"The Harbor" is Ernest Poole's best known work, although his later work, "His Family", would be the first novel to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1918. "The Harbor was published in 1915, and the novel is among the first, if not the first, to present labor unions in a positive light. Though certainly a gritty novel for its time, I would not doubt that many readers today might find it rather tame. Ernest Poole clearly had sympathy for socialist causes, and this can be found in much of his work.
The novel is written from the perspective of a writer (Bill) as he experiences his life on the Brooklyn waterfront, from his boyhood through the great strike which has such a large effect on his perspective. Many of the brief descriptions of this novel focus on the union aspect of the story, which is certainly important, but I think there is more to the novel than just that. The novel has four books in it, and the union aspect does not appear until the third section, although certainly some of the groundwork is laid before that.
The first book deals with Bill's childhood and his growing up by the harbor. The harbor goes from being an area of mystery and curiosity, to one of fear, and eventually hatred. Bill escapes the area by traveling to Europe, thanks to his mother who insists that he be allowed to do so. This section also introduces almost all the important characters in the novel. We have Bill, his mother, his father, his sister Sue, and her friend Eleanore. We also have the introduction of Joe Kramer, who plays a key role in Bill's life, often forcing him to deal with situations and issues which otherwise he might rather ignore.
The second book sees Bill return to the Harbor. Here he is forced to deal with his father's desire to have him help with his business, as well as the changes which take place there. He is also reintroduced to Eleanore, who helps change his feelings for the Harbor from one of hate, to that of ambition, and happiness. Eleanore's father introduces him to his "new god", efficiency, and the dream of a better future for the harbor. It is also in this section where Bill starts his career as a writer, using the harbor as the backdrop for his stories.
The third section jumps a little forward in Bill's life, and we find Bill still writing about the Harbor, from the point of view of efficiency. Joe continues to challenge Bill, and this time it is with respect to the condition of labor. We see in this section Bill's attitude change towards the coming conflict between labor and capitol as he is torn between Joe and Eleanore's father. In many ways Bill's position towards the labor movement parallels the changes in his perception of the harbor earlier in the book. As a writer he starts out curious, he then becomes somewhat disdainful, and then moves to support for the cause.
The fourth book is the shortest of the novel, and serves to close out the story of Bill's life so far, and gives an indication of where he is going. While there is little doubt that Ernest Poole supported the cause of labor, I think it is fair to say that he offered a reasonable look at the issue in this book. He doesn't deny the idealism of those on the side of business and their ultimate goals, but he clearly doesn't believe they are likely to be achieved. At the same time, while he does support the cause of labor, he does not ignore the ugly side of the movement.
This is an interesting book, although there are probably some people who would find it a bit slow moving. I enjoyed it, and I think it provides an interesting look at social concerns which existed in the early 20th century in New York.