Steel Shavings

Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It is a certainty!

—Jean Shepherd, 1975.


Or perhaps not, thanks to the life’s work of another great Calumet Region writer and raconteur, James Lane, Indiana University Northwest Professor Emeritus of History. In 1975 Lane co-founded Steel Shavings, a magazine dedicated to the social history of Northwest Indiana. Since then he has edited (or co-edited) all 40 volumes, using oral histories, journals and diaries, newspaper clippings, photographs and more to create an invaluable people’s history of the area.

Shortly before the autumn 2009 release of Volume 40: "Out to Pasture but Still Kickin’" (the "retirement journal"), I asked Jim Lane to reflect on his approach to history, the future of Steel Shavings, and a certain topic he feels is regrettably lacking in local histories.—Samuel Barnett

Steel Shavings started out to publish people’s family histories, which were done as projects in history classes. From the very beginning we believed if people knew about their own families that would be the microcosm which would contain a lot of the themes of the larger local as well as national history.

Almost everybody in The Region can trace the immigrants in their family to the last generation or two or three. That immigrant experience, when not told from the bottom up, misses a lot of the humanity. For a long time, the traditional studies just showed immigrants as victims, but the family histories showed people combating the harsh environment with different strategies. Sticking together, forming clubs. So the immigration experience has been humanized through family and oral history.

This is a blue-collar area, but the story of steelworkers is usually told studying institutions, like the union or the corporation. As a starting point I’ve used folklorist Richard Dorson’s interviews with steelworkers, published in the book Land of the Millrats, but Dorson researched the subject when there weren’t many women working there. Now we have a whole body of sexism stories. My latest article in the Spring 2009 issue of Traces magazine talks about members of a women’s caucus, most of whom started out as radicals, and moved to Gary to work in the mills because they thought they could start a social revolution through the working class. As women steelworkers, they used their organizational skills to start women’s groups and demand fair treatment.

Race is the third theme that exists throughout Shavings. Race relations, the interaction or lack of it, is so important in this area. You can study the Richard Hatcher grassroots mayoral campaign as I have, as a very important movement. But I’ve also wanted to get the daily life of people living in Gary, especially before neighborhoods were open to all.

One of the first interviews I did when I wrote City of the Century: A History of Gary, Indiana (1978) was with Paulino Monterrubio. All I wanted to talk to him about was the ways he was discriminated against when he came here, which he was and that’s certainly part of the story. But he wanted to talk about being a neighborhood warden during World War II, and he wanted to show me his citizenship papers, his union card, pictures of his family. He put up with the bullshit, the discrimination, but the reality of his life—the way he wanted to be remembered—was not just as somebody who was kicked around but somebody who had this, did this, and left a mark through his relatives and his kids.

I have never told my students they should have a list of "30 questions," or that these are the questions we should ask all the people we interview. I tell them the best oral historian is a person who is a good listener; you want to establish a rapport and have that person realize that the final product is as much theirs as it is the interviewers’.

The great thing about oral history is that I think anyone can do it. Some of my worst students have done the best jobs. You know—real screw-ups who half the time didn’t come to class, but just knew how to get stuff out of folks. It’s been interesting to see how some people are natural interviewers and other people can’t shut up. [Laughs]

One oral historian thought there is maybe a 10- or at most a 15-year window of opportunity where people have vivid memory, and after that forget it. An oral historian has to be skeptical; human memory is frail. Oftentimes I think people form or recall an anecdote, and then they have the anecdote in their mind all set, so what they’re remembering is more than the event itself. In the formation of that story or anecdote, certain things are left out that are too painful or too embarrassing or whatever.

I wish there was more sexuality in Steel Shavings. I think in the future people will want to know more about that. In the journals, people were so candid about drug use, about their parents being abusive; they were so candid about so many things. But shy when dealing with sex. Or maybe that’s not the word, maybe they don’t want to put it in writing, but I wish there was more. That’s something I’ve tried to get, but haven’t succeeded as well as I’d like.

At one point I’d hoped that I could do an issue on Gay and Lesbian life in the Calumet Region. I had my students go out, and most of the interviews were disappointments. They just stayed away from certain questions. One student was interviewing his aunt, and every time she talked about what she actually enjoyed doing, he said, "I don’t want to hear about it!" Some people did a great job but there wasn’t enough for an issue. I have, however, put some of that material in Volume 40.

A lot of Shavings is contemporary history. I went from having students write about their families to students writing about themselves. Because so many of our students are adolescents it is a contemporary history of growing up, becoming an adult. Coping with school, girlfriends, work, living at home. I’ve never expected this to be a scientific analysis, a good statistical sample, but it’s filling in the gaps.

Jean Shepherd, my favorite writer, used the phrase "shards and midden heaps," which I used for the subtitle of the 1990s issue. My concept is that 200 years from now somebody’s going to find these things, these magazines, and they will literally be shards and midden heaps, little scraps of history, little pieces that add to the general story that people remember about the time.

I don’t know if Steel Shavings will have a future after Volume 40, but I hope it does. There are possible funding problems, as there always are, but that could probably be overcome. I wouldn’t mind passing the baton or being an occasional co-editor. I consider Steel Shavings the best thing I’ve done as a historian. ◊