The Steel Man Reaches Out Across Time

Joe's first U.S. Steel appearance


The Steel Man Reaches Out Across Time

Author: Evan Chen

PhD student in Film Studies and Consuming Nature Workshop participant

As someone who is interested in how certain historical knowledges or narratives fail to reach us in the present moment, during the week of the workshop I found myself arrested by the apparition of Joe Magarac, a Pittsburgh folk figure who could be located and seen all over our local archives. As someone who first moved to the city in the fall of 2007, I find it painful to imagine how much local history and culture has been erased or papered over by the waves of gentrification and “urban renewal” that began around that time. I am also interested in what these histories might have to tell us about the present. Pulled back from the margins of visibility or legibility, what can we glean from the fragments that remain?

For me, the Joe Magarac folktale belonged to such a set of remaindered historical fragments. His story first appeared in an article written by Owen Francis which was published by Scribner’s in November of 1931. Francis hears about Magarac -magarac (a word that approximately means “jackass” in Hungarian- from “one of the many Slavs” working in a Monongahela Valley steel mill, leading to the story being recounted. Francis’s storytelling approach feels anthropological in a bad way. He describes the story as “typical of the Hunkie” as if he is the white steward of Russian and East European knowledge. It does not help that the narrative is written in clunky, transliterated dialect. But the rough contours of the folktale as it will circulate elsewhere are also laid out here: Steve Mestrovich’s beautiful daughter Mary is set to marry. He holds a feat of strength contest in order to draw interest to her and determine who is best to help carry on the family line. Pete, the local favorite, competes well, but eventually the inhumanly large Joe Magarac has to show up to serve as his ringer (Joe is not interested in Mary and claims that his work is too important for him to pay attention to a woman at home). Joe goes to work in the mills and eventually melts himself into steel in order to literally become part of future mills that will succeed and survive due to his supernatural strength. (1)

Since then, Magarac’s appearance and disappearance in the name of steel has circulated in a number of different contexts. During the Consuming Nature workshop, we encountered many of these, including at least two comic books published by U. S. Steel in the 1950s, where Joe appears to a pubescent boy in a queer fever dream to educate him about...steel. [See images 1 and 2 above] (2)

Magarac was also a visible fixture within shared and public spaces in Pittsburgh across the 20th century. A photograph located within Pitt’s Historic Pittsburgh collection shows one portal of the now defunct Manchester Bridge, circa 1918, featuring Magarac on one end and another folk figure, the coal miner Jan Volkanik, on the other. When we visited the archive at Rivers of Steel in Homestead, we saw Frank Vittor’s 1951 mock-up of a fountain for Point State Park that was centered on Joe’s muscular vitality. There also used to be a statue of Joe as part of “the Olde Kennywood Railroad Ride” in Kennywood Park. [See images 3, 4 and 5 above] (3)

Beyond the above, the text that first and foremost drew my attention in his direction was Joe Magarac and His U.S.A. Citizen Papers, was written by Irwin Shapiro, illustrated by James Daugherty and published by Julian Messner in 1948. In this instance of the story, Joe is still an ambiguously nonhuman or superhuman “immigrant,” but there follows a surprising twist. Towards the middle of the narrative, Magarac is melted and shaped into a steel girder, and then he is shipped to Washington D.C., where he becomes a constituent part of the Capitol Building. Once installed, he overhears a congressman and a senator engaged in a xenophobic conversation about the threat of Slavic immigrants to the United States’ sovereignty and well-being. Enraged by their ignorance and lack of respect for these working people, Magarac gets so hot that he melts out of the building, destroying part of it. When he re-solidifies, he is a man again, and he goes to war with all of Washington D.C.  This builds to a climax where the president has to offer Joe his citizenship to get him to back off and to agree not to destroy the whole capitol. [See images 6, 7, 8 and 9 above] (4)

Given current events, I was amazed to encounter this 70-year-old text that felt so relevant to the xenophobic strains that remain in contemporary America. As a Chinese American whose grandfather immigrated to this country within a few years of ...and His U.S.A. Citizen Papers’ publication, a time when racist immigration quotas dictated the racial makeup of this country, that text seized me in a way others did not. I think I was also seized by the text’s other naked, avowed political sensibilities—it is clear from reading it that Irwin Shapiro was an unapologetic advocate for labor and immigration at a time when such sympathies could have cost him mightily.

One might wonder what all of the above has to do with human extinction and the anthropocene, the stated theme of Consuming Nature. I would argue that all of this is relevant in relation to concepts of genealogy and transmission that are important to thinking about history more generally. For example: since the initial written record about Magarac was written by Francis, more than one scholar has raised the question of whether his narrative is fakelore, something made up by the workers he was interviewing to get one over on him, or perhaps made up by Francis so he might have something new to report on. In this vein, Ivan Kovačević has worked through a whole body of literature that speculates about the Slavic linguistic origins of the surname to determine whether Francis’s story is authentic. (5)

I would argue that regardless of or even in concert with such concerns one can still appreciate how Francis’s narrative spun in multiple, unpredictable directions through the various iterations one can still see today. Seeing is contingent, however, on knowing where and how to look, and on someone having left and preserved something for you to see. In the case of Shapiro’s Magarac book and the various Magarac statues that used to be visible around Pittsburgh, I wonder if an ethic of the anthropocene might hinge on finding ways to constantly remember and call up the past in as much of its heterogeneity as possible. Perhaps we could read as allegory how Joe Magarac melts himself into a material trace of his labor, a labor that can be read and understood by future generations only if they are open to gleaning his story from the fragments of the past. If the horror of the anthropocene comes out of its erasure of tradition and its dissolution of human history all at once, perhaps we had better get to remembering in as much detail as we can while we still can.

(1) Francis, Owen. “The Sage of Joe Magarac: Steelman.” Scribner’s, Nov. 1931, pp. 505-511.

(2) These two delightful and propagandistic comics, Joe the Genie of Steel and The Return of Joe the Genie of Steel, can be viewed at Hillman Library Special Collections on Pitt’s campus. Special thanks are due to the University Library System’s Clare Withers, who shared these materials with participants and also guided my hand towards other relevant Magarac materials.

(3) For sources and additional context, see:

(4) The text has also recently been reprinted by our own University of Pittsburgh Press.

(5) Kovačević, Ivan. “Who Murdered Joe Magarac?” Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, no. 59, 2014, pp. 85-104.

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