Out of This Furnace

Out of This Furnace
Out of This Furnace  
Out of This Furnace
Paperback Edition
Author(s) Thomas Bell
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel, Family saga
Publisher Little, Brown & University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date 1941 (rediscovered & reissued 1976)
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 424 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-8229-5273-4 Paperback
OCLC Number 2610527
Dewey Decimal 813/.5/2
LC Classification PZ3.B4153 Ou12 PS3503.E4388
Preceded by All Brides are Beautiful
Followed by Till I Come Back to You

Out of This Furnace is a historical novel and the best-known work of the American writer Thomas Bell (1903–1961).

The novel is set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel town just east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania along the Monongahela River. It was first published in 1941 by Little, Brown and Company. Based upon Bell's own family of Rusyn and Slovak immigrants, the story follows three generations of a family, starting with their migration in 1881 from Austria-Hungary to the United States, and finishing with World War II. The novel focuses on the steelworkers' attempt to unionize from 1889, the first Homestead strike (mentioned by Andrej on p. 38) through the big Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, the Great Steel Strike of 1919 right after World War I, and the events of the 1930s (Labor Organizing). A common connection of struggle, poverty, and entire need of the characters of forces out of their control come together to tell a story of a tragic depiction of a truly troubled group of people. Shared with unbearable financial adversity, the Slovaks nicknamed "Hunkies" were also exposed to discrimination by other "Americans". The novel's title refers to the central role of the steel mill in the family's life and in the history of the Pittsburgh region.

Long out of print, the novel was rediscovered in the 1970s by David P. Demarest, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, who convinced director Frederick A. Hetzel at the University of Pittsburgh Press to reissue it in 1976. The book quickly became a regional bestseller. By the 1980s, however, it found an even larger readership on American college campuses. Out of This Furnace is regularly used as required reading in universities to introduce students to the history of immigration, industrialization, and the rise of trade unionism, as well as to the genre of the American working class novel.


Plot summary

Part One

Kracha learned about opportunities in America through letters written from relatives who had previously immigrated to the United States. The letters contained precise instructions on how to arrive in New York, buy a railroad ticket, board the ship, and ask help from fellow Slovakian travelers. If lost he was to show papers to a police officer and never let anyone else handle his money.

During his trip to the United States, he meets a young woman named Zuska with whom he becomes infatuated. Zuska is married and her husband is on the boat with her, but this does not discourage Kracha from wanting her. When Kracha hears that Zuska is turning 19 during the trip over, he buys whiskey in order to throw her a party. Unfortunately for him, Zuska resists his advances.

Upon arriving, he begins his journey to White Haven. Having spent his train ticket money on Zuska's party, he is forced to make his way by foot. His journey, however, is fairly trouble-free and he arrives to White Haven in short order. There, he meets his sister Franka, brother Puskin and another Slovak immigrant Dubik. Dubik and Kracha become close friends, spending most of their time together. When Dubik marries his sweetheart, Kracha is his best man. Dubik later moves on to Braddock, Pennsylvania to try his luck in Andrew Carnegie's steel mill. He encourages Kracha to join him in the mill, but he can not finance the venture at the time.

After two years in America, Kracha sends for his wife, Elena, to join him in America. When she arrives, he is somewhat disappointed - she is less energetic than he remembers her and she is afflicted with a goiter which has disfigured her neck. She also fails to meet his needs and so Kracha is rather disappointed with her.

Nevertheless, Kracha and Elena bear three children, Mary, Alice, and Anna. Kracha continued to work for the railroads, and once stable enough, they moved to allow Kracha to try his hand at working in the Steel Mills. It was during this time in 1892 that the labor unions began negotiating to develop better wages and shorter days for the workers. Strikes were common and often ended without success. Mills were being shut down due to strikes for months at a time, and the mills were always working hard to break the union. The constant shutting down of mills and the strikes were hard on workers and often left them blacklisted without a job or paycheck.

In May 1892 negotiations were being made for the Homestead Mill, Henry Clay Frick had built a huge fence 'Fort Frick' surrounding the mill and later staged a lockout. This was the beginning of the historical Homestead Strike which ended in bloodshed and leaving the working men powerless.

