The Author’s Corner with Daniel B. Rood

the reinvention of atlantic slaveryDaniel B. Rood is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia. This interview is based on his book, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Great Caribbean (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: Arguments over the role of enslaved people in the growth of modern western capitalism had always intrigued and inspired me, but I found contemporary scholars often lapsed into abstract phrases when actually making the case.  Sugar plantations were “industrial,” planters were “rational” and “innovative,” there were railroads and machines in slave societies, etc., etc. I felt like, in depending on these loaded terms, there was a bit of a black box effect going on. What does “industrial” mean, exactly?  What is that machine in the artist’s rendering of a plantation?  What is it doing there?  Why do we care? So, I wanted to open that box back up and re-build arguments about slavery and capitalism from the ground up, i.e. from examining and reflecting upon the micro-processes of labor, technology, and ecology on plantations and in workshops, factories, warehouses, transport systems, and markets.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: In an age of industrial growth and expanding antislavery movements, ambitious planters in the Upper US South, Cuba, and Brazil forged a new set of relationships with one another to sidestep the financial dominance of Great Britain and the northeastern United States. Hiring a transnational group of chemists, engineers, and other “plantation experts,” they sought to adapt the technologies of the Industrial Revolution to suit “tropical” needs and maintain profitability, while depending on the know-how of slaves alongside whom they worked.

JF: Why do we need to read The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: First, my book shows that a cotton nexus connecting the Deep South to Lancashire mills and Liverpool banks was far from the only story to tell about antebellum slavery and capitalism. I also demonstrate that sustained attention to how commodities are made and moved around can generate broader insights into the histories of slavery, the African diaspora, and race. Among other things, the book shows that changes in racist ideology were profoundly entangled with changes in capitalist productive technologies.  Modern “white” commodities like sugar and flour emerged together with transformed “white” and “black” racial categories in the same mid-19th century Atlantic World matrix. It is a flashy thing to assert, but I work hard to substantiate it. I think the journey is worthwhile for the reader, whether or not they are always convinced.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DR: I’m not sure I ever did. I was an English major as an undergrad. I only remember taking one history class; I mostly remember reading lots of Keats and Wordsworth.  A faculty mentor encouraged me to do American Studies at NYU, which was a deeply generative, if sometimes cringe-inducing, time for me. That was when I first spent a lot of time with Marx’s writings, and where I was introduced to scholars like Eric Williams, CLR James, and Sidney Mintz who centered the African Diaspora in the making of the modern world. I was fascinated by the questions they were asking, and wanted to explore more.  Becoming a historian, and becoming an Americanist, happened accidentally on the way.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: I am currently writing a book on the history of plantations from 1500-present. I have also been working sporadically over the past few years on a micro-history of post-emancipation black landowners in and around Athens, Georgia. Finally, I plan to write a history of southern forests from pre-Columbian times to the present. After that it’s back to Keats and Wordsworth.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Men is Cheap?

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Out of the Zoo: “We’re a union just by saying so!”


Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about one of her favorite movies. –JF

Newsies might just be one of my all-time favorite movies. Starring a young Christian Bale as the fictional main character Jack Kelly, the nearly three-decade old film offers a musical retelling of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. The said strike, which took place on the streets of New York City in protest of high newspaper prices, ended after two weeks when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies at the end of each day. 

The movie, interwoven with a beautiful Alan Menken score and lively dance breaks, throws around a lot of terms like “union,” “demands,” and “scabs,” each of which could easily be heard inside a U.S. history classroom. However, as much as I love Newsies, I must admit that the film fails to explain these terms with any complexity; it does not place them in their broader historical context either. As a musical theatre geek in high school I found it easy to cheer when Jack Kelly and his chorus of newsboys triumphantly sang, “We’re a union just by saying so!” But as a student I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about what a union was, much less how or why it was formed.

