The narrator (Bill) grows up in Brooklyn Heights, a stone’s throw from the dreaded harbor he loathes when compared to the cultured foreign lands he reads about. As a young boy, he’s forbidden to leave the confines of the garden, but he escapes, lurching from lamp post to lamp post, until a policeman asks him if he’s ok. He runs back home and burrows into bed, sobbing. His first adventure. He ventures further, falls in with a crew of ragged and dirty kids whose leader is Sam. Together they explore the warehouses and docks, going home to eat dinner at Sam’s (who lives in a whorehouse), Sam whistling for him in the street when he was near Bill’s house. Bill rejects the life of his father, who owns a warehouse on the docks, watching foreign goods unloaded to pass into the US, and dreams of being a writer. After college, he spends a few years in Paris, slaving away at writing delicate prose and stories. News of his mother’s death drives him home to the harbor.
Reluctantly back, he stubbornly gets a job alongside his father (who has sold his warehouse but who’s kept on to do desk work), but yearns to keep writing. A conversation with his sister’s friend Eleanor opens up a creative stream in him as she prompts him to write everything he knows about the harbor. So begins his rise to fame (and quest of Eleanor). He goes deep into the subject, getting a room among the workers and finding work at the docks. His friend Joe comes along to fan the flames of revolution, showing him the dismal working conditions of the coalers that contrast sharply with the glittering party on deck. This eventually ends with a large worker’s strike at the docks, which is broken when scabs are sent in.
In addition to painting a pleasant picture of unions and revolutionary workers, Bill touches on the women’s right to vote, witnessing a women’s march for the right to vote (this is before he realizes his wife is in the parade):
I found to my surprise that in a very real sense this parade was different from anything that I had ever seen before… I was excited. And by what? Not by the marching lines of figures, fluttering banners, booming bands, nor just by the fact that these marchers were women, and women quite frankly dressed for effect, so that the whole rhythmic mass had a feminine color and dash that made it all gay and delightful. No, there was something deeper. And that something, I finally made out, was this. These women and girls were all deeply thrilled by the feeling that for the first time in their lives they were doing something all together – for an idea that each one of them had thought rather big and stirring before, but now, as each felt herself a part of this moving, swinging multitude, she felt the idea suddenly loom so infinitely larger and more compelling than before that she herself was astounded. Here for the first time in my life I felt the power of mass action.
He also talks about his sister Sue’s desire to get a job, but how their father is vehemently opposed to the idea. She yearns for a life of independence.
I can’t quite remember, but I think I got this recommendation from a talk about Sinclair Lewis, labor and feminism. While you’d expect this to be a book stocked at the SF public library, I had to order it up from the University of Nevada, and a 100 year old book arrived, to my delight!