Phillip Bonosky journeyed from the smoldering slag heaps of Duquesne in the Mon Valley to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Moscow as a journalist for the Communist Party and was one of the first reporters to enter Communist China after Mao’s rise to power. He interviewed Ho Chi Minh in 1960, witnessed the downfall of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1980, and traveled to Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban and served as the Moscow correspondent for the party’s newspaper, the Daily World.
Bonosky died in March 2013 in New York City at the age of 96 but the death of this ‘proletarian writer’ went unnoticed in Pittsburgh news outlets and barely rated mention in the national media. The New York Times published Bonosky’s obituary but his death was largely shrouded in anonymity.
Bonosky was blacklisted by American publishers because he was a Communist. Bookstores wouldn’t carry his works so he turned to American Marxist publication, Masses & Mainstream, during the Cold War to publish his novels, Burning Valley and The Magic Fern. Although he was an unknown literary figure in America his work was published widely in socialist countries. Once while going through Customs in East Germany, a border guard saw his name on his passport and asked if he was the author who wrote Burning Valley.
His novels Burning Valley and Magic Fern are autobiographical tales of life among immigrant steel workers in Duquesne. Bonosky’s writings gave voice to immigrants who could not read or write. After Collier’s magazine published his first article, his mother “wanted him to write for her, for the immigrants for the people who could often neither write nor read,” wrote Norman Markowitz in Public Affairs.
Bonosky said he was filling a literary void because no one was writing about the working class in western Pennsylvania. “…I was missing in American literature, that is, my town, the people I knew…the men who died workers just as they were born…Lithuanian kilbasai and Serbian Tamburitzas and Joe Magarac…who wrote about that? Nobody. It didn’t exist,” he said.
“In fiction and non-fiction, there was no secret as to where he stood,” wrote Daniel Rosenberg in a tribute to Bonosky in “Marxism-Leninism Today.” He counseled new and young writers to directly confront the challenges of writing: to work hard at it; to write regularly, if not daily; to get to the point; to avoid jargon; to acknowledge the pitfalls of “writer’s block,” but at least to get out a paragraph before surrendering to it.”
He was one of a several writers from the region whose stories and novels deal with working-class folk. Nellie Bly, a Pittsburgh newspaper reporter, wrote about the lives of women factory workers. John Hoerr, who came from the Mon Valley, documented the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Peter Oresick wrote working-class poetry, mainly about his fellow Carpatho-Rusyns in western Pennsylvania. Lester Goran grew up poor in the city’s Oakland neighborhood detailing the lives of working-class Irish even though he was Jewish. Thomas Bell, whose novel, Out of This Furnace, portrayed three generations of the Dobrejcaks, a family of Slovak immigrants in Braddock who faced economic adversity and ethnic discrimination much like the characters in Bonosky’s novels.
That generation spawned a new era of working-class writers such as Tawni O’Dell of Indiana County, author of Coal Run, and Back Roads, both set in western Pennsylvania, which tells the story of life in the coal patches. Stewart O’Nan of Pittsburgh, who has been called the ‘bard of the working class’ is the author of Last Night at the Lobster, about the closure of a Red Lobster restaurant four days before Christmas. Paul Hertneky of Ambridge wrote Rust Belt Boy: stories of an American childhood, a collection of 26 essays about working-class life in the Beaver County community.
Bonosky’s books and short stories are centered in Duquesne and Braddock. He chronicled daily life in those towns, the repressive local governments, corruption, brutal police and the radicalized workers who looked to Communism for relief their lives of oppression.
Bonosky was born Felix Baranauskas, in Duquesne in 1916, the fourth of eight children to religious Lithuanian immigrants who lived in Oliver Hollow, a patch that extended from Polish Hill in Duquesne to the railroad tracks underneath the Thompson Run Bridge to the Mon river. His parents, Jonas and Barbara Maciulute Baranauskas, emigrated from Dzukija, a poor, heavily-forested region in southeastern Lithuania. His father worked four decades in the Duquesne mill slaving twelve hours a day, six days a week. He chronicled life there in his novels, Burning Valley and Magic Fern and in collection of short stories, A Bird in Her Hair.
His first novel in 1952, Burning Valley, is set in Duquesne where a devout Bonosky dreamed of becoming a priest. In Burning Valley, the main character, Benedict Bulmanis, is an altar boy until he is exposed to Communism while sitting in a jail cell in Duquesne. He is befriended by Dobrik, jailed for being a Communist labor agitator, who becomes Bulmanis’ mentor. Bulmanis, like Bonosky, wants to be a priest. “I will be a saint,” said Bulmanis. “I will live humbly all my life. I will be poor.”