Although Newsies might be entertaining, it remains a shadowy fictional representation of the issues that shaped the reality of the Gilded Age. There are far better ways for students to comprehend the complexities of labor disputes than watching Christian Bale dance across a television screen (sorry Disney). Mr. Anderson, one of the United States history teachers at Northern High School, showed me one such way last week when I got to sit in on his class for my Sophomore field observation. Anderson led his class through an exercise that not only helped his students gain a better understanding of unions, but also allowed them to relate the past to their lives in the present. 

Instead of lecturing for days about organized labor, Mr. Anderson provided the necessary historical context–fleshing out the themes and complexities that defined the Gilded Age–and let his students do the rest of the work. He briefly taught about the two prominent Gilded Age unions, but then let students form a union of their own, dubbed “The United Students of NHS.” First, students broke into small groups and listed all their grievances–issues ranged from passing time between classes to club funding. After narrowing down their complaints, the entire class circled up to decide which eight requests they would draw up and deliver to the school’s administration. 

While he raised his voice occasionally to direct attention to the task at hand, Mr. Anderson let his students take the lead in the entire process. When the whole class collaborated on the final eight grievances, students spoke up from around the circle suggesting a procedure or speaking out in defense of one of their demands. While his students engaged in discussion, Mr. Anderson told me that he thinks that students shouldn’t have everything planned out for them. Instead, educators should leave room for learners to experiment, take charge, and figure things out on their own–always taking time to reflect afterwards about what went well and what could have gone better.

I couldn’t have agreed with Mr. Anderson more. His students were passionate and eager to apply what they learned about unions and the Gilded Age to their everyday lives. They learned to cooperate with each other, compromise when necessary, and innovated if their process became inefficient. And all the while they gained an increasingly thorough and nuanced understanding of the past. It is this kind of history classroom, one where students are invested, engaged, and challenged, that I want to emulate someday.

Author’s Corner with Elisabeth Ceppi

CeppiElisabeth Ceppi is Associate Professor of English at Portland State University.  This interview is based on her new book Invisible Masters: Gender, Race, and the Economy of Service in Early New England (Dartmouth University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Invisible Masters?

EC: The project began as an essay I wrote in my first year of graduate school (so long ago: 1992-3!) about the 1672 case of the demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp, a sixteen-year old residing as a servant in her minister’s household. Over the years I revised that essay multiple times; it eventually became my MA thesis, a chapter of my dissertation, and a journal article. But even so, I knew I had only begun to figure out what Knapp had to teach about the meaning of service in early New England. After finishing a term as English department chair in 2009, I began new research on the theology of service in sermons by the leading ministers of the first generation of Puritan migration, which led me to reconceive the project and convinced me that it needed to be a book, not a series of essays.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Invisible Masters?

EC: Perhaps because it is such a commonplace of Christian labor, the metaphor of Puritans as “servants of the Lord” has generated almost no scholarly attention; the book argues that it was the foundation of a complex discourse of obedience and authority that powerfully shaped the lived experience of covenant theology in New England households, churches, public governance, and economic relations. As they developed a moral language for a racializing culture of service, Puritans transformed the traditional lived metaphors of faithful service and its opposite, hypocrisy, into an ethic of mastery.

JF: Why do we need to read Invisible Masters?

ECAs I suggest above, it is the only study that historicizes and interprets service—and the figure of God as Master—as an essential concept in Puritan theology and social life. In doing so, it revises familiar accounts of early New England’s relationship to modernity, including the emergence of the “Protestant work ethic” and of the affectionate family model from the patriarchal “little commonwealth.” It contributes to the growing body of scholarship on racial slavery in early New England by emphasizing its embeddedness in religious culture, and by showing how “the public” emerged as a space of white mastery over racial others. It offers new readings of canonical works of early American literature, including Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the works of Mohegan minister Samson Occom. Finally, I also hope the example of the Puritans invites us to question how and why we privilege mastery over service as values in our contemporary culture and provides some insight into how ideals of public service and self-mastery came to be bound to distinctions of gender, race, and class.

