In a few days I mastered mistake-finding sufficiently to enjoy it very much and do it competently. I was at it all day long, working at speed; well, that was no hardship to me. From childhood, I had been trained to jump to the order; and speed has always seemed to me to be a vital part of efficiency. The continual movement put an end to my day-dreams about the Merchant Service college. I now was moving about all day long, going from floor to floor, stopping a loom, getting another under way, solving some odd error, or causing something to be set right, and having brief words with weavers now and then about the working of their machines. Most of my joy in the work came from its independence. I was the mistake-finder, running the job pretty much as I liked, trusted t do it well, and knowing that I was trusted. The flattery of this was a continual great delight to me; it was my first command, and full of the liveliest interest. No man can be unmoved by the great concerted energy of many men and women. The roaring thundering clang of the energy of the weaving-rooms was a big and exciting thing. Sometimes I felt that it was an enormous dragon and that my mind was going against it with one little purpose, to get at its secret springs and master it.
In 1895, John Masefield, a young seaman apprentice on an English windjammer, became convinced he had some latent gift for writing and jumped ship in Manhattan. After a few hungry weeks, he walked into the office of a carpet factory in Yonkers and applied for a job. In the Mill is his memoir of the next two years, during which he worked as one of hundreds in a great Industrial Age factory full of looms, presses, pulley, conveyors, steam engines, and other complex machinery.
Masefield’s poetry has a strong lyrical streak, and it infuses In the Mill with a poetry that few would suspect of a world usually portrayed as grim, relentless, and inhumane. Partly this is because work in the mill was for Masefield, an improvement on his previous situations — working all hours in extreme weather on the ship, and before that, rising at four A.M. and carrying out back-breaking chores on a farm. Within a few weeks of being hired, Masefield realizes the regular hours — and days off — have their advantages:
When I returned from one of these excursions I felt that indeed my lot had fallen on a fair ground and that I had a goodly heritage; beauty all round me, leisure, such as I had not thought possible, books, so cheap that I could have a library of them, and a great, vivid romantic capital City only half an hour away.
As much of In the Mill is about Masefield’s time away from the factory as in it. Yonkers then sat on the far fringe of New York City; within fifteen minutes’ walk, he could find himself in the middle of a wild forest with no trace of man’s touch. And he could afford to buy books that he consumed with a ravenous hunger. Even though he saw writing as his calling, he had no real sense of what or how he would pursue it until he stumbles upon cheap red Buxton Forman editions of the works of Keats and Shelley:
I began with the Keats, wondering what a classic would be like, and a little fearful lest it should prove to be in couplets like Pope’s Odyssey. I read one short poem with amazement, then a second, which brought me under his spell for ever, then four lines of a third, and for that night I could read no more. I was in a new world where incredible beauty was daily bread and breath of life. Everything that I had read until then seemed like paving-stones on the path leading to this Paradise; now I seemed to be in the garden, and the ecstasy was so great that the joy seemed almost to burn…. I knew then that Medicine was not the law of my being, but the shadow of it; and that my law was to follow poetry, even if I died of it.
Masefield proves a diligent worker and obtains several promotions, moving up to the job described above, one we’d now call quality control. His supervisor holds out fine hopes for him — one day, he tells young “Macey”, you can have a factory floor of your own to run. To Masefield, however, this prospect rises up like a great life-consuming threat. He quits, collects his pay, sells off most of his books, and gets a berth on a merchant ship headed for England.
In hindsight, he thinks he may have seen the factory system in its best light, “in a land which held very strongly the concepts of equality and of dignity.” And he admits that his memories of the mill are not always glowing:
Often, I hated the mill; sometimes in a dream, I have thought that I had to be there again, or was there again, unable to leave, and have wakened glad to find it not so. When I revisited it a few winters ago, my heart sank at the sight of it, and I knew again my old winter horror.
In the Mill is written in a simple, self-effacing style that often belies its beauty and insights. One might argue that this style stems from a tendency in Masefield to avoid stepping above his place in the world, an innate acceptance of the Victorian class system that was fading fast or gone completely by the time he wrote this book. Certainly In the Mill seems subdued compared to what one might expect of a memoir of grunt work in a great dark factory. But it also seems something of a relief from the over-written and strident accounts more usually cataloged as proletarian literature. Indeed, subtlety and self-effacement are part of In the Mill’s great charm.
- • The New Yorker, 23 August 1941
- The British Poet Laureate recalls his experiences as a carpet-mill worker in Yonkers some forty-five years ago, at a time that marked the beginnings of his apprenticeship to literature. A simple and poignant autobiographical sketch.
- • Time, 11 August 1941
- By stiff literary standards, England’s Poet Laureate is an easy man to underestimate. But the very qualities that make his work minor (and made him Laureate) — simplicity, traditionalism and sentimentality — are also his great charm. Hardly less than Rudyard Kipling, he is a workingman’s poet. The same qualities make In the Mill, the story of the days when he was an intelligent young workingman, one of the most engaging of his books.
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In the Mill, by John Masefield
London: Heinemann, 1941
New York: Macmillian, 1941