What More We Can Learn from "On the Waterfront": An Interview with James T. Fisher

Culture Watch

Mr. Citron is an associate professor of law at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, New York. He thanks Makenna Porch, a third-year law student at Touro, for transcribing the interview.

James T. Fisher is Professor of Theology and American Studies at Fordham University.  On the Irish Waterfront (Cornell University Press, 2009) is his fourth book and recounts in vivid detail the story of the Port of New York in the first half of the twentieth century.  In his review in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Edward T. O’Donnell described On the Irish Waterfront “as a fascinating work of history that explores the rise of New York’s commercial port from the early 1900s to the 1950s and the corruption that eventually infiltrated all levels of the cargo business.”

The central figure in Fisher’s story is John M. “Pete” Corridan, the priest who sought – ultimately unsuccessfully – to reform the Port and was memorialized by Karl Malden as Father Pete Barry in Elia Kazan’s 1954 film, On the Waterfront.  As Fisher’s book details, although Corridan was unable to bring about lasting change in how business was done on the Port, his vision of how to reform the Port informed – even guided – the work of Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for the film, and others who wrote about the waterfront. 

Q: Can you tell us more about Father Pete Corridan and how his relationship with Budd Schulberg and other waterfront outsiders came about? 

JTF: Corridan was actually estranged from the traditional sources of the Catholic authority.  He couldn’t even preach in his own neighborhood on the West side of Manhattan, where the Irish waterfront was most dominant.  He had to slip over to Jersey City on the old “Hudson Tubes,” what is now the PATH train.  [Corridan and other reformers] used Jersey City and Hudson County as kind of a launching area for floating ideas and incendiary speeches that they want to communicate to longshoreman. . . . 
Corridan became a kind of existential figure where he's taking considerable risk and, in turn, attracts this very intellectual small group of followers, even disciples.  And none of them are Catholic or Irish. . . .  I call it the “Spiritual Front,” with these unlikely collaborations of Jesuit and all these other sort of non-Catholic figures who were coming to Corridan.  They came to see him as the authority, as both a moral and empirical authority.  That is, Corridan knows all of the facts and figures, and he has a sense of the moral economy of the waterfront. . . .  [I]n many ways he becomes the source of these kinds of new understandings of labor and politics in the New York City area.

Q: You note that Corridan’s influence on Schulberg was personal as well as professional.  Yet Corridan seems to have been a private person.

JTF: He was a loner.  Even with these individuals that he influenced, he had enormous influence on Budd Schulberg and Malcolm Johnson [who won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative articles in 1948 about the port], but they found him to be somewhat aloof and standoffish.  He was a lonely guy.

Q: Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of your book is to challenge the notion that On the Waterfront should be understood principally as an effort by Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan to justify their conduct before the House Un-Americans Committee.  (Each man decided to testify before the HUAC.)  With respect to Schulberg, you cite evidence that he wrote the screenplay before there was even the possibility that he would testify. 

JTF: The evidence is that Budd Schulberg had written a screenplay that he dated April 1951.  At the time he finished the screenplay and submitted it to Hollywood, he was still not aware that he would be asked, that he would be subpoenaed to testify, before the HUAC.  That came shortly thereafter. So when I found the draft screenplay in the Princeton University Library; I called Budd and said I found the screenplay that we knew existed and had been mentioned, but had never really been treated as a historical document.  It demonstrated that he'd already written a waterfront screenplay with a moral conversion.  It's hard evidence from before he himself was called to testify.  He said to me, “Do you think I can get a copy of it?  Where is it?” I said, “It's in the Budd Schulberg Papers at Princeton.  They won't let me have a copy of it and make a copy if it, but I think for you they will.”  
On the other hand, it's true that the film is a collaborative art, so when Elia Kazan signed onto the project in November 1952, Kazan had a different experience in terms of his response to his own HUAC testimony.  A more combative and feisty individual, he was all too willing in some ways to understand, I think retroactively came to understand, his role in the film as in fact a rebuke to his critics who said “you've made a movie about ‘ratting’ to justify [your actions].”  Kazan ultimately began to wear that as a badge of honor. 

Q: In telling that part of the story, I also was impressed with how you treat the film as much more of a documentary about the waterfront, so to speak, rather than an allegory about the anti-Communist politics of the 1950s and HUAC. 

JTF: I was surprised to discover this, if you go back and look at the New York Times [and other New York newspapers] in late 1952 or early 1953, the story of the waterfront crime investigations that Corridan had instigated . . .was absolutely dominant front page news for weeks at a time.  [In fact, the waterfront investigations] effectively pushed McCarthyism off the front pages.  That's a historical story, how the waterfront crime story was simply lost to history for decades. 

Q: You write in great detail about a speech that Corridan gave that figures prominently in On the Waterfront.  (The speech is delivered by Karl Malden.)  What is the story behind this speech?   

JTF: Corridan gave a speech in November 1948 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Jersey City.  That speech was originally called “A Catholic Looks at the Waterfront.”  It’s known as “Christ as the Shapeup” in the film.  The speech was sort of the first document that Schulberg obtained of Corridan’s own apostolate and became, for Budd, the primary speech.  There’s a typescript of it in the papers of the Fordham University Archives, undated unfortunately, but obviously the original or close to the original version of the speech.  The irony is that the speech in the film is often critiqued as unrealistic.  And the irony, of course, is that the speech [in the film] was taken verbatim, much of it was taken directly word-for-word [from Corridan’s speech]. 

Q: I was surprised to learn that one of your predecessors was Daniel Bell, who wrote about the waterfront during his stint as a journalist with Fortune magazine.   

JTF: It shocked me when I discovered years ago that there was a chapter in his famous book, The End of Ideology, on the waterfront.  It's called The Racket-Ridden Longshoreman.  I'd read his book as a kid and that was the first time I'd ever encountered anything to do with the New York waterfront. 

The argument I make in the book is that Daniel Bell became one of the main recipients of material from Father Corridan and in the context of the late 1940s Daniel Bell – like a lot of intellectuals – was looking for a way of understanding labor and politics, particularly in the New York area, in a way that went beyond the traditional strictly class-based perspectives that he had grown up with. . . . And particularly because issues of ethnicity and religion had never been sufficiently incorporated into the Marxian analysis, what Corridan was able to do for Daniel Bell was to help him understand that there was an ethnic dimension to the culture of waterfront political power.  And that's reflected in these pieces that Daniel Bell wrote in Fortune Magazine

Q: You wrote a book about Dr. Tom Dooley (Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927–1961) and have written about the activist Dorothy Day.  Both were Catholics.  How does Father Corridan’s story relate to these other stories?  

JTF: I never thought I would write about a priest.  [But then years ago] I read this book about waterfront priests and became interested in him. . . . What made him increasingly interesting to me and more appealing was that fact that, although he's a priest, he was ostracized on the waterfront as kind of an outsider, precisely because he was threatening to subvert the way of life that had been dominant there for about 50 years.  In that way he becomes akin to these other characters I had written about.  Even though he's a priest, he's still an outsider . . . who becomes for that reason a kind of countercultural figure.  That is, Corridan is someone who, despite his identity as a priest, is in effect a critic.  He becomes an outsider to this Catholic system . . . . You could say that about all the Catholics I have written about.  

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