Bulmanis described the spiritual feelings he felt whenever he entered St. Joseph’s Church in Duquesne recalling the odor of incense and burning wax candles, and the sight of flowers wilting on the altar. He also remembered the dark silence that made his heart beat faster and skin tingle with joy at the serenity that engulfed him.
Bulmanis was at odds with his church’s teachings and was caught in the middle of a theological battle between two parish priests with different points of view over the church’s stance in a struggle over which side to take in the labor movement. The young priest, Father Dahr, clearly sides with the working class when Duquesne Steel evicted workers from their shacks in “Hunky Hollow” while the older cleric, Father Brumbaugh, sides with the ruling elite. “I can’t mix in these things,” said the older priest, “even if it did good which I doubt. I don’t know anything about the Company, but, Benedict, we can’t put ourselves on one side against the other. Our concern is here,” pointing to his heart. “In this life, Benedict, the poor are doomed always to love, the worker always to fall in defeat.” Benedict feels betrayed by his church for placing obedience to the ruling powers of Duquesne over justice.
His second auto-biographical novel, Magic Fern, mirrors events at the Duquesne Works when the central character, Leo, joins the Communist Party to fight the American Steel Co., from laying off thousands of workers. Benedict tries to explain to his father that the Catholic Church will aid workers facing eviction. “How you gonna keep Company from kick you out?” asks the father. “Papa, if the church tells the Company not to they won’t, papa. They are Christian and Catholic too. The church would forbid them throwing people out of their homes,” Benedict.
A Lithuanian fairy tale claims that a magic fern has the power to make wishes come true but only for others. Leo wishes for socialism for himself and his family but can’t achieve it unless he wishes it for others.
In Burning Valley, Bulmanis tries to halt the eviction of an elderly black woman from the shack she lived in. He invokes the name of the Catholic Church in hope of halting her removal but is rebuffed by the county sheriff.
“Son. This ain’t got nothing to do with religion,” said the sheriff. “Everybody got a letter asking them to be out of the premises at such-and-such a day … The law’s the law … You got to learn this early on. The company owns this property. It can do anything it damned well wants with it. And if you don’t get the hell out of here in two seconds flat, I’m going to arrest you for trespassing. You furstay English? And he gave Benedict a shove that shot him, like a bullet, to the door.” A crowd gathers to watch the evictions chanting, “Niggers first, hunkies next.”
Bulmanis, in search of guidance, returns to the jail to visit Dobrik, his former cellmate. “Who do you want to see?” asked the police officer. I want to see Dobrik. The officer laughed. You mean the Communist? Benedict stared beyond him into the corridor down which he had once been dragged. Yes,” he said. “The Communist.”
Bonosky became a Communist in 1938 after witnessing the corporation’s dominance over its workers. Poor residents were segregated from other social classes living in places called “Hunky Town,” or “Hunky Hill.” Children of steel company officials would stand on the ridges above the hollow and taunt the children of workers. “Hunkies, niggers, Jews and wops. We eat cake, they eat slop.”
The steel companies governed the mill towns of Duquesne, Clairton, Braddock and McKeesport with an iron hand. Public officials worked for the company and did its bidding. Duquesne Mayor James Crawford also served as president of city council, a police magistrate and justice of the peace in addition to his job as president of the First National Bank. His word was law. He banned public speeches by union officials trying to organize a local and jailed anyone who violated the law. “Jesus Christ could not do – speak in Duquesne to steel meetings under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor,” he once boasted.
The men who owned the steel companies in the region were Presbyterians of Scotch-Irish heritage who controlled commerce as well as the financial, social and cultural, life of Pittsburgh and neighboring towns. Bonosky grew up listening to tales of the infamous 1892 Homestead steel strike and the 1919 nationwide steel strike that was led from Pittsburgh by future Communist Party leader William Z. Foster.
Bonosky’s father supported eight children on $50 a year. The hardship he witnessed as a boy fueled his hatred of capitalism. “There was absolutely nothing for me,” he wrote. “So, I had to leave. I left home. Goodbye.” The Depression further developed his political conscience when he saw people stockpiling food and farmers pouring out milk because of low prices instead of distributing it to the needy. “So how do you love a system like that?”
Bonosky graduated from high school in 1932 but the early years of the Great Depression devastated Duquesne and other Mon Valley steel towns closing the mills. The Salvation Army stepped in to help but when FDR introduced New Deal programs, U.S. steel ordered local officials to reject grants from the Works Progress Administration and the National Recovery Act. Any man who applied for government relief faced dismissal. U.S. Steel practiced “welfare capitalism” that made workers dependent on the company. The company provided aid to workers with the proviso they would not attempt to form a union. Workers were barred from applying individually for government relief under the threat of dismissal.