Working in the steel mills was hard work. Men often worked 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, switching from a week of nights to the next week of day shifts. This left many men exhausted where tempers flared and carelessness could be fatal. Men worked there because they had to work somewhere. They knew there was always another man willing to take their spot. The accident record at the mills was high, which left thousands injured or dead. Kracha worked in the front of the steel mill at the F furnace while his friend Dubik worked on the H furnace. It was dangerous work but not as labor intensive as the men who worked in the back to load ore, coke, and crushed limestone into the skips to be hoisted up to the furnace. One frightful afternoon as the shift was beginning, Kracha felt the Earth shake under his feet. The H Furnace was leaping flames. He knew immediately that Dubik was badly injured. He saw Dubik being helped off the hoist and saw his burnt face and shredded clothes. There was nothing to be done and soon after he died from this steel mill accident in 1895. Kracha would never be the same.

After some thought, Kracha comes up with a plan to open his own butcher shop in hopes of becoming a profitable businessman. He has found a suitable place to rent in town, and has saved some capital in order to put it together. He shares his plans with his friends and relatives, who are on the whole supportive and excited about his venture. Just one year after opening the shop, Kracha is a well-off business owner with a thousand dollars to his name and living an affluent lifestyle. During this time politics surge through mill towns where people such as Kracha were not American citizens, and most immigrants had no desire to be. It was during this time that Kracha shows his support for Mike Dobrejack, a young man from Dubik's native village, who is applying for his citizenship papers and showing interest in controversial political candidates. Kracha hangs a sign in favor of a candidate supported by Mike, which he is later advised to take down.

While tending to his shop, he meets Zuska again. She has grown older and fatter but he still lusts after her. He begins seeing her at night after work and soon this becomes no secret to anyone. After some time Franka reveals this in front of his wife. His wife is not quite destroyed with grief and Kracha's behavior changes little, except that he no longer shares a bed with Elena. However, after some time, Elena asks him to join her in bed, showing her resignation to the whole affair. She shortly after dies.

After his affair is exposed, Kracha's customers begin to frequent other shops instead of his to signify their disapproval. His friends and family disapprove of this as well, but Kracha cannot end the affair. Zuska announces she is with child and her and Kracha shortly marry. The United States declared war on Spain in the Spanish American War. Krach continues to take solace in heavy drinking. Shortly after his marriage to Zuska, he is sent to prison for excessive debt and loses his business, his wealth and his lustful relationship with Zuska. Zuska leaves with her two boys, Kracha's remaining money, and is never heard from again.

Kracha is released from jail and takes up residence in Dorta's house, Dubik's wife. Nearly a month later he returns to the steel mills in Homestead and pays his sister Franka to board his two youngest daughters. His oldest daughter, Mary, first stays with Dorta and helps with the boarders, then moves in with an American family to take a job caring for their young son. Kracha was never very close to his children and this does not seem to bother him. He continues to feel sorry for himself, still thinks of Zuska, and toys with the idea of opening another butcher shop.

Part Two

Part two focuses on Mike Dobrejcak who immigrated to the United States of America at the age of 14. He emigrated from Slovakia. Mike boarded at Dorta's and worked in the steel mill his entire adult life. He and his co-workers were subjected to hazardous working conditions and were degraded by the supervisors who called them Hunky. The mill poured out slag into the nearby river where many of the mill workers homes were located. Mike was an unusual immigrant in that he learned English and became a U.S. citizen. He always had an interest in politics and wanted to work for a better life.

While staying at Dorta's he met Kracha's daughter Mary whom he later married. Over time they had four children, two girls and two boys. Mike received great joy from his children and wife even though times were tough. As a result of Mike's higher education he was left wanting more for himself and for his family and he knew the only way to get it was through ones own will power.

"Nobody can help us but ourselves, and if anything is to be done we will have to do it ourselves. That's what I learned. God pity me, sometimes I wish I could have gone along without learning it, gone on talking and making plans but inside me feeling that maybe it wasn't really true and if it was I was somehow excepted. Inside me hoping that somehow things would change by themselves or that other people would do what was necessary and I'd never have to risk the little I have." (Bell, p. 194).