JF: When and why did you get interested in the study of the past?

ECI teach and study literature, but my decision to specialize in early American literature was a swerve. I went to grad school with the intention of studying modernism, but in my second term I took a class to fill a pre-1800 requirement, “Typologies of Gender in Puritan America,” taught by Janice Knight (this is where I first encountered Elizabeth Knapp). The class was a fascinating introduction to a world of ideas and language and genres that seemed alien and strange and not at all like my idea of literature, and yet at the same time felt so vital in its power to pose urgent questions to the present. I loved the challenge of using my skills at interpreting language and literary form to think historically, to try to understand what these texts meant to those who wrote them and those they wrote about, and also to explain why they still matter today.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have started working on an essay about Theodore Winthrop’s 1863 novel, The Canoe and the Saddle, a fictionalized account of his travels to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in 1853. The novel became a best-seller after Winthrop died in the Civil War but has been neglected by scholars. His depictions of his indigenous guides and the incursions of English culture on the romantic landscape both conform to and defy expectations in interesting ways, but I was particularly intrigued by a passage in which Winthrop’s narrator satirically refers to a troubled Englishman he encounters as a “drapetomaniac,” a notorious concept from scientific race management (devised by a Mississippi doctor, Samuel Cartwright) that pathologized the enslaved who sought to run away from their masters. The essay will examine what Winthrop’s extension of this term to the Pacific Northwest reveals about the role of travel literature in New England’s culture of management.

JF: Thanks, Liz!

The Author’s Corner with Rashauna Johnson

slaverys-metropolisRashauna Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: I grew up in New Orleans, but I had no idea how central slavery was to that city’s history. I wanted to know more about the daily lives of the actual enslaved people who lived there as well as the ways that slavery as an institution shaped the city’s physical, economic, political, social, and cultural landscapes. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: This book argues that, in New Orleans, black Atlantic journeys and intimate interracial assemblies were neither exceptional to nor subversive of chattel slavery, but were instead essential to that system of domination. By decoupling cosmopolitan journeys and assemblies from their liberatory associations, we deepen our understanding of the malleability of modern power in New Orleans, early America, and the Atlantic world. 

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: From monographs to movie theaters, we as a society are grappling with chattel slavery and its legacies, especially the ways that the institution shaped everything from capitalism to the nation’s colleges. This book adds to that effort by shifting focus from the paradigmatic rural plantation to show how a seemingly permissive, heterogeneous port city could at the same time be a capital of slaves and slavery. Ultimately, it shows how heterogeneity and interconnectedness can deepen inequality just as easily as they disrupt it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RJ: My mother kept her prized copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom under her nightstand’s telephone; as children, every time we wanted to make a call we had to confront history. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I realized I could use the historian’s tools to produce such knowledge. Several generous mentors and great internships later, I became a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RJ: My current project uses my grandmother’s family history to examine the global history of immigration and labor in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from the colonial period to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Rashauna!

The Radical Roots of Labor Day

Over at Talking Points Memo, Ben Railton of Fitchburg State University, sheds some light on the holiday that we are celebrating today.

A taste:

It’s become commonplace to complain about how the true meanings of our American holidays have been forgotten in favor of weekend sales, cookouts and family gatherings. But the problem is particularly clear when it comes to Labor Day. While holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July still feature prominent collective and media reminders of their historical and cultural significance alongside the barbeques and beach trips, Labor Day has become almost entirely divorced from its origins and associated instead with one last burst of summer fun before the fall and new school year commence in earnest….

The question of who is responsible for the creation of a holiday devoted to labor remains in some dispute. For many years it was attributed to Peter McGuire, a carpenter who became a national labor leader in the 1880s; recently historians have argued instead for Matthew Maguire, a machinist and leader of the New York Central Labor Union (CLU).

