (without children). I ate well, drank a lot, bought books and records, took walks back and forth across the empty fields that joined our development to the Meadows Shopping Center, and saw my girlfriend on weekends spent mostly in front of the TV, watching football games.
Retreating more and more into myself, I lacked the energy—or will—to write even a single line of fiction; other than my monthly reports, the only writing I did were comments jotted on the pages of William Whyte’s The Organization Man. “Oh the horror! The horror!” I scrawled in the margins of chapter one; and beneath the book’s closing paragraph, where Whyte asserted that the organization man “must fight The Organization” from within, I wrote, “NO—he must leave the Org.” I also waged a private war against the editorial pages of the two major Indianapolis newspapers, the News and the Star, both of which editorialized against integrating the schools (“The end of discrimination…can come only when the white people of the South want it to come”), and for using American military force whenever and wherever our interests around the world were threatened.
The syndicated columnist who regularly espoused these positions was Barry Goldwater, a man I’d never heard of before moving to Indiana—so vast was my ignorance of the America beyond New York City!—and I was shocked that anyone, much less a United States senator, could hold them. “We are the bearers of Western Civilization—the most noble product of the heart and mind of man,” Goldwater wrote, and “the privilege of being born in the West carries with it the responsibility of extending our good fortune to others…. Justice is a worthy objective, but if justice for the Bantus entails driving the government of South Africa away from the West, then the Bantus must be prepared to carry their identification cards yet a while longer.”
I was terrified by the brash, unapologetic way he wrote of using our military power to defend Western civilization and “extend our good fortune to others,” especially given what seemed, during the Cold War, the credible possibility of nuclear catastrophe. That a U.S. senator could embrace such views—views held by nobody I’d known in New York City during the first twenty-one years of my life—surprised and astonished me. Yet they were the same views held by most people I worked and lived with at Chevrolet-Indianapolis and the Meadows, and I began to suspect that perhaps I was the one who had grown up in the provinces.
One night, watching television in my living room, noises from a party next door blasting through the walls, I saw Malcolm X for the first time. I’d been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent campaigns (the Indianapolis papers viewed King as “an irresponsible extremist”), and I was prepared to reject Malcolm X’s views, for the popular media had persuaded me that he was a spokesman for a violent Black extremism that paralleled the racist white extremism of the KKK. But I found myself agreeing with what Malcolm said: that for Black Americans to march and petition for what should have already been theirs could be described in one word—“begging”—and that they should stop being beggars.
And once I found myself believing in the justice—and good sense—of Malcolm’s perspective, the appeal by liberals to work through orderly democratic processes began to seem just another way of preserving bigotry and injustice. What good was free speech and the right to vote and protest when the law of the land was the law of the majority and the majority was white—and when I was living in a time and place where everyone seemed to agree with Charles E. Wilson, former president of General Motors, and secretary of defense under President Eisenhower, “that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa”?
I immersed myself in the works of writers whose views reinforced my new sense of how the world worked: C. Wright Mills’s Listen Yankee and The Causes of World War III; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited; Paul Goodman’s essays in Commentary magazine, which later became part of Growing Up Absurd; and Edward Sapir’s essays in Language, Culture, and Personality. I copied out passages by Sapir, a writer I’d last read as a freshman at Columbia, that spoke directly to my experience at Chevrolet-Indianapolis. “The great cultural fallacy of industrialism,” Sapir had written in an essay that remained revelatory despite having been published in 1924, “is that in harnessing machines to our uses it has not known how to avoid the harnessing of the majority of mankind to its machines.” In a passage I could quote verbatim, he continued:
The telephone girl who lends her capacities, during the greater part of the living day, to the manipulation of a technical routine that has an eventually high efficiency value but that answers to no spiritual needs of her own is an appalling sacrifice to civilization. As a solution of the problem of culture she is a failure—the more dismal the greater her natural endowment. As with the telephone girl, so, it is to be feared, with the great majority of us, slave-stokers to fires that burn for demons we would destroy, were it not that they appear in the guise of our benefactors…. Part of the time we are dray horses, the rest of the time we are listless consumers of goods which have received no least impress of our personality. In other words, our spiritual selves go hungry, for the most part, pretty much all of the time.