The work at the mills was up and down year after year and the threat of reduced work was always in Mike's mind. To make ends meet, Mary took on boarders, a strenuous and time consuming role. Mary often fed them pirohi and halushki which were native dishes from Slovakia and inexpensive to make. The rigorous schedule eventually caught up to Mary. When she was pregnant with their fourth child, Mary became ill. Unable to get the rest she needed to recover Mary and Mike decided to stop taking in boarders which made it even harder to make ends meet.

Kracha came to celebrate his oldest grandson's eleventh birthday. Mary suggested that Kracha spend the night at her house so he doesn't have to travel back that night. Mike left for work, as he did every evening. Before he went Mary sewed his button back on his coat. Later that night Kracha came in drunk. Just when he is about to go to sleep he heard a noise downstairs. It turned out to be a man with a message for Mary: Mike was dead.

Mike died working at the mill at the age of 39. He left Mary with no way to support herself or take care of their four young children.

Part Three

Dealing with the aftermath of Mike Dobrejcak's untimely and tragic death, Part III of Out of This Furnace picks up in 1914 with Mike's grieving widow Mary as she struggles to restore a sense of normalcy amid a family that has been torn apart. Upon receiving thirteen hundred dollars in accident compensation, she decides to relocate, hoping a change of scenery will assist in subsiding the pain associated with memories tied to Mike's death. While Mary struggles to financially take "up where Mike had left off" (Bell, p. 210), her son, Johnny, sells collections of bottles, rags, bones, and old iron until he turns 11 years old and joins the newspaper-selling business to help financially assist the family.

To restore financial stability, Mary considers a variety of unappealing options, from taking in strangers as boarders to remarrying. Ultimately, she avoids those measures by deciding to take in her alcoholic father Kracha as a boarder. While her father helped alleviate some of Mary's financial woes, his very presence brought about another unique set of challenges, from bailing him out of jail after drunken debacles, to tolerating his unrelenting pessimism.

As Mary struggles to coexist within the same household as her father, Johnny begins to experience his own set of difficulties, particularly with school. Because of his ethnic background, Johnny finds himself a regular subject of discrimination. His desire to get a job to earn money provides yet another reason to resist attending school. After failing to persuade his mother to forge his birth certificate so that he could be legally classified as eligible to work, he attains a position as an apprentice armature.

As though the Dobrejcak's hadn't experienced enough adversity, Mary was diagnosed with Spanish Influenza. Bedridden for two weeks, Mary began coughing blood. The next morning she asked Dr. Kralik if she had consumption, to which the doctor replied, "Your lungs are touched. Yes" (Bell, p. 235). Dr. Kralik encouraged Mary to seek residency for long-term care in a sanitarium. Bedridden and helpless, days began to fade into one as Mary awaited her restoration to health. Sadly, her health never returned. She died at the age of 37 with a smile on her lips as she thought fondly of her beloved Mike.

Since he was strong and healthy. therefore ineligible for admission to the sanitarium, Johnny moved in with Frank and Alice where he was quickly introduced to the concept of worker unions. Fleeing to Donora on his newly purchased bicycle when union workers went on strike, Johnny found work with a road gang. Upon reception of his first paycheck Johnny discovered that "two dollars had been deducted for 'purchases'" (Bell, p. 245). After complaining to another worker about the unjust deduction from his wage, Johnny vowed vengeance. "Nobody can do things like that to me and get away with it" (Bell, p. 246). His prophetic statement would resonate within his spirit for decades to come.

Part Four

The Great Depression is in full swing during part four of Out of this Furnace, while the story continues through the eyes of Mary and Mike Dobrejack’s son, Johnny, aka Dobie. Dobie’s character develops in parts two and three of Out of this Furnace as a child who starts work at a young age to contribute to his family’s well being. During an era when child labor was steady, Dobie started working first delivering wallpaper and later in a glass factory. When his family is sent to a sanitarium, Dobie is forced to make it on his own with little help from others.

