Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice
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Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
 
Settlement Work
(From “A Man’s World”)

By Albert Edwards

(Pen-name of Arthur Bullard, American novelist and war-correspondent)
 
AFTER all, what good were these settlement workers doing? Again and again this question demanded an answer. Sometimes I went out with Mr. Dawn to help in burying the dead. I could see no adequate connection between his kindly words to the bereaved and the hideous dragon of tuberculosis which stalked through the crowded district. What good did Dawn’s ministrations do? Sometimes I went out with Miss Bronson, the kindergartner, and listened to her talk to uncomprehending mothers about their duties to their children. What could Miss Bronson accomplish by playing a few hours a day with the youngsters who had to go to filthy homes? They were given a wholesome lunch at the settlement. But the two other meals a day they must eat poorly cooked, adulterated food. Sometimes I went out with Miss Cole, the nurse, to visit her cases. It was hard for me to imagine anything more futile than her single-handed struggle against unsanitary tenements and unsanitary shops.  1
  I remember especially one visit I made with her. It was the crisis for me. The case was a child-birth. There were six other children, all in one unventilated room; its single window looked out on a dark, choked airshaft; and the father was a drunkard. I remember sitting there, after the doctor had gone, holding the next youngest baby on my knee, while Miss Cole was bathing the puny newcomer.  2
  “Can’t you make him stop crying for a minute?” Miss Cole asked nervously.  3
  “No,” I said with sudden rage. “I can’t. I wouldn’t if I could. Why shouldn’t he cry? Why don’t the other little fools cry? Do you want them to laugh?”  4
  She stopped working with the baby and offered me a flask of brandy from her bag. But brandy was not what I wanted. Of course I knew men sank to the very dregs. But I had never realized that some are born there.  5
  When she had done all she could for the mother and child, Miss Cole put her things back in the bag and we started home. It was long after midnight, but the streets were still alive.  6
  “What good does it do?” I demanded vehemently. “Oh, I know—you and the doctor saved the mother’s life—brought a new one into the world and all that. But what good does it do? The child will die—it was a girl—let’s get down on our knees right here and pray the gods that it may die soon—not grow up to want and fear—and shame.” Then I laughed. “No, there’s no use praying. She’ll die all right! They’ll begin feeding her beer out of a can before she’s weaned. No. Not that. I don’t believe the mother will be able to nurse her. She’ll die of skimmed milk. And if that don’t do the trick there’s T. B. and several other things for her to catch. Oh, she’ll die all right! And next year there’ll be another. For God’s sake, what’s the use? What good does it do?” Abruptly I began to swear.  7
  “You mustn’t talk like that,” Miss Cole said in a strained voice.  8
  “Why shouldn’t I curse?” I said fiercely, turning on her challengingly, trying to think of some greater blasphemy to hurl at the muddle of life. But the sight of her face, livid with weariness, her lips twisting spasmodically from nervous exhaustion, showed me one reason not to. The realization that I had been so brutal to her shocked me horribly.  9
  “Oh, I beg your pardon,” I cried.  10
  She stumbled slightly. I thought she was going to faint and I put my arm about her to steady her. She was almost old enough to be my mother, but she put her head on my shoulder and cried like a little child. We stood there on the sidewalk—in the glare of a noisy, loathsome saloon—like two frightened children. I don’t think either of us saw any reason to go anywhere. But we dried our eyes at last and from mere force of habit walked blindly back to the children’s house. On the steps she broke the long silence.  11
  “I know how you feel—everyone’s like that at first, but you’ll get used to it. I can’t tell ‘why.’ I can’t see that it does much good. But it’s got to be done. You mustn’t think about it. There are things to do, today, tomorrow, all the time. Things that must be done. That’s how we live. So many things to do, we can’t think. It would kill you if you had time to think. You’ve got to work—work.  12
  “You’ll stay too. I know. You won’t be able to go away. You’ve been here too long. You won’t ever know ‘why.’ You’ll stop asking if it does any good. And I tell you if you stop to think about it, it will kill you. You must work.”  13
  She went to her room and I across the deserted courtyard and up to mine. But there was no sleep. It was that night that I first realized that I also must. I had seen so much I could never forget. It was something from which there was no escape. No matter how glorious the open fields, there would always be the remembered stink of the tenements in my nostrils. The vision of a sunken-cheeked, tuberculosis-ridden pauper would always rise between me and the beauty of the sunset. A crowd of hurrying ghosts—the ghosts of the slaughtered babies—would follow me everywhere, crying “Coward,” if I ran away. The slums had taken me captive.  14
 
 
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