We do know that the holiday originated in the early 1880s, and the first parade was organized in New York by the CLU and the national union the Knights of Labor on September 5, 1882. In their inclusion of every type of worker, including unskilled and immigrant workers (the latter a particularly radical position in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and significant anti-immigrant trends in the labor movement), the Knights embodied one element of late 19th century labor radicalism, and their parades reflected this identity.

Read the rest here.  Or read Heath Carter’s piece at the Oxford University Press blog.

The Difference Between Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor

Joshua Zeitz has a great piece at The Atlantic commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.  I love when historians write about Bruce Springsteen.  Zeitz situates Born to Run in both the Springsteen biography and the cultural and economic developments of the 1970s.

Here is Zeitz on the difference between the singer-songwriter crowd of the 1970s (James Taylor, Carole King, etc…) and the songs of working class rockers like the Boss:

To appreciate Bruce Springsteen’s social and political bent, it’s helpful to compare Born to Run to the competition. As popular as that album was, for millions of Americans who came of age in the 1970s, it was James Taylor, the six-foot-three, long-haired son of a wealthy North Carolina doctor, who supplied the decade’s soundtrack. With his sad eyes and brooding stare, Taylor captured the melancholy disposition of a country still reeling from the sixties

Released in 1970, his second album, Sweet Baby James—the one that made him famous—sold 1.6 million copies in just one year. Like his fellow singer-songwriters of the seventies, a talented and varied group that included Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Jim Croce, and John Denver, Taylor was interested in the mysteries of the self. “What all of them seem to want most,” Time noted, “is an intimate mixture of lyricism and personal expression—the often exquisitely melodic reflections of a private ‘I'” 

Over the years, Taylor would give generously of his time and talent, appearing on stage to support liberal causes and political candidates. But social and economic concerns rarely seeped into his seventies-era compositions. There was too much personal ground to cover. Time noted that “like so many other troubled, dislocated young Americans, Taylor may at first seem self-indulgent in his woe. What he has endured and sings about, with much restraint and dignity, are mainly ‘head’ problems, those pains that a lavish quota of middle-class advantages—plenty of money, a loving family, good schools, health, charm, and talent—do not seem to prevent.” What was true of Taylor was also true of the era’s most successful singer-songwriters—from Carol King and Joni Mitchell, to Billy Joel and Jim Croce.

Critics of this new genre of songs about the self (known also as “I-rock”) risked glorifying earlier generations of musicians. Indeed, there was nothing especially political about the better part of the American songbook that predated the ‘70s. Those who longed for a more meaningful past would have strained to find deeper meaning in the bubblegum pop of the early and mid-‘60s. Even Bob Dylan eschewed most political themes after 1963, at least on the surface. But there was a distinction between the singer-songwriters and rock balladeers like Bruce Springsteen. Singer-songwriters represented the inward turn that we most popularly associate with the ‘70s—a very real phenomenon with authentic cultural resonance. By contrast, Springsteen embodied the lost ‘70s—the tense, political, working-class rejection of America’s limitations.

The Author’s Corner with William A. Mirola

William Mirola is Professor of Sociology and Presiding Officer of the faculty at Marian University. This interview is based on his new book, Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement?

WM: When I was in graduate school in the late 1980’s, I was very much engaged in a variety of social movement protest activities. I had grown up very active in my faith community. I was very interested in the intersections between the two areas of my life. As I read more in the sociology of religion and of social movement activism, I discovered that there was a broad literature debating the role of religion as both a facilitator and obstacle to social change movements, especially the American labor movement. Perhaps because, as a person of faith, I wanted to save religion from Marx’s “opiate of the masses” thesis, I was encouraged to examine the role of religion in the labor movement. The chair of my dissertation committee liked this idea and recommended looking at the post-civil war era because not as much attention was paid to this question in that time frame. So I did…and in reading the histories, the eight-hour day kept returning again and again as the central issue of the period and more interesting still was that the reduction of the hours of labor was being argued over as a moral and religious issue. And so the study began. After my dissertation was complete, it was clear that this historical analysis was unlike many of the others in the field and gave a critical perspective to understanding the role of religion in the labor movement and in social change generally. It was this last point that kept me motivated to see it to publication in its current form.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Redeeming Time?