Enlisting passages from Sapir, Mills, Huxley, and Goodman to diminish the shock I felt at finding myself in an America so unlike the one I’d grown up in or had ever imagined, I used them to reinforce a way of seeing the world that, for me, was new. Instead of questioning particular policies or actions, I began to question what I perceived as the system underlying these policies and actions.
An entity I began to think of as The System was the true cause of suffering, injustice, and oppression and was inimical to what I thought of as The Human Spirit, for it contained, alas—in both conservative and liberal ideologies—the seeds of its own preservation. At the heart of the problem, I theorized, was inertia. Yes, leaders would debate how many jobs were required to keep the economy moving, as Kennedy and Nixon did in their televised presidential debates that fall. But nobody in a position to change things—nobody with power—questioned the quality of those jobs, or of the daily lives of the people who did them. Immediate and radical transformation was imperative; without it, I believed, we were all doomed.
Stirred by revolutionary fantasies, and terrified that my dream of becoming a published writer was in grave danger, I decided to take the advice I’d written in the margins of The Organization Man. A week before Christmas, I went into Ralph’s office and told him that I was resigning. I said that I probably was not “cut out” for the world of business, and revealed, for the first time, that my true ambition was to be a writer. Ralph told me that my reports had received high praise throughout the corporation, that evaluations of my work were excellent, that I would be due for a raise in a week—the end of the first six months of the training program—and that an even larger pay increase would be coming at the end of the year.
He seemed honestly puzzled, and encouraged me to rethink my decision. Wanting him to know how much I appreciated what he’d done for me, and hoping he might understand why I was resigning, I tried to explain myself. But when I talked about how ungratifying it was to help make only one part of a truck while having no say in deciding what kind of truck it was, Ralph was bewildered. What happened next seemed surreal: he looked out the window, saw a Chevrolet car passing by, and pointed to it with a smile. “Whenever I see a car go by that has a part in it that came out of our plant,” he said, “I feel a tremendous sense of pride.”
With my gift for writing, he said, I might one day become head—for all of GM!—of communications and public relations. Trying not to hurt his feelings, I thanked him again for all he’d done for me, and added that I supposed that I just couldn’t be the one who told men to press two buttons all day long, day in and day out. To which he replied, as I must have known he would, with words that proved the justice of my theories: “But if you don’t do it, someone else will.”
Again, he urged me to reconsider. I shrugged and said nothing. “The way I look at it, Jay,” he said, “we’re making life easier for them. They’re happy. Most of them aren’t fit to do anything better anyway.”
The emotions and theories that had risen in me during my time at GM were threatening to turn my novel into a political treatise. And so I decided to write directly about what had generated my newfound political, economic, and social beliefs.
Two weeks later—early in 1961, with the newly elected John F. Kennedy about to take office—I moved back to New York City, and began working on a novel about a wildcat strike at an automobile plant in Indiana. I soon realized, however, that the emotions and theories that had risen in me during my time at GM were threatening to turn my novel into a political treatise. And so I decided to write directly about what had generated my newfound political, economic, and social beliefs.
The result was a book-length political tract, A Letter to Kennedy, that began by taking up Kennedy’s oft-cited comment, in his inaugural address, about the torch having been “passed to a new generation of Americans.” I noted that I was “of another generation, also born in this century…a different and newer generation [that sees] one paramount objective: the removal of the threat to existence.” On the title page, as epigraph, I invoked Newton’s first law of motion: “Every body persists in a state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled by external force to change that state.”
