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By Wladyslav Reymont
Translated by M.H. Dziewicki
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927
2 volumes
628 pages

Bob Corbett
Feb, 2015

This is a long novel concerning the world of cloth producers, especially cotton goods, in Lodz, Poland in a year or two around 1885. It is a story of greed, brutality toward workers, fraud, criminal activity and the amassing of great fortunes by extremely powerful and greedy men.

Certainly it is a tale that could have been situated in many nations at that time; the robber barons of the U.S. come to mind, many factory owners in England seemed much the same. I think it was simply in the “air” of the times. The Industrial Revolution brought a special time when the “old” moralities were put aside and a race to riches and greed dominated. Fortunes were won and lost over night, and brutal practices toward workers were common.

The central figure of this novel is Charles Boroviecki. He is fairly young, and, as the novel opens he is working for the owner of a mill, Buchole. Charles is well-liked by the owner and his co-workers and he is quite good at what he does.

However, Charles has the fever of the times and is scraping money together to be able to get his own mill. He has two partners, young men like himself, on the rise and wanting to be on that top level of money makers in the Lodz industries. Partner Moritz Welt is Jewish and is himself, like Charles, scraping to raise his share of the capital needed for their project. Max Baum is a German and is an especially greedy and ruthless fellow, needing Charles and Moritz to help him get where he’s going.

The workmen in these factories are treated like brute animals. Men are seen as machines and can be replaced even more easily than metal machines, and as newer machines come to do a job previously done by a human or group of humans, the humans are discarded. What we read of one character could be said of almost all of those in ownership and leadership roles in the Lodz clothing establishments:

“He lived in a world where cheating, fraudulent bankruptcy, and every kind of swindling and peculation were the order of the day. All that they swallowed greedily, for it was their food; they related clever tricks of knaves with real envy; anecdotes, better and better still, were told and repeated about the coffee-houses and taverns and places of business; public frauds were held up to admiration, and millionaires – no matter where they came from – were looked upon with reverence and with awe.”

Charles is very talented at design and creation of cotton goods, so he knows that if he can just get his own factory then he has a great chance to rise to the top. However, it is the getting of that initial capital that is his primary difficulty and the reason he has joined with his two partners. Together they are hoping to get that capital and quickly change being employed by other tycoons, to being top tycoons themselves.

However, Charles himself knows this is a dangerous game he’s playing: Lodz is a cutthroat and dangerous place. Charles tells one of his partners:

“As I see you have delusions of doing business with civilized people of central Europe. Whereas Lodz is a forest, a jungle – in which, if you have good strong claws, you may fearlessly go forward and make away with your neighbors else they will fall upon you, suck you dry, and toss your carcass away afterwards.”

Throughout the novel there is emphasis on the attitudes toward business and the humans. It all seems an angry game for these leaders. They absolutely despise the poor, need them to work the factories, but are only willing to pay a wage that will barely keep them alive, and preferably in debt to them if possible. It seems so callous, as though their worth as men depended upon having wealth and power and degrading “lesser” people as much as they can.

Yet there is this very unpleasant fact that given the lack of other alternatives for these poor, they are also at the mercy of the loan shark practices of money lenders. And the sad fact is that without these lenders many of these poor workers and their families would simply starve.

One very sensitive young woman, daughter of one of the rich robber barons well describes the capitalists of Lodz:

"Because there are many among them whom I do not count as men: yes, even some among today's guests here (she's at a lush party) - manufacturers, capitalists, specialists in various industrial lines: men whose aim and whose only aim in life is to do business and make money. For them the ideas of love, of soul, of the good, of the beautiful and so on -- are drugs in the market or like unsigned notes of hand."

Eventually Charles and his two partners do get the money to build and open their factory, though one of those partners is plotting to steal it all from the other two. At this point the novel sort of rushes to a conclusion and a bit too much happens all too quickly.

A very short time after their factory opens it burns and Charles and his partners lose everything. Charles quickly shifts his life, still after his obsessive goal of becoming rich, and takes a new turn. He quickly ditches his fiancée and marries the Jewess, Mada Mueller. Very soon after Herr Mueller dies and Charles inherits Mueller’s factory and an enormous amount of money and keeps on making more. He has a son with Mada, and they at least get along.

The novel is racing toward an ending and in the very last few pages Charles has an accidental meeting with his former fiancé and is deeply moved by the work she is doing with a group of orphan children. Charles sees and understands how very happy she is. He then dramatically changes the course of his life and he realizes that The Promise Land is not what he had thought – not money and its power, but meaningfulness and he resolves to begin his life anew with a very different set of aims and values. Of course this will be much easier to do now, for sure, since he has many millions in the bank from the business he inherited from his father in law!

Overall I found the novel to be a fascinating and informative read. As my sort of nasty last couple of paragraphs suggest, I did find the ending a too goody goody and very much unlike the Charles Boroviecki we had come to know in the nearly 600 pages prior to his “conversion” in the last couple of pages. The novel is named: The Promised Land, and for the bulk of the novel, until the very last few pages, that “promised land” that Charles is seeking and which seems the very meaning of life for his has been to become rich and powerful within the textile industries of Lodz. However, in a couple of paragraphs he is converted to a coming life of generosity and care for those less fortunate than himself. That’s just a bit too much.

While I did have trouble with Charles’ instantaneous change of heart, overall the novel is not a protest against the horrors of Lodz’s garment industry. The novel is certainly filled with nastiness and grubbiness, however, it is not done is a “preachy” manner. Rather, it reads more like a documentary, describing without any real “feeling” revealed.

Despite my reservations about the last few pages and Charles’ immediate “conversion” I would recommend the book to all. It is picture of a rather nasty time in a rather nasty city in late 19th century capitalism, and worth the time to get an up close and detailed look at that culture.

Bob Corbett


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