WM: Redeeming Time examines the role of religion in the fight for the eight-hour workday in 19th Century Chicago. I highlight the challenges faced by factions of the labor movement in attempting to use religion as an ideological and practical weapon in its fights with employers and as a way to build coalitions with Protestant clergy to achieve shorter hours.

JF:Why do we need to read Protestantism and Redeeming Time?

WM: Redeeming Time challenges much of what we know about the role of religion in labor history by focusing its role as a strategic weapon in labor’s arsenal during the battles over shorter hours in the second half of the 19th century. By focusing on the rhetoric used by different factions of the labor movement, by Protestant clergy, and by employers, one can see the evolution in the thinking of these different sets of social actors regarding the religious nature of work and the workday over a fifty-year time span. It also sheds light on how the labor movement viewed the strategic utility of building coalitions with clergy to achieve industrial reform. For labor, religious rhetoric played a prominent role in framing the eight-hour day but eventually it is replaced by economic rhetoric which resonated more with employers. Clergy generally opposed shorter hours for workers, fearing an increase in vice, but overtime, responding the in intensification of class conflict, began to embrace shorter hours as a morally desirable industrial reform but unfortunately not before labor shifts its strategy away from the religious realm. So the story is one of two ships passing in the night. Redeeming Time takes a more critical approach than many other past studies or religion and labor by questioning the instrumental utility of religion in achieving practical industrial reform.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WM: In point of fact, I am sociologist. However, there is a part of me that has always loved history. I didn’t set out to craft an historical study in graduate school but in the late 1980s, the study of history enjoyed resurgence in sociological analysis and I was fortunate to work with faculty who embraced it. I always tell my students that there is no way to understand contemporary life without understanding the past and so history and sociology are both entwined. I believe that you can’t be a good historian without thinking sociologically and visa-versa.

JF: What is your next project?

WM: I continue to be interested in the role of religion in social movements, past and present although my research now is more contemporary and examines the intersection of religion and social class differences in the United States. I may return to the 19th Century at some point however since there is so much that I left uncovered regarding the intersection of religion and the American labor movement.

JF: Can’t wait to hear more about it. Thanks Bill!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Revisiting Herbert Gutman’s "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement"

Herb Gutman

I have not read Herbert Gutman since graduate school, but after reading Janine Giordano Drake’s recent post at Religion in American History I want to go back and look at Gutman’s 1966 American Historical Review essay, “Protestantism and the American Labor Movement.”  Drake wants us to think more deeply about the religious mind of workers in the so-called Gilded Age.  As she reminds us, Gutman argued that most of these workers were Protestants.  

Drake uses the post to pitch the new issue of Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas in which she joins Heath Carter, Ed Blum, and Jared Roll in the exploration of religion and labor in American history.  Here is a taste of her post:

I’ve tried to imagine what life was like in 1966 when Herbert Gutman’s landmark AHR article, “Protestantism and the American Labor Movement” arrived in historians’ mailboxes. I imagine that evangelical college groups using terms like “Followers of Jesus” and “Non-Denominational Christians” advertised all over campus, and historians stared at their posters with sincere puzzlement.

At the time, I imagine, most historians were less concerned with the questions we’re asking now [were these folks going to turn into Democrats or Republicans?] and were much more concerned with questions that animated their life cycles. Namely, what happened to the religious denominations?! Who are their religious authorities? Who is bankrolling this? And, what ethnic groups are driving this trend? If the historians showed up for the meetings (and I imagine the groups had fliers everywhere), I bet they’d remain puzzled. I can imagine slender male professors in bell bottom pants asking these young evangelicals, “Are your parents Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics? Are you WASPs, Irish or—no, you look German. Is that a German last name?” When the long haired young evangelicals responded with comments about how we’re all God’s children and none of that really mattered, I imagine the social historians–especially those who had been studying ethnic and racial segmentation–found that evasion encouraging, fascinating, and yet also terribly naive.