Dobie completed his apprenticeship as a winder at the mill. He continued to live with Frank and Anna and gave them money to help pay the bills because Frank could no longer find work. Dobie announced he was leaving to try Detroit where he worked at a Chrysler plant roughing pistons. He moved from one plant to another, as Detroit became known for manufacturing cars. Dobie lived lavishly, spending money on good suits, girls, and gambling. After being shorted on payday at the Budd Wheel, he organized his first strike. He was thrown out of the plant with the rest of the strikers. He headed back to his old job at the Electric Shop and ended up again in Braddock. With the National Industrial Recovery Act on the side of the people, Dobie’s fate seemed to lie in fighting the issues of labor. This was near the time of the Great Depression. Times continued to get tough across the country.

Two days after Dobie married Julie, the mills passed principles of the Employee Representation Plan, which was part of the National Industrial Recovery Act supported by congress. Labor unions were becoming stronger and the bosses of the mills were fighting to keep in control of the unions. Dobie's refusal to vote in the first election of representatives because he was aware of the company's push to keep their own representatives in power. This was the start of Dobie's leadership in the unions; soon afterwards he joins the American Federation of Labor.

As the unions became stronger and the fight for a union led by the workers or a union led by the mills went underway. The union looked to Dobie as a leader and as an ally to rally up the workers and fight for rights. During the New Deal Era, Dobie becomes an effective organizer, recruiting dozens of his fellow workers to join the labor movement. He eventually becomes assistant director of his union. This put him on the blacklist at the mill, but with backing from the union and his co-workers, Dobie was unable to be fired as he attended conferences and became a witness to a court case against the mill.

In previous sections of the novel, particularly during the turn of the 20th century, the steel mills were hostile social arenas in which immigrant laborers embodied an overwhelming "denial of social and racial equality" (Bell, 124). The status quo could be safely protected so long as racial divisions existing within the social framework of the steel mills. In other words, a disorganized workforce poses little threat to the power of the employer. What's particularly interesting is that as the novel progressed, worker exploitation at the mill wound up serving as the platform by which workers transcended racial divisions. There is strength in unity, and in order to fight their oppressed state, members of various racial backgrounds had to come together for a common purpose, which was ultimately to fight a common enemy.

In reflecting upon the nature of the human condition, this is a pattern that has reoccurred countless times throughout the annals of human history. How often have we seen groups of people that normally would not mix uniting together in an effort to battle a common adversary? It is what gave birth to this nation! The list could go on ad infinitum, from schoolyard quarrels to international warfare.

Many of the concept vocabulary words used in section 4, Dobie, from Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell highlight historical events in the early 1900s. The Great Depression included a series of events which began with the Wall Street Crash of October, 1929, devastating the economy, employment and American politics. Prohibition in the United States or the "Volsted Act" took place in section 4 during the 1920s through 1933. During this period, the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages was outlawed. The demand for alcohol remained high and Speakeasy clubs were established for consumers.

"The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), officially known as the Act of June 16, 1933 (ch. 90, 48 stat. 195, formally codified at 15 u.s.c. sec. 703), was an American statute which authorized the President of the United States to regulate industry and permit cartels and monopolies in an attempt to stimulate economic recovery, and established a national public works program" (National Industrial Recovery Act, 2011). One of the monopolies or federations in section 4 was the American Federation of Labor. The labor union was effective in the establishment and coordination of strikes across the country.


The novel was adapted into a play by Andy Wolk, and Pittsburgh theatre company Iron Clad Agreement mounted a well-received production of it in 1977.[1][2] Unseam'd Shakespeare Company mounted successful productions of the play in 2008 (as part of Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary)[3] and 2011.[4][5]


  • Bell, Thomas (1991, 1976, 1968, 1941). Out of This Furnace (50th Anniversary Edition ed.). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-3690-9. 
  • Demarest, David P. Jr.; Domike, Steffi (producer) (1990). Out of This Furnace: A Walking Tour of Thomas Bell's Novel (video). University of Pittsburgh Press (distributor). 
  • National Industrial Recovery Act, (2011, February 11). In Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. online. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Industrial_Recovery_Act
  1. ^ Conner, Lynne (2007). Pittsburgh In Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 178. ISBN 978-0-8229-4330-3. Retrieved 2011-06-06.
  2. ^ http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08212/900743-325.stm
  3. ^ http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08172/891282-325.stm
  4. ^ http://unseamd.com/
  5. ^ http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/ae/theater/s_739931.html

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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