Book on Poor Inspired Springsteen

San Jose Mercury News, 1995-11-21, by: Janet Rae-Dupree
New Album's Roots Are In Text Of Stanford Lecturer's Tale Of The Modern Underclass
For 10 years, Dale Maharidge's book sat quietly on 10,000 shelves. One night, a man who couldn't sleep pulled it out of his bookcase and found inspiration in it. Ordinarily, the story would stop here. But the insomniac was Bruce Springsteen. And his inspiration became "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the Boss' first album in three-and-a-half-years.

Springsteen's new album will be released this week, and the songs inspired by Maharidge's book -- "Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass" -- will bring new visibility to the book and to the dispossessed workers it profiled.

It has been painfully long in coming, says Maharidge, now a visiting journalism lecturer at Stanford. He and photographer Michael Williamson, both of whom worked for the Sacramento Bee, rode the rails and explored the country's industrial rust belt off and on for three years in the early 1980s to see how it is that formerly middle-class people could wind up living on the streets. And while the album title refers to John Steinbeck's Depression-era masterpiece "Grapes of Wrath," the songs speak of the diaspora of the modern poor, shoved on the streets when their factories closed.

Now, because of Springsteen, the book -- which sold only 10,000 copies a decade ago -- is scheduled for re-release early next year. Maharidge and Williamson are spending 11 days this month retracing a portion of their journey from Youngstown, Ohio, for a lengthy epilogue. And Springsteen is writing an introduction to the new edition and has promised to help promote it.


"I've been telling students for five years now that you never know how your work will affect people, how you might change someone else's life," Maharidge said. "Now I can point to this experience with Bruce and show that it's true." Three weeks ago, Maharidge had no idea any of this would be happening. He was lecturing all day at Stanford and writing all night in a mad dash to finish his fourth book, a study of race relations in California. Maharidge and Williamson shared a Pulitzer Price in 1990 for "And Their Children After Them," which chronicles the descendants of poor sharecroppers in Alabama.

His life was turned upside down by a message on his answering machine days before the annual Bridge School Benefit concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre on Oct. 28. The message was from Springsteen's representative. The Boss wanted to negotiate buying portions of "Journey to Nowhere." When Maharidge talked to Springsteen, he declined to sell. "You can't copyright inspiration, and the book inspired him," Maharidge said. "I'm flattered that it had that impact on him. That alone was enough of a thrill to me. If he wanted to take the words from the book verbatim and slap them into his songs, I would have said, 'Fine.'"

A few days later, Springsteen asked Maharidge and Williamson -- who now works at the Washington Post but who happened to be in the area -- to meet him backstage after he performed at the Bridge concert. The pair heard Springsteen perform two of the songs from the upcoming album before they actually met him. "They're haunting. They're dark. They're songs you just can't get out of your head," Maharidge said. Springsteen finished the songs, walked off stage and, with scarcely a word of greeting, grabbed both of the men into a bear hug.


During a long conversation over beers in the performer's dressing room afterward, the trio discussed "Journey to Nowhere" and talked about how to get it back into bookstores. "He said he laid in bed all night, reading it, and the songs just flew out," Maharidge said. "He told us he wanted to do what he could to get the book back in print." Maharidge suggested Springsteen write an introduction for a new edition so that his name could go on the cover, too, and perhaps persuade people to pick it up. Springsteen agreed immediately. Within days, Maharidge's book agent had sold the rights to a second edition. If Maharidge can write an 8,000-word epilogue by the first week in December, the new book will be on the shelves by February. Already, Maharidge has learned that things have changed Out There, as he calls life on the streets. "Things have changed, all right," he said. "They've gotten worse. And we have to bring that home to people."

The first edition of the book began with a brief history of the steel industry in Youngstown. All four of the city's steel mills closed in the early 1980s. The plants were being torn down when Maharidge and Williamson arrived, and the 60,000 workers whose families relied on them were just beginning to come to grips with unemployment and homelessness. Now, massive new buildings are rising where the mills once stood. They are prisons. "You can bet I'll be looking to see if some of the people who once worked in those mills end up living in those prisons," Maharidge said. He has confirmed the deaths of several of the people whose journeys to nowhere were chronicled in the book. Others simply have disappeared.


A native of Cleveland who began working in factories when he was 14, Maharidge identifies with their plight more than he would like to. "Seeing people just like I grew up with going through this is depressing in the most major way," he said. "A childhood friend of mine told me, with tears streaming down his face, 'Dale, these people you write about -- they're me.'

"In the '30s, Steinbeck said, 'Look, America!' and people reacted. They found ways to help," Maharidge said. "Today, far more people are hurting and no one wants to know." But bringing those tales of poverty into the mainstream, as part of popular culture, might force people to pay attention. Sprinsteen is one of the few musicians who might be able to pull it off, Maharidge said. "It's like a big steel door," he said. "If you push it open an inch, you have to count that as success."