Defriending Joe Hill: Stegner's lesson for the Oscars

  • Artistic rendering of Joe Hill on Facebook

    Shaun C. Gibson

Like most people who write about the West, I think about Wallace Stegner a lot. He's like a brilliant, beloved, occasionally exasperating uncle. He said many things first and best, and, though he could get a bit stuffy at times, we youngsters have to admit that -- even now, almost two decades after his death -- he's still right more often than not.

Recently, I ran across Joe Hill, Stegner's 1950 "fictional biography" of the legendary labor organizer and musician. Most of the Stegner I've read is Late Stegner: confident, massively eloquent, aphoristic about the failings and promise of the West. Joe Hill is Middle Stegner, published when the author was in his early 40s: rougher, more tentative in both style and ideas, but at least as interesting as any Stegner I know.

Countless writers and musicians have told, and sung, the legend of Joe Hill. Swedish-born itinerant laborer, songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, and, finally, martyr, Hill was killed by state firing squad after a controversial murder conviction in Salt Lake City in 1915. "Don't waste any time in mourning," he wrote to I.W.W. leader Bill Haywood. "Organize."

And so the man became an enduring myth.

Stegner, who grew up partly in Salt Lake, knew the legend. (As a young man, he dated the daughter of the warden of the prison where Hill was held.) When he began researching his book, he expected to find that the real Joe Hill was the victim of an industry frame-up. After reading as many documents as he could find and tracking down people who had met Hill, Stegner concluded that the Utah courts convicted the organizer on flimsy evidence, and killed him unjustly. But he also believed that Hill, with his flair for self-dramatization, might well have participated in the armed robbery he was accused of, which killed two men, and then turned his case into a rallying cry for the cause he loved.

Joe Hill
doesn't convict Joe Hill, but it allows, even encourages, the reader to do so. It portrays Hill as a complex, not always likable man: talented, passionate, taciturn, sporadically violent, far from the Christ-like image seen on union flyers and posters. Some critics say Hill resembles Stegner's own father, a cold drifter always on the losing end of the Western boom.

Stegner knew the West and its people were complicated, and demolishing myths was his business. Fictionalizing a real historical character is tricky, both artistically and ethically, but with so few facts at hand, Stegner felt fiction was the only way to examine the legend of Joe Hill. "I contented myself with trying to make him a man, such a man as he might have been," writes Stegner in the book's introduction, "with his legend at his feet like a lengthening shadow."

Joe Hill received little notice, sold poorly, and put Stegner off novel-writing for more than a decade. But it continues to be read, and it continues to complicate the received wisdom about both Hill and Stegner. It's easy to assume that we know the truth about Joe Hill, just as it's easy to assume that we know all there is to know about Stegner. Joe Hill is a reminder that it's irresponsible, even dangerous, to do so.

In one of his final interviews, Stegner reflected on his decision to fictionalize Hill. "I think probably any living person, any person with living relatives who can be hurt, should be exempt from that kind of invention," he told professor Robert Keller. 

Which brings me to a man Joe Hill -- mythical, fictional or actual -- surely would have despised: the 26-year-old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. The Social Network, the triple-Oscar-winning movie about Zuckerberg's founding of Facebook about Zuckerberg's founding of Facebook, is, like Joe Hill, a smart, highly entertaining and partly fictional biography. But where Joe Hill used a historical skeleton to build a plausible alternative to a longstanding legend, The Social Network deliberately departs from known facts -- in effect, constructing a myth about a living person. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who never met Zuckerberg, created "Mark Zuckerberg," a character who dresses and sometimes acts like the real Zuckerberg, but shares few of his motivations.

"I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling," Sorkin told an interviewer. "I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn't have wanted to betray."

Maybe, in my discomfort with such blurred boundaries, I'm being a bit stuffy myself. Maybe we're savvy enough as a society to assume that all movies, even those about living people, are fiction. I doubt it. A seductive narrative can stick with us for generations, even when we know the real truth. Fiction based on real lives, past or present, demands careful handling, and clear labeling.

Zuckerberg doesn't need me or anyone else to shed tears for him. But as we who live in the West know, and as Stegner knew far better than most, myths can be persistent and pernicious. We don't need to build them on purpose.  

HCN contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis is a 2011 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.

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