This is the world I imagine that Herbert Gutman had before him when he penned that famous article which he subtitled, “The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age.” In it, Gutman argued that many of the newly urbanized working classes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Protestants, even though they derived from a great variety of cultures. Many were, in fact, white Anglo Saxons who migrated from rural tenant farming and small landholding regions of the midwest and South, and brought with them small-town and socialist ethics of cooperation. Some were immigrants with Protestant and socialist ethics brought over from the “old world.” These folks, perhaps like some of Gutman’s college students, carried on a revivalistic faith that was not the same as that of their ministers. Like Gutman’s college students, Gilded Age workers were largely not confined by denominations. Some of Gutman’s subjects came from Holiness and Pentecostal revival traditions which had worked alongside and outside of denominations. Many brought with them a history of revivalism around Christian ethics– a set of Christian traditions that had been centered in guilds and barns, but not entirely in churches.

Woodrow Wilson on Labor

1912:  From the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox:

  • Recording Title

    Woodrow Wilson on labor
  • Other Title(s)

    • On labor (Alternate title)
  • Author

  • Speaker

  • Genre(s)

  • Category

  • Description

    Political address
  • Language

  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 35253
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

  • Recording Date

  • Place of Recording

    New York, New York
  • Size

  • Duration


"The Making of the English Working Class" Turns 50

The Guardian is running a nice piece by Emma Griffin on the 50th anniversary of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a classic work of English social history.  Griffin is most impressed by the way Thompson’s canonical book “managed to weather Marxism’s subsequent fall from academic grace.”  Here is a taste:

The Making, with its preface so memorably declaring the book’s intention “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘Utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. The book’s mythic status should not distract us from the raw originality of the work. In 1963, weavers and artisans were not the stuff of history books. Pioneering social historians had been studying working people since the early 20th century, but the focus remained squarely on the tangible, the measurable, the “significant” – wages, living conditions, unions, strikes, Chartists. Thompson touched on the trade unions and the real wage, of course, but most of his book was devoted to something that he referred to as “experience”. Through a patient and extensive examination of local as well as national archives, Thompson had uncovered details about workshop customs and rituals, failed conspiracies, threatening letters, popular songs, and union club cards. He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side. Here, then, was a book that rambled over aspects of human experience that had never before had their historian. And the timing of its appearance could scarcely have been more fortunate. The 1960s saw unprecedented upheaval and expansion in the university sector, with the creation of new universities filled with lecturers and students whose families had not traditionally had access to the privileged world of higher education. Little wonder, then, that so many felt a natural affinity with Thompson’s outsiders and underdogs.

And there was something more. Running through The Making was a searing anger about economic exploitation and a robust commentary on his capitalist times. Thompson rejected the notion that capitalism was inherently superior to the alternative model of economic organisation it replaced. He refused to accept that artisans had become obsolete, or that their distress was a painful but necessary adjustment to the market economy. It was an argument that resonated widely in the 1960s, when Marxist intellectuals could still believe that a realistic alternative to capitalism existed, could still argue that “true” Marxism hadn’t been tried properly.

Haymarket Revisionism

I don’t know much about the Haymarket Riot  of 1886 beyond a general knowledge that one might have when teaching a U.S. survey course.  But I still found this discussion of the work of Haymarket scholar Timothy Messer-Kruse to be absolutely fascinating.  (You may recall that about a year ago we did a post on Messer-Kruse’s problems with Wikipedia).

Messer-Kruse, a labor historian at Bowling Green State University, has challenged the liberal orthodoxy of Haymarket historiography and has received some pretty harsh reviews of his work in return. (Interestingly enough, Messer-Kruse is himself a liberal).  

