Shaping Up the Docks

Book cover
On The Irish Waterfrontby By James T. FisherCornell Univ. Press, 392p $29.95

The recent deaths of the screenwriter Budd Schulberg and the actor Karl Malden inspired endless retrospectives of the classic film “On the Waterfront,” which Schulberg wrote and which featured Malden as a crusading Catholic priest on the New York docks. Much of the commentary had it exactly wrong, as James T. Fisher’s timely new book demonstrates.

Fisher, a professor of theology and American studies at Fordham University, has spent more than a decade studying the culture, history and soul of the docks and piers that once lined the West Side of Manhattan and the riverfront of Jersey City and Hoboken. He also has researched the making of the film and the controversies it touched off long before it appeared in theaters in 1954. As a result, Fisher probably knows more about the waterfront than any living person who has not—as I assume he hasn’t, although one never knows—stood in line at a shape-up.


Fisher has poured all that knowledge into a glorious book that ought to change how movie critics view Schulberg’s cinematic creation and how cultural historians interpret working-class culture in New York and New Jersey during the middle years of the 20th century. Despite critical assertions to the contrary, Fisher insists that Schulberg and the film’s director, Elia Kazan, did not manipulate the film’s theme to justify their decision to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the early 1950s. (Both men were former Communists.) What’s more, Fisher shows just how Irish—and, needless to say, just how Catholic—the old waterfront was, how the waterfront’s code of silence was intertwined with Irish suspicion of reformers and do-gooders. Deep within their folk memory, the Irish-American dock workers were familiar with the type—elite journalists and moral crusaders who treated them like abstractions, who were unfamiliar with life-and-death realities on the docks and in the neighborhoods that longshoremen called home. Until, that is, some of them aligned themselves with a Catholic priest and a Jewish screenwriter who had the courage to speak truth to power.

Fisher’s study of that moment in the waterfront’s history, when Schulberg and the legendary waterfront Jesuit John (Pete) Corridan worked to expose injustice on both sides of the Hudson River, is a tour de force, an amalgam of urban political history, ethnic studies, cultural criticism, with a little theology thrown in. Fisher’s publisher would be well advised to get this book out of the academic ghetto, for the story line is riveting and the prose extremely accessible. That is hardly the norm in academic publishing.

Instead of relying on jargon and professorial double-speak, Fisher delivers a rich, colorful narrative filled with characters like “Taxi Jack” O’Donnell, a West Side pastor who derived his nickname from his favorite mode of transport, and “Cockeye” Johnnie Dunn, whose impairment did not prevent him from becoming one of the waterfront’s most effective thugs.

At the center of the book is a cast of characters who shared something that readers of this magazine surely will appreciate: an association of one sort or another with the Society of Jesus. Indeed, at times a reader might conclude that Fisher has not, in the end, written a history of the Irish waterfront; his book often reads like a history of the Jesuit waterfront. From Jesuit labor priests Philip Carey and Pete Corridan to Jesuit-educated secular leaders like the union boss Joe Ryan and the Port Authority reformer Austin Tobin, the Society plays a supporting role in this version of the waterfront’s culture, spirit and conflict.

The heart of On the Irish Waterfront focuses on the relationship between Father Corridan and Schulberg, an unlikely but effective partnership between two men with a passion for social justice and an abiding contempt for the corruption and inhumanity that were part of daily life on the waterfront in the years just after World War II. Father Corridan, as many America readers surely know, was the best known (though hardly the only) Jesuit associated with the Xavier Labor School in Manhattan, one of several such schools around the country influenced by the worker-priest movement in France. One would hope that most Catholics will not be surprised to learn of the Jesuits’ active involvement on behalf of working people during the height of America’s industrial era. But Fisher’s account of the labor schools and the activism of the Jesuits may well be an eye-opener to non-Catholics who associate the Catholicism of that era with characters like Joe McCarthy and others on the far right.

Corridan was the inspiration for the Malden character, Father Pete Barry, in Schulberg’s screenplay for “On the Waterfront.” Fisher delivers a poignant, well-researched portrait of the partnership between the priest and writer. Corridan never sought to evangelize Schulberg, whom Fisher describes as a “Jewish humanist.” Corridan, Fisher writes, was a “loner” who had the “rare gift for mobilizing the passions of others similarly accustomed to working alone, especially writers.” He certainly mobilized Schulberg, whose creation of Father Pete Barry remains an enduring tribute to Corridan and other priests like him. Karl Malden’s famous scene in the movie, known to aficionados as the “Christ in the Shapeup Sermon,” is based on a real talk Corridan gave to longshoremen in the late 1940s.

Lest you conclude this is a book about a movie, be advised that Fisher provides a good deal more than cultural criticism, important though that field is. His portrayal of politics on both sides of the Hudson River, of Irish-Catholic working-class life, of the passions that motivated not only Father Corridan but Austin Tobin and other secular reformers, is a prize-worthy piece of scholarship and writing.

Those wise enough to snap up this book will never again look at the Hudson River waterfront in quite the same way. They may also come away with an improved understanding of the history of the Jesuits in New York and New Jersey as well.

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