The book became less and less about my experiences at Chevrolet and, increasingly, an impassioned polemic against war, racism, industrialism, militarism, capitalism, totalitarianism, imperialism, and inertia. I wrote in a voice that echoed not only the president’s, but also the speeches in the “I Speak for Democracy” contests of my grade-school days. “If I presume to speak not only for myself, but for other young people with similar doubts and emotions and fears and hopes and faiths,” I wrote, “let me say that we know these things”:
We know that in this nuclear age, where war will mean killing civilians en masse, where biological and chemical and radiation warfare may already be more advanced than killing by bombs, in this age we cannot give our commitment blindly.
Meanwhile, heeding my own words—embracing the responsibility to say “no” to those institutions that were making nuclear war possible—I applied for conscientious-objector status. I also became active in political organizations. During the next four years, while writing three more unpublished novels, I would work with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to try to desegregate housing in New York City apartment buildings such as those owned by the Trump family, and with anti-war organizations to try to end the war in Vietnam.
In the fall of 1961, I took a position at a prep school in Saddle River, New Jersey, where I was the English department—teaching seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade English. I lived in New Jersey, but drove back and forth to Queens several times a week to visit with my brother, who, just before his nineteenth birthday, had his first major psychotic break and would, for most of the next half-century, spend his life journeying in and out of mental hospitals, psych wards, and halfway houses.
I returned to Indiana University in the summer of 1961, completed a master’s degree in June 1962 and, away from New York City, I began writing a group of short stories, and working on several novels that were set in the post–World War II Brooklyn in which I’d grown up. In the summer of 1962, I returned to New York City, and a year later, after I’d received, by count, more than two thousand rejections on eight unpublished books and a multitude of stories and articles, my first novel, Big Man, was accepted for publication.
My training to become a General Motors executive took place six decades ago in a part of America now considered Trump Country, and in a city that is literally Pence Country, for Vice President Mike Pence was born on June 7, 1959, exactly a year and a week before I started at Chevrolet, in Columbus, Indiana, forty-six miles southeast of Indianapolis. Pence grew up in Columbus and went to nearby Hanover College before moving to Bloomington, where he graduated from the Indiana University School of Law.
During these sixty years, I returned to Indianapolis only once, in 2007, to give a talk on mental illness. At the time, the Chevrolet-Indianapolis plant was still operational; it closed four years later in June 2011, and was demolished in 2014. The site was purchased by the Ambrose Property Group, which announced plans to “redevelop” it into a 550-million-dollar project that would have included 2.7 million square feet of residential, office, commercial, hotel, and retail “assets” that would “be an extension of the Downtown.” But Ambrose pulled out of its agreement with the city in September 2019, sold twelve acres of the site to the Indianapolis Zoo, and declared its intent to seek a buyer for the rest. According to the Indianapolis Monthly, Ambrose and the city “appear to be in for a lengthy court battle.”
But what else, I now find myself wondering—other than technologies and products that inform daily life, and language used to euphemize both prejudice and “America First” political values—has changed in the years since I left Indianapolis? More to the point, has anything fundamental changed in the ignorant, mean, and at times savagely bigoted culture I encountered there in 1960? Has anything changed in the ways politicians prey on the fears and racism of white blue-collar workers? Do large numbers of people there still believe that the responsibility for whatever may ail us and cause our troubles does not come from who-we-are, but from somewhere else and from people-not-like-us—not only from African Americans, immigrants, Jews, smart-aleck professors, and Communists, but also, these days, according to our president, from Muslims, Mexican rapists, undocumented immigrants, the free press, “fake” news, and a “foreign” virus.
I wonder, too, about the rage and outrage I discovered in that time and place—in others and in me—and about what use and what ends, personal and political, they served, or may yet serve. And what, in the mid-American world I discovered more than a half-century ago, can serve as a source that might heal, rather than exacerbate, our grievous national wounds. Mostly, though, I wonder about where the years have gone. I wonder how it can be that experiences that seem, still, so terribly, palpably present, could have taken place nearly sixty years ago when I was a very young man far from home.
This essay originally appeared in the November 2020 Issue of Commonweal. The article can be accessed here.