However, as John J. Miller notes in his story in The National Review, Messer-Kruse has persevered. In the process he has brought some significant changes to how we understand this landmark event in 19th century labor history. His book, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists; Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age was recently chosen as the book of the year by Labor History journal.  He has also published The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks.

Here is a taste of Miller’s piece:

Timothy Messer-Kruse doesn’t remember her name, but the question she asked in his college classroom a dozen years ago changed his career — and now it may revolutionize everything historians thought they knew about a hallowed event in the imagination of the American Left. “In my courses on labor history, I always devoted a full lecture to Haymarket,” says Messer-Kruse, referring to what happened in Chicago on the night of May 4, 1886. He would describe how a gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. 

Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism. 

As Messer-Kruse recounted this familiar tale to his students at the University of Toledo in 2001, a woman raised her hand. “Professor,” she asked, “if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?” 

The question stumped Messer-Kruse. “It had not occurred to me before,” he says. He muttered a few words about lousy evidence and paid witnesses. “But I didn’t really know,” he recalls. “I told her I’d look it up.” As he checked out the standard sources, he failed to find good answers. The semester ended and the student moved on, but her question haunted him. “My interest grew into an obsession.” As Messer-Kruse began to look more closely, he started to wonder if the true story of Haymarket was fundamentally different from the version he and just about everybody else had been told.

Read the rest here.

George McGovern, 1972, and the "City on a Hill"

Over the past few days I have been working my way through Jefferson Cowie’s riveting and deeply satisfying Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010).  I must confess that I am reading this book less out of a responsibility to “keep up with my field” and more for pleasure.  As a child of the 1970s and a product of the white ethnic working class, Cowie’s book is helping me to contextualize some of my memories.

Last night I read Cowie’s chapter on George McGovern and the 1972 presidential race.  Cowie’s primary focus is on McGovern’s inability to tap into the white, ethnic, masculine working class–many of whom supported George Wallace in the Democratic primaries.  His failure to win the support of organized labor and unite the working class, blacks, and anti-war liberals (a vision he inherited from Bobby Kennedy) led to a divided Democratic Party and a landslide victory for Richard Nixon.

But I was most taken by Cowie’s description of McGovern’s campaigning in the closing weeks of the campaign.  By Autumn 1972, McGovern realized that his chances of victory in November were slim and he began to return to his roots as the son of a South Dakota Methodist minister.  Newsweek called it “McGovern’s Politics of Righteousness” and compared the candidate to William Jennings Bryan.

In a campaign stop at evangelical Wheaton College, McGovern invoked “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” speech of 1620.  As Cowie writes:

For McGovern the invocation of a city on a hill came with an absolute convictions that America had veered from the path of spiritual righteousness.  The vote on Tuesday, he claimed on the eve of the election, will be “a day of reckoning and judgment.”  Eight years later, Reagan would later invoke the same sermon as an affirmation of national greatness.

After reading this short section of Cowie’s book, I am convinced that we need a good religious biography of McGovern.

Here is another taste of Cowie’s description of McGovern’s righteous campaigning:

Richard Nixon, he implied, was an agent of not just political death and darkness, but spiritual death as well, who had led the people away from the promise of America.  On the war, he railed against four more years of “barbarism,” reminding Americans of the “thousands of Asians” who were “burning bleeding, and dying under the bombs that fall from American planes.”  “What is it,” he queried the nation, “that keeps a great and decent country like the United States involved in this cruel killing and destruction?  Why is it that we cannot find the wit and the will to escape from this dreadful conflict that has tied us down for so long?” he asked.  McGovern found Nixon’s formula of sparing American casualties by engaging in the massive carpet-bombing campaigns morally reprehensible.  In an address titled “They Too, Are Created in the Image of God,” McGovern subverted the logic of nearly two hundred years of imperial conquest by boldly equating the value of an Asian life to an American life.