Duquesne was a drab, gritty city that billed itself as the “Gateway to the wonderful Monongahela Valley.” The region was covered by gray clouds hovering over the valley from the furnaces at the nearby mills of Duquesne, Clairton, McKeesport, Braddock and Homestead. Every day, women swept the gritty grime that covered their porches and washed their curtains darkened from the soot spewing from the blast furnaces as a show of defiance to the mill owners.
He began his literary career when he was five after receiving a library card from the local branch of the Carnegie Library. He wrote his first poem at 10 on butcher’s paper. During the Depression, he hopped a freight and landed in Washington, D.C. where he lived in a warehouse run by the Transient Bureau. Anne Terry White, the wife of Harry Dexter White, became his mentor and Bonosky got a job working for the Federal Writer’s Project.
Anne Terry White encouraged Bonosky to attend the tuition-free Wilson Teacher’s College for two years before he obtained a job with the New Deal Resettlement Administration. (White’s husband, Harry Dexter White, was a ranking official in the Treasury Department and helped develop economic policy during and after World War II. He had a hand in creating the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In 1948, he was accused of being a Soviet agent but died suddenly of a heart attack.)
Bonosky returned to Duquesne to work with his father in the mill and joined Local 1256 of the USWA but was fired by U.S. Steel for being a Communist. The sprawling Duquesne Steel Works had six blast furnaces, nicknamed “Dorothy Six,” 33 open heart furnaces and a dozen rolling mills. The Great Depression brought the plant to its knees. By 1931, orders for steel evaporated and three years later, nearly 30 percent of the employees were jobless.
He became a fulltime organizer for the Communist Party in Pittsburgh and in 1940, he led a delegation of the Workers Alliance of America, a merger of the Socialist and Communist parties, to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.
In the late 1940s, Bonosky moved to New York City to write for Masses & Mainstream where he worked with Communist luminaries’, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, W.E.B. Dubois, historian Herbert Aptheker and singer Paul Robeson. He continued to write books. Brother Bill McKie, a biography of a Communist Party organizer who helped found the United Auto Workers, was published in 1953. Seven years later the Magic Fern was published. In 1981 he visited Afghanistan and Wrote Afghanistan – Washington’s Secret War.
Bonosky was deeply affected, he said, by stories about the 1892 Homestead steel strike and the 1919 steel strike which had its origins in Pittsburgh and portrayed those concerns in his books and short stories. He follows the Communist Party line in his writing in explaining his political awakening and realizes that industry, the Catholic Church and government “formed an unholy class alliance designed to exclude the masses from their just share of the American dream.”
Bonosky’s party membership created problems for his sister, Toni Nuss, who lived in Pittsburgh in the early 1950s, because of her association with the Communist Party. Bonosky dedicated Burning Valley to Nuss who was dubbed the “Red Queen” by Pittsburgh newspapers. Two FBI informants charged that Nuss attended meetings in Pittsburgh held by Steve Nelson, who was tried for sedition in the early 1950s and was accused of being a Soviet agent and involved in the theft of atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project. Nuss was living in public housing and was removed from the welfare rolls although the courts later ordered her benefits reinstated.
Bonosky attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee after meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 in which Bonosky praised the Soviet leader. The mention didn’t escape the committee’s notice which quoted Bonosky in a report.
“We stood beneath the insignia of the Czars, military victories emblazoned on the walls around us and I said to Khrushchev that the greatest proof to me that workers really owned and ran this country was our standing here in the Kremlin – an ex-steelwoker (sic) and an ex-miner- and drinking a toast together. He agreed and said, quoting from the Internationale: we have been naught; we shall be all,” noted the committee’s report.
“What, in sum, was it like to be a Marxist in the HUAC years? You were living in this reality . . . the rawness of the struggle was debilitating. You were in the midst of a trauma,” Bonosky told an interviewer.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bonosky remained a Communist in name only believing the party had abandoned revolutionary theory by embracing “Browderism,” wrote Alan M. Wald in American Night. The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War. Bonosky continued to write until his death even though he lost his ability to see because of macular degeneration. He was working on his autobiography at 92 and a novel, Benedict, a sequel to Burning Valley.
“He could write with grace but took all his subject matter personally,” wrote Daniel Rosenberg in a 2013 tribute in People’s World. “He wrote to enlighten, provoke and inflame.”