Who is up to the task?  David Swartz?  Brantley Gasaway?

Jonathan Rees Lands a Book Contract

Congratulations to Jonathan for landing a contract with Johns Hopkins for his book Refrigeration Nation: How America Learned to Control the Cold. 

Most readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may be wondering why I am touting a book about refrigeration, but it is actually Rees’s description of how he landed the contract that is very helpful for aspiring academic authors. 

Here is a taste:

Some people think that conferences are just glorified vacations. Sure, we all sneak out for a few hours at some point during the weekend sometimes to see something historical, but I’ve been giving parts of this manuscript as conference papers since around 2006 and I can’t tell you how much that’s helped. A Hagley conference in 2006 is where I figured out my argumett for the first time. It was at a food studies conference at UC-Davis in 2009 that I realized that I needed to include a global perspective in order to demonstrate the fact that America is particularly refrigeration crazy. That took about three extra years, but it’s a much better book as a result. Most importantly, it was at the Society for the History of Technology meeting three years ago that I got recruited by the JHU Press straight out of my session. All they knew was the subject of the book and the contents of the paper I had just given, but that proved to be enough.

Read the entire piece here.

The Power of Wikipedia

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is author of The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, to be published later this year by the University of Illinois Press.

Professor Messer-Kruse seems to be an authority on the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886.  He has published two books on the subject with respectable academic presses.  But according to the anonymous guardians of the Haymarket Riot Wikipedia page, his knowledge of this historical event does not pass muster.  I will let him tell his own story, via a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here is a taste:

For the past 10 years I’ve immersed myself in the details of one of the most famous events in American labor history, the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. Along the way I’ve written two books and a couple of articles about the episode. In some circles that affords me a presumption of expertise on the subject. Not, however, on Wikipedia.

The bomb thrown during an anarchist rally in Chicago sparked America’s first Red Scare, a high-profile show trial, and a worldwide clemency movement for the seven condemned men. Today the martyrs’ graves are a national historic site, the location of the bombing is marked by a public sculpture, and the event is recounted in most American history textbooks. Its Wikipedia entry is detailed and elaborate.

A couple of years ago, on a slow day at the office, I decided to experiment with editing one particularly misleading assertion chiseled into the Wikipedia article….

When Messer-Kruse made some corrections to the Wikipedia page based on his scholarly knowledge of the subject, here is what happened:

Within minutes my changes were reversed. The explanation: “You must provide reliable sources for your assertions to make changes along these lines to the article.”

That was curious, as I had cited the documents that proved my point, including verbatim testimony from the trial published online by the Library of Congress. I also noted one of my own peer-reviewed articles. One of the people who had assumed the role of keeper of this bit of history for Wikipedia quoted the Web site’s “undue weight” policy, which states that “articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views.” He then scolded me. “You should not delete information supported by the majority of sources to replace it with a minority view.”

The “undue weight” policy posed a problem. Scholars have been publishing the same ideas about the Haymarket case for more than a century. The last published bibliography of titles on the subject has 1,530 entries.

“Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.”

I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books.” Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”

Read the rest here.  Messer-Kruse’s story may make William Cronon’s recent charge a bit difficult to carry out.

Exposing Work Conditions at Amazon’s Lehigh Valley Warehouse

This is a nice a piece of investigative journalism by Spencer Soper of the Allentown Morning Call.  It seems that all is not well at a Pennsylvania warehouse of the world’s largest bookseller.  Warehouse workers have to deal with excessive heat and over-demanding supervisors.  Here is a taste of Soper’s piece:

Over the past two months, The Morning Call interviewed 20 current and former warehouse workers who showed pay stubs, tax forms or other proof of employment. They offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s like to work in the Amazon warehouse, where temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are difficult to achieve and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers hired by an outside agency are tough to get.

Only one of the employees interviewed described it as a good